Beyond These Kastle Walls

Tausif Noor on Killjoy’s Kastle at Icebox Project Space

Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue, Lesbian Rule. Icebox Projects, Philadelphia, 2019. Photo: John Carlano.

“LET THE LIGHT FROM YOUR CUNT AND ASSHOLE lead you to the promised land!” shrieked a zombified Valerie Solanas last Thursday night at Icebox Project Space as she shepherded me and a group of undergraduates toward the dulcet tones of singer Gretchen Phillips, who offered a “didactic stroll down the beautiful repertoire of lesbian folk songs,” immediately breaking out in a rendition of Britney Spears’s “Hit Me Baby One More Time.” The undead Solanas was one of several characters who occupied North Philadelphia’s Icebox Project Space for three weeks in October as part of Killjoy’s Kastle, a roving installation and performance project by Toronto-based artists Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue. Here, I pause to confess that I hate not only haunted houses but also Halloween in general, having acquired a distaste for adults in costume after attending one too many themed frat parties as an undergrad. As Jean Baudrillard, a droll killjoy in his own right, remarked in his 1989 anthropological study, America: “There is nothing funny about Halloween. This sarcastic festival reflects an infernal demand for revenge by children on the adult world.”

For a lesbian-feminist haunted house, however, Baudrillard ought to have made an exception. Previously installed in Toronto’s Art Gallery of York University in 2013 and the ONE Archives in Los Angeles in 2015, Killjoy’s Kastle traverses the arc of queer feminist history and camp aesthetics, sitting unfashionably between educational programming and gaudy craft installation. The germ for the project sprouted nearly a decade ago, when a Canadian gallery that had commissioned a display of Mitchell’s large-scale lesbian Sasquatch monsters asked her to tone down the sexual content of her sculptures. Around the same time, she and Logue watched George Ratliff’s 2001 documentary on “hell houses” made by evangelical Christians in Texas to proselytize youth against evils like homosexuality, abortion, and drug use. Intrigued, the pair decided to create their own afterlife attraction, and from this emerged a participatory performance and installation in which visitors are guided in small groups through the corpus of lesbian feminist history by a “demented women’s studies professor.”

Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue, Graveyard of Dead Lesbian Feminist Organizations and Ideas (detail). Icebox Projects, Philadelphia, 2019. Photo: John Carlano.

Our evening’s Virgil was Carmen Sandiego, a postdoc at Bryn Mawr focusing on “Antiquated Sapphic Studies.” After choosing a name (Ball Torture), our group was given fair warning on consent and what to expect: Those who might object to being touched or sprayed by Killjoy’s “giant bearded clam” were asked to signal their discomfort by gasping and clutching at their pearls. This lighthearted gesture gets to the heart of Logue and Mitchell’s project, which is by turns didactic and disarmingly, charmingly ridiculous. The term “feminist killjoy,” originating in Sara Ahmed’s 2010 essay “The Promise of Happiness,” refers to the mischaracterization of feminists, lesbian feminists in particular, as no-fun downers who refuse to play the games of patriarchy. Women’s studies departments, in turn, are perceived as cells bent on the destruction of the nuclear family and fueled by the hatred of men. As they construct the Kastle, the artists conscript locals alongside a cast of artists, scholars, and activists from Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and Los Angeles to act as killjoys who sit with visitors and host discussions to help process the experience at the end of each tour.

A haunted house of supremely gay proportions, the Kastle is filled with a litany of characters, all of whom enlighten various facets of queer history and contemporary queer discourse. These include a giant fabric sculpture of a “nonbinary goddexx” leaking fluids wiped down by a group of ghoulish TERFs; Paranormal Consciousness Raisers; and a “Carpet Muncher” ridden with “rubyfruit acne.” A group of dancing Riot Ghouls ushered visitors through a cardboard library, where essential lesbian texts like Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues were inscribed along the walls, a crash course of sorts through the canon. Each iteration of the Kastle is tailored to the queer histories of that city, and features a Lesbian Feminist Graveyard that memorializes the demise of its particular sapphic haunts and other safe spaces. Working with the archives of the William Way LGBTQ Center and the historian Wesley Flash, Mitchell and Logue researched Philadelphia’s queer history, and included in the Kastle’s graveyard associations such as the Philadelphia Lesbian/Gay Brigade, active in the city during the 1980s; and CUTNPASTE, the now-defunct party for queer, trans, and nonbinary Philadelphians founded by DJs Precolumbian and Dame Luz; alongside more generalized ideas that have not stood the test of time, such as the “gay gene.”

Real-life Killjoys Processing Room. Photo: Joy Xiang.

In the weeks leading up to the Philadelphia Kastle’s opening, Logue and Mitchell could be seen around town: hosting consultation workshops with Icebox’s Tim Belknap and local community members at the project space; attending the opening of the ICA Philadelphia’s “arms ache avid aeon,” an exhibition of work by fierce pussy members Nancy Brooks Brody, Joy Episalla, Zoe Leonard, and Carrie Yamaoka; and conducting several studio visits. They were interviewed on local radio and made themselves available for questions from activists from across the city’s many queer and trans-centered organizations. Their openness in part constitutes a response to backlash received in Toronto and LA for a perceived lack of trans inclusivity and charges of racism—accusations frankly documented in Inside Killjoy’s Kastle, a volume charting the project’s progression with essays by theorists such as Heather Love and artists Chris E. Vargas and Ginger Brooks Takahashi. Philadelphia’s installation featured a Queer Crip Death Café, trans scholars, and a number of participants of color, reflecting the artists’ political endeavor to listen and respond to criticism, to take from contemporary discourse “new ways of thinking, while still clinging to more radical politics that have already happened but definitely aren’t over.”

Itty Bitty Gritty Committee. Photo: Marissa Both.

The final monster in Killjoy’s Kastle is the Itty Bitty Gritty Committee, a comically slapdash approximation of Philly’s hometown hero, whom Elizabeth Schambelan aptly identified in these pages last year as the ideal representation of America’s political turmoil. Queer communities have taken Gritty up as an avatar of queer affiliation and queer failure, a retort to the status quo. Gritty’s refusal to be grouped in any distinct categories of gender has also made the mascot somewhat of a nonbinary icon. There’s something so endearing about a second-rate Gritty costume in an artist-run haunted house speaking best to the ethos of Logue and Mitchell’s venture, invested as it is in the aesthetics of kitsch and makeshift, unvarnished camp. In the gallery’s foyer were a series of white poster boards listing dozens of performers, collaborators, community consultants, and donors involved in the Kastle. As I read the names, scrawled in Magic Marker, I thought about the countless ways that queer people have managed to make do and find strategies to survive in a world intent on eradicating our presence. This year, a grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage afforded the artists the most funding they’ve ever had for the project; they quickly distributed the cash among their cadre of supporters and volunteers. Those funds are still miniscule relative to funding for more traditional (read: less gay, more polished) exhibitions; they don’t come anywhere close to the number of love hours that have been devoted to Logue and Mitchell’s expansive installation. Fitting that, in a city of spirited refusal and unshakeable grit, the Kastle found fortitude in community.

Killjoy’s Kastle was installed at Icebox Project Space from October 16–27, 2019.