PRINT November 2021


My Barbarian, Silver Minds, 2006. Rehearsal view, Black Dragon Canyon, Utah, March 19, 2006. From left: Alexandro Segade, Jade Gordon, and Malik Gaines.

IT HAS FINALLY HAPPENED TO ME: The cultural detritus of my adolescence and early adulthood has returned with a vengeance. My students appear in outfits––purchased secondhand, probably on Depop––hailing from my own slutty youth. Each generation must arrogate and then transform the past, lest their shoddy inheritance consume them. This is their divine right and they look lovely. Yet the source material convulses from, let’s be honest, an unsightly time absolutely bereft of glamour. More important, the sartorial is but a minor planet in the universe of that era’s ugliness. How to periodize this terrible epoch, which now seems to stretch all the way through the millennium’s first two decades? The forever wars, the great recession, the days through which the end of history revealed itself to be a nasty farce, too many limping years now crumpled into the peculiar catastrophe of our present––my life. Contemporary problems have roots that are centuries old, but nearer histories laugh loudest.

The backward gaze in medias res is also a function of the midcareer retrospective, which My Barbarian––a collective comprising Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade––now face: twenty shaggy years of living and making, exhumed and revivified by curator Adrienne Edwards with the assistance of Mia Matthias and now on view at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. In My Barbarian’s own words, the group “theatricalizes social issues,” with intemperate renditions of various dramas, high and low. Illustrative too are the operations condensed in what they call themselves: the possessive intimacy of “My” yoked to “Barbarian,” that xenophobic designation measuring the distance from a supposedly “uncivilized” other. Ever on the lam from respectability, My Barbarian grab the beast by the collar and pull it close.

Poster for My Barbarian’s performance at Spaceland, Los Angeles, ca. 2002.

My Barbarian bring high-theory arcana into bawdy populist forms, marshaling their multicultural demographics to burlesque liberal fantasies of the melting pot, and vamping the world historical only to burn it down and throw a party around its fire.

Gaines, Gordon, and Segade met as art students in the 1990s and officially became My Barbarian in 2000 while doing gigs at Los Angeles’s Spaceland and the Silverlake Lounge; in the intervening years, they have frequently shifted modes, adopting a soft-shoe of formats under a variety of auspices. They began in the rich tradition of the semiserious art band, briefly performing under the moniker German Tööthbrush, among other names. The art band is an archetype that informs our time like few others, but we still don’t, I think, quite know what to do with it. From the Velvet Underground and the Stooges to Red Krayola and Destroy All Monsters, the question was how much rage, irony, and social critique one could fit into the jangling riff, the indelible hook. For My Barbarian, the lineage purposefully invoked is queerer, less white, and more matriarchal. Vaginal Creme Davis’s art-punk band, the Afro Sisters—with Davis accompanied by Clitoris Turner, Pussi Washington, Fertile La Toyah Jackson, and a temporary member, Urethra Franklin—is perhaps the ur-model. In fact, Davis, with Ron Athey, programmed the group into an early appearance at the 2002 Outfest in LA. Experimental ’80s performance, often maligned or forgotten, is in My Barbarian’s DNA: Think of Ann Magnuson (who was in several bands, such as Vulcan Death Grip and Bongwater) or Mary Kelly, Eleanor Antin, Lorraine O’Grady, and Andrea Fraser, all of whom they often cite. My Barbarian also sidle, however uneasily, alongside or contra their contemporaries ART CLUB2000 and Los Super Elegantes (Milena Muzquiz and Martiniano Lopez-Crozet). One work from their early era on the cusp of the queer nightlife and art-world circuits, Morgan Le Fay, 2004, is kind of like if you came home from the Ren Faire, on Molly, and remade Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” music video with your friends. It’s also an earworm (find it on YouTube). Throughout, the shambolic trash aesthetics of Jack Smith, Ken Jacobs, the East Los Angeles collective Asco, and the Bay Area collective the Cockettes reign supreme. This pileup of proper names is no accident, but rather the consequence of their animating attitude: ravenous to adopt, then refashion, but also sweetly in awe of a self-selected pantheon of elders.

My Barbarian shimmer, a fun-house mirror reflection of all the morbid symptoms surfacing in this particular interregnum; above all, the twinned crises of referentiality and sincerity plaguing the early Bush era (Dubya, of course), in which earnestness was both grotesquely accelerated (the “twee”) and mordantly enervated (malignant irony). Consider the forms of affiliation and disaffiliation taken up by one of the era’s most polarizing figures: the hipster. In a living autopsy hosted in 2010 by the journal n+1, the hipster was dissected as an intellectual poseur, ever braggadocious about the insider knowledge he alone had accrued; as a white bourgeois subject festooning herself with the baubled signifiers of the lower classes and the nonwhite; and as an endless striver enthralled by a culture industry that, as Mark Greif argued, “often kitschified––or at least made playful––the weightiest tragedies, whether personal or historical: orphans and cancer for [Dave] Eggers, the Holocaust and 9/11 for Jonathan Safran Foer.” So too did the hipster often adopt elements from the actual counterculture, only to coddle them into market-ready submissiveness. My Barbarian reverse, then weaponize, each of these operations: bringing high-theory arcana into bawdy populist forms, marshaling their multicultural demographics to burlesque liberal fantasies of the melting pot, and vamping the world historical only to burn it down and throw a party around the flames.

My Barbarian’s political commitments are sincere, even if they rarely read as “serious.” The group are deeply versed in capital-T theory, and their enmeshment in academia––both as art students and, later, as faculty––indexes a contradiction facing many artists of their generation, trained in a promiscuously poststudio but increasingly professionalized MFA world. Commentators, myself included, often find it difficult to characterize their work without invoking “camp.” Setting aside the long-standing debate about whether camp is a technique or a mode of reception––that is, a read––it is My Barbarian’s continual relay between intense arch knowingness and the ecstatic salto mortale that makes community theater possible (and for so many, a vulnerability to be avoided at all costs), that pushes one to reach again and again for the word. To abuse a turn of phrase from Lauren Berlant (writing on “identity”), camp is perhaps what My Barbarian are attached to but underdescribed by.

My Barbarian, In Praise of Communism, 2013, oil stick on craft paper, 18 × 24".

They also know how to pull together a look. My Barbarian tend to be underappreciated for the visual side of their production––often handcrafted physical objects such as masks, prints, and costumes. See the sailor suits, a set of mermaid’s sequined fins, superhero costumes evoking the Canadian flag, the pajama pants emblazoned with Barack Obama’s grinning face. “Showcore,” Segade writes in the exhibition’s catalogue, “with its internal illogic and deep-cut referentiality, was not infinitely scalable.” My Barbarian’s sensibility––though I am loath to use that word––with its backroom apocrypha and glittering spontaneity, thrives, above all, on the anecdotal. It seems meaningfully resistant to the logics of the catalogue raisonné, making the prospect of a museum exhibition all the more thorny and enticing.

My Barbarian, Unemployed Man, 2013, papier-mâché, 11 1⁄4 × 8 × 4 1⁄2".

At the same time, to be properly dialectical about it, the group’s madcap presentation may best exemplify Sianne Ngai’s theorization of the “zany,” “an aesthetic of nonstop action,” the frantic energies of which reveal the “ambiguous erosion of the distinction between playing and working.” Their indefatigable production evokes the hyperextended, exhausted, somehow both underemployed and overworked generation whose frustrations exploded in Occupy. Titles in the group’s expansive project history—Broke People’s Baroque Peoples’ Theater, Flat Busted Beauty Window Fatale, and Post-Living Ante-Action Theater: Post-Paradise, Sorry Again—evince their droll intelligence. You Were Born Poor & Poor You Will Die, performed in New York at Participant Inc. as part of the 2005 Performa Biennial, was a “ritualistic incantation of class warfare.” It began with the group busking for spare change and ended by suggesting that the contemporary economy requires something like blood sacrifice. Both despite and because of the new spirit of capitalism’s favored modes of flexibility, creativity, and regimes of individual microdistinctions of choice, the work’s invocation of fate—the motor of so much ancient Greek theater—is perhaps fitting for the grim sense that poverty and precarity are now all but assured.

My Barbarian, You Were Born Poor and Poor You Will Die, 2006. Performance view, REDCAT, Los Angeles, April 20, 2006. From left: Malik Gaines, Alexandro Segade, and Jade Gordon. Photo: Patterson Beckwith.

That Performa Biennial was the first, and so the other recent history My Barbarian’s oeuvre shadows is the early-aughts fascination and obsession with “performance” or “theater” in the “art world,” which seemed to reach its frenzied peak in the middle of these two decades. The group’s Post-Living Ante-Action Theater, or polaat, a system they introduced as a commission for the New Museum, began in a mostly parodic mode––a glib joke about having to teach art-world denizens about even the most basic elements of theater and its history. As the project developed, it became more genuine: Incorporating elements of Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed (in which Gordon is formally trained), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s antitheater, Judith Malina and Julian Beck’s Living Theatre, Brecht, and Artaud, the group found their groove in the collective elaboration and squishy proximity that good pedagogy demands.

To abuse a turn of phrase from Lauren Berlant (writing on “identity”), camp is perhaps what My Barbarian are attached to but underdescribed by.

 The Cockettes, Fairytale Extravaganza, 1970. Performance view, location unknown, 1970. From left: Tahara, Sylvester, Sweet Pam Tent, Raggedy Robin, and Marquel Pettit.

In this regard, Counterpublicity, from 2014, is perhaps the highest-proof distillation of the trio’s years of collaboration. Its hot center is Pedro Zamora—a Cuban American who appeared on the third season of MTV’s The Real World before dying of aids at the age of twenty-two—and an essay written about Zamora by the late queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz. Muñoz called Zamora’s presence in the world “counterpublicity,” a way of “being for others.” A catchy jingle, lyrics drawn from the academic verbiage in Muñoz’s essay, opens the piece, in which Gaines, Gordon, and Segade read lines culled from footage in which Pedro meets his roommate Cory and members of the cast describe their questions about having a roommate with aids. The video’s spare production highlights the subtle differences in each of their performing styles. Gordon looks most like an actor, not so much because of her dirty-blonde hair or sharp cheekbones but because of her knowledge about how to hold her face. Segade is the most raffishly exaggerated, eyebrows scrunching suggestively, with serpentine wrists and swivels of the hip. Of the three, Gaines is the most evasive performer: Occasionally, he will look straight into the camera, as might the subject of a documentary, eyes intensely locked, and he prefers a geometric, solid equipoise. Throughout, they change positions, voices, parts. When reading aloud, they sometimes look past one another.

As the work crescendos, Segade recites a speech Zamora gave to a group of students at Stanford University about his experiences of illness. On a panel organized by Visual aids, Segade described how––despite My Barbarian’s long training in theatrical distancing techniques––while performing the role he found himself unable to maintain the gap, too moved by the textures of Zamora’s words: “There’s not one second of my day that I am not aware that I am HIV positive, but that doesn’t mean that my happier moments are any less happier.” In deviating from the grammatical norm to exaggerate and amplify the adjective––not just “happy,” but “happier”––Zamora puts his pleasures into political relation. How not to be “any less happier” is hard work indeed, and it is their attention to these labors that makes My Barbarian’s interest in the “kind of beauty that comes from loving the flawed constructions people make to represent themselves” so indelible.

Nine stills from My Barbarian’s Counterpublicity, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 11 minutes 34 seconds. Alexandro Segade, Jade Gordon, and Malik Gaines.

In the end, My Barbarian’s capacious embrace of sources is perhaps neither pastiche nor collage but rather an acknowledgment of those ready-made containers, a little shopworn, out of which one assembles a life. After all, what are Marx’s “conditions not of one’s own choosing” if not choreography, costumes, scripts, and sets? Sure, you could mount a faithful adaptation, but why? Fucking with it sounds more life-giving, more happier, more fun. 

Catherine Quan Damman teaches art history at Columbia University and is finishing a monograph on performance and affective labor in the 1970s.