New York

Jack Ferver

“As the dandy is the nineteenth century’s surrogate for the aristocrat in matters of culture, so Camp is the modern dandyism. Camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture,” Susan Sontag wrote in her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp.’” That a camp sensibility might be argued, in the nearly half a century since the appearance of Sontag’s text, to have ascended (or perhaps descended) to the level of a codified, “subversive” idea (often rendered cynically, and thus no longer camp) does not, however, lessen the force of the effects it can enable. Unrenouncably queer and usually class-combative, camp—however tired its tropes might appear to some—persists, evolving new forms while retaining fierce ties to its own (counter) histories and (counter)aesthetics.

The performer and choreographer Jack Ferver offers a case in point. His mere being seems to irritate critics, who take offense at the weird anachronism they assume him to embody. Responding to Ferver’s A Movie Star Needs a Movie, 2009, which was performed this past October at the New Museum, a writer for the New York Times invited readers to picture him “in the 1980s East Village performance scene, basking in the stage light of some disreputable club, sheathed in a ratty boa, playing his personal-is-political, queer-aesthetic fame game.” According to the reviewer, the problem was, “alas, Mr. Ferver was born too late.” Yet to succumb to such a strict chronology, in which a figure such as Ferver is like a fish out of water, is, I think, too quickly to assign him a proper place and time, since these are categories that camp easily outruns.

Although Ferver is rubbed with a patina that has one shuffling through references (from Jack Smith to John Kelly, Bette Davis to Bette Midler), he nonetheless occupies his current situation, even if he always simultaneously renders it productively shaky. Taking up residence in the New Museum’s “performance space” (aka the basement, which houses to my mind the institution’s most exciting program, thanks largely to curator Travis Chamberlain), Ferver in his nearly hour-long piece meditated on the hyperbolic condition of our media-saturated selves. Rosalind Krauss argued in 1976 that the video camera in artists’ hands had rendered palpable and material a dangerously self-referential narcissism. Today, Ferver implies, such navel-gazing is part and parcel of everyday life. If this comes as no surprise, what does is his acuity at diagnosing his own role in that situation.

Yet A Movie Star Needs a Movie nonetheless insisted on keeping—even heightening, to the point of discomfort—the pleasure quotient. Alongside Liz Santoro, with whom he often collaborates, Ferver went through a series of theatrical tropes (the piece opens with the two performers, clad in identical, infantilizing jumpers, running through a gamut of expressive facial poses, these so exaggerated that they look only hysterical or painful or both) that seemed, at first, to tangle with timeworn clichés of “dramatic” performance but in fact took aim at specific contemporary conditions and figures. In breaks from their cartoonishly sexual, outlandishly performative gyrating for the camera (often carried onstage by a crew member) and the audience (members of which were dragged into the action and then discarded), Ferver and Santoro pointedly talked about their dissatisfaction with various members of their immediate community. But they didn’t pretend to rise above egotism, instead magnifying the kinds of willful self-promotion in which they are asked to participate. (In an interesting twist, Ferver acknowledged that Santoro was very much a part of creating the piece she was now performing, although she would not be credited with a byline. The conversation is one that haunts much of contemporary dance, in which dancers coproduce many of the movements they perform under the choreographer’s name.) But what I’ve written here threatens to make the work seem more serious than it was: Ferver, it must be said, basked in the state of affairs he also took to task. As Sontag reminds us, “The old-style dandy hated vulgarity. The new-style dandy, the lover of Camp, appreciates vulgarity. . . . The dandy held a perfumed handkerchief to his nostrils and was liable to swoon; the connoisseur of Camp sniffs the stink and prides himself on his strong nerves.”

Johanna Burton