Coded Queer Project In Process

The Coded Queer Project is a research endeavor I developed as part of a course I’m taking through the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design called Interdisciplinary Research Studio, with Professor Norah Zuniga Shaw. This course has provided me the space and opportunity to delve deeper into my research questions and ideas relating to my MFA thesis project, and it offered a sounding board in the form of my classmates and a co-working group with fellow 1st year MFA student Jackie Courchene. As part of the course we began laying the groundwork for our projects by identifying research interests, finding resources, and establishing community through shared reading. Once we identified the “WHATness” of our project, we dove into the playing, making, and experimenting of our projects. (Click here to read my blog post about my WHATness). We finished up our semester by celebrating each other’s research through sharing our products or iterations in our “Outwarding” phase.

For my “Outwarding” I chose to create Coded Queer, a series of short dance films and written text formed through the in-studio research done with my collaborators, Maddie Denman, Kate Fishman, Isabelle Johnston, Jess Kulp, and Mira Shah. While I present Coded Queer as a product of the research done for this course, it is also an iteration of my final research project for my MFA degree. Coded Queer analyzes what code-switching and signaling looks like in the LGBTQIA+ community and investigates the embodiment and choreographic opportunities of these topics. How do we signal queerness? What is the physicality of code-switching? How is queerness performed? How does signal function? 

In the playing, making, doing process, I worked with 5 collaborators, Maddie, Kate, Isabelle, Jess, and Mira. Together we explored the use of writing and reflecting to inspire movement creation. For me, this project also became about the exploration of the roles we play in rehearsal. I began to see myself as more of a director and facilitator rather than a choreographer, and I began to utilize my collaborators as both performer and choreographer. Each week we began with a  check-in to learn more about each other in an attempt to create a sense of community where everyone felt comfortable. Exploring the topic of one’s own sexuality and sexual orientation requires a level of vulnerability which can be difficult to reach among a group of strangers. Moving forward, I would devote more time to this part of the process and enlist the help of a dramaturge or intimacy coordinator. While I think we made it to a place of comfort within the group, I feel that more time focused on this effort would generate a greater sense of community earlier on. 

In order to generate movement we began with writing and reflection. In this first year of grad school I have rekindled the love of writing I had back in high school. The reflective and introspective quality of creative writing became a useful tool for inspiration and a bridge between thought and embodiment. We used timed writing to prompts as a way to reflect on and engage with our feelings around sexuality, sexual orientation, identity, community, and performative action. While this type of exercise is not wholly unfamiliar to me, it was Professor Zuniga Shaw’s use of such reflections in our class that inspired me to use writing prompts. The writing prompts used in my research include:

I use code-switching when .

I feel most comfortable and in my own skin when .

I identify as and when I’m around others like myself I feel .

It looks and sounds like .

How does signal function in my life? 

I identify as and when I’m around others unlike myself I feel .

We spent about 5 minutes free-writing for each of these prompts, then we shared and discussed what we wrote. This reflection time served as a means of community building and as way for our thoughts to land in our minds. With those reflections and writings fresh, we set a timer for another 5 minutes to generate movement inspired by what we just wrote and discussed. Again, we shared, performing our phrases for each other and experiencing each other’s embodied reflections, feelings, and experiences. 

One writing prompt and movement generation exercise was inspired by Liz Lerman’s The Good Jew?, a piece that questions personal and cultural identity from an autobiographical standpoint. In Lerman’s work there is a section in which the performers list ingredients of what makes someone Jewish as if they are reciting a recipe. I borrowed this idea and adapted it for my research. We started with making a list of what makes us, us, then applied it to our sexual orientation. What’s your recipe for you and your sexual orientation? I had the dancers play with adding instructions like, “3 table spoons of…” or “1 cup of…” and we made our own recipes. Again, we took some time to share those recipes, create a movement phrase based on the recipe, and then share the phrase. 

After about three and a half rehearsals of working in this way we began piecing phrases together. Each dancer was given permission to assemble the phrases how they liked, chopping them up, sewing the pieces back together, and creating one longer phrase of all their previous material. Once they had something assembled I worked with each of them individually, editing, amending, and making suggestions. My goal in doing this was not necessarily to stamp my own aesthetic onto it, but to provide an outside eye for their individual choreography and offer ways in which to add dynamics and tension. I would be naive to think that my personal choreographic aesthetics didn’t come into play some, but my intention was to only add to what they had created. 

The final step was the filming process. We kept it simple, choosing locations just outside Sullivant Hall. I allowed each of them some time to work with their phrase in the space, instructing them to incorporate the elements around them into the choreography. For each dancer I took roughly 2-3 takes, playing with the way the camera functions as both audience and partner. As I edited the footage, I again questioned how much of my own aesthetic was being inserted into their choreography. I tried not to judge those questions, but just notice that they were coming up and could remain with me as I move from iteration to iteration. 

In the beginning of this process I set out to create a series of short dance films that examine the questions around queer code-switching and signaling. And while I did that, I also discovered that I was also researching the function of roles within a research/rehearsal space, and raising questions about power dynamics and control. What am I giving up and what am I gaining when I’m not the one creating the steps? How much creative authority do I assert when I make suggestions or tell someone to change something? What is the role of director, facilitator, collaborator, choreographer, and performer? How are they alike and different?  These questions are something I look forward to exploring more as I continue my research. 

Coded Queer was inspired by the works created in my first semester course, Choreography Workshop. Specifically, a durational piece called Perception (blog and video here), in which I examine my own movement qualities as a gay white male, and The Gender Project: Masculinity in Males (blog and video here)which questions what it means to assign gender to movement. All of these works are informing my overarching research about sexual identity, sexual orientation, gender expression, and their relationship to dance. The research experience of Coded Queer has inspired me to continue investigating how queerness is performed and added an inquiry about the function of queer spaces. I also plan to continue researching the dynamics of roles in rehearsal and adding the question of importance of representation both onstage and in the studio. 

Moving forward I’m asking: What is the role of queer spaces in the lives of people looking for community outside of the culturally dominant ideas of sexuality and gender? What does it mean to queer a space? How do we queer the space with our bodies? What does a queer space look like? How can different forms of media queer a space? How do queer people move differently in queer spaces, and how does that influence their perception of themselves and others? What changes in our bodies when we are in a queer space? 

Click here to view Coded Queer

PS: I am very thankful to Jackie Courchene for being my co-working partner. She and I spent Friday afternoons together discussing our research projects, playing with her dogs, drinking beer as we worked on assignments, and giving feedback to each other throughout this process. Our time together really grounded my work and inspired much of the ethnographic research process as her project also explored identity, but through her Latinx heritage. I am thankful for our time together and for having someone holding me accountable with grace. I hope to continue having some kind of co-working group situation in the future, it feels like a necessity!

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