joshua byron discusses their thought process on making films about queer people via their webseries, idle cosmopolitan
Still from Idle Cosmopolitan
Idle Cosmopolitan is a webseries I created this past summer and released October 5th on Youtube. The webseries is a ghost story about the Queer World and follows a relationship columnist. The piece is DIY in conception and execution and was made in community and tandem with a lot of trans folks including trans poets Simon Simone Defeo and Prairie M Faul as well as Stella Shaffer of Trans Life Line Microgrants. This communal effort is a big part of my artist practice and I think shows in the result. The series is about a relationship writer confronting ideas of heteropatriarchy and their own feelings on love in terms of monogamy, self-care, and joy. The writer ends up going into “the Queer World” and exploring a mythology that deals with ideas of homonormativity, love, ghosts, and fate.
Capturing queer bodies on film and video is an exercise in hope. Even the word ‘capturing’ has a loaded history. Early films about queerness were works of snuff, stag, villain, or tragedy. This flattens queerness and it becomes caged as an object of derision or taboo. Even porn was a taboo-laden image; excitement was chained to how deviant the viewer felt. But the early avant-garde work of Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith led to an explosion of queer abstract work. Fragmented bodies, often outside of narratives, refocused from queer as a decipherable image to queer as an abstraction itself.
Abstraction is a methodology of queering bodies in the same way abstraction is a way to refocus queer bodies.
Perhaps this is why we enjoy clothing and fashion that obscures or hyper-accentuates body size or the way contouring can become a trans practice. Queer is a way of relating and Trans is a way of making.
The other formal approach to capturing queer bodies is figurative. Literal bodies often in narratives occur in rom-coms, tragedy-porn, New Queer Cinema, the so-called post-gay cinema, the gay best friend trope, the Coming Out Narrative, and so on.
Both are political strategies of cinematic bodies. A cinematic body is always an object- it is tameable, rewindable, touchable on a screen, often even owned or downloaded by a viewer.
So if the queer body is capturable, what is a physical queer body? Bodies are not gendered but are historically and structurally violently read as gendered. This means a penis is not male but a doctor names it as such, thus creating a lived experience. There is a loss of agency there. If a person later rebels against that naming, this can then be read as the start of their queerness- for they were oppressed by the naming of gender.
A queer body is a body read as abnormal or against the white hetero-patriarchy. What counts as abnormal in public? Clothes. Accessories. The body can escape or receive judgement depending on if a person looks ‘passing’ according to the dominant hegemony. This implies a lot of things but the standard is clear- be white, straight-acting/looking, and dress as the gender you are visually read as. This can fracture in a multiplicity of ways.
Some people are intersex and may or may not identify as trans and some people do not “look” like the sex assigned to them at birth even if they are cis. These are complicated, real people that are not aberrations, problems to be fixed, or even examples of gender anarchy- these are people who are violently oppressed without their consent when given “corrective” sex surgery. These people are bodily harmed for no real reason except dominant hegemonic forces of oppression. The work intersex activists do to uncover medicine as oppressive is extraordinarily important in countering the idea that medicine is a god that dictates what is supposedly abnormal. Hegemony seeks gender, sexual, and visual order.
The body is the intersection of politics, dating, emotions, structures, imagery, and worth. The body is the hub for understanding vulnerability spatially and emotionally. The body is a cage and a site of self-hatred, joy, and decoration. Can we transcend our bodies?
In private, trans bodies may or may not look out of place. It depends on the space. Is it an accepting private space or one of violence? But in public these bodies become more direct disruptions to the flow of what a public is: a space for dominance to assert itself. A physical queerness may not even correlate to a sexual queerness. This has led to rubbish ideas of queering heterosexuality. A queer visuality is not the same as a queer life or person. In the end, queerness also has a social stake in the naming (outing) of itself. Being accused of being queer is one sort of queerness; saying “I am queer” is a much different form of queerness.
I’ve spent my short video career tracing my and others’ bodies as a way of locating and complicating personhood. For me this is always about deciphering, understanding, and abstracting queerness as an object and as a method. Art is always consumptive. It is an arm of capitalism because it is an object made for consumption even if money is not at play. All art, besides performance, is not a person but an object. So I try and make art in a way that is conscious of (subverts is too strong a word here) capitalism.
Film allows us to construct an alternate reality. Even without special effects, film is always worldbuilding and we can create our own rules.
For instance- if I say in a film that to go to the Queer World one must lose their body- it is true. If Queer Spirits joke about not having bodies, they too are bodiless.
Ghosts and hauntings have always been a queer hope for translucent transcendence of body politics and an escape from earthly rules of religion and nations. There is also a pessimistic reading of the queer love for ghosts- that queerness is a sin, a self-inflicted malady, or even the idea that queerness is an effect of depression.
To illustrate or represent a queer body is political because it becomes a stand-in for what the artist believes that to mean, whether intentional or not. The artist either expands or subtracts the definition of who is queer. I try to expand these definitions by collaborating and working with a variety of folks although availability and access are always important questions with casting and co-working especially when looking at DIY and noncommercial work. That said, some limits are important as long as they aren’t racist, transphobic, Islamophobic, ableist, etc. Queerness isn’t anyone or anything.
More Radical Reads: 10 Queer Women and Non-binary People of Color Using Media & Art to Get Free
Utopia & Cynicism
But what would a Queer World look like? Or could it look it like? Part of (queer) film and video is that they choose possibilities. They do not enforce a canon or a right way. A heaven or utopia looks differently to different folks based on their earthly limits and oppression. Utopia is a lack of conflict and a presence of abundance. It is essentially an equalizer. Marxism, anarchism, and anti-imperialist theory could all be considered utopian hopes.
In my video pieces I’ve meditated on ideas of queer-afterlife/alternate dimensions as a way of exploring where our desires lead us towards even as they never arrive, as José Esteban Muñoz puts it queerness is never an arrival. We often think, but don’t know without guessing, where our desires are leading us politically, personally, or emotionally. The idea that Troy, the main character of my webseries, loses their body is perhaps an uncoupling of gender as physical or a self-effacing desire to purge gender altogether or even more simply a desire to play with gender as not a state of being but as an accessory to be lost and returned at will. The series suggests both that Troy makes decisions on a whim and that these decisions are vital ones of cosmic importance.
More Radical Reads: Am I Queer Enough to Claim Queerness?”
So- if queerness is being astray then perhaps an attitude can be queer. But then there is a question that dichotomizes queerness. There are queer stoics who believe queerness is a set of political stances, choices, and desires and the queer epicureans who follow wandering as a praxis of queer desire and pleasure. Both react to being shunned: one invites organization, the latter invites chaos. Troy belongs to the second class, drifting from one event to another ending up not in heaven, hell, or Earth but an ambiguous Queer World. Many of the characters express doubt but few express hope. The spirits are all ambiguously rude, coy, or purposefully obtuse such as when one asks Troy how they lost their virginity. The Blue Spirit and the Judge seem to be the only spirits who care about what happens to Troy, maybe even more than Troy does.
Cynicism is a queer practice but so is an argumentative desire for change. A Queer Utopia would need room for multiplicities, angers, complex desires, and grievances for there are hierarchies of oppression even within queer circles especially in terms of race, gender, and ability. Anger, however, is still a desire and thus still a hope.
To capture incongruity, ambiguity, and abstraction is impossible- but trying to chase those ideals is possible. I try this through fragmenting narratives, bad costuming, ambiguous settings, obscure characters, DIY ideals, and abstract scenes which suggest but never confirm or deny.
The piece was financed by Artless Media, a film company run out of California by Russell Sheaffer and co-stars Annie Magan, Ben Douglas, Marie Richardson, Milly Cai, and Molly Soda. The money was used to pay actors. The webseries in the words of Julie 83, “a queer anti-pastoral” or in the words of Prof. Les Duffield of the University of West Virginia, “all the mystique of a forest bath without any of the excessive veneer of a promise of transcendence”. Religious PhD Student Josie Wenig notes the parallels of “queer monasticism/queer baptisms” in this tweet. This is all a fancy way to say, gender is abstract, spirituality is fluid. See the full cast in crew via the credits, which feature everyone’s pronouns at the time of making.
[Featured Image: Grafitti image that says ‘Queer’. It is black, white and yellow.]