Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Haunted Lesbians: Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue’s Kill Joy’s Kastle.

By Kate Barry

Having just completed the Kill Joy’s Kastle: A Lesbian Feminist Haunted House tour, it was difficult for me to form a clear sentence as I was escorted into a small room and seated on a faux-fur stool. I was to be a part of a “processing session” with a Real-Life Feminist Killjoy, the fabulous writer Sarah Schulman. The group I was touring the haunted house with managed to discuss the artwork with some coherence and someone asked a critical question, does ths project suggest that lesbian feminism is dead? The thing that struck me about this question, in the context of the haunted house, is that it illustrates the ghosts of lesbian feminist’s past are still keeping the theory, the activism and the art alive. Being someone who is obsessed with death, I know things never fully die instead they take on new forms.

On opening night, when I first entered Allyson Mitchell’s Kill Joy’s Kastle there were posters of warning and encouragement from lesbian political organizations and magazines from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. There was a graveyard installation dedicated to these organizations that have now deceased:  Queer Nation, The Lesbian Avengers, D.A.R.E.(Dykes Against Racism), Lesbians Against the Right, L.I.A.R (Ladies into Anarchist Readings, On Our Backs,  among many others.

At the beginning of the tour, our guide from the Demented Women’s Studies Professors group, Dainty Box, greeted us. Our Professor sternly lectured us on the hellish antidotes of the uber privileged claiming to be feminist but who, in fact, work to propagate the status quo.

Gravestone for Lesbians Against The Right, Allyson Mitchell, installation, 2013.

Dainty Box,Demented Women's Studies Professor, performance, 2013.

According to Mitchell, the research for this project included investigating real-life Evangelical Christian hell houses. Apparently these hell houses are a tradition in the Evangelical religious sect dating back to the 1970s. In fact, in the Niagara Falls region there are FIVE of these haunted houses. The religious hell houses are created to put ‘the fear of God’ into you through the fear of death, the devil and also the punishments associated with the Judeo-Christian act of sin including, the sins of homosexuality, polygamy, abortion and so on. Unlike the tradition of Evangelical hell houses, Kill Joy’s Kastle was a unique feminist performance and installation art space filled with Mitchell's tongue-in-cheek textiles pieces, an assortment of rug-hooked, crocheted, papier mâché and painting constructions. This project was 5-years in the making, and this is clear in its execution. With a team of collaborating artists from various locales, socio-economic backgrounds, race, gender and abilities, Mitchell successfully attempted to create a non-oppressive and inclusive space.

Christina Zeidler as Felice Shays, performance, 2013.

 FASTWÜRMS’ as The Scary Shaft Inhabitors, performance, 2013.

What impressed me the most about Kill Joy’s Kastle was its use of parody. For me, it is easy to be angry and OUTRAGED as homophobia, transphobia and 'lezphobia' is still so prevalent worldwide. It is also easy to offer shortsighted and reactionary responses to this complicated art project, and complex dialogue around misogyny, if you haven't even experienced the installation, or bothered to research Allyson Mitchell extensive body of contemporary artwork. With that said, what is more difficult to do is to think creatively and subversively around ways to respond while having a good and therapeutic laugh.

The opening night of Kill Joy’s Kastle was a hilarious adventure to undertake. Sometimes its humor was sublime as with FASTWÜRMS’ performance as The Scary Shaft Inhabitors. The FASTWÜRMS’ piece involved a trio of three real-life witches who performed the act of drinking each other’s “sperm”. At other times the hilarity of Kill Joy is in your face such as The "Lesbian" Zombie Folk Singers or The Ball Busta.

The highlights of Kill Joy’s Kastle included the hellish folk singing and scary ball-busting. There is nothing like a zombie-lesbian-feminist singing Ani Difranco’s Both Hands or Christina Zeidler as Felice Shays singing Valerie Solanas' S.C.U.M ManifestoThe Ball Busta performance included two dykes at a tool bench smashing plaster castings of Truck-Nuts. Truck-Nuts are from car and truck culture and are decorative items some people use to embellish their automobiles; they are often hung under the license plate of a car or truck between the rear wheels to exhibit the “manliness” of the driver via their big balls. Changing the context of Truck-Nuts by casting them in white plaster is very comical -since they are the ultimate representation of white patriarchy.

Lorri Millan and MC MacPhee, The Ball Busta, performance, 2013

To backtrack, and in order to give you some context around Allyson Mitchell’s inspiration, I want to talk about the feminist reclamation of the term killjoy. Mitchell stated in a radio/podcast interview with Roy Mitchel on Roynation that the idea behind Kill Joy’s Kastle comes from Sara Ahmed’s book “The Promise of Happiness.” According to Mitchell, in Ahmed’s book she used the term killjoy to refer to the prevalent stereotype of feminists as being humorless. Killjoy is a stereotype that represents a societal preoccupation with the idea of an unhappy feminist/outsider. The concept is that “real happiness” is rewarded to woman who do everything correctly by societies definition of a proper woman, that is, she conforms to gender norms, she marries a man, bares children and lives an upper class or middle class lifestyle but (most importantly) she is anti-feminist.

Historically in Western’s dominant culture the ideal woman is defined as white, heterosexual, ablebodied and thin. Kill Joy’s Kastle: A Lesbian Feminist Haunted House tells another story as it addresses the truths of real-life. It speaks to gender and queer identities and ways of being outside the norm. Kill Joy’s Kastle and Allyson Mitchell’s theory and artistic practice coined “Deep Lez” is also concerned with keeping radical art, activism and idea-making alive and relevant to the 21st century. Kill Joy is about the politics of anti-assimilation surrounding queer practices. In Mitchell’s interview on Roynation she asks, what happens when queer identity is appropriated into mainstream culture such as gay marriage?

Personally, I think that when queer culture is assimilated aspects of queer identity die, such as the so-called 'identity crisis' Canadian queers experienced when gay marriage was legalized. When this happens things also change, morph and take on new forms and new ideas. To be honest, I am happy when aspects of queer culture die, leaving us with the traces and ghosts of our past. Even at the cost of being appropriated by mainstream society and having to endure horrific missrepresentations of lesbian culture. Or having to watch as gays spend exorbitant amounts of money on marriage ceremonies. A culture that does not change would be the most frightening thing. Despite my gender and class angstI am pleased about gay marriage as a victory for human rights.

Allyson Mitchell’s Kill Joy’s Kastle: A Lesbian Feminist Haunted House is more than an entertaining event, it is a performance and installation space that carries on feminist discourse from past generations and brings a much needed dialogue around queer feminist performance and installation art into the 21-century. By way of example, if in 1972 there was no feminist art installation and performance spaces such as the woman-only Womenhouse (organized by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro), would there be a trans positive and queer positive space such as Kill Joy’s Kastle in 2013? No, probably not. Kill Joy’s Kastle would not exist if it was not for the discourse and argumentation of past generations. There is even a direct reference to Womanhouse at the entrance of Kill Joy's Kastle in a sign that reads, "this ain't no woman haus!" Mitchell’s project makes a direct reference the death of old ways and the shifts in theory and practice in the last 41-years.  Her project furthers lesbian feminist discourse through the death and rebirth dynamic where the ghosts of our ancestors paradoxically inform and keep discourse, art and activism alive. 

Both queer culture and the art world are similar in that artists, writers, activists and so on, carry on debate from one generation to the next. I think culture needs things to continuously change and unfortunately that change is often fueled by a cultural assimilation or appropriation. I am not suggesting that the power issues involved in cultural appropriation or assimilation are always a good thing, or even an ethical one. What I am suggesting is that, artists require death in order to create.

Allyson Mitchell, 2013.

Kill Joy has spawned many questions and there is so much more  ghoulish detail to write about! However for the purposes of this blog posting I have offered you a sampling of subjective walk through from my opening night adventure. 

Kill Joy’s Kastle is open 17-30 October, 4-8 p.m. at 303 Lansdowne Avenue. Fear no art and check it out!

Kill Joy’s Kastle: A Lesbian Feminist Haunted Housean presented by Art Gallery of York University (AGYU).

Full list of artists/participants:

Felice Shays as 
Valerie Solanas

Andrew Harwood as Madame Zsa Zsa

Lee Airton 

The Jolly Goods

Christina Zeidler, and Gretchen Phillips as The "Lesbian" Zombie Folk Singers

Mo Angelos, Natalie Kouri-Towe, Dainty Smith, Shawna Dempsey, 
Moynan King and Ponni Arasu as The Demented Women's Studies Professors

Chelsey Lichtman as 
The Polyamorous Vampiric Granny

Eli Campanaro as The Carpet Muncha

Tracy Tidgwell and Jamie Zarowitz as 2 Adult Women in Love

LJ Roberts and Silky Shoemaker as 
The Dank Cave Dweller and
 Labrys Guillotine Operator

Ginger Brooks Takahashi, Dana Bishop-Root, Jess Dobkin, Trixie & Beever as The Paranormal Consciousness Raisers

Carolyn Taylor as The Straw Feminist

Lorri Millan and MC MacPhee as 
The Ball Busta

Golboo Amani, Steph Markowitz, Juli(a) Rivera, and Anni Spadafora as 
The Gender Studies Professors

Kalale Dalton, Coral Short, Petra Collins and Shary Boyle as The Riot Ghouls

 The Scary Shaft Inhabitors

Rachael Shannon, Jesi the Elder, and Flare Smyth as The Garbage Monsters

Amy Lockhart as 
The Bearded Clam Operator and Kitten Midwife

Aleesa Cohene as Ye Olde Lesbian Feminist Gift Shoppe Keep

Sarah Schulman, Ann Cvetkovich, Ann Pellegrini, and Kim Crosby as Themselves!
(The Real-Life Feminist Killjoys)

Deirdre Logue, Emelie Chhangur, Philip Monk,
Chris Mitchell, Brette Gabel, Johnson Ngo, Suzanne Carte


Allyson Mitchell website:

Roynation blog: