Arts Watch: Queer New York International Arts Fest Kicks off on Wednesday

LaMaMa_Untitled Queen Photo by Stephanie Keith_300dpi

Photo: Untitled Queen, by Stephanie Keith.

This Wednesday, the Queer New York International Arts Festival (QNYIAF ) returns to New York for its third year. Abrons Arts Center serves as festival hub and home base. Performances take place at multiple venues around town.  This year’s line-up features twelve U.S. premieres and new performance works by artists from around the world.

The contemporary festival explores and broadens the concept of queer (in) art.  TLD contributor Robin Schatell caught up with Festival Director, Zvonimir Dobrović on Friday at Abrons for a quick chat.

TLD: You started a queer arts festival in your native Zagreb, Croatia in 2003. What made you decide to do this?

ZD: Croatia was very nationalistic a few years after the independence war and I was working with a mainstream festival that brought in a lot of work. One year, they brought in work by artists who were working with gay and queer issues, like performance artist Ron Athey, but they never promoted it. I thought that was a lost opportunity especially in Croatia during this time — to be able to talk about some issues very important in Croatia.

For me the problem was that a lot of artists at that time did not want to be branded as “Queer,” thinking that curators would not take them seriously, or only understand it as entertainment or drag shows. I wanted to change that to something else as well.

So, where “Queer” is in the name as the title, it kind of switches the power of the festival. Then you can invite artists whose work also deals with modernity issues and different ways of working with their form, rather than just through race or ethnicity.

TLD: How is your festival different from a “traditional” queer arts festivals?

ZD: For me to call it queer is to reclaim the space back. We present artists whose work is queer but who are not labeled as queer artists. We introduce the idea that queer is something outside of the norm. The work is not all queer from that standard understanding of queer.  Sometimes in content it is and sometimes also in the format. How people may dance, different uses of the body. All connected thinking of what queer is. In a way, it is a tool to help the audience see that you can think about queer from different view points.

John Kelly or Joey Arias are clear and recognizable as queer, but if you see the work of a brilliant Brazilian artist like Marta Soares, a choreographer who buries herself under a thousand pounds of sand as her protest about the body and the way dance is perceived in Brazil–it then becomes choreography seen in the queer context of what it it means to be stuck with your body.  For us, queer depends on geography and different themes as used for showing the marginalization of you as a person. That it is not only about being excluded based on sexuality and gender.

TLD: Given this, are you finding here in NYC that queer has a particular meaning?

ZD: In Croatia, it is viewed very traditionally. We went much beyond anywhere else there–we have expanded that trail and nobody views it that way now. Here, the starting point is the same. A preconceived notion of what it is. For me that idea is always the same. They (the audience) would not think of this Brazilian artist as queer for example.

In Croatia we also had police presence. We had a lot of police in full gear protection at the opening. We had church protests. The obstacle here is the challenge of the preconceived notion of what queer is here.

TLD: Could anything be considered queer art based on your definition?

ZD: Yes that is a good question. I ask myself that all the time. How I go about it for myself – the work has to be subversive at some point. Some sort of subversion that challenges whatever the strong pull for the norm is. This is how I go about it.

TLD: Why did you decide to bring your festival to New York?

ZD: Bringing it here for me it is about seeing how this concept about margins works, and finding out how wide we can cast the net of queer in a city that has defined queer, and is maybe stuck in that notion of it. To open it up as a source of new thinking or inspiration.

I was also disappointed that NYC  did not have an international queer festival, because it is important to have different perspectives. What queer is here, versus in Brazil or the Philippines– you might find different ways of expressions from what is expressed here.

TLD: Tell me about this year’s lineup. How do you select your artists?

ZD: I follow a lot of artists work over many years. I travel a lot–ten months a year I am away going to different festivals. I prefer to spend time in a place, like six weeks in Asia for example.  Because of this, we present smaller experimental shows, new work, younger artists. This is my personal preference. This year we commissioned several artists to make work that is premiering here. I don’t know what the work will be exactly. But based on the artists, I have a good sense of what it will be. I go to many places, meet and talk to many artists. People are very interested in talking about it.

This year we also have a focus on a Dutch choreographers who are doing incredible work. For me it is also important to work with U.S. artists here. Croatian choreographer Bruno Isaković’s Denuded solo has been reworked as Denuded for Two Dancers and will danced by two U.S. dancers. Earl Dax has curated and organized an installation called Queer Climate Chautauqua + Queer Planet.

TLD: What are you hoping that audiences will take from their experiences seeing the work?

ZD: I hope they will be as excited as I am. The work is often very raw, direct provocative. But I like the NY audiences. They seem very open and communicative. People respond and interact here. In Croatia it is not like that. It is a pleasure to do things in NY. I like that we created this frame that we can invite artists no one has heard of. I think it is important to have that experience.

September 17 – 28 // Curated and produced by Zvonimir Dobrović //  Presented in partnership with Abrons Arts Center, the festival hub, with additional performances at The Chocolate Factory Theater, Grace Exhibition Space & Gallery, La MaMa, and the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art // Tickets $1 – $18.