Thoughts on Dark Camp
Lokeilani Kaimana / FLOW Staff
The first time I saw the music video Bustin’ Brown (PJ Raval & Paul Soileau, 2010) I thought to myself, “Problematic!” The second time I saw it I thought, “I need to show this to people.” There is a link between what we show and what we hide, right? A desire to share the problematic yet fascinating with others…but only if we can laugh at the end. Was it Judy Garland who taught us this?
Bustin’ Brown is Austin performance artist Paul Soileau performing as Christeene, his version of a racially ambiguous, downtrodden, rapping, transgender hooker who has seen better days, but who demands in this video that viewers understand her pleasures of anal sex. Over a catchy synth hook, Christeene opens the song with the repeated phrase, “dick in your butt hole,” then busts into her rap with, “Want you to sit down, let me tell you about bustin’ brown, it’s when your butt hole starts a’beggin’ for that slip-sloppy sound.” The video’s locale alternates between a holding-cell mirrored after the Abu Ghraib photographs and the deep regions of an anal canal that is large enough to hold three people. Christeene is familiar with these places, and she enjoys them.
Christeene’s music video Bustin’ Brown is modeled after female hip-hop artist videos from the late 1990’s and early 2000’s—arguably the height of the music video era in which female artists dance in underwear against hyper-modern backgrounds and lull us with sexual suggestion. (Or is that a never ending era?) For example, Christeene’s erotic cavorting within a larger-than-life rectum recalls the location of Aaliya’s More Than a Woman (2001) dance sequences. Aaliya explains her “constant pleasure that no scale could measure, secret treasure keeps on getting better” from within the engine of a motorcycle. Also, Missy Elliot’s The Rain (1997) is set against an industrial fish-eyed landscape in which Missy asks, “Can we get kinky tonight?” and explains that “I smoke my hydro on the D Low,” while her female back up dancers perform in their underwear. Christeene and her dancers take their fashion cues from the tradition of women dancing in thongs and string bikinis, and turn the re-occurring industrial setting of these videos into the prison industrial complex. Yet, Christeene does not merely appropriate Aaliya’s and Missy Elliott’s performances; it would be more accurate to say that she accessorizes with the shells of these performers’ bodies, thereby attempting to inhabit—refusing to replicate—them. This is not drag. This is not even terrorist drag (a political disidentifactory performance that engages an audience in questioning our opinions about race, sexuality, class, gender, aesthetics, and hygiene)1. Critics may suggest that Christeene’s presentation is meant to arouse humor (the video is hosted on a Web site called “funny or die”), that her performance as transgender is antipolitical—bordering on transphobic—and that her patois appropriates issues of race and class without critically accounting for what it is she borrows. And they may be right. That said, I cannot take my eyes off of Christeene. She arouses in me a kind of awe that I relate to images of horror, to spectacular failure or grandiose tragedy. This is to say that Christeene, while bypassing the initial critical moment of intervention, elongates the problematics of her performance by refusing this intervention. I suggest that by disrupting the temporal differentiation between body and accessory object, Christeene operates within a discourse of camp. Yet her performance is insidious, dampened by a refusal to intervene in the problematics of her pleasure; Christeene’s camp is a dark camp.
Dark camp is a scarring, as opposed to a citation, of time; it scars as it wallows in a problematic space for just a bit too long. I borrow the phrase “dark camp” from Kathryn Bond Stockton’s conclusion in her book, Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame (2006)2. She uses the phrase to synthesize ideas held in her book’s pages but ultimately leaves it open-ended and ready to become transmutable. I expand her phrase to discuss the temporal space of the music video, because the particular confines of such a highly performative media text are capable of showing more clearly what I believe to be the locus of dark camp: the scarification of time. To be sure, Stockton’s nascent “dark camp” owes its existence to Susan Sontag’s 1964 article, “Notes on ‘Camp’”3. For Sontag, camp is a defensive performative affect. It is a deployment of shame away from the self and onto an object in a time lapse that folds together the present relationship between the human and the object based upon a historical understanding of aesthetics. Sontag’s camp is frivolous, and its brevity need not resonate nor impact an audience beyond its citation. Dark camp, however, surfaces amid cultural citations we would rather leave sewn up and hidden; it is a reminder that sometimes what resonates is not funny, but scarring. Therefore, although dark camp may deploy shame away from the body, it ultimately boomerangs back toward the performer, who must then reveal that pleasure never exists outside of shame while dark camping. So, if a performer (dark) camps a person—as Christeene does with Aaliya and Missy—she must transmit their human forms into object forms. And introducing the objectified body requires a process of turning the human from human-subject, to human-abject, to object. Hence, as Christeene camps Aaliya and Missy Elliott, she affectively switches their subject bodies into object bodies; and by accessorizing her already impossible-to-pass-as-female body with cultural memories of the trope of female hip-hop artists, Christeene elongates the temporal hiccup in the process of attempting to morph corporeally. This elongated temporal citation seems out of time and out of place in the short four minute, eighteen second video. In a temporal sense, the problematics that Christeene busts open cannot be put back together again in the timeframe of Bustin’ Brown. Instead we are left with the visible and hastily made sutures of pastness. Memory scars.
Christeene’s over-gendered body, while inhabiting the shells of others, references the extreme representation of the female form: for example, Lil’ Kim’s replica of herself in How Many Licks. In this video, not only does Lil’ Kim build a replica of herself out of chocolate (from which a robust discourse about her queer body can be derived), she then challenges viewers to try to please her with oral sex: “Lick it right the first time or you gotta do it over, like it’s rehearsal for a Tootsie commercial.” So too, Christeene invites the general public to “make it hard, hard, my ass don’t quit,” as she calls out Jay-Z, Lil’ Wayne, and the “No Homo’s” for not knowing the proper technique(s) of anal sex. This scolding culminates with Christeene finger wagging, sandwiched between her male backup dancers’ rear-ends, rapping, “Y’all tryin’ to act like a bro’, while you be sweatin’ on the downlow.” By rerouting her own shame as impossible-female within a gender binary that she cannot inhabit, Christeene performs a shaming of the stereotypical hypersexual black man. As such, Christeene opens the temporal scar of Black Nationalism and unsuccessfully repurposes it against itself4. The problem with Christeene’s opening of this scar is that she is not visibly identifiable as either black or male; as such, she slips in the mess of impossibility, still unable to secure a position as female. Further, through a referential semiotic chain of black masculinity (Jay-Z et al., bros, the downlow) Christeene loops a very problematic racialization of transphobia that transfers political agency from her to black men. With this rather veiled interpellation Christeene skirts the problematics of her own presentation of abjection, instead writing the stereotype of the homophobe onto a stereotype of black masculinity. Thus, Christeene is only capable of taking us to her pleasure after redirecting shame, all the while embodying the impossible, over-gendered, re-raced abject body.
To simply say that Christeene’s racial ambiguity is part of her performance is to miss a critical contactpoint of discussion. The convening points of contact—between Christeene’s impossible body accessorized with the bodies of female hip-hop artists and the hiccup in time allowed by the music video—produces a memory-image scar. Why wear Aaliya’s and Missy’s shells against a backdrop of Ahbu Ghraib? If, as Stockton suggests, a series of edits are “woundings there is simply no way to reverse,” and the music video is a hyper-edited visual text, then the success of the music video depends on what its cuts evoke5. Further, the editor’s cut is a fleeting, unsustainable moment that constricts the larger video, and Christeene’s medium of choice splices together images of anal sex and racialized transphobia with images rupturing our memories back to the shame of Abu Ghraib, a realm of her own perverse pleasure. This is to say that the temporal confines of her music video allow Christeene the space to pleasurably relish in her wounded setting by cutting away any meditative encounter with loaded concepts that need unpacking. Christeene does not unpack, she dumps out the suitcase of cultural memory and accessorizes.
Can dark camp position—in however fleeting a moment—apolitically between glittered debris and dis-embodied discharge? No. This is not Sontag’s camp of high frivolity, but an itchy and achy, attention-drawing camp. As Christeene lavishes in perverse pleasure, dark camping amid the national shame of Ahbu Ghraib, she reveals a strange suturing of a matrix of cultural artifacts. Christeene loosens these binds, looking through the rear end of camp. There is pleasure in the reveal, in watching what oozes from the unhealed scars of cultural memory.
All images from author’s screen captures.
Please feel free to comment.
- See José Muñoz. Disidentifications: Queers Of Color And The Performance Of Politics. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999). [↩]
- Kathryn Bond Stockton. Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame: Where “Black” Meets “Queer.” (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006). 213. [↩]
- Susan Sontag first published “Notes on ‘Camp’” in the journal The Partisan in 1964. Later, it appears as a chapter in her book of essays, Against Interpretation. (New York: Dell, 1966) [↩]
- Here I am thinking of Eldrige Cleaver’s homophobic response to James Baldwin; as if responding as such would secure his own hetero-masculinity. See Stephanie K. Dunning. Queer in Black and White: Interraciality, Same Sex Desire, and Contemporary African American Culture. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.) [↩]
- Kathryn Bond Stockton. Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame: Where “Black” Meets “Queer.” (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006). 145. [↩]
I truly think this article is the shit (sorry, that was too easy) and I think you’re right on in terms of placing Christeene outside Sontag’s version of camp.
I’m wondering where you put Soileau’s performance historically; one of the first things I thought when I watched this video was “hip-hop William S. Burroughs.” His “talking asshole” routine (and much of his work in general) seems to edge into dark camp as well, although Burroughs, wrapped up in his Deadpan Salesman persona, existed somewhere between reveling in a panoply of sexualities and body-horror, and I’m not entirely sure where Christeene stands between those two poles. For some reason, the roiling nature of the anal cavity set also brought to mind scenes in Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, and the Abu Ghraib scenario also worked as a spin off of Warhol’s Vinyl, especially given the splicing of 8mm in the video and the rather blank industrial backdrop…
Thank you for your comments. I think you are right to put Soileau–as an artist– with Burroughs and Smith. I’ve also started to think about his work in general as hitting some of the same chords as James Cameron Mitchell and Jonathan Caouette (who are also conversing with Warhol, Van Sant and Anger, as well as with Smith). Largely, Soileau, Mitchell and Caouette seem to be dealing with bodies and time in ways that link into a lineage of queer performance and New Queer Cinema. I am pretty excited to see how Soileau’s work is unfolding and to observe the different personae that he brings to separate mediated forms… What I attempted to think through for this short piece was a way to discuss the problematics of Christeene, which become less easy to overlook the deeper we go into the video…
If you’re hungry, Rebecca Havemeyer, it’s because Christeene just ate your lunch.
Thank you for the article. Christeene’s performances in this video and others reminded me of Divine in the early John Waters movies, such as Mondo Trasho, Pink Flamingos and Multiple Maniacs. Some of the performances are still shocking, (dog poop anyone?), I guess the main difference would be that Divine’s characters were white trash, whereas Christeene seems to be using his version of a poor black woman’s speech-style. Would you say that Divine is dark camp? Also do you find Christeene’s speech style at all problematic?
Thank you for your observations and questions! The short answer to the Divine question is yes, I do see Divine as offering a rich discussion of dark camp, although I am hesitant to find parallels with her performance and Christeene’s performance yet. Mostly, my hesitation originates from the type of screen narratives that Divine and Christeene are bound by: Divine eventually gets actual film time, but Christeene must create a space for herself in online videos. Until Christeene is cast in a film role in which she plays someone other than herself, in a narrative that can be accessed beyond the space of the Internet, she remains virtually un-narrativized and must always be bound to her impossible body. Divine is offered characters, thus making her body less problematic as she can become somewhat mainstreamed (think Hairspray) as well as eat poop.
Do I find Christeene’s patois problematic? I find it complicated.
Hey Dr. S,
Oooh! What was for lunch?
It took me a moment after watching this for the first time to determine if it was a parody or not and if one of the backgrounds I was seeing was really supposed to look that gross (apparently, yes). I appreciate that you picked billet grilles apart to show where it draws its influence. Reminds me of the “What What in the Butt” song and video, although this one uses much darker tones and a female persona.
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