by Alessandra Wollner
From afar, Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens would look like a large-scale, photorealist portrait. But, come in a bit closer, and you begin see that the portrait isn’t at all what it appears. It’s actually a series of cells, multi-shaped and many-colored, that work together to create the effect of a single, unified image.
This, Burton thought, was the perfect metaphor for drag, an art form that blends and reinvents gender to surprise, delight, and challenge viewers who think they already know all about what they’re seeing.
Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens (KQIB) dives, er, straight into the lively drag scene of Columbus, focusing specifically on two drag troupes—the Virginia West “family,” mostly drag queens, and The Royal Renegades, mostly drag kings. KQIB also shines the spot on the real lives and questions performers live offstage—expectations and (mis)understandings of biological sex and sexual orientation, parenting, and gender as a non-binary choice. The film also devotes a good chunk of time to the mechanics of drag. Without giving too much away, it involves reams of duct tape and Ziploc bags of clippings from your last haircut.
Burton estimates she attended around 30 drag shows while making the film. She took a camera to all of them. In KQIB, you’ll see scenes from rehearsals, backstage prep, and live performances intercut with interviews of a handful of Columbus’ most well-known drag performers, including Virginia and Nina West, in and out of drag, as well as co-director of The Royal Renegades, Becky.
Burton very intentionally crafted a film with no narrator. She wanted the performers and community members themselves to tell the story, to give a sense not just of a the local drag community, but of drag’s greater significance.
“Imagine a stone dropped in a pond,” Burton said during our interview. “First, I wanted to answer the question What the heck is drag? Then, Well, what’s drag—and the LGBTQ world—like in Columbus? Then, I wanted to really blow audiences’ minds, to get them to understand the biggest picture, the outermost ring: sex, sexuality, and gender are three totally different things, which leads to the final question What does drag make possible?”
Mid-way through filming, Burton gave a TEDxColumbus talk titled “How Drag Made Me a Better Parent.” Burton’s main point was about the way making this film helped her see and understand the nuance and complexities of gender identity and performance in a whole new dimension. It was perfect, but also dizzying, for the mother of two young children just beginning to come to their own dawning consciousness about gender and sex.
KQIB is the hard-won fruit of five years’ labor. But, if you’re going to give yourself a five-year project, you might as well give yourself a subject that’s fascinating, entertaining, and really, really fun, all of which drag has in spades…and sequins and, on occasion, copious amounts of fake chest hair.
Burton’s production company Five Sisters Productions, which she co-owns with her four real-life sisters, is about to launch KQIB, and the good news is that it’s coming to a few theaters near you, and also some far.
The Cleveland International Film Festival will screen KQIB April 2 at 9:15 pm & April 3 at 11:15 am, followed by a special forum based on the film. Burton and her sisters will be in attendance, as well as most of the stars of KQIB and performers from all the groups filmed. More info here.
KQIB will also premiere in Columbus June 7th at 7pm at The Wexner Center, with a celebratory reception co-sponsored by Stonewall Columbus at 6 pm.
Other screenings include…
Buffalo, NY: at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival (BNFF) Sunday, April 17 at 2 pm with a Q&A with Burton, who is a Buffalo native.
The South: in the SouthArts Film Circuit April 20-28 to 6 cities for an audience engagement screening tour. Burton and her co-producer Ursula Burton will be at each screening for audience discussion after the film:
April 20, 2016: Williams Gymnasium, Oxford College of Emory University, Oxford, GA
April 21, 2016: Harrington-Peachtree Academic Ctr, Presbyterian College, Clinton, SC
April 24, 2016: Colleen O. Williams Theater, Winder Cultural Arts Center, Winder, GA
April 25, 2016: DP Culp University Center, East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, TN
April 26, 2016: University Center Theater, Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, NC
April 28, 2016: Jule Collins Smith Museum, Auburn University, Auburn, AL
Austin: at the Austin Drag Fest Friday April 29th
3:30-4:30 – Nina West (one of the main cast of KQIB) Dragcast Live, then:
5:00 – 7pm – Kings, Queens, & In-Betweens with Q&A following with Nina West & Burton
Oakland: at St. Mary’s College of CA May 4 at 3 pm with Q&A following with Burton
Alessandra Wollner is a third year MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at OSU.
by Rashmi Nemade
Have you ever wondered what your thoughts look like? I mean, really look like—to your eyes. I don’t mean how neural connections look in the brain, but what it would look like if your thoughts were translated into something physical. What shapes, sizes, formats, colors and patterns would your thoughts take? And could anyone else make sense of it?
This type of inquiry can be called physical thinking. It’s what the intercultural and interdisciplinary team of Norah Zuniga Shaw, William Forsythe and Maria Palazzi has been working on for almost a decade. In 2009, this team published a screen-based work titled Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced. Using dance as a starting point for visualizing thought, the team data-mined the choreography of William Forsythe. The deep dive unearthed alignments, cues and themes that are repeated and fragmented and recombined.
Zuniga Shaw shared this work in her 2009 TEDxColumbus talk “Animating Choreography.” As she explains: “It’s like an ecosystem. There are patterns and agency: there are animals and plants that abide by a day-night cycle and those that do the opposite; there are elements of the ecosystem that are synchronized by seasons and temperatures, while other parts are unaffected; and there is simultaneous complexity in parts of this ecosystem as well. They all coexist together and, yet, separately. It’s a complex structure.”
In Forsythe’s dance, One Flat Thing, reproduced, there are multiple performers dancing around and interacting with multiple tables (the flat thing, reproduced several times) and each other. To capture data of the dance, the team used video of a performance and interviews with the dancers. The interviews capture data about cues given and received during the dance and the flow of interactions that result. The video shows visual patterns, for instance an arc created by arms and then by a head, then again by feet, emerges as one motion at different times in different directions by different bodies. The similarity is the arc, the complexity brought by changing times, body parts, directions, etc. This teasing out of a complex structure is how a simple aesthetically pleasing movement becomes a complex ecosystem that can be examined for deeper understanding of relationships and visual counterpoint.
The results—the ecosystem of this dance, so to speak—are shown in a fluid, discovery-based website which can be explored by both novice and expert. The data are showcased as alignment annotations, cue visualization, concept threads, movement densities, 3D alignment forms, motion volumes and performance architectures, among other visualizations. Artworks in their own right, they are absolutely beautiful and captivating interpretations of the dance. Essentially, the data flows from dance to data to visual objects also in motion.
In 2014, Zuniga Shaw published a companion book Synchronous Objects: Degrees of Unison. In it, she writes, “This just happens to be dance, it could be mathematics, it could be architecture, it could be the movement of pedestrians on the city streets or the patterns in the tree canopies above our heads. What else might this dance look like? A storm of themes, a cacophony of difference, a polyphony of relationships, systems of organization, degrees of unison, patterns emerging and receding, isometries, fleeting forms of agreement.”
Since its 2009 launch at the Wexner Center for the Arts, the Synchronous Objects project has toured as a hybrid exhibition/workshop/lecture event to numerous sites in Europe and Asia with producing support from the Goethe Institute.
Zuniga Shaw is currently collaborating with Maria Palazzi and choreographers Bebe Miller and Thomas Hauert on a project called Motion Bank: TWO. The two choreographers work separately, yet both use improvisation and engage directly with the nature of human consciousness and how the dancers work with their habits, tendencies, impulses and memories in action. In isolating their working strategies, Zuniga Shaw and her collaborators bring the viewer into a direct encounter with the dancing mind and the thinking body—hence, the term “physical thinking.”
So, it’s possible to do more than just wonder what your thoughts look like. Simply develop a physical manifestation of whatever you’re thinking of and then tease out the visual counterpoint. Simple…or complicated. Either way, it’s an extraordinary exercise that can take you into much deeper thinking and awareness.
Rashmi Nemade is principal at BioMedText, Inc.
Photo credits for Synchronous Objects and Motion Bank:Two: The Ohio State University and The Forsythe Company
by Alessandra Wollner
“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling,” Susan B. Anthony told New York Times reporter Nellie Bly. “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
That was back in 1896, when feminists called bicycles “freedom machines.” At the time, for women at least, bikes were kind of a big deal. They offered mobility and ushered in an era of vastly less restrictive ladies’ attire. Bloomers, y’all.
But somehow, as the years revolved, bike culture became the provenance of dudes. Dudes wearing caps with tiny bills, walking bowlegged on ripped calves. The era of Susan B.’s freedom machine may be over, but a bike-powered women’s revolution is alive and well in the work of Jess Mathews, who gave a 2013 TEDxColumbus talk about the integral role women play in creating bike-friendly cities.
On the day that I met Jess Mathews, she rolled up on Suzette—that’s her Fuji hybrid—with a copy of Amy Poehler’s Yes Please in a wicker basket attached to the handlebars, also tricked out with a hot pink little bell. Suzette’s pedals are electric raspberry blue, her saddle striped down the middle with leopard print fleece. Laminated cards with pictures of bikes twine through the spokes of her back wheel, and stickers for various causes wrap her peach sherbet frame. It’s a bike lovingly customized by a woman as free and untrammeled as they come. No doubt, Jess Mathews is the kind of bicycling woman Susan B. would rejoice to see.
Jess has always been vocal about women and biking, lobbying the local government for infrastructure that makes women and children feel safe to ride. And though she is fiercely dedicated to this work, it’s just a spoke in her wheel. One speed out of ten. A single stop on a long and comprehensive tour to transform Columbus into a leading center not just in bike friendliness, but in the creative and civic-minded use of city streets.
Because Jess’ work ranges all over the city, I asked her to tour me through the sites of her greatest successes, and take us through Columbus’ best examples of bike-friendliness and worst instances of bike-indifference. On bikes. Duh.
A number of places we pedaled by were sites of the Columbus Parklet Project and Open Streets Columbus, both initiatives under Transit Columbus, which “champions an integrated public transportation system for the people of Central Ohio to improve the safety, health, environment and economic vitality of the entire Columbus region.” The organization launched both Open Streets and Columbus Parklets in 2015. “I’d been talking and dreaming about these projects for four years,” Jess explained as we cruised down Grant Street through a golden October afternoon. “Then finally, this year, it all just came together in a beautiful way.”
Jess, the project lead, and a very dedicated team of volunteers launched the Columbus Parklet Project outside Dirty Frank’s Hot Dog Palace on 4th and Cherry last summer for a 30-day trial. Parklets—sidewalk extensions providing more space plus amenities—help people understand that streets are more than byways from Point A to Point B. Streets are gathering places, Jess says, and using them as such makes for healthier, more vibrant cityscapes.
“That first parklet was a huge success,” Jess tells me as we straddle our bikes curbside in front of Dirty Frank’s, where the parklet once stood. On its heels, The Columbus Parklet Project installed a second, permanent parklet in Franklinton during this summer’s Urban Scrawl festival. A third parklet, hopefully permanent, will go in front of Café Brioso on Gay Street in Spring 2016. Jess explains all this as rush hour traffic whips by to our left and my stomach churns. But Jess believes that streets should feel safe for riders and pedestrians alike. We stay put.
This is one of the most fascinating aspects of Jess’ activism: it’s doggedly honor-bound, her convictions stronger than Everclear. Jess Mathews rides in whatever clothing to prove women don’t need special “gear” to get on a bike. She takes whichever street to prove there’s no need to feel cowed by the presence of cars. Interestingly, Jess rarely wears a helmet, so strong is her belief that city streets should be safe enough to ride without them. “All ages, all wages, all stages,” Jess says, a mantra for who should feel comfortable on a bike, and who streetscapes should be designed to serve.
Which brings me to the other big project with Jess at the helm: Open Streets Columbus. Open Streets is a national movement that shuts down stretches of city street for a day. People—on bikes, blades, and two feet—have the run of the asphalt, at least for awhile. “It can transform cities,” Jess says, “it’s an incredible petri dish that can get people reengaged with their cities, using streets the way they should be used.”
The first Open Streets Columbus happened Sept 13th on Rich Street downtown. The second followed the next weekend on a section of 4th between Main and Broad. Among other carless wonders, the Open Street events featured PoYo (pop-up yoga), a human-sized Scrabble game, and some impressive bike dancing. Jess and her team have a third Open Streets in the works for the same 4th Street location in 2016, with a possibility of adding a second event if funding comes through.
I wasn’t in town to see either Open Streets, but I did make it to this October’s 2 Wheels & Heels ladies bike night. Jess plans and leads these rides the last Wednesday of every month to get women hooked on freedom machines.
Because some serious rain had eased up just hours before this month’s ride, this 2 Wheels & Heels was intimate, only six women. But that was OK. The ride fell on the cusp of Halloween, and we were a band of witchy, bike-straddling, suffragette superheroes Two women showed up in onesies (ok, one was me, in leopard print). In solidarity with the ride’s namesake, the other onesie woman, an astronaut in an orange jumpsuit with pink hair, rocked a pair of black heels.
For this ride, Jess planned a six-miler dedicated to testing some newly installed infrastructure—a series of two-stage left turns along Spring Street, and the new bike lane on the notoriously busy/scary/bike-unfriendly 4th St corridor, a route Jess irritably called “a f-ing joke.”
Jess is passionate, but she burns a quiet fire. “How did that feel?” she asked the group after we’d ridden each new piece of infrastructure. The women agreed: we were glad to have a chance to ride these new facilities with a guide. That way, we actually understood how to use what was meant for us, especially those somewhat abstruse but very helpful two-stage lefts. As we spoke, Jess listened quietly, intently.
Larry Smith, famous six-word memoirist and TEDxColumbus alum, loves Jess’ fervor. “Jess is great at what she does because she’s 100% convinced her ideas are gonna work. Her total faith is what makes her stuff happen.”
Although 2 Wheels, the parklets, and Open Streets are up and spinning, they still require buckets of sweat equity—a whole bunch of hustling, organizing, coordinating, volunteering, recruiting, speaking out, showing up, and riding, riding, riding.
As Jess told me outside Dirty Frank’s, “I know people will get behind this once they see all it implemented later on down the road.”
Or, more aptly, the street.
Alessandra Wollner is a third year MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at OSU.