Thursday, January 25, 2018

Down the throat of a megaphone: on NEON BOOTLEG, FAFSWAG, bodies, spaces, agency and decolonisation

This is a story about Moe Laga-Fa’aofo’s debut solo show Neon Bootleg, produced by Tanu Gago and FAFSWAG, directed by Cat Ruka, designed by Ralph Brown, and presented at the Basement Theatre in November 2017.  The story explores the productive forces of the bodies, spaces, performances and decolonisation practices of Neon Bootleg and FAFSWAG. 

FAFSWAG was the first official Company in Residence at Auckland’s Basement Theatre, a programme initiated in 2017.  This prolific collective of queer Pacific artists used the opportunity to mount three significant full length works: Moe Laga's Neon Bootleg being the final work of the three, which followed Akashi Fisiinaua's Femslick, a translation of a Pacific vogue ball scene from horizontally composed space in Te Puke O Tara Community Centre in Ōtara to the performance space of Basement Theatre in central city Tāmaki Makaurau, and Pati Solomona Tyrell's Fa'aafa, which immersed us into a metaphysical world using a traverse staging set up.  In all three works, an intentional holding of space for a reciprocation of energy between artists and audiences was palpable, a FAFSWAG signature.

(Just as a casual aside - the collective was also recently presented the Excellence Award for Overall Body of Work, at the 9th Annual Auckland Theatre Awards 2017.)

I attend FAFSWAG events, shows and exhibitions as a White non-binary pansexual artist with a background of involvement in predominantly Pākehā activist scenes such as anarchist collectives, anarcho-feminist performance groups, Wicca worlds, experimental dance scenes, and other DIY sub-cultures. So it is through these lenses that I reflect on FAFSWAG’s work here.  My White cultural perspective (Pākehā Irish English) limits my reading of, and understanding of the significance of FAFSWAG’s art, activism, and all that they do.  With this in mind, I echo calls by other artists wishing for more visibility of queer People of Colour (PoC) writers on the art scenes of Aotearoa.

I walk up a steep set of stairs to enter ‘The Studio’ space at Basement Theatre.  Neon Bootleg divides the space in two - performance space, and audience space - with chairs in rows that face the wall farthest from the entrance.  This spatial setup signals to me that we are to witness the performance and performer, rather than be invited into the space of the performance as co-participants, as in Akashi Fisiinaua's Femslick and FAFSWAG Balls.  The space of Neon Bootleg is wider than it is deep.  And in this way, I anticipate our potential closeness to Moe.  This is an intimate space where I feel welcomed to really see and sense this “unauthorised autobiography of Mistress Moe Laga”. 

I want to invoke in this writing the particular dialogic exchange instigated by Neon Bootleg, with attention to the relationships between movement, bodies and things inside of the performance environment.  Moe’s movement and activation open up a conversation about her past and everyday embodiments as a Performance Artist from South Auckland.  The work is instilled with specific knowledge and the culturally located experience of Moe’s life in Sāmoan family spaces, and Pacific, queer and gender diverse communities.  It is through the content of Neon Bootleg that we enter into an exchange of the ephemeral, the mystical, the relational, and the fleeting sparks of insight that arise in the space between us and Moe.  Is it possible to map our interweaving social and psychic behaviours as Moe’s audience?

Neon Bootleg is episodic and accumulative in structure.  Moe comes and goes from the space, adding ideas, scenes and props.  I want to refer to four small fragments from the performance through this piece of writing.  Moments which touched me, reaching across the space to stir my breath and pulse, misplacing my sense of certainty.  This is the TOUCHING SPACE of Neon Bootleg.


Fragment 1: hair dryer


Moe stands in profile and blows her hair dry electrically.  Mesmerizing because she is captivated in the doing.  In absolute conviction.  Blowing and being blown.  Head-hair-neck swing and flip delicately, meticulously, fluidly.  It is beautiful. 

<begin art daydream that responds to this scene>
I want to sit inside a huge cocoon made of sticks with Moe Laga-Fa’aofo.  The cocoon is woven tightly with thick black rope.  It smells like ferns, sea wind and blood.  Moe and I laugh maniacally for a long time, and then begin to talk around ritual actiVAtion* and Fucking Shit Up.  Someone unseen plugs in a plastic red hair dryer, and points the warm blast directly at our faces. We begin to flick our hair.  Flicking in unison, then canon.  Flicking with grace and force.  Flicking with the intention of fucking shit up. 

*concept of actiVAtion coined by artist Rosanna Raymond

As Neon Bootleg begins to unfold, what opens before me is a liminal space that invites the involvement of all levels of my being –sexual, emotional, metaphysical, psychological, visceral, intellectual.  I read this as a communal queer Pacific spacetime that dances outside the norms of Western capitalism, and heteronormative temporalities.  In this spacetime, we are carried someplace else, where utopic and dystopic tasks occur, and blur.  Since it is night time, it is also queer time, and I notice an embodied absorption into the languid buzz and sway of a queer sensibility and sensuality.  Bodily rhythms compose the space of the performance, with Moe's valiant strides moving in direct and unswerving pathways and softer ambles that snake the edges of the stage.  Wherever we are seated in Basement theatre’s upstairs studio we are held in the relational space of Moe, Neon Bootleg and FAFSWAG.

Is Moe’s hair dryer scene intentionally fucking with a Western voyeuristic gaze?  Is Neon Bootleg intending to fuck with the virtuosic traditions of local contemporary Western dance, music and theatre?

The va of Neon Bootleg sparks our eyes alive.

“Va — or vā, va’a, vaha — can be loosely translated as a spatial way of conceiving the secular and spiritual dimensions of relationships and relational order, that facilitates both personal and collective well-being, and teu le va as the ‘valuing’, ‘nurturing’ and ‘looking after’ of these relationships to achieve optimal outcomes for all stakeholders.”
(Melani Anae, 2007)

Through the room, the glint of perceptual arousal stirs.  Third eyes, brown eyes, virtual eyes.  This va holds our hand and slaps our face.  It awakens revolutions, reveals, and the thud sound of Death Drops.  This va allows our queer and gender diverse bodies to move and swell and melt.  A space that acknowledges the way we orient ourselves towards each other.   It initiates a friction between all of us present, a gritty surface to grip and “walk forward into the past while walking back into the future” (Yuki Kihara). 

The movement of affect in queer/queered spaces.

Moe re/appears in the room whispering the boniest of spells in movement, to dis/appear again in shadow.  Articulations move against and with memories of family, church, rugby, idols, mentors, friends, years of performance training, and a list of the artist’s accolades.  A dance that shifts and morphs in multiple directions, we are called into the life of Moe Laga, towards the magnetic play of a self-determined embodiment.  An embodiment that is culturally and socially specific, and yet shares the potent feeling of possibility for owning my own cultural and gendered expressions and identities.  A corridor of music temporally lines the pages of this performance, from tracks that chant back the past, and more current feels, the ghosts of vogue.  In relationship with the music and all of us here in this moment, Moe’s body is the space of the event.

I would like to beckon you down the rabbit hole of philosophies and theories of bodies in this moment.  I am thinking in particular about an essay by Portuguese Philosopher José Gil called The Paradoxical Body.

“Depth is the primordial dimension of the dancer’s space. It allows the dancer to mold space, to expand it, or to restrict it, to make it acquire the most paradoxical forms. … although invisible, the space, the air, acquire a diversity of textures—they become dense or rarified, invigorating or suffocating. It is as if they were enveloping things with a surface similar to the skin. The space of the body is the skin extending itself into space; it is skin becoming space—thus, the extreme proximity between things and the body.”
(Jose Gil, 2006)

The Paradoxical Body leads this story into a political courtyard, the ‘frictitious’ garden of bodily actiVAtion that Neon Bootleg tends to, and that FAFSWAG has cultivated for the last five years in various spaces and contexts.

Fragment 2: whip

The certainty of Whip in hand, she is Mistress Moe Laga, Mother of the house of COVEN, seducing us to submission.  I am not sure if Moe was actually wearing big boots in this scene, but I imagine she was.  Big Black Shiny Boots, CLAIMING and COMMANDING the space.  Stomping and strutting around and around a determined circle.  Then, turning the delight of sting against her own body, the repetitions begin.  A rotation of Whip strikes from left to right, to left again.  We wait, in breathless pause, for the snap to begin again.  Intensity rising, the force of wrist, wrench of shoulder, twist of torso.  A throaty base of endurance, and resolution.  A sovereign body flogging the weight of gendered empowerment, then lashing in silent cries for solace, security and self-rule.

This scene excites and exhausts.  The heft of whip collides spines with walls, to sink quite low to the ground really.  Quite low indeed.

Fragment 3: orange on red stool

“fucking up the patriarchy, one Caucasian space at a time.”
(Akasi Fisiinaua in VICE Documentary)

Tearing at the skin un-self-consciously, eating to be filled.  Out of hunger, as if that wasn’t enough.  The steady drip of juice descends our attention slowly to the floor.  There is something very satiating about the casual simplicity of this action - to eat an orange whilst sitting on a red high stool.  I would have welcomed a full bowl of fruit in fact.  Pealed and consumed in a duration that plots a taxonomy of fruit; performing categories by shape, colour, taste, tautness, and texture of rind.  

I enjoy the skin REMAINS of the orange, in all of its thickness and sturdiness, scattered across the space. 

What does the work of FAFSWAG do politically?

This moment with the orange, and it's remaining in space, has me thinking about the political intention behind one of FAFSWAG’s sayings - “fucking up the patriarchy”.  Somehow, Moe Laga’s low-key DIY orange-eating action captures for me the spirit of her particular approach to fucking shit up.  Can the political force of Moe’s embodiment be pinned to an essence of style?  I read her performance mode as a sorcerous language, where feelings are facts, and qualities of being in the body hold a potency* beyond words.  If you didn’t get to see Neon Bootleg, perhaps this usurped image of Moe Laga, from Taleni Mapu of FAFSWAG’s MAKE SPACE / The Visibility Project (2017), offers an insight into her embodied powers. Video link here.

*dancers, and their powers

In my view, the artists of FAFSWAG, with their distinctive creative approaches, are broadening notions of what it means to fuck shit up, fuck up space, and “fucking up the patriarchy”.  Through a framework of decolonisation, these artists are creating nuanced responses to the policing and violation of gender non-conformity and the representation of Pacific stories, bodies and identities.  Simultaneously, they are celebrating the public and private lives of Pacific queers living in Aotearoa.  It is through the negotiation of Pākehā-centric spaces such as Basement theatre and art galleries that I see FAFSWAG provoking and dismantling the oppression of non-white, non-cis queer folk, drawing attention to a system of white supremacy.

Fragment 4: neon cross

To be ignored in my opinion.  Though the harsh neon glow of Christianity will no doubt continue to shine into our eyes.  Blindly dilating itself up on top of that mountain, resistant to the sharp cut of axe, or a chainsaw’s tooth, the neon cross is pervasive and cruel.  A tinnitus squeal in the background of our attention.  Throughout the 60-minute duration of Neon Bootleg, Moe does not acknowledge it, not once.
I am told it is a popular backdrop for selfies post-show.  I give it a go but have to force a smile.

What affects and effects do the spaces created by FAFSWAG have on audiences, on other queer POC, on gender diverse folks, on artists, and on Pacific and rainbow identities? 

What is created and enabled through the indigeneity and queerness of FAFSWAG’s artistic endeavours?  

What if, how we care for each other in queer/queered space was archived?

The show sees the solo dancer as a productive entity, but the performance wasn’t really a ‘solo’ as such.  Neon Bootleg is a between-space that pings with afe, aroha, manaakitanga.  The aliveness on stage is nourished by everyone in the production and support crew, and who showed up on the night. There is a profound social dynamic that also lingers after the performance ends in the extended space of Neon Bootleg.  I notice that the prevalent contemplation in chats I am privy to outside Basement is a shared feeling of gratitude.  I sit with my friends, not really feeling a need to talk, but wanting to linger in collective time, if only to bask a bit longer in the alofa of Neon Bootleg.  The sound of the HEART SPACE is deafening.  

It is a feeling of utter joy that this work has been made, and that FAFSWAG is, as Louisa Afoa puts it in the exhibition notes of Social Matter, “creating important self determining spaces for the queer brown body through art and their now iconic balls”.  Being held so carefully by FAFSWAG, these PoC queer spaces and events enable a Pacific-designed community to grow.  I am particularly gripped by an emphasis on collectivity as integral to FAFSWAG’s art-making processes, which accentuates togetherness, and processes that uplift the artists’ mana in layers of protection and backing.  FAFSWAG creates, translates, takes, holds, commands, and touches space in ways that uphold and amplify Pacific principles, a social world enriched with diversely gendered feelings. 

Neon Bootleg is also a space of experimentation.  A vibrant statement for being and becoming whatever and whoever the fuck you want to.  A space of communal expansion where fragments of Moe’s life are felt up close and personal; graphic, epic, and raw.  Passionate and alive.  Vulnerable.  Noble.


A huge thank you to Tanu Gago, Caitlin Scott, and Lance Cablk for your support, editing and feedback on this piece of writing.

val smith

Neon Bootleg
21 NOV - 25 NOV 2017
Basement Theatre

Creator: Moe Laga-Toleafoa
Produced by: FAF SWAG
Directed by: Cat Ruka
Stills & Video by: Ralph Brown
Styled by: Honey Logan Collis
Sound by: Jermaine Deez

TIME: 6:30PM