The Wilds Are Isolated But Never Lonely:
A Diary of OUTsider Fest 2017, “Into the Wilds”
Thomas Edwards


Day 1: A Series of Reminders
Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

“Into the wilds,” he said, draped in black and showered in cobalt light, as we, who sat lining the walls of the black box, fixed our attention on him at the center. Wilds. Multiple wilds. I chewed on that word slowly, relishing its unwieldy utility, letting its image roll gradually into my mind. I imagine Wild no. 1, Wild no. 2, Wild no. 3, and Wild no. 4, framed evenly in two rows and two columns––murky moving images, dreamlike and piecemeal, as if timidly positioned on the edge, before entering. Indeed I visualize wilds from the outside looking in, blocked by opaque lightlessness and rich layers of vegetation even darker than nighttime.  But, here I actually am, “into the wilds,” entering this one: The Vortex Theater in Austin at 7 p.m., OUTsider Fest, Day 1. I recline in a third-row seat, my eyes fluttering over the stage, adjusting to the darkness, while Curran Nault, OUTsider’s artistic director, outlines the festival’s central theme. Under a fascist demagogue, we must run into the wilds. We’re not there yet, suggests the preposition “into,” but together, by sharing performance, music, drinks, ideas, and histories, we can land in or build one this weekend.

Onstage, a sheer white canopy colored by smooth neon light descends from the ceiling, veiling a pair of large, multicolored blocks and a bunch of giant, bright flowers, all surrounded by other objects––mostly indistinguishable ones––strewn about the small stage. In total the set projects the image of a child’s playroom, transformed into an adult-sized playroom by the lighting and large scale of the blocks.

Out creeps witch Adrienne Anemone to two percussive beats, la-la-ing in an ominous minor-key tune. Her campy songs––“muff a huff… hymen of my mind”––lead the way into the wilds, magic bubbling into the black box. Under her spell, we plunge into a wild, atemporal dream zone. Jeepneys and White Boy Scream (Anna Luisa Petrisko and Micaela Tobin) perform Body Ship, a ‘sci-fi opera’ in which they re-navigate Magellan’s route to the Phillipines, but instead of sailing over the Pacific Ocean, they soar through the cosmos. Emerging together from the canopy, which is enhanced by geometric neon video projections, they wear futuristic white bodysuits patterned with bright shapes and small, halo-like headdresses. Together they vocalize, jumping through octaves of dissonant harmonies, repeating the line “the possibility in me.” While futurity allows them to travel through time and unwrite colonial history, they also connect with something very primal – questions of language, movement and sound inherent to them as people, predating Magellan’s arrival. Reckoning with the past and imagining the future are equally critical to these performers, who summon time into the vortex to radically reconfigure their identities.

Micaela Tobin of Jeepneys and the White Boy Scream with her rattler and glass icicle bowl, closing Body Ship. OUTsider Fest, Austin, TX, February 15, 2017. Photo by Thomas Edwards

Ultimately they enact a vomiting rite, screaming in tones that undulate slowly in and out of one another, countering the structured language of the earlier portion. They conclude by sitting on the stage playing a cacophonous electronic duet in which one cosmic trailblazer performs increasingly complex and muddled tunes with her synth, and the other incessantly rubs a rattler inside a glass icicle bowl, offering ear-shattering but stable rhythm. Lights flash incessantly, they put down their instruments and come together––just as they began.

Sinking into a wild is easy. It’s isolated by design, but not lonely. In fact, it’s the place to which we abscond to find others like us when the world is lonely and tough. As children, we find them when we play, escaping into dreamlands where we live supernaturally charged existences, finding friends in our toys and minds.  We do this, at least in part, to make sense of our place in the world and ourselves. Jeepneys and White Boy Scream drove that home: the wilds exist to make sense of things.


Day 2: Being Elsewhere
Thursday, February 16th, 2017

Both a 2pm witchcrafting seminar, tailored to “Wild Times,” and a 10pm Witch Camp piqued my interest on Thursday, but I was at work during the former and, well, for the latter I chose to stay in bed with my book. The difficulty in entering the wilds with fearless abandon is the fact that many, for reasons of varying necessity and choice, feel tethered and/or committed to aspects of cultivated normativity. This tension––what is essentially between the “institutional” self and the “wild” self––is nothing new. Queers in particular have managed it for at least decades, living multiple lives, strategically dividing (with some permeability) family, work, social, and solitary personae to survive. But regardless, this tension is worthy of renewed discussion in the Trump era, where not only must we hold our employers and institutions more accountable, we also urgently need to build community with which we faithfully entrust our energy and feeling into the creative potential that the wilds promise. Maybe I’m drawing a hard binary where only a small rub exists, but practically speaking, the wilds demand more than ever in this climate, and negotiating time and energy on a daily basis is challenging.


Day 3: Swinging
Friday, February 17th, 2017

Justin Morrison, Weapon.

In the periphery of my right eye I detect little waves of movement––something stirring––and I begin to hear, beneath the room’s dense and silent air, rough swaths of scratching in deliberate, measured intervals, moving down the wall from the ceiling. I look over: a black form against the black wall, tiny, sporadic glimmers bursting from the form as it skids down, pulsing methodically.

Sluggish, minor-key ooh-ing and aah-ing, soulfully running through multiple octaves, floats out of speakers to my left. Equally amorphous as the sound, and moving in tandem with its unsteady quality, the thing descends further and further from the cranny where the wall meets the ceiling. Its meek, subtle movement lulls me into a trance.

Almost naturally, my eyes follow it when it abruptly drops, slamming hard into empty seating four feet below. The room is stiff and humid; nobody moves, but I can feel everyone wince and freeze.

It lays still, and I see a lanky figure with long hair dressed in a black taffeta gown, accented by sparkly ruby red pumps, remaining completely motionless and awkwardly sculpted to the small chairs. The sound changes into a full, foamy tide running up cool, hard sand, slowing, and fizzling away.

She starts to crawl, moving from the theater’s entryway to the stage with rough, molasses rhythm, similar to her movement down the wall. As she pulls herself into the center, she falls under bright yellow spotlight resembling a full moon. We all see her now. White noise overtakes the ocean: a dissonant foggy buzz with exaggerated, electronic vibrato. She wants to stand up.

Stadium lights replace the moon, penetrating her figure directly, stinging her strained hamstrings, pointed toes, and desperately clenched fists as she clamps her body in the fetal position, still unable to peel herself from the black floor. Garbed only in ballet tights now, her skin is so bright against the black floor and walls that the silver light ricochets off of her like halation, and her herculean muscles bulge, defined by intense chiaroscuro. As if absorbing her pain, we all watch, some pulling back in their seat.

She rises, but barely. An echoing piano repeating a minor triad accompanied by a chopper and siren cue the spotlight’s return, but this time it moves, tracking her as she performs a creaky, hunched walk, stumbling for balance but maintaining a perfect relevé. After several figure eights, evolving to more erect posture, she falls onto her flat feet, now methodically walking with average pace and movement, though clearly self-consciously. An inaudible voice on loop joins in. She shapes her movement to it, transitioning almost instantaneously from learned walking to dynamic and fluid circular movements, each angular position launching her into another. My feelings correspond to her fluidity, and as her bodily tension melts away, so does mine. I’m just watching pretty dancing now.

Justin Morrison performing Weapon, OUTsider Fest, Austin, TX, February 17, 2017. Photo by Thomas Edwards.

She moves faster and with complete abandon, approaching her audience more and more with time, her synchronicity with the voice increasingly apparent, and suddenly with little warning, all the lights come on, and she freezes in an inverted fourth position, staring up at the lights, then around the audience with a crazed look. Her mouth gapes wide emitting heavy breaths. We caught her! And for the first time she acknowledges us, obviously unsettled by what we’ve seen.

With purpose she stomps to the side of the stage and rifles through a black suitcase. She pulls out a petticoat and leotard, puts them on, does a quick, balletic floor routine, and returns promptly to the bag to undress. They won’t do. She throws on loose fitting, chevron pants instead and returns to the center of the stage, windmilling her arms. I watch intently, and though her moves are equally powerful as before, her terse expression blocks my enjoyment. Still dissatisfied, she returns again to the suitcase, repeating the pattern of trying on new outfits, her irritation growing until she finds a pair of loose black trousers and her ruby red pumps. Putting them on activates a loud trilling saxophone, which whirls her into deranged, precarious, and wild flailing, somewhere between a moment of cinematic revelation and a teenager dancing alone to blasting music. She uses the entire stage, jumping and kicking, punching and swirling as if she were attacking her own frustrated air, one hundred pairs of eyes dancing along! Then suddenly she slams into the wall, sliding down, once again under the lone spotlight in total silence…


Day 4: Story Time
Saturday, February 18th, 2017

Comparisons are usually risky and unfair, but Queer Mountain is kind of like WNYC’s “2 Dope Queens” but dedicated to promoting poets, storytellers, and comedians exploring queer life. The show, hosted by Austinites Michael Foulk and Mike Hardesty, is a nourishing and welcome respite from other evening performances, which are mostly spectacular and dynamic. Alternatively, Queer Mountain is a radio resting next to my head on a breezy night––a perfect roux of deep emotion and mellow familiarity. We’re all outside The Vortex in a tent pitched next to Patrizi’s food truck, the smell of Italian food faintly percolating and intensifying the homey warmth encapsulated by honest coming-of-age narratives and visceral poetry against Trump. Poet Arati Warrier beckons “love with teeth” and Jesus Valles, dressed as La Virgen, eviscerates Trump’s cabinet one-by-one, invigorating our tent with cathartic fury. We can do this, I thought––and my mental image of the planet combusting by early 2018 abated slightly.

Toward the end of the evening, performer Sweet Gwendolyn recounts his life, walking us through childhood memories in the Deep South, to his college experience in upstate New York, and back to the southeast, before settling in Austin. Throughout, he experienced shitty treatment, red herrings of belonging, and ostracism––never quite fitting in with those whom he assumed were his tribe. Sardonically yet sincerely narrated, Sweet Gwendolyn articulates a vivid shape of his life, relieving the tent’s empathetic tension by concluding with his realization and acceptance of his male gender-identity.

In this setting, Queer Mountain offers collective catharsis. I even think that storytelling upholds the wilds, encouraging self-analysis and intimate care. Much like the historical excavation in Body Ship, the storyteller reveals shells of their past, fitting them against their body to measure growth and delineate the bounds of their present. Earlier in the day as well, CASSILS gave an early career retrospective talk. An artist obsessed with understanding visual manifestations of gender roles in the human body, CASSILS spent their career excavating art history, mass culture, and archives, pursuing representation and absence. The story they told was of adaptation, intervention, and nuance. Through all the absence and erasure CASSILS encounters, they adapt by pulling inspiration from figures like Tiresias, or by juxtaposing their own image against a historical moment’s ideal form, ruthlessly questioning their positionality in history.

And on the fourth night of OUTsider, Queer Mountain’s program seems apt. By now, those of us who filled the black box on the first night, locked into our cliques, now recognize one another. We share an affectionate bond, and if we don’t stop to chat, we at least exchange smiles. In this way, OUTsider Fest is a collective bound not only by close friendships, but more so by recognizable faces constituted sometimes by years of attending events for this same (but always changing) “outsider” community. To me, these informal bonds feel just as important as my close friendships. Indeed, they make up the vast majority of my connections at the festival and, I think, underpin the necessity of the wilds. Personal relationships aside, we are here because across gender, generational, racial, national, political, and sexual identities, we share interests. Watching these tremendously personal and intimate performances together, we define and elaborate upon these interests, responding with feelings that, while variegated, hold us together and remind us of what remains at stake.


Day 5: Then and Now
Sunday, February 19th, 2017

Sunday night’s closing party at Cheer Up Charlie’s is incredible. FEA and Kegels for Hegel are outrageous and the hall feels jovial, close, and inspired. It’s a beautiful night. Just hours short of a massive downpour, the air is refreshingly misty and warm, and lumpy gray clouds pattern the rich midnight blue sky. Everyone escapes outside to chat between performances––performers included. I meet more people in my three hours at the party than I have all weekend; we all just want to connect before the end. At 9PM, though, we get a special treat. Out of “retirement,” Austin’s legendary lesbian punk rock group Girls in the Nose return for an hour-long set of jaw-dropping, mind-busting, hip-thrusting, gut-punching performing.

Left to right: Lead singer Kay Turner with percussionist and keyboarder Joanna Labow performing “Breast Exam.” Behind them the Lez Nez, their gogo crew, dance along. OUTsider Fest, Austin, TX, February 19, 2017. Photo by Thomas Edwards.

My first exposure to the band was an essay by Ann Cvetkovich, in which she documented her experience as one of their go-go dancers for the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Months later I found a few enchanting clips on YouTube from a 2015 performance, and continued to wait wistfully for the unlikely opportunity to see them live. Through my interaction with their work, which was purely textual and temporally removed, I grew attached to them as local treasures with whom I identify politically and historically. Clearly, I’m not alone. The bar overflowed not only with longtime followers, but also millennials.

Seeing them here, seeing them now – it was important. For years during the 1980s and 1990s, GITN performed on this same stage, at what was then a lesbian bar called Chances, for droves of lesbians and their friends. They probably all shared, to some degree, vehement opposition to the Reagan and Bush administrations, and used the bar and GITN’s music to find laughter and channel anger into creativity. In a way, then, this is full circle, and it kind of warps time, as we all share music from a band that either lived solely in one’s memory or, for those like me, in one’s imagination. Indeed it reminds me that even though the future is its own beast, the wilds and our own queer relationship to things are tactics we’ve known for a long, long time.


Thomas Edwards is an art historian living in Austin, Texas. He teaches at Austin Community College and researches object history for The Contemporary Austin. He has a Master's Degree in art history from UT-Austin.