Emily Roysdon: I am a Camera, Helicopter, Queen
In 1993, theorist Peggy Phelan championed performance’s unique status as a medium created for a live audience in a specific present, one that could not simply be commodified as an image: “Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something else,” she wrote. 1 The BMW Tate Live series—Tate Modern’s new program of commissioned performances broadcast live on YouTube—challenges Phelan’s definition of performance by substituting an unseen and virtual audience for live spectators. For Emily Roysdon, who typically creates performances for close-knit and queer-friendly publics, the Tate’s proposition necessitated a new method of working.
Roysdon’s I Am a Helicopter, Camera, Queen, presented live on May 31, 2012 (see above), uses YouTube to consider how and for whom queer lives are represented and reproduced. Rather than collaborating with a group of her peers, as she typically does, the artist assembled a cast of a hundred self-defined queer and/or feminist volunteers with whom she rehearsed for three days. Roysdon directed movements that brought her participants into close physical proximity, encouraging an exchange that emulated the interaction between performers and audience. By asking her volunteers to assume the roles of both performers and spectators, Roysdon constructed a performance that resisted the limitations of a single viewpoint or reading. This plurality of perspectives complemented the polysemic formal strategies Roysdon deployed to queer the space, which she calls “making room.”
Roysdon staged I Am a Helicopter, Camera, Queen in a literal constructed room, an intimate white cube built into the Tate Modern’s enormous Turbine Hall. On its floor she created a visual score, including snippets of text, silk-screened photographs of clocks as well as a glossy and enormous image of a women’s bare legs with a zoom lens planted in the crotch and a shutter between the thighs. Roysdon’s volunteers move in ways reminiscent of street protests, choreographed political spectacles or minimalist dancing. At first, they move as a cluster—from straight lines facing the camera, to the back corner, to the opposite wall, and back to the center—tracing the perimeter of the space. Though her performers remain deadpan for the most part, moments of joy surface, like when a collective giggle erupts as the dancers squish together and sway back and forth along the righthand wall. Later, the performers exercise more complex movement—two women hoist people onto their shoulders, and lengths of string are cut and draped across the camera’s lens. As the work progresses, individual voices recite fragments of text penned by Roysdon for the event: “I am a swallow camera realness,” “I am territory technology confession,” “I’m both kinds of queen.” At the performance’s climax, the participants file out of the room and lay on the floor, chanting improvised dialogue, legs spread. A man holds up a sign: “LIFE FROM THE TATE MODERN: 100 QUEERS AND FEMINISTS DELIVERED LIVE TO YOUR OWN DEVICE.”
Though Roysdon structures her performance in the here and now—defining it as “life” itself—her work also addresses the history of representation. The work’s fragmentary and enigmatic qualities, its succinct lines of text to concise movement sequences, suggest a collaged quality rather than a cohesive narrative that encourages a subjective interpretation. More than that, the work slips elegantly from present document to archive document. Much like old newspaper clippings and protest images, which tend to operate more powerfully on the viewer’s imagination with the passing of time, Roysdon’s performance will index those who defined themselves as queer and/or feminist in a specific time and place in 2012. In our present political circumstances, where women’s and queer people’s rights remain threatened, Roysdon’s work attests to a counterhegemonic lived present.
- 1. Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (New York: Routledge, 1993), 146.