For multidisciplinary artist Kevin Jesuino, the experience of creating a performance during a time of physical distance has brought notions of Queerness, liveness and failure into alignment. Jesuino’s latest work, Cruising at 30 Kilometers a Second and Attempting Not To Crash, premieres in February, approximately one year after novel coronavirus cases began turning up in Canada. The virtual performance, presented by Mile Zero Dance, asks how, by embracing failure and collapse, new modes of being might emerge.
One image the Calgary-based artist weaves through his articulation of creating Cruising at 30 Kilometers a Second and Attempting Not To Crash is that of the Queer body’s connection with the earth. “I’m thinking about the dynamic accumulators that are often featured in nature metaphors,” Jesuino explains. In the world of permaculture, dynamic accumulators are plants that gather certain nutrients from the soil and store them in their foliage. The foliage can then be harvested and used as mulch or compost or added to fertilizer. The intention of returning the nutrients to the soil could help avoid nutrient depletion, a widespread problem that is a consequence of soil erosion. Dynamic accumulators, which are a relatively emergent theory in the field of permaculture (their existence is based on anecdotal evidence), could be perceived as a symbol for the restorative capacity of our earth. “I’m thinking about nature’s ability to be anti-fragile, to be able to withstand shock and to collapse systems that just don’t work,” Jesuino says.
Jesuino furthers this image by comparing soil compaction with emotional hardening or apathy. Just like when soil density, caused by soil compaction, impedes a plant from deeply rooting in the ground, making it less able to absorb nutrients, a lack of empathy in a human can cause what Jesuino calls “rhinoceros skin.” “The more traumatic events that happen to us, the thicker our skin gets. As we grow more resilient to the trauma of life, or the existence of living on Earth, we become hardened to adaptability,” he says. He adds that by being receptive to our own needs and to the needs of others, restorative dialogue can grow increasingly ethical relationships. Similar to how nutrient-rich soil is resilient due to its ability for water to flow through its spacious particles, Jesuino is grappling with how a fluid performance framework might better support the radical demands of systematic reinvention.
“I’m thinking about nature’s ability to be anti-fragile, to be able to withstand shock and to collapse systems that just don’t work.” – Jesuino
A phrase that Jesuino often returns to while making his current series of performances is “the body as nature and nature as the body.” Despite the holistic intention of the sentiment, he indicates that his research starts at the investigation of his own intersectional body. “I am a Queer cis man,” Jesuino states. “I have had bricks and KFC thrown at my face by people driving by in pickup trucks. I have been called derogatory three-letter words on busses and have been made fun of when I hold my partner’s hand. I was kicked out of my house when I came out to my family. And I am a firstgeneration Portuguese settler in Canada. I’m grappling with all of these experiences and intersections.”
Two of the connecting threads between Jesuino’s performance explorations of “the body as nature and nature as the body” and the labour of unpacking his own intergenerational and personal traumas are José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity and Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure. Both texts offer critiques of heteronormative, capitalist society and map out pathways of unlearning and future-building. For Jesuino, the idea of a Queer utopia has grounded much of the creative process for Cruising at 30 Kilometers a Second and Attempting Not To Crash. “Much like how nature will eat up and swallow and give back, how dynamic accumulators return nutrients to the soil and how we take in oxygen and release carbon, and it all does this dance, this is how I position the idea of the Queer aesthetic as an element of fluid nature,” he explains. “Within my idea of Queer futurism, there is the embracing of difference and all potential; however, there is no specific definition of what it looks like.” Expanding beyond articulations of gender, sexuality and orientation, Jesuino explores what it means for society as a whole to be post-heteronormative and posthuman system fragility: “heteronormative fragility, white supremacist fragility, any sort of normative structure fragility.” Jesuino wonders what structural reassemblage might look like in order to move beyond the current systems of oppression. “Maybe we have to unlearn all that and maybe there is a whole other standard, a whole other way of looking at the world,” he says.
Jesuino directs his investigation into Queer utopias by asking what it might look like to be in a “post-power world where the idea of Queer futurism is prominent and we are one with nature by embracing and working with the difference between human and climate.” In order to study this inquiry, Jesuino turns to the delightful slipperiness of live performance. By playing with audience expectations, Jesuino is able to cultivate the heightened sensory experience of something going “wrong” onstage. he has tapped into this “hyper-mode of performativity” in two previous works of his: The End (2019-20) and Insert Show Here (2014).
In The End, Jesuino considers what it means to end something through tasks that escalate in risk – “There was a bit of harm happening to myself but always safely and bravely” – and prompt questions of intervention. Insert Show Here explores what it means to surrender power and invite chaos by relinquishing the control of a performance. “In terms of how something ‘should’ go,” Jesuino says, “in terms of building towards a climax, all of that will ideally lead to a space where the audience is wondering ‘Is this a show? Is this supposed to be happening?’ That is the state I want to get to. I’m not interested in having a mass division between the witness and the performer.” By playing with audience expectations, Jesuino upends the power dynamics between performer and spectator in order to interrogate conceptions of entertainment and risk.
One of the outcomes of this scrambled power structure is a decentralized performance. In other words, by putting the trajectory of a performance into the hands of the witnesses, Jesuino subverts any notion of the lone creator orchestrating the performance. For example, in The End his goal is to complete each increasingly risky task while creating a feeling among the audience members that they should intervene, without hoping they will. “In my head they’re all metaphors. But when I present them without the need to entertain, and with the objective to just complete the task, there’s a certain heightened risk factor that happens in the space,” he says. “So, when I tell you that I’m trying to blow up a balloon until it pops, it doesn’t sound risky. Or put my face in steaming water … but when you’re in the room and these elements are back-to-back, there is a heightened tension in the room.” In his latest work, Jesuino explores how audience members might participate in the performance through engagement with word scores or prompts. When I tell you that I’m trying to blow up a balloon until it pops, it doesn’t sound risky. Or put my face in steaming water … but when you’re in the room and these elements are back-to-back, there is a heightened tension in the room.
“When I tell you that I’m trying to blow up a balloon until it pops, it doesn’t sound risky. Or put my face in steaming water… but when you’re in the room and these elements are back-to-back, there is a heightened tension in the room.” – Jesuino
Jesuino’s interest in decentralizing performance is inspired by Fluxus movement artists’ use of word scores to share conceptual intentions and works of art. In a 1991 special issue of Lund Art Press called Fluxus Research, Bengt af Klintberg describes the movement as a reaction “against the pompous image of the artist as a genius.” He goes on to discuss how the Fluxus movement encourages “simple pieces filled with energy and humour” that can be “transmitted orally just like folklore and performed by everyone who wanted to.” For Jesuino, the use of word scores opens up the conceptual elements that he is working on to participants and audience members “with the hope that their simple score, when seen with all the other scores, has a more nuanced, complex notion of what I’m trying to explore,” he says.
One of the word scores Jesuino is exploring in Cruising at 30 Kilometers a Second and Attempting Not To Crash is “bring nature to you.” A component of Fluxus word scores, also known as event scores, is to be precisely imprecise. As Natilee Harren writes in Fluxus Forms: Scores, Multiples, and the Eternal Network, word scores are often “a condensation of text designed to open out meaning to the widest range of interpretations.” In the context of Jesuino’s work, the ambiguous intelligibility of his word score invites participants to engage with the performance in ways that are fluid and autonomous.
Another Fluxus-era element Jesuino uses is the notion of indeterminacy, where he creates a “container” where things can happen, but he is not dictating how they happen or when they happen. By sharing scores with performance participants, he is decentralizing choreographic authorship and inviting performer autonomy. This also means that the outcome of the performance is unknown with differing perspectives and interpretations of the scores, providing insight into what a post-power world might look like. Further, by embracing indeterminacy and revelling in an anticipatory liveness and the chaos of possibility, the notion of failure in heteronormative, capitalist contexts loses its grip. “We’re not trying to move towards trying not to fail,” Jesuino clarifies. “However, what happens if we actively try not to adopt the system? What if there is a whole other system that just needs to be built? It is through embracing the full idea of failure which will allow us to move into something new.”
Jesuino, who has a rich background in community-engaged arts work and relational aesthetics (a term first coined by French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud in his 1998 book Esthétique relationelle as “a set of artistic practices which takes as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context”), is highly attuned to the complicated ethics of inviting others’ interpretations and experiences into a work where his name is the one billed. The practice of relational work reaches back to Jesuino’s first encounters with performance where he participated in Portuguese folk dance in Edmonton from age five until 20 and has furthered through his collaborations with the Crescent Heights Community Association, Antyx Community Arts and the Calgary Gay-Straight Alliance Network. These experiences exemplify the power of culture-building and how performance is not just a consumable product but also functions as a pivotal relational modality. “There is an idea that you can make art to a public, for a public or with a public, or by a public,” Jesuino explains. “Artists need to understand where they sit on that and they need to fluctuate. You can’t just create work to a public; that is not sustainable.”
Mile Zero Dance’s 35th season, in which Jesuino will perform, is called De-Program. “I was seeking artists that could shake up the mix of standard dance presentation,” said Gerry Morita, artistic director, via email. “I personally am interested in [Jesuino’s] ability to combine social and community-based methods with artistic work. I was very confident in his ability to evolve with the constraints of our COVID-19 digital presentation formats because his outreach would be unique and effective. In addition, Kevin is a very positive person and a breath of freshness at a time that can be cynical.”
Through collaborations with word scores cumulating in emergent forms of virtual performance, Jesuino prompts distanced engagement through means that are autonomous, community-oriented and futureminded. By inviting themes of relationality and ecological reconstruction, Jesuino creates environments where “Everyone becomes complicit in the project … not where one would just come and consume,” he says. Navigating the collapse of a system through the relationship to the body, Jesuino seeks to figure out not just how to reorganize post-chaos but what comes after. In continuing to unsettle notions of embodiment-asproduct, which is at risk of expenditure, Jesuino returns repeatedly to the importance of unlearning heteronormative, capitalist systems and of holding space for the failure that is necessary for growth. By looking to the regenerative facilities of dynamic accumulators, Jesuino invites contemplation on how we might work towards Queer futurisms.