24 July 2012

SHEROES - Is She a Snob? by David Balzer

Andrew Benson’s GIFs for Sheroes #9: Dolly Parton

Today we are proud to launch a post series about SHEROES and all movement around this monthly programming series which started just one year ago in July 2011 and which has been curating on and offline works that playfully and performatively explored the iconography and fan culture surrounding the League of Legendary Ladies.
Over the course of a year, the Toronto art event became a hub for a myriad of Canadian and international contemporary artists featuring frenetic assemblages of performance art, music, GIF and GIF-based video art, DIY projects, and various other activities.
Herstory has finally been done right. This week, SHEROES will celebrate the so-called batshit genius of its final inductee into the League of Legendary Ladies, Madame Nina Simone, on Thursday July 26th at the Beaver. Soon after, a culminating co-presentation of new and past works from the event series — Virtual Season — will take place in Toronto's Kensington Market on July 29's Pedestrian Sunday.

Taking the opportunity of the end of SHEROES, we start a little series of posts to know more about all these great shows and works exhibited. Starting today with an essay by David Balzer called "Is She a Snob?" (see it into the post), and the upcoming posts will bring an email dialogue between (founder) Rea McNamara,  (curator and participating artist) Lorna Mills and (participating artist) Andrew Benson. Also we will have several individually interviews from different participating artists involved in SHEROES!! See more;

Is She a Snob? by David Balzer, July 2012_

Let’s begin by talking about what Sheroes is not—or not just. Sheroes is not just a club night. Yes, it takes place in a club but also, vitally, online, and, at the risk of sounding whimsical, in the dreamworlds that both spaces cultivate. And so it is not just a party. And it is not just a celebration of women musicians and performers. It is also a celebration of their fans, and of culture-at-large. What it proclaims, enthusiastically, is that culture is made not only by its agents or even its most avid consumers, but also by the collaboration between them and, most intriguingly, by the ways in which that collaboration generates dialogue within its initial and, then, ever-evolving contexts. Accordingly, Sheroes is not just for women. As shown by its participants and attendees, who span ages, races, genders and sexualities, Sheroes is for everyone—everyone, that is, who understands what it means to induct a female pop superstar into “an ever-expanding ‘League of Legendary Ladies.’”

Rea McNamara founded Sheroes in 2011. As a close friend of hers, I can attest to its improvisatory evolution over the past year, as well as to its absolute dependence on collaboration, but can also say with confidence that it is a project only she could have created. The first Sheroes, celebrating Joni Mitchell, was on July 6, 2011, at the now-closed NACO Gallery, and was described on Facebook thusly: “A live chopped & screwed remix tribute to Joni Mitchell (AKA first lady of the canyon) via DJ reeraw (AKA Rea McNamara). Snobbery will abound—only focusing on samples & clips between For The Roses to Don Juan's Reckless Daughter.” Summative hashtags at the end of the description, which became standard for all forthcoming Sheroes events, read: “DO EXPECT: #helpfulhenrythehousewifesdelight”—Mitchell’s putative 1970s nickname for cocaine, found in the liner notes for her 1975 album The Hissing of Summer Lawns—“#adorothylamoursarong”—a lyric from “Dreamland” on Mitchell’s 1977 concept album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter—“DON'T EXPECT: #trillysopranofolky #woodstock.”

Giselle Zatonyl’s GIF for Les post-Gendered et les autres group GIF show at Sheroes #10: Grace Jones

Here, then, is the seemingly unlikely germ for Sheroes: snobbery. Virginia Woolf privately presented a paper entitled “Am I a Snob?” to the Bloomsbury group at the Memoir Club in the 1930s, and her defiant, if tongue-in-cheek, answer to the titular question—a resounding yes—is, after a fashion, McNamara’s. In both women’s cases, this affirmative is about redefinition and rarefaction: indeed, about looking at culture from the outside in, or perhaps from the inside up. Sheroes was, from the start, concerned with paying tribute to undercurrents, obscurities and secret histories. There’s more to Joni Mitchell than Blue or “Big Yellow Taxi”; there is, for instance, that period McNamara used in her DJ set, Mitchell’s so-called difficult, jazz-inflected period of the 1970s, which, despite its infamy, is now seen as Mitchell’s major accomplishment by music critics. It also marked Mitchell’s breakthrough to African-American audiences, one of whom was a young Prince who, as Mitchell attests in a New York magazine piece (which McNamara duly posted on the event’s Facebook wall), used to send her fan mail “with all of the U’s and hearts that way that he writes. And the office took it as mail from the lunatic fringe and just tossed it!”

The snobbery of fandom, then—its paradoxical inclusiveness, or its strange, reverse-exclusionism—has become Sheroes’ mantra. As a teen, McNamara became deeply involved in online fan fiction, following and writing narratives (many “slash,” especially “real-person slash,” in which fans invent same-sex sexual scenarios between band members or celebrities) on the Beatles, the Strokes and *NSYNC. While studying at York University, McNamara was a guest lecturer on fan fiction for Marcus Boon’s Sampling and Contemporary Literature class, which led to her eventually being included in the acknowledgments of his 2010 Harvard University Press book, In Praise of Copying. Sheroes would not exist without both fan culture and its special iterations online. For the second, Chaka Khan edition of Sheroes (the party became a monthly at NACO; for its sixth iteration in January 2012, it moved to The Beaver on Queen Street West, where it currently resides) McNamara bought thigh-high black PVC boots in tribute to Khan’s outrageous funk accoutrements, and made a video in which she pranced around to the singer’s “Clouds” (a favourite of Paradise Garage DJ Larry Levan, one of the many guiding spirits for Sheroes). The point? According to her Facebook post, McNamara was “riffing on the classic YouTube private dancing genre.” She wasn’t just indulging in fandom; she was commenting on fandom while expressing her own fandom.

Se Ye (AKA Lavish Bat, our Grace Avatar) from Sheroes Grace Jones

This vortex of gleeful, deconstructing snobbery continued with the third Sheroes, which honoured Tina Turner, and generated another video in which McNamara and guest collaborator, performance-poet Naila Keleta-Mae —at this point, Sheroes was enlisting a variety of participants—danced like Turner to “Proud Mary” in McNamara’s living room, in emulation of moves from the Nintendo Wii game Just Dance 2. McNamara wore a wig, created by John Taccone of Navigate Salon and one of the many she would don for subsequent Sheroes, in tribute to “cosplay,” in which fans dress up, in real life, like their idols. At the event, McNamara took on the act aggressively, arguably disturbingly, adding to the wig a black eye applied by makeup artist Roxanne DeNobrega, in reference to Turner’s physical abuse under her ex-husband, Ike Turner. Tributes paid by Sheroes were clearly unorthodox; each event was becoming a kind of on- and offline operating theatre for its respective legend. The Tina Turner event’s “DON’T EXPECT” hashtag was, of course, “#ike.” For Yoko Ono, the fifth Shero, it was “#14yearoldbeatlesfans,” a reference to the droves of adolescent Beatles fans who continue to vilify Ono as “witch” and “bitch” on sundry online message boards. On the Facebook event page for Ono, one person wrote, “sorry, I really can’t stand Yoko Ono,” to which McNamara responded, near-inscrutably, “the kitchen door is the new front door. why do you choose to enter nutopia?” (Ono, by the way, is the only shero McNamara has made contact with, via a back-and-forth Twitter Q & A.)

The Tina Turner Sheroes also introduced animated GIFs: looped bitmap images that have existed since the early days of the Internet and have been revived on social-media sites like Tumblr as memes. Toronto-based GIF-artist Lorna Mills joined a handful of other creators, including McNamara, who looped Turner’s quivering lips as the Acid Queen in Ken Russell’s Tommy, and these GIFs soon became a bridge for Sheroes, both glittering party projections and online teasers—and, then, cheeky commemorations. Mills and colleague Sally McKay were formative in encouraging McNamara to emphasize Sheroes’ fan-ishness in the context of online outsider art. Mills has come to curate Sheroes’ GIF component, and its roster of GIF artists is now international, discussing and debating each shero via Google+. Mills gives a new, wink-wink-nudge-nudge title to this coterie every month: for “The Global GIF Aristocracy (von Sacher-Masoch Line),” a reference to Faithfull’s relation on her mother’s side to Venus in Furs author and masochism namesake, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.

GIF by Grace McEvoy for Sheroes #6: Erykah Badu

In addition to GIFs, Sheroes’ online existence is predictably prolific, as illustrated by its frequently updated site, fuckyeahsheroes.tumblr.com, a mimicking of single-topic Tumblr fan sites with “fuckyeah” prefixes. All the performances at Sheroes are recorded and posted; photos abound. (In this manner, one doesn’t actually have to go to Sheroes to experience it.) A newer, entertaining feature of Sheroes has been its “Stan Residency Program,” for which a superfan works with Sheroes’ Facebook presence in the weeks leading up to the event, sharing tidbits and analyses around the woman-of-the-month.

But Sheroes’ IRL (in-real-life) existence, and indeed its classical affiliations, cannot be discounted. Álvaro Girón , who played with McNamara in the band T∆nG∆, should be credited with initiating the event: he was the one who invited McNamara to fill in for him at NACO that fateful July day, and is Sheroes’ on-and-off resident DJ. (Sheroes is most definitely pro-dancing.) Tony Halmos, a.k.a. Silk Degrees, not only introduces performers and karaoke-ers (Sheroes is most definitely pro-karaoke) but also designs the posters as well as trivia-filled trading cards for each shero, adding to the event shades of pre-internet fan culture. Halmos is also responsible for the coinage “League of Legendary Ladies,” which naturally recalls comics and their superheroes.

Sheroes at NACO

Sheroes’ pre-internet-isms go further. McNamara calls herself Sheroes’ “salonnière,” bringing to mind modernist figures like Gertrude Stein and Natalie Barney and the avant-garde movements they helped propagate. Sheroes’ latest project, Virtual Season , takes the concept full circle. An all-day, all-night outdoor and indoor extravaganza, co-presented by Whippersnapper Gallery, Virtual Season marks the end of Sheroes’ first run. Here, all of the Sheroes—Joni Mitchell, Chaka Khan, Tina Turner, Madonna, Yoko Ono, Erykah Badu, Etta James, Marianne Faithfull, Dolly Parton, Grace Jones, Dusty Springfield and Nina Simone—converge. The women are conjured by McNamara and various performers in a kind of séance of the dead and absent, recalling pagan and Christian festivals from Ancient Egypt and Greece to present-day Africa and Latin America. The worship is charged and cultish: snobbish, one might say. But it is also radically interpretive and fan-positive. Sheroes wants to liberate, and represents the liberation of, those who really get it.

Essay by David Balzer for the online publication Triangulation Blog - July 2012 
David Balzer is the author of the short-fiction collection Contrivances (Joyland/ECW Press). He has written about art and film for The Globe and Mail, The Believer, Modern Painters, PopMatters.com and others. He is currently working on a novel.