Art + Design, Culture

Taylor Mac and his "A 24-Decade History of Popular Music" Showed Me My Pussy This Summer

By Dana Shimkoski

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Taylor Mac doesn’t care that you paid your hard-inherited money to see him perform. He doesn’t care if you clap when it’s over. Hell, he doesn’t even care if you stay. Taylor Mac is the performance artist who showed me my pussy this summer and I can’t stop looking.

*Let’s take a political sidebar before we begin. As Taylor often says, “gender is like tax law.” With no explanation given or required for its constantly evolving existence we pay our taxes anyways. Taylor is a gender-queer performer who prefers the pronoun judy (always lowercase). From now on Taylor may be referred to as judy as grammatically necessary.

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Now that we are all being gender sensitive, I’d like to introduce you to one of Taylor’s most recent and crucial artistic endeavors. Over the past few years judy has been creating a piece of cabaret-style performance called A 24-Decade History of Popular Music that explores 24 decades of popular music in America. The decades are being performed in hour-long installations around the tri-state area to prepare Taylor (and America) for the 24-hour event to take place in early 2016  Last January judy premiered the 1900s – 1940s at New York Live Arts where judy described the piece as more than an exploration, but the repossession of queer-identity in American history (it also received a glowing two-part review in The New York Times).

This August I stumbled into an After Hour’s at the Speigletent in the Hudson Valley where Taylor premiered the 1990s. Taylor kicked off the show with judy’s trade-mark abrasive wit that keeps me coming back for more: “This is rehearsal. If you wanted to see a polished show you came to the wrong show.” Taylor then turned up the houselights and asked for all the lesbians in the audience to make themselves known. Turns out there aren’t many lesbians in the Husdon Valley, just “a lot of salt and one pepper corn,” as judy puts it. With an opening number performed by Taylor and the lesbian of the night, the audience was asked to readjust their expectations. We were not about to see a typical concert; in fact, it wasn’t even a performance. Taylor welcomed us to a radical fairy realness ritual for the radical lesbians of the 1990s. I held onto my panties, because they were about to get real wet.

Taylor set some ground rules for the ritual; “we’re not on Oprah,” judy reminded us. Rule number one: no clapping. Instead we hissed — “[it] brings the ambiguity into the room. Do they love it? Do they hate it?” Taylor looked out into the audience to see a slew of straight white men who clearly weren’t prepared for what their wives had accidentally dragged them to. “If you are not a radical lesbian you will not understand a single thing that is said tonight,” judy warned. Taylor then addressed the distressed antithetical-audience with understanding and mockery: “That doesn’t feel like a very universal show,” “I paid money for this I deserve something different.” Rule number two: everything is appropriate. Much of Taylor’s work is self-proclaimed “appropriation,” which is exactly what judy had us do next. Rule number three: find your pussy.

Through the music, Taylor asked a room full of strangers to consider the word pussy. A pussy is warm, moist, and homey. A pussy is empowered, honest, and strong. A pussy is emotional. Who wouldn’t want a pussy? Well it turns out that we all have one. In fact we have many pussies. “It is time to let the labia rip” Taylor exclaimed. Each song on judy’s 90-minute set list corresponded to the discovery of a new pussy. I was recruited to the dark side, or at least to the pussy-side. Taylor’s renditions of 1990s radical-lesbian classics, accompanied by judy’s uncensored anecdotes about sex, life, and the queer agenda, ranged from political and coarse to tender and accessible.

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The music showed me my brain-pussy with a clever reimagining of “Pussy Manifesto” by Bitch and Animal. Taylor shed light on my eye-pussy with judy’s many costume changes and eccentric performance aesthetic. I found out that I also have two arm-pussies through a series of dance moves Taylor forced his audience to participate in. Near the end of the set, Taylor took off judy’s flannel shirt to expose a pair of luscious artificial breasts and then judy’s LED-lit medusa-inspired wig to reveal a most important pussy — “that was your heart pussy.”

The 90-minute production only featured nine songs, leaving the piece with room to ebb and flow in between numbers. Judy asked the audience to be aware of time during the show, keeping us up to speed on what song was coming next and why: “our last two songs, the final song and then the encore.” Planning to go overtime and expecting to cross a few lines, Taylor actively challenged judy’s audience to rediscover and reevaluate what they think they already understand, telling us “you have to risk boring people and boring people.”

By the end of what seemed like an all night event, I felt a very different presence emanating through the room. I assumed that Taylor was joking when judy posed the idea that the performance would be a conversion ritual. Through an evening of forced dancing and hissing, we all crossed a line together. We joined Taylor in the redefining of a community in an era in which we will never understand, and then, with Taylor’s help, we appropriated it. Although judy’s work can appear on-the-nose or trite at face-value, anyone who has been fortunate enough to experience a piece of art so vulnerably curated and performed can’t help but notice the difference their presence has in time and space. As Taylor so humbly explains judy’s role as an artist, “I’m not a teacher, I’m just a reminder of the things we’ve forgotten, dismissed, or buried.” I’m not sure if I ever notice that my pussy had been misplaced, but I am forever thankful that I have found it.

SET LIST

Precious Things” by Tori Amos

“Pussy Manifesto” by Bitch and Animal!

I’m A Mother” by The Pretenders

Doll Parts” by Hole

Girl On A Road” by Ferron

One Beat” by Sleater-Kinney

Everything is Everything” by Lauryn Hill

Closer to Fine” by The Indigo Girls

People Have the Power” by Patti Smith

Dana Shimkoski is an experimental theater maker and visual artist. She has been kicked out of four Lady GaGa concerts. On a flight from JFK to O’Hare she was offered the position of “sixth girlfriend” to a Dominican drug lord, but opted to watch The Darjeeling Limited with him instead. She is currently accepting applications for someone to DJ her future children’s bar mitzvahs.