A drag act has someone in genderbending attire, a long white dress, white face makeup, and a pencil moustache, performatively refusing to perform, and instead sitting reading Slavoj Žižek’s 2010 book Living in the End Times. This book, I know from my naïve Žižek fan-girling phase, is structured around the five stages of grief. That fits into a broader set of acts which themselves strike me as being all about grief, as well as exhaustion, anxiety, nostalgia, loss, wistfulness and the false promises of neoliberal capitalism.
I’m at the Vagina Museum in Bethnal Green, quite a distance from my London residence, a bit cold from my journey and the hard, warehouse-style floor. I am watching a trans and queer art collective named Double Okay. The room is dark, the stage occasionally lit in saturated blues and reds. The audience is primarily young women. It is a kind of mixed-media theatre. As I wrote for a general promo on behalf of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, their work that evening comprises videos and performances drawing on the queer traditions of drag and cabaret.
What I see features drag and cabaret in terrific abundance, a lot of whimsical, creative pageantry and sexual innuendo, all aimed at reclaiming queer joy. But those are the more expected and even the more tame aspects of the performances. Deeper than the queer joy, than the gags and puns and frivolity, is a sincerely felt and even enraged pain; especially, at least I felt, a specifically trans pain, expressed by trans people.
This particular act, the resigned, angry refusal to engage, is the second most powerful part of the night; the first most powerful is an impressionistic video essay, a kind of scrappy collage of sound and news clips showcasing recent anti-trans bigotry backdropped by a group burning hateful anti-trans literature (the type you can now find in any ‘respectable’ bookshop), a jumble of prejudice and bile that is in contrast to the wry humour of most of their other works.
The pure video pieces feel steeped in something I have never thought of as a cohesive aesthetic until this night. It is all very much of the late 90s and early 00s internet short movie subcultures, a neurodivergent sphere of mostly-cartoons released as Flash videos on websites like Newgrounds. (Indeed, overwhelmingly just Newgrounds.) Plus, the formative years of YouTube, before vlogging (video blogging) became somewhat professionalised. I think especially of the DIY animations with surreal, disjointed narrative arcs often culminating in deliberate anticlimaxes.
Tonally, the Flash pieces were always experimental, non sequitur, and often invited obscure, even occult, interpretation and reinterpretation by niche fandoms. The subject matter could be completely banal (Badger Badger Badger), disturbing (Salad Fingers) or outright offensive. Double Okay’s video work speaks in this broad filmic language, itself echoing the likes of Luis Buñuel et al. Some pieces feel like they could have been torn from that exact body of work, directly from the heady, wild years of Web 1.0.
The emotional register of these Flash animations was the same as what I now watch unfold on this queer stage in the mid-2020s: the same grief, the same exhaustion, the same anxiety, nostalgia, loss, wistfulness and – again – the continuity of that false promise of neoliberal capitalism, so garishly false, only maybe now less funny, more desperately tragic, some two decades on and still without a clear historical exit.
Placed in this queer context, re-experiencing such an aesthetic is apt. I’m now far enough along in my 30s, and as someone who was very online in that virtual yesteryear, who is autistic, who is now self-consciously trans, this feels like my language, too. It is an odd coming together of past and present. I do not know how much Double Okay intended what their work elicits in me, but what they elicit is stronger than I expected, and that is what you want from art: a provocation and a feeling of disparate elements joining up.
I have not encountered a significant number of aesthetic creations that capture how I experience being trans in our listless present. Early on in my transition, reading Jonathan Littell’s The Fata Morgana Books had me meet a story of precarious trans euphoria set against apocalyptic and grim conditions, which was eerily resonant, especially from the pen of a cis man. I adored the entirety of the gender-switching magical realist novel Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor, with its unashamed queerness, fairy tale trappings and distaste for the gender binary.
But too much queer literature today does not connect; it feels as if it is written for high school kids in the US fantasising about sweet if appropriately pedestrian, adolescent flings. It is YA for young gays coping with homophobic bullying and yearning for acceptance. Likewise, too many queer performances I attend lack a register that is sufficiently contemporary, and relevant, but harks to pasts I never myself experienced. These are not criticisms of anyone’s work, so much as a recognition that a lot of that simply does not look towards the specific ambivalences that I wish to explore.
Double Okay at the Vagina Museum speaks to me, a nearly middle age late-transitioning nonbinary femme with a strange humour, overshadowed by an acute sense that our historical juncture is contending with profound despair. The distinctly 2020s depressive brand of 30s queer marxists. That’s quite a specific demographic, but judging from the audience’s reactions, the enthusiasm and applause, it also speaks to many 20-something queer women.
Their work is not always a comfortable experience, but nothing that can communicate this moment in time (especially from a queer perspective) can be comfortable. It is true, which is better than comfortable. If some aspect of this might speak to you, then I recommend you search out and attend whatever Double Okay does next. Hopefully, they will surprise you too.
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