The Queer, Resistant, Historical Bodies of Taylor Mac’s A 24 Decade History of Popular Music: A Curated Conversation

We are so excited to have our “curated conversation” accepted into the 2017 ASTR conference. In the conversation, "The Queer, Resistant, Historical Bodies of Taylor Mac’s A 24 Decade History of Popular Music: A Curated Conversation," we will focus on the extraordinary performing and spectating bodies of Taylor Mac’s A 24 Decade History of Popular Music, a series of three-decade-long segments highlighting what Mac defines as “popular” music, culminating in an intensive 24-hour performance of all 24 decades. The curated panel will take the form of a discussion amongst people who attended these events and will be curated around a series of questions, for example: about how history functions in this work to queer contemporary time, about performance’s connection between bodies and historical truths, and about Mac and his company’s bodies pushing to extraordinary limits.

Mac’s work, developed over the past five years, could hardly have predicted its culmination in the political climate being called “post-fact.” His positioning of history and what is “popular,” through queer, resistant, and outlying bodies critiques misogynistic, homophobic, singular, and whitewashed notions of nation-building. Mac relies on multiple voices and bodies to tell these stories, including a full band, a group of “minions” making up a queer chorus for the work, musical director Matt Ray, and costume designer Machine Dazzle, who collaborated to create the outrageous object-based costumes for each decade that were then collected in an installation in the lobby (creating a historic and auratic set of objects without bodies to reflect each decade).

Rather than individual papers, we propose a “curated conversation” around Taylor Mac’s A 24 Decade History of Popular Music as a discussion amongst people who attended these events representing a multi-vocality that captures the spirit of Mac’s work. The roundtable attempts to be inclusive of multiple voices rather than structured around a more traditional panel of three or four participants to better represent the plurality of voices Mac facilitated through this work. It seems necessary and appropriate to respond to the anti-authoritarian spirit and impulse of the piece itself, so we hope ASTR will consider this unusual format for this session.

We intend to curate the panel around a series of questions to unpack how history functions in this work to queer contemporary time. In the work, Mac draws upon songs from decades beginning in 1776 to queer history—finding the “popular” in, for example, songs written by gay men in the 80s, or radical lesbians in the 90s, or turning to literature in the 1846-1856 segment to stage a “love affair” battle between Steven Foster and Walt Whitman, or proposing a version of The Mikado on Mars and in Blacklight in the 1866-1896 segment to remind us of its racial appropriation. Mac’s work is a potent reminder that, of course, history has racial, queer, transgender, and gendered trajectories that too often get written out of “popular” histories. In the current political climate Mac’s work embraces much that is being dismantled by the current administration and reminds us of the many bodies at risk in the changes to come. While not the “extraordinary bodies” of Rosemary Garland Thompson’s foundational work on disability, Mac’s work (which could be critiqued as not being as attentive to questions of ability at it might be) does relate to and complement Thompson’s idea that the extraordinary body of disability “confounds any notion of a generalizable, stable physical subject” (24).

  • The curated conversation addresses ideas and questions such as:
  • How to “queer” the machine of time/history?
  • What significance song has as a strategy of resistance?
  • How Mac’s costumes refigure historical relationships between bodies and objects on stage. How objects/costumes take on auratic qualities in their nostalgic presence.
  • What is the role of the audience/onlooker?
  • How can examples such as Mac’s “Mars-kado,” a rewriting of The Mikado, represent a challenge to received notions of theatre history?
  • How bodies are pushed to extraordinary limits, or not, through the 24-hour duration of the performance.
  • What bodies are included/excluded in this process?
  • In the “post-fact” era, what does the performance reveal about the connection of bodies to historical truths?

We have also requested technology that will allow us to include three interludes of recordings—audio and video, as well as images—from the performance so we can illustrate the themes of the work and the work itself.