Review: Dion Kaganon Fiona Kelly McGregor

Ephemeral Social Scene

We dance in defiance of laws against dancing. With resource, wit and imagination

[…] We come to flirt, gossip, laugh and hug. We come to kiss and fuck, to dress up and strut. Cos babe, you look so

Hot my eyes are on fire.

—Fiona Kelly McGregor, ‘Dance Party Manifesto’, 2020

Buried Not Dead is a collection of essays from across the career of the brilliant Sydney writer and performance artist Fiona Kelly McGregor. I first read it in 2021 (I think), though recalled that I’d read some of the essays before when they first appeared in places like Overland or the (now defunct) performing arts magazine RealTime.

For example, I’d read the ‘The Experience Machine’, McGregor’s excoriating take-down of performance art ‘juggernaut’ Marina Abramović, when it first appeared in The Monthly in 2015 (it was also included in 2016’s Best Australian Essays anthology – also now defunct). In this essay, McGregor goes deep into a reckoning with her Abramović ambivalence – and, as an artist also ‘exploring stillness and duress’ in her own practice, her feelings about Abramović are complex. In my mind, it remains the best piece of long-form Australian performing arts criticism I’ve ever read. Not a wildly popular genre, mind you. ‘Performance art is almost never written about beyond specialist media’, McGregor reflects in the essay. It’s also a genre that’s very difficult to do well. Like writing whose subject is music or visual art, it requires that highwire act of translating corporeal or durational experience into mere words. McGregor’s approach is to tell the story of art experienced as practitioner, audience member and critic, which makes for critical writing that is intimate and embodied, albeit still pressed skilfully through a professional’s understanding of art-making practice, construction, history, context, genre and form. ‘The Experience Machine’ is also a masterclass in irresolution, progressing through a critical strategy that Brooke Boland has elegantly called ‘disarming authority’. The self-conscious critical voice infused with memoir is McGregor’s ‘distinctive form of critical inquiry’, Boland writes, through which she may ‘show herself as a participant within these cultural dynamics.’

I’d also previously read ‘Surro’ (2017), here in the Sydney Review of Books, which is one of those sumptuous lyric adventures through the history, memory, fiction and rumour that adheres to a part of the city. In this fine instantiation of the type, McGregor takes you on a beautifully lurid, palimpsestuous tour of the Surry Hills area. She points out sly groggeries, queer sharehouses, lavish Bourke Street terraces, back-lane workers’ cottages, intergenerationally tended community gardens, Moreton Bay figs and callistemon; Lick Jimmy’s Chinese grocery from the Ruth Park novels, the Avenue Club run by Roy Sayles (drag name ‘Black Ada’) where men were allowed to dance together before the war, the 1930s home of ‘sexual deviasionist’ Iris Webber; the Carrington, the Trade Union where McGregor played alto sax in a weird psychedelic funk post-punk band, the best heroin in the world, her bedsit on the edge of Paddington (‘$33 per week’). It’s a melting pot of pleasure, violence, vice and squalor – as dreamy as any literary paean to the ‘grubby, chaotic and sedimented’ inner-city neighbourhood, as if I needed more fuel for my romantic infatuation with Sydney. But McGregor doesn’t peddle urban fairy tales: ‘Surry Hills has always been subject to the vagaries of the real estate market’, she writes, and of course all of it is stolen Gadigal land, ‘a story of rapacious, illegitimate development’, and in the 1950s the state government built Australia’s biggest police station on top of it. Our national passion for policing is a recuring theme in Buried Not Dead, its author acutely alert to the especially deadly effect it has on the culture of queers, First Nations people, women, artists, people who use drugs and other minorities. ‘[T]he policing of pleasure becomes the policing of sexuality and culture’, she writes in another essay. ‘And the policing of anything always always affects marginalised communities more’.

And never in my life will I forget McGregor’s ‘Dear Malcolm’ (Overland, 2017), in which she channels the collective grief and rage at that particular ‘morally putrid’ chapter of Australian political shame, the 2017 Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey and the de-funding of the Safe Schools program, lest we forget. The piece is one of two entries in a section of Buried Not Dead titled ‘Incantations’, signalling the magic performative power of words to bring things into being. And it is more like a performance piece or a spell than a conventional essay, McGregor a witch summoning the fury of a million troubled queers. Through repetition and a movement outward from ‘I’ to ‘you’, the reader is incited to recall (and to never forget) the insults and injuries of the ‘petty protracted opinion poll’ and beyond: every queer taunt and homophobic tirade, every spineless racial scapegoating, every un-investigated queer bashing and death, every AIDS corpse, every queer suicide. ‘Dear Malcolm’ is an absolute disembowelling of the politics of the plebiscite and the disgraceful institutionalised queerphobia it showcased, an eviscerating piece of writing, frightening in its power – ‘scarifying’, as Declan Fry put it.

McGregor is less terrifying in real life than you might imagine. The couple of times I’ve met her in person, she has been generous and good humoured. Still, it soothed me somewhat to read, in her excellent essay ‘Acts of Avoidance’, on writing during Covid-19 lockdowns (not included in the collection), that she too is sometimes tortured by feelings of Imposter Syndrome. Even she can ‘lie awake worrying about reviews that take days to write and pay $120!’ Fiona Kelly McGregor is human after all. But don’t be too comforted, for as that essay (a must-read for any artist still recovering from lockdown-induced paralysis) also reveals, McGregor will almost certainly beat you in an online game of Words with Friends, ‘with cool precision’ and her ‘extravagant vocabulary’. Then she will beat you again, then block you. Don’t take it personally. ‘It isn’t spite, it’s only to reduce my addiction, like deleting the dealer’s number.’

Fiona Kelly McGregor is a performance artist, critic, activist, essayist and novelist. You could re-arrange the order of those things to place ‘novelist’ first, as she is perhaps best known for her celebrated and award-winning novel Indelible Ink (2010), a domestic saga set in the twilight days of the high Howard era in Sydney. But I think first of her work as a performance artist, memoirist and critic (the latter two categories are inseparable), as that was how I first discovered her.

Actually, one of the first times I encountered McGregor was in Newcastle when she apeared as a panellist at the National Young Writers’ Festival. It was 2008 (I think), and the panel’s subject was ‘Mining the Personal’, about writing that draws from intimate experience. One of the other panellists was Benjamin Law, who at that time was writing memoir-essays that would eventually become The Family Law. As he quietly explained to me after the session, McGregor’s solo performance work You Have the Body had debuted at that years’ This Is Not Art festival (of which the writers’ festival was an offshoot). In You Have the Body, each audience member has a one-on-one encounter with McGregor. On arrival, you are hooded and have your hands tied before being led by an attendant to a chair where you are unbound and told you can remove the hood. You see that you are now alone with McGregor, who sits before you in her underwear, legs bound to a chair, her hands free and her lips sewn shut. You Have the Body was a meditation on the unlawful detention of refugees and asylum seekers.

McGregor had also just published (I think) her ‘street-level travelogue’ Strange Museums: A Journey Through Poland (UWAP, 2008), which recounts her tour with artistic collaborator and former lover AñA Wojak, with whom she presented performance art work under the name senVoodoo from 1999 until 2008. Arterial, the performance they presented during the Poland tour, involved Fiona and AñA, shrouded in white, walking towards one another along a white scroll of photographic paper. Both have cannulas in the veins of their wrists and their blood splashes onto the photographic emulsion where it mixes together and congeals, creating a blood work on the scroll that can be exhibited as a residue of the public bleeding ritual. SenVoodoo never performed Arterial in Australia because they weren’t allowed to, and this is one of the reasons they toured it to Poland.

I never saw Arterial, but memories of it are indelibly inked in my brain. Probably I’ve seen photos of it on the internet and reading about the tour in Strange Museums (which, as RealTime editor Keith Gallasch writes, is ‘no mere travel book’) rooted the work in my memory. More recently, I read somewhere that Arterial was a pact between women who were once lovers, and a work about loss, mourning, contaminated blood, shame, abjection, intimacy and forbidden intimacy. I realised that these were the same set of fascinations at the core of my own writing and research on HIV/AIDS and homophobia. For McGregor, turning the contaminated into something beautiful has been central to her performance practice. ‘Every performance of mine involving the breach of skin’, she explains in Strange Museums, ‘has referred to this desire – no matter how indirectly – of breaking out of quarantine, conquering my fear and shame, and making something beautiful from the noxious.’

I would venture that this desire also informs her writing on art, queer performance and the music and party scenes of the 1990s and beyond. ‘Where Your Cabaret Comes From’, the first essay in Buried Not Dead, is an homage to the dirty live queer performance art parties and club nights of Sydney during that decade: Kooky at Club 77 in 1996, Black Vine III in 1997, ‘that grim year’ when John Howard’s ‘mission was well underway’. Alongside ‘Dear Malcolm’, ‘ Your Cabaret’ is the other one of McGregor’s two magical ‘Incantations’ – a conjuring of shared pleasures, aesthetics and political energies through the testimonial work of recollecting and archiving. For artists and queers, a summoning of community through memory. Fiona looks back at it fondly, like Christopher Isherwood in Goodbye to Berlin: the unforgettable drag, comedy, burlesque, cabaret and contemporary dance performances of that moment; ‘political, cheeky, humorous, defiant’. I love the interpolative your’ in the essay’s title, a little prompt to remember your history.

‘Your Cabaret’ is about the queer arts underground in Sydney, although McGregor is ‘not entirely persuaded by the word “underground”’, as she mentioned in an interview about the collection. ‘I think I’m using it as a sort of approximation’, she says. ‘It’s like an alternative queer culture that doesn’t get programmed very often in mainstream events.’ On her account, it was electrifying: intergenerational, boundary-pushing, multicultural; not gender segregated like some other queer scenes in parts of Europe and North America at the time; inclusive of straight people in the community, including artists and performers who forged their careers in those spaces but didn’t necessarily identify as queer. But of course there is a ‘much higher ratio of queers in cabaret, and sex work, than in other sectors’, she writes. ‘Those are our traditional twilit, body-based, transgressive worlds.’

One reason the scene was so thrilling – and at least two of the essays in Buried Not Dead chart this – is because it elevated the contributions of queer women. ‘Your Cabaret’ charts the rise of Gurlesque, which started in 2001 as a club night based on the ethos that women could strip in a safe space in which they felt celebrated rather than objectified. McGregor acknowledges her initial resistance to the exclusions this implied, but came to appreciate its impact – a crowd that was ‘unanimously supportive, convivial and at ease with female bodies and sexuality’ – as ‘nothing less than revolutionary’. Another kind of gender revolution was unfolding during this period, and her account of Gurlesque is of a space that genuinely welcomed and celebrated trans and non-binary bodies and that, by its end, was centring them in its program.

And it was not only the surge of feminist and queer women and artists at Gurlesque and across the Sydney scene, but other kinds of diversity that made it brilliant. McGregor recounts Indigenous artists and influences (‘Five-star deadly black cabaret’), Cook Island elements, the influence of BDSM culture, burlesque, circus and other practices. ‘We’d come of age in a coalitionist culture – what you’d call intersectional now – and we fervently believed inclusivity was the only way.’

The 90s in Sydney were a special period for this queer arts avant-garde, its ‘Weimar’ moment, before the ‘war on terror, the war on drugs, the war of church and state on freedom and pleasure’. For those that attended, the parties and events were more than places for entertainment and revelry; they were meeting spaces, safe spaces, therapeutic spaces, sex and dating sites, foster families. Community members developed and modelled a politics of care, including harm-reduction strategies for drug use and collective monitoring of harassment on the dance floor. To read McGregor’s account is to experience a small trace of the joys, pains, longings, arousals, intimacies and communal connections experienced in those spaces. The essay is a kind of genealogical and affective exercise in chronicling the scene at its ecstatic peak.

Which isn’t to say that this scene is entirely dead, but I know it’s not what it once was. Many of these spaces and performances were swiftly gentrified and repackaged. McGregor describes ‘that bath guy in an early version of La Clique’. I remember him too. Who could forget him? ‘He was a superb acrobat with a chiselled body and short dark hair […] He lowered himself in and out of the water with increasing fervour, splashing the front rows. They were agog’. By the early 2000s, when I saw bath guy splashing Melburnians in the front row of the Speigeltent, ticket prices had ballooned and audience demographics had noticeably shifted. At various points, there has been a mainstreaming of alternative queer, ‘underground’ art forms – at Mardi Gras, for example – although now, as Fiona said recently, ‘the mainstream events and venues themselves are barely there’.

In Sydney, other now-well-documented forces swirled in on these scenes, including the state’s notoriously punitive zoning and licencing laws, ever stricter policing of drugs, and the seeming boundlessness of inner-urban gentrification. There have been big changes to Sydney’s ‘night-time economy’ over the last twenty years, as you may have heard. Among these changes are the ‘cycle[s] of puritanism, proscription and punishment’, chronicled across McGregor’s essays, particularly in a profile of the (retired) DJ Lanny K that is also an insightful history of Australia’s evolving DJ scene in the 1990s when ‘every boffin and his dog began to DJ’, including an excavation of some of its less-known queer lineages. McGregor lists NSW Police crackdowns, Bob Carr’s sniffer dogs, venues vulnerable to Law and Order political campaigns at election time, raids conducted with floodlights and TV cameras, people arrested with half a gram of speed, one joint. Among the effects of all of this is an attenuation of cultural and embodied expression.

A recurring theme throughout McGregor’s career is the small, specific piece of regulation that, while it may appear trivial, extends the hygiene and surveillance powers of the state in ways that literally foreclose artistic possibilities. For example, venue regulations that encroached on what is allowable in stripping performance meant that, in the case of Gurlesque, what began as a wildly permissible program – celebrating polymorphous desires and diverse bodies, including ‘pulling things out of your holes’ – ended with venues cracking down on what was allowed (‘G-strings only’) for fear of being fined. Buried Not Dead includes other profile essays that highlight legislative restrictions to performance practice, including entries on contemporary dancer, director and curator Jiva Parthipan, performance artist Latai Taumoepeau, and celebrated performance artist and printmaker Mike Parr. In the Parr essay, McGregor identifies a distinctively Australian type of policing:

Our Occupational Health and Safety regulations are so prohibitive that Sydney is deplored by curators and producers worldwide for its restrictions on public art; in galleries, the mere lighting of a candle is forbidden.

And of course, the economics of art are brutal and have been particularly unfavourable to small arts and community venues and ventures, and nights propped up by community. Materially speaking, it’s near impossible to eke out an existence as a working artist in Australia now, and the Lanny K profile is a case in point. McGregor offers a neat summary of his reasons for moving on:

What Lanny didn’t want was low pay, inadequate recognition, lonely working conditions, tedious public relations and the risk of failure. In short, the daily reality of every artist’s life. Never mind those moments of rare euphoria that rival your greatest love affair. Never mind the skin-creeping thrill of watching your artwork rise through the mist, of seeing your life blood flow through an audience.

‘Things fall apart as soon as they form’, McGregor writes in that essay, and with the benefit of hindsight, anyone contemplating the arc of a former relationship or community can detect the germs of dissolution buried early in its formation: crews disbanding, communities scattering. And there are other reasons apart from outside forces: friendships loosen, lovers uncouple, people move, or they die from AIDS or hepatitis C-related liver cancer. But that doesn’t make any of it less shocking when a community of artists are leaving the city in droves ‘due to the noxious combination of police harassment and rising rents’ while very few people outside of those communities seem to notice or care: ‘Anybody outside the queer scene that I spoke to about this looked at me nonplussed, sometimes even in embarrassment, probably because of the words sex and drugs.’

Buried Not Dead is a collection of essays written over a long period of time, and I don’t want to create the impression that it’s a monolithic ‘demise of’ work, though I confess that to some extent I’ve come to think of it in that way. The lethal disdain for the arts in successive Australian conservative government policy is another well-documented force that derailed these scenes, and during the Covid era circumstances have only become more grim. We’ve seen it in direct ways, like systematic reductions to arts funding, and less directly via the erosion of support for arts-adjacent institutions that employ, educate or otherwise sustain artists and their communities, like university humanities departments and fine arts programs. It all seems a bit systematic and politically motivated when you think about it, as various chroniclers – like Anna Goldsworthy and Judith Brett, for example – recently have, offering requiems for Australian music culture (‘impoverished’) and humanities education (‘bin fire’), respectively.

And then, when such passings and impoverishments become conspicuous, those who forged or partook of those swelling, sensuous scenes take on the obligation of narrating their demise, chronicling ‘Your Cabaret’ for the purposes of memory and nostalgia. Since Buried Not Dead was published, we’ve seen the effects of the pandemic on arts and culture. The long list of symptoms includes cancellations, diminished opportunities, output palsy, heavily reduced bandwidth, evaporating audiences, plummeting motivation, artists abandoning their practice. The elapsed time since McGregor’s collection was published in early 2021 has had the effect of making many of the artistic and night-time scenes the collection describes feel fully archival, trace descriptions of a once-thronging social and artistic world that seems nearly unimaginable now, despite the fact that so many who participated in these scenes are just now hitting their forties or fifties.

Not that we should necessarily seek to maintain the shape of things exactly as they once were, and not that there aren’t new (and old), thriving and promising queer and performing arts practices and scenes in the post-pandemic world. And not that we should be entirely sentimental about scenes that were imperfect in their own ways. The Sydney scene, as chronicled in Buried Not Dead, created opportunities for art, sex, music, dancing, drug-taking, flirting, fashion, identity curation, rebellion, performance, coming-of-age, and an intermingling of diverse people from around Sydney and New South Wales and much farther afield. And we should note – and mourn, if we please – the passing of community and cultural spaces like that, for with them pass entire possibilities and lifeworlds. But they were surely vexing, exclusionary spaces for many of their participants and punters.

Reading as I have been lately, it seems to me that queer non-fiction has a privileged relationship with the ephemeral social scene. Another recent example is Jeremy Atherton Lin’s Gay Bar: Why We Went Out, one of several transatlantic cultural histories of (the demise of) queer nightlife. Lin quotes the critic Ben Walters, who says that queer history is ‘fragile from fear and forgetting, too often written in whispers and saved in scraps.’ If there’s a current among queer essayists documenting decline, transient experiences and short-lived scenes this is because, materially speaking, these spaces are indeed often vulnerable and ephemeral. Urban queer communities have frequently nested in the commercial, artistic and entertainment zones of the every-changing inner city, operating at the threshold of what’s legal and permissible, trading in the illicit and taboo, and therefore more vulnerable to the fortunes of local and state government zoning and licencing, to the whims of the night-time economy, capricious urban taste cultures, raids, shutdowns, moralising and wowserism, NIMBYism and gentrification, pandemics, and the list goes on. The title of another recent release from Giramondo, No Document, Anwen Crawford’s shattering work of remembrance that elegises not only an artistic partnership but the political and aesthetic energies in which it developed, could be an alternative title for Buried Not Dead, concerned as both books are with archiving the ephemeral.

Buried Not Dead is a study in the forces that can both create the conditions for art and cultural flourishing, as well as the conditions for its inhibition and decline. As these scenes break and atrophy in Australia, will we at least be able to remember them? (Re)reading McGregor’s collection stirred up something in me akin to what Anna Goldsworthy, in ‘The slow fade of music education’, describes as ‘a type of FOMO for a previous life, which I suppose is one definition of nostalgia.’ ‘But’, Goldworthy writes in the very next sentence – refusing to entirely let go of that ‘previous life’ – ‘you can also weep from relief’: ‘That someone could take a stand for culture. That someone could invoke such unfashionable ideas as beauty and harmony. How have we allowed ourselves to forget?’