“My worst performance ever”, Natal Igor Dobkin © Ludger Storcks

The Choice to Fail

As the final installment of Natal Igor Dobkin’s workshop “My worst performance ever – A Queer Performance Workshop”, part of the Hibernation Party at Raumerweiterungshalle 5 – 6 October, four participants share their works.

Leave S-Bahn Ostkreuz, walk a little past the club, about_blank, take a sneaky turning on your right, and you will meet the unexpected entrance of Raumerweiterungshalle (R.E.H.). The clubhouse of the non-profit association Selbstuniversität e.V. is a space-extension-container that supports “non-commercial projects and events with a queer-feminist focus” and is run on a model “built on solidarity and trust.” I walk through the door into their “Hibernation party” (the venue gets cold in the winter, so they close) and meet Natal Igor Dobkin by the fireplace outside. Dobkin has offered four sessions of “My worst performance ever – A Queer Performance Workshop” at R.E.H. throughout September. Tonight some of the participants will share their performances.

As we sit down to talk, Dobkin first mentions how he is generally opposed to his events being written about, and how it is self-contradictory that he has agreed to my writing about tonight. Perceiving this as a great start, I ask what the reason behind his resistance is. “Because it is opposite to my spontaneous nature and the mindset against providing something,” he answers. The workshop seems to be an exact reflection of this stance. He emphasises that what we will witness tonight is a fifth session of the workshop, instead of a final product. Dobkin compares the workshop to “making an amazing dish out of leftovers in your fridge.” He explains further that he wants the participants to use what they have in the workshop in an experimental spirit to create a special moment. “We don’t need amazing costumes. We don’t need to apply for grants and have lots of money. The works don’t have to be important. We just try things out from our true interest and curiosity. We try our best, without worrying about the outcome, without worrying if this is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art. It’s about the moment, which is opposed to the rehearsed and built piece. This is in a way more risky. This is DIY, queer, political, and radical.”

Around this moment, one of the workshop participants approaches Dobkin to talk through the revised version of their performance. During this consultation, I reflect on how Dobkin said he prefers to be in a communal space, rather than in a “fancy venue.” Sitting here by the fireplace with diverse people dressed as they please, I feel the warmth of the community. The quote ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’ floats through my mind. It is what Jeanette Winterson’s mother said to her when she came out to her. The space here and the community gathering in it tonight seem to be the manifestation of choosing to be happy — here, now, as we are — which I consider to be power.

When we are alone again, Dobkin explains further about his workshop. The core idea lies on rebelling against the capitalistic structures we are taught. “These structures are about how we can be the best, or the most creative. So it’s all connected to the queer theory of failure,” he says. The workshop considers how one can do boring and awkward things and still make them interesting and creative enough to provoke change. In other words, it is about doing one’s personal best, not society’s best. This, in turn, leads us to think about the definition of value. I contemplate: If we choose to be happy, are we not normal? Is being normal valuable? Are we happy when we choose not to bend ourselves to normality, even if that means that we are less ‘valuable’ to society? Are we failing when we are not normal?

When I ask more about the queer failure, Dobkin references to Jack Halberstam, a thinker of queer and trans existence. Dobkin shares Halberstam’s view on considering failing as a radical exercise for ourselves as queer people living in a heteronormative society. As a rebellion against this society, Dobkin opens a platform where we act against the norm. “Just saying: ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna fail performing.’ For example, like, I’m going to make the worst performance. Every other thing that people tell me that is not good on stage, I’m going to do it,” he says. The interest is in seeing what happens if the rules are broken. 

At around eleven p.m., we step into the container where the party is pumping. Through the dancing people, a small, black, rectangular ‘stage’ is carried in and set down in front of the DJ booth. “Shall we tell the people outside that we’re starting?” asks Dobkin. When the space is quite full, the “fifth session of the workshop” begins. Dobkin introduces the four performers of the night: Asha hardcore santimelntal, Gold Dust (Tatiana/Theo Ilichenko), Monsterilla, and Dobkin himself. He contextualises the viewing by saying “We are sharing personal stuff and experience, so please respect the whole space for that.”

The first performance is a spoken word piece titled “To Jest Mój Dom” — This is My Home in Polish. Accompanied by projections of photos, Asha hardcore santimelntal speaks in grooves and rhythms about her childhood. She talks about the intense feelings of exclusion brought about by her “different” physical appearance. She shares a story about a storeowner, who repeatedly asked her, “Where are you from?” She answered, “What do you mean where I am from? This is my home!” One day the storeowner locked her in the shop and threatened her to make her tell him where she was actually from, since the owner knew she was an illegal immigrant.

The second performance by Gold Dust (Tatiana/Theo Ilichenko) broke my heart. It starts with them lying on the floor, dressed in a long, red, silk dress and covered with voluptuous fabric. They wear a black hat and their face is hidden by a blue net, wrapped and tied around their head. They begin with the words:“This striptease is dedicated to CH, who passed away. And to all the other queer ones, who struggle to survive and continue to shine.” The piece progresses with melancholic narration about CH’s struggles living as a queer person alongside a slow striptease. At one moment, they stand up and the blue veil around their face unravels into a long drape that has countless photos attached all over it. In witnessing such a personal, raw and poignant moment, the space is filled with a tangible air of solemn sadness, empathy, and solidarity.

Just as the third performance begins, an endearingly DIY accident occurs: a power outage. Everything is drowned in sudden blackness. A moment of confusion, people shouting out, asking if light is needed for the show. The audience take their phones and shine lights at the stage area. Soon enough, the power comes back on and we see Monsterilla standing with her back to us, behind a length of red see-through fabric hung from the ceiling. A narrative in a language I couldn’t understand plays and Monsterilla breathes heavily and intensely into the microphone.

The last performance is sweetly ‘controversial’. Dobkin declares, “I’m about to do something that is controversial in the queer community. I have a problem with astrology. Do you know why?” Someone shouts, “Because it’s heteronormative!” After a short conversation about astrology sometimes being a “nice excuse” for discrimination, Dobkin proposes a “rebellion moment.” He suggests we all find someone with a sign that we supposedly don’t get along with and have a slow-dance with each other. However, “because this is a queer party,” Dobkin says, we will be non-normative. Meaning, we can have two, three people, or even solo slow-dancing (“If you don’t like your own sign, dance with yourself”). There is also a corner for people to gather if they do not like this proposal at all and will not take part. Since I know nothing about astrology, I ask around and find out that somehow Capricorn may be bad for me. I end up dancing with a gentle stranger to “Careless Whisper.” It is a blessed moment, in an embrace with my Capricorn, slowly rotating as one, seeing the room joyfully engaged in various versions of slow dances. Here we are. A community of people resisting with warmth and style, supporting each other in choosing to live the way we live. Hot night, here we come.