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Community Action Center on the Road

Thanks to Nicole Caruth for the invitation to contribute to Art21. As she mentioned, I will be posting from my travels to Beirut, Tel Aviv, and Ramallah. But I thought I would start off with a post about travel in the United States and a homegrown form of art and activism.

Last month, A.K. Burns and A.L. Steiner took their 69-minute socio-sexual video Community Action Center (CAC) on the road, starting in San Francisco and ending in New York. In between, they screened their piece in cities such as Tucson, Albuquerque, Tulsa, New Orleans, Louisville, and Pittsburgh. They hit three cities in Texas, where I caught their screening in Dallas’s Central Trak.

A.K. Burns + A.L. Steiner. “Community Action Center,” 2010. Photo: A.K. Burns + A.L. Steiner.

Their video acts like a feedback loop between art and pornography. It opens up new possibilities from the typical ways in which representations of sexuality have existed in straight and gay smutt as well as the usual fare of the culture industry. CAC playfully interrogates the politics of sex and gendered bodies. It has a strong feminist-queer ethos and includes scenes that include watermelon feeding frenzies, masturbation in the hollows of a cornfield with a dark crystal, a long braid of pubic hair, and a witch with a broomstick that subverts the familiar trope of the pizza boy with a surprise hidden in his box.

In their introduction to the screening, Burns and Steiner spoke about the viewing restrictions they had placed on CAC up until this tour. They insisted that it could only be watched by groups of three or more and by setting up these audiences around the country they were furthering their intention to use the film to create communities both on and off screen.

A.K. Burns + A.L. Steiner. “Community Action Center,” 2010. Photo: A.K. Burns + A.L. Steiner.

CAC is filled with hat tips and nods to previous incarnations of sexually loaded queer art films. One scene recreates a shot from a film by Fred Halsted and another includes a voiceover of a Jack Smith text read by Justin Bond. It also invokes the utopianism of the back to the land movement without any single-minded definition of spatial liberation.

A.K. Burns + A.L. Steiner. “Community Action Center,” 2010. Photo: A.K. Burns + A..L. Steiner.

The film is beautifully shot with chiaroscuro lighting and sun-dappled skin. There is one scene in which feathers are sewn onto someone’s bottom. Kneeling on a chair next to a large window, a tied up figure in repose somehow resembles the transcendental charm of a milk maiden in a Vermeer painting. The soundtrack is equally magnificent, with music by Chicks on Speed, MEN, Light Asylum, and others.

A.K. Burns + A.L. Steiner. “Community Action Center,” 2010. Photo: A.K. Burns + A..L. Steiner.

While there are many interior qualities to CAC, the performative gesture of taking this work on the road to communities across the country became a socially engaged artwork in itself. It treated the film as a resource to open up discourse in US regional communities that might not have regular opportunities to explore the complex nuances of its sexual politics. While the project itself was originally about creating a document of a community where collaboration included an intersubjective penetration of art and life, the tour opened up its members to participate in a much wider and inclusive community—one that could both be imagined and lived.

Noah Simblist is Blogger-in-Residence through July 30, 2013.

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