By almost any measure, the Darlings were one of the first local arts groups to fully realize the potential of virtual performance during COVID-19 lockdown. But in the process, they say they’ve come up against a wall of discrimination and censorship. And they’re speaking out about the problematic territory of artists suddenly having to pivot online—especially when they identify as queer.
But first, the full background.
Straight out of the gates with its first Facebook Live show on March 29, the nonbinary drag-theatre collective showcased its atmospheric mashup of dance, poetry, performance art, physical comedy, theatre, and art installation in exciting new ways.
Decked out in their signature wild makeup—an avant-garde look that plays with gender, clowning, and conceptual art—performers Continental Breakfast, PM, Rose Butch, and Maiden China arrived dramatically to their settees on a four-split screen to the surreal sounds of Kill Bill’s whistling theme song, “Twisted Nerve”. From there, their dreamlike ode to quarantine explored everything from confessing their own fears to a multiscreen lip-synch-dance evocation of Son Lux's haunting “Pyre”.
But in an experience that illustrates the stark contrast between a ticket-buying, likeminded audience in a live theatre setting and a viewership online, someone reported the content as inappropriate at about the 39-minute mark of the near-hourlong performance. That instantly blocked additional viewers from joining. The scene around that interval involved sexually charged but relatively unshocking material, with artist PM in a latex outfit playing with ideas of online voyeurism, performing on and around a bed and putting bare feet up to the camera lens. Facebook fully blocked the content later when it decided music copywright might have been infringed—a fact the Darlings later disputed and won, leading the block to be lifted about five days later.
Because that first show was talking about sex and intimacy during quarantine, Chris Reed (Continental Breakfast) tells the Straight the Darlings purposely tried to keep away from that subject matter in a more “family friendly” Facebook Live webcast on April 26. But this time, the Quarantine II show fielded a complaint at the 15-minute mark—around the time one member builds a structure out of playing cards on a table and two other fully clothed performers enact an intense split-screen dance to Labyrinth’s pulsing “Mount Everest”. The full block by Facebook came at the halfway mark of the hourlong show, again due to music content. Again, Reed filed a dispute, and again, days later, it was allowed to go live again.
This week, the troupe announced it was taking a break from virtual performance. It also posted a statement on its Facebook page, where members called the blocking discouraging, disheartening, and silencing. They expressed deep concern about the lack of safe performance space in the absence of live queer venues.
“We wanted to explain to people the consequences of what complaining about art does—and it’s been happening to artists forever,” Reed told the Straight.
In the meantime, the Darlings have also posted the performances here on Vimeo.
But Reed has a problem with being pushed to a nonlive space from one of the ‘net’s most open venues. “People’s solutions have been, ‘Have you tried this platform or that platform? But that’s suggesting us being displaced rather than facing the intolerance we’re facing,” the artist said. “Facebook Live is the most accesible website in the world, so what could be more public? The ’net is not that safe a place for trans people. We’re still working towards these shows getting recognition and getting community to engage. And this reconfirms that media is still ruled by cisgender people.”
(To lodge a complaint against a webcast, Facebook viewers report a link anonymously. On its site, Facebook says it will then “review it and remove anything that doesn’t follow our Community Standards”—a removal that can then be disputed. You can see those standards, which include nudity, violence, and intellectual property rights here.)
Reed says it’s disillusioning to think how much the webcast could have widened the Darlings’ viewership. The first Quarantine show drew 6.2K, while Quarantine II, cut off midstream, drew 1.4K.
“Our shows in a theatre are usually for a 100-to-250-person audience,” explains Reed. “This [show] was our reaction to us being in artists in isolation, and my first hope was reaching 500 people. We were directly impacted by the person cutting us off. We could have seen 15,000 or 20,0000 seeing our shows.
“All this comes down to taking agency over trans bodies,” the artist continues. “This is where queer spaces are so important....Our point of the show was to give people some point of just escapism—something to do together. It gets really lonely in isolation when you’re just watching straight cis people on TV.”
Meanwhile, watch for the Darlings to reappear online for the Queer Arts Festival in July.