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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Just Put "Whatever" Down For Gender: Gonzo, the Muppets, and Queerness

Gonzo The Great: famous muppet, cultural icon, and... queer non-binary performance artist? Join us as we attempt the death defying feat of discussing the queerness of the muppets, and Gonzo as modern artistic genius

Co-Written with Juniper Angel Barber
(Note: This piece looks slightly less awesome on Mobile)
Art from The Muppet Show Comic Book by Roger Langridge.

Jamboree

5 Decades of Gonzo the Great's Performance Art

Guggenheim Museum of Art, Summer 2019

Performance art since the 1960s has emphasized the performance of tasks over performance in the sense of “showmanship.” While their body of work is deeply tied to this modern conception of performance, Gonzo the Great is also undeniably a performer in the classical sense. A typical Gonzo performance (if there is such a thing) includes gaudy sideshow costumes, explosives, absurd stunts, and the constant high pitched squawk of the artist’s frantic, always a little desperate carnival barker patter. Gonzo introduces their performance pieces in grandiose terms more fitting to Evel Knievel than Marina Abramovic. For some, this places them forever in the status of “outsider artist”.

This is, indeed, part of the point.
Why do the muppets feel so queer?

There’s just something about them, you know?  Their theater trappings, their distinct “other”-ness while still associating with human society, the specific jokes they make… these all feel close to queer culture, but there’s a reason that these themes and ideas stick so hard in our mind and are so easily seen as, like the kids say, “fuckin gay as shit”.  And the best way to understand this is to look at the most obviously queer of the muppets: Gonzo the Great

While the rest of the muppets are animal shaped, human shaped, or distinctly “monster shaped” (monsters seem to be their own species in the muppet universe), Gonzo has always been ill-defined.  In the words of scholar Jordan Schildcrout in his paper The Performance of Nonconformity on The Muppet Show—or, How Kermit Made Me Queer,
“Gonzo looks something like a cross between Grover from Sesame Street and a buzzard, but he belongs to no particular species… Gonzo is unaware of the social norms of masculine heterosexuality. Therefore he often finds himself on the wrong side of the gender fence. Sometimes Gonzo is romantically paired with a female chicken named Camilla, but more often Gonzo is a lone ‘‘weirdo’’ with ambiguous gender/sexual/species status.”
Gonzo seemed to have no problem with this status, ignoring jokes made at their expense, or even participating in the deliberate confuscation of what they were.  

However, in 1999 someone decided that this could no longer stand.  No longer could this be left as a question for the audience to ponder and even insert themselves into, it was time for Gonzo to face facts. Their attempt to do this was the movie Muppets from Space. In it, Gonzo discovers that they are an alien. The reason they don’t seem to resemble any animal or monster found on earth is because they aren’t from this earth.  The movie tells a heartwarming story of Gonzo trying to make contact with their family, first to the annoyance but later with the help of the entire muppet cast, only to realize that even if they are an alien their real family is with the muppets.

It fucking sucks.

Seriously, this movie just isn’t very good on any level.  I could rant for a while about getting rid of original music and instead using pop songs, the weird edginess of it, the fact that it was the film introduction of the absolute worst muppet (someday I will tear apart Pepe the King Prawn with my bare hands), the scene that uses animal for a sexist “women be craaaaaazy” joke…  Even the crew hated it, with Frank Oz saying it was “not the film they wanted it to be” and Kermit saying in promotional interviews for their 2012 film “"...Muppets from Space, um, you don't want that to be the last movie you ever do. You want to do a better one”

Gonzo’s work fits most comfortably within performance art strategies that emerged through the 1960s and 70s, and indeed Gonzo was influenced by some of the major figures of this period. Like Yoko Ono, Marina Abramovic, Chris Burden, and similar artists, Gonzo put physicality and physical endurance at the forefront of their pieces. While Ono or Abramovic were known for intense endurance pieces that featured the artists remaining motionless even when assaulted by the audience, Gonzo’s performances were one of constant motion. Not content merely to endure, Gonzo would not just hang from a feather boa by their nose but recite Shakespeare while doing it, bizarrely.

Gonzo had several advantages over other performance artists of the period. Chris Burden, only human, could only be shot in the arm once during his 1971 “Shoot”. Gonzo, a muppet, could catch a cannonball in their hand and depend upon their flexible biology to keep them intact, if a bit stretched out. Their status as a muppet also gave them another advantage: a steady source of income and audience on The Muppet Show. The show, and the multiple movies they made with the Muppet team over the next decades, both funded their more outre projects, and allowed them the chance to bring his performance art mainstream.

Reaction to this was mixed, as was interpretation of Gonzo’s work. Conservative critics, like internal Muppet Show censor Sam the Eagle, derided Gonzo’s pieces as gibberish, and possibly un-American. The radical art world sometimes read their theatrics as a deconstructive mockery, a satire of a serious and often misunderstood field. (Was Marina Abramovic’s refusal to speak or indeed acknowledge Gonzo at all when they attended her performance of The Artist Is Present a deliberate snub representing this long-standing grudge?) But fans of the show seemed to love Gonzo, even and especially when they failed. Certain avant garde critics began reading their work not as satire of performance art per se but of the art world as a whole, and the difficulty an outsider artist like Gonzo had in proving themselves worthy of attention. It was not enough, it seemed, merely to recite Shakespeare or hang by the nose from a feather boa; only doing it all at once would suffice.
But what’s more interesting than Muppets From Space’s complete lack of quality is how it goes against the grain of previous muppet movies in trying to establish “lore” about the muppets.  See, previous muppet films took the approach that instead of these being canonical stories in the timeline of the muppets, in each film they were actors playing characters. The first scene of their first film is the muppets getting together to watch the film they just finished making, and a major plot point is solved by handing a character the script.  Every film from The Great Muppet Caper to Muppet Treasure Island would continue this practice. Some do it in more explicit ways (Gonzo’s stunning performance as Charles Dickens in Muppet Christmas Carol is a gift to us all) while others such as Muppets Take Manhattan simply rely on the audience understanding that this is just another story featuring the muppets, not the canonical story of them.

But Muppets From Space was different.  Instead of establishing this as being another story that happened to have muppets in it, it seemed to want us to assume that this was how the muppets existed.  Most of all, it also attempts to establish a “fact” about Gonzo that was previously just hints and speculation. And for a while, it seemed like it succeeded: Gonzo was an alien now.  TV appearances would make jokes about this fact, video games suddenly put them in a flying saucer (because for some reason there were a million muppet video games)... the truth about Gonzo, and maybe the muppets, had been found.

Fortunately, as previously said, Muppets From Space fuckign sucks and nobody wants to remember it.  A few years later Gonzo would start saying in interviews that Muppets From Space was, like all previous films, simply another movie they had played acted in and that nothing in it should be taken as fact.  The muppets remained unable to be pinned down, and Gonzo’s return to being a “whatever” was a great signifier of this.

And quite frankly, who better to end up a symbol of this than Gonzo?  Gonzo challenges the viewer’s assumptions constantly, both in who they are and the art they create.   A character like Miss Piggy finds characterization and humor often in her contrasts: her species (a pig) contrasts with her over the top performance of femininity.  Because they lack these obvious things, Gonzo asks us to evaluate them purely on a character level; learning about them from the art they make. They perform loving duets with Gene Kelly and constantly fight with the obvious conservative stereotype of Sam the Eagle about what is considered “good art”.

But to truly understand why Gonzo matters, and why the muppets being both well defined characters while also constantly subject to re-interpretation and new frames is so important, we will need more inspiration. We need something… bold, something unexpected, something that can challenge how we categorize and understand art…

What we need is a performance of Gonzo singing Top Hat while tap dancing in a vat of oatmeal.

Other artists of Gonzo’s era have sometimes been criticized for an ironic postmodern attachment. Bruce Nauman, who critics sometimes lump in with Gonzo and their followers, was once described by historian Robert Hughes as “good at a particular sort of put-on, a sour clownishness so dumb that you can’t guess whether its dumbness is real or feigned”, and creating an identity of “the artist as nuisance.” Certainly similar critiques have been leveled at Gonzo’s performances. Some see their love of explosions, costumes, and circus sideshow bombast as a big dumb ironic spectacle. The act of devouring a rubber tire while Flight of the Bumblebees plays manically could not possibly be seriously offered as “art.”

Yet, there’s a palpable excitement, frenzy, fragile desire to connect with an audience, and utterly weird sincerity to Gonzo’s art. It is possible to read Gonzo’s acts as sincere homage to their own youthful fascination with rural fairs and circuses, transformed by its gallery or stage setting. Certainly artists and performers of all sorts who work with Gonzo speak in glowing terms of them, and many--early punk performance artist Rizzo the Rat, longtime chicken collaborator Camilla--credit them wholly with getting their careers started. “Gonzo,” Rizzo recalled in a 1999 interview,
“always gets up there and tries to show the audience a good time. That’s what they live for, and give them a stage, some giant cartoon weights, a chicken or two, a piano player like Rolf that’ll put up with whatever wild shit is happening on stage, and Gonzo’s like a rat in a tub of ranch dressing. Which, not to cut this short, but I notice that this restaurant has a buffet…”

This sincerity often came out in their more traditional performance work for the Muppet Show, such as 1979’s Jamboree. In this song and dance number, Gonzo describes their feelings of loneliness, and then offers a solution: to look inside and embrace the surreal party within. At the time this was greeted as an ode to the now fading psychedelia of 60s and 70s counterculture. Soon, as Gonzo became frustrated with some of the obliqueness that show business demanded, it became apparent that it also represented an ode to flamboyant queerness
Yes, this the part where we use this sketch to try to gain a broader understanding of the muppets and queer readings of them.  This piece, like almost all of Gonzo’s performances, is about re-interpretation. Gonzo’s performance takes a fancy, upper class performance--tap dancing to a 1935 song about wearing a fancy suit--and performs it in a way that destroys this entire idea.  More than just a combination of absurdities, the oatmeal prevents the tap dancing from being in any way effective as tap dancing requires a hard surface to be correctly performed. Gonzo has reinterpreted a work in a way that asks us why we consider things like tap dancing, tuxedos, and other similar performances to be high class; and what it takes to destroy these notions. It also, in the tradition of deconstructive works like 4:33, questions how far we can push the definition of a particular art form. Is music still music if there’s no notes? Is tap still tap if you can’t actually make any tapping sounds, because you’re up to your ankles in oatmeal?

This framework we’ve learned from Gonzo, of taking not just media but assumptions and ideals about media and reinterpreting them in new forms, is one we can then use to better understand all the muppets performances.  The muppet movies are unique in how the muppets themselves are inserted into them; not as actors but neither as themselves, instead a combination of the two. The article “Starring Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit: Muppets as Actors” by Ginger Stell describes this dynamic:
“Whether they play a version of themselves or a character in a classic work of literature, the Muppets bring their characters with them.  Audiences know the characters and associate that knowledge with the figure on the screen. The muppets themselves infuse whatever role they inhabit with the spirit of their character… because the muppets possess this innate duality, any project that includes them… becomes infinitely more complex and interesting, full of subtext and inside jokes”.
The muppets reinterpret all things, from classic literature like Charles Dickens to modern celebrity culture, through themselves, and challenge our base understanding of these things.  This can be seen as similar to how modern fanfiction culture operates; works of fanfiction rely on you already knowing who “Vriska” or “Sans Undertale” are, and thus when they attempt to reinterpret stories through these characters or reinterpret the characters themselves you are able to understand them.

Not that his co-workers were unaware of the growing ambivalence Gonzo had with their own gender and sexual identity. By the 80s, Gonzo’s queerness was an open secret among both the Muppet community, and the performance art community that Gonzo was increasingly associated with. Cartoonist Guy Gilchrist even produced a comic strip satirizing Gonzo’s ambivalent identity in 1984:


Far from treating it as an insult, Gonzo apparently loved the comic, and while they had previously described primarily their unknown species as “whatever,” they now enthusiastically began embracing the term for their gender and sexuality. Gonzo’s early work was driven by a sincere need to express an unarticulated difference from the people around them. Gonzo’s later work would be driven by the sincere joy of finding a community that could accept them as a “whatever.”
Gonzo’s contemporary performance work comes after several decades of relative silence. During the 90s and 2000s, Gonzo continued to perform in Muppet specials of drastically declining quality but largely retired from gallery-based performance art. Instead, they took on the role of collaborator, producer, and mentor, working with a number of younger performance artists. In particular, they worked several times with extreme performance artists Ron Athey and Bob Flanagan, finding their use of BDSM to explore queerness, physical illness and disability, desire, and trauma, deeply compelling. This growing fascination with BDSM influenced Gonzo’s more mainstream work: a scene in Muppet Treasure Island features the weirdo stretched on a rack while exclaiming in pleasure and excitement, much to the frustration of his torturers.

This connection drew Gonzo into the culture wars of the 90s, however, and though they escaped direct scrutiny, outraged right wing pundits and politicians targeted many of their close friends and collaborators. Gonzo reportedly offered to testify for the “NEA Four” during their lawsuit against the National Endowment for the Arts for refusing them funding on moral grounds. Lawyers for the artists apparently decided that putting the self-identified weirdo on the stand could only hurt their case in the eyes of conservative judges. Gonzo, hurt by this apparent rejection and no longer able to make a living income off of the declining muppets brand (especially after its sale to Disney) gradually retreated from public life during this period.

However, a recent revival of muppet films seems to have reinvigorated and inspired them, leading to a renaissance of performance work following on from their surprise literal dynamiting of the business they had previously been running, a unique entry in the performance art canon indeed. The Guggenheim is proud to present one such contemporary piece: a repeat performance of Gonzo’s “Indoor Running of the Bulls” piece, liability waivers for which can be found at the conclusion of this essay. Contemporary pieces such as this show Gonzo returning to their unique mix of commentary on social issues (Gonzo and female co-performer Salma Hayek are chased by the bulls while wearing targets), the deconstruction of familiar cultural icons, and carnival mayhem. It is this continual inventiveness that cements Gonzo’s legacy as one of the great performance artists of the last century.
Thus, when we say that Gonzo is a nonbinary, queer performance artist who was probably dating Rizzo and has a long history of rubbing elbows with the most famous artists of their time, we are simply doing to the muppets exactly what they have done so many times before to other things.  They taught us the value of reinterpreting stories in these ways, and so we reinterpret their story; why not view Gonzo’s refusal to accept simple labels of species as as a triumphant act of queerness? Why not view their longstanding feud with Sam the Eagle as the oppression of moral guardians against queerness, as he’s pretty obviously intended to represent?  Why not discuss the inherent queerness of a theater troupe struggling to compete in a world specifically built not for them, even if “them” refers to the fact that they’re frogs and pigs and whatevers?

The muppets are a vehicle for reinterpreting stories with new angles, new ideas, and new characters. As long as this remains true, they will remain open to new ways of reinterpretation themselves.

And the best ways will always be the ones that let Gonzo and Rizzo kiss, in a gay way.

This Has Been

Just Put "Whatever" Down For Gender

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