MIX NYC is the largest, weirdest and wildest queer experimental film festival in the country. With little fanfare but a loyal following, the 24th MIX NYC Queer Experimental Film Festival took place November 15-20, 2011. There were satellite events before, during, and after the festival. Satellite events included a series of screenings at the Museum of Modern Art by Jack Smith, a pioneer of queer underground film. There were also screenings at the Museum of Arts and Design, and a nearby art gallery/performance venue/laboratory called MIXploratorium. The MIXploratorium featured installations, paintings, sculpture, and a series of performances and readings by queer artists. The MIX festival is an ambitious and heady combination of queer film, installations, and performances all juxtaposed across lines of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, and class.
Founded by Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman, the New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival began in response to the lack of queer work in experimental film festivals and the lack of venues for queer film in general. The first festival was in 1987, and it evolved through several leadership and name changes into the organization MIX NYC. The programming of the festival reveals an ongoing commitment to formally experimental work and queer films with subversive content outside the mainstream LGBT culture.
For the past six years, the MIX festival has been in a different venue every year, converting retail and theater spaces into unique environments with interactive installations and unconventional screening rooms. The 24th MIX festival took place at an inactive theater at 45 Bleecker Street. MIX volunteers transformed this previously vacant venue into a series of landscapes out of science fiction. The lobby and screening room were full of shining stars, a corridor was transformed into a fluorescent jungle leading downstairs to a lounge and performance space that was a pink cave, complete with pink couches, pillows, and paper maché stalactites and stalagmites. The effect was that attending the festival became a fully immersive experience, as though one were in a kind of alternate universe. The science fiction theme was woven loosely through the films and installations and also connected to the most utopian imaginings of the concurrent Occupy protests and November 17 Day of Action. In addition to seventeen film screenings, which ranged from $12-20, there were twelve installations throughout the venue and six free performances scheduled between screenings.
The films consisted mainly of short, experimental works selected by the programming committee and presented in thematic programs. Themes included queer super heroes, creative uses of music and sound, expressions of sexuality, and many others. For instance, in "The Personal is Revolutionary," all the short films deal directly or implicitly with the personal impact of various forms of oppression and efforts towards liberation. This screening included How To Stop a Revolution (2011) by Kenji Tokawa, where racism and economic pressure deteriorate a queer relationship, and Uncovering Color (2011) by Marcellite Failla, exploring the experience of a queer, mixed race woman and how perceived skin color impacts the lives of black women. In "Fantastic Magick", all the films featured magic and ritual, including Sociéres, Mes Soeurs (Witches, my sisters, 2010) by Camille Ducelleir, which features interviews with feminist women of different ages and identities.
The programming committee also selected several feature length films. Features included the 1991 Austrian lesbian classic Rote Ohren fetzen durch Asche (Flaming Ears) and a new Argentinean film entitled Un Ovni Sobre Mi Cama (A UFO over my bed) by Pablo Oliverio. Guest curated programs added more voices to the conversation, like "Bodily Fluid is Revolutionary", a show of banned queer films from Thailand, and "NOISE: Trans-Subversions in Global Media Networks".
One of the selected features with explicitly feminist content was Passionate Politics: The Life and Work of Charlotte Bunch (2011). The documentary, directed by Tami Gold, is a profile of an activist who has made significant contributions to the story of modern feminism from the 1960s to today. Gold, Bunch, and the producers of the film were present at the screening for a question and answer session. Audience members enthusiastically questioned Bunch about her lesbian separatist years, her work with the United Nations, and how her early decision to be out of the closet has shaped her activism. The discussion was so engrossing that it ran right up to the start time of the next screening, which subsequently had to start a few minutes late. Some of the most exciting aspects of attending the MIX festival were the presence of artists and activists and the priority given to rich discussions, even when it necessitated rushing people out of the screening room and into the lounge in order to keep both the conversation and the films going.
Community Action Center (2010), a feminist exploration of pornography directed by A.K. Burns and A.L. Steiner, played to an intimate afternoon audience and included a live musical performance by artists on the soundtrack. This film is a series of sex scenes that reference pornographic themes and feminist debates about representation from the 1970s to the present. The film also traces the current influence of the feminist sex wars of the 1980s and 1990s, with explicit S/M content sharing screen time with images of women frolicking in nature and genderqueer bodies experiencing pleasure. The question of being both subject and object of desire is mapped across bodies and relationships that fall simultaneously inside and outside of pornographic and feminist conventions.
Other feminist-themed work was integrated throughout different screenings, installations, and performances. The "Secret Identities" program of shorts about queer superheroes included Superdyke (1975), an early work by feminist filmmaker Barbara Hammer, who was also present for the screening and discussion. Like Passionate Politics's portrayal of a lifetime in the struggle for justice, Superdyke's anticonsumer themes seemed especially relevant to the Occupy protests happening around the city during the week of the festival. The Secret Identities program also included Dyke Dollar (2009) by Laura Terruso, a comedic piece about the activists who stamped dollar bills to raises consciousness in the 1990s.
Freedom of speech was a major theme of the festival, with the importance of artistic, sexual, and political expression coming up in both the programming and in post-screening discussions. Author and MIX cofounder Sarah Schulman hosted a panel discussion after the De Profundis screening, a 1997 experimental film by Lawrence Brose based on Oscar Wilde's prison letter. Lawrence Brose was arrested by the FBI in 2008 and charged with downloading child pornography from a German website. The evidence submitted includes exhibition prints from De Profundis. The panel consisted of Keith Gemerek of the Lawrence Brose Legal Defense Fund and Judith Levine, author and activist with The National Center for Reason and Justice. Questions were raised about the distinction between creating and viewing an image, the privacy of our computers and shared computers, and the consequences for sex offenders in this country.
The MIX festival provides a unique and immersive environment in which to view the latest and greatest in queer avant-garde film. The programming showcases work by lesbian, feminist, and transgender artists for an audience that is somewhat gay-male heavy but includes a highly visible lesbian, genderqueer, and trans presence. Filmmakers come from around country and occasionally from overseas. Dedicated fans and volunteers come from as far as Philadelphia, Portland, San Francisco, and Tucson. There is a clear emphasis on creating opportunities for dialog at the festival, with the question and answer sessions, comfortable lounge, and friendly environment. The combination encourages ongoing conversations and a sense of community. Politically challenging art is juxtaposed with sexually explicit content in film programs that cross the boundaries of identity politics. Formally experimental film co-exists with do-it-yourself projects, feminist documentary, and bizarre performances. At the MIX festival, art, sexuality, politics, and life conspire. In this alternative queer reality, all manner of discourse ensues.
Sloan Lesbowitz a.k.a. Rocko Bulldagger, is a co-director of MIX NYC, an organization that promotes, produces and preserves experimental media that challenges mainstream notions of gender and sexuality while also upending traditional categories of form and content. Though not a filmmaker, Sloan has long had an interest in the revolutionary potential of queer film. She has been working with MIX NYC since 2007 on the festival and year-round community screenings. Sloan has written a bunch of zines, including Explosions: Sex Radical Philosophy for Everyone and Bleached Blond Bimbos. Her writing is included in the anthologies That's Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation and Nobody Passes. Sloan's current writing project is her blog, http://truequeerlove.blogspot.com/.