By Zach Shultz
In her famous breakthrough essay written in 1964, “Notes on Camp,” American writer and cultural critic Susan Sontag contends that the artistic sensibility known as camp is characterized by “its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” Now, nearly 50 years later, the LGBT Community Center continues to keep this spirit alive with its annual Summer “Camp” Festival, an entire month of events planned to celebrate this elusively queer aesthetic. This past weekend, the Center launched this year’s Summer “Camp” Festival on the streets of the East Village through a series of outrageously over-the-top performances, titled “Roughin’ It,” held underneath a tent at the New Museum’s IDEAS City StreetFest. The day was filled with a variety of performers and styles, all brought together because of their common appeal to campy tastes.
During the festival, passersby enjoying the wonderful New York spring weather would stop as they approached the Center’s tent, alternately puzzled and amused, yet utterly transfixed by performances running the gamut from a deranged cheerleader to a dandy teller of homosexual horror tales. The wildly hilarious amalgam of performances spaced throughout the day was curated by the New Museum’s Assistant Manager of Visitor Services, Rick Herron, who worked with Paul Menard, the Center’s Director of Cultural Programs, to make the event possible.
This self-consciously ironic take on the experience of childhood summer camp brought together quite the motley crew. The designated Camp Counselor, Dandy Darkly, spent the large part of the day prancing around the sidewalk decked out in Victorian garb, ghoulish makeup and a black lace umbrella casting a menacing shade over his affected airs. Meanwhile, back in the tent Penelope Labradoodle Rockefeller—think of a bearded, grotesque, drag version of Dorothy in Oz—told groups of small children revised fairy tales to instill in them the lesson of valuing true beauty in all of its myriad, if somewhat contorted, forms.
After encouraging a group of sidewalk spectators to join in on a choreographed hoedown to One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful,” Penelope then introduced the next performer, Jenn Harris. Equipped with a plastic toy headset, pigtails, cheerleading leotard and horn-rimmed glasses, Jenn burst out of the tent in a frenzy to perform a hyped-up cheer routine to Lil Jon and LMFAO’s hit single, “Shots.” Afterwards, she brought her collection of dismembered Barbie dolls and tattered My Little Ponies for children to play with while she read excerpts from the classic 80s etiquette manual, “Girl Talk.” Becca Blackwell and her crew served up a gender-queer reading of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf,” offering a new tongue-in-cheek interpretation to his classic play. The day was topped off by a campfire sing-along, led by Jeffrey Marsh, as summer “campers” crooned the theme song to The Golden Girls and Petula Clark’s classic, “Downtown.”
If you missed the inauguration of Summer “Camp,” don’t fret. Camp goes till June 13 and is jam-packed with a number of events that are certain to make you say, “Oh girl… That’s so bad, it’s good!” If you’re in on the joke, check out gaycenter.org/camp for upcoming Summer “Camp” happenings.
Zach Shultz is a Guest Blogger for the LGBT Community Center and works in Communications and Development at AID FOR AIDS. You can follow him on Twitter @zach_shultz.