By Seth Eisen
I came to the Bay Area in 1994 as a recent graduate of Naropa University with a degree in performance and a background in visual arts. I arrived looking for ways for my two disciplines to coexist. At Naropa I studied with Butoh masters Koichi and Hiroko Tamano and then joined their company Harupin–Ha Ha for a few years. Through that work I came home as an artist and began to see the union of image and movement with more primal and ritualistic practices. Butoh enabled me to encompass my image and state-based visual art and movement disciplines with my affinities for earth-based/pagan and Buddhist spiritual practices. In San Francisco I arrived into a queer community devastated by the AIDS pandemic and into the radical, sex positive, performance scene that was in full swing at 848 Community Space which will later become CounterPULSE.
That same year I presented my first solo show at 848. It was poorly attended, though in the audience there was a producer who liked what I was doing with Butoh/drag/shamanism—working my bejeweled vacuum cleaner/divining tool, sporting a two-foot wig with snake puppets. She invited me into two big projects with Nina Hagen, the grand diva of Punk. In 1999 I joined forces with Keith Hennessy and Circo Zero. That work allowed me to develop as a multidisciplinary artist /maker/ performer in ways I never imagined. Keith, Jules Beckman and I created How to Die at a residency in France, memorializing the 25th anniversary of AIDS. Keith asked me to portray the ghost of Sylvester, San Francisco’s very own International Disco Diva. Sylvester was one of the few (if not the only) successful, out, gay black singers who gained international pop success. He died of AIDS in 1988. My task was to figure out how, as a 5’6” hairy, redheaded Jewish guy, I could honor such a luminary. That project eventually led me to take on my solo project Blackbird in 2009, in which I played seven queer performers of the 20th century, all men who were also subversive social activists like Sylvester.
In 2010 I read Secret Historian by Justin Spring and realized that the subject of the book, Samuel Steward, would be the subject of my next show. I identified strongly with Steward and his multifaceted identities that required him to both be true to his sexual impulse and artistic nature as tools of self-knowledge. Now, after a year and a half of research, I’m an artist-in-residence at CounterPULSE, writing and directing a new commissioned work called Homo File, which is based on Steward’s life and work, and boasts a stellar cast, (Ned Brauer, Michael Soldier (a.k.a. Precious Moments), Elana Isaacs, Rich Hutchison, Diego Gomez and K. Lisette). We are visual and video artists, comedians, musicians, puppeteers, drag artists, theater makers and an aerialist. Homo File explores the complex life of Samuel Steward, (1909-1993) who was a radical queer chameleon—a professor of English literature, an early writer of gay erotic fiction (Phil Andros), an influential tattoo artist (Phil Sparrow) and a consummate documentarian of his prolific sexual history. Steward had close friendships with mentors Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas and Alfred Kinsey, as well as other luminaries of the pre-Stonewall era.
Homo File is a further development of my hybrid of the visual and performative. It unpacks Steward’s life of immense personal risk and social stigma by focusing on his practice of tracking his life through a detailed card catalogue, his writing and drawing. These are the testament of his sexual activities and a “body of evidence” marking his existence in a social arena that would have rendered him invisible. Homophile was a term for homosexual used by the pre-gay liberation counter-culture. Homo File is a way to speak to this history as we remember our roots and look at who we are 20 years after Steward’s death. His work as both a sexual liberationist and artist is a beacon for our own evolution as queer artists and individuals. My creative approach is as much about understanding Steward and his clandestine queer community as it is about exploring the complex identities of this cast of six queer performers. In Homo File we use live drawing, video, puppetry, music, aerial movement and language to excavate our unconventional ways of finding truth and self-acceptance.
Seth Eisen’s work is a hybrid of visual art and live performance expanding the dialogue between diverse disciplines. In 1994 he developed the company Eye Zen Art, an umbrella for producing performance and visual art projects to investigate the traditions of Queer history, Queer space and Queer culture.
Homo File runs Thu-Sun, Sep 20-30, 8pm, CounterPULSE, 1310 Mission Street, San Francisco
Photo: Ned Brauer & Jeka Ivanov by Gary Ivanek