Artistic director Tessa Wills on the wide-ranging, boundary-busting This Is What I Want performance festival
SFBG Can you explain the emphasis on desire and economy in your work and in your directorial approach overall?
TW Broadly, people in this festival [in the last two years] have looked at desire through the lens of sexuality — but they also have not. My artistic direction has put it very specifically; I really wanted to bring in that question of how money and desire weave together, and where the places of empowerment and disempowerment are around that. I've brought sex work to the fore in that. Doran also is interested in that. But we were very careful in the curating to broaden that out a lot. The pieces are not all about sex; but the pieces are all about desire. So there is breadth, but also that very specific thing that I've brought in.
In my piece, at Center for Sex and Culture on Saturday, there are nine people who are "charging," they're doing one-on-one performances with audiences. Basically, they're facilitating you talking about your desire. But it's not like straight sex work. It's not like they're going to meet your desire. They're going to interrogate it with you and charge it up.
SFBG So "charge up" has a double entendre.
TW It's got a double entendre, exactly. All of the chargers are sex workers. I identify as a sex-worker ally, and I identify in the space between performance and sex work. Those are my two communities. So this theme, the value of desire, somehow has those two together.
SFBG Where do you see subversive or radical points of departure in the intersections of desire and economy?
TW People will take money and then use it for their subversive practices. So there's that. Then there's the fact that everybody is working for free to put this festival on. I think that adds a really interesting perspective to the conversation about how desire and money relate. Because the thing that's really driven this festival is this passionate desire to put it on for its own sake. It defies any economic logic that any of us are working this hard. I mean, it's ridiculous. I feel stupid how hard I'm working on this.
SFBG That's the position of a lot of art-making in this society. But then, ridiculousness is a tried-and-true strategy of subversion too. I'm reminded of the argument in Judith Halberstam's book, The Queer Art of Failure, where a willingness to "fail" — in the terms set by the dominant social and economic order — may offer a way out from under that order, and suggest alternatives beyond its reach or ken.
TW There are all these other economies that come to light when you look at that disconnect or failure [vis-à-vis the dominant economic model]—then it's like, ok, that's obviously not working, so what else can be motivating? There are just so many diverse economies at work. Like DavEnds piece, for example. She was really motivated by wanting to have close, intimate exchanges and make more friends. The people she's brought into her piece, she's very clear about it, are people that she wants to be friends with.
SFBG There's a social impulse mixed in there. I also like the idea that desire could be tied to giving away or losing, as opposed to taking, receiving, gaining or possessing. Does that resonate with some of the pieces this year?
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