Sharing more than a few words with Sarah A.O. Rosner and Lillie De of The A.O. Movement Collective
They shifted the universe.
After three years of development culminating in three weeks of shows and events, a messy, maximal endeavor entitled The ETLE Universe manifested here in our present time this past October. It all happened at Loft 172 in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, where The A.O. Movement Collective presented their future-world of “multitudinous” artistic outlets, from performance to pornography.
My first foray was for ETLE and the Anders, the centerpiece live dance performance where I couldn’t locate a normative convention anywhere. So I sat back and surrendered to one-woman-band Idgy Dean’s bewitching live score while queer bodies in bois’ briefs – or not — danced and moved and spoke. And spoke. And spoke. Informative passages slipped my mind’s grasp almost immediately upon entering, partly due to the non-linearity, partly due to twelve gender-blurred bodies hurtling this way and that. But damn, there were a lot of words for what was billed as a dance piece!
Two nights later, I showed up for the pornographic screening – more on that in a minute. A lovely talk followed, and I swerved to a halt at the intersection of sci-fi, feminism and on-screen orgasms.
Somehow, I persuaded creator and Director Sarah A.O. Rosner, and Company Manager and cast member Lillie De, to meet me for coffee.
Lillie identifies as a “long-hair butch”, and uses the pronouns they/them. So my first question is about whether gender still matters.
“Well, it’s interesting,” Lillie tells me, “because when we started the piece, it came from a very different perspective on gender. The company at the time was all female-identified, and the work that we were doing was very much related to experiences as women in society. And that really evolved over the last three years.”
This was exciting for Lillie, who has since moved away from identifying exclusively as a woman. The ETLE cast expanded:
“At one point we realized,” says Lillie, “well, we’re saying this is about women and non-binary people, but there’s not representation in the cast. So adding Eli [transfeminine Eli Steffen] in at that moment helped us continue to move towards that. And Eli asked a lot of good questions too that really helped us form the universe and how it related to gender.”
Sarah jumps in to talk about the invisible power-structures based on binary gendering, and the irony of female-identified selves working to figure it all out, only to arrive at the radical queerness that dismantles the whole thing.
Speaking of radical queerness: In addition to fourteen live performances and two screenings, the ETLE festival included two parties, three workshops, four talks, continuous installations, a marketplace, bar and rooftop hangout. Sarah thinks big, and she never met a word she didn’t like. I’m an eager audience. So I throw some of her marquee favorites back at her, hungry for more:
“The Monstrous Feminine”
Sarah has been obsessed with the idea of the monstrous feminine since she saw Alien in a film class at Sarah Lawrence and read Barbara Creed’s essay on Alien and the aforementioned concept. Though the story was in no way linear, the “plot” of the 90-minute ETLE and the Anders was billed as a “queer feminist cyborg time-travel epic:” there appears to be an epidemic that causes women and non-binary queers to drift through multiple dimensions of time. Attempting to thwart “the absence”, an oppressive patriarchy provokes a violent rebellion. The monstrously feminine cyborg-of-the-future “ETLE” visits our present from this future. Can she save us? What must we, this specific audience of sixty or so, what must we do?
“In thinking about ways that femininity is controlled and regulated,” Sarah explains, “and seems kind terrifying and monstrous and in need of control by patriarchal structures and economic structures, the idea of the monstrous feminine always felt really rich and interesting and empowering.” For Sarah, this is personal: “I think in a lot of ways it’s very related to embodiment, that as someone who has a large body, who, growing up in a dance context, and even a social context, often felt like my own body was monstrous in some ways, it has always felt really powerful and exciting and a fun way to both reclaim that kind of abject terror of femininity, and then also use it in a really, intentional way.”
I was personally inspired by the business end of ETLE. Sarah procured “curators” to essentially finance the particular ETLE outlets that spoke to them. The final incarnation of combined work had a lot to do with which of Sarah’s envisioned outlets the curators opted to take on. For Sarah, business is always creatively motivated. She embarked on ETLE hopeful to solve an economic crisis within the arts. Now that it’s done, she’s not so sure.
“The dance economy is fucked,” she laments, “and that’s hard and depressing, and I don’t know if it’s solvable. But I do think there are more and more artists who are being really tenacious about those questions. My hope is that some of the strategies that we’ve used, that other artists might see that and think, like, ‘oh, I would love to try that.’”
Break for Pornography
“Pornography” is not one of Sarah’s fancy terms, but speaking of “oh”:
The OH Files: Pornography from the ETLE Universe, was presented by the Collective’s cinematic arm, AORTA Films. A talk followed the first screening, where a group of cheerful fledgling pornographers discussed everything from secret locations to snack breaks.
Lillie De played a part. Their exuberant and total commitment made me feel like I should really be naked more often. I ask if that was as fun as it looked. “Yeah!” they reply. “But it was also work. We filmed in March, so it was cold. Everyone has a winter body.”
But Lillie felt it was a safe environment.
“I think the moment before you start filming is the hardest,” they say, “because it’s like, well, what’s gonna happen? But once it’s happening, all of us in the room are like, yeah, we feel fine just having sex. Like, you know what to do.”
Better than any actual sex in my book was a lot of naked free-form group-dancing around the room. It was actually only a short amount of naked dancing, but it was in super slow-motion, with close-ups of every nuanced smile, ecstatic eye-roll and fleshy undulation.
Sarah and Lillie have known each other for nine years, and there’s a lot of trust there. Sarah really admires Lillie as a performer. Lillie’s “explosive joy and lack of performative self-censorship” was something Sarah counted on.
So why was pornography important to the ETLE universe?
“It’s this chance to imagine our own futures,” Lillie explains, “for the performers to have this agency to say ‘this is what we want to do or this is what we don’t want to do.’ We’re excited to be pornography, to get to make our own rules for that.”
Sarah did very little research about what queer porn is being currently made before getting started. She wanted to see what would present itself working without those references.
“I’m interested in erotic bodies performatively engaged with each other,” she says. “One of the reasons we decided to have so many outputs [for the total festival] was this business strategy of, okay, well, dance audiences are so small. But someone finding Idgy’s music on Spotify, or porn on the internet, was part of our business strategy overall. And then in terms of the creative content, it gave us this opportunity to be, like, what would it be like for us to do this? Is it even possible? What conversations do we have to have with each other, with our partners, with our families, to make that happen?”
There was a fisting scene that they ended up calling “Let Yourself Be Filled.” The phrase was a line from Lillie’s monologue in the live performance. Sarah got the idea that perhaps the live performance was similar, perhaps Lillie was filling the audience in much the same way, creating an experience of fullness that would let their fictional future narrative in.
“I think when we were talking about it that way,” Lillie confesses, “it was hard for me to get behind the, like, fisting the audience.”
That gets a laugh all around, and I wonder how many times you can say “fisting” in a coffee shop before you start getting looks.
“But I think that, in terms of my performance and the way I controlled things,” Lillie continues, “it’s very similar, the way I was in that scene and how I was in the live performance, really running the show and listening and being engaged, but also needing them to be with me in order for it to happen.”
This one’s my favorite.
I’m told Rosa Menkman is “the mother of glitch theory,” which Sarah feels “is really joined with gaze theory, with queer theory, and specifically with the way academia writes about horror films, and the process of watching horror films, and sci-fi films.”
The moment of glitch is that moment of boundaries exploding and then resetting. Or the moment right before they reset. It’s the moment of that question: “wait, was it…is it…?” Something goes wrong on the screen, and there is a moment before your brain is able to process it, a moment of pure unknown. If there’s one thing Sarah loves to do, it’s create a glitch.
“And if you decide to engage with this,” she eagerly explains, “the way you’re coming into it is ‘I don’t know this thing.’ Which to me is really key in terms of an audience experience, creating something where people have questions rather than feel like there’s a set way they’re supposed to be doing it.”
It’s like the moment of orgasm: just pure space, nothing there. You haven’t categorized anything. How does this function in the ETLE Universe? [Italics mine:]
“That terror caused by monstrosity has a power to glitch and queer your boundaries, and cause this dissociation that allows assumptions to untether and then reform. And that feels like a really powerful thing.”
God, I hope my recorder’s working.
“Yeah,” Sarah replies with a Cheshire grin. “That’s what I’ve trying for three years to put into words.”
“As humans,” Sarah believes, “we grow the most and we evolve the most when we’re at capacity or slightly beyond it. When we’re pushing up against that boundary of what’s possible. And so my personal desire and inclination is always fullness, capacity, too much, largeness.”
Taking on too much is totally in her wheelhouse.
For her, maximalism is also related to the economic consensus whereby in order to survive, artists are pushed into a structure of working that has to be minimal, on a small budget, self-contained. She doesn’t agree with that.
“I think with this piece we really blew it up,” she admits. “We gave ourselves permission. And that felt really exciting in some ways and really unsustainable and draining in other ways. So I think we’re not necessarily gonna be doing that with every piece. But it’s how I identify. In terms of my pronouns and my identifiers, ‘maximalist’ is high on the list.”
ETLE’s from the future. That much I grasp. But who’s ETLE?
“That could be the biggest remaining question,” Sarah answers and Lillie laughs. “ETLE is a future post-human-being with female pronouns.”
What sort of future is ETLE pointing us toward? She’s trying to take us…where?
“One of the big questions that came was, why are we creating this future that actually kind of sucks?” Sarah says. “You know, that actually is not a utopia in any way?”
I never had the feeling they were creating a utopia. I thought they were busting open so many doors that you couldn’t help but leave out a different door than the one you came in.
“And so I think this idea of, okay, we’re creating this fiction,” she says, “but now that X amount of people have seen the work and been involved with it, people have been sending me ‘oh, I found ETLE here’, or ‘I see ETLE. ETLE’s in this song, did you know?’”
“So do you think,” I ask, “that creative processes like that actually change the actual future?”
“I think that was the central question of the piece that revealed itself through making it,” Sarah answers. “Does art actually change anything? Can, specifically, body-based art actually do anything? But if people exit through a different door than they came in, then those things were allowed into the universe, and maybe potentially one person in our audience will go on to be something different, which will cause this avalanche, which will do this, which will do this…”
Her remaining comments are addressed to Lillie: “I haven’t told you this yet, but I feel like, to me, what the piece boils down to is that line in your monologue of ‘was it, is it, will it be enough?’ All these three years of work, actually, was it enough? I don’t have an answer to that. But I think the piece does. And I think, yeah, a good idea’s enough.”
Is that quantifiable? No. But Lillie’s got something to chalk up:
“I just want to add that one of the things that did change was that for those of us involved in it, it gave us a lot of purpose. We created this space that felt like this like amazing, open space for the queers to congregate, and that might not last forever. But I think some bonds were created.”
ETLE is dead. Long live ETLE.
The AOMC is currently regrouping and taking a little break before they launch into their next big project. AORTA films just became an LLC and will soon announce some exciting news about distribution of The OH Files. The OH Files DVD is currently available for sale here, and will be available streaming online in the not-too-distant future. Look for announcements on what's next for both the AOMC and AORTA films this spring.