Gary Varro on art, identity and the value of rattling minds

by Evie Ruddy


Various Venues
Jan. 22-24

Making It, Difficult is the theme for Queer City Cinema’s 2015 performance arts festival, Performatorium. This year’s artists include Ron Athey, an iconic figure in contemporary performance art, the New York-based gender-queer artist Kris Grey, Toronto’s Jess Dobkin, Regina’s Homo Monstrous, London’s Martin O’Brien and New York transpecies artist Anya Liftig. The artists will present works that may be challenging or difficult to watch and perform, with subject matters ranging from HIV/AIDS to mortality, sadomasochism, body phobia, the transgender body, trans-species relations and illness.

I sat down with festival curator and creator Gary Varro to find out more.

What was the inspiration for the theme, Making It, Difficult?

I was seeing work that, for me, had elements to it aesthetically, emotionally and ethically that were problematic, and I was interested in bringing that forward in a collective way.

You’re showing work that’s on the margins and challenging the status quo. Does that intentionally parallel queer identities?

I don’t really talk about queer identity extensively in the context of Performatorium. In some ways, it goes without saying, but it is another layer for sure. It’s a queer festival—a  foundation for the festival. However, a lot of the performances in Performatorium don’t address queer identity explicitly. I think they’re all political on some level and about identity, but it’s not a searing commentary on the struggle and the need to find approval, or make gains of some kind politically. In some ways, this Performatorium might do the opposite. It might push people away.

Why is it important to you to bring work like this to Regina?

It seems like a really simple answer: because I find the work interesting. I find the work layered and complex. It’s also a way to confront the status quo, to bring work that isn’t readily available here, and to try and create some texture in an otherwise smooth environment. It’s a way to rattle a few minds. I think there’s value to that.

One of Performatorium’s artists, Ron Athey, was caught in a media scandal in ’94 in which public funding for the arts came under attack. You experienced a similar situation in 2000, when a Saskatchewan Party MLA questioned public funding for Queer City Cinema. Do you worry about attacks like these happening again?

This year’s festival does kind of take me back to what happened in 2000 because it’s potentially the next riskiest thing since. But I don’t really go there, because I don’t think things repeat themselves. The attack was based on semantics, and it had nothing to do with the programming. It was just two words put together: pornography and community. That seemed to be a really crazy concept for a lot of people. The outcomes were positive, though, because it created debate.

I think these days, if there are cuts, they might come in a more underhanded way where no one’s going to say anything; they’ll just cut you.

What’s it like to curate an edgy arts festival in Regina?

It’s difficult [laughs]. But it’s actually a privilege to be able to bring this kind of work to Regina. However, there are times I think, “What am I doing, bringing this kind of work here?” Sometimes I feel like it’s a brave thing to do. Sometimes I feel like it’s a foolish thing to do. But it mostly makes me feel proud.

One artist told me that Performatorium is like Christmas for her. Other queer artists have travelled to Regina just to attend it. What makes this festival garner that kind of reaction?

I think it’s about difference — difference in sexual identity, artistic practice, context, the city itself. I like difference, when things aren’t the norm. Being queer has allowed me an outsider viewpoint. I’m so glad that I’m queer for that reason, because it makes me appreciate other marginalized identities and viewpoints, even viewpoints that I disagree with. When you have that perspective, and as someone who does what I do, you want to create a situation where difference is celebrated and debated. I’m thrilled that people love the festival. When people tell me that, then I’m happy.