By Fiona McGregorNon-FictionGiramondo Publishing

Buried Not Dead

Buried Not Dead is a collection of essays on art, literature and performance, sexuality, activism and the life of the city. It features writers, artists, dancers, tattooists and DJs, some of them famous, like Marina Abramović and Mike Parr, others, like Latai Taumoepeau, Lanny K and Kathleen Mary Fallon, unjustly overlooked. The portraits of these figures and the scenes they inhabit present an intimate and expansive archive of a world rarely recorded in our histories.

Fiona McGregor is an award-winning novelist and performance artist with a deep involvement in the worlds she represents. She came of age as an artist during an outpouring of performative queer creativity, in a community that celebrated subversion, dissent and uninhibited partygoing, and in her writing she observes the shift from that moment to new forms of cultural repression. McGregor is a participant in her essays as well as a witness – she sees through an artist’s eyes and records what she perceives with a novelist’s insight.

Portrait of Fiona McGregor

Fiona McGregor

Fiona McGregor has published seven books, including Indelible Ink, which won the Age Book of the Year and was shortlisted for several other awards; Strange Museums, the memoir of a performance art tour through Poland; the short story collection Suck My Toes, which won the Steele Rudd Award; and the underground classic chemical palace. Her most recent titles are the essay collection Buried Not Dead and the photo-essay A Novel Idea, both published by Giramondo. She writes for The MonthlyThe Saturday PaperOverlandRunway and Running Dog. She is known for her extensive repertoire of performance art with a focus on the body, duration and endurance, and is an organiser in Sydney’s alternative queer culture.

Judges’ report

Buried Not Dead maps an alternative topography of Sydney, exhuming queer and artistic subcultures from the shiny metropolis's margins. Blurring boundaries between profile, personal essay, arts criticism and reportage, these essays roam through the utopian possibilities of '90s clubbing and techno; embodied portraits of unruly artists (gender-scrambling cabaret/burlesque/drag acts, poets, performance artists, tattooists, autotheorists before the genre had a name); elegies for the city subsumed by gentrification and over-policing. Fiona McGregor becomes cartographer of an ephemeral queer underground, thrumming with joy and creation and life. We were here, these vital essays insist, and the art we made mattered.

Extract

Where Your Cabaret Comes From

November 1996, Kooky down at Club 77. I’d been away for almost a year. John Howard had been elected and a pall had drawn over. Groovii Biscuit did a drag performance in a three-piece suit with big messy eyebrows and clunky glasses. The song was ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, spliced with soundbites of Howard. Behind Groovii/Howard was a map of Australia covered in stickers of Aboriginal flags and trees. S/he pulled off the flags and threw them to the ground. S/he pulled off the trees and threw them to the ground. Across the middle and top of the continent, s/he whacked the nuclear waste symbol. S/he whacked up dollar signs, and USA flags. The song crescendoed and s/he started to strip. Groovii’s Howard was awkward, ugly and grotesque. S/he stripped down to Y-fronts, which had the US flag painted on them. S/he was packing with a little gun. S/he started to wank, and the show ended with an almighty gungasm. Oo-oo! Oo-oo!

Black Vine III, Sydney Town Hall. That grim year, 1997, when Howard’s mission was well underway. This was one of three concerts organised by Stephen Page. Bangarra artists did solos: I remember Sidney Saltner’s cat-like elegance. But some of the best works were drag and comedy numbers. Lillian Crombie singing ‘There’s a hole in the bucket’, popping her eyes, all ham. Leah Purcell doing a country and western song, half in language. And the patter between all of it: political, cheeky, humorous, defiant. Five-star deadly black cabaret.

That bath guy in an early version of La Clique. Did an aerial routine over a bath full of water. He was a superb acrobat with a chiselled body and short dark hair. Was he on the straps? He lowered and swung himself in and out of the water with increasing fervour, splashing the front rows. They were agog. He was especially adored by the heterosexual women, but of course he was gay. Most of La Clique were queer. Much higher ratio of queers in cabaret, and sex work, than in other sectors of the population. Those are our traditional twilit, body-based, transgressive worlds. Spiegeltent, early 2000s.

Imogen Kelly did this show a few times. Over a period of ten years, I think, from the 90s. A genderfuck striptease. She wore an indigo velvet suit over a white shirt with frilled cuffs. Very glam rock. There was a sofa on stage. She cavorted around it, straddled it, and of course had a big lunch. I can’t remember what it was when she stripped down. Maybe an actual latex cock. But the focus in the audience was intense. This was in the very early days of the transgender revolution, when we still said F2M, and some butch dykes habitually packed, let alone wore explicit male drag. I did myself occasionally, even though I wasn’t butch. A show like that now wouldn’t have the same impact. We don’t even use the same terminology. Anyway, Imogen was very sexy, her slim lithe body was all over that sofa like a licorice strap.

Patrick and Andrew at Sex and Subculture. Patrick would mummify Andrew in Glad Wrap backstage. The shows, one of which was captured by William Yang, generally involved Patrick unwrapping Andrew. Slowly inserting his lubricated hand into Andrew’s arse, and pulling out all sorts of things. Once, most notoriously, a roast chicken. Looking back I assume it was made of rubber. This was in the mid 90s.

Justin Shoulder at U Little Stripper in his first show, his cleverness with costumes and earthy charisma already manifest. He was a red fringed lamé dog, on all fours, in a dog-like headdress, also red and shiny. He had an accompanist on a type of Asian drum which made a hollow brassy sound, and he prowled around the stage shaking the fringes of his costume. This was in late 2007 at Lanfranchi’s Memorial Discotheque, one of the last artist warehouses on Cleveland Street, an old chocolate factory where they had lots of events and parties over the years. The developers had gotten their approval to build a backpacker hostel, and this was one of LMD’s last hoorahs. Out the window, up the lane, you could see the spot where crooked cop Roger Rogerson had shot Warren Lanfranchi, heroin dealer, two decades earlier (and gotten away with it). Justin was one of the first on in a long, sexy, hilarious night. The red lamé was attached to different parts of his body and he stripped it off piece by piece, shaking his doggy self. He was only twenty-one, his body was perfect, he emanated pure animal joy. The thumbscrews had been tightening for a good ten years. The cycle of puritanism, proscription and punishment was upon us. The rest of the performers kept up the heat: Christa Hughes belting out The Lady is a Tramp, Nicci Wilks and Simone O’Brien doing some AC/DC drag king type of thing, Venus Noir doing traditional striptease, Vashti Hughes as Uncle Funky, a naive yobbo. By the end of the night the crowd was on fire; the strip karaoke brought the house down. It was a huge release of energy, people rushing up on stage, taking off their clothes and dancing like crazy. The cops came and the night had to finish early, but at least we got to do this much. Uncle Funky at the end on the mic: There’ve been loads of sexy people up here tonight. What’s wrong with the cops? Don’t they wanna get laid? What’s wrong with ’em? Don’t they have cocks and feelings? Aren’t they blokes? Ya gotta wonder about it…

It’s dark. None of us have been here before, a ritzy cavernous bar called Republic in the CBD, soaked in the corporate power of lawyer and stockbroker clientele, the name so ironic. Of all places to have a Sex and Subculture party, but it’s getting harder to find venues, so why not? And the creepiness of the place is even more intense due to the fact there was a federal election today. The results were called as we filed in around midnight. Thus began Howard’s second term, November 1999. Through the murk, we see Vixen (Antipodean Italian, as opposed to USA Noir) in a black latex catsuit, winching a cage from the ceiling down to the stage, releasing a mummified figure. She unwraps him and he spins across the stage to a pounding soundtrack, maybe Nine Inch Nails. It’s Pluto: the spotlight is on his face, his lips are stitched. He tears out the stitches screaming, blood running down his neck. He’s got a red swastika sewn into his chest, he tears out these stitches too. There’s so much rage and blood and pain and all the negative energy in the room seems to suck into this moment and catch like gas to a flame. We screamed and cheered, we stamped on the floor, then we danced all night, in a fury.

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist