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Watching a 3-way thinking about project SALOME

02 May
Mon, 12am

by Becca D’Bus

In project SALOME, we see three different threads braided together. There is Becoming Salome, a documentary film about artist Michael(a) Daoud and their drag persona, whose first name is Bolbola and whose last name is a mis-spelling of “Functional” with an F-bomb variation. The film is written by and also features the project’s director, Ong Keng Sen. Then there is the Head of Salome, the in-theatre performance featuring an immobilised Janice Koh performing multiple characters from Oscar Wilde’s play Salome. And finally there is The Salome Complex, a social media performance that took place on Instagram at @thesalomecomplex, featuring Koh as the character Seah Loh Mei, a national tennis player, in a series of posts put up over a several weeks and ending just before the opening of project SALOME.

While all the threads are obviously connected, in that they appear in the same space, or share a performer, and there are some overlapping themes, they are also all just disparate enough to feel like quite separate works. I.e., I suspect for most, myself included, on first viewing, the threads are connected because the artists said so.

In interviews ahead of the show opening, and in SIFA publicity materials, Ong talked about project SALOME as being about the ritual of projecting — that thing we all do when we decide how and what we show of ourselves to the world. This is of course most evident in Becoming Salome, and expressed in a more meta way in The Salome Complex.

In the film, shot in Ong’s apartment in Berlin, we meet Daoud and, with them, the rest of the film’s creative team. They arrive at the apartment, Ong greets them, there is a very camp performance of etiquette, they excuse themselves. The next we see of them, they are Bolbola, but we only see her back, in sky-high stilettoes, leaning over a balcony, catcalling various men on the street below.

She’s joined by Ong, in a coat, a turban, and copious lashings of green eyeshadow.

A few things are clear for me in this moment. Bolbola is in drag. Ong is wearing some feminine(ish) clothing and makeup. To be absolutely clear, this is not my rewriting of the oft-used insult drag queens throw at each other, “You’re just a man in a dress”; this is a description that I think Ong would agree with. I.e., I don’t think Ong was thinking of himself as being in drag at this moment.

I was aware that this moment in the film was coming – it was teased in a trailer for project SALOME – and, I will also admit, it was a moment that I was anticipating with some trepidation. It is a favourite trope on YouTube after all — a drag queen puts makeup on some guy, and the video is titled “I put XYZ in drag!”, where XYZ is someone that offers some cognitive dissonance, some hunky Instagram star, some famous man, or the now ‘more progressive’ version, some woman, usually older (my grandmother!). And in almost every case, drag is reduced to makeup and costumes. As if performance, personality and intent are not so incredibly central to the form.

Which is what I found so interesting about the juxtapositions in these first two scenes with Daoud, Bolbola, and Ong. They so elegantly made a case for a more specific definition of drag. Daoud is a trans feminine person, not a person in drag. Ong is a man trying on some clothing and makeup, not a person in drag. Bolbola is a version of Daoud, and very certainly in drag. And I don’t think I was making this delineation only because I am a drag queen, i.e., I do think many in the audience could sense this difference too.

“A definition of drag more specific than what?” I hear you think. Well let me tell you!

There is a line from the musical oeuvre of RuPaul that goes: “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.” Like so many of these kinds of statements, if you don’t think too much about it, it sounds sort of true, or at least you can hear a kernel of truth in the line. And of course it’s a sassy retort to people who want to call the practice of drag frivolous, or attention-seeking, or just ‘less than’, a kind of leveller, if you will. And, as catchphrases go, it’s repeated all the time, by RuPaul’s fandom, by drag queens, by queer folk, and by our allies, as a kind of truth.

I’ve personally never liked the line. It’s a little bit too pat.

I also think it mischaracterises drag itself.

If it sounds like I am taking a poop on RuPaul, I’m not. How dare I? But rather, I think any attempt to define drag in words is a setup for failure. When I speak about drag in classrooms or other contexts (June is the month of corporations hiring queers for panel discussions to celebrate Pride), I offer my own definition: “Drag is the heightened performance of gender for the purpose of entertainment in which the performed gender is different than the assumed gender of the performer.” And even this has some problems. For a start, it doesn’t account for some trans folk practicing the form, or performers who are not crossing gender lines in their drag.

Which is why I found those scenes in Becoming Salome so elegant. They threw into immediate relief the idea that actually, if we allow ourselves to experience it, most people have a pretty instinctive understanding of drag.

It is also in these moments in the film, as Ong and Bolbola/Daoud sit on the balcony, eating clementines and drinking cardamom coffee, that they partake in another favourite trope of drag queen media: the origin story. And what a story. A queer person who flees Syria ends up locked down during the pandemic in Berlin, discovers drag as a way to cope with the isolation, and proceeds to regularly harass (presumably straight, cisgender) men on the street with catcalls from the physical safety of her apartment above.

I would be remiss to not note that part of this is a bit f***ed up, i.e., let’s not celebrate harassing people. But at the same time, two things might be important here. First, it is not the job of a drag queen to be a good girl. Second, if you’re gonna harass anybody with a catcall (or 20), a straight cis man is probably the least problematic person to do it to. Something something punching up.

All that said, I was also struck by how this origin story so closely mimics a kind of drag queen who is often derisively referred to as ‘Instagram queen’, or now ‘TikTok queen’. A drag queen who exists almost entirely online, is possibly extremely famous with huge followings on social media and possibly platforms like YouTube as well, but who has none of the experience of performing for live, in-person audiences. The implication is that they are somehow inferior. To see examples of this tension, one need only watch Season 11 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and the tension between Ariel Versace and the rest of that season’s cast.

It would not be farfetched to question the drag of Bolbola in this context. But, watching her speak in the film, we know a few things: she participates in voguing balls and is bringing Ong to one; and beyond that, there is a very heightened personality in her. You could very easily imagine her holding court, entertaining a room full of slightly drunk people.

It’s just that she hasn’t been working a live audience so much, because of the time in which she was invented — the pandemic, this twoish-year period that we’re all just coming out of in which we couldn’t be in crowded enclosed rooms. Performers who are used to working on stages had to learn a whole series of new skills too, moving their work into the digital space. Drag queens suddenly became music video directors, camera people and editors. Suddenly, we could only exist, and yes, project our selves, in the digital space.

Before the craziness of Covid, one of the most famous drag queens on Instagram and YouTube to never be associated with RuPaul or Drag Race was Alexis Stone.

Alexis Stone rose to Internet stardom with a series of social media posts in which she would transform herself into various celebrities with only makeup, no prosthetics. By manipulating dark and light colours, she would change the way her own (clearly enhanced) features appeared in photographs, producing images of herself as Angelina Jolie, Madonna, Michael Jackson, and any number of other famous people. The resemblances were uncanny, but what was also remarkable was that she was achieving these images without the use of prosthetics, fully exploiting the two- dimensional nature of social media imagery.

This body of work though was fully eclipsed when, in October of 2018, she posted a video of herself bandaged, bruised and swollen. She said she had just undergone some intense plastic surgery, and talked about the work she had done. And over the next few months, as the bandages came off, and her face healed, what was revealed was a face that looked very extremely different. She now looked like a version of noted plastic surgery addict, Jocelyn Wildenstein. The comments were brutal. Commentors called her “deformed”, “botched”, and other more colourful words. Her social media content took a turn, less celebrity transformation, more surgery updates and later glamour makeup lewks.

In January of 2019, she posted a video of herself, in minimal makeup, ripping her entire face off. The surgery had never happened. It was all an elaborate stunt. To use an expression from ballroom culture, she gagged the children.

I recount this moment in Internet history because this is the world that project SALOME was made in, and consciously or otherwise, this is the world that the work engages in.

In particular, I am thinking about the social media performance, The Salome Complex.

The Salome Complex began playing out on Instagram a few weeks prior to the show opening, and we were encouraged to follow the account, which was set on private so people had to request to follow it. This was done, we were told, so that the artists would not inadvertently contribute to misinformation (I suppose that we’ve all learned our lessons from The War of the Worlds). And actually, that little nugget made the prospect of following along on Instagram rather tantalising —who might they implicate? But for me, the social media performance, perhaps as the newest of the three media in play (live performance, creative documentary film, social media), was also the least developed of the three narratives. On @thesalomecomplex, we see Koh playing a character named Seah Loh Mei (geddit geddit) who represents Singapore in tennis. The feed is one of those full of posts shot by somebody else (programme notes credit Ric Liu), but the identity of the photographer creating the fiction of this account is not so clear, though it’s certainly not Seah Loh Mei.

The thing about social media is that it is as much about the content you post as it is about the comments, how the poster interacts with commenters, and how commentors respond to one another. For a tennis star, Seah doesn’t even have fans who just say nice things in the comment thread. Sad.

The narrative of this social media performance also includes a public revelation by Seah in a multiple-slide carousel detailing an affair she had with a (fictional) Minister of State. There is minimal feedback for a post so explosive. No commentors call her a liar. No commentors offer their support.

Mothership didn’t get involved. And for me, this is the problem with attempting to make performance with social media as the medium. We’re all performing on it, we’re all projecting selves through it, mind you the “project” in project SALOME was pronounced in pre-show announcements as verb, not noun. But in this moment in history, performing on social media is basically performing in the real world. It should have real implications. Or to use a mildly nostalgic meme: remember when Kelly Roland texted Nelly on Microsoft Excel?

Actually, the history of Singapore theatre companies using social media in performances is not one of many successes. Creating fiction in these very deliberate, pre-determined ways, maybe is just not what these platforms were created for.

The last thread of project SALOME is the live performance, the Head of Salome, with Koh on a stage set designed by Heman Chong , a camera focused tightly on her head, her face projected on a scrim. Koh is wearing makeup that echoes Bolbola’s and Ong’s from the film, and she performs lines spoken by various characters from Wilde’s Salome. Many in reviews elsewhere have called this Koh’s performance of a lifetime, and it is extraordinary. But I will admit my own biases here. In the structure of project SALOME, we alternate between the documentary playing with sound on the scrim, and moments with the Head of Salome performance, where the documentary plays without sound on a flatscreen on stage right. And I found myself frequently longing to switch back to the documentary. I suspect it’s because we were hearing about something that actually happened in recent history, from a perspective that we have never heard from before. That’s a pretty tough thing to fight with for attention.

Towards the end of the film, there is an extended sequence of Bolbola voguing on a mirror. In truth, perhaps because of the way the sequence is shot, perhaps it’s her movement vocabulary, Bolbola is performing something that might be related to, or influenced by voguing, but isn’t precisely voguing itself. It’s mesmerising all the same. For me, this moment is the complication. On the one hand, we have this dancing that appears to be cathartic, she’s working it out and bringing it to the floor (or mirror). On the other, it’s oddly unlike a lot of voguing I’ve seen. And I then start to wonder, is this whole story a construction? Does Bolbola actually vogue? Is Daoud’s life story true (whatever that means), or is it an invented backstory, as some drag queens work with? Were the conversations we saw in the documentary real? Or were they some invention by Ong, who does have a writer’s credit on Becoming Salome? Intriguing questions, but I dare say: does it matter?

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