Voluminous Arts

The Gag Reflex of the Cobra Woman
Queer Drone Temporalities in EAR's Night of Nigh Gag Aura

by Kamikaze Jones
February 17th 2022

In the space following and overlapping engaged listening to Voluminous Arts' 15th release, EAR's Night of Nigh Gag Aura; writer, curator and interdisciplinary artist Kamikaze Jones peels back some of the work's referential layers to reveal archives of glittering and obscured lineages both within the work of EAR and the avant garde scenes of New York's downtown in the 1960's.

Kamikaze Jones

EAR (the artist's initials) is a fortuitous acronym for a renegade drone sorceress, one that provocatively operates within and against the frayed formalism of the established NYC “Downtown” Avant-Guardians. One imagines the titular appendage disembodied, a monolith floating in an electromagnetic field, the cochlea pulsing with arcane purpose. It is an EAR attuned to the miracles of transduction. It is an EAR of Beckettian disjunction, an organ detached from the limitations of “utility,” and removed from the innate biases of the governing body. While its attributes are mercurial, the capitalized EAR has an agency that is all its own. Once burdened by androcentric acoustics and predominant aural narratives, the errant EAR has divested and reassessed, gotten a spunky tragus piercing, and received an official certificate from the Pauline Oliveros Center For Deep Listening.

There are times when active reception can be a form of sonic retribution. Night of Nigh Gag Aura could be considered both a vehement act of audiological vandalism and a sweeping gesture of ambivalent reverence for the work of The Dream Syndicate, the pioneering drone ensemble comprised of luminaries such as La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, Marian Zazeela, Angus MacLise, and John Cale. Indeed, the album masticates and manipulates the majority of Day of Niagara, released by Table of the Elements almost 4 decades after its initial 1965 recording, against Young’s much publicized egocentric wishes. Developed in the midst of COVID-19 imposed isolation, EAR openly interrogates this original recording as an object of obfuscation, a trompe l’oreille in the canon of minimalism that has (however unwittingly) contributed to the sublimation of the queer and trans artistic legacies that coexisted within the same countercultural zeitgeist. Using oblique recording strategies, interjections of voice, and her own intricately layered viola drones, EAR stages both an intergenerational dialogue and an archival exorcism, presenting to us an undead artifact, a windswept field of unmarked graves. The effect is that of a crepuscular echo chamber, an amorphous threshold where ghosts congregate to throw shade before receding into the tapestry of nightfall. The original ensemble is subsumed and refracted by EAR’s oneiric plunderphonics, engulfed by her propensity for a hyper-reflective interiority. She’s giving Alvin Lucier applying lip-liner in a haunted funhouse mirror. She’s serving Éliane Radigue in a very special episode of Quantum Leap.

Perhaps it would be pertinent to elaborate to y’all why the vernacular of contemporary queer nightlife (vernacular extracted and commodified from the Black queer ballroom socialities of the 1970’s/80’s) is important for me to contextualize the breadth of EAR’s work. First there is the deceptively simple inversion of the title: Day of Niagara transforms (somewhat vampishly) into Night of Nigh Gag Aura. This to me feels less like a morphological convenience and more like a pointed semantic yassification. It is “Gag” in the tradition of “Why are you gagging so?” or “Gag of the season.” The term “Gag Aura'' could then be interpreted as an ethereal Femmedom immanence, a celestial suffusion from deep within the Valley of the Dolls. It is the divine quality of being so absolutely flawless as to induce autoerotic asphyxiation, a presence that is thoroughly and nauseatingly glam. Your fave could and will never. Night of Nigh Gag Aura is an augury of impending cosmic fabulosity, an arrival of glimmering nocturnal entities from beneath the swirling depths of the drone.

Secondly there is the multiplicity of EAR’s praxis and personae: her erstwhile stint as the frenetic and fatalistic drag-adjacent prophetess Cassandra, a character that palpably inhabited queer performance spaces in the mid 2010’s throughout the East Coast. With a healthy disdain for the perceived deadly seriousness of the avant-garde and an anarchic knack for deconstructing conventional notions of camp sensibility, Cassandra is the unbridled id lurking in the nebulous interstices of this project. The friction of artifice and revelation is of particular significance here; EAR has told me that “Cassandra, the ancient Trojan oracle who no one believed, must have come across like a drag queen i.e. completely delusional! If there were queens back then they must have been her friends at least. She'd be babbling about the Greeks coming and they'd be like ‘oh sure dear.’” This modern interpolation of Cassandra could be seen in clubs holding up a mirror to the audience while slow dancing to the SCUM manifesto, or manically crab walking to a mashup of Kurt Schwitters “Ursonate” and ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” These disparate yet interconnected modalities: deliberate exercises in futility, deploying the lip-sync as unheeded prophecy, as doomsday proclamation, transfer readily to the vaseline-smeared parallax view offered by Night of Nigh Gag Aura. This compositional duality is reminiscent of the “wild combinations” of Arthur Russell (a queer ancestor whomst EAR professes to have a spiritual affinity with) and his despicably brief tenure as musical director of The Kitchen, where he was admonished by the stodgy experimental elite for his programming of disco and proto-punk acts, and chided for the uncompromising fluidity of his vision.

Speaking to this versatility, this chameleonic instinct, the poet Caelan Ernest recently shared their musings on the track “Faceshopping” by Sophie in an article commemorating the one year anniversary of her untimely death:

"As a queer person who has shopped for faces in search of one that feels organically “me,” it’s liberating to be assured that what we fabricate — what we perform — is just as real as the parts of ourselves we’ve tucked away underneath."

If Night of Nigh Gag Aura can be read as EAR’s “moulting of these past [performative] skins” then the crystal plumage of these incarnations have not entirely been discarded. These scintillating exoskeletal husks are draped nonchalantly over the divan, this sphinxian menagerie is strewn across an artfully cluttered vanity table. It is the chaotic yet beguiling assemblage of a seasoned vedette; halfway between curated memorabilia and elegantly embellished anecdote. These overlapping mythologies ebb and flow in the inexorable current of the reverberant dronescape.

An assiduous excavator, EAR mines the eroded history of collaboration between Tony Conrad and antagonistic auteur Jack Smith, whose unfinished film Normal Love is a feat of acolytic devotion dedicated to the undisputed B-Movie “Queen of Technicolor” Maria Montez. The Dominican born actress, whose kitschy dance in The Cobra Woman is widely reported to be one of Kenneth Anger’s favorite moments in film history, had constructed an altar to her patron saint early in her career to conjure widespread fame and fortune. This altar is recreated using homespun materials and dubious approximation in Normal Love, and Maria’s essence is channeled by Puerto Rican drag icon and intermittent Warhol Superstar Mario Montez, a prominent fixture of 1960’s NYC nightlife whose contributions to experimental cinema are now conspicuously under-documented. The resplendently vivid superimpositions of Jack Smith’s oeuvre, an unabashed queering of the dialectical montage, unfold in intertextual harmony with the type of drone that EAR cultivates; a series of citational, atemporal, epiphanous transmissions of an unsung archive. Mario Montez the mermaid, the grand dame of Atlantis, bathes languidly in a string of pearls, in an ivory lagoon, a simulacrum of Esther Williams in repose. Swirling above her are translucent projections of queer kinship, incidental pastoralias, pastel-painted birds of paradise. Sink into the drone, submerge into its enveloping waters and you will uncover these subterranean jovialities, these ripples of chosen family, very much present under the churning surface.

I once went on a very awkward heteronormative double date to The Dream House to see La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, and Jung Hee Choi, long before I moulted into the faggy azure provocateur I am today. It was a memorial tribute to Indian classical singer (and Young’s vocal mentor) Prandit Pran Nath, to honor the 16th anniversary of his passing. What transpired was over two hours of Kirana Gharana vocalizing, accompanied by tabla and shifting gradients of magenta light. There were no chairs. I recall Young appearing as a curmudgeonly svengali type, at times visibly irritated, positioned in the center of the female vocalists. I remember my foot falling asleep incessantly, and my legs cramping in the crowded ultraviolet room. I remember my willowy blonde friend Carissa finding innovative ways to insinuate herself comfortably into the schematic of the crouched spectators. I was a nascent extended vocal technique practitioner at the time, and I found myself gravitating towards Zazeela for the duration of the performance, admiring her cadence and poise.

It is illuminating to retrospectively analyze the recurring motifs of orientalism or, at the very least, minimalist exotica, that run through both the catalog of The Dream Syndicate and the output of early queer performance collectives (ranging from the chinoserie pageantry of The Cockettes to the intricately brocaded opium dens of Jack Smith). How did this commercially crafted image of Asian culture conjured by Hollywood in the early 20th century embed itself into these artists' practice, somehow evading the critical eye they turned to other forms of fetishization? This influence is part of a larger ongoing framework of philosophical transmigration, of elliptical othering, in which the difference between committed white Buddhist and anime cosplay princess is ambiguously delineated. This appropriative aesthetic is further scrutinized by EAR’s solitary revisionism. In a way she functions as a cult deprogrammer, tugging at the hem of pilfered textiles, knocking over the vat of Kool-Aid with her viola bow, and exposing the hazy logic of musical gestures evoked under the guise of “spiritual collectivity.” The metallic bowl that amplifies the recording apparatus is the mirror Cassandra holds to the audience. The looped sound of dropped batteries begins to gain traction in the final stretch of the piece, simultaneously invoking state-sanctioned domesticity and the unfathomable recesses of the technological void. The viola interrogates, edges, teases, trolls. It opens and closes portals on command. The Pied Piper is the fiddler at the crossroads, is the snake charmer, is the drag chanteuse warbling her way out of a k-hole, is the oracle ignored.

The work EAR is doing here is uroboric. The cobra woman unhinges her jaw to gag on her own tail. The original, heterocentric drone is swallowed, the ‘straight story’ is cannibalized, and the predominant narrative is soaked in digestive enzymes and cyclically excreted, creating a feedback loop that allows for chthonic lineages to re-emerge in the wee hours of the morning, when the flaming creatures are spilling out from the clubs. When the party is over, the afterglow of the Gag Aura shines on.

Kamikaze Jones is a writer, curator, and interdisciplinary artist whose work often explores extended vocal technique, queer hauntologies, and ritualized erotic transcendence. His recent practice has been focused on cultivating both sonic and sculptural sanctuary for the ghosts of public sex. A 2021 Wave Farm Artist-In-Residence, his work has been featured by The Poetry Project, Wussy Magazine, Montez Press Radio, Third Coast International Audio Festival, Constellations, and Nightboat Resonance. He is a co-founder of The Anchoress Syndicate, a poetry and performance collective based in NYC.