I have a text message saved in my phone from December 14, 2012 that reads, “The results came in, I am positive…I am okay though,” followed by a smiley face with a hyphen for a nose. The text was from Joseph Varisco, the founder of Queer, Ill, and Okay, an annual performance series that recently took place at Defibrillator Gallery on July 5th and 6th. As the creative force behind JRV Majesty Productions, Joe is well known for curating, documenting, and producing queer art in Chicago. He is the host of Lexica at Salonathon, creator of the oral history series Queer Lexicon, and co-editor of the now defunct publication Chicago IRL. It is no surprise that he used his own diagnosis as an opportunity to create community conversations around chronic illness.
Queer, Ill and Okay allowed artists the freedom to address their chronic illness in a way that was not tokenizing. It is easy to think of illness first and foremost in medical terms. Information typically associated with chronic health concerns such as diagnosis, symptoms, or treatments were not the focus here. The majority of performers did not even mention the name of their illness, but simply alluded to it. Instead, the performers explored the emotional side effects of their illnesses, along with their changing relationships to family and community members.
In a chilling performance, NIC Kay submerged their head in a bucket of ice water while a tape played Des’ree’s inspirational hit “You Gotta Be.” Parts of the song were significantly altered and slowed down, which made lyrics like “You gotta be hard, you gotta be tough, you gotta be stronger” sound more burdensome than uplifting. Mary Fons silently projected text on the wall in a moving performance that captured the difficulty of publicy discussing chronic illness. She praised her sisters for supporting her by undertaking seemingly small tasks like painting her toe nails and buying her a watercolor set so she could paint the colors pouring out of her body. She explained, “When you have a serious illness, the people in your life get it too,” and several members of the audience broke into tears.
Other performances included music and spoken word by Tim’m West, Christopher Knowlton’s performative drawing of his trip to a sperm bank that doubled as a “gay porn desert,” and a movement piece where Cruel Valentine pressed her body against shimmering black fabric held down by the audience. Patrick Gill read an essay about the anxiety of waiting for an illness to take hold. Sara Kerastas recited a series of monologues about a trip to the hospital that captured the personalities of their family members. Dirty Grits spoke to an empty chair and condemned the audience for complimenting their appearance more often than asking, “How are you?” The chair they spoke to was the only empty seat in house.
By creating both a community of living, breathing artists and a warm, receptive audience, Queer, Ill, and Okay began to counter the difficulties many people face when discussing their physical and mental health. Queer, Ill, and Okay did not glamorize illness. It was not an overtly feel-good nor a saddening show. Instead, it was a strikingly honest and heartfelt portrait of how people cope with chronic illness, proving that sharing stories is an effective and necessary form of community care.
Queer, Ill and Okay took place at Defibrillator Gallery, 1136 N Milwaukee Ave, on July 5th and 6th, 2014. Photos courtesy Ji Yang.