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Swaggering Resonance in Le Boudoir 1994-2006

Swaggering Resonance frames Le Boudoir, a sexy lesbian soirée which ran annually for 13 years in Montreal. Le Boudoir was a long evening of entertainment that took place primarily at the Art Déco venue Le Lion d’Or. It featured stage performances, carnivalesque off-stage activities including a tattoo booth, tarot readings and a peepshow, and closed with a dance party. It was a fancy dress soirée where crossdressing was abundant, and “gentlemen” could only attend if they were escorted by “ladies”.

Swaggering Resonance is curated by Miriam Ginestier, who produced Le Boudoir, and Itzayana (Itza) Gutiérrez Arillo, who encountered the event in 2018 while archiving the materials left behind. As co-curators, we come from radically divergent vantage points, and have differently wired brains, community and writing practices. We converged in centering conversational methods where we and others have been able to improvise, trust, gently push and strategize about words in a space of cross-generational friction.

The exhibit presents a selection (16 out of 57 distinct collectible images) of the covers of double-sided promotional flyers, enriched with testimonial texture by way of written and oral memories collected in the Spring of 2020. Flyers and memories have been placed in two exhibit areas: Queer Nostalgia and Haunting Objects. Finally, this exhibit unfolds in The Archive, a zone where paper-based sources, conversations and digitized remnants are available for consultation.

When Miriam showed Itza Le Boudoir printed ephemera and some of her memories, ideas and remnants of the event, they held “swaggering resonance” for Itza. The transmission involved some travelling from far away since, at the time of the first event, Itza was becoming a teenager in Mexico. For Miriam and many of those who experienced Le Boudoir in Montreal, the event holds a bounty of queer nostalgia, invoking their young adulthood at the turn of the millennium.

Le Boudoir had roughly two periods: 1994-2001, when the stage show featured a dozen cabaret acts; and 2002-2006, when a 40-minute vaudeville play was added to the mix. During this second period audiences grew from 475 to 633 and the budget went from $5,000 to $20,000. At this stage, the event partnered with Out Productions and received funding from Imperial Tobacco. After 11 editions, Le Boudoir outgrew Le Lion D’Or, and moved to Théâtre Corona in 2005, and Le National in 2006. Its expansion —and the additional work this entailed— contributed to its demise. 

In this curatorial encounter, we tenderly hold printed promotional materials from both periods, and the visitor will be able to perceive Le Boudoir’s transformations of the flyer contours in terms of colour, resolution, paper quality and contact info (telephone number, email, website). The protagonists of the advertising are mostly unknown and speculatively queer women from Belle Époque postcards to roaring twenties portraits. Our intention is to honour them and to highlight Le Boudoir’s allure while addressing its haunting dimensions. 

 

Swaggering Resonance

Le Boudoir captures. It bewitches us with the fantastic effect of pretending that the past belongs to the queer future. This illusion remains vibrant today and transmits swaggering resonance. Swaggering resonance starts with touching images of performative flesh that transport us to sensorial atmospheres. Resonance holds space so that style, pride, gender nonconformity, sexiness, dancing imaginations and embodiment may connect with each other.      

Imaginative, playful and avant-garde, Le Boudoir was also embedded in colonial gazes, orientalist imaginations, and racial segregation dynamics of cabaret and queer culture in North America. It presented mostly white performers for a predominantly white audience. Its flyers featured a majority of light skinned models, while figures that display colour were marked by the whiteness of their audiences and image makers. With the passing of time, the swagger of these images has been blurred, but here we are, reanimating unresolved feelings and amplifying common concerns. Here we share an intention to preserve a very specific history for ourselves and for future generations. 

These troubled times, at the verge of the collapse of touch and social fabric, only increase the importance to critically evoke the intimacy of live performance, communal resonance, and the closeness of hanging out till late. Facing times of severe injustice, this exhibit swaggers away from any nostalgia as a refuge of white melancholy, and holds tight with queerness as a transracial, multi gendered and cross generational digital fabric. 

With Swaggering Resonance we are aiming to look from contaminating perspectives that have space for radically different positions and feelings. The materials and memories we present, will hopefully make room for fleshy stories, critical conversations and creative building up from tensions of belonging, and not, to wider experiences of queer time. 

–– Itzayana Gutiérrez Arillo and Miriam Ginestier, 2020

QUEER NOSTALGIA
Performing Bodies

1994. In the opening year of Le Boudoir appeared the 11 x 18 cms format of flyers, that became its most standard format. These centered gender non conforming women. This probably Eurasian contortionist circulated as program cover, small poster, and one of four different flyers.

1998. Maud Wagner in 1907. After a career as a circus performer, Wagner was a travelling "tattooed attraction" and tattoo artist. She is the first known female tattoo artist in the USA, and one of the last tattoo artists to work by hand. This tattooed lady was presented as flyer, program and poster. By 1998, Le Boudoir posters had doubled in size (from 1994), to an impactful 43 x 71 cms.

2002. Jane (or Mary) DeVere (born in the 1840s or 50s - 1912) had a long exhibition career, sometimes billed as Madame Devere, The Kentucky Wonder. "Bearded ladies" like her were a staple of circus sideshows. The frame was added to most Boudoir flyers but what was inside varied enormously.

1998. Ella Williams (or Grigsby) was born in South Carolina and grew to be unusually tall. As Mme Abomah ("the African Giantess"), she was an international celebrity who posed and sang in the USA, Cuba and South America, Britain, most of continental Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

I had never seen anything like it. It was like a carnival for lesbians. Kissing booths, lesbian erotica at its best. Trapeze, half naked women. I thought I died and was in lesbian heaven. Sandra

My most vivid stage memory is my own - that very first night that I was asked to fill in with the Mambo Drag Kings introducing the MC - Johanne Cadorette. I was terrified. I didn't know what I was doing and felt incredibly self-conscious (especially because it was a lesbian audience). Our number was a hit - my little part was a hit - and it truly changed something in me. I felt confident, high, giddy as though I had landed in OZ - I found a community, a family in le Boudoir. Cindy Mancuso. a.k.a Tommy Boy

I remember audiences laughing, listening, and holding their breath. I remember people talking, and shushing, and the air thick with excitement at being there. (...) Someone yelled, “en français!!”, which was so awful to be shamed onstage at an event that I loved so much. (...) and I remember being onstage and looking into the crowd and seeing shadows because of the glare of the lights. Dayna

I remember in early 2000 when I met a canadian lesbian from montreal. She told me life for lesbian there was so great. She had a poster of Le Boudoir that reminded me a Jules Cheret Poster (I studied poster from the 20s in West Europe culture) and I felt it was so precious. I even rarely asked her to keep it after i took over her apartment in itaewon (heading-cheon) district in seoul. it gave me the goal to go see that show.” Kimpo Kim

Le Boudoir était l'événement le plus unique auquel on pouvait assister. Il n'y avait pas d'équivalent. Pour moi c'était un incontournable. D'avoir un thème "cabaret années 1920" ou la grande majorité des lesbiennes se costumaient, tout cela apportait à la soirée, cette magie de retourner dans le temps... On s'y croyait! Isabelle

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Deb
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Miriam
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Robin
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Annabelle
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Eliane
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Nat
Gender Presentations

2000. Renée Vivien (1877-1909) was a wealthy high-profile lesbian and poet based in Paris. She identified with and translated Sappho, and was the lover and muse of the writer Natalie Barney.

2001. The presence of clothing and nudity is an important variable in the collection as well as a mix of performative gestures.

2000. USA burlesque took shape in the late 19th century, and featured short acts, cross-dressing, disgraceful satire, saucy costumes, and bawdy suggestiveness, catering to a mostly working class audience. Many casts were entirely composed of women.

2000. Born in Berlin to a family of artists, Charlotte Andler (1902-1969) was a silent film and theatre actress. This photo was taken in 1939.

The old Lion d'Or felt so sexy and sophisticated. I remember wandering around after the show, between the tables. Everyone was dressed up. Alot of silky, sexy dresses, women in suits. Everything felt vibrant. I looooved getting dressed for those nights. Shelagh

One year we all went as sailors on leave. Another year I went as Sloberdon Lotsadik, a bisexual playboy. When the Boudoir was stretched to two nights I dressed up as Gino a very hairy and smarmy guy and the next night I dressed up as Gina a very sexual and big haired woman. (...) We knew we had a special night that no one else had. The night provided us with a safe and fun space to play around with gender and we felt our sexuality was celebrated. Leni

Je me souviens i was so excited in the queue front of national, where so many lesbians, so freely being themselves. smiling, being loud, being 'sans complexe' was giving me an energy that was so new, so liberating. Kimpo kim

[Events] that focus on lesbians no longer exist at least in the sprawling metropolis (not Montreal) in which I presently live. Instead, lesbians are included in 'queer women and trans' or 'queer' events. I have certainly appreciated seeing more racial diversity and more participation by trans women, but everything feels a bit fraught. It feels (to me) as though queer community organizers are scrambling to pull queer racialized and indigenous artists into their events so they do not look bad -- as opposed to having really engaged with the work of a variety of different artists and pulled together something that is thematically interesting. Anonymous

Kinda felt like being in another era with the decor, the show and the way people were dressed and tables were set. Nat King Pole

I remember dancing after shows—I remember great djs. I remember getting my tarot cards read. I remember lesbian gossip and drama, some of which I was part of. (...) I remember friends dressed up in their finest, I remember some getting dumped on the dance floor while others made out and snuck off to quiet corners returning later, disheveled and ready for a slow song or a drink at the bar, far from the person they returned with. (...) I remember looking at people to see who were with whom, and trying to remember whom they’d all been with the year before. Dayna

I have longing for that sense of belonging and at the same time find comfort in that belonging to a queer lineage. It feels different now that I am in my fifties. I remember feeling deep nostalgia when I was younger and we were in the heart of le Boudoir years. Shelagh

The venue was spectacular (le Lion D'or) - it was a throw back in time. It felt special and different. The energy of people hanging out outside the door having a cigarette, talking, laughing, looking sexy, being sexy, checking each other out, flirting, ….the energy was palpable. You could feel everyone's excitement ….almost hard to contain. I can remember the changing room - so hot, crowded but filled with laughter and excitement and nervousness. Cindy Mancuso. a.k.a Tommy Boy

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Lamathilde
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Elana
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Deb
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Annabelle
Pairs / Proxemics

1999. The production and distribution of erotic cards flourished at the turn of the 20th century, primarily in France. These were called "French postcards" in the USA where their production was illegal.

2005. Le Boudoir's new website is promoted for the first time (as well as a phone number).

2006. Resolution continued to improve and for the closing year of Le Boudoir, sepia colours and black were printed together on glossy card stock.

it was great to feel like I was part of a history of lesbians who came before me and fought for what I have and that is missing for me today. I feel I’ve lost my community in many ways. We have no more spaces to meet. Nat King Pole

The way in which the Boudoir was unique was in its capacity to capture that moment in time while offering something that was also timeless, something that took a long view of lesbian culture and history and brought it into a vibrant present. Aaron Pollard

Les corps....et les regards qui caressent et qui passent comme des brises…. Féliro la fée Ross

These were also golden years for queer activism and culture in Montreal. There was so much to do! I think we were splintered off into groups quite a bit - there was definitely a French - Anglo divide in the lesbian scene (...) I found I was surrounded by women who were very creative, funny, politicized and smart and who knew how to have a good time. Joanne

I remember backstage: I remember sharing hairspray, lipstick, mascara, and rum. I remember tying up corsets and being zipped into vinyl, partially naked bodies lounging and relaxed while others hurried into the next costume change. Dayna

I am incredibly nostalgic for the le Boudoir days - I miss the magic, I miss coming together as a community for a wonderful shared experience. I miss seeing the old faces - some I would only see once a year. For me there is a big hole.Cindy Mancuso. a.k.a Tommy Boy

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Nat
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Isabelle
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Isabelle
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Robin
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Dayna
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J Lo
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Miram
Haunting Objects
Otherness

2003. Orientalism extended to exotic signifiers beyond South Asia and the Middle East. In this image, the model wears a Manila shawl and a headpiece from a Sevillana folkloric costume from Southern Spain. Oriental props became an enchanting performative resource, and were profusely used to dress up and pretend to be someone else. Through accessories, props and choreographies, others were staged to transport the viewer to another place. These instances of performing otherness often carry the distortions of colonial spectres.

2000. Orientalism traffics in imperialist generalities, lumping together flesh, costumes and decorations from an imagined Middle East and South Asia. Fantasies of sexual availability of unreal others, appear in problematic redactions and continue to circulate inside queer and contemporary burlesque scenes. Spectres like these, evoke what still lingers from ways of looking at and ways to relate across ethnic differences.

2000. Born in Missouri, Josephine Baker (1906-1975) became a very famous entertainer in Paris. She was also a civil rights activist and French Resistance agent during WWII. This portrait shows her in her costume for Plantation, featured in the silent film La revue des revues (1927). At this time, the visual representation of nostalgic plantations and other romanticized tropical scenarios proliferated. Baker performed despite and against scripts, plots and audiences, that continuously invested in creating Black roles that combined fantasies of service and wildness.

It helped me look closer at the problems in romanticizing vintage imagery and performance as much of it was cultural fetishism. I often felt like it wasn't my place to embody certain things even if I loved them, like culturally specific dance forms. I'm glad that I listened to my gut on those thoughts and drew the lines. Shelagh

I do remember questioning choices around cultural appropriation, though we didn't use the term at that time. Sometimes I was the only one uncomfortable and was outnumbered by my fellow performers who thought I was overreacting. Also when I did a peepshow I remember being surprised by the comments of some women I could hear through the velvet curtain. I hadn't felt uncomfortable like that before except from men. Mostly it was happy, consensual exhibitionism but I clearly remember some "icky" feelings too. Shelagh.

These images are meant to transport you to some imaginary place, right? this imaginary orient. If you look at this object, it is a postcard size, right? and that carries a kind of intimacy as opposed as seeing it on a poster, and that just amplifies the fact that the imaginary space is precisely that harem, right? that heterotopia that is taboo or secretave, clandestine. Rose

Josephine was a great performer and cultural figure, but viewing her performance images is like trying to keep balance on a knife's edge. Adrienne

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Lamathilde
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Kimura
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Robin
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Robin
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Lo J
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J Lo
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Itza
Queer Hauntologies

1996. Annie Oakley (1860-1926) was a sharpshooter from Ohio who became the highest-paid star of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. The show was an open-air circus-come-rodeo which toured for decades romanticizing White settler culture in the "American frontier" via showmanship, horseback parades and reenactments. Rife with racial stereotypes, and casting invasion as both a moral good and predestined form of progress, these shows took place at the time of active genocide of Indigenous Nations and brutal anti-Black and anti-Chinese racism. While lending a tone of demure civility to systemic violence, Oakley also troubled gender norms, and was a friend to Native Americans, the most famous of which was Sitting Bull, who named her.

1999. Like other explicit ethnographic photos of the era, this one was commercialized as a postcard portraying the sexualized and orientalized flesh of others. The popularity of these postcards swelled from 1890 to 1920; though slavery had been abolished by this point, related tastes continued to circulate. Despite its generalizing Orientalism, the tambourine held by one of the women anchors us in the Mediterranean circuit towards the Middle East, and the head wraps narrow the space to the Magreb: from Marruecos, Algeria, bereber Cabilia, Tunes, Libia to Mauritania and Sahel. The hairstyles and jewels can be found in Algeria, under French occupation when this photo was taken. This image arrived to a queer lesbian scene in the former French colony of Quebec. It continues to hold untold words.

Like many people at the time I grew up not knowing anyone who was out as a queer person. So discovering my sexuality during that time was an isolating lonely experience. Like many people I remember the first time I set foot in a queer space and finally feeling the sense of belonging. The Boudoir's imagined past gave us a sense of historical belonging as well. We were there getting together and having fun just like the many generations of lesbians before us. Leni

Dans les années 90 la discrimination était palpable et plusieurs d'entre nous ressentions un devoir de revendiquer nos droits, d'afficher notre existence. Le gay pride était un geste politique et il fallait y participer. Isabelle

I remember noting that it tended to draw on the same (almost entirely white) artists that moved in some of the same social circles and had a certain white indie aesthetic. I do not remember anything being super egregious -- and I am not an uncritical person. Over 30 years of living in dyke communities, I have certainly witnessed (and gently disagreed with folks about) anti-semitism, fat phobia, butch phobia, sexism, hostility towards bisexuals, and cluelessness about race, class, disability, and trans issues. Perhaps I wasn't critical enough of Le Boudoir -- mostly, I just felt so grateful for it. Anonymous

Short answer, no. I don't doubt that this happened but my feeling, in general, was the opposite. Certainly, the context in which it was produced would have engendered a very white bias. What I saw, in terms of programming, was an attempt to address this. These things are always fraught and I am certain that there were people who felt excluded. Aaron Pollard

Seen through contemporary eyes, this image evokes a glorification of the genocidal treatment of Indigenous people. It needs to be reckoned with. The culture we existed in had only marginal representation outside of whiteness at the time, and while I think that the BIPOC members of our community were celebrated and truly appreciated, I didn’t have a full understanding of the extent of my own privilege and the ignorance it allowed. Annabelle

While there was some diversity, le Boudoir was a predominantly white event - not much different from other events at that time - This I was aware of at the time. Cindy Mancuso

It is interesting in how it relates to the history of Montreal and how there were segregation policies for black and white clientelle drinking establishments, for example, but also performing at clubs. There is a question of black minstrelsy in Montreal. And I'm thinking, this is an archive that's being excavated to bring it back to 1999. But within the time that this might have been taken and 1999, there is this huge amount of history of Blacks in Montreal, Black culture in Montreal and the Jazz fest. For me, I am just flummuxed, I am stupified about how these images can circulate this recent date, not long ago. Rose

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Miriam
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Miriam
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Elana
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Dayna
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Itza
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Robin
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J Lo

The Archive

Welcome to The Archive - a repository for some source material and other ephemera related to Le Boudoir, providing a pragmatic "behind the scenes" complement to the exhibit. We've included the full audio recordings of some group discussions (Audio Files), PDFs of the questionnaires and other writing (Memories), some scanned documents from Miriam’s administrative archives (Documents) as well as a link to Le Boudoir's short-lived website (Wayback Web).

We hope that this collection gives a better sense of all the invisible and interminable labour that goes into artistic productions such as Le Boudoir and this digital exhibit. This is just a glimpse of a larger collection, which hopefully will eventually be acquired by a professional archive.

Click the links below to view each document.


Le Boudoir straddled analog and digital eras and its rich, voluminous and incomplete archives include substantial physical remnants currently squirreled away in boxes and suitcases in Miriam's home, and a fragmented digital archive residing in Miriam's personal computer as well as online. Here is an overview of the complete collection:

Printed materials

Le Boudoir print materials include flyers, posters, programmes, tickets. These were made with images sourced from postcards, as well as from books or magazines. In the first years, the layout of flyers and programmes was assembled using scissors, glue and a photocopier. Later layouts were done using QuarkXpress, and these digital files are unfortunately all corrupt. This near complete collection of 57 distinct flyers, 17 or so posters and 13 programmes (some of which have multiple copies, others exist only as a maquette) was restored, catalogued and stored in archive boxes by Itza in 2018.

Administrative documents

Administrative documents include budgets, to-do and contact lists, production schedules, choreographic notes and ideas, instructions for workers, volunteer shifts, media kits, press clippings and in later years, funding applications. Physical folders grow with the event's age and amplitude, and are stored in a single banker box. Most of their digital counterparts are corrupt and cannot be opened. Mysteriously, there are nearly no traces - physical nor digital - for the second edition in 1995.

Performance documentation

Le Boudoir belongs to an era when means and possibilities for documentation were limited. Of the 13 editions, photo and video documentation exist for approximately only five and seven editions, respectively. While a performance videographer was provided for each edition of Le Boudoir, much video documentation is missing due to technical problems during the event, or to subsequent loss. Hi-8 and Mini-DV recordings are stored in a shoebox. In around 2010, the tapes were digitized, but the CDs or hard drives were lost, possibly stolen in a 2014 robbery.

In the early years, photography was discouraged out of respect for patrons’ privacy, to preserve the integrity of the live performance, and shield performers from the distracting click and flash of indoor photography of the time. In later years, once digital cameras were ubiquitous, Le Boudoir worked with official photographers generating abundant documentation of the event. Some photos of early editions exist thanks to some invited or renegade photographers.

Messy remnants

Other diverse archives include websites preserved on the Internet Archive's Wayback machine platform: leboudoir.org (2005-2006), as well as mimproductions.org for all of Miriam's events (2007-2010). Three short videos created for Le Boudoir, featuring Miriam's alter ego Fannie Nipplebottom, are distributed by G.I.V. (Group Intervention Video). A suitcase of underwear, pillowcases, magnets, pop-up books and other unsold merchandise, serves as an end table in Miriam's home. Miriam’s email archive contains artist solicitations, informal negotiations, as well as “the Mimlist”, a monthly event listing sent to 2400 hand-collected email addresses at its peak. Initiated in 1997, the listserve has been mostly dormant since 2012 with the advent of Facebook and the retirement of Meow Mix, but it is occasionally resurrected!

Post-event archives

In the spring and summer of 2020, Le Boudoir's archive was enriched with three hours of oral history and 20 written questionnaires which helped nourish our curatorial process. Fragments of these appear in the exhibit areas of Haunting Objects and Queer Nostalgia, and their raw versions are available here in The Archive, with the gracious consent of the contributors. 

Archiving is part holding on, part letting go. These artefacts help process the passing of time and the trickiness of memory and perspective. Engaging with them now bestows them with a new purpose: to look backwards and forwards with critical care. Letting them go is paradoxically a means of holding on: by preparing them for acquisition, we increase their chances of outliving their mortal maker. However, paper and digital archives are also fragile and mortal. Many of the collection’s gaps are unintentional losses, but some are desired. Some of us prefer to let the past be passed, and these resonant gaps are sacred and felt. Archives are by nature gapped, and fragments tell multiple, but never complete, stories. 

-- Miriam Ginestier and Itzayana Gutiérrez Arillo

Credits

Swaggering Resonance is an exhibit developed in collaboration with the Cabaret Commons, a gathering place, digital repository and anecdotal encyclopedia for trans-feminist and queer artists, activists, audiences and researchers.

Contributors

Curation: Itzayana Gutiérrez and Miriam Ginestier (bios below)
Website design and coding: Christopher Willes 
Typographic revival for title design: Aldo Arillo
Latinx fonts: Nodo nodotypefoundry.com
Museographic Advisor: Zoe De Luca
Cabaret Commons Co-Managing Editor: Stephen Lawson
Cabaret Commons Exhibitions Coordinator: Nelanthi Hewa
Translation: Gersande La Flèche, Kim-Sanh Châu, Laurence Coudart, Nathalie Claude

Oral and written testimony by: Aaron, Annabelle, Anonymous, Chris, Cindy a.k.a. Tommy Boy, Dayna, Deb, Elana, Féliro la fée, Isabelle, Itza, J Lo, Johanne, Julianne, kimpo kim / kimura, lamathilde, Leni, Lili, Lo J, MCP, Mimi, Miriam, Nat King Pole, Nathalie C, Nathalie D, Nathalie F, Robin, Rose, Sandra, Sasha La Photographe, Shelagh

The Cabaret Commons is co-directed by T.L. Cowan and Jasmine Rault. 

The flyers exhibited here are part of Miriam Ginestier’s personal collection, and have been archived by Itzayana Gutierrez.

Contact : leboudoirarchives@gmail.com

Biographies

Itzayana Gutiérrez Arillo is a PhD candidate in the Communication Studies program at McGill University. They hold an MA in Art History from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), and a BA in Cultural History from Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Morelos (UAEM). Their dissertation focuses on graphic violence in Latin American comics art and how print culture shapes exceptional affective spaces supporting racism, totalitarianism and genocide. Their last curatorial work was in the crew of "Tornaviaje: La nao de China y el Barroco en México, 1565-1815" at Barroco Museo Internacional (BMI). They co-organized Le Grand Weekend Tango Queer Montreal (2018-2019), and as a tango performer have a research creation practice with ghostly ontologies and deep mourning.

Miriam Ginestier has pursued a multi-faceted career as an artist and cultural worker. As co-director of Studio 303 in Montreal, she supports experimental artists through an interconnected program of residencies, workshops, gatherings and unconventional performance opportunities. Deeply invested in artist empowerment and community building, she is the creator of Edgy Women (a festival which ran 23 years from 1994 to 2016) and Queer Performance Camp (since 2016). Miriam is also an independent producer of diverse events for Montreal’s lesbian and queer communities including the cabarets Le Boudoir (annually, 1994-2006) and Meow Mix (monthly, 1997-2012), Montreal's Queer Tango Festival (2013-2017), and since 2017, Hot Flash - a brief, early dance party for bent girls (of a certain age) and their buddies.

Queer Nostalgia

Le Boudoir staged a lesbian-centric version of the turn of the millenium that contrasted with the techno buzz of night scenes at the time. From 1994 to 2006, in historic cabaret venues in Montreal, it dug up distant forms of glamour, referencing the Art Nouveau era with the gender non-conforming and artistic inventiveness of the roaring twenties. 

This playfulness with the past was loose and added texture and ambiance to the soirée. Through some words of participant artists in this exhibit and the short essay Time Travel in Le Boudoir (see Archives), we will slowly start to dive into how this glittery carousel of references affected the stage.

Today when we look at the event flyers, the century-old imagined past they convey still invokes projected ancestors and a collective longing for deep roots in time. Many of those who experienced Le Boudoir still pine for a decades old remembered past. Queer nostalgia takes over imagination once again, and the act of looking at the past to transmit something new brings us here.  

Queer nostalgia is a wistful collective affection for that which no longer exists, but can still provoke our imaginations. It is close to the brief moment of finding something you never had and finally found, or the flexible resistance that it takes to bridge the distance between traditions that speak to you and the presence of your circumstance. It comforts the spirit eager to find traces in relation to oneself in the course of time, it maps inventories of loss to be fleshed, appearances of old specters to be sheltered and excavated. Memory and imagination are conspirators. One cannot exist without the other, and both are molded from fragments of permanence and erasure, curiosity and a certain gaze. 

Queers and lesbians continue to be erased from mainstream society, and are often invisible in narratives of cultural traditions. Set in motion by the nostalgia of belongings deeply rooted in time, the act of traversing tunnels and gaps of transmission of an imagined queer lesbian past offers grounding. Paths and and gaps can be traversed and animated at any time. Positions of belonging, looking at and looking back are multiple, and the occasion to honour accompanies the sense of joy, grief, reparations or resistance.  

–Miriam Ginestier and Itzayana Gutiérrez Arillo, 2020

 

Glittery picking

As I scavenged postcards in bookstores searching for Le Boudoir images, my eye was drawn to beacons of queerness: images of pairs, unusual gender presentation and unabashed sexuality. Late 19th and early 20th century circus performers intrigued me. I fantasized about the subculture in which they lived: a world apart, where outsiders with non-normative bodies and-or extraordinary talents could earn a decent and even lavish living. 

Travelling circuses paved the way for the aerialist Maud Wagner to reinvent herself as the first female tattoo artist in the USA, and for the unusually tall Mme Abomah to travel the world as a revered entertainer and briefly lead her own touring company (see exhibit portraits). I was aware that this world bolstered fetishization and objectification, and involved more than its fair share of harsh exploitation, and yet, through my romantic lense, these images of circus women signalled fearlessness, independence and alternative artistry.

The masculine-presenting women in this exhibit had a similar effect on me, but coloured by a class perspective. Whereas the anonymous butch burlesque artist and the woman holding her tit embody brash confidence, the image of androgynous poet Renée Vivien conveys sensitivity and aristocratic tendencies, placing her in another historical fantasy world: that of the high-drama, openly lesbian independent heiress, set in the sexy habitat of the Paris literary salon of the Belle Époque (a nostalgic term coined post WWI). The fact that Vivien died at 32 and suffered from substance abuse and anorexia doesn't diminish my romanticisation of her.

Finally, my attraction to pairs highlights my penchant for hidden meanings. As far as I was concerned, a lesbian subtext could be found just about anywhere. Images of two women playing chess, strolling arm in arm, or wading, implied, in this new context, that there is more going on that meets the eye. I see this as an act of fanciful amateur archeology - a reversal of erasure. 

Some of these images of women in close proximity are explicitly erotic: a bottomless woman in a primly buttoned up shirt and tie lifts her companion’s slip; a fully clothed and somewhat matronly butch is sexually charged by the naked woman on her lap. While I imagine these images were not created for lesbians, their mise-en-scène and costuming tickle my (queer) gaze. The clothing exudes both prudishness (what flesh it covers, it covers well), and a charged sexuality (it is gender non-conforming). This, in contrast with the full nudity and bared crotch, radically and playfully subvert the age old stereotype of the sensible, asexual - or at most sensual - lesbian, which still persisted in the nineties. These images say: Appearances can be deceiving. Not only do lesbians exist, they also have raunchy sex.

The solo subjects of these flyers ooze confident transgression, whereas the pairs suggest intimacy and complicity. There is also something about an embracing of high art and low art, which have equal footing in Le Boudoir. When seen together, these vintage images might arouse a sense of longing for, and of be-longing to, a queer lineage. 

–Miriam Ginestier, 2020

Haunting Objects

Le Boudoir repurposed postcards and portraits that originally circulated between 1870 and 1940. They showed gendered flesh accessorized with gestures, costumes, objects, postures and backgrounds. These details formed a provocative matter that exotified intimate imaginations. This originary exotification occured in a period that thrived in indulgent ideas of Whiteness and Orientalism. Its impulses were carried over into the future, and into Le Boudoir.

At the time when daguerreotype flourished, portraits became a fleshy paper souvenir that conquered many, and the format of postcards massively proliferated. The more fantastic fabrications delivered small objects to spectators craving to look at others made out of ornaments and artifice. The format was designed to be collected, and orientalist intimate imaginations could be carried in pockets and held in hands. The conditions in which orientalized others made out of paper appeared, modelled them as deviant, primitive, wild, and sometimes explicitly haunted by specters of imperialism, colonization, servitude and peril. They were purchased and people mailed them to each other at the turn of the 19th century. Today they are part of popular repertoires of images and the vocabulary of cabaret print culture. 

The following selection of Le Boudoir flyers recirculated this repertoire and handed it to a lesbian clientele between 1996 and 2003. When I found them, they hurtfully grabbed my guts. My imagination got busy trying to grasp, understand and name the feelings that emerged from what I looked at. During that process, there was great value in trying to find words together with the community they emerged from, and keep in perspective what they were part of. 

You are invited to look at this selection and sit with the discomfort you may experience while trying to negotiate the relation between what is in front of your eyes, what you know or don’t yet know, your intimate stories, memories, and the images that form in your mind. With this display, we are aiming to involve your closer attention in finding words that speak about feelings of anger, hurt, grieving and reparations. 

-Itzayana Gutiérrez Arillo, 2020

 

Dialoguing across

When I started Le Boudoir in my mid-twenties I was newly lesbian within a forming queer women's community. I wanted to squash the patriarchy, bridge the anglo-franco divide, and liven up the lesbian scene. My attempts to increase racial diversity on stage, in the room, and on the flyers, while upholding the aesthetic I was drawn to, resulted in some hits and misses. Itza and I have excavated some of the misses to display in this exhibit. It's a deeply uncomfortable conversation starter, but this is a dialogue I want us all to have.

When I look at this selection of flyers now decades later I can still relate to some of what attracted me to these images. I remember my motivation for using them and I am troubled by what they reveal about the era, the scene, my upbringing and the way I filter and see the world. When I contemplate them assembled like this an avalanche of conflicted feelings percolates. These images and memories are fraught remnants of a community's history. Whether I like it or not these material remnants are part of my legacy

Miriam: Take the image of Annie Oakley. Annie was a legendary shot, a scrappy survivor who promoted women’s self defense. Her image kindled memories of my white rural Alabama roots: home movies of my tomboy mother and her brothers playing "cowboys and Indians" in the late 50s; myself feeling badass doing target practice in the woods with my grandfather in the 80s. I saw Annie Oakley, my mother, and myself as girls defying assigned gender roles, saying fuck you to femininity. I saw Annie Oakley as a protofeminist. And that's all I saw. Revering firearms didn’t bother me in that context. And I didn't see the teepee until Itza pointed it out to me; or if I saw it back then, it didn't bother me. Colonialism was a barely familiar concept I assigned to the distant past.

Itza: My first reaction to this postcard of an armed woman was a short flash of high alert. I stopped cataloguing the flyers for a couple of weeks. I felt let down and somewhat surprised about the power one image could have to push me out. It took time to understand the trauma I felt being looked at by this ghost of frontier whiteness. The teepee in Annie Oakley’s background is supposed to blend, but also very concretely animates racial dynamics in epic tales of settler colonialism. It displays heroic armed whiteness and legitimacy, ruling over Native land to be conquered. This teepee in the background is the only direct reference to indigeneity among the flyers made for Le Boudoir. This postcard incarnates a familiar ghost of mine from the semi desert landscapes of the north of Mexico, where my ancestors -indios chinos- have been hunted for sport by white armed ranchers for generations. 

Miriam: The image of the pair of topless women was and remains the most disturbing image to me. It was a rare find combining nudity, twosome-ness and non-whiteness. It was unlike most of the photos in my collection, which tended to be of U.S. or European entertainers, artists or erotic models. I couldn't locate the women, but I knew they were none of those things. I remember a hesitation: a thought that this image made me think of enslavement. But because I couldn’t articulate to myself why, I chided myself for making a simplistic and racist association: darker skin + distant land = slavery. The unease I felt about the photograph was eclipsed by the unease I felt about my own reaction. I don't recall asking anyone for input. In the end, I decided to use it. Today, my visceral reaction is the same. These women are naked but the pose is not erotic. It's a different kind of objectification, like property being displayed. I wish I had made a different choice.

Itza: I was sad. It tasted bitter. I was ashamed because I did not have the right to look at this image. Again it was difficult to separate my action of looking from the trauma of the redaction of the image. The tension and arousal built up was never seducing but violently haunting. Something in my veins resisted and it became my duty to know more about these haunted bodies. Their dark skin is racially sexualised and gendered with violence. The posture for scrutiny exposes a gaze and taste informed by slave auctions, a nudity that feels sheltered by the sexual availability of slaves. This skin was not recorded in legitimate ways and I am still looking for queer projections that can nest this image with the care it deserves. 

-Miriam Ginestier with Itzayana Gutiérrez Arillo, 2020