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Jennifer Lange, Film/Video Studio Curator
Feb 02, 2022
In conjunction with the exhibition To Begin, Again: A Prehistory of the Wex, 1968–89, The Box presents Glenn Belverio's Bad Grrrls through the end of February. A fun look back at a past meetup between drag queens and riot grrrls, the video is part of an ongoing series produced by the artist for New York City public access in the 1990s. Below, Belverio shares how the series came together, the spirit and intent behind it, and the recent restoration of his work.
First, how amazing that the Video Data Bank (at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) has acquired, preserved, and is distributing your video archive! It must be so satisfying to know your work is in such good hands. Is that something that had been in the works for a while? What is it like to have this work, made 25–30 years ago, rediscovered by new audiences?
I am so grateful to Video Data Bank for helping me unearth and preserve these videos—which had been languishing and potentially deteriorating in my bedroom and at the office of my co-producer Stevin Michels—and they did such an amazing job. Years had gone by and I was in a quandary over how to deal with these three-quarter-inch and Hi-8 tapes. I already had a distributor in London, LUX, who were handling two of my videos starting way back in the 1990s, but I hadn’t been in touch with them for a number of years. And then in 2018, a curator at Nottingham Contemporary in the UK named Cédric Fauq contacted LUX about Glennda and Camille Do Downtown, my 1993 collaboration with feminist scholar and provocateur Camille Paglia, for inclusion in an exhibition he was curating called Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender, Resistance. He had seen the video at a screening organized by LUX in 2015 and remarked that it “stayed in my mind since then.”
I flew to Nottingham to attend the opening of Still I Rise where I bumped into Matt Carter from LUX. He asked me about my other videos and said LUX was interested in digitizing them. Long story short, we handed the project over to VDB because it ended up being easier having it done in the US. The then-director of VDB, Abina Manning, was someone I had been in touch with on Facebook and back in 1996, she curated a retrospective of Glennda videos at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, so it was great to be working with her again. VDB spent considerable time digitizing and preserving the videos in 2019 and by early 2020, they were ready to see the light of day again. VDB arranged for my 1991 video Seize Control of the Taj Mahal to be screened at the 2020 International Film Festival Rotterdam in January and in February, VDB organized a launch event for me, showing two of my videos in their exhibition WE DON’T WANT YOUR MTV in the Sullivan Galleries at the School for the Art Institute of Chicago, where I gave a lecture and answered questions about my work.
It was at that lecture I realized how much interest there is today in this kind of work—1990s drag history, queer and AIDS activism—among young people. (One of my idols, fashion legend Diana Vreeland, always talked about how important it was for older people to break out of their cliques and hang out with the kids.) It truly is a thrill to have the videos discovered by new audiences after all these years, and there really seems to be a great amount of interest in New York City in the 1990s—a decade that has come to be viewed as a magical era in NYC because of its pre-internet DIY creativity, freewheeling nightclub scene, and renewed sexual freedom. Advances had been made in AIDS medications and the grim days of the 1980s—when we lost so many vital, creative people—gave way to a new optimism. (The early ‘90s music made by Deee-Lite exemplified this moment in time’s giddy energy.) My series of Glennda videos—which were filmed from 1990–1996—addressed so many issues that young people are still dealing with today: homophobia, police brutality, racial injustice, and the erosion of women’s reproductive rights. So while the videos are a time capsule of the queer ‘90s, the content still seems contemporary and highly relevant today.
Your work is a window into the incredibly rich creative world of public access television. And it was made during a time when media and television were being used by artists as a tool for activism, particularly queer artists who wanted to draw attention to homophobia and the AIDS crisis. Can you talk about how your work fit in with those converging histories?
When I moved to NYC in 1987, I was amazed by the anarchic sensibility of public access. To me, this was what NYC was all about: If you wanted to showcase your talents and viewpoints, you didn’t need to make it on Broadway or move to Hollywood. You could just slap it all together on a videotape and schlep it over to Manhattan Neighborhood Network. And they would broadcast it for you! There was virtually no censorship, which almost sounds like a tale from a fictitious utopia. (Today, if you express your views “the wrong way” on social media, you get thrown in “jail.”)
My first foray into public access was in 1989 when I was a co-host on a rinky-dink show called Talk to Go, where I interviewed quirky entertainers such as The Del Rubio Triplets and Lypsinka. In September of that year, we filmed an episode at Wigstock—Lady Bunny’s annual drag fest that took place in the East Village’s Tompkins Square Park—and the producer of Talk to Go found a co-host for me, a brand-new queen on the scene named Brenda Sexual (the drag persona of Duncan Elliott). The filming of the show was interrupted by a gay-bashing that took place in the middle of the park, and because Duncan and I, as well as the crew for Talk to Go, were members of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), we quickly joined a spontaneous protest. Within minutes, ACT UP members in drag were sitting down in the middle of Avenue A and blocking traffic. (It should be noted that while Lady Bunny was vilified for her flippant response to the gay-bashing—“When you dress up like that, those boys just can’t keep their hands off you”—today she is one of the most political drag queens in existence.)
Shortly after that, Duncan and I had a falling-out with the producer of Talk to Go and we decided to launch our own public access TV show. Playing on her last name, Brenda Sexual decided my drag name should be Glennda Orgasm, and Sexual Orgasm Productions was born. Inspired by our activism in ACT UP and by the bitingly satiric East Village drag shows at clubs like The Pyramid, we developed a strategy that became known as “drag activism”—addressing issues around queer liberation and AIDS with campy humor. The first episode of The Brenda and Glennda Show, entitled The Out and Outrageous Bus Ride, was filmed in the spring of 1990 on the 9th Street crosstown bus with a ragtag group of drag queens and queer activists. From that moment on, the theme of the series involved taking the art of drag out of nightclubs and into the streets, in broad daylight, so we could confront and engage everyday people with queer identity.
L to R: Bruce LaBruce as Fonnda LaBruce, Sadie Benning, and Belverio as Glennda Orgasm in Bad Grrrls; image courtesy of the Video Data Bank at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Bad Grrrls, which focuses on a riot grrrl conference in New York, is like a time capsule within a time capsule! There was something really kind of touching (and totally radical) about you and Fonnda interviewing these young women because, even though on the surface a drag queen and a riot grrrl might not appear to have much in common, they do and those connections really come alive during your interviews. How do you think younger audiences view this work? Or how do you hope they view it?
After Brenda left the show, I changed the name to Glennda and Friends in early 1993. The concept was to have a rotating cast of guest co-hosts. For the first show, I collaborated with queer punk porn provocateur, filmmaker Bruce LaBruce, who debuted his drag persona Fonnda LaBruce in the episode Bad Grrrls. Riot Grrrl has become such a legendary chapter of the 1990s—the movement really brought a much-needed fresh approach to punk rock and feminism—and I think the young people of today have a “wish I had been there” nostalgia for it. (Much like my generation’s nostalgia for the 1960s.) My hope for today’s younger audiences is that they will be inspired by Bad Grrrls to create joyful, playful and empowering art that doesn’t take itself too seriously—instead of getting bogged down in the Red Guard-like vigilantism of cancel culture, policing of so-called cultural appropriation, infantilized obsessions with “trigger warnings” and rigidity around language. And of course, there are many young people who are producing great, proactive, sex-positive work now that will hopefully take activism and art in a new direction.
How has your career evolved since making these series? Are you still making videos?
The last video I made was One Man Ladies, a Glennda and Friends episode from 1996 co-starring performance artist Vaginal Davis. It was that same year I had my retrospective at the ICA in London and I had reached a turning point in my life. I didn’t want to enter my thirties as a starving artist, and I knew I wasn’t going to make a living with my videos. So I returned to the workforce, first as an assistant fashion stylist, then as a journalist and fashion editor, and finally as a marketing copywriter for brands like Bloomingdale's, Tiffany’s and MoMA Design Store. Today, in regard to my videos, I think of myself as a bit of a historian of a certain chapter of drag and queer history and am enjoying revisiting those days as I bring this archival work to new audiences.
Top of page: Glenn Belverio photo: Nancy Stout