Notes on ‘Notes on Neo-Camp’

Last night I attended a panel discussion called ‘Notes on Camp’ at the ICA, which aimed to ‘interrogate the term camp and consider its relevance to contemporary art’. Oddly enough, it seemed that the focus of the discussion was actually the term neo-camp – a rather muddy term coined by curator of ‘Notes on Neo-Camp’, Chris Sharp. It was this confusion over the attempt to revise, reclaim or reimagine the already heavily contested term camp that caused a lot of discomfort for me.

The panel was chaired by the brilliant Gavin Butt, whose work I find really challenging and interesting. The panellists were: Chris Sharp, who, following a rather exhausting article about so called neo-camp, curated the exhibition ‘Notes on Neo-Camp’; Daniel Sinsel, whose artworks were included in the exhibition; and Ellen Feiss, who had reviewed the exhibition.

In homage to Sontag’s Notes on Camp (and through laziness) I’ll put my thoughts about the event in note form.

1. Gavin Butt’s interpretation of camp was the only one that echoed my own, he said that camp was an answer to “straight seriousness”, for when sincerity was not enough. He highlighted three key changes that have occurred post-Sontag’s seminal essay; when written, pop culture as we now know it was in its infancy, now sincere speech is not taken at face value in the age of political spin, ideologies are no longer so readily believed or unchallenged; he referred to “come dine with me” syndrome- i.e.: the way that “trashy consumerist taste” now dominates in ways that it didn’t in the early to mid 1960s; and finally, LGBT political and legal developments- meaning that (arguably) LGBT people no longer need to find a place in society solely through irony and aestheticism.

2. Both Chris and Dan’s interpretation of ‘neo-camp’ was to do with the covert, the unspoken, the euphemism and the suggestive gesture; some sort of coded language. They both seemed to identify camp as solely the territory of the gay male- which I find quite a difficult thing to get on board with. Ellen criticised the exhibition as being under-theorised in the context of camp, and Sontag’s essay- which all three seemed to be quite dismissive of, and Chris in particular seemed to suggest was not relevant anymore.

3. While I agreed with a lot of Ellen’s critique of the term ‘neo-camp’, the examples she gave to endorse her own reading of camp were equally troubling, there were a lot of erect penises and imagery of queer activism. The heavy focus on (homo)erotica I found quite unusual, it’s not camp. Likewise, the political elements of camp (which Sontag refutes by suggesting that camp is apolitical – presumably in the sense that its aim is never to be political, regardless of whether the outcome is or not) for me, are only a small part of what camp is, and the focus on queerness (read “white gay men”) was completely misguided. Women, queer or otherwise, were barely a footnote in this discussion.

4. Ellen highlighted an image of an object (if memory serves it was a ladder) that was rendered functionless because of the way it was arranged – she identified this as camp. This is one of many examples where queer (or queered) art works were misdiagnosed as camp (or neo-camp).

5. There was a lot of talk about us living in a “post-marriage” queer time. And a post queers in the military time. Chris identified neo-camp as being post-closet, but it seems to be that neo-camp is indeed post-camp, in other words, a product of assimilation. Assimilation that I feel is thoroughly un-queer and the realm of a tediously homonormative approach to LGBT politics.

6. Dan and Chris both suggested that, the very fact that ICA was having this discussion showed that camp has become institutionalised, I think this talk proved quite the opposite- that camp has been tamed, sanitised and diluted into a completely different, less exciting (/comprehensible) beast, for the purpose of academia and visual art.

7. The strongest comment, for me, came from a woman in the audience, who said that ‘camp is female’. This comment aside, there was no mention of the role women have played in the story of camp. (I recommend Pamela Robertson’s Guilty Pleasures: feminist camp from Mae West to Madonna as a good counter to this).

8. While a very interesting discussion, the fact that Chris Sharp’s exhibition (and thus, by proxy, Daniel Sinsel’s work) had been framed as ‘neo-camp’, made it difficult to engage wholly with any aspect of it, as a great deal of their images seemed to me, the very antithesis of camp. Thankfully, Gavin Butt in his closing remarks, admitted that many of the images shown throughout the talk had prompted the reaction ‘I don’t think that’s camp at all’ from himself.

9. Without having seen the exhibition, it’s unfair to be dismissive of it, but based on this discussion, Neo-Camp seems to me to be straight, highbrow, abstract and thoroughly un-camp. I’m not sure I can even imagine what a “new” camp might look like, or even if this body of work could be called post-camp- it seems to me that ‘anti-camp’ is a more appropriate term.

10. As my friend Judith, who I attended the talk with, said; perhaps once you start theorising camp, you kill it. However, I’m sure that won’t stop us trying…

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