Conversations on camp with Jo Michael Rezes

Jo Michael Rezes is an instructor in the Experimental College as well as in the Theater department at Tufts University as a fourth-year Ph.D. student. Courtesy Jo Michael Rezes

Jo Michael Rezes’ existence rests in camp, the concept first established by Susan Sontag in her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp'” as an aesthetic absurdity that is artificial, passionate, serious; easy to see but hard to explain; and includes the seemingly unconnected examples of Tiffany lamps, Swan Lake and women’s clothes of the 1920s. As a Tufts Theatre and Performance Studies Ph.D. student and an ardent devotee of queer temporalities in camp, Rezes is instructing the new Experimental College course, “Camp: Bad Taste, Humor, and Cult Classics” this fall.

In 1964, Susan Sontag defined camp as an aesthetic “sensibility” that is plain to see but hard for most of us to explain: an intentional over-the-top-ness, a slightly (or extremely) “off” quality, bad taste as a vehicle for good art.

As an undergraduate, they navigated their own identity through art and scholarship while studying English and drama concentrating in queer studies and stage direction. Embodying varying gender expressions, they sensed a shift in the movement of time, inspiring their scholarship onward.

“I started noticing that when I was taking on a character that was exploring gender or was actively a trans character,” Rezes said. “I was noticing moments in rehearsals and I was noticing moments in collaborative settings where time moved differently or felt like it moved differently in my body.”   

Embodiment and movement altered their temporalities for Rezes while playing Seymour Krelborn in Little Shop of Horrors as an undergraduate. This role was a powerful discovery.   

“Oh, I can play a man, but I don’t think I am a man. So that’s when a trans discovery happened. This queer moment happened for me, but also, it was fully imbricated in this Camp sensibility … Camp, gender, queerness are all wrapped up in this body and everyone’s body, and it was just very exciting,” Rezes said. 

Rezes explored notions of time, embodiment, camp, gender and queerness in their master’s thesis at Tufts titled, “Phantacamp: Queer Temporal Ruptures in the Performance of Restaged Camp.” After their thesis, they were inspired to design a syllabus teaching the unteachable and undefinable: camp. It just so happened the utter failure of the so-called “Camp”-themed 2019 Met Gala simultaneously occurred as they finished their thesis, further inspiring them to dive into the complexities of camp and its influence spanning varying media. In fact, one week in the course will be dedicated to focusing on the 2019 Met Gala, discussing the absurdity of watching celebrities attempt camp.   

“I think there’s something about the Met Gala in 2019 and watching celebrities try to embody a sensibility that is inherently a minority area and trying to say, ‘I am the camp-est of the camp,’” they said. “But meanwhile, having nine mansions and having to navigate the world as a rich celebrity may not be the best entry way for a camp moment or camp commentary.”  

Rezes’ course will hone on the intricacies and nuances of camp and its historical development that the 2019 Met Gala failed to assess, particularly in regards to class and race. 

“We’re going to be making sure that we dedicate more of the course to understanding camp as a black cultural aesthetic than one that might have been represented at the Met Gala in 2019,” Rezes said. 

The course’s camp sensibilities are exposed through media, internet, and scholarship outlets, challenging students to question camp’s changing artistic and historical expressions over time. Rezes’ selections include Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp”; Christopher Isherwood’s first commentary on camp as a concept; the seventh season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (2009–); “The Dark Side of Camp Aesthetics” (2017); “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” (1986–1990); “Notes on the Uses of Black Camp” (2017); films by John Waters; “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975); and commentaries concerning horror, camp and actual summer camp. 

In the final weeks, Rezes will examine their dissertation scholarship on HIV and AIDS history and performance, exploring themes of the haunting and dark sides of camp. Rezes’ thesis work focuses on camp existing as a recycling practice that repurposes things that hurt in society by turning them into something beautiful. This was an idea proposed by José Esteban Muñoz in his book “Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics” (1999).    

“As I developed my dissertation project on sweetness and the performance of HIV and AIDS, I was thinking about camp as innocence and sincerity and then the literalness of sweetness in these performances by those living with HIV and AIDS from the onset of the epidemic in the 1980s, at least from a US context, and seeing how sweetness manifested in that digital archive and paper trail archive of those living with HIV and AIDs,” Rezes said. 

According to Rezes, the camp sensibility became a way for community members to communicate about safety and health amidst an oppressive government system.

“Camp became a language of sorts to communicate ideas across difference,” they said. 

Rezes analyzes sweetness as understanding one’s sense of taste and what constitutes aesthetic “good” or “bad” taste, in addition to a literal sweetness masking the pain underneath campy appearances.  

 “In the dark side of camp aesthetics and a lot of contemporary camp scholarship we see camp as this artifice on top and underneath something a little bit more horrific and a little bit shadowy and just terrifying underneath. Camp is this artifice on top of something that actually hurts, that is actually sometimes violent,” Rezes said. “[It] feels excessive, but underneath is something much more sinister.” 

Rezes also looks at sweetness in camp as a modality for connection and as a form of confident protest defying deep suffering.  

“Sweetness can be two people holding each other during a protest action and defying expectations of the media … but a protest could just be a kiss in public…sweetness as in wearing a very flashy outfit when you’re going out despite feeling like the world is against you … sweetness is a calling card for a lot of different things,” they said.

Beyond analyzing camp as a social LGBTQ embodiment, Rezes will host their students as campers at an imagined summer camp. The course’s syllabus replicates a camp itinerary, to play on both queer campiness while simulating a summer camp culture. They emphasized the importance of the community and camaraderie intertwined within the course’ material and structuring.

“I think we’re very hungry during this pandemic moment for connection and intimacy and all of this cult classic media, all of this campy material is very, very close,” Rezes said. “It’s about taste. It’s about touch. It’s about sensation.”

Rezes is prioritizing collective learning in their classroom. 

“We’re all engaged with creating the space equally and together, and I am not in control of anything or any of the ideas in the space necessarily,” they said.   

The collective and creative camaraderie presents itself in the course’s assignments, including many performance projects like having students embody characters from reality TV scenes, filming a ‘50s/’60s/’70s/’80s aesthetic sex-ed PSA announcement, and performing the entirety of the film floor show “Rocky Horror.”   

The final “Rocky Horror” floor show assignment connects powerfully to Rezes’ past, as they performed in “The Rocky Horror Show” as Brad Majors and Frank-N-Furter. Expressing and playing with gender stereotypes with full force in both characters paved the way for their personal arc and growth in identity.  

“I think it was just a full circle moment of my time as an artist and a scholar coming together and colliding where I said I am researching as I am developing this character and embodying this iconic figure,” Rezes said. “It was just full circle. It just felt like: ‘Oh, I have come into my own as this trans artist scholar at that moment.'”


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