Published in C Magazine, Summer 2020, Issue 146 (Humour).
Inside Killjoy’s Kastle: Dykey Ghosts, Feminist Monsters, and Other Lesbian Hauntings: Allyson Mitchell and Cait McKinney
by Christina Hajjar
I didn’t expect to like this book. I expected Inside Killjoy’s Kastle (2019) to be somewhat of an inside joke that didn’t land, that I should have been in on. A collection of essays, testimonials, scripts, letters and images, Inside Killjoy’s Kastle documents the travelling performance installation and lesbian-feminist haunted house Killjoy’s Kastle, created by artist Allyson Mitchell and her collaborator Deirdre Logue. As a feminist killjoy myself, an artist and writer, a genderfluid arab femme dyke, a Millennial queer, and a women’s and gender studies graduate, I approached this book with caution.
I briefly learned about the kastle in a feminist cultural productions class as an awakening feminist and artist. The maximalist, craftivist, immersive approach had impressed me but I was also turned off, because another student I respected spoke out about the harmful nature of the kastle’s Ball Busta room, identified by multiple Inside Killjoy’s Kastle contributors as the most controversial aspect of the kastle. The Ball Busta room involved two butch-dyke performers in plaid shirts smashing plaster of Paris balls modelled after truck nuts. The kastle’s guides (the Demented Women’s Studies Professors) used scripts which involved an explanation that the “ball-busting dykes” were smashing the patriarchy. Many trans people, people of colour and allies spoke out about the triggering and offensive nature of this and other aspects of the kastle—such as a white performer in dreads and a general lack of representation—which was followed by a Toronto (2013) and Los Angeles (2015) Facebook response by Mitchell and Logue, included in the book.
Returning to Killjoy’s Kastle years later, with many more tools for nuanced engagement, I think more about the complexities of the kastle and its archive, collectivity, labour, generational divides, what constitutes transparent communication, accountability and the impact of a project on an affective, experiential level. While Inside Killjoy’s Kastle speaks to the dearth of lesbian and feminist archives, both the kastle and the book act as a collective archive, presenting past happenings through the perspective of multiple contributors, and offering new forms of material engagement.
Killjoy’s Kastle embodies the contradictions of inciting nostalgia while also encouraging critique. The kastle mirrors back the viewer’s subjectivity, which is to say I assume some older lesbians experiencing the work felt nostalgia, while others felt challenged; and some younger queers felt defensive, while others revelled in the experience. Mainstream second-wave feminism is often known for its cis-ness and whiteness, for being anti-sex, anti–sex worker and transphobic. Contemporary queers are familiar with and use the phrase “no TERFS, no SWERFS,” meaning they don’t stand for trans-exclusionary radical “feminists” and sex-worker-exclusionary radical “feminists.” These slogans signal politics, but also speak to the systemic oppression that has been perpetuated from the previous generation. I want spaces to feel safe for the most marginalized people: that is what feminism means to me—anti-oppression. That is what being a killjoy means to me: disrupting the joy fostered by normative spaces, even if that means unsettling or burning bridges with other feminists and queers.
Inside Killjoy’s Kastle functions like the kastle itself, creating a collective space for thinkers and makers contending with lesbian and feminist history, teaching something through the process of this creation, and invoking critical engagement for those who witness (in this case, read) it. The book’s aesthetic is high quality with a bold graphic design. It is easy to navigate, colourful, image heavy and cohesive—impressive given the lack of funds for professional photography and the amount of image contributors listed in the book. Though Inside Killjoy’s Kastle certainly can’t be as immersive as the kastle itself, the book relates conflict at an engaging pace, inclining the reader to go faster to see what happens next, like a juicy drama. At the same time, the multiple perspectives and controversies forced me to slow down and absorb details in order to more fully engage.
Contributor Ann Cvetkovich, one of the Real-Life Feminist Killjoys who worked in the Processing Room at the end of the kastle, speaks in the book of the lack of time for more meaningful engagement with visitors, and the ways she struggled or failed as a facilitator. Cvetkovich’s piece comes more than halfway through the book. After reading several accounts about the importance and opportunity of the Processing Room in unpacking visitors’ experiences, Cvetkovich’s perspective made me question the effectiveness of it. If Mitchell and Logue are intentionally seeking to pervert and provoke through humorous and disturbing depictions of stereotypes and histories, to what extent are they accountable to the affective responses to such a work? Put simply: what does identity-based art owe to those whom it claims to represent, and how do its viewers contend with that?
In their introduction, Mitchell and Cait McKinney state that the book “uses Killjoy’s Kastle to ask what kinds of remainders lesbian feminism leaves when its specific iterations become untimely and then die. How does it haunt, and what do we do with these old ghosts?” The kastle is going to be inherently problematic because, as an artwork, it asks us to confront the hauntings of the past. As Heather Love points out, the “I’m with problematic” tie-dyed T-shirt for sale in the kastle’s gift shop suggests an inevitable proximity to that which it seems to mock. “It acknowledges complicity and impurity and suggests that, since stereotypes are inevitable, we might engage them rather than disavow them or try to clean them up.”
I am left with a sense of conviction—not about whether Killjoy’s Kastle was right or wrong, problematic or pure, successful or failed, but about the ways that art creates alternate and essential—albeit at times difficult—modes of engagement. Just as I am called to be a feminist killjoy, I am also called to “lesbian hardcore processing,” as the kastle encourages. I am compelled by the stickiness of both/and rather than either/or. I was, perhaps, most convinced by Kyla Wazana Tompkins’s assertion in the book: “when we dream of a totalizing politics, and when we dream of spaces that might manifest those totalized politics as whole and healing formations, we will always be disappointed.”
Tompkins asks: “Do we always have to slaughter our mothers? And, at another level, can feminist thinking and feminist movement learn to get out of the political way or engage differently when it is time to learn from emergent or long-suppressed or traumatized ideas and formations?”