Of course, but also kind of not really

danilo machado

Friday, March 15, 2024

Like so much that first pandemic year, Jodie Landau’s Performance of Self—which will premiere at National Sawdust this month—was delayed from its original date of May 2020. The project’s shifting timeline—which goes back about seven years, to Landau’s first conversations with Beth Morrison Projects—is fitting to its content, which explores the evolving ways we conceive of our identities for ourselves and with others. The immersive show, which incorporates chamber music and dance, ponders the ways that stories, tropes, and assumptions attached to identity categories can be both affirming and limiting. In our conversation, Landau talked about how these questions were specifically poignant under the context of the Me Too Movement, which coincided with the beginning stages of the work’s development. It was at this time that Landau started dating, noticing how the larger cultural discussion around consent, desire, and enthusiasm was playing out in personal ways. 

From an initial set of ideas and aspirations, Performance of Self changed alongside Landau and the world. Landau sees connections between how the work, the world, and himself are all in a different place than seven years ago, and how those realities differ from the expectations he (and we) had for himself, the world, and for this work. Indeed, for Landau—and for all of us—the last seven years (the last four years, particularly) have been filled with many relationships as well as deep growth and grief. Landau comments that the show is “tied to things I initially wanted it to be, and it is also about accepting where it currently is and how it reflects who I used to be and who I currently am.” 

Landau and I spoke about the ways pandemic time slows, warps, and sometimes clarifies. During lockdown, Landau wondered about the relevance of queerness in isolation. “My own queerness feels, in many ways, about the ways in which I am observed; the type of feedback I get, and it is certainly an internal and personal thing, but it’s about how it comes into relation with others,” he reflects. “When there are no others, when dating life is paused, when getting dressed up to go out is paused—how relevant does my (or did my, for a while  I’m) identity feel? …When you take away those interactions I’m just a person, living alone, hanging out by myself. How much does my gender matter? Does my sexuality matter? Of course it does, but also kind of not really.” This reflection underscores the ways queer is not just as an expansive identity category, but an approach that values slippage, fluidity, and the questioning of existing structures and binaries.

As he was writing, Landau sometimes wondered if parts of the work remained relevant among a changing world and self. He holds steadfast. “If I’m the writer, composer, and performer, the thing that feels most appropriate to me is to tell my story,” he says. For Landau, the first person point of view—one that is aware of not being “an appropriate male lead”—comes with deep consideration of the other people in the story. In making this work, Landau weighs what he can share of people’s stories and how to do so with nuance and transparency without overstepping permissions. Whose trauma is shared? What (and who) is named or unnamed? What does it mean for the narrator both to have and be perceived as having identities imbued with privilege? Landau considers these questions while making choices about the work, weighing what is gained and lost through the inclusion of certain details while seeking to center empathy. These processes conjure the same questions of authenticity and performance that identity itself raises. 

“My own queerness feels, in many ways, about the ways in which I am observed; the type of feedback I get and it is certainly an internal and personal thing, but it’s about how it comes into relation with others.”

Landau’s influences emphasize his interest in vulnerable, queer personal storytelling that doesn’t skip the sadness and refuses to give the audience a tidy ending. He cites Hannah Gadsby’s 2018 special Nannette, particularly the ways it questioned the structure of a comedy set itself, which often “stops at the point of trauma and then makes a joke about it.” Landau was struck by Gadsby’s need to tell their story right, even if it involves moments where the audience “feels pretty shitty together.” Other reference points include comedians Bo Burnham and Drew Michael, as well as Maggie Nelson’s cross-genre The Argonauts (2015) and Elliott Page’s recent memoir Pageboy. He also mentions Taylor Mac, perhaps best known for A 24-Decade History of Popular Music

Many of Landau’s compositions begin from a place of improvisation. “It’s almost finding something that was already there,” he says, remarking on the blur between parts that feel new and parts that feel familiar. He describes the improvisation adding a kind of “naturalness” to his voice (or, the voice), which he hopes translates to the audience. Landau notes the specificity that writing for theater requires, distinct from composing “music for music’s sake.” For a piece like Performance of Self, he is considering the overall arc of the show and the ways the audience may make connections through the show’s structure and choices about lighting, staging, and costume. “If I were making an album of the same material,” for instance, Landau might “sing more linearly or less linearly...might say more or say less.” These ideas about improvisation and “the natural,” structure, and performance are not only part of the show’s conceptual considerations, but also present in the process of making. 

Indeed, Landau is storytelling about the stories we tell (and are told) about identity, and reflecting on the ways he is and has been perceived by others. It only follows that, in anticipation for National Sawdust, he is thinking about the audience’s perception of the show, hoping that what he shares is relatable enough to encourage them to consider their own experiences and relationships. Landau is “looking forward to the mix of material that has existed for many years now and the material that is kind of brand new,” expressing excitement for finally being in front of an audience with this work. 

About danilo machado

Born in Medellín, Colombia, danilo machado is a poet, curator, and critic living on occupied land interested in language’s potential for revealing tenderness, erasure, and relationships to power. A 2020-2021 Poetry Project Emerge-Surface-Be Fellow, their writing has been featured in Hyperallergic, Art in America, Poem-A-Day, Art Papers, ArtCritical, The Recluse, GenderFail, No, Dear, Long River Review, TAYO Literary Magazine, among others. They are the author of the collection This is your receipt and is not a ticket for travel (Faint Line Press, 2023) and the chaplets wavy in its heat and to be elsewhere (Ghost City Press Summer Series, 2022).  

An honors graduate of the University of Connecticut, danilo is Producer of Public Programs at the Brooklyn Museum and curator of the exhibitions Otherwise Obscured: Erasure in Body and Text (Franklin Street Works, 2019), support structures (Virtual/8th Floor Gallery, 2020), We turn (EFA Project Space, 2021), and Eligible/Illegible (co-curated with Francisco Donoso, PS122, 2023). danilo has contributed writing to exhibitions including at CUE Art Foundation, Henei Onstad Kunstsenter, Miriam Gallery, Abrons Art Center/Boston Center for the Arts, Second Street Gallery, and Real Art Ways and, with Em Marie Kohl, danilo co-hosts the monthly queer reading, workshop, and publication series exquisites. They are working to show up with care for their communities.