Finding Animal

Format: Research project
Dates: Nov 2023 — Jan 2024
Language: English
Publication: Online

Research, text, film, design: Chris Gylee

Artistic correspondence, archive artefacts, text, photography: Animal J. Smith
Additional text, editing support: Aslan

In summer 2022 I wrote a series of 40 poems about my Queer ancestors in response to fragments found in the Schwules Museum archive, Berlin. I found a clipping of the 1997 Bay Area Reporter of a performance artist Animal J. Smith and his work Burn the Quilt at the Grasshopper Palace. The short review included a black-and-white portrait of Animal in a leather jacket. I searched for more information online but it seemed Animal — like so many Queer artists in the crisis years of the AIDS epidemic — had simply disappeared. Then, in early 2023, someone called Joe Smith resposted my poem on Instagram with the same black-and-white portrait. Joe (that’s the J of Animal J. Smith) was alive and well aged 60 in San Francisco. He moved to NYC shortly after the performance, lost his personal archive in the aftermath of 9/11, then stopped making artwork altogether. The hiatus lasted 21 years. 
With strange synchronicity, he found my poem online at the time he wished to return to artmaking. I am intrigued by this connection and will use a research stipend to dive deeper into Joe’s story, texts and works, and to facilitate a considered artistic correspondence. I will create diaries and poetic texts and produce a series of visual assemblages layering image, text and experimental performance film to create an artistic archive of an artist and a time and place of Queer artmaking — and thereby contribute to keeping a part of Queer history alive.

Portrait of Chris with Aslan’s hand holding photograph of Animal from 1997, 31 October 2023, by Óscar Gonzalez.
Portrait of Animal, 30 July 2023, by Alan Smithee.

Short Film

1997 — Dream as Animal J. Smith (4 min 41)

Notes on a film

In this one-shot recording I am standing in the tiled bathroom as the winter sunlight is fading, and speaking directly to Animal, who is looking at me, at least in my imagination, through the camera lens. The take used is the last take filmed, and the only take I managed to get through without missing a line, or stumbling over a phrase. It felt important to memorise this poem, and to recite it to Animal, around 18 months after I first wrote the text. It is the first instance of performing the work since publication.

The archive images come from stills sent to me by Animal over the course of our correspondence, but these are of limited number. The three images of New York city come from the weblog written by Animal in 2001-2002, Dispatches From Ground Zero, but the other images from this series are no longer connected to that webpage, lost in the digital ether. Other images are sourced predominantly from the Smithsonian media archive, and relate tangentially to images and memories recounted to me by Animal. Smoke, dustclouds, dogs, theatres, streets, stomping grounds — but from other times and places. Smithsonian substituting for Smith. I am curious about how the archiving of a missing archive can be made visible. Almost everything from Animal’s carefully stored archive of scores, master-tapes, lyrics, directing notes, and costumes were lost from a storage unit in the early 2000s. “Released for auction”, which may act as a linguistic stand in for “thrown in a dumpster”. What could be gleaned from other archives? What reflections or ghosts might be conjured by digging through other libraries and stacks?  This approach is a kind of triangulating towards an absent truth. Blurring different factual times in an attempt to conjure an emotional fiction that strikes somewhere near to the real. 

Performance Text

_ & _ Suddenly _

Online Script Publication (to be added shortly)

Notes on a script

This script is a working towards. It’s a working draft document, captured at the end of January 2024 and published in that iteration. It does not aim to be complete, but perhaps in this letting go from a desire for correctness, it becomes possible for gestures of composition and theme to be revealed and shared with the reader.

During the process of getting to know Animal, and during this research project, it became interesting to me to consider how to ‘write’ a script for a live performance that responds to Animal’s life and work. Aslan and I have been working with the concept of a ‘constellation play’ for some time now, and this script is also an attempt towards formulating a script in that mode. The idea of a constellation play is that the chapters of the work can be performed in any order on any given night, and the audience make meaning of the dramaturgical connections that arise in each configuration. The concept is informed by Olga Tokarczuk’s description of her constellation novel, Flights.

Together with Animal we have spoken of, and imagined a speculative live stage work entitled Nothing, & Then Suddenly Something, which would be written collectively in the future, after this research period. This script is not Nothing, & Then Suddenly Something, but rather is titled _, & _ Suddenly _, making evident it’s incompleteness. This current script has largely been a solo endeavour, with kind contributions by Animal and Aslan. A future draft would be a more equal collaboration. The script stands as a document of experimentation for us to refer back to, and perhaps with seeds of what may later appear on stage.

An Incomplete Archive

Dramatis Personae:  A list of characters mentioned throughout the research correspondence

—A partial timeline of events

1997: Burn The Quilt

Archive film documentation of Burn The Quilt (40 min 56)

Questions and answers:
—A. The Grasshopper Palace
—B. 21 Bernice Street
—C. Coates, Dresher, and Eckert
—D. Artistic Influences
—E. The Show
—F. Audience Reception
—G. A Missing Question

Smith papers: Scanned ephemera, collected by Drew Bourn (fliers and programme notes 1991 — 1995)

Lyrics to Pieces of Jesus

2001: New York City

Questions and answers:
—A. Relocating
—B. Influences & Renaming
—C. On Survival

Conversation transcript between Animal and Chris, 13th Dec 2023

Three scanned photographs taken near to Ground Zero, from October 2001

Weblog: “Dispatches From Ground Zero: September 2001 – January 2002”

Note — the weblog has not been edited since its initial online publication. Some texts may cause offence or be uncomfortable to read. The text serves as a document of Animal's reactions to 9/11 in the form of a historical document. The views expressed with it are not shared by ONCE WE WERE ISLANDS, nor do they take Animal's shift of opinions over the last 22 years into account.

2023: Returning To Art

Playlist of musical references and influences (1990 — 2024, in chronological order), selected by Animal
Key to the playlist

Selected correspondence citations (February — November 2023)

—Selected texts written by Animal:
Christmas — From a Gay & Lesbian Perspective (1993)
The One Decent Thing I Ever Did (2015)
Monograph — The Fifteenth Anniversary (2016)
A Night at The LURE (2023)

Dream Folio (2023/24), containing the following drafts, work-in-progresss texts, and final iteration:
Annotation of a Dream — Draft 1  (May 2023)
Annotation of a Dream — Draft 2 (June 2023)
Culmination of a Dream — Work in Progress (January 2024)
The Actual Annotatation (March 2024)

Notes on an archive

This archive is incomplete. It reflects the edited, front end of a Google-Drive folder, shared with Animal, and which has been added to over the course of this project, as we have uncovered photographs and papers, and as we have exchanged many words. Here, I have chosen to include key texts, transcriptions, documents and artefacts that felt particularly helpful in gaining an overview of the three time-periods I was investigating over these last few months — 1997, 2001 and 2023. What is available to view here is inevitably much less than what Animal lost from his physical archive in New York City in the early 2000s — around six storage boxes of materials. That said, I hope that this small act of re-building, or of creating an archive anew, might be of interest and offer multiple ways in to learning about Animal’s life and works. If future readers, artists, or scholars wish to access additional materials, please do contact either Animal or I, as there is the possibility to share further files that we have not published here.

Photograph of the DVD of Burn The Quilt, posted from The Leather Archives in Chicago to Animal on 4th February 2023.
Background image of sky from the Smithsonian photo archive.

The lead image is a re-worked scan of the photograph of Animal J. Smith, originally appearing in the Bay Area Reporter, 14 August 1997 — photographer likely to be Rick Gehrharter. Thumbnail image is a portrait by Óscar González, October 2023.

Finding Animal is a research project by Chris Gylee, supported by Fonds Darstellende Künste with funds from the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media.

Special thanks to: Animal J. Smith

Additional thanks to: Aslan; Mars Dietz; Óscar González; Drew Bourn; the archive of the Schwules Museum, Berlin; the group Stories of SF in the Gay 90’s.