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  • Designturgy, Being Queer:Taylor Mac Wears Machine Dazzle in 24 Decades
  • Sissi Liu (bio)

For the viewer-participants of Taylor Mac's legendary work A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (2014–16, hereafter 24DH), the scenic set-like and sculptural costumes designed by Machine Dazzle constitute the most provocative visual spectacle of the twenty-four-hour adventure. From wigs made of 3D glasses or champagne corks, to an antebellum freedom-river necklace, to four-feet-tall, six-feet-wide light-up butterfly wings in the shape of double vulva inspired by lesbians, to an AIDS shroud consisting of hundreds of cassettes, to a phosphorescent hooded centerpiece with ping-pong ball eyelets on Mars, Machine Dazzle arouses the wildest and queerest imaginations of those who experience the performances. His designs are not merely costumes; they constitute living sets that challenge chrono-normative ways of being and offer queer modes of unpacking and reenacting history. Without underestimating Mac's role as writer, co-director, and performer, I argue that much of the show's affective and transgressive efficacy flows from the designs. In this essay, I propose designturgy as a productive method for conceptualizing designs like those of Machine Dazzle that place design at the heart of a production. By analyzing Machine Dazzle's method and practice in 24DH, I highlight what designturgy—especially a queer one—looks like and how it functions in performance.

Designturgy and Queerness

I coin the term designturgy—short for "design dramaturgy"—to emphasize the connection between design (herein costume design) and dramaturgy, and to highlight the dramaturgical nature of design. Design is the process of conceiving and giving form and/or content to artifacts and experiences, to the purpose of solving problems and making connections among people, communities, time, and space. A designer's work in many ways parallels a dramaturg's task. Broadly defined, dramaturgy is a comprehensive theory of "play-making." In the Brechtian sense, dramaturgy "comprises the entire conceptual preparation from its inception to its realization" (Schechter 21). In contemporary theatremaking, dramaturgy has increasingly become an important skill that is, as Magda Romanska notes, "detached from the specific theatrical function" and necessary for the entire creative team to "employ in the process of development and audience outreach"; it also comprises tools to "cross artistic boundaries and gain applicability in a world outside of theatre" (8). Like a dramaturg, the designer conducts research on sociohistorical and vernacular contexts of the performance at the beginning stage of a production. Like a dramaturg, the designer develops a holistic overall concept for all the items in a performance based on research. Like a dramaturg, the designer then thinks compositionally and structurally throughout the rest of the phases of one's design work, building interconnections between the visual outcome and the messages of the performance.

Why do we need this special frame—designturgy—if designers do dramaturgical work already? Designturgy is a concept, both dramatic and postdramatic, that highlights the central role design plays in stage productions and other performative activities, including performance art, concert, fashion runway show, gaming, and mixed reality experience.1 Designturgy refers to both a particular kind of design process/product from a practicum perspective, and, from a theoretical one, a particular [End Page 169] critical lens for analyzing designturgical results. As a design process, designturgy generates an overarching design philosophy that not only ties together a performance conceptually, but extends beyond a specific performance. In a stage production, a designer supports and realizes the director's visions; a designturg goes beyond the director's artistic expectations. Designturgs may work with directors, but their vision operates as a distinct element in conversation with a director's vision rather than being subordinate to it. Designturgy encompasses design, but goes further than the normal requirements of design. As a theoretical method, designturgy demands a new mode of analysis for the theatre/performance critic, historian, theorist, and the common viewer. A designturgical analysis explores both standard design questions and those extra ones that turn design into designturgy. Some standard questions include: How does the design represent the where, when, who (the race, class, gender, and sexuality of the who)? Are there metaphoric messages in the opening...