Inside Killjoy’s Kastle: Dykey Ghosts, Feminist Monsters, and Other Lesbian Hauntings

Inside Killjoy’s Kastle: Dykey Ghosts, Feminist Monsters, and Other Lesbian Hauntings
Allyson Mitchell & Cait McKinney, Editors

University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver, BC, 2019.
280 pp., illus. 17 b/w, 80 col. Paper, $40.00; PDF, $40.00
ISBN: 978-0-7748-6157-1; ISBN: 978-0-7748-6158-8.

Reviewed by
Robert Maddox-Harle
March 2020

This book has a dual purpose, firstly it is an account/catalogue of Killjoy’s Kastle, an immersive walk-through installation and performance artwork by Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue. Secondly, as well as functioning as a text/visual record of the artwork, the book is a scholarly discussion and exploration of lesbian-feminism from a number of disparate approaches: ”This book emerges from a commitment to documenting queer-feminist art and activism by finding methods for thinking, writing, drawing, and enlivening history together” (p. 11).  Further, Amelia Jones argues that the photographs, books, and accounts made of feminist performance works are not poor impressions of the originals but rather significant documents in their own right” (p. 11).

The work was originally inspired by the Evangelical Christian hell houses of the past,  then feminist art history and other queer spectacles were added to the original idea. At the time of going to print the work itself has been staged in three locations; Toronto (2013), London (2014), and Los Angeles (2015). As the inside cover mentions, “Traditional hell houses set out to scare and convert, Killjoy’s Kastle cheekily aims to provoke and pervert”.

McKinney and Mitchell’s introductory essay describes the artwork: “Killjoy’s Kastle is a large-scale, multimedia, walk-through installation and performance that evokes all the fright in lesbian-feminist histories so that we might unpack, reject, or critically recover these stories for the queer present . . . . Built with creepy but whimsical craft aesthetics, the space stages interactive scenarios through human-scale dioramas, and visitors tour through each of these scenes, guided by their professor, who narrates the trip” (p. 4). (Not sure if “trip”, as in possibly bad was an intentional pun?)

The book is graphically rich and well produced, as are all publications connected with the agYU, lavishly illustrated mostly in colour, the book gives an almost palpable feeling of the Kastle installation with visitors and performers. There are some 25 essays of varying length, seriousness and complexity, all interesting and engaging. These are followed by credits, contributors, collaborators and a good index. A couple of essay titles to entice prospective readers include: (5) Processing Killjoy’s Kastle: A Deep Lez Performance (6), Reflections of a Real-Life Feminist Killjoy: Ball-Busters and the Recurring Trauma of Integenerational Queer-Feminist Life (7), and Home Sick: Horror, Gothic Storytelling, and the Queers Who Haunt Houses!

This is a book review, not a critique of the book’s thesis or artwork’s success or otherwise, however, a few comments I feel are necessary. The book chapters often highlight the infighting within the various factions of the LGTBQ movement; the racism (or at least white hegemony) of the lesbian-feminist groups; the dichotomy of the need to be accepted as “normal” in society but the desire to be seen as radically different at the same time. And lastly, and most importantly, the one thing which disturbs me, is the inherent anger and hostility to all and sundry, not just male ball-busting tactics from many of the feminist-lesbian individuals. Surely we have had enough anger and violence in this world! As one example the “still” from Jill Johnston (1975) with the caption, “You better get the f—k out of here, or I’m going to kick you right in the balls” (p. 147).

Emelie Chhangur is the current director of the agYU, recently taken over from long time director Philip Monk. I have reviewed numerous agYU books over the years, and none have ever disappointed, including Inside Killjoy’s Kastle. This gallery seems to be at the cutting edge of “out there” artworks, performance artworks and installations. As Chhangur explains in her essay, Lesbianizing the Institution: The Haunting Effects of Killjoy Hospitality at the Art Gallery of York University, the gallery had to do some radical thinking and modify their normal approach to hosting the artwork. “[With] Killjoy’s Kastle, enacting hospitality as a curatorial and institutional practice meant applying the skills we learned in the process of making Killjoy’s Kastle to all the functions and operations of the gallery, including how the staff inside it works” (p. 37). Obviously part of the agYU’s success is reflected in their flexibility and willingness to not apply rigid curatorial doctrine to very radical proposals such as the Kastle.

This is a challenging and important book for the whole field of LGTBQ studies and investigation, and also for those who have lived sheltered lives and wonder what these folks are all about.