Dusty Stories and Subcultural Memory

Olympia Bukkakis 

Based on personal memories, performance artist and choreographer Olympia Bukkakis writes about stories of the past and subcultural memory. She takes a look at her own artistic performance and drag practice and reflects on her ambivalent relationship to the remnants of the past and her unease about the archive as an authoritarian institution.

I, unlike anyone else ever, have a conflicted relationship with the past. When I was three months old my biological father died in circumstances enveloped in a thick cloud of stigma. His parents, conservative, tidy people who were no doubt struggling to understand how this could have happened to their son, threw all of his things away. My mother, a newly single, immigrant parent with unstable housing, wasn’t in a position to try and retain any of these objects. The only thing I inherited from him was an old denim jacket (and, probably, his relationship to excess).

When I was very young I remember having difficulty understanding who and what my biological father (annotation 1) was. I began to hoard books, postcards, pictures, small plastic objects. I didn’t want to leave someone behind, guessing what I had been like, in the way that my father had done. At the age of 8 I would worry about whether my things were arranged correctly; whether my personal archive was in order. Would my successor be able to understand me through these objects? This pattern of behaviour stopped at the age of 24, when I moved to Berlin and left almost all of my possessions behind. The jacket was lost in the move. I mostly just felt relieved.

Since then the idea of keeping records for posterity fills me with a sense of anxiety and futility. It seems to me that there are very important things one should keep and arrange in a sensible manner but working out what they are and how they should be put together eludes me, especially when there’s every likelihood it could get lost anyway. Depending on my mood or phase of life I could be predisposed to anxiously hoarding things or procrastinating endlessly instead of sending the email or updating my website or even just ignoring it all and embracing the loss of this or that memory, performance, or text to the dustbin of history.

I usually say I’m not interested in archives. Thinking about them doesn’t make me feel good. (annotation 2) Confronted with the student union archives at university, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information in front of me, I felt a new and huge gratitude to the historians who usually stand between me and this dusty mess. Despite this aversion, it has been pointed out to me that my work keeps returning to the past. My graduation piece, Tales From a State of Shemergency (2018), contained an elegy to my father and a retelling of his death in the form of a stand up comedy routine. I also rewrote and performed the figure of the Angel of History as a drag queen belting out lip synced ballads to bring comfort to those of us lost in the rubble at her feet. This whole piece was an attempt to work out a (my) queer relationship with the past. So it doesn’t seem really consistent or convincing for me to say I’m uninterested in the capacity of performance to engage with memory and history. I understand that this work could be seen as an archive.

If I look properly at my work I see an insistence on re-presenting the past. For A Touch of the Other (2020) I interviewed the women in my family about their experiences of work and resilience. I contrasted my own experiences as a drag queen experiencing street harassment, financial precarity and homo/transphobic discrimination with their stories of underpaid, undervalued labour in and out of the home (specifically experiences of being a single parent losing a partner, working on a meat packing line, and being a nurse on strike). The knowledge produced by this labour was strikingly profound and yet it was expressed in a humble and often self-effacing way. I felt a strong urge to share this with an audience. It was important to me that this life experience be somehow preserved and I really felt that audiences could and should benefit from these insights.

In my most recent piece, replay (2023), I included a litany of drag queens, living and dead, that was followed by more names of tragic female historical figures, as well as their fictional and mythological ancestresses. I encouraged the audience to clap as each name was recited. I wanted to draw a parallel between the lived experience of drag queens and cis women and the stories that helped influence their lives. I also wanted to create a moment of respect and remembrance while reflecting on our society’s perverse fixation with feminine suffering. Looking back I’m happy with both pieces, but having spent so much time with them I do believe these subjects warrant a more lasting archival form.

The structural context of independent dance and performance means that in order to re-present this wealth of knowledge and experience I need to apply for, and receive, funding with the support of a properly resourced theatre space appropriate to the work that has room for the performance. Easier said than done in Berlin in 2023. It’s of course possible. But it’s not as practical as a book or a video.

In drag you have to learn everything yourself. Literally everything. Makeup, costume, performance, promotion, hosting, documentation, and then during the pandemic: live-streaming, lighting, sound, the list goes on. As I got older I came to dread the next skill I’d be called on to acquire. For me drag was always about performing: the wonderful feeling of being in a certain space for a certain amount of time interacting intentionally with an audience. At best the other tasks are entertaining diversions, but at worst they’re disabling barriers between me and what I want to do. Makeup used to be my biggest obstacle but I’m better at it now (even if it’s a running joke among my sisters that I don’t really wear it).

More recently, documentation and archiving throw up mental blocks which mean I’ll put them off for months or years at a time. Then sometimes, like with most cases of executive dysfunction, I’ll get it all done in thirty minutes. Of course my conscious mind doesn’t get to decide when these moments of hyper productivity take place.

This mental block reminds me of how during my studies I was trying to understand my practice of improvised speech. Since my early days introducing my drag performances with tenuous and precarious concepts (that it was extremely important the audience understand) I always preferred to have a loose idea of what I would say and then build the rest of the speech around that. I could never quite bring myself to write this speech down. I tried, but it just didn’t work. After performing this semi-improvised speech a number of times (I’ve been presenting one of these repeatedly over the course of 9 years) it would solidify into a sort of what Walter Ong calls an ‘oral text’. (annotation 3)

The thing about oral texts is that they’re impossible. One of the primary features of oral societies is that they don’t use texts. But we, as people whose thinking is so deeply marked by literacy, often can’t help but use this metaphor to understand oral ways oftransmitting knowledge and culture. Reading Ong’s writing helped me let go of a part of this literate bias: the feeling that I should be committing my speeches to paper. The ‘texts’ were in my head and keeping them there allowed them to stay nebulous and spontaneous, alive. Thinking about this process through a lens of oral storytelling helped me let go of a sense that I should be committing this to paper and to embrace the strengths of this practice. (annotation 4)

I wonder whether, for me, the metaphor of the archive, with all of its connotations of material evidence, cataloguing and careful organisation, is throwing up a similar mental blockage to the written speech. If I look clearly at my work over the last few years there is a very present impulse to record and re-present elements of the past that redress heterosexist, cisnormative and patriarchal biases. However I think perhaps that in order to continue making works that could function as archives of marginalized experience or queer historiographical interventions, I need to think of it all as just stories and (drag) shows, and leave the archival thinking to someone else.


  1. I have another father now. He’s wonderful.
  2. On that note, I did some cursory research for this piece, including Rebecca Schneider (2001) and José Esteban Muñoz (1996) which was interesting and I recommend it, but I ultimately decided to focus on my own experience as a maker.
  3. Walter Ong (1988) Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, New York, Routledge.
  4. Any worries I had about the impermanence of oral histories were tempered by evidence of the incredible durability of Indigenous Australians’ stories that recorded sea level rises dating back to the end of the ice age. In a way it’s crass to compare my silly stories to this incredible ancient cultural achievement but the principle is exciting. This form works! For more info see: www.theguardian.com.