Transcript of a talk give at PAOS (Museo Taller José Clemente Orozco) July 18, 2017
Today, my hope is to engage a conversation about the utopian potential in queerness and how that might point us towards a more liberatory art practice.
Before I get too far in, I want to offer gratitude for this opportunity to share with you today and to thank in particular Natasha and Dani for all their work on this. And also Temoc Camacho and PAOS. To that end let me give voice to my own positionality as a white person from the US and to acknowledge that my ideas and historical knowledge come from and center a US context. My hope is that we can explore together what parts of this talk are relevant here in Guadalajara and which parts are US specific. Please help me in resisting to colonial potential within this talk. Instead I would like to set an intention for mutual learning and dialogue.
To that end some discussion of language is important. For the use of this talk I will use “LGBTQ” as a catchall phrase anyone who is not straight and cisgendered, while recognizing is vast limitations and exclusions. Cisgender means to someone who is comfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth. When I say queer I will refer to those who believe, inhabit and/or practice a utopian rejection of mainstream (whether gay or straight) notions of gender and/or sexuality. Finally, I would like to draw a distinction between straightness, and heteronormativity. Straight is simply a woman or man who desires sex with men or women respectively. By heteronormativity I suggest both the rigid constraints of gender and sexuality within the capitalist system, but also violent oppression based on race, class, physical ability, and gender and sexuality. I invoke this expanded definition not to equate these different oppressions but to acknowledge their constant presence and influence on how heteronormative plays out in different situations and on different bodies. Furthermore, I make the distinction between straight and heteronormative in order to leave room for the possibility of straight utopian queers.
Which brings me to the heart of what I would like to explore with you today, that of queer utopianism. Utopian queerness is grounded in what Herbert Marcuse called “the Great Refusal.” A rejection of the “performance principle” which positions human utility over pleasure. “The Great Refusal” is a repudiation of the normative order, of all the rules of being and behaving, dressing and loving.
QUEERNESS IS NOT yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain.
Queerness as ideal, as potential, as a future oriented pursuit of, and in pursuing constructing, utopia is a powerful and compelling idea for me. Muñoz goes on to say, “Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.” Thus utopian queerness aligns itself with Marcuse’s “Great Refusal.”
I would like to offer a few principals of utopian queerness as I understand it and how we might practice a refusal of what Muñoz calls “the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there.” While I have done my best to site specific works many important influences were not easily tied to a specific idea. However, I would like to name a few and acknowledge the influence and cross-education within my experiences of queer community. Specifically I would like to offer gratitude to Bell Hooks, Kate Bornstein, and my parents as illuminators of the vast potentiality in our human experience.
I also want to caution us against the project of identity creation. I am not interested in creating any notion of “us” and “them,” nor in creating a set of criteria by which we can know who is “really” queer. Instead I am interested in mapping some part of the utopian potential within queer perspectives, conceptions and experiences. So let us take this set of ideas not as criteria but as forces much like gravity which might project us into a wholly new understanding of the world and our liberatory potentials.
The first idea I’d like to put forward is that of communal abjection. In this I draw upon Barbara Creed’s work in Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine in which she talks about abjection as the border between “human” and “non-human.” I propose that utopian queerness is a state of abjection precisely because of the way it rejects the categorizations of “normal” and recognizes such ranges as culturally constructed and not as any sort of scientific or divine absolute. This is to say that what is consider “normal,” and thus to a large extent “human,” is a range of bodies, behaviors and experiences that were created by the powerful in order to maintain power.
Although utopian queerness resists belonging based on notions of “normal” or acceptable, it does not reject belonging itself. Instead it seeks to build relationships of mutual support and solidarity because of and through our confrontation with the “normal.” Another way of saying this is that queerness is a rejection of any hierarchy of being, that we each have a unique gender and sexuality and that none is any better than any other, none is more deserving of love or safety or celebration than any other. Through this attempt at non-hierarchical relating to each other we form communities.
The second concept I would like to put in orbit around queerness is that of human fluidity, which is to say that every part of us is constantly changing. These changes may be the large changes of coming out as gay or gender transitioning or may be the smaller changes of changing sexual interest in our lovers. Another way of understand this is the idea of temporal and spatial specificity. Who I am today in this space is not who I will be tomorrow in a different space. As my buddhists mother use to say the only constant is change.
Although this may seem both obvious and practically meaningless, it is in fact crucial to how we understand the utopian potentiality of queerness. Much of how we construct identity and thus notions of belonging and worth are based on being constant, with the occasional dramatic change.
There is a historic tension within lesbian, gay and trans liberation movements between a common identity built on shared experiences and desires and one built on shared principles and vision. The first, in part, situates itself in close interdependence with heteronormative violence. We are LGBT because we all face the risk or actualization of violence. This is why getting punched while dancing with a boy at age 17 was such an affirming thing for me, cause if I’ve faced homophobic violence than I am really gay or so I thought. LGBT people face violence and know ourselves through violence.
Furthermore the notion of common identity through shared desire is, if it is to have any meaning, a surrender to heteronormative notion of the range of “normal.” By this notion of “the range of ‘normal’” I do not necessarily mean heteronormative “normal” but any range of being outside of which you are no longer acceptable. These appear in LGBT communities as well as straight. If we are basing our mutual belonging and solidarity on shared desire we must construct a range outside of which you no longer one of us. If “gay” is men who desire sex with men we are forced to create a definition of “man” and “not-man” as well as “sex” and “not-sex.” Does dating hyper butch women make a man gay? What about dating hyper effeminate men? Is it some how about the biology of the person and therefore excluding trans-men no matter their level of masculinity? What about two men who are constantly hugging, holding hands, cuddling, and even kissing? Are they somehow not gay because they don’t have sex? What if they give each other hand jobs but no penetration? Identity and community based on a shared desire inevitably requires the creation of arbitrary distinctions which the utopian queer person rejects both for their dishonesty and their heteronormative violence.
Instead queerness answers this dilemma with the values of self-determination and a visions of a world where you are what you say you are and should be treated accordingly, at least as it pertains to gender and sexuality. There may be a value in recognizing that a man who has sex with women may typically have a range of common experiences, desires, privileges different than a trans-woman who has sex with women, but to build one’s mechanism for solidarity and belonging on such notions is to construct a house on a foundation of lies.
The third idea I would suggest about utopian queerness is that of three-dimensional relationality. What I mean is that difference and similarity between the genders in this room cannot accurately be measured or understood with a two-dimensional line between the ultimate “female” and ultimate “male”, what is called the gender binary or continuum. Instead my gender’s relationship to, and thus to an extent influence or effect, on your gender is vastly more complex . Furthermore, “male” is not the opposite of “female.” Instead “male” and “female” and “gender queer” “transgender” and all the other ways we have of describing gender are simply a collection of genders within the infinite possibility of genders. When we see gender this way we begin to see great overlap with “male” and “female.” Instead of thinking about it as “female”, “male” or “gender queer” we might instead be led to consider “female” in this way “male” in this other way, and “gender queer” in a third way. This idea of mapping our gender as a three dimensional space where we can all understand our unique relationship to each other, social norms, and desire outside of the confining and ultimately dishonest idea of the gender binary or continuum. And this principle is not confined to gender but could be used to understand sexuality, race, or the intersections of multiple identities.
I want to be clear this is not a magic pill allowing us to ignore or completely step out of the norms, social pressures and real violence and privileges people experience based on identities, but is instead a way of approaching gender from a place of specificity, empowered choice and personal honesty where such considerations above can be accurately mapped and understood relationally.
Thus to summarize I would suggest as possibilities that utopian queers recognize the limitations of mainstream notions of “normal” and situate themselves as outside of it; rejecting hierarchies of identity or being while embracing the fluid nature of our humanity; and rejecting binaries for the much more exciting (and scary) understanding of three-dimensional relationality.
Now that I have constructed a territory of what it might look like to pursue the utopian potential of queerness, let me know turn to what I’m thinking of as the. “Utopian Queer Artist Toolbox” and offer some ideas of ways artist can explore utopian queerness in our own work.
The first tool I want to discuss in toolbox of utopian queer art is that of abstraction.
The requirement for evidence within heteronormative culture is tied to its demand for the concreteness of the present moment. It suggests that what is is all that is possible. The need for evidence is most strongly imposed on that of the body. If we are to be seen as existing, heteronormativity requires us to present or perform ourselves, whether we wish to be seen as woman or smart or even just human we must demonstrate evidence of this “truth” through the presentation of our body. The body is read as an accurate, “true” indicator (or evidence) of one’s gender, race, and to a lesser extent sexuality, class, cultural affiliation etc. In heteronormative culture you are what you look like, which is why many of us spend so much of our time, energy and money worrying about who and what we look like.
This is as true in many LGBT communities as it is in the larger heteronormative world. Because lesbian and gay liberation movements have historically sought to build power through the demonstration of their existence, much of LGBT politics and art has been taken up with this challenge of representation, especially through the showing of LGBT bodies engaged in LGBT recognizable acts (predominantly sexual.) However, this need for visibility necessarily demands a definition of what is to be visibly LGBT, to concretize the physical indicators, thus creating for ourselves our own range of “normal” outside of which you are no longer LGBT.
Abstraction offers us a way out of this trap of representational politics and cultural forms through the reliance on non-evidentiary images. “One means of resistance,” Says David Getsy in Appearing Differently: Abstraction’s Transgender and Queer Capacities, “is to refuse to render the human form and to demand an open range of potential identifications.” Thus abstraction offers us an avenue towards a utopian world building through its refusal to present art products easily identifiable as human, much less queer. Abstraction offers a variety of possible interpretations and thus possible worlds and ways of being at the same time. This simultaneity is deeply utopian, for the utopian cannot be understood as a narrowing towards a future perfection. Instead the utopian project is one of expansion, toward a deeply unknown and, I might suggest, humane relating.
Abstraction suggests a strong counter narrative to heteronormative commitment to both binaries and ranges of “normal.” Unlike much of representational queer art, which often times seeks to supplant one range of “normal” for another, abstraction refuses to create such ranges altogether.
Two specific tools or potentials within abstraction I would like to point to are that of rewarding attention and illuminating the choice of perception. Godon Hall’s Set sculptures offer a good example of the former. Getsy describes them such,
Set sculptures appear simple at first. However, the sculptures reveal themselves slowly as intricately worked objects that repay attention to particularities. Only by committing to spend time with one of these objects will one begin to see the ways in which it occupies the space and the ways in which it is unique.
By encouraging viewers to look slowly, Hall rewards those willing to step out of the heteronormative habit of easy categorization into the very queer understanding of specificity.
Illuminating the choice of perception can be seen in Johan Groeneboer’s work with string. “He makes art that is deliberately hard to see, singly.” Writes Getsy
For instance, his sculptures made from barely visible strings in tension are visually inextricable from the space in which we encounter them. They activate an engaged process of looking in which viewers struggle to see the drawing made by the slight, taut strings in three dimensions. As they attempt to engage with these barely visible lines in space, they become just as much aware of what they have had to choose to not see in order to focus on one aspect of the complex polygons and quadrilateral outlines hovering in their proximity.
One of the keys to the idea of the range of “normal” we have been discussing is that it is so arbitrary, not only what is considered “in” versus “out”, but what is considered at all. By emphasizing the choice inherent in perception, Groeneboer suggests the constructed nature of our perceptions. These constructions are not only personal choice but culturally endowed and supported. We see, to a large extent, what our culture allows us to see. In understanding this and grappling with how and why and what we can see we expand the possibilities of radically new ways of seeing and relating to each other, offering up new worlds of possibility.
The second tool I want to place in our toolbox is that of glitch.
Not only can we conceive of art practices that attempt to step whole outside of the heteronormative demands for evidence, but we can also seek to disrupt the systems and procedures which uphold heteronormativity. One strategy for interruption I would like to focus on is glitch. For my discussion of glitch I will draw on Rosa Menkman’s The Glitch Moment(um). In it, Menkman describes glitch as an unexpected break in the expected order of operations within a system or medium. Although it is most often used to describe unknown problems within a technological process, Menkman suggests that glitch can be a powerful way of disrupting the normative systems and expectations in art.
Glitch is, for example, when the TV goes all staticky or the website loads with the images and text all jumbled, interrupting the ordinary flow and discourse towards what Menkman calls “the ruins of destructed meaning.” In the spaces created by this destruction of meanings we find the chance to both rethink the possible and also confront the constructed. Glitches point out the systems and structures as well as the expected operations contained, while also creating what Menkman calls the “unforeseen incomprehension” where we are confronted with the unknown. In this vast not-knowing, which is a space outside of official facts, new territories of mean can be constructed, ones that make space for the simultaneity discussed above.
One key distinction Menkman points to is the difference between a known disruption, which is classified as a failure and dismissed and an unknown disruption. When a glitch is not understood it offers the space for a deeper interpretative process to occur. Of course this creates within glitch practice a bit of a moving target for once a glitch is known and understood it is incorporated into the expected order of operations and looses it’s power.
…That moment of boundaries exploding and then resetting. Or the moment right before they reset. It’s the moment of that question: “wait, was it…is it…?” Something goes wrong on the screen, and there is a moment before your brain is able to process it, a moment of pure unknown.
Rosner’s last project the ETLE Universe was a collection of 10 pieces authored by over 60 collaborators all under the guidance of Rosner and her co-producer Lillie De. In ETLE and the Anders Rosner used glitch to construct specific choreography designed to be disrupted. One such dance, “Glitch Tag (3:25)” involved the performers starting in a line, then one dancer activates the action by laying a hand on another dancer and thus creating an angle of connection. The dancer who was touched was then tasked with expanding their body in that established direction towards an infinite future through the transference of weight onto the first dancers hand and body. Continuing to push until a third dancer placed their hand in a different spot creating a moment of shift where in a new direction for expansion was established. This continued until the system broke, the second dancer fell and a complex choreography was initiated to recreate the line. Many aspects of this choreography including the expansion, the shifts in direction and the recreation of the line provided opportunities for glitches both in established choreographic systems as well as the audience’s expectations allowing for the audience to reconsider the possibilities of body, time, and collective action.
Another important and in some ways more fundamental aspect of Rosner’s work and philosophy is that of maximalism, the third addition to our toolbox. Maximalism might be defined as the simple saying “more is more.” Perhaps more nuanced might be that maximalism is the exploration of capacity, what is the most a piece of art can contain and what do we discover on the other side of that.
“…As humans,” Sarah believes, “we grow the most and we evolve the most when we’re at capacity or slightly beyond it. When we’re pushing up against that boundary of what’s possible.
Maximalism might also be understood as an exploration of excess and redundancy, rejecting the heteronormative dedication to utility. It is also in many contexts where art funding is starved a resistance to the economy of limitation, small, “affordable” and a rededication to the expansive potential of art and queerness. In this way, maximalism is in lineage with many queer art mediums and aesthetics such as drag, camp, and the political theatrics of the Stonewall and ACT UP.
Furthermore, maximalism challenges the heteronormative dedication to masculine values of clarity and knowability. The more a work is layered the greater potential one has to force the audience away from initial impressions and preformed assumptions or categorizations into a territory of unknown specificity. Audiences that cannot easily classify work must either reject the piece outright or grapple with the distinct thing in front of them. This can be very challenging for an audiences, because we are taught to fear the unknown with heteronormative culture. However, should an audience engage this exploration of the unknown and perhaps unknowable, they may glimpse the possibility of worlds outside of the oppressive prison of the here and now.
And now we come to ornamentalism, the fourth tool in our box.
Ornament shares many of the same goals of moving beyond the practically knowable into glimpses of a utopian futurity. However, whereas maximalism does this through “excessive” layering, ornament attempts this through desires potential for inefficiency and uselessness. I would like to define ornamental as that which exist solely for pleasure whether that of the audience’s and/or the artist’s. In this definition we can see one of the key utopian strategies of ornamentalism, that of rejecting heteronormative dedications to utility. Instead relying on pleasure and even astonishment ornament allows us to see beyond the present time and space by showing us something more than the object’s or action’s “use appeal” as dictated by capitalist utilitarian design parameters. One could almost say that ornamentalism is a glitch of capitalist notions of efficiency. The ornamental is excessive and thus suggests the potential for more than the here and now. Ornamental seeks to show us the world building potential contained within Marcus’s “Great Refusal” by showing us all we are giving up in acceptance or submission to heteronormativity.
The 5th tool we will summon today is gesture. Gesture might be called a “great recalling” or remembering of the historic and contemporary refusals that fit within Muñoz’s no-longer-conscious, the refusal to be straight or cis or to work hard for capitol, the refusal to lay down and die. Gesture is a testament to queer existence, history and survival. Let us suggest that gesture is a movement of the body intended to communicate on the symbolic level, which is to say the not-literal and perhaps indefinable. Gesture has utopian potential exactly because of its ability to simultaneously proclaim queer existence, history and futurity within heteronormative time and space while also pointing to the limitations of heteronormative visions of the world. These visions based on officially condoned evidence and facts are opposed by gestures ephemeral nature. “Think of ephemera,” writes Muñoz, “as trace, the remains, the things that are left , hanging in the air like a rumor.” Being both deeply cultural and historic while also indefinable, gesture speaks to us outside of the tyranny of fact or concrete meaning. Instead, gesture is a language without dictionary based on feelings that are not-quite-there and which hark to both the no-longer-conscious past and the not-yet-here future. It is utopian because it rejects heteronormative insistence that we “make sense” which is to say confine ourselves to that which can be proven with officially sanctioned facts.
For example I would like to turn to a video of Kevin Aviance performing at “Din Da Da”. In this video we see Aviance utilizing a multitude of gestures drawn from queer and black and black queer traditions which build within the performance a symbolic world of potentiality, a world where gender-transgression, black and brown power, and queer existence and futurity are possible. Furthermore, these gestures serve as a kind of summoning spell for all the potential inherent in queer histories, histories of struggle and survival, many of which have been lost (or are no-longer-conscious) do to the demands for evidence within heteronormative culture. Muñoz also points out how gestures flamboyance and extravagance of movement offer a challenge to heteronormative cult of utility, and the normalization of function as the highest priority. “To denaturalize the way we dwell (move) in the world,” writes Muñoz, “is to denaturalize the world itself in favor of a utopian performativity… (T)he gesture is utopian in that it resists the goal-oriented tautological present.” In both gesture and ornamentalism we see the rejection of utility for the powerfully utopian realities of pleasure, survival, and futurity.
Intermedia art practices, the sixth tool, are important mechanism for disrupting heteronormative assumptions of categorization and “mastery,” as well as challenging the “us” “them” or “this” “that” separations inherent in the range of “normal” and art medium classifications. The art critic Jill Johnston describes it as a,
Re-integration. The everything as everything. The organism as totally illegal. The legality of nothing but pleasure. In an orgy of self-reproduction (the paramecium). The end of importance. The end of politics. The end of hierarchies. The end of families. The end of groups. The end of the earth as a penal colony (Burroughs). No end to what there can be an end of in the great reintegration… Intermedia is the world before and after we chop it up into bits of pieces and stash it away in a filing cabinet labeled MINE, YOURS, THEIRS.
Thus we could define intermedia as interdisciplinary approach to both art practices and mediums as well as “taxonomies of race, gender, and sex.” Art becomes art. Practically this suggests a desire to view all of human expressive potential at hand when creating any work of art. Desire rather than definitions of medium should be what drives the form. We understand this inherently when it comes to content. The idea that the consideration of time should be contained within the performative arts, for example would seem ludicrous to most people. Why then do we limit or attempt to define the form and substance of art mediums. Today we see that challenge of distinguishing between dance and theater being met not with a destruction of the idea of such distinctions but with the creation of even more categories. What the hell is contemporary performance and why do we cling to the notion we need such a category. The very language we use points to the absurdity of such categories. This is no less true between sculpture and new media, painting and cooking, lecture and mime.
Intermedia offers us another lense through which to taste the utopian through its defiance of heteronormative categorization or what I’ve called the range of “normal.” Furthermore, it challenges the ideas of utility and efficiency discussed above through the principal of post-disciplinary practice.
Thus we find our seventh, for the evening final tool.
I have worked for several years as a performer for Syniva Whitney, a Seattle-based art maker of wide ranging mediums. Whitney’s performances skip between displays of trained and untrained dance, utilizing the unique skills inherent in mastery while rejecting the hierarchy of trained vs. untrained artistry. Post-disciplinary practice, a term I first heard from Whitney, might therefore be defined as art processes that are not confined by notions of mastery or notions of quality based on expertise. In this way in draws much from intermedia including the ability to utilize multiple art mediums in a single work despite access to highly trained practitioners of that form. To be clear, I would not suggest that post-disciplinary thought is anti-mastery, but instead I would offer that it is against the restraint and prioritization of mastery.
Instead post-disciplinary practice, drawing on Johnson’s ideas of intermedia, prioritize pleasure, especially that of the performers and art makers. Whitney has often urge their performers to consider our own somatic experience and understand our work as predominantly for ourselves. Resisting the capitalist urge to position the audience as costumer who must be appeased, Whitney offers their audience the opportunity to witness artist performing and making for themselves. This urge is deeply utopian in that it both calls the no-longer-conscious queer histories of art that was made without audience, solely for the pleasure of the creator and their friends as well as the queer prioritization of expression beyond the confines of qualitative restrictions of mastery or even “good” art. Furthermore, post-disciplinary practice projects out into the not-yet-here future where expression and communication have exploded the bounds of heteronormative categories and priorities.
My hope is with these creative ideas we might build a toolbox of practically applicable art practices for resisting the violence and stagnation that of heteronormativity by building visions and possibilities of a not-yet-here world. Glitch’s ability to disrupt and illuminate systems and their constructed nature; gestures calling into present time the no-longer-conscious of queer power; abstractions assault on the prioritization and demand for evidence of existence as prerequisite of “personhood”; maximalism and ornamentalism disruption of utility and knowability for specificity and pleasure; and intermedia and post-disciplinary practice’s break with categorical distinction and prioritizing “good” art aesthetics for unity of mediums and the horizontalization of skill all serve to spark visions of the utopian both as a not-yet-here future and a concrete possibility in the here and now.