Saturday, December 6, 2008

Riki Wilchins on Identity

I’ve returned to reading Genderqueer, an anthology of queer writing edited by Joan Nestle, Riki Wilchins and Clare Howell. Riki Wilchins’s essays in the foreword have been inspiring and affirming for me for several years now. I thought I’d collect a few of her thoughts on identity here in my blog. These passages helped me define my identity as queer.

“What do we mean by identity? No one is perfectly gay, completely straight, totally womanly, or wholly transgendered. So what do we mean when we identify as such? Are identities real properties of people, or are they more like approximations, normative ideals against which we measure ourselves but never perfectly fit? ….Is gayness an essential property of gay bodies, so that when we look in the mirror each morning we see a gay person staring back? Or is it rather a way we learn to recognize and see ourselves in the mirrors of others’ eyes?” (pg. 47)

“Does the man ahead of you hold the door for you as you leave your building? Do people step aside when you walk down the crowded street, or do they unconsciously expect you to step aside? When you get to the newsstand, does the newspaper vendor address you as “Sir,” “Ma’am,” or “Miss”? Perhaps he finds you sexually confusing and stumbles awkwardly over pronouns. When he hands you your change, does he look down in respect, meet your eyes, or perhaps refuse to acknowledge you at all? Does he smile in friendliness or frown in disgust?.... Even in this tiny exchange, a small fraction of your day, are piled up one interaction after another that stamp us with our sex, gender, or class. This is not power from the “top down,” but from the “bottom up.” This is not the big familiar power of concrete buildings and visible institutions, power that is both massed and massive. Rather, it’s the power of what is said and thought about us: the small, diffuse, invisible power created and instantly destroyed in thousands of little, insignificant exchanges. It is through just such interactions that queer bodies are made, interactions that tell us what we are, what we mean, and to what names we must answer.” (pg. 51)

“What is it about binaries that so captivates our thinking?...Two-ness is not something “out there,” but a product of the way we see. We look for that two-ness. Our categories assure that we see it. That’s why no matter what gender I do, the only questions are: “Are you a man or a woman?” [and “Are you straight or gay?”]. …When we pick up complex things—like desire or gender—with primitive tools like binaries, we lose nuance and multiplicity…I am feminine only to the extent that I am…not masculine. I am gay only as much as I’m not straight or to the exact number of songs I’ve memorized from the Sound of Music…There’s really not very much meaning or information circulating here, because with only two possibilities, meaning is confined to what something is not….Binaries are the black holes of knowledge.” (pg. 43)

“So I routinely speak before groups of young queers who refuse to identify as gay or straight because they don’t want to leave any of their friends behind, because they don’t want to be known by something as simplistic as who they sleep with, or because they don’t select their partners by sex…They want not only their freedom as gay people but, paradoxically, also their freedom not to be gay….They are not seeking submersion into large, impersonal preexisting categories, but instead searching for newer, smaller ways to be and understand who they are. They are asking themselves a new sort of question: Who might I be, who would I see in the mirror each morning if I didn’t have to be gay? What other ‘me’s’ could I be?....[The success of ‘queer’] looks like messy new identities we don’t like and can’t name that creates possibilities and freedoms we never intended.”

Saturday, November 8, 2008

New Era for Queer Museum?

So, in the vein of many of our class discussions, I've been thinking about collecting. What would intentionally queer collections look like, be composed of and displayed? Why not a queer museum? This blog is a contemporary supplement to the previous post in which I posture queerness on the phenomenon of pre-modern cabinets of curiosity.

Recently, I had an excellent bar conversation with fellow grads Akiko Jackson and Keith Mendak about why there are not widely-recognized queer museums. If black history museums and other minority/ethnic group museums persist, why not LGBTQ museums? Keith thinks this is because African-American museums are easier to mount as a counterpoint to the Western canon of museums, and that race is skin or surface, and much easier for our culture to deal with. As a puritanically-based, sexually-repressed culture, creating a queer museum would be taboo, as it delves deeper than the surface, to reveal our psychological and sexual layers of identity.

In googling "queer museum," one of the first hits I got was the introduction to a book on issues for museum practices:

"One response to the marginalization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) perspectives in museums has been to make a bid for increased inclusivity. Such a gesture potentially foregrounds universalist notions of LGBT identity and desire. Queer theory, however, understands gender and sexuality as relational constructs, subject to historical and cultural variation. Against this backdrop, what would it mean to theorize the queer museum? This article engages with this question on a number of levels: it draws attention to the distorting effects that certain models drawn from contemporary identity politics generate in museums, especially in exhibitions with a historical focus, and it examines the role played by concepts of "public opinion" on representations of gender and sexuality in museum spaces. It also considers the challenge that queerness presents to the idea of the museum as a normalizing, meaning-making entity, and asks how these concerns are already being addressed in museum practice." from "Theorizing the Queer Museum." in Museums & Social Issues, Volume 3, Number 1. Left Coast Press, Inc. Spring 2008.

Well, it appears some thinkers have been down this queer road before... So queer museums could be in unconventional places, such as that of the Leather Archives & Museum in Chicago, thus celebrating queerness at its source. Or staged in community-oriented spaces, such as the Queer Cultural Center, in San Francisco, a city that is itself a virtual museum of queer culture. The queer museum could be composed of work by queer artists, straight artists making work about queer issues, or artworks that pertain to or uphold queer theory. Such a museum would also perform as a venue for collecting artifacts of sex, sexuality, gender and identity.

Now that the United States has a person of color as president for the first time in our history, I cannot help but wonder how our institutions of minority celebration will change in context. Certainly, there are scholars raising questions as to the validity of such institutions in a modern era that is perhaps “post-minority” or "post-identity," as exemplified by the election of Barack Obama, a mixed-race person. I personally hope this new era of American politics and presidency will strengthen minority institutions. WASP male culture still pervades our everyday lives, whether it is acknowledged in academia or otherwise. As I have much hope for human rights policy changes under a new and mostly Democratic government, it would be an awesome time for the emergence of a bonafide queer museum in the USA. It's crazy to think that someday there may be a national GLBTQ History Museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C. And if there is, I want to be the art curator!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Candice Breitz Connections

Candice Breitz was a visiting lecturer in the Photography and Film Dept. at VCU ealer this fall. A wonderful speaker, Breitz doesn’t fill her audiences with fluff about her work—she goes straight for the jugular. Her artworks essentially do the same thing: extract the human elements of pop culture that are often amiss in its presentation, via music videos, Hollywood films and television. In works such as Babel, Breitz isolates elemental sounds of grammar from pop music videos. For example, a clip of one of Madonna’s hits is condensed into the repeating gutterals “baaa baaa baaa.” In other extractions, Breitz selects whole words to repeat. And in her works Mother and Father, Breitz has extracted pop cultural iconographic mothers and fathers from Hollywood films and isolated them by blacking out their background environments. With most of her work existing in multi-channel formats, viewers are typically overwhelmed by so many isolated figures that are also part of one big conversation.

I am very attracted to Breitz’s work because it asks the essential question of “how are things interpreted when taken out of context?” and the more personal, “who are we when isolated from our environment?” In a modern age, we know ourselves as individuals, but so much of our identity is determined in how we are grouped socially and culturally. Another artist working with similar issues of misplaced context is Ellen Gallagher, who has isolated the hairdressing of African-Americans in white contexts. Gallagher layers cut-out yellow paper atop 

advertisements of popular Afro hairstyles, in effect “blondeing” them all. A powerful, subversive, but quiet statement on assimilation.


I have delved into similar territory in my work with romance novels. For a brief period, I was obsessed with the cover figures of hetero romance novels. There is an evocative and disturbing cultural formula at play in this cover art. It is heteronormativity at its most

grandiose, romantic base. In my Romance Series, I have separated the figures, man and woman from each other, subtracted facial features, and colored them in a ghostly pure white to erase any of the typically blushed, sexually-charged skin tones. I have attempted to take away their sexual substance. By physically separating these figures, I call into question the institutionalized notion of romantic love as something that only exists between straight couples: does such a romance exist in this day and age—did it ever really exist? In this body of work, I also challenge the Puritanically-based notions of monogamy. After separating the figures, I also place them in new social arrangements, often turned away from their pictured lover, sometimes without their original cover partner. I have placed them into different relationships: polyamorous groupings, queer couples, threesomes, etc.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

More Reflections on Cabinets of Curiosity as Queer Moments

Cabinets of Curiosity, or wunderkammern, are remnants of an incredibly formative time in world history, known as the Age of Discovery. This time spanned that of the great explorers, Christopher Columbus and such, to that of anthropological expeditions into the mid-1800's. A time period where Western cultures collided with Asian, African and American cultures, a collision with innumerable lasting effects on humanity, environment, and territory, that the world is still recovering from to this day.

In many ways, these collisions of Western and Non-Western cultures can be thought of as order meeting chaos. Europe, with its institutions of taxonomy and empirically-derived knowledge, was confronted with a deluge of specimens, human acts, technologies, and modes of thought that were previously unknown and had not been tested on early scientific proving-grounds. Immediately, an emerging class of collectors sought to collect as much "discovery" as possible. With no curatorial precedence, these collectors organized their huge collections as logically as they could. In this great time of wonder, human horns might be displayed beside a Great Master painting, a two-headed sheep fetus might show up beside a mircoscopic fruit stone carving. The previous systems of order had to be modified or abandoned to allow for the unexplainable aspects of these new specimens. That is, until the scientific world laid down rules and proofs that would taxonomize these collections and all future ones by scientific rationale. The art and history worlds followed suit.

However, this time of early wunderkammern reads queer on several different levels. I have attempted to highlight a few examples of this queer historical moment, taken from Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder.

This brief historical moment was rife with an undercurrent of chaos, of relativity, and of brave new experiments that defied current thinking. As historian Michel de Certeau is quoted as saying, "An absense of meaning creates a rift in time."(pg.79) In times of great uncertainty, an order of chaos thrives. This chaotic order fails to produce homogeneity, instead creating singular new waves. In essence, a very queer moment.

In the pure sense of the word, this moment was defined by odd, unknown reasoning. On another level, this moment was non-heterodox in its collecting and taxonomy--a rejection of the normative rules of science in pursuit of truth. On yet another level, this moment is queer in its "otherness" or rarity in the cast of historical periods. Stephen Greenblatt, writing on European response to the Age of Discovery, "our great-grandfathers' certainties, debunked by our grandfathers, were suddenly turning out to be not quite so easily debunkable after all."(pg.81) Wunderkammern existed at an intersection of pre-modern and modern thought. I liken this to the early concerted efforts to categorize human sexuality that were focused on normal and deviant, resulting in only a few variants of heterosexuality. Eventually, people who did not fit neatly into these categories began creating their own dialogue concerning their sexualities, and brought identity relative to sexuality into the picture. This caused a rupture in the old classifications. And while it has taken many years to be institutionally recognized, a wide spectrum of sexualities is now part of sexual categorization.

While wunderkammern may have struggled to find a unified practice, they plodded along amidst much uncertainty in collecting, going on to inform the collections that would build today's subject-specific museums. And if we recognize that the polyglot of today's museums represents a truly reflective collecting culture (think queer spectrum), then we must pay homage to the queer antecedents of cabinets of curiosity.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Time's Circles

In Einstein's Dreams, Alan Lightman imagines a bevy of dreams had by Albert Einstein during his tenure at a patent office in Switzerland in 1905. The novel presents a variety of vignettes of the human condition, all lingering in the arenas of the relative and unpredictable--essentially embodying the core idea of many of Einstein's theoretical contributions to physics and science. The idea of time is imagined in countless ways, unbound by the strictures of logic.

There was a particular passage in the book that spoke so closely of the relationship difficulties I have with my parents. They are determined to remember my brother and I as children, and are stodgy to accept us as adults who have grown different from them. 

"There is a place where time stands still....From this place, time travels outward in concentric circles--at rest at the center, slowly picking up speed at greater diameters....And so, at the place where time stands still, one sees parents clutching their children, in a frozen embrace that will never let go. The beautiful daughter... will never grow wrinkled and tired, will never get injured, will never unlearn what her parents have taught her, will never think thoughts that her parents don't know... will never stop touching her parents as she does now.
. . . .
And those who return to the outer world... Children grow rapidly, forget the centuries-long embrace from their parents, which to them lasted but seconds. Children become adults, live far from their parents, live in their own houses, learn ways of their own, suffer pain, grow old. Children curse their parents for trying to hold them forever, curse time for their own wrinkled skin and hoarse voices. These now old children also want to stop time, but at another time. They want to freeze their own children at the center of time.
. . . .
Some say it is best not to go near the center of time. Life is a vessel of sadness, but it is noble to live life, and without time there is no life. Others disagree. They would rather have an eternity of contentment, even if that eternity were fixed and frozen, like a butterfly mounted in a case."

This is but one of Lightman's theoretical meanderings on time's impermanence. It is hard for my parents and I to accept our differences when one camp mostly embraces the past, and the other camp gravitates toward the future. Both camps are right though.  To truly grow, we must change. To know the best way to change, we must know our history. Slowly we are on our way to the common ground that lies between the center and the far perimeter.

That Good Ol' Nature vs. Nurture Question

I constantly ponder the essential question of "nature or nurture?" especially since it is at the core of critical thought on deviant sexualities and queer theory. Some people believe our gender and sexuality are shaped by genetical make-up and other biological factors. Conversely, some people believe these facets of identity are shaped by culture and social interaction. But matters of the self are not so easily stuffed into black and white test tubes that make it easier for social scientists to wrap their heads around. There are obvious overlaps of this binary categorization. Insert Queer Theory, which arises out of a rejection of this binary.

In my own life, I am aware of both biological and social indicators that have shaped my queerness. I had a great-grandfather who lived alone for over 50 years after being widowed, lovingly making quilts for himself and his extended family...this wasn't necessarily the most traditional thing for a man to do at the turn of the century...was he potentially gay? I also have a nephew whom is now openly gay. So there may be a "gay gene" in my family. On the flip side, I can recognize specific social instances and group settings that helped mould my queer self. Even at an early age, I never felt very aligned with men or boys, I was always more comfortable with my mother and girls, and so my playthings were always girl-oriented. In my formative teens, I found my "community" in riot grrls and other outcast characters on the fringes of my high school social fabric. Essentially, I was "raised" (in punk fashion) by those for whom "normal" society was not enough. It was not until very recently that I have understood this community as profoundly shaping me in queer ways.

But my ultimate decision to "come out" was an incredibly personal decision, and didn't happen exclusively by peer influences. In fact, my "coming out" was marked more by what it was not, than what is was. I did not have emotional break-downs or blubbering confessions to everyone I knew. I did not experience an intense moment of enlightenment. I simply realized that the feelings I had always had for men could be real... and not exist only in my imagination. A quiet humming revolution. A tremor of self-actualization.

And so this notion of binary-rejection is one lens through which I am attempting to understand the world and all its workings. (Yes, I am comfortable riding the fence!) In particular, I am interested in applying the nature vs. nurture perspective to the varied subjects I encounter in my reading and observations of visual culture. I also hope to enhance my own queer theoretical skills by framing my writing within the argument of nature vs. nurture.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Maya Hayuk, Visiting Artist

I just checked out Maya Hayuk's work, after seeing that she is coming to visit next week. Check out these videos, and read some words below, from a story by her friend. I am drawn to her work for it's visual references to quiltmaking, and for it's pseudo-folk art qualities of obsessive, almost amateurist mark-making.

Maya is also an avid photographer, recording natural phenomena as well as man-made ephemera, and she often made experiments in her darkroom, layering negatives to an elegant and often mildly psychedelic effect....Not that long ago, Maya and I sat on my sofa drinking tea and eating chocolate while she showed me the photographs of her recent wall painting in progress. Watching the painting get built, I had difficulty reconciling the the fact that the painter was also the photographer, and I thought about the primary image and its documentary manifestation while Maya talked about the people she met and the bicycle she rode through Koln. It was kind of like watching stop-motion animation, and in this instance the subject of the film was an enormous, acid-colored explosion of energy emerging from the center of a wall. We looked at two images of the completed work, one in ordinary light and one bathed in the black light from the lamps she installed on the sides of the mural. The third image of the completed painting included Maya herself. No longer behind the camera documenting the process, she stands at the mid-point of the painting, its radiating gestures emanating outward from her solar plexus, from her chakras, from all kinds of ancient-new age parts of her body. Her head is slightly flung back. Her eyes are averted from the camera, and a little grin animates her face–triumphant, her arms are flung upward and outward, encompassing the world.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Cabinet of (queer) Curiosities

In my Material Intelligence Class, we just read Lawrence Weschler’s Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder. The nonfiction book describes the Museum of Jurassic Technology (MJT), a self-styled museum in Los Angeles created by David Wilson. The MJT stands at a crossroads of 17th century curiosity cabinets (wunderkammern) and modern museums.

The MJT contains odd examples of the natural world, such as the symbiotic relationship of a Stink ant, megolaponera foetens, and the fungus that infects its brain to reproduce. The museum also hosts exhibits of bizarre history, such as the intertwined stories of Geoffrey Sonnabend, a psychologist of memory who formulated elaborate theories of forgetting, and Madelena Delani, a classically-trained opera singer who had no short-term memory and could not read sheet music. 

I just keep thinking about the connections one could draw between David Wilson's cabinet of curiosities and the idea of "queerness" through the lens of postmodernism. 

Wilson has amassed an assorted collection of oddities and freaks of nature and presented them in a format for the world to view as factual information. He is enchanting us with wonder to follow him into the unknown to question the known. 

Queer , while originally a synonym of odd or weird, has been co-opted as a catch-all term for gender/sexuality/identity non-conforming persons. Queer extends beyond identity, though, and includes queer theory. To "queer" something is to take a common object/phrase/action of heteronormative culture out of its context, and give it new meaning. The reclamation of the word "queer" is a great example of how language is often queered: the term was used as a adjective similar to "odd" until the mid-twentieth century, when the term began to be applied as a slur against homosexual and gender non-conforming persons. During the 1990s, certain groups of gay, lesbian and transgender persons purposefully reclaimed the word from the heterosexual slang lexicon and adopted it to describe their entire community of persons not aligned with heteronormative values. These people successfully took the sting out of the slur and added pride and substance to it. 

In many ways, queer is both known and unknown. We can categorize people, objects and ideas as queer, but queer easily defies categorization and reductions of itself. Queer is an ever-evolving concept. In a similar vein, Mr. Wilson's MJT appropriates the norm to manipulate it for his own wonder. Even with the help of subtle contextual footnotes, we cannot know what is real and what is unreal. Wilson, I believe, revels in this non-specific (queer) space.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

I made a small body of work this past summer after reading Picturing Men: A Century of Male Relationships in Everyday American Photography by John Ibson. Ibson has collected old personal photographs of men together in the past century. These men are pictured in time-appropriate heterosexual formats, but their sexualities are blurred or unknown, and they are most certainly viewed in a queer context in present day. John Ibson argues in his book that we must blind ourselves to these men’s sexualities, as they are not explicitly known and most likely these men were best friends and experienced a certain intimacy unknown in today’s male friendships. I do not think we should be blind to these men’s sexualities—I think we should eyes and mind wide open. Afterall, why couldn’t they be queer? The same justifications for their probable heterosexuality can be used to justify their questionable homosexuality. The only given is that there are many layers to these men’s stories, which one assessment of a photograph cannot ultimately reveal.

Thinking about the subjective history of sexuality and the idea of reinvestigating historical material using a queer lens is what prompted me to make this work. I have focused on hidden layers of sexuality and the multiple barriers and facades that obscure them, or don't. Peepholes as part of an incomplete barrier revealing what is hidden behind the surface are used prominently in these pieces. I have pieced together torn pages from heterosexual romance novels to create a straight barrier through which we are only allowed a glimpse of the queer subject matter by select revealing peepholes. These quilt-like panels function as screens of altered concealment, creating one layer of distance from the pictured men and the heterosexual material, and another layer of distance between the queer subject matter and the viewer.

Images from peepholes:

quotes from the book:

"The photographs are quite silent about the sexuality of their subjects…but the photographs do speak, often unmistakably, about a matter of perhaps greater importance than sex in human interaction: genuine intimacy. "

"Beginning before the Civil War, in daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, cartes de visite, and tintypes, certain sorts of body language recurred time and again in studio portraits of men together. Entwining arms was common, as was holding hands in some fashion or another…. The utterly placid facial expressions of many of the men in these photographs suggest their comfort and familiarity with one another’s intimate touch. "

"A definite closeness was conveyed in many of the early-twentieth-century portraits of male couples. One is curious about what two men meant when they posed by a sign reading “Two of a Kind,” or what might have been meant by an inscription on the back of once cozy couple’s portrait that describes one man as the other’s “boyfriend.” Even nearly a century later, an occasional coupling…seems to convey not just romance but perhaps a sexual relationship. Others, like so many from even earlier times, are not necessarily romantic or sexual but do unambiguously demonstrate the comfort that American men still felt with intimate body language."

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Here Goes...

So, after a tiring, but fruitful journey, I am here, where I am supposed to be: grad school. Virginia Commonwealth University. Craft/Material Studies. Fiber. A decision was made many months ago, but it just now feels like the ball is rolling. I have a new home, new studio, new peers, new life. I have so many ideas for my time here that they would already fill an entire book... maybe they soon will. This blog is for the ideas that are too special to stash away in my book. 

Odd marks is a befitting name for my first blog. I love the word "odd." Like my name, it has twin letters beside one another. Plus, I am a touch odd. "marks" are drawings, but I also like to think of them as words, too.  Since this blog will include commentary, "marks" is short for remarks. Slapped together, these two words should function well to title my personal meanderings on the web and in life.