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."