|For starters, any consideration of it quickly exceeds the corporeal and spills over into the stormy sea of identity. Then, how does one begin to talk about that many-headed Hydra, desire? How do you contain what is too fluid to map, domesticate a thing that defies penning, describe a thing which in Whitman’s words, “balks account”? To be queer, at least as we currently understand the word, is not simply an exploration of the ever-expanding boundaries of gender performance, but of the very depths of our selfhood. And who knows what the word will mean for us tomorrow?
By Avram Finkelstein
Body politic, body of evidence, body and soul, body language, body heat, body of work, work that body, corpus delicti, corpus linguistics, exquisite corpse. We spend every waking and sleeping moment in our bodies, and still there’s no end to our love of referring to it. It’s woven into our language, our laws, our sciences, and our arts. The body, it would seem, is the one thing we’re sure of.
But the queer body? Where to begin?
For starters, any consideration of it quickly exceeds the corporeal and spills over into the stormy sea of identity. Then, how does one begin to talk about that many-headed Hydra, desire? How do you contain what is too fluid to map, domesticate a thing that defies penning, describe a thing which in Whitman’s words, “balks account”? To be queer, at least as we currently understand the word, is not simply an exploration of the ever-expanding boundaries of gender performance, but of the very depths of our selfhood. And who knows what the word will mean for us tomorrow?
Which is precisely the point of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, an ongoing discovery project dedicated to the layers of scaffolding that surround the very idea of the queer. By sifting through historical documentation and its re-reading, by reviewing cultural production and its reinterpretation, by surveying the regenerative flux of the performative, we are on vigilant watch for all things queer.
Here lies a capsule of six queer artists, historians, and culture makers. This tiny sampling maps what the most refined GPS can only hint at. There can be no exploration of the queer body without first queering the landscape of the mind.
And as these illustrations serve to exemplify, what could be queerer than choosing the least obvious ways to do it?
1. BODY OF EVIDENCE: REENA KATZ
Alan Turing’s cryptanalysis of the World War II German Enigma codes made him a national hero. But when the man who laid the groundwork for modern computer science and kick-started the notion of artificial intelligence turned out to be gay, he was treated like any other invert in England at the time: convicted of gross indecency and given the choice between prison and chemical castration. After two years of estrogen injections that led to impotence and gynecomastia, Turing committed suicide.
Artist Reena Katz deftly juxtaposes this shameful object lesson in the prosecution of difference against the contemporary online project, It Gets Better, in which video testimonies from diverse individuals reassure embattled LGBT youth that they are not alone in their struggle. As encouraging as the project by columnist Dan Savage might be, Katz teases out the attendant questions of gender, race and class, and wonders out loud what becomes of the Alan Turings of the world, who technically make it through to adulthood.
Mixing snippets from It Gets Better with a reproduction of Turing’s suicide note, Katz reminds us of Turing’s groundbreaking prescience and the tragedy that befell him with every interactive tap of the typewriter keyboard: like a hand from the grave, the sound triggers the affidavits of the Savage project on the accompanying laptop. In so doing, Katz not only posits a dialogue between the past and the present, but also between the analog and the digital, and she reminds us that one of the great geniuses of the 20th century was trapped in the society we construct from the same sort of binary that’s the basis of computer science itself.
Liz Collins, Knitting Nation Phase 10: Domestic Swarming, 2012. Durational performance, MoMA Studio, NY
2. BODY OF WORK: LIZ COLLINS
As anyone with a boss will attest, your body is theirs once you walk through the door. At its worst, work is soul sucking. At its best, group endeavor is the basis of all social progress, and when it’s an extension of the communal body, work can be sincerely joyous.
Liz Collins’ ongoing Knitting Nation project—now in its eighth year—is a performative love poem to collectivity. In her meditation on work, the trance-like hum of knitting machines beats rhythm from the chaos of enterprise, and is the utopian lullaby underneath Collins’ consideration of all of social interactions, from war and class exploitation to adornment and world making.
Under the guise of the prosaic, her unique brand of activating public spaces serves as a reminder of the ways in which work is inescapably gendered. And in spite of its communal nature, the project still has body intimacy. Her performance, Phase 2, used ropes that resembled glowing, Borg-like innards, equal parts human and architecture. In Phase 5, she draped RISD’s Chace Center in glistening lingerie. And her Phase 7, commissioned by Helen Molesworth for ICA Boston’s Dance/Draw exhibition, was a choreographed concerto of darkness that produced a knitted heap of blood red carnage in the middle of the stage.
Enter artist Niki Paul, who is both queer and an esotericist.
In her project, I’m in Love With Your Ghost: Queer Portraits of Lesbian Obituaries, the medium is decidedly the message. Paul farmed out published obituaries from the Lesbian Connections newsletter archives to five queer artists and asked them to conjure a portrait of the deceased. The resulting suite of works does a long jump over the topic of the persecution of witches as a feminist dilemma, and lands us squarely in the 21st century, where intuition is everything.
It doesn’t matter that the authors had never met the subjects. In Paul’s eyes, they knew them anyway. For Paul, rendering the lost in this way is an act of divination that gives form to the invisible, and honors “the beautiful unknown darkness of our queer herstory.” Sisterhood, especially in the hands of an Adept, is powerful.
“When I was six, I had an out of body experience,” warns the wall text in Martha Burgess’ installation, Ignatz’ Nose Travels in Still Life. In Burgess’ curatorial experiment, she revels in the displacement of identity, using cartoonist George Herriman’s characters, Krazy Kat and Ignatz mouse, as a kicking off point. In their thirty-one year tenure, these two were either adversaries or lovers, depending on how you view it. Still, one thing is certainly undeniable: even though it’s unrequited, cat definitely loves mouse. There is this one teeny caveat, however. Krazy Kat’s gender is mutable. S(he) is utterly up for grabs.
And for Burgess, so is all of history. Through wryly constructed photographic still life’s, the artist offers up a densely layered cavalcade of data, sight gags and innuendo. Mouse-over computer displays help unpack her array of historical gender signifiers that includes flowers, pig’s tails, dental dams and strap-ons. Her images make allusions to identity, astral projection, The Lorena Bobbitt episode, and the centuries of autonomy afforded to women by China’s Guangdong Provence silk trade, which allowed them to conduct same sex unions.
Burgess’ lurid tableaux are a romp through the centuries of hysteria perpetuated by the strictures of gender, all unified by her sense of play. But the artist is to be taken very seriously: in her short career she’s been a Guggenheim, MacDowell and New York Foundation For the Arts Fellow, spoken at Yale and NYU, teaches at Parsons and has had numerous solo shows in New York, Baltimore and Houston.
In order to sustain life and limb, queer lives are often lived outside of institutional frameworks, and can remain hidden. So divining queerness from source material is a little like code breaking, or in Nicolazzo’s words, seeking history in “the interstices and silences of primary sources, emphasizing the role of speculation and desire in the production of history from scant and often hostile archives.” We like to think of history as being as solid as stone. Queer history, however, is often as slippery as ice.In 1752, traveling apothecarist Charles Hamilton was arrested for vagrancy in Chester, Pennsylvania. Shortly thereafter, the Pennsylvania Gazette posted a notice that Hamilton had been arrested because it was believed “that the Doctor was a Woman in Men’s Clothes.” Further complicating the incident was the fact that vagrants in the colonies were commonly thought to be runaway slaves or indentured servants. So the public notice offers the following details for the purposes of identification: “She is very bold, and can give no good Account of herself; says she is about Twenty-eight Years of Age, tho’ she seems to be about Forty. She wears a blue Camblet Coat, with Silver Twist Buttons, too large for her.” This description led a Virginia plantation owner, David Currie, to lay claim to the woman, whom he named as Sarah Knox, an indentured servant who’d been sent to America as a convict.
So, who was Hamilton/Knox? By all accounts, (s)he was a slave, a servant, a vagrant or a convict. But who is to say she wasn’t simply an outsider who was struggling to experience her own gender? As Nicolazzo points out, this particular historical incident, “highlights the inseparability of queer/trans history from the histories of class, labor and incarceration,” and touches on the social realities of, “criminal transportation, convict labor and fugitive resistance.”
As part of her installation, Nicolazzo recreated the conduit for this historical subterfuge, Hamilton’s coat. The coat hung on a hook, with a sign encouraging gallery-goers to try it on. The artist wanted the viewer to be reminded “that identification—so vital to the practice of queer history—also comes uncomfortably close to the history of surveillance that Hamilton was caught up in. Queer visibility is a complicated proposition; the surveillance that makes Hamilton visible to us now as an object of queer, trans historical desire or identification is the very surveillance that resulted in Hamilton’s arrest and incarceration. The blue coat with silver buttons may have enabled Hamilton’s gender transgression, but it was also reappropriated as a tool of surveillance and control.”
So we never arrived at a single analysis of their relationship to each other or its meaning, but engaged ourselves in the process of telling and re-telling their story to each other: in one version we created a lusty performance of pulpy lesbian romance out on the prairie, in another version a tortured and tight-lipped exchange of letters over the years, in another version of the story they are each bound to their own stations and histories, which happen to intersect, and they only interact reluctantly with each other.”
The legends of these two women might be colorful enough: Mary was six feet tall and frequented the all male saloons where she smoked cigars and picked fights. Amadeus picked fights with her church superiors. But these facts are mise-en-scène in Bean and Lowe’s performance piece. The pioneer women are body doubles where the artists are concerned, for themselves, and for queers of future generations.