This talk was delivered as part of a panel at The College Art Association annual conference in the spring of 2015. I recently came across it in my records and thought it was worth another airing.
For the past few years I’ve been engaging in a performance practice that has involved a series of collaborators and which has taken place in campgrounds and hotels and basements and apartments around America. In each of these performances I and my collaborators devise a script, secure props and costumes and train for our various roles. Some of my collaborators have been trained in the arts. Some have not, but bring other skills to bear on the work. In each instance, the recipients of the performance were the same as the performers.
I’m not going to show them to you, but if I did, it would look like you were viewing kinky queer sex.
That’s because it is: kinky, queer sex.
I want to talk about some things I’ve learned through this performance practice in these past years:
What I’ve learned as a kinky queer: nobody can fuck for you. Typing isn’t fucking. and it certainly isn’t a way to fuck things up.
Here is the invitation sent to the participants on this panel:
“Each speaker will have approximately 20 minutes to present their own cultural point of view regarding the state of the arts from the position of theory, aesthetic practice, politics, economics, genres, genders, sexuality, spirituality, etc… This is a specially commissioned panel in honor of the 100th year founding of the CAA. You each represent crucial points of reference and intersection regarding the contemporaneous concerns in the arts industry whether mainstream global or on the edge.”
In other words, I’m here to talk about what’s important to me in art these days. I should be doing this from my position as an educator. This is the College Art Association after all. But I want to talk as an artist. After all, I teach because it helps me make my work. Not only financially, but because I’m a little dim and I need to be reminded about what my problems are.
The problem is representation.
By definition: To represent, to stand in for.
The pathos of the stand in, always waiting for their big break on the ideological stage. Representation is built on absence. The real event is always delayed, coming. Our representatives speak for us but are not us.
This is the problem.
Or to re-present: to present over again, to give the known, to reassure. Let me know you are really whatever, so we can finally get the uncertainty between us over with.
It is laudable that our society strives for fairness. It is not laudable that the justification for that fairness is so often an essential sameness.
When we submit to the regimes of representation, we occupy the mental space that W.E.B. DuBois delineated so clearly as double consciousness:
“ It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,–an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder”
The Civil right model, and representational politics in this country, lead us to ask the following questions: Where’s my slice of the status quo? Is it the same size as my neighbor’s? It is predicated on an idea where I am supposed to be both myself and the representation of a social group, an abstraction.
Our difference is acknowledged, but only as a way of pointing to our essential sameness. It is that sameness that gives us a claim on fundamental rights.
We are allowed to be different in every way except when we wish to step outside our role as a representative.
Further, as an artist I am charged with making this dual nature legible to a mainstream. I am given the task of identifying my issues and then providing the remedial course in them to a public that can then decide whether they have been discussed long enough.
Trends, either in an art market or an academic one are predicated on a notion that issues can be raised and resolved. In order to be heard one must format your utterances to that system.
Fuck the status quo. I don’t want my fair share of ignorance, jingoism and billionaire worship. I’m not waiting outside the chapel to get my love validated.
I got into the cocksucking racket because I thought I wouldn’t have to worry about any of that crap.
To move from the toleration of variation to a love for the alien in all of its flowering should be our goal.
I want our difference to make things different, if it doesn’t, it’s been squandered.
Difference means change, queer difference means unexpected change
The work of sexual liberation remains unfinished. The sexual revolution is almost entirely consumed, but unconsummated. The artworks that emerged at the same time, were also predicated on a radical idea of presentness. They were boring and uncomfortable as often as they were brilliant and transformative.
Ideologies issue from bodies, from our bodies, which are not abstractions but wondrous facts, existing not in the realm of abstraction but in specific locations at specific times.
The information age banishes the specific, providing access to everything except those things that matter.
IN A SOCIETY THAT ASKS US TO STAND IN FOR OURSELVES, we must not submit to the regime of double consciousness, which is the regime of representation.
I’m supposed to talk about the current art scene, so I’ll talk about what I see there: a bifurcated world where two markets, one financial and one intellectual, both collaborate to make the specific experience of artists irrelevant and interchangeable.
We talk about the dematerialization of the art object. It’s time for the de-documentation of Art. We live in an age where people are trained to experience art through the document, and to make art that can immediately be reduced to that document. Performances that are reduced to photographs, video that are endlessly loped tableaus, unmoored from any temporal urgency.
We are the existence of sex in public. We don’t have to be behaving sexually for that to be the case.
We are the reminder that the term “natural” is a mask for ideology. That identity is an ongoing pageant, not some sacred core of who we are.
In this society it is our job to contra-dict – to speak against, to speak across. Even when things are nice. Because someone has to do it. It is something all societies need, the disruption of the commonsensical, the rational, the disembodied.
We are hated because we remind people that pleasure is possible, that anyone can decide to take it. That it is a CHOICE, a choice that many don’t have the courage to make for themselves. As such, for many we are the reminder of their cowardice.
Queer isn’t who you fuck. It’s how you fuck them. It isn’t what you do, it’s how you do it. It isn’t what you depict, it’s how you transform consciousness through the action of your will: That is what it means to make art.
Queer culture is not a style of culture, nor is it an adjunct to our lives which we can detach like Lego. We cannot stop talking about it or making work about it simply because some publication imagines that it has been resolved.
Queer culture is the manifestation of our will in the world. Our transformation of reality.
Your dirty pictures are our history. Your embarrassments our monuments.
So when you start taking them down, or when you ask us to do it differently, you are not just rearranging our decor. You are attempting to make us disappear. When an art buying public turned away from “identity based work” it presented the world with the image of people growing tired of their own ignorance being pointed out to them after they had loudly demanded to be educated. “We’re tired of inclusion, what else have you got?”
The removal of David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire In My Belly from the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery was not about artistic freedom, which in this society is the freedom to be supposedly irrelevant, it was an attempt to rewrite American history, in an American history museum.
Representation is a losing Game, one where our own pleasure is put on hold while we make our case to a rigged jury. To beg for their tolerance: I’m supposed to believe that if a platoon of straight comic fans are persuaded to be slightly less homophobic because they see two superheros kiss, it’s more important than one queer person be fully themselves. I call shenanigans on that shit.
To our straight allies: we are here to remind you of the fact that you are making a choice every time you fuck. And to encourage you to make bolder ones, not by buying sex toys, but by bringing your whole self to the persons you are fucking.
These days I teach photographers, and I’ve come to regard photographic documentation as the enemy of artistic thought. It is time to abandon the document, to show it for the false currency it is. We understand art through proximity, through our own risk, not by browsing and scrolling. What is the art fair experience, if not that of a three dimensional trip through a google image search. Attention accrues to the loudest and the most looked at becomes somehow the most pertinent.
What can we do now?
Present, Not Represent
These pieces are embodied, in the midst of a rhetorical landscape that has become increasingly disembodied
Represent no one, be yourself present and make us a present of your pleasure.
Embody queer, don’t represent it. Do this in your work, your teaching, your career.
Make things different.
Refuse to buy in, refuse the status quo, stop standing in for an idea, an abstraction.
Stop standing in the wings waiting for your big break in a show that we didn’t write and isn’t meant for our amusement. Stop waiting to add your special stripe to the rainbow,
Stop hoping Start transforming.