I feel an affinity toward the word failure. As a member of Generation X, the words loser and slacker have been historically used as general-purpose descriptive terms to define people of my generation. Of course, this characterization ultimately did not end up being the whole of the story, as is true for every generation before and to follow. But still, the concept of failure is deeply embedded in those born in the shadow of the Baby Boomers. In The Queer Art of Failure Judith Halberstam, who also writes under the name J. Jack Halberstam (see Gaga Feminism), introduces us to alternative ways of viewing failure, as perhaps an expression of rebellion or as means to resist mainstream America’s pressure to conform. Halberstam writes in the introduction entitled “Low Theory” : “From the perspective of feminism, failure has often been a better bet than success. Where feminine success is always measured by male standards, and gender failure often means being relieved of the pressure to measure up to patriarchal ideas, not succeeding at womanhood can offer unexpected pleasures.” Through this feminist lens the book examines contemporary art and pop culture looking for places of resistance within popular texts. “This resistance,” writes Halberstam, “takes the form of investing in counterintuitive modes of knowing such as failure and stupidity.” (See the chapter “Dude, Where’s My Phallus” for a discussion of the charmingness of male stupidity.)
Chapter One, “Animating Revolt and Revolting Animation” introduces the idea that childhood itself is a queer state wherein children are “disorderly,” and that if you “believe that children need training, you assume and allow for the fact that they are always already anarchic and rebellious, our of order, and out of time.” It is within this framework that Halberstam undertakes the discussion of contemporary animated children’s films such as Finding Nemo, Toy Story, and Monsters, Inc and positions these films as Marxist texts of revolt. Halbertam credits new methods of animation, CGI in particular, as the catalyst for this form of storytelling. Halberstam calls these films “‘Pixarvolt’ i
n order to link the technology to the thematic focus.” That these tales of insurgency and escape appeal to children is not surprising, but that these same films offer an alternative, queer, utopian vision of the future to adult viewers, is. Just re-watch Chicken Run and re-consider the ending of the films where “the all-female society of chickens allows for unforeseen feminist implications to this utopian fantasy.”
One of the things I like best about Halberstam’s books is that contemporary art is always included in the discussion of more general contemporary culture. In a Queer Time and Place and Female Masculinity are good examples of this. The chapter “The Queer Art of Failure,” includes a discussion of both the process of art-making and the works themselves. Looking at queer culture through the lens of failure was surprisingly revealing. Halberstam says, “[for Quentin] Crisp, as for an artist such as Andy Warhol, failure presents an opportunity rather than a dead end; in true camp fashion, the queer artist works with rather than against failure and inhabits the darkness. Indeed the darkness becomes a crucial part of a queer aesthetic.” Transgressive fiction and art have always appealed to my sensibility. In fact, I divide my life into before High Risk books and after. Undeniably, this genre is dominated by self-defined queers. I have read critiques that dismiss the whole lot of them as bitter and angry. While I agree that this work is often bitter and angry, that does not seem to be the motivating factor for creation of the work. It is Halberstam’s discussion of darkness as a queer place, that led me to better understand work I have already loved for decades, and helped me to see more recent work in a new light.
Included in the text are glossy color plates as well as some black-and-white images peppered throughout. My favorite of the included works are two photographs from the series Fourth, by Tracey Moffatt. Moffatt had been considered for a position as the official photographer for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and though this did not come to pass, it sparked her interested in the way we talk about winning, and the ramifications of fame and celebrity. Her series Fourth, shows athletes as they discover they have come in fourth place at the Olympics. These athletes, whose names we will never remember, came so close to earning a medal, but failed epically. Perhaps even a worse failure than coming in last.
The Queer Art of Failure is a surprisingly fun read, and more than once I laughed out loud, which is a pretty unusual response to a Queer Theory text. It is also one of the most accessible books on Queer Art Theory that I’ve read, if accessibility is one of your criterion. Halberstam is my favorite theorist and excels pulling challenging ideas from the least challenging material. Halbertam is most successful introducing new ideas and applying them to popular culture. Perhaps less successful is Halberstam’s follow-through. But then again, So what?
The Queer Art of Failure, by Judith Halberstam
Duke University Press
Work by Christine Negu.
Julius Caeser is located at 3311 W. Carroll Ave. Reception Sunday, 1-4pm.
Work by Adam Gondek.
The Mission is located at 1431 W. Chicago Ave. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Work by Morgan Sims and Jeffrey Prokash.
The Octagon Gallery is located at 120 N Green St. Unit 3b. Reception Friday, 7-10pm.
Work by Jessica Hyatt and Andrew Norman Wilson.
Threewalls is located at 119 N. Peoria St., #2C. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Work by Heather Mekkelson (+mc) and Brandon Alvendia (SK).
+medicine cabinet and Sofa King are located at 3216 S. Morgan St. Apt 4R. Reception Saturday, 7-10pm.
Though you don’t have to search out art exhibitions about love in February, let’s not totally dismiss a love-based theme around Valentine’s Day. Whether in or out of a relationship on February 14th, each year we are forced to look at our love life and define it within a few rigid categories. It’s not Valentine’s Day that is stupid and childish, it’s the way we are pressured to enter into it that is. Remember in First Grade when you had the same juice box as another kid of the opposite sex? You were in love, and there were “Ooohs” all around the lunch table for about three seconds, and then some kid would realize their mom gave them cheese curls instead of fruit snacks and everyone’s attention would shift there. Your romantic partnership with your juice king or queen was over as suddenly as it began. This is how society wants to define your love around Valentine’s Day: make it fit into an easy to read category, point at it, crap on it, and throw it into the back of the closet until the next year. As people, we think about love year round, and understand its complexity, or at least try to. Artists, unsurprisingly, have thought about love since the beginning of art: The Venus of Willendorf was a symbol of fertility. Cave paintings had copulating couples in them. The columns of ancient Greece and Rome were phalluses holding the stone vulva towards the heavens. The incorporation of Two Point Perspective in art was an attempt to see the other as equal to the self. (Three point Perspective was crushed early on by the Catholic Church due to its kinky nature.) Mondrian made his grid paintings over love letters he never sent to his mistress. OK maybe none of this is true, but love has been on our brains forever.
So then, Butter Projects, in downtown Royal Oak, MI mounts a show in February to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Except it isn’t really love that the artwork in the show explores. The artists chosen are left to follow their own muses. Instead, it is the curation and framing of the exhibition that talks about love. Real 24/7 warts and all kind of love, even if it doesn’t appear flat out in the work. Already, this is a better take on the Valentine themed art exhibit. Curated by Alison Wong, “I Like You and I Together,” on view until March 16, allows our experience with love to be the biggest thing in the room, in the air around us instead of plastered on the walls. Interestingly enough, Wong, who has been running Butter Projects solo for the past several months, will soon be joined by her partner John Charnota. She will continue her role as director and curator, while he implements new programming for the gallery. This adds to the overarching theme of love in the exhibition, with the gallery now helmed by an artist couple. It is no surprise then that the idea for this exhibition had been in her mind for quite some time. Though timed for February, perhaps the logistics made it a longer reaching project, as the typical studio visit becomes a negotiation of the partners’ work in relation with each other as well as the fit with the gallery’s mission. In the case of the ten artists on view, or five artist couples, Wong presents a way of seeing the work of artists in context with their partner as a means of fully understanding their work individually and the influence that their relationship has on their work.
Recalling work by Millee Tibbs in her 2007 series “This is a Picture of Me,” Zachariah Szabo’s photographs recall his childhood by re-staging snapshots taken of him by his parents. He recreates clothing and settings through a combination of craft materials and what is on hand, allowing for both planning and spontaneity. Symbols of adolescence and young adulthood enter in as props, like a cigarette or a beer in hand. The photos lament the loss of childhood for sure, but they also are brimming with camp: the elaborate outfits he was dressed in as a child result in satisfying costumes with a homemade sensibility that become lyrical to the photo. A previous work has him clutching a raw chicken in front of his face with a seductive look. Here, with “Zachariah,” he reclines in something from the Von Trapp Family wardrobe, complete with socks longer than his shorts. What appears as his birthday party ends up as a fashion shoot while pining for lost youth as self portrait. His partner, Ben Schonberger’s “Untitled Perpetrator Self” shows the artist in black face with carelessly open legs and glitter on his crotch, receptive to the $ sign print to the left (Green Field Gold Shop). That black face can be momentarily de-politicized by sparkle crotch is brilliant, as they cancel each other out as transgressive symbols of far more complex issues. The racist history evident in black face is countered by queer politics: while one seems a dark part of our past, the other is still a pressing issue that is no longer willing to be ignored, both far too often unjustly seen as suspect. Ben becomes a new character, a combination of forgotten and fringe, caught in the wrong spot at the wrong time, but definitely not us, who are able to view the images. By showing exploitable characters as fantasy versions of the self, both artists allow the viewer safe access into that person, tinged with anxiety, and transgressive erotica. (What’s more erotic than a giant red $?)
Focusing on the beauty in the everyday are Ashley Allen Short and Travis Roozee. The couple have been tracking the sublime moments that are possible from attention to one’s surroundings for some time, through separate studio practices. Seeing their work together allows similar themes to be strengthened. Shorts’ reverent gouache paintings of balloons that washed up on Lake Michigan’s shore contain a sense of dreamy longing. Deflated, they are like glass bottles with messages that arrived too late. The bright colors she uses only reaffirms the sense of loss and pathos. Conversely, Roozee’s Spilled Pills is mostly grays and white, with just a hint of washed out pastels. Scattered across a bathroom sink top, the pills are on parade, dissolving in the splashed water on the top of the sink. What could be a moment of anguish becomes an acceptance of things beyond one’s control. The pills lose their ability to function, as they cannot control any condition in their disorder.
Seth Farnack uses repurposed objects to create new narratives within a closed system, in this case, Snow White. Digital technology is translated with analog in Dwarfs. Nocturnes for Snee Whittchen. His Seven Dwarves are synthesizers which he circuit bent, and Snow White is a Facebook page avatar perpetually sleeping on the internet. The page is populated with music with the altered synthesizers, as the score for Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves re- imagined in seven sections. They are spontaneous sounding songs recorded on a smart phone and then played back on one in the gallery. While interesting in theory, the sounds the synthesizers produce are brash and unrefined, and so many of them lack longer listenability. The music is improvised but unlearned, and poorly recorded due to the use of the smart phone. Potentially endearing, the missed notes are far more than occasional, but not consistent enough to be purposeful, as it is clear that the sections want to fit within conventional song structures. Only “Makin’ Pies” hits the mark, turning the other’s negatives into success by achieving an of the moment lo-fi bliss that improvisation occasionally offers us. Bridget Mae Farnack also repurposes found objects, shifting them out of their original form or function. Most interesting is the consumer function: marble and wood that might be sold at a home improvement store return to their traditions as art materials through the DIY market filter. Other objects are abstractions of consumer products made from plastic, ceramic, paper and food. Good Fortune is a collection of charms, and though seen as individual works, offer a one to one relationship to each other. They are precious in their simplicity and tactility, yet, as their title suggests, carry a sense of the knick knack. This dual role keeps the viewer engaged to determine their own relationship to them, while enjoying the object’s rewarding presence.
The Light, by Lauren Rice, continually tries to contain chaos within material and architectural frameworks, ultimately succumbing to the organic shapes that have crumbled to the floor below the work. Pastel washes and spray painted soft edges evoking Frankenthaler co-mingle with hard edge stenciled borders. A loose rectangle of hot pink spray paint creates a frame to mimic the lavender wall. Also incorporating the gallery architecture into his work is her husband Brian Barr, whose installation Heavy is the Head involves many framing elements to work with formal concerns inherent to materials and methods in the works. A leaning sheet of plywood framing an eerie gray photograph of a marble bust, the camera shake featuring as a prominent aesthetic element. An altered book page about Greek Mythology is centered on a generously large area of the wall lightly demarcated by a sheet of duralar, echoing the canvas covered in black gaff tape next to it; the tape being framed by the size and shape of the canvas.
Also on view is Shannon Goff’s Cuckoo, a painstaking rendition of a cuckoo clock made out of corrugated cardboard, alongside her husband, Tom Lauerman’s wood and paper laminated small scale sculptures (Parquet Building Block, Frustum and Building Block #3). Together they re-enforce obsession and virtue of crafted objects while evoking Pop Art and Minimalism. Goff often re-creates quotidian objects out of cardboard or clay, while her husband, Tom, continually leans towards architectural forms in abstract languages.
“I Like You and I Together” will be on view until March 16th, 2013 at Butter Projects, 814 W. 11 Mile Rd, Royal Oak, MI
Hours: Open Fridays 1-5pm and Saturdays 1-3pm during the run of the exhibition. Additional hours available by appointment, email to schedule.
Note: A previous version of this article stated that Zach was holding a chicken in front of his chest near a jungle gym, which is just plain wrong. Also, that Ben had pink lipstick on instead of glitter on his crotch. While pink lipstick is often like a glittery crotch, a glittery crotch is so much more than pink lipstick. Critics often do not know what they are talking about. Many thanks to Alison Wong for making me aware of these over sights.
Guest Post by Jamilee Polson Lacy
Kansas City, in my opinion, is a sentimental place. I often hear KC natives recount the expansive history of Northeast KC, an historic 19th century neighborhood which is now a little rough around the edges but still incredibly interesting and diverse, recall the Jazz bars East of Troost, or speculate about what really happened in the days when the “Prendergast Machine” controlled the West Bottoms. One of my favorite times to eavesdrop is when I hear longtime residents waxing nostalgic for streetcar rides to Swope Park in the 1950s. Every time I am lucky enough to hear such things, I imagine myself inhabiting the setting and time of these other folks’ memories.
Similarly, the arts scene in KC has seen lately a confluence of presentations demonstrating artists’ longing for many pasts, presents and futures. I think they are trying to connect with their former, current and hopefully-to-be selves. In some cases, these artists show that they merely wish to spend a little time somewhere else, to escape, to vacation even. In others cases, though, artists seem want to be in two places at once, or to teleport themselves across space and time in order to gather images and artifacts to pile up for exhibitions. And in other, other cases, artists (and I too!) hope and pray versions of themselves, doubles, doppelgangers are out there doing good work on their behalf.
These artists’ notions about such things are really quite silly. Well, until they aren’t.
They are especially not silly when considered alongside KC-based fiction writer Annie Fischer’s 2012 essay, “Wish You Were Here,” which somehow, amazingly, sums up all of these wild ideas. So, for this month’s post on artiness in KC, I give you an illustrated version of “Wish You Were Here”:
Please Note: The italicized notes following the images are mine, not Annie Fischer’s.
“Wish You Were Here”
By Annie Fischer
In Anne and Dirk’s kitchen, where I’ve embraced the best and worst kinds of self- indulgence for ten years, the topic of conversation is déjà vu. I can’t remember why.
Dirk is troubled that there is no definitive rational explanation for it, this false sense of familiarity.
I am troubled that brains can play tricks.
Anne is troubled that it did not occur to her to be troubled by our troubles, and asks for not the last time, “What is wrong with you both?”
I’ve been reading lately about Capgras syndrome, a disorder in which one holds the delusion that an intimate has been replaced by an identical-looking imposter. Two French psychiatrists, Joseph Capgras and Jean Reboul-Lachaux, first described the syndrome in 1923, in the case of a female patient complaining that “doubles” had replaced her husband, children and neighbors. Doubles also figure in Freud’s 1919 essay on DAS UNHEIMLICHE, “the uncanny,” a concept he describes as “that class of the terrifying” that is both familiar and foreign at once. Heidegger tackled DAS UNHEIMLICHE, too, and its associated anxiety. Heidegger called it UNHEIMLICHKEIT: “not-being-at-home.”
“We’re homesick,” I suggest. “Our doubles are homesick, too.”
Anne shakes her head. She says, “My double is having an excellent time.”
Portraitist Jaimie Warren and her costumed coterie travel across art history and pop culture. Warren, though a KC resident and staple of the local arts community, opened a solo show at The Hole NYC last month. See more of Jaimie Warren at http://www.dontyoufeelbetter.com.
In my apartment, at my desk: I re-read the latest batch of texts and emails, a week’s worth or so.
When I reply, I tell him I wish he wouldn’t dash off these cryptic messages and then disappear again. It’s maddening, this new habit. It seems careless, and done in secret, and not meant for or mindful of me. “I want to believe there’s something uncompromised in it,” I tell him, “something familiar.” What I mean is, who is this imposter?
Sometimes he would forget his watch on my dresser in the mornings, and in the afternoons I would fasten it to my wrist for an hour or so. I liked to hear it tick.
He says: “Nothing worked.”
He says: “We worked.”
He says: “I care more than you can imagine.”
In THE STRANGER, Meursault – imprisoned – kills time taking mental inventories of his old apartment. He recalls the color and texture of the furniture, the objects atop the furniture, the details of the objects: every crack, every chipped edge. “Once I learned how to remember things,” he tells the reader, “I wasn’t bored at all.”
There’s lots of room for romance in existentialism – I actually said that once.
“The more I thought about it,” Meursault continues, “the more I dug out of my memory things I had overlooked or forgotten. I realized then that a man who had lived only one day could easily live for a hundred years in prison. He would have enough memories to keep him from being bored. In a way, it was an advantage.”
In a way. On the one hand.
What my mother likes to say, during the most serious conversations: “On the other hand, she wore a glove.”
At 8:15 a.m. Wednesday, I throw out his toothbrush. Its absence is what I see in the medicine cabinet now. I sleep on his side of the bed; some ghost sleeps on mine.
I tell him all of this, of course.
I, too, want an audience for my inventory.
Poor Meursault. It is terrible – it is so disadvantageous – to be kept from being bored.
If Only A Fool, curated by Chris Daharsh for City Ice Arts, inventories this group of artists’ attempts to re-iterate, re-use and re-present themselves and their surroundings. See more at www.chrisdaharsh.com.
“SO NICE,” visitors say of Kansas City’s residents. “People here are SO NICE.”
“Wonderful,” a local murmurs in reply. “Are people not nice where you come from?”
“No, no – it isn’t that,” visitors say. “We knew everyone would be nice, we’ve always heard that about this place, everyone’s always heard that about this place. We’re just surprised by HOW nice.”
The local suggests that perhaps the dissonance occurs not because the visitors have encountered an unexpected depth and/or breadth of friendliness, but because they have confirmed through lived experience what cognitively they had already accepted, consciously or not, as true.
The visitors frown. “Hmm,” they say. “Maybe. Probably not.” “No, probably not,” the local says. The visitors, once more: “It’s just: SO NICE.”
They haven’t had occasion to visit my pharmacy, I think. At my pharmacy, grim-faced girls in uncomfortable-looking lab coats approach the counter and stare or sigh until a customer intuits it is his or her turn to speak.
These girls, with their heavy reluctance – I want to ask them, “Can I help you?”
People in KC are so nice that they let Xijing Men travel across the world to make up fake countries and olympics so that they can reinvent themselves. People in KC are so nice that they let Xijing Men draw crazy stories of doppelgängers all over the wall. People in KC are so nice that they will lay on the concrete floor to please Xijing Men. See more of The Xijing Men; Tsuyoshi Ozawa, Chen Shaoxiong, and Gimhongsok exhibition at http://www.kcai.edu/artspace.
I am spending five days at the beach. Exactly five months ago I spent six days on another beach, some 1,800 miles west of this one. Any distinction I might make from memory between the physical landscapes – clarity of water, intensity of sun – I would have to invent. Beach is beach to me.
On the first beach, in May, I would lie on a damp lounge chair for an hour or so after sunrise each morning and listen to the waves hurl themselves against the shore with such desperation and regularity that I felt I could not breathe. When the rhythm became too oppressive, I would go upstairs. One morning I took two showers in five hours just to try the shampoos.
Here, on the second beach, the waves ahead remind me of the experience and the feeling I had on the first beach five months ago. I compare this memory with the one that comes next – the new memory of remembering the first beach, the memory created here on the second beach – and I recognize in the second memory an absence of the anxiety in the first.
From what I gather, the shore on this beach simply suffers less reckless waves than the first beach.
This explains the difference.
In a way.
At the grocery store down the street, I spin a circular rack of postcards. I’m looking for something specific, something with porpoises and a setting sun.
I find one of a pair of gulls studying the horizon. It reads, “Wish you were here.”
I consider sending it to him. I consider sending it to the girls at the pharmacy. I consider sending it to Annie Fischer, in Kansas City, Mo., so something is waiting when she returns.
As I walk out empty-handed – because I do not wish to be familiar with this particular moment in this particular place; I do not wish to be reminded – a new comparison of memories reveals that the absence of anxiety has been replaced by the presence of anxiety.
As the exhibition’s title suggests, Centuries of Self: New Works by Seth Johnson (organized by Greenlease Gallery Director Anne Austin Pearce) researches, culls from, believes in the possibilities of a self’s multiples realities.
I fly home, I unpack. Days pass, then weeks. I visit kitchens, and allow visitors in mine.
No matter: The gulls remain faithful.
It helps to think my double feels homesick tonight.
Jamilee Polson Lacy is an artist, curator and writer living and working in Chicago. Lacy founded and currently directs the Twelve Galleries Project, a transitory, collaborative exhibition experiment. Her independent curatorial projects focus on the visions, colors, histories and ideas shared between authors, architects and artists, while her artwork and writing searches for what is lost and gained between text, image and object. She has engaged in solo and collaborative projects with numerous creatives and institutions, including A+D Gallery at Columbia College Chicago, The Black Visual Archive, Chicago Artists’ Coalition & Hatch Projects, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Hyde Park Art Center, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and Quite Strong, among others. Publications include Color: Fully Engaged in addition to multiple exhibition essays and interviews. Lacy holds two undergraduate degrees in studio arts and art history and a Masters of Comparative Literature and Arts from Northwestern University. She is the 2012-2013 Curator-In-Residence for Kansas City’s Charlotte Street Foundation, where she is organizing three exhibitions and publications for Charlotte Street’s la Esquina gallery.
I appreciate Anthony Romero’s reading of my blog post about ASCO and “the foreigner” on this blog yesterday. I am glad that Romero asked these questions so that I can explain what I mean when I talk about the foreigner as “kitsch“ and how I relate that to the work of Asco..
Romero has some question about the role of the foriegner in my post. By foreigner I don’t mean just any “non-white” person. I am for example, a foreigner. I came to this country as a teenager and was met by an incredibly amount of violence and hostility, from other kids as well as teachers and other adults. What people objected to was my strange clothes and haircut. They said I was a “faggot.” I didn’t even know what that meant, but I gathered from the vehemence of their reaction that it was someone powerful, something threatening. My own thinking about not just foreigner but art was largely shaped by this violent experience. That is perhaps why something like queer studies to me has very wide relevance to understanding not just gay people but the status of foreigners.
As I note in my post, for me the “foreigner” does not have to do with citizenship but something else. In my original post I wrote:
“I’m using the word “foreigner” to conveniently include here both actual immigrants and ethnic minorities. I know there’s a difference but there’s also a similarity: a presence that troubles the dream of homogeneity.”
But really “foreigner” doesn’t have to mean even that; it could mean just about any figure that “troubles,” that does not smoothly blend into an easy version of reality. Once at a party a linguist came up to me and said she had been observing my accent and apparently my accent followed the same pattern as children of immigrants that she had been studying. Her theory was that the accent suggested a kind of resistence to assimilation. I don’t know if that’s true, but it makes a good metaphor for what I’m trying to get at: the metaphorical accent – or noise – that refuses to take its place in society, but calls attention to itself as unassimilated sound. But like I said, this accent can be read widely and metaphorically.
It’s also important to note in my “myth of origins” that it was the hair and clothing that got me in trouble as much as my accent. In other words, the realm of kitsch.
I always say, “the Foreigner is kitsch.” In American culture, the foreigner is often made into a ridiculous “version” of a real person (ie an All-American Person). This is one way our culture has of dealing with this troubling foreigness: our culture makes the foreigner into a ridiculous, flawed version. Not something that resists appropropriation (as in the cool linguist’s model); but something that fails to become “natural.”
My “favorite” example is the guy in “That 70s Show.” It’s unclear if he’s European or Latin but he is distinctly foreign. He’s also very gay-ish (in a stereotypical way: he’s lispy and affeminate), but typically he’s also hyper masculine, always looking for sex That is to say: there’s a violence in his foreigness. The show deals with this by making him ridiculous. But there’s that threat as well.
Another way of dealing with the foreign is to situate foreigners in the past – what I call authenticity kitsch – and identify the foreign with customs, food, traditions. As long as the foreigner is associated with these, he or she becomes quaint, of the past (that is not to say that customs are worthless, they are often quite beautiful).
There are of course tons of other methods, but these these are some that are relevant to the way I think about art, and to the way I think about Asco’s art in particular.
This jives very well with my experiences in America, and –sadly – particularly in the poetry world. Over and over again, I’ve been accused of cheating somehow, of being ridiculous, of being “too masculine” (or too opinionated). Once when I raised an innocent question to a famous Bay Area experimental writer, she told me she did not want to be in dialogue with me because I was “from someplace different” than her. Just the other day I was at a party and the spouse of a professor told me that Scandinavians are “inhuman” because we don’t have “feelings.”
It seems that Romero thinks I endorse this idea of the foreigner as kitsch. I am reacting to a portrayal of the foreigner. One way to oppose such a portrayal would be to correct it, to work toward more “human” portrayals of foreigners. But I think the “human” isn’t such a wonderful ideal, based as it is on the exclusion of the “inhuman”; and I think there is a power in the unassimilatable, the “inhuman” of the foreign. It’s that dynamic that I think Asco does a great job exploring; and I am interested in this dynamic as well, exploring it in my writing.
Anthony observes that by calling the foreigner “kitsch,” I dehumanize the foreigner and make them “thing-like.” I would say that I am not the one calling foreigners kitsch; the foreigner is already defined as a kitsch figure in our culture.
But I am interested in this portrayal. I’m interested in kitsch. We have to go through all kinds of contortions to create an illusory “interiority” – some internal essence – to define ourselves as human. In these portrayals, the foreigner is not human; he or she is thing-like. Kitsch. A foreigner has no soul.
That’s what interests me about kitsch and art and the foreigner. Clearly a lot of people who are of foreign descent do their best to get a soul, to become human. But for every “human” there’s always the inhuman, other. So I don’t love the idea of being human. And I think the idea of “interiority” as the highest value is a sham. I prefer atmospherics (for example asco, nausea) to interiority.
On the other hand, I don’t want to accept an easy “inhuman” label either; I am not interested in merely reproducing that guy from “That 70s Show.” Kitsch and art for me open up zones where the human and inhuman, the US and the foreigner can be troubled. I take the word “troubled” (I think, if I remember correctly) from Julia Kristeva’s writing on abjection: the abject as that which troubles boundaries.
I hope my previous post shows how all of this comes into really wonderful play in Asco’s “social surrealism”: with their masks, their fake stills, their play on Mexican ethnic customs and art; with their name “asco” which seems to be the vomit of artist, spectator and society (ie the place where they come together is a site of abjection, of repulsion but also a coming-together); and its deformations of popular culture.
Gronk (one of the leading Asco members): “A lot of Latino artists went back in history for imagery. We wanted to stay in the present and find our imagery as urban artists and produce a body of work out of our sense of displacement. Latin imagery had a strong input, but we also had Albert Camus, Daffy Duck and movies like Devil Girls from Mars.”
Gamboa (another leader artist in the collective) wrote that Asco was both “attracted and apalled by the glitter and gangrene of urban reality.” He’s said Asco was “El Camino Surrealism.” El Camino is of course both Spanish and a kitsch product (an outdated car).
A lot of Asco’s imagery and ideas come from B-movies, comics etc: The traditional realm of “kitsch.” They are very upfront about this and it’s obvious from their many “no films’ (fake film stills). But they also drew inspiration from news footage and “high art” (conceptualism, which Asco felt was racist). Their art is tasteless, but it’s tasteless in an interesting way that sabotaging this kind of distinction between high and low which I absolutely believe has not disappeared (and which is often ethnically motivated). So when Anthony says that to call Asco “kitsch” is to demean them, I feel he’s reiterating a denigration which I don’t subscribe to and I think Asco members clearly rejected. They were inspired by kitsch – comics, b-movies, telenovelas etc.
One more thing about kitsch: any art can become kitsch. It moves around. That’s why people are scared of it (of having their art turn into the next kitsch, making it worthless). But that’s why it makes such a promising zone of experimentation: it’s mobile. Once you enter into kitsch zone high becomes low, foreigner becomes “us”, not by becoming a naturalized but by assuming a place while wearing a mask. That’s why I’m interested in kitsch as a zone of exploration in my own work, and why Asco has been a great inspiration for me.
A couple of more things…
I would say that Romero’s statement that Asco has an “activist tendency” is both true and false. It’s true that a lot of their art made interesting political interventions – such as when they sent a fake (kitsch?) photograph of a dead chicano guy lying in the street to news sources (which published it), or when they dressed up in crucifixion type gear and blocked the draft office in their neighborhood. But I don’t think the “activist” label is entirely right because as the photograph example shows they were not often programmatic about their politics. They seemed more interested in images than in setting up a clear political agenda; they were explicitly at odds with the more traditionally, explicitly “activist” Chicano artists of the time (and the greater Chicano movement, even as it was part of it, this is well documented).
So when Romero writes:
“The plight of the Chicano movement is not some isolated “Foreign” experiment. It is a social movement against violence, oppression, and unnecessary death, during a time in which other American collectives were also publicly struggling for their livelihood.”
He may be right about the Chicano movement, but not necessarily about Asco. I definitely think that Asco was precisely about a “foreign experiment.” This is exactly how I read their work, and I don’t think that is to criticize them or to demean them. I think this is a very profound, very political form “experiment.”
I do think Romero is totally on the spot when he writes:“Foreigner means not from here. Here being the pace of the main subject, the one speaking, the one in an ultimate position of power.” Do we really want to just become that un-foreigner? That person in power? Or do we want to trouble that position? That person? That structure of dealing with difference?
I think this is where we get at the heart of the matter.
Since this blog doesn’t allow “comments”, I’ll post a link to it from Montevidayo.com, and I welcome people who want to join in the discussion to meet me there!