It’s April, and if you’re like me, you’ve probably been busy tying up overdue assignments and following instructions on how to properly label your JPEGS for this or that residency or fellowship application. As such, what follows is an excerpt from a much larger essay and curatorial endeavor I’m working on that considers alternative methods for the establishment of intergenerational connectedness – particularly for activist communities. Enjoy!
In 2003, artist and filmmaker Matt Wolf made a short-film called Smalltown Boys that features a fictional narrative about a young girl named Sarah Rosenberg who begins a letter-writing campaign to save the television show My So-Called Life from cancellation with a cohort of other fans organizing themselves online. Rosenberg, in Wolf’s film, is the biological daughter of HIV/AIDS activist and artist David Wojnarowicz, conceived through artificial insemination. Rosenberg grows up to be a young, disenfranchised lesbian that feels no connection to the kind of direct street-level activism for which Wojnarowicz is remembered. Interspersed throughout Wolf’s telling of Rosenberg’s trials to save her beloved television program is archival footage of ACT-UP demonstations and home-video footage of Wojnarowicz on a road-trip with friends, swimming in a pond, and pontificating on the life of a small bug crawling upon his finger.
Matt Wolf, Smalltown Boys, Excerpt
Additionally, Wolf interrupts the flow of his film with self-shot footage of his disembodied arm spray-paint tagging contemporary subway advertisements for MTV sponsored HIV/AIDS benefit concerts with Wojnarowicz’s signature burning-house tag. These moments are coupled with other scenes of Wolf wearing a black-and-white Arthur Rimbaud mask while silently riding the train or attempting to hail a cab (as seen above). Rimbaud was Wojnarowicz’s favorite poet, and the images Wolf produces quote the look of Wojnarowicz’s own collection of Rimbaud mask-wearing self-portraits, entitled Arthur Rimbaud in New York (1978-79).
Wolf (and, indeed, Wojnarowicz before him) can be described as re-performing what theorist Elizabeth Freeman has termed ‘temporal drag’ in his wearing of the Rimbaud mask Wojnarowicz wore. It is an act staged for the camera on the actual city streets and subways of Manhattan that represent a moment, to borrow another term (this time from Lucas Hildebrand), of ‘retro-activism.’ Wolf’s act represents the theoretical proposition that affective messages from the past can pierce through chronological or normative time into the present, producing profound historical linkages that are, indeed, felt. Sensual, affective connection with preceding generations becomes not only an archival project, but becomes an embodied activist project.
Matt Wolf, Smalltown Boys, Excerpt
Films and actions like Wolf’s, or the well known out-of-time activist actions of Sharon Hayes, lead me to wonder how re-performance might participate in renewing activist outrage around issues – like HIV/AIDS – too easily and erroneously thought of as being in the past. At play, when actions are performed, just may be the sensual apprehension of our own situated-ness within historical pursuits of justice that stretch, or drag, into the present day.
Family was most certainly on my mind as I traveled to the Southwest this past month. My immediate biological relatives all currently reside in the Phoenix-metro area, where they’ve either retired or chosen to start new families of their own. As a single, unmarried, sorta-employed, queer, urban artist-type in my late twenties, the experience of visiting brothers and babies, parents and grandparents, is often fraught with self-conscious anxieties over belonging, and adulthood, and dependency, and mixed feelings of togetherness. While I am privileged to have my connections to blood-relatives be strong and loving, when left alone to wander I found myself not only imagining, but actually encountering, unconventional and affectionate familial bonds existent outside the heteronormative nuclear unit, outside of a romantic or sexual dyad, and even outside of this, perceived, time period.
Yes, I went to The Annual Arizona Renaissance Festival & Artisan Marketplace. Sure, there were obscene amounts of turkey legs and synthetic fairy hats. But, there were also inventive, and unusual, and entirely self-determined lives being lived by an all female group of traveling weavers, by a motorcycle posse displaying self-designed insignia, by the self-described ‘Family of Artisans‘ hand-making gorgeous moccasins as part of Catskill Mountain Leather Co., by the cute fire whip master being assisted by the falconer’s girlfriend, and even by the falcons themselves – rescued and rehabilitated by this hodgepodge group of folks. I met an older gentlemen carving wood spoons and thought to myself, despite my complete lack of artisan skill, that I could do that too. I wondered about apprenticeship as a possible alternative for the establishment of intergenerational connectedness. I encountered an oddball bunch of chainmaille artisans who looked at me knowingly, with love, as I admired their sexy two-tone halter top – the one with a silver women’s symbol subtly entwined with classic gold chain.
I neither want to reduce nor romanticize the profundity with which I felt the recognition of a feeling, and felt recognized by this feeling, from these encounters. It’s a feeling I’m attempting to call familial. It’s produced, in part, by observing the craft, the labor, of people doing things together, of living lives made possible because of that craft, that labor, that togetherness.
Angela Ellsworth is not only an artist I’ve worked with, but one that I’ve enjoyed knowing for many years. Much of Ellsworth’s recent performances and artworks (as with Lady Ties for a Line Dance, appearing at the top of this post) situates domestic handicraft, pioneer-era material culture, and visual archetypes of the Mormon sister wife within decidedly feminist, erotic, and often irreconcilable contexts. Her 2009-2010 series of pearl corsage pin adorned cotton bonnets (known as Seer Bonnets) produces this irreconcilability with great impact. These are glorious, textural, glistening objects – like fetishes – elevated through Ellsworth’s resourceful, laborious application of pins into cloth, producing heavy, dangerous, intimidating, and (thereby) thrilling compositions. Varying in height, sometimes connected by cotton, and altogether arranged into indecipherable arrangements, there is both uniformity and uniqueness amongst this work.
Ellsworth happens to live in Phoenix, and teaches at Arizona State University. Upon my arrival, much of my aforementioned family-visitation anxiety was quickly alleviated because of one simple invitation she extended; “Two words for you: Line Dancing.” Within 24-hours of my arrival to the Valley, I found myself at the wondrous, decidedly lo-fi lesbian bar Cash Inn Country literally able to enter, in unison, a queer, alternative context. Variation and variability was everywhere (in fashion sense, in gender expression, in age, in line-dance know how), and the silliness of dancing came with the relief of realization that this was, indeed, an integral, important, beloved part of Ellsworth’s uncommon art practice.
As luck, or a severe Chicago winter storm, would have it, a delayed flight allowed me to meet up with another craft oriented queer artist occasioning Phoenix for biological family, as well. LJ Roberts and I first met in San Francisco, when I was too young to truly realize how much we have (or would come to have) in common. I knew Roberts as the artist who in 2005, with great aplomb, re-added the word ‘Crafts’ – in bright pink furry yarn – to the signage announcing a reconverted warehouse space as the current, recently retitled home of the California College of the Arts. However, it was Roberts’ sprawling, dazzling work The Queer Houses of Brooklyn… (2011), that I had just recently seen at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC, that was on my mind when we met in Phoenix. The piece operates like a soft, interactive map of radical queer lives lived politically otherwise both past and present. Appropriately, I was fascinated to learn that the work was produced while Roberts was living collectively in an anarchist household outside Richmond, VA. This added bit of information only helped make more clear what I already suspected about this work; it is a testament, a document and gesture, honoring the families we can choose – be them queer, Renaissancian, whatever.
On view currently at Chicago’s Thomas Robertello Gallery are 15 pen, ink, and gouache drawings on paper by local artist, illustrator, and author of the Gaylord Phoenix volume of comics, Edie Fake. Titled ‘Memory Palaces,’ the exhibition is a stunning showcase of Fake’s exceptional, and exceptionally idiosyncratic, formal skills in composition, pattern-design, and color, as well as a moving meditation on loss. Specifically, Fake pays tribute to the passing of five friends, colleagues, activists, and artists (Mark Aguhar, Nick Djandji, Dara Greenwald, Flo McGarrell, and Dylan Williams) in a series of drawings titled Gateway, and to ten real or imagined spaces of queer congregation no longer, or never, existent.
Put simply: depicted are places Fake, or the rest of us, may never go. They are hopeful spaces vividly imagined by those living in a contemporary urban environment largely ravaged and rid of countercultural nightlife by neoliberal vice and zoning laws, class-targeted antidrug policies, and corporate gentrification efforts throughout the late 20th century. As such, the collection of building facades Fake depicts – described as a neighborhood – can only be psychically located between utopian fantasy and interpretive research. Doing so foregrounds how the imagination and it’s shadow, desire, propels individual or collective searches for heritage, lineage, and belonging. What might be made possible for someone whose very personhood and politics teeters on the brink of unviability by the realization that, yes, La Mere Vipere (a burned down gay/punk venue in the now-gentrified Boystown), Killer Dyke (a radical lesbian periodical), and JANE (a clandestine feminist-led abortion service) did, indeed, exist here in the 1970s? Comprehension of these disappeared, criminalized spaces and services entails not simply an intellectual recognition, but something much more sensorial and perhaps even spiritual when translated through the prismatic hallucinations offered by Fake.
The flatness of the paper Fake has drawn upon is only a format, as his palette of offbeat hyper-colors and remarkable geometric drawing skills translates a deeper, pulsating dimensionality, like the embedded optic phenomena of a Magic Eye poster and a horror vacui painting. A handful of the places recreated here include dance venues, sex-clubs, and art spaces, all of which Fake has foregone a faithful architectural re-approximation of in favor of getting at something much more enigmatic – the mind-altering life practices they facilitated. Representing nightlife from psychedelia through disco and punk, up to rave, Fake renders his spaces with the fluorescent sensibilities and colors of escape developed via dance-floors and acid-trips. Neon hues that should clash, but somehow don’t, cohere in vibrant mosaic facades Fake has lent to 80s voguing-hub Club LaRay and former host of 70s gay anarchy nights The Snake Pit. Seeming inspired by the hypnotic, transportive potential of repetition and detail in geometric art, Fake’s designs are infused with a mystical content in the style of Islamic tile work or Huichol yarn and bead art.
The evocation of non-Western, nondenominational, and anti-representational spiritual aesthetics acquires political significance upon realization of for whom Fake has drawn a Gateway. Fake has imagined entryways into the hereafter markedly more colorful, robust, lavish, and peculiar than the pearly ivory luster of Judeo-Christian concepts of the afterlife. Those mourned are imagined as entering a kaleidoscopic, palatial elsewhere, rightly undoing inherited notions of heaven too tidy, too conservatively patriarchal, for housing the spirit of trans-queer-feminist artist of color Mark Aguhar, the anti-racist feminist dance parties of Dara Greenwald, or the critically outsider sensibilities of punk/metal-comic pioneer Dylan Williams.
It is here where Fake’s project best comes into full relief; it is only through the physical manifestation of improbable psychic longing that another world becomes possible, knowable, inhabitable. After hours, off the books, and after life; Fake honors such phenomena, and those residing there, with an informed, aspirational intensity apparent in the meticulous, strange, gorgeous labor of his drawing.