Escape, Opacity, and Darkness: Queer Illegibility & the Facial Weaponization Suite
I was excited to see Zach Blas speak at the Dark Side of the Digital Conference. Blas is a PhD candidate in The Graduate Program in Literature, Information Science + Information Studies, and Visual Studies at Duke University, and creator of the art group Queer Technologies.
His presentation was largely an artist’s talk about his current project, The Facial Weaponization Suite, that explores themes of opacity and transparency, biometrics, masks, and masked protest, in relation to queerness.
He proposes that the ability to become opaque can be a privilege and a form of protest. For example making the self opaque is “a spectacle of political refusal” used by Black Blocs, Pussy Riot, and Zapatistas. He also discusses the failures of biometric technologies to recognize non-normative bodies, and then points out the inherent queerness of these failures (using theoretical formulations such as Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure).
Blas acknowledges other contemporary artists exploring similar issues such as Adam Harvey who explores methods of making the body unrecognizable to biometric technologies
and feminist Jemima Wyman who uses masks as a means of effacing power.
Blas demonstrated his own project, “Facial weaponization Communique: Fag Face, 2012” wherein he scanned 30 queer men’s faces in Los Angeles but didn’t make an average composite. The result is a garbled pink mass that functions as a détournement of “gay face,” the idea that sexual orientation can somehow be gleaned from the appearance of a man’s face.
Scientific studies attempting to map homosexual traits in the human face resonate with Eve Sedgwick’s warnings in “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay” against essentialist and biologizing understandings of sexual identity that conceptualize an unalterably homosexual body.
When combined with the prior framing of biometric technologies being unable to recognize non-normatively gendered, racialized, differently abled bodies- the “fag face” mask becomes a potent political commentary. One gay face may be readable but wearing 30 of them at once makes them unrecognizable, and confoundingly queer.
Healing is Our Response
This week I participated in a workshop led by artist/theorist Micha Cárdenas on Building Local Autonomy Networks. We discussed possibilities for community-based responses to violence and used exercises developed by the Theater of the Oppressed to provoke conversations about race and gender. Micha’s work confronts the intersections of bodies, technologies, movement and politics through performance, and the workshop culminated in a group performance at the reception for the Center for 21st Century Studies’ Conference “The Dark Side of the Digital.” The performance piece entitled “Healing is Our Response,” involved physical gestures that embodied the participants’ individual interpretations of the word healing. These gestures were performed repeatedly in a large group (a practice called “flocking”), which created a sense of shared ritual before the spectators.
Micha’s work emphasizes intersectionality, social accountability, and creating non-state sponsored solutions to violence (especially against trans people of color) using a combination of personal outreach and digital technology. They will be presenting a keynote address at the conference on Local Autonomy Networks, Post Digital Networks, and Post Corporate Communications.
Introducing keynote speaker Jack Halberstam at the Midwest Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference
Attending the annual MLA Conference in Boston! Excited to see Jane Gallop present on Close Reading in Feminist Criticism, to see Heather Love discuss class issues in the Academy, and to generally fangirl at the Queer Theory panels.
(Source: femmetheory.com )
I read too much — as an escape from writing.Susan Sontag (via interruptions)
Born in the Right Body: On Creating Trans* Counter-Narratives
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live” Joan Didion
I recently attended a reading/lecture by writer Thomas Mcbee at the University of Chicago. Mcbee began by explaining his desire to create alternative narratives of transgender experience in the media as an editor and a writer of personal creative non-fiction. He identified several problematic dominant discourses that monopolize the public perception of what it means to be trans.
He explained that the exigencies of the editorial process (What’s the story? What’s the hook?) can lead to reductionism and sensationalism in media content. In the context of dominant representations of trans experience, McBee singled out several abiding trends that he finds fraught and vexing:
- Born/trapped in the “wrong” body (a common trope that plays into a cis-gender binary)
- The child who always knew
- Passing as endgame
- Trans people shoring up ideals of authenticity (“I finally feel like my true self”)
- Transgender as the ultimate social taboo
- Before/After photos
In order to remove what he calls the “cis lens” and formulate a counter-narrative, Mcbee seeks to:
- Remove stereotypes/essentialism
- Remove sensationalism
He does this by being hyper-personal and vulnerable in his own published work. He sees narrative complexity and radical vulnerability as the answer to reductionism.
Some examples of his work can be read here:
For Mcbee, Lana Wachowski exemplifies a high profile non-binary trans person. This speech is one example of Mcbee’s ideal of vulnerability over simplicity:
Ultimately, Mcbee argues that gendered expectations impact everyone, and so the trans experience does not need to be perceived as foreign or taboo. His pieces push everyone to think critically about their own gender identity, and the way their stories and experience of moving through the world are mediated.
This talk was inspiring in its advocacy of complicating narratives, allowing space for everyone to identify, and using storytelling as a non-violent form of resistance.
Failure and Futility: Connections Between SLSA and MIGC
The 26th Annual Meeting of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA) themed NONHUMAN was held in Milwaukee, Sept 27-30, 2012.
Keynote speaker Oron Catts delivered an address in the domed IMAX theatre of the Milwaukee Public Museum titled “The Semi Living (as a nonhuman) Experience.” Catts is affiliated with several international research centers and artistic groups including the Tissue Culture and Art Project (Tcaproject.org), SymbioticA, and BiofiliA.
The Australian art research group SymbioticA produces flesh sculptures separate from human bodies. In its Tissue Culture and Art Project, the group uses recent medical research into growing human tissue for artistic rather than medical purposes. SymbioticA describes its sculptures as “still in the realm of the symbolic gesture representing a new class of object/being. These objects are partly artificially constructed and partly grown/born. They consist of both synthetic materials and living biological matter from complex organisms.” While medical researchers have to justify their interest in tissue growth by demonstrating the potential for their research to improve the quality of human life, the Tissue Culture and Art Project creates a complex set of ethical problems by growing tissue “sculptures” for art’s sake.
Catts discussed how tissue engineering, primarily used in regenerative biology and medicine has caused a conceptual shift in how we view the body. The body morphs into a biological machine, a machine that you can grow. SymbioticA’s experiments with semi-living products turn living tissues into a medium of artistic expression. Unlike traditional research groups, Catts’s work centers on questions not functions, seeking problems not solving them.
Two key examples of Catts’ s “semi-living sculptures” are In Vitro Meat: Disembodied Cuisine (2001-2003) and The Victimless Utopia (2004-2009). In Vitro Meat was an attempt to “grow” a steak, but the result was completely inedible. When they developed a version that was safe to consume it was so repellent that diners sampling it in a museum setting promptly spit it back out. Catts’s response was to display the chewed remains, creating a spectacle of his “failure.” This typifies how Catts’s artistic approach allows him to accept failure as a productive means of generating questions and problematics, rather than trying to “solve” the problem of producing a more sustainable form of meat in a laboratory. The Victimless Utopia project was a similar experiment to produce “Victimless Leather” out of a co-culture of mouse and human cells. The prototype of a “stitch-less” jacket grown in a technoscientific “body” proved to be unsustainable; its artificial body had to be unplugged at some point while it was displayed in the gallery. The fact that the jacket could not be kept “alive” once it was installed in the Moma lead to headlines that the sculpture had been “murdered” and art had been “killed”. Both projects-steak you can’t eat- victimless leather that must be killed – flaunt failure and problematize the responsibility we have toward man-made systems.
Catts revels in the loss of control over the living systems that he and his colleagues manipulate. The failure of these experiments illustrates that all scientific research is produced by the consumption of resources, even if their end game is to contribute to environmental causes or sustainability. Catts claims that each of his sculptures is an excessive luxury item-not intended for saving the world. Thus In Vitro Meat and Victimless Leather both exhibit the excessiveness of technology.
There is also a distinct connection between Catts’s post humanism and Queer Theory. Critic Jack Halberstam of the University of Southern California wrote about SymbioticA in his 2005 book In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives: “Like the transgender person who may desire body modifications without desiring sex reassignment, the tissue sculptures produce spare body parts with no practical use and they eschew the logic of the perfectible body offering instead the body, as mutant form.” One SymbioticA project in particular participates in what Halberstam calls a “transgender aesthetic”. The Art(ificial) Womb uses an external womb to grow a set of semi-living dolls made of degradable polymers and surgical sutures. SymbioticA claim, “The artificial womb located outside of the body (equally separate from the male and female bodies) will be where the act of procreation occurs… We might be able to physically (and mentally) free ourselves from the ‘natural’ binary constraints of sex to create new forms and new plays.” Futility and failure are productive and revelatory for both Catts and Halberstam, creating new narratives about human life, culture, and technology.
SymbioticA are not trying to solve problems, they embrace failure over utility in order to examine the problems of technologies. In Catts’s words, “art is the last bastion of futility.” Catts and his fellow artists are aided by technologists who enjoy working with them because it is the only place they can do pure curiosity based research that is destined to fail. Catts’s philosophy of subversion and using art to reflect a twisted mirror back onto culture, as well as his celebration of futility, resonate with the themes of this year’s Midwest Interdisciplinary Graduate conference on Failure. The MIGC keynote speaker will be Jack Halberstam, author of The Queer Art of Failure.
MIGC 2013 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is currently seeking graduate students who want to further interrogate the concept of failure, its productive, troubling, and subversive aspects. We hope to explore questions such as:
How might we rethink failure as an opportunity to engage in more ethical human and nonhuman relationships? Can the failures of democracy, the economy, the classroom, and of culture more broadly open up possibilities for success? How do we recognize our fallibility, learn from it, and cope with it?
The deadline to submit to The Midwest Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference (MIGC) is December 1, 2012. The conference will be held in conjunction with The Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee February 15 and 16, 2013.
Call for Submissions
The Midwest Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference (MIGC) is now welcoming creative submissions for its 2013 conference, themed FAILURE. The keynote speaker will be Professor J. Jack Halberstam (USC), author of The Queer Art of Failure.
Where: The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
When: February 15-16
The contemporary moment is fraught with the rhetoric of failure and decline. Daily it seems, political, artistic, and entertainment outlets alert us to broken policies, systems, and promises. How might we rethink failure as an opportunity to engage in more ethical human and nonhuman relationships? Can the failures of democracy, the economy, the classroom, and of culture more broadly open up possibilities for success? How do we recognize our fallibility, learn from it, and cope with it?
In a moment when dysfunction is such a significant part of both private and public life, this conference will embrace an interdisciplinary approach to considering failure’s destructive and productive aspects in historical and contemporary culture.
MIGC 2013 seeks graduate students who want to explore these questions and interrogate the concept of failure. The conference planners ask writers, artists, performers, dancers, designers, and filmmakers to send us creative pieces that take as their subject the notion of “failure.”
Short performance pieces would occur Friday evening at a location appropriate to the piece; installations would be displayed in Curtin Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for the duration of the conference; digital media could have an online presence before/during the conference as well as a display in Curtin Hall. Academic papers will be presented on Saturday.
(1) Send the work itself or a sample/preview of the work via email. Please include a short abstract to accompany the piece(s).
(2) Write a proposal for a creative piece to be completed by February.
Please submit proposals for work in English or foreign language works translated into English. If possible, attach written submissions as Microsoft Word documents. Large image files should be sent in separate emails. Proposals should be sent to email@example.com.
In your email please include your institutional affiliation, department, and whether you are an MFA, MA or PhD student. Joint faculty and graduate student projects will also be considered.
Deadline for submissions: December 1
Where I will be tomorrow…
SANCTUARY: Rothko Chapel
A part of The Menil Collection, Houston.
The English Institute: 2012
I was fortunate to spend the weekend at the 71st annual meeting of the English Institute at Harvard University. The English Institute focuses on the building blocks of the profession. Last year’s theme was “Reading,” this year’s speakers all focused on different aspects of “Text.”
The first speaker on Friday was Jean-Michel Rabaté who revisited Roland Barthes’s theories of the text from the 1970’s, providing historical and cultural context for his formulations of (capital “t”) Text in light of the May 1968 student uprisings in France. In the French revolutionary spirit, Barthes beheads the author as the sole proprietor of meaning, asserting that there should be no barrier to interpretation and that all possible readings are available to and authorized by the reader.
Friday’s session concluded with a talk from a radically different historical moment, led by the medieval scholar Mary Carruthers. She began her lecture, “Recollection, Translation, and the Material Text” by querying how texts are institutionally stabilized as objects of study. She showed images from medieval manuscripts, chiefly the frontispiece from a 1420 version of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde to illustrate the rhetorical nature of textuality. In the illustration there is no written material, the author and depictions of the story’s events appear simultaneously. The textual occasion is a social event, with audiences receiving Chaucer’s text orally, allowing for immediate response and circulation, as opposed to contemporary images of solitary reading and reception. Carruthers expounded on how these medieval conceptions of composition and consumption of texts (before the advent of print culture) impacted notions of authorial intention, arguing that the manuscript placed more emphasis on the work itself as an actor, the writer merely functioning as a craftsman assembling literary materials into an orderly form. Her talk stressed the social making of the text and how medieval artifacts provide many models of text for our consideration and that no single one is “correct.”
Saturday began with a group discussion of Roland Barthes’s “From Work to Text” and Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Aleph.” The conversation addressed the limitations of language as well as the generous abundance of literary texts. The primary passages addressed were this one from Borges, when his narrator first gazes into the abyss of the infinite Aleph (and to borrow from Nietzsche, “the abyss gazes also into him”):
“All language is a set of symbols whose use among its speakers assumes a shared past. How, then, can I translate into words the limitless Aleph, which my floundering mind can scarcely encompass?…Really, what I want to do is impossible, for any listing of an endless series is doomed to be infinitesimal. In that single gigantic instant I saw millions of acts both delightful and awful; not one of them occupied the same point in space, without overlapping or transparency. What my eyes beheld was simultaneous, but what I shall now write down will be successive, because language is successive.”
And similarly evocative passages from Barthes:
“The Text is plural. This does not mean just that is has several meanings, but rather that it achieves plurality of meaning, an irreducible plurality. The Text is not coexistence of meanings but passage, traversal; thus it answers not to an interpretation, liberal though it may be, but to an explosion, a dissemination.”
Gauri Viswanathan then delivered her talk, “Heterodoxy and Textuality: Reading the Exoteric, Retrieving the Esoteric” focusing mainly on Helena Petrovna of Blevatsky, a figure associated with theosophy and the search for an archaic wisdom-religion. Viswanathan’s model of textuality developed according to Blevatsky’s methods of mining textual artifacts for their esoteric knowledge and ability to subvert dominant narratives of history and undercut Christian hermeneutics.
Rebecca Schneider then spoke from her disciplinary perspective of Performance Studies, in a talk called “Acting in Ruins”- elaborating the fraught relationship between live performance and textuality. She traversed the written/performed divide, arguing that actors speak a text to life in performance. She played with the concepts of “liveness” and “deadness”, claiming the theatre is a moribund medium, a dying art, at the same time theatrical performance is “live”. This brought to mind Hamlet’s impossible sentence, “I am dead, Horatio.”
The day concluded with Michael Silverstein’s work on conversation, contextualization, and identity- a semiotic reading of a recorded meeting between two socially awkward graduate students, essentially deconstructing the interactional ritual of small talk. He drew attention to cultural norms and cues, and the contingent, unspoken, deictic elements of language.
Sunday’s session consisted of two final presentations followed by a round table discussion with all of the Institute’s invited speakers.
My favorite talk of the weekend was “The Body of the Text” by David Scott Kastan who discussed the complicated issues of authorial intention in the Early Modern period before intellectual property or copywrite law. Most of his examples were from editions of poetry by John Donne, one of my absolute favorite writers, and general delight and revelry in the textual cruxes of Early Modern scholarship abounded.
Finally, Bill Brown discussed connections between language artists and materialist poets in relation to text, textuality, and textualization. All of his examples from art and writing illustrated the textualization of material objects and the materialization of text.
For example this piece by Robert Barry:
And this work by Vito Acconci:
READ THIS WORD THEN READ THIS WORD READ THIS WORD NEXT READ THIS WORD NOW SEE ONE WORD SEE ONE WORD NEXT SEE ONE WORD NOW AND THEN SEE ONE WORD AGAIN LOOK AT THREE WORDS HERE LOOK AT THREE WORDS NOW LOOK AT THREE WORDS NOW TOO TAKE IN FIVE WORDS AGAIN TAKE IN FIVE WORDS SO TAKE IN FIVE WORDS DO IT NOW SEE THESE WORDS AT A GLANCE SEE THESE WORDS AT THIS GLANCE AT THIS GLANCE HOLD THIS LINE IN VIEW HOLD THIS LINE IN ANOTHER VIEW AND IN A THIRD VIEW SPOT SEVEN LINES AT ONCE THEN TWICE THEN THRICE THEN A FOURTH TIME A FIFTH A SIXTH A SEVENTH AN EIGHTH
For me the experience of English institute is less about what is presented and more about the high level of engagement and discourse. The discussions and questions inspire me to be more thoughtful, more articulate, to remember that this is a rigorous yet infinitely pleasurable field of study. The whole time I was at Harvard I tried to soak up by osmosis the passionate wisdom of the seasoned intellectuals and scholars I was surrounded by, and share this enthusiasm with my own graduate student colleagues and peers.
Sometimes reading the liveness of theory means attending to its moment, context, date, temporality. That is an important aspect of my practice of close reading, reading the temporal history of the text, the occasion, the revisions. This means treating theory not as what Spivak calls “once and for all,” but as a persistent ongoing practice in time. More often it means reading against the monumentalization of theory, the received versions – e.g., Barthes’ “death of the author” – so that the text, the thinking, can come to life again.Jane Gallop, The Deaths of the Author: Reading and Writing in Time
I believe in low theory in popular places, in the small, the inconsequential, the antimonumental, the micro, the irrelevant; I believe in making a difference by thinking little thoughts and sharing them widely. I seek to provoke, annoy, bother, irritate, and amuse; I am chasing small projects, micropolitics, hunches, whims, fancies.
Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure