“Queer” as Refusal and Disidentificatory Act at the Yale School of Art

by Andrea Liu

The word  “queer“ has acquired an unnerving over-elasticity whereby it has come to mean so many things that it is almost meaningless. Once a term that connoted a distinctly minoritarian subjectivity, rife with connotations of an abject, persecuted or “tragic“ outsiderliness (1970‘s-80’s), it was as if the word “queer“ then received an emergency injection of programmatized positivity whereby the LGBT community reclaimed the word, turning it  into a source of agency and positive identity (“Queer Nation,“ 1990’s). Upon this foundation then came the hyper-commodification and commercialization of “queer“ (i.e. Gay Pride), such that it got to the point where an LGBT protest group “Gay Shame“formed in San Francisco as a show of disgust with the over-commercialization and plethora of corporate sponsorships of Gay Pride weekend. Concurrently was the increasing  academicization of “queer“, as “queer“ became a more rarefied term coming out of Literary Studies, invoking the subversion, evasion, or detournement of hegemonic meanings or the contestation of the taken-for-granted “naturalness“ of the structures of heterosexual society.

With the ongoing metastisizing of this word and its referent, one wonders whether the increasing normalization, “celebration“ and expansion of the purview of this word has led to the dissolution of its once dissident status? As LGBT people, what do we gain and what do we lose from the increasing acceptance (and integration into society) of the word “queer“? Has “queer“ devolved into a catch-all term for any aesthetic or methodology that slightly deviates from a norm? Now that earlier connotations of estrangement and alienation of this word have been pinkwashed into a marketable, upscale, gentrified “queer,“ has “queer“ dissipated into a mere boutique term, a decoration, an ornament people blithely throw around to make themselves sound edgy? Do we no longer “pay a price“ or risk anything in declaring ourselves to be “queer“? If not–that is to say if “queer“ is so banalized now that it is uncontroversial—is this a good thing or a bad thing?

These thoughts were the point of entry that intrigued me to attend a two day workshop and event called “Publishing Camp: Queering Dissemination“ at the Yale School of Art which “sought to engage with publishing as a queer act“ (organized by Jonathan Payne and Nate Pyper). I asked myself, “How can dissemination be queered?“ and was piqued with curiosity wondering what their conception of “queer“ would be.

Shawné Michaelain Holloway, shawné michaelain after adria after carrie mae (2:2).png, orig file 2015, copy 2017, digital image, png

The first day‘s workshop, entitled “Socially Active: Disseminating Your Present Queer History“ was led by Yale MFA alumni Asad Pervaiz, part of a year-long initiative at Yale called “Queering Space.“ The second day‘s event was a conversation between Rindon Johnson, a text-based visual artist and poet, Nicole Killian, a graphic designer, and Shawné Michaelain Holloway, whose work comes out of “Dirty new media“ or glitch art. A movement that began coalescing in the mid-2000‘s at SAIC (School of the Art Institute of Chicago), dirty new media rejects the impeccable cleanliness of digital art and design, instead embracing the corruption, sabotage or messy perversion of technological “progress“ through glitches, short circuits, cyber errors, etc. “Dirty new media“ is a refutation of the seamless hyper-realism and slick corporate aesthetic of New Media Art. At the talk, Holloway showed an array of work, including X-Tube (amateur porn site) video-broadcasts of herself doing sex work. Refreshingly not seeking to be elegant, refined, or ‘genteel‘, this work had a frenetic affect around them, with an at times unsettling co-mingling of lurid self-objectification coupled with confrontational discursive thrusts and interrogation of issues of digital intimacy, control, and power/submission. In the online description of her X-tube work, Holloway bluntly asks, “Who or what controls who’s arousal? Who gets paid? Are there different kinds of currency used for pay-outs? Who gets what kind of currency—is it all equal?“ However, these questions were not wrapped in formalist aesthetics or opaque conceptual legerdemain, but were presented in a raw, unvarnished almost unmediated way. That is to say, she is not creating an art piece in hopes of evoking questions in our mind about XYZ (i.e. digital intimacy, power, submission, etc.). What is remarkable is the X-Tube work is actually enacting these questions directly as she video-broadcasts herself doing sex work and then solicits her real life X-tube digital audience to pay to be spectators—the end result she then presents in galleries as art, a wry twist on achieving the goal of being “paid for your art“.  One might hesitate to characterize the X-Tube work as “performance“ (which I think of as a constellation of forms, often premeditated and staged, to create an effect or a reality or a scene or a dynamic or a narrative). I saw these X-tube porn bursts more as an “action“ in that they acted directly on reality, as opposed to being a performance score or a representation of an abstract idea through a constellation of forms

Shawné Michaelain Holloway, shawné michaelain after adria after carrie mae (1:2).png, orig file 2015, copy 2017, digital image, png
Shawné Michaelain Holloway, GRRL6(female,user)profilepage.png, orig file 2015, copy 2017, digital image, png

Weaving through her work one senses a barely perceptible open-wound vulnerability, paradoxically wrapped in a blunt, “Don‘t Fuck With Me“ confrontational approach, such as a piece whose captions says, “Looking in the mirror, the black woman asked, ‘Mirror Mirror on the wall, who’s the finest of them all?‘ the Mirror says, ‘Snow White you Black Bitch and don‘t you forget it!‘“ (a riff on Carrie Mae Weems‘ piece of a similar caption).  In the talk Holloway says that she sees all of her work as of one piece. Indeed, one gets the impression of the conceptual equivalent of Matryoshka dolls (i.e. the wooden Russian dolls of descending size that nest inside one another) when encountering  Holloway‘s work, where questions such as “who controls arousal?“, “who gets paid?“ “what turns you on? “ “what do you think is dirty?“ seem to get wrapped in one another throughout the body of Holloway’s work. Questions with sub-questions and topics with sub-topics (all of which have a rhizomatic interlocking coherence)—about exploiter/exploited, digital voyeurism/exhibitionism, power/submission, the politics (and political economy) of arousal–become like the conceptual equivalent of Matryoshka dolls nesting inside pockets and sub-pockets of one another in Holloway‘s work.

Photo courtesy of Nate Pyper, 2017

The discussion began with moderator Rosie Eveleigh asking the three artists about ritual in their practices. It eventually migrated to a discussion about exhibitionism, and Holloway talked about “a comic obsession with sharing“  in her online X-Treme Submission series. One of the most exciting aspects of Publishing Camp was a 114 page Reader compiled for the event called “Publishing Camp: Queering Dissemination“, which was marked by a delightful eclecticism. Normally in a compilation of art writings, the authors all hail from the same stratosphere or same scene. As an arbitrary example, if you look at any compilation of art writings published by Sternberg Press, usually all the authors are of the same scene, the same “gang,“ the same stratosphere, all at a similar level of visibility/repute; usually half of them have already had professional associations with each other. There is usually a predictable anodyne homogenity amongst authors in book compilations of art writings.  On the contrary, the Publishing Camp Reader mixed authors coming from sprawlingly diverse origins, of varying levels of visibility/recognition, and mixing wildly different types of writing. Yes it did knock off a few “usual suspects“ luminaries of Queer Theory (i.e. José Esteban Muňoz, Mimi Thi Ngyuen, Sara Ahmed, Michael Warner), but then it also threw in an unexpected piece about the history of the New York Times Roman font read thru an analysis of the intertwining of bodies, gender and technology. Surprisingly, there was also a collaboratively written experimental text coming out of Litia Perta’s Writing Bodies project that created a big splash in NY in 2015 (a project at Elizabeth Foundation of the Arts seeking to seep into interstitial spaces between bodily affect and writing).And though usually I am no fan of bell hooks, the Publishing Camp Reader included an excoriating, withering piece of hers about African-Americans‘ fraught relationship to images and the perpetuation of racism through photography that incisively complimented the rest of the writings. The reader also included two questionnaires and their answers from over two dozen under-30 New Media artists about racism and the lack of people of color in New Media.

Normally we would only find the José Esteban Muňoz gang in certain type of book on queer studies or performance studies, and the text on New York Times Roman Font would be in a book on typography, and the New Media questionnaires would be in a book on New Media, and the bell hooks essay would be in a book on Critical Race Studies.  Usually everything is balkanized and everybody is in their own corner, amongst everybody who already thinks like them, preaching to the converted. But the Publishing Camp Reader broke through this ossified balkanized sectarianism and put eclectic voices into dialogue with one another.

*          *          *

I had the opportunity to ask some questions to one of the organizers of the event Nate Pyper and one of the presenting artists, Shawné Michaelain Holloway.  

ANDREA LIU: In the “Publishing Camp: Queering Dissemination“ Gallery Reader, I was intrigued by the essay by José Esteban Muňoz where he says, “Queerness has often existed and circulated as a shared structure of feeling encompassing same sex desire and other minoritarian sexualities, but also holds other dissident affective relationships to different aspects of the sex/gender system.“ He also talks about queerness in relation to the archive, to deciphering, demystification, and even to essay writing.

I was wondering if you could talk a bit, in organizing this symposium, about what was your and Jonathan’s thinking about the word “queer“? How can dissemination be “queered“? What does “queer“ conjure up for you (i.e. the counterhegemonic, the overlooked, the misplaced, the abject, the deviant, the excluded, or perhaps none of these)?

NATE PYPER: Using the term “queer” to describe our project was both a provocation and a call to action. We wanted to know what utility this term still has or might have for non-normative subjects today who use the internet as a publishing tool in the habitual act of making public. We also wanted to know if “queering” might still be able to produce the same kinds of anti-assimilationist tactics as when it was first reclaimed by people like Queercore progenitors GB Jones and Bruce LaBruce three decades ago. Queer as a refusal, a disidentificatory action in-and-of-itself. Combined with the ways in which “queer” has been instrumentalized in queer theory, various questions arose: what would an anti-social publishing house look like? Can we factor in a non-reproductive futurism into our understanding of publishing, or does the production of reproductions inherently reproduce hegemonic systems of dissemination? The event served as an opportunity where we might be able to engage with these kinds of queries.

ANDREA LIU: I understand you come out of graphic design. Forgive me if this is perhaps a chauvinism or ignorance on my part, but I don‘t normally think of design as a site (or hotbed) for ideological production, ideological contestation, or politicization in general. (Perhaps I have a more stereotypical notion of design as being allied primarily with commercial and consumer interests). That‘s why it pricked my interest when I saw one of the organizers of Queering Dissemination came out of Graphic Design—normally I would expect these topics to be broached by those coming out of performance art, site-specific art, social practice (maybe even sculpture).

Do you believe that graphic design can be a site for ideological production, or ideological contestation?

NATE PYPER: Yes! Graphic design is most often associated with the material production of ideology through the setting of type, implementation of images, and the use of color and space, in various forms through which ideology is circulated: books, billboards, websites, moving images, etc. Ideology is as dependent on what it asserts as how it asserts. For this reason, I believe that graphic design is absolutely implicated and caught up in the act of ideological production in that it provides visual articulation to ideas and positions. Form fucks with function. For the designer invested in these questions, graphic design can function as a “trojan horse” in which ideology may be supported, rejected, subverted, annotated, and tested through the ways in which it’s expressed and distributed.

ANDREA LIU (Question for Shawné Michaelain Holloway): I recall you describing yourself in your talk as a glitch artist, and you made an amusing comment about how, “There is almost a desperation, and I don‘t mean that in a pejorative way, in the noise and glitch art community, to constantly produce output.“ I am intrigued by the frenetic theorization around glitch art because it paradoxically seems to be passionately advocated on behalf of both modernism and postmodernism. Two impulses which I see as diametrically opposed–modernism vs. postmodernism–have somehow both managed to claim glitch art as their progeny or “baby“.  For instance, Glitch theorist Michael Betancourt invokes Adorno’s book Aesthetic Theory in discussing how glitch art sabotages the seamless impeccable surface of digital works, supposedly violating what Adorno calls “bourgeois functionalization“. Betancourt stalwartly subsumes glitch art under the modernist tradition of  rupture. On the other hand, there are those that claim glitch art firmly under the rubric of postmodernism because it destabilizes the myth of linear progress and the search for the ‘perfect technology,‘ it basks in the post-utopian ruined surface, and it heralds the “death of the author.”

I am wondering, as a glitch artist yourself, do you regard this dense theorization around glitch art as irrelevant academic ‘mental masturbation‘? There seems to be a prolific impetus to theorize and justify glitch art through manifestos, essays, etc. For instance, I find Rosa Menkman to be almost evangelist in her advocating that glitch art is going to save the world (due to its critical subversive potential) in The Glitch Moment(um). She operates on the assumption that glitch art is something new and unprecedented (extremely modernist in her sanguine “can-do“ optimism that history is a tabula rasa and we can still invent “new“ forms; as opposed to the postmodernist melancholic resignation that it is impossible to do anything new and history is “over“).  Do you regard all the theory around glitch art as something that is related to or has a symbiotic relationship to the glitch art community, or do you regard it as something separate and irrelevant to the actual practice of making glitch art?

SHAWNÉ MICHAELAIN HOLLOWAY: First of all, alot of those theories are quite outdated. You have to understand, part of what “glitch art” does is prey upon your lack of ability to anticipate computer errors. Glitch art was trying to run your computer so as to manufacture errors at a set breaking point– which is actually quite poetic. Behind glitch art there is a philosophy of “brokenness“ and as you mentioned, a conversation about the “death of the author“ both aesthetically and in practice. When you are working within these postmodern confines, these tropes are an extraordinarily important part of how glitch art can be interpreted.

But now we all kind of know what kind of glitches computers might manufacture. When you start manufacturing these errors without the basic structure of those errors being there—for instance when you start making glitch art using photoshop or with an app—that conversation about ‘the death of the author‘ or ‘brokenness‘ is completely undermined.  So now, the correlation between glitch art theories and aesthetics don‘t really make alot of sense. However, they made sense before 2015; the Snow Leopard Mac Update, for example, was one of the last of the updates that allowed you to really get in and easily modify the raw data structures of an image manually. It is this kind of evolution that signaled the death of a connection between glitch theory and what most people are/were producing.

I am pretty anti-manifesto and the Glitch Studies Manifesto is getting older now. However, Rosa‘s work, expanded, is necessary. Another part of what she did, with A Vernacular of File Formats, was a document of the behaviors of all different kinds of codecs and compressions so that you can produce different kinds of brokeness-es.The distribution and visibility of the manifesto support all of our work. Other artists like Jon Cates have created entirely different geneaologies that function similarly for the field.

Glitch is, and will always be a methodology for me. It is inextricably tied to the theory, however academic. I still really FEEL that brokenness and instability. You have to give in to feeling, instead of just gazing, at Glitch Art new and old to really understand.

*          *          *

It is notable that in Nate Pyper’s response to the question about the organizers’ conception of “queer”, he mentions ‘reproductive futurism‘, an allusion to Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. (Edelman argues that because gay people cannot contribute to the manic “reproductive futurism” of the heterosexual regime, they are ostracized. Edelman dismantles the notion of futurity, and time itself, to be coded as “heterosexual”—because heterosexuals can reproduce children and gays cannot).   Most startling is that Pyper would think to relate Edelmen’s theory on reproductive futurism with reproductions in the context of publishing–the connection between the two would never have occured to me in a million years.  It is evidence of a highly original, highly experimental approach to thinking about the marriage of queerness with publishing;  a mental agility that was readily apparent already in the choice of texts in the “Publishing Camp: Queering Dissemination“ Reader.

— Andrea Liu 2017

Andrea Liu  is a New York/Berlin-based visual art & performance critic (and artist) whose research often deals with geneaology, or the epistemic context within which bodies of knowledge become intelligible and authoritative, as a point of departure in art production. She was Curator of Counterhegemony: Art in a Social Context Program, a 6 week theoretical fellowship program for visual and performing artists. Since 2008 she was awarded 15 artist residencies, including Atlantic Center for the Arts (Master Artist: Cornelius Eady), Ox-Bow/Art Institute of Chicago, Museum Fine Arts Houston CORE, Jacob’s Pillow, Art & Law Residency Program, ZK/U-Berlin (Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistic), Centrale Fies Liveworks Performance Act Residency Vol. 4, Christiania Researcher-in-Residence, Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild, and was a Core Participant in Anton Vidokle’s New Museum Nightschool Program.  She has written for Afterimage, Art US, e-flux (AUP), Social Text, New Museum Social Practice Glossary, Art Margins, Movement Research Journal, Pastelegram, Postmodern Culture, Girls Like Us, and has book chapter contributions to Infinite Instances (Mark Batty Publishers, 2011), Sarai Reader 09: Projections (Raqs Media Collective, 2013), IN Works 931-14209 (Edition Fink, 2014),  Migros Museum/Punk is Dada (On-Curating, 2016), Deste Prize: An Anniversary Exhibition 1999-2015 (Deste Foundation, 2017), and Legal Interventions, 2007-2014 [authors: Vincent van Gerven Oei/Jonas Staal] (Utigeveri Press, 2018, forthcoming). She had a solo exhibition at the recent HTMlles Feminist Festival of Digital Art and Media in Montreal. She received her undergraduate education at Yale and thereafter studied literary criticism at Centre Parisien d’Etudes Critiques.

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