by Ellen Feiss
Originally published online here
All photos courtesy: Christa Holka
The ‘special’ mode of address offered by this symposium was acutely aware of its setting. Curated by Tate Film and Electra Productions and convened by the artist Carlos Motta, ‘Gender Talents’ was held in Tate Modern’s Tanks, that subterranean domain of the museum reserved for its most subversive offerings. The event itself was a one day conference as part of the series ‘Charming for the Revolution: A Congress for Gender Talents and Wildness’ and was held in an installation by Motta, with speaker’s platforms and a foundation designed for seated panel discussion reminiscent of the environment he created for his 2011 exhibition ‘We Who Feel Differently’, at the New Museum. The audience was seated tightly around a central stage, with the darkened walls at the periphery of the room providing space for projections during each presentation. Somewhere between a TV studio (the dramatic lighting of The Weakest Link came to mind) and a TED Talk, emphasized by the participants’ headsets, the tightly curated scene of the symposium plainly addressed the construction of all public forums of knowledge exchange. This highlighted what would be one of the main considerations of the occasion: the tension between critical speech and its institutional framework.
The objectives of the congress were clearly stated. Despite unprecedented recognition for the rights and liberties of mainstream gay and lesbian lives, and the attainment of many of the goals of historic gay liberation movements, social inequity has intensified along different (albeit no less violent or exclusionary) lines – between ‘rich and poor, between North and South, between global elites and global multitudes’, as the theorist and cultural critic J. Jack Halberstam put it in his introduction. What can a queer politic do when it rejects the normative recognition of marriage and any belief in ‘progress’ or ‘tolerance’ as goals, and is reimagined as in partnership with a plethora of struggles against systemic injustice?
Each speaker had been invited to give a manifesto, ‘to convey a sense of urgency and encourage a (speech) act of performance’, which did well to establish the basis for the congress as a union, or the inseparability, of politics and aesthetics. At a moment when a particularly destructive form of gay marriage politic is being propagated through culture, effacing the insurrectionary capabilities of queer authorship; from the forthcoming adaptation of Larry Kramer’s seminal play about ACT UP, The Normal Heart for HBO to David Cameron’s support of marriage for all. The urgency of this congress was both specific to queer and trans communities as well as related to recent calls to arms across the Left, at least since the popularization of Occupy.
Unlike other institutional ‘summits’ for engineering resistance, many of the 12 presentations within ‘Gender Talents’ actively contradicted one another without apology or rationalization by the organizers. This was a real strength of the programme, as it allowed a heterogeneity of approaches to its stated goals to flourish, avoiding the easy consensus and development of catchphrases common at other gatherings of the ‘radical’ masses. The first panel felt like a hark back to a slightly earlier moment of queer thought and cultural activity, one which blossomed in the 1980s and ’90s as gay and lesbian studies gained traction in universities across Europe and the US. Del LaGrace Volcano, the genderqueer artist and photographer, gave a largely autobiographical manifesto that was as rousing as it was at times problematic, veering between misinterpretation of Judith Butler’s classic notion of performativity, to affecting personal stories of violence and reclamation. Volcano’s arsenal of photographs of gender nonconforming bodies, including his own, was a reminder of how important the acts of queer self-representation, documentation and its archiving still are to the health of LGBTQI communities. Truly alien to the demeanour of the Tate, Volcano demonstrated the still uneasy relationship between what could be called queer folk art to contemporary art. Halberstram argued for a queering of mass revolt against the state, as well as the development of new forms of allegiance and ways of being together in struggle. In keeping with his oeuvre, he used cultural material as commonplace as the animated film Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and chart hiphop, yet this form of analysis left unexamined the impact of the realities of these texts, specifically the political economies that had produced them, on their ability to be deployed for radical purposes.
In almost stereotypical fashion, feminist infighting occurred at several junctures. Terre Thaemlitz, the activist and DJ (who records as DJ Sprinkles), issued a statement, sitting down and turned away from most of the audience, criticizing the premise of the event as one vested in queer self-determination, as if one is ever ungoverned by subordinating forces, and emphasized the untrustworthiness of notions of solidarity and community especially in the context of an art institution. In seditious style, Thaemlitz referenced the speaker’s fee all participants were receiving to deliver their ‘manifestos’, relishing the contradiction inherent in earnest expressions of political mobilization within the framework of both Tate and its waged labour. In a related spirit, the philosopher Beatriz Preciado reminded the audience of how, even in their most subversive forms, they are biologically governed by increasingly complex modes of capital as the ‘somatic and sexualized workforce of global post-Fordism’. Incorporating the aligned politics of sex work and disability, Preciado did however map a feasible picture of what a queer coalition and its tactics could be today.
Despite clear criticism of traditional modes of gay and lesbian identification, ‘Gender Talents’ maintained moments of recognition for historic forms of queerness that remain politically necessary. The curator Xabier Arakistain, whose practice has involved developing feminist criterion for the exhibition of contemporary art as the director of the Centro Cultural Montehermoso Kulturunea in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain, delivered a reminder of the short history of feminism and its easily expugnable gains. The filmmaker Campbell X spoke on the role of UTube and social media more generally, as space for expression by queers of colour, in opposition to mainstream media forms dominated by white LGBTI narratives. It is this specificity of and attendance to subjectivity that allowed the congress to both examine questions being hotly debated around global inequality and forms of resistant action, and also acknowledge the central contradiction of any insurgent speech act within the institution, with its imperial set of frameworks which shape and insulate meaning. Above all, ‘Gender Talents’ pointed to the ludicrous segregation of forums for the consideration of politics on the one hand and gender on the other, utilizing the cultural legitimation offered by the institution to do so.