Kissing is in the air, and not just because it’s spring and my allergies are attacking my face to death.

No. Led by Tino Sehgal‘s “This Progress,” which opened at The Guggenheim back in January and featured “Kiss”, where exclusively male-female couples made out on the rotunda of the museum for like, all day, kissing has made a comeback of sorts, mainly because there still seems to be a lot of confusion about the politics of the action, and for that matter, representations of publicly expressed sexuality in general.

Long story short, Brennan Gerard and Ryan Kelly of Moving Theater Company got their hands on a casting call for Sehgal’s work, which was explicit in its request for “male/female” couples. In response, Brennan and Ryan have created “You Call This Progress?” Right now, it’s being discussed over at L. Ro’s WNYC blog, and I was originally going to post a comment there, but it turned into this state-of-the-union-length post, so I thought it would be better to just post it here. (Prepare thyself: from here on out–and for better of for worse–the language gets all academicky….)

I love that Brennan and Ryan have created this work; this constructive response to a gut reaction.

I think, through exploring their subjective reaction (as gay men) to seeing the public lionizing through performance of an exclusively male-female couple embraced in a kiss, they are getting at something essential to any argument about the human experience of/encounter with gender and sex, and therefore, sexuality: That gender and sex is always positive and subjective; and so sexuality and expressions of sexuality are also always positive and subjective.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the body, and I keep fixating on this idea of body-positiveness. We have this regard for the body as either complete (“Yep, all ten fingers and toes!”) or incomplete (anything less). But this way of regarding the body is predicated on an expectation of what the body should be, or should become. I would argue that a body can never be “incomplete”, since it is itself a totally positive manifestation of living matter: all living matter has “grown,” has “developed,” has one direction that is positive. If you remove a part, that does not make the total body that is left “incomplete”, it merely makes the body smaller and changes its shape, but the remaining body is no less positive. Maybe more broadly, one might say, EVERYTHING THAT IS, IS POSITIVELY.

In this same way, gender–particularly as social performance, and in the case of Tino Sehgal’s work, as performance art–is always positive. Gender, when gender is present, cannot be negated; like skin color cannot be negated; like height cannot be negated. We humans have this annoying habit of “looking past” things. A habit that stems from an avoidance of already “not looking” at things we find inconvenient to look at; i.e. social privilege for men, for white people, for heterosexuals, for the “fully abled”, for Christians, for English speakers, for the wealthy, et al. And so to keep ourselves from looking, we invent this idea of “looking past”, or “looking beyond” (usually expressed this way: “I don’t see you as [insert minority description].”), so that we never in fact have to confront the subjectivity of our own gender, race, or any other majority characteristic which we may be and/or express.

This false ability to “see past” essentially positive and immutable characteristics of the human body/experience (whether naked sexual characteristics, or the socially/personally constructed characteristics of gender, religion, political party, etc.), allows us to make all kinds of ridiculous arguments claiming that the body characteristics of the dominant group (maleness, whiteness, heterosexuality, “fully abled-ness”, Christianity, the English language, wealth, etc.) are simultaneously “ideal,” “universal,” and “objective.”

This tethering of “idealism,” “universality,” and “objectivity” is the necessity of any dominant group politics. It enables the dominant group to maintain an assumption to unlimited and exclusive privilege. It positions them as the designers, adjudicators and beneficiaries of power and justice. It allows the rampant, excessive representation of their own subjectivity while excluding and suppressing the representation of “other” subjectivities. It allows artists like Sehgal to argue (even via here-say, you have to imagine some form of this argument must exist in his reasoning) that the representation of a minority characteristic within a work that is attempting to be “universal” will “complicate,” or “politicize” a work, or make the work suddenly “subjective.” The only complication homosexual subjectivity would deliver to “Kiss” would be the unraveling of a violent, homophobic assumption to heterosexual privilege. Which would be a good thing.

And this is precisely the double-bind heterosexual supremacy (or any kind of political supremacy) enacts upon homosexuals (or the dominated group). Homosexuality is politicized by homophobia; in fact, the more homosexuality becomes visible and socially acceptable, the stronger the push is to politicize the behavior by the passing of laws that restrict the rights and freedoms of gay people. So when gay people speak up against these offensive (and offensive) maneuvers by heterosexual supremacists, they–the homosexuals–are portrayed as “being political,” when in fact they are being compelled into political action out of survival by a dominant group that has enacted a political movement against them. But because our culture is dominated by heterosexuality, the political agency of heterosexual supremacy (and of exclusionary heterosexual performances like Sehgal’s) literally “ISN’T SEEN.” It is invisible, because, well, of COURSE, heterosexuality is “objective,” “universal,” and “ideal,” none of which apply to the definition of politics.

To find an illustration of this absurd principle, one need only look at our judicial system. During Justice Sonya Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, she was repeatedly grilled by white lawmakers about whether or not she would be able to exercise “objectivity” in cases that involved racial politics. The racism inherent in such questions was unabashed, if ultimately–and thankfully–impotent. But the principle governing such questions is still in place in common discourse regarding majority/minority politics and justice.

The question is always whether a justice of a racial, gender, or sexual minority will be able to be “objective” about cases involving race, gender or sexuality, respectively. In this question is figured a presumption that only white, or male, or heterosexual justices can be truly “objective” in these instances. Thus, laws created by whites, or males, or heterosexuals against non-whites, or non-males, or non-heterosexuals, are only able to be “objectively” adjudicated by members of the very group that made the discriminatory law in the first place. Sounds pretty fair, right?

In majority/minority politics, “objectivity” is always the privilege of the dominant group. I even heard a friend once argue that Anderson Cooper shouldn’t “come out” because he needs to be able to remain “objective” about “the issues.” As if his coming out would “politicize,” or “make subjective” his reporting on every possible issue, not just the gay ones. It is really sinister how pervasive these feelings are in our culture, going so deep that a liberal person who would vote for gay marriage would still be able to feel that all news anchors need to be heterosexual or closeted homosexuals in order to report objectively on anything. (OMG, we could probably spend another few thousand words on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s argument that The Closet encompasses straight people as well as gays who are not out, but that is for another day or drunken evening…)

Seeing heterosexuality as objective is an illusion of privilege. Tino Sehgal’s “Kiss” is not objective. And Brennan and Ryan, in a stroke of genius, expose the subjectivity of “Kiss” by engaging language simply to describe what one is seeing at the Guggenheim. In the audio track accompanying the performance of “You Call This Progress?”, you hear them speak out what they observed in “This Progress.” They say things like “her right hand on his left shoulder,” “his left hand on her small of back,” “her right hand caresses his left chest.” All it takes is this rudimentary process of describing what is happening to show up the pretense of Sehgal’s “uncomplicated” vision. It also resonates brilliantly with one of Gregg Bordowitz’s scrolling questions, read aloud at the Burning Bridges performance of “You Call This Progress?”: “How is art a description?” How, also, is experience a description?

I was on the train the other day, and two black kids, maybe nine or ten years old, were playing a game, a version of Twenty Questions. One of them would pick out a random person on the train, and the other would ask questions in order to identify which person had been selected. The kid who was questioning would rattle off a preliminary course of dichotomous inquiries that went something like this: “Man or Woman?”; “Light or dark skinned?”; “Straight or curly hair?”; “Tall or short?” You get where I’m going. Our experience of bodies–and thus, our entire awareness of social order–is always accompanied by the tacit and necessary function of description. And the answers we receive are subjective and positive. We learn to understand the world by describing it. We know our place in the world by knowing our descriptions. To suddenly claim that subjective description of gender, or race, or sexuality is irrelevant to the experience of human interaction is to betray our history of understanding people only to service a purely conceptual maneuver of aesthetic sanitization.

Now, I am not arguing for the tyranny of description; of labels. But, whether we like it or not, we exist within this tyranny. Pretending that description doesn’t matter only strengthens the tyrannical grip of language over our bodies by playing into the privileges that language constructs.

And so we go back and forth between deflecting language’s/description’s limiting force upon our lives, and also employing language to affirm immutable characteristics of our bodies and of our identities.

I recently co-created a “Kiss-Out” with my collaborator Todd Shalom in response to a recent gay bashing that took place in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. We organized about sixteen people (of which, Mr. Kelly was one) to kiss at the corners of two street intersections near where the attack had taken place. The people were organized mostly in groups of two; mostly male-male couples, with one female-female couple, and one corner where I think two males and one female alternated configurations of two.

In one of the online discussions that followed (and in some cases, preceded) our action, an argument came up that suggested because we included male-female couples within our action, which was an action in response to homophobia, that this heterogenous makeup “negated” gender subjectivity altogether. The person who wrote this comment was trying to say that, essentially, if all sexualities are represented, then no sexualities exist.

I wholeheartedly disagree with the slippage from regarding sexual orientation as positive only-in-the-context-of-opposition/exclusion to regarding it as negative in-the-context-of-togetherness. Bodies are not like pigment, in the sense that when all pigments are present, we see white, or, the illusion of no pigment. Rather, when you see a straight couple and a gay couple expressing affection together, even in solidarity, there is no way of perceiving either action as negative or negated: They are both happening, and they are both happening positively. Likewise, excluding one from the other–as Sehgal’s work does, and as Brennan and Ryan’s work also does (which they call themselves out on)–does not strip either from their essential subjectivity.

I think what many of us are agitating for goes much further beyond a limited and perhaps ineffectual idea of “breaking down barriers,” which are usually understood to be the barriers of labels, or description, or language. Rather, we want to eradicate prejudice and privilege within the arena of description, so that both a heterosexual kiss and a homosexual kiss are seen as positive, not as oppositional. We also want to eliminate compulsory participation in descriptions that do not apply to our sense of identity. Because I do not identify as “heterosexual” does not mean I want to identify as “nothing.” If “heterosexual” is a construction that is at odds with any other configuring of sexual orientation, then I am happy to apply any secondary and following class of labels that all fall under the category “non-heterosexual” to myself. However, I would rather understand heterosexuality as a positive iteration of human sexual possibility that is equal to and co-existent with other positive iterations of human sexual possibility, whatever we end up calling those.

And we also want to forge an at-will relationship with identity. Maybe today I feel like “a man.” Maybe tomorrow I will feel like “a woman.” Maybe the next day I will feel something in between those two categories. Maybe I am currently in a homosexual romantic relationship, but maybe there will be room for a heterosexual relationship in the future, or, as Brennan and Ryan seem to argue for, a relationship outside of the structure of the couple.

But to understand any of these possibilities, which are exciting, and which seem to present an amazing opportunity to use language as constructive, but not as restrictive, in determining individual or group identity, we have to be able to call out the illusionary offspring of prejudicial identity politics and the teetering house of cards that is built upon its upward spiraling shoulders.


Whitney Biennial Post-Mortem

Art Review: 2008 Whitney Biennial

How will I know if it’s really art?

It would be fabulous if we could ask Aretha Franklin what she knows about these things. But I’m afraid, with contemporary art, we’re on our own a lot of the time. Most people, no doubt, fear the relational free‑fall into which contemporary art can send the viewer. The trick is to pay close attention to your initial reaction, and then talk yourself through the rest of the experience. Now, this takes some time and patience, and, dare I say…effort on the part of the viewer. There’s a general attitude that art should be effortless to observe. It’s nice when it’s this way and the art is good, but it doesn’t always have to be this way, and if we maintained a more trusting attitude toward our artists‑‑as a society, we exaggerate a fear of the artists our culture produces, obviously by projecting insecurities about our beliefs and lifestyles‑‑it would be easier to open ourselves to art that invites a more explicitly engaged and interactive experience. It certainly would have made life much easier for you at this year’s Whitney Biennial, which offered a lot of engaging experiences, some what the fuck is this supposed to be moments, and displayed a notable conflict between art that carries on the tradition of Koons‑derived slickness, polish and cool, and a more recent resurgence of art where the materials are presented with little disguise, seemingly tapping into a hipster‑chic infatuation with unkemptness, detritus, and pre‑finished complacency.

Yes, the big story at The Biennial, which begins dismantling this week, was the abundance of art that is made out of garbage or raw construction supplies.

Phoebe Washburn’s “soda shop,” a makeshift commercial environment made with framing wood, housed various dioramaic arrangements of Gatorade (in dehydrated and liquid forms), narcissus bulbs and golf balls arranged in fish tanks, and folded hand‑towels. The whole look suggests something incomplete, something that doesn’t work or function but retains a kind of necessary and meticulous logic. It’s inviting, if, ultimately perplexing.

Two‑by‑fours made a strong showing overall. The best example came from Heather Rowe, whose playful “Something crossed the mind (embellished three times)” offered a physically fractured experience. Approaching her structure lengthwise, you can make out two sort of hallways through which you have a straight shot, but approached from the side, segments of mirror, molding and dry wall are wedged between plywood boards, making it difficult to tell where entry points are. And as you walk through the sculpture, your peripheral vision is constantly challenged by textural tricks of space, white, and reflection.

William Cordova’s installation of a framed floor plan was attractive as an idea of suggestion, but maudlin touches of collage diminished the vaster impact of the architecture, and overall didn’t have as strong of an aesthetic pinch as Ms. Rowe’s piece.

Mika Rottenberg’s “Cheese” appeared more haphazardly built, looking like a dilapidated chicken coop, and housing an installation of monitors that showed films of prairie women washing their long swaths of hair, milking goats, sleeping, or engaging in some sort of ritual around a block of lard or cheese. Sounds of chickens clucking surround you. The work is strong in the way it manifests a unique universe, one that you get to experience through voyeurism and immersion. Overhearing one of the Biennial tour guides speaking about the piece, I gather that there is supposed to be some comment here on the woman’s body as currency. But for me, in light of the recent FLDS happening in Texas, this work resonated more as a comment on American fundamentalism, which naturally includes strictures on the roles of women in society, particularly as property. The United States has a strong element of living colonial primitivism that is both at odds with liberal secularism and the dominant, capitalistic Christian conservatism that passes for common sense Christianity.

The choices of the Biennial curators, Henriette Huldisch and Shamim M. Momin, seemed prescient in light of the recent death of Robert Rauschenberg. I wandered to the fifth floor (searching for the exhibition of Mapplethorpe polaroids, which I’ll get to later), when I came upon three Rauschenberg pieces (“Yoiks” and two others). All three pieces display a similar dirtiness–paint on fabrics and feathers; some muddy coloring; garbage objects like aluminum cans and boards–while also demonstrating Rauschenberg’s precision and ability to create rough, yet complete objects.

Much of the art on display celebrated this spirit. Ry Rocklen’s “Refuge,” a naked box spring on top of which lay a thin screen with hundreds of nails slipped through its holes, was simultaneously glitter and gutter.

Patrick Hill set various fabrics into cement molds, evoking a quality of “wrongness,” repulsive, but on second consideration, poetic.

Los Angeles artist, Ruben Ochoa’s impressive sculpture, “An Ideal Disjuncture,” could easily pass for a huge piece of shit. But the energy of the structure is sweeping. Two concrete masts supported by rebar anchor a sail of chain link fencing, all of it resting on pallets arranged helter-skelter. The work has great motion and resonates with our culture of constant development and redevelopment. It looks like a piece of wreckage. Having lived in Southern California, I can attest to the number of blighted lots and areas, particularly along the railroad lines, that make up so much of the Los Angeles landscape.

Charles Long’s works took the idea of garbage art to the most annoying terms. His spindly sculptures are really just bits of garbage congealed together with plaster. They are neither poetic nor scathing. Simply uninteresting.

Artists’s love affair with dirtiness even appeared in the paintings of Sheyney Thompson. The smallest of her three pieces was a detail of some folded, sullied flannel.

A sculpture by Jedediah Caesar summarized the resistance to prettiness and polish. It looks like a giant ugly block of melting wax, with streaking colors muddied together. But it is made out of resin dripped over polystyrene. As I walked around it, I suddenly noticed that I could smell the chemicals seeping out fo the resin. The work took on new substance as a new sense was engaged, challenging my impulse to evaluate everything purely in terms of the visual.

Some of the photography also displayed this kind of grungy aesthetic position.

Leslie Hewitt’s “Make It Plain” series does just that. Three digital prints nestled in simple frames sat on the floor, leaning against three respective walls of a gallery. The photographs depict awkward and spare arrangements of books, pieces of wood, frames, photographs and a penny, stacked against walls. A real book lay in the middle of the floor. The colors were plain, white and sandy. Visually the installation expanded the room, creating a kind of hyper (or double) environment.

And Walead Beshty’s photographs of the Iraqi embassy in what used to be East Berlin encompass several modes of destructive composition. The embassy itself is going to waste, cluttered with books and papers stacked pell-mell clogging the floors of hallways, and chairs inexplicably set atop desks, appearing as if the building had been gutted by a hurricane. The resolution of the photos are grainy and tinted different colors, a result of allowing the film to be run through security x-rays of shipping companies.

But slick art wasn’t overlooked at this show.

The strongest of these, and “Best In Show”, if I were to grant such an award, was Eduardo Sarabia’s “The Gift.” His meticulous, yet cartoonish installation, presents a fictive storage facility. Large crates labeled with “Maize”, “Avocado” and “Cloralex” fill-in large portions of very basic storage shelves. Between these, soft, colorful ceramic sculptures represent other kinds of contraband booty; dice with corners severed, horse ankles, money, machine guns, severed mermaids (busts on one shelf, fins on the other), busts of men with their hands in prayer. Most beautiful was a series of aquatic blue men in crouched position with the world’s atlas painted in red on the sides of their torsos. The whole thing evoked some kind of imaginary and hidden storage of wares of some drug lord, the softness, simplicity and vibrant colors belying the bloody and sordid means by which such riches are gained.

Sherrie Levine’s “Body Mask,” a series of six cast bronze molds of a pregnant woman’s belly and boobs, with holes punched out along the edges, suggest both a body and armor, polished and mirrored.

And Michael Queenland’s Deitch-ready installation of resin and fiberglass objects (monkey heads, balloons, eggs), was a cool, sharp example of the absurdity of opulence.

Now, there was a lot of talk about how this Biennial was “quiet.” I’m not sure what this could mean other than that there was virtually nothing sexually explicit. I can’t imagine that it’s a good idea to equate nudity with volume, as if the only thing that is truly edgy is a penis or a vagina, or that art that isn’t sexually explicit can’t possibly cause a stir or resonate as transgression. Although, I myself am disappointed in the overall prudishness of the Biennial (speaking strictly in terms of representations of sex)–I think it succumbs to a larger cultural trend of muting sexual realities–I wouldn’t couch the absence in terms of loudness or quietude. It’s more of an incompleteness due to modesty.

In fact the only explicit material I observed was found in the Mapplethorpe exhibit, which was not actually part of the Biennial proper. The photos are polaroid studies, portraits of friends and objects, as well as a few self portaits. It’s clearly a precursor to current trends in media self-absorption. Although a series of six images of Patti Smith strike one as beautifully earnest, not so much self-absorption, but more self-expression. And in contrast to the lack of sexual imagery in the Biennial, Mapplethorpe’s revolutionary spirit not only survives in tact, but also stands in stark contrast to today’s trend of highly editing self-representation. Today’s artists seem less willing to take art into the more morally “dirty” places of the human soul, letting, rather, naked materials stand in for human nakedness. Mapplethorpe, carrying on traditions of Dada, the nude, and portraiture, still managed to infuse undeniable subjective realism into his work. It endures for that.

Note: I didn’t see any of the films that were running. Feel free to throw tomatoes. My time was limited. That’s all.

Yay boundaries!

L. Ro. invites readers to join in a few different threads of confab over on The Culturist. One of them is on something I had written about the Murakami exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. My comment was that “Art, by definition, is false,” and to me, Murakami’s art was too real, or too much part of popular culture to be a comment on or representation of popular culture.

I’ve elaborated my position, which I will include below (or you can check it out on The Culturist). But I’m finding that by writing about art, I’ve been refining my own belief system.

One thing I’m finding more and more, is that boundaries are essential to art-making, and to the consideration of an object or activity as Art. This holds true for my belief in the separation of classical and popular musical cultures; classical being “Art music” and popular being, well, “popular music.”

It’s very en vogue right now to hail cross-over and breaking down the boundary between classical music and popular music. My preference and belief is that keeping the line clear between the two (in purpose; in how they are experienced) will not only save concert music, but will ensure a more diversified musical culture overall.

Read on, if you dare. It gets really hot near the end…

Art (capital A) is a “para” experience; along side what is real. Every Art I can think of exists because of its position that is parallel to the real as real things are defined. Art is either a comment or critique or reference to things that are real in our culture, whether by its materials, its manner, or its physical and/or economic contexts. In this way Art circumvents language as well. Art is not the thing. Art is like the thing. Abstract art is unlike anything, and therefore also stands in a position outside of the real. Continue reading

Our cheatin’ heart

Hey, y’all! (a la Brit)

So, I know some of you think I ain’t been writin’ recently. But t’aint true! I just been writin’ somewheres else.

Check these dance reviews over at The Brooklyn Rail:

First, Neal Medlyn and Jack Ferver queer it up at The New Museum

Neal Medlyne, Will Rawls, Eric MontesWhether we’re post-gay, post-AIDS, post-Will & Grace, or blindly drifting in the marketing-driven scam of metrosexuality (which, by definition, is a male heterosexual mannerism), queer male identity is certainly due for an overhaul. Luckily, there appears to be a trend in queer performance to boldly, and with intelligence, break out of, or at least seriously bend, the tropes of camp and drag in an effort to present queerness in all its rich, contemporary complexity. In early April, on a shared bill at the new New Museum curiously titled Extreme Behavior, performing artists Neal Medlyn and Jack Ferver offered wildly different projects, each evoking various dimensions of queer identity–whether intentionally or not–and with results that exhibit a common reluctance to be placed. Read the rest…

Then, Laura Peterson gets tangled in some foam insulation… (Funny. I saw Peterson at the Medlyn/Ferver affair. Oh, the wangled teb we weave…)

Laura Peterson in ElectroluxElectrolux: The word may sound like some generic term for the latest tranny party doomed to a four-week lifespan before dying out in a fizzle of A.D.D. and urban ennui, but it’s actually the name of one of the largest appliance manufacturers in the world. When dance artist Laura Peterson gave her latest creation the same name, she was probably counting on the obscurity of the Swedish company to leave the allure of the word in tact, but, in effect, it’s kind of like naming your dance “Pfizer,” or “McDonald’s.” This kind of genericism pervades Electrolux, although bursts of originality and sheer visceral action save the piece from falling into disrepair. Read the rest…

And don’t forget to check out the article (not by me) on Greenbelt, the future home of John Jasperse and Jonah Bokaer’s Center for Performance Research!

Not The End of the World

demontebello2.jpgThe New York Times went ape shit this morning after Phillipe de Montebello announced his plans to retire from being the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art yesterday. They published not one, not two, but three articles on the chief’s departure.

First, Carol Vogel gives you the sober details.  Cold hard facts with a pinch of scrutiny. There’s actually a nice interactive chart graphing the best moments of his tenure.

Then, Michael Kimellman gushes and blushes, publishing a mini mea culpa, and waxing homoetic over de Montebello’s audio tour voice.

Then, of course, comes the then-of-course predictions of who might succeed de Montebello at the helm. Randy Kennedy put the short-list together, in no particular order, and, I guess, for no particular reason.

Little House on the MoMA

It’s hard to imagine a more precise example of contemporary decadence than erecting five homes that are not to be lived in, only to be looked at, then taken away. This is essentially what MoMA has planned for their exhibit of prefabricated homes, as reported by Robin Pogrebin in The Times.

Well, come on. It’s not as bad as say, 19th century Europe where they’d erect a stone wall just to knock it down to create the “ruins” effect for a garden. But seriously. Don’t you think it’s a cruel ruse to all of NYC’s homeless people? At the very least, it lacks manners.

TO DO: Moving Theater @ The Whitney