A few years ago I was interviewed with other trans artists by a cis white woman who makes self-reflexively queer art. When we were handed back the transcript, we saw that the word ‘trans’ — which we used with some flippancy in talking about our experiences of our bodies — had been appended with an asterix (trans*). The interviewer had added a footnote about the use of the asterix as explicated by A. Finn Enke.1
During the interview we were also asked about whether our work drew upon a ‘queer time and place’ to consider ‘a trans time and place’. This is a concept from Jack Halberstam, where he claims ‘queer time’ to be a mode that breaks with ‘paradigmatic markers’ of temporality such as marriage and having children. Halberstam came out as a trans man years after writing the book, but talks about ‘transgenders’ as agents of queer time who are ‘less-obvious’ than post- AIDS gay male subjects.2
It was quite cringe-worthy. ‘Queer time’ and ‘trans time’ both seemed like overly cerebral concepts that erased the differences between us as artists of varied experience. Did none of us want to get married or have children?3 We had never mentioned the asterix in any of our work or conversation — it was quite an alien form for the communities that we had been in. The interviewer had embellished our words to suit her reading, an obviously and emphatically queer framework simply transposed to a different term.
This is a depressing pattern when it comes to transgender presence in ‘queer’ work, where trans bodies are read into as an embellishing mutation of gender fluidity, but not in a way that engages the (less obvious?) complex material conditions they are subject to.
This is a critique that has been made and made again by multiple trans scholars and artists, and yet I make it again here because of a recent experience taking part in an art show ironically titled Equated Dissonance (2018). I have recently chosen not to participate in any more art shows that organise under the sign ‘queer’ because of an industry context where institutions are disinclined to offer opportunities unless it is to make didactic work dealing with embodiment (aka ‘identification’). It is also because of wanting to distance myself from queerness as a concept that on the one hand has offered me a lot of visibility, support, and — I guess — artistic groundwork, but on the other has been, in Eve Sedgwick’s phrase, ‘inimical to my nurture.’4
In March this year, I was invited to take part in a queer art exhibition organised by a friend of mine on Mouheneener country, in Hobart. Hosted by Visual Bulk, the show claimed ‘an emotional safe space’ for a ‘collaborative ensemble’, ‘unveil[ing] the logistical incongruency between heterocentric pleasure expectations and transgressive queer desire through processes of release, collection and reflection within the Visual Bulk community.’5
I was surprised at this description because none of the participating artists — myself, Kieran Bryant, Mark Mailler — were based in Hobart, with the exception of Clare Powell, who curated the show in addition to putting in her own works. I was also surprised that the description emphasised collaboration, as all of the artists were exhibiting individual work. There was little communication between me and the other artists prior to the show, and my work was a video and installation separate from the main gallery.
I didn’t know how to address the stated ‘heterocentric pleasure expectations’ in my work as a straight, binary trans woman, and low-key resented the phrases about ‘transgressive queer desire’ and a claimed ‘emotional safe space.’ The bylines were also confusing: ‘queer bonds, non-normative kinships’?
Before accepting the invitation I had explained to Clare that, for reasons I have stated, this would be my last ‘queer’ art show. I thought it would be fun to exhibit in a different state, and I had a forming friendship with Clare.
We had a conversation on the third day of the show, just before the artists’ talk at which each artist had been asked to read a poem. I said that I might read the amazing, creative, lovey texts I had gotten from my crossie witch friend Paulis, who I’d partied with the night before, and interlace them with the rubbish messages I’d gotten from this boofhead lover of mine at 1am. Our exchange went something like:
Haha. Just like this is my life, it’s art!
My art is my life! Ainslie (offended):
Well, yeah, I am my greatest work of art. Clare (touching):
Oh, that’s really beautiful.
I ended up not reading the texts.
A few hours later, after the poetry, Clare told the gallery that her work was one of the most personal she had ever shown. It consisted of a small wall made of mud and tinfoil boulders that had been crushed/ knocked over by a giant stuffed septum ring. Her second work was a window blind backlit by a golden light, from which the word ‘b(L)ind’ had been cut out. Clare confirmed that this was a reference to the expression ‘love is blind.’
My work was also quite personal: a film of mostly selfie videos taken over the last year, in which my feet were the main focus. It showed them walking, wading, stomping, dangling, in various shoes, being sucked on, injured, waving, etc., taking pleasure in shifting the erotic and energetic centre of my body downwards — the work was called Look Down. The installation also featured a single-page poem about my feet low on the wall, held down by terracotta-coloured paintings of feet.
In the talk I drew attention to the general obsession over trans women’s genitalia, as well as the fading presence of kink in ‘queer’ art. I didn’t mention other moments of conscious manipulation of the queer context, such as a selfie video where I am riding my bike in the wake of Norrie May-Welby’s notorious bubble trail and, while sweaty, I recline and point a toe at the tattered rainbow flags of Oxford Street. Instead I talked more about footfalls, about making marks, about balance, transition, and discomfort in footwear.
Clare: But what about love?
Afterwards, one of the people who attended came up to me and told me how much she had liked my work. She said her ten-year-old son had come to the opening and enjoyed the video so much he had asked her to watch it one more time before they left, even mentioning it at breakfast the next morning. ‘But,’ she said ‘when Clare asked you what about love? I thought that was really strange. To me, the film is all about love, about the way love moves through your body and you using it and your feet as like a wand reaching out and interacting with the world.’6 I was so touched by these comments, but it also made me realise how frustrated I was at being so misunderstood by the curator. Was my work too personal, or not personal enough? I was the one who was virtually naked in my work, lol.
Though I was upset, I relaxed about it as I left Hobart. I was happy with the work I had presented and, although the experience was a bit weird, I had gotten what I needed out of it.
A few weeks later I got an email from someone called Vivienne Cutbush who was writing a review of the show for Art + Australia. She didn’t seem to know the names of the works, but I answered her questions about Look Down, saying something similar to the artists’ talk. I was also careful to tell her that, though I participated in the show and sometimes participate in queer community, I’m not queer and my work isn’t either.
About a month later, having still not received a response from Vivienne, I was tagged by Clare in a link to the published article.7 The review was an exploration of queerness as opened up by the show. My work was the first to be mentioned, in a series of brief and nebulous sentences. ‘I’m captivated. Toenails and heals [sic]. Ribbons and selfies in a flux of thinking, walking, feeling.’ It was immediately followed by a quote from Cutbush’s email correspondence with Clare.
I think queerness is seen here most in the vulnerability of the artists, the imaginative narratives created by each artwork and the intentionally abstract formations used to signify love and kinship, rather than explicitly figure it.
My work was being used as a discoverer of what ‘queer’ means, subsumed into a discourse that was abstracting my quite specific and explicitly figurative formations. I still do not know what ‘kinship’ means in this context, what soft genealogical framework I was being forced into. I emailed both writer and curator, furious at the fact that I had been misunderstood and deliberately ignored. This disregard was wrapped in an air of passive queer pondering, with Cutbush admitting that she had been ‘wanting to ask for a list of shoes’ in the video, but instead just asked about it in general. It was as if she was too timid to address me properly, to hold my work in a sensitive and respectful way.
Cutbush’s first response was to seek reconciliation, but when it became clear that I didn’t intend to give her the content to amend her writing, she dropped the issue. The solution was to remove the hashtag of my name in the Instagram post by Art + Australia.8 She again stopped responding to me, and when nudged sent back a few reflections:
I haven’t make any edits to the piece [sic]. Nonetheless, I have been listening and considering what you’ve said, and intend to approach the art/ experience/academia/reality nexus with more care, particularly as relates to the use of trans women’s bodies.
Clare struggled to understand how the article had amplified her own actions during the show, or exactly where she had been wrong in her treatment of me and my work. Her eventual apology was negated and, like the reviewers, reflective:
In reflection, queerness is not ideal for a group show (not even in Hobart), however I believe I was as transparent as possible about this from the outset. I wish there had been a moment of safety for you to address these feelings with me then (or to even decline my offer) so I could have better supported you throughout. I feel authentic in my respect for you as an artist, and a trans woman in my community. I was (and am) invested in your ideas, willing to respond to criticism through communication and care. [...] I exercised great strength in putting that project together and wish there was the strength in you then to communicate what you needed at the most affective time. I tried my best [...]
These responses together crystallised my alienation from this exhibition and its organising principle, queer. I was honestly shocked at their willingness to harvest my anguish at the situation and put it towards their reflection and self-improvement. I was shocked at Clare’s sureness of ‘authentic’ appreciation. What sort of centre enables one to tell an artist that, but at the same time suggest that perhaps she shouldn’t have participated if it was going to end like this? What sort of self-assurance enables someone to take an artist’s name off the credits of an article as a final solution to conflict? The claims to community, to useful artistic labour, to conceptual complexity as outlined in the queer premise of the show, seemed pretty redundant. ‘Queer’ was more a stand-in for these things, rather than a careful deployment with the intent of holding and exploring difference.
As an undisclosed queer artist said frustratingly to my employer Rafaela Pandolfini about a show I had been working on with her, Session Vessels — which was definitely not about feminism — in an argument unrelated to my involvement in the show, ‘You’re organising a show about feminism, you’re in a position of power. You have trans people working on the show. You have a responsibility to keep them safe.’ There are many conceptual frameworks that I inhabit at any given time, but sometimes the language of safety, of inside, of family, and the critical frameworks that claim it, feel like the largest wedge between me and other people. Especially queer artists.
Ainslie Templeton is a writer and artist who just moved to London. Her work and etc. can be found on Instagram @coldcomfortfirm and @studiedmidwife
Quoted in Amelia Jones and Erin Silver (eds), Otherwise: Imagining queer feminist
art histories, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2016, p. 320. ↩
In a Queer Time and Place, New York University Press, New York, 2005, p. 3. ↩
For a fuller critique of Halberstam in this respect, see micha cárdenas, ‘Pregnancy: Reproductive Futures in Trans of Color Feminism’ in Talia M. Bettcher and Susan Stryker (eds), TSQ 3(1-2), 2016, pp. 48-57. ↩
‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You’ (1996) in Touching Feeling, Duke University Press, Durham, 2003, p. 149. ↩
Equated Dissonance, April 2018 https://www. facebook.com/ events/equated -dissonance /224768427 1915567/ ↩
This is an approximation of what she said based on my recollection. ↩
Vivienne Cutbush, ‘Equated Dissonance, Curated by Clare Powell’ in Art + Australia Online. http://www. artandaustralia. com/online/ discursions/ equated- dissonance- curated- clare-powell, accessed 13 September 2018. ↩
Instagram, 8 May 2018, https://www.instagram.com/p/BighPNeBgwc/?taken-by=artandaustralia ↩