The work I have been making for the past couple of years has tried to use performance—dance and choreography—to consider intergenerational relationships, and how knowledge circulates amongst a group of people. What the trickle-down of knowledge is, and whether it always goes downstream. Can it run upstream? What exactly is that moment where you teach me something? And does it happen in our bodies? And what are the rules, or the conditions, when that takes place between people of different generations? And what responsibility do we have to the things we inherit?
To quote Sara Ahmed, I often think about the idea that ‘for those who have to insist they matter, to matter, self-care is warfare’.1 I think a lot about visibility. It has, of course, long been a strategy in LGBT activism—we demand to be seen. We demand to be recognised as subjects. Emancipation was conceived as being recognised as a subject—becoming a subject of history, of representation, of politics. To become a subject carried with it the promise of autonomy and agency. But, this time to paraphrase Ayesha Saddiqi, what power is it to be visible when we live in a state of constant surveillance? Yet it remains important to reassert my trans, queer, non-binary identity as an attempt at resisting being identified, fixed and assimilated. Society grants us very little freedom in our gender. ‘I’ am always in relation to ‘you’, which means the potential for flexibility around my gender identifications is only as malleable or fluid as ‘you’ will allow. So where does that leave me? These questions of visibility, power and negotiation constantly influence my work.
BC: Your exhibition The Foundation is opening soon at the IMA; is this a natural progression from Scaffold see Scaffold (2014, The Showroom, London) and what are the ideas around it?
My project The Foundation seeks to understand the difficulty of intergenerational inheritance—the things we receive from an older generation—when it gets complicated by notions of identity. It is shot partially at the Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles and uses this location as a nexus for a number of questions and explorations of intergenerational relationship and care. There are also sections of the film shot on a stage set I constructed, which include me and an older cis-male actor working through a range of choreographies together.
In some ways it actually comes from an experience I had when an older artist scolded me—or at least, it felt like a scolding—implying that I should identify as a gay man due a responsibility I had to honour that identity. Of course, for many of us, the ways we choose to articulate our identities have ties to certain political affinities, but perhaps I’d never felt the weight of it as a responsibility before: the imperative to honour an inheritance or lineage. And the pain of feeling and thinking, well, I don’t identify in that way. That’s not who I am. Does that I mean I am severing these ties irrevocably? Making a video work at this Foundation—an archive, social and sexual space in LA—became a site in which to work through a lot of these questions, and then distill, ingest and excrete it theatrically and choreographically.
The project was actually developed in a lot of ways alongside Scaffold see Scaffold and though perhaps they might seem quite distinct from each other —certainly aesthetically—for me they are totally intertwined. Both are trying to understand what is legitimate and illegitimate labour, identity and physicality. Scaffold see Scaffold takes quite an expanded approach to this, whereas The Foundation is linked into a very specific context.
The definition of ‘trans-’ (prefix) is a root meaning ‘across, beyond, through, changing thoroughly’. My own identity, which is a non-binary trans identity, reasserts and also contradicts a notion of ‘changing thoroughly’. It requires a constant temporal consideration. I think a lot about constitution—moving away from understanding a dominant and counter culture, or an institution and anti-institutional position, to try to consider a politics of constitution. I mentioned earlier about working on a new body of work about plant hormones and their synthesising within the human body. This is in part about honing subjectivity and simultaneously dispelling it, and also trying to engage the complex systems of colonialism, medicine, gender and technologies that produce us. As Micah Shippe says, ‘What is a body if not a diffuse network of associations and collisions?’2 The constitutional qualities of the domains of biology, anatomy, physiology, hormonal and chemical composition, illness, age, weight, metabolism, life and death. I’m not sure if I am answering your question but I suppose your question about forming a resistance, for me, is about trying to formulate a proposition about interwoven nutrients.
I am interested in trying to find a handle on the processes, and potentialities, within forms of knowledge that are rendered illegitimate by dominant logic or practices. And on information that is shared online, or amongst peers, as to how to ‘hack the system’ so to speak—deliberately lying to your doctor, buying over the counter pharmaceuticals or online—how this information is circulated or restricted and how these practices play out amongst a community. There is an incredible history of newsletters in the early, early stages of the HIV/AIDS epidemic where people were circulating experiments with home treatment, telling their doctors they had a chest infection to get prescribed a certain drug, that when they took in double dosages counteracted certain early symptoms of this unknown illness. I’m interested in how my own extended community, both on and offline, use various drugs for non-binary forms of transitioning, or how to counterbalance the side-effects hormones have on the body with other drugs or practices. There are these various forms of counter knowledge, counter narratives. Candice and I have begun to search botanical texts and to read them queerly, to find the counter narratives; does a warning of sensitivity in the nipples at the bottom of a recipe for a herbal recipe point to a possible queer practice or use?
This line of thought comes directly out of Scaffold See Scaffold and the interview that became the billboard text in that exhibition, and my own identity within that rubric of the social and medical models of queerness and disability. In some ways it is out of a necessity of having to deal with the process of my own becoming and realisation that my identity is not my own, my body is not my own. The engagement with botany is about a productive dissolution of subjectivity whilst trying to process and engage the effects of social and medical models of queerness and disability are the ways in which our bodies are constituted by factors far beyond our control. It is also about finding a language with which to resist ‘becoming’, to paraphrase Terre Thaemlitz, as opposed to conventional models of visibility that portray trans identity as a ‘coming out’ journey of ever-increasing openness and acceptance (both self-acceptance and public acceptance.) Finding a language with which to resist this conventional narrative has been imperative for me. In a review of The Foundation, a writer once described the dance sequence: ‘Staff wears a leather harness over their bare, slim chest, striking a note of faint pathos—as though their body were pursuing a fantasy it wasn’t designed for.’4 Whilst in this context the writer is referring to the specificity of my wearing a leather harness, and of a particular type of image of masculinity, I think about this load bearing body for the sheer chaos of multiplicitous signifiers, of becomings.
As Gayle Rubin said, ‘Categories like “woman”, “butch”, “lesbian” or “transsexual” are all imperfect, historical, temporary and arbitrary. We use them, and they use us. We use them to construct meaningful lives, and they mould us into historically specific forms of personhood.’5
Beth Caird is an artist and writer, and is sub-editor of un Magazine volume 9.
Patrick Staff is an artist based in London and Los Angeles. The Foundation was co-commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery, London; Spike Island, Bristol; Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane; and Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver where it tours throughout 2015–2016.
Sara Ahmed, ‘Selfcare as Warfare’, on Feminist Killjoys blog, 25 August 2015, http://feministkilljoys.com/2014/08/25/selfcare-as-warfare/ ↩
Micah Schippa, Chicago Artist Writers Rainbow @ Queer Thoughts, Chicago Artist Writers.
May 9, 2015. Accessed August 12, 2015 http://www.chicagoartistwriters.com/rainbow-queer-thoughts/. ↩
Alexander Tarakhovsky, The Indigestible Truth of Love, Solution 247–261 Love, ed. Ingo Niermann, Sternberg Press, Berlin. 2013, p. 32. ↩
Matthew McLean, ‘Patrick Staff, Chisenhale Gallery’, frieze, Issue 171, May 2015. ↩
Gayle Rubin, Of Catamites and Kings: Reflections on Butch, Gender and Boundaries in The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, ed. Joan Nestle Boston Alyson 1991. ↩