The conversation that follows is woven together from a series of emails and Skypes between Ariel Goldberg and myself. Goldberg’s first book of poetry The Photographer was recently published by Roof Books, New York. They are also curate Friday Nights at the Poetry Project in New York City. Our discussion centres on the forthcoming publication of Goldberg’s book, The Estrangement Principle (forthcoming, Nightboat Books, June 2016). They were intensely writing this book when we first met in the summer of 2014 and it shaped many of our conversations during the formation of our friendship. The heart of this book is about unravelling difficulties with labelling art ‘queer’. It journeys through this problem and how it has been iterated in art history, while simultaneously focusing on experimental poets whose work falls out of view in certain ‘queer’ frameworks. The poets we speak about cover a period of time from the late 1990s to early 2000s and specifically relate to experimental poetry following the New Narrative movement.
As there appears to be an increase in the use of the term ‘queer’ across the arts, we both find ourselves having heated discussions about the commodification of ‘queer’. Writing this, ironically I am aware that our friendship and this conversation began on an international residency program about Socially Engaged Art: a term once ascribed to the notion of politically charged, alternative or activist driven models for making art, now often referred to as ‘what artists say when applying for funding’.1 Being socially engaged is different to being queer, however labelling art ‘queer’ resonates with a similar concern when labelling art ‘socially engaged’. From this perspective, once the artwork is labelled as a certain type (such as socially engaged or queer), there is an implication that its socio-political agenda is somehow compromised. For many who exist within a politics of queer, branding potentially eradicates its agency, as it is co-opted into a serviceable and in turn marketable part of our capitalist society.
My interest is in art as a disputed site of politics and how artists toil in the socio-political structures that order it. I am curious about what I see as the conundrum of ‘queer art’, which on the one hand refuses categorisation and on the other hand embraces it as it rises to a fashionable status quo: fashionably radical. Think of the recent exposure of artists such as Math Bass and Gordon Hall, and of this year’s triennial Surround Audience at The New Museum of which Juliana Huxtable became the star. The exhibition was reviewed by Holland Cotter in the New York Times as ‘…a glimpse, and just that, of terrain composed almost entirely of border crossings: between genders, media, disciplines, ethnicities and species. Welcome to Planet Trans’.2
I appreciate Goldberg’s resistance to define their terms when speaking about ‘queer art’. However in this strategy there is a subtle undoing of what I argue Goldberg inherently assumes it to be—a kind of slow reveal of their internal conflict of labelling. As they acknowledge, ‘questioning queer art only seems to reify the labelling practice’. I propose that the friction of this situation allows a space in which perhaps we both find an attraction and a desire to distance ourselves from definitions and labelling.
Like the book, our conversation begins with a discussion of ‘queer’, what it means and how it is used. Goldberg doesn’t claim an authoritative position on this. For them there is a marked difference between being queer, a queer artist and queer art, one that is noticeably marked by the difference between living a queer life and an evolving art discourse. I clumsily push them forward.
Your book begins:
I had a defining moment on the toilet while looking at a library copy of Lesbian Words, an anthology of essays published in 1995. Fifteen years had passed since the book was published, and a burst of teenage angst swept over me. I wanted to rip off the cover’s LGBT sticker as if I had been born the moment the book came out. Now I had a rebellious streak. But that would ruin the cover, I reasoned. It would take off the skin of gridded portraits. And the gone sticker wouldn’t undo the title, it would just undo the confirmation of its placement in the stacks. I then thought the word lesbian seems a timepiece to put on the mantle of this strange electronic fireplace glowing with the word queer.3
If not for you then who is the sticker for?
There are all these systems that are very familiar to structuring cultural production, one of which is setting up the not-labelled, which is the most populated narrative—the straight white male narrative. The straight white woman is getting in there, finally, as unlabelled, but everybody else, if their subjectivity is thought to be marginal, is labelled as such. It’s an organisational system for narrative. In terms of libraries, which is where I often begin, I feel a literal label may be for the staff and the stacks; they have the best intentions. And it’s for the gay teenager who needs that category to help them. It’s for beginners and it’s also for me, to analyse. There are so many different chasms in the term LGBT and that it is exacerbated right now because of the ‘marriage’ situation. This year’s Trans Day of Action happened to be the same day that the news broke that the supreme courts effectively legalised gay marriage across the U.S. There was a press conference happening in front of Stonewall and when the Trans march came around 7th Av South the crowd passed Stonewall briefly and there was vociferous shouting about trans rights and racialised violence. It’s an ever-shifting pie chart.
You seem to be making a clear distinction between queer and what I might term ‘gay in general’. Once they were closer together, now there is ‘queer’ or ‘homonormative’, the LGBT label on the cover of Lesbian Words being for the latter audience?
It is easier to say queer than it is to say LGBTQ, the acronym just keeps getting longer—which is great. I love that the acronym is always changing, that I have to look up what the new letters in it stand for. ‘Queer’ is a suspect word; there is a moment when it had political salience because it was reclaimed from being a slur and some people still have that relationship to the word. This is a not a specific word compared to an acronym because it encompasses everything; anybody could be queer, it’s watered down.
In considering a broader definition you cite writer Maggie Nelson as an example of someone writing from a queer perspective in her book The Art of Cruelty, although she does not self-identify as such nor is she labelled as a ‘queer writer’ by Norton, the publisher.
Loosely aligned with a range of identity positions counter to mainstream culture, “queer” as a general umbrella, albeit an umbrella one buys in a rainstorm, and falls apart shortly thereafter, illustrates how anything can be interpreted and argued for as “queer.” Nelson makes no declarative statements in The Art of Cruelty about her queerness. She meanwhile appears as an usher of “queer content” into the mainstream because she is white, cis, femme and could pass as a straight. Nelson’s ‘Thank You’ page is the tip-off to her queerness…^4
Why does Maggie Nelson sit, as you go on to point out, under the label of ‘Cultural Studies’?
I think that is because Maggie Nelson is dealing with a mainstream publisher. But the same could be true if you look at Renee Gladman publishing Tisa Bryant’s book Unexplained Presence in her Leon Works project, whose mission is to in part expand the landscape of experimental prose. Bryant is also writing cultural studies in Unexplained Presence albeit in a much more hybridised fashion than in The Art of Cruelty. Gladman’s support for and her own production of cross-genre work is intertwined with the complexity of articulating intersectional identity perspectives. The back cover of Unexplained Presence summarises the book as examining characterisations of black subjects in film, TV and art but there isn’t a marker of sexuality because for experimental poetry books the routine is not to put a LGBT sticker on the cover. It’s a different routine. It’s about letting the work speak for itself, valuing the author’s aesthetic, which for Gladman and Bryant is very much rooted in the idea of crossing genres—if you are crossing genres that’s already a challenge to a single label. Leon Works Press does categorise Unexplained Presence as literature, which is wide open, it’s a conscious anti-genre moment, it’s poetry, it’s prose, it’s essays. Then there is the Sam D’Allesandro book of collected stories The Wild Creatures edited by Kevin Killian that says ‘Gay Fiction’ on its back cover and then there is the Feminist Press’ publication of Laurie Weeks’ Zippermouth which is of course identified in the very name of the press along an identity politics but they just have famous queers blurbing it. Therefore it is labelled queer through the code within the names of Eileen Myles and Michelle Tea. I’m looking at times at when queer becomes a very problematic unstable genre.
On the one hand you are unravelling a coded queer genre that is written about in the subtext of New Narrative and experimental poetry that came mostly out of San Francisco in from the late 1970s as well as the prose of such New York–based writers as Audre Lorde and Eileen Myles, and on the other hand you are affronted by the practice of blatant labelling of queer by a Phaidon coffee table book.
If I am forced to be optimistic, the increased use of the word queer as a ‘discursive frame’ will increase the range of materials in archives of art and writing made by those who identify as queer. If I am forced to stare our capitalist hell in the eye, I see things like a sticker, a black circle with white text on the outside of a Phaidon book called Art & Queer Culture (2013) that has the audacity to claim it is ‘The first book to focus on the criticism and theory regarding queer visual art’ (emphasis mine). We can translate this to mean ‘the first’ coffee table-styled book on queer culture a major art publishing house has produced that’s not for an exhibition.5
Once something is categorised under the banner of art can it still hold onto the pretence of its opposition? Can we move away from the potentially awkward moral high ground that labels such as ‘queer art’ and ‘socially engaged art’ claim in opposition to the so-called commodified art world? Is there another way to think about how they sit, and in turn can operate, within these structures of a neo-liberal capitalist agenda?
Yes, all these writers I mention in my book are cross-over figures; they are much more fluid than labels. But this is something that you’ve helped me realise; queer has been and will be commodified into the art market or book table displays to get people’s attention with a reductive label. Not so much with experimental poetry. I think that is one place where people just ‘don’t buy’ the practice of rampant labels although experimental poetry is a label in and of itself. I think as commodification happens and is recognisable, people who are genuinely invested in radical thought and action that is not irrelevant from but not completely derived from their gender or sexualities, can splinter off. And as José Esteban Muñoz argues artists can dis-identify with the word queer. In that way I can dis-identify from queerness that is being mass-produced or is being used in a way that I don’t relate to. It’s liberating in a sense because then I can return to some glorified abstract notion that I have of a subculture that I don’t think actually exists in New York. The majority of the cultural production that I engage with is via institutions that sometimes are kind of doing awesome stuff and other times are operating within histories of white supremacy. The New York Times being probably the most notable institution that executes this vision of keeping all the margins lined up at the farthest end of their idea of the centre of cultural production. Like projecting images of endangered species onto the Empire State Building—that was the cover story on the ‘Arts’ Section this past Friday. Whenever they try to include anything else in the picture they end up being extremely offensive and off base.
You just said that you feel like you are acting as a figurehead for queer, how can we move away from this?
There are events and such that are going to be labelled queer but I want that label to not matter as much as the specific language people use around specific artists’ work or their own work. I don’t want the word to be treated as though it means the same thing for everyone. It means something very different to different people, and relationships to this are constantly changing. I feel like an English teacher at the end of the day; ‘use more specific language’. The coffee table book that claims to be the first book on queer art, when it’s not, doesn’t put anyone at risk. It just puts fire under your ass so that you’re really intentional about what you are doing, because it will be misrepresented and misunderstood, and so that you build strong networks of artists who are invested in each other’s works because of the work. The generic term ‘queer art’ is a false category.
You quote Sarah Schulman saying:
The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination is a book of nonfiction on the AIDS epidemic, activism and the strategic destruction of neighbourhoods like the East Village by real estate developers and city governments. I vacillate from learning from Schulman and critiquing her dichotomous thinking. I obsess about how she depicts generational divides in queer communities. Schulman watches, from inside her group of peers, a younger generation of queers at the opening for a show chronicling the artistic and design committees in ACT UP at White Columns gallery in 2010:
Before me I saw two distinctly different experiences, separated by the gulf of action fuelled by suffering on the one hand, and the threat of pacifying assimilation on the other. When the ACT UPers were in their twenties, they were dying … The younger people loved ACT UP. But in some fundamental way they couldn’t relate to it. They didn’t understand what we had experienced. They had never been that oppressed. They had never been that profoundly oppressed. And yet, they wanted to relate.6
Is Sarah Schulman dismissing queer culture today as being without a cause?
I think she is critiquing white middle and upper class young queer artists who for example are or have been supported by their parents, or who for example don’t have student loan debt. I fall into this category of ‘grew up in suburbia and had everything handed to me’. Not only in my Jewish heritage but also in my queer heritage there was utter devastation in what came before me: mass murder, complete poverty, refugees, nothing; like high drama shit. Then I am born into this world and every opportunity is literally handed to me. Schulman’s book was mourning the silence and cultural amnesia for the AIDS epidemic. She is part of the generation that was basically at war and then all of a sudden healthcare corporations figure out how people could survive living with HIV—for the people who could afford it. HIV/AIDS is still a crisis but only for poor people, homeless people, sex workers, it disproportionally affects people of colour regardless of sexuality. So Schulman is really only talking about people like me in some ways and that is why I was so charged by this. In this book, she does not acknowledge people of my generation, who are profoundly oppressed in this country, who battle racialised violence, the prison industrial complex, living with HIV/AIDS, trans-phobic healthcare systems, homelessness and poverty—there is a young generation of queer people who are activists and also artists, and artists who are also activists.
SR: Does your ‘queer’ speak to a radical activism within art?
Yes and I think that Schulman is at a loss with the type of activism I see in New York–based organisations, like Audre Lorde Project, Sylvia Rivera Law Project, FIERCE, when she was writing Gentrification of the Mind. I think she was hearing the word ‘queer’ not in an activist context but in the appropriated art context.
Then you more or less ‘out’ Fran Lebowitz, knowing full well her position on labels in a Q&A session you have with her at the Poetry Project.
Did I make Fran Lebowitz come out? I have watched nearly every interview with her on the Internet to date. Fran pointedly challenges the framework of “coming out” by putting a premium on privacy. She just holds court in her Brook’s Brothers blazer, jeans, white collared shirt and cowboy boots.7
As if it was a mystery. The subtext of my questions: I was only asking about her contemporaries who happened to be gay, Susan Sontag and Peter Hujar. My conversation with her was and was not coded.
This exposes the complexity of your contradictions that are openly at play in the book as well as in the politics of labelling art ‘queer’. To define, to not define, how to define, whose definition and the strength or power that is found in what is shown but unspoken. These constant frictions seem like something you want to keep when considering this label. You emphasise this in relation to the historicisation of experimental poetry noting the difference between two publications; Clamour (1990 to early 2000s), published by Renee Gladman and Soup (1980s) edited by Steve Abbott. About Clamour your write:
What Gladman was doing with Clamour is something difficult to articulate with a single movement’s name. Gladman seems to have avoided movement naming as a form of resistance to dominant cultures in literature … I am grateful Clamour does not offer me a movement to theorise on. I feel compelled to resist the temptation to initiate theorising, namely because I don’t have first hand experience and a history that is still alive as it evolves and changes. There is something to be said for sitting with the grey area of closely reading and mixing that reading with years of slow thinking.^8
And about Soup:
Abbott gives a sense that what was happening in the writing was transformative, but the details of which leave me with the feeling of “I had to be there.” … Abbott introduces us to the work he edited with the steadiness of repetition of the word ‘new’ as though an advertisement that appears several times throughout a sitcom’s broadcast…^9
On the one hand, with Soup, you have the ‘normal’ procedure of defining and categorising and on other with Clamour you have a resistance to this. As Clamour hasn’t been neatly prescribed and in turn significantly historicised, its definition always remains in negotiation, for readers to discover and interpret for themselves, so it speaks to you not from a historical distance but within your current context of now and because of this, its currency feels relevant.
Do you think it is OK for things to be left unsaid?
The nuances between what is or isn’t said and how it is positioned is important and can be forgotten when writing public profiles such as biographies, curatorial statements or book prefaces. Perhaps such definitive structures speak to a patriarchal system that queer agendas supposedly avoid? When things are left unsaid maybe they remain out of reach and this is powerful, especially in terms of the art commodity. However young artists and writers such as Dark Matter have a very different approach. Their politics and identity are central to their work, as stated in their bios, and this is equally powerful.
Dark Matter is gaining visibility and they are also critiquing visibility and this is difficult.
Claiming and defining themselves.
Their queer identity is now a marketable art genre. I think they are well aware of this and use it to their advantage. You note that writer Fran Lebowitz and photographer David Wojnarowicz choose not to label.
Which is regardless of what they stand for; Wojnarowicz is the poster child of queer art, Cathy Opie is the same thing.
SR: A generational thing? Does the decision not to label lead to a historical disappearance?
Yes I say this about New Narrative writers in the chapter of the book titled ‘To Project Presence and Rise Absence’.
Can you list the writers?
I don’t really believe in there being a list. There was the fact of the following people in a free workshop at Small Press Traffic that Bob Gück taught from 1977–1985: I am most familiar with the work of Dodie Bellamy, Camille Roy, Bruce Boone, Kevin Killian and Steve Abbott. They are to me the queer literati of San Francisco. Gail Scott in Montreal is part of it. Mary Burger too. Sam D’Allasandro died very young, at age 31 of AIDS. There is Eileen Myles but she is really of the East Village in New York and is therefore more of an affiliate. In the introduction to Sam D’Allesandro’s Wild Creatures Kevin Killian calls out the names of ‘Bob Glück, Bruce Boone, Dodie Bellamy, Steve Abbott, Carla Harryman, Francesca Rosa, Marsha Campbell, Camille Roy, and a bit afield Kathy Acker, Dennis Cooper, Brad Gooch, and many others. We were all in this “thing” together.’ So you can see how my list is different than his list. One thing I think about a lot with New Narrative is that they had the privilege to problematise their movement’s name in an aesthetic sense and their maybe gay or queer identities were not in that naming. I think also because they were a mostly white group of writers did not label themselves in the way that poets like Amiri Baraka did when he was part of founding the Black Arts movement. New Narrative emerged after a lot of the Civil Rights Era arts movements were in their prime and therefore benefited from the groundwork of poets like Audre Lorde. This is speculative, but also a way for me to understand my history and that is informed by reading Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer’s collaborative writing from the mid 1980s, particularly, True Confessions: A Discourse on Images of Black Male Sexuality.
Is labelling art ‘queer’ a white privilege? Would Sarah Schulman think it is?
No. Schulman appears to espouse how art must be labelled ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ because people writing from and representing these subject positions are still discriminated against and I think she is right. It’s a strategy to increase visibility. Sometimes artists that become visible refuse the identity label model. Adrian Piper and how she pulled out of the Radical Presence Show at the Grey Art Gallery is one example of this. It’s different because she didn’t want to support a separated black performance art show. The gay and or black labels in art cannot be treated as the same thing obviously; my point is that the rejection of labels happens across identity positions and across artistic disciplines. We look to what we think the label would be and see the resistance to that label as a reflection of how the work itself is complicated and the label perfunctory. New Narrative will not remain obscure. I mean Sofia Coppola is making a film about Steve Abbot and his life with his daughter. This book is a moment of watching the switch.
Ariel Goldberg’s first book of poetry The Photographer was recently published by Roof books. They are the Friday Night Coordinator at the Poetry Project in New York City.
Sarah Rodigari is currently writing a PhD on Socially Engaged Art.
— A. Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Crossing Press, Berkeley, 1982.
— S. D’Allesandro, Wild Creatures, Kevin Killian, ed, Suspect Thoughts Press, 2005.
— J.E. Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, Minnesota Press, 1999.
— I. Julien and K. Mercer, ‘True Confessions: A Discourse on Images of Black Male Sexuality’, Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men, ed. Essex Hemphill and Joseph Beam, Red Bone Press, Boston, 1991.
— M. Nelson, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.
— M. Lord and Meyer (eds), Art and Queer Culture, Phaidon Press, London, 2013.
— S. Schulman, The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2012.