BETH CAIRD: Could you please introduce your practice to us, a largely new Australian audience, in the lead up to your show at the Institute of Modern Art (IMA) in Brisbane?
PATRICK STAFF: I suppose I am preoccupied at the moment with thinking about how particular bodies are presented, produced, represented and assessed. I am often preoccupied with dance and theatre these days. Postmodern and contemporary dance, Japanese theatre, the Wooster Group. I have been thinking a lot about illness and care recently, for instance. Bodies of work, bodies of images. And this has, more and more, become about considering my own gender identity as a nexus for these questions, which wasn’t always the case in my work. I have just begun researching a project on the hormonal properties of plants and their synthesis in the human body. Technologies of the body. For a long time I was interested in collective moments in history that flourished in resistance to capitalism or industrialisation, no matter how briefly—communes, nudists, movements in dance. But I wanted to try to engage that sticky, awkward moment of the paradox of freedom and fixity. What’s that fine line, or crossover, between freedom and discipline? When does a push for emancipation take a turn toward conservatism?
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?
PS: At the IMA I am presenting a new video installation and set of sculptures as the project The Foundation, and during the course of the show will be publishing a new book work as part of this project, published with IMA; CAG in Vancouver, Canada; and Mousse Publishing, Italy.
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.
BC: I’ve been thinking about how having a queer body requires a different relationship with time (our traditional understanding of linear passing time) and also temporal occasions. I think of how to be queer is often to be expected to wait; it can be, for example, to be waiting for the right time to come out, waiting to pass, waiting for surgery, waiting for forms on bureaucratic boxes to have other options than ‘male’ or ‘female’. I recall the US not-for profit ‘It Gets Better Project’, a cause which intends to prevent teen mental health issues related to bullying around sexuality. That very tag line ‘it gets better’, is in effect asking an entire generation of LGBT youths to literally wait for time to change. What do you think of this idea that having a queer body alters your relationship to time and waiting? Do you think your artwork can work as a form of resistance against our preconceived notions of bodies in time?
PS: This is an interesting question to me. Just recently an older cis-gender woman said to me that she felt that ‘people who choose (my emphasis) to be transgender seem to be disregarding the natural stages of life’, as in defiance of ageing, by which she was inferring stages of life such as motherhood, menopause and so on. I was aghast, to be honest. Really, she was talking about the passing of time and the stages of life as a process of cis-normativity. In a way, I can be sympathetic—one of the ‘symptoms’ of my own ‘dysphoria’, I would say, is about not wanting to ‘grow into’ being a ‘man’. That is one of the core grapplings at the centre of the The Foundation.
I think you’re absolutely right about queer bodies necessitating a different relationship to time. Jack Halberstam’s work has been important to me in situating how increased and sudden spectacular visibilities of transgender bodies can be read against and concurrent cultural constructions of time and place. To have a queer/crip body under the medical model certainly sets up a paradigm of waiting for a cisnormative, able-bodied emancipation. Wouldn’t you rather be like us, eventually? I think a lot about how the late José Muñoz wrote, ‘we have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future… put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.’ It’s a more beautiful perspective than I think I would be able to muster, but something to which I frequently come back to feel the warm illumination.
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.
BC: Jumping off from your point about ‘honing a subjectivity and simultaneously dispelling it’, this honing of subjectivity is at once an insistence on mattering (being recognised, fighting erasure, etc.) while at the same time declaring an opposition, or an emphatic difference to that violent state of being. So the double bind that is generated, this contradictory politics, does equate to a unique private hell, a one-by-one-square-foot-of-body. How does dance and choreography open this violence outwards for you, and create an inevitability of new interwoven nutrients? I think of Alexander Tarakhovsky saying, ‘People who do not mix fluids, do not dream, and use hand sanitiser or mouthwash will be extinct.’3
PS: That Tarakhovsky quote is really useful for me. I think for a long time I wanted to dispel aspects of this violence from how I made art—creating a space, through usually collaborative means of production, to create freer conditions. Trying to eradicate hierarchy, redirect power, overcome limitations: that approach proved frustrating. At this point, I feel like all I can do is mix fluids. YES to imbalances of power, and violence, and hierarchy and the pain of representation. Yes to the grief that I feel when I have to engage gender as an insoluble element. And that saying ‘yes’ is not about accepting, or resignation, but rather it is a refusal to think that those forces can be mouthwashed out of art production. It’s a tricky balance. I’m not interested in saying ‘well, we’re all implicated so let’s stop worrying about it and just soldier on’. That rhetoric is rife amongst my peers and it is of no interest to me. I want to say ‘yes we are all implicated, feel it. What now?’
BC: I also wanted to ask you to talk more about the project with the flowers and the synthetic hormones. Who are you when you are becoming in your art making? And who are you when you are becoming into a body with hormones? Or when mixing nutrients? What is your body with a nicotine patch on it, with an Implanon birth control implant, whilst injecting T, how does this becoming of multiplicities inform or enforce the constitutions within your art making?
PS: The research and working around plant hormones is in really early stages; a nascent work in collaboration with artist Candice Lin. It won’t really begin properly until September and later on into the year. But Candice and I, close friends and collaborators, found our interests crossing over when we began talking about plant hormones. Candice’s work has been focused on gendered relationships to technology and nature for a while now, and particularly around racialised figures such as the healer or witch within studies of empire and particularly colonialism. I came to this topic of plant hormones more through my own personal relationship to gender and hormones and, as a non binary person, engaging with ‘deliberate misuse’ and the inherently contentious delineations of what is legitimate and illegitimate ‘use’ in regards to our bodies, technologies, prostheses and pharmaceuticals, continuing a line of inquiry started in Scaffold See Scaffold.
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.
BC: Where do you find grace, love, or empathy in interwoven nutrients and collisions? How can we as a multiplicity of beings allow for a compassionate grounding from which to spring from? In a regime that often frames queer (and I am thinking specifically of non-binary bodies) as territory to be re-shaped, reformed, spliced open or injected into (inside a medical framework, for example in Australia to be allowed surgery as a trans-person one needs a psychiatric evaluation, and in this way a pathologising occurs), where is the empathetic exchange of fluids occurring for you as an artist and as a being?
PS: I suppose I find grace and love, and relief, in queerness, in its broadest forms. Choreography at its most open is a window that is offered. Having a bodily practice that offers an expansion rather than a pinpointing. Queerness as a contingent moment; something that is and then is not these negotiating impulses. Stephen Buhner, in his book The Lost Language of Plants, rejects the idea of ‘universe-as-machine’. There is so much joy, love, compassion and relief in this rejection, this re-arrangement of understanding. It reasserts that so much that has been deemed dead or inert by modern colonial thinking is actually very, very alive. Nothing is stable and in that I find grace. When my boyfriend and I fuck it is switchy and trans, and it ecstatically shifts my understanding of what fucking can do and might destabilise.
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.
May 9, 2015. Accessed August 12, 2015 http://www.chicagoartistwriters.com/rainbow-queer-thoughts/.