on venus, the winds blow harder
they strip every surface,
the air hostile //
we are neighbours
/ with acid.1
In a moment defined by climate crisis and worsening inequalities under capitalism, the fantasy of utopia resembles nothing more than a nostalgic vision of the past. In this context, P. Staff’s exhibition On Venus (2019)presents a shift in thinking that doesn’t submit to utopian promises of a future based on the past. On Venus was a site-specific installation at Serpentine Galleries in London by British-born, Los Angeles-based artist Staff. Exhibited within the Sackler Gallery, Staff transformed the space through a series of architectural interventions which included a chrome floor, altered lighting and a system of visible piping that scaffolded the interior walls and ceiling.2 At the time of the exhibition the gallery was named after the Sackler family — a dynasty infamous for their ties to the opioid crisis through Perdue Pharma, the maker of the highly addictive painkiller OxyContin.3 As of August 2021, Perdue Pharma has been dissolved and members of the Sackler family are being ordered to pay billions of dollars from their fortunes to address the deadly opioid epidemic.4 The gallery’s name alone presented an ethical and philosophical challenge for Staff.5 Staff addressed this controversy in a conversation with Juliet Jacques for Frieze magazine:
[Curator Claude Adjil] invited me to do the show knowing that my work often deals with pharmaceutical regimes … I want us to be faced with difficult decisions because everyone has been sailing through these issues as if they were meaningless for decades, letting money and influence ease them into comfort with things we shouldn’t be comfortable with … I made a conscious choice to talk about it sideways.6
Staff’s relationship with pharmaceuticals, specifically hormones and cancer treatment, is something that has been explored broadly in their work. Their 2017 film Weed Killer, drawing from Catherine Lord’s memoir The Summer of Her Baldness (2004, reflects on the chemically induced devastation of chemotherapy. Staff’s collaboration with Candice Lin Hormonal Fog (2016–ongoing), included in A Biography of Daphne (2021) at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Naarm/Melbourne, pumped hormonal vapour into the gallery. Through their work, the artist explores the historically fraught relationship trans and LGBTQIA+ people have with the pharmaceutical and medical industries. On Venus extended these thematic preoccupations by creating an exhibition that embodied the hostile and threatening conditions of the titular planet, and imagined ‘after’ Earth. Since I was unable to see this exhibition in-situ, this essay will predominately focus on the central video, which I was able to view online. The installation Acid Rain (2019) and etchings On Living (2019) will also be discussed, works that I accessed in mediated form through video documentation and written accounts. I will discuss On Venus’s resonance with the strain of queer theory that argues that reproductively driven and normative temporal structures sustain and accelerate the inequalities placed upon already marginalised and exploited subjects.
Industrially Farmed and Reproduced
On Venus was the core work in Staff’s exhibition, and Staff’s first major film to not centre on human bodies. Thirteen minutes in length, the film is divided into two distinct segments: the beginning features a barrage of found footage; the conclusion consists of a poem in which yellow text appears intermittently over a scratched black background accompanied by a distorted musical track. The film was projected onto a hanging sheet of acrylic, which was reflected in the chromatic floor that Staff produced as part of the installation. The first section of the video is an onslaught of heavily edited footage that has been warped, stretched, scratched, oversaturated and reverse coloured: industrially farmed animals are slaughtered, reproduced, moved, processed and disposed of in various factory and wet market settings. The oversaturated footage glows like an afterimage in the same way a too-bright object sears itself in the human eye after overstimulation.7 At once visceral and psychedelic, the montage is at times almost impossible to watch. For example, in one disturbing clip a person violently tears the skin from a live snake. ‘The footage,’ Staff tells us, ‘lapses between the state-sanctioned and the illegal, the very clinical forms that this takes and then the illegitimate.’8 The shifts between depictions of industrial and illegal violence alternate between the explicit and opaque. The affecting imagery calls into question how bioethical laws that quantify pain and sentience are justified to render meat, liquid and flesh as commodities. On Venus entangles nature, biology and human industry in a space where violence is a cyclical and unsustainable force. When considered alongside the other works in the exhibition, the animals in the video become indistinguishable from and a proxy for humans — addressing how ethics, agency, exploitation and class function under capitalism.
Staff is interested in how history, technology, capitalism and the law have fundamentally changed the way identity and bodies are defined.9 One of the most harrowing moments in the first half of the film utilises footage of a cow in an abattoir being forced into a narrow hallway. After a brief struggle against its captors, the cow temporarily breaks free by barging through the camera. A similar story that appeared in The New York Times in 1954 became a focal point in the move towards legal regulations for the treatment of livestock. A 1000-pound steer destined to be butchered broke free, raced 109 blocks on Manhattan’s West Side and swam across the Hudson River before being captured in Edgewater, New Jersey.10 The journalist who describes the escaped steer in The New York Times is delighted by the possibility that the steer is a narrative agent, enjoying the ability to invert expected hierarchies.11
A link between this footage and the etchings installed in the adjacent vault of the exhibition space can be made. On Living is a series of acid-based intaglio etchings displayed on the sides of steel plinths. The etchings consist of several newspaper clippings from 2017 and 2018 that claim convicted murderer Ian Huntly was seeking to transition from male to female in an attempt to get relocated to a female prison. The reporting was entirely fabricated, and Staff’s work highlights the ways that the media weaponises marginalisedbodies to generate moral panics. By placing this transphobic media narrative in relation to the video work, it becomes clear that Staff is making connections between the treatment of livestock and people. Both works acutely acknowledge a subject’s agency (or lack thereof) to consider how bodies are regulated and exploited under systems of power. Staff troubles the role of agency and will in On Venus by making a comparative allusion between the hormones forced on livestock and the hormonal medicine utilised by transgender people in the process of gender affirmation — albeit for starkly different purposes.
Sara Ahmed contends that it is the willing subject who turns a wish into a command — but queerness lies in the wilful subject who deviates, perverts, wanders off course.12 On Venus explores the relationship between power and agency, critiquing the anthropocentric notion that the world is singularly structured by humans and human perception. The role of agency, mobility and will in this exhibition suggests a relationship with Lauren Berlant’s writing, with Staff listing Cruel Optimism (2011) at the top of the show’s accompanying reading list. Berlant’s critique of capitalism and the labour of reproducing life in Cruel Optimism provides a useful framework for thinking through Staff’s exhibition, which can also be read alongside Lee Edelman’s anti-reproductive futurism, as I discuss below.
Won’t Somebody Think of the Children?
In The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (1997), Berlant articulates how the conservative ‘right’ politically exploited the normative structures of the family. The book sets up a framework for understanding the historical context behind the failed utopia of the ‘good life’ and the centrality of the family to that vision. During Reaganite America, notions of the family and the privatisation of citizenship came to define the relationship between the personal and the political. According to Berlant, a cartoon version of a US citizenship crisis was established as a standard truth, which put on display a mass experience of economic insecurity, racial discord, class conflict and sexual unease.13 Conservative ideology had convinced the citizenry that the core context of politics should be the sphere of private life.14 This re-conception of an ‘American’ way of life is based in a nostalgic vision of the family, which permeated throughout the West. Here, the residential enclave where ‘the family’ lives usurps the modernist promise of the culturally vital and diverse city. In this new utopian West, mass-mediated political identifications can only be rooted in the traditional notions of home, family and community.15
In On Venus Staff critiques the legacy of right-wing politics, which is related to a complex system of cruel optimistic relations such as the centralisation of individualism, a continued belief in the dissolving fantasies of upward mobility and job security and an investment in the protection of the symbolic Child. Berlant suggests that cruel optimism is defined by the problematic attachments we make to optimistic objects and that by returning to the scene of the attachment’s possibility we can understand how a misleading set of circumstances emerge:
Cruel Optimism names a relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility. What is cruel about these attachments, and not merely inconvenient or tragic, is that the subjects who have an x in their lives might not well endure the loss of their object or scene of desire.16
Berlant argues that the fantasy sustaining a subject is a cruel, enduring factor, which in our current political economy produces a form of slow death.17 Berlant articulates this cruel attachment most clearly in relation to the fantasy of the ‘good life’ and the promise of upward mobility. This fantasy functions as part of the neoliberal economy of hope, which actively works to sustain marginalised people in their class/social position. This can be seen in On Venus through a number of power relations, such as captor/animal, normative media narratives/ lived experience of trans people and the general public/incarcerated people. In each instance the subject is absorbed in a complex net of inescapable circumstances. On Venus depicts the enduring forces placed on animals who are bred to reproduce and die; their desire to escape merely functions as part of the false economy of hope. The connection from livestock to people is made by highlighting that, like the farmer and the cattle, capitalism’s disciplinary regimes treat marginalised, differently classed and abled bodies through structures of violent transactional indifference. Under capitalism, othered bodies are systemically entrenched in social, political and class positions, whereby hope is positioned as the sustaining factor in their life. Optimism involves projecting onto an enabling object that is also disabling — the ‘good life’.18
Contemporary Western democracies rely on the reproduction of affective attachments defined by their cruel optimism, the idea that if individuals conform to the norms produced by capitalism then they could move independently up and across class frameworks. We can read the escaping cow in On Venus as a ‘glitch’ in the reproduction of life and as a wilful subject. The escaping cow can be read through Berlant’s formulation of the glitch, which according to her is an ‘interruption amid a transition.’19 Expanding further, Berlant states:
Transactions of the body of the aestheticized or mediated subject absorb, register, re-enact, refigure, and make possible a political understanding of shifts and hiccups in the relation among structural forces that alter a class’s sense of things.20
It is through this glitch — which is rendered literally through the glitching in On Venus and metaphorically with the escaping cow — that we can understand more clearly the subverted relationship to futurity that Staff is communicating. It is only by dismantling the relationship with the ‘good life’ that a different kind of futurity is possible, which marks a distinct departure from affirmative queer theory and practice.
Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004) begins with a similar assessment as Berlant; that the state of politics in America is almost entirely structured through the symbol of the Child. The Child in America is emblematic of the ‘good life’ and impossible to refuse, representing prosperity and motivation for futurity. What Edelman calls for is a radical rejection of futurity and the possibility of queerness within it. The political right reifies the Child and the nuclear family, which in turn pervasively shape the logic of politics as an oppressive force to queerness. The absolute privilege of heteronormativity renders queerness unimaginable, stifling the chance of a queer resistance to this organising principle of communal relations. Edelman (somewhat controversially) places the Child at the centre of the futurity debate in queer theory, explicitly arguing that the Child serves as a political prop. For Edelman, if the ‘Child remains the perpetual horizon of every acknowledged politics’ they become ‘the beneficiary of every political intervention.’21 Queerness, for Edelman, has no place in the existing dominant political structures that govern life and which are structured to affirm and protect reproductive futurism.
During the final four minutes of On Venus, and in the installation Acid Rain, Staff troubles and complicates the idea of a desirable future on Earth. The concluding poem reflects being on Venus, describing an embodied and sensate experience of a body disjointed from physical existence. Staff describes the work as dealing ‘with these entanglements and interdependencies between what is living and dead, what is suspended in a state of being or of nonbeing.’22 Acid Rain was installed in the exterior ring of the gallery, the space washed in a yellow hue suggestive of the sulfuric clouds in Venus’s atmosphere. Writer Alex Quicho evocatively describes the building’s new atmosphere ‘as one that was intentionally poisoned, potentially dangerous to forms of life … from time to time an industrial clamour filled the gallery, suspending the slow percussion of drips and drops.’23
Part of the installation was a system of piping affixed to the walls and ceiling which secreted a mysterious fluid into large rusting oil drums. The dripping liquid echoed throughout the space, referencing the history of acid rain in London during the late 1980s, which at the time generated numerous conversations about impending ecological crisis. Acid rain occurs when excessive amounts of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are released into the atmosphere from industrial processes; the subsequent rain can negatively affect the pH balance in water systems. Staff’s Acid Rain installationutilised colour, sound, smell and temperature to engage a bodily and physical response from the audience. As Staff suggests:
My background is perhaps more in performance and that just becomes about the live encounter and the body in space, things as simple as reflective flooring or the temperature of a space or shifting light throughout the day for me are choreographic strategies.24
Both Staff’s prose and installation engage with Emily Apter’s essay ‘Planetary Dysphoria’ (2013), where she coins the term planetary dysphoria to describe practices dealing with new planetary aesthetics. Apter defines planetary dysphoria as capturing the ‘geopsychoanalytic state of the world at its most unruhig, awaiting the triumphant revenge of acid, oil, and dust.’25 Apter argues that planetary dysphoria is the unpleasant and uncomfortable feeling of knowing that our existence and our permanence is related to a planet that is in a state of decay, in which natural resources are enacting a kind of revenge. The corrosive liquid leaking in the installation is a literal interpretation of planetary dysphoria. In the poem’s third line, ‘On Venus, there were once oceans that have long since burnt away’, Staff’s complicated relationship to futurity persists.26 By drawing on Venus’s hostile surface, Staff alludes to this pessimistic feeling of Earth’s terminal state, whereby Venus becomes a symbolic (cataclysmic) future. Staff’s doubling of dysphoria is also important here. Dysphoria in On Venus relates to a broad dysphoric relation to the future as well as dysphoria related to the body and gender. The planetary dysphoria that plays out in Staff’s work is a dysphoria in relation to capitalism and the anti-queer sentiment that futurity is based on.
Staff and Edelman see queerness as having a radically deconstructive potential. This is seen most evidently in the poem where Staff temporally, politically and biologically abstracts, explodes and removes the body from the hegemonic structures it has come to be defined by. Staff’s poem describes a hostile and corrosive planet where bodies are obliterated from the physical form, reading like a warning sent back in time. Both Edelman and Apter structure their arguments through Sigmund Freud’s concept of the death drive. On Venus, like Apter, repositions the death drive from the individual to the scale of a ‘cosmically proportioned ontic subject’.27 Edelman defines queerness in the terms of the death drive to ‘dissolve the congealment of identity that permit us to know and survive as ourselves’.28 For Edelman, queerness is not located in the assertion of an oppositional identity that is only ever concerned with perpetuating an indefinite future.29 According to Edelman, there is little power in oppositionality as critique within a society structured by reproductive futurism. He argues that this oppositionality is the very circumstance that perpetuates futurity and what is needed is a complete deconstruction of this defining principle and an embrace of the death drive. Here the death drive is deployed as a psychoanalytic tool to dismantle reproductive futurism as a contingent ideological construct. The real strategic value of queerness is in the resistance to the symbolic reality that marginalises queerness, rendering queer subjects as ones that are only ever hanging on by a thread.30 Edelman suggests that we must remove queerness from any pre-existing political framework that attends to the future. However, the refusal of reproductive futurism does not automatically produce an alternative utopian politics, instead it theorises a framework for the queer body outside of the dominant logic and temporality of heteronormativity.
On Venus alludes to this idea of anti-futurity,registering the queer and trans body through the death drive by acknowledging a cosmic terminality beyond bodily experience where temporal and spatial dimensions are prioritised for othered subjects. Staff’s project doesn’t necessarily argue against a future; instead, On Venus produces a space where futurity is no longer a privileged and sustained attachment for living, and where this futurity is inextricably embedded within capitalism. On Venus induces a feeling of planetary dysphoria, a palpable dread for the future: chemicals and fluids are quite literally secreting their revenge into the gallery. It is constructed as a warning; by abandoning Earth’s temporality and futurity, it negates authoritative models of hope.
Staff attends to how politics renders bodies expendable, and to the fact that futurity is an inherently exclusionary process. On Venus is not a reparative project — the project does not present us with a vision of utopia. Rather, Staff’s work exhibits a dysphoria towards progress. Sarah Ensor’s essay ‘Terminal Regions: Queer Ecocriticism at the End’ (2016) suggests that what is required in current times is a complete restructuring of how we approach the planet and each other, knowing that terminality is always on the horizon.31 Like queerness itself, terminality yields an important alternative to normative family structures, normative identificatory paradigms and normative modes of temporal unfolding.
Serpentine Galleries, London, serpentinegalleries.org/whats-on/ patrick-staff-venus/.