michael j. morris


courageous appearance

I sat down this afternoon at the local cafe and started to write about gratitude, specifically gratitude for the array of public figures that bring diversity to the public sphere, specifically folks who identify their genders in ways that do not conform neatly—or at all—to clear, discrete binaries of masculine/feminine or male/female. I am grateful for so many folks: musical performers like Justin Vivian Bond and Antony Hegarty, porn performers like Jiz Lee, Drew Deveaux, James Darling and a whole community of queer/trans/genderqueer porn performers who I admire, burlesque performers like Eileen Galvin, scholars like Eva Hayward and Susan Stryker and the whole trans studies initiative at Arizona State, people like Jack Halberstam, public figures like Kate Bornstein, Carmen Carerra, and Laverne Cox. People in academia and different modes of public performance who are actively reshaping how we see and think about gender and sex.

And then my thoughts on gratitude drifted, and I found myself scribbling out thoughts on appearance, recognition, vulnerability, and courage. It is not a formal essay, but the start of some thoughts. Not the start, actually, because this thinking follows closely so much that I’ve learned from Judith Butler, Hannah Arendt, Bobby Noble, Shine Louise Houston, and Brené Brown, among others. I won’t be offering formal citations in these scribbled thought, but they are certainly indebted, built with and from the work that each of these people have done:

The space of appearance is fundamentally a social space: to appear is to appear for someone or someones, to be made available for others, with others, and to be apprehended within that availability. Society and social norms then come to condition that space of appearance, structuring how it is that bodies and people can appear, can be made to appear, can be made not to appear, can be made to disappear. To appear in ways that do not conform to such such—or refuse to conform to such norms—is to insist on a different social space, a different society that depends/relies upon different structures of visibility and recognition. Dissident appearances or appearances that dissent from the dominant norms exert force on such norms to adjust, adapt, and make space for appearing otherwise; for such norms to make space, the society that enacts—or is enacted by—such norms must become otherwise as well.

Of course, it is possible that such insistence will be intolerable, will not be tolerated, and will be punished or eliminated in order to maintain the existing norms that regulate who can be visible, who can appear, who can be recognized, and how. This maintenance can take any number of forms: subtle social pressures and insidious coercions, self-policing that takes the place of the policing of behavior that we have experienced or that we have witnessed, a look or posture from an other that registers one’s unintelligibility—a stare that communicates that you are seen and apprehended as incoherent, or even unapprehendable because of one’s incoherence; it can take the form of harassment or threats of violence; it is possible that one’s appearance will render one invisible, a kind of invisibility that accumulates in a space from which people avert their eyes, away from which people turn.

To not appear in ways that align with the norms that condition and regulate the social space of appearance—norms organized according to sex, gender, race, ability, and any number of other dimensions, indeed, norms of appearance that in part shape what is understood as sex, as gender, as race, as an able or disabled body—is always a risk. It is to risk invisibility, incoherence, discrimination, harassment, and violence; it is to risk the compromised sense of self that can result from any encounter with another in which the self that one appears to be is reflected back to that self as invisible, incoherent, or the cause for discrimination, harassment, and violence. And to not appear in ways that align with such conditioning norms must not be figured as always a choice, as if those who do not appear or appear incoherently, or whose appearance results in harassment or violence, could be said to have chosen such an existence, or to have chosen otherwise, as if such person could have chosen to conform to the social expectations for appearance. This is not, or even often, the case.

And yet, whether dissident appearance is or is not chosen, it is courageous. It is courageous because it is a risk, and the stakes of the risk are certain unavoidable vulnerability that make up what it is to be embodied with-and-in a world of others. To be is to be among others, and to be among others it to be physically exposed to them, to their words, to their gaze, to their touch, whether their words or looks or touches are caring or abusive. We are all [and here “we” and “all” are not only human] exposed to one another in any number of ways, and that exposure constitutes both the risk and the requirement of social existence. It is because of our shared vulnerabilities that we are already given over to one another; we require one another’s care, one another’s protection, one another’s assistance, one another’s nonviolence. Butler writes that we are already obligated to nonviolent coexistence because of this pervasive exposure and shared vulnerability. And all that we require from one another depends first on our having been recognized by an other.

When recognition requires appearance, and when appearance is regulated by exclusionary norms such that it becomes possible to not appear or to appear in such a way that renders one unrecognizable, or to appear as such an aberration of the norms of appearance that one is made into a target of violence, appearance then carries the risk of misrecognition or not being recognized or recognizable, making appearance a question of survival and livability.

These are common vulnerabilities, the risks that accompany appearance and recognition for everyone. But these vulnerabilities are taken for granted, overlooked, or even repressed when appearance closely approximates the normative expectations that enable and constrain recognizability. When society appears in ways that are homogenous and consistent, when those who appear maintain the effect of norms as natural, the stakes or cost of appearance are less apparent. When how one appears is how one must appear in order to be recognizable, the risk/cost of appearing otherwise cannot be obvious.

Thus, to appear in ways that resist or do not align with such norms is not courageous only because to do so exposes one to vulnerabilities; rather it is courageous because it exposes those vulnerabilities that might otherwise remain unappreciable, precisely when doing so also risks some degree of duress or suffering.

And: such appearances are also courageous because in the face of this all, they insist on the possibility—and livability—of such appearances. They insist on a society or social existence in which it is possible to appear and to be recognized in ways that exceed the available norms—of sex, gender, race, or ability. If such appearances or recognitions are to become possible, intelligible, even in their incoherence, it will be only because of the pressures exerted on the norms of appearance by those who appear otherwise, who courageously insist on public visibility.

Today I am grateful for the world that is given to me by those who insist on appearing otherwise.

Afterthought: Although dissident appearance is not always a choice, it can be a choice, a courageous choice, to appear otherwise. To produce more incoherence within available norms. To dress or present oneself in ways that do not confirm the expectations of one’s given sex or gender, to explore more diverse performances of self, more unexpected styles of movement and behaviors, to try out fashions or looks that introduce more diversity into the social space of appearance. To wear things that other than how they were intended to be worn. To wear clothes made by designers who are pursuing design into unexpected places, designs that reshape how we look at bodies, that reveal bodies differently. To make choices about one’s appearance—hair, make-up, no make-up, shaving, not shaving, tattoos, piercings, other surgical interventions, how you carry yourself, how you take up space—in ways that are intentional, thoughtful, and resistant to what you feel like you should do. I am not saying that these strategies alone are what makes or unmakes bodies, sexes, genders, races, etc., but I am suggesting that the more difference that we introduce to the social space of appearance, the more difference that social space will be expected to absorb and make space for. These are small activisms that are available to all of us, in our presentation of self, our production of self, and our production of the shared spaces in which we live.

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MIKE: an exhibition featuring No Place Studios

Last night I had the opportunity to see a new exhibit at The Gallery at Till Dynamic Fare. I love this space. I’ve see exceptional performances in this space—such as Leigh Lotocki and Noelle Chun’s Hold Swayand participated in community events hosted by Till—namely the ongoing activities of the Peach District, such as last June’s Peach District Classic, an all day party featuring a spectacular line-up of live performance where I performed in a dance worked conceived of by Zachariah Baird and Sharon Udo, and this year’s Noble Peach Awards, an award show honoring members of the Columbus community who might otherwise escape notice, where I had the honor of presenting Eileen Galvin with the award for Biggest Genderfuck. This space is already special to me, and “MIKE: an exhibition featuring No Place Studios” adds even more significance to this list.

“MIKE” is the first exhibition presenting the work of No Place Studios. These nine artists graduated from Columbus College of Art and Design in 2012, and established the studio based on friendship, rebellion, and a shared drive to create contemporary art in Columbus. This introductory exhibition of No Place Studios coincides with a kicking off of exhibitions and arts events this season at the re-instated gallery inside Till dynamic fare. This exhibit was organized by Leigh Lotocki, adding to the list great work that Leigh has done in this city.

I didn’t think I would have time to write about this show, but when I continue to be struck by work that I’ve seen a day later, I don’t know how to not respond to it in writing. There’s a lot of good work in this show, but there were several pieces that specifically captured my attention:

The first is entitled “We’re going on vacation” by Erin McKenna (2013).

McKenna_1

Erin McKenna
we’re going on vacation
2013
altered pieces of hot tub, glitter, flocking, sculptamold, expanding foam, acrylic paint, enamel paint, vinyl, bowling ball

Erin McKenna we're going on vacation 2013 altered pieces of hot tub, glitter, flocking, sculptamold, expanding foam, acrylic paint, enamel paint, vinyl, bowling ball

Erin McKenna
we’re going on vacation
2013
altered pieces of hot tub, glitter, flocking, sculptamold, expanding foam, acrylic paint, enamel paint, vinyl, bowling ball

Erin McKenna we're going on vacation 2013 detail

Erin McKenna
we’re going on vacation
2013
detail

This work consists of five free standing sculptural pieces, each one a twisting topography of color, texture, scale, and luminosity, rough pinks and glittery silvers and shimmering blacks pushing against smooth, swirling teals and blues, resting on geometric puddles of highly reflective vinyl. I say resting, but these pieces don’t really rest; even stationary, they seem to turn, or rather they persistently insist that I move around them.

Constructed from altered pieces of a fiber glass hot tub, each form continually solicits my attention. As I approach it from one side, slivers and glimpses of another facet are reflected in the metallic vinyl. I am drawn around to another side by the hint and glint and glow of what I can see only partially, and once I come to this other side, the piece has changed. It is not the same shape from this side, and how its colors sit alongside one another has shifted. Here the black seems to leap out towards me between the pink and the silver. Here the beige of the fiberglass seems to wrap around and embrace the collision of pink and silver. Here the swirled acrylic blues and teals seem to wash up onto a hot glittering pink coast. Here the light is refracted differently, the shimmering glittery surfaces fragmenting the light from above into billions of twinkling points that are then caught and blurred and reflected by the metallic surface above which it sparkles. As I follow the play of light across these multiple twisting surfaces, I realize that I’m moving again, crouching to see how the piece seems to be glowing from underneath, leaning to see what else comes into view just around the curve of its side, stepping forward the see the full fragment framed by the glow from beneath. These objects are choreographing me, in a sense. It’s an indeterminate choreography, or maybe a joint improvisation, a score of movement given by the parameters of the piece. I keep moving in order to keep seeing what else this piece is showing me.

This is not the only way that I feel my body implicated into this piece: there is the unavoidable recognition of the curving ergonomic surfaces of the hot tub from which these objects have been cut. I feel how these sloping ledges and crevices might have curved against my body, supporting my reclining and sitting—not to mention the lifestyle that might afford such leisure. Or maybe this actually must be mentioned: maybe the destruction of the hot tub, the reorientation of its surfaces and supports cannot be considered apart from the lifestyles for which it was designed. The wealthy. The vacationers. The middle class who just want to treat themselves to something nice. However else these surface might have been, they can no longer support such bodies in those ways, and to the degree that the ergonomics of these surfaces were materialized through their orientation towards the surfaces of such leisurely bodies, to see them as they are now—dismembered, manipulated—I feel my own body differently as well. It’s subtle. I don’t feel myself going to pieces, but as I crouch and twist and lean and move along these surfaces with my sight, the body of mine that could press against these curves and slopes as they are now would not, could not, resemble the body for which they were initially designed.

I’m also interested in how the space gets drawn into the materials of the piece, not only in the play of light across the glitter and color and so on, but also how the room, the other art in the gallery, and the viewers get reflected in the sometimes hazy surface of the metallic vinyl. Each object seems to sit in the reflection of a distorted world, a world distorted in ways not dissimilar to the way that my body feels disrupted by the deconstruction of the shape(s) of the hot tub. I cannot tell you much about this world, except to say that it is made less familiar as it is brought into the looking-glass surfaces of McKenna’s work.

As each of these objects continues to disclose or offer more of itself to my attention, I am drawn in again and again by something like interest that bleeds into care. I am becoming invested in these objects, these materials, as they continue to unfold in my attention to them. I stay with them a little longer, and in doing so, I come to see more of them; in fact, my sense is that they come to show me more of themselves. There is something living, something almost ecological developing between us. Sustaining relations are in formation: the ongoing disclosure of the object sustains my attention. I cannot help but think that my attention, along with the attendance and attention of others gathered at this opening, sustains the circulation of these object, the production of such objects, the operation of this gallery space. Further, these relations between myself and these objects initiate and/or sustain other relations, such as social relations, the formation or sustainment of [this] community that has gathered in this space, in this neighborhood.

I have a similar experience with another work in the exhibit: James McDevitt-Stredney‘s “She was so cold to do so” (2013).

James McDevitt-Stredney She was so cold to do so 2013 oil, graphite, enamel on panel

James McDevitt-Stredney
She was so cold to do so
2013
oil, graphite, enamel on panel

This painting does something similar and different with me. Like McKenna’s sculptures, this piece continually draws me into seeing more of itself, more texture, more color, more detail. Rather than moving my body around the space, it draws my eyes over and over and around its surfaces. But the effect is distinct. Here I am drawn into subtle gradients that realize the complexity of what seemed simple on first encounter. For instance, when I first came to this piece, it seemed quite simply “a white painting” with some Cy Twombly-esque graphite doodles that could, from certain angles, suggest a form, with some thick streaks of white paint, and a cluster of hot bright spray paint near the top and off of center. But as my eyes move over its surface(s), I begin to see that this white is actually many whites, many viscosities, many strokes and strata, the accumulation of many actions. Many of these whites are not “pure” white, but rather contain streaks and strains of other colors, other contaminates that are somehow subsumed into what passes as white, but that eventually disclose their presence. Although the bright spots of enamel near the top—pink and orange and yellow bursting into one another—are the most pronounced intrusions of color into what might otherwise seem simply white, they merely mark the most extreme or the most intense of such intrusions. Indeed, as the more subtle spectrums of the painting disclose themselves—the lighter whites, the whites that are more beige, the flat and grey and pink whites—the intensity or extremity of these bright spots seems relatively diminished. They aren’t the only colors on an otherwise white and graphite surface; they are colors among other colors, perhaps the most flamboyant, but deviant only amongst other deviations. Similarly, what seems like an otherwise smooth topographic plane streaked by a few thick marks of white paint in a few places reveals itself to be much more textured, the thick streaks marking the highest “elevations” on a map of other markings. This is central to how I come to experience this piece, the ongoing disclosure of differences and diversity that were not initially visible to me, the rendering of what seems like extremes—white and color, flat and raised—into a spectrum of possibilities. It becomes something about the distribution of contamination, the impossibility of purity or singularity or even duality, the realization of multiplicity.

If I follow the thought process that I started above regarding the solicitation of attention as the constitution of almost ecological sustaining relations, then “She was so cold to do so” emphasizes the further recognition of difference as part of the establishment of such relations. I could almost call this effect queer: if we understand part of the function of “queer” to be the marking of otherwise unmarked possibilities, making feasible what might otherwise be impossible, establishing a spectrum where there was initially a binary, then I might articulate my experience of these pieces alongside one another as facilitating an experience of queer [ecological] relations, in ways that move and reorient my body, in ways that make visible the initially invisible spectrum of marks and surfaces, in ways the inspire my interest, attention, and care.

Needless to say, if you’re in Columbus, I hope you have an opportunity to see this show.
It will be on view from May 10-June 9.
The Gallery at Till Dynamic Fare is located at 247 King Ave, Columbus, Ohio 43201.
There will also be a party there after Gallery Hop, with live music and more snacks in the gallery on Saturday, June 1 from 8–11pm.