Organised by the monthly program Cinenova: Now Showing, interdisciplinary artist Staff will show the celebrated director and cinematographer Deville whose film explores epilepsy in a “magical realist portrayal of queer love” and a portrayal of the relationship between the carer and the cared for.
Cinenova is a feminist film organisation that focuses on contemporary moving image and the Now Showing program is working with its archive to re-present what is in the collection.
In addition to the screening, Staff will also present a text and video-in progress to prelude their coming solo show Weed Killer at Los Angeles’ MOCA in 2017 that looks at “illness and gender, and particularly the intersections of queer identity, cross-generational dialogue, and the fine line between states that both poison and nourish”.
The screening comes under the Outfest Platinum Section programme umbrella, and will show a range of short experimental film that dives into the “annals of queer archives to explore the present and future of queer bodies”. Films include the premiere of Staff’s exploration of queer intergenerational relationships through archival footage from the Tom of Finland Foundation and Kirchenbauer’s ‘YOU ARE BORING!’ (2015) deconstructing “normative ideas around the trans body”.
Read an aqnb review of a recent ‘COOL FOR YOU’ performance by the latter Berlin-based artist here.
Presented as a part of the gallery’s current performance programme, ‘The Performative Minute’, Tolmie and Staff have been working on ‘Litmus Shuffle’ for a while, at least since 2014. They describe it as a ‘choreographic collaboration’, which collects the by-products, detritus or excesses of a shared ‘life’ and ‘work’ along with the communication that forms it, examining its possible transformation into reusable material.
The work this time will be posited in the context of the Secret Surface exhibition, which each event of ‘The Performative Minute’ including niv Acosta’s performance ‘Clapback‘ has been curated in relation to.
Both artists push the form of art and what it can include into a realm of personal, unbecoming, unrealised —or unrealisable. In this way they embrace what they describe in the press release as ‘superficial exchange’ (emails, sending photos to each other on their phones) rather than avoid this material, because “revelations of identity-constructing may be observed as they unfold” in time and space.
The announcement for the exhibition opens with a quote from writer D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Chaos in Poetry’ essay, noting a person’s futile drive for order in life’s turmoil: “In [their] terror of chaos, [humanity] begins by putting up an umbrella between [themselves] and the everlasting chaos…”
Making a claim to going beyond an ‘occidental’ (see ‘Western’) world view, SECRET SURFACE presents the work of 20+ artists and collectives including Auto Italia, Trisha Baga, Anna Barham, Spiros Hadjidjanos, Lawrence Lek, Prem Sahib, Reena Spaulings, Philipp Timischl, Frances Stark and others, exploring “the location of experience itself, both in terms of subjectivity and towards the outer world.”
Curated by Ellen Blumenstein based on joint research with Catherine Wood, the exhibition will also include performances by artists already contributing works, as well as niv Acosta, Emily Roysdon, Patrick Staff, Cara Tolmie and more.
The Transformation Marathon is literally in full swing when I get there. As in, there are people on the stage, dancing along to swing music. This is the tail end of Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s ‘It Looks Very Chaotic but Somehow It Makes Sense’ presentation. The hip guys on stage aren’t actually dancing that convincingly; it brings back memories of a music video I watched a couple of years ago –a set, filled with bright young things, self-consciously 90s but contemporary, doing dad dancing well. This isn’t quite the same; a similar atmosphere of controlled exuberance, but styled by Cos rather than American Apparel, as it were, and the dancing isn’t so compelling. They freeze on command.
Having left Frieze Art Fairthe day before with a bad case of PTSD presenting as a crushing sense of existential angst that hasn’t yet fully worn off, I am not filled with optimism for the day. As they finish, a lady I assume must be Gonzalez-Foerstertells them they’re beautiful: “You are angels. You are my angels.”
Hans-Ulrich Obrist takes the stage after this –he’s compère for this section –and he looks frightening. Actually, having never seen him before, I rather think he looks exactly as I suspected he would. Black everything, most people here are wearing black everything, and long hair grown backwards from a bald spot –a wig, as it turns out, he’s in disguise. Obrist introduces Jimmie Durham, Abraham Cruzvillegasand Mark Godfrey. They converse, but the sound is still being adjusted and only bits of it get through. It’s quite a useful window, a moment to adjust to the sort of metaphysical-seeming space created by the endeavour of the marathon.
It’s a daunting thing to approach, 24-plus hours of solid talks and discussions (although I’m only here for five) and in a specifically designed space, Zaha Hadid’s pavilion, in Kensington Gardens, surrounded by embassy-luxury and clean, elegant buildings. The dissonance between this London and South, say, is actually very useful in snapping into the kind of tantric-engagement that this quantity of undiluted cultural-engagement requires.
The four men on-stage finish their conversation, and Obrist introduces Alice Rawsthorn, who takes over as compere so that he can go and change. Rawsthorn discusses design, its transformative power, and the strength of a designed identity. She introduces Gabriel Ann Maher, who has designed the stage, and they explore how gendered design can be. They discuss a project run by Maher that highlighted stark imbalances through information analysis, and break down the stats in a design magazine’s headlines and pictures to reveal that regardless of received wisdom/naïve hope, the playing field is still very far from even. They also tangentially explore the innate functionality of design (versus visual art), as Maher outlines its potential as connective tissue, a kind of solidifying bridge realising the conceptual in performativity.
Later, Obrist returns looking dressed for the event, rather than costumed like a B-Movie evil scientist. I realise a transformation has occurred. Before he introduces an extremely strong series of lectures that take us from 1300 through to 1600 hrs, he tells us a bit about the durational art-works that are happening throughout the marathon.
I have been looking around for Patrick Staff and Candice Lin’s piece, and I find half of it in the Transformation Marathon booklet. The other half is an offering, a baggy containing a smaller baggy and also a rolling paper. Too wide to be Rizla, if I had to guess a brand I’d go OCB. The paper is printed with an ouroboros, circled by a benzene ring. “The shape of the benzene molecule came to the scientist August Kekule through a trance vision he had of… a snake eating its tail. The mystical nature of science.”
“INHALE A FINE HORMONAL MIST” the OCB says. Transformation, here, comes in the consumption of the organic material supplied in the smaller baggy in the bigger one. Transform it how you want; eat it, make it into tea. Smoke it. Staff and Lin’s piece is called ‘Reading and Smoking’.
The project developed out of research into the actual, empirical transformative power of herbalist remedies, the powerful biological effects of naturally occurring and unadulterated biological materials. “What is ancient about herbalism and what is modern about gender transition?” the text asks. “What is modern about herbalism and what is ancient about transitioning?”
Samson Kambalu’s Doing Time is one of the other major art works of the day. Audience members are handcuffed together, Obrist calls it a spatial intervention, a physical drawing. It’s supposed to be inclusive; a means of realizing a physical network. Handcuffs, though, are always ugly. It’s hard to forget that their usual purpose is normally either unsavory or vulgar, sometimes both.
Aimee Meredith Cox converses with Adam Greenfield next. They’re fascinating, and this is the closest I see the day come to acknowledging the kind of liberal-utopian bubble that often surrounds well-meaning people in nice clothes. Cox has recently written a book, Shapeshifters, based on her long-term observation of young Black women in a Detroit homeless shelter. Her background is in professional dance, and she sees a kind of choreography at work in the complex social and survival mechanisms enacted by her objects. “Social choreography, as performed by the young Black women in [her] book,” she writes, “privileges and celebrates the instability and flexibility of identity in variously configured locations.”
In her text in the Transformation Marathon booklet, Cox draws parallels between the choreographer’s command to the dancer: “Stay in your body!” and the necessarily politicized self-occupation of the women in Detroit. “[They] stay in their bodies to rewrite the socially constructed meanings shackled to them… they are aware that if they rely on socially determined assessments to define their self-worth, they would be exiled from their own bodies and any home spaces they might establish for themselves –a state of eternal homelessness.” Cox expands on these notions of home in conversation with Greenfield, exploring bourgeois ideas of safety, reflecting that a safe community is defined as much, if not more, by who it excludes, as by who it contains.
They describe ‘smart citizens’, citizenship as belonging and personhood contingent on access to social structures. “The more privilege you have, the easier it is not to have that sense of connectedness”. They only describe the bubble, though, missing an opportunity to pop it. Rather, the discussion ends with a slightly dispiriting discussion of how it feels to have written a book, while I ponder the resonance of Cox or Greenfield’s phrase, “a rhetoric of openness.”
The Marathon changes gear, here, as Adrian Hon leads the themes away from the explicitly social, and into the web. Hon invented that app that makes you jog faster by synthesizing a zombie apocalypse over headphones, and his experiences in unconventional narrative give weight to his observations about the fundamental conservatism of storytelling and narrative form in the face of technological development. How will we cope with the intensity of what is around the corner, he wonders, when the arts have yet to succeed in capturing one-to-one communication in narrative –fictional cell phones are still unreliable –let alone one-to-many? He also talks about 4Chan, the notorious, anything-goes image board, which I’ve always been a bit too scared to go on; the way it destroys individual identity so utterly through its lack of avatars or handles that the individual transforms. Everyone can be everyone, or just one lonely nerd.
Gabriella Coleman also discusses 4Chan, its role in incubating hacker-cabal Anonymous and the ‘parasitical politics’ of the hacker. The genesis, Coleman says, was in Copyleft, the incredibly clever and subversive safeguard against the co-option or privatisation of freeware or public domain works. What she outlines seems like the most positive case I’ve heard for the capitalist realist rejection of explicit ideology –perhaps better termed as dogma –where digitised fluidity facilitates cooperation between cells; where being a vegan (her example) isn’t a prerequisite for participating in an action. As if to emphasise this point (although I still haven’t quite decided if perhaps it just undermines everything) she tells us that TOR, the anonymity-protecting online invisibility-cloak, is at least partially funded by the US government.
The Marathon transforms again, now, into a territory whose academic strength is reinforced with subjective/emotional experience. Juliet Jacques frames her discussion of transgender experience within a critique of the simplistic and sensationalist poles of the ‘before’ and ‘after’, rejecting the binary that belittles the deeply complex process of transitioning. She presents us with examples, images depicting only the most unreasonable of gendered extremes –bloke-y soldier becomes “Blond Beauty”–and describes how unhelpful and also inaccurate this reportage is. In the course of blogging her transition, Jacques says, she realised that it was simply too slow to provide a consistent narrative; that media’s salacious focus on physical transformation neglects the equally gradual and highly meaningful effect of transition on identity, the self.
Following Peter Wächler‘s reading from a new text, the Marathon changes tack again, as François Jullien is introduced. He’s a very important continental philosopher. Whilst introducing him, Obrist welcomes Gustav Metzger, an activist-art institution, which is exciting but I can’t see him and he doesn’t come on stage. Little portable radio sets are dished out, and Obrist tells us that Jullien is going to be giving his talk in French, and we ought to take one to listen to the interpreter if we don’t speak it. It’s very odd hearing French in one ear and English in the other –especially since the interpreter keeps an irregular rhythm. He’s obviously extremely good, as he keeps pace with Jullien throughout, but it definitely doesn’t help when it comes to understanding the lecture, which is about, I think in part, the differences between Taoist philosophy and Greek, how both are underpinned by different understandings of and relationships to time, and its transformative effects.
He makes a point about cumulative change; we don’t notice ourselves changing until one day we are suddenly old. He says that in Chinese language (I don’t think he specifies which –I assume it’s Mandarin though it could be all) there are no grammatical structures that express tense, that this reflects a fundamentally different approach to time. Of course it does. It’s a fascinating train of thought –where we are, how things are different if we can’t locate ourselves linguistically in relation to the past and future. Forever in the present, presumably. Seeing and engaging with transformation’s process, not pinned to the banal western binaries of Before and After. Before the Marathon it seemed long. After, I was tired. During, there were moments of illumination. **
See here for ‘Looking back at Transformation Marathon, p.2 (EST)’.
Combining footage shot at LA’s Tom of Finland Foundation, where the archives of gay icon and erotic artist Touko Laaksonen or Tom of Finland are held, with choreographed sequences shot in a constructed set, Staff’s The Foundation explores the intergenerational nature of queer relationships.
In a sense, the film is an homage not to Tom of Finland but to the communities that support him, the “ideas of intergenerational relationships and care”. Weaving his own story in with that of Tom of Finland and the community that dutifully upholds his legacy, Staff combines film with dance and performance to explore the life of a “younger trans person within a context dominated by the overtly masculine, male identity of an older generation”, using his wry humour – “Every cocksucker is well aware that the same man who puts on a badge to arrest him probably just gets his blowjobs at a different truck stop” – to poke at its social and political implications.
The Showroom‘s ongoing programme titled Communal Knowledge will be running at their London location from July 8 to August 16.
The programme was developed to facilitate long-term relationships with a range of local residents and groups through collaborations with designers and artists, and every year through three new commissions.