queering context


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I live in the in-between, within interstices, intervals bound by opposing ways of being. Much of my life has been spent in the academy at elite, private colleges. My institutional memberships have, in part, been in service to the pursuit of credibility, existential credibilitty. The academy bridges social classes with a professorate that is not necessarily part of the upper class, but is required by the upper class (and the middle and lower classes, too) to bestow a mantle of privilege on the next generation. As a "knowing" elite, academics are privileged by the ruling elite to transcend certain class standards. Given the specific area of my academic life, I have used that privilege to move between, among and across classes. This is no unqualified advantage. It doesn't guarantee trust. My positionality (or status as a moving target) is such that I may be marginalized for "knowing." An outcome of this tension is the implication of an academic class, which has been increasingly self-isolating. Certainly the notion of the monastic university is not new, but the movement toward self-contained, culturally specific academic life is well documented. The academy, too, has become a class-stratified institution. As an artist, my location within the academy has placed me in another interstice.

Being an academic, regardless of the contentions I've outlined, confers a kind of respectability. Being an artist conjures different social expectations. Modernist notions of the artist are drawn from histories of both performativity and containment. The notion of the "knowing seer," the mystic and the equally problematic idea of "talent" have been actively (re)produced by artists to differentiate themselves and establish relevance within a variety of contentious cultural contexts. Derivatively, these images have been manipulated to conjure images of sinfulness, madness, and fraud. Regardless of the possible, or even useful, truths that may or may not be contained within these notions of the artist, they provide pervasive cultural shorthand for identifying who I am. Therefore, the space between artist and academic establishes another interstice from which I work.

This first juxtaposition is a reflection of my public life, but the tensions I'm describing arent limited to the public sphere. In private life I perceive distinct areas of being that affect my processing of knowing. For example, I'm adopted. The pervasive understanding of family as a biological unit provides an understanding of one's place in the world and biology, under free market capitalism, replaces the economics of the self-sufficient family as the raison dÍtre of the family. Not being biologically connected to a family has allowed me to establish a sense of being that is oppositional to many of the concepts of family that inform our cultural life and has made me consider the nature of my place within the society.

Being queer establishes the final cultural landscape that stakes out the context of my art practice. Although there are other ways that I might have laid a foundation for this inquiry, queerness is essential because of our society's pathological fixation on the nature of homosexuality. As a queer man, I have no choice but to draw upon the ways that being queer in a homophobic society has established my way of being in the world. To describe this, I will use the idea of "being two things at once" as an organizing concept. It's a concept that, I believe, works equally well in any of the four interstices that I've established so far.

Much of our contemporary common sense is established through three centuries of Cartesian thought. Plainly stated, this allows us to think in binary oppositions and to mete out difference in clear ways. It's based, in part, on Rene Descarte's notion of the separation of body mind and spirit, allowing us to think of ourselves as compartmentalized beings. While theoretically useful, this vein of thought has pervasively established an understanding of human subjectivity that is disjointed. Indeed, in the academy, it gave rise to the notion of disciplinary thought, which has established a trajectory of increased and increasing specialization, hence leading to the objectification of experience. While some have countered this trend by pursuing interdisciplinary studies, often this trend simply looks at the intersection between two existing disciplines. While this point of intersection might reveal some interesting new ways of seeing things, the promise of inter-disciplinary thought, I believe lies in the space that exists between disciplines. Like being queer, this forces one to consider being two things at once. To destabilize the inevitable Cartesian reaction to this, I'll use the terrain of queerness rather than that of the academy or the arts to illustrate my point.

Although "queer" has been used to both degrade and valorize gays and lesbians, I don't use the term as a short hand for a variety of homosexual practices. Indeed, the term has been developed in contemporary queer theory as an inclusive term, embracing a variety of sexual, social, and theoretical practices with the intention of mapping a new terrain of thought. A good example of this is men who have sex with men. Although the practice of sexual contact between men is quickly named as "gay," many men who have sex with men lead ostensibly heterosexual lives, often are married with children and harbor no superficial indications of their sexual practice. Clearly, such men have not adopted the public identity of "gay" nor do they, necessarily, think of themselves in those terms. Yet, their behavior establishes them as existing outside of the definitions of heterosexuality or even bi-sexuality, which harbors its own political ideology and, too, requires some intentionally to be an effective identity. Similarly, men who identify as "gay" might, on occasion, find themselves having sexual encounters with women. In neither case, does the behavior re-orient their primary identity orientation, yet, the Cartesian construction of heterosexuality / homosexuality has no way of describing or categorizing their identities. Queer, although by no means necessarily adopted as an identity by people who live within these illustrations, provides a framework for investigating and understanding the experience of people who cross the various practices that are implied by and included in the heterosexual / homosexual binary. Indeed, the people who reside in these modalities have to rationalize a way of being two things at once. In short, it describes a disorientation of the norms established by binary categorizations.

As a gay man, who identifies as such and whose sexual practice is, more or less, contained within an understood definition of being gay, I also understand this process as a by-product of coming out. At some point in the conscious life of any self-identified gay man, there is a moment when one comes out to himself. Prior to this self-understanding, all gay men are raised to be heterosexual and learn the norms of heterosexual identity. Initiation into gay life happens in a variety of ways and one can chose to wear various gay emblems, however, if one identifies as "gay," one indeed establishes some alliance to an identity that is oppositional to the dominant system of sexuality. Because this opposition is essentially about power, it constructs a space that is at best contested and at worst threatens physical danger. Consequently, gay men learn to operate in both worlds -- sometimes simultaneously and often through a complicated process of code switching. Regardless, by necessity one learns and understands, either implicitly or explicitly, how to be straight when necessary and gay when one can.

These examples show how one develops strategies for thinking in two ways at once and to as WEB Debois establishes, in his explication of the African American experience, creates a double consciousness. While it would be easy to pathologize the examples and seek to define the injustice that creates them, I offer them for another reason. The necessity of living in such, if you will allow, inter-disciplinary way of knowing the world has some profound benefits.

So, what does this have to do with my art practice? More than that, what is the nature of art and how do I place myself within an understanding of that discourse? These are complicated questions and this line of reasoning is intended to situate my practice in my lived experience.

I am a painter, writer, photographer, and web designer who has undertaken these forms in an effort to engage my experience of being in the world. I am also a teacher, philosopher, and activist who uses these forms to engage my experience of being in the world. These descriptions, these labels sound clinical, cold and belie my on-going difficulty in understanding the dualism of my practice. The dualism, itself, is something that's defined externally to my experience. It is insidious and causes me to question whether I can trust my sense of synthesis. They bring into question the purpose and intentionality of my work and, by engaging a system of bracketing, seek to contain expansive thought through the application of traditional labels.

For example, I question whether, by virtue of constructing meaning on the Internet, I can call myself a digital, Internet performance artist with conceptual, interventionist tendencies or if I am, more simply, a painter who uses the web as a means to archive and document my work? Have I constructed a web site that is art or is it applied philosophy? Indeed, do my ideas about Interdisciplinarity demand that I refuse to answer these questions? Is there a space that I am creating that is between the traditional practice of painting and the rapidly codifying norms of the web? If this is true, what does it say about my relationship to the traditions of painting? Finally, if my oppositional definitions of the purpose of my work are to be embraced, what does this mean for the disciplinary pursuit of these forms? Does embracing the space between traditional disciplinary forms simply result in new disciplines or does it de-stabilize notions of disciplinary thought? Is the system of disciplinary thought too powerfully constructed to be destabilized? Can a radical disorientation help artists claim new terrain?

Peter DeBolla theorizes, and I agree, that painting "knows," and that when we ask what does the painting or sculpture, film, book, opera, et cetera "knows," we can get between the cognitive and affective dimensions of the work. By this I mean that we can establish the "in-between" and start to understand more than the paintings formalism and more than our immediate, visceral reaction to it. By seeking to understand what the painting "knows" we can develop a distinct and, therefore, not minimized experience of the aesthetic. While this is far from establishing an epistemology of aesthetics, it helps us to better understand the space in which the painting lives rather than simply the space that we (or others) wish to place the painting. Indeed, such an interrogation of our relationship to the painting allows us to create dialectic and forces us into a realization that meaning is constructed collaboratively.

In my studio practice, this is evident in the way that I develop iterative series of paintings. Often, I establish a theme or line of inquiry and follow those inquiries toward discernment. The act of painting, therefore, becomes a process of discovery and revelation. The artist Ann Hamilton describes it this way, "You work from what you know to what you dont know and you often only know what youre deciding not to do." She goes on to say that "Ones thinking all the time and all the fragments of thought form the landscape of your experience its out of this that the work emerges. Making is a way of extending yourself and making the world part of your body."

This line of thought is relevant to my practice in that I believe that the act of making is grounded in the physicality of the world and my embodiment in it. While I may begin an inquiry into a personal topic for example the biological father the truth of that inquiry reveals itself in ever-complicated ways. On the surface, the biological father project is about the nature of biological relationships between father and son. It started almost comically as a way for me to teach myself figurative painting through self-portraits. I knew that I wanted to make figurative paintings and was hesitant to ask people I know to sit for me because my skill and craft wasn't good enough to use their time well. It was suggested that I use myself as a model and build a body of self-portraits, but I was embarrassed at the prospect of painting myself on a repeated basis. The idea of painting portraits of my biological father, whom I have never met, became a convenient tool for distancing myself from the subject matter of my work. It allowed me to rationalize my nagging concerns about narcissism and to objectify myself by compartmentalizing my inquiry. Although this may seem to be a counter intuitive argument, the process of pursuing the narrative of the biological father started a process of unpacking the nuances of the subject matter. Indeed, the paintings are about biological relationships -- my metaphor is about the act of looking into another's eyes and seeing a reflection of one's self but also became more richly an investigation of the nature of relationships between fathers and sons. At some point, I realized that I was not the son in the paintings, as I had originally conceptualized the project, and that, indeed, I was the father. In this light the paintings explore my own relationship to paternity and the possibility of fatherhood.

Because the paintings unfold over time (both figuratively in their content and literally in their making), they provide a meditation on aging. This has allowed me to express some ideas about the emblems of developmental moments, the ways these can echo between generations. Such emblematic investigations have also made these paintings expressive of my perceptions of the construction (and deconstruction) of masculinity in our culture. Furthermore, bringing queer theory and my experience as a queer man into the work has allowed me to suggest the implicit and explicit homophobia (and by implication sexism) that informs contemporary father / son relationships.

A thread that ties my web based work and studio practice together is my tendency to think of my work in an iterative fashion. The idea of iteration has been made fashionable with the emergence of the Internet and my web-based practice necessarily calls this concept into question. Working on the web is to put oneself into a virtual space and certainly this defines another interstice in which I find myself.

Certainly, the web is a rich venue for developing audience. Its (theoretically) democratic nature makes one's ideas available to audience in a way that's less mediated than the economically driven art world. While it doesn't have the cache of the gallery or the museum, it does allow one to make one's work available to people who are curious and engaged in a discourse that is, I will argue, concerned with a reflective practice.

My experience on the web has led me to numerous engaged correspondences. Those with whom I have corresponded have approached my work and me on a variety of levels. Some certainly are personal concerned with establishing friendships and potentially romantic dalliances. What has been most intriguing to me is that the great majority of my correspondences have been interested in constructing meaning in a rigorous way.

The nature of corresponding on the web is different than correspondence at other historical moments. A semi-anonymous context (and correspondent) and a freedom of engagement (the freedom to say hard things without intimate consequence) define it. Unlike past modes of correspondence, even over great distance, which were characterized by relationship, referral or reputation, the correspondences that I've had via the web have been defined by loose and emerging understandings of identity. Indeed, many people with whom I've corresponded have "read" into my work and seen some facet or thread of thought that is of interest to them. Few have been captivated by the paintings, per se, and most have been concerned with what I might define as the gestalt of the site. Indeed, I might characterize all of my correspondents as being interested in constructing meaning around a specific dimension of my interests and preoccupations because they relate to preoccupations in their own life.

Of particular interest, because my painting and writing centrally deals with issues of identity, is the way that correspondents are part of rapidly growing Internet communities that are based around particular identity emblems or ways of knowing themselves. This is a potent reflection in that it allows one to think about the ways that a niche audience might be established for particularly groundbreaking work. Given the shame our society establishes toward the body especially bodies that don't, as Judith Butler might theorize, matter. Being a discrete medium, the Internet allows people to engage shame (also desire) in ways that would not be socially easy or possible in the physical world. This dimension of the web provides artists with a rich space in which groundbreaking meaning might be discursively constructed with audience. It is, perhaps, the next iteration of my site.

This has also convinced me that virtual space is also a rich terrain for dialogue and a venue for engaging those people who may not see themselves as part of existing academic or intellectual discourse. While there are certainly existing class boundaries that define the so-call citizens of the web, certainly all surfers do not construct their identity around the idea of being an intellectual. The medium allows them to engage ideas, however, and to bring to bear their power to construct meaning. It would be a mistake to draw a conclusion that this means the Internet is, de facto, a tool for empowerment, yet my Feirerean sense is that heightened conscience and consciousness might be a goal of the Internet artist. As a medium that offers affirmation for marginalized groups this is already becoming clear.

You might expect me to quote from my correspondences, to offer proof of my claims. Nope. It's an act of faith for you to believe and bait to inspire you to write -- to me or to others. It's an invitation. It's not an opportunity for voyuerism. This part of my practice is skewed from the gallery, skewed from traditional audience, this part of my practice is queer. It's made for correspondents and for me. Take that, art world!

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