The Strange Bedfellows exhibition catalogue, published by Root Division, is now available to view online.
You can purchase a hard copy here:
After an amazing exhibition at Root Division, Strange Bedfellows has begun it’s travel!
The SB crates arrived at Bucknell University’s Samek Gallery!
Strange Bedfellows will be running from:
September 23rd through December 12th, 2013
Join the FACEBOOK EVENT here
Can’t wait to see it in person!
Amos Mac is a contemporary trans-male photographer best known for Original Plumbing magazine, a self-published trans-male quarterly. Inspired by alternative queer magazines and a lack of positive exposure for the trans-male community, he partnered with friend Rocco Kayiatos to produce a publication to fill that gap. Original Plumbing, now in its fourth year of distribution, features Mac’s playful and often sexually suggestive portraits of FTM trans-men interwoven with articles and interviews in photo spreads styled after Teen Beat.
Mac continues his efforts to rupture notions of gender and the role of alternative publications with his serial project Translady Fanzine. Each issue of this publication features photo-pictorials of one trans–woman as its centerfold and artistic collaborator. The photos featured in Strange Bedfellows were created in collaboration with Juliana Huxtable LaDosha, and are a selection from what will be the second installation of Translady Fanzine.
LaDosha is a former employee of New York’s American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and member of New York’s infamous artist collective, House of LaDosha. Antonio Blair (“Dosha Devastation”) and Adam Radakovich (“Cunty Crawford LaDosha”) dually make up the musical phenomenon that is House of LaDosha, but the group also includes artists, writers and other creative individuals of diverse backgrounds, drawn together for the sense of family and community.
Juliana describes her taken names’s reference to The Cosby Show saying, “ If there was a queerdo, t– gurl Huxtable child who booped the black enterprise career track, generally did her own thing and maybe got cut off from the family funds for showing up to Spellman in a Bard look, I would be that child.”
In the two and a half years that she worked at the ACLU, LaDosha met a good deal of liberal racism and transphobia. In reaction to this and her decision to leave her position, LaDosha and Mac came together to create a series of photos reclaiming that space. In bold photos shown alongside her essay about the transphobia she faced in a “liberal” and “progressive” office setting, this project reclaims the commodification of trans bodies on the artist’s own terms.
I had the opportunity to discuss the project with Amos and Juliana, and learn more about their collaboration.
Amy Cancelmo: How did you meet, and how did your collaboration come to fruition?
Juliana Huxtable LaDosha: I knew about Amos far before he knew me from Original Plumbing. He was sort of a queer icon for me. Working with Amos was a dream come true. I tried not to literally gag when he first reached out to me.
Amos Mac: I’m in the process of making a living archive of portraits featuring a young generation of queer culture makers/artists/performers. I saw Juliana at a house party in Bushwick a couple of years ago and left the party kicking myself for not saying hi. The next day she added me on Facebook and pretty soon after that I asked if she’d let me photograph her.
AC: You two have worked together before on Amos’ Bedroom Series. What was different about this project, and what made it more of a collaboration?
JHLD: Our earlier projects were him photographing me in settings that were circumstantial. Although clearly I knew he was coming to my apartment to photograph me, the ultimate goal was to capture me as a subject in surroundings that would be there regardless of the presence of his camera to capture it.
AM: When I am going to shoot an artist in their space or out in a specific location, they know that I am going there with my own vision, to capture a particular moment. With collaborations, it’s about the bigger picture and seeing where we can go with an initial idea and what we can get away with. With the series I made with Zackary Drucker and Juliana, (Translady Fanzine) I approached them to make a larger body of work with me — I wanted them to be part of the bigger picture. I see these as separate projects, the specific collaborations vs. my own portrait series.
AC: So Translady Fanzine was the first “collaborative” photo shoot you worked on. Can you talk a little bit about that project, and your first iteration with Zachary Drucker?
AM: I knew Zackary, her films had played at OP events in LA more than once… and we were in the same world, you know? I emailed her, asking her if I could take portraits of her for a project that I would print into a periodical of some kind. The finished product was all to be determined at that point– but I knew I wanted it to be one trans woman and multiple “looks” or scenes. She responded to my email that she would love to “collaborate on performative photographs” with me. That was the first time I had heard a photo shoot called that! And it completely hit me and I got it immediately — It put the series in a whole new light and I realized how she was not just a subject but an artist herself, who wanted to create a body of work WITH me, not just allow me to use her body/presence in any way I saw fit through my lens. It opened my eyes– not only an artist but as a transgender person — and it has taught me more about trust between artists, and about ownership, visions and human connection.
AC: How did you two decide on shooting at the ACLU, and are there any funny stories about your time spent in there shooting?
JHLD: I’ve worked for two and a half years as a Legal Assistant for the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU. What began as my dream job eventually turned into something that I felt trapped in. It had less to do with the organization itself than the general trials and difficulties that come with transitioning in the larger 9-5 workforce. I felt restricted by the gap between the politics of people who, despite their best and most liberal intentions, saw me as a problem.
AM: Shooting at the ACLU was such an incredible option….. When Juliana and I were brainstorming about collaboration ideas, she brought up the issues she was having and feeling around her work place, and talked about quitting soon, and what she wanted to express. When the option of shooting within the ACLU after hours came up, it felt so perfect…. almost like a dream. I knew we had to get in there and shoot!
JHLD: Transphobia, liberal racism and the related slew of issues I faced became a dynamic I was clearly aware of, but couldn’t acknowledge at risk of seeming ‘complainy’ or further isolating the people who I had to spend 40+ hours of my week with. I felt the effects even more so given the ostensible ’cause’ and ‘purpose’ attached to the work I did. I reached a breaking point and decided I needed to take things in my own hands.
AM: I wanted her to reclaim that space before she left — it felt to me that she was being pushed out of a work environment that seemed less than humane around her experience as a trans woman.
AC: What was the shoot like?
AM: The first time we shot there was exhausting because my we got there late– maybe 11pm? That’s late for me to start working. My lighting assistant Mars was with us, and the three of us walked right through security loaded down with bags of Juliana’s clothing, possible “props” and my light kit.
AM: It was such a big deal downtown shiny corporate building. It really felt like we were getting away with something — like we were defiling this bland corporate space with our dirty artistic visions and beautiful clothing.
JHLD: To have him enter the workplace that I have a such a wounded attachment to is something profound for me. This space, which I associate with extreme feelings of discipline, internalized anxiety, doubt and fear, is transformed when I’m with Amos, who is able to create a space of solace and celebration for the parts of me that I would normally feel shamed away from displaying, exploring or performing there.
Ac: How did you two navigate “staging” each photo?
AM: Juliana did her own styling and costuming. She gave me a tour of the ACLU as soon as we got there, and I got to see the room options. We spoke briefly about each room, like, “okay this room would be incredible, look at these chairs!” or “how depressing” or “we definitely need to get you in the mail room.”
AC: Juliana, tell us a little about house of LaDosha.
JHLD: House of Ladosha is my family here. We support each other and uplift each other. There is of course cattiness, in-fighting and the occasional dramatic moment, but we all love each other and our work and lives are heavily influenced by the respective energies we put into the world. I spend Christmas and Thanksgiving and most holidays with the House, and they are who I turn to for advice, when I need to borrow money, etc. They represent the beauty of queerness in many ways, because we are each other’s family in the most real sense and I wouldn’t be able to really face the difficulty of the world If I didn’t have my sisters with me. I became a part of the family when I moved here on my own after graduating college. We bonded initially over dancing excessively, eating excessively and laughing excessively together – it’s been gravy since then.
AC: House of LaDosha is often talked about in relation to the film “Paris is Burning,” how do you see contemporary houses relating to that moment in history?
JHLD: The ballroom scene has grown in so many ways since that film, and I think the influence it had on all of us, largely as people moving from other parts of America, via our education, to New York, is a testament to the legacies and mythologies created by that community. I now call many of the current Labeija’s, for example, my cohorts and sisters in nightlife. It’s all a very complex, beautiful testament to the power of queer family and the power of queer cultural production.
AC: What is similar and different from defining a group of queers as a house, today, in a very assimilated queer popular culture?
JHLD: I think that the popular culture that might be called ‘queer’ really only relates to ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, and ‘trans’ as static categories. The ballroom scene is still largely marginal in the wider context of American popular culture, especially the elements related to trans* and gender variant identities (realness categories as an example). New York operates on its own terms, the bits and pieces that get out into the larger culture may linger, but most are ephemeral moments of sensationalism (the obsession with trans people on talk television is another example of this). So while it is very different to be in the place I am in today, I’m ultimately still an alien to the rest of the country and world.
AC: How do you see this collaboration playing into your solo work?
JHLD: When I collaborate with my house, I usually support other house member by dancing for them and occasionally writing something for them, but our real collaboration is in the relationships themselves, even if that doesn’t translate into a literal body of work. With Amos, the collaborative nature of our relationship (friendship) becomes the basis for a body of working – making literal the bonds that might not otherwise be so clear. Working with Amos has been so essential to my growth. His presence online feeds the world a new set of queer and trans icons and examples. Much of my following discovered me through him and I am so grateful to him for that.
AM: I really loved photographing her and getting to know her during and after the shoot. We kept in touch and have regular dinners, which consist of gossip and pop cultural critiques around transphobia in the media and other fun topics. With both Zackary and Juliana, I reached out to them about collaborating and wasn’t close with either of them at first. Through this collaborative process I feel that it’s created a friendship and a bond that wasn’t there before. It’s also something very special that feels cemented in time. Years from now I can look back of these photos and remember these moments in our lives and artistic careers.
More about AMOS MAC
Find out about THE WHOLE HOUSE EATS
Tina Takemoto and Angela Ellsworth met in 1991 while pursing graduate degrees at Rugters University. Within their first year of of school, they began performing together under the name Her/She Senses in projects exploring feminist and anti racist politics through absurd and often comedic performances.
When Angela was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma in 1993, they began a project called Imag(in)ed Malady. At this time, the artists were living in different cities, so in order to share the experience, and understand it more fully herself, Angela began sending Tina photos documenting the effects of treatment on her body. Tina began staging “rhyming” photographs of her own body in staged recreations of Angela’s photos.
The mirroring photographs began as a way for both artists to try to understand the confusing dynamics of a sick/well experience, but when Ellsworth’s cancer went into remission, the parameters of the project became unclear and Takemoto’s trauma manifested in physical harm to herself. In a photograph she intended to “rhyme” with Ellsworth’s blown veins from chemotherapy, Takemoto taped five matches to her arm and lit them one by one. The experience landed her in the emergency room, and complicated continuation of the project.
For Strange Bedfellows, Tina and Angela are revisiting this collaboration by presenting three of the “rhyming” photos, and two performance videos documenting the project. I had the chance to speak with them about Imag(in)ed Malady, and about the role collaboration has played in their individual practices.
Amy Cancelmo: How did you meet, how did you start working together?
Tina Takemoto: We met in 1991 in graduate school at Rutgers University, which had quite a feminist orientation at the time. We met as painters—somewhat closeted painters–since it seemed pretty unhip to engage in the male-dominated, unique-object-producing, genius-myth-generating practice of painting. I think we initially bonded over our bad-practice choice.
Angela Ellsworth: Within the first year, we started performing together under the name Her/She Senses (initially with Jennifer Parker). Eventually, Tina and I co-organized For-Play, a monthly live art event featuring time-based performances by students and local artists.
TT: In the early 1990s, Rutgers had a lot going on in terms of art, identity, and politics. The work of ACT-UP, the Women’s Action Coalition (WAC), and identity politics all informed our thinking at the time. Many of our mentors (including Martha Rosler, Joan Semmel, Emma Amos, and Geoffrey Hendricks) were challenging notions of representation and power as well as engaging in art as everyday life.
AE: I didn’t really think of what was happening as queer Fluxus. I would say that performance and queer politics were happening alongside feminist and activist art practices.
AC: Fluxus art is interesting to me in relation to the idea of “queer” art. In a sense, the concept of estrangement (ostranenie) that Brecht talked about is the making strange, the queering of everyday occurrence. Can you talk a little bit about where queerness or queering shows up in your work, and what that means to you?
AE: I like the idea of “queering the everyday.” In retrospect, I think our work was very queer, although I am not sure that we were totally conscious of it at the time.
TT: We knew that our work was feminist and anti-racist, but I think in our own lives we were still working though the multiplicities of our desires (for women, men, and each other) without the language of “queer” to help us navigate this terrain. Nevertheless, there was something very queer about Angela tap-dancing with Hostess Snowballs stuffed in her fishnet stockings or my committing chopstick hari-kiri in geisha drag.
AC: Collaborative practice, like Fluxus, intentionally positions itself in radical opposition to commodification, and traditional concepts of authorship and identity. Because you both work experimentally, identify as queer and work in performance, which is often associated with those conundrums as well, do you think it’s easier for you to work collaboratively?
AE: Since we met as painters, we were used to working alone. Collaborating in performance pulled us out of our solitary practice to navigate new ways of thinking about space and our bodies in relation to a live audience. In our collaborative work there is balance. We meet in the middle of where our more extreme parts reside. There is a trust in what we might not know. The more difficult parts are negotiating ideas, fabricating the props, and producing an elaborate installation for a two-hour piece. The easy part is the actual performance. I feel absolute trust once I start performing with Tina. It is where our most clear communications occur.
TT: I agree. For me, brainstorming with Angela is the most exciting, frustrating, and hilarious part of the process. We usually start with a set of ideas. For example, in Caffeine and Carotene, our point of departure was carrots, coffee, and medical equipment. Next, we spend hours developing ideas for gestures, actions, props and sets. Angela tends to focus on the overall visual impact guided by the philosophy that “more props + more materials = more fabulous!” I’m usually in charge of the nuts-and-bolts approach to making it all work within our limited budget and DIY aesthetic.
AC: Is it possible to ever be the single author of a piece?
AE: Most of my solo performance work involves other bodies, sometimes as many as 14 performers. Regardless of performing with other bodies, there are always many influences and supportive people around a production so single authorship seems like a strange notion. Single authorship is more for institutional needs and an outside desire to label something.
AC: Tell me a little about the beginnings of Imag(in)ed Malady, and how the rhyming photos began.
TT: When Angela was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, she was living to Phoenix, Arizona to be closer to her family and I was doing doctoral work in upstate New York. She started sending me stacks of photographs that she took at the hospital during various cancer treatments as well as at home as she noticed various changes with her body.
AE: In the beginning, I didn’t know anything about cancer or chemotherapy. I thought, “I’m going to be throwing up. I’m going to get really skinny, and I’m going to be bald.” The photographs were a way of visualizing the fact that illness was happening. It was as if I needed to prove even to myself that I was sick. There was something important about seeing myself in these images—seeing my body changing and thinking about what others might be seeing when they looked at me.
TT: After Angela started sending me these photographs, I started restaging her photographs using everyday objects on my body as a way of reimagining or “rhyming” her medical images. I was acutely aware that my pictures could never capture the gravity of her cancer experience. Instead I tried to create images that could resemble or mimic her scars or sores, but in a clearly makeshift manner that emphasized the impossibility of producing an “adequate” visual equivalent.
AE: When I saw the images I was really moved. We looked at our photographs side by side and we knew we were on to something. The act of sending these pictures to Tina felt really important. I wanted someone else to have responsibility for them. I wanted them to be out of my hands. The chemotherapy took away all of my energy. I felt flat. I felt like I had no creativity left in me. So I relied on Tina to carry the work. I knew I could pass something along, and Tina would add the spark to it and make it into something else.
AC: How would you define your relationship at that time? I know you were not romantically involved, but the intensity of your connection raises interesting questions about queer relationships not fitting into clearly defined categories.
AE: Tina was my connection to a creative practice and a world I was familiar with. Our collaboration was a key support system in my experience inside and outside a “sick” world. Although Tina and I were not lovers in a traditional sense, we were intimate and navigated a new form of love that was new to both of us. Although Tina lived across the US, she often visited me in Arizona and became the custodian for memories, artifacts, and exchanges within Her/She Senses. Tina encouraged actions that pushed the work beyond our intimate experience of illness towards other audiences. When we circulated our Visual Rhymes as postcards, we reached new audiences. New audiences included immediate family, uncles, cousins, hematology and oncology doctors, technicians at radiation clinics, and nurse practitioners who received our monthly mailings. Tina encouraged an artistic exchange around illness that was “a project.” Seeing what I was going through as a “project” positioned me in a place I understood. I didn’t have a solo practice during my illness. My energy was put into and kept up by the collaboration with Tina.
AC: I read the project Imag(in)ed Malady as an expression of empathy, both cognitive and emotional. The trauma of Angela’s illness obviously was affecting both of you in very intense and very different ways. Can you talk a little about the concept of empathy in relation to this project?
TT: Looking back, I would say that Imag(in)ed Malady offered a way of expressing empathy, trauma, and grief in a direct and indirect manner. There was a feeling of urgency around Angela’s illness. In an irrational way, I thought if the visual rhymes continued to be “good” and our performances continued to be successful then, of course, our work would lead to her health and recovery.
AE: Ultimately, I believe that making the images and performing together really did lead to my health. My experience with cancer was being heard and seen. It made it seem worthwhile because my experience became much more than just this awful personal ordeal that I was trying to endure. During that time, my relationship to my family was pretty strained and complicated. But in our collaboration, I was supported and I didn’t feel forgotten.
AC: I’m interested in the way that this project it brings to light the confusing dynamics of a sick/well experience, and how the dominance of one person’s needs in collaboration can be catastrophic. I read an interview in which you both talk about the benefits of your collaboration, and also the damaging effect that the end of the project had on Tina. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?
TT: Shortly after Angela got news that her cancer was in remission, she went on a trip to Italy. I was elated for her but also worried that she might get sick while she was away. This was before cell phones or email, and it was the first time we would be out of contact for many weeks. After she left the country, I couldn’t stop myself from imagining and generating the visual rhymes. The images in my head were becoming increasingly graphic and extreme. Ultimately, I ended up taping five matches to my right arm and burning them as an attempt to rhyme her blown veins from chemotherapy. I had to go to the emergency room and almost ended up in the psych ward. My first thought was, “Oh no, I totally screwed up. I really failed Angela and our project.” Thinking back, perhaps it makes sense that I had an emotional breakdown while we were out of touch. All my fear and anxiety over Angela’s illness and the possibility of losing her was always present and driving the work, but never could be openly acknowledged. Angela’s health and her physical distance gave me a space to experience the gravity of these emotions.
AE: I think that everything went haywire because there was too much focus on me. Even though the premise of our work was about the interrelationship between a person who is sick and a person who is well, we only focused on my experience of being sick. We were not addressing how it was affecting Tina. At the same time, there was a point where I just didn’t want to be sick anymore or always positioned in the sick role. I take responsibility for keeping myself in the “sick” role, but Tina also played a part. Even after my cancer was in remission, our work was being funded by grants and supported by publications. Also, it was some of the strongest work (or most recognized) work we had done up to that point. When Tina burned her arm it was complicated because we were performing work that focused on my illness and not her recent traumatic event. This was a disservice to her. The new “sick” event complicated our understanding of the project and confused our goals.
AC: Can you talk about this project in relation to other collaborative projects you have done together?
AE: After collaborating for a number of years, and working through illness in both of our lives, we had to remind each other that no one was forcing us to continue to collaborate or work on illness. When we hit a moment in the collaboration when stress started to override the invigorating and encouraging aspects of our collaboration, we had to address it. We decided to work on Miming the Masters, a series of campy art historical remakes that would revive our previous interest in humor and absurdity.
TT: In our homage to Bernini’s St Teresa of Avila in Ecstasy, Angela appears as the dazzling mystic singing “You Light Up My Life” as I plunge arrows into her strap-on heart while dressed as her orientalist angel.
AE: We continued working on this series for a number of years. Our intention was to have a trilogy, but we only completed two pieces. Perhaps we needed to start focusing more fully on our own projects.
AC: How would you say that the experience of Imag(in)ed Malady has influenced your individual work, or collaborations with other artists?
AE: We have a good balance in our collaboration. What I learned formally in the collaboration with Tina continues to resonate in my own work. I often hear Tina saying “Angela, that is too much” or “Do we really need that?” I hear her voice when I am creating solo work and am getting too baroque with my choices. The support within our collaborative work informed works I have produced involving large groups of people engaging and participating in a project. I learned about the possibility of bodies in motion as actions for change and support.
TT: It’s funny because I often have Angela’s voice in my head too. When I am putting together a performance I often wonder, “How would Angela visualize this piece?” “What would make it more fabulous and absurd?” When I can’t conjure up an answer, I usually just call her and ask.
AC: What are you working on now?
AE: Since 2008, I have been working on The Plural Wife Project which navigates issues of the body in relation to gender, sexuality, and cultural history of the western United States through sculptural objects and performance. The work is embedded in excavating my personal history to understand my queer identity as an extension of homosocial communities established by my ancestors. As a fourth-generation Mormon, my ancestors were some of the earliest Mormons to pioneer the west. They were prophets and poetesses who spoke in tongues, lived within the construct of polygamy, and practiced mystical aspects of Mormonism. Focusing on sister-wives as a point of departure for discussing contemporary issues around non-heteronormative relationships, I reimagine this community of women with their own visionary and revelatory powers, as they pioneer new personal histories.
TT: I am also working on a queer historical project. Looking for Jiro is a queer meditation on the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. As a fourth generation Japanese American, I grew up hearing family stories about camp, but no one ever mentioned the LGBT experience of imprisonment. My recent work is inspired by Jiro Onuma, a gay immigrant who worked in the prison mess hall and liked muscular men. How did this dandy gay Issei bachelor from San Francisco survive the isolation, humiliation, and homophobia of imprisonment? My project includes a queer musical mash-up video features drag king performance, U.S. propaganda footage, muscle building, and homoerotic bread making.
For more information on Imag(in)ed Malady see Tina Takemoto, “Love/Sick: A Conversation with Angela Ellsworth,” Theatre Survey 53: 1 (April 2012), pp. 105-114.
Adrienne Skye Roberts is an artist, activist, educator, writer and curator based in Oakland, California. Her practice expertly navigates the spaces between these disciplines exploring issues of class, race, gender, sexuality and gentrification in a variety of media. Her strategies of community engagement and political protest call to mind political actions implemented by groups like ACTUP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) and Gran Fury in the early days of the AIDS pandemic. Like many contemporary queer activists, her aim is to fight the oppression of all silenced populations. She is currently an active member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. (CCWP), and will present an installation based on this work for Strange Bedfellows.
The title of this new piece, “It is our duty to fight / It is our duty to win / We must love each other and protect each other / We have nothing to loose but our chains,” is based on an Assata Shakur chant that the CCWP says before and after most actions.
Hear audio of the chant below:
Adrienne collaborated with three fellow coalition members, and prison survivors, on an installation featuring hand painted signs and audio based on interviews and audio from the recent Chowchilla Freedom Rally which they organized together.
Amy Cancelmo: Tell us a little about the project you are working on for “Strange Bedfellows.”
Adrienne Skye Roberts: In this project I collaborate with three prison survivors and fellow members of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. I interviewed each person and asked them the following questions: How did you survive prison? What do you need to survive now that you are out of prison? And what does a world without mass incarceration look like? These interviews were then edited together into an audio track with additional audio from the Chowchilla Freedom Rally, a mass mobilization to protest the severe overcrowding at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, CA in January 2013, of which myself and these three CCWP members helped to organize.
I then pulled specific quotations from each interview and created hand drawn and painted protest signs. The text on these signs are fragmented answers to each of the three questions. They only tell part of the story of each prison survivor (the audio offers more of their stories). Together the collection of signs offer a more emotive and personal side of protest and our collective work against prisons and for the rights of prisoners.
AC: What is your involvement with the California Coalition of Women Prisoners?
ASR: I have been involved with CCWP for three years as a volunteer member. I wear many different hats in this organization. I am part of a visiting team that regularly visits our members who are locked up in the women’s prison in Chowchilla—many of whom are serving life sentences—and I work in the county jail as part of Fired Up! a weekly self-empowerment group where I also do legal advocacy and support for people who are pre-trial and their family members. As an organization we are involved in various campaigns, protests and coalition work for prisoners rights—these days we are focusing our energy on the overcrowding in the California state prisons, the abominable medical care and putting pressure on the Department of Corrections to release people through the various programs they have designed but haven’t implemented. We also do a lot of public events educating people about the prison system and I do a lot of unglamorous but necessary administrative work!
AC: How does political organizing interact with your art practice?
ASR: This is something I think I will forever be figuring out. I believe in artists as agents for social change and in that sense, there is very little distinction between my political organizing and my art practice. The artwork I do emerges directly from the political context I work in and communities I am a part of. Organizing and art making comes from the same place for me emotionally—the desire to effect systemic change, to build deep connections with people. When I was working in tenants rights my curatorial and writing practice focused on local responses to gentrification and redevelopment and so, this project is a natural extension of my organizing with CCWP.
In many ways organizing and art making are also very separate in my life. I don’t have any illusions about the limitations of art making. In other words, I will never be satisfied only making art about the issues I care about because at the end of the day no matter how successful a gallery show is or a poster series, art will not address the very tangible and basic needs of someone getting out of prison or a family who is facing eviction. Art has the ability to communicate what a protest or meeting may not be able to, it can shift consciousness and educate and lift up certain stories and voices and we need that—and we also need political pressure, policy change, direct services, funding and more support. Lately I’ve been trying to figure out how I can make work that functions both to shift consciousness and educate and also be used for long-term organizing goals.
AC: I’m really interested in how CCWP has recently used the phrase “Overcrowding = Death,” a nod perhaps to ActUp’s slogan “Silence = Death.” Do you see a connection between AIDS organizing, and/ or queer radical politics in general with prisoners rights?
ASR: It’s funny I never thought about the ACT UP slogan—even though I am super gay! “Overcrowding = Death” was part of the messaging we developed for the Chowchilla Freedom Rally which happened in January of this year and it is just the most accurate description of what is currently happening in California state prisons. Central California Women’s Facility is currently the most overcrowded prison in the state and as a result of these conditions the already horrific medical care is getting even worse and people’s lives are being threatened and three people have died in this prison alone.
CCWP was founded in a similar political moment back in 1995 when people incarcerated in this same prison filed a lawsuit against the state of California because the medical care was so bad it violated their 8th amendment rights. Some of the founders of CCWP on the inside were themselves HIV+ or living with AIDS—so there is a very obvious connection between these issues.
But I think there are less obvious connections, too. Prisons rely on a culture of silence—they are built on the silencing of certain people, the removal of those people from our communities, the silencing of dissent and the expectation that our voices will not be heard. In both the crisis of prisons and the AIDS crisis, silence becomes an instrument of a system that says some lives are more valuable than others. So, the organizing around both relies on breaking this silence.
I often say that organizing against prisons and for prisoner rights is like organizing in the belly of the beast. Prisons are places that make visible intersecting oppressions—racism, classism, transphobia, and so on. Being queer has made me aware of systems of power and privilege in relation to gender and sexuality and I feel fortunate to be given so many opportunities to push my consciousness beyond what is prescribed as a mainstream LGBTQ political agenda. Organizing from my queerness and my feminist politics, for that matter, means acknowledging this intersectionality and critiquing systems of power: patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism—all of which are the foundations of mass imprisonment. Prison abolition, like queerness, relies on imagining an entirely different world—and then not waiting for that world to be given to us, but working together to make it a reality.
AC: Tell me a little about your collaborators.
ASR: I collaborated with three people for this project—all of whom are survivors of prison and members of CCWP. I work with all of them in various capacities and as it goes in this work, they are family. Windy Click was released from prison in September 2012 after serving 17 years. She has been a member of CCWP for 10 years and an organizer inside and facilitator of many peer led groups. Windy was a core organizer of the Chowchilla Freedom Rally. Mary Campbell survived 5 years at CCWF (Central California Women’s Facility) and she is a member of the self-empowerment group at the county jail and we facilitate this group together. Misty Rojo is the current Program Coordinator at CCWP. She survived 10 years at CCWF and was a board member of the organization Justice NOW during her incarceration.
Hear an excerpt from Windy’s interview below:
Hear an excerpt from Misty’s interview below:
AC: Are you involved in other political causes?
ASR: Well, there are only so many hours in a day! Right now my energy is very focused on anti-prison organizing and supporting people inside. I have a background in housing and tenants rights and feminist youth organizing. I really believe that our movements are intersectional and related to each other—for example, people with unstable housing are more vulnerable to arrest, so organizing for housing justice has a direct impact on keeping people out of jails and prisons—the same could be said about immigration and education.
AC: Do you differentiate queer activism from other forms of social or political interventions?
ASR: I don’t personally differentiate or define my activism as queer or not—queerness is one of the many frameworks of my organizing and life. There certainly are actions that are more obvious queer like protesting San Francisco PRIDE’s refusal to name Bradley Manning as the Community Grand Marshal or protesting the Human Rights Coalition for their support of transphobic legislation. And there is a strong tendency to divide ourselves and compartmentalize our movements. But I think it is dangerous to develop political agendas that are only queer or one-dimensional. Our lives are more complicated than that and the injustices enacted on us are multi-faceted. We need complex approaches to address these problems and we need movements that allow for every aspect of ourselves to be acknowledged.
Speaking personally, I have learned and grown and felt more than I thought was possible in movements where I am acting in solidarity with people whose lived realities and experiences of oppression are different than my own and I am so grateful for this.
AC: What role do you see art playing in activism?
ASR: I ask so many artist-organizers this same question myself because I am desperate to know how people reconcile these things! I am indebted to Jeff Chang and Favianna Rodriguez who introduced me to the idea of cultural organizing; that culture and politics do not exist in a vacuum but actually influence each other. We need cultural organizers for so many reasons. Art provides another access point for many people who may not be inclined to attend a political meeting. Artists are storytellers and stories often speak to people more than statistics or a legislative analysis. Art facilitates healing. I also think artists are well trained in “thinking outside the box,” pulling resources and visioning and we need that energy in our political movements, we need artists to be at the table when decisions are made.
For this project there are overlapping goals—to tell the stories of three prison survivors in an effort to raise awareness about this reality, to create an audio track that can be used for various re-entry projects and funding for CCWP and to emphasize some spaciousness and visioning in this work. My art making isn’t necessarily a “break” from activism because the source is still the same but it feels so different.
AC: Do you think there is something inherently queer about collaboration?
ASR: In my definition of queer, yes. Queerness, as a critique of systems of power, speaks back to the capitalist fantasy of the individualist and everything we are taught about isolating ourselves in our work or our nuclear family or when we need help the most. This is opposite of what so many of us—queers, radical thinkers, many marginalized communities—know to be true: that we rely on each other, that we need each other every step of the way for our survival, our resistance and our joy. This is my experience as an organizer, as a queer person, and as an artist. And it isn’t always easy—collectives are hard work, building community takes time and collaboration requires a lot of flexibility and humility but I wouldn’t want to live any other way.
Chris Vargas and Greg Youmans, have been working on their collaborative video series Falling in Love With Chris and Greg since 2006. In short episodes and “specials,” Chris and Greg “play” themselves, in a queer(er) Odd Couple style sitcom screened online, at film festivals and in gallery settings. With just enough coded references, DIY aesthetic and awkward pauses to keep it campy, Vargas and Youmans take on both personal and political queer experience in intelligent and critical comedy.
Through generous grant funding from the Queer Cultural Center, Strange Bedfellows is able to commission a new video from Chris & Greg investigating their collaborative practice for the show.
Amy Cancelmo: How did you two meet, and what inspired you to make work together?
Chris Vargas: We met at UC Santa Cruz. Greg was my T.A. (teacher’s assistant) for a film theory class I took there while finishing my undergrad degree. I graduated from the Film & Digital Media department there in 2006. We didn’t start dating for a year and a half after I graduated, so there was nothing illicit happening when we were student/teacher but I wished there were. I had a major crush on Greg since the first time I met him. I remember going to a party he had at his house and straddling him and punching him in the chest, that was the way I said “Goodbye and I like you” in my younger days.
Greg Youmans: We are the same age! I swear: nothing illicit or improper. And we waited until well after the class ended before pursuing anything. Chris was also in a relationship at that time, and I refused to be “the other woman.”
AC: Since then you’ve made one and a half seasons (four full episodes and four shorts) of a sitcom based on this relationship. How do you generate ideas for Falling in Love…with Chris & Greg, and what does your working process look like?
CV: In the first year of the project we made videos really really fast. We made 3 in one year; now we’re averaging 1-1.5 a year. Issues would come up in our actual relationship and because we were still in the energetic limerence phase, we made videos about those issues. Our first videos were about open relationships, gay marriage, pregnant transgender men, and Prop 8. These were all things that were happening in and around our own relationship and in pop culture, and the videos just made themselves. Or at least that’s what it feels like looking back. It was really fun and easy. Now it feels much slower and harder.
GY: Well, from my perspective, I think it was more that we hit a wall with the framework of the project. It’s a strongly generic, odd-couple format (or at least it’s supposed to be). This means that we play polarized halves of a couple, and my character is the cisgendered gay-liberal half to Chris’s transgendered queer-radical half. We couldn’t keep making episodes where my character perpetually fails to understand Chris’s embodiment and gender identity; same with the politics. The series was set up, like TV sitcoms, so that we would perpetually have tensions around our relationship and politics but neither of us would ever change or learn. It’s a limiting framework in a lot of ways, which is why we keep breaking the frame and making episodes with “Special” in the title—as a way to tweak the recipe. On the other hand, it’s a really generative framework: it’s like we can drop any topic or issue into the odd-couple dynamic and come up with something interesting. One thing that’s come up though is that I have a lot more difficulty playing “myself” than Chris does, because my character runs the spectrum from cluelessly pathetic to shrewdly manipulative throughout the project. But he’s not yet been, say, smart, or generous, or kind.
AC: Do you have intentions of changing that in the work? Is this going to be one of the issues addressed in piece you’re making for Strange Bedfellows?
GY: It’s been really hard for us to come up with what we’re going to do for Strange Bedfellows, largely because we do want to change those dynamics in the project. To help us figure out what to make for the show, we had a session with our amazing friend Beth Pickens, an experienced arts administrator and a trained therapist who works mainly with artists. She works with them on grant writing and professional development but also with counseling. We asked her to do a session with us, a sort of collaborators’ couple therapy. A lot came up, much of which Chris and I knew were tensions between us. It turns out though that I’m more ambivalent than I realized about continuing the project. In part because my character feels so boxed in, in the ways I just mentioned. But also because I’m feeling a need to branch out on my own instead of always investing my creative energies in this project.
This has all put a lot of pressure on us when it comes to the piece we’ll make for your show. Will it be the last video we make in the series? If so, how will we reach closure with it? And, regardless of whether it’s the final video, how will we stay true to the generic framework of the project while also allowing our characters room to grow and change?
CV: Playing with the idea of gay collaboration, we thought first of making a video in which we perform as the members of Wham!: George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley. That collaboration resonates with us in a lot of ways, though it’s also too lopsided because it’s seldom remembered as a balanced pairing of talent. Then we thought about recreating Marina Abramovic & Ulay’s break-up walk along the span of the Great Wall of China, but maybe the world doesn’t need another piece inspired by Marina Abramovic right now. So finally, we decided to make a piece inspired by Siegfried and Roy, with our cat Holiday in the role of Montecore.
AC: Why Siegfried and Roy?
GY: I saw an IMAX film about them a long time ago (well before the incident that ended their show) and in it Siegfried said, “I’m the magician; Roy’s the magic.” I thought that was so sweet. It’s stayed with me for a long time and I often mull it over thinking about what exactly he meant.
AC: Siegfried and Roy aren’t the first queer “historical” figures you’ve referenced in your work.
GY: It’s a nice way our interests come together, even though Falling in Love is not ostensibly about history. I work as a scholar on queer history, especially film and activist histories of the Bay Area. And Chris has made a lot of solo videos that mine queer history. We both look for ways to approach history respectfully but creatively, so not always “objectively.” And we both love queer elders.
AC: In your recent “Special Holiday Message,” you reference The Cockettes’ New York City tour with Sylvester. At the very end, Chris says, “The only way for queer art to advance is if we stick together in our tired mediocrity.” I laughed really, really hard at this statement—mostly because it represents a mindset and reality in queer art that is thankfully becoming outdated. Without naming names and calling out bad queer art, how do you feel that contemporary queer artists can get out of this cycle of mediocrity?
CV: I had a few experiences early on when I first arrived in the Bay Area when realized that the culture of inclusion made for some really bad art, specifically performance. I remember feeling really disappointed by the shoddy production values. I remember thinking that I loved the raggedy aesthetics but that I wished people rehearsed and tightened up a little bit more. That said, I really do appreciate that people resist a polished commercial-gallery aesthetic. And while I’m critical of it, ultimately I’m glad it exists. After all, I’ve been guilty of every characteristic that I am critical of regarding this subject.
GY: I’m really torn about it. If good art is slick, art-world-ready art, then I side with the Cockettes, which is the position I inhabit in that video. There’s a community ethos behind that ragtag queer art that is being squeezed out by the gentrifying city and the careerist pressures put on everyone as we all struggle to build our careers as “independent” artists, scholars, and curators without any real institutional support or job security. Also, there’s a lot of amazing ragtag queer art being made in San Francisco right now. I just wrote about it for the April issue of e-flux.
AC: You seem to make it work though, making art and balancing living in this expensive city. You both work in academia. How has teaching helped or hindered your projects?
GY: I earned my PhD a few years ago and have been adjuncting for a while now. I have a somewhat troubled relationship with academia, and that was true even before I became an exploited temp worker and got my front-row seat to how broken the system is. We began the project when I was still in grad school, and for me it was a way to speak in a different voice than the reserved, scholarly one I was being trained in. There’s very little room for first-person voice, irreverence, or humor in academia, even though these are vital sites of learning. I was recently at a dinner where an academic said that she waited until she had tenure before taking the risk of using first-person narration in an essay. I’m not a person who would be able to wait until then, even if I were on the tenure track.
CV: I am doing adjunct teaching at California College of the Arts, a private arts school in Oakland & SF. It’s even more precarious than Greg’s situation. I am on a semester-by-semester contract and part-time, so I get paid very little, and I have no health benefits and no job security. But just to play into the cliché of the selfless, ever-devoted educator, I like the job and I like the students so I’m staying on this track as long as I can. Also, the job title offers me legitimacy as an artist, when I usually just feel like a faker.
AC: For Strange Bedfellows, we are obviously presenting this work in a gallery setting, but your work is also available online for anyone to see. Can you speak a little about authorship, accessibility, and commodity as it relates to your collaborative project, and to your individual works?
GY: We make our work for a niche audience, really for anyone who finds it and appreciates it. That’s something the internet enables. We put our work online, first on YouTube and now on Vimeo, but that doesn’t make it a mass-media project even if potentially it could reach a mass audience, as I guess anything online could…“potentially.” People find our series through their friends’ recommendations, and it’s great to realize that trans and non-trans queer people from all over have seen it, many of whom we’d never meet otherwise.
Film festivals are another place the project screens. I love festivals because they are spaces to experience collective viewing. But I also think that their political, affirming, and identity-constructing function within queer culture is largely something of the past. They are not vital in the way they used to be, not four-plus decades after queer liberation and deep into the internet age.
And then art venues, the third place we screen our work, are a different beast altogether. When I think about the art world, I don’t think about reaching an audience of queer people that might benefit from seeing our relationship onscreen or hearing us engage with the issues we bring up. I don’t even picture that audience coming into such settings. And yet, our most recent two pieces, “Work of Art!” and the “Holiday Special,” are all about the art world. Clearly we’ve been grappling with this particular venue as a site of professionalization.
AC: You both have active individual projects outside of this collaboration. What are you working on now?
CV: I’m working on a new project called MOTHA—Museum of Transgender Hirstory & Art. It’s a fictional museum project that will take the form of temporary autonomous events, including performances, exhibitions, panel discussions, public programs, membership openings, ribbon cuttings, and other occasions that will signal the existence of a legitimate and legitimizing arts and history institution. The project calls into existence a cohesive visual history of transgender culture and, in doing so, it asks us to think critically about what that would look like, how it should be organized, and if it is even possible to compile the history of an identity category that is still so relatively new and contested.
I am hosting a members and donors reception this May at ArtPad SF (San Francisco Art Fair) on May 18th at the Phoenix Hotel. Then on June 21st I’ll host a ribbon-cutting launch party for MOTHA at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, where I’m currently the Community Engagement artist in residence.
GY: I’ve been doing a lot of writing. I’ve also been working on a series of publications and public events around important but lesser known figures from the queer past, under the rubric Queer Are You Going, Queer Have You Been. Right now I’m putting together a literary event in memory of poet and revolutionary Tede Matthews, who lived in San Francisco from the mid-1970s until his death from AIDS in 1993. It will be held on June 6 as part of Queer Arts Festival and will feature readings and recollections by a number of important writers, poets, and activists who knew Tede during his lifetime.
AC: Is balancing working together and maintaining autonomy in your art and research important to you and does it ever become an area of conflict?
CV: I don’t have a hard time balancing my collaborations and the work I do individually. It seems like for years now I’ve worked on several simultaneous projects. Maybe in the beginning it was a challenge to have so many loose threads existing at once, instead of working on one project at a time, then completing it and moving on. At some point I realized that’s not how it’s going to play out and I found peace in it, used it to maintain momentum, and learned to appreciate the pace that is required to sustain energy on multiple projects at once. For example, I’ve been working on a feature-length movie with Eric Stanley, Criminal Queers, for almost 6 years now, and as you can imagine that is a much slower process than Falling In Love… and the many solo videos I’ve made concurrently.
GY: I have a horrible time balancing everything! But I’m working on it.
AC: The concept of failure has been a theme in your work, and I have seen interviews where you discuss trying to present an alternative to the “It Gets Better”/Glee culture that presents queer relationships as perfect, easy, or put up on unreasonable pedestals. How do you think your project contradicts mainstream presentation of queer relationships?
GY: When we started the project we were trying to get away from a few dominant narratives in queer filmmaking: one was the earnest trans video, which I know Chris was trying to create an alternative to, and the other was the glorious gay romcom. At the same time, people behaving badly in comedy has a long, long history, so we weren’t working in a void. We like to bring tensions to the surface though, like transphobia in progressive gay circles, which we’ve dealt with in a lot of the videos. And I guess we are more interested in presenting a bad gay relationship than a good one—or at least we have been until now.
One crazy thing about a serial, relationship-based project like ours is that the only real, true failure at its core would be our breaking up. So every video we make, no matter how much failure we weave into it—in terms of behaving badly toward each other, miscommunicating, being unsupportive, etc.—if we’re still together at the end of it all, many people will read it as being about success, not failure. And maybe it is.
AC: What would you say has been the biggest failure in your artistic collaboration?
CV: Division of labor issues and lighting. After our third full episode, “Food!”, we hit a wall. That one took a year to make and every shoot felt so difficult to coordinate and do. At that time Greg was still doing all the editing which is probably the most tedious part of making the videos and he was getting really resentful. Initially, he did all the editing because he wanted to learn the software but then he did and excelled far beyond my own knowledge and was mad that he was still doing all of it. It’s true, editing is a thankless job. So, the way he saw it, he was just sitting in a dark room in front of a computer monitor killing his eye health, growing increasingly more isolated and unappreciated, while I was out in the world getting showered with fame and recognition. It wasn’t like that exactly, but it drove a wedge between us and we ended up in a McDonalds in Paris processing about how the labor needs to be more equitable. After that we changed how things get done in the project. “Oh La La! Paris Special” is not our favorite of our videos but we got it done and my memory of shooting the final scenes (in the most Parisian looking Oakland park we could find) and editing it was much more pleasant than “Food!”
As for lighting, we’ve never figured out how to light our scenes correctly.
GY: Well, we kind of know how to light our scenes, we just don’t do it. It would involve getting a lighting kit, and that would involve a lot more planning at the preproduction stage than we’re willing to do. Yeah, we ran aground with the project around “Food!” and then “Oh La La!”, which is why we decided at that point that “Season 1” was done and it was time to make a fresh start. In terms of the recognition issue Chris was talking about, he has the identity of “artist” in a way I don’t because virtually all of the videos I’ve made have been collaborations with him and otherwise I’m an “academic.” So, at the start of the project people would sometimes act like he made the videos and I just perform in them. That was hard for me. I should probably start making solo videos to solve that issue, but that seems like an insufficient reason to shift my energies away from a fruitful collaboration. (And yes, all of these fun themes will come up in our new video!)
AC: Do you think there is something inherently queer about collaboration?
CV: I don’t think there is anything inherently queer about collaboration, but I’m sure one can theorize that there is. I do think there is something natural or obvious about collaborating with one’s lover, boyfriend, or same-sex life partner. I’m referring to the energy that’s there in the beginning of the relationship that’s pure magic, and for many it feels right to harness and direct it toward something outside of yourself. In our case, we made videos, but maybe this is exactly the same tendency that drives people to have kids. So maybe there is something queer about collaboration, but that also means there’s something queer about having kids and given the staggering number of straight couples doing that, I guess that’s not true.
But seriously, I think queers do have amazing skills for collaborating and this might relate to the way we’ve skillfully built strong complex networks of community and support beyond our given families.
GY: I’m not sure I follow that train of logic, but I fully agree with the final point!