I avoid going to see Bring Your Own Body: Transgender Between Archives and Aesthetics until two weeks after its highly anticipated and trans-star-studded opening. Between the title, the ambitious / academic press release and the internet awash in positive feedback I was regrettably (unfortunately) skeptical. Before seeing the show, a friend of my studio mate’s said to me, “The art is art, think of it what you will, but the archive,” she gushed, “is incredible.” These were, to me, ominous words.
Bring Your Own Body. . . (BYOB) attempts, very literally, to situate the transgender body in the America that exists between archive and aesthetics. Curated by Jeanne Vaccaro, a postdoctoral fellow in gender studies at Indiana University and a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, with Stamatina Gregory, associate dean of the School of Art at the Cooper Union, BYOB presents a “curatorial exploration of the Kinsey archives” alongside “contemporary transgender art and world making practices that contest existing archival narratives and construct new historical genealogies.” The exhibition takes up about two and a half rooms in the basement of the new building at Cooper Union. The contemporary or “aesthetic” work is mostly two-dimensional and on the wall, save for works by Gensis Breyer-P-Orrige, niv Acosta, and Justin Vivian Bond. The archives are split between a smaller, darker room with a large projection going at the end of it and the basement foyer space, and consist of teaching slides, John Waters ephemera, some mug shots and magazines.
BYOB is aptly timed and well intentioned. Transgender people (women mostly) have begun taking the proverbial stage in the mainstream media while the ever-present violence against mostly trans women of color escalates and persists. The latter, not addressed explicitly, runs as an undercurrent through discussions of the show and within the multiple events. The contemporary “aesthetic” works focus on the creation of multiple identities, the multiplication of identities and the simultaneous subtle rejection and embrace of those identities within the gender binary.
Within the archive portion of the exhibition are arrestingly intimate photographs of Louise Lawrence that depict her everyday life with a careful performative clarity. Across from these portraits in a case, cross-dresser and activist Virgina Prince’s magazine Transvestia, founded in 1960, features anonymous photographs of gender non-conforming people. On the opposite wall, full-body mug shots of women arrested for “cross-dressing” look like amateur studio portraits. Particularly provocative is Three standing figures, 1966, a mug shot of three black women each one of them appears un-phased in her own unique way, each face a different inflection of “so what.”
Given the hinting of the archives size throughout Vaccaro and Gregory’s press and interviews in the run up to the show, the Kinsey archive and the University of Victoria archive seem as though they could easily support their own show and arguably maybe that show could provide fuller representation of the spectrum of transgender people. This mythical show might address some of my knee jerk qualms with what felt like an under representation of brown and trans masculine bodies within the archive space at BYOB. That said, I could simply be longing for a historical narrative that is not completely documented by this archive or maybe by any archive yet to be created
Effy Beth’s Una nueva artista necesita usar el baño (A new artist needs to use the bathroom) (2011), teases out the nuanced relationships between cisgender and transgender people at an epicenter of trans hate, the bathroom. By placing the names of her most current, famous and bold feminist allies she seems to be simultaneously calling these women out, calling their names for support and illustrating the obvious parallel line between the reflections created by their names and the reflection created by her own.
niv Acosta’s Dickscape (2015) toes the line between playful and sinister. The dicks liter the space, big bulking denim behemoth’s riffing off where a dick generally lives (jeans) and the hilarious idea of sitting on a dick, of minimizing it, ignoring it, devaluing it while still valuing it. Almost as if to say, well when you put a dick that way why would I want one? Why wouldn’t I want one? Acosta’s work stuck around in my mind for a while after seeing it as it alerted me to some things I’d already considered: what about having a dick is masculine and what kind of “authentic” man both does and does not have a dick? It seemed to be answering me who cares, sit down, it’s just a dick, anybody can make one as big or as small or as soft or as hard as they want. The modern man does not need a penis, but arguably he does need furniture.
Mx. Justin Vivian Bond’s installation, My Model / My Self, depicts on wallpaper and under a burgundy canopy a large ornate chandelier hovers closely above a pillow and images of the artist as Karen Graham (the face of Estee Lauder Cosmetics from 1970 - 1985). Vitrine gallery presented a full exhibition around this body of work earlier this year. Quoted in Vitrine’s press release Mx. Bond explains that being “presented by a subjective association with an external image” allowed her to “aspire to internally create an image of myself and for myself where I was able to live in a private state of grace.” The canopy and the chandelier ensure viewers cannot fully enter Mx. Bond’s private state of grace. As the press release from Vitrine ends “My Model / My Self is at once autobiographical and reflective of the capitalist impulse to seek validation through identification with external stimulus due to the failure of traditionally binarily constructed social and familial structures to recognize the realities of complex personal multiplicities.” This creation of multiplicities, of an opening-up of the artist field for those multiplicities seems at the crux of BYOB’s curators’ goals with the aesthetics portion of the show.
Zachary Druker’s video, Southern for Pussy, imagines a world where a daughter’s trans identity is as commonplace and unremarkable as the use of marijuana in California. Druker and her mother prepare Druker for a date while discussing pussy and online dating (among other things.) Druker’s video (while white as wonder bread) is straightforward and charming in its simplicity. What seems exciting to me about Druker’s video work is that it represents that first step in making any change: being able to give that change a body, a look and a voice. Specifically, “This is what it will look like when it won’t matter what genitalia your daughter has.” A clear affirmation of a dream.
BYOB ultimately poses this question: how can we self-define? It offers a tracing of intergenerational transgender space from representations in sexology and reflecting one’s inner-self outward to recognizing, through a variety of contemporary art practices, that all parts of the self exist (and do not exist) within that spectrum. This balance between archive and contemporary practice seems to be a hard one to strike and the curators relied heavily on the contemporary artists and events and programming to even the scales. Unfortunately what seemed to end up happening for me was the placement of the contemporary artists in a sort of non-artistic space as most of the events really emphasized community building and history making. We can’t be choosey about our history—the erasure of certain histories brought the exhibition about in the first place—so, in this context, everything is relevant, every story equal to the next. Given the title and general structure of this moderately large group show, the contemporary art works have been placed into an un-touchable category. How can we “judge” work when it is placed in this larger context of self-expression and identity affirmation? Logically, to deny or rebuke the work would be to deny the identity. Wouldn’t it? Under the banner of BYOB, if it is your O B then it fits. Problematically and inevitably certain bodies will be misrepresented or less emphasized depending on who is inviting whom to bring themselves. Or more simply, who is curating whom. Having the work at a university, especially a formerly free art university, further couches it in a space of untouchable, un-judgeable. To the credit of the curators the 16 artists they chose live (or have lived) active lives in multiple queer and trans communities while maintaining a keen interest in the erased history of the transgender experience in the states and the main stream art world.
It was a pleasure to see the archive, a pleasure because my eyes are starved for any historical context for my own identity. In Alison Bechtel’s Fun Home she describes the first time she sees a butch woman and she feels a deep connection to her, Bechtel could see herself within this woman and that sensation was both startling and exhilarating all at once. A rush of finally and pure admiration, this woman was just right. This show offers that experience on multiple levels and the comfort in that is far better than just the establishment of a “transgender aesthetic.”
Art is art, think of it what you will, but the archive and this community building process to me is where the true power of this show lies. I felt like I walked around BYOB show and was constantly being asked by the work and its curation: "Can you see yourself clearer now? Does this feel better?" generally answering, "Yes, I can sort of see myself clearer now. Yes this feels better."
RIN JOHNSON is an artist and writer living in Brooklyn.