Toshio Meronek

Art Toward Queer Utopias

Filed By Toshio Meronek | June 01, 2011 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Marriage Equality
Tags: Adrienne Skye Roberts, Castro, Danny Orendorff, San Francisco, Suggestions of a Life Being Lived

The homogenization and professionalization of communities that were once diverse and forward-thinking is nothing new, but in the world's most famous gay ghetto, it's happening with all kinds of speed. A few years ago, neighborhood associationists in San Francisco's Castro district blocked the possibility of a permanent, local homeless youth shelter; their current targets include local nudists ("harmful to children"), and the rainbow flags that have hung from area light posts for over 30 years ("harmful to the antique posts"). In what is now one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city, the message from certain denizens is clear: Not in my backyard, girl.tm+1.png

So what was once the U.S. West Coast's closest thing to a colorful, queer utopia is no place for a show featuring colorful, utopian queer art. Instead, curators Danny Orendorff and Adrienne Skye Roberts held Suggestions of a Life Being Lived several neighborhoods away in the not-yet-completely-gentrified South of Market (SoMa) district. Drawing much of its work from artists based outside the Bay Area, the show and associated catalog/book (available for pre-order on Amazon) has all of the things Castro is moving away from: radical politics, youth living with poverty, nudity.

Adrienne and Danny intentionally sought a DIY aesthetic, and some of the art feels alien to a gallery space - like it wants to be experienced by people who don't go to art galleries and who don't have access to a queer mecca like San Francisco. Propaganda created by anonymous activists of the queer radical collective Gay Shame (who go by the name "Mary") and Jeannie Simms's Readymaids (photos of women from Indonesia who travel to Taiwan to work as live-in maids) are cultural artifacts as well as art. Don't be fooled by the 1970s, Dirty Harry look of Eric Stanley and Chris Vargas' Criminal Queers or the recycled afghans comprising Allyson Mitchell's Riot Granny TV Tent. This is future-leaning art that's only interested in Now insofar as how we're going to change it and create the queer utopias of tomorrow, which don't look anything like the spic 'n' span outdoor mall that the Castro is fast becoming.

I spoke with the exhibit's curators, Danny Orendorff and Adrienne Skye Roberts, about their experiences with queer art.

Q: For the record, are you both practicing homosexuals?

Danny Orendorff: Certified and licensed!

Adrienne Skye Roberts: Yes, and practice makes perfect.

Q: With this show, you decided to stay away from categorically gay and lesbian art and coming out stories. Was it that there are already enough venues for those things, or were there other reasons for your decision?

ASR: The decision to move away from subjects such as coming out stories, or even same-sex marriage, came from our desire to represent Queerness as a diverse, multi-faceted, and complex community, which we both feel a part of. I, for one, was tired of the expectation of a tragic narrative within queer art-making, and we both felt that as a community and political body, queer people are defined by more than just this reductive narrative.

Q: Were there any recurring themes you saw in terms of submissions? 1980s Madonna nostalgia with nude male torsos?

ASR: We didn't do a call for submissions to the show - we selected artists who we had researched, already knew, or were recommended to us. However, we did sift through many, many portraits of nude or nearly nude, young, physically fit, white men made by gay male photographers, and that, in many ways, exemplified the kind of "queer art" we wanted to move away from in our exhibition.

DO: The thing about that kind of work that didn't appeal to us was this feeling of inwardness and personal disclosure around the work. We quite explicitly began to seek publicly situated work and practices that were, perhaps, less hermetic and more expressly about lived, shared experiences, experiments, and struggles out there in the world.

Q: I hear the show took some inspiration from an all-queer Berkeley Art Museum show from 1995, In a Different Light. What were you up to in 1995?

DO: I was an 11-year-old denying that I had a speech impediment, making friendship bracelets for my stuffed animals, and wishing I knew Adrienne Skye Roberts.tm+2.png

ASR: And I was a 12-year-old, pre-pubescent ballet dancer who was busy writing letters to the editor of my hometown newspaper about the environmental benefits of being a vegetarian.

Q: No way! I was writing those same PETA-influenced letters. Back to the art itself: One thing I thought about while looking at Steven Miller's NC-17 photos of queer kids showing their love in possibly not-so-queer-friendly public spaces was how sweet it would be if we lived in a world where his work could be considered more PG than NC-17. What do you think non-controversial queer art looks like, if it exists?

ASR: Maybe the real question is: controversial to whom? Often work is deemed "controversial" if its subject matter challenges the dominant ideologies perpetuated through institutions that oftentimes have religious or politically conservative affiliations. Of course, I am thinking of the recent censorship of David Wojnarowicz's Fire in My Belly video at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery Hide/Seek exhibition, in which, yet again, conservative politicians are allowed to act as the moral referees within the art world.

DO: Ask John Boehner! Personally, I don't view work in terms of controversy, or try not to, but rather in terms of its ability to provoke independent thought or feeling in a viewer.

Q: Eric Stanley [whose film Criminal Queers, is featured in the show] told me about how it recently came out that during the Cold War, the CIA secretly funded artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko in an attempt to demonstrate the superiority of American art over Russia's crappy, communist art. How much government support did this show receive?

DO: Wow! I can only dream that the government would better fund queer art in particular, and contemporary art in general, to reveal its richness! Covert cultural agendas, of course, would be nice to avoid. But, as we've seen historically, and even recently, this is certainly not always the case! We can personally thank the generosity of the artists, along with the Andy Warhol Foundation and the San Francisco Arts Commission for our exhibition - both of whom were hands off, for which we are incredibly grateful. And family, friends, and the public helped in the creation of the forthcoming catalog, which was funded via a Kickstarter campaign.

ASR: Coming from queer and art communities well-trained in grassroots organizing and a do-it-yourself ethos certainly helps in pulling off large-scale group art exhibitions.

Q: Is art-making instinctual among queers?

ASR: I think what is instinctual among my community of queers is crafting into reality the spaces that we wished existed: alternative family structures, co-operative housing arrangements, radical political movements, sex- and kink-positive spaces, and identities and desires that would otherwise be considered "non-normative," all of which require creativity and imagination and working together. Through the process of curating this exhibition and working with Danny, I realized that I am a "lifer" in the arts. I was reluctant to admit this previously because I feared that politically motivated work couldn't retain its radicality within the art world, and in general, I've found that the art world is often not accountable to its so-called politics. However, Danny and the artists in the exhibition really challenged this notion for me. They presented an urge, an unfaltering desire, and yes, perhaps a physical need to make the kind of work they are making ... to represent their communities, to educate, and raise awareness and to claim art-making as a potential vehicle for transformation. I like thinking of this urge as something instinctual, visceral, and embodied, as it often feels this way when you are engaged in it.

DO: I can say that one of the main inquiries of this exhibition was to consider the myriad of ways queerness can inform art practices, public lives, politics, self-presentations, community formations, families, and so on. Queers lack the how-to guides that heterosexuality and reproduction offer. Living a queer life, figuring out what that means, figuring out how to build community around queerness, is certainly inventive.

Q: Why did you want to do a catalog-slash-book for the show?suggestions-of-a-life-being-lived-book.jpg

ASR: Gallery exhibitions are always ephemeral. We wanted the work of the artists to continue to exist together in some way and to allow for the conversations provoked between artists to continue.

DO: And so much of the work included is about being out in the world, circulating, so it seemed both like a natural extension of the show and an opportunity to extend the publicity of these art practices.

Q: Do you guys make art?

DO: Adventures in découpage. Sand castles, sometimes. And there's a pair of knit short-shorts I keep messing up.

ASR: If by art you mean curating exhibitions and film screenings, writing essays, carefully planning and then teaching undergraduate sculpture courses, staying up at night thinking about Linda Montano's performance art from the 1970s, then yes! I make art.

Danny Orendorff is an independent curator, researcher, and writer based in Chicago, Illinois. Suggestions of a Life Being Lived is the second exhibition Danny has co-curated for SFCamerawork, having previously worked as part of the team behind There is Always a Machine Between Us... in 2007. His writing has been published in Art in America Online, NewCity Chicago, SFCamerawork Journal, and Shotgun Review. He is currently finishing his M.A. in Art History, Theory and Criticism from The School of the Art Institute, Chicago, and he holds a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Humanities and a B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communication from Arizona State University. He can be reached at Dan.Orendorff[at]gmail[dot]com.

Adrienne Skye Roberts is an independent curator, writer and educator committed to engaging queer, anti-racist politics through the arts. In addition to Suggestions of a Life Being Lived, she curated the group exhibition Home is something I carry with me, funded by Southern Exposure and inspired by her work in housing rights. Adrienne writes on the topic of urban politics, public art, and memory. Her work is published in Make/Shift: Feminisms in Motion, SFMOMA's Open Space, and Art Practical. She currently teaches sculpture in the Art Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds an M.A. in Visual and Critical Studies from the California College of the Arts and a B.A. in Art and Feminist Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is from the Bay Area and makes her home in San Francisco. She can be reached at adrienneskye[at]gmail[dot]com / http://adrienneskyeroberts.wordpress.com

A different version of this piece originally appeared in No More Potlucks.

Images: Steven Miller's NC-17; Aay Preston-Myint's Smile II; Jason Fritz-Michael and Matt Momchilov's Suggestions of a Life Being Lived book cover.


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Very interesting. More and more it seems that the queer esthetic and the gay esthetic are moving farther and farther apart, and never the twain shall meet.

Toshio, my dear, how can you mention art and San Francisco in the same breath, without also mentioning the current "The Steins Collect" exhibition at the [=SFMOMA=]?

Visiting SF to see Suggestions and missing The Steins Collect would be like visiting Paris to sample the pastries, but forgetting to go see the Eiffel Tower or shrugging off a walk down the Champs-Élysées.

incredible and inspiring post; it's led to a few hours tangent of online research of queer art for me! thank you for this.

The decision to move away from subjects such as coming out stories, or even same-sex marriage, came from our desire to represent Queerness as a diverse, multi-faceted, and complex community, which we both feel a part of. I, for one, was tired of the expectation of a tragic narrative within queer art-making, and we both felt that as a community and political body, queer people are defined by more than just this reductive narrative.

I want to gay marry her now.