Counter Culture: Justin Beachler’s Babalon Working

In many ways, the late 2010’s are starting to resemble the 1960s. There is a new attitude of political distrust and a bitter sense that the country is trying to revert back to values that espouse racism, sexism, and recently, neo-fascism. While artists are busy finding ways to fight the swell of hate overtaking our country, Justin Beachler is bringing back hippie era coping mechanisms of occult magic, stoner dens, and tye-dye. His solo show, Babalon Working at Bunker Center for the Arts plays with the light and dark sides of 60s counterculture in an incense scented installation.

We met at his home studio to discuss the upcoming show at Bunker and take a look at the work in progress. “I was very interested in the 60s and psychedelic culture when I was younger. I’ve been making work about it since I was in Charlotte Street in 2013, creating Head Shop with Tim Brown from OK Mountain.”—an artist run collective in Austin. I didn’t see Head Shop, but I did see Beachler’s Old & In The Way last year at Haw Contemporary. The display of homemade water pipes made from flavored beverage bottles was congruent with Beachler’s interest in clashing colors and inelegant display. Haphazard as it looks, his aesthetic has specific origins. “When I was a kid I spent a lot of time in head shops and music stores. It was a weird capitalistic form of subculture. Everything in all the stores looked the same, with the same posters, the same weird dragon wizard holding a glass orb. And after I made the funny work, I went back to the darker side of psychedelic culture that I remember my childhood.” Beachler sites one particular experience that awakened him to the culture of drug use. “My dad’s a biker, and I remember being in these biker houses with him, in spaces with Easy Rider centerfolds everywhere. Once, I found a medical clamp with macramé woven to the bottom, with a roach clamped on the end. ‘What’s that?’ I asked. My dad stopped bringing me after that.” Pulling from this formative memory, Beachler reconstructed what he saw that day for Babalon Working, tying his own macramé helixes and found feather onto medical clips, now with sticks of incense pinched between the teeth instead of the last puff of a joint.

In his own words, Beachler describes his work as “frivolous and irresponsible.” Exploring the conceptual potential in consumer objects in a time great global distress is a way of watering down the conversations we need to be having. “The concept’s I’m working with aid in nothing but distraction from the serious cultural problems currently at hand,” he says of his work. The Internet has certainly provided us fantastic tools for distractions, and Beachler uses his Instagram feed to layer hyper-colorful and erotic stimuli into images of blended meaning. These posts are flavored like a bad acid trip, shrill and lurid enough to wipe all thoughts of political outrage from your mind for a moment during the scroll. Beachler’s posts are hard to untangle on a little screen and feel more like sketches of the finer art that enters the gallery. His posts contrast the phenomenon of using Instagram to sell a twee bohemian lifestyle, as many successful accounts portray the sun flared wanderlust dreams of the flower children. Beachler’s psychedelic/occult/erotica aesthetic leans into the digital age with a well-curated false reality.

The show’s title Babalon Working refers to a “sex magick ritual” performed by L. Ron Hubbard and Jack Parsons in 1947 based on Aleister Crowley’s Scarlet Woman. The ritual was designed to manifest the liberated woman archetype, a stand-in for the Whore of Babylon. (Parsons felt he achieved this when he met Marjorie Cameron, but the second part of the ritual—impregnation—was unsuccessful.) Beachler relies heavily on myth and assumption to inform the audiences experience of his installation, which evokes a ritual recently completed in a dark area of the gallery. “Everyone has a different part of the story before they arrive at the gallery. I gave my friends one piece of information, the press another, and the gallery another. Nobody walks in with the full story.” He cites a party with the Terry Radio crew before he installed the bongs at Haw. One party-goer walked in and smiled, turned to a friend and said “We smoked out of those.”

Though the work lacks real authenticity (Beachler was born in 1981) it is palpable to an age group that grew up with the same occult culture curiosity and access to the internet in the early aughts. “The psychedelic thing is making a comeback, and the internet is full of it,” says Beachler, who grew up reading the classic drug experience review site Erowid.org. It’s a joke to equate a few tye-dyed tapestries and beaded curtains with any anti-capitalist and anti-consumer sentiment today, but Beachler sees this as a source of irony for today’s generation. “We’re using irony to fight a crippling sense of or hopelessness for the future. Irony is one of the only conceptual forms that feels right at this moment.”

 

Ghost Post: Rhiannon Dickerson

Welcome to my Ghost Post series, an occasional divide from the usual content that tackles subject matter I want to make discussion room for. This post comes from Kansas City poet and lecturer Rhiannon Dickerson, who had a powerful reaction to this year’s election cycle controversy and is a general badass feminist with a strong voice. Her personal experience of sexism and abuse struck me as an important topic to make available to a wide readership, given the distance we still have to travel to make this kind of story a thing of the past.

Every Woman I Know

By Rhiannon Dickerson

Driving to the store this weekend, my daughters and I were listening to the local news when we heard the audio of Trump boasting about sexually assaulting a woman. I quickly turned off the radio, parked, and went into the store. As we navigated the aisles for my soon-to-be 10-year old daughter, Isabel’s birthday, deciding between emoji party cups or princess cups, I was only half-present, preoccupied with what my daughters heard on the radio, and the conversation I’d need to have. Earlier this summer, we all watched Hillary accept the Democratic nomination, and it was Isabel’s enthusiasm for Chelsea, and Hillary that, for the first time in this election, I felt inspired. She watched their speeches closely. She listened to powerful women confidently espouse their views, and their experiences, and she was moved to tears. It was seeing her see these women that made me fully realize the importance of this moment historically.

We headed back out to the car, our cart full of pre-teen party goods. I wanted to talk to the girls alone—in a safe space without men. And I was conflicted—I didn’t want them to feel scared, but I wanted them to know there’s always danger around us as women, as girls. I turned around in my seat and I told them what sexual assault meant. We practiced saying, “No” firmly, and without any explanation. We practiced saying, “My body. My rules.” I steadied myself with every “No.” But the thing is we all know those words won’t protect us. I felt powerless as I put on a brave front. I kept thinking about this app I saw on Facebook earlier in the day. It’s an app you can use as you walk to your car—Safe Trek, I think. You simply open the app, and keep your finger on the icon until you reach your car, and then you text in a preset code. If you release the icon and don’t enter your code in 10 seconds, police are notified. We aren’t safe even walking to our cars, I thought. We’re not safe anywhere.

When I was a young girl, my mom taught me about the “oh-oh” feeling, and what to do if anyone ever made me feel that way. My mother was a survivor of sexual assault from her family, from strangers, and from her partners. As women this is part of our everyday lives. Every day. Every woman. Fear, violence, casual sexism, misogyny, looking over our shoulders as we walk down the street, as we walk to our cars, the fact that statistically speaking, we’re in spaces with rapists every day unbeknownst to us.

My first memory is from when I was 3 or so. I was sitting at the top of the stairs, my baby brother asleep in the next room. It was late at night, and I was supposed to be in bed, but I was listening to the sound of my mother being beaten downstairs. I was only 3. I was powerless. I felt powerless.  Years later, in a different house, after my mother left him, he showed up one morning intent on getting in. He tried to break down the door with my brother’s bike, and I was relieved he hadn’t used mine, and ashamed I felt relieved. His girlfriend sat in the car in front of our house. In my memory, she’s checking her lipstick in the mirror. We left through the back door, my mother’s open robe fluttering in the wind as we ran to the fence and she pushed us over. We moved in silence. It was a wooden slat fence and it was so high I can’t imagine how she made it over. Our neighbor—whom we’d never met—was startled when we fell into her yard. She was signing paperwork with the Orkin man who gave us coloring books with pictures of cockroaches while my mother called the police.

When I was 27, I was strangled (it’s still painful to write that word). My boyfriend, someone I loved and trusted, someone I knew since I was 10 years old, 6’3” 280 pounds pressed me to the floor, his hands on my throat, my fingers struggling to scratch his face, or push him off, or gouge his eyes. For years part of me was still lying on the basement floor trying to breathe, trying to leave.

And it’s every woman I know. It’s every woman you know.

By the time I was 16, six of my closest friends and family had been sexually assaulted by men they knew. I’m 35 now, and I can’t count the women anymore. And we don’t talk about it except sometimes when we’ve had enough to drink to let the stop out of our throats, to let the scream out of lungs, to move past the shame to rage. We don’t talk about it. So when you call it “lewd” or “crass” or “locker room banter”, you create a safe space for misogyny, you perpetuate its existence, diminish its reality, and side with the abuser. You leave me on the basement floor trying to understand what happened, what I did, and what I should have done differently.

***

People are asking: are we normalizing sexual assault in these conversations? No. These conversations demonstrate that it is already normalized. Violence against women is accepted, or ignored and implicitly condoned, sometimes encouraged, and often sexualized. It’s part of the fabric of America, part of the fabric of patriarchal oppression, part of what it means to be a woman in the world.  They call it locker room banter because the locker room is the apex of American masculinity, and because masculinity has always required demonstrating power over women, because sexual violence against women affirms masculinity, because patriarchy has never valued women, but does value violence against them. The locker room is the acme of American masculinity—but these values are evident in the board room, the war zone, school room, golf course, and now, the presidential stage. These values are evident in the constitution when they say “all men are created equal” and didn’t mean women—because, well, women have always been dehumanized and objectified.

We’ve never been treated equally. And I’m a white ciswoman. Many folks experience this exponentially more than I have. Misogyny against women of color, against transwomen—is excused, dismissed, ignored and justified far more often. Because culturally, historically, and legally we’ve dehumanized our sisters of color with greater potency and frequency than their white, or cis counterparts.  We’ve come so far, I want to think. My daughters feel empowered by possibility. We have a major party female presidential candidate. But standing next to her on that stage is a self-confessed sexual predator (and let’s not forget, a racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, narcissist) and the crowd is cheering for him; they’re applauding. The most terrifying thing is that that stage reflects every room in America. Every step towards progress is met by a creepy, powerful man who gives you the “oh-oh” feeling as he stalks the stage behind you, as he demands that you should be ashamed of yourself, as he talks over you, and he devalues your humanity, and ridicules your ability. Every woman I know. Every stage we’re on. He is some of the men we know. Men you know. Men we love. Men we sleep with, and men we teach. Our grandfathers. Our sons. Our presidential candidates. They are everywhere, and it is terrifying.

I watched the town hall debate, and I cried into my hands to stifle the sobbing—where the hell was that trigger warning? I felt like I was at the top of the staircase again listening to my mother being beaten, listening to women everywhere try to muffle their screams so they don’t wake up the children, running away at night with nothing—no bags, no shoes, even—in an attempt to flee before he wakes. I felt like I was in the police car again deciding not to press charges. I felt threatened and disempowered and fucking scared. I’ll be having long talks with my son about consent, about respect, about sexuality, and masculinity. I’ll remind my daughters that our bodies are ours, and that we live in a world that wants to take our power away, that “No” is a word that doesn’t need explanation.

But, men—this shit is on you. Have you excused or justified or minimized violence against women? Have you taken the side of the abuser? Have you laughed at “locker room banter”? Have you made rape jokes? Harassed women on the street? Have you wondered what she was wearing or what she said before he hit her? Have you blamed women for the violence against them? Have you softened the edges of assault by calling it “lewd language”? Have you created a safe space for violent abusers? Have you kept quiet when you should have stood up? Are you part of rape culture?

Dig deep, y’all, because this isn’t new, and it isn’t going away. It’s every woman I know, and some of the men, too.

Oh, How We’ve Failed

This morning, The Kansas City Star published a spectacularly destructive article by Laura Herrick on the ways in which women can adjust their lifestyles and actions to prevent rape from happening to them. Here, you will read the original article, titled “Women can take action to prevent rapes” in italics and the responses below each section. To write a letter to Herrick, reach her at oped@kcstar.com.

(Update: The Star has removed the original article from their website. If you would like a PDF of the original article, send me an email. I saved it.)

With a long history of publishing awful fluff pieces and generally obnoxious clickbait, The Kansas City Star and whoever approved the original article reached a new height of incompetence when deciding to run this dazzling number. Here you go.

Let me preface this by saying that I empathize with women who have been raped. These women have endured terrible experiences and need to know that what happened was not their fault and that whatever they did to stay alive was the right thing.

I would also like to remind men that “no means no” (and if someone is too drunk to say no, then no is implied); that no matter what a woman wears or does, she isn’t “asking for it”; and that if men witness a woman being treated inappropriately, they need to step in and attempt to stop what is happening.”

Stop right there. Your article is over. As many times as I read and considered this garbage piece of writing, this was the only part I kept coming back to and thinking “at least she said one good thing before the turgid swirl of bad rhetoric came out like from a broken sewage pipe.” If you haven’t read the original piece, be prepared, because that’s what it is. Sewage.

“I saw a quote on Facebook that said, “When a woman drinks too much she expects to wake up the next day hung over, not raped.” I agree.

But as women, shouldn’t we take responsibility for our bodies by not becoming so intoxicated that we don’t know what is happening? Every woman should know her drink limit and stop there.”

Props to you for finding reputable news sources to agree with. Nevermind Facebook uses algorithms harvested from your friends, your internet browsing, your online shopping, etc to structure your content. So, good for you for finding a Facebook quote you agree with. But by the lizard-logic of your next sentence, I can only conclude that this was as far as you went into navigating the wide-spread discussion of the harmful perpetuation of victim blaming you can find almost ANYWHERE on the internet. I imagine this is how it happened: You saw a quote on a page designed by experts to filter and tailor content to your liking, had a blip of a thought about blame cross your mind—which has no doubt been conditioned by other blips of idiocy you found by whiny men’s rights activists crying over their perceived loss of power—and you spent what I assume was the better part of an otherwise unproductive day to cobble these thoughts together into one, gloriously ignorant Star-appropriate op piece about the fault of women in accepting responsibility for the history of sexual violence that has targeted them from multiple sources for the entire history of humanity. I try to imagine this, but honestly, I can’t.

“No, she’s not asking to be raped by being drunk. But isn’t it her responsibility to reduce the risk by not getting to that point? And if you wake up the morning after doing the ‘walk of shame’ don’t yell rape if you regret your actions of the night before.

Accept your role in what happened, learn from the experience and move on.”

 I wish I could remember what my reaction was when I read that little gem of a statement for the first time. I might have lost consciousness from the blow of backwards reasoning and, when I came to, found my kitchen table flipped over on fire. That’s an exaggeration, but I did—and I’m sure I’m not alone—release a cry of absolute pain into the world at the evidence another woman who lives in the same world as I do could connect such appallingly oppressive ideas together to form words I so naively expected could still only come from non-woke men. A part of me died a little inside. The only way I can recover from this is to take your harmful statements apart piece by piece in hope of preventing such harmful hypothesis from you ever inflicting them on the world again.

It’s really quite fantastic to hear an educated and eloquent woman such as yourself refer to the journey home after a sexual encounter as a “walk of shame.” Because for a woman, sex is a shameful and degrading act that was only invented to please the male kind no matter how you slice it. Thanks for that, patriarchy!

Regarding responsibility, let’s use this analogy. When men drink, they have to be careful not to operate heavy machinery. (Note: gender has nothing to do with it. Don’t operate big stuff drunk.) Luckily, heavy machinery can be largely avoided if one has limited access to construction sites, airplane hangers, leisure boats, the keys to their car, stuff like that. When women drink, they have to be careful in every situation you can think of. Sexual assault happens in public and in private places. It happens at house parties, at the club, at a friend’s house, at your own house, outside, inside, in the presence of others and in the presence of nobody. If the only way to prevent operating heavy machinery is to not do it, why don’t we view rape the same way?

Accept your role? What role? The role of existing in the world? The role of going about one’s day unmolested? The role of there’s a 26% chance a woman will be raped in her lifetime? The role that nearly half of all women will experience some form of sexual assault in their lifetime? What role are these women accepting in the violence they, you have so beautifully stated, could easily prevent? And what makes you believe it’s so easy to simply “learn from the experience and move on?” Does the fact that 54% of rapes go unreported add up your conclusion that women should just learn and move on?

“Women want to be treated as sexual equals when it comes to desires, the ability to have casual encounters and the enjoyment of sex. But some women act on this freedom then want to deny their involvement later.

Every woman who falsely accuses a man of rape makes the battle harder for women who are actually raped. And the lives and reputations of the men who are falsely accused are often irreparably destroyed.”

Bringing desire into a conversation about rape and sexual assault is the most offensive, juvenile, retrogressive piece of whatever-you-can-even-call-this-hot-mess I have ever seen. The only thing ANYONE can assume about ANYONE ELSE’S sexual desires is this: Even in fantasies, nobody wants to have sex 100% without their consent. Saying “women want to be treated as equals when it comes to sexual desire” ONCE AGAIN removes the responsibility of not raping from rapists.

Furthermore, the notion that women lie—that anyone lies—about being raped is incredibly damaging and undermining to an event that alters someone forever. Who do you suppose was the first person to claim a woman was lying about being raped? I’ll give you two hints: it was probably someone who felt their power would be taken away by the truth, and it probably wasn’t a woman.

It is not women who lie about rape that make the battle harder for women who have been raped. It’s you. It’s people like you who continue to shirk your responsibility to educate yourself against the pervasive culture of toxic masculinity and the patriarchical grip of victim blaming, shaming, and dehumanizing. If you give even one single shit about the reputations and future success of rapists, you need to seriously, hugely and forever, fucking check yourself.

“When men drink, their decision-making abilities are also limited. If a woman was too drunk to know what she was doing and should be excused for what happened, then why are men not allowed to be too drunk to make good decisions?

And if a woman is so intoxicated that she can’t remember giving consent for sex, then how can she know that she didn’t give consent?

If she was so drunk she was unable to make good judgments, then how can we be sure that she has any idea what actually happened?

Maybe she forced herself on the man. Or maybe she initiated the encounter.”

Did you read anything before deciding to push this garbage out into the world? A chance of a woman being raped is 1 of 5. For men, that number looks a little different. Only 1 of 71 men experience rape in their lifetime, and while it’s not impossible for a woman to force herself on a man without his consent, it’s way, way less likely to happen. Giving consent while intoxicated is a tricky grey area for everyone, but educating men to be respectful and use good judgment in these situations is more important than teaching women to moderate their impairment or stop drinking altogether. Also, ever heard of date rape drugs? There are some levels of impairment a victim of sexual assault just cannot control.

Many of us have been there in the morning when a sense of deep regret sets in, but you cannot assume everyone who has been in this position will automatically leap to accuse someone of this especially heinous crime. Sure, we all make mistakes, but one night of drunken consent does not send most people into creating revenge-seeking lies about what happened.

I’m puzzled by the question, “why are men not allowed to be too drunk to make good decisions?” Men can make good decisions when they are drunk. Anyone can. It’s hard, sure, but it’s not impossible, and it’s definitely not an excuse for rape. Drinking impairs judgment, but at no point in anyone’s life should that judgment slip so far as to justify the rape and assault of another human being. The fact that this is something you use liquor to excuse—implying that it’s already in the man’s brain to rape, booze just helps it along—is super fucking harmful to everyone of every sex and gender.

“I am not talking about the extreme situations like group rape or the Stanford incident. Those men should be held accountable for their inexcusable actions.

I am talking about the casual encounters many people have had — waking up the next day and realizing they are next to someone in bed and being embarrassed and regretful that it happened.”

Why not stop worrying about other people’s casual encounters and individual regret and start having a productive conversation about sexual assault, rape, reeducation, equality, and all the other things you clearly need help understanding.

“I hate that I have to tell my son that if he sees a drunk, unconscious woman, he needs to either run the other direction or find women to help her.

Men should be able to help a drunk female without thinking about calling a lawyer first. And people should be able to interact sexually with someone they are attracted to without fear of being convicted of a crime.”

Wait…didn’t you just admit you tell your son to run away from a woman when he sees she needs help? Are you implying already that it is mentally and evolutionarily engrained in your son to rape an impaired woman? This hands-off approach to education because “what can be done?” is the biggest problem we as a society have when discussing how we should teach people not to rape. If you truly believe men should be able to help that crafty wild animal, “a drunk female,” don’t educate your son to fear the ~*~irrational female brain~*~ that has only evolved secondary to the ~*~male brain~*~ to make his life more difficult. In the space of three sentences, you a) admit to educating your son the same way the toxic patriarchy has educated us all for hundreds of years, b) complain about the lack of helpful and progressive education of young men, of course for which you are in no way responsible for creating, and c) connect the two in a conclusion about the complex and ever-changing web of human sexuality as a whole.

“Bottom line: Men, stop acting like animals and having sex with anything that breathes, and intervene when you see a situation that you know is wrong.”

 This is one of the oldest and most harmful assumptions we have in our culture of toxic masculinity: that men “just can’t help themselves,” or “boys will be boys,” and other familiar adages that excuse the system for not educating young men to not rape.

“And women, take charge of your bodies and your sexuality by being sober enough to stop unwanted advances and sober enough to actually enjoy sex when you choose to have it.”

 Fuck you.

Full Review: Vade Mecum

A partial review of Vade Mecum was published as a blog post for The Pitch.

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Hungarian Holy Bible. Photo credit Kiosk Gallery

Back from a seven week residency in Hungary, Emily Connell displays porcelain slip castings of texts like Bibles, dictionaries, and encyclopedias that were cast in her studio overseas. The front room of Kiosk Gallery is transformed into a library of fossils, bearing a variety of pedestal pieces and wall works ranging from weighty blocks of open books to the abstract narratives of cross-sectioned pages. Black, feathered pages embedded in white Hungarian porcelain balance the lightness of the folio with the historical and literal weight of Connell’s chosen materials. Multiple pieces in Vade Mecum are not afraid to live out their existence as “open books.” Connell interprets the phrase to show us even open books retain some inaccessible mystery to their viewers. Words are gone, formerly in our language or in languages we can’t read, but the skeletal remains of the information tell us something about the character of each text.

Among the splayed Hungarian Holy Bible’s is Hungarian Chemistry Pocket Book, different, in its completely circular containment, from the spread-eagled religious texts that share the pedestal. Edges of the bibles glint with gold, a sensitive narrative bearing a precious metal, but the chemistry book is self-contained, independent as an idea and a movement. Hungarian Chemistry Pocket Book isn’t so precious as to endure the same ornamental burden the bibles bear, but such is science to religion. Discriminating decisions like this allow us a glimpse into Connell’s thought process while she makes each casting. Her Catholic upbringing finds a way into her adult life, serving as a jumping off point that inspires Connell to swim deeper into the inner struggle between sacrilege and the construction of art. Rigid adherence to historical and religious texts are reinterpreted during the inventive process—a clever slant on the problems of bibliolatry.

Connell acts as a translator for English, Italian, and Hungarian bibles. But her translation of religious material is understood beyond the written word. The movement of turned pages is captured in each sculpture, even as the book spills open to expose the private construction materials close to the spine. Books are not entirely deconstructed, maybe out of a lingering respect for their history and personal impact on Connell, but the original material changes enough. In fact, the book itself has not completely disappeared, its ashes encased between the fibrous porcelain sheets. By firing the old familiar stories into and expensive physical material, Connell contradicts the humility of the bound book and the teachings between the pages. Wall pieces like Webster’s New World Handy Pocket Dictionary & Webster’s New World Pocket Thesaurus present the pages in four discs, exhibiting the black and white wingspans of two books chopped up to quadriptych. Inner layers appear to flake and degrade as they are viewed, crumbling after being sawed into pieces. It is like viewing the rings of a tree—each page represents the passing of a certain amount of time.

Such a cohesive show does not happen overnight. The process of creating these ethereal sculptures is nothing short of labor intensive and has been explored by Connell year after year. In her studio, Connell coats individual leaves in slip. Page one. Page ten. Page three-hundred. All the way till the end of the volume, Connell’s patience is steady. Post-kiln, some sculptures are displayed and others are sawed into pieces. Book destruction is synonymous with fear and control, but here it is to preserve. Concurrent themes of book burning and preserving find perfect balance in the chosen medium. Is there more heresy in burning a bible than in burning a science text? Is it appropriate to preserve a text purely as a beautiful object when the guiding information has been completely erased? The burning of one book is associated with the rejection of dogmatic principles. And the other—maybe with laboratory carelessness. Pocket sized anything suggests a reduced value, so to coat a miniature bible in mud and bake until it has been reduced to ash might be a lesser strain on the artist’s eternal soul. Let us pray.

Too many iterations of the same basic process can be monotonous in any art. However, Connell is pursuing an arc and she’s taking her time. Working through her own personal upbringing, her Catholic rearing and artistic inclinations, might take a long time. If she can be patient, so can we. For now, the works in Vade Mecum give us a lot to consider.

Gender Rolling

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Priya steps to the stage, pink sari wrapped around their waist and tossed over their shoulder. They dance fluidly to the background music while the photographer’s camera flashes just out of frame of this low-quality video. Priya’s dance follows the unspoken order of seduction: turn, toss, wiggle. Flip, gaze, be coy. Be confident. Be fragile. Priya exudes a grace and elegance in their movements that isn’t expressed in the photographs of the hijras on the wall of Playing Gender, Asma Kazmi’s show in the front room of Plug Projects (until February 27th.) Kazmi spent time with three hijras in New Delhi “learning the conventions of gender parody,” (problematic statements such as this pepper the artist’s description and had me cringing more than once,) in order to interact with hijra culture. Hijras are not simply performers, but part of what is commonly known as the Third Gender in India. Like other cultures, individuals with non-binary identities in India are often part of the fringes of society—relegated to dangerous or unsustainable work.

Of the four individuals in the show’s film, Asma’s performance is the least sophisticated. She smiles the entire time and looks unsure about what to do with her hands. Her hips barely move, leaving her vulnerable to direction and critique from the other hijras. There is a touching moment in the film when Asma’s shoot is interrupted by Radha, who fusses over Asma’s gown and posture like a correcting mother. Radha sashays out of frame, revealing Asma’s new pose that is certainly more genteel than it previously was. We are reminded of the gap between her and the hijras, and, with this reminder, begin to question how much Playing Gender falls into the spectrum of appropriation. Questions add up when you realize the video is the only place to find the names of the hijras in the entire show.

Kazmi chose this direction to embody “the artifice of the hijras,” but our perception of what is artificial differs from hers. In the photos, the hijras are shopped against a white backdrop instead of the red curtain they dance against in the film. I understand the urge to cut out backdrops to emphasize the subject, but the stark white behind the dancers under-values the anthropological aspects of the project. The photos on the wall were not carved by the agency of the hijras, leading me to wonder how influential their roles were in the art and to what extent they were being asked to conform to the vision Kazmi had for the project. The video feels weighted with a history the photographs try to erase. Kazmi has eliminated their background.

One can forgive PC slip-ups in the show’s text because this video touches a place in us where words would probably fail. Kazmi is on the right track with her references to Judith Butler, one of the leaders in gender and sexuality discussions, but deeper reading of Butler’s text is missing from Playing Gender. Butler says gender is not something we are born with, but something we perform daily because society becomes confused when the pieces below our waist don’t connect with the rest of us. It’s a relevant statement, but Kazmi latched onto the performing aspects of the hijras without deepening our understanding of their realities through the power of art. It seems Kazmi is having a difficult time merging her role as an artist with her experiences in the hijra community, but who’s to blame her? Her Playing Gender video encapsulates a small group of people who are as real as it gets.

 

Playing Gender Asma Kazmi

Plug Projects

1613 Genessee Street, KCMO 64102

http://www.plugprojects.com

Watch part of the video: http://asmakazmi.com/artwork/1011740-Playing-Gender.html

Full Review: Dark Days, Bright Nights

A partial review of “Dark Days, Bright Nights” was published in The Pitch on February 10th, 2016.

finland-Rauha-Makila-Mura

 

Now, in late December, the people of Finland will experience their darkest days of the year. With only about 4 hours of sun per day in some regions, winter has officially arrived. Lakes freeze over with meter thick ice, and snow can rise a couple feet off the ground, covering every inch until March when spring starts to hedge in. It is the perfect time of the year to see “Dark Days, Bright Nights” at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, where a collection of works by Finnish artists mirror the dropping temperatures outside. Political and personal, each piece in the collection feels a part of something bigger than the individual artist. Everything taps into a shared experience of living in Finland, be it the landscape, the necessary layers required to venture into the snow, or the brief but deadly wars that divided the land—the artists here are struggling against something bigger. Cable knit sweaters—familiar worn articles that would spell a frozen death if left behind in a moment of carelessness—are painted with as much care as it would take to knit the garment itself. Memories of a lonesome farm covered in snow bloom from large canvases like selections from anxious dreams. There are no fires in the images, but the glow of a functioning artistic community lights up the work from deep inside. What emerges is a sense of never being relaxed, never being inattentive to what the country produces by weather and by culture.

Finland is reflected in every face, pale and stoic, hungry for warmth—a unique landscape in itself. Rauha Mäkilä’s portrait series—five altogether—are of haunted girls and women with empty eyes and carnivorous expressions. Against flat, single color backgrounds of rose pink and icy blue, the women seem to be momentarily caught in the frame of the paintings, either as they pass through or try to escape their oppressive walls. These are faces in the winter. The uneven exposure to the sun and snow has left splotchy marks around the foreheads and high on pallid cheeks. Mouths have been ripped out or erased, eyes have been blindfolded, and the women press onward through the season, leaving behind something vital as the landscape around them dies. “Petite,” the largest of the five, is striking red and orange, but the warmth of the colors is not a comfort. A young woman bows her head in profile, but it is her mouth we are focused on. Blood and scabs replace what would have been a willowy pout, matching the crimson background. To the left, a smaller “Doora” looks directly into the viewer. Her high white collar suggest a religious association, but the way she stares out with almond shaped eyes sunk into the shadows of her face is deeply upsetting. Her small mouth puckers hungrily like a wolf on a dusky prowl.

Jarmo Mäkelä’s series, “Kärpästen herra (Lord of the Flies),” “Kuninkaiden kumarrus (The Bow of the Kings)” and “Europa, Europa” depict identical boys in school uniforms in three surreal developments. The most striking of the trilogy is the eleven knee-high sculptures of the boys, identical in their stance and solemn expressions, emerging as if from the paintings of themselves on the wall. The material looks like concrete, although the description says clay, and where the mold for their shape was broken, hard flaps of stone stand out from the figures. Material leakage is common in mold-made sculptures, but Mäkelä’s decision to leave the surface unfinished is a queer one. As the little boys march forward into the gallery, they proudly wear their flaws on their skin, on their small faces, like some uncivilized troop of future sovereign. “Kuninkaiden kumarrus (The Bow of the Kings)” directly behind the sculptures represents the boys in a more animated and disturbing backdrop. They brandish sticks, raise a skull above the battleground like an ominous flag. Boys ride on their twins backs, ready to joust, and one of the decanonplets (what is the term for 11 twins?) beats a drum above the frenzy as he looks deep into the woods beyond—or possibly out at the sculptures of his brothers. “Europa, Europa,” the second painting, is a busy, contained drama of the same boys trapped in an underground room with hysterical German Shepards leaping off the ground. A boy’s face on the body and clothes of a grown man stands giant on an oil barrel in the small room, beating a drum strapped to his chest. Above the scene, two of the boys balance on an unfinished roof like fencers in combat. Mäkelä’s series explores the country’s civil war and eventual independence, which had to be defended during the Second World War when Soviet Russia rose to power. The identical boys, locked in battle in the paintings and banded together in the sculptures, signify the internal struggle Finland endured as the people fought for control during the transition into an independent nation. Their strength of self-preservation has eventually paid off, and a young, independent Finland has grown and even prospered.

Although most of the show focuses on paintings, Vesa-Pekka Rannikko’s colorful two-channel video installation, “Canary,” is set up in one walled off part if the gallery. Follow the taut climbing ropes, the sinew that stretches from a carabiner in the wall to the larger-than-life canaries projected into a corner. Masses of bright colors fill the shadows created by the ropes as birds alight on a perch and flit around. While we expect canaries to contain a certain amount of yellow, these birds are flat with primary colors, no shadows or varying hues define them. They are cadmium red, sunshine yellow, and bright cyan. The ropes and their matching shadows build a cage, and although the projected birds can move about freely, the effect of a controlled natural state prevails. A quick search into genetic modification exposes The Red Canary, a story of the first attempts to engineer an animal outside of it’s own evolutionary arc. This popular bird—in the wild and in captivity—caused English canary breeders to experiment with feeding the birds different types of food in attempt to change their color. In the installation, the color of the birds have been digitally modified (another type of human intervention that disrupts the natural state of things) erasing defining features like eyes and feathers and thus erasing naturally occurring traits. The story becomes a metaphor for ethnic cleansing and selective populating—with Finland experiencing some of this during World War II while their borders were still fluid. While the red canary was never perfected, Nazi leaders took notice of the experiment and admired the scientific approach to their brand of ethnic cleansing. While the literal desire to cage and control a wild life may be overstepping the meaning of the piece, the struggle against natural forces in the environment and political landscape which one exists can be so tiresome—so repetitive—that one wishes to exercise any amount of control at all. Within the context of the “Dark Days, Bright Nights,” the imposed cage of shadows reflects a nation’s desire to be self contained.

Anna Tuori’s three large paintings, “It Is All Now You See,” “Splendor in the Grass,” and “Things I’ve Seen I Can See No More” follow the dreary, reflective tone of their titles into glimpses of cold landscapes. The three paintings pulse like a memory slowly coming into focus. The vignette format of these large scenes keep the images from reaching the borders of the canvas, remaining in the stillness of a certain time without overtaking the present. A dreamy countryside is glimpsed through a clear spot in a frosted window, swirling with cold wind that does not disturb the culminating icicles. From our vantage point, the rural locale is safely in the past where it cannot freeze us. Tuori takes us gently into these moments while keeping us out of harm’s way, and as the vignette seems to breathe—expanding a little and contracting slightly—we may feel a stiff and far away breeze reach out to us from the cool colors of “Things I’ve Seen I Can See No More.”

Once outside the museum, the cold sets in for real. Chilly winds blow down Warwick and above the nearby park. Cheeks chap and fingers search for the warmth of deep pockets. It is as if you have traveled a great distance in a short amount of time, retuning home with a new appreciation for the environmental restrictions art can thrive in. There is no such thing as a culture without art, and the perspective the artists of “Dark Days, Bright Nights” bring to Kansas City is a fresh and effective reminder that anything can be accomplished in any weather.

“Dark Days, Bright Nights: Contemporary Paintings from Finland”

October 2nd, 2015, to February 21st, 2016

Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art

4420 Warwick Blvd

Kansas City, MO 64111

www.kemperart.org

Vaguely New and Still Familiar: PLUG Projects in the Summer

A Review of Personal Space and Vague Perimeters at PLUG Projects

July 17-August 22, 2015

A spider sets up in the cracks of a satin porch. I lean, nose first, into the rosy light of sunset settled in the crevasse of a mounted object. I feel the crowd disappear, their conversations blur and muddle, and I listen to the spider move one leg at a time up the web, scraping the silk along the way. This is Amy Garofano’s “Satin Porch” on the wall at PLUG Projects on a stiflingly hot July evening. I’m escaping the oppression of a non-air-conditioned vehicle and tiresome conversation for this show, then a cold beer. The spider has added an appropriate element to Personal Space in the front room of PLUG Projects: the lived-in familiarity of a shared space. For me, that translates into old roommates in old houses and the diverse components of each: mixed textured objects and eras around the shared rooms, a personal yet chaotic vibe in a private room, an object before it was withered by a cat scraping her claws. Amy Garofano taps into this collective memory with her wrapped shapes and materials. Some appear more machined than others, like the pre-laid objects in mid-century modern homes that lack character only to the outside viewer, but are heavy with associations to those in the living space. Through her color choices, vague familiarity of shapes and patterns, and their inviting presence on the wall, Garofano’s study of the shifting contexts between perception and objects is more effective in person than it sounds on paper. What is gained from her work is a sense that certain moments of personal clarity occur around the most daily objects and locations that surround us. The collective memory is accessible with careful use of cultural banalities—like suede and empty brick walls. I found her work as she found inspiration: during a lull in the day where I was sensitive to the details of a space, if only as a brief escape from heat, conversation, and activity. Quite satisfying, even if I’m wrong, to think a complete circle had been reached. (The spider, I hope, was left unbothered.)

Occupying the same room, Cybele Lyles’s colorful prints are windows to changing landscapes that first appear to be still. A number of these prints echo their own form, as if the frame holds the image and the image holds more frames. This empty space appears behind thin layers of ink that add atmosphere to the empty frames and rooms. Moments of contemplation or reflection can often appear stagnant or wasted to an outsider, and this feeling is enhanced by mirroring landscapes that appear still but are in constant movement, like sand or a river. I was pleased by both Lyle’s bold use of color and restrained use of line and form—a rare combination among a certain breed of abstract minimalists. New worlds are made inside our world with calculated choices of color and shape, stemming from Lyle’s clear understanding of interior space and the natural environment. It is a high-quality blend of serene environments and the changing complexities of inner life, with each component reflecting the other. My only grievance is that most of this work is The Dreaded Untitled—my biggest pet peeve in the contemporary art world. Abstraction like Lyle’s has the unique power to affect without dramatizing a medium or subjective scenario, and therefore retains its potential to drive the audience into a near-subliminal state with the punctuation of a single word. Her deft skill in envisioning alternate environments and rooms that the audience can access is not rewarded with the final detail which would propel us into a new reality. An artist who can convince us of her own world with few materials and a short statement owes it to her creative career to provide a title of equal measure. This truly is a missed opportunity.

A room away, beyond a dark corner at the end of the front gallery, Annie Woodfill sets up her spatial interpretation of the room and the relationship her practice has within it. Vague Perimeters is a variety of things because it is A Space In Progress. While Woodfill’s ideas are well-formed and articulated in the statement, the construction of the space felt like a temporary incarnation of the massive themes she is working with. Everything in the space is in the process of opening or shutting, being measured and cut, coated or stripped. Stages of living “in between” moments are sources of inspiration, like strewn mail on a desk or an object intended for later use resting angled against a wall. Nothing is fixed, nothing is stable, and therefore an intimacy is developed as you traverse the room. I think of the first interactions with a space—the very, very first ones—as being the most intimate and loving to the architecture itself. No one is more in sync with a space as the one who erects the walls, applies straight lines where there once was organic chaos. Even in the stages before a new piece is added to a space—such as the materials found laying against the wall, found ephemera waiting for an accessed potential—the objects in this installation are being thought about very carefully, very concisely. I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere along Woodfill’s career, she began to build her own rooms, just to portray these ideas that form her obviously highly interconnected relationship to object and space. The invitation for an audience to enter this developing area can be difficult. Either the audience will pass through as they tend to do in spaces that appear under construction, or they will find themselves trapped in the scary grey area of being asked to consider the transitional environment in question, and not really understanding what is being asked of them. It’s a hard theme to work with—having a practice that is so enmeshed in these kinds of spaces and choosing elements of it to bring to a gallery—but Woodfill is on the right track with her deliberate and subtle assembly. Most notably, for me, the indication came upon looking up at the ceiling, where a single line of painter’s tape had been extended right up the corner of the wall and leapt across a material void to be reconnected with some existing structural part of the building. It is a buried, yet loaded choice that reflects the depth of her conceptual faculties and adherence to the artist statement. If choices like this evolve to their full potential—which I see as becoming a bit more loose and humorous—Woodfill can be sure the audience will feel welcomed and engaged in a space where vague is beautiful.

The Empress’s New Clothes

Update: All is Fair has resorted to finding funding through a Kickstarter campaign. As a member of the greater Kansas City community, I can confidently say only one individual in the pitch video is part of the transgender community. One individual is mentioned later in this article. Before you donate, think about why this is a problem.

Update #2: The project has been fully funded. 50% of the funding came in the last 48 hours of the project. I can only guess what this indicates. My time spent on this project has ended, but the conversation is ongoing, and I anticipate more vocalization on this matter, whatever the stance. The LGBTQIA community should have the floor.

As the opening date of All is Fair approaches, the new business started by Peregrine Honig in the Bauer building on West 18th Street in Kansas City, the usual media and Honig’s own following have little to criticize. Initial reviews, soft announcements of the shop opening, served to entice Kansas City with the promise of new territory being explored in an effort to relieve some of the oppression the trans community faces. The first article, written by Huffington Post writer Kayti Doolittle, spouted some of the usual uplifting predictions for the shop (and at one point even compared her own desire for non-lacey underwear to the trans experience—no I’m not kidding). The lack of critical voices on the matter make it more important than ever to deconstruct the implications of a prominent artist opening up a transgender lingerie shop—separate from her existing lingerie shop—and using the store as a reason to call herself an activist.

Let’s start with the obvious: a privileged white woman of a dominant social class is using her business skills and local connections to profit off a product that is marketed to an oppressed minority. Not only that, she is controlling the image on the product itself, injecting her own voice and her work on each garment. What seems like harmless business smarts at first can still be peeled back to reveal a cycle of gender oppression, misinformation, and misrepresentation of a vibrant community by someone who doesn’t belong to it. In my now seven-month long journey to understand this issue from as many sides as possible, I’ve discovered a lot of different ways to approach this issue—ranging from our culture’s problem of appointing Hollywood cis-genders to play trans roles, why high-profile organizations like SAGA believe straight allies accomplish things LGBTQ individuals simply cannot, and perhaps most important of all, how the wide umbrella of Transgender is in a constant state of flux. Everyone I’ve informally interviewed about this endeavor had something to say, most with a mixture of mild curiosity or indifference, some with enthusiasm for the product, others altogether enraged by the venture. One of the strangest things I’ve come across was that most of the straight, cis-gender individuals I chatted with seemed to have no problem at all with the store. What strikes many as support strikes me as an ignorance to the extreme inequality the transgender community faces all the time. It was much easier for the cis-gender straight population to show support and excitement because none of the issues affect them directly. Vehement non-supporters were quick to point out the ways in which this store directly insults or mistreats them/the LGBTQ community they belong to. Same goes for mild supporters, who displayed brief curiosity and a tentative plan to someday visit the store and see what it’s about. The only excited supporters in the LGBTQ community I talked to fell into the drag queen/performance artist category, an interesting point I feel needs to be made.

These were all one-on-one conversations. Hardly any of these opinions have made it into any of the major media articles thus far. Every other article I come across is an exclusive interview with Peregrine herself—obviously tooting her own horn for the sake of the business, as business owners do—and so far it seems none of these reporters are actually reaching out to the LGBTQ community for their opinions. Maybe they’re afraid of finding what I found in my journey: groups of people who either don’t care or are only mildly interested. Heading into a community that is always fighting against some injustice in one way or another, it is perilous to discuss something as material as what kind of underwear they would prefer to wear. Perhaps these reporters are content with one person’s opinion—the person who has the most to gain from a positive public appearance.

Maybe they just don’t want to put in the legwork.

Most likely, I imagine, each individual who has reported on All Is Fair and has put some major positive spin on the piece is of this cis-gender privileged class—the ones who talk about the shop most favorably. My biggest question to Honig, to Kansas City, and to anyone who is watching this story develop: Where are the voices that matter most? Why do the loudest, most supportive voices come from the privileged class? If the trans community is the last to speak up about this, will we still be listening, or will our attentions have drifted again to the next artist using social buzz words to fill their pockets?

Without the essential voices that are missing from this conversation, all I can hear is Honig using her media influence to open a new bank account. I can’t prevent that from happening, but I can offer you another side of the issue that is deeper and more sinister than you will hear from other media outlets.

I want to break this down so we can examine the ways injustice is hidden beneath an assertion of understanding. Keep in mind, neither I nor my correspondents are authoritative voices in the media, LGBTQ culture, or Kansas City’s art scene. Together, we have simply contributed our voices to navigate this complex and mutable issue in a way that allows for a deeper and more productive conversation to occur.

It seems Honig believes a new store front will be more inclusive than it is excluded from Birdies, the existing shop. This simplified model leaves the critical thinkers with more questions than answers. In her unique social position—in society and in Kansas City’s who’s who club—it might not occur to her that what she wants from a store may not be what the trans community seeks in their efforts to become more visible and incorporated into daily life. As Cy Lauz expressed in a written piece about the shop on KCUR: “If you are a trans woman who is not particularly ‘passable’ and are shopping at a store or public venue, you face the possibility of being harassed, judged and even physically hurt.” Although the quote was inserted as a promotion for All Is Fair within the context of that particular write-up, the concerns expressed are dangerously real. Ignoring what Lauz is saying, or worse, spinning it around to support Honig’s crusade, is just one more example of how local media is working to control our opinions while the Cream Club gets their backs scratched. The dangers of opening a separated store—in an alley, remember—that is targeted to gain the business (and trust) of the trans community are real and present. Even in the liberal 18th Street district of the Crossroads, nobody is prevented from bringing their narrow-minded hatred for non-binary individuals to a violent head. It sickens us to think it could ever happen, but it happens all the time. It appears the move reflects Honig’s real intentions with the store and does not prioritize the safety of her customers. I wonder if Birdies couldn’t work on rebuilding their brand for inclusiveness and encouragement, rather than detaching other aspects of human sexuality and the spectrum areas between gender expressions in order to remain relevant. All Is Fair is a new segregation, a definitive line between “our” lingerie and “their” lingerie, literally separated by a one-way street that could represent our passing interest in social politics. The trans community might prefer to walk into Birdies and be treated like any other customer, but that might involve changing the overwhelming feminine aspects of the store itself. Simply re-branding Birdies would eliminate a crucial aspect of this project for Honig: the hype-generating click-bait the media will clamber over to report on—an element that Honig has always depended on for each new venture to succeed.

The notion that human sexuality and the gender spectrum should be divided into different lanes for purchasing different wares is a dangerous one, one I don’t think Honig has considered from the perspective of the LGBTQ community. Sure, the shape and size of the lingerie will be different, but an eclectic mix of undergarments in an existing store might be more warm and inclusive. In talking with Sandra Meade and Una Nowling, each expressed a similar concern for the concept of stores that might be seen as supporting the notion that transgender people are fundamentally different, and should shop in their own spaces. Both prefer to shop at places for women, like Dillards and Nordstrom, or anywhere else that carries women’s underwear. When we talked about unique proportions to consider, Una made a scientific observation:

“It’s inarguable that a transgender woman with XY chromosomes will likely have a different body shape and proportions than an XX woman. If this clothing line takes that into account, along the lines of how good shoes made for transgender women will be built upon a ‘male shoe’ last, then that would useful.”

The prefix to woman or man shouldn’t matter, but as the trend of talking about transgender and transsexual issues continues, more people are choosing to create stores especially for “them”. Thus, the harmful idea of “the other” continues to exist and to profit. Both women, who I want to remind you are not the authorities of trans culture (although their activism is admirable—and they were kind enough to meet with me and have a discussion) said they believe there is a niche market for this brick-and-mortar shop, including among cross-dressers and others who are not yet comfortable in mainstream stores, especially among those with a steady and reliable income, since such specialty shops may be expensive. We talked about the depressing transgender economic status, and that many individuals under the transgender umbrella would simply be unable to afford such material goods.

When you think of custom made underwear—made by a prominent artist whose work is collected nationwide—and you think of the details that must be paid regarding each individual’s unique curves and surfaces, the dollar signs start to add up. Factor in high-quality material and manual labor and we’re looking at some pricy undies. (Anyone who has shopped at Birdies can relate, as Honig’s choice of garments hardly ever falls below the $30 mark.) Marketing an expensive product to a community that faces a high rate of job displacement and income disparity based on their identity seems uninformed at best. Paying straight, privileged designers of the upper social class to create these products, only to sell them to a traditionally lower income class, seems stranger still. My correspondent, Vian May–who has helped me understand the issue from an individual perspective– had some things to say:

“At the same time, inclusiveness helps create an environment of acceptance almost as much as out living does. But this is an environment that we are still in the process of creating. And the backlash can be disheartening. I’m not sure if I can express the thoughts of other trans guys, much less those of trans women, but I have a legitimate concern over violence in my life due to being a trans man. That violence is a threat to trans women in an exponentially larger set of circumstances and exponentially more violent altercations, up to and including murder.

I think it’s easy to say ‘what should be’ when ‘what should be’ doesn’t affect you. Of course my underclothes should be easily available, there shouldn’t be a question of what changing room or bathroom I use, there should be no concern about me losing my job or my clients over my trans status. How things should be is rarely how they are.”

As a trans male, Vian’s approach to safety issues and concerns is not unique. An inclusive environment is completely necessary if trans people want to shop for their clothes and materials freely, but that inclusiveness is still in the process of being obtained. The idea that inclusiveness can be reached most effectively by separating “ours” from “their” material goods, rather than educating the public that might nay-say all-gender stores, is not inclusive. It is the exact opposite.

Fads are a problem in the art world. The more artists latch on to the hip new socio-political trends, the more they reduce them to their own voice and interpretation. Trans issues are all over the news these days, and although most of this exposure comes from a place of positive empowerment, a lot of it reinforces our existing ideas about the community. The rise of trans roles, often played by cis-male actors like Eddie Redmayne and Jeffrey Tambor, fill our curiosities of “what it means to be trans”, except for when they don’t. More producers, artists, writers, and subcultures are lifting the trans identity and applying it to their own pursuits. I didn’t think about this until just after I saw “Unicorn”—Honig’s first solo exhibition in years. When I got wind of what the new shop was about, something was off in the way “Unicorn” was off. In the middle of the gallery, surrounded by the Cream Club of Kansas City, I tried to put my finger on the growing discomfort I felt while watching people experience the work. Honig’s main representation of the trans community was a large image of the fabled “Unicorn”: a young woman with a penis between her legs/a young man with small breasts and engorged nipples. A young trans, essentially. This “slashie” of the sexes disturbed me—not because of the hermaphroditic genitalia—but that now, in the middle of a large gallery filled with the privileged majority, this was the take-away image of transgender. The rest of the subject matter was overwhelmingly female oriented: foxes, bunnies, women’s legs, little lambs—and I was left confused as to how that was representative to the other half of a culture that walk the delicate lines around what society wants them to be: “masculine” or “feminine”. Where were the traditionally male oriented images? Or better yet, where were the genderless creatures—the easily transformed and unhindered symbols that more accurately represent a culture and lifestyle of non-fixed gender organisms, like slugs and worms? Why was the female role so heavily portrayed while the male role was completely absent? It appeared Honig was oblivious to how one-sided her portrayal of the trans culture was, not only because the images seemed heavily influenced by her own feminine experiences, but the crowd itself seemed to lack representation.

We often make the mistake of equating popularity with influence, positivity with justice, and agreeability with righteousness. In fact, “activism” in the art world is often nothing more than a minority voice being refracted through a majority person’s prism. This happens over and over again in the Kansas City art scene: we assign the faces we see most frequently to the progression of social change. Those who control the media control the images and the descriptions, and mislabeling artists who appropriate culture as activists is one of their most damaging and pervasive qualities. In reality, it appears these are just the same people showing up to the same parties, riding on the coattails of a buzzword or movement, using their privilege to move between their world and another under the title of “activist”. Artists somehow get away with this all the time. Start seeing it. Start calling it out.

This is not to say there are not real activists in the art world. The late, great Steven Metzler was one of them. The community’s loss of his kindness and humility is large, but as someone who moved between the art and activist world, he was a shining example of what it means to be a wonderful person. There are others like him who have the heart and the means to do real good in this world, but they are often the silent do-gooders, not normally in the spotlight.

It must be difficult for a celebrity to distance themselves from the face of their own brand, but that is what Peregrine must do if we are expected to take her “activism” seriously. I have criticized actions like this in the past, and it’s no surprise Peregrine brought her youngest sister, Esther, on board for a photo shoot that appropriates the trans identity. You can see it on Facebook, the image of Peregrine and Esther side by side dressed in casual “boy” clothes with their hair pulled back and feminine features downplayed. Under #brothers, this image is evocative of modern-day blackface—a theatrical performance that does nothing to drive political or social activism towards a more equal world, but serves to feed the privileged majority an image of a culture they will accept. Like blackface, this image implies that we no longer live in a gendered world, which is highly incorrect. With the hashtag “brothers”, the Honig sisters have assigned a pronoun to a people who are, in part, trying to dismantle this aspect of language and identity. The very idea belittles anyone struggling against gender inequality, dwindling reproductive rights, lack of fair pay and housing, and sexual discrimination. Esther’s inclusion in the shoot may be the most perfect analogy of a privileged class kowtowing to the famous for seconds of internet share-ability without understanding the greater implications of their support and actions. Sister or not, her agreeability to engage in such a display is a telling sign of the veil of advantage she lives under. Esther is now probably best known for playing this kind of dress up before—a project that succeeded in feeding the beast that creates and perpetuates gender and beauty norms—so I was not surprised to see her continue to treat identity like a costume. The powers that decide what is manly and what is feminine have so much control, it seems the Honig sisters are just as normative as they are. This unaware state of privilege is so glaring, it hurts to look at. The image shadows the idea that maybe Peregrine and Esther are struggling within their heteronormative, privileged lifestyles and that this action is an expression of their truer personhoods. Sadly, like blackface, I think the two are so far removed from what the experience is actually like, they succeeded only in embarrassing themselves to those who face the struggles they pretend to understand. It is simply disrespectful.

Appropriation typically involves an exploitation or assimilation into a minority/oppressed culture by a majority/dominant culture. In this case, the dominant—two privileged women who enjoy their class and celebrity status—are laying claim to the identity of a marginalized community they do not belong to. Julia Serano breaks this kind of appropriation of the LGBTQ lifestyle into three motivations:

Erasure: Marginalized/minority groups have little power or voice in society. Therefore, when the dominant/majority group takes up their identities, ideas, and other cultural creations, it tends to undermine or erase the context in which they were created, and the original meanings and symbolism that underlie them. In other words, the dominant/majority typically takes up the marginalized/minority group’s creations while disregarding their perspective.

Exploitation: Sometimes members of the dominant/majority group will materially profit from aspects or acts that they have appropriated from a marginalized/minority group without ever giving anything back to that community. This tends to further exacerbate economic disparities that may already exist between the two groups.

Denigration: This can refer to a couple different things. Denigration can mean “to treat or represent as lacking in value or importance; belittle,” which applies to instances where important or sacred aspects of the marginalized/minority group’s identity or culture are appropriated by the dominant/majority group in an irreverent or disrespectful manner. Denigration can also mean “to speak damagingly of; criticize in a derogatory manner; sully; defame: to denigrate someone’s character,” which applies to instances where the dominant/majority group appropriates some aspect of the marginalized/minority group’s identity or culture in order to purposefully ridicule, parody, or insult members of that group.

These three motivations are not obvious to Peregrine if she is enjoying her dominance without respecting or relating to the culture she is borrowing. It is social colonialism, identity gentrification, and it is responsible for some deep seated misinformation that manifests into small or large injustices.

I’m not forgetting the point of this store: to provide unique, custom made underclothes to individuals who struggle with the annoyances of connecting their body to their mind. I can’t really imagine what that’s like, as my underwear is about as low maintenance as it gets and my sexual and gender identity fall under a different umbrella, but I can imagine there is something people will want, will benefit from, and will pay for that All Is Fair can provide. But Honig is creating a brand that neglects to imagine a body that does not embrace the cute, frilly aspects of underwear. Handmade garments with her own paintings on them reflects a one-sided understanding of how lingerie works. Has she considered the fact that many trans individuals would rather not draw attention to the parts of them they must alter in order to feel normal? As I was researching and asking about the differences in what trans people want from their underwear, my correspondent provided this:

“Why would celebrating the fact that I have to bind, which in our culture, makes me supposedly less of a man, be any different? If they actually manage to make a reasonably priced binder that doesn’t ride up or break your ribs and don’t paint it like it’s goddamned lingerie they may get my business yet, via mail order. It just seems like they still regard trans men as women who want pretty things to celebrate their body, and that offends me. While the wearing of bras and other female undergarments may be a celebration of femininity for trans women, I do not find the daily recognition that my body is not a reflection of myself any type of celebration at all.”

This was something I hadn’t considered before. The very act of covering ones body in an ongoing attempt to bring it closer to one’s true identity is something I don’t experience on such an extreme level. Of course, we all attempt to dress in a way that reflects who we are, but we can control and change our clothes whenever and however we want. We’re mostly stuck with our bodies, and trans individuals who do not seek or cannot afford operation must find ways to live with the body they were assigned without the constant reminder that they are not living in the correct body. Some people buy lingerie to celebrate their figures because they want, or want other people, to pay attention to it. It seems there is a great disconnect between the business model of hand-painted, delicate, meticulously created garments and some individuals’ need to just throw something on and not think about it as much as possible. I’m also not the target audience for this store, so I need to recognize there are many different preferences and lifestyles that would find some products in All Is Fair beneficial. Given my experiences at Birdies, with Honig’s “Unicorn” show, and as a viewer of her art on a more general level, I am curious to see if she is able to create a product that is not saturated in femininity.

I want to make one thing clear about myself: I do not speak for the transgender community in any way. I do not speak for a population that has a voice of their own. I do not claim to understand more than anyone else, or in a better way. I have not been asked to stand in for another voice, nor have I been assigned the role of reviewer by anyone. I am doing this because I want to say something nobody else has said yet. I am doing this because I have the ability to contribute to the conversation using my own tools. I am doing this because I am afraid we will repeat the past with a new vocabulary, steeped in altruism and communal interest but really guiding the movement in the wrong direction. I am doing this because I am not afraid of Peregrine Honig, her followers, or other people who may not like what I have to say. I am doing this because when a community is being appropriated by the privileged majority—when their lives and identities are being borrowed and used by the profiteering dominant—I want to stand on the side that is fighting for a greater and more equal world.

My Favorite Men are Feminists: A Letter to Tara Kennedy Kline

Dear Tara Kennedy Kline, and anyone including themselves in the feminist vs. anti- feminist debate,

I think sometimes we’re all a little confused. Given the social structures, crossing lines of communication, personal differences, cultural gaps, plethora of definitions, etc, it’s no surprise it’s so difficult for us to classify ourselves as Feminist or Not Feminist. Either and any extreme of a given situation is bound to mirror even the simplest political spectrum. Too far in one direction, your are a reactionary, revolutionary, extremist, etc. Smack dab in the middle makes you a pacifist at best. Slightly off to one side or the other is the opinionated activist, or just opinionated. We need to start to clarify, while at the same time, dismantle the common stereotypes feminists and anti-feminists are associated with. This will not solve the collective identity crisis, but hopefully we can learn to reject labels in favor of an objectively even playing field for all the sexes and gender identities.

In TKK’s article on November 14th 2014, she makes her position very clear in the FvsNF debate: As a mother of two boys, she does not want them to grow up with, nor will she impose, a “feminist agenda”. I don’t have my own children, so I have no room to speak for being a mother, but in a way I kind of understand what she is saying. Every parent wants the best for their children, no doubt, and mostly we want them to be influenced by culture at a rate they can understand and be receptive to it. She states:

“I want my boys to be chivalrous, to open doors and carry heavy loads, to ask a girl out on a date and pay the bill without expecting anything in return. I am encouraging my sons to tell girls when they think those girls look beautiful. I love that my boys want to surprise me (and eventually their partners) with gifts, and the spontaneous hug or peck on the cheek from time to time to show their love.

But, the latest campaigns by the feminist movement are telling boys they are wrong if they do these things, or anything else that would make a girl feel stereotypically “girly,” or my sons to act stereotypically “gentleman-like.” The FCKH8 Campaign would have girls tell my sons to “fuck off” if they called them pretty or reached for their hand without permission.”

To reduce the feminist movement and the struggle for women to have equal rights down to stereotypical gender roles is not fair to the movement or to her sons. I don’t think any modern day feminist would object to wanting to raise your sons to be polite, courteous, generous, and loving, but part of the feminist movement is teaching young boys and girls the deeper nature of human consent, exchange, and generosity. What feminism really boils down to is having respect for each individual and letting each person decide for themselves how they want to live their life.

All my favorite men are feminists. My partner has actually taught me more about feminism than I would have found out on my own. His respect and openness to discuss matters which I could deny or consent to has been an enlightening experience for me. He still opens doors, picks up the check once in a while, tells me I’m beautiful, and is appropriately physical with me in public. Those feminist men in my life I’m not romantically involved with treat me and other women with the same caring and non-judgmental behavior they would treat their male friends. Of course, every individual is different. Some women prefer to pay for their own drinks, have a conversation with others without being interrupted by a circling male looking for numbers, and even leave the house without being called at or commented on. Other women, feminists or not, will gladly accept a gesture from another human—a drink at the bar, a casual date, an honest comment—this doesn’t mean they are any better or worse than the other group, it’s just what they feel comfortable with and empowered by. As a feminist male, there is no direct role to follow or reference to. There are some rules to follow and some lines to avoid crossing at all times, but at no point in the “feminist agenda” does it say “Real Men this” or “Manliness that”.

TKK, I think you may have exaggerated the response your sons might get if they “called a girl pretty or reached for their hand without permission”. I don’t think any and every feminist would yell “fuck off” based on these gestures alone, but coupled with aggressive come-ons, inappropriate touching or commenting, or a glaringly obvious lack of consent on the girl’s part, I think that response would be expected. If your son is demonstrating an honest comment or gesture made as a genuine attempt to respect and acknowledge a female, I don’t understand how you made the conclusion that “fuck you” would be the response. I assume you are teaching your two boys to grow up with respect for “no means no” and any/every opinion regarding her personal space a woman has. If you aren’t, you are opting out of helping the next generation understand consent, boundaries, and very basic respect for fellow humans. No human is property of someone else, and the acknowledgement and respect for basic consent is the most crucial step towards living a life with respect for this fact.

As a feminist that has dealt with many “creepy douchebags”, I can tell you it takes much more than “a simple hello” to put me on guard. Little girls are not brought up believing the “fact that 100% of men are rapists.” I’m not sure where you get those numbers or that information. Little girls are brought up to understand their bodies and tell an adult when something inappropriate has happened to them. As those girls get older, mass culture and media teach them that men are in charge of their bodies, what they consume, who they know, and what their level of comfort is at any given time in their presence. Ok, I’m not being fair, but based on your numbers, this is an argument you can understand. Obviously not “100% of men” are rapists. Clearly women grow up to trust, respect, and even love men who provide for and support them. Your definition of feminism is a culture of women who simply, incorrectly, irreversibly hate men. Since there are many, many feminist women who are married, raise children, stay at home, and operate a more “traditional” home situation, your argument immediately becomes invalid.

Criteria for Feminism:

  1. Believe that men and women deserve equal rights.

As an example, since this is actually the rule most people have trouble understanding, a man is standing at a bus stop, waiting for the bus, and a woman comes up to him.

“Hey,” she says, “you’re very attractive. Will you give me your number?”

“No,” says the man, a little taken aback. “I’m just trying to get to work.”

The woman steps back, a little hurt by the rejection, but now aware of the cute man’s boundaries.

Problem solved! Let’s reverse the roles:

A woman is standing at the bus stop, waiting for a ride. A man approaches her.

“Hey,” he says, “you’re very attractive. Will you give me your number?”

“No,” says the woman, a little taken aback. “I’m just trying to get to work.”

The man steps back, a little hurt by the rejection, but now aware of the cute girl’s boundaries.

Again! Problem solved! This is feminism. The respect for the individual needs, boundaries, and comfort levels of men and women alike. Unfortunately, the culture little girls grow up understanding is that men are stronger, and if they wanted to overpower you, they have that ability. This means physically, sexually, mentally, and emotionally. A little girl is taught to run away before she is taught to stand up for herself, because it’s easier to flee a threatening confrontation than it is to avoid one. Tragically, some of these confrontations end in violence if a man believes a woman’s attention to him is a right he deserves. If your sons are growing up without understanding what the young girls are growing up with as well, it becomes harder for them in their adult years to put a woman’s life into perspective, and to recognize the signs and signals of a threatening interaction. Language and body language are the best indicators that someone is feeling uncomfortable by your presence, and if another person is responding in ways that makes you think they feel threatened, it’s a good indication you don’t realize their position or what you might be suggesting with your own language.

  1. Perform and believe Rule 1 on a daily basis.

The feminist men in my life are all different. Some of them are weight lifters, some are musicians, some are artists and writers, some are accountants or business owners, some are bartenders or servers or landlords. Some are gay, some are straight, some are bisexual, some have fixed gender identities and others move easily between. Some of them don’t even like each other, for whatever personal reasons. The only thing they really have in common is their belief that women deserve just as much respect for their unique lifestyles as men do. And that they would never hurt another human being to prove the worth of their own beliefs or identity. If your sons are growing up to turn out like these feminist men I know, I’m sure they will make excellent human beings anyone would be happy to know.

A Letter to the Makers of my Broken Can Opener

Dear good folks at Good Cook,

Yesterday at the store, I hesitated over a can of Wolfgang Puck’s organic/free range chicken noodle soup that was canned without the convenient pull-tab on top—the kind that advertises on the can itself, that one need not bother with a can opener. I hesitated because A) although a pull tab is much easier, it uses a little bit more material in the packaging and as I was in the health food store in my town, I was feeling slightly more conscientious, and B) did I really need a can of chicken noodle soup? Yes. I bought the tab-less can of soup and was very excited to eat it the next day. Today, I pulled out my Good Cook can opener and stuck it on the soup, right above Mr. Puck’s smiling face. As soon as I applied the correct amount of pressure to ensure the can opener would glide around the circumference of the can, revealing to me the delicious pre-cooked food I longed to enjoy, the handle snapped off in three pieces and cut the thin, tender part of my palm between my thumb and pointer finger. I was stunned at first, then, incredibly pissed.

Do you want to know what I do for a living? I work in a restaurant. Do you know what my job includes on a daily basis? Lemons. Have you ever punctured that oh-so-delicate area of your dominant hand and have to handle citrus fruits all day, and you can’t wear a bandage because it’s unsightly and unsanitary? It fucking sucks.

Do you know what else? That was my only can opener. I’m no fool. I bought one can opener last year when it became clear that I absolutely needed one in my apartment. I do not keep a spare can opener in my apartment, and I was really hoping one would last me longer than a year. When my Good Cook can opener disintegrated in my hands, like a poorly made pastry gone stale overnight, I was lost in a world where I had become trapped by my individual consumer choices. I began to question, as the wound on my hand continued to smart, why had I purchased the tab-less can in the first place? Why had I put my every ounce of trust in having lunch one afternoon into an object that felt no relation to the condition of human struggle? Why, in the greater scheme of my life, had I not just made my own soup from my own ingredients and avoided the problem entirely? This quandary left me feeling disappointed on a small scale, and dismayed and rejected by consumer culture on a very large scale. There I stood, between the unbroken lid of the can and the suddenly non-functional tool that wielded the only power I possessed to traverse the physical boundaries that stood between me and a good, healthy lunch.

I will spare you the gruesome details of how I finally got the can open. Have you ever seen “127 Hours”? It was kinda like that. If there is an astral plane for post-inanimate objects that have undergone severe earthly trauma, that’s where my can would be.

I am not writing this letter out of anger (I worked through all the stages of grief for my fallen kitchen gadget), but as a voice for all the unfortunate consequences of shoddy and negligent manufacturing. I assume you did not plan for this object obsolescence, being somewhat naïve to the functions of the can-opener-making industry, but nevertheless, I want my money back. I gave my can opener the best life it could ask for. I never dropped it, soaked it, or threw it across the room. I let it open all kinds of cans and experience foods from all over the world, I even used the bottle opener and lever attached to the head! This can opener got the most out of life, and to have been taken so suddenly from a good home and loving canned-food lover is simply tragic.

Please regard this message with the respect my can opener deserved, and send a check with the amount of $19.89 made out to Annie Raab. In the memo, you can write “Refund, plus emotional damage”. I would highly appreciate your empathy and cooperation, as it will be some time before I am ready to purchase a new can opener.

Thank you,

Annie Raab