The Empress’s New Clothes

 

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.

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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.

The Future of “Before and After”

(Forthcoming in “8 1/2 x 11” Winter, 2014-15)

Esther Honig created the perfect storm. A 24 year old self-proclaimed social media expert is an ideal candidate for the new viral project, Before and After. The project has been viewed more than two-million times on Buzzfeed in the short amount of time is has surfaced. There have been brief articles, most of them using the same two quotes from the artist and letting the images do the rest of the legwork, and an upcoming interview with Vice I can only be sure will treat the project as everyone else has been treating it: A young, pretty woman is turning our attention to global beauty standards through the use of freelancers using Photoshop. The internet is just about ready to move onto the next thing, but before that shift in collective attention span happens, I want to discuss some critical issues about the project.

Honig’s project shows us that to be beautiful, and to create something that is mass appealing to the times we are living in, you can have everyone’s attention. But collective fawning does not make for thought-provoking art. In every link I followed on the project, I was more surprised to discover the publisher than the project itself. Cosmopolitan, Elle, and Buzzfeed–one of our biggest weapons against productivity–all dipped their fingers in the pie. The Kansas City Star, in a completely expected attempt to stay afloat, published a glowing article about the project as another effort to draw eyes to the city and art scene within. I pose the question to Esther, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Buzzfeed, The Star, and all the promoters of this project via social media avenues: Does the content of this project extend past the obvious visual gratification we get from seeing an already beautiful American woman adopt the style of cultures that are foreign to many of us? This brings up a huge issue the social media hub has not openly discussed: Is Esther taking advantage of her gender and American status to create something that is mass appealing without the intent to follow-up on the issue she claims to raise? I read the articles, the interviews, the comments (not helpful) and saw the images plastered over the internet. I found a lot of criticism of the returned photoshopped images and statements regarding the artist’s natural beauty. Nobody seems to want to bring up the fact that we all already know ideal beauty is largely unattainable, and that the popularity of this project will fade soon because it is just that: popular. If this were a project that promised to enact real social change, we would not be seeing it represented by the informational avenues it has been chosen by. Lets be honest: Attention from Elle, Cosmo, and Buzzfeed does not equate to rattling the cages of the larger problems of beauty standards in the world. These are sources that are respected and endorsed by those of the privileged class that are busy putting these standards in place. Their representation is an admission of the projects critical missteps. If Honig’s claim to be opening up the global conversation to discussing unattainable beauty, it would be much more effective to turn down interviews and publications for the large corporations that are creating the problem she is questioning to begin with. As I currently see it, this is a young woman taking on an ambitious project that currently promises no global call to action and is more closely related to playing dress up or pretend. A beautiful woman with this kind of impact should not strive to induce a collective sigh, but a roar.

Growing-up-girl is no easy task. Beauty is praised long before intelligence is even discovered. Should this project be treated the same way? We began to praise it before we explored the deeper issues and connotations surrounding the object of female beauty in the world. When will our minute-long attention spans and self-obsessed lifestyles–bombarded with catchy headlines and severely boiled down facts–ever be put to the good use of enacting real social change? I believe it won’t, not unless we move beyond instantly gratifying, image-based, easy-share content and delve deeper into the issues that continue to suppress. This skepticism extends past the Before and After project. Our globally-shared ego inflations are not propellers of serious conversation, and the fifteen minutes of media attention will go no further than reaching a large number of people in a short amount of time who have the collective attention span we all are quickly becoming victim to. It’s far easier to publicly share your opinion than it is to take it out into the real world and be an instrument against the seen and unseen forces that seek to silence it.

I’m proud of Esther. She has accomplished something we value in today’s world. There are some people who are suited for the new age of technology and overnight success, and there are some who will be left behind in the bygone era of dry speculation presented in a formal manner. The bottom line of this project seems to be lacking real content from every angle it can be approached. It’s fun to play pretend. It’s nice to be accepted. But artistic content and social change do not travel through avenues of egotism.

 

A link to the project on Elle: http://www.elle.com/news/beauty-makeup/photoshop-beauty-standards

UPDATE: The project has now been published in Harpers Bazaar, another long-standing publication that devotes major time, energy, and finance to further images of standard beauty for their own monetary gain. http://www.harpersbazaar.com/

Windows Between Realities: The Photograph Works of Leonor Jurado-Laspina

First published by KC Studio Magazine, April 2014.

 

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It begins and ends with the body. The photographs of and by Leonor Jurado-Laspina on display at Garcia Squared Contemporary are surface vibrations caused by disturbed waters deep below. There is an ominous narrative enclosed in each image, and they have been condensed and cropped to focus on the point of highest tension. These stories are told through body parts, intimate and disturbing moments reflected in a bowed hand, or a covered head. Alongside these fragmented portraits are broken natural structures, such as fallen trees, large branches, and deer skulls, seemingly at the tail end of decomposition. We are taken into a story created through many small, single-subject images. A palm, the bottoms of two feet, or half a torso are photographed with softness, yet the shadowy space beyond the figure is left invisible. This dark space that occupies the photographs is, in many ways, exactly what Jurado-Laspina is exploring. Jurado describes her personal longing for art movements passed, which may explain why some of her figures shield themselves from the lens, denying their inclusion in the canon. An alternate version of reality emerges to overtake the existing one, and so the truth of each photograph becomes more difficult to identify using the framework we possess in this world. How many of these image bear a semblance to the world we are viewing them from? Are the images, like the scarred hand pressed onto glass, living in a world just beyond our reach? If, in this alternate reality, we find truth and answers, would they carry over with the same weight into this reality? Each image lives an antiquated lifestyle. Even when photographed with an iPhone, they seem unassociated with today’s fast-paced technology and self-obsessed social scene. Perhaps they are visitors from the past.

Presented with these human parts in another context, we would swell with a kind of love, an instinct to protect, or at least intimate familiarity, but Jurado-Laspina’s series does not take us there. Our memories are disrupted by the macabre, Gothic sensibility of these images and we are denied some of our humanity in favor of fiction. The images truly represent those intimate pieces of ourselves and each other we protect the most, but even through their exposure they remain trapped and inaccessible. Some are more tactile, like the hand pressed against a clear, hard surface, presenting the audience with a long scar cut across the supple palm. Others have more abstract narratives: branches laid out alone or in a cluster of exposed roots and antlers removed from their original posts. In these shots of nature the medium speaks louder than the story, exhibiting Jurado’s skillful usage of antiquated cameras and old fashion processes. Any photographer to come of age before the digital revolution can appreciate the deftness by which she wields these dinosaur tools, although eventually every images becomes digitized. Such is the photographic way for those on a budget. The truly hands-on process is not in the images, but the porcelain mounts the photos have been transferred onto. She uses old fabric doilies, some of them from her own familial origins. The objects become heavy with clay as she continues to press them into the wet material, giving the images the weight of physical labor and personal history.

Around the corner from the small photographs are three large prints of the female form. Up close, they appear low-quality and unflattering. Jurado reveals the secret: These photographs have been shot with her iPhone and blown up much larger than the device is capable of shooting. In just three photographs of the canonical female body, Jurado is posing some provocative questions for Western culture. The otherness of the iPhone “selfies” defy both sets of rules for sexting and profile-pic-ing. They are not shot from the most flattering and publicly appealing angle, nor do they condense sexuality into expressions in the eyes, face, or erogenous zones of the body. They are forthright and bold, grainy and unfocused, and are more evocative of the (long replaced) female standards of the past. There are no frills in the black and white triptych. Jurado is only using the device to propagate the media to propagate the culture, and in doing so has challenged us to think about the edits we make to ourselves when we turn the camera (app) around.

When asked about materials, Jurado begins to discuss the negation of the materials and process she is using. As a photographer living in the digital age, she is quick to recognize her practice as having to evolve. A photograph still asserts itself as a photograph, but embraces the digital age whenever necessary. When I ask Jurado about her relationship to memory, she has a surprising reply. The series, she asserts, is not about the memory of the subjects, but the history of the art and subject matter. This feels existential and I consult the images for affirmation. I imagine the subjects weighted down by past lives and false memories of their condition. Gothic in content with Baroque references, the figures are trapped. Jurado talks about her photographs like a disturbed person might talk about another living thing. “I’m not afraid to put my subjects in precarious situations. They are the manifestation of entrapment and internalization of a situation”. She says this with tough love, and concludes “I want the work to feel slightly religious and spiritual without being preachy, like Bill Viola can accomplish in his works.” She expands on the research she has been doing on Viola, but is right to recognize her work as different in many ways. “I’m just very inspired by him right now,” she says, “but I could never make work on that scale.”

The shows larger theme is “displacement”, as enforced by Jurado’s statement. She doesn’t mention it in the show, but she’s moving back to Ecuador this year, leaving the United States behind. Everything she owns will be under scrutiny: Do I take this? Do I have ties to this? Will I be in contact with you? Her home country has become increasingly more appealing to her in the last few years as American policies continue to behave this way. When we know this bit of personal information about the artist, suddenly the broken branches and isolated figures mean that much more. This series is overwhelmingly a study of the past and a longing for a world different from the one we remain in. Just as the figures in the photograph appear to be trying to escape, we are trying to enter.

You can see Leonor Jurado-Laspina’s work at the Paragraph Gallery (23 E 12th Street) on April 4th until the end of the month.

Objet Boutique: Group Efforts in Delinquency

Written for publication in The Bohemian Zine, 2013.

 

Miles Fermin, despite his clever ploy to convince us he is a youthful art student, behaves in many ways like a very old man. Although his style has not digressed entirely into oversized cardigans and wool slippers, the big glasses and un-tucked button-up suggest a similar frame of mind. Miles is not the old man who goes to bed at 6pm, nor is he the man down the hall that complains every time the temperature changes. Miles is a very different elder. He is an old man with his ambitions still in tact. He is the anti-establishmentarian on the block, spouting off ideas to the neighborhood. He is the old man with objects that might be from outer space on his front lawn, unearthly flags waving high, and a secret job selling home-grown bud. He is an old man trapped in a young mans body and financial insignificance. To sum it up: this 20-something, wild-haired (some of them already graying), bespectacled motor-mouth has some crazy ideas–and they’re pretty contagious.

Since January 31st, Objet Boutique has been operating out of Paragraph Gallery (23 E 12th St) as a pop-up shop with handmade items from a group of artists and friends at the Kansas City Art Institute. The group is composed of ceramicists like Brett Ginsburg and Dean Roper, fashion designers such as Maegan Stracy and Jen Wilkinson, and printmakers Madeline Gallucci and Eric Dobbins, just to name a few. The mix of artists operate with a soft pastel and faux-natural color palette interjected with bright, garish yellows, greens, and hot pinks. Cacti abound, the shop has a cool but inviting boutique-ish air that almost seems to have been carried over from somebody’s lax apartment. The items are all on a couple tables and shelves (wood propped up on saw horses, it seems) and hanging from the walls and ceiling. Two shirts police the scene from above: “DON’T GET CAUGHT”, they warn, unsure whether to be deterring or encouraging theft. Other clothes, ones of the Vinyl and digital persuasion, hang in the corner. Besides the brick-and-mortar front, Objet Boutique lives an equally important life as a Tumblr blog, where the work is showcased in the strange grey area that is between fine-art documentation and candid photobooth. Beautifully anxious ceramic outcasts crawl feebly atop patches of fake grass, hunch awkwardly behind the glory that is the plastic bottle or commercially successful foliage, and simply lie around as receptacles for spent roaches. Pieces of broken (but who’s to say they are not whole?) pots and cups become perfect exposed vessels for the meek, voiceless discards of a messy studio. My heart melts a little when I encounter Mel Nguyen’s “Desk Deposits” and Joey Watson’s “Espresso Cups”. These little reminders of the artists private studio are displayed in a kind of self-conscious rest. I want to bend down and kiss every one of them.

A well-developed aesthetic emerges from the art objects and it becomes clear that this group has known each other for a while, or long enough at least to influence each other. Mixed into their own flavor is a little Hiam Steinbach, some stroboscopic internet sensation, and a dash of “fuck the po-po” attitude. The boutique has, as described by Miles, “a sophisticated stoner vibe.” I must agree. The objects are deceptive and playful. They guard sketchbooks, hang out next to under-watered house plants, and ride skateboards. One might imagine the objects all aflutter in the evening, after the doors have closed and the lights shut off, drinking vodka out of water bottles and replacing the contents of grape flavored Swisher Sweets. The charm of the delinquent continues to prevail.

Miles is adamant in stressing the importance of the group as a whole. During his internship at Whoop Dee Doo, Miles learned the significance of working as a team of artists.

“It’s easier to get noticed when everyone is working together toward something.” This communal mentality is partially nurtured by KCAI’s Printmaking department, where privacy is a rare thing during studio hours and everyone works at what, at first glance, appears to be one building-length desk stretched up against the wall. While this environment may be off-putting to a more reclusive artist, the printmakers know that in order to succeed, ideas need to be shared and supported. A kind of skill-sharing economy arises in this environment, where two people with different goals need to access each other’s talents in order to complete a project. There is an honor system in place based on trust and credibility. The “never not telling” someone how a certain technique works goes hand in hand with the “don’t steal ideas” rule of art. Miles is completely trusting of his friends, especially Dean Roper, Joseph Hutchins and Brett Ginsburg, who are at the front of the movement.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can leave the Objet Boutique with your new gift completely vacuum sealed. It’s more than just a clever way of keeping the object safe. This little inside joke is sure to humor one crowd and baffle others. The whole show seems to have one foot in the fine art world and the other in a small Midtown apartment with a few friends, the windows closed and the record player on. In light of recent political changes, it seems both appropriate and necessary to open the conversation up to digital influence and the presence of functioning potheads in the US. For a group of artists to begin the process of tackling these contemporary issues in such an engaging way shows real initiative and effective translation of real-world experience. The visual appeal of these objects is completely accessible to the public, but to the well-versed internet junkie/programmer, there are plenty of things to get excited about. Jen Wilkinson’s “Digi Scarf” and her strangely patterned outfits are direct impressions of the digital world, now in a funky wearable fashion. Madeline Galluci’s “Barely There” iPhone cases are both evocative of digital painting programs and tongue-in-cheek references to women’s undergarments. Incense burners, for cones and sticks, are there to remind us that we can successfully mask our ill-advised habits and be forward about it.

Towards the end of our interview, Miles broods on life after art school. Any job will do, he says, so long as it pays the bills and he can continue making art. It sounds like a lonely road when he acknowledges the relative unimportance of where the money comes from, but we leave on a positive note that encompasses his belief about art making:

“At the end of the day…if the thing you’re making is more important than the people around you, that’s just not right.”

KC Connect and Discovering Undergrowth

Written for publication in KC Studio Magazine and The Bohemian Zine.

 

As it stands, the Kansas City art community is relatively hidden away form the rest of the nation. In the city we have our own thriving systems, our own delicate balance of life and art, our respective seasons of feast and famine. Within this system artists move about like loose seeds, planting and growing and popping up in unexpected places as the whole environment changes. Like any well-balanced forest, there are spots of land with more sunlight or richer soil. In one sunny clearing, Ashley Anders peers through a magnifying lens to observe the growth. “After graduating KCAI, I saw my peers struggle to keep their studio practice structured. I wanted to help facilitate their growth and build a program that would provide opportunities.” KC Connect has emerged as one of those opportunities. A series under the umbrella of KC Studio Magazine, Connect tills the land in search of emerging artists that would benefit from a more direct connection to the local supporters of the scene, like a new plant exposed to the sunlight. The goal of KC Connect is to bring these artists together with the sponsors that help sustain the larger creative community, encouraging lasting relationships and demystifying each parties greater role. Artists can have somewhat of a shrouded practice—often moving fluidly between platforms and mediums—and businesses can be unsure of how to proceed when they take a creative route. With this series of events however, both parties are guaranteed to make an appearance and begin to understand what they need from one another.

It isn’t just about growing Kansas City’s profits in different sectors. KC Connect has put out a call for 25 artists, whose work will be distributed throughout Kansas Cities most popular galleries (such as Leedy-Voulkos and the Mid-America Arts Alliance) in May through November of 2014. Artists will have a chance to show their work in places of high-volume, with the added bonus of meeting sponsors face-to-face. Receptions will be held in honor of this connection, providing a greater opportunity for the artist to demonstrate their unique ways of solving problems creatively to those businesses that may be looking for exactly that. Selected artists from the series also receive a spread in KC Studio magazine, featuring their work and a personal story about themselves. The deadline for artists to submit to KC Connect is December 15th and the application is completely painless.

Unlike Ashley’s last undertaking, the Gorilla series that focused on urbanism and street-art, KC Connect will be bigger and more encompassing of the art scene today. Ashley fills me in on the details. She tells me KC Connect is creating an opportunity with these events to help artists cultivate public interest and for businesses to see how art can improve both image and economy. I ask her about the selection process, which in itself can be a turn-off for the less-exposed artists in the city. She assures me it will not be carried out by chilly businesspeople looking for a cheap hire. Ashley takes it upon herself to sift through applications and meet with the artists face to face. She wants to make sure they are having their creative goals met in the show and are in a good position to leave the event with lasting connections. She hopes to connect every single artist with a patron, employer, or gallery. If it sounds too good to be true, it’s not. Her BFA and MBA practically make her the ideal bridge between the business end and creative end. She is careful to underline her motivation: “There’s a fine line for business involvement in the art world. I’d like to be the filter that protects the exploitation of artists while allowing growth between the two.” Ashley talks about wanting sponsors to feel more involved in the art scene without exploiting artists exclusively for their own monetary gain. She laughs, saying she wants sponsors to know they won’t just be a logo at the bottom of a coaster, but a genuine participant in the art community.

“It takes an honest effort to make lasting connections,” Ashley says of the sponsors, who also receive a supped-up media package in exchange for their support. If there’s a way to make a positive impact on artists, it definitely comes down to supporting the work they do for the world.

 

 

Entry call:

http://kcstudio.org/kc-connect/

 

March/April issue with KC Connect artists:

http://www.calameo.com/books/000009256e385e3abbb94