How to Be Gay

Forever in Transition: Cruising Through Queer Space with David Wojnarowicz

David Wojnarowicz, "Arthur Rimbaud in New York (Duchamp)" (1978–79/2004), silver gelatin print (via

David Wojnarowicz, “Arthur Rimbaud in New York (Duchamp)” (1978–79/2004), silver gelatin print (all images courtesy the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W., New York)

In an interview with philosopher Sylvère Lotringer, David Wojnarowicz, explains, “Travel and movement and sex became something that would inform all my work…It colored the air, or colored everything about every aspect of the street, every post, every sign every movement of a vehicle” (182).

With the recent republishing of David Wojnarowicz’s 7 Miles A Second, which was displayed at Visual AIDS’s exhibition Not Over: 25 Years of Visual AIDS, as well as the full digitized archive of Wojnarowicz’s journals available on Fales Library and Special Collection’s website, themes dominating his visceral writing from the use of the body to his employment of movement have been given a cursory critical overview. Delving deeper into Wojnarowicz’s fluid, transitory movement in his writing not only further enlightens his artistic style, but also his articulation of his queer sexuality, corresponding to and sometimes directly confronting the current focus on queer spaces in queer theory.

With publications from Scott Herring’s Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism to Karen Tongson’s Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries, recent studies of queer space posit the queer rural or suburban against the developed hegemony of the urban environment as the only space to come out and be queer.  However, this discussion of queer spaces may create an undue emphasis on stasis.  Other than the migration from the rural to the urban, the queer subject seems to have to identify with one of those spaces rather than multiple or none.

With his discussion of travel, movement and his sexuality, Wojnarowicz disrupts this notion of singular separate queer spaces.  Even Wojnarowicz’s biography mirrors the problem with the strict definition of queer spaces.  Born in the suburbs in Red Bank, New Jersey, Wojnarowicz eventually moved to live with his mother in Manhattan, where he became a hustler in Times Square.  Using the money he made hustling, he would take a bus out to the country, desiring a taste of small-town life.  After dropping out of school, Wojnarowicz hitchhiked from coast to coast, performing various jobs, including working on a farm in a rural town on the Canadian border.  After living in Paris, he returned to New York and became renowned in the East Village art scene, however his artwork continued to straddle the line between the aesthetics of industrial urbanity and a connection to nature.  While he would remain a New Yorker until his death from complications related to AIDS in 1992, he often took road trips to locations from the Southwest to Mexico to Upstate New York.

Without a clear spatial delineation in Wojnarowicz’s life or artistic output, Wojnarowicz provides an interesting problem with the current discussion of queer space.  What happens to those queer subjects who are better connected to mobility, transience and rootlessness rather than a stable spatial community?

David Wojnarowicz, Portrait/Self Portrait of David Wojnarowicz, 1983-85 mixed media

David Wojnarowicz, Portrait/Self Portrait of David Wojnarowicz, 1983-85
mixed media

Solitary Man

Beginning with histories of gay and lesbian subjects such as George Chauncey’s Gay New York, the urban has been articulated as the sole space for queers to inhabit with the only movement being the migration from the rural to the urban. This movement assumes the individual is progressing from the closet to an open queer community in urban centers such as New York and San Francisco.  In her study of the gay migration to San Francisco in the 1970s and 1980s, Kath Weston details the construction of the urban environment as the only place to be out.  Her article “Get Thee to a Big City: Sexual Imaginary and the Great Gay Migration” highlights how the migration of gays and lesbians to cities in this time period created the notion that “From pride parades to persons with AIDS, representations of the gay subject are almost always situated in an urban setting” (262).

According to Weston, the urban is constructed in opposition to the rural as a place of violence and threats for queer or gay subjects.  As she states, “From the start, then, the gay imaginary is spatialized, just as the nation is territorialized.  The result is a sexual geography in which the city represents a beacon of tolerance and gay community, the country a locus of persecution and gay absence” (262).

Not only is the urban just an example of a spatial difference, but it is also an aesthetic difference. In his introduction to his study of queer anti-urbanism Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism, Scott Herring asserts metronormativity has been constructed based on six axes: the narratological, the racial, the socio-economic, the temporal, the epistemological and the aesthetic.  For example, Herring observes the aesthetic urbanity contains: “a knowingness that polices and validates what counts for and as any queer cultural production; a sophistication that demarcates worldliness, refinement, and whatever may count for and/or as ‘the latest’; a fashionability that establishes what counts for and/or as the most up-to-date forms of apparel, accessory, and design; and a cosmopolitanism that discriminates anybody or any cultural object that does not take urbanity as its point of origin, its point of departure, and/or its point of arrival” (22). With these aesthetics, the urban or more specifically, the metronormative becomes a location of affluent queer subjects that defines itself against the backward rural places where they supposedly came.

David Wojnarowicz’s urban experience in New York from his childhood hustling in Times Square to his adult life wandering among the abandoned warehouses on the Hudson River piers counters the notion of the urban as the be-all-end-all of queer community and style.  While Wojnarowicz migrated to New York at least twice, once as a child and, again, as an adult, he did not experience the same revelatory outness as the imagined urban queer.  Due to his socio-economic status and disinterest in urban fashionability, Wojnarowicz was never a real part of the gay community in New York.  As Ben Gove explains in Cruising Culture: Promiscuity, Desire and American Gay Literature, “In particular, Wojnarowicz’s working-class background, long-term homelessness and subsequent sense of affiliation with the socioeconomically disenfranchised ‘tribe I had left’ on the streets, all made the notion of a primary allegiance to visible gay culture highly problematic for him—and all the more so in the case of the affluence-oriented commercial gay scene” (138).

David Wojnarowicz, Rimbaud in New York, 1978

David Wojnarowicz, Rimbaud in New York, 1978

In addition to his alienation from the commercial gay scene, Wojnarowicz was, with the exception of his later work with ACT-UP after his AIDS diagnosis, not affiliated with any sort of queer community.  Rather than a member of a community, Wojnarowicz was notably a solitary and independent figure, as shown in his essay collection Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration.

In “Losing the Form in Darkness,” Wojnarowicz presents a narrative of his wanderings around the abandoned warehouses on the Hudson River in Manhattan.  Rather than representing the urban as a space of queer community, he is the lone solitary figure frequenting late-night Westside coffee shops and the piers. While he does find anonymous sexual contact in the piers, the essay progresses with Wojnarowicz as a lone wandering figure.  As Dianne Chisholm quotes from Rebecca Solnit in Queer Constellations: Subcultural Space in the Wake of the City, Wojnarowicz “always returns to the image of himself walking alone down a New York street or a corridor” (59).

Wojnarowicz treasured the parts of New York City, which could be considered the least urban, such as the abandoned warehouses on the piers near the Hudson River.  While the piers at Christopher Street were well-known as a place of public sex for the urban queer from the 1970s to the 1990s, Wojnarowicz frequented the more desolate piers farther downtown, such as Pier 34, in which he would paint murals.

For Wojnarowicz, these warehouses symbolized the farthest away from urban civilization that he could find.  As Wojnarowicz explains, “What I loved about them was that they were about as far away from civilization as I could walk, and I really loved that sense of detachment.  It was like sitting with the entire city at your back and looking across the river.”

David Wojnarowicz, Abandoned Warehouse, 1983 paint on wall / piers

David Wojnarowicz, Abandoned Warehouse, 1983
paint on wall / piers

Lost Highway

Revealing his love of speed and movement, Wojnarowicz admits “Transition is always a relief.  Destination means death to me.  If I could figure out a way to remain forever in transition, in the disconnected and unfamiliar, I could remain in a state of perpetual freedom” (Wojnarowicz 62).

Perhaps this notion of the transitory could confront metronormativity in a way that does not uphold the binary of the rural/urban.  In Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory, Rosi Braidotti articulates nomadism in terms of feminism, yet nomadism could also be placed onto the queer subject who does not conform to the rigid structures of spatial definition.  As Wojnarowicz does not exactly fit within either the queer urban or rural, Braidotti describes the nomad as relating to “radical nonbelonging and outsidedness” (16).  While not discounting community and relationality all together, a queer movement through space that relates to nomadism could account for those subjects who are excluded from the current queer theory.   As Braidotti notes, “The nomad does not stand for homelessness, or compulsive displacement; it is rather a figuration for the kind of subject who has relinquished all idea, desire, or nostalgia for fixity” (22).  With the importance placed on movement between spaces, perhaps the transcendent themes and issues between the spaces will become clearer. As Michel de Certeau famously asserts in The Practice of Everyday Life, “What the map cuts up, the story cuts across” (129).

Similar to Braidotti’s idea of the nomadic subject and de Certeau’s assertion of story cutting across spaces, Wojnarowicz’s movement through space indicates a means to “start cultivating the art of disloyalty to civilization” (Braidotti 30). In many of his writings, Wojnarowicz affirms his idea of the pre-invented world, a society that has been constructed at some earlier point and is constructed against queer or racialized subjects.  As Wojnarowicz writes, “We are born into a preinvented existence within a tribal nation of zombies” (37).   Rather than articulating the construction of a pre-invented existence in the rural or the urban, the pre-invented world relates to all of America.

Similarly, Wojnarowicz defines the pre-invented world as stasis.  He observes, “It’s all swirling in every direction simultaneously so that it’s neither going forward nor backward, not from side to side, embracing stasis beyond the ordinary sense of stillness one witnesses in death, in a decaying corpse that lasts millions of years in comparison to the sense of time this thing operates within.  This is the vision I see beneath the tiniest gesture of wiping one’s lips after a meal or observing a traffic light” (69).

In order to get outside this pre-invented world, Wojnarowicz recommends, “Since my existence is essentially outlawed before I even come into knowledge of what my desires are or what my sensibility is, then I can only step back from the arms of government and organized religion and use similar techniques to walk from here to there” (59).

Using the concept of the pre-invented world and Wojnarowicz’s suggestion to counter it through movement and sexuality, his public sexual encounters in the piers and the truck stop restrooms, as well as his movement through space, are described as disintegration, which he embraces as a freeing, transcendent experience. As Dianne Chisholm writes, “Bredbeck stresses Wojnarowicz’s strategy of ‘disintegration’ : ‘for while disintegration means falling apart, it also means dis-integration, the process of extracting something from an integrated system” (58). In the narrative of his movement through the space of the deserts of the Southwest, Wojnarowicz states, “Sometimes when I’m caught in the flow of rush-hour traffic in the tangled arteries of interstate ramps and elevated roadways that surrounds and enormous and unfamiliar city, I come to believe that I no longer exist and similarly all the forms and shapes of metal and glass that contain what appear to be human beings are also a fragment of imagination: something like a vision cast into time and space from something outside myself”(53).

David Wojnarowicz, Abandoned Warehouse, 1983 paint on wall / piers

David Wojnarowicz, Abandoned Warehouse, 1983
paint on wall / piers

Memoirs of Disintegration

Extracting himself from the system of the pre-invented world, Wojnarowicz describes public sexual contact as a similar disintegrating experience.  Comparing Wojnarowicz’s experience cruising (which also evokes the idea of movement) in New York and the Southwest, the narratives remain extremely similar and transcend the divisions between the urban and the rural.  In “Losing the Form in Darkness” detailing his movements through the piers, Wojnarowicz describes, “It’s the simple sense of turning slowly, feeling the breath of another body in a quiet room, the stillness shattered by the scraping of a fingernail against a collar line.  Turning is the motion that disrupts the vision of fine red and blue lines weaving through the western skies.  It’s the motion that sets-into trembling the subtle water movements of shadows, like lines following the disappearance of a man beneath the surface of an abandoned lake” (10).  Connecting his bodily movements with disintegration, Wojnarowicz explains, “I was losing myself in the language of his movements” (10).

In comparison, Wojnarowicz meets a stranger in a truck stop bathroom in the Southwest in his essay “In the Shadow of the American Dream,” following him and having sex in the stranger’s car.  Wojnarowicz describes their encounter, which mirrors his description the sex in the piers in New York.  As he states: “I am losing the ability to breathe and feeling a dizziness descend, feeling the drift and breeze created by the whirling dervish, using the centrifugal motion of spinning and spinning and spinning to achieve that weightlessness where polar gravity no longer exists.  The sounds of his breath and the echo of body movements I am no longer able to separate.  The pressure of the anxiety slips closer in the shape of another vehicle or of the cops arriving, nearing the moment where the soul and the weight of flesh disappears in the fracture of orgasm: the sensation of the soul as a stone skipping across the surface of an abandoned lake, hitting blank spots of consciousness, all the whirl of daily life and civilization spiraling like a noisy funnel into my left ear, everything disintegrating, a hyperventilating break through the barriers of time and space and identity” (57).

Through the similarities between Wojnarowicz’s cruising in rural and urban space, metronormativity is countered without reinforcing the division between the rural and urban.  As Ben Gove asserts, Wojnarowicz “stress [es] those largely unrecorded anonymous sexual encounters on the road, or in the desert where urban, suburban and rural dwellers briefly meet” (159).

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled from Sex Series , 1988-89 gelatin silver print

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled from Sex Series , 1988-89
gelatin silver print

The Big Dream

In addition to Wojnarowicz’s actual sexual encounters, his use of fantasy can transcend space and also socio-economic, gender, race and other factors that may inhibit a similar mobility to Wojnarowicz.

Between the accounts of public sex in the piers in “Losing the Form in Darkness” and his road trip through the Southwest in “In the Shadow of the American Dream,” Wojnarowicz weaves his sexual fantasies and memories, raising the question of which sexual contacts are real and which are imagined.  For Wojnarowicz, “There is really no difference between memory and sight, fantasy and actual vision” (26).  As Ben Gove notes, “More specifically, Wojnarowicz’s remembered narratives of promiscuous sexuality are largely articulated through constantly shifting realm of fantasy” (140).

In “Losing the Form in Darkness,” Wojnarowicz speaks in entirely past tense and therefore, the delineation between fantasy, memory and reality become blurred.  Describing a man in the piers, Wojnarowicz details, “The stranger turned on his heel in the gray light and passed into other rooms, passing through layers of evening, like a dim memory, faceless for moments, just the movements of his body across the floor, the light of doorway after doorway casting itself across the length of his legs” (11).  Through the description of a man moving throughout of the darkness of the warehouse, the narrative has a distinct feeling of fantasy with his invocation of a dim memory.  He later reveals, “Later, sitting over coffee and remembering the cinematic motions as if witnessed from a discreet distance, I lay the senses down one by one, writing in the winds of a red dusk, turning over slowly in sleep” (13). Through recounting his experiences in the piers, Wojnarowicz does not emphasize the truth so much as the importance of feeling and disintegration.

Similar to his use of fantasy and memory in the urban, Wojnarowicz also employs fantasy in his trip across the Southwest.  Wojnarowicz calls this abandoned rural landscape, “a landscape for drifting, where time expands and contracts and vision is replaced by memories; small filmlike bursts of bodies and situations, some months ago, some years ago” (47).

For Wojnarowicz, the landscape of rural Southwest is equally ripe with both sexual possibility and fantasy as the landscape of urban New York in “Losing The Form in Darkness.”  In one instance, Wojnarowicz drives by a highway construction crew he begins to fantasize about one of the men.  He writes, “So when I see the workers taking a rest break between the hot metal frames of the vehicles, it doesn’t matter that they are all actually receding miles behind me on the side of the road.  I’m already hooked into the play between vision and memory and recoding the filmic exchange between the two” (26-7).

As he continues driving, he imagines hitchhiking and being picked up by one of the workers, hearing “the almost inaudible click of his zipper riding down between the fingers in slow motion” (27).    As with the actual moments of public sex, Wojnarowicz articulates the rural in a similar manner to the urban. Rather than upholding the binary between the rural and the urban, Wojnarowicz reveals fantasies that cut across these landscapes.  As Cesare Casarino in his article “David Wojnarowicz, AIDS and the Cinematic Imperative” states, “all his landscapes are landscapes for drifting.  Or, rather, they are all landscapes of drifting, in the sense that it is drifting that constitutes both the landscape at hand and the landscape of memory rather than the other way around” (153).

Continuing to be stuck in the pre-invented world, Wojnarowicz underscores the importance of not only sex but sexual fantasy as a means to overcome these boundaries.  He explains, “Hell is a place on earth. Heaven is a place in your head” (Wojnarowicz 29).  Instead of describing heaven as a place in the urban environment, the true means of achieving some sort of freedom is through fantasy, which can occur in any type of small-town or city.

What Can These Hands Raise?

Closing the essay “In the Shadow of the American Dream,” David Wojnarowicz asks, “What can these feet level? What can these feet pound and flatten? What can these hands raise?” (63).  The question raised by Wojnarowicz’s use of movement through both urban and rural space and his inability to belong to one of those distinctly separate locations is what work could be done once these special boundaries are disintegrated.

David Wojnarowicz, Fuck You Faggot Fucker, 1984 (Courtesy PPOW Gallery)

David Wojnarowicz, Fuck You Faggot Fucker, 1984 (Courtesy PPOW Gallery)

By fracturing the map through his movement through various spaces, Wojnarowicz reveals the oppressive pre-invented world and the sexualities both real and imagined that confront this construction against the queer subject in all spaces. Wojnarowicz’s manipulation of space is exemplified by his collage Fuck You Faggot Fucker. Through this collage, Wojnarowicz essentially explains his entire conception of a queer movement through space.  With the cut map, Wojnarowicz fractures boundaries and reveals both queer sexuality, through the kissing, and the oppression, through the scrawled graffiti, that transcends spatial boundaries.

While Scott Herring in Another Country has his “paper cut politics,” a political movement that might “interfere, prod, agitate, and pester from a point of distraction to a point of disruption” (32), Wojnarowicz speaks of “brush fires in the social landscape” (1).  Wojnarowicz’s idea of brush fires in the social landscape reveals both a sense of movement and a landscape that cuts through the urban, rural and even, suburban.  Perhaps his movement through spaces can create this brush fire in queer theory that has become so divided in the distinction of queer spaces.

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