This Exhibition Avoids Turning Identity Into Easily Digestible Clickbait: “Trigger: Gender As A Tool And A Weapon”

Patrick Staff, Weed Killer, 2017. Single-channel video installation, sound, color; 17 min. Commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Courtesy the artist

“…all press is good press to the contemporary enemy and they absorb all weapons launched at them ‘no weapons formed against them shall prosper’ reformed as ‘all weapons against them shall prosper’ they will absorb them into their promotional machine its best to keep it private account,” reads House of Ladosha’s vinyl Untitled (a carry) in the New Museum’s current expansive group exhibition Trigger: Gender As A Tool And A Weapon.

And the House of Ladosha is right–these weapons of “resistance” are frequently harnessed for the benefit of dominant culture. For example, in the past couple of years, there has been a proliferation of a certain kind of headline, using identities to lure those ever-elusive clickers. It usually goes something like this: “X Identity Artist Addresses/Engages With/Breaks Down ______.” From “This Queer Artist Illustrates Gender Fluidity” to “This Artist of Color Explores Racism,” and “This Woman Artist Shatters The Patriarchy,” the options and various configurations are, apparently, endless.

It’s no secret that this cooptation of identity politics and intersectionality for the benefit of publications and institutions with little to no investment in supporting minoritarian voices or the issues they confront has been a major pet peeve of mine, which is why I approached Trigger: Gender As A Tool And A Weapon with some trepidation. Even with an artist list that reads like a Filthy Dreams reunion, featuring much-loved artists and their work like Justin Vivian Bond’s installation My Model/My Self, Vaginal Davis’s ruby red wall-mounted sculptures and Josh Faught’s pin-covered textiles emblazoned with phrases like “Experience Is What You Get When You Didn’t Get What You Wanted,” I still feared the New Museum might feel compelled to offer a Gender Fluidity 101 course rather than mount a nuanced exhibition.

Justin Vivian Bond, My Barbie Coloring Book, 2014. Watercolor on archival paper, 14 ½ × 11 ½ in (36.8 × 29.2 cm). Courtesy the artist

There was also a risk that the show may resort to a “kid’s today are gender fluid!” approach, which was more than apparent in many of the preview articles published in advance of the exhibition. Perhaps the most egregious was Hilarie M. Sheets’s “Gender-Fluid Artists Come Out Of The Grey Zone” in the New York Times, which poses gender fluidity as some newfangled invention. Gender fluidity, as Sheets writes, “has become native to young people who are used to constructing their own identities on social media and declaring their preferred personal pronouns on college campuses and at workplaces.” Get off my lawn, non-binary kids!

Thankfully, though, curator Johanna Burton, working with Sarah O’Keeffe and Natalie Bell, avoided oversimplifications. Other than the title’s appropriation of the language of trigger warnings and safe spaces, the show steers clear of a lot of buzzwords that have been coopted by clickbait hungry editors. Instead, Trigger is complicated, messy and all-over-the-place. And I mean that as a compliment. This isn’t a show made with the fragile constitution of white straight cis viewers in mind–it is a willful embrace of complexity and sometimes, impenetrability.

If some critics might whine about its lack of consistent theme, that just means the show isn’t for them. Trigger’s main achievement is in its fearless demonstration of multiplicities–from the multiplicity of mediums to the multiplicity of gender performance.

Tuesday Smillie, Street Transvestites 1973, 2015. Textile, beads, buttons, bits, and thread. 48 × 83 in (121.9 × 210.8 cm). Courtesy the artist

From queer utopia to queer world-making, the show seems like a collage of artistic and critical tactics in which artists have engaged for decades. Some work forges a queer genealogy by investigating iconic figures in LGBTQ history as seen in Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel’s lush short film Lost In The Music, which pairs fictionalized scenes of actress Mya Taylor playing the role of Marsha P. Johnson with archival footage of Johnson herself. Johnson’s activist legacy also appears in Tuesday Smillie’s textile recreations of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.)’s banners, which Johnson co-founded with fellow trans pioneer Sylvia Rivera. Other pieces perform disidentification like Mariah Garnett’s disco ball installation Encounters I May Or May Not Have Had With Peter Berlin, in which she embodies uber-hunk porn star Peter Berlin.

Because of this variety, the show’s subtitle Gender As A Tool And A Weapon is almost a misnomer. Trigger certainly doesn’t focus solely on gender identity–none of the works are that facile. In fact, the most consistent thread running through the show might be Diamond Stingily’s braided installation Kaas 4C, which drapes through all the gallery floors.

Take, for example, Patrick Staff’s film Weed Killer. Using all trans or non-binary actors–including Staff themselves, Staff centers the film around cultural critic Catherine Lord’s account of her experiences with cancer and treatment The Summer Of Her Baldness, weaving together pieces of that text as performed by Debra Soshoux. Titled for Lord’s description of chemotherapy as “mainlining weed killer,” Staff juxtaposes this narrative with an emotional lip-synch in a gay bar by Jamie Crewe, as well as moments of bodies filmed through thermal imaging. By merging these seemingly disparate narratives, Staff conflates medical technologies and gender, gesturing toward the dual regulation and pathologization of sick and gender nonconforming bodies.

Like Weed Killer, Trigger, as a whole, reveals not only how gender but sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, disability, etc. intersect. I mean, there’s even references to furry subculture, as well as hybrid identities, with Nayland Blake’s ongoing performance as Gnomen, their bear-bison hybrid “fursona.”

Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Darkroom Mirror (0X5A1531), 2017. Archival pigment print, 51 × 34 in (129.5 × 86.4 cm). Courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson, New York

Now, this intersection of voices and identities has certainly confounded some critics like poor Holland Cotter in his review “When It Comes To Gender, Let Confusion Reign.” He writes, “It hands you a slew of ideas and leaves you to sort through them, which means it leaves you confused. You’re not alone: the catalog includes three round-table discussions among “exhibition advisers,” and they sound confused too — but thinking hard, which is the point of an experiment like this… ” At this point, if you’re confusing the New York Times, you’re probably doing something right.

And Cotter isn’t the only one confused about the intersection of identities. Intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, is going through a tough stretch lately with morons like Milo Yiannopoulos and Andrew Sullivan, who calls it “the latest academic craze sweeping the American academy,” likening it to some form of censorship or crackdown on free speech by social justice warriors. As Sullivan wrote in his article, “Is Intersectionality A Religion?” in New York Magazine: “Like the Puritanism once familiar in New England, intersectionality controls language and the very terms of discourse. It enforces manners. It has an idea of virtue — and is obsessed with upholding it. The saints are the most oppressed who nonetheless resist. The sinners are categorized in various ascending categories of demographic damnation, like something out of Dante.”

Christina Quarles, Butt Hidden in Lacy Groves (Hell Must Be a Pretty Place, Fire n’ Brimestone Allright…), 2017. Acrylic on canvas, 50 × 40 in (127 × 101.6 cm). Courtesy the artist and David Castillo Gallery, Miami

This, of course, is a bunch of bullshit. However, I would pose that Trigger’s reflection of the messiness of identity and its fluidity is perhaps closer to what Jasbir Puar terms as “assemblage” in her Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times Despite how generative intersectionality can be, Puar shows that it still has its limitations–it is still reliant on binary structures and can be, as we’ve seen, easily coopted or willfully misrepresented. As Puar notes, “Intersectionality demands the knowing, naming, and thus stabilizing of identity across space and time, relying on the logic of equivalence and analogy between various axes of identity and generating narratives of progress that deny the fictive and performative aspects of identification: you become an identity, yes, but also timelessness works to consolidate the fiction of a seamless stable identity in every space. Furthermore, the study of intersectional identities often involves taking imbricated identities apart one by one to see how they influence each other, a process that betrays the founding impulse of intersectionality, that identities cannot so easily be cleaved” (212).

In fact, Puar even observes that intersectionality can become a tool for disciplinary apparatuses: “As a tool of diversity management and a mantra of liberal multiculturalism, intersectionality colludes with the disciplinary apparatus of the state–census, demography, racial profiling, surveillance–in that “difference” is encased within a structural container that simply wishes the messiness of identity into a formulaic grid…” (212).

In contrast, Puar poses “assemblage” as an even less static solution, writing “As opposed to an intersectional model of identity, which presumes that components–race, class, gender, sexuality, nation, age, religion–are separable analytics and can thus be disassembled, an assemblage is more attuned to interwoven forces that merge and dissipate time, space and body against linearity, coherency, and permanency” (212). This would place queerness as “not an identity nor an anti-identity, but an assemblage that is spatially and temporally contingent” (204).

Tschabalala Self, Floor Dance, 2016. Linen, fabric, oil pastels, acrylic, and Flashe on canvas. Collection Ernesto Esposito. Courtesy the artist; Pilar Corrias, London; T293, Naples and Rome; and Thierry Goldberg, New York. Special thanks to Pilar Corrias and T293

This assemblage seems to mirror the multiplicities on view in Trigger–a stand against, as Puar writes, linearity, coherency and permanency. The exhibition’s assemblage tendencies are akin to the patchwork of patterns, materials and animal prints in the paintings of Tschabalala Self–a sometimes dancing, figural amalgamation of disparate scraps. Like Self’s painterly assemblages, Puar theorizes the assemblage as “an affective conglomeration that recognizes other contingencies of belonging (melding, fusing, viscosity, bouncing)…The assemblage, as a series of dispersed but mutually implicated and messy networks, draws together enunciation and dissolution, causality and effect, organic and nonorganic forces” (211).

Now, does Trigger’s complexity mean the artists’ nuanced engagement with fluidity cannot be coopted? Of course not. But, it does represent a momentary act of refusal–spinning, tongue-out, past stable categories like in Self’s Floor Dance. As Mya Taylor says as Marsha P. Johnson in Lost In The Music, “I’m not saying that it’s easy to shine, to love, to twirl; I’m not saying it don’t hurt to be awake in this world.”

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