Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
The aesthetics and erotics of boundaries and portals.
Part of the Theory + Practice series.
For the last fifteen months, I have consumed art exclusively through browser windows, moving between my MacBook and iPhone 7. I hold these hard objects while sitting on soft surfaces—sometimes my couch, sometimes my bed. I am at home because of the pandemic. My face mask and phone case were made by the same Los Angeles artist and designer, Bailey Hikawa. Her phone cases are functional sculptures, the kind of body-responsive objects that are stylish and ergonomic but definitely don’t fit in your pocket (“its features surpass your pockets”). These are for home use. Turn your phone into a home. A media surface. A landline. My home has been riven by media consumption and public networks. I open windows and travel: to my therapist’s (home) office in San Francisco, a yoga studio in the Midwest, a naturopathic clinic in Pasadena, a born-digital twelve-step group coordinated by the enigmatic and spiritual art of lesbian detachment. I Zoom into talks at museums and universities, their open digital borders made specific by land acknowledgements. I listen in real time as institutions gesture to but evade self-criticality and institutional critique, careening between the anxious management of racial difference and performative assertions of solidarity. There are practices and there are best practices when digital surveillance stands in for public culture. Across these time zones, we are all in the ongoing history of dispossession and reconciliation.
During the pandemic, my experience of social justice and contemporary art unfolds from as many seated positions as my one-bedroom apartment can accommodate. I live in a post-gentrified, not-quite Eastside of Los Angeles neighborhood, the kind with more Black Lives Matter signs than Black-owned businesses. There’s a sign in my window too, since chronic illness dictates that I do most of my protesting from the couch. I am always thinking about what solidarity and participation look like without physical proximity. These days, everything is click-based. Mutual aid. Phone banking. Petitions. Cash App. Click. Click. Click. I cook and clean with the camera on, socializing my domestic labor for a random audience. I click between speaker view and gallery view, Googling “can someone tell when they are pinned?” I can’t shake the shame of it no matter how many times Google says no; I also can’t stop pinning. I have a hundred open tabs and can’t read them or close them. I skim: surface travel. The perspectival and the grid collapse in the domestic. I can’t see out of the psychic interiority the pandemic has produced. The modernist grid; the enlightenment window. The first time I tried to write this, I lost the file because I had too many windows open.
When LA’s coronavirus numbers were at an all-time high, I hadn’t been inside a grocery store or friend’s house for six months, but somehow met a stranger. We met in Anna Betbeze’s backyard, where I learned that social distancing and face masks don’t interfere with desire; they just rewire its circuitry. Early in our text exchange, I asked if she remembered what I look like. “You have a lot of hair. I remember that. And you had skin-colored shoes on. Like cartoon skin.” Her reply only emphasized how little she did remember, an ideal flirtation. When I looked for her face on Instagram, I discovered she only posts film stills of bandaged faces. Dating a stranger in a global pandemic as an immune-compromised person is a weird thing to do. I am learning a lot about my relationship to the erotic psychodrama of boundary setting. When I attempted to make rules from inside my house, all the configurations amounted to me staying in and her staying out. There was an actual airborne virus to avoid, complicated by the fact that no matter how secluded I made myself, the virus was already inside me. Not the coronavirus, but Lyme Disease and co-infections transmitted to me quietly and nonconsensually by a tick. As Carolyn Lazard says, we are all already living in “the age of auto-immunity.”
It didn’t feel safe to be physically close so I rejected every invitation to meet in person, letting my house do the work of boundary setting for me. I don’t like “I” statements. Through my twelve-step program I was learning to detach (Dykes Engaged to Accept Change and Happiness). My mantra became: “I am powerless over everyone else’s journey with boundaries. My new boundary is that I am going to ignore other people’s ideas about boundaries.” I was looking for an architectural manifestation of consent; no “I” statements needed. Materializing a partition, edging proximity. The infrastructure was there all along. I invited Aimee Goguen to come to my window. We could date across the jalousie windows separating my living room from the street. Part window, part blind, the angled glass panes of jalousie windows maximize ventilation and minimize sight. Jalousie is French for jealousy; the window is a privacy screen hiding the interior from prying eyes. A soft and adjustable boundary. Night after night, we met through these parallel planes, adjusting the glass louvres from the closed to the open position with an aluminum hand crank. After many weeks of meeting at the window, I found myself in her bedroom, looking at another open portal: a (lesbian) glory hole.
The hole hung above her bed. Goguen calls this triangle cut into plywood painted grass green a prop—an incidental painting for the first video she ever shot on her family’s Hi8 camera. Triangle Borf (2011) is a live-action video, a record of a scene she imagined in a dream:
I took off my pants because my dick was hard but it was a square dick. I touch it. I consider sticking it in but the only place to put it is a perfectly cut triangle.
(Aimee Goguen, See Dog Read, 2014, published by Curse of Cherifa)
In the video, two lanky, white men chaotically grunt and jump in socks, sneakers, and underwear, trying to shove rectangular two-by-fours into a triangle. These cuts of wood are incompatible. The camera captures the action from two angles: the first, straight-on, looking into the glory hole and the depth it conjures; and the other from above, preserving the flat surface and its inaccessibility. Over the years, it bothered Goguen that she could see people in the video and not just the “entrance shapes,” neither male nor female, not human or animal, that preoccupied her. She wanted the emphasis to be on a feeling: “suck-back, moving through layers.” Goguen remade the dream in Famous Intercourse (2018–), an ongoing series of experimental animations she conceived in conversation with science-fiction book covers. The hand-drawn collages are digitally manipulated into GIF files—moving-image screen transmissions. In one animation, a pole impossibly penetrates two planes, leaving it unscathed, only to try again. The GIF—an image on repeat—is always both beginning and ending; resolution or relief only comes when the user closes the window.
Taken successively, Goguen’s transition from live-action video to digital makes the human body a study for animation. Fittingly, the remediation of a lesbian-feminist wet dream is nonrepresentational. Hers is a fantasy about how bodies connect to each other and their environment—a social-science question that manifests in her work as a problem of geometry and the relationship between forms and planes. Animation does not make the impossible possible; the animation is itself a depiction of an impossible relation between a form and a plane. A rectangular peg doesn’t fit into a triangular hole. These are incompatible geometries with which Goguen is searching for the right media to give form to her fantasy. The wrongness of the media is actually part of the work. Goguen formalizes a play of surfaces and the inaccessibility of a depth relation, expressing a wish for the impossibility of physical connection in a single scene. Attracted to science-fiction covers with “orbs, planets, comets, holes, and magical floating things” (conversation with the artist) like Philip K. Dick’s Omnibus and George Orwell’s 1984, Goguen engages new-wave sci-fi right at the moment science fiction avows sexuality as a relevant domain of fantasy, adjacent to, for example, the fantasy of space travel. Turning away from the hard sciences and toward the soft or social sciences, science-fiction authors like Ursula K. LeGuin made the material form of the sex/gender system pliable sites of transformational investment. Goguen’s animated drawings for the screen remediate a lesbian erotic fantasy about the impossible geometries of penetration. A jalousie window is meant to let air in and keep eyes out; putting your hand through the open slot, you might find a wet pussy on the other side, but that isn’t the same as a void or hole. The point of contact—the act of relation—is what gives the void a shape.
Early in the pandemic Arundhati Roy conceptualized the pandemic as portal: a consciousness raising, or what Chris Vargas has called a consciousness razing as part of a 2018 exhibition at the New Museum in New York City. Moving between browsers and windows, I began to think of the pandemic as a glory hole, hoping to get my dick sucked. While the open slot of the glory hole might seem like a dangerous field of exposure, in actuality, it is a protective device, beginning from the premise that bodies in need of intimacy and contact are also vulnerable and require shielding. At the height of the coronavirus, even the CDC recommended glory holes as a safer sex measure, recalling the 1980s harm reduction slogan “no glove, no love.” I am a lesbian, so when it comes to glory holes, I am more talk than action. And like many lesbians I have an aspirational and covetous relationship to the culture of public sex and cruising that’s traditionally associated with gay male sexuality, and which the glory hole emblematizes. But during the pandemic I learned to queer glory holes by having (lesbian) sex in a pandemic. With pandemic regulations lifted, and everything and everyone clamoring to get back to normal, many of us are hesitant anything like normal ever existed or is desirable. We are cautious. Deconditioned. A pivot to the new and unknown. A portal to a portal.
The pandemic as portal conjures utopian visions of all kinds in a lateral exploratory mode pushing the boundaries of fantasy and reality. Filmmaker and artist Tourmaline uses the portal to time travel to speculative archives and futures. In her first solo exhibition, Pleasure Garden at Chapter NY, she harnessed the speculative aesthetics and poetics of Afrofuturism to ask what raw materials for freedom and abolition are already accessible to us. Her work takes the viewer to Seneca Village, a nineteenth-century community of Black landowners that was destroyed to make Central Park, and to the life of Mary Jones, a Black trans sex worker who lived in New York City in the 1830s. But the portal ultimately leads back to the here and now. Summer Azure (2020), a self-portrait in which we see Tourmaline suspended in blue and white clouds, captures the artist floating in space, defying gravity. Her hands hold on to an astronaut helmet, her face visible through the plexiglas window, making a windshield a world. Tourmaline’s activist and artistic practice of Black trans liberation remains present in her consistent amplification of the lives and legacies of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, but in Pleasure Garden she does something new, situating herself among these figures, positioning herself in the herstorical arc of trans history that she calls the “celestial expanse.”
Only during the pandemic did I dare consume contemporary art through TikTok, when interdisciplinary visual and performance artist K8 Hardy took to the app to advertise her painting March (2020) at Reena Spaulings Fine Art. Hardy has long engaged the camera lens to undo heteronormative conceptions of the body and identity. Before the selfie became a well-worn trope, Hardy was manipulating the art market’s relationship to mass marketing by branding herself in the ‘zine Fashion Fashion (2010). In Outfitumentary, her ten-year, durational self-portrait, Hardy filmed herself and her eclectic feminist fashions, creating an archival study and time capsule that allows the viewer to witness the construction of the self in live action. March debuted in the early pandemic days of shelter in place at the height of our collective fear and anxiety about the unknown and yet to come. On first look, mid-scroll on my iPhone screen, March hit me like a psychedelic maxi pad, maybe a flying saucer or a lesbian-feminist UFO that had come to whisk me away to something or somewhere else. Although my sense of the work evolved as I looked closer over time, that is, ultimately, what March did for me. The painting was a portal. “Working with gravity as her studio assistant,” Hardy’s tests on paper and fabric allowed her to devise a canvas reminiscent of a maxi pad, signaling both a dissatisfaction with and intervention into the history of painting. Hardy reconceived the canvas as oversized and absorbent. Manipulating scale in an anti-essentialist feminist gesture, she confuses any reference to the sex/gender system of the human body, producing instead an impossible bodily architecture. With March, Hardy makes herself an inheritor of the legacies and theoretical propositions of the early feminist arts movement, flirting with vaginal imagery, only to queer the conceit altogether.
When Hardy used TikTok to drum up interest in March by twerking in the gallery, she performed a self-conscious WAP-ification of painting itself. Hardy takes the master male category of painting and resignifies it as the feminist void. March is a lesbian erotic painting, but not because it refers representationally to a vaginal void. The dark spot in the middle of March is not an open cunt asking to be penetrated, but an architecturalization of all the wasted wetness.
The glory hole as the point of access and egress to the world: a passage or a pit; a portal or a porthole (to which you put your eye)? Are you taking things in or putting things out? As Namwali Serpell wrote in her essay “Black Hole” for the New York Review of Books about the ecstatic internet: “The Rona, as we call it, has been a giant reflecting pool, with roiling depths and troubled surfaces that have occasionally stilled to clarity, showing me what my life has been and what it is and what I want it to be.”
If the pandemic has been a portal to a portal, it has also been windows all the way down. My eyes are wobbly from the journey. I wasn’t sure I could even trust my vision when, sitting on my couch, mid-Instagram scroll, I thought I saw something on the screen that was surely a projection: a jalousie window. Perfectly executed to scale but confusingly placed on a wall—was I meant to look at it or through it? This window wasn’t mine. It belongs to video artist and sculptor Elizabeth Orr. Orr’s exhibition The Over There at Viv Vin (2021) takes the architectural out of context, exhibiting a window on a wall as a collection of planes to be looked at. Over a series of works beginning with her lecture “Spirits in Rotation,” Orr has been preoccupied with glass as a mediating surface between us and “something else.” The something else might be technology, as in the glass screen on our computer or cell phone that inevitably breaks, or the wider field of capital and commodity, as in the window shopping and commercialization of goods on display. The walls of the gallery mediate the surface between consumer and desire.
Made during the pandemic, Orr’s louvered blinds are both figurative and minimalistic. Affixed to the gallery wall on their perimeter, a white window looks onto a white wall. The confrontation with perspective is immediate, as is the intervention into the hegemonic reign of the white wall of the gallery. This question of relational orientation to objects, people, and environments is theatricalized by Orr’s “fake architectural moment.” Orr has reverse engineered the process of mechanical standardization so it is no longer regulated, but personal, imprecise. Inspired by the bent and bruised domestic blinds on a living-room window she looked out of for many years in Brooklyn, The Over There asks if the only two available perspectives are being on the inside looking out or being on the outside looking in. This process of defamiliarization is meant to activate the viewer’s proprioceptive senses, tuning in to the often unremarked architectural detritus that gives our experience a structure and a shape. The domestic is not private anymore, if it ever was. The domestic is the public I inhabit. If I began the pandemic looking at contemporary art through browser windows, I eventually came to look at my windows through contemporary art. Through this interface I see myself as participating in the aesthetics and erotics of publicity, my interior space distinct from and connected to what is outside the frame, as I look out onto the world.
Jeanne Vaccaro is an arts writer in Los Angeles. She is a scholar-curator at the ONE Archives, and has organized public programs and performances with Arthur Jafa, Brontez Purnell, and Young Joon Kwak, and is curating an exhibition entitled Foucault on Acid about the race and sex politics of the desert. She is guest curator with Adam Baran of the summer season of Queer|Art|Film. With the support of a Getty Foundation—Pacific Standard Time grant, she is developing an exhibition about visual cultures of sexual science for the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Jeanne received her PhD in Performance Studies at New York University and teaches in the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Southern California.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.