Winter Reading List 2019/20
• Fear of a Queer Planet, Michael Warner
•Good Woman, Lucille Clifton
•Leonardo Da Vinci: a Study in Psychosexuality, Sigmund Freud
•Bush Fires in the Social Landscape, David Wojnarowicz
•Weigh of the Earth: the Tape Journals of David Wojnarowicz, David Wojnarowicz
•Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry, Essex Hemphill
•Towards a Gay Communism, Mario Mieli
•Borderlands/La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldúa
•Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg
•Our Lady of the Flowers, Jean Genet
•Berlin Stories, Christopher Isherwood
•Zami: a New Spelling of My Name, Audre Lorde
•Stonewall, David Carter
•Saint Foucault, David Halperin
•The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions, Larry Mitchell
I recently had the privilege to be featured on @mixed_latinx via Instagram. @mixed_latinx is Becca Ramos' storytelling project about the complexity and diversity of the Latinx experience focusing on the individual lived experiences of mixed Latinx people. Here is the essay I submitted as a part of this project:
Latinxities and Power
From the perspective of a racist, capitalist plutocracy, our mixed identities pose a problem: do we or do we not possess power? I refuse to be exploited in this way. My existence is power and my body is divine. Some in my latinx family insist that we are fully descended from Spaniards, effectively and purposely erasing the indigeneity of our identity. I reject this notion, but I sympathize with the impulse: the identity of the colonizer is the identity closer to power. Though latinx identities are as various as the places they exist in the world, one common thread is that we share both qualities of the colonized and the colonizer. Most of us speak colonial languages inflected with the verbal customs of our locales. Our blood ancestors are a mix of the very close and the very far away. Many of us are mostly or fully indigenous by blood but live within the national borders of the “Latin” Americas and are therefore carelessly grouped together.
This is all to say that we are historically and ancestrally inclined to understand ourselves as mixed subjects, an original melting-pot people. Thus Latinx identity exists to describe a people unified by the impossibly complicated reality of living with mixed identities.
I am a Latinx person, an identity I have come to enjoy as a source of power, though this enjoyment has never been easy. I am also a queer person, a white person, a gender non-binary person - none of these identities have been easy to accept, let alone enjoy or celebrate. There are more, too. I am an artist, a partner to a very handsome white person, a homeowner and a homemaker. I am a political subject in a failed state founded on the precepts of white supremacy. I am sometimes read as a cisgender white man. I am sometimes reduced to my gayness or my whiteness. I sometimes take up space I do not feel comfortable taking up. I sometimes take up too much space without noticing.
As a strategy for living in the middle of so many bridges, unsure of my footing, I have begun in the last five or so years to explore the Altar as a location for exploring my identity. The Altar is a place, a connecting point between the living and the dead, between realms of humanity and the realms of the spirit, or between the earthly and the divine. I have chosen the Altar as the basic form of my art practice because it is an aesthetic as well as an experience, and the experience is best expressed when we gather together to perform rituals. The Altar is a place to share memories, to explore grief, sadness, celebration, to mark the passing of loved ones, to mark rites of passage, to share joy and pleasure with ancestors and to seek guidance and wisdom from ancestors. My ancestors are from both sides of a vast ocean and they are the queer people of all times and all cultures. My ancestors possess infinite wisdom and ways of knowing. By making Altars, I am attempting to seek that wisdom and transform it into an experience I can share. The more ancestors I claim, the more wisdom they have for me to gain. My mixed identities are abundant sources of strength and I invite all my mixed siblings, elders, youth and ancestors to celebrate their divinity with me.
The installation of my new work A Place/Un Lugar will open tomorrow at the website for Museo de las Americas. I'm extremely proud of what I was able to accomplish given the following conditions: I've barely been able to leave my home for three months, I've never made video as an artist OR OTHERWISE!, and as I had previously expressed, isolation is not fertile ground for my creativity. Never the less, I was able to make 2 versions (in English and Spanish) of a video that I actually like.
My original idea was to create a conversational video encouraging viewers (supposedly still in isolation) to use what they have at hand to create an altar - this is the essence of what I try to do. I've never spent a great deal of money on supplies or materials; I find objects, grow objects, and bake objects to use in my work, all activities well-suited for being at home. In the video I refer to ancestors as wanting "a place" that feels like home, so by intentionally doing the labor of making home, I am also inviting ancestors to engage in the process of living with me.
What I ended up making is a poem in 5 parts represented with scenes from around my home. Part one is about finding abundance in the silence of your surroundings, allowing the voices of ancestors to be heard. In this section, the language of ancestors is expressed through all the senses. I filmed myself making a flower arrangement in the late spring, mostly featuring roses and lush foliage. In part two, I introduce the ancestors who I describe as progenitors, protectors, sustainers and teachers. I originally wrote this work without a section describing the ancestors but after considering what I wanted to really say with this video, mostly that altar work is an act of solidarity, I chose to include this section. I present the ancestors by filming a round altar that I made on my dining room table. Many of the books in my reading list ended up on my altar, as queer ancestors are an enormous guiding light in my process. In the third section I find objects from around my home to put on the altar. I show rummaging through the basement to link the idea of creating a strong foundation (literally) to the notion that sustaining an intentional relationship with ancestors can be a basis from which one builds a meaningful, abundant life. This tour of the inside of my home goes into virtually every room, including my bathroom where I store miscellaneous spare fabrics. Next, I filmed the whole process of baking pan dulce. In conversations with Museo, we entertained the idea of doing a live baking class (I still REALLY want to do this!), but given the technical and logical difficulties of this endeavor, we scrapped it. Gladly, I was still able to build an excuse to make pan dulce into this video project. I describe baking as an enticement for ancestors - it's easy to imagine being attracted to the smell of freshly baked sweets. This section ends with a reminder to tase you pan dulce while it's still hot, as the ancestors care about your joy. The final section depicts the creation of an altar. This altar is all about inviting ancestors into the home - I make it in one of the most beautiful locations at my home, on the back patio, surrounded by greenery. On the altar, I put a large plastic fake guilded last supper mirror to reflect the catholic faith of my Grandmother, an onion, my own watch, some stones, a floral arrangement from the house, some various cloth including a sigil cloth I emroidered, jewelry, and paint brushes. The video ends with a reminder to pause accompanied by a dramatic silence.
This video does not perfectly document my process (my process is way too boring and it would mostly consist of watching me read), but it does perfectly represent the interior life of my process. Choosing flowers and baking bread are like reading and writing, they are all productive and draw me closer to ancestors. I am inspired by my surroundings, and I believe that it is the ancestors who guided me TO see-ing.
Podcast interview highlights. I sat down (virtually) with Nick Venegoni last month to talk about my practice. I was very nervous, but at least I didn't know when we talked that he had recently interviewed Cameron Esposito, a real-ass celebrity/artist. That would have raised the stakes and made me extra weird and hard to listen too. Luckily Nick created a generous and peaceful space for us to have a meaningful chat about the practice of creating art, engaging in a simultaneous spiritual life, and enlivening my creativity with community, nature and queer bodies. Here are some of the take-aways.
We discussed the origins of my practice as a child attracted to tacky Catholic ephemera, including the LED plastic Virgin that is the central figure in my personal altar. I listed the main elements of the altar both as an art form and as a grounding element in spiritual practice. Nick asked about and we analyzed a couple of my major artworks including the performance queer burials and the Ford Gallery installation of Reassurances I. I talked at length about my use of scissors in bricolage, and I rounded out the conversation by advocating for HOMOFAGSGIVING, a community-based holiday for solidarity and remembrance.
Nick edited our conversation perfectly so I don't sound as scatter-brained as I am in person and has immediately become a perfect way to learn about my art practice if you are new to my work. I hope you'll listen and subscribe to Nick's podcast The Queer Spirit.
Social isolation, reading, Queer bodies.
An important aspect of my living Queer body is expressed through physical contact with other living Queer bodies. I am a fervent advocate for kissing your friends/queer comrades/casual lovers on the mouth, holding hands when walking together, even across the street or across the room. I engage in the practice of saying "I love you" to everyone for whom you feel love, especially anyone experiencing life in the living queer body with whom you have any contact at all. Sharing love among queer bodies unashamedly is a radical act worth perpetual replication. We will not survive without abundant love; cis/het culture does not want us to know love; and so we must exude love with each other as often and as publicly as possible.
All this is to say it is very uncomfortable to live without contact. Our living Queer bodies were not given to us for isolation, but rather to generate the abundant energy of queer celebration and comradeship. I find myself reaching out to friends more to try to spark the joy of the contact with Queer bodies, but it is not the same. It leaves me in despair; a simple action which used to fill with joy leaves me empty.
This emptiness is not a generative, fertile space for my practice. The actions I take as an artist are the actions of an emotional living Queer body in its natural process of shedding the skin of lifetimes of sadness. In times of acute trauma, these lifetimes of sadness are overwhelming and leave me paralyzed by fear.
I am heartened by the attempts I see all around to negotiate this time of isolation. Many galleries and museums are offering free, online exhibitions. Artists on Instagram and other platforms are offering live performances and readings. I participated in a collective trans-global reading of Larry Mitchell's The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions organized by the Anchoress Syndicate, a radical poetry collective. I also had a great chat with Nick Venegoni for The Queer Spirit, a biweekly podcast about queer art, spirituality and wellness. I am grateful for these creatives living the example of Queer survival. If you can, say yes to an opportunity to create queer magic at a distance in a variety of ways; I did and I don't regret it.
New to the reading list: deeper reading of Larry Mitchell's The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions. This is a text I'm revisiting after many years. I had a particular disdain for it for a few reasons long ago, mostly due to an aversion to the essentializing gender arrangements/
categories that map onto the current second-wave feminism of late-1970s USA. Setting aside this aversion for this reading, I found a lot of relatable revolutionary content and celebratory radical queerness that I can now find inspirational. One of the more striking revelations I discovered in this reading is that it discusses disease, dis-ease, and survival in a very spectacularly relevant way, and almost seems prophetic in the way it discusses how the culture will treat queers through the AIDS epidemic. I also needed this beautiful reminder about our purpose: "The faggots and their friends live the best while empires are falling." AMEN.
At the end of the decade approaching 2020, the third decade of the missing art career of the brilliant David Wojnarowicz,
I am reading his word and learning the language of his symbolism and I wonder if work like this can be made without the utter closeness if catastrophe, if the dread he expressed in everything he touched was itself the urgency of the work. I am at the precious of total ecological disaster and I don't know if I should run and hide (my natural impulse) or if I should adopt the urgent, terrifying impulse to make, hoard, panic and scream in silence, and focus on the depressing feelings to an obsessive degree. I'm beginning this reading/re-reading list with DW's Bush Fires in the Social Landscape, an exploration of DW's work through the lens of his adaptation of Photography as the principal mode for his work, especially as the entry point for his self-understanding as an artist. "I generally will place many photographs together or print them one inside the other in order to construct a free-floating sentence that speaks about the world I witness. History is made by and for particular classes of people. A camera in some hands can preserve and alternate history."
Notes on Depression, Self-Care, and Community
The following is an essay I wrote to accompany the installation of Reassurances I & II at Ford Gallery on Portland, OR.
Depression is the marriage of awareness and compassion: awareness, the unflinching view of the world as it is, and compassion, the parallel emotional energies which vibrate when we recognize the humanity of others. It is no wonder the artist often lives with depression. We are truth-tellers. We translate truth into experience. We force ourselves to pay attention. We face danger and uncertainty yet we remain vigilant. We recognize that the good and the bad we see in others is also in ourselves. We strive to give as honest account of ourselves as we know how. We learn to do better. We improve. We get lost. We try again.
For me, the altar is an important point of transition where the turbulent landscape of my interior places can be turned inside-out, put clearly in view, and arranged. The altar can be a transition point for many (the Blarney Stone, El Santuario de Chimayo), acting as a universal repository for hopeful energies and healing. I construct deeply personal altars using whichever materials I have at my disposal. My art practice involves making public the private and hidden experiences of grief, sadness, healing and memory in the form of the altar. My art practice is my principle form of self-care, yet art is not how I learned self-care.
I once mistook self-service for self-care. I thought that all I needed was to have enough of everything for myself, maybe a little extra, enough to put my mind at ease, enough to preserve the illusion that my life is not temporary, at least for now. I once believed that my material possessions made up the substance of my worth. I applied the same sense of worth to others. I once enhanced my sense of worth with various forms of consumption. I came to view others as possessions which I could consume. Little by little, I lost a connection to my own humanity. A life obsessed of consumption had transformed me into little more than an object which could be consumed. My life had no purpose and at particularly chaotic, disconnected moments, I forgot that my life had value. I thought I wanted to die.
I learned self-care by watching others. After I reached my low-point in February of 2014, I became slowly, then overwhelmingly surrounded by a community committed to service. They agreed to show me love until I could learn to love myself. They demonstrated compassion so that my compassion could grow. From them, I learned the most important lesson of my life: self-care requires a commitment to the care of others. The drive to care for others makes self-care feel deeply necessary.
I manage my depression today, which is less frequent but always lurking, by seeking community. It is in the experience of being available to others that I practice being available to myself. I also force myself to slow down at least twice a day to meditate. I’ve learned that I can transform the depressive elements of experience (bad news, bad luck, bad weather, and bad health) into art, and I accept art as an experiment which may not always be successful but will always result in the acquisition of new knowledge. Most importantly, I manage my depression by forcing myself to be around members of my community, committing myself to be available when others are in need, and being honest when I speak about my experience.
As our institutions continue to have an unreliable relationship with Truth, the obligation to truth-tell as artists is urgent. Truth-telling is dangerous work. We must create safe places for our truth-telling; we must make an investment in our self-care practice so that our voices can be heard.