Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Her Tongue on my Theory: Reclaimaing the Erotic in Queer Art

Reclamation in Queer Art: A Dual Process of Shame and Empowerment

The psychic and social affect of producing, viewing and participating in queer erotic art enables freedom and space to rebell against shameful and oppressive binaries. Art about queer sex and sexuality reclaims, re-contextualizes and disrupts the hetero-normative representation of queer women. Through an exploration of desire, social constraints, and the power of the phallus, I will analyze how erotic photography, done by and for queers becomes a site of empowerment and resistance. Drawing on Kiss and Tell, a Canadian based lesbian art collective working in the mediums of performance and photography, I will explore how their reflections in 'Her Tongue on My Theory' becomes a her-story informed by queer desire, shame and empowerment. Kiss and Tell’s work disrupted not only the mainstream society but also their feminist community, during a time defined by feminists and critics as the “porn wars.” This period was characterized as a rising feminist movement against sexual violence, which in many instances permutate into anxiety about female sexual expression and representation. Kiss and Tell’s relationship to the production of queer erotic photography is an attempt to represent sex and sexuality outside the hegemonic phallic powers that often define female sexuality. Using Kiss and Tell’s experience in the queer art scene, I am going to create a conversation between queer produced photography and the theories of sexual difference that inform them. These theories include Samuel Delany’s analysis of non-normative sexual expression. In his article the Unspeakable, he explores the ways sex and sexuality becomes an anxious, non-verbal and liminal space that is constrained by social conventions. On the other hand, French theorist Luce Irigaray’s The Sex Which is Not One, assaults the singular economy of the phallus; in order to reclaim female desire and sexuality, she translates the labia into a language that values feminine subjectivity, desire and agency. My goal is to create an analysis of the anxieties within the binary between ‘normative’ sexual representation and queer erotic expression.

Delany’s understanding of desire is very much related to the nexus of power within the every day, whereas Irigaray’s idea of power is grounded in the construction of a phallic desire that suggests an economy that is singular. The anxious desire that queer women feel when representing their sexuality in a public space spurs a kind of gay shame and sexual repression, it becomes a prevalent theme for queer women, especially because feminine bodies exist in constant opposition to the masculine or normative regime of the phallus. Specifically, the need for queer women to define their sex, sexuality and desires occurs in terms of their opposition to and difference from a phallocentric culture. Desires to affirm queer female sexuality began as a contradiction for the women in Kiss and Tell. During their account of ‘surviving the seventies’ ( Blackbridge, et al, 5 ) each woman endured contradictions with their sexual desires that did not match their feminist politics. For instance, Kiss & Tell’s politics began in the anti-porn movement, which added a contradiction to their sexual expression in their later erotic artistic creations:

“all of our lives, we three ( and perhaps some of you, also ) have lived in this strange culture where we are taught to see the world in a very linear, binary fashion. True and false, yes and no, right and wrong, good girls and bad girls. But life comes at us from a hundred different directions at once. […] If we look at our sexuality from one point of view, we feel that sex is empowering. We affirm our sexuality, we celebrate it. From another point of view, we recognize that we have been victims of sexism and sexual violence. We want to be protected from sexual images.” (Blackbridge, et al. 11)

This contradiction embedded in queer female sexuality lies somewhere between pleasure, guilt, desire and a shame which queer women face when attempting to embrace and express their sexuality. This contradiction springs out of the dual desires to be a certain kind of anti-porn-moral-feminist-queer or a sex-positive-conscious-feminist-queer. Kiss and Tell’s initial anxieties about sex positivity were rooted in the fear of confronting a queer sexuality that was already dominated by an erotic medium such as pornography. Pornography is rooted in a history of violence, shame, sexism, and phallocentric desires, whereas the desire to reclaim this corrupted history and create images where women can desire in a respectful and safe and empowering way becomes an act of reconciliation. These images when framed through a respectful, queer, sex-positive lens could be viewed in an erotic manner that does not objectify that subject of desire.

Delany’s theory on the unspeakable posits desire as an unexplained liminal space, constrained by and through social conventions. The unspeakable desire becomes a conduit for the unfamiliar, shameful and opposing belief system, often contained within a boundary where the unspeakable is allowed to become speak-able. This linguistic binary can be described by the queer women in Kiss & Tell as a confusing reconciliation with ideologies that contradict their queer politics and artistic desires. Becoming conscious of their dual desire to be ‘good’ feminists and conscious lesbians, yet acknowledging that their desires are complicated and not always politically correct, enabled them to “work through [their] confusion.” ( Blackbridge, et al. 12 ) This confusion became tantamount to their queer feminist and artistic expressions. Delany describes the unspeakable as “a set of positive conventions governing what can be spoken of (or written about)” ( Delany, 61 ) It is only knowable through those lines of communication that are unfamililar in the sense that they are non-normative and transgressive, For example the speak-able expressed by a “client and prostitute in the balcony of a 42nd Street porn theater is unspeakable between a man and wife of thirty years. What is speak able for lovers of three weeks is unspeakable between best friends of a decade.” (Delany, 62 ) The possibility for this dynamic is fostered between the unknown transactions that are less about love than it is about explicit sexual desire. The unspeakable is about the appropriate time and space allowed for the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ desires to take place. It is a distance that inhibits or encourages expression.

The architecture of the unspeakable desire, is hidden from visibility on the New York street and relegated to a seedy porn theatre where “an entire non-white audience macho, male, a scattering of prostitutes, of transsexuals, of faggots” ( Delany, 59) are indulging their unspeakable desires. This space of a porn theatre and the low social classes inhabiting it create an us versus them image that cordons sexuality off into columns of good and bad. A desire that depends upon social norms and ‘non-normative’ exchange is relegated to one side, while the normative desire becomes an “analogue of white culture within that American/Western complex” (Delany, 60 ). This analogue works as an embodiment of a white heterosexist culture that relies on sexual purity and phallic superiority to help maintain the impossibility of sexual transgression.

The unspeakable aspect of desire is as much about the Other as it is about the social sphere the Other can express. The desire of the unspeakable becomes speak-able through a privileged line of social and racialized power. For example, the prostitute’s desire is only meant to be a vessel that performs the unspeakable desire for a privileged party. The Kiss & Tell collective attempt to resist this boundary of a desire constrained to a spatial site of artistic and queer expression. Albeit, these women are white and able-bodied, their social privilege differs from some, but their desire to “come together and talk about sexual representation” ( Blackbridge, et al. 12 ) as an all female queer collective attempts to resist the unspeakable through the fostering of a constant dialogue that openly voices anxiety, constraints and desires. For example, unlike the unspeakable desire that is ‘allowed’ to be expressed to the prostitute, Kiss and Tell “had weekly updates on each others sex and art lives. [They] each took hours telling [their] complete sexual histories” ( Blackbird, et al. 13 ). These women brought their sex lives into the open realm of artistic creation, which eventually led to their series of 100 photographs taken of two women’s erotic lesbian acts. The unspeakable desires of sexual her-stories, are unlike Delany’s unspeakable desire, because these women are confronting the socially constructed confusion of good versus bad desires regarding pornography, and tracing their desire publicly through a shared “desire diary” (Blackbird, et al. 13 ) and transcending the space of the unspeakable to openly restructure the representations of female desire. This is not to say the unspeakable desire does not exist, but instead of it acting out in a space of transgression and shame, the Kiss and Tell collective gathers their sexual experiences in a documentary-style to assert their homo-erotic desire as queer females in male dominated spaces. These spaces included art galleries and ideologies regarding the production of sexualized images of women.

Irigaray looks at the formation of sexual difference in relation to the symbolic influence of the phallus and suggests that lesbian sexual expression needs to be rewritten outside the masculine binary. Unlike Delany’s metaphor for social division being an unspeakable arrangement between the space of the lower class or transgressive desires, Irigaray suggests that queer women can create a feminine language that is made speak-able through the labia or female lips. The phallic economy of the ‘one’ uses the feminine body as a vessel or depositary for sexual desire. In mainstream culture, the labia or the duality of the lips is nowhere to be found. Notably, Kiss and Tell’s collective work enables each individual to come to terms with their various desires. For instance, the unspeakable aspect of one member’s desire was inhibited by the work she had done around sexual violence against women. Irigaray suggests that the symbolic pleasure between a man and a woman can be traced back to “the enactment of sadomasochistic fantasies, these in turn governed by man’s relation to his mother: the desire to force entry, to penetrate” (Irigaray, 25 ) createing a active ( male ) and passive (female) subject that for one Kiss and Tell member made it difficult to “disclose the terrible truth that not only did [she] like looking at porn, but she also made it” ( Blackbridge, et al. 13 ). The contradiction this queer artists feels is not uncommon, I know for myself being with women feels like an conscious resistance from a pervasive and often violent patriarchal culture, but the reclamation of erotic desire, as spoken through the feminine lips, becomes a collective act where the individual woman can feel agency and community.
Pleasure and desire too often become sites of sexual difference when compared to ‘normative’ representations of sex and sexuality. These desires are socially sculpted into a dichotomous divide that fragments sexual experience as an act that happens separately rather than together. For instance, the collective spirit of queer women’s sexuality is that of plurality. Unlike the phallic order that defined itself through oneness, a feminine language that is spoken through the lips is one of plurality, proximity and touch. The plurality of female sexuality becomes an affective and relational economy of desire. For instance, the act of possessing a prostitute depends upon the commodified price she chooses to set her body for; it is the economic exchange of privilege and space that make masculine and feminine interactions a binary of active possessor and passive possession. However, this dynamic does not exist for the queer women whose individual lips are always in proximity to one another. This collaborative feel of plurality is integral for Kiss and Tell’s queer and artistic philosophy whose:

“Interactions, collaborations and feedback from various lesbian communities, on many different levels, can contribute to [their] productions. Lesbian artists have much to gain from building each others projects and efforts as [they] navigate the often treacherous terrain of self representation both within and outside our specific communities. One of the most effective strategies a lesbian producer can have is to open up the door for a reading that is explicit in its message of other than straight in a bid to overturn the heterosexist assumptions” (Blackbridge, 53 )

This assertion for a lesbian representation is important in the economies of exchange, where women are commodities within a heterosexist regime it is of complete importance to build the female imaginary as an alternative to the dominant discourses of sexual representation. Kiss and Tells ability to assert their own bodies in the erotic photography created a transaction of pleasure that became a linguistic reality where usually lesbian erotica could only be viewed as porn for heterosexual men, it is not recontextualized and maintained within a collective of artists whose queer community helped to establish a commerce for queer pleasure.

Queer women need images of their desire and sexuality to create erotic sites of intervention and reclamation. This is especially important in order to assert sex and sexuality within the unspeakable terrain of social classes, and gender dominance. Rewriting what can and cannot be spoken of in regards to desire confronts liminal spaces that constrain queer female desire and agency. Kiss and Tell’s work created erotic images that instigated a feminine language that re-imagines the currency of female sexuality. Speaking through the female lips, they brought into being reclamation as a bodily intervention that counters the domination of the phallus over female desire. Assaulting the shame caused by the phallus, queer female sexuality becomes the building block that re-imagines a woman’s sexual plurality, proximity and touch as seeds for resistance and agents for an extremely powerful queer desire.

* This essay was submitted by myself to the department of Sexual Diversity Studies at University of Toronto Fall 2009.

Works Cited

Blackbird, Persimmon., and Lizard Jones., and Susan Stewart. Her Tongue on My Theory: Images, Essays and Fantasies. Vancouver: Press Gang Publishers.1994.

Delany, Samuel R. On the Unspeakable in Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts and the Politics of the Paraliterary. London: Wesleyon University Press.

Irigaray, Luce. The Sex Which is Not One and Commodities among Themselves. In This Sex Which is Not One, edited by Catherine Porter ( trans.) New York: Cornell University Press. 1977

Image via Jj Levine
As a self proclaimed (gender) queer artist Levine uses sexuality and gender in much the same style as the kiss and tell collective uses subversion and sexually charged imagery. Levine uses queer marginality, gender expression and oppositional binaries as sites to play with and re-imagine queer self-representation.

In her own words:

"Through the technical aspects of my work, I explore notions of non-traditional beauty, not only in terms of photography, but also in regard to femininity, masculinity, and deviant gender presentations. Engaging in gender theory’s recognition of butch presentations and a variety of other masculinities, as well as a broad spectrum of queer femme identities, I strive to capture the non-normative gender presentations of my friends, lovers, and siblings through my employment of the medium. My work presents my queer community in domestic settings characterized by saturated, vivid colours and often discursive backgrounds. These settings are intended to raise questions regarding private queer space as a realm for the development of friendship/relationships and the expression of genders and sexualities that are marginalized within the public sphere"

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