Redefining Touch: A Conversation with James Fleming, Kelly Lovemonster, and boychild
On the occasion of Touch On: Aesthetics in the Art, Politics and Ontology of Touch, a group exhibit at SOMArts, Open Space editor-in-chief Claudia La Rocco sat down with curators James Fleming and Kelly Lovemonster and the artist boychild for a conversation about lineage, loss, and the politics of action and expression.
Claudia La Rocco: The last time we talked, you mentioned an interest in what a queer curatorial aesthetics or politics in the Bay Area looks like in 2016. Maybe we should start there.
James Fleming: Throughout the last year we have been actively considering what those words even mean; how to semantically understand what a queer curator is, how queerness shapes the way artists and curators intersect with each other. This show is all about investigating the literal and kinetic definitions of touch, while interrogating and perhaps even undoing some of these inherited definitions. We seek to create a collective that is challenging artists to present their work and themselves as they believe they are rather than how they are perceived by us as the curators, or the public-at-large.
Kelly Lovemonster: You know what’s interesting? Nowhere in our promo is the word “queer.” I really love that. As someone who intersects several marginal groups, people are very quick to attach my identity to everything I do. “Oh you’re a queer Black curator.” But nowhere in the promo were we like, “and transgender artist Craig Calderwood and her soft sculpture” or “Black artist Ramekon O’Arwisters.” We really moved away from that.
KL: Yes and no. Acknowledging our artists and their respective identities was important, and I think James and I were quick to move forward in asking “What else is happening in the work?”
boychild: Post-identity politics.
KL: Yeah, kind of.
b: Talking to one of my friends in Athens last month about the queer scene there elucidated an understanding of queerness in the United States that has moved past identity politics.
CLR: That’s interesting for you to say now, in this moment of, I almost want to say, neo-identity politics.
b: Yeah, maybe that’s more appropriate. I’m not sure exactly where that has led us, maybe into a problematic place of inclusion. In Athens there is a feeling of what I imagine the ’90s to have been like. There seem to be an array of lesbian clubs. Gay clubs. Lesbian-owned bars and restaurants, Gay saunas. Different places for different kinds of queer or gay people. The way space is held in Athens is really fascinating; I am definitely still processing it. Or maybe it’s all of the ’90s music they play.
KL: I’m thinking about the landscape of San Francisco, where we have lots of queer spaces disappearing; some people argue, “Queer spaces are disappearing because we no longer need them. We don’t need lesbian bars anymore!” And some people are like, “No, we’re losing lesbian bars because lesbians can’t afford to live in San Francisco.” There’s lots of dialogue about why different identities are disappearing from San Francisco.
CLR: It’s an interesting instrumentalizing of identity. That you would onlygo to a space because you need it.
JF: Right. Presumably, the bars in Greece serve a necessary function by creating this other world. In San Francisco, there came a moment when the act of queers kissing was no longer a form of radical progressive futurity. It’s just like, people kissing! Having sex was not in the same way a political act anymore.
KL: But it’s becoming political again.
JF: It’s a strange time, to be talking about a queer curatorial practice or body given the uncovering, and subsequent rise of polarized, hate-fueled narratives in the US.
b: It’s also this really juicy thing: visibility and naming and, for me, drag and performance. I think a lot about touch and about the ways that we can communicate outside of a system while using its technology. Or similarly, the ways that we can hold our power and simultaneously be evasive to it. I’ve had such a battle with language and also the power in it. There’s a lot of concern for trans — well there should be concern for everybody — but for trans people about access to hormones in a Trump America, and then there’s also this way of being trans, an ulterior mode of trans survival tactics that say “with or without hormones, I am trans.” The technology of hormones is one way to hack gender, but not the only way. I’m so into that. I was thinking this morning about the umbrella protest in Hong Kong and the ways in which technologies are being used; protesters were able to communicate from Bluetooth on their phones when the police state had knocked out their internet. Somebody built an app that allowed people to talk with one another based on proximity, with or without cellphone service. As systems of oppression continually co-opt forms of resistance, forms of resistance can still fight back using the tools of systems. Wrapping that back to what you’re saying — this is a queer show but we don’t need to hand that to people.
JF: On a linguistic level there’s an undefining that needs to take place before the redefining of what a queer artist or curator signifies, or represents. There is first a namelessness that is fundamental to what we are. We explore this in the exhibition.
KL: This show involves deeply personal narratives about how touch has impacted, affected, and moved through these artists. That’s what you see here. When people come in they think this is going to be more of an interactive show and they’ll put their hands on things. But James and I were more interested in undoing this idea of how we have been told to understand touch. We figured the way to do that was by telling these stories.
b: Queer people are forced to deal with touch outside of the conventional family. But all humans need it and now we need it more than ever. I’ve been thinking about this term “Hapticality” through the work of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney. Communication through touch: how necessary it is and how we are forced to do that. How do we bridge the gap in history where there is an erasure, deliberate absences, or a whole generation lost to AIDS? How do we do the work to make those connections, to make meaning, and to deal with the same systems against us now?
JF: I’m really glad that you brought up that intergenerational element. Talking with people who are not involved in this specific kind of artmaking or community, I find myself having to explain why queer communities gather across traditional age groups; we’re this mosaic of intergenerational, chosen family. It’s deeply rooted in the necessary uncoupling of perceived definitions and constructions of the hearth; and yet, a generation disappeared. Our community lost so many mentors, artists, elders who were hard at work establishing an ontological foundation for our community.
But we still have some left; actually, one of them, Ramekon, is in the show —
b: I was just thinking… the weaving on the wall!
JF: We have spent hours upon hours with Ramekon talking through things in his studio, working, literally feeling the fabrics and inheriting stories.
KL: How did we describe Ramekon in the press release? He’s a social…
JF: Social practice, social practitioner.
KL: A lot of Ramekon’s work is about healing touch, getting groups of people together and teaching them to crotchet. Then he takes these swatches of fabric and makes these beautiful installations. This is the conglomeration of so many hands.
JF: Hundreds of hands.
CLR: Several things that you’ve each said remind me of points the art critic and AIDS activist Douglas Crimp made during a conversation at The Lab for his new book, Before Pictures. He was talking about the queer and art adjacent worlds of New York of the 1970s and how there was no intermingling; part of the reason he wrote the book, I think, is his effort to bridge that gap. He also described these hateful narratives that occurred, especially during and after the height of the AIDS crisis: how some people were like, well, AIDS forced the gay community to grow up. It was this immature world and then AIDS happened and everyone got their shit together. And one of the main political impulses behind him writing this was to say, “No, fuck that narrative.”
KL: It saddens me to think about mentors lost. The queer folks who were working on redefining how we relate and touch one another especially. Many people in the ’70s and ’80s understood relationships differently. Queer partnerships, how queers connected and how queers had sex was just different. It wasn’t like, “Oh yeah, you have a husband and you and that husband live together and you have a kid.” Relationships were so much more intertwined and nuanced. Where could we have been as a culture if we would have had those people still?
JF: And how we even touch. Our generation is having to re-explore a path that was created, and well trodden, by those who came before us. The introduction of being able to hook up via a phone, the fact that we can take a pill every day — our understanding of how we can touch is rapidly transforming. We’re breaking out of the mold of this intensely traumatic inherited stigma, that even we as children were like, “I’m seven and AIDS is bad and I’m scared of AIDS” because of the gross mishandling of that topic by our parents or our schools.
KL: And knowing that you were connected to a suffering community. How does a seven-year-old understand that? “I know this thing is happening; there’s something that connects me to this thing; and I’m afraid.” Do all little kids think about that? I for sure thought about HIV and AIDS.
JF: It’s interesting to feel, even with this project, how can one redefine touch to escape the persecution of a definition — and how that definition, that naming, creates prejudice within ourselves, in terms of how we experience our bodies. These redefinitions were done to a certain extent a couple decades ago, but so much learning was lost that would have otherwise been inherited.
KL: Claudia mentioned the narrative that AIDS helped queer people grow up; there are parts of me that feel like we went the other way. We didn’t grow up, we regressed.
b: Well, in many ways we have grown up: as far as a conservative perspective, it was highly successful in the sense that gayness has been co-opted. There’s a gay Republican Party. That is terrifying to me.
JF: And I think in the aftermath of Pulse, the reminder that to revel, to dance, to have many lovers is a political stance. There is a liberation in that act, and a radical political ideology, at least in the context of our country’s larger political landscape. I think for our generation it will be interesting to see how these values continue to re-emerge.
CLR: Douglas was also talking about this larger philosophy of promiscuity: moving between worlds and moving between ideas. We’re so stratified. I think about the fluidity with which people like Frank O’Hara and Samuel R. Delany moved. Now we need permission, right? We feel we have to behave in these ways, get these degrees…
JF: If an institution was a body and if promiscuity was to mean a complete disregard for hierarchy and inherited norms of value and authority and all of those things — I feel quite strongly about that subject. With this residency at SOMArts, while still operating within an institution, we attempted to undo the long sordid history of the curator’s relationship to the artist.
b: Curatorial practice is a fairly contemporary designation. I watched this discussion between Samuel Delany and José Esteban Muñoz. José’s project was about the brown commons and making an archive from unearthed performances. They were talking about the ways Samuel Delany’s sexual encounters were a necessary enactment of physical touch and the importance that physical touch played in the whole of his career. I think as we listen to the blaring music in the space next door — I don’t even know what kind of music this is — but thinking about seeping and leakage. It’s amazing to sit in this exhibition on a Saturday and hear the music from a neighboring event creep over the walls into the exhibition; to think about touch as an invisible leaking in from over there into here. Sound waves over the walls, vibrations through space, the impact of butting up against one another. I don’t even know where I was going with this. I think this show articulates the many realms of touch.
CLR: Your work does too, right? The different aesthetic worlds that you move through.
KL: Something that really resonates with me was watching you emerge from the San Francisco drag scene and then all of a sudden be able to travel and do art fairs and museum shows. It was spectacular and wondrous.
b: When I first started, going to drag spaces to party, Dia was a huge influence, just seeing somebody take drag and morph it into something that eliminated the contemporary performativity of drag. A lot of Muñoz’s work involves drag artists, expands our notions of what drag is; with Disidentifications it starts with Jack Smith, the radical undoing of that exoticism in his work. People were telling me when I started doing drag, “It reminds me so much of Leigh Bowery,” who was such a magical performer, designer, artist, person, durational performance artist. And one way that I can access Leigh Bowery’s work is through Charles Atlas and his documenting that moment in London. Which led me to Merce Cunningham. Which is just one example of an invisible lineage. Drag revealed a different set of mentors, a different history.
It was such an important thing, the last four or five years, just saying yes to everything. I dropped out of school. Performance became my schooling. This is the way I’m going to learn, by being in spaces with people and seeing what I can pull out of that connection that you have as audience and performer, seeing what you can do by altering that dynamic.
KL: One of the reasons I love Mica Sigourney’s work is that he does research on the tradition of drag, showing how drag has existed for ages and that it is an art form. I think people think of RuPaul now when they think of drag. They’re like “Oh, lipsyncing for your life, right?” But there’s this lineage.
b: And you’re like, “No, but actually, lipsyncing for your life.”
JF: Understand the fucking words!
b: I think there’s a shift in my work now post-election, from gripping affect… I think of the sound as inhaling [gasps], as a gesture and a sound in space, as something that I really explored for the first three or four years and now I’m like, if y’all don’t know we’re drowning then I don’t know what to tell you. We’ve been sinking, we need to hold on to each other. There was a shift for me, being out of the country and thinking about hapticality in The Undercommons and thinking about the Brown Commons and how that is such a queer trans experience and the queer trans experience is actually the world we all live in. We need to hold onto each other right now and find ways to build up.
KL: For me the opening reception was exactly that. I can’t explain to you the cross-sections of my world that came together. People I hadn’t seen in four or five years.
JF: Someone will look at a drag show and say entertainment but to our community entertainment is often indistinguishable from our art. That’s in stark opposition to the institutionalization of so much artmaking. And when we look at what’s happening in San Francisco right now — which is this question about the arc of institutionalization, how an urban environment rapidly evolves in the twenty-first century through a massive influx of wealth in a very specific sector — the story of queers having to operate outside or around institutionalized security is not a new narrative. For instance, The SFAC reported last year that over 70% of artists have been displaced from homes or studios in the Bay Area. This battle for the hearth is at the very core of the history of queer artmaking.
b: That’s just what’s trackable.
JF: Yes, exactly.
KL: I’m hosting a drag show tonight and at the bottom of the invite it said “No bachelorette parties.” At first I chuckled, then I was like, “Whoa, that statement within itself is really powerful.” We are trying to hold this queer space but because of the changing landscape of San Francisco and who’s here and their desire to access certain types of spaces we literally have to say, “We’re not going to allow this sort of thing to happen at this space.”
b: I’m trying to understand. They’re serious?
KL: Like for real a serious statement. I’m not trying to say that bachelorette parties are bad, I’m not trying to say that bachelorettes shouldn’t go to drag shows, I’m just trying to say that in the shifting climate, statements like that are important because queer people are losing their spaces.
JF: We’re talking about the messaging for a party. We’re not even talking about having a dedicated space at a bar. We’re not even talking about how the Bay Area arts institutions are supporting these narratives or not. We’re talking about a fucking party. Just understanding the scope of how small the narrative has become underscores the state of things, the immense resource lack.
b: I’m thinking about the Audre Lorde quote: “the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house.” The double bind to that. I don’t want marriage, I don’t want equality, and I’ve been thinking so much about lines of production, capitalist modes of co-opting, cultural co-opting of queerness. And then I look around this room and I look at the work that’s up and there are also so many ways in which we’ve used the tools that are against us to patchwork or weave together new meaning and give it new life. New life to things, like the flowers that grow through the cracks in the cement. I think it’s really weird to have to force people to say no to something, to the bachelorettes, for example. But also, the performances that will come out and the gathering of tonight… the ephemeral moments of drag that will be there tonight is the life force. I think of ephemera and drag so much, especially now that I’m doing these stages that also function as drawings and paintings that share a lineage to so much visual art but also how can they hold on to the ephemera of drag? As a way to push through and to evade co-opting.
CLR: Could you say a little bit specifically about the ephemera of drag, what that means to you?
b: It’s visceral, it’s cathartic. The director of a program that I’m in, Gregg Bordowitz, once said, “Well, the real is a feeling.” I felt so validated by that statement. And he’ll claim that it’s not his idea, that it just comes from a lineage of other people, and the ephemera, the ungraspable or untouchable essence or performance that someone like Peggy Phelan, who’s a Lacan head, will argue is the essence. The real is something before or after language. The ephemera of drag is also the power of drag.
JF: Everything is on and it disappears and it’s like, how dare you repeat the look? And then you observe the fashion industry and the massive repercussions of their paint and their costume, and their consumption of the body — and that sells belts at Macy’s in three years. But there’s no production that happens after a drag performance.
b: Miss Major said this in her documentary, how much joy it brings her to see the girls out in the street, in daylight. She talks about growing up and putting on women’s clothes. How back in the day you wouldn’t even look out the door let alone step outside your backdoor; referring to the kind of cis drag that would be enforced by police, when you needed three articles of men’s clothing. The ephemera is the fleeting state in the pursual of something criminal. Drag is an active performance of something else. New worlds within and outside of the ones we know.
JF: The promiscuity.
b: And the love. It’s the care. The intent.
JF: Like the dance with the inherent death of the thing that you’re creating. It’s gone, it transforms.
b: It reminds me of what you were saying about AIDS and the fear of death. When I think about people being super conservative, I think about their fear. That’s where touch becomes so important and care for each other and love. I’m gonna cry now.
b: Talking about Miss Major in general actually just, cry button. Cry button. The Feels! Mother.
KL: Yeah. When we were having a conversation the other day, I told you about how I saw on her Facebook, she was like, “I’m moving to the South! Cause the girls there need me! The girls in the city are fine. Post this election I need to go help the girls in the South organize and get strong,” and it’s just like… dang, how fearless to put yourself on the front-line over and over and over again.
b: She’s such an incredible example; there’s a generation lost but there are so many people who survived the ’80s and are leading through example.
KL: I completely agree with you.
b: I can think of so many people who are my mentors now. We also need to acknowledge the living and to acknowledge the work they do.
KL: I was watching the Robert Mapplethorpe documentary; the closer he got to death the more famous he became. The more people wanted him to take their photo. There’s this video footage of this fragile man in a tuxedo being celebrated and everyone’s in the fanciest of dress drinking champagne and toasting. What is it like to watch yourself dying and increasingly become famous? We do that to so many artists: they die and boom we elevate their work.
JF: Yes, that awareness of mortality is really core to the queer experience. Hardcore promiscuity as not an immature ideology but rather a far more accurate association with life. To live is to experience wildly, even recklessly. This dance with death seems inextricable from the queer experience. I think of Jack Halberstam and the aesthetics and promiscuity of queer rewilding, and its close adjacency to mortality.
KL: I did an interview with Alicia Garza, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, and she said the fight for Black Lives is the fight for all lives. I’m thinking how through this queer curatorial practice, us wanting to make space for queer people, is us wanting to make space for everyone. My family is conservative in ways that I am not but I’m making space for them to be able to choose that too. I’m in no way saying that I don’t want you to do what you want to do. I’m saying that I’m going to do what I want to do and I want you to do what you want to do and I think that those things could coexist side by side.
CLR: Bachelorette parties welcome?
KL: Yeah exactly. I want to get to the point where I can say that bachelorette parties are welcome.
JF: You might lose your marriage after this insane night but that’s not our problem.
CLR: Or you might think of marriage in an expansive, fluid way.
JF: You might save yourself!
CLR: You’ve both talked about learning what you were about through producing and presenting club work, work that isn’t about being in a white cube or a black box. What’s the state of that world in San Francisco now?
KL: When I first started producing events I particularly focused on queer POC communities. I just wanted my friends to get together, and people kept coming up to me and being like, “Thank you” for doing this. And I’m like, “What am I doing? We’re just partying having a good time.” And they’re like, “No, you are literally creating a space for us to say that we exist.” And it clicked. I remember when I first moved to San Francisco, people would tell me over and over, “Oh there are no Black people in San Francisco.” And I was like, that can’t be true because I’m Black and I live in San Francisco, so for you to tell me that is for you to tell me that you actually don’t see me. That’s mind boggling. I’m holding a space for queer people of color to come and congregate and say, “Hey, we are still here, we still do exist, we’re going to take up space.” Right now, the way I produce events and the way I curate, I want to carve out spaces for people who people say aren’t here and don’t exist. Look at this trans body, look at this queer body, look at the Black body, look at this brown body, look at this Muslim body. We’re all very much still here in San Francisco and we’re going to continue to be here in San Francisco.
CLR: I’ve been thinking about this a lot, particularly when “these things don’t exist anymore” is offered as a lament by white straight people in positions of power. It’s the original sin of this country: “Well, the indigenous people don’t exist. They’re gone, right?” There’s this way in which one can ostensibly mourn that falsehood — because they do fucking exist — as a way to let oneself off the hook.
KL: Part of the reason why I stayed in San Francisco and continue to produce in San Francisco is because I’m not gonna just let it all fall to the wayside and lament alongside everybody else.
JF: The space you’ve created is beyond the specter of the institution determining what is art or not and what is entertainment or not and what is valued enough to be shown. New artists are emerging from the woodwork and getting paid. It’s sustainable in its own way.
b: It’s both within and outside: it penetrates it and evades it. I’ve been so inspired by Black radical thought when thinking about being trans and about the development of my movement. The retrieval of meanings within a history of erasure. I feel so grateful to have gotten to perform with Brontez in conversation with his current work on free jazz. His sound and his body and his experience and his performance: it’s such an easier way for me to learn, from collaboration, than it is to just read about it. Talking to people, sharing space. All the capacities. My body learns more in that way.
KL: We curated this show with space for a reason — because there’s lots of space within this topic.
JF: The show is framed as the first in a series. This conversation feels like the natural evolution of some of these ideas that will inform what we’re doing in Mexico City in February or what we’re doing here next month.
KL: You mentioned being able to recognize the lineage; it’s nice to make some connections through this conversation and be like, “Oh yeah.” I look in this room and I look out into the world and see how works of art impact what I do and how I curate.
CLR: I have this sense so often these days that my attention is endlessly dispersed and fractured: in sort of looking around at everything I’m missing the crucial things. It’s always a relief when I find a source that feeds me in a way that’s different from, “How many tabs do I have open in my browser?”
b: That’s also the power of performance. It’s sharing a space: I feel high after conversations like this. It’s something that they try so hard to take away from us and it’s what I want to hold on to. The connex.