What do DJ and New Museum darling Juliana Huxtable, a former member of industrial outfit Throbbing Gristle, and “drag mother” Flawless Sabrina have in common?
They all have work featured in Bring Your Own Body, an exhibit that opened yesterday at Cooper Union “presenting the work of transgender artists and archives.”
“The contemporary history of transgender in the United States is a relatively short one,” curator Jeanne Vaccaro told us, “and a lot of that material is housed at the Kinsey Institute and the University of Victoria Transgender Archives, where we borrowed a lot of our material. So we wanted to show work from the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, when a lot of this diagnostic criteria was actually being formed.”
Vaccaro and co-curator Stamatina Gregory are both scholars: Vaccaro received a PhD in Performance Studies from NYU and Gregory is Associate Dean at the Cooper Union School of Art. Their interest in combining archival and historical materials with contemporary art was birthed from a desire to engage with and display this historical material, but in a way that comments on and exposes the often rigid and pathological nature of early trans research.
“Just thinking in a medical context, in a pedagogical context, this work is really interesting. But you can’t show it without a curatorial intervention, an artistic intervention,” added Gregory. “It’s the only context in which you can look at that. Historically, but critically. And in direct relationship to people’s lives.”
This trans-centric exhibit, rather specific in nature when placed side-by-side with exhibits focused on just “queer” art, is occurring during a time in our culture where it seems that every time one blinks, there is a new thinkpiece having something to do with the trans community, for better or for worse.
“I’m really excited and nervous about this kind of visibility,” said Vaccaro. “Sometimes it can really open perception, and a lot of times it can create a very binary perception.”
A unique facet of Bring Your Own Body is that it does not privilege this “binary” perception of transgender—that is, it displays work focused not only on those who are trans and still adhere to traditional binary manifestations of gender but also those who toss aside those notions altogether and exist in the blurry space in between.
Bring Your Own Body has a diverse spread of artists, not only in regards to their trans identity but also their artistic identity—many if not most of the artists with work on display in the show do not come from a predominantly contemporary visual art background, but rather have origins in subculture, music, drag, or performance art. Vaginal Davis is an intersex genderqueer “drag terrorist” performance artist with roots in punk music, Juliana Huxtable is a DJ and nightlife personality, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge is a former member of industrial band Throbbing Gristle and uses the pronoun “s/he,” Justin Vivian Bond has roots in cabaret performance art. Some, like Greer Lankton and Chloe Dzubilo, are no longer living, further complicating the distinction between art and archive.
“We have concrete jeans, denim dicks, fringe, rope…” said Vaccaro. “We wanted a lot of bodies in the space and we wanted to think about what it means to have a discrete identity or a discrete body and how you could express gender, self-determination, freedom, identity in all kinds of materials and ways.”
However, the show does not have everything. “There’s been a lot of photographs of trans people by cis photographers,” said Vaccaro. “We realized that could’ve filled up several museums. We quickly moved away from including that kind of work,” Gregory continued. They explained that photographs are unique in their ability to show a static snapshot of identity, and when someone who is not trans is creating this snapshot, it can be limiting and not allow trans narratives to be independent and speak for themselves.
“This happens to be a time when people are paying attention, and sometimes when people are paying attention you hopefully have a chance to break into the dialogue and make it a little more interesting,” said Vaccaro. “So it’s not like the timing worked out, because we’ve been doing this for a thousand years. But the fact that there’s an audience, I hope means people will pay attention in a different way.”
‘Bring Your Own Body: transgender between archives and aesthetics’ is on view until November 14 at the 41 Cooper Gallery, 41 Cooper Square, East Village.