Brooklyn-based artist and poet Juliana Huxtable was all over Miami Art Week this past week, DJing at a Narcissister performance on Thursday and a NADA after-party on Friday. And then, on Saturday, there was a panel discussion at Art Basel proper. The talk was supposed to be about “Transgender in the Mainstream,” but that title was scratched out in a photo that Huxtable posted to Instagram. Scrawled above it: “The Panel That Shall Not Be Named.”
The idea of “Transgender in the Mainstream” didn’t exactly sit well with Huxtable and the other panelists, including Brooklyn artist Gordon Hall, art historian David J. Getsy, and Kimberly Drew, founder of the site Black Contemporary Art. Huxtable said she found the title corny, ironic and inaccurate because the recent increase in trans visibility didn’t necessarily amount to inclusion or active participation in the mainstream.
“On the one hand you have the idea of transgender or gender variance being more emergent in the way it’s covered in the media or popular culture, or even in the context of the art world,” she said. “But I don’t think that necessarily goes hand in hand with what ‘being in the mainstream’ signifies.”
Huxtable knows a thing or two about visibility: she’s been called a “downtown ‘it’ girl,” a “Brooklyn ‘it’ girl,” and an “internet ‘it’ girl.” She’s popped up everywhere from underground trap raves in Bushwick to the New Museum’s 2015 Triennial, which featured Huxtable’s poems and self-portraits along with Frank Benson’s life-size 3D print of her in the nude, complete with penis, breasts, and signature flowing braids. On the heels of the Triennial, Vogue dubbed her an “Insta-sensation,” and Vice called her a “local trans icon.”
Huxtable isn’t the only trans artist gaining notoriety. She and others were featured in a recent art show, Bring Your Own Body, that made headlines in this outlet, for starters. But that shouldn’t lead you to believe that we’ve rounded a corner. After all, this isn’t the first time transgender people have been in the spotlight, as Getsy pointed out. They’ve been front-page news as far back as 1966, when the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, a precursor to the Stonewall Riot, occurred in San Francisco. That same year, the country’s first university-based gender-identity clinic was founded, and Dr. Harry Benjamin’s pioneering work, The Transsexual Phenomenon, was published. Such sudden surges in media attention, Getsy said, can be a “smokescreen,” and “an excuse for people not to be actively engaged in the politics.”
A day before the discussion, Blouin Art Info reported that the panelists had succeeded in convincing Art Basel to install a gender-neutral bathroom. But Getsy noted that “the real question is whether [the bathroom] is going to be here next year, not this once. That doesn’t mean there’s structural change.”
A million thanks to my fellow panelists @wjsimmons, #GordonHall, David Getsy, & @julianahuxtable for making all gender restrooms a reality at @artbasel. #ArtBasel #Equity A photo posted by kim drew (@museummammy) on
Hall, a sculptor and performance artist whose studio is in Bushwick, said they were “grossed out” by the panel’s title, in part because they didn’t think any of the panelists necessarily wanted to be part of “the mainstream.” Still, as a “thought experiment,” they had decided to imagine a scenario in which transgender was, indeed, mainstream. They imagined a reality in which gender isn’t imposed on people at birth and “gender self-determination is a reality for everybody.”
Despite the thought experiment, Hall remained unsatisfied with the title, and said the panel members had tried to come up with numerous alternatives. For one thing, the presence of the word “transgender” irked them, since such a label “utterly exemplifies the degree to which the norm is still white and cis.”
And, of course, it can also pigeonhole an artist. “I swore I wasn’t going to be in any more shows or panels or things that were like ‘queer this’ or ‘trans this,’” Hall said. “I was like, ‘No, no more.’ But it’s also a compromise, because artists need chances to do their work, one, and b) the word in the title got all of you here, and you’re the people I want to be talking to.”
Huxtable said she, too, tries to avoid getting pigeonholed, though sometimes playing off of expectations can be “kind of fun.” “For a long time I was a ‘black writer,’ or a ‘black X who dealt with technology and gender’ or something like that, but generally speaking, ‘black’ was the qualifier that I was most frequently encountered with. And it was really frustrating,” she said.
That changed with the Triennial – “then all the attention was ‘transgender artist,’ ‘transgender artist,’ and that was really annoying and frustrating in a different way because I have never thought of that in terms of my work,” Huxtable said. But, she added, it was also somewhat liberating: “’Transgender X’ felt a bit more free than ‘black artist’ did, because oftentimes that was used in a derogatory way to presume that the scope of what you were dealing with was only related to a very, very, very limited conversation.”
Huxtable admitted that she likes to “think about and engage questions of blackness,” but she resented narrow-minded critics who imposed a political agenda on her work – or, as she put it, “a presumed socialist agenda that I’m supposed to have about my ability to pay my fucking bills.”
“To hold every single artist up who’s a woman or trans or black to an agenda is really unfair and will ultimately only serve to have their work excluded from the canon,” she said. “Because I think people saying that, and dictating, and placing that responsibility is what allowed so many artists making really important, dynamic work in the ’90s and 2000s to be historicized as identity politics. And then you have a bunch of young artists now trying to make work and literally it’s like they can’t get out of those conversations.”
What’s more, she said, some artists are pigeonholed while others are not. In 2010, Marc Quinn, a straight white man, showed a much talked-about sculpture depicting sex between two transgender models, Allanah Starr and Buck Angel. “He would not be considered a transgender artist or an artist that’s dealing in issues of being transgender, at least in how I’ve seen it being written about,” Huxtable noted. “The way his work is being written about categorizes trans people as if they’re a representation of ‘extreme body modification,’ and it’s the same thing as someone who’s covered in tattoos or has 50,000 piercings.”
On the other hand, Huxtable said, even when her work outwardly has nothing to do with her transition, she is labeled as a trans artist: “When people are doing research to signify, write about, historicize what might be happening right now in terms of what being transgender means, I’m the first person they go to – not the person whose career is built off of literally these glossy images that reify a very specific idea of a sort of absolute A to B transition, that reify a very specific idea of what heterosexual norms are, which is what trans people are dealing with and frustrated with so often.”
One way around that pigeonholing, the panel agreed, was to create abstract rather than representational art. (Though with abstraction comes the risk of further erasure, Hall noted.) Getsy clarified that abstraction was “not an escape from politics; it’s a way of re-articulating politics and circumventing the – let’s just call it lurid – fascination with the trans body in popular culture.”
There’s a reason an artist might want to circumvent that fascination, according to Getsy: media representations of trans people tend to evoke “a history of medical photography and a really pathologizing discourse that was fueled off this idea of fascination and of the inspection of bodies.” (Indeed, photos from the Kinsey Institute were part of Bring Your Own Body show.) In other words: “Visibility exposes you to surveillance.”
Why is the media so obsessed with gender transition, anyway? Huxtable noted that trans people embody “questions that everyone is kind of dealing with in really intimate ways.” Hall agreed, noting that “everybody transitioned, everybody is transitioning. Like, you went through puberty, you became a woman or a man, you were pregnant, you are getting old and dying, your body is in a constant state of transition.” Transgender people often embody this in an “accelerated way,” and are therefore apt to become symbols or sources of fascination.
But, again, just because trans people are more visible doesn’t mean they’ve been integrated into the mainstream, the panel agreed. Besides, there is no one mainstream, as Getsy noted: “There’s all these places where the work for flourishing and survival needs to happen: in the museum, in history, in the art fair, in the MFA academies, in every place.”
As the panel members kept complaining about that pesky title, an audience member asked why they hadn’t tried to change it. “You’re at an event from Art Basel, which is the biggest player in the art world, it’s a private company from one of the richest countries in the world, and you accepted the title,” the man observed, adding, “They used you. Art Basel used you.”
It was at this point, nearly an hour into the discussion, that the panel’s moderator, CUNY doctoral student William J. Simmons, was forced to admit that it was he who had kept the title – for “practical” reasons, but also to open up a dialogue.
As Simmons searched for the words to explain why he had done this despite all the objections, Drew jumped in. “Yes, we’re complicit because we’re on stage,” she admitted. “But we all benefit from being in each other’s company, and that, in some ways, has to be enough. Because institutions in so many ways can be oppressive, and because there’s so much erasure that can happen. And today, in a small way, we’ve taken a little chip out of erasure. That’s all.”