Co-founder of WAIV and former Video Pool employee Hope Peterson’s 1995 film, From the Archive of the Libido, captures the ostensibly objective tone of archival hindsight by presenting a voice-over of a future archivist who looks back to footage of 20th century lesbian porn to observe the fetishization of such images in mainstream culture against the suppression of queer erotica. The dualism—which Peterson’s film presents regarding queer porn and “ersatz material” that fetishizes lesbian sex to fulfill heterosexual desire—carries of shade of this program’s borrowed title, “everything is permitted; nothing is possible.”15 What was once transgressive becomes acceptable, so long as it serves the cause of dominant cultural forces. Queerness is accepted so much as it conforms to a heteronormative white and middle-class paradigm. Similarly, feminist rhetoric has entered the mainstream but is so often instrumentalized to serve ‘Lean In’ culture, obscuring the anti-capitalist bent of theorists like Silvia Federici who directly ties the exploitation of labour to the subjugation of women’s bodies.16
In July of 2019, Artforum published an article titled “The Tear Gas Biennial” which called on the participating artists to withdraw their work from the 2019 Whitney Biennial.17 The demand was levelled in light of the museum’s affiliation with Vice Chair of the Board of Directors, Warren B. Kanders, whose company Safariland manufactures tear-gas, a chemical weapon often used as a suppressant against protestors and asylum seekers.18 Following the article, eight artists very publicly withdrew from the exhibition. Prior to this, discussions had already been taking place around the politics of participating in institutional exhibitions, and the burden of refusal on less established artists—particularly artists of colour whose representation in the 2019 Biennial marked a notable shift in the museum’s previously demonstrated purview. In response to the mounting pressure to resign from the show, Toronto-based filmmaker, Thirza Cuthand made a film about the controversy and her own gas-mask fetish titled, Less Lethal Fetishes (2019).19 The film follows a first-person narrative, as the artist describes her kink alongside the Whitney Biennial controversy and her response to it. The two narratives comingle, so that sex, politics, and art are aptly elicited as messy intertwining complexes that both inform and problematize one another. As is explained in the film, prior to the exhibition’s opening, Kanders resigned, alleviating the pressure on artists to bear the burden of sacrificing a major opportunity in order to compensate for the misdeeds of institutions far more powerful than themselves. The film concludes with the artist pining for a simpler time when the mask fetish could exist as a “horny joy” apart from the politics of extractive capitalism, war profiteering, and “artwashing,” all themes that the film explores.
On similar terms, art workers must contend with the sector’s uneasy alliance with capital. Recently, a popular writer (whose work I genuinely admire) known for her poignant yet accessible critiques of late capitalism, woefully observed the dilemma of her own upward mobility as an ironic result of her professional success. She is far from alone in this brand of creative exceptionalism which conflates awareness with absolution and seeks to isolate intellectual labour from the problematic structures it exists within. Neither art nor pleasure are a cure for capitalism, but whether or not they are instrumentalized in service of it is up to us.
- Essay by Madeline Bogoch
- Madeline shares special thanks to Dr. May Chew, her thesis supervisor.
William E. Jones, “Sexuality as Utopian Promise: William E. Jones,” interview by Luigi Fassi, Mousse Magazine, February 2009, http://moussemagazine.it/william-e-jones-luigi-fassi-2009/
Jones, “Sexuality as Utopian Promise,” interview by Luigi Fassi.
Noam Gonick, “Notes on 1919,” Incite: Journal of Experimental Media, accessed December 12, 2020, http://www.incite-online.net/gonick2.html
The film I am referring to is Bill the Barber by Wendy Buelow (2005).
Amelia Wong, “How Not to Disappear,” Canadian Art, March 4, 2021, https://canadianart.ca/features/how-to-not-disappear/
Mike Hoolboom, “Season of the Boys,” in Practical Dreamers: Conversations with Movie Artists (Toronto, ON: Coach House Books, 2008), 254.
José Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The There and Then of Queer Futurity (New York: NYU Press, 2009).
Dominique Rey, “Selling Venus,” Border Crossings vol. 24 no. 2 (May 2005): 82.
Laura U. Marks, “Video Haptics and Erotics,” Screen vol. 39 no.4 (1998): 333.
Laura U. Marks, “Ten Years of Dreams about Art,” in Lux: A Decade of Artists’ Film and Video ed. Steve Reinke and Tom Taylor (Toronto ON: YYZ Books, 2000), 22.
Marks, “Ten Years of Dreams about Art,” 24.
Marusya Bociurkiw, “Second-Wave Feminist Video Collectives in Canada,” Camera Obscura vol. 31 no.3 (2016): 7.
Bociurkiw, “Second-Wave Feminist Video Collectives in Canada,” 21.
Ann Cvetkovich, “In the Archives of Lesbian Feelings: Documentary and Popular Culture” Camera Obscura vol. 49 no.1 (2002): 112.
15 Peterson uses the phrase “ersatz material” in her synopsis of the film.
16 While broadly referencing Federici’s oeuvre, I am particularly referring to her 2004 text Caliban and the Witch throughout which this point is explored extensively.
17 Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett, “The Tear Gas Biennial,” Arftorum, July 17, 201, https://www.artforum.com/slant/a-statement-from-hannah-black-ciaran-finlayson-and-tobi-haslett-on-warren-kanders-and-the-2019-whitney-biennial-80328
18 Black, Finlayson, Haslett, “The Tear Gas Biennial.”
19 The phrase “less lethal” has been used frequently by Safariland to rationalize their production of tear-gas canisters.
The dualism—which Peterson’s film presents regarding queer porn and “ersatz material” that fetishizes lesbian sex to fulfill heterosexual desire—carries of shade of this program’s borrowed title, everything is permitted; nothing is possible.