Kissing is in the air, and not just because it’s spring and my allergies are attacking my face to death.
No. Led by Tino Sehgal‘s “This Progress,” which opened at The Guggenheim back in January and featured “Kiss”, where exclusively male-female couples made out on the rotunda of the museum for like, all day, kissing has made a comeback of sorts, mainly because there still seems to be a lot of confusion about the politics of the action, and for that matter, representations of publicly expressed sexuality in general.
Long story short, Brennan Gerard and Ryan Kelly of Moving Theater Company got their hands on a casting call for Sehgal’s work, which was explicit in its request for “male/female” couples. In response, Brennan and Ryan have created “You Call This Progress?” Right now, it’s being discussed over at L. Ro’s WNYC blog, and I was originally going to post a comment there, but it turned into this state-of-the-union-length post, so I thought it would be better to just post it here. (Prepare thyself: from here on out–and for better of for worse–the language gets all academicky….)
I love that Brennan and Ryan have created this work; this constructive response to a gut reaction.
I think, through exploring their subjective reaction (as gay men) to seeing the public lionizing through performance of an exclusively male-female couple embraced in a kiss, they are getting at something essential to any argument about the human experience of/encounter with gender and sex, and therefore, sexuality: That gender and sex is always positive and subjective; and so sexuality and expressions of sexuality are also always positive and subjective.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the body, and I keep fixating on this idea of body-positiveness. We have this regard for the body as either complete (“Yep, all ten fingers and toes!”) or incomplete (anything less). But this way of regarding the body is predicated on an expectation of what the body should be, or should become. I would argue that a body can never be “incomplete”, since it is itself a totally positive manifestation of living matter: all living matter has “grown,” has “developed,” has one direction that is positive. If you remove a part, that does not make the total body that is left “incomplete”, it merely makes the body smaller and changes its shape, but the remaining body is no less positive. Maybe more broadly, one might say, EVERYTHING THAT IS, IS POSITIVELY.
In this same way, gender–particularly as social performance, and in the case of Tino Sehgal’s work, as performance art–is always positive. Gender, when gender is present, cannot be negated; like skin color cannot be negated; like height cannot be negated. We humans have this annoying habit of “looking past” things. A habit that stems from an avoidance of already “not looking” at things we find inconvenient to look at; i.e. social privilege for men, for white people, for heterosexuals, for the “fully abled”, for Christians, for English speakers, for the wealthy, et al. And so to keep ourselves from looking, we invent this idea of “looking past”, or “looking beyond” (usually expressed this way: “I don’t see you as [insert minority description].”), so that we never in fact have to confront the subjectivity of our own gender, race, or any other majority characteristic which we may be and/or express.
This false ability to “see past” essentially positive and immutable characteristics of the human body/experience (whether naked sexual characteristics, or the socially/personally constructed characteristics of gender, religion, political party, etc.), allows us to make all kinds of ridiculous arguments claiming that the body characteristics of the dominant group (maleness, whiteness, heterosexuality, “fully abled-ness”, Christianity, the English language, wealth, etc.) are simultaneously “ideal,” “universal,” and “objective.”
This tethering of “idealism,” “universality,” and “objectivity” is the necessity of any dominant group politics. It enables the dominant group to maintain an assumption to unlimited and exclusive privilege. It positions them as the designers, adjudicators and beneficiaries of power and justice. It allows the rampant, excessive representation of their own subjectivity while excluding and suppressing the representation of “other” subjectivities. It allows artists like Sehgal to argue (even via here-say, you have to imagine some form of this argument must exist in his reasoning) that the representation of a minority characteristic within a work that is attempting to be “universal” will “complicate,” or “politicize” a work, or make the work suddenly “subjective.” The only complication homosexual subjectivity would deliver to “Kiss” would be the unraveling of a violent, homophobic assumption to heterosexual privilege. Which would be a good thing.
And this is precisely the double-bind heterosexual supremacy (or any kind of political supremacy) enacts upon homosexuals (or the dominated group). Homosexuality is politicized by homophobia; in fact, the more homosexuality becomes visible and socially acceptable, the stronger the push is to politicize the behavior by the passing of laws that restrict the rights and freedoms of gay people. So when gay people speak up against these offensive (and offensive) maneuvers by heterosexual supremacists, they–the homosexuals–are portrayed as “being political,” when in fact they are being compelled into political action out of survival by a dominant group that has enacted a political movement against them. But because our culture is dominated by heterosexuality, the political agency of heterosexual supremacy (and of exclusionary heterosexual performances like Sehgal’s) literally “ISN’T SEEN.” It is invisible, because, well, of COURSE, heterosexuality is “objective,” “universal,” and “ideal,” none of which apply to the definition of politics.
To find an illustration of this absurd principle, one need only look at our judicial system. During Justice Sonya Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, she was repeatedly grilled by white lawmakers about whether or not she would be able to exercise “objectivity” in cases that involved racial politics. The racism inherent in such questions was unabashed, if ultimately–and thankfully–impotent. But the principle governing such questions is still in place in common discourse regarding majority/minority politics and justice.
The question is always whether a justice of a racial, gender, or sexual minority will be able to be “objective” about cases involving race, gender or sexuality, respectively. In this question is figured a presumption that only white, or male, or heterosexual justices can be truly “objective” in these instances. Thus, laws created by whites, or males, or heterosexuals against non-whites, or non-males, or non-heterosexuals, are only able to be “objectively” adjudicated by members of the very group that made the discriminatory law in the first place. Sounds pretty fair, right?
In majority/minority politics, “objectivity” is always the privilege of the dominant group. I even heard a friend once argue that Anderson Cooper shouldn’t “come out” because he needs to be able to remain “objective” about “the issues.” As if his coming out would “politicize,” or “make subjective” his reporting on every possible issue, not just the gay ones. It is really sinister how pervasive these feelings are in our culture, going so deep that a liberal person who would vote for gay marriage would still be able to feel that all news anchors need to be heterosexual or closeted homosexuals in order to report objectively on anything. (OMG, we could probably spend another few thousand words on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s argument that The Closet encompasses straight people as well as gays who are not out, but that is for another day or drunken evening…)
Seeing heterosexuality as objective is an illusion of privilege. Tino Sehgal’s “Kiss” is not objective. And Brennan and Ryan, in a stroke of genius, expose the subjectivity of “Kiss” by engaging language simply to describe what one is seeing at the Guggenheim. In the audio track accompanying the performance of “You Call This Progress?”, you hear them speak out what they observed in “This Progress.” They say things like “her right hand on his left shoulder,” “his left hand on her small of back,” “her right hand caresses his left chest.” All it takes is this rudimentary process of describing what is happening to show up the pretense of Sehgal’s “uncomplicated” vision. It also resonates brilliantly with one of Gregg Bordowitz’s scrolling questions, read aloud at the Burning Bridges performance of “You Call This Progress?”: “How is art a description?” How, also, is experience a description?
I was on the train the other day, and two black kids, maybe nine or ten years old, were playing a game, a version of Twenty Questions. One of them would pick out a random person on the train, and the other would ask questions in order to identify which person had been selected. The kid who was questioning would rattle off a preliminary course of dichotomous inquiries that went something like this: “Man or Woman?”; “Light or dark skinned?”; “Straight or curly hair?”; “Tall or short?” You get where I’m going. Our experience of bodies–and thus, our entire awareness of social order–is always accompanied by the tacit and necessary function of description. And the answers we receive are subjective and positive. We learn to understand the world by describing it. We know our place in the world by knowing our descriptions. To suddenly claim that subjective description of gender, or race, or sexuality is irrelevant to the experience of human interaction is to betray our history of understanding people only to service a purely conceptual maneuver of aesthetic sanitization.
Now, I am not arguing for the tyranny of description; of labels. But, whether we like it or not, we exist within this tyranny. Pretending that description doesn’t matter only strengthens the tyrannical grip of language over our bodies by playing into the privileges that language constructs.
And so we go back and forth between deflecting language’s/description’s limiting force upon our lives, and also employing language to affirm immutable characteristics of our bodies and of our identities.
I recently co-created a “Kiss-Out” with my collaborator Todd Shalom in response to a recent gay bashing that took place in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. We organized about sixteen people (of which, Mr. Kelly was one) to kiss at the corners of two street intersections near where the attack had taken place. The people were organized mostly in groups of two; mostly male-male couples, with one female-female couple, and one corner where I think two males and one female alternated configurations of two.
In one of the online discussions that followed (and in some cases, preceded) our action, an argument came up that suggested because we included male-female couples within our action, which was an action in response to homophobia, that this heterogenous makeup “negated” gender subjectivity altogether. The person who wrote this comment was trying to say that, essentially, if all sexualities are represented, then no sexualities exist.
I wholeheartedly disagree with the slippage from regarding sexual orientation as positive only-in-the-context-of-opposition/exclusion to regarding it as negative in-the-context-of-togetherness. Bodies are not like pigment, in the sense that when all pigments are present, we see white, or, the illusion of no pigment. Rather, when you see a straight couple and a gay couple expressing affection together, even in solidarity, there is no way of perceiving either action as negative or negated: They are both happening, and they are both happening positively. Likewise, excluding one from the other–as Sehgal’s work does, and as Brennan and Ryan’s work also does (which they call themselves out on)–does not strip either from their essential subjectivity.
I think what many of us are agitating for goes much further beyond a limited and perhaps ineffectual idea of “breaking down barriers,” which are usually understood to be the barriers of labels, or description, or language. Rather, we want to eradicate prejudice and privilege within the arena of description, so that both a heterosexual kiss and a homosexual kiss are seen as positive, not as oppositional. We also want to eliminate compulsory participation in descriptions that do not apply to our sense of identity. Because I do not identify as “heterosexual” does not mean I want to identify as “nothing.” If “heterosexual” is a construction that is at odds with any other configuring of sexual orientation, then I am happy to apply any secondary and following class of labels that all fall under the category “non-heterosexual” to myself. However, I would rather understand heterosexuality as a positive iteration of human sexual possibility that is equal to and co-existent with other positive iterations of human sexual possibility, whatever we end up calling those.
And we also want to forge an at-will relationship with identity. Maybe today I feel like “a man.” Maybe tomorrow I will feel like “a woman.” Maybe the next day I will feel something in between those two categories. Maybe I am currently in a homosexual romantic relationship, but maybe there will be room for a heterosexual relationship in the future, or, as Brennan and Ryan seem to argue for, a relationship outside of the structure of the couple.
But to understand any of these possibilities, which are exciting, and which seem to present an amazing opportunity to use language as constructive, but not as restrictive, in determining individual or group identity, we have to be able to call out the illusionary offspring of prejudicial identity politics and the teetering house of cards that is built upon its upward spiraling shoulders.