Essays

Summoning a queer state

Karl Schoonover, 2020

At the moment of writing this, I am asking myself, what has happened to the state? Has the state abandoned us? There have been moments this year when it has felt that we are governed by institutions that seem unconcerned with the inevitability of our premature death. In fact, during the current crisis’s early peak, some government officials of the world’s most prominent democracies appeared surprisingly public in their resignation to losing segments of the population. This period of history feels like an unsettling flashback, especially for queer and trans people who survived one of the last great pandemics, HIV-AIDS. Once again, we face gaslighting public discourses that obfuscate facts while allowing people to die. Being vulnerable and being a citizen seem increasingly incommensurate states of being.

While completed before the current crises, Kevin Gaffney’s new work carries a prescience about our present moment. It forces us to confront rather than look away from the question of life within the modern nation state and outside it. It demonstrates the willingness of a state to jeopardize life to protect its future. From his earliest films, Gaffney has worked on refiguring the body politic. The speculative worlds he creates make havoc of the dominant institutions that yoke lived experience into conventional and orderly lives. Put another way, Gaffney is drawn to how queers experiment with ways to liberate their selfhood from the identity categories imposed upon them. Along the way, his work has resignified the messy bodies of post-conceptual art, offering a queer aesthetic formed around the visceral capacity to unhitch bodies from the reifying powers of identity that affix us to communities, genders, and the bodies we’re born in. In his latest work, Expulsion, he continues this project by asking about alternatives to current state formations, bringing to life a land where queer terrorists reinvent community around sex and gender dissidence. As with his other works, Gaffney fashions this imaginary realm from a textured history of institutions, traditions, and corporate capitalism. At one point in Expulsion, interrogators for the Queer State ask an asylum seeker for the name they would prefer if they were to be granted citizenship. The applicant responds, James Miranda Barry, a name many will recognise from Ireland’s queer past, as that of a 19th century doctor whose gender was assigned female at birth but lived as a man for their adult life. Another of those historical references for Gaffney’s Queer State is a late-twentieth century political movement called Queer Nation.

Queer Nation was formed around 1990 in the USA by some of the AIDS activists who had worked to establish ACT-UP and who decided to expand their protest agenda. Perhaps more loosely organised and less pragmatic, Queer Nation nonetheless borrowed the strategies that had made ACT-UP so successful: slogans with wicked wordplay, angry confrontation, joyous inversion of norms, and multifaceted shamelessness. In Expulsion, Kevin Gaffney imagines an ultimate expression of Queer Nation, a state formed of queers outside of heterosexual society, a mix of commune, sanctuary, and extremely exclusive gay ghetto. Is his invention, the Queer State, a utopian homeland or its quasi-fascist dark shadow? We are never quite sure.

Gaffney’s Queer State is a country founded by terrorists on the basis of their marginality and on the barren soil and scarred landscapes of extractive economies. Expulsion describes the process whereby refugees from other states can apply for asylum. This process involves an ideological indoctrination that freely incorporates queer retellings of patriarchal history, ecofeminism, anticorporate sentiments, and a loose neo-Marxism. As we observe the shockingly arbitrary process that grants asylum, we question the true nature of the community being formulated. When a Black applicant’s appeal for asylum in the Queer State is rejected, it feels inconsistent and cruel. The State tells him both that his mainstream character ‘would be considered a liability to our society’ and that his critique of corporatized consumer capitalism demonstrates ‘lack of compassion for [his] community’. Most troubling is the Queer State’s advice for his reentry into the non-queer world upon his forced, immanent return to it: adopt a non-confrontational attitude, embrace his masculinity, and aim for an individuality motivated by self-interest exercised in private. How could a radically humanist project expel an applicant only to return him precisely to the oppression it purports to oppose? Would an anti-hierarchal paradise demand such things? Offer such advice?

At several moments, as we question whether the Queer State is the anti-hegemonic community it purports to be, the film shifts gears, and intercuts sequences of video footage from the actual 1992 US presidential campaign of Queer Nation’s candidate, Joan Jett Blakk. Blakk is an African American drag queen who, at the time of the presidential campaign, had run for other public offices and would go on to be a member of the performance group Pomo Afro Homos. The documentation of Blakk’s campaign stump speeches comes in glorious imperfection, analogue video tape footage showing off an intentionally unpolished aesthetic. In this way, the shrill energy, playful scandalmongering, and sloppy fun of Queer Nation’s actual history erupts into the high-polish classicism of Expulsion’s Queer State. These two visions of queer disruption are brought side by side.

In the early 1990s, I was a young American queer coming of age who disidentified with the label ‘gay’. Queer Nation’s original call excited me for its refusal to settle for the begrudging tolerance afforded us by liberal heterosexuals (‘allies’ who had mostly abandoned queers during the HIV/AIDS crisis), its rejection of a minoritizing logic that condemned queers to the margins and had left us to die. Queer Nation rejected the impulses of conventional gay rights movements, spurning any politics striving for acceptance in mainstream society. It saw those who fighting for marriage rights for LGBT people as sell-outs, too willing to settle for an analogue of straight life and abandoning the radical potentiality of a life lived queerly. Today we would call Queer Nation’s resistance a campaign against ‘homonormativity’. But Queer Nation wasn’t just about complaint. It was also a beacon of unapologetic imagining, riotous anti-assimilationism, and a reclaiming of public space and the political sphere. At Queer Nation demonstrations I thought I detected the ascendency of a new political agency for LGBT politics, a promise that all citizens had the right to live, even in the most sexually dissident or gender non-normative way. While redressing the overwhelming dominance of heterosexual norms over life and dismantling patriarchal structures, the group was less conscious of how its particular forms of play and resistance were premised upon class privilege. This went largely unchecked in the group’s workings.

While the activities of Queer Nation regional chapters continue today, the group’s period of public national visibility dimmed by the mid-1990s, overshadowed by more mainstream fights for lesbian and gay legitimacy (e.g., demands for marriage rights) in a culture dominated by Clintonian compromise.[1] Queer Nation’s initial pronouncements, however, left us with questions that persist, and Gaffney’s Expulsion makes us confront those provocations: Can queerness be governed? Should it be governed? Can we imagine a mode of governing queerly? Will queerness ever find a place in statehood?

As a fantasy, Gaffney’s queer state intrigues the viewer with its volatile uncertainty. A satisfying queer heresy hovers in the Queer State’s declarations, including an overdue reckoning of history, a condemnation of the pink-washing of modern slavery practices, and a wonderfully concise critique of the patriarchy’s colonising of the concept of nature. However, Expulsion carefully avoids any full endorsement of the Queer State’s governmental operations, and it is not only through the juxtapositions of Queer Nation and this imagined state that the film foregrounds the Queer State’s ambivalent status. Beginning from its initial images, Expulsion performs its unsureness through an iconography of equivocal symbols. Take, for example, the flag paraded by a Queer State citizen through a depleted landscape. At the centre of the bright colours and triangle of the flag is a circular hole. Does this hole represent an empty duplicitous truth at the core of the Queer State’s project? Or is it that project’s acknowledgment of indeterminacy? A liberatory refusal to settle on queer identity? There are other startling images that lack full explanation, such as a uniformed body with a leather mask lying on a pile of rubble. This might be either a prisoner of the Queer State whose punishment reveals the hypocrisy of the Queer State’s project or simply a lovely pervert finally freely able to explore their sources of pleasure.

This unresolved ambivalence towards the Queer State’s justifications and its practices is kept crucially taut by Expulsion and, as such, it returns us to the dilemmas of the current moment. Why do we need a guarantee of the status quo’s persistence in the future in order to value human life in the present? Why do we need assurances of our own privilege in order to act humanely? Gaffney’s work does more than stage the incommensurability of a queer state; it shows us the dangers of not facing our own vexed relationship to being governed. One challenge of this moment is being able to imagine participatory democracy as something other than simply majority rule and to reimagine what a state can and should do for us.

Essay written for Crawford Art Gallery, 2020.


Unseen by my Open Eyes, Monograph, 24 x 18 cm / 9 x 11 in, 96 pages, Paperback, published 2017, London.


Unseen by my Open Eyes

CAOIMHÍN MAC GIOLLA LÉITH, 2017

A cursory account of the body of work produced by Kevin Gaffney over the past few years gives the inevitable impression of restless globe-trotting and compulsive diversity. While he works with photography on occasion, his principal achievement since 2014 has been to write and direct four films, varying in length from five and a half to a little under eighteen minutes, in four very different countries. That these far-flung locations are, in reverse order, Ireland, Iran, Korea and Taiwan, amplifies our appreciation of difference per se as a core concern. So, too, does the fact that the primary language used in each instance is either the native or prevalent tongue of the country in which the film was shot, using only local actors/ participants as collaborators— Irish, Farsi, Korean and Mandarin— though all are subtitled in English. Gaffney is no casual exoticist. On the contrary, the cumulative import of these films is to suggest that the obstacles to empathy and mutual understanding thrown up by linguistic and cultural difference may reflect a more fundamental estrangement common to much, if not all, of humanity. This is in spite of the ever more elaborate forms of social organisation and identity production we have designed through the ages, partly in order to mask this distressing condition.

While Gaffney’s earliest films prominently featured the artist himself
in a variety of guises and situations, any notion of a unitary, autonomous subject has always been alien to the world view evinced by his work; an illusion not to be countenanced, much less an ideal to be aspired to. The surreal scenarios and darkly perplexing tableaux presented to us in these early films are haunted by a succession of divided or fragmentary selves. More recently, the abstruse but purposive actions performed by these splintering avatars have given way to the speculative ruminations of an array of characters played by others. This further devolution of selfhood is complemented by an increased blurring of boundaries between a given subject and its myriad others, whose domain extends readily from humanity into the animal kingdom and beyond. Yet, at the same time, the psychological and social forces that circumscribe individual consciousness, immuring it in lonely isolation, remain all but inseparable.

In The mirror is dark and inky, 2015, a young woman surveys Tehran from a distant height, is driven around the city in silence, or curls up in an armchair, remaining aloof from the group of friends who chatter sociably around a board game close by. The interior monologue we overhear, which may or may not be hers, tells a tale of awkward interspecies intimacy with a melancholic whale with whom the speaker shares a small tub in a triangular bathroom within the confines of her apartment. This testimony gradually gives way to that of an even more introspective young man, alone in secluded woodland, though a significant run over in the soundtrack obscures the distinction between their respective inner voices. He, too, speaks of nested enclosures (the figure of the Russian doll is invoked) and he, too, is a bundle of desire, guilt and sadness, as he imagines slowly dissolving into a morass in which the bounds between man and encompassing nature—the cockroach, mosquito and worm he speaks of in turn, or the clutch of leaves, grass and soil he holds in his open hand—no longer count for much.

A similar concern with transcending boundaries in Our Stranded Friends in Distant Lands, 2015, is more obviously inflected by local geopolitics, given its genesis in South Korea. Here, however, in lieu of the bewildering flux of “becoming-animal”, as famously outlined by the French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari in response to the stories of Kafka, we have a more traditional tapping of the allegorical potential of the animal kingdom; a gambit familiar to readers of Western literature from Ovid to Orwell. The film’s opening sequence notes that, in a divided land where the disparity between opposing perspectives and vantage points is crucial, the birds of the air pay a fatal price for making a mockery of national borders. This injustice, it is reported, has been denounced by “a spokesman” from “the Village of Migratory Birds” who adamantly professes his faith in the ultimate endurance of nature beyond nation. The disjointed meditations that follow are parcelled out among male and female human narrators in a patchwork of dramatic visual contrasts between spirited animation and discomfiting immobility, interior monologue and diegetic speech, open and closed eyes. Word and image, voice and vision are cautiously conjoined under the sign of reflection (in the senses of both thoughtful contemplation and automatic mirroring), a tentative reconciliation effected through a shifting series of visual rhymes and verbal references involving the full moon, the human eye, the telescopic (and, by implication, the camera’s) lens.

In retrospect, these two short films from 2015 are effectively bookended by two longer films with a looser, more episodic structure. The earlier Everything Disappears, 2014, shot in Taipei and deliberately conceived as an exploration of fluid identities, revolves around four characters and the complex, sometimes quarrelsome relationships between them. It opens with the following lines: “Like a spider, I’m waiting. In a vacuum.” Later on, different characters or voices will variously wonder about the interior life of a rat, express a preference for being treated like an object, and speculate on the possibility of reversing the flow of time. Meanwhile, the stream of imagery features sundry exertions, abuses and constraints visited upon the human body, while the central section of this seven-chapter film focuses on a young gay man’s account of the psychological cost of avoiding compulsory service in the Taiwanese military by submitting to the state’s psychiatric services. (This real-life witness does not appear in the film and his testimony is voiced by an English-speaking actor.)

Finally, to describe Gaffney’s most recent, and arguably most spectacular film, A Numbness in the Mouth, 2016, shot on location in Shackleton’s Mill on the outskirts of Dublin, as a homecoming would be to assume a degree of innate belonging, which his work has consistently disavowed. A nineteenth-century water-powered flour mill with a chequered history entwined with that of the emergent Irish Free State, Shackleton’s Mill here becomes the stage for a fanciful fiction of an Ireland of the near future in which the bonds between individual and state are even more constricting and punitive than they have been in reality in the past. A garishly dressed, inordinately ebullient government mouthpiece informs us that, due to overproduction, all citizens are henceforth expected to consume at least five pounds of flour per day. She introduces herself as Gráinne, a common enough native name these days but also a pun on the Irish for “grain”, and suggests various modes of consumption, which the citizenry might find to their taste.

Playing the biddable, put-upon sidekick to this officious spin doctor is the more Biblically named Lily, an innocent, mute throwback to the dark ages of a voiceless labour force. Gráinne is all talk whereas Lily is all action, their vaguely complementary routines having no manifest significance or appreciable effect. Their compulsiveness is symptomatic rather of an alienating, bureaucratic, militarised system that contrives to be both wasteful and self-consuming. In the context of the ongoing evolution of Kevin Gaffney’s oeuvre, their fruitless endeavours are also emblematic of that tortuous discordance between language and the body, between the semantic and the somatic, which has been among his work’s most persistent characteristics, both formally and thematically, from its beginnings less than a decade ago.