The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images. —Guy Debord
JOCKSTRAP NIGHT WAS CANCELED, so everyone at the bar was in clothes they hadn’t planned to wear. I spotted three men in Captain America T-shirts and made out with one of them. I tell this story to my workout partner, who sports Iron Man–themed compression garments from Under Armour. Next to him in the locker room, another jock is squeezing into red Lycra with a Superman insignia on the chest. Walking home, I check Instagram, noting that, in my feed of comic-book memes and action figures, Beyoncé has dressed up as Storm at a costume party. I dodge a little kid on a scooter dressed as Thor, padded muscles sewn into the sleeves. In my apartment, I click on Hulu, scanning blurbs for The Flash, Arrow, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. My domestic partner negotiates a détente: He puts on the news between two superhero shows. Distracted, I swipe through zentai fetish sites, searching for a Cyclops bodysuit, then reach into my bag and pull out the latest issue of X-Men.
Within mainstream gay-male culture, many situate themselves on the spectrum of jock to geek, two “communities” available on Scruff. These terms figure complementary fantasies of bulging bodies, technologized in skintight sheaths, hurtling in foreshortened intensity. In this moment of superhero saturation, I am reminded that it was not the ubiquity of these images that first attracted me to them, but the ways in which they signaled a rejection of the culture that marginalized me because I was different. Am I still different?
I was once a nerdy sixth grader finding companionship in comics shops and conventions, my primary point of contact the monthly issue of Uncanny X-Men. That was before the Fox films (credited with the advent of the “modern superhero movie”) and Capcom video games disseminated X-Men to a worldwide marketplace. Enabled by the Internet, contemporary fandom is a discourse around this mediation, a response to the corporate handling of intellectual properties. This discussion can take the form of sustained critique, as it does on themarysue.com, “an inclusive, feminist community,” or the podcast Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men, hosted by a polyamorous couple, one cis and one trans, based in Portland, Oregon. Or it can happen in ad hoc comments on Instagram feeds such as stormfanforever and through Gay Geeks of New York’s Facebook rants. Fandom can even generate new queer theory, as in the forthcoming book The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics by Ramzi Fawaz, assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, who argues that “fantasy [is] a dynamic aesthetic and social phenomenon, a mode of communication deployed as a tool of world making.” For an embodied expression of this “world making,” there are queer conventions like Flame Con, started in Brooklyn this past summer, which ended its day-long activities with a climactic display of superhero-themed drag performances.
Born into an already alienated world, comics functioned for me, as they do for many, as a means to reimagine the construction of identity, often expressed by dressing up as another. Comics can be a way to find allies in a system that is violently hostile to crossing boundaries. In Debord’s Situationist critique of mediation, he cautions that the spectacle promises “all that appears is good.” Today’s image consumers know this to be untrue, even as they agitate for favorable representation: The interface of media culture allows for and even encourages dissent. Flawed as representation is, it is in response to critique—the utterance by intersecting voices that all is not good—that the companies that produce our contemporary mythologies create correctives to invisibility and stereotype. And then sell them to us.
This November, under the banner “All-New All-Different,” Marvel Comics recast many of its best-known brands in brown and/or female bodies. Captain America is black, while Captain Marvel, Thor, and Wolverine are now women. Ms. Marvel is a Pakistani teen from Jersey City. All-Different-ness promises multiplicity: While black Latino Miles Morales is Spider-Man, so is white male Peter Parker, in another series. Gwen Stacy, once Parker’s girlfriend, is now Spider-Gwen; Korean-American Cindy Moon is star of the spinoff Silk; and Spider-Woman Jessica Drew is pregnant. Another white male Spider-Man, Cletus Kasady, aka Carnage, is an antisocial mass murderer, while Web Warriors features Spider-verse characters from other species, such as Spider-Ham. “All-New All-Different” splinters superhero identities, once secret, into publicized identifications, distributed among demographics. Almost half of the people who read comics are women; many, of course, are people of color. The people who write and edit Marvel Comics are predominantly white men, though the pencillers, inkers, and colorists who make the artwork are culled from a more diverse pool. Marvel has recently hired Ta-Nehisi Coates to write Black Panther (Marvel’s premiere black superhero, introduced in 1966 in the pages of the Fantastic Four) as part of “All-New, All-Different,” adding his name to the shortlist of nonwhite guys that includes G. Willow Wilson (A-Force, Ms. Marvel), and Greg Pak (Storm). Marvel Comics, started in the early part of the last century for an audience of white boys, is producing heroes who reflect the specificity of consumers in a twenty-first-century marketplace. All that appears is all that appears.
Marvel Comics’ lurch toward a new superhero body politic was not achieved without bloodshed. In May of this year, Marvel Comics commenced the “Secret Wars,” a massive, multititled maxi-series scheduled to destroy the Marvel Universe (and its parallel, the Ultimate Universe), setting the stage for “All-New All-Different.” “Secret Wars” played out over the summer and into the fall in almost fifty different miniseries, the flagship title selling around 200,000 issues a month. The event was advertised as an end to the interconnected continuity that has been the setting for Marvel’s superhero stories since 1961, beginning with the publication of Fantastic Four #1. The Fantastic Four, Marvel’s “first family,” has been canceled, its last issue coinciding with the beginning of “Secret Wars.” Marvel Comics also announced that monthly titles X-Men, Uncanny X-Men, All-New X-Men, Amazing X-Men, and spinoffs Spider-Man & the X-Men, Wolverines, Storm, Magneto, Cyclops, Nightcrawler, and X-Force were ending in the runup to “Secret Wars.” If you wanted to see your favorite X-characters, you would have to read the various “Secret Wars” titles, although in those series, they were alternate-reality versions of themselves. All dangling story arcs from the canceled monthlies, and central continuity, would be resolved in the final Uncanny X-Men, #600.
“Secret Wars” is an apt name for the event of these cancelations. A 1993 deal 20th Century Fox made with Marvel before the latter had its own film production company licensed off the X-Men film rights while keeping the merchandising at Marvel. Fan sites host heated debates on the vicissitudes of intellectual property, bifurcated by competing interests: In the case of X-Men, Fox can make movies (and television, as in the upcoming pilots for X-Men spinoffs Legion on FX, and Hellfire on Fox TV, coproduced with Marvel), but Marvel appears reluctant to continue to make merchandise that could benefit its former collaborator, now competitor. This impacts the content of the comic books: A 2002 court case ruled that Fox also controls the term “mutant.” So mutant characters can’t appear in the Marvel cinematic universe, which includes Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers. The Walt Disney Company’s 2009 acquisition of Marvel Entertainment (for $4 billion) is the object of much consternation on fan sites, fans knowing, as they do, that the bottom line determines their access to, and the fate of, these highly cathected-to avatars.
IN APRIL, prior to cancelation, All-New X-Men #40 came out, and in it, Iceman, one of the original X-Men, came out too, as gay. The scene, scripted by Brian Michael Bendis, with art by Mahmud Asrar, depicts the young mutant Bobby Drake being confronted by his telepathic teammate, Jean Grey, who calls him aside after he makes a sexual comment about one of their teachers, the demonic teleporter Magik. Jean knows, because she can read his mind, that Bobby is gay, and overcompensating. Iceman protests: “Maybe I’m bi.” Jean answers, “They say everybody is. But I think you’re more full gay.”
X-Men is about a community of mutants facing extinction: To avert genocide, they often resort to time travel. The Jean and Bobby of All-New X-Men are teenagers displaced from an earlier time, and they discuss the fact that people in the current era are more accepting of homosexuality. Paradoxically, Iceman is a teenager living in a time continuous with his older self, in a separate body. He ponders what this means about the older Bobby’s sexuality. He asks if Angel, a flame-winged mutant with blond hair, is gay too. Jean says, “No.” Two pages later Angel is flying in the air with his girlfriend, a transgender clone of Wolverine.
X-Men has long been a site for a speculative interrogation of the construction of sexuality, veering between essentialist rhetoric and the fluidities of queerness. With “Secret Wars” raging on, the question was: Would the time-traveling teenage Iceman confront his older counterpart about his “full” gayness before the end of the world? If Iceman admitted to his younger self that he was gay, would that mean he had been gay since his first appearance, in The X-Men #1, released in 1963? And was this revelation to be undone with the end of Marvel’s continuity?
In comic books, continuity describes the holism of a fictive reality created by multiple authors using the same consecutive narrative elements: character designs, biographies, geographies, and timelines. These elements of continuity become a canon. When a canon is changed by altering the fictitious history that established it, the term in comics is retroactive continuity, or a ret-con. The revelation that the X-Men character Phoenix was an alien clone of Jean Grey, who was alive in an energy pod, even though everyone thought she had committed suicide on the moon, is a ret-con. A narrative conceit that destabilizes the continuity it produces, a ret-con is a means of revising the shared production of an imaginary world, of redressing wrongs and creating new problems for others to undo. The X-Men’s corner of the Marvel Universe’s overall continuity is a baroque entanglement of paradoxes. That time-travel is a regular occurrence in X-Men comics make them particularly rife with ret-cons.
The premise of the nine-issue “Secret Wars” is that the villainous Doctor Doom has, through nefarious means, become “God-Emperor” of the Marvel Universe. Dislocated from a now-defunct continuity, the series places Marvel’s characters in a medieval-ish realm, answering to a cloaked and armored Doom who sits in his big chair surrounded by brainwashed minions, most of them blond women. The Invisible Woman, wife of Doom’s rival Mister Fantastic, is his consort, and the names of all these characters tell you everything you need to know about the gender politics of this book. “Secret Wars” depicts a melancholic patriarch’s dysfunctional omnipotence, as Doom consolidates control and staves off the inevitable coup. Each of the territories under Doom’s dominion is an alternate reality chronicled in a different series. The same characters appear as versions of themselves in different contexts, and comics, at the same time. Continuity is shattered into discontinuous products.
Doctor Doom is an omega male—marking the end of the line of male privilege, the death throes of patriarchy taking everyone else with it. If the Marvel Universe is to contain the multitude, its white male “God-Emperor” must both kill everyone and be killed by them. This is the promise and the threat of the omega male, troubling in the way that most dystopian extinction narratives are, centralizing the survival of humanity around a white gender-conforming body. The omega male is the villainous version of this fantasy, a negative identification, an antimatter cancelation.
The obvious antidote to the omega male’s tyrannical mismanagement of the (Marvel) universe is the community called the X-Men, their name promising a postmale, nonhuman collectivity. The sole X-Man to survive “Secret Wars” #1, Cyclops, leads a rebellion: His neck is snapped by Doom in issue #4. The violence meted out to the X-Men in this “crossover” indicates a disturbing trend in the comic-book company’s attitude toward violence in general and specifically against its fictional universe’s beleaguered minority group. In “Secret Wars,” the X-Men are sent to the periphery, their communitarian ethos dislocated to a range of institutional settings that place them outside Doctor Doom’s castle, from the utopian Mutant Museum of X-Men ’92 (a camp homage to the 1990s Fox Kids cartoon) to the concentration camps of Years of Future Past. These series are set in alternate timelines with many of the same characters reappearing as different versions of themselves. In “Secret Wars” miniseries Age of Apocalypse, Inferno, E is for Extinction, and X-Tinction Agenda, various incarnations of the X-Men fight for their lives in panels overcrowded with death; they are killed by biological warfare, demons, psychic trauma, apartheid, and one another. If the violence meted out at “Marvel’s merry mutants” (as Stan Lee once dubbed them) was traumatic for readers (as it was for me), one could take heart that it was not in the true continuity, and none of this “really” happened. What really happened to the X-Men, readers were reassured by Marvel’s editorial teams, was to be resolved in Uncanny X-Men #600. I want to review Uncanny X-Men #600. But to get there, I have to trace a history of representations of difference within X-Men comics, and the shifting signification of its primary sign, “the mutant.”
MARVEL’S MUTANTS were a childhood obsession that resulted from, and contributed to, my own alienation. Mutant teens bound by a shared genetic condition, they were described as both “children of the atom” and “the next step in human evolution,” eliding atomic-age anxieties with a speculative rewriting of Darwin. The original team, consisting of Cyclops, Beast, Angel, Iceman, and Marvel Girl (better known as Jean Grey), were trained in the use of their powers by Professor Charles Xavier, aka Professor X, a telepath bound to a wheelchair, at his School for Gifted Youngsters in Westchester, New York. Tasked with fighting bad mutants to prove that not all mutants were bad, these teens awkwardly mitigated their differences in order to conform: Angel hid his wings in his jacket and Cyclops wore “ruby-quartz” shades to contain the concussive blasts shooting uncontrollably from his eyes. Unlike Captain America or the Fantastic Four, the mutants were “The Uncanny” personified. That is, “Unheimlich,” or “un-home-like,” the familiar made unfamiliar, figured by Freud. It has been suggested that these X-Men were a way to discuss being Jewish (as both Lee and Kirby were) in an era when this was not talked about in comics, or presumably, mixed company.
I first encountered the X-Men under the stewardship of Chris Claremont, who from 1975 to 1991 was head writer on the series, which was drawn by a pantheon of celebrated cartoonists including John Byrne, Terry Austin, Paul Smith, Barry Windsor-Smith, Rick Leonardi, Arthur Adams, Bill Sienkiewicz, John Romita Jr., and Marc Silvestri. During this time, X-Men and its spinoffs—The New Mutants and X-Factor, written by Louise Simonson—used “mutants” as a conceit to explore the relationship between otherness and the construction of group identity. In issue after issue, the X-Men faced the discrimination of a world that “feared and hated” the difference that marked them and which, ironically, was also the source of their power to survive it. Their extraordinary abilities served as a shifting metaphor for difference, that state of non-belonging that resists, pressures, and at times destroys the structures that demand normalization.
The mutant metaphor has adapted with the sway of identitarian politics. Much has been made of the conflict between Professor X’s integrationist ethos and Magneto’s separatist ideology. This debate has continued into the most recent issues, the oppositional positions occupied by educator and community organizer Storm, and educator and revolutionary Cyclops, each of whom lead rival mutant schools. The politicized status of mutants in Marvel Comics was fertile territory for a variety of storylines that echoed 1960s discourses on race. And yet, the original X-Men’s all-whiteness made it impossible for the mutant metaphor to further the discussion of difference without calling into question the lack of its representation within its pages. The Xavier School had to be integrated.
In 1975, the flagging title was relaunched with Giant-Size X-Men #1 and the introduction to the team of white-haired African weather goddess, Storm; blue-furred Bavarian Catholic, Nightcrawler; Soviet metal man, Colossus; Japanese firebrand, Sunfire; Native American tracker, Thunderbird; and Canadian animal-man, Wolverine. Multiculturalism had shifted the mutant metaphor from one of discomfort with conformity to its utter impossibility: These “international X-Men” were ethnicized in a way that was no longer subtextual, and their physical appearances, more spectacular and seductive than their predecessors’ (thanks to Dave Cockrum’s ingenious character designs), made it impossible for them to blend in—and who wanted to blend in in the 1970s? The question asked by this team of X-Men was: What if your “difference” cannot, and should not, be hidden, because, strange as it may be to some, it’s also beautiful?
During Claremont’s run as head writer of the “X-Men,” it became one of Marvel’s best sellers, the comic’s popularity due in large part to his skill at interweaving a political milieu—in which difference was reviled by the dominant culture—with well-wrought characters, many of them women, such as Kitty Pryde, the first openly Jewish mutant, whose power was to become, and make other things, intangible. Storm replaced Cyclops as leader, making the X-Men the only superhero team in the Marvel Universe lead by a black woman. She also got a Mohawk, echoing the transition from hippie to punk as a generational marker of opposition. With the X-Men fighting to survive increasingly hostile prejudice, Claremont created situations that echoed twentieth-century realities of violence against minorities, from governmental surveillance to bashings on the street to televangelism. The pejorative “mutie” was introduced as the term of choice for antimutant bigots, hurled at the characters in graffiti and verbal attacks. Like many other pubescent readers of the 1980s, my anxieties about my own set of differences seemed to be reflected in the challenges faced by this diverse band of outsiders.
In the decades that spanned the Claremont era, the mutant metaphor was a way to talk about how fear of difference supports systemic injustice and state-sanctioned murder, with the characters themselves fretting over what they would be forced to do to survive, including killing their enemies. X-Men comics have always had a high body count, with characters such as Thunderbird and Jean Grey (who had transformed from Marvel Girl to Phoenix—echoing the empowerment of Women’s Liberation—to Dark Phoenix—echoing, perhaps, a sexist backlash) among the first to die in the struggle. One could argue that this exploration of the mechanics of prejudice set the stage for less nuanced and skilled writers to get the wrong message, making of this conflict a perfect mise-en-scène for the video-game-style carnage unfolding in the pages of “Secret Wars.” As a reader, I can attest to no desire for mutant genocide, and am much more interested in the ways that these characters have staved off annihilation for fifty-plus years.
IN THE ’90S, comics became big business: The relaunched X-Men #1 sold 8.1 million copies in 1991. Claremont was replaced by artist and writer Jim Lee as head of the “X-Men” line, which was metastasizing with spinoffs such as Rob Liefeld’s X-Force. The ’90s “X-Men” franchise, as it had become, was dominated by steroidal characters in shoulder pads and high-cut thongs, and they carried weapons. Cable, Bishop, and Domino, with their mutant-powered guns, Psylocke with her psychic knife, and Gambit, able to throw explosive playing cards, signaled a move to the weaponized body, capitalizing on the popularity of the seminal Wolverine, with his “Adamantium” claws. These antisocial X-Men were part action hero, à la Terminator, part school shooter: They often wore trench coats. On the flipside, other X-Men introduced in the ’90s exhibited outlandish physical deformities, their mutant powers manifesting at adolescence just as teenage body issues converge with the emergence into adult sexuality. If I am more than a little put off by gun-toting Cable, I have a certain love for grotesques like Chamber, whose powers blew off half his face, leaving him with fire coming out of a jawless maw, and Husk, who tears off her skin to reveal a crystalline body, and Marrow, bones growing on the outside. Like the impossibly sexy Rogue (introduced by Claremont in the ’80s), whose hamartia is that she cannot touch anyone skin to skin without absorbing their psyche, these characters flesh out the mutant metaphor, extending difference past the category of human.
Queerness was the subtlest dimension of the mutant metaphor during the Claremont era. Storm and Kitty shared a sapphic dynamic, as did the villains Mystique and Destiny, foster-mothers of Rogue; in teen melodrama New Mutants, the earth boy Doug Ramsey could physically and psychically merge with his “self-friend,” the mutant alien boy Warlock. These characters exhibited affective relationships with other same-sex characters, though queer sex itself remained elliptically off panel throughout the ’80s. In subsequent decades, as the closet opened wider in the larger culture, more explicitly queer characters emerged. The mutant and intermittent X-Man Northstar, a high-flying Québécois speedster, was the first superhero to come out, and the first to have a same-sex marriage, to his nonmutant, African American boyfriend, Kyle, during Marjorie Liu’s run as writer on Astonishing X-Men. Since then, the lineup of queer characters has grown to include the lizard boy, Anole; the rock-skinned daughter of hip-hop producers, Bling; and the shape-shifting “transmorph,” Benjamin Deeds. There is also the bisexual male couple Rictor, an earthquake-making Latino, and Shatterstar, a time traveler whose backstory includes the paradox that he is his father’s father. Longtime character Karma, a Vietnamese immigrant with the power to possess peoples’ minds, was revealed to be a lesbian at about the same time she lost a leg.
And now, an original 1963 X-Man, Iceman, just came out of the closet. The “coming out” of teen Iceman sparked a debate in fandom, and garnered media attention from outlets like the Advocate. Some critics argued that to change his sexuality was to betray his core. Others countered that these characters evolve over time, and anyway, Bobby had never had a successful heterosexual relationship before, so there was room for this development. (I note that his teammate and friend Northstar had crushed on Bobby.) My aforementioned workout partner had always loved Iceman and was elated. But the big question was, if teen Iceman is gay, what about his older self, existing paradoxically in the same timeline? The question suggested two potential models: Either sexuality is like mutant DNA, hardwired to emerge at adolescence, essential and immutable, or sexuality is like mutation, a shifting property that is created through interplay between genetics and environment. So which was it?
That question, and others, we were promised, would be answered in Uncanny X-Men #600. In a six-page sequence set in adult Iceman’s bedroom at the School, dressed in T-shirt and cargo shorts, he is confronted by his younger self, Jean Grey dragged along for support. “I’m gay,” says the teenager. “So that means you are too. Right?”
In effect, Iceman never “comes out.” In two consecutive events, he is outed: once by a friend, once by himself. The older Iceman can only confirm his homosexuality to these interlocutors, and the all-too-predictable affirmation merely serves to secure the comfortable borders of heterosexuality. I can imagine more nuanced and interesting responses, as in the older Bobby telling the younger that sexuality is ephemeral and shape-changing, like the ice they both manipulate. Or the two embracing the seeming paradox of their conflicting sexual identifications: one full straight, one full gay, but coinciding in the same character. Or, what if the two Icemans, reveling in a narcissistic fantasy, could transgress all laws of time and space by having a sexual relationship themselves? But Iceman’s explanation for having remained in the closet for five decades (though he is maybe in his thirties in the comic) is another question: “Can I just have one part of my life that I’m not being persecuted for?”
At this very queer impasse—indeed, at the end of the Marvel Universe as we know it—something obvious happens: “Queerness” is abolished and continuity is straightened, expressing the final step in the teleology of the ret-con device. In making Iceman’s sexuality immutable and continuous, his gayness, which is just a promise to be gay since he has never had a diegetic same-sex partner, is used to affirm the heterosexuality of the other characters: Six pages after this exchange, Jean Grey makes out with the teen Beast for five panels.
“MUTANT,” AS A METAPHOR, used to stand in for specific differences. But as the minority identities for which they once stood have made their appearance, “mutant” has become part of a larger structure of otherness. Mutants in the mythology of Marvel Comics are a device for exploring the way minority subjects are constituted, personally and politically, by alliances across difference with other marginalized groups. As such, the mutant is useful, and urgent, as a narrative structure for telling stories about how difference is imbricated with differences, but it no longer symbolizes specific differences. With the coming of the “All-New All-Different” era, the mutant has become a metonym of difference. “Mutant” means mutant, and these mutants are intersectional.
In a final call for solidarity, the mutant metonym is complicated by its relationship to activist politics. Uncanny X-Men #600 ends with all of the mutants in the Marvel Universe at a “million mutant march” lead by Cyclops. His speech to the gathered throngs:
Revolution! I know that’s a loaded word and that it means many things to many people! Some see it as heroic and some see it as terrifying. Some equate it to terrorism! And I admitted to myself that I did not know exactly what I meant when I called for it… only that something revolutionary had to happen. Well, this is it. This is the mutant revolution. Every mutant in the world on the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC. In the heart of everything democratic and good… And you hear that? Do you see that? Nothing. Nothing is happening. The humans’ worst nightmare about mutants is that we would unite and attack. Unite and conquer. Unite and come after them. Well, here we are, united. And… isn’t it beautiful?
According to Cyclops, this demonstration of protest and solidarity is “beautiful” because “nothing is happening.” The X-Men’s longest story arc, the clash between a persecuted minority and their oppressors, is resolved with an affirmation that all that is “democratic and good”—the government that in the comics has spent years trying to contain and kill the X-Men—is safe from this soft “revolution.” Magneto responds, shadily: “Charles Xavier would have loved this.” Storm says, “This doesn’t change anything,” and Nightcrawler disagrees: “Actually, it kind of does.” They are both right: The tactic, borrowed from the playbook of mass-media entertainment, is to suggest all possibilities are equal, and in the end, cancel each other out.
Then the Marvel Universe blinks out of existence. It is no secret that “Secret Wars” is a means to inspire consumers to buy more comics. That Uncanny X-Men #600 was delayed from its original summer launch until November only made it more desirable, and necessary: We waited to see what befell our beloved mutants, while being pummeled with images of them dying in the pages of “Secret Wars.” By the time Uncanny X-Men #600 finally came out, Extraordinary X-Men #1 was on the shelves. The continuity of the Marvel Universe may have ended, but a new one would take its place: one in which the mutant no longer had the corner on the diversity market.
All-New All-Different Avengers, New Avengers, and the Ultimates, all launched this fall, feature teams whose rosters include a majority of minority superbeings. The Avengers are government contractors: They are state-sanctioned, and the inclusion of these nonwhite, nonmale, sometimes even nonstraight characters has the feel of a corporate mandate, a “diversity push.” In contrast, the X-Men—who, after all, most comfortably fit into an academic model, with their intrinsic conversation around identity politics (not to mention the school setting)—still offer a unique space for exploring the complexities of oppression: In the new title, Extraordinary X-Men, the mutant metonym is attached to a population of refugees unwanted because they are considered politically dangerous and contagiously diseased with something called M-Pox. If it is important that Ms. Marvel of the All-New All-Different Avengers be a Pakistani American teenager as a way to combat stereotypes and offer new role models, it is also important that X-Men remains a space where otherness is not confined to a body, a gender, a culture. Mystique, like so many of her children and relatives, is blue skinned, but she can also change shape. And she can be a villain and a hero at the same time.
Left: Page detail from Uncanny X-Men #188 (Marvel, 1984). Right: LexiMomo as Cyclops (DeviantArt).
In the summer and fall of 2015, the X-Men died, and died, and were alive again, not quite reborn, but recast as truly abject and transgressive bare lives within a newly progressive, if fractured, continuity. Uncanny X-Men #600 led them to the end of a political revolution founded on collective action, only to find them reemerging in Extraordinary X-Men #1, demoralized and diminished survivors of catastrophe. M-Pox, we learn, results from exposure to something called “Terrigen Mist,” a compound from outer space that turns normal people—if they happen to have alien ancestry—into “inhumans.” “Inhumans” are an intellectual property owned entirely by Marvel/Disney. “Mutants” are not. When mutants are exposed to Terrigen Mist, it turns out, they get sick, are sterilized, and sometimes die. So no new mutants will be created, the line will be trimmed down. If it makes little narrative sense, it’s because its logic is financial: As Chris Claremont said during a taping of the Nerdist podcast at the 2014 Phoenix Comic Con, “The X department is forbidden to create new characters … all because all new characters become the film property of Fox.” The X-Men, having survived genocide, may end up purged by capitalism.
And so: Like Cyclops, I call for revolution. The X-Men’s survival depends on their liberation from corporate-owned continuity. “The hero’s immortality no longer originates in the strength to survive all possible ordeals, but from its ability to be Xeroxed, recycled, and reincarnated,” writes Hito Steyerl in “A Thing Like You and Me.” Marvel Comics knows this and has set about remaking many of their icons to appeal to millennial readers, who feel entitled to be reflected in the corporate-owned mirror. We cannot be satisfied with that! The X-Men, emblems of our difference, scarred spectacles of our own oppression, promising as they do an empowerment born from the fragile community of outsiders, are as much ours as anyone else’s. We cannot sit by and watch them be mutilated by the greed of their parent companies: The comics sadistically torture them because they can’t reap the profits from the movies; the movies repress their political urgency to appeal to a mass audience. So let’s rewrite Uncanny X-Men #600 to make Cyclops call for violent overthrow. Let’s produce bootleg Storm T-shirts advertising ecofeminism and make CGI porn of Iceman fucking himself. Debord’s description of “ultra-détournement” includes “the wearing of costumes in public.”
Yes, the necessary means to combat the brutality of the capitalist spectacle is cosplay.
Alexandro Segade is an artist based in New York.
THE PAST SIX MONTHS IN BALTIMORE have been traumatic. Last April and May saw top-down violence from police and destruction by citizens amid simultaneously peaceful protest. Addressing the uprising that began after city police officers murdered Freddie Gray—an innocent twenty-five-year-old black man—Baltimore columnist D. Watkins wrote in the New York Times, “Some people might ask, ‘Why Baltimore?’ But the real question is, ‘Why did it take so long?’” Many, particularly those in East and West Baltimore, suffer from brutal policing, a school-to-prison pipeline, massive incarceration rates, crumbling housing stock, inadequate public transportation, and imbalanced urban redevelopment, to name a few. Although arts opportunities for people of color are gradually increasing here, change is slow. For instance, Baltimore has four public, Confederate monuments still standing guard. In late October, while a special city commission was beginning to review the history of the monuments and soliciting public opinion about their futures, Pablo Machioli and Owen Silverman Andrews led an artists’ action in front of the Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson monument across from the Baltimore Museum of Art. Machioli made a large sculpture of a pregnant black woman and placed it in front of the monument in protest. After the Parks Department removed it, the artist displayed the sculpture in a common space at The Copy Cat, a popular artists’ live-work community. A vandal found the sculpture and covered it in violent, racist language.
Violence in Baltimore is relentless, the effect of systemic problems that have been interminably reiterated throughout the course of American history. Local artist and musician Paul Rucker’s installation “Rewind” (shown at the Creative Alliance last winter and again at the Baltimore Museum of Art later in the fall) included finely cut sculptures resembling unfinished or isolated parts of instruments each titled with the date and location of a murder. The roughly chest-sized plywood boxes, July 17, 2014, New York, New York, refers to the NYPD’s murder of Eric Garner. These sculptures are graceful and dignified, but represent an absence too, like muscles without a skeleton, bereaved torsos perhaps, or sonorous cores uncoupled from sound or strings.
Baltimore rappers Young Moose and Martina Lynch’s song No SunShine, released last May, also points to violence passed down through American history, suggesting that the conflicts in Baltimore, although extreme, are not unique. In the music video for their song, Moose and Lynch rap at the site of Freddie Gray’s arrest. In front of a memorial to Gray painted by the artist Nether, Moose asks, “When we gonna wake up and realize it's real? They did the same thing to Rodney King and Emmett Till.”
Influential Baltimore activist and theater artist Sheila Gaskins likewise calls out that very repetition in American culture of black bodies murdered and abused. When I spoke with her for this piece, she—like Moose and Lynch—invoked Till. In 1955, Mississippi white supremacists lynched fourteen-year-old Till then dumped his body in a river because he allegedly whistled at a white woman. His mother, Mamie Till, insisted on an open casket at his funeral. Gaskins wrote to me in an email: “For centuries, we have seen black bodies exposed, mutilated, hanging from trees, in museums, fetishized, on display, whipped, etc. During slavery days it was used as an example for other slaves to stay in line. Emmett Till’s mom left the casket open so everyone can see the ugly face of racism. However, years and years of exposing Black bodies has made it the norm. We no longer feel or can relate when we see Black bodies in turmoil. We are all traumatized, numb, powerless.”
Wickerham & Lomax, NSECUR, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 4 minutes 53 seconds.
Still, Gaskins is resolute, and a rekindled spirit of self-determination is similarly manifest, among other places, in the work of Baltimore artists who would like to visually intervene in the continuing cycle of cruelty she describes. Some of these artists enact rituals as a possible antidote to mutilation and psychological and physical violence. Take the recent digitally animated video by the Baltimore duo Wickerham & Lomax, NSECUR, (part of “Take Karaoke: A Proposition for Performance Art,” at Brown University’s Cohen Gallery in Providence until December 16th). The video seems to start amid the Baltimore Uprising, with the sound of screams and the image of burning buildings. A decapitated, muscled security guard stands in front of an inferno, cradling first Malcolm Lomax’s severed head, then Daniel Wickerham’s. Flowers spray from a hole in the security guard’s neck while both heads recite the same pensive, tabloid-like drama. Their language hovers between sense and nonsense; the drama driving their story seems to be personhood as lived in the gap between institutional recognition and financial security on one side, and resilient, honest self-presentation on the other. Yet, however cut-up the mode of expression or the anatomy of the video’s digital bodies, these bodies function. They insist on their own terms, becoming whole by performing.
Take, too, the work of performance artist Bobby English, Jr., which similarly interrogates violence against black bodies in solidarity with the Baltimore Uprising and the Black Lives Matter Movement. Staged over the past six months, English’s recent works incorporate and respond to the fear he sees in reactions to his tall, athletic, young, black male body. He appears nude or draped in cloth or raffia, adorned in blue and gold body paint, performing to be secure and vulnerable both in public space and within and without the confines of the intricate metal cages he builds. A key figure in Labbodies—a Baltimore performance incubator founded in January 2014 by Hoesy Corona and Ada Pinkston—English cites the Baltimore Uprising as an awakening.
Bobby English, Jr., Immure, 2015. Performance view, Terrault Contemporary, Baltimore, 2015. Bobby English, Jr. Photo: Clyde Johnson.
A sense of possibility undergirds the practices of many, like English, in this city, including the numerous artists who work for afterschool art and poetry programs, in community development, and with youth-empowerment groups. Photographers like Devin Allen and Nate Larson are inspiring young people to document their own world. (During the Baltimore Uprising earlier this year, both separately brought unflinching photographs—of police, protestors, the National Guard, and members of the press—to Time Magazine, CNN, and the world.)
In addition to teaching, to calling out and resisting, Baltimore artists seek to transcend violence by envisioning alternate realities. Where the persecution of black bodies is sustained and normalized, other mechanisms of succor emerge. Zoë Charlton, who splits her time between Baltimore and Washington, DC, considers a powerful survivalism. I held one of her collages in my hands in her studio at American University in DC, where she teaches. The collage shows a cutout photograph of a Pende woman kneeling, headless and holding a reclining child. She is set against a blank white ground, disassociated from history and culture. Twinkling blue-green-pink bubbles emanate from her ornate neckwear, as if they could nourish the child. Like so much of the work in and around Baltimore, Charlton’s cutout figure feels traumatized, eerie and mournful. It might also be a vehicle for a different knowledge—not what’s assumed to exist, but perhaps what could be.
Aranguren & Gallegos's preliminary rendering of the new Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, in the Design District. Photo: Aranguren & Gallegos.
SOUTH FLORIDA has always been friendly to topless beachgoers. This past year, though, the city’s art museums gave new meaning to being topless in Miami. Four were without directors at some point: the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami (ICA Miami); the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM); the Patricia & Phillip Frost Museum; and the Wolfsonian-Florida International University Museum. All of the positions have now been filled, but it will be several years before it’s clear how the newbies’ visions will shape programming. Meanwhile, the Bass Museum of Art closed for renovations in mid-May (although it did open a pop-up space at the Miami Beach Regional Library across the street) while the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in North Miami and the ICA Miami are just finding their footing after last year’s debacle that resulted in the exodus of the former’s board and the birth of the latter. All of the above put at a standstill—though not a screeching halt—the hopes of those here who are invested in maintaining a lively and intellectually rigorous discourse around art all year long.
Still, there were highlights: The ICA’s deep pockets often go toward inviting artist’s artists like Richard Tuttle to give lectures, while PAMM’s programming has been rock solid as its curatorial team begins to operate like a well-oiled machine, producing one great exhibition after another. MoCA’s stunning group show “Autonomous Zones” was theoretically rigorous while showing the depth of work being made by artists who happen to be primarily based in South Florida. A number of smaller organizations also stepped up to the plate. The downtown Cannonball stands out for its series of “Wavemaker” grants to local artists and cultural producers. (Although it just lost its director, too!) The institution also launched the alternative school r.a.d. (research.art.dialogue) that has been popular with artists. Indeed, hungry for intellectual debate, a group of intrepid artists fundraised and put together the ambitious program “Fall Semester,” a two-day event that brought together artists and thinkers.
But one wonders what happened to all the rancor regarding the naming of PAMM several years earlier. Let me help jog your memory: $100 million dollars of taxpayer dollars went toward construction of the new Herzog & de Meuron building of the institution formerly known as Miami Art Museum (MAM). However, when board member Jorge A. Pérez, a real-estate developer, pledged $20 million in cash (to be given over a ten year period) and part of his collection (valued at $20 million), the museum’s name was changed to the Jorge A. Pérez Art Museum of Miami-Dade County. This led to the resignations of four board members who felt that the museum should reflect the city’s name. Perhaps the larger issue is a cultural climate overwhelmingly shaped by a coterie of collectors. In fact, the construction of the new ICA Miami building, slated to open in 2016, is being underwritten completely by the collectors Norma and Irma Braman, although they have not stipulated their names be attached to the building (as reported in the New York Times). Underlying the PAMM naming controversy and the more recent surreal drama regarding the ICA and MoCA North Miami are deep divisions along class lines.
Art in the Age of Technological Resurrection seminar led by Anton Vidokle at r.a.d (research.art.dialogue), Miami, November 2015.
In the commercial art world, the big news is that most galleries have fled from Wynwood, which has now become thoroughly gentrified, and many have moved to the Little River/Haiti area. David Castillo Gallery, one of the first to set up shop in Wynwood, was one of the first to leave: He opted to move to Lincoln Road in Miami Beach. Sociologists coming to Miami to witness another cycle of gentrification, take note: There is a lack of a core gallery center in terms of density—and this is probably a good thing for residents already living in these areas. That is, while Brett Sokol’s recent New York Times article is correct about a decampment of galleries, The Screening Room and Dina Mitrani Gallery, focused on video art and photography respectively, as well as the Bakehouse Art Complex (to name a few), ensure that we still need to visit Wynwood.
The Times article also indicates that the board of the nonprofit ArtCenter South Florida, known for their studio residencies and international exchange program, is debating between moving forward with plans to develop a space in Wynwood or Little River/Haiti, where it recently opened a temporary exhibition space. However, as María del Valle, ArtCenter’s director, explained to me via email, this is not the case. The board is not split between Wynwood and Little River. This false binary is an oversimplification of the topography of the Miami art scene, just as the article in the Times last year regarding the exodus of artists to Los Angeles is overly dramatized.
Maybe I began with something of a red herring. The aforementioned ArtCenter South Florida sold one of its holdings for $88 million, resulting in an endowment that is larger than any of the major institutions in the region, and it has the potential to stabilize this area for artists who otherwise will likely be driven out. Perhaps more so than the ICA, PAMM, and MoCA—or any other institution with an acronym or one attached to a major collector or university—what the ArtCenter does and does not do will have major ramifications for the cultural landscape of Miami. While I do not want to imply that it can single-handedly remedy or counterbalance the influence of the market and sway of collectors, it can certainly provide a push in the right direction toward the creation of an art scene that is not only multipronged (it already is) but also one in which power is distributed, if not evenly, at least in a less one-sided fashion. Otherwise, the Miami art world is destined to be distilled to nothing more than the origin myth that everything leads back to Art Basel (and you thought I would forget to mention it!).
PS: I encourage everyone to visit the group exhibition “100+ Degrees in the Shade,” curated by Jane Hart. This roundup of artists based in South Florida has received tremendous buzz and promises to be one not to miss. Since the exhibition is scattered across various spaces in the city, it will also get you off the beach to get to know the larger Miami art scene.
Tracy + the Plastics, Can You Pause That for a Second?, 2003/2014, performance and video, sound, color, 25 minutes 11 seconds. Wynne Greenwood.
Artist Wynne Greenwood is the creator of electronic art-punk band Tracy + the Plastics, 1999-2006, a video and live-performance hybrid in which she played the parts of all three members. Always working at the outer limits of what one could practically and conceptually pull off in a small rock club, the queer-feminist virtual bandmates presented an alternate world that was in turns abstract, fantastical, and all too real. (I had the pleasure of witnessing many of these legendary performances in the early ’00s while my own band Le Tigre toured with Tracy + the Plastics.) Recently, Greenwood re-performed and documented her work from this era. The resulting videos play in an L-shaped procession of monitors alongside her more recent video and sculptural work in “Kelly,” her solo exhibition at the New Museum in New York, which is on view until January 10. I caught up with Greenwood as she put the finishing touches on her installation. —Johanna Fateman
JOHANNA FATEMAN: I’m interested in the cultural moment when this all started. There’s a semi official consensus around the approximate dates of riot grrrl as a historical movement—its first wave, anyway. It began in 1989 and ended in 1996. Maybe that’s arbitrary, but I find it personally useful. It makes sense to me because after ’96 there was this floundering around in our scene, what could be called the post-riot grrrl scene. And then in ’99, new projects, among others, emerged that were based more in home recording, digital sampling, and video. Le Tigre started in ’99. So did Tracy + the Plastics. What was happening?
Wynne Greenwood: Aside from the floundering of that period—that’s a good word for it—The Need was happening in the mid-1990s. I’ve got to cite their influence. They were important. [The Need was a Pacific Northwest–based lesbian neo-prog rock band composed of Radio Sloan and Rachel Carns that dissolved in 2001.—JF] Their use of electronics, their experimentation with recording processes, their persona-making, and their graphic style—it all related to what I wanted to do but was not yet doing.
JF: They had a strong band culture, their own mythology. It was so artificial and alien to the indie-rock realism of the day.
WG: Also, they were my introduction to a feminist community, a queer, post–riot grrrl artist community.
JF: Wow, I’m just now remembering that I first met you, or first saw you perform, while I was on tour with The Need. I was along for the ride, selling T-shirts for them. You were in the band MeMe America that opened for them at a tiny Smith College show organized by K8 Hardy. Like in ’97. Is that right?
WG: That’s right! MeMe America was my band with Sally Scardino. We used video and a drum machine along with guitar and vocals. That was right after I dropped out of college. And then a couple of years later, I sent you a VHS tape that got stuck in your mailbox. It was an early, single-channel representation of Tracy + the Plastics.
JF: Yeah, it got stuck. That was right when Le Tigre was writing our first record. I remember feeling like we were all deconstructing the idea of a band. If punk deconstructed rock, and girls deconstructed punk, now we were deconstructing girl-punk. Why should a band be “a band” at all? Like, with instruments. Of course there were other reasons we turned to electronic music and sampling. It was something new, plus it was cheaper and easier.
WG: Yes. After MeMe America ended, I started performing solo sometimes, using Tracy as a stage name. I was also working on a separate video project, developing the characters that would become the Plastics. By 2000, I had incorporated the video stuff with live performance and I went on tour. All of the songs, the backing tracks that I sang with, were recorded onto VHS tapes. I performed as Tracy. Nikki and Cola’s heads appeared on two monitors that were on stage with me. They didn’t talk to each other yet though.
Excerpts from Tracy + the Plastics, Can You Pause That for a Second?, 2003.
JF: So, can you break it down for everyone? Who were the different characters?
WG: Nikki was the keyboard player and she was the artist, or the one who really wanted to be an artist but was in a band, maybe by accident. Cola was the drummer. She was the most “political.” She was very antagonistic. Her voice got a lot deeper throughout the project. She became almost monosyllabic, more like a drum set. Tracy was… Well, at the beginning, the goal was for Tracy to be a dude, a heavy-metal dude. I love the name Tracy because it’s unisex.
JF: Tracy was like a drag king. I mean, you have a cool mustache naturally, and then for Tracy, you sometimes drew another one on top of it.
WG: Yeah. Tracy totally wanted to be a drag king as well as a disco singer. I was very influenced by the gender-queer drag culture of the time. Drawing a second mustache on was a way to claim the first one—as a gender expression, but also as a statement against straight, sexist beauty standards. Now I think it’s more acceptable to have a mustache, but only if you’re considered beautiful, desirable, or even interesting according to rigid cultural norms.
JF: Yeah. So, with these characters, and their interactions, I feel like you broached some sensitive stuff, new territory. You were looking at the dynamics of a “girl band.” While our scene was radically honest about a lot of stuff—or wanted to be—no one was really publicly addressing tension and dysfunction between feminists, or specifically between feminist bandmates.
WG: I don’t think I set out knowing I would explore how women are creative together, but from the very beginning there was tension in Tracy + the Plastics. I remember the first time Cola spoke directly to Tracy. It’s missing from this show because I couldn’t find the original backing video, but in that early scene, Cola is wearing the same outfit as Tracy. She’s even wearing a headband that says “Tracy” on it. And Tracy asks her, “Why are you wearing my outfit?” She replies, “Well, anybody can do what you’re doing.” Their exchange was a way to establish the band’s questioning of authority. Who’s the leader? And why? And what’s that about? When I was in high school, I used to think that if I were in a band we would all be soulmates. I was yearning for that kind of relationship and this was a way of confronting that desire. Confronting the reality that relationships and collaborations are imperfect.
JF: I think the utopian idea of sisterhood is disproven every time women try to do anything together, which isn’t …
WG: … it isn’t a bad thing
JF: Right, it isn’t a condemnation of feminism to say that. It doesn’t mean women shouldn’t do things together.
WG: Yeah. And I want to name jealousy and competition as pieces of the larger cultural context that we can’t escape when in relationships. I don’t want to escape it. I want to deal with it and represent the complexity of that struggle.
The Need performing at Rice University in Houston on April 2, 2000.
JF: I’m just scanning down this row of monitors, seeing you transition from un-synched to interactive video, and your move from monitors to projection. Then you begin using green-screen and animation.
WG: Right, the green-screen stuff started in 2002. It was important to my work. There was so much layering going on already, performance on top of performance, and then the green-screen environments allowed me to create portals to cut through those layers.
JF: It’s a huge amount of work, and your practice evolved over the years. I always knew that, but it’s hitting me now, seeing it all in one place. I want to ask the basic question: Why? Why revisit and reperform Tracy + The Plastics?
WG: Well, there was no documentation. I performed mostly in rock clubs, in bars, and there is no record of that happening. I realized that this would all be lost. In my personal archive, I had many of the props I used, as well as the costumes and the backing videos. But to represent the performances I knew I’d have to recreate them. Before I started, I wondered why someone in the future might look back at this project. What would it tell them? I thought it would tell them something about the physical experience of media. Fundamentally, Tracy + the Plastics was about video and mass media, about media’s messaging and how we hold that in our bodies, how we create and hold our identities. There was something very physical about the way I wanted to work with the technology. With the band, I created a situation in which I would physically encounter video versions of myself. I was forced to negotiate and coordinate my body, my responses and timing to share space and time with these characters. And I did this just before the advent of social media, and the mass production and use of mobile phones with video. That said, I’ve been really wary of this project becoming just about asking, “Remember when?” It’s really fun to nostalgically compare this stuff with the present day but… that’s not my point.
JF: Well, I think that archives exist for when we all die and no one can say, “Remember when it was crazy to have a mustache?”
WG: But wait, that’s actually an important question to ask! So, do I have to write that question on top of the archive so that people will remember to ask it?
JF: You mean how do you create the historical context for this for future viewers? Well, that’s not your problem. You can’t do everything.
WG: Also, I don’t know what to do with this stuff now. Should it be free online? Who hosts that? I can’t do it.
JF: Yeah, me neither. Was it difficult to reperform the material? Did you have trouble looking back at the old stuff?
WG: I started gathering the backing videos and taking stock of them in 2013. By that time some were twelve years old! Luckily, I had already passed through the phase where I was like, “This is the most awful thing I’ve ever made. I’ll never show it to anyone,” and I’d gotten to the point where the old work gave me joy. I have a lot of compassion for my younger self.
JF: Right, so it was like watching student work. Someone else’s student work.
WG: Totally. All of these shows were reperformed and documented in 2014 and 2015, which means that this is my thirty-six or thirty-seven-year-old body standing next to my early-twenties body on the prerecorded video. I had some questions about this that are hard to summarize. For example, I wondered if I should lose ten pounds because I weighed less back then. Ultimately it was liberating to not lose weight and to say, “This is my body.” It was a moment of shoring up my own feminism and… love. I did grow out my hair so I could have a similar hairstyle, though.
JF: You wanted to look the same.
WG: I did. I wanted to create the illusion this documentation had been made at the time. And I wanted complete uniformity. Every video here was shot with the same framing, the same hairstyle.
JF: Why’s the show called “Kelly”?
WG: So, the show at Reed College’s Cooley Gallery in Portland, Oregon last fall was called “Stacy.” It brought together the two bodies of work that bookend my practice thus far: Tracy + the Plastics and my More Heads work. For my More Heads videos, I perform dialogue for my head sculptures. The series is about how we, as individuals, internalize oppression and violence, and how we recreate it in our personal relationships. Seeing these works together revealed my own strategies to me. I could know them better, use them better, and work with them more intentionally. Like dialogue! I had never really thought about how important dialogue is to my work. That sounds ridiculous because that’s all Tracy + the Plastics really is. And with the More Heads videos I was returning to that, to giving voice to characters. Anyway, I called that show “Stacy.” I was kind of riffing off of Tracy + the Plastics’ imaginary friend Stacy, who was their manager. She was out of work and they employed her. And then, when you go to those websites for baby names and type in “Stacy” they tell you that people who like “Stacy” also like “Kelly.” The heads don’t have names though.
*View of Wynne Greenwood: “Kelly,” 2015–16, New Museum, New York. Photo: Joerg Lohse.
JF: They look like Mr. Potato Heads, this little group over here.
WG: They do. You know, I never had a Mr. Potato Head.
JF: Did you want one?
WG: I thought they were really cool.
JF: Wait, I still don’t understand actually. Who is Kelly? Are you creating her during this residency?
WG: No. No it’s just a way to hold space.
JF: Ok, it’s just a title. Next question: You’re not engaging with art history and theory as much as you are with feminist history, like the history of the political movement called “feminism,” or the history of various feminist subcultural aesthetics. And then there are also pop-cultural references, regarding the history of gender and performance in pop culture. Well, I guess my question is: Is that true?
WG: Yes and no. Yes, because I began this project outside of the context of the capital-“A” Art World, and because I am very committed to speaking in an accessible language. I’m not talking to art people, necessarily. The theories I’m interested in are not divorced—they can’t be—from political questions about how we live. With my newer work, I’m trying to situate queerness within conversations about peace, cultural peace—and violence. For example, the most recent piece I made is a conversation between a head made of fake bricks and a head made of decorative butterfly wings about “compromise.” The heads’ materials really inform their personalities and ideology. Also, I love the way that feminists talk and take time to hear each other. I like that still water treading. You know, “We’re not trying to get there as fast as we can. We’re going to sit here and deal with it.” I think that really comes out in my work formally, in the way that I edit, the pacing.
JF: I hadn’t thought of that, and I feel like it really illuminates the sense of queer-feminist cultural history that’s embedded in the work beyond your surface references.
WG: Yeah, I am always considering the formal qualities of what I do. For example, I think of the deadpan or “flat” affect of my characters as a response, or a dramatization, of video’s flattening of the picture plane. And I collapse time, create impossible simultaneity, by pairing live performance with prerecorded material. But then, I can’t help but ask: How are these formal qualities or capabilities of video and performance also queer strategies, feminist strategies? And how can they be used in the creation of new realities and experiences?
Taras Shevchenko Place, New York, New York. Photo: Adriana Farmiga, October 6, 2015.
In conjunction with “Class Dismissed,” a discussion about art school, USC, and Cooper Union in the October issue of Artforum, here artist Adriana Farmiga discusses her views as a former undergraduate student and current adjunct faculty at Cooper Union.
TARAS SHEVCHENKO PLACE is a curious site in the East Village: its formalism offers no shortage of metaphors. Looming on the right is the loud, new building of the Cooper Union, a bellwether for the current and seismic shifts in academia. To the left is Saint George’s Church, a spiritual anchor to a community of Ukrainian immigrants who settled here largely to escape political and cultural oppression. In between, you will find restricted parking, the occasional pot smoker, and a Citi Bike station, all on a one-block, one-way street.
There’s little to add to what’s already been said about the importance of Cooper Union’s role in higher education, about the specious mismanagement of its finances, which led to the sabotage of its meritocratic mission, the longest students’ occupation in US history, a lawsuit, a president’s resignation, a settlement with the State’s attorney general, and ultimately, a victory towards a second chance. Because Cooper’s story speaks to the larger narrative concerning higher education in America, it makes sense to dwell on the idea of freedom.
I am indebted to Cooper Union for giving me a debt-free education. By definition, when you have debt, you’re not free. The socio-political implications of this are myriad. The tuition-free education I received from Cooper Union was a gift. Yet the larger gift was seeing first-hand how a meritocracy functions in the classroom. Having taught in other universities, I can say with confidence that Cooper Union is a radical place—a pirate ship of sorts. Peter Cooper had swagger. He imagined an institution built on the belief that higher education shouldn’t come with a price tag. Without the burden of debt, it’s easier for a student to learn not just how to make and critique a work of art, but how to become a socially-minded, responsible citizen. When you lift the burden of debt, you ultimately lift the weight of fear, because that’s what true freedom is—no fear. When one can actually feel the difference free education makes it is pure magic.
The movement to corporatize academia, including art education, is relentless. Most egregiously, it undermines the intellectual space an individual needs to learn the fundamentals of theoretical and abstract reasoning. Broadly, this push becomes a battle for scale, and that’s why Cooper’s story is instructive: because of its founder’s philanthropic mission, it was never meant to scale beyond its means. There’s nothing exceptional in what happened to Cooper. If anything, its exceptional mission made it more vulnerable to the predators of global branding and expansionist agendas. But if my students have taught me one thing, it’s that the undercurrent of resistance to this movement is extremely powerful. It’s younger, faster, madder, and it’s lateral; it knows how to organize, and how to disarm. No debt-embedded, corporate, educational glitz-machine can stop it.
Returning to site, a block away from the imbroglio of Taras Shevchenko Place, sits the Foundation Building of the Cooper Union: a freestanding structure, an island unto itself. A freestanding work enables us to examine its relationship to the space and world around it. It’s now my privilege to participate in the continuation of the Cooper narrative, where it returns to its full-tuition scholarship mission as it has been legally tasked to do, and as a freestanding institution, once again becomes the example of what higher education can and should be.
Adriana Farmiga is a Ukrainian-American artist, curator, and educator based in New York. She has taught at Cooper Union since 2011. She also serves as a programming advisor for the non-profit La Mama Gallery.
WE JUST CAN’T GET ENOUGH. For centuries we’ve compulsively revisited the Ancient Greek myth of Antigone. Nearly every year there seem to be new adaptations, translations, scholarly articles, and various other projects taking up the earliest and most famous variation of her story: Sophokles’s ancient tragedy. Most recently, and following her 2012 comic book Antigonick, poet Anne Carson provided a fresh translation for director Ivo van Hove’s new production of the play, which will soon have its US premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as part of its 2015 Next Wave Festival. Following stops at the Barbican in London and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg in Luxembourg City, the drama features Juliette Binoche in the title role, Patrick O’Kane as King Kreon, and a minimal set that evokes a Thebes neither old nor new.
In mid-September, artforum.com managing editor Lauren O’Neill-Butler sat down with Carson, philosopher Simon Critchley, and choreographer Trajal Harrell to discuss Antigone’s history and significance, as well as the play’s trenchant themes, from war and democracy to belonging and autonomy.
artforum.com: Trajal, let’s begin with you. Where did you begin your research for your dance Antigone Sr. ?
Trajal Harrell: I’d gone to a theater camp right after high school, and Antigone was the play we all had to read. I loved this fierce young woman, but I didn’t understand why she wasn’t available to me to play. As an adult I gained a different perspective on Antigone. I didn’t see her just as this cool rebel girl. I saw her as fanatical but also as a deeply caring person.
In 2002 I began to think about a series of works titled Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church. The proposition was this: What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing dance tradition in Harlem had come downtown to Greenwich Village to perform along side the early postmoderns at Judson Church? When I got to the “large” size in the series—there are eight pieces that are based on different sizes—I decided that I wanted to go big, to encompass the idea of theater, specifically the foundations of western theater. I felt that there would be people who could come see this work and not know anything about voguing, or anything about contemporary dance, but who would be interested in theater. Of course, the early postmoderns would have been against all this because Martha Graham had claimed Greek tragedy and the star heroine, and they wanted to go against that kind of representation on stage.
I thought a lot about the relationship between the performativity in ancient Greece—men playing female roles—and the performativity in voguing. It seemed to me that ancient Greek theater and the voguing balls were maybe not that different. For instance, there is the link between rethinking what a democracy could be in 1963, in terms of civil rights, and how rights are represented in Antigone—though always in a discussion among men. I was interested in what an all-male version of Antigone could say today.
I also kept thinking about realness, a voguing term, and how it relates to Greek theater. As I’m interested in historical imagination, I tried to come up with some imaginary possibilities drawn from researching how Antigone would have been performed then: What would have been the impetuous, the drive, and the spirit? We might not ever know, and that’s interesting. You can read Greek scholars, but there were no videotapes. Even the scholarship has a certain imaginative practice around it.
Trajal Harrell, Antigone Sr./Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church (L), 2012. Performance view. Photo: Whitney Browne.
Simon Critchley: That’s true—we don’t know. There was dance, but we don’t know what the dance was. There was music, but we don’t know what the music was. We don’t know what the instruments were.
Anne Carson: We don’t even know how the words were pronounced.
Critchley: Exactly. Was the play just fun for the Ancient Greeks, or was there some active questioning and subversion going on? We want to say the latter. But it might have just been men dressing up as woman having a nice time. Who knows.
Harrell: I tend to think artists in the past had similar questions about their society, and that some must have felt outside of society's mainstream—just as some of us feel today. There are always different political and social contexts, but often the artists are the people on the forefront asking questions that society doesn’t want them to ask. But as you say, Simon, it could have been men dressing up as women for theater—and it was not drag or camp, which are modern constructions. But is it that they were just dressing up? Or did that performativity have some element of political or social activism?
Carson: Isn’t the question of gender different from actor to actor, as individuals, just as it is for us? Regarding antiquity, just as now, it’s hard to place these things in tiny slots, and moreover to have an opinion on how the Greeks felt about men playing women. I don’t get it either.
Critchley: It was different in all sorts of ways, but the similarities are actually much more striking. We’re in the same kind of messes that the Ancient Greeks were in—war, corruption, and migration were huge and constantly pressing issues. We like to think of the Greeks as exotic, as other, because that’s more reassuring in a way, but the uncanny thing is the Ancient Greeks’ similarities with us and our problems.
Harrell: When I play Antigone the thing that strikes me the most is her love for her family and her grief, which also feels contemporary. There’s this piling on of loss. Often I’m just sitting there listening on the stage, and that’s what hits me. It’s not the political situation, and it’s not the larger thematic questions. It’s just this basic condition: My two brothers are dead. That’s the thing that goes beyond some of my intellect.
Critchley: But what is she mourning? What kind of family is it that she loves? Because it’s quite a family, right? When she says near the end, “A husband or child can be replaced. But who can grow me a new brother?” That seems to be about Polyneikes [her dead brother], but it’s also about her father, who happens to be her brother in a way. This family is double, tripled . . .
Harrell: Is a mess!
Critchley: This is family that comes out of this incestuous dirt, this filth of death, as Kreon puts it. So what does Antigone love when she loves? Who does she love?
Trajal Harrell, Antigone Sr./Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church (L), 2012. Performance view. Photo: Miana Jun.
Harrell: I can never play all of what I think and know and think that I know. There are so many ideas around the play, and so many different ways to think about Antigone. I just have to focus on what is it like to lose a brother. I have to concentrate in a way separate from my choreographic mind. I just sit there and go, oh my god. The audience watches me going through a hell of a lot of grief. And they begin to relate to it.
I’m always trying to call people into the moment, to show that we’re in the theater together—as Graham said, before theater was a noun, it was a verb. I’m always trying to get them to realize this imaginative thing that we’re in, all doing in the room together. It’s not just us over here performing something for you. As a performer it starts from just being clear about where you are, and what’s going on in the room with you.
Carson: Sophokles does that with the play, too. He keeps it on this kernel of everything’s lost from this person. What does she do? She doesn’t sit around thinking about the politics of her situation, and all the internecine struggles in her family. She just feels it. I think that weird argument—I wouldn't have done it for a husband or a son—she just comes up with that because she’s pressed to the wall by people saying “make sense of this,” and she has no sense. She just has the grief, and the grief for her takes the place of reasoning. Sophokles made that possible for the actor to take seriously. I think another Greek playwright wouldn’t have been able to do that. Also, when you speak, Trajal, about being in the room I think of Zeami and his idea about faces. The reason we have theater, Zeami says, is so that people can see each other’s faces.
Harrell: That’s great. I need to run to MoMA now for rehearsal—wish we could continue this conversation in a restaurant over dinner!
Excerpt from Antigone (2015).
Carson: Perhaps I should say why I translated the play twice, because that’s confusing for people. Antigonick was meant to be a comic book, and not scrupulously faithful to the original text. Bianca Stone did the illustrations. After it was published, I met Ivo van Hove. He said he wanted to do a production of Antigone. I said, great, I have one. I’ll just send it. But he didn’t like it. He wanted a new one. I was enraged, and then thought about it, and it seemed worth trying. A neat, defeating thing to try. So I did it again. Seeing the new piece performed was quite the revelation. Because I frankly thought I would hate it. I’ve seen lots of Greek plays and various versions of my own translations, and most of them were awful. This one wasn’t awful.
Critchley: What did you think of his decision to play the chorus the way he did, with actors having multiple roles?
Carson: I liked it and it seems to work. Ivo didn’t tell me anything about it beforehand. I just sent the thing to him on email, and he said okay, and that was that. It went into the void. The whole thing works in a lot of aspects that surprised me—most especially the Kreon role.
One thing Ivo specified when asking me to translate the play again—he said the Kreon role in Antigonick is too spare, almost symbolic. At the time, I think I was trying to do the translation kind of the way John Cage makes his mesostics—he always said he was trying to “demilitarize language.” Maybe the difference between Ivo and me is that he wants to remilitarize language. He wants it fleshed out for conventional audience expectations and conventional capacities of an actor. I didn’t appreciate that until I was translating the work again. The Kreon I had originally given him wouldn’t have worked on stage—demilitarized grieving wouldn’t work as a theatrical experience. Patrick O’Kane, who plays Kreon, is amazing. After Antigone leaves the stage. It becomes his tragedy, and he fills the space. You almost forget Antigone.
Critchley: What would you think of the idea that the tragedy is Kreon’s rather than Antigone’s? If we take the Aristotelian idea that there’s reversal and recognition. Well, Antigone experiences neither. She just goes her way.
Carson: That’s true. She’s the same at beginning and at end.
Critchley: Right. But Kreon changes after the intervention with Teiresias—a character that raises a question about gender. As a blind prophet, he was transformed into a woman for seven years. T.S. Elliot said he was “throbbing between two lives.”
Carson: Kreon does change, and he has a recognition that Aristotle would have underlined with his highlighter pen. We should have asked Trajal about Teiresias. I sometimes think Sophokles was writing proleptically in defiance of Aristotle’s views, and trying to do things that break his rules. Because the tragedy—if there is one—is between those two people: Antigone and Kreon. Neither of them can resolve their view of law, and they never will, so city-states go on being ruined.
Listening to Trajal, I realized that whatever contradiction of proper Aristotelian practice the play plays out, the core of it is still Antigone’s emotion, and that does convince you that it’s a proper tragedy when you’re experiencing it. I think that it poses one of those nice theoretical questions—whose tragedy is it—that we always have to consider because that’s what scholars and teachers do, but I don’t think it bothers you during the experience of the play. After you go home you might wonder why is it called Antigone when Kreon makes it sadder at the end. But as Trajal says, theater is at the time, it’s what’s in the room.
Critchley: True enough.
artforum.com: What is it like to work with Ivo van Hove? He’s a director with a strong voice; do you feel an ownership of what’s on stage?
Carson: No, once it goes to him, it goes to him. He had very strong views all the way along of how it should be.
Critchley: How does he see the play?
Carson: He sees it as… well, maybe you should ask Ivo, but I gather he sees it as a balanced conflict between Antigone and Kreon. Very substantially balanced. Lack of balance was what he objected to in Antigonick.
Critchley: It’s more the Hegelian view then.
Carson: I think so. Well, he’s … Belgian [laughter]. Actually, his whole team went to school together, I believe. That’s one thing that I learned in Luxembourg, that he and his whole design team work together as a sort of molecule.
Critchley: Oh really?
Carson: All five of them eat breakfast together, work all day, and have dinner together, always in a hubbub. They’ve been friends for so long, they have their own language by now. Like twins.
Critchley: It would be interesting to hear more about that from Ivo. What I find particularly liberating about your translations of Euripides—and it’s there for me underpinning your Antigonick as well—is the idea to liberate tragedy from the Aristotelian framework, and in particular the straitjacket orientation toward catharsis.
Carson: I’ve never understood catharsis.
Critchley: It’s that old idea that there should be some moral lesson that we get from tragedy, which is still an omnipresent view. But it’s ludicrous. Tragedy is something else, it’s much more curious.
Carson: More devastating.
Critchley: Much more, yes.
Carson: Because you don’t learn anything from Kreon except, oops don’t do that again.
Critchley: Then, what’s it for, for you?
Carson: The play?
Critchley: In general, this curious art form tragedy. For me, following what you say in the preface to your translations of Euripides, tragedy flows from rage, which flows from grief in the context of war and violence. In Antigone, we are presented with that. We watch people go down somewhere—to a place that we want to look at, but we don’t want to go ourselves. We’re left with this what is it for question. In many ways the entire history of the reception of these plays has been about that question, and it’s that that we have to bracket out. So I wonder how it is for you?
Carson: I don’t really know what it is for me. I came at the plays from studying them in school to learn Greek. To me this is all distant. Listening to Trajal talking about his emotions I understand it, but I don’t feel that when I write the plays—and very rarely when I see the plays. It’s partly that I’m a semi-autistic person [laughter], but it’s also just that that’s not how I went about it; I cared about the grammar more than the feelings. It’s a different angle. I don’t know how to get to the other angle that Trajal has, for example.
artforum.com: Simon, could you talk a little about the relevance of Antigone and tragedy, perhaps as it relates today for thinking about the risks and necessity of democratic culture?
Critchley: I’ve got very dark views on this. The way I see tragedy is influenced by Anne’s Euripides translations, which really did twist the way in which I had looked at those before, as well as reading Hellenists like Jean-Pierre Vernant and Simon Goldhill. It’s this idea of tragedy as people in rage. What’s interesting in this new production of the play is that everybody in it is enraged. Even Teiresias is angry. I think of Teiresias as coming in on the arm of a young boy, calmly declaring the truth, but he’s really pissed off here. Everybody’s angry—and all that flows from grief, which flows from war. Not just war, but civil war, the horror of stasis, which for the Greeks was the most horrible of all things. What’s going on in the play is claim and counterclaim. We see these people making claims, absolute claims, and then absolute claims are made against those. If Antigone is the hero, or if Kreon is the hero, then I guess what I take from someone like Vernant is that the hero is a problem. The hero is a pollution. Whatever the hero is, the hero is the source of filth that is screwing everything up.
For me, tragedy is that movement of claim and counterclaim, claim and counterclaim, which produces violence. We find ourselves always in violence and counter-violence. In Antigone, cycles of violence and counter-violence are justified with reference to claims about law. It’s exactly what happened after 9/11, the anniversary of which coincidentally is today. 9/11 was an attack on the United States, which then justified a violent response. But if you read Osama bin Laden on 9/11, all this was justified as revenge for the crimes the West had committed in the Arab world. So, claim and counterclaim, violence and counter-violence spin way back. What we see in tragedies is just that history of violence that we come from, seemingly without end.
Carson: Except that once in awhile a sort of unassailable person intervenes, like Antigone, and then it doesn’t come to an end but sputters into a corner for awhile, then stops, then presumably would start again.
Critchley: There’s a divergence and there’s the form itself, theater—a presentation of violence that’s not violent. That’s true of all the Theban plays, wherein we get this ancestry of violence and counter-violence, which spins all the way back, through all the generations, back to the Gods.
Then there’s this question: What on earth is the relationship between this thing called theater—particularly tragedy—and, this thing called democracy? Both are going on in the same city when this play debuts, in a particular form—which we can criticize for its exclusion of women and slaves. Though it was an extraordinary experiment in politics. We don’t know the answer to that question. But what does democracy do? Democracy goes to war. Democracy leads to tyranny. Democracy destroys itself, which is what happened at the end of the fifth century in the mess of the Peloponnesian War described by Thucydides.
Antigone shows us something about the history of violence that we come from. While we’re happy it’s them and not us going down, it speaks to a flaw that we have, which we don’t see, but which makes us the creatures that we are. So I see this tragedy as absolutely contemporary in terms of that not seeing. It’s what animates violence, grief, and rage—all those things playing out in Antigone—and that happen daily, which we think we know but we’re still blind to. This happens every day in the Unites States, in the world.
Tragedy for me is so much more important than philosophy. Because it’s a form that’s able to do a “both/and”: show that we know and we don’t know.
Carson: In the play they’re always talking about knowledge. And in structure of the stage there is a process of coming out inside, from silence—this hidden thing. We see the hidden thing. Then it goes back inside and the play is over. All you know is that you’ve gone through it. What would it be to end up with a theory of it? That would invalidate the thing you saw when you were there.
Critchley: Yes, it would make it serve some end.
Carson: It would be reducible to yourself, to what you already know. With that hidden thing, I think of walking around Detroit. Sometimes at night you might pass the Foundry—a place with molten metal burning inside. You can glance in and see it—you glance into a core. It’s burning away in there. Then you go on down the street. What remains in the mind is that core.
Critchley: There’s nothing more important than that. Anne, you’ve talked about Francis Bacon in relationship to that. I’m trying to remember the quote…
Carson: “Paint the scream not the horror.”
Antigone runs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from September 24–October 4, 2015 in New York.