It is the work of form to make order. And this means that forms are the stuff of politics […] political struggles include ongoing contests over the proper places for bodies, goods, and capacities.
— Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network
I was texting back and forth with Ellis Martin about their artwork and my phone suggested I send them an octopus emoji. My new phone gets more and more forward about what it thinks I should say, and the personality (casual, cheerful) it desires for me. Contrarian, insecure, and thus permanently belated, I’m both susceptible to and resentful of such intrusions.
I try not to accept the phone’s time-saving suggestions… When it offers me “Yeah!” I defiantly type “Yah,” copy-catting my friend (and second subject of this piece) Joel Gregory, who I would rather imitate than my phone. But in this case the phone’s intervention sent me into a tailspin. The octopus made no sense to me, so I wondered if the phone had a secret I was unaware of.
As someone who wants to write about form while not an art critic, not an academic; as someone struggling to figure out what queer identity means for me; the octopus made me anxious. Maybe octopi were what all the interesting young art queers were texting each other and my phone, a tangle of surveillance machinery, was shaming me, my inadequate claims.
In this series of “Genre Wormholes” I’ll be writing about how forms become circuits holding shame and belonging, running with and against our social and political modes. Forms are enclosures we’re steered into, aesthetics that shape modes of living. I want to think about how form can be so much larger than composition, larger than even than the novel, that baggy monster.
To describe forms so big, so capacious, that they barely mean anything. Because maybe such an expansion will reveal how the standard ways of reading form and dividing it from content are so narrow as to be harmful.
The political struggles I care about (queer, trans, anti-racist, feminist, anti-capitalist) fight against people and structures that enforce hierarchical forms. So I want to consider why artists invested in political struggles might transport the materials and devices of one genre — one group of forms — and set them to work in another. Is there something useful in this lateral move?
I’m thinking of what Caroline Levine says in her book Forms: “Form, for our purposes, will mean all shapes and configurations, all ordering principles, all patterns of repetition and difference.” So I’m talking about the forms of self-defense, the genre of science fiction, the devices of war reportage, all of which I’ll consider in the series. For starters, I’ll be writing about two visual artists, Ellis Martin and Joel Gregory and their interactions with archival form.
I told Eric Sneathen I was writing these essays and Eric said if you want to go the nerd route you could look at Forms by Caroline Levine so I looked at Forms. Because I love Eric’s archival brain, his poems, the genealogy he’s lovingly assembling of Bay Area gay writing, the relish with which he says on leaving bookstore #3, “I think we still have time to browse one more bookstore!”
And I’m writing about Eric because I want this writing to be its own trace. The daybook of what fell in when I was working on it. I want it to interpolate friends and how they give me what I need; how I drift into the orbit of the other person’s language. In the Timeless, Infinite Light Slack channel, I’m happy to find a David Bowie gif that pleases Emji; I send back Andrea’s purple devil emoji; I try on typing “lqqks, kyute.”
I got interested in Ellis Martin’s sly formal interventions by way of an enamel pin they made that used images from a 1998 San Francisco fisting party flyer. Translating a piece of historical ephemera into a contemporary piece to mark the body, they also re-coded gay masculinity with reference to nonbinary trans identities.
Rather than M4M, the piece is t4t and NB4NB; for queers various in identities and radical in politics, with limp wrists and clenched fists. The pin led in multiple directions: material and referential, personal and evasive, it seemed to exist equally in the spaces of art and archive, straddling and transforming both.
I asked Emji if they thought I could get away with wearing the t4t pin at preschool drop-off, since with its cute color scheme, small size, etc., it is after all fists plunging into butts. They said they were always surprised at what straight people managed not to notice.
When I got Ellis’s announcement: “I am writing to invite you to my tiny archival investigation letterpress digitization sophie calle impersonation art adjacent & generally gay show, opening tomorrow nite at Mills College Art Museum,” of course I went, curious about what that fantastic pile-up of words would represent. I found a piece that was both object and scenario, sending the viewer off on branching archival paths.
Contact? required labor of me that turned me into a queer historian for the period of my research, moving in Martin’s footsteps. Martin’s densely citational practice offered subtle guides, gay will-o-the-wisps, through its maze of primary documents, establishing an object lesson in bringing forward the queer archive.
Contact? consists of a small book, letter-pressed by Martin, and its installation in a hot-pink alcove. The book presents opening and closing epigraphs from Hervé Guibert, French novelist, photographer, critic, and filmmaker. The Guibert quotes frame archival images drawn from artist Sophie Calle‘s exhibit at the Mills College Art Museum, in 1992; the alcove also includes a framed photograph of the original Calle exhibit.
The Sophie Calle images in Contact? are pictures of anonymous gravestones, marked with relational identity markers such as FATHER, MOTHER, SON but without proper or family names. Martin performs a subtle intervention by captioning each image with an iteration of their own identity: for instance, beneath the gravestone marked “BROTHER,” “Queer Ellis.” By placing themself humorously into the gravestone text, Martin disrupts the po-faced vision of straight inheritance, in which an immutable family role displays hierarchy and subsumes the personal name.
Martin also reframes the work’s heteronormative stories by inserting their own identity, which tweaks the images to fit queer narrative conventions. Rather than referring only to the death of the body, the gravestones call up associations with a trans or genderqueer “dead name.” The gravestones are also figures for multiple facets of Martin’s identity. The fact that these multiple personas co-exist evokes identity not as stable, but as an ongoing death and resurrection, a place where time loops.
I was telling Zach about how googling “How do you know if you’re genderqueer” sent me to a website, I thought for the first time, then I realized I had read it before, had done the whole search before and forgotten it. I felt like I was in some weird time slip; like how many times had I done this. And Zach told me there used to be this joke website called Am_I_trans?.com and when you clicked on it it just said “YES.”
As a form, the archive has many roles in Contact? By re-purposing Sophie Calle’s work, Martin demonstrates that the archive has always held multiple narratives. Who lay beneath those stones? What lives, queer or otherwise, might they have had? The explanatory narrative overlaid on them was always limited, and Martin’s work reveals how threadbare such heteronormative stories are, especially when they’re taken for the whole.
In addition to queering heteronormative ideas of lineage and descent, Martin’s piece plays with power relations between artists and how these manifest formally through dedication, placement, and who is blurbing whom. The quotations from Guibert that bookend Contact? refer back to another dedication, in Sophie Calle’s film Double Blind (No Sex Last Night), which is dedicated to Guibert. The film chronicles the drive Calle and her somewhat reluctant lover Greg Shephard made to California, where she would begin her teaching stint at Mills: their road trip began on the day of Guibert’s funeral.
In conversation, Martin pointed out that Calle’s on-screen dedication to Guibert refers to him only through the lens to his death ‘from AIDS’ (technically incorrect, as Martin mentioned, since people die from AIDS-related complications, not the disease itself). In this victimology, a gay artist and writer is framed solely through the lens of his death, rather than his prolific life. The homage from Calle, though warm, winds up de-emphasizing Guibert’s legacy.
Guibert wrote the preface to Calle’s first book, but as a blockbuster artist she has outpaced him in terms of fame. Martin ends their text quoting Calle’s own summation of Guibert’s preface: “She calls herself a photographer, but Sophie Calle can’t even manage to take a proper photograph (although she is making progress).”
By reasserting Guibert’s “loving shade” to close out Contact?, Martin gives Guibert the last word, re-inserting Guibert’s language; his deadpan, biting perspective; and his right to comment on Calle’s work. In a queer ouroboros, Calle and Guibert are biting each other’s tails, each commenting on the other.
Martin pauses the loop at a moment when Calle is being defined by queer commentary rather than the reverse, reminding us that because forms travel through time, interpretation is never closed. No longer interpolated as only a tragic figure, Guibert joins Calle as a queer parent of Martin’s artwork: three artists mingling in uncertain contact to make something new.
Contact? has a certain lightness to it: it’s small, discretely alcoved, and installed literally on the way out of the art space of the Mills College Art Museum, on the threshold of the Museum Records office. Yet it is also dense with meaning, a tiny object crammed with criss-crossing paths of queer reading. This mass, its ephemeral weight, underscores for me the particular role the archive plays in terms of queer history.
Normative readings of the past are hostile to queer history, as they are to all histories that don’t body forth a white cis-male Eurocentric point of view. Since archives contain primary documents of a life or organization, records as yet unprocessed by normative readings, they are crucial sites for re-interpretation. Wikipedia, one of my favorite degraded forms, offers the wonderful description of archival records as “secretions of an organism.” They are trash that’s already treasure for the right eyes.
The archive offers the possibility of re-shaping the future by means of a secret, hidden past. Which makes it a crucial space, since so much recuperative work, so much scouring of the archive, is needed in order to have queer or trans or feminist history at all. These histories and their artistic legacies continue to be screened out of the process of canon formation, with each generation having to re-exhume what’s been buried.
Moments of hyper-visibility, such as the current pop culture consumption of trans bodies, don’t obviate the need for the archive. Hyper-visibility is often just the flip side of disappearance. In that the bright light of visibility on certain privileged bodies comes hand-in-hand with violence done against others. We also hold the knowledge, gained from painful experience, that what’s visible today may well be vanished tomorrow. (This makes me think of my anxiety around #MeToo: we have to find as many as we can, push all the abusers through, before the brief window of opportunity closes.)
I’ve been turning over something Ellis said that felt like a skeleton key to their work: “Every instance of interacting with an archive is creation.” We are accustomed the way the digital economy literally monetizes attention, but the economy of the archive reverses this paradigm. The archive and the researcher co-create each other; the reader’s interest leads to the archive’s preservation.
In one concrete example, in their role at the GLBT Historical Society Archives in San Francisco, Martin is digitizing the print archives of the Bay Area Reporter, so often read that they had begun to physically degrade. Patrons’ interest created a history. Both because particular researchers gained knowledge from reading the archives, and because public interest led to a digitization project that would make the Reporter more accessible.
I want to say it again: one of the magical things about forms is that they travel through time and that means no version of any given form has the last word. Archives are continuously speaking: they activate based on what we choose to listen for. When Confederate monuments started coming down, the other best part — besides them coming down I mean — was to learn how recently many of them had come up.
It changed my understanding to learn that many of the monuments that seemed to define the space around them, the South as I grew up in it, were actually erected in waves, first in the 1920s to erase the history of Reconstruction, then in the ’50s and ’60s in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. I hadn’t known how recent they were. This knowledge came forward to me because of the archival work of historian and journalists. These so-called monuments, tawdry white supremacist knick-knacks, were so cheaply made that when people hauled them off their pedestals, they crumpled at the ankles. So much for Mother Confederacy.
The archive is also about what makes something seem worthy of preservation, how material culture reinforces such evaluations, and how these value systems change. What’s pulled out of the archive, and how it’s bronzed or shined up for posterity. Martin’s work comments on this aspect of archival form by preserving their personal Internet trail — the digital ephemera of searches and texts — in more durable forms. In Contact?, in Martin bestows the fine-arts pedigree, the heft, of letterpress printing on the remnants of an exhibit that had already happened.
Such an alchemy is even more overt in Martin’s zine Gay Porn for Art Fags, a collection of transient digital moments of self-representation including texts and selfies. If porn is a site where a group articulates desire, Gay Porn for Art Fags offers a cluster of images in which a variant gayness can organize itself out of its longings: somewhere between chicken claws painted pink, hole emojis, and transmasculine tattoo nite.
Martin makes Internet searches into formal sets that become at once jokes, toolkits, and evocations of personality. It’s a technique that takes an archivist’s long view of the so-called “trivial”: that is, it all adds up. As Martin told me during our conversation, a screenshot is a photograph; the medium to use is the medium at hand. What I find most radical about Martin’s work is that it doesn’t just flip distinctions between trivial and serious. It refuses to mark the boundary, smuggling each into the other’s domain.
To value the so-called trivial evokes, for me, the defense of queer life itself, so often considered unworthy of preservation. If queer and trans existence are figured as trajectories that can’t be summed up by fixed, unitary destinations (MOTHER; FATHER; HUSBAND; WIFE), each search or moment of inquiry is as much an end-point as any other. Each interaction with the archive is both transitory and a dwelling place: each interaction opens up a world.
I’ll close by discussing another project that fruitfully elides distinctions between art and archive: an ongoing, manifold practice by artist Joel Gregory called Craigslist Personals, which includes appropriated and recombined photographs and text, Instagram accounts, a series of paintings, video work, and large-scale photographic prints on metal.
Gregory’s source material is close to 1,500 images pulled from the now defunct Craiglist Personals section, plus an archive of text also sourced from the Personals. In their @craigslist_personals_ Instagram account, Gregory juxtaposes image and text in inventive, mysterious, and witty ways, while other components of the project focus on the image repertoire that Gregory has collected and their interactions with it.
Internet-adjacent projects like Craigslist Personals are often thought of as interrogations of narcissism and voyeurism, the shallow mirrors of the social media age. While voyeurism as it relates to the desire for connection is certainly important to Craiglist Personals, I find it also generative to read its politics along the axis of the queer archive: preservation and self-preservation, bodies speaking themselves, and (in the wake of SESTA and FOSTA) community grief.
Gregory did not explicitly begin Craigslist Personals as an archival project, but as the work grew it began to amass bulk, stylistic and formal variety: a language, visual and verbal, people used to present themselves as they sought connection, sex, friendship, or exhibitionism in the personals section of the Craigslist website.
The “version” in which the archival nature of the project is perhaps most clear is Gregory’s Instagram account, now on its third iteration after Instagram shut down the first two (which had accrued thousands of followers) for “violating Community Standards.” Scrolling through the first version, now lost, which contained large numbers of image-text combinations, evoked an archive with the feeling of a repertoire of past gestures that can be pulled from, altered, and re-shuffled to coalesce a workable present.
In this case, the materials (with which to build a self-presentation and/or gender and/or sexual preference) were made up of dick pics, loneliness, beds, bulges, bondage, sweet nothings, empty rooms, sunsets, torsos: the vocabulary of the archive for which Gregory is constructing a structure and a grammar.
With all this about dick pics and sunsets, i.e. some rather normative takes on sexuality, why would I reference Craigslists Personals in light of the specifically queer archive? By juxtaposing so many images and translating them across different mediums, Gregory reveals the bricolage of all gender, including so-called normative gender. Rather than equating masculinity with authenticity and femininity with artifice, the images Gregory selects showcase all gender presentations as constructed, offering a kind of subject/object slippage as people represent themselves visually as the imagined objects of others’ desire.
Craiglist Personals also highlights these “everyday uncanny” aspects of gender and sexuality through photographic composition. Many of the photos are visually striking because of the constraints placed on their original, anonymous compositors by conflicting desires for exposure and anonymity. Privacy-driven decisions chop off heads or block them with objects or screens. Dynamic compositions, in which legs angle off-screen and bodies contort, result from the sexual interest that foregrounds various body parts for the camera.
Gregory, who was in the process of articulating their own genderqueer identity when they began the work that led to Craigslist Personals, told me that as that identity came into focus, so did their point of view on the project. They realized that they had been studying the images as a collection of representations of gender and desire: a way of seeing their own process through a refracted glass. Accordingly, when making the video Looking for Now for a performance, Gregory used playful Photobooth video of themself (flirting, writhing, looking thoughtful, trying out make-up and wigs) as backdrop for a rapidly cycling slide-show of Craigslist Personals content.
(CW: The video is decidedly NSFW, consisting of a basically constant stream of sexualized content broken up by the occasional poodle, egret, or pair of crumpled underwear.)
The fact that the Photo Booth video of themself was shot before the Craigslist Personals project began complicates Gregory’s relationship to viewer and to material. The artist’s self-presentation, filmed during the process of gender exploration, uses many of the same devices as do the Craigslist images (nudity, movement and contortion, come-hither glances, representational artifice such as make-up and costume).
By collapsing the divisions between their artistic work, their personal self-representation, and the “naive” or demotic representations from Craigslist, Gregory de-ironizes and raises the stakes of all three. Gregory makes clear that these materials, easy to read as degraded or abject, are simply what we have with which to make gender representations, to interface with the world.
Similarly to Martin’s Contact? with its criss-crossing strands of queer art past, Gregory’s video Looking for Now places the viewer into the role of archivist and historian. The soundtrack to Looking for Now is drawn from Nelson Sullivan’s documentary footage of the early ’90s nightlife culture of the Club Kids. Now infamous for Michael Alig’s murder of Angel Melendez, the group also brought queer nightlife, drag style, and wild genderqueer expression into mainstream visibility, with media notoriety including appearances on the Joan Rivers Show and Phil Donahue.
Gregory invokes these forebears, whose style briefly flared on-screen to stir baby freaks in living rooms across America. These phantom voices summoning the past are part of the process of looking for now: extracting the uncanny from the ordinary, finding queer spectacle wherever one can, including in the popularized and reviled.
Ellis Martin queers Sophie Calle’s graveyard by placing aspects of their non-binary transmasculine identity alongside each gender role gravestone. Gregory’s project similarly transforms the images it considers. By detaching the images of the original personal ads from their accompanying text, Gregory scrambles the desires the images were meant to convey, dividing them from their objects and leaving each image multi-directional, ready to go where it will and where the viewer will take it.
To this viewer, the rooms, bras and harnesses, dicks and torsos of Craigslist Personals feel deeply queer in their crossing of binaries: both gay and straight, empty and full, decadent and bland, oddly innocent and polymorphously perverse.
Craigslist’s Personals section did not intend to be an archive: if it was, it was an inherently ephemeral one since the ads were time-limited, expiring after a defined period. Gregory made the archive permanent through downloading and cataloging the images, with the intention of creating a real-time record. However, events conspired to make Craigslist Personals not the archive of now, the ongoing present, but the record of a disappearance. During the week of March 20, 2018, Craigslist closed its personals section due to the passage of the FOSTA and SESTA acts, laws supposedly designed to combat sex trafficking that made websites liable for illegal sexual behavior by users.
As widely predicted by the sex worker community and allies before their passage, FOSTA and SESTA had immediate and drastic consequences not for traffickers but for sex workers themselves. By shutting down sites like Craigslist Personals that workers depended on to find clients, these laws are increasing economic hardship and making work more dangerous. Some sex workers, particularly those in the most precarious situations, will be forced to seek clients on the street, increasing their exposure to violence. However, sites that directly facilitate sexual activity are not the only ones closing down: so are sites sex workers use to share information about safer practices and to vet potential clients. Sex workers are thus being denied access to spaces they have made themselves, their own archives that compile community knowledge and allow people to protect themselves and each other.
I don’t want to portray the sex worker community as lacking in agency: this loss has rallied the community toward mutual aid and finding inventive solutions. FOSTA and SESTA, however, are also a reminder that access to our own archives can never be taken for granted. Whether because they’ve been outlawed, suppressed, distorted, or simplified, we’re in the position of having to excavate our queer, trans, feminist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist histories over and over again. This is where use of such archival materials as a technique in art feels particularly useful: it gives the viewer knowledge, brings them into a shared experience of world-making, and rallies them around what can be lost and what has been gained.
These cycles of disappearance and return are part of the pathos and power of the queer archive, connected to the pathos and power of queer time itself. There is sadness in the vanishing, the fact that the archive has to be brought forward over and over again. But there’s also potential for solidarity in the urgent need one has to learn, at whatever age one might be embarking.
There’s happiness in encountering the archive, in the feeling that my friends hold it, that their artworks make it, that I can find the legacies and knowledge I need not only in traditional hierarchies of power but in people who are twenty years younger than I am, or twenty years older, one hundred years older. I need so much from people who are a hundred years younger, if only I could live so long. (Poetry is like this, too.)
I wanted to get a haircut that read a little more androgynous, and would allow me to wear more femme looks without feeling uncomfortable. So I asked friends to send me queercuts for curly hair and Jamie threw in a bunch and I realized I had had most of them before over the years, the short asymmetrical ones, and I joked with Jamie that my hair knew me before I did.
I always feel my belatedness. My inadequacy. But I can also marvel at the joy I feel. That, irrespective of my age, I can be young in my queerness. It’s like Zach said — we’re both Jewish — that just as the Jewish religion says you’re never done trying to be more Jewish, you should always be working to be more queer.
Which is itself like the José Esteban Muñoz quote: “We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an identity that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future.” Queerness, like the archive, is all around us and we never have it. We have the moment of reading, the moment of what we bring forward from the past to articulate a future. Making the attempt, clearing the next moment of breath. Thank you, Ellis; thank you, Joel, for the archive.