The straightest thing about straightness is the way it combs the tangle of human connection into the order of patrilineal bloodlines. Queerness, however, pools its resources to operate through a broader sense of reproduction, one more capacious than that linear discipline of paternity allows. As the recent art show Ephemera as Evidence made clear: from AIDS awareness education to queer theory, pedagogy has been one of the resources with which queerness not only survives, but also reproduces itself.
Last December my professor, mentor, and friend José Esteban Muñoz died unexpectedly. In the months since then, people who knew him and loved him have put together various events and publications. Ephemera as Evidence, on show in June 2014 at La Mama Galleria in New York, was among these tributes. Curated by José’s former students Joshua Lubin-Levy and Ricardo Montez for the contemporary arts organization Visual AIDS, the exhibit took its name from an essay José wrote. Like the essay, it was concerned with the intimacy of pedagogy—those provisional and fleeting acts that testify to, maintain, and perpetuate queer life.
Under the rubric of ephemera, Ephemera as Evidence brought together artists whose work José wrote about over the course of his career, as well as the micro-curatorial projects of several of Montez’s own students, who as part of his undergraduate class at the New School worked with artists from the Visual AIDS registry. Some pieces were easily recognizable as ephemera: ticket stubs, scattered objects, documents, and live performances. Others trafficked in more permanent forms: paintings, drawing, prints, photography, and sculpture. Thinking through the relationships between several pieces in the show, I want to consider José’s influence and the possibility of queer influence in general—that is, the way queerness can act as a force between bodies over time.
On the back wall of the gallery hung large photograph of the late Mario Montez by Conrad Ventur entitled MM #29 (2013). It is one in a longer series of photographs that were part of this younger artist’s sustained engagement with the aging queer icon.
Montez is on a beach in a chestnut wig and red lipstick, gazing sidelong into the distance. One long white-gloved hand rests on the trunk of a palm tree, recalling an old-Hollywood glamor pose. Ventur’s photo of Mario Montez—and indeed, Mario Montez’s self-fashioning of himself as “Mario Montez,” drag performer, Warhol superstar—bore an obvious relation to five works by Jack Smith that hung on the same wall: a blackand white photograph of Smith by Uzi Parnes, a collage from Secret of Rented Island, several mixed media works, and a framed publicity still of the Dominican-born 1940s Hollywood starlet Maria Montez (part of Smith’s prodigious collection of publicity stills)—the so-called “Queen of Technicolor” famous for her portrayal of “Latina seductresses.”
Even if, upon encountering these works, you did not know that Mario Montez and Jack Smith were intimates, you could sense that Smith’s lovingly collected photo of Maria Montez somehow prepared the possibility for a “Mario.” At the same time, Mario found in the actress’s racialized performances a resource, and offers a disidentificatory lens through which to relate to Maria differently—a way both more and less intimately earnest than her celebrity seems to demand. Between these pieces hung a large work by Luke Dowd, which depicted with vivid reds and sharp lines an abstracted close-up of two gemstones on four spray-painted paper panels, which over the duration of the show slowly warped. The refracted logic of these double gems—their mediation between trash and value—crystallizes Smith, Montez, and Ventur’s overlapping worlds of glamor, intimacy, longing, and trash. It traces the circuitous rather than straight relations their works, which travels indirectly, like refraction’s curvature. This is the operation of queer influence: the work of intimacy’s open secret.
On the east wall of the gallery hung three large photographs by Kia Labeija, a young artist in the show and also a student in Montez’s class. Through self-portraiture, she negotiates a maternal inheritance and its loss, specifically her mother’s death. Set in richly textured interior domestic spaces—a deep red bedroom, a pastel bathroom, a couch in front of an overflowing closet—these images ask how, in a broad sense, we can understand a figure in relation to her support. In Kia and Mommy (2014), Labeija lies on her back in a sequined red dress, her arms folded around a picture of her mother; in In My Room (2014), she sits upright and alone on a couch in red underwear, lips slightly parted, looking more naked and vulnerable; in Mourning Sickness (2014), she lies curled on a bathmat in a posture that could be sick with illness, sick with child, or sick with grief, her gesture literalizing an impulse that runs between three works. In a fetal position, she embraces the ground that figures her—not only the tiles, carpet, and domestic space that physically situate her, but also a deep web of reproductive relation that holds her in the present.
In addition to showing her own work, Labeija curated the inclusion of Jessica Whitebread and Anthea Black, with whom she participates in a system of care and support called Tea Time: a community arts project, workshop, and closed meeting space for women living with HIV. Whitebread contributed a teacup with a folded letter tucked beneath it on the saucer (which is what women bring to Tea Time meetings); Black a silkscreen of women, flowers, and teapots entitled EAT ME/DRINK ME/TAKE TEA WITH ME (after Alice Austen). The folded letter next to Whitebread’s teacup looked slightly crumpled, as if it has been covertly passed from hand to hand, its blank surface betraying nothing of its content. It hinted at the type of intimate exchange Black’s silkscreen illustrates: silhouettes of women leaning close together in what could be either an act of conspiracy or an act of embrace. Taken together, Labeija, Whitebread and Black’s works reference not only the biological reproduction that bring us into the world, but also the social, pedagogical, and aesthetic reproduction that maintains us in it. Queerness’s influence is here prefigured by a feminist notion of reproductive labor, which insists that the work of producing a body in the world exceeds the physical act of birth to encompass relational acts maintenance and care. In this feminist understanding, reproduction is a continuous and everyday practice. These reproductive acts—when proximate and tangible—constitute what we might call family or community; at a distance, they become that fluid legacy called influence.
Influence is the capacity to produce effects beyond one’s self. A reproductive impulse, it has been configured as something charged that passes between men: master and student, expert and amateur, prophet and disciple, father and son. It has been the work of so much literary criticism and art history—especially after Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence—to re-cast this homoeroticism as patrimonial inheritance, safely containing it within the strictures of patriarchy. Premised on that fundamentally suspect condition of paternity—what Freud famously described in Moses and Monotheism as “a hypothesis based on an inference and a premise”—“influence” names a mode of propagation possible when the question of relation is unnervingly open. This perceived instability of paternity gives rise to the queer logic of influence, which offers a way of insisting on connection when connection alone doesn’t “count” as solid proof. Even in the age of paternity tests and genomic sequencing, influence continues to describe an ephemerality of relation: both the way it lingers and the way it threatens to disappear.
We often claim influence in order to quell an anxiety about origins. The artist or writer can invoke his influence before the canon like the son his father before the law, each reinforcing the other to maintain the social enclosures of propriety, legitimacy, and inheritance. This patriarchal model of influence has been so important in legitimating “serious work” within the hallowed spheres of cultural production precisely because it is within this sphere that so much can go wrong. Though premised on this linear model of inheritance, aesthetic and critical acts of citation are promiscuously profuse. Art and writing allow you to take names that are not yours, and allow you to take more than one: to create progenitors who are not fathers and inheritors that are not sons. In this sense, aesthetic and critical practices constitute provisional world-making practices, which threaten to trouble that logic of rightful heirs upon which the smooth passage of property and citizenship depend.
Disinherited from the Oedipal drama that sutures the Father to the State, queerness is precisely a space to postulate other worlds of blood relation. It summons different potentials for intimacy that patrilineal discipline attempts to keep at bay. In astrology, influence is an ethereal fluid emitted from the stars. Premised on fluidity, a queer influence takes seriously the submerged connection between “influence” and “influenza,” between distant force and bodily contagion, which both stem from the Latin influere—to inflow. This liquid capacity is a formal property influence shares with queerness. In his work on ephemera, José proposed that queerness functions as what Marxist cultural theorist Raymond Williams calls a “structure of feeling”: a “social experience in solution” before it precipitates into semantic form. An astral disease, queer influence is an otherworldy fluid that flows between bodies. It is the run-off of shared acts, of the work we continue to have in common, which overflows our formal roles to pass between us like so many tributary streams. In this sense queer influence bespeaks the possible obscenity and non-propriety of pedagogical relation. It is, as Fred Moten writes in his poem José Muñoz, that curve in your mouth that is the trace of someone else’s speech.
Part of José’s scholarly intervention was to insist that these liquid relations, though inherently fleeting, can be known. We can know queer acts and bodies—whose survival has often depended on secrecy—by the ephemera they leave behind: the traces, debris, gossip, or innuendo that circulate after the fact. In his essay “Ephemera as Evidence: An Introduction to Queer Acts,” José begins with a discussion of a work by Tony Just: a close-up photograph of a toilet bowl in a men’s room known for anonymous sex, which Just has painstakingly and spotlessly cleaned. For José, the pristine bowl and Just’s performance of sanitization and documentation bespeak the difficulty of knowing queerness: of how to know acts that disappear after their completion, which echoes the larger problem of how to know minoritarian histories that are systematically erased. Ephemera let us love what is lost by figuring it as more than simply “loss.” As a mark of disappearance, ephemera are often not legible as “solid” proof in the incriminating eye of the state, nor do they appear as viable knowledge within the academy. But as remnants of an act, they continue to act. In this sense ephemera speak to that central difficulty of survival: how what remains can bear what has disappeared.
The show Ephemera as Evidence included a piece by Tony Just—not the photograph José wrote about in his essay, but an untitled abstract painting from 2007. The painting consists of translucent layers of dark pigment and gesso. There is a lot of surface texture—swirling marks, ghostly forms, and dense spots of pigment. But this is partially subsumed by regular horizontal brushstrokes. The center of the painting looks somehow deeper, and after staring at it for a while, you get the sense that you are staring through a fogged aperture onto something vast. This play of darkness and light against the horizontal brushstrokes gives the sense that there is something clouded on the horizon. Like the close-up photograph of the toilet bowl, the painting gives an unstable sense of depth, fluctuating between a positive form and negative space, between ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ to see. This fluctuation captures for me not only the difficult duality of loss and survival, but also the complicated valence of futurity. An expression of both shallow and deep time, futurity is always negotiating an unseen horizon, capturing both the insufficiency of the here-and-now the incommensurability of what is not yet here.
Queerness has been posited as mode of relation that has no future, as an orientation towards death. José, however, was more concerned with the ways queerness lasts: in how it reproduces itself in time. This was the subtle premise of his work on ephemera, and became the explicit subject of his last published book, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. In it, he describes queerness as an orientation towards the future: a longing or desire that propels us forward, a feeling that the present does not suffice. José understood queerness as a utopian impulse: both an ideality and a world making practice. Not yet here, always on the horizon, this critical utopianism helps us think through the impasses of the here-and-now.
What’s so hard about relation is that it is always too much and not enough. Patrimony deals with this problem by giving proper names to its kinships, appellations called up as solid proof before the arbiters of culture and law. Queerness, on the other hand, doesn’t refer to a single identity, but any number of acts. This makes is generous, generative, and sometimes maddeningly vague. The anxiety of a queer influence is therefore different than that of a patrilineal one. The fear becomes no longer how to escape the father, but how to account for that which has not named you, for which you have no name. It is the anxiety that arises in the relation of that which can claim no relation, but nonetheless performs one.
I’ve been thinking about the temporality of relation through the concept of doom. Doom is the subject of my dissertation, which José had been directing. In ancient Greek cosmology, “doom” is the mechanism that holds you to a future: a promise or curse maintained even beyond death. Doom is often invoked through reproduction: that the sins of the father be visited upon the son. In fact, it describes the very condition of reproduction: as punishment for eating the apple, Eve and her daughters are doomed to bear children in pain. Doom characterizes the inevitability that is so anxiety-producing about influence; yet in in relation to the dubiousness that haunts queer influence, such certainty can be a resource. Doom offers a way of insisting—in the face of uncertain kinship—on how we were always already given to the relations that sustain us. Doom confirms the fact and feeling of being in relation even when that relation is not yours to claim.
It sounds strange to insist on it now, but my ideas about doom are premised on a queer utopianism: on a shared dissatisfaction with the present that is at the same time an orientation towards the future. But really it’s not so strange: doom is just another way of figuring that deep time of the horizon line, of imagining the inexorability of relation, of the way relation lasts. “Doom” named the project I shared with José of thinking about what futures are available in queerness. Of course, in different ways and through different names, this was a project José shared with many. It’s a work necessarily performed through others: through the friendships, art, shared resources, and collective thought that sustain us. It’s the work of my friends and colleagues Joshua Lubin-Levy and Ricardo Montez in Ephemera as Evidence, which I am grateful to think alongside.
There is an extreme difficulty to writing about José: a difficulty that has to do not only with feeling sad and missing him, but also that sense that he is not mine to write about. I did not know him the best or the longest. I didn’t love him the most. Whatever I have to say now cannot be premised on any solid proof of relation, on any sense of rightful place or rightful heirs. José was not my father, and I am no one’s son.
The exercise is like a sculptural piece I never made, which another friend and colleague Amalle Dublon reminded me of recently. Shortly after the furor died down around a performance piece I made in 2008 that dealt with pregnancy and miscarriage, I became interested in how sperm and not just uteruses could also “carry wrongly.” I was thinking about an economy of paternity—about the value of what gets transmitted through insemination, and about the minor crime of “wasted” seed. What stuck out for me was this notion of paternity as an inference—as that which is believed or proven rather than merely seen. I got the idea that I would like to see my own paternity: to fill an aquarium with my father’s semen and see how long I could keep the sperm alive. I was interested in exactly what I would be able to see, and whether I would know anything from it, as well as what the nature of their “life”—or extended motility—would be. I never made the piece. But this desire to concretize what is only ever inference seems now to characterize what I have been trying to think about here: the difficulty of understanding what it is that can be passed on.