Thursday, November 27, 2008

Prairie Artsters: Expose and express*

Spending the better part of the past week invested in the second year of Exposure: Edmonton’s Queer Arts and Culture Festival, I’ve had to question what “queer art” actually means. In our fluid understanding of borders and identities, being queer can be as simple as identifying with a queer community. Not exclusive to sexual orientation or gender or how we relate to the people in our life, being queer may be as basic as standing up for the right to be queer.

In the art world, queer art exists at various levels, as demonstrated by this year’s Exposure lineup. From a wide-ranging selection of works by youths who identified as queer, to lectures by internationally renowned Canadian artists AA Bronson and Wayne Yung—both of whom pushed forward ideas of queerness in their works dealing with AIDS and transnational identities, respectively—to films and lectures by transgendered individuals such as Gwen Haworth and Eli Claire, queer art appears to encapsulate artistic expressions dealing with repressed voices, usually in direct relation to representation in mainstream media and culture.

My experience with Exposure this year involved curating “Hot Topic vs Wednesday Lupypciw,” a one-night exhibition featuring art work by Lupypciw, Kirsten McCrea and Corissa O’Donnell. McCrea painted a series of 60 portraitures based on the feminist/queer/activist icons in Le Tigre’s song, “Hot Topic.” She created a work preserving and celebrating these individuals that have either been elevated to pop icon status or swept into the dustbins of history. Many of McCrea’s figures come from the 1970s, so I posed the question of “What is Feminism(s)?” to Calgary based fibre/performance artist Lupypciw. Weaving to life “Beige Decade(s)” as a direct response to McCrea’s 2-D work, Lupypciw created several fibre works in the style of 1970s feminist natural weavings, an art form often negatively relegated to the craft world in a traditional discipline hierarchy that favours painting and sculpture over forms such as craft and intermedia. Bringing together the activist icons, fiber artists, and anonymous women in McCrea, Lupypciw and O’Donnell’s works, I hoped to pose the question of feminism and identity to a contemporary audience who, for the most part, have formed in a post-ism era.

I approached Exposure to present this show for the primary reason that the issues being raised by the works are inherently political and, framed within a queer arts and culture festival, I hoped the issues of identity would hold its own against the artistic merits of the work. I had similar expectations for the Bathhouse event, undeniably the show stopper of the festival, with close to 400 audience members packing SteamWorks on a weekday evening. Turning the men-only bathhouse into a temporary exhibition space for visual art installations and performance, Exposure bridged the realm of queer identity politics with art in a very problematic manner. For better or for worse, the general public moved through the two floors of a black-lit labyrinth to view works that ranged from intimate to thoughtful to challenging to downright wet and messy.

No doubt, much of the audience came out of curiosity for the space more than the art, and the space itself remains the most powerful element of that event. Only existing somewhere between art and politics, the Bathhouse event became a spectacle for most, who arrived with camera in tow ready to gawk at the slings, stocks and glory holes. Comments overheard from some surprising and disappointing sources revealed deeply embedded homophobia and AIDS hysteria, where supposed open-minded, art-loving queers didn’t want to touch the walls in fear of contracting AIDS. Unfortunately, very few of the artists featured in this first Bathhouse exhibit addressed this perhaps expected stigma.

Still, in its unfolding, Exposure Festival has affirmed why politics and art need to coexist: to generate different perspectives, to queer our normal view points concerning every person’s basic human right to express him- or herself.

*First published in Vue Weekly, November 27 - December 3, 2008.

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