Friday, November 05, 2010

Speaking about love

I found a little clutch of amazing images the other day; this evening I need to share them with someone else, as part of the very early stages of a new project, and I figured rather than just mail them to him or upload them to a file-sharing site, it might be interesting to post them here.

In 1966 David Hockney was commissioned to produce a series of etchings to accompany a new edition of poems by C.P. Cavafy. The resultant prints are widely taken (including by me!) to be among the best and the most significant of Hockney's works; they immaculately capture the distinctive tonalities of Cavafy's poems, their languid precision and their radiant intimacies:


And if I can't speak about my love—
if I don't talk about your hair, your lips, your eyes,
still your face that I keep within my heart,
the sound of your voice that I keep within my mind,
the days of September rising in my dreams,
give shape and colour to my words, my sentences,
whatever theme I touch, whatever thought I utter. 

The images that have caught my attention recently however are not exactly those. I didn't know, but it's common in the production of limited edition prints for the original plates finally to be 'cancelled': i.e. to be defaced so that they're no longer usable, no further prints can be produced from them. Usually this means that 'CANCELLED' or some such is inscribed onto the image. Cancellation proofs are then produced to indicate -- to prove, I suppose -- that this has happened. It's a very odd instance of an artist vandalising their own work in order to preserve its commodity value: a fascinating logical apogee to the functioning of the art market.

So here are some of the cancellation proofs from Hockney's Cavafy series: and you'll see how compellingly these images are completely reframed. I've found other examples of cancellation proofs by other artists but nothing to match the production here of what feel simply like new, more radical, artworks. This is partly to do with the content, the 'subject matter'; partly to do with the playfulness of Hockney's amendments, which in some cases look more like scurrilous graffiti than official stamps of withdrawal.

So how amazing, for example, these cancelled plates would have looked in the context of the first wave of agit-prop art works responding to the early days of the AIDS crisis. How much they would have appealed (on one level, at least) to a sardonic postmodern queer artist/activist like the brilliant David Wojnarowicz. Hockney might almost seem to be topping up the queerness of these images for more contemporary eyes in a culture where tastefully not-too-explicit depictions of male intimacy no longer frighten (most of) the horses in quite the same way. By scuffing these pictures, half-obliterating some of them, layering them with scrawls of impersonal language, Hockney actually -- we might say -- rescues these images of gay desire and identity from their original calm idealism, and installs them in the fray, in the midst of the always-ongoing battle for queer self-actualization and viable collectivity.

I've been thinking a lot about queerness in the last few days, against the backdrop of the dreary third-rate orthodoxies and political nullity that characterise so much soi disant queer work and play right now, at a time when, perhaps more than ever, a genuine, concerted, angry, tender, thoughtful, active radical queerness is called for -- and I mean urgently, I mean called for like you'd call for an ambulance. I've said a time or two before now, possibly including here (I've now said more or less everything it's possible to say here at some point), that I'd be keen to describe my politics as queer and my sexuality as anticapitalist; it always sounds a little facetious and I'm aware of that, but it's also basically a sincere attempt to describe the predicament of the body on the street.

Most of these thoughts have been prompted by a gurglingly pleasureful reading of the newish Semiotext(e) edition of Guy Hocquenghem's The Screwball Asses, an extraordinary essay from 1972 which has more to say than any other book or article I've ever read about the imperatives for (and the faultlines within) revolutionary homosexual activism, not just in the early 70s but in early November 2010 too (and coming soon to a theatre near you). I was sitting reading it in a cafe in Dalston earlier in the week and it felt alarmingly and exhilaratingly like I was publicly masturbating over a petrol bomb. I won't be so crass as to attempt a precis of Hocquenghem's thesis, which is anyway as slippery and ludic as Deleuze, as erotomaniacal as Guyotat and as furious as Debord: quite a combination, and not one that lends itself to careless summary. I would very warmly urge any angry, imaginative person from anywhere on the queer spectrum to get hold of a copy. For any remaining straight folks reading this: here you go.

Another fantastic set of apt provocations can be found in Goodbye to London: Radical art & politics in the 70's, which accompanies the recent exhibition Goodbye London at the NGBK in Berlin. The book -- image-heavy but no less articulate for that -- renders excitingly pointless any attempt to discriminate between art and activism in the period; one superb chapter offers testimony from the early days of South London Gay Liberation and the communes and squats where its activists grouped themselves. Hocquenghem is largely opposed, ultimately, to these sorts of collective identifications, fearing that (as no self-respecting fan of C.J. Cregg ever would) they accept too readily the heteronormative premise of the question. I have some sympathy for, and feel some recognition of, that squeamishness, but the significance of such microcommunities living and working for gay emancipation in the 70s is undeniable and, from this vantage, enviable.

As a fascinating and very moving blog I stumbled across this week clearly indicates, to speak from the experience of and/or an identification with queerness -- to "speak about one's love", in the most politically implicating construction of that phrase -- is still often risky or scary or downright impossible, even for those of us who would like to think of ourselves as confident in our queerness and committed to living it publicly. Part of the problem we face is the self-same problem to be found at the broken heart of so many thwarted efforts towards radical community formation: namely, how estranged we still are from each other, how little we know about each other's lives, how difficult we find it to hear each other sometimes.

For instance, in the past couple of weeks I have been thinking about a short paper I'm writing for this (immensely cool-looking!) upcoming conference on speechlessness in, and as, performance. (I won't actually be at the conference, I'll be in Manchester with The Author; I think Jonny's going to read my paper.) One unexpected avenue I've been wanting to explore, via thoughts on voice and identity, Marina Abramovic, and the sounding of visual poetry, is around the linguistic and paralinguistic content of BDSM practice and especially the use of safe words to help ensure that issues of control and consent do not become wholly and potentially dangerously blurred and illegible. Sadomasochism isn't really my personal thing, though -- if you'll pardon the overshare -- I've had some experiences over the past couple of years that have really opened me up, ha ha, to the attractions of that territory. This has spilled somewhat into a writing project that I'll be picking up in December, which I hope might lead towards a new play (with a script and everything) next year sometime: and the more I read and research, the more I'm aware of my ignorance. Like, presumably, most people who tend to think of themselves as broad-minded and liberal, I think the elasticity of my tolerance can sometimes be a way of not having to think about, or not having to know about, the experiences of others which may be considerably removed from my own. Even at my most vanilla, S&M has never bothered me exactly so I've never really had to engage with what's going on for people for whom that's a central part of their identity. There are all kinds of strains of this -- how much do I actually know about the lived experience of "militant" Islam in Britain? or ultra-Orthodox Judaism?; how much time do I actually spend finding out about what conversations are going on among radical feminists right now? I just airily "support" stuff, maybe drop the occasional coin into a tin, sign a petition or two: but there are things going on deep down in the lives of my closest friends, and their friends, which I have hardly the first clue about. Perhaps this is inevitable. But I'm aware just now of feeling how unsatisfactory this especially is in relation to queerness: queer is central to my work and my life, more crucial than anything really, and yet I feel like I know so little about what's going on for a lot of other people who also identify as queer, let alone those many more with whom I feel a close accord but for whom the designation 'queer' is, to their minds, too problematic to embrace. (I know how they feel, sometimes.)

So I spent some really interesting time earlier this week at the brilliant Questioning Transphobia blog, which has dealt in exemplary fashion with the tragic recent news story around the death of the human rights lawyer Sonia Burgess, and highlighted some truly appalling and hateful reportage in mainstream press coverage of the case. In a somewhat lighter, though at base no less serious, vein, I've enjoyed catching up with a couple of blogs (here and here) which provide focal points for the apparently increasing numbers of people choosing to identify as pansexual. And I've been fascinated by the blog kept by a female submissive latex fetishist (pictured wearing a latex burqa), which throws up all kinds of worthwhile and challenging questions.

I've also had the great pleasure over the past few weeks of working very closely on the editing of an anthology of work by 13 young poets: some of whom identify as queer and/or trans, and/or as gay or lesbian or bisexual; others wouldn't accept those identifications but their lived experience certainly includes time or thought spent away from the privileges of heteronormalcy. I didn't select any of the poets included in the anthology -- which will be coming out from Ganzfeld early in the new year -- for any reason other than I really, really like their work. But it's interesting that queerness and its variants is not only part of the personal story of several of them, but an essential part of the writing practice of all but a very few of them. I don't really know whether I think queerness is first and foremost about who you fuck -- I guess ultimately it is: but it's also indissolubly about the apparatus you use to think with, the models you have in mind, your own distinct sense of the body -- your body -- on the street. All of these things obviously inform and inflect language practice, and for those putting close attention on the way that language normally functions and how else it might be set to work, queerness, like all species of political thinking, is a syntactic as well as a somatic or erotic marker.

You can see it even in the purely visual work of John Cage. I finally got to visit Every Day Is A Good Day, the remarkable exhibition currently at Kettle's Yard, and the importance of Cage's queerness -- partly as reflected in his longterm relationship with Merce Cunningham and the influence on his compositional work that that relationship clearly and cheerily exerted; but partly in the demeanour of his presence and the new-minted etiquettes of his favoured forms and operations -- shines out of the whole show. Amid the gorgeously, limpidly, exactly beautiful paintings and drawings that the exhibition pulls together, a couple of monitors show video clips, including this marvellous appearance by Cage on the US game show I've Got A Secret, in which he performs 'Water Walk' (with great generosity and poise): it would be a shame to wish to CANCEL this picture of gentle, multifarious queerness:

Seeing this, earlier today, we'd just come from a lunchtime conversation about the above-mentioned new project, intended for bedroom performance: a piece that I hope might bring the intimacies of Hockney and Cavafy (and the almost brutal, curiously urban-looking queerness of Hockney's cancellation inscriptions) into a productive relation with the sorts of formal and syntactical adventurousness that I hope Cage would recognize and where some of the young poets I'm working with at the moment would feel at home. It's a constellation of ideas and tonalities that I imagine will also be detectable (and delectable) all through the sequence of Saturday evening readings and performances that my beloved pro-queer compadre Jonny is curating at his live/work gaff, The Situation Room, this month. I'll be reading and performing at the last, on the 27th; I'd be in the audience for all of them, were I not still on tour with The Author. If you can go, I would recommend it, more warmly than I think I can say; go to one, go to all of them, go to all of all of them. Nowhere in my experience more suggestively and inspiringly represents the politics of queerness and the erotics of anticapitalism than the Sit Room; no one is working harder to put their body and their language on the line than Jonny. It is, all through the month, a programme of readers and makers to die for -- no, wait, even more romantically: to live for. You don't have to be queer to work here: but, o fuck me, it helps. 


simon kane said...

"These are nice people. But some of them're gonna laugh.

"Is that alright?"

Stunning images. So happy right now.


alan hay said...

Ha! On a depressing day at work full of thwart and grind, stole 20 mins reading yr thing here and feel inspired and delighted. We've only met a couple times and I don't know you at all well but I'm very grateful for the work you put into this thing Chris. It really does help to make a shit day bearable, and remind me that my short, constrained and infuriating life does need to be lived and not just complained about.

Unknown said...

I'm also charmed and very grateful to have re-found your writing at this post. I was also hoping to write something about love today, and am inspired... Though I think I am going to start off writing about clothes and see where it goes. The John Cage is gorgeous.

Anonymous said...

I love this John Cage clip, which was featured in a performance at NRLA this year (can't remember which one!)

Since then I can help but revisit it over and over again...

Chris Goode said...

Thanks all! Very glad to have hit the spot (for some) with this one. xx