Gender Talents: A Special Address

Review of Gender Talents: A Special Address, The Tanks, Tate Modern for Feminine Moments – Text: Anna McNay / art-Corpus

Panellists at Tate Tank

Panellists at The Tanks, Tate Modern. Photo by Anna McNay

Gender Talents: A Special Address

Anna McNayAs part of Tate Modern’s Charming for the Revolution Congress for Gender Talents and Wildness weekend, Saturday 2 February 2013 saw the Tanks host a full day symposium with presentations by a variety of artists, activists and academics, all seeking to investigate the contemporary status of gender politics, “ask[ing] what is at stake when questioning, collapsing, inverting and abandoning the gender binary.”

Brought together by Carlos Motta, the speakers each presented a short manifesto on the subject of queerness, be it in terms of sexuality, race, physical ability, or any other standard which society attempts to regulate, but focusing on gender. As Motta suggested, a manifesto is itself “a speech act of performance” which attempts to balance political subjectivity with political strategy. The location of the symposium was also significant: Tate Modern was chosen for its weight as a cultural institution, “a legitimising agent of culture” – a “central” place from which to speak to the “margins”.

[Photo right: Anna McNay in one of The Tanks’ gender neutral toilets at Tate Modern.]

Alongside a short film manifesto by Dean Spade, the capacity audience was also addressed by the medical doctor and Professor of Sexology, Esben Esther Pirelli Benestad; the pioneer of queer photography, Del LaGrace Volcano; academics J. Jack Halberstam and Beatriz Preciado; the speaker and educator, Terre Thaemlitz; the transvestite philosopher and recipient of the Foundation for Arts Initiatives grant in 2013, Giuseppe Campuzano; the feminist curator and art critic, Xabier Arakistain; and the film-makers, Campbell X and Wu Tsang.

Whilst some speakers took Motta’s words quite literally, and performed their manifestos, moving around the central Tank space, from one brightly coloured podium to the next, others read their words more sedately, and Thaemlitz, who expounded the idea that queerness need not necessarily imply talent, and that the contemporary celebratory approach to trans issues is somewhat flippant when one considers the struggles that still go on, sat, face-hidden by hair, back to audience, on the corner of the stage.

Following Pirelli Benestad’s call to abandon the “curse of dichotomy” and to celebrate a “gender euphoria”, Volcano did just that, with his poetic performance shouting out a manifesto for queer bodies, or bodies that queer, since, in his mind “queer” is not a noun, but rather “a verb in drag passing as an adjective.” Queer bodies, then, are “bodies that through the simple act of existence personify resistance.” A queer body “shows us how to love all that which we are taught to hate,” since “bodies that queer, are bodies we fear.” And through standing up and speaking out, demonstrating, and showing one’s body, (in Volcano’s case, his “hairy hermaphroditic breast and Barbie doll feet”), the limits and definitions of gender are gradually undone. Biology, after all, is not destiny.

Halberstam’s presentation showed us contemporary music idols Lady Gaga, Kanye West, and Jay Z, whilst Preciado cited Foucault, and Arakistain took us through the history of feminism. Campbell X, standing up for Queer People of Colour, showed youtube clips of young people speaking out, and finished with a clip, oft removed from youtube by the censors, from her own film, Femme, which opens with a “honey shot”, showing a woman engaged in autoerotic activity.

And that pretty much sums up the variety of the day: from Foucault to Hip-Hop; from hairy hermaphroditic breasts to naked girls self-pleasuring. Gender, and all it entails, certainly covers a vast spectrum, and cannot, and should not, be forced into a binary division. Despite Thaemlitz’s worries, the “talents” of the congress’s title suggest, as Motta pointed out, self-empowerment, and the semantic inversion of society’s imposition of “syndrome” or “disorder”. Perhaps Pirelli Benestad’s words sum it up the best: “We must rejoice in diversity, but we must not impose diversity.” But, we must continue to speak out, and, thankfully for the queer community at large, there are those, like Saturday’s panel, who do just this, and for whom, as Volcano stated: “Silence has never been an option.”

About Anna McNay

Anna McNay is an art writer and editor with a background as an academic linguist. She is a regular contributor to Studio International, Photomonitor, DIVA, and various other publications, including her own blog, art-Corpus. Her areas of particular interest include art and the body, art and text, and gender.

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