View from "Coming Out Party"
For Broc Blegen's current exhibition at MAEP, "Coming Out Party," the artist displays replicas of famous queer works by artists such as such as Andy Warhol, Jonathan Horowitz, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. In conjunction with the show, queer theorist and author Nicholas de Villiers will be visiting the galleries on Thursday, and Boneshaker Books on Friday. Each day, he will be giving talks that explore Blegen's work within the context of queer art history and the culture wars, and he will also discuss what he refers to as the metaphor of the closet and archiving queer culture.
De Villiers, who briefly taught at MCAD, is currently specializing in gender and sexuality studies as an assistant professor of English and film at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. He also recently published a book, Opacity and the Closet: Queer Tactics in Foucault, Barthes, and Warhol (University of Minnesota Press, 2012). We caught up with de Villiers over email and asked him about his upcoming Twin Cities lectures.
What does it mean to be a queer theorist? What is the difference between queer and LGBT?
Nicholas de Villiers: Mainstream LGBT politics is primarily concerned with a politics of visibility, coming out, asserting identity and pride, and access to normative institutions such as marriage and the military. While recognizing the gains of this form of politics, "queer" activism and theory often involves questioning our investment in identity categories, normalizing representations, and sexually conservative institutions. I am particularly interested in queer tactics that critique, subvert, or challenge the cultural marketplace, and our obsession with positive images.
What will you be talking on Thursday at MAEP versus Friday at Boneshaker?
I have prepared some remarks for Thursday about queer art history, Andy Warhol's reaction to Abstract Expressionism, and the culture wars over artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and David Wojnarowicz -- all of which I believe are helpful for understanding what Broc Blegen is doing by recreating these queer works of conceptual art for his "Coming Out Party" exhibition. But my role is really to facilitate a discussion with the audience, so my goal is to get people talking about what it means to reconsider these important identity politics and culture war debates now, in this time and place.
At Boneshaker on Friday, I will discuss the archival research that went into my book, Opacity and the Closet: Queer Tactics in Foucault, Barthes, and Warhol, which interrogates the viability of the metaphor of the closet when applied to these three important queer figures in postwar American and French culture. I have chosen to highlight a section of my conclusion on archives because of what I see as its relevance to Blegen's exhibition, which also prompts questions about cultural memory, collecting, and queer art history.
What is queer performativity, and how does it relate to Blegen's work?
One example of queer performativity is the speech act of "coming out of the closet." Typically, this is seen as a form of confessional discourse that forever changes the person who "comes out," and his or her image in the eyes of a presumptively heterosexual audience. But writer Samuel R. Delany has pointed out that this is the post-Stonewall use of the expression, whereas previously the expression was to "come out into gay culture," usually through one's first gay sexual contacts.
I think that Blegen's exhibition title, "Coming Out Party," implies both meanings, especially since the pieces invoke both identity and sexuality in relation to "speech acts" and performance. I am also indebted to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's work on the performativity of the affect "shame" as it marks queer subjectivity and can be transformed and transfigured by queer artists (for example: Andy Warhol, or the drag superstar Divine). I think Sedgwick's ideas are also helpful for thinking about Blegen's exhibition.
What is excitable speech, and how does it relate to Blegen's work?
Along with Sedgwick, Judith Butler is another prominent thinker in queer theory whose work I found useful for contextualizing Blegen's show. In particular, I found myself returning to a book she published in 1997 -- during the culture wars over obscenity, pornography, and injurious speech -- called Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. Butler's theories on performative speech and "citation" are particularly helpful for thinking about Blegen's recreation of Glenn Ligon's Red Portfolio, which comments on the controversy surrounding Mapplethorpe's work.
What are the challenges of documenting queer history?
Beyond official, homophobic censorship, cultural amnesia is also a serious problem for queer culture (especially in the age of AIDS). I am fascinated by the role of archives not only in documenting, but also in producing an artist's queer persona beyond his or her death, as I argue is the case for Warhol and the Warhol Archives. This is also why I find Broc Blegen's desire to recreate, collect, and re-exhibit controversial queer art so promising as an antidote to this amnesia.
Nicholas de Villiers at MAEP Galleries (2400 Third Ave. S., Minneapolis)
7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, December 20
Reception will include talks by artists Broc Blegen and Binod Shrestha, who are both currently featured in the galleries, as well as Amy Kamel, who will discuss Shrestha's work.