Doing Feminism

I am very excited to be part of a new special issue of Feminist Theory called “Doing Feminism: Event, Archive, Techné,” edited by Carrie Rentschler and Samantha Thrift, and featuring contributions from Kate Eichhorn, Anna Feigenbaum, Elizabeth Groeneveld, along with an article on feminist meme culture by Carrie and Samantha. This issue takes up questions of feminist historiography and movement-making in relation to a wide range of media practices, as Carrie and Samantha outline in their introduction. My contribution examines networks in building feminist history through a study of 1970s newsletter culture.

Little Joe: Queers and Cinema

Hazel Meyer and I have an article in the new issue of Little JoeThe publication is print only, but can be picked up at a range of art book stores, and if you’re in Toronto, there is a launch event at Art Metropole, January 16. Thanks to editors Sam Ashby and Jon Davies for inviting us to participate.

Hazel and I wrote about Tape Condition: degraded, an upcoming exhibition and series of programs we are organizing at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives this summer. The exhibition is about the state of porn and other representations of sexuality on VHS tape in the CLGA’s collection, situated in the organization’s acrimonious history of police censorship of these materials. Through an immersive installation, publication, and a series of performances and talks, Tape Condition: degraded will invite the public to consider porn-on-tape’s status as a vital record of LGBTQ subcultures at a crossroads as community archives digitize their collections, seeking preservation and improving access. What happens to the boxes and boxes of porn as materials of more obvious “archival value”—materials like less controversial oral histories—jump to the front of the digitization queue?

The article is about our research process, which has involved a lot of reading, but also a lot of sorting through, watching, and rewinding old porn.

An excerpt:

To help the archives improve its catalogue records, we’ve been asked to assign descriptive tags to the videos we watch. From a pre-determined drop-down menu in the archives’ database we can choose from subjects like ‘lesbian’, ‘bareback’, and ‘leather’. This practice leads to a lot of conversations that sounds like this:

Cait: Is he wearing Rubber?
Hazel: I think it’s Latex.
Cait: Ok, but this is sort of Drag isn’t it?
Hazel: I don’t think something can be ‘sort of’ Drag.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what we’re looking at because these 25-year-old tapes have deteriorated, marked as such in the database with ‘Tape Condition: degraded’, from which we take our name. Colours have faded, there are occasional streaks and drop- outs, and there’s always the risk that a tape will snap when played for the first time in decades. This is especially true of the homemade tapes. While the estimated life of High Grade VHS tape stored at ideal temperature and humidity is thought to be 60 years, these particular tapes have been kept in basements, garages, or hot apartments in their pre-archives’ lives. Digital files efface the materiality of tape by promising to separate content from cassette, but the research we’re doing in this collection is steeped in the physicality of VHS: we rifle through boxes and handle cassettes, sliding them in and out of their cardboard sleeves. We squint to read labels and play ambiguous tapes in the hope of finding the kind of videos we seek. Our favourite tapes are the homemade collages of dubbed clips.


Drawing by Hazel Meyer, 2015.

Contribution to Radical History Review’s Queering Archives

An article I wrote about the Lesbian Herstory Archives‘ photo digitization project is now out in the Radical History Review’s second Queering Archives special issue. The article is called  “Body, Sex, Interface: Reckoning with Images at the Lesbian Herstory Archives” (RHR 122, 2015).

Thanks to the special issue editors Daniel Marshall, Kevin P. Murphy, and Zeb Tortorici, for their thoughtful editing, and also to Saskia Scheffer and Ronika McClain at the LHA, whose radical archival work is the subject of this work. 

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Digitization of this collection began in 2010, the first self-directed project to offer extensive online access to the archives. Preparing this collection for an online database involves several factors. I consider digitization at the LHA as an expansive process that is not conceptually limited to the creation of digital files from “analog” sources; to digitize also encompasses the design and implementation of an online user interface, the creation and assignment of descriptive metadata to images, and the selection of which images to offer online. The complexity of images of sexuality presents opportunities for reflecting on the cultural politics of this process, including the accessibility of sexual materials in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) archives as they move online. An archive’s responsibility to provide access to images of sexuality is balanced with questions of legality, ethics, and propriety, creating a tension informed by the growing pressure of “queer liberalism” on these archives as they move further into public-facing roles mediated by the web.

New Exhibition Texts – Hazel Meyer and Karen Kraven

This May I had the chance to write exhibition texts for two shows in Toronto. Both shows are still up if you’re in the city and have a chance to check them out.

The first is Hazel Meyer‘s The One About Baby at Open Studio. The text is available online here (PDF).

With the works shown in The One About Baby, Hazel Meyer explores disparate objects and moments united by her method of drawing-as-care for what is devalued or unnoticed. Documenting the eroticism of “minor” events in the artist’s life and reading practice, this work emerges as a pervert’s archive of throwaways—outdated ads, old porn magazines, pin-buttons, empty plastic bottles, discarded lesbian comic books, cut-off hair—rescued by drawing and insisted upon through the creation of prints.

The second text is for Karen Kraven’Flip Flop, Punch Front at Mercer Union, which gave me the chance to write about gymnastics uniforms. It’s available online here (PDF).

The gymnastics leotards in Flip Flop, Punch Front are also devoid of bodies, stretched in ways that discourage potential wearers. Shannon Miller and her peacock-like hand gestures are nowhere to be found; instead the garments are willfully still. Sara Ahmed has described the peculiar relationship between gymnastics and the will: more than any other sport perhaps, gymnastics is training through which limbs are finely shaped by an athlete’s ability to control their muscles according to routine.[i] Gymnastics leotards are containers for all that will; without muscle and movement stretching their contours, they lose some of their essential leotard-ness, becoming something else altogether. Like Jordan’s wingspan and Rigby’s splits, a leotard is the potential to be stretched, constructed in proportions much smaller than the bodies they cover. Anyone who has squeezed into a leotard will be familiar with the compression-anxiety of confronting an impossibly tiny garment on its hanger: “That thing is going to fit over me?” Kraven’s uniforms are displayed in various states of stretch and repose, but these accommodations have not been made for a body.

[i] Sara Ahmed, Willful Subjects (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 83.


“Not a game, Not a game, Not a game”: Outline of Some Theories of Practice

My old friend and colleague Dylan Mulvin and I have a piece in the new issue of Seachange journal. It’s about practice, which we define as “the repertoire of necessary and repetitive activities that precede ‘performance’—activities that are ignored, elided, and generally taken for granted because of their necessity and repetitiveness.” As long-time friends, sports fans, and mediocre athletes who have often practiced together, we consider a range of practice-related sites: drills, pre-game rituals, dissertation writing, comprehensive exams, the academic job market, and our (middling) jump shots. Ultimately we ask whether sports practice, in its often-deferred promise of improvement through the production of habit and bodily comportment, might help us better understand the complex pleasures and disappointments of ascending toward academic careers.

I’m very proud of this dialogue and very happy to have had the chance to collaborate with Dylan. We’ll also be presenting a panel together at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies this weekend in Montreal. It’s called “What was the Database” and it also features a paper by Kate Eichhorn.

Text for Muscle Panic

I had the privilege this summer of writing a text for a project called Muscle Panic by toronto-based artist Hazel Meyer, presented by Mercer Union as part of their offsite programming, in partnership with Sunday Drive Art Projects. Hazel used her brilliant brain and expert hands to transform a barn in rural Warkworth, Ontario into an imaginary “after-hours sports club for Muscle Panic, a rogue girl’s basketball team in need of a space in which to train, scheme, and otherwise spend time together, often at night.” The text was for the team’s Handbook.

Sports is one of my favourite topics, and I don’t get to write about it pretty much ever, so this was a lot of fun. Here’s an excerpt:

Time Out

Part installation, part performance, part absence, somewhere in between “real” and imagined, we encounter Muscle Panic through the material remnants of the team’s practice and play: the uniforms they sweat through and peel off, the custom basketballs waiting to be dribbled. Is this a long-abandoned clubhouse, or might the team walk into their makeshift gym at any moment and start running drills? Either way, something about this whole thing feels a bit illicit. We are intruders, trespassing in the sacrosanct space of a team who prefers to meet at night, when we’ve all gone home and no one is around to supervise. Muscle Panic plays in a time and place that is willfully unclear, deviating from the “normal” rhythms of recreation, broken off from the clarity of either “past” or “present.” The fantasy gymnasium becomes a “simultaneously mythic and real contestation of the space in which we live,” a space in which the hot smell of bodies hangs in the air.[i]

[i] Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias, October (1984 [1967]).


“The moment when a feeling enters the body is political”: on feminist genres of expression

The other day I was talking with a friend who does a lot of art writing. Gabby was nervous about a text she had just submitted to a “serious” art journal. Worried it was “too personal,” she anticipated disapproving notes from her editor, a VERY SERIOUS LADY. I get it—art writing is notoriously detached and prone to posturing—but I also felt a bit of, “REALLY, is this still a thing!? We still have to feel self-conscious about making work that’s “too personal?”

I had just finished reading Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother (2012), a totally shattering account of the artist’s relationship with her mom, heavy on childhood gay shame and told against the backdrop of psychoanalytic and feminist theory. In it, Bechdel reflects on beginning her career with Dykes to Watch out For (1987–2008), a comic strip that represented her world but was at arm’s length from autobiography. Later she transitioned to working on explicitly personal material through her memoirs about her mother and father (Fun Home, 2006). She credits this transition to the influence of Adrienne Rich:

The question of “writing the self” is of course an old debate in feminist theory. Our French sisters—Cixous, Wittig, Kristeva, Irigaray—were all about l’écriture feminine, taking a poststructural approach to following the gendering of texts and language. American lesbian feminists like Audre Lorde and Rich told us about feminism by telling us about getting cancer, embodying the sting of racism, feeling ambivalent about the motherhood we’re supposed to love without question.

So if we already know all this stuff about women’s genres as bound up with autobiography, why the renewed interest in this debate right now? This is the question that’s been guiding a great deal of my reading over the last six months. I’m especially curious about framing this question in relation to media.

At the end of February I had the chance to help some super smart women—cheyanne turions and Hazel Meyer—throw together some readings for an iteration of the salon-style reading group, No Reading after the Internet, hosted on the occasion of Hazel’s exhibition No Theory No Cry at Art Metropole in Toronto. The centerpiece of the readings was Kate Zambreno’s “semiautobiography” Heroines (2012), a non-fictionish, experimental text that offers a speculative history of the wives of modernism—Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivienne Eliot, and others—set against Zambreno’s reflections on being the precariously employed academic wife of a tenure-stream research librarian. Zambreno writes with impunity about the necessary messiness of telling our stories; the body and the psyche figure prominently, and crying, sweating, avoiding the shower, getting our periods, or dealing with a rash are all valued epistemologies for communicating our emotional selves. Alongside Heroines we read selections from Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling (2012) and Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004). The reading group took place at Art Met; we sat amongst the work and began the reading by listening to Hazel talk about her practice, which is very much engaged with these questions about thinking through the body, the messy self, and the inseparability of emotions and politics.

As a blogger—Heroines began as online writing—Zambreno is interested in how her access to a network of other feminist writers, and her own publishing platform less bound to ideologies of genre, alters the experience of being a woman artist, but also raises totally unresolved issues from modernism such as “what is the work? Who is the author?” (282). She writes:

“Online we negotiate and navigate what it means to be a writer, for some of us what it means to be a woman… . Yet of course many of us don’t write every day. That’s why I think of this form as a form of l’écriture feminine: a rhythm of silence and raw emotion, these fervent utterings… . A dialogue, a communication: the Internet. So intimate. These writings are the shudderings of the ego and lamenting the wound. We blubber and ooze. Texts that are raw, vulnerable, bodily and excessive. Sometimes freaking out in public. We are naked, like Karen Finley. My blog at times feels like a toilet bowl, a confessional, a field hospital” (286).

For the last couple months this blog has turned into a series of images about feminism and computing or the Internet. This is partly about me being too preoccupied to do much writing, but it’s also a way of reflecting on Zambreno’s suggestion that networked computing is a key moment for feminist modes of expression. Now that we write or make art online we are simultaneously freed up from the isolation imposed by the gendered political economy of print publishing or art criticism, but also acutely aware of how some of the problems faced by the ladies of modernism stay the same across media forms: for example, women’s work can now be dismissed because it’s “just on tumblr.”

Computers appear often in Bechdel’s reflections on her process in Are You My Mother. Bechdel at her desk working on a series of macs over a twenty-year period is a backdrop that’s easy to miss in the text because it’s so quotidian; but then attention to the ordinary is sort of key to this whole question about feminist genres.

On that note, I’ll end this with an image from Are You My Mother.

Feminist Computing #3: Alison Bechdel’s macbook pro with ergonomic stand: