ESSAYS Mousse 53

Be Free with Me: “Wild” Womyn to the Margins [1]

by David Everitt Howe


A.L. Steiner and robbinschilds, C.L.U.E., Part I (color location ultimate experience) (still), 2007. Courtesy: the artists; Deborah Schamoni Galerie, Munich; Koenig & Clinton, New York. Photo: A.L. SteinerA.L. Steiner and robbinschilds, C.L.U.E., Part I (color location ultimate experience) (still), 2007. Courtesy: the artists; Deborah Schamoni Galerie, Munich; Koenig & Clinton, New York. Photo: A.L. Steiner


As the queer underground becomes ever more mainstream, a group of artists including A.L. Steiner, A.K. Burns, and MPA are expressing their resistance to this legitimation occurring in heteronormative terms via a proposal for a wild, “third space”—in the words of the postcolonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha—to advance their desire not to fit.


We see a very, very big vagina in the desert, somewhere in the American southwest. It doesn’t belong to a human—no, that would be pretty ordinary, your garden variety vagina—but rather, is monumentally carved in stone, like something of a dolmen or monolith. It’s worshipped by a clan of prehistoric lesbians, who—incidentally—are crouching on a nearby boulder, naked. This isn’t some ancient, forgotten feminist civilization—a la Mad Max: Fury Road’s all-female desert colony—but rather, the opening salvo of Peaches’ uncensored 2015 video Rub. Peaches’ epic, mystical genital grants courageous pilgrims the magical ability to go “wild.” Meaning, board a beat-up pussy wagon—replete with a vaginal talisman dangling from the rearview mirror—which drops intrepid females into a secret warehouse containing a large bath full of naked women doing all kinds of things to each other. The teaches of Peaches, apparently, is still fucking the pain away, and liking it.

After the orgy, party-goers then decamp back to the desert—still naked, a trend—where they play guitar in the sand, surrounded by cacti; engage in shamanic rituals at night; pee in pairs; and have more sex together. The whole set up is so over-the-top and ridiculous that Peaches laughs, seemingly off-cue, as a transgender woman flaps her penis in Peaches’ face (lyric: “Can’t talk right now, this chick’s dick is in my mouth”). Rub concludes with a particularly liberatory shot that unfolds in slow motion: a woman riding a horse towards the camera at sunset, naked and bareback, her hair flapping dramatically in the wind with the hills behind her cast in orange. It’s a vision of the Wild West, as tamed by a woman. An indelible image, it signals a queering of this symbolically male-dominated landscape, the desert re-cast as a space for difference, in all of the term’s open-ended sweep.


A.L. Steiner and robbinschilds, C.L.U.E., Part I (color location ultimate experience) (still), 2007. Courtesy: the artists; Deborah Schamoni Galerie, Munich; Koenig & Clinton, New York. Photo: A.L. SteinerA.L. Steiner and robbinschilds, C.L.U.E., Part I (color location ultimate experience) (still), 2007. Courtesy: the artists; Deborah Schamoni Galerie, Munich; Koenig & Clinton, New York. Photo: A.L. Steiner


Ironically, however, the video also signals a relative mainstreaming of the queer underground. Relative, in the sense that while it may not be mainstream for some, to others it’s an instance of a household name enlisting an array of trans-feminist and queer collaborators, in one way or another and in various capacities; they’ve spent a decade or so challenging the very mainstream Rub is marketed for, by plying the gendered tropes of pornography, the media industry, monogamous partnerships, etc. Listed in the music video’s ending credits are Rub co-director A.L. Steiner—whose Community Action Center (2010), made in collaboration with A.K. Burns, is perhaps the most obvious reference point—MPA, and Narcissister. Most interestingly, Steiner, Burns, and MPA in particular are also simultaneously conceiving of worlds far away from our own—marginal, “wild” spaces counter to society-at-large.

“Wild,” used here as a truncation of “wildness,” is not a Girls Gone Wild generalization, but—as theorized most recently by a trio of New York University academics—“a space/name/critical term for what lies beyond current logics of rule,” as Jack Halberstam sums it up handily.[2] We have to thank a range of poststructuralist and postcolonial thinkers, from Michel Foucault to bell hooks to Homi K. Bhabha, for various attempts at theorizing a marginal wildness, a real and imaginary “third space” (or heterotopia, as Michel Foucault initially sketched it out). For Bhabha, it’s a space that “displaces the histories that constitute it, and sets up new structures of authority, new political initiatives…the process of cultural hybridity gives rise to something different, something new and unrecognizable, a new area of negotiation of meaning and representation.”[3] For these artists then, how to visualize these “other” spaces is a way to promote and propagate a sense of “not quite fitting”—or better, not wanting to fit—at a time when, ironically, they’re fitting more than ever before, with gay marriage and transgender rights ever more visible and accepted; and with films like Carol (2015) representing the historical plight of lesbians, in particular (who escaped the societal strictures of New York by driving out “west, wherever my car will take me” as Cate Blanchett exclaims). This is all a double-edged sword, if anything. Queer legitimation is so often made in heteronormative terms, and under a heteronormative rubric. Maintaining an unclassifiable, open-ended alternative that’s neither homo nor hetero, gay nor straight, normative nor alternative—in a sense, forever neither-nor—has never been more urgent, and doubly, calls into question the very binary logic of a margin, assuming we actually want to do away with it.


A.K. Burns, A Smeary Spot installation view at Participant Inc., New York, 2015. Courtesy: the artist; Participant Inc., New York; Callicoon Fine Arts, New York. Photo: Chris AustinA.K. Burns, A Smeary Spot installation view at Participant Inc., New York, 2015. Courtesy: the artist; Participant Inc., New York; Callicoon Fine Arts, New York. Photo: Chris Austin


At question is how this kind of marginalism is conceived spatially. With Community Action Center, space is perhaps less of a key concern than in some of the other works I’ll be considering, namely, Steiner and robbinschilds’ C.L.U.E., Part I (2007), Burns’ A Smeary Spot (2015), and MPA’s newest body of work, which imagines Mars as a potential third space. That said, Community Action Center shares with all a sense of the natural landscape as liberating force—here utilized to envision sex and sexuality as something open and amorphous; it’s a political act in which tropes of pornography are campily détourned for queer use by a community of artists, writers, and thinkers who—quite often—are performing sex acts on each other (or themselves) as a way to enact a new kind of pornography, one free of a misogynistic gaze. Pseudonyms are used by all involved to allow other kinds of representations to unfold—ones outside their “proper” artistic practices. The video’s opening shot features friends playfully wrestling and painting (or wrestling in paint) in an art studio, while a voiceover drolly intones about a three foot-long, ten-inch-wide cock; or a stereotypically older bull dyke, Max Hardhand, clad in leather, “taking advantage” of a young woman in a railroad yard, Stargëizer, who clearly likes the attention. In a later pairing, Stargëizer’s rather wet orgasm segues directly into a scene of another woman whose “porn name” is Jugzz, washing her car in the suburbs—emphasis on wet. Slow motion shots dwell on her pausing to dramatically douse herself with streams of water, as if channeling a preposterously underdressed Jessica Simpson in that terrible country music video where she lathers a confederate flag-laden car. The woman swings her wet hair to and fro, rubs her sudsy sponge on her crotch, and shoots the spray between her legs, all accompanied by an orgiastic dance track. Canned tropes of female sexuality are thus hilariously dressed down.


A.K. Burns and A.L. Steiner, Community Action Center (still), 2010. Courtesy: the artists; Callicoon Fine Arts, New York; Deborah Schamoni Galerie, Munich; Koenig & Clinton, New York. Photo: A.L. Steiner


In this context, maybe the most symbolically rich character in Community Action Center is Pony, a nymph-like radikal fairy figure who sexually channels the woods she inhabits, and is perhaps the character most associated with an otherworldly “wildness.” She seems to rediscover her vagina several times over during the film’s roughly 1 hour and 8 minute running time—Oh! What’s that between my legs? Hmm, what should I do with it? In one instance, she finds a large, mystical gem in the woods, and uses it not as a makeshift dildo, but as a makeshift…something. She closes the film—again, at sunset—holding up some sort of winged symbol, standing in a meadow. What is it about nature, and not the city, that these filmmakers find so appealing? For Steiner, she looks for “open expanses, places beyond place, a feeling of freedom, a toggling of boundaries—between ‘wildness’ or more precisely, visual space—wherein terms such as natural, unnatural and human-made can create a montage of meanings, a queered gateway.”[4]

She’s referring specifically to C.L.U.E., which was shot among monumental rock formations in the Southern California desert and in the redwood forests of Northern California, where these natural forces become visual, almost graphic signifiers of wildness—not to mention the act of disrobing itself. The two dancers of robbinschilds, Layla Childs and Sonya Robbins, wear matching bright, monotone outfits, and move around the landscape in a kind of coordinated, forward and reverse choreography that’s a bit Yvonne Rainer-like: de-skilled, intentionally clunky even. They dance on boulders, lay on an open road and roll about on the pavement, and wrestle in front of a felled redwood tree’s massive root system, which becomes an almost abstracted, monochrome backdrop. Later it becomes the functional coat hanger for their outfits, which hang on its roots as they crawl naked on the ground around it. Whether it’s the redwood tree, the wide-angle view of a single lane highway receding into the horizon’s flatness, or the railroad tracks they dance around, these settings become projections of the “open road,” limitless land, and the mythologized American west, with all of its fucked up histories of manifest destiny, Native American exploitation, and the very idea of ownership, or the lack thereof.

Burns’ A Smeary Spot directly addresses these very complicated histories, as well as how these kinds of landscapes visually read as wild and are actually rather wild. Titled after a description of the sun by science fiction writer Joanna Russ,[5] the film—among other things—follows dancers niv Acosta and Jen Rosenblit as they travel through the Utah desert, camping, swimming, essentially settling the terrain. Burns’ attraction towards the film’s Utah settings ultimately came down to a more general look of otherworldliness[6] than any other conceptual reason, though who’s to say that, in this instance at least, the look of a place and the place itself are mutually exclusive? While aesthetics may have been a deciding factor in where to situate the work, the place itself and the complicated politics of public land and its historical exclusions became an important backdrop for the film. Loosely regulated—and literally a little lawless—the land is not privately owned. It’s the leftovers from when western expansion carved up the landscape into national parks, Native American reservations, and private homesteads. As Burns has noted, about 70% of Utah’s land is held as “public” land, in which anyone can legally reside as long as they don’t stay in any one place longer than 14 days, and don’t leave a mess. In theory, you could live there rent-free,[7] but implicit in this public function is how the term “public” was essentially at the service of an authoritarian government, forcefully decreeing who gets what, with resources not essentially its own—a kind of butchering and “fencing off” of the commons that John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau considered the inevitability of progress.[8]


A.K. Burns, A Smeary Spot (still), 2015. Courtesy: the artist and Callicoon Fine Arts, New YorkA.K. Burns, A Smeary Spot (still), 2015. Courtesy: the artist and Callicoon Fine Arts, New York


The landscape’s foreignness came to represent Burns’ notion of “negative space,” which isn’t very far off, actually, from the concept of a third, wild space, where encounters are staged “between the many who remain many, and become a new entity in their multiplicity,” as José Esteban Muñoz conceived it.[9] As Burns notes:

“Negative space, as a formal term, is generally understood as the between, under, inside and around space, the atmosphere, the unseen matter. Positive space is the subject/object, the thing around which we orient our understanding of what is (and thereby what isn’t). This sets up a rather boring binary dynamic of absence and shapelessness (negative) vs. occupation and definable shapes (positive). What’s compelling to me about negative space is not that it is an inversion of positive space but that it has its own agency, that it is unfixed, dynamic, changeable and ultimately free: an open set of possibilities.”[10]

Here again, the desert becomes the de facto placeholder for a wild land, free of the “mainland’s” overriding power structures—whether they’re neoliberal, patriarchal, sexual, what-have-you. But as A Smeary Spot illustrates, there’s a danger intrinsic to this othering of space. At one point in the film, Acosta performs a kind of duet with a white flag-like fabric, high on a promontory. Flapping ferociously in the wind, it sticks to his body—forming to its contours and shaping it. The scene functions as a dramatic signaling of queer presence; or rather, the presence of queers, queers-as-colonizers, which brings to a head the potential pitfalls of forging marginal spaces set apart from the hegemonies of the regular world. Put simply, they could constitute new kinds of hegemonies, reinforcing a binary separation they were tasked to pry apart. As Halberstam notes, riffing off of Walter Benjamin, “going wild might well propel us into another realm of thought, action, being, and knowing, but could also just as easily result in the reinstatement of an order of rationality that depends completely on the queer, the brown, and the marginal to play their role as mad, bad, and unruly.”[11]


MPA, The Interview, 2016, performance documentation, THE INTERVIEW: Red, Red Future installation view at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2016. Courtesy: the artist and Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Photo: Max FieldsMPA, The Interview, 2016, performance documentation, THE INTERVIEW: Red, Red Future installation view at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2016. Courtesy: the artist and Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Photo: Max Fields


MPA, for her part, seems to be washing her hands of this whole Earth thing entirely, setting her eyes on Mars. With all the recent news of water on the planet’s surface—and the potential for life to already thrive there—her exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum Houston, THE INTERVIEW: Red, Red Future, poses the tantalizing question of not if we will colonize the planet, but how. And more to the point: how we can colonize differently—an implicit acknowledgment that we, on Earth, have never been able to do so ethically. Of course, the whole gambit is speculative, but it’s the speculation that takes the whole thing to the next level—so to speak—to the next kind of space. Perhaps the most interesting work on view is The Interview (2016), which doesn’t provide much to look at at all. Rather, it’s a direct hotline to the artist, who invites museum visitors on the phone to talk with her about the planet, and how they imagine its future—their future, ultimately—to look like. As MPA puts it, “In this looking ‘there’ (Mars) that is a looking ‘here’ (Earth), I would like to propose that colonization hijacked time into a linearity that distracts and ridicules the experience of dimensional time. Heterotopia exists, I assume, in this colonized frame, and participates in the faith that human evolution is always advancing from a primitive past. I would like to re-state that our past is not primitive, and that our time is collective, dimensional, and multi-versed.”[12] This is all well and good, but ultimately doesn’t guarantee that if we did—hypothetically—colonize Mars, it would look any different than here.

This is all presupposing, of course, that we should be trying to deconstruct the center-margin dialectic at all; and not, instead, “being mad, bad, and unruly,” happily margining away in the constant tension of action and reaction, mainstream and counter-culture­—critique, really—that gives us all, ultimately, a sense of queer purpose. Maybe being dialectical is a-okay, and that wildness provides something to—returning to Peaches—rub up against, especially when it’s so quickly co-opted in a political climate where good taste and political correctness make sex, sexuality, and our bodies increasingly normalized, not liberated. In a world of Fifty Shades of Grey and continually formulaic Rom Coms, maybe there’s something to be said for playing the part of the other—and liking it—especially when the alternative is no alternative at all.


[1] I just want to thank Joshua Lubin-Levy for directing me to relevant texts about “wildness” as a critical lens.
[2] Jack Halberstam, “Wildness, Loss, Death,” in Social Text 121 (Winter 2014), p.138.
[3] Homi K. Bhabha, “The Third Space: Interview with Homi Bhabha,” in Identity, Community, Culture, Difference (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990), p.211.
[4] As told to the author in an email on February 28, 2016.
[5] Risa Puleo, “Transformations and Becomings: an Interview with AK Burns,” in Art in America Online (September 21, 2015). Accessed February 29, 2016.
[6] As told to the author in conversation on February 23, 2016.
[7] Lauren Cornell, “If the Future Were Now: an interview with AK Burns,” in Mousse (October-November 2015), p.68.
[8] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), p.171.
[9] Halberstam, p.141.
[10] Cornell, p.67-68.
[11] Halberstam, p.145.
[12] As told to the author in an email on March 9, 2016.


David Everitt Howe is a Brooklyn-based critic and curator. He received his BFA from the Savannah College of Art and Design and his MA from Columbia University. He has recently mounted major solo exhibitions and performances by Charles Harlan at Pioneer Works, Dynasty Handbag at The Kitchen, and Emily Roysdon at Participant Inc, while his writing has recently appeared in BOMB, Frieze, Mousse, and Art Review, where he’s a contributing editor. Currently, he’s Curator/Editor at Pioneer Works and Online Art Editor at BOMB.


Originally published on Mousse 53 (April–May 2016)


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