Mousse 70 TIDBITS
With Acid, Rats, Flora: Patrick Staff
by Alex Bennett
Patrick Staff needles the ways in which discipline—whether economic, biopolitical, industrial, or architectural—becomes manifest, how its models arouse dogma, and, crucially, how its structure contends with dissent, community, debility, and queer identity.
Discipline conjures its slippery other and Staff frequently invokes this duality, referring to “aboveboard” and “belowdecks” readings of their work. An acute perceiver of intersections between an intensely personal bodily discourse and unyielding bureaucracy, Staff locates friction through particular kinds of hegemony. Controlled by social, medical, and legal structures, agency is frequently seen to bleed into counterproductive activity: daydreaming, volatility, inebriation, exhaustion.
In an examination of queer legacy and intergenerational exchange—which results in an oblique portrait of the artist—Staff’s thirty-minute film The Foundation (2015) surveys the politics of preservation at the Tom of Finland Foundation, established in 1984 in Los Angeles and dedicated to protecting erotic art and erotic arts education. The renderings are clear. Picture: leather-clad asses, campfires, and steroidal sass. Picture: elephantine cocks hugged by chaps, mustachioed cowboys with gazes dripping with projective come-ons. The Foundation glances only obliquely at this loaded content, to focus instead on the Foundation as an agitated crucible of queer social dynamics. I am reminded of Staff’s text Piss (2014), in which the fetish act becomes an account of a desire for projective force, perhaps kinship in legacy, that soon reaches its limit:
“I imagine all the men I know like him pissing on me. I imagine fathers, and forefathers… I think it unsettles him that I might refuse manliness… as if I’m refusing all the men that are like him… refusing all the men he used to know.”1
“You’ll grow into it, being a man” asserts an older man adorned with a leather harness—Staff’s dance partner in The Foundation. They dance independently, the older figure at times arranging Staff into particular poses as though courting representational validation. As a younger trans person, Staff situates their self into the foundation’s nexus to consider how inheritance and exchange are complicated by gender identity and presentation. To speak of Tom of Finland is to dip into its sensorial corpus, and here Staff shows how collective identities and cultural artifacts cut against a body geared toward deconstruction. In this delicate tension, Staff negotiates of the lodestone of perception itself: that different external models of perception—social, cultural, medical, legal—contribute to the evaluation and constitution of the self.
The jolt of perception is also dislocating, as Jacques Derrida—fresh out the shower—locked eyes with his cat: “Seeing oneself seen naked under a gaze that is vacant to the extent of being bottomless.”2 The animal is summoned as a specter. Similarly, Derrida referenced animal life to disentangle Marxian commodity fetishism (or the “spectrality effect”) as a historically particular effect of capitalist production. For Derrida, Karl Marx’s table “has become a kind of headstrong, pigheaded, obstinate animal that, standing, faces other commodities.”3 The spectral ontology of the commodity, animalized. The animal specter may function as a fetish within deconstruction, draining animals of their historical specificity and life, but Staff’s 2019 installation On Venus at Serpentine Galleries, London, reinstates the industrial, mechanical, chemical, genetic, and hormonal violence they have been subject to. The titular video work initially presents warped footage of industrial farming for hormonal, carnal, and reproductive commodities such as urine, semen, and skin. More than brutal malpractice, Staff frames the complex of species, labor, race, and gender in the conditions of capitalism. A pig is kicked repeatedly in the stomach then spanked on its backside. A snake is skinned alive, coiling and bleeding. A raccoon, grabbed from its tail, is flung to the ground headfirst. Carcasses are stripped of skin in one automated stroke. On Venus’s second section comprises a poem describing a queer state of capricious metamorphosis, demolishing anthropocentrism. A space of near-death, the poem is a kind of hemorrhaging of time where searing atmospheric pressure and noxious winds dematerialize forms and rematerialize others. An excerpt reads:
“we are neighbours
in nerves /
/ with acid
in our insides
like rats_ and flora
like spiders – like sex something that looks like sex
like lava //”4
The site specificity of On Venus is also somewhat unbearable. Networks of ceiling pipes drip synthetic liquid into steel barrels, their corrosion tender as the institution’s framework weeps under neon vivarium light. A series of acid-based intaglio etchings quote tabloid news stories of 2017-2018, falsely claiming that convicted murderer Ian Huntley sought gender transition while serving his life sentence. On steel, these etchings concretize the media’s perverse weaponizing of cultural prejudices and summoning of panic regarding incarceration and transgender identity. Resilient, relational, and resuscitative, Staff’s position may echo Susan Stryker’s theory that the enactment or the lived experience of different types of bodies makes a demand for a different type of society. In pain, volatility, and extravagant collapse, On Venus may be that place.
 Patrick Staff, “Piss,” EROS, no. 4 (2014): 93–94.
 Jacques Derrida, “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow),” trans. David Wills, Critical Inquiry 28, no. 2 (2002): 381.
 Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York and London: Routledge, 1994), 152.
 Patrick Staff, “On Venus,” Serpentine Galleries exhibition booklet, 2019.
Patrick Staff (b. 1987, Bognor Regis) lives and works in Los Angeles and London. They studied at Goldsmiths College, London (2009) and were part of the Associate Artist Programme at LUX, London (2011). Staff has had solo exhibitions at Serpentine Galleries, London (2019); the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin (2019); Dundee Contemporary Arts, Scotland (2019); LUMA Westbau, Zurich (2019); Collective Gallery, Edinburgh (2017); the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2017); Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver (2016); Chisenhale Gallery, London (2015); Showroom Gallery, London (2014); and Monte Vista Projects, Los Angeles (2012). Staff has been included in group exhibitions at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2019); Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (2019); the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2018); the New Museum, New York (2017); Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (2016); Serpentine Galleries, London (2015); Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo (2014); Maison Populaire, Paris (2012); and the Whitstable Biennale, U.K. (2012). Select performances and screenings have taken place at Navel Gallery, Los Angeles (2018); Queer Lisboa, Lisbon (2018); London Film Festival (2017); Outfest, REDCAT, Los Angeles (2016); and Tate Liverpool, U.K. (2014). Staff is the recipient of the Paul Hamlyn Award for Artists (2015) as well as residencies at FD13, Minneapolis (2018); LUX, London (2014); The Showroom, TKcity (2014); Fogo Island Arts, Canada (2012), and Banff Centre, Canada (2010).
Alex Bennett is a writer and editor based in London. He is coeditor of Tinted Window and the online features editor of Novembre. His writing has been published in Flash Art, White Review, Art Monthly, Cura, and Kaleidoscope, among others.