By Brian Curtin
Representation has been crucial to queer activism and queer studies, the means by which normative divisions, categories and hierarchies are exploded. From the SILENCE=DEATH agitation of early AIDS protests, which demanded that the general public be confronted with knowledge of ass-fucking and cock-sucking, to the widespread re-making of bodies that a recent generation of trans- activists have led. Scholars have excavated marginalized or lost queer figures, subcultures and beliefs from history. They have revealed the hidden, regulatory currencies of desire and power for any range of technologies-law, capitalism, nationalism, and on. And explored the visceral qualities of culturally debased forms-including stupidity, depression, ruination, and waste-in order to reveal how we can re-think ourselves and our relationships in and to the world.
Curation could, or should, be crucial for queer activism and queer studies. Curation is representation, and representation is recognition and legibility. Queer practices insist on the former while complicating the latter: to retrieve the overlooked or marginalized and generate new meanings, newer significances.
Attempts by major museums in recent years to accommodate queer curation, however, have only focused on recognition. These projects fail to approach the complexities of legibility.
Out in the Museum at London’s Victoria and Albert museum in 2020 exemplifies such. Curated
as a tour of ‘diverse gender and sexual identities across time, place and culture’ through a variety of artifacts, assertions of androgyny, the polyamorous and coded homosexuality play out. Following Queer British Art at Tate Britain in 2017, the curation is ahistorical and depoliticizes the objects. Historical artifacts from South Asia and other references to ancient cultures claim culturally malleable meanings about the human body but the interest of this is unclear. Androgyny was queer back in the day? Ancient forms can remind us of the instability of any sex/gender system? By not seeming to answer these questions, the radical implication of the fact that ‘queer’ is both contingent and relevant for any time and culture is neutralized.
Other reductive categorizations in Out in the Museum include ‘decorative,’ ‘craft’ and ‘camp.’ Catalogue notes write that a snuffbox associated with Frederick the Great, from the 18th century, can be linked to how the king was mocked for ‘effeminate, lascivious and feminine occupations.’ How the snuffbox’s vivid colours and ornate surface encode cultural tropes of the effeminate or feminine is not elaborated; or how the qualities of those tropes, in, perhaps, the seductive or beguiling, might be linked to queer pleasures. Pleasures that can be linked structurally, not pathologically, to Frederick the Great’s predilections. And which hold a lure for us all.
The project of queer curation should therefore not be one of acknowledging ‘diversity,’ a taxonomy of queer forms or acts alongside normalized understandings. Artifacts can indict the categories they are held in, re-figuring our or allrelationships to knowledge and understanding as divisions, categories and hierarchies are exploded. Legibility itself. This is not lightly redemptive, as Out in the Museum suggests. Normative regulations can fall hard when we don’t want the world to be the same anymore. And regulations also change over time and place-it is the project of queer curation to seek out that insidiousness while exposing the machinations. And let us be comprehensive as well as complex about all that queer holds critically dear, bodies, desires, pleasures, acts and identities. The world awaits curatorial projects on homosexuality and fascism, the erotics of death, and other relations we have been profoundly encouraged not to see.
Brian Curtin is an art critic and curator of contemporary art based in Bangkok. www.brianacurtin.com
This text is part of the forthcoming book from Invert/Extant - Transmission 2: Manifestos.
There’s something curious about the form of manifesto, not particularly in its ability to prescribe or proscribe, but there is something still romantic about the notion, especially in relation to the state of the world. Perhaps a collection of manifestos might be useful to ourselves and the next generation coming up, and would, perhaps, as an exercise add up to something more than might be expected at the outset. In the process, possibly updating and questioning a polemic which has fallen out of fashion, whilst examining an ability to reassert our intentions as a pluralist society. Maybe manifestos have been discarded for a reason, but maybe they still possess an ability to harness something… and of course there is still something pathetically/lovely utopian about it all. From this, the idea of putting together a collection of new manifestos by contemporary artists, writers, theorists, and people involved with some form of practice, emerged as an idea for a book—and locative project.