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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Week 3 - Domestic Propositions

During my first year abroad in college, I also experienced my first long-distance relationship. I was with my then boyfriend for about 2 years before we spent a year apart. We were committed to reuniting after I finished two semesters in London while he took on a new teaching gig in Korea. At the age of 20, I did not expect to be in such a serious relationship, especially after my teenage years entangled in many one night courtships.

Feeling lost, shocked, and horny amongst the parade of flashy men in Soho's gay pubs, I contemplated what it meant to be a young gay person at a time where legal battles centered on marriage and domestic partnership were raging across the world. I found solace in the work of artists like Catherine Opie and Sunil Gupta who explored relationships in an intimate, vulnerable way. I realized I had to begin my own journey of documentation and story-telling, talking to 'domesticated' couples about what their coupledom meant to them. How did they define being partnered, even if the law didn't recognize their unions?

This inspired my meeting with Ken and Sharyar through an online advertisement I placed, who were a couple living together in a modest flat. Ken is a native Brit and Sharyar a Persian immigrant. When I entered their home with full photo gear in tow, I saw them playing chess together wearing matching green socks, each with a cuppa tea. After asking about their backgrounds, how they met, and feeling all of the room's tension empty out during our chatter, I knew immediately I wanted to compose an image showing the private interaction I had witnessed of them playing and competing.

Their portrait above is the result, and it is a combination of staging the original moment with some improvisation. I love this picture, and it is the first work of art I sold in a professional gallery show. An edition I donated ended up fetching the highest price beyond its reserve at Chicago's Renaissance Society benefit as well. It began a series of photos with other couples living in Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, Auckland and elsewhere. It's a project I come back to every now and then with no specific end goal. Many of the couples are no longer together (including my self-portrait with my ex), while others are steadfastly committed.

Talking with my straight friends, it does seem true that dating for gay men is much easier: more direct initial contact, no confusion of Mars versus Venus thinking, sex happens readily, and far less expectations and pressure regarding getting married and popping out children. Although it's a breeze for gays to date and mate (at least in urban areas), sustaining long-term relationships and finding cornerstone moments for a gay couple to commemorate their togetherness can be more elusive. This is reinforced by the lack of federal rights for civil unions and marriages in many countries, and the general societal view that same-sex couples should not have the same legal benefits as a male and female partner.


San Francisco, 2008: I remember the exhilarating rush of watching Milk, Hollywood's biopic on America's first openly gay elected public official, Harvey Milk, at the historic Castro theater. In high school, I had chosen him as my subject for a writing assignment about heroes. My teacher, who had never heard of him, suggested I write about someone else instead. Seeing Milk's life on screen made me proud and happy to see attitudes were changing in this country. His film was long overdue.

Outside the theater, a vigorous anti-Prop 8 rally was in full force. I smiled seeing a straight elderly couple wearing 'No Prop H8' buttons and signing a petition. Although the highly contested Prop 8 is now resolved, other entities like DoMA (Defense of Marriage Act signed into effect by Clinton in 1996), are huge barriers for gay couples to have their unions recognized. This also affects immigration rights for bi-national couples that try to reside together in the US.

It's very easy to remain complacent, especially for individuals who have never felt oppressed or suicidal because of how society views gay people. It's easy to be complacent for us younger queer men and women who have not rallied and fought for the rights we have today. Gays are everywhere in pop culture and beloved consumers -- we're 'in.'

We know that gays' rights to marriage and adoption at a national level are just a matter of time. However, until day time comes, measures like Proposition 8 are a symbol of a time when the American national debate about the lives of gay people (as determined by others) was at its hottest and most visible. It inspired creative responses and was a reality check for the gay community about how we were accepted but still not acceptable. Even though today it feels like it has been discussed to death, Prop 8 remains a historical event that is worth remembering.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Southern Hospitality

My regularly scheduled writing this week was interrupted by a weekend trip to Harrodsburg, Kentucky for a gorgeous fall wedding. Dazzling foliage, model Hilfiger-esque children scampering about in warm layers, pumpkin muffins, and charming lawn games like croquet and horseshoes -- you get the picture. The groom (now husband) is my boyfriend's college buddy, and we had the unexpected fortune to run into the newlyweds in Queenstown, New Zealand earlier this year while on vacation.

After an 8-hour drive from Chicago, we welcomed the generous flow of bourbon served at the historic Woodford Reserve. Following a tour and raucous cocktail reception there, we then checked into the idyllic Shaker Village inn, the former enclave of a religious sect known for, well, shaking during ecstatic bouts of worship and their strict vows of celibacy (didn't help membership numbers much). The village features a cluster of 19th century cottages with tidy and rustic decor, public buildings such as an art gallery, and animals trundling over the rolling hills.

Having traveled through about 40 states in the US of A, I am always bowled over by the hospitality of Southerners. People from the midwest are friendly and genuine, but the level of service and unabashed attempts to make you dance, feel welcome and right at home can't be beat in the south. Where do they go for training to disarm the brusque and paranoid attitudes we city-slickers show up with?

Although not specifically art-related, my interactions this weekend made me think about the social functions and effects of art. Art is almost always an invitation, and the degree of hospitality dispensed from the artist varies with every decision: the opaqueness of subject matter, the level of risk involved for the viewer, how it's installed, and the amount of information provided. My most difficult performance piece to date, 24 Hour Embrace, began as a literal invitation to a stranger on Craigslist to hold me for an entire day to experience an intense kind of intimacy together.

While speaking to people from different walks of life this weekend, I was moved by the stories they shared that created an instant bond. One woman in particular approached me to ask about my boyfriend and I, the only visibly gay male couple in attendance for the traditional service. It turns out that she and her partner (also female) met over 14 years ago and were brought together by tragedy, but have persevered through very difficult circumstances and judgmental loved ones. I admire her openness in seeking me out and wanting to connect through similar experiences. There is something about her very simple gesture that is often missing in art -- a generosity on the part of the artist, open communication, and a willingness to be vulnerable rather than mysterious.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Contemporary Gladiator

Today's gladiators aren't necessarily the testosterone infused warriors above. Nor are they slaves and enemies of the state. Instead, the mortals drawn to engage in battle are plucked from the hoi polloi, the masses, and there have been many works of contemporary fiction that borrow this idea of commoners competing against each other for society's entertainment. Classic examples such as Stephen King's The Running Man and The Long Walk and Koushun Takami's Batoru Rowaiaru (Battle Royale), plunge your local neighbour, relative, and workmate into dangerous arenas that are broadcast to multitudes. I'm currently engrossed in reading the Hunger Games trilogy, and when the protagonist clinging onto life could be someone you know or even yourself, the immediate drama that unfolds becomes visceral.

Indeed, the allure and addiction of reality television is that ANYONE has the potential access to recognition and rewards but at a high risk. It's less random than a lottery ticket, and the exposed psychological reactions provide a fascinating study into the range of human emotions. A brilliant satire of today's obsession with reality TV can be seen in the film Series 7: The Contenders by director Daniel Minahan. In it, five everyday Americans are selected to fight to the death while a camera crew and producers document every blow and weepy confessional. The film is presented as a straight marathon of the show's 7th season featuring a return champion vying for her freedom. Oh, she's also pregnant.

In a more positive light, certain reality shows include the spin of including educational demonstrations and showcasing actual talent. It reminds me of a sub-genre of documentary films that follow the aspirations of quirky individuals performing in niche competitions: prepubescent spellers in Spellbound, scrabblers in Word Wars, and Chinese campaigners in Please Vote for Me come to mind. Works of fiction in a similar vein include the classic Chorus Line and Christopher Guest's deadpan movie, Best in Show.

The most radical form of schadenfreude catharsis arrived in Josh Harris's art experiment, QUIET: We Live in Public. Ondi Timoner's documentary of the same name (We Live in Public) reveals the dark and deranged footage of about 150 volunteers living together in a NYC basement fully wired with webcams and monitors. Every participant lived in a podlike bunker equipped with a TV set that showed live feeds of the orgiastic compound. No square footage was safe from scrutiny: the communal shower, dining hall, and other pods where people openly fornicated. To encourage uninhibited behavior, illicit drugs were available buffet style, and there was even a shooting range where people could go aggro after undergoing one-on-one sessions with a live-in psychologist who snapped people's spirits like uncooked spaghetti (all under the lens of course).

Two critical elements distinguish themselves in QUIET's dystopian rave party:
1) It is a non-stop surveilled environ rather than an edited product.
2) The participants of the project are simultaneously the viewer and the guinea pig.

There's something romantic about the notion of living so openly and publicly. We are ALL in the public sphere (especially so if you have a Facebook, Twitter, Blog, or even just an email account). Why not just admit privacy is a Matrix-y illusion, right? On the flip side, We Live in Public shows that a buffer or distance between fellow men and women is necessary to maintain sanity and a semblance of self. Humans are prone to attachment and sometimes the groundswell of community and fellowship can lead to activism (see: 99%) or hysteria (witch trials anyone?). I haven't figured out yet what factors contribute to where the needle pitches (light or dark) once a collective force has gathered. I only know that the technological social sap that glues us together is tasty and addictive stuff. People like Mark Zuckerberg are billionaires for knowing first.

To read about someone's experience in QUIET:

Watch Ondi Timoner's trailer for her excellent documentary here:

Friday, October 14, 2011

Week 1 - And we're back.

Well, for a lot of non-art people (and even currently working artists), there are numerous questions about how to land on the elusive planet known as the "art world." My background as an artist/professional began 14 years ago with a strong interest in theater stagecraft: set design, painting, lighting and costume design. I worked on numerous productions for a stellar high school theater program (Niles North in Skokie - seriously, look them up), and it was my involvement in all aspects of the stage that got me curious about deeper questions regarding why people create things that seem to serve no function at all. In other words, art.

I had taken art classes as a child too, usually preferring it as an elective to activities like tae-kwon-do and baseball. However, it was nearly a decade later when I met my first real, live, working artist that I knew, "YES, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life!" All illusions of becoming a pediatrician, forensic scientist, Harvard lecturer, [insert tiger-mom dream job here] vanished forever.

These days, I split my time wearing multiple hats to 'live the dream.' It's useful being a jack-of-all trades, but if you have a ferocious vision, that's even better. I apply most of my time in the studio to develop my practice while working part-time as a freelance assistant for other more established artists. I also devote about two days a week working for a contemporary art gallery whose artists show in major international biennales and museums around the country. My 'gallerist/curator' resume was about 10 years in the making, but more on that in a future post.

This week's theme, which is somewhat relevant to being in the art universe (ok, I'm reaaaallly stretching here) is about situational awareness. More specifically, though: HOW TO WATCH REALITY TV!

One of my secret hate to love / love to hate personal traits is that I'm a fanboy of various reality TV iterations: the original seasons of Real World and Survivor, Project Runway and the penultimate -- RuPaul's Drag Race! C.harisma, U.niqueness, N.erve, and T.alent, bitches! In this unique Venn diagram of art and reality TV, somehow I found my moment [Anyone want to make me a jpeg here!? Pics plz].

So here are two tips on enjoying any reality show:

1. Immediately, when the show begins, I pay very close attention to the sound editing and background music that accompanies the introduction of characters. Is the music upbeat and cheerful? Bumbling and oafish? Sad and melancholy? Music is the first indication of how editors want you to feel about certain characters before they've even opened their mouths. When Russell from Survivor walks on 'set' do you hear a hero's anthem or villain music? Does Tanesha from Bad Girls Club seem to have clownish trombones syncopated with her every step, or is it Flight of the Valkyries blasting from the speakers. Watch again. How do sound editors portray characters based on music alone?

2. Any contestant on any reality show that immediately is 'forgotten' by the panel of judges -- whether you're modeling a handbag in roller-skates for The Tyra or cooking pasta using avocado bat foam is D-O-O-O-M-E-D!! The worst sin on any show is to be unmemorable or boring. Better to regret than forget -- that is, stick out even if it's a bad thing rather than trying to blend and fly below the radar. Survivor may be one of the few exceptions, but I usually keep my eye on the character that the judges seem to have lost sight of.

All right, I see the noose coming. Next week a real topic: Curation. What the hell is curation and how do you do it??

Until then. Comments!