at N.A.M.E.

May 31


at Randolph Street Gallery

May 30


at Gallery 2

June 5 and 6

Once upon a time art and politics seemed like apples and oranges. The cultural mythology went something like this: Artists lived on the fringes of society, seeking new forms of expression for new and transcendent philosophical ideas. They were rebels. Politicians, on the other hand, played by the rules. They wore neckties and told people what they wanted to hear. They debated real-world concerns. Artists made pictures. Politicians played with words.

At least that’s what they taught me in high school. But in a contemporary world where electoral campaigns mean media blitzes–where visual communication is dramatically usurping the power of the written word to sell products and shape opinions–the distinction no longer makes sense. Politicians are image makers, and images make a difference.

Few have exploited this politics/picture play more cunningly than lesbian and gay artists. More than 20 years after Stonewall, only a paltry few affirming representations of homosexuals appear in mainstream television and film. Trying to fill that vacuum, lesbian and gay artists are making such images for themselves. Frustrated by the leaden pace of formal politicking in confronting the AIDS crisis (Ronald Reagan waited six years and 32,000 deaths before uttering the term “AIDS” in public), lesbian and gay filmmakers and videographers have set to work representing their concerns from their own points of view.

Several recent Chicago gallery screenings have provided forums for some of this new work. Randolph Street Gallery and Women in the Director’s Chair offered “Who’s Zooming Who? Lesbians on Tape,” an evening devoted to film and video work by Chicago and New York artists, as part of the gallery’s ongoing “In Through the Out Door” series. N.A.M.E.’s “Arousing the Public Service Announcement” featured video work by Patrick Wright and Pierre Trividic, work that dances on a line between mainstream television and AIDS-era agitprop. Gallery 2 presented “Queery,” two evenings of performance and video work by local artists dealing explicitly with issues of lesbian, gay, and bisexual intimacy and identity.

While the blue-chip careers of the late Keith Haring and Robert Mapplethorpe helped pave the way for a contemporary flowering of queer image making in the plastic arts, the growing number of queer film and video artists and audiences in recent years is better described as an explosion. Multiple impulses have spurred the boom: lesbian and gay artists want to make affirming images for their own communities; they want to affect a mainstream media that often excludes them; they want to help end the AIDS crisis; and they want to understand the peculiar joys and dilemmas of homosexual living.

The diverse (and often intermingling) incentives mean that even a brief perusal requires viewers to have more flexible expectations. Some of the work is expressly political. Some of it takes a clear documentary stance. Some of the work is highly personal. A bit of it is preachy. A lot of it is eloquent, and elegantly constructed. And at times it is downright beautiful.

Chicagoans Natalie Hutchison and Mary Morten screened clips from their NIA Project to a delighted, largely lesbian crowd at Randolph Street Gallery’s “Who’s Zooming Who?” “Nia” is a Swahili word meaning “purpose,” and it’s an apt heading for this ongoing video project documenting the lives of African American lesbians. Armed with lots of enthusiasm and a grant from the Center for New Television, Hutchison and Morten clearly have a gift for eliciting casual, relaxed talk from their subjects. The style of their work is low-tech and straightforward–they position the subject and the camera and shoot. Though simple, this kind of framing has the advantage of centering attention on the women and their words. By contrast, Pamela Jennings’s opaque, highly expressionistic The Silence That Allows . . . left many viewers unengaged. But NIA Project exploits the illusion of transparency in video work, making us fall into these stories and their very human images.

In a parallel documentary mode, Gabriel Gomez and Elspeth Kydd’s Dragin’ for Votes, screened during “Queery,” is an engaging account of drag queen/activist Joan Jett Blakk’s 1991 Chicago mayoral campaign. Juxtaposing interview segments of Blakk with photo pans of her cop-kissing adventure on Michigan Avenue and footage from her tour of local bars, Dragin’ for Votes firmly places Blakk’s creator, Terence Smith, in a local context. We see Blakk chatting and cruising dates at the Belmont Rocks, handing out campaign fliers at Ann Sather’s, and glimpse her photo on the cover of a Chicago weekly. In one memorable sequence we hear Smith tell the camera about his decision to enlist his character in the campaign while he casually dons her makeup and heels. This is politics with a soft spot for glamour.

Considerably distant from documentary but no less clear in its message, Chicagoan Patrick Wright’s video Voices of Life, screened at N.A.M.E., investigates the problems of any kind of documentary “knowledge.” In the video three individuals appear to tell their own stories as people with AIDS. But gradually the artifice unravels, and we learn that these people are actors speaking other people’s words. Skillfully Wright blends this footage with clips from government public-service announcements about AIDS, and with images of himself and his own narrative account of growing up gay. These are big topical and visual jumps, but the transitions are butter-smooth. Yet in other ways Wright sacrifices a good measure of elegance for didactic clarity. He makes his point about the artificiality of all visual information again and again throughout the tape’s 32 minutes. Nevertheless, Voices of Life makes us look at documentary differently.

Scheduled to air on local cable television earlier this year, Wright’s video ran head-on into political problems at the Chicago Access channel offices. Because of the nudity and sexually explicit narrative in the tape, cable administrators decided they could not risk breaching FCC regulations or perturbing potential funders and audiences. Voices of Life did not air.

Similarly with Pierre Trividic’s The Difference Between, screened at N.A.M.E. alongside Wright’s work: French public television commissioned the Parisian videographer to make a ten-minute tape promoting condom use. The piece he created, which glibly plays with Catholic religious imagery and frames the condom as a kind of new religious talisman, was never aired by its commissioners.

While much of the new queer film/video work tells explicit, highly politicized stories, some of the best of it focuses inward, investigating slices of emotion and experience that come with living lesbian or gay. Rose Troche’s three-minute film Let’s Go Back to My Apartment and Have Some Sex–part of “Who’s Zooming Who?”–is a dense collage of images that invokes the contradictory feelings of a secret intimacy. The film is remarkably effective. Grounded in an account of a man who was arrested under sodomy statutes for propositioning another man, this tightly edited, jewellike film stitches together images that link wildly separate emotions: dancing skeleton toys, blurry close-ups of faces, and green or gray blocks of color, coupled with sounds of rain and a worried voice, capture the interwoven sensations of fear, desire, anticipation, and insecurity that battle each other in those first, confused quests for physical love.

Distance and Desire, a video work by Lane Clark shown as part of “Queery,” beautifully exploits the medium’s capacity to produce emotive, impressionistic pictures. Working with footage he took at a gay cruising beach in southern France, Clark blurs and fuzzes his images, consciously bounces their frame lines, and edits brittle jumps into the sound. We hear two soupy male voices talk about the delights and dilemmas of this candy-store sex–about the excitement and ease, but also the powerful melancholy, that can come with combining close physical intimacy and profound personal distance. Sprinkled through this odd narrative are bits of tunes from scratchy old recordings of torch songs, trailing lyrics of unrequited love. All of it is dreamy and lovely and sad. Swooning in front of Clark’s colorful screen, we remember that sometimes life really does feel that way.

The fact that such a wide array of work finds a haven under the broad umbrella called “art” is testament to these images’ dual status. They are often made and received as artistic objects. Yet often this work is designed to do more. Like all artists, queer filmmakers and videographers want to make good, strong images. They also want to change the world a bit–want to grab broader legitimacy for their ways of life and broader attention to what are, in an era of AIDS, often life-and-death concerns.

However other, more powerful image makers would prefer that these artists be kept quiet. Because the art world has welcomed expressly political imagery more and more in recent years, public arts funding is no longer the benign people-pleasing budget item it once was. Cunning conservative politicians such as Jesse Helms and William Dannemayer have seen it coming for years: the art world gives audience to voices and ideas of many who are ignored by the mainstream–lesbians, gays, and people with AIDS among them. From the political storms over NEA support for the likes of Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe to the bureaucratic hocus-pocus surrounding Trividic’s work in France and Wright’s cable screening in Chicago, the contest over who controls the realm of images is about a lot more than aesthetics. These artists know that. Given the strength of their work, and its opponents, the battle isn’t likely to end soon.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Pamela Jennings.