Gordon Hall on Gender, Sculpture, and Relearning How to See
I’m sunbathing on the beach on a cloudless August day in the Rockaways. It’s blindingly bright and I have a T-shirt draped over my eyes to block the sun. I am overhearing a conversation between some of the friends around me and someone new who has walked across the sand to us. Whose is this voice I don’t know? I think it is man, someone I’ve never met. I uncover my eyes and see that it is one of my friends—a woman, a transwoman whose female-ness I have never questioned, whose voice I had always heard as a female voice. Had I never heard her before? How can my ears hear two different voices, depending on whether or not I know who is speaking? As I puzzle over this, I start thinking of other instances in which two or more versions of reality butt up against each other, two contradictory sensory experiences that are somehow both real to me, depending on how I encounter them. What is going on here?
On March 23, 2016, the North Carolina House of Representatives passed the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, widely referred to as House Bill 2. The bill prohibits municipalities in the state of North Carolina from passing policies intended to protect LGBT people from discrimination, setting a minimum wage, and regulating child labor, and it dictates that transgender people must use the bathroom that corresponds to the sex printed on their birth certificates in all public facilities.1 The bill was met with massive opposition from individuals, corporations, and numerous other states that as a result banned non-emergency travel to North Carolina to protest the law. On May 9 the US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against North Carolina on the grounds that the bill violated several federal laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. At the time of this writing the case is still open and House Bill 2 remains the law, although a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality will be heard at a trial scheduled to begin November 14, 2016.2
This winter I delivered an artist talk at Virginia Commonwealth University, where I’ve been teaching, about my investment in objects with open-ended or ambiguous function—things that cause one to ask, “What is this for?” I discuss the studio as a place where I aim to make objects that frustrate even my own attempts to know them, once and for all, as one thing and not others. I make things that ask for nuanced, open-ended forms of reading that can accommodate these objects of ambiguous functionality. Over coffee the following morning, one of the other faculty members in the department, Corin Hewitt, excitedly wanted to know if I had heard of a beloved object known as the “slant step.” I had not, but since then an image of it has been following me around—in the studio, on the train, in and out of bathrooms, while reading the news. The slant step is a small piece of furniture that was purchased in a second-hand store in Mill Valley, California, in 1965 by the artist William Wiley and his then-graduate student Bruce Nauman. Costing less than a dollar, this wood and green linoleum, one-of-a-kind handmade object struck these two artists as puzzling and fascinating, primarily because its function was a mystery. Though reminiscent of a step stool, the step part of the stool sits at a 45-degree angle to the floor, making it impossible to step up onto it, hence the name, the slant step. This unassuming ambiguous object resonated not just with Wiley and Nauman, but also with a whole range of Bay Area artists in the 1960s, inspiring more than one group exhibition themed around it, a catalogue, and numerous articles as well as extensive use as a teaching tool by the painter Frank Owen. It is now in the permanent collection of the University of California Davis.3
In 2012 I wrote an essay called “Object Lessons: Thinking Gender Variance through Minimal Sculpture.”4 In it, I proposed a way of reading sculpture as a form of embodied pedagogy—sculptures as objects from which we learn. Instead of thinking about artworks symbolically, metaphorically, representationally, or autobiographically, I wondered about the possibilities for treating objects as teachers who might be able to assist us in developing different ways of understanding and experiencing our bodies. Sculptures as dance teachers? As gym coaches? As lovers? I was particularly interested in our tendency to understand art that relates to non-traditional genders and sexualities primarily in terms of representation, seeking evidence of LGBT subjects or authors in the work through depiction. Queer art tends to be thought of as art that announces itself as queer through a variety of tropes, ranging from documentary photography to material references such as glitter or leather. The “object lessons” framework was intended to eschew these tendencies in favor of an interest in phenomenological relationships with artworks, particularly sculptures, which could produce new, odd, or altered states of embodied being that might enable us to better develop, recognize, respect, and cultivate different forms of gendered living. Can objects help us rethink gender on a bodily level? Further, does the maker of an artwork have to be known to have been queer for their work to be meaningful in these terms? In whose art, both historical and contemporary, can we find beauty and sustenance, even if the artist did not explicitly frame their work as having anything to do with gender or sexuality? Since that essay’s writing, I have come to think of the object lessons described therein as ways of approaching our variously felt struggles against hegemonic methods of taxonomizing, cataloging, and controlling bodies, as modestly offered resources toward imagining more expansive forms of embodied life.5
In being asked to write something in response to the North Carolina Bathroom bill, I found myself returning to this work and wondering if this way of thinking might have something to contribute to our conversations around it.6 I have written pages and pages of furious ranting prose directed at the many groups and individuals who support bills like House Bill 2 based on what is, in my opinion, an ignorant, cruel, and fear-motivated set of beliefs about transgender people’s bodies and lives, only to realize that they don’t care what I think. I am not real to them, and they very probably aren’t reading artist writings commissioned and released by the Walker Art Center. These pages of writing will remain private, because what I actually do feel able to contribute, if anything at all, are some reflections I have had about the capacities for objects to teach us different ways to see. In this sense, I am not speaking to those that support this law, which, cynically, considering the adverse economic impact it has had on the state of North Carolina, and less cynically, the national trajectory to full legal equality for transgender people, will likely be struck down. It isn’t a foregone conclusion, but what feels extremely sad to me is that the very necessary laws and legal protections that the government has to offer us do not have terribly much to do with changing the ways that we see, interpret, and react to one another’s bodies.7 What we require is a large-scale rearranging of the ways that bodies are classified and hierarchized along gendered and racial lines. This is largely a question of reworking our vision so that in the moments we encounter one another, we are actually able to see differently than the way we have been taught.8 This is a form of aesthetic labor—relearning how to see and identify what we are looking at–and it seems to me that some of our best teachers might be things themselves.
Object Lesson: Slow Reading
The bathroom provision of House Bill 2 aims to “protect” nontransgender people from the experience of sharing a bathroom with someone of the “opposite sex.” In this sense, it seems primarily targeted toward nonpassing transgender people—those who are visibly transgender and gender nonconforming.9 It would also be impossible to analyze the effects of bills like House Bill 2 without thinking through ways that they are likely to disproportionately affect nonwhite transgender people for a variety of reasons. First, an intersectional analysis of gender policing acknowledges that fear is not doled out equally, and that a person of color is already more likely to produce anxiety for a nervous white person in a bathroom.10 Being a nonpassing trans person and a person of color works in tandem to increase the possibility of being read as a threat.11 Many transgender people do not seek to pass, or do not identify as either one of the two available gender options. In situations in which a person does desire to fully transition, medical transitions are expensive and time consuming. It is a luxury to pass. Even when insurance will cover sex reassignment surgeries and access to hormones, it isn’t necessarily an option for everyone to take weeks or months off from work to heal. Or people find themselves situated within community structures that they rely on, yet who will not accept them if they were to transition. There are numerous reasons why low-income transgender people are less likely to pass as the gender that they know they are. And in the United States, the legacy of slavery, segregation, redlining, and lack of access to quality free education has made it vastly more likely that people who are low-income are also people of color.12 We must acknowledge that it is likely that many of those most adversely affected by laws such as House Bill 2 are both transgender and people of color.13 We know that the legal changes of the past 60 years resulting from the civil rights movement have not led to the shifts in perception that we so direly need, with frequently deadly consequences. One of post–civil rights racism’s main playing field is in the often unconscious perceptual patterns of white bodies and ways that these play out in the mundane daily activity of interacting with and responding to strangers, both within our institutions and on the street.
Supporters of bills such as House Bill 2 widely refer to them as “common-sense legislation.” This moniker is, to my ear, accurate, insofar as those who deploy it rely on a particular version of common sense that puts its faith in biological essentialism. Much of the rhetoric used in defense of this kind of bathroom legislation seems to me to hinge on intense anxiety around the threat transgender people’s bodies pose to this way of understanding sex and gender in which one can know what one is looking at. When I analyze this dynamic in this way, I am actually able to feel compassion for those who oppose the presence of transgender people in bathrooms that “match” their self-professed gender identities, because the idea that a person’s gender could be self-determined and believed by others as a matter of faith is a legitimate shift into another perceptual system literally incompatible with one rooted in biological essentialism. We are telling you that what you see isn’t true—a person may look like a woman or a man to your eye, but that does not mean that they are. This does go against what has long been widely held as common sense, a principle on which most of our medical and legal systems still rely. While the struggle for rights and recognition for transgender people is a legal battle, it is also a battle over whose perception is “real”—whose ability to read, interpret, and translate whose bodies should we consider credible? Given this, the functioning of our senses becomes a field of social negotiation, an ongoing push and pull around whose mode of seeing we want to put our faith in.14
I find that in the circles in which I move, I don’t often encounter people who overtly espouse views on gender that disavow the realities of transgender lives. Most don’t believe in biological essentialism in relation to gender and reject traditional roles for men and women while supporting transgender people’s right to use any bathroom they want to. I wonder, though, if despite this, many of us are still relying on this same version of common sense about gender as those who actively support bills that mandate bathroom access based on sex as assigned at birth. We wouldn’t say it out loud, but we do it all the time—reading people as male and female, assigning them genders without their consent, expecting that we know something about each other based on these assignments. What would it look like for us to truly untether our genders from these original assignments that were given us at the moment of our births? So much has changed so fast, I’m told, people need time to catch up… For me, the time has arrived and it goes way beyond arguing about bathrooms. I want to relearn how to see.
In the midst of all this urgency, the figure of the slant step comes to my mind. I feel embarrassed about it because what could this remote object have to offer when we are in need of such concrete changes? A useful object with no apparent use. A handmade thing of unknown origin, producing more questions than answers. An object that modestly requests a more effortful type of reading than what we normally engage in. We identify things in terms of their function and move on, reading passively. We learn only as much as we need to know. This object, compelling to so many in the past 50 years, is compelling to me as well, insofar as it encourages me to read more slowly. It makes me want to see it as more than one thing at once, or as many different things in quick succession. Looking to the slant step as a teacher, I want to learn what it seems to already know—I can’t always know what I am looking at. Clearly already well used in the mid-1960s but for an inscrutable purpose, the slant step speaks of bodies without being able to name them. It has always seemed wrong to me to say that we see what is before us and then interpret it, because the idea of “interpreting what we see” implies an inaccurate linearity to this process and suggests that the things themselves are fixed while our understandings of them remain malleable. Rather, we understand what we are seeing at the same moment we see it; perception is identification. Understood in this way, changing our interpretations is literally synonymous with changing the functioning of our senses, initiating a pulling apart of the instantaneous act of assigning meaning to what we see. This slowness to assign identification in the moment of encounter lies at the heart of the slant step’s curious appeal.
Object Lesson: Object Kinship
On an overcast August day in 1995, Tyra Hunter, a hairstylist and black transgender woman, got in a car accident while driving in Washington, DC. Adrian Williams, the emergency medical technician at the scene who began to cut away her clothing to administer urgently needed aid, is reported to have said, “This bitch ain’t no girl… it’s a nigger; he’s got a dick!” Hunter lay on the ground bleeding as Williams and the other EMTs joked around her, and died later that day of her injuries at a nearby hospital. A subsequent investigation into the events leading to her death concluded that it would very likely have been prevented had treatment been continued at the scene of the accident.15
In the fall of 2014, a grand jury in St. Louis County Missouri decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. In the spring of 2015, the US Department of Justice also cleared Wilson of all civil rights violations, deeming the shooting to be an act of self-defense. In Wilson’s testimony in his grand jury hearing, he recounted looking at Brown in the moments before shooting him six times, and described him as having “the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”16
It’s hard to stomach these statements, but I write them here because I am noticing the ways that both of the speakers managed to transform the person they were about to kill from a human being to a thing in the moments before their deaths. By a probably less-than-conscious twist of verbal gymnastics, both killers shift from using a pronoun generally used to refer to people (he/she) to using a pronoun generally used to refer to inanimate things: it. If murder is the act of permanently dehumanizing another, then it is as if in order to give themselves permission to kill these two individuals Williams and Wilson had to preemptively transform them from people into things. “It’s a nigger…” “It looks like a demon…” Did these statements make it possible to turn a human being into a corpse? Maybe so, as a person turned nonconsensually into a thing is already a person dangerously close to death.
At one of the many protests in North Carolina over House Bill 2, at least one has ended with dancing. A video has been circulating on the Internet of an activist and transgender woman named Micky Bradford, voguing in front of a line of police officers guarding the North Carolina governor’s mansion. The jostling cellphone video, taken by an unidentified member of the crowd, shows Bradford standing still in front of the line of police officers, seemingly lost in thought. She shifts slowly, taking off her bag, and gradually begins to dance for the crowd of demonstrators, who with their voices and a couple of drums provide an enthusiastic rhythmic soundtrack for her movements. The officers stand with blank faces as Bradford travels gracefully back and forth in front of them. For three minutes she dances, an outpouring of energy at the end of many hours of protest. Bradford recounts, “I was tired. The most I could do was dance away my anger, frustration, and sadness…”17
In the 1966 slant step show, William Wiley, the artist who originally bought the step from the thrift store, made a metal casting from it that bore the following inscription: “This piece is dedicated to all the despised unknown, unloved, people, objects and ideas that just don’t make it and never will, who have so thoughtlessly given their time and talent to become objects of scorn but maintain an innocent ignorance and never realize that you hate them.”18 For Wiley, the slant step was both an intriguing object of ambiguous functionality, while also serving another purpose as the object of certain recuperations. To treat a discarded object with care, to focus on it, show it to others, make copies and homages to it—to, in a sense, treat it with love—had a value for him on its own account. A small act of treating an uncared-for thing with care as an articulation of an ethos for encountering one another. Frank Owen, one of Wiley’s friends and an original participant in the slant step show, used the step as a model in his life-drawing classes for decades—producing innumerable depictions of its likeness and encouraging his students to think deeply about it through the slow and close looking necessitated by drawing. “This was its job—to pose on a model stand patiently (which it is very good at) and be drawn while also posing its eternal question: What is this thing, what is it for and why do we attend to it?”19
I am writing this essay in the days and weeks following the mass shooting at Pulse, the gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in which 49 people were killed and dozens more seriously injured.20 I read about it obsessively, as if knowing more about it could undo it, or at least help me understand it, make it make sense. My grief about the present has woven its way into the writing of this piece, feeling rocked by the collective experiences of often unbearable vulnerability felt by many in my community, not just since this shooting but long before it. Recurring in the many posts, essays, and articles I have read are descriptions of the crucial importance that dance floors in queer nightlife settings have in mitigating these pervasive feelings of being threatened, marginalized, or objectified. Dance floors, at their best, have provided innumerable gay and transgender people with a momentary inversion of the conditions that govern their day-to-day lives—we can show off our bodies without shame. We can have a glimpse of what it feels like to be seen and recognized and celebrated, even if it is just for a moment in the midst of all the confusion and anxiety inherent to mixing with strangers. While thinking about this, I have revisited a piece of writing I did last summer for the catalogue of a retrospective of the Chicago-based DJ and art collective Chances Dances, whose parties I attended throughout the years I lived in that city. In it, I propose something called “reparative objectification” in which we collectively counteract the damaging effects of being objectified through mutually objectifying each other—interfacing with one another as bodies, but doing so in a way that supports rather than tries to destroy one another: “I found myself thinking about some other reparative process, one that countered this kind of damaging objectification with an even more powerful kind of objectification. I wanted [us] to treat each other like objects in profound affirmation, to learn to see each other, to look at one another as bodies and say YES.”21 This is much of what we do on the dance floor—embrace rather than disavow our object-ness in a space that allows us to do so without the risk of dehumanization that usually accompanies objectification. My thinking about this emerged in the months following the suicide in 2012 of our friend Mark Aguhar, who, moving through the world as both a transgender person and a brown person and a fat person, contended with a level of publicly expressed disgust, objectification, and policing that most of us can’t imagine. Mark was unapologetic about her existence, and she arrived at the club looking gorgeous and ready to dance, which she did, incredibly and with conviction. I really sincerely hope that we were able to offer her some respite in these spaces, looking at her twirling body in a way that helped her live.22
In the months before she died, Mark took to tending to houseplants—usually small potted succulents that she arranged in artful compositions with decorative rocks and unique pots of different shapes and sizes. She had a special fondness for a plant called the ponytail plant, described by the artist Aay Preston-Myint as “frilly and frondy, and reminded Mark of her own ponytail.” For an exhibition organized by Aay, Mark contributed a group of potted plants and an ornate candy bowl filled with multicolored round hard candies (an homage to Felix Gonzales-Torres’s candy spill pieces from the early 1990s). Mark did not think of these pieces as artworks, per se, but referred to her work on them as “object styling.” A post from her blog from 2010 titled “HOW TO STAVE OFF SUICIDE FOR ANOTHER COUPLE HOURS” consists of a list of 14 points, including “cuddle with your friends as often and for as long as they are willing to stand you,” “remember that you are worthy,” and “consider the reality of hormones.” She also added a note to “buy beautiful plants that remind you of yourself and that need careful attention.”23
In thinking about Mark and her succulents, I am wrapping myself around the sustaining potential of relations of care with non-human things. I wonder about the role that the cultivation, protection, and recuperation of things might play in the day-to-day processes of healing necessitated by living as a body that is objectified, misread, or unrecognized. Can attending to objects with care be a labor of self-sustenance for us as well? Can the things of our lives be our companions, our children, our comrades?24 What can we know or feel about our own bodies through the ways that we relate to objects? I want to propose the possibility that our relations with objects themselves might function as a means of remodeling our own often-fraught bonds with the materiality that is our own lived bodies. I sometimes joke that all I am doing in the studio is making friends. This joke is feeling more real by the day. I am thinking now about all the gorgeous non-traditionally gendered people I know coming back to their apartments exhausted from the daily labor of moving through the world and carefully watering their plants.
I was disappointed to discover that the group of artists originally dedicated to the slant step does seem to agree about its original intended use. Both the poet William Witherup and Marion Wintersteen, the curator at Berkeley Coop Gallery that hosted the first slant step exhibition, have stated that they believe the most likely original purpose of the object was to assist one while on the toilet, a footrest designed to create the ideal posture for having a bowel movement.25 As much as I wish for the slant step to remain completely open-ended in its utility, and as embarrassing as it is to discover that it was probably original made for use on the toilet, it also seems only right that it would have been placed in the bathroom, which at present is probably where we need it the most.
1 This requirement is included in the law despite the fact that laws regulations governing the change of a sex marker on a birth certificate vary widely state to state. In North Carolina, such modifications are only allowed after the completion of sex reassignment surgery, which many transgender people either cannot access or do not want.
2 Watch Loretta Lynch’s speech about House Bill 2.
3 Visit Art Practical for a more complete history of the slant step.
4 Read the essay.
5 For a book-length art-historical exploration of some of these themes and a thorough bibliography, see David Getsy, Abstract Bodies: Sixties Sculpture and the Expanded Field of Gender (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).
6 I have a troubling mix of conflicting emotions about being asked to write about House Bill 2. I both relish it and resent it. I think about gendered bathrooms quite a bit but also feel that I already think about them too much and am exhausted and humiliated by how I can’t seem to get away from this very unglamorous topic. Simultaneously, I have thoughts that I want to share, so here we are.
7 As well as our own bodies, insofar as transgender people ourselves are often mired in an ongoing, and exhausting, labor of holding on to our own understandings of our bodies while living in a world that largely doesn’t acknowledge or respect them, and often at best corners us into pathologizing ourselves in order to access the medical and legal services we need.
8 I’d like to add that this whole debate feels depressing to me because what is at stake is not even the outcome that I want, which is the abolition of the two-gender bathroom system and a general loosening of a world structured around the false idea that there are two genders, that same-gender spaces are “safe” and desexualized havens, and that all we need is to allow transgender people who clearly identify with one of the two options to go into the bathroom that “matches” their gender identity. What about gender-nonconforming people? Disabled people with other-gendered caregivers? Parents with children? But what I want is apparently so radical I am foolish to even hope for it in my lifetime. So we will continue to agonize over who counts as a woman and who counts as a man and how we can continue using an outdated system. It feels bleak to be fighting for something that isn’t even what one wants.
9 This is one of the reasons why some activists objected to the trend of passing trans men posting selfies of themselves in women’s bathrooms to protest House Bill 2.
10 Visit the New York Times for an overview of recent research on perceptual bias in relation to race.
11 Transgender people of color, particularly trans women of color, are murdered at the highest rate of any measurable demographic, and this number is increasing.
12 The Pew Research Center shares the numbers on income inequality based on race.
13 It has been striking to me that some civil rights leaders have condemned the link made by Attorney General Loretta Lynch between racial segregation and denying bathroom access, as in Pastor John Amanchukwu’s statement that “a person’s ability to self-identify as something they are not has nothing to do with civil rights.” Watch a video of this rally in support of House Bill 2.
14 Judith Butler’s unpacked the idea of “common sense” in a New York Times letter to the editor.
15 Account of Tyra Hunter’s death found in Richard Juang, “Transgendering the Politics of Recognition,” in The Transgender Studies Reader, vol. 1, ed. Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (New York: Routledge, 2006), 712.
16 Quoted from NPR’s coverage of Darren Wilson’s testimony.
17 Watch the video.
18 Quoted from Regina Hackett’s Another Bouncing Ball.
19 Quoted from UC Davis Magazine Online.
20 During the editing stage of this essay a series of additional fatal police shootings of black individuals set off massive responses–including Paul O’Neal in Chicago, Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. There were also two large-scale fatal shootings of groups of police officers, occurring in Dallas and Baton Rouge. The frequency of these tragedies prevents us from thoroughly responding to each one individually, and causes them to fade into the past much faster than can be justified. I mention these new events here to acknowledge that they took place, but that they did so after this piece’s creation.
21 Read my essay “Party Friends” (2015).
22 Among the numerous pieces of writing about Mark Aguhar, the Brooklyn Rail recently published a beautiful essay by the artist Young Joon Kwak.
23 See Callout Queen, ed. Juana Peralta and Roy Perez.
24 The Russian Constructivists sometimes referred to objects as “comrades” as described in Christiana Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions, The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2005).
25 Cited in Christopher Knight’s Los Angeles Times column, “Has art’s Slant Step mystery finally been solved?” (June 9, 2014) and in Phaidon’s blog post “Mystery of a 50-year-old Nauman art object solved” (June 11, 2014).