Bring Your Own Body: Transgender Between Archives and Aesthetics is a new exhibition at Cooper Union that provides a space for trans artists to represent themselves. The show juxtaposes contemporary works by Greer Lankton, Justin Vivian Bond, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, and more with archival documents from the Kinsey Institute. What results is a complicated picture of the traditionally narrow way gender has been thought about—and what transgender people have done, and continue to do, to disrupt that narrative.
In addition to medical archives, Bring Your Own Body also shines a light on pioneering trans artists and activists. On November 14, the exhibition will close with an artist talk and a screening of scene selections from Happy Birthday, Marsha!, an experimental film about the activist and drag queen Marsha Johnson in the hours leading up to the Stonewall riots.
Last week, the curators of the exhibition, Jeanne Vaccaro, a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, and Stamatina Gregory, associate dean of the Cooper Union School of Art, presented TransEuphoria Now, a mini retrospective of Chloe Dzubilo. A downtown New York icon, Dzubilo fronted a band (the Transisters), exhibited her art, and directed one of the first HIV prevention programs for transgender sex workers. TransEuphoria Now revisits TransEuphoria, an exhibition of Dzubilo's work that took place before her death in 2011. Like Dzubilo, Bring Your Own Body is a dialogue between activism and art; between the medical community and the trans community; and between current events and the past.
BROADLY: Can you talk more about Chloe Dzubilo and TransEuphoria Now?
Jeanne Vaccaro: Yeah, it was an incredible event. We were so honored to work with Visual AIDS to revisit the artistic legacy of Chloe who was also a rockstar and a performer and an activist. She was actually invited by [Mayor] Bloomberg to sit on the commission to work on trans organizing and HIV. She was an incredible person.
In 2007, she began to do visual art. Of course, she wrote lyrics, but she also started making drawings. In 2011, she actually co-curated an exhibition called TransEuphoria with Jeffery Green, who was at [the gallery] Umbrella Arts, and it was an exposition of gender-movers. So we really think of Bring Your Own Body—which is one in a very small handful of exhibitions that looks at transgender art and transgender history—as an inheritor of TransEuphoria. [Artists] Chloe, Justin Vivian Bond, and Genesis Breyer P-Orridge were in that show and are in this show. TransEuphoria Now is really a huge celebration of Chloe's life and her work, looking at some of her art as well.
I was watching this short YouTube documentary about Chloe that was released for her memorial. In it, she was talking about how she doesn't really identify with the word dysphoria and she really has problems with pathologizing transgender people. But in that same segment she mentioned the phrase gender euphoria. Is that where the title of the show, TransEuphoria, came from?
Vaccaro: Yeah. Jeffery Green, her co-curator, has said that despite of all the difficulties Chloe was experiencing, she also felt a kind of euphoria or faith in her process. That's where the title of the exhibition came from, and from this drawing she did called "Disco," of all these different hands raised up in the air, reaching to the sky. It's really kind of a beautiful image of a collective spirit.
Stamatina Gregory: For Chloe, I think it was important that she was making work in order to just deal with the things she was dealing with every day, which was trans-misogyny. People were refusing healthcare to trans people. She would make drawings that directly satirized—almost like cartoons—what was happening to her in the hospital [when she was diagnosed with HIV]. She always immediately found humor and therefore also joy in the process [of art-making], even when it came out of frustration.
Vaccaro: There's a similarity also with Mark Aguhar's work in the exhibition. Some of her axioms and poems—like "lol reverse racism"—are always kind of irreverent takes on structural violence. Whether it's confrontations with housing, gentrification, whatever it might be, there's a kind of "everyday" engagement and confrontation with that through art or humor.
The works in the show are often examples of radical activism, even in the fact that they exist.
Was finding, or celebrating, lightness around gender also a thread throughout the exhibition?
Gregory: That is part of what comes out in the work, but it wasn't really a guiding curatorial motivation at all. I feel like the work is more complex than that. It's also not only about transgender experience. Artists are shaped by so many different factors, so many different kinds of inherited representation. The works in the show are often examples of radical activism, even in the fact that they exist. But at the same time the show is not only a celebration [either].
Vaccaro: Art and performance are often avenues of resistance and of survival. For example, one of the people who we show in the exhibition from the Kinsey archives is Louise Lawrence, a trans woman who had a correspondence with Kinsey in the 1940s and 50s. She sent him all of these clippings of gender identity in the news and all these sensational stories of people being criminalized for "crossing gender." She really wanted to get him to think about gender differently. By showing all the archival images from these pathologists, we absolutely wanted to show that history. And, in the case of Chloe's work, that anger regarding lack of care and narrow-minded definitions of [what it means to be] trans that come out of diagnosis. It was really important to confront the violence of diagnosis.
How did you curate the show?
Vaccaro: There's a range of artists, including so many pioneers for people who are interested in queering gender or who express trans in all kinds of different ways.
Gregory: And not all the artists identify in any particular way. That was really important for us, in our curatorial process—that we're not making identitarian claims. Offering definitions is often more harmful than helpful.
Vaccaro: I think our approach is very different from the medical diagnostic lens and the media, in terms of mainstream narratives that demand that you claim male, female, trans male, or trans woman. There are so many other identities. Even Chloe, for example, invented a lot of new language, like "transsolution" or "transister." So we really wanted to make room for all the different kinds of expression, and expression that can't even be verbalized. The archives really show the evolution: from "transvestite" to "transsexual" to "transgender," and now we have so many more terms.