Whitehot Magazine

July 2010, Queer Voice @ ICA Philidelphia

Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn, Masters of None, 2006
video, color, sound, 11:37 minutes
Courtesy of the artists, Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York , and Elizabeth Dee, New York

Queer Voice
Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Philadelphia
118 South 36th Street
Philadelphia, PA
April 22 through August 1, 2010

‘God, Ingrid, I hate the word “*****” it takes out all the romance and makes it all so dull and boring – ready for grad school. (Sigh.)’
(Michael Duncan)

The Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia presents a timely and stimulating exhibition of audio, video, text and installation. Senior curator Ingrid Schaffner’s purpose - to demonstrate the ongoing, productive intersection of two key areas of contemporary art and theory (and their broader applications) – is succinctly captured in the show’s title, Queer Voice. Rather than, as might be assumed, focusing only on issue-based art that ‘speaks out’, as it were, lending a voice solely to identity- or sexual politics, Schaffner explores more complex conceptions of the voice as a material in itself, alongside the various, contested notions, practices and spaces that may be characterized as queer. It is important to keep in mind, however, Michael Duncan’s note to the curator, above and reprinted in the exhibition catalogue, in order to appreciate the theoretical and curatorial tightrope-walk that must be performed by a senior curator in a highly intellectual contemporary art institution with a community-oriented vision, funded by an Ivy League university, with a flourishing and wealthy history of art department, in a major (but poverty-stricken) US city.

The catalogue itself is a highly successful, conceptual work on multiple levels, reminiscent in some respects of Lucy Lippard’s curatorial-publishing work of the 1960s and 1970s, including her experimental catalogues, new ways of organizing written and visual material, boxed index cards and found text. This is an attempt to create a queer catalogue? Opening with an effusive letter from Schaffer to ‘esteemed colleagues and experts’ in the worlds of art and academia, asking them to ‘describe the queer voice’ swiftly and succinctly. Through the catalogue’s first 41 pages, the collated responses comprise a rich ‘compendium’ of notes, memoirs, photographs of text (such as Andy Warhol’s infamous and provocative quote: ‘I would go to the opening of anything, including a toilet seat’), news clippings, theoretical statements, analyses of film and literature and aggressively poetic lists of potential queer descriptors. The latter is exemplified by Christof Migone’s mouthy text, beginning, ‘The Queer Voice is Vexed, Whispered, Disarticulated and Vehiculated, Radiated, Fibrillated, Fondled, Contorted, Throated, Transpired…’ Both repetition (for example there are several similar accounts of gay men hearing their voice on tape for the first time, shocked at its ‘fagginess’) and disjuncture or disagreement with the publication’s simple premise structurally nuance the book. This makes the printed catalogue a lasting, historically significant document in queer studies, a fertile complement to the ephemeral exhibition and a lateral slice into current queer discourse. It also has an occasional gossipy, diaristic, free associative and desirous side, tapping into the romance mentioned by Duncan.

Queer Voice, 2010
Installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Philadelphia

The attention clearly lavished upon this publication’s research process, visual and organisational layout (index near the front, conventional introduction at the very back – and it reads well this way) and incorporation of useful textual or documentary resources from the exhibited artists, matches the level of detail in the exhibition’s production. The previous – and exemplary – exhibition in the ICA’s cavernous, ground floor gallery, Dance With Camera (2009-10), also worked almost exclusively with audio and video, requiring a fully re-designed space. This freshly designed gallery incorporates boxy, soundproofed film rooms; projectors and screens of various sizes in the two main spaces split by a false wall; and huge display cabinets. The layouts of both the previous Dance with Camera (curated by Jenelle Porter) and Queer Voice demonstrate real forethought and skill in handling moving image and sound. In the case of Queer Voice, Schaffer’s curatorial statement is as strong and as deft as the art that it seeks to care for. In particular, she seems to be interested in the overlap of three-dimensional space, two-dimensional image and sound in our various gallery-visiting experiences. For example, while viewing/listening to Sharon Hayes’ passionate and political spoken word installation in a corner of the first area in the gallery, John Kelly’s video projection is glimpsed out of the corner of one’s eye, and operatic sounds emanate from this work, as well as from Laurie Anderson’s electronic experimental music with reverberating psychological lyrics. These changing spatial and auditory relationships and constructions reinforce the notion of the materiality of the voice, as well as metaphoring the thesis that a ‘queer voice’ is multilayered, non-linear, uncategorizable, changing relationally with position or perspective, dependent on the listener.

This idea is strengthened by the location of one iconic work in particular. Some carefully selected Andy Warhol tape recordings, including breathy conversations with muse Edie Sedgwick on making movies concerned with ‘just nothing’, are housed in a shiny, cheapo-shrine-like walk-in box, in the centre of the largest gallery space. Within the box – it is about the size of a small elevator – the recordings are playing gently and quietly, however there is little or no soundproofing. This results in ghostly wafts of almost every other audio display in the exhibition, including Kalup Linzy’s very recent and obnoxious pseudo soap operas (a reworking of Warhol’s real-life non-dramas?) in which he plays/voices all characters of all genders, amongst other works. However, despite the exhibition’s clear democratic, merging, mingling, cross-generational blueprint, articulated by the positioning of the mighty Warhol as central but permeable, New York based contemporary artist John Kelly’s huge, wall-sized video projection stood out from the rest (at least from this reviewer’s point of view). The aged medium of video is, in this case, slightly fuzzy and projected rather faintly, working sensitively in opposition to the projection’s large size and preventing it from overpowering the room. In fact, the projection’s gentle light appears to melt into the gallery wall, producing yet another strange, spatial relationship. Fairly close to the wall, one may sit down in a single row of 1920s cinema chairs and place one’s feet on a patterned rug from the same period. In another subtle move, the audio speakers for this work are placed under the seats, allowing song to drift up between one’s legs. With such tactile, historical and compositional details, romance is back in play. The artist, dressed in variously gendered and periodized costumes, wigs and make-up performs operatic and popular hits with a controlled melancholy that is genuinely moving, and with a sexual ambiguity that provokes thought.

Kelly’s captivating, dramatic and political work brings us back to Michael Duncan’s frustrated comment on romance versus academic theory, as Kelly skillfully draws these poles together in his own bodily gestures and in his engagement of our bodies. More generally, it is worth congratulating Schaffer on her ability to collate and display what amounts to a massively useful and accessible research collection (with both temporary and permanent elements that will no doubt form the basis of upcoming Penn student dissertations) while also orchestrating a moving, entertaining, interactive, at times disorienting and damn weird (queer?) experience for visitors.

Kalup Linzy, Conversations wit de Churen V: As Da Art World Might Turn, 2006
digital video, color, sound, 12:09 minutes

Queer Voice, 2010
Installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Philadelphia

Becky Hunter

Becky Hunter is a writer based in London and Durham, UK. She is Assistant Editor for Whitehot Magazine.

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