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New York’s New Museum marks its 40th year with the multi-floor exhibition Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon. With well over 40 artists, the project, curated by Johanna Burton and Sara O’Keeffe, is an earnest effort to present and notate a group of practices that understand gender as one among various shared lattices of unstable and variable categories of difference. Resisting impasse or impenetrability in the tangle of discourse and art-making around “identity,” Trigger at best emerges with an argument for pleasure in approach, for feeling one’s body within its insistently networked configurations and installations.
While the majority of the artists are New York based, most often their practices contain far vaster social, sexual, material, and molecular networks. These webs also provide a means for better entering this lineage. A.L. Steiner and A.K. Burns’s Community Action Center stands as a major example: a 69-minute porno-adventure film pulsing with the many desires (and soundtracks) of the artists’ sprawling queer community. Made in 2010, the artists bring specific viewing limitations—against the solo Pornhub user, it may only be watched in a group— that take up the functioning possibility of pre-configuring the presence of a viewer’s body. Entering the territory of pornography, the work resists the violence of its tropes and toys, holding out space for desire between the participating friends and lovers.
Wu Tsang’s 2015 Girl Talk takes up its own mode for reverie and entanglement, filmed in slow motion as Fred Moten, one of Tsang’s long-term collaborators, danced in the sun. This four-minute pivot is given a red-carpeted room of its own, set to an a cappella version of Betty Carter’s Girl Talk. Sung slow, the lyrics describe getting ready with friends, and the uncontainable social web that gossip is. Hormonal Fog (Study #3), a collaboration between Patrick Staff and Candice Lin, keeps contact through dispersal. The work is a mist containing a herbal tincture of natural anti- androgens (such as licorice), that seeps undetected into the museum lobby. This operation, both literal and conceptual, functions to inconvenience the apparent determinability of a body‘s transformation, and the imagined bounds to the materials involved; specifically hormonal, broadly chemical.
Staff’s Weed Killer, commissioned earlier this year by L.A.’s MOCA, is reinstalled for Trigger. Crossing chemical and thermal paths, the work speaks to convulsive experiences of sickness and chemical transformation under pharmacopornographic time. If Hormonal Fog might disseminate the unknown, Staff and Lin’s more substantial and physical works in the show confirm, given scale, the real networks that substantiate a community and a body alike. Adaptation and devoted reference is found across Trigger—to mentors, collaborators, characters, books—providing a means for reaching across time and making contact with the containers of its liveness. It is also inherent to Trigger as a project, confirming and celebrating this field and family.
Within all this, Stanya Kahn’s 2010 video It’s Cool, I’m Good swims in its own unconfirmed fictions. Kahn, whose body is exceedingly bruised and bandaged, makes it with optimism around innumerable scenes. Questions about the cause of this apparent trauma arise throughout the 35-minute trip, with Kahn giving new answers depending on the turn. The jester stacks her storytelling between urgent anecdotes, finding forms for comedy and pleasure in her wounded state.
These shape shifting refrains echo across Trigger, mapping together precarity, pleasure, humor, family. Trigger is placed in the urgent midst of what Burton terms “deep incompatibilities—highlighted by disagreements about identity—at the heart of today’s cultural sphere.” Perhaps the show’s irksome title best betrays this context, a collection of charged keywords (trigger, gender, tool, weapon) mostly indicative of a determined press department. If such limitations abound, they visibly provide the extents for Trigger’s ambitions and insufficiencies alike.
The exhibition’s real achievement might just be its care for the pleasure of approaching these works. While this might be found within the very networked forms and formats that these artists (and curators) ask after, the ambitious project of meaningfully and museologically notating a genealogy falls short. In the show’s discursive positioning, and the very title, remains a question about violence today. With its own devoted, possessive, networked forms, this violence, in Trigger barely tracked, is also often the obsessive source for pleasure. What, and where, is this entanglement?
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 10.