State of the Queer Arts
Snapshots of a diverse, DIY scene that crosses borders but stays rooted in Charm City
Published: June 12, 2013
I have always thought of Baltimore as a “queer” city. Beyond just the common definition of the word, Baltimore is the proud black sheep of the East Coast megalopolis. A city with as many layered, often contradictory, ever-changing personas as there are half-complete sets of fake eyelashes clumped together in the corner of my medicine cabinet. It’s where marginalized people of all identities coalesce over passions, hardships, vices, and sleaze.
But how do we identify a queer art “scene”? Queer artists flit in and out of the city’s “straight” galleries, publications, and venues, seemingly with ease. At times the art scene seems far more open-minded and welcoming and less judgmental than the city’s more mainstream gay bars. How do queer artists carve a place for themselves out of the city’s creative spheres? In my experience, the queer art scene can’t be defined by any one exhibition or festival (and certainly not by any one article). It’s a nebulous social space, at times deliberately shaped by an organizer but more often than not incidental, casually filling the voids at the periphery (and cracks at the center) of Baltimore’s culture-at-large.
Increasingly, one of the major activities of Baltimore’s queer culture-makers has been, well, culture-making. Beyond creating classifiable “products,” art objects, performances, texts, etc., a new wave of queer artists has been focusing on creating the cultural context in which their work can be produced, seen, and discussed. Informal gatherings, curated nightlife, music video shoots that feel like parties, and happenings that I hesitate to label “relational aesthetics” due to their utter lack of pretense have become just as important, if not more so, than individual artists’ private studio practices.
It’s Saturday night and I’m at a cookout at Abdu Ali Eaton’s Reservoir Hill home. Over the past few months, these semi-regular potlucks, which occasionally feature performances, have become popular but intimate gatherings of mostly queer artists, dancers, writers, musicians, drag performers, designers, and people who just enjoy good food and conversation.
The host thinks of his dinner parties as an antidote to a generation that spends too much time online and not enough time talking face-to-face. “I see eating as a way of soul-exchanging, kinda like sex,” Eaton says. “I think it’s important for the spirit and mind.”
I’m informed by another dinner guest that I missed an especially impressive set by Eaton (who is, among other things, a rising figure in Baltimore’s DIY club/hip-hop scene) at Floristree the night before. The show was a fundraiser for FORCE, a Baltimore-based collective that confronts rape culture through art/activism. Founded by Hannah Brancato and Rebecca Nagle, FORCE has garnered national attention through art pranks such as a fake Victoria’s Secret web campaign promoting consent-themed underwear. More recently, the collective has launched a Kickstarter to fund a national memorial to rape survivors. Locally, Rebecca Nagle is known not only for her performance art, but as a curator, organizer, and (along with myself) host of Glitter Thighs, a monthly series of parties at gay bars and art galleries that feature queer DJs, performance artists, musicians, and drag performers on one stage.
Thanks to the efforts of organizers like Eaton and Nagle, weekends often feel packed with queer or queer-friendly events. Eaton’s GUTTAHBALL parties, held in the Remington DIY venue BFF, seek to highlight musicians from different scenes and encourage cross-pollination of styles, genres, and social spheres. The most recent GUTTAHBALL featured a video shoot by artists DUOX and an incredible set by Phoebe Jean, who masters the challenge of making music both soulful and incredibly danceable.
As the cookout progresses, I’m disappointed to hear that Phoebe Jean won’t be joining us. She and a handful of other queer Baltimore artists were visiting Idyll Dandy Arts (better known as IDA), an off-the-grid queer commune in Tennessee. This shifts the evening’s conversation to how difficult a comprehensive look at the queer scene in Baltimore can be, based largely on the fact that so many queer artists use Baltimore as a home base from which to tour, travel, and export the fruits of their artistic labors to other cities. Phoebe Jean, like so many Baltimore queers, lives with one foot in Baltimore and the other in another city. She splits her time between the Reservoir Hill house and Paris. I can’t help but wonder how French audiences react to her self-directed video “Day is Gone,” a veritable love letter to Baltimore’s grit, dirt-bike culture, and its skyline.
I ask the couple Nick Scholl and Dan Wickerham, artist/editor at DIS Magazine and DUOX member, respectively, about their double lives as Baltimore transplants with perhaps stronger ties to New York (both list New York as their city of residence on Facebook, despite living in Mount Vernon). Wickerham muses, “I guess we live and work here, but Baltimore never benefits.”
To which Scholl retorts, “No. We pay rent on an apartment and a studio, we patronize local businesses.”
“You mean the Drinkery?” someone interjects. There’s a round of chuckles at the party before Scholl defends his residence in Baltimore and its influence on his practice. “Being here and having some distance from the cross-pollination, but also in-breeding [of the New York art scene], has been good. To see other people with other influences, it keeps everything from getting stale. There’s less social pressure and a lot of vitality.”
The next afternoon, I join Wickerham and Malcolm Lomax, who collectively compose DUOX, at their light-filled studio in a West Baltimore warehouse several blocks from DIY venues Tarantula Hill and the Bank. The space is full of magazine clippings, computer printouts collaged together and notated, binders of research, and objects existing somewhere between sculpture, painting, and film props. My gaze settles on a glossy black plywood construction. It’s oddly familiar, but I can’t figure out why I recognize its silhouette. “Oh, this is a toilet-seat protector shape we’ve been using for years,” Wickerham explains. “It’s an interview table. An interview table for talking shit.”
Since graduating from MICA in 2009, the two have combined references both pop and obscure into often cryptic mixed-media projects. Supplemental texts are critical to their practice, though they often raise more questions about the work than they answer. In the case of DUOX’s latest (and most ambitious) undertaking, “BOY’Dega: Edited for Syndication,” I am totally taken with the PDFs of reference images, scripts of dialogue, and artist statements that form a sort of predocumentation of the project. They’re honestly more engaging than most work I’ve seen in galleries in the past year.
“BOY’Dega” is a work-in-progress. It aims to push the notion of “website as form.” It’s the supplemental promotional material for a television show. A television show that isn’t actually happening. It will consist exclusively of character biographies, background information, clips and interviews with “fans” to be navigated via a homepage design based on an autopsy. Just as FORCE promoted panties Victoria’s Secret would never make, DUOX advertises a narrative the mainstream media isn’t ready to tell.
Inspired by HBO’s The Wire, in particular the Omar character, DUOX seeks to reconcile David Simon’s race/class/gender-coded representation of Baltimore with the artists’ own, very different experiences of the city and the points in which the two views intersect. The world of “BOY’Dega” is populated by gay, transgender, and bisexual characters preoccupied with their own constructed identities and how they are represented/projected. The “plot” deals with forensics, bodegas, and Johns Hopkins. Expect sets made out of tiled inkjet prints and props like plaster casts of footprints painted with candy-hued enamel.
One corner of the studio is dominated by plywood structures wheatpasted with giant black-and-white images of a haggard-looking man. The artists explain they wanted them “to look like what Baltimore street art looks like.” And they do. But on closer inspection, they are so much stranger. The man depicted is a now-deceased homeless man named Leslie who was known for outlandish, often effeminate costumes. All of the images are sourced from Google, taken by tourists. His gaze unsettlingly confronts the camera. At times he seems mischievous, flirty, or challenging. The one constant conveyed by his eyes is a sense of agency so rarely seen in depictions of “the other.” Wickerham and Lomax explain that these will be destroyed by one of the characters wielding a chainsaw in a battle with another character over “who has the right to live as this person lived.” It’s a battle over “identity appropriation,” a phrase that almost (and almost not at all) summarizes “BOY’Dega” and DUOX’s brief but prolific oeuvre.
Later that night I am sitting in artist Joseph Faura’s Station North apartment. I think about “identity appropriation” and how it relates to his work. Faura collages images—nature, human bodies, products—into new deities. Body image, vanity, and a longing to construct identity with consumer power are hybridized into monstrous icons of desire. His interests and practice of appropriation are clearly similar to that of DIS Magazine or DUOX, but the products couldn’t be more different for artists around the same age who live mere blocks apart.
We are joined by Jaimes Mayhew, an artist, the co-curator of last summer’s Queer Is Where the Heart Is exchange between Baltimore and Iceland, and Faura’s downstairs neighbor. Knowing his relationship with the Reykjavik queer scene, I ask Mayhew to comment on my observation, that many artists work or date in or export their cultural products to other, more worldly cities and focus on building the support network and cultural context in which they want to live/work here in Baltimore. His advice to Baltimore’s queers is this: “If you have to sell your work in another city that has more money, go for it. You want to stay here and be a culture producer. The art scene feels way more vibrant and alive since I moved here [in 2007]. When I left for Iceland and came back, there were five new gallery spaces run by people I didn’t know, which is crazy!”
The queer scene, art scene, and overlap are all definitely growing, and with the help of event organizers, curators, and good old-fashioned chance encounters, the queer art scene may finally be crystalizing into a cohesive (I shudder to use the “C” word) community. By the time this issue hits shelves, the Creative Alliance will have hosted the second annual Charm City LGBT Film Festival; Mud and Metal will have opened “Dirty Water,” a group show of artists influenced by John Waters, at their UPstairs Gallery; and Golden West will have hosted a drag show—all far from the cozy confines of Mount Vernon. Kristen Anchor, maven of the queer art and music scenes, will have hosted Internet Rodeo: BABY ANIMALS! at Metro Gallery. It’s kind of exactly what it sounds like: an event so admittedly devoid of serious content that its only agenda really is to bring people together. This is the kind of relational aesthetics even I can get down with.
During Pride weekend, it’s easy to get discouraged by commercial efforts to win over queer Baltimore. You’ll spend the weekend being reminded that you too can eat at Chipotle, get financing for new vinyl siding, go fight an oil war (with gay pride!), take a honeymoon cruise, and then get a one-time-only discounted gym membership to work off that Chipotle burrito. But the other 51 weekends out of the year, Baltimore reminds us that, here, perhaps more than any other city, you have the freedom to make your own culture, music and nightlife, panties and monuments, television and propaganda. We’re awful consumers, importing the worst of the mainstream, but we’re great producers, exporting our perspectives from the periphery inward.
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