this is the rough text of a rough talk i gave at pechakucha night christchurch volume 31. you can listen to the audio at pechakucha’s website. it was written mainly for myself and my own exploration and understanding but presented in the hopes it may help some cis people understand and some other trans and non binary people relate.
typical understandings of trans people and transitioning are pretty limited. there are a bunch of reasons for this, but i’m not getting into that tonight.
when people think of ‘transition’ it’s usually in binary terms, and it’s usually thought of as ‘complete’ – changing your name and pronouns and birth certificate and going through whatever medical processes are available or necessary. most importantly it’s thought of as the only way, the one everyone does.
but transition is different for everyone. for some it involves aligning every aspect of their social identity and physical body with the gender they are, and often for some of these people that gender is ‘opposite’ to the one they were assigned at birth.
but that’s not the complete trans experience. a lot of people do most of those things and a lot do some and some do none at all.
so, i’m sharing my story. this story is also not the complete trans experience in any way, it’s just mine.
i think i was a pretty standard ‘boy’, if a little (very) socially awkward and anxious. i enjoyed biking around and playing outside and building things. i had a terrible fashion sense. i definitely didn’t “always just know”
i did just recently remember my stepfather getting the scissor sisters’ first album. looking at the tracklist he probably got it for the comfortably numb cover. but i remember – i must have been about 7 or 8 – looking at the album art and my parents flipping the fuck out.
around the same age i loved mom’s that’s life magazines. i remember reading about someone who was so desperate for surgery they lopped their junk off outside a hospital.
i remember growing up very young with a good friend of my mother’s who left new zealand to access confirmation surgery. i later realised that i had had zero contact with this person once they left.
that’s about all i remember encountering as a kid when it comes to gender variance, until i – like a whole heap of others – hit tumblr in my early teens.
i then remember very clearly thinking “oh god, i hope i’m not trans, that would suck”. i remember the motivation behind that thought – it was “i know these people are treated so terribly and i think there may be a chance that i’m one of these people but i can’t be because i can’t imagine dealing with all that shit”.
by 17 i was going through the process of getting hormone treatment. i knew that to make sure the endocrinologist believed me i had to dress super feminine and act like a very heterosexual woman.
this is the photo i eventually came out with at 19 – an extra two years of the wrong puberty while waiting.
but this isn’t a coming out story, it’s a story of shifting gender. because that’s what it does, and it’s normal. i think there’s often a tendency among the cis population to believe that if a trans person’s gender – be it identity or expression – isn’t immutable it’s less valid. that’s not the truth at all. even cis people experience shifts in gender expression in some way or another. not a lot of people imply butch cis women aren’t really women.
baby’s first undercut! note the wonderful lace glove. wearing traditionally hyper feminine objects and looks began as a means to access the healthcare i needed but i also feel that trans women should absolutely be allowed to be super fucking femme even when society says their bodies are not.
just because society expects us to be feminine doesn’t mean being feminine is not radical
that undercut is definitely also the start of the absolute fun i have in messing with expectations and clashing traditionally gendered looks.
things pretty much continue the same for a solid year or so. I’ll note that this whole time i’d had what some people call ‘auxiliary pronouns’ – that is, two options. most people were calling me ‘she’ and ‘her’ but i also listed ‘a/ath/athes’ in my online bios, after Athena.
they’re what some call neo-pronouns – that is, invented pronouns for those who feel like she, he, or they don’t fit. They’re not new at all; ‘e/em/es’ have been in use since 1890. ‘ey/em/eir’ can be traced to 1975 and are in common usage in trans and nonbinary communities today.
this is me in late 2015. in a rush to take a picture of a bird on the gold coast i opened the wrong camera. the look of joy is absolutely genuine.
jumping ahead – because this isn’t a story that needs to be told step by step – what’s changed now?
basically, i started passing.
passing, if you’re unsure, refers to being perceived as cis. it’s something some people strive for – some because it’s what they feel they should look like, but also because passing means safety.
passing means people not perceiving you as trans so not assaulting or abusing you for being trans. in terms of daily experiences, passing is a MAJOR benefit.
it isn’t inherently good or bad. it can provide life-saving safety (and definitely has for me) but it also came with invisibility.
i found the more i passed, the more people assumed i was straight, for example. i’d get people asking about my husband – and my kids.
But also, in many places ‘trans panic’ is a legal defence for murder.
It’s one thing to have an awkward conversation online, but it’s FAR safer to do that there than in a bar with someone you’ve been chatting to and you’ve JUST THEN realised they clearly don’t know you’re trans. there’s no way to know how they’ll react, but from experience, it’s far more likely to be a) creepy fetishisation b) anger and violence, c) weird over-acceptance, d) actual decent reaction.
So, i decided to fuck it.
my wonderful flatmate gave me this INCREDIBLE and VERY QUEER jacket. i wore it out of the house a few days later, in a conscious effort to present more queer and pass less. i was crossing colombo st down by victoria park when a car actively accelerated towards me less than 50m away.
weirdly i think this is a good summation of why i stopped fucking with gender
“Forcing people to recognise [our abjectness], our queerness, challenges their stable, normative world. In a world where, for many of our most vulnerable, being visibly queer and trans is a death threat, the responsibility to embody this challenge may fall to the more privileged.”
I stand by this. And I am in a position of privilege – I’m Pākehā, I’m () in a full time job, but also I’ve absolutely had it. I’ve been through all the shit and survived (if not unscathed) and I am 100% unwilling to let anyone else go through any of it if I can prevent it at all.
Sometimes that means standing up to aggressive drunk dudes on late night streets, but I think it also means not letting my identity slide into the background.
so what does this mean for me? my gender is one big “who the fuck knows”. it’s open. it’s less “have to be traditionally feminine” and more “queer hard femme”. it’s singlets covered in sawdust but also crop tops and fancy white jackets but also hot pink leather jackets that might get me run down. it’s not worrying about strangers calling me ‘sir’ because the people who know better don’t – and that confusion is kind of the point.
what does it mean for everyone else? not much at all, actually
i’m quite okay with people understanding me as a binary trans woman – i think it’s important. that’s the way 99% of the world sees me, so that’s how i get treated. i’m subject to misogyny and transphobia and queerphobia – that term still describes me even if it doesn’t necessarily describe my gender.
so i think materially it’s important to express those aspects. i use ‘she’ just as much as i do ‘they’ because it’s rare to see a trans woman in this industry or, heck, even in this city. it’s important to me to express both those parts of myself to aim to be a possibility model for as many people as i can.
currently my gender expression is a lot more jeans and a lot fewer dresses – but that could change tomorrow, who knows? i think, most of all and most importantly: i dont want to look or be cis
Statistics New Zealand’s decision to include categories beyond ‘male’ and ‘female’ in a new gender identity statistical standard has been hailed as a “world first”. And, unfortunately – it is. We live at a time when an exploding body of research documents the alarmingly high levels of violence and discrimination experienced by trans people, when trans women and girls appear on the cover of Time and National Geographic magazines, and when we are having more conversations around gender neutral bathrooms than ever before. In spite of this, the overwhelming majority of gender identity questions on surveys, healthcare intake forms, and censuses around the world continue to offer just two response options. With this standard (and restrictive) measure of gender identity, it is impossible for trans people to be counted. Nonbinary people are rendered entirely invisible; they cannot select either gender item, so are excluded from reporting their gender at all.
New Zealand Census questions on sex, taken from the 1916, 1986, and 2006 questionnaires. The 2018 Census will likely be the first ever to ask New Zealanders about their gender identity.
The use of a ‘male’/’female’ tick box to measure gender identity is more than just poor methodology; this has serious consequences for the health, wellbeing, and social inclusion of trans people. Without accurate gender identity data it is impossible to establish the size of the trans population in New Zealand. International research estimating the proportion of the population who are trans produces wildly varying results; data from presentations to overseas gender clinics give estimates as low as 4.6 people in 100,000 (perhaps because they ignore that not all trans people present to specialist clinics for gender-affirming healthcare). Another study claims that the number of people falling under the trans ‘umbrella’ may be as many as 1% of the population.
Population size partially determines the amount of funding that is allocated to serving the needs of a particular group. Because most official records do not capture data on trans people, trans New Zealanders are, most likely, receiving far less than their fair share of medical and mental health care. On top of this, with every research survey, census, and demographic form that fails to acknowledge the fluid and non-binary nature of gender identity, the common cultural gender binary is legitimised and reinforced. We need gender identity measures that challenge this binary, ensure all New Zealanders are counted, and give people the opportunity to correctly identify their gender.
It is wonderful that Statistics New Zealand has decided to collect gender identity data, and to ensure that their measures are inclusive of trans and nonbinary people. For the reasons outlined above, the importance of this data cannot be understated. If Statistics New Zealand do this right, New Zealand would be in an absolutely unique position. We would have population-level data about the needs of trans people, which could be linked with health data (e.g., cancer registrations) to generate urgently needed transgender cohort studies.
Statistics New Zealand has not announced how the gender identity question in the 2018 census will be worded, and when I contacted them recently I was told that this decision has not yet been made. The classification of gender identity that has already been released, however, suggests that the direction in which Statistics New Zealand is heading may not be quite what we hoped.
Upon release of the statistical standard, trans community members pointed out that this method of classifiying gender identity is othering – it separates trans and nonbinary people from the cis population. Statistics NZ has also used terminology which is frustrating for many in the community, such as “transgender male to female” and “transgender female to male”. A recently published paper by leading scholars in the field reflects these concerns: Pega and colleagues note that the standard may “obscure some of the complexity within the broader transgender population”, is not intersex inclusive, and does not guarantee that all trans people will be counted. What is to stop a trans woman from identifying as female or wahine, either to avoid othering herself, or because this is a more accurate reflection of her identity than ‘trans’ or ‘gender diverse’?
I do not envy the job of Statistics NZ. Somehow, they must (1) collect data that identifies trans New Zealanders, while (2) not othering trans people. It seems that it is easy to meet one goal, but is it possible to do both? Let’s think through some options.
Personally, I’m a fan of the open-ended box. It allows people to freely self-identify so it isn’t othering, it doesn’t require people to choose between identity labels, and it doesn’t ask people to take on identity labels that might not feel right for them. This question alone, however, doesn’t get around the problem mentioned earlier: if someone writes in “woman”, how do we know if she is cis or trans? We need to face the fact that this matters – if we don’t know this, we can’t count trans people, and we need good data to fight for policy change and funding increases.
The other two options also face this problem – with just one item, we cannot guarantee that we have identified all trans people. On top of this, I seriously doubt there are many people out there who individually identify as “gender diverse” – while this may be a suitable umbrella term, individual identity labels tend to be slightly more specific.
One alternative option, that may meet both goals of (1) collecting data that identifies trans New Zealanders, while (2) not othering trans people, is to ask the question in two steps, by firstly asking about gender identity, and secondly asking about sex documented on a person’s original birth certificate. This way, trans women and men can identify as women and men, while being identifiable as trans because their assigned sex at birth differs from their gender identity. This option is recommended by the Centre of Excellence for Transgender Health.
Because I doubt that Statistics New Zealand has the resources to code open-ended responses from the entire population, the gender identity question would probably be best answered by selecting options from a categorical list. Respondents should be able to select multiple options, so they do not have to choose between, for example, identifying as a woman and identifying as trans. Empirical evidence suggests that these questions are easily understood by the general population, even if some don’t understand what it means to be trans, genderfluid, nonbinary, or agender. An example follows:
How do you identify your gender? Please tick as many as apply.
Different identity (please state) _________
What sex were you assigned at birth, on your original birth certificate?
No sex listed
As with any measure of gender identity, this measure is not perfect. Perhaps most worryingly, it asks people to disclose their sex assigned at birth, which has potential to be uncomfortable or distressing. Because of this, it will be important for Statistics New Zealand to explain why this information is so crucial to collect. On top of this, it is impossible to construct a complete list of gender identities, meaning that some identities will always be excluded from listed options. Hopefully, the inclusion of an open-ended box will ensure that people of all genders can accurately describe how they identify, and could be an important space for culturally specific identities such as takatāpui, whakawahine, tangata ira tane, fa’afafine, and akava’ine.
Statistics New Zealand may object to these suggestions on the basis that this kind of information is too complex to collect, code, and analyse. In response to this, I argue that it is unacceptable to lump such a diverse group into one umbrella category, as this leaves unexamined the needs within this group. The time has come for the collection of high quality gender identity data, where people of all genders can identify as they wish and be counted. Statistics New Zealand needs to ensure that no New Zealander remains invisible.
Gloria Fraser is a doctoral candidate at the School of Psychology at Victoria University of Wellington. She is particularly interested in the intersection of sex-sexuality-gender diversity and clinical psychology. Her doctoral research focusses on queer experiences of mental health support in Aotearoa. Gloria is also a research coordinator for the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS). Gloria has used NZAVS data to develop a gender identity statistical standard for coding open-ended responses. This can be accessed as a technical document via the NZAVS website for use by other researchers.
Contemporary Christchurch is the inaugural iteration of a survey exhibition which aims to capture a moment or feeling of what art practice has been like in Ōtautahi in the past three years; CoCA plans to run this exhibition triennially during Director Paula Orrell’s Tenure.
Artists in this exhibition were suggested by a curatorial panel of artists and curators from the region, and then Paula Orrell approached the artists to discuss possible works. There is intentionally no unifying theme or aesthetic, and the artists included range in medium, generation, identity, and process. This, along with the fact that many works have been exhibited before, has drawn criticism. But there is a worth in exhibiting works that have been shown before, especially in post-quake Christchurch where exhibition spaces have been dispersed across the city and do not often draw large public crowds. There is also a worth in showing a diverse range of artists that don’t seem to sit together at first glance; in placing works next to each other or in the same space, you create a context; the works speak to, reflect off and relate to one another. Themes, commonalities, concepts and politics emerge. Even in this exhibition, with its wide range of artworks, artists with varying approaches to their practice, with different backgrounds and identities and artistic interests, the context becomes apparent.
The context of this city in 2016 is irremovable from earthquake recovery, but the tone of that context has moved from shock and mourning to exploring the potential of the rebuild as well as frustration with that process. In terms of art, there is plenty of opportunity for public work both temporary and permanent, but gallery and studio space is limited, especially for early-career artists. Leases on central spaces are at a premium, and the kind of cheap temporary lease due to an oncoming demolition – like we’ve seen at Snake Pit in Auckland, for example – do not exist. Spaces are either already demolished or too dangerous to use. This has necessarily changed how artists are working in Christchurch – there is a strong culture of collaboration, not only in creating art but in creating spaces to work and exhibit. Artists have had to make space work for them, and there has been a proliferation of art created in vacant spaces in the past few years. However, with both Christchurch Art Gallery and CoCA reopening, there is a sense of a return to the white cube, and the luxury of that context has become apparent. To me, a thriving art scene involves many spaces for students and recent graduates to exhibit, both by themselves and alongside established artists – and this remains difficult in Christchurch. By including younger emerging artists such as Nina Oberg Humphries, Ana Iti, and Daegan Wells in Contemporary Christchurch, Toi Moroki is continuing its historical mandate as the Canterbury Society of Arts of supporting local artists; encouraging and enabling an emerging artist scene to develop and flourish. Placing these emerging artists as peers alongside more established artists such as Pauline Rhodes, Scott Flanagan, and Jacquelyn Greenbank not only gives them validity, but also allows for the works in the exhibition to speak cross-generationally.
The earthquake and rebuild process – ‘EQ art’, as I’ve been calling it – remains one of the most significant topics or concepts to work with. I personally was not living in Christchurch in the years immediately post-quake, but from what I have heard, there was understandably a deluge of work about the quakes and the recovery. This is still a running theme within the community, but focus has shifted to the rebuild, the recovery, and frustrations with the process.
The works in Contemporary Christchurch that engage with the quake also deal with other ideas, as well as interacting with the other, non-EQ artworks that surround them. I think this gives them depth and layers, and from what I have gathered speaking to artists and patrons that were in Christchurch for that flood of earthquake art, it seems to make them more interesting and relatable – they are not just about the quake.
Louise Palmer’s 90 Canon (a series of empty rooms) (2016) (pictured above) is a good place to start. Her images of her own home, now demolished, with sculptural interventions throughout the architecture, reflects current media coverage of the recovery process – stories about the rebuild and EQC claims and bureaucratic frustrations. The interventions themselves reveal otherwise hidden layers that have become visible throughout the rebuild; pipes beneath the floor, for example. Her artist text that accompanies the works captures the feeling behind the work well:
For some time in Christchurch conversation would inevitably turn to our houses, structures of brick, concrete and timber, repositories of memory. Acronyms and codes signalled the extent of damage and whether to rebuild, repair, demo, restore. I carefully recorded every crack, every split, every broken piece of furniture, of crockery and glassware. I wrapped my grandfather’s shattered crystal glasses in newspaper and stored them in a box in the garage. Other boxes are now stacked in the garage of another house; the weight of things with which we surround ourselves, and which five years later are partly forgotten.
Daegan Wells’ work, Sutton’s Garden (2016) (detail pictured below) speaks of home and the rebuild process, but also of frustration. He has been collecting artifacts from the Red Zone through his sculptural and archival practice. Through this process he unwittingly came across W.A. Sutton’s former home and studio, one of the few buildings left standing in a large expanse of land that has been flattened and turned into an empty, grassed landscape. Like many other buildings in Christchurch, the home studio is trapped in conflict between the Earthquake Commission and Heritage New Zealand. The form of the work is almost in opposition to the frustrations it represents; calming footage and thoughtfully composed black and white silver gelatine prints of Sutton’s garden.
Downstairs, in the lower gallery, Rob Hood has a different approach to the frustrations with the rebuild process. His work Erosion Problems II (2016) uses humour and play to express the absurdism in what many see as a ridiculously slow, bureaucratic process. The Banks Peninsula volcanic rock left sandwiched between a sack barrow and a cooling fan, a blue jacket or lab coat draped over it all speaks to forgetfulness, a nonsensical job left undone.
The specific use of volcanic rock speaks to another thread that runs through a number of works in the exhibition – the notion of earth, of land, of space. Louise Palmer’s text once again makes this explicit:
A core was drilled from the ground in front of and then behind the house… Sections of the strata were carefully recorded, numbered and placed into crisp white archive boxes. Topsoil, soft silt, clay, peat, firm silt, dense sand, coarse gravel. Layers of time, of history revealed.
Land as it relates to time and history relates heavily to the work of Ana Iti, whose piece First, they chose a name (2016) (pictured below) includes a piece of Halswell quarry stone. Stone from this quarry was integral to the construction of many early colonial buildings in Christchurch, many of which either did not survive the quake or have been demolished since; colonial architecture being one of the focusses of Ana’s recent body of work. The stone is engraved with the word ‘Karaitiana’, an early name for Christchurch, being a transliteration of the word Christchurch.
Adjacent to this space and these works is one of Steve Carr’s two works in this exhibition, Bubble Cactus (2015). His works are unique here in that they are in totally separate spaces from one another; appropriate considering that while similar, they deal with slightly different concepts in different tones. Bubble Cactus is found footage from a Phantom HD camera, known for its capability for extremely high frame rates. The footage is of a cactus popping a bubble, stretched from 30 seconds out to 10 minutes and 42 seconds. Commentary on media and technology is a common motif in Carr’s work; this piece referencing film speed, linking to film and TV; for example nature documentaries speeding up growth of plants or decay of flesh, or sports events replaying and slowing down a moment to reveal the precise sequence of events. Carr ‘makes visible the invisible’, in this case literally, exploring how technology is used to reveal ‘intimate details of how the world works’.
Ana’s piece also works with the notion of making visible the invisible, questioning the politics and power of naming. The accompanying audio recording of the artist speaking goes into detail of how Christchurch was ‘named’ by colonists, beginning with the line “there is a power in naming things,” a concept that underpins the whole work. Ana aims to make visible the invisible by questioning the idea that a name is natural, apolitical. The power to name things rests within the dominant class – they name what is ‘other’; they came to this land and named what was already named.
Ana also emphasises the relationship between name and identity, particularly in the audio recording, speaking about her own family name: “Our name Iti doesn’t belong to us, but none the less we were given it and lived with it… / Our sister was an Iti and she died an Iti”. Her recent work at North Projects (1) as well as First, they chose a name explores the difficulty of navigating a Māori identity within Western colonial knowledge systems, made explicit once again in the audio: “How should you navigate identity when even your name is troubling?”
Underneath the concept of rebuild frustration in Wells’ install is another approach to his work, one of identity. Included in the install is one of Sutton’s portraits, Portrait of Peter Young (pictured below, installed at CoCA). Painted in 1955, it is one of his less significant works, resting on the wall of his home for 45 years before being bequeathed to Christchurch Art Gallery on his death. These are two reasons for its selection in this install – that it was easy to acquire on loan, and that it clearly had some personal significance to Sutton.
Often referred to as a ‘constant bachelor’, there is the beginnings of a rumour of Sutton’s queerness, ‘bachelor’ being common code for queer men throughout history. Daegan is almost the sole perpetrator of this rumor, having his practice recently described in the Listener as a ‘queering of Sutton’s work’. During an exhibition at Blue Oyster about Sutton’s home, a friend of the artist suggested very subtly to his queerness; the Christchurch Art Gallery archive of Sutton’s work and belongings contains many photos of half naked men.
The queer aspect of the install is intentionally only a quiet undertone, reflecting Sutton’s possible closeted identity; considering the historical context and homosexuality being a crime for much of his life, there is a tricky question of ethics to the work. Like Ana says, there is a power in naming, a power in acknowledging and recognising our queer forebears. But also there is a question of whether it is appropriate to place a label on someone who did not outwardly identify with that label. So, the portrait is included but no mention is made to the possible queer history, and to many – initially myself included – it flies under the radar (2).
The wall text for Wells’ work refers to the red zone land as ‘unoccupied’, an interesting choice of wording considering the install is right next to Ana’s work, so heavily steeped in post-colonial politics. This creates an interesting sense of tension between the two pieces. Ana herself draws a strong connection between this tension and both artists’ practices:
“the idea that my practice and work exists in this post-colonial landscape seems fundamental but I’m not sure that that idea is pervasive with other practitioners or even CoCA as an institution. Both our works delve into personal territories where queer histories are often swept under the rug, which is the same ‘out of site/sight, out of mind’ rhetoric that people have about our colonial history.” (3)
Nina Oberg Humphries, recently studying at Ilam, also explores identity in her contribution, a series of photographic portraits of her family with high gloss, sculptural frames (pictured below). The choice to show photographs is interesting, considering she majored in sculpture. Being of Cook Island and Pākehā descent, her work combines traditional Polynesian art forms with elements of pop culture. The frames are a good example of this, being a pine base with traditional adornments that could be read as kitsch: plastic flowers and palm trees covered in resin and automotive paint, giving that poppy, high gloss finish. Alongside this look though, they have all been hand cast by the artist herself – they are unique artworks themselves. This combination of tradition with pop could be read as a commentary on the commercialisation and exploitation of Pacific cultures; the selling of kitschy commercialised versions of traditional materials being a good example.
In the same space as these works is a sculptural piece by Pauline Rhodes, Towards the Light (2016) (detail pictured below). Known for two forms of environmental sculptural work; outdoor minimal interventions in the landscape and indoor installations in gallery spaces, her work in this exhibition is the latter. The two forms are linked, however, the indoor works being conceptually related and often referencing the outdoor works. Her works are simple and elegant, the minimal elements responding and referring to places or things, only ever lightly and delicately touching one another. This simple, elegant form ties in nicely with Ana’s adjacent work, also characterised by being simple but striking. The series of rods in Towards the Light point towards the north end of the gallery, filled with natural light, in which a large bundle of indigenous vegetation is piled; yet more rods, some wrapped with text and musical notation, are stacked on this pile and point upwards towards the gallery’s ceiling window. The use of indigenous vegetation is significant, especially in this space, especially being adjacent to the work of Ana and Nina – it feels referential to this specific land and space, referential to indigenous politics and notions of (de)colonisation.
Land and nature is also apparent in Rob Hood’s other works, Coupland’s Waterfall (2016) and Donald’s Pew (2016), moving back to the lower gallery again. The two works deal with parallel binaries – that of nature vs society and object vs art object. Coupland’s Waterfall is film and audio of the artificially constructed waterfall on the outside of Coupland’s Bakery in Hornby, almost an iconic site in Christchurch. The work questions how we delineate between nature and society – is this completely artificial waterfall and fish pond ‘natural’? What does it mean to have such an ‘object’ created by a business? The audio exemplifies this questioned binary well, including both the sound of water falling and the adjacent road and pedestrian crossing. The second work here, Donald’s Pew, questions the second binary: the opposition of ‘art object’ and ‘object’. Referential to Donald Judd’s work around furniture and objects, Hood realised while making both art and objects that he treated them both the same, beginning to question what delineated an art object from an object. The way gallery visitors treat Donald’s Pew highlights this; despite it being created as an ‘art object’ and being listed in the wall text as a work, people sit on it in order to watch the video work.
Questions of object run through the exhibition, returning again to Louise Palmer’s text:
The house is small and has no passages, no corridors, there’s a fluid movement from room to room. With doors open Ruby runs a circle around the house and I follow her, through each room, and around the furniture. The objects in these rooms define the space. They are markers around which we navigate our daily lives. The spaces of things. The weight of things.
This is an interesting point of reference from which to read Louise’s photos: the rooms in the photos are voided of objects, of markers of domesticity and personal identity.
Also in the lower gallery is another work that deals with object referencing identity – Jacquelyn Greenbank’s Squatch Poles (2015). With a history of working with typically ‘feminine’ craft such as knitting, these totems are comprised of found objects, recycled materials, and craft processes. The found objects are covered with leather from jackets found in op shops, speaking to a specific era, a specific kind of person, even a specific scent. Throughout her practice Greenbank has used craft to create objects, such as her series of crocheted constructions of 1950s household objects, or her 2004 piece State Carriage. The work approaches identity and craft processes with humour and a kitsch aesthetic, poking fun not only at the traditionally domestic medium but also at the identities both the medium and object signify. Squatch Poles in particular seems to reference the late 20th century Kiwi bogan aesthetic – faded leather jackets and home constructions. This theme of kitsch humour dominates the lower gallery; it is characterised by works that play, works that are humorous and absurd.
Steve Carr’s second work, Watermelon (2015) (above) plays into this notion really well. It is primarily a work of suspense and tension, organised around an absurd act – placing rubber bands around a watermelon until it pops and snaps in half. It has its origins in a commonplace Japanese children’s game which Carr restaged in a residency in Sapporo, Japan. The same act was streamed live on BuzzFeed recently to a live audience of 807,000 viewers; the video has since been watched over ten million times. This formalised, gallery version removes the ability to self-satisfy by skipping to the end, increasing the tension and suspense. Carr’s motif of media commentary runs through this work too, speaking to the tension we find in film and TV – we must put the effort into this piece by patiently waiting the full 33 minutes for a split second of satisfaction. Critic Francis McWhannell, in a discussion on the New Perspectives exhibition at Artspace this year, said of video works: “video art has to work very hard to be interesting, because there’s this huge amount of often very good material available outside the art world.” Audience response to Watermelon signals its success in this aspect: on opening night there was a constant large crowd around the piece that would disperse once the watermelon popped and almost immediately re-form in the minutes after. It is an absurd act surrounded by so much tension that gives so much satisfaction, no matter how short, that people are drawn to it and compelled to stay, lest they miss that split second of satisfaction.
This could be read as a form of conditioning and a commentary on that conditioning we experience from media and technology – a concept that is explicitly present in James Oram’s video installation Pavlov’s Pockets. Simple in concept, it is a pair of denim pockets – a material consistent through the variety of works he has presented, including the bean bag that Pavlov’s Pockets rests on – that vibrate, as if phones are in them, often causing gallery goers to check their own phones, a Pavlovian conditioned reaction to the sound of a mobile notification.
Commentary on technology is a thread common to multiple works in Contemporary Christchurch. Scott Flanagan’s Wild South – Young Mountains (2016) (above) is another example, a significant work both in scale and in concept, drawing together many inspirations, themes, and theories. It is a large-scale wall of woven VHS tape paired with a sculptural installation, also consisting mostly of woven VHS. It has its origins in a feminist history of technology, focussing on women’s involvement in the development of technology, starting with Ada Lovelace (4).
It was this history that led Flanagan to weaving – first, small scale paper weavings, then small VHS weavings, and then over the decades variation in scale. They are installed now in a collaborative process – linking back to the history of collaboration in weaving and craft, typically associated with women and femininity.
Weaving also links to technology in the history of the Luddites – a term that now refers to people who are outdated and anachronistic, hating technology for no real good reason, but originally referred to a group who could be described as union activists. They were concerned about the introduction of mechanical looms and the threat they posed to the jobs of workers – a theme that is recurring today with rising automation in factories and other industries.
Wild South – Young Mountains also has a political drive behind it, though not immediately obvious. The paper weaving that is part of the sculptural installation is made up of copies of New Zealand’s anti-terrorism legislation; laws that Flanagan finds absurd and unnecessary, linking through to Ana’s work and the (de)colonial politic behind it. The paper weaving also has an almost hidden connection to quake-related art, having been stuck in a basement gallery after the earthquake stuck. When retrieved a few months later, rats had eaten holes into it. The weaving has intentionally not been repaired.
In the same room and on a similar scale, Emma Fitts’ installation Fit-out for Olivia Spencer Bower (2015) (detail pictured above) also works with craft and the notion of information as material. It is a work that seems driven by feminist thought around craft and feminine labour, domesticity, and family, linking it to other works in the exhibition – in particular, Greenbank around craft, Palmer around domesticity, and Humphries around family. It is a huge series of pieces, hanging from the ceiling of the main upstairs gallery, the first thing you see as you walk up the stairs or exit the elevator. The fabrics are hung in a way that aligns them with the architectural plan of Bower’s own home, referencing not only the specific building but the neo-brutalist architectural style it and many other buildings in Christchurch were constructed in. The house was commissioned to accommodate a female artist living alone, a nice parallel to Daegan’s work and Sutton’s bachelor home studio. Grass mats have been hung on the front of these fabric constructions, almost obscuring the front, as Melanie Oliver points out in her essay on this work in its first exhibited iteration at Ilam School of Fine Arts. By doing so, along with the way they are hung, Fitts, like Flanagan, Wells, and Iti, makes a comment on history; specifically how ‘a version of history sits behind every image’ (5). Fitts disrupts the notion of a simple viewpoint, both materially in that this work must be walked around to be viewed completely and metaphorically in that there are always alternative histories.
Right next to this installation is another series that works with size, texture, and layering – Tjalling de Vries’ series of cartoonish, gesturely, and experimental paintings Copy Card (pictured above). Coming from a multidisciplinary background, these works are almost defined by studio experimentation. Having painted on canvas and bits of billboard in his recent body of work, these pieces are on stretched translucent linen, intentionally chosen to be able to work with layering. The figures present in these works are cartoonish, drawing a link to Oram’s other pieces in the room downstairs, paintings and sculptural pieces that draw from definite cartoonish origins. De Vries also works with some of his own father’s cartoon designs, drawing a thread between this series and other works in the exhibition that deal with family, such as Humphries and, opposite this series, Tim J. Veling.
Veling has exhibited a number of photographs taken from the seriesD,P,O (2014-15) (installation shot below). They are intensely personal works, capturing moments spent with his father after a terminal diagnosis. They are a document of the time spent from the diagnosis to his passing, twice a day family visits. Originally presented in a short-run artist book, Veling developed over 100 rolls of film. The processing of the images was also intensely personal, using a magnifying loop to find fine focus on his father’s eyes.
Veling also presented a text, a conversation from him to his deceased father:
I kissed you on the forehead then traced the shape of a crucifix with my thumb, just like you’d always do to me when saying goodbye. I held your hand and said it was okay to pass if you wanted. With that, you drew your last breath.
Veling’s work has strong parallels to Palmer’s adjacent series: both are about a personal tragedy, out of control. Palmer’s work investigates the intersection of sculptural conventions with the personal underpinnings of an artwork, and as such the medium becomes important. Conventions of both sculpture and photography mean the latter can easier be more personal in its motivations and presentation; photography is often a more personal and intimate medium than sculpture, and these works together signify that very well.
So, despite not having a curatorial intent to create a unifying theme, the works in Contemporary Christchurch reveal similarities in practice, approach, concept, and artistic interest. Perhaps more so than if the panel and curator went out looking for works that would fit together in some unifying manner, the exhibition reveals significant commonalities that shed light on what contemporary art practice is like in Christchurch in 2016. A strong first installment of this triennial exhibition, it will be interesting to see which commonalities remain in three years time and what new ones emerge.
(1) North Projects is an artist-led gallery space that ran from August 2014 until closing at the end of September this year. Ana’s recent show there, Is the past a foreign country?, came from the same body of research as First, they chose a name and contains the same materials (Halswell quarry and spoken and written text).
(2) The ethics of this came into play in writing this essay, as well – considering it is such an undertone, is it acceptable or even necessary to bring it up in discussion? After talking to Daegan and CoCA curators about it, and thinking not only on Daegan’s work but on Ana’s assertion that naming has power I decided there was more worth in acknowledging it despite the discomfort some in Aotearoa’s art institutions may feel.
(3) from correspondence with the artist, 2016
(4)As the tale goes, Ada spent time around mechanical looms, driven by punchcards to generate incredible patterns – supposedly this influence led her to the realisation that Charles Babbage’s Analytical Machine could be used for purposes other than crunching numbers, that the zeroes and ones of the binary system could be translated to or representational of other, more abstracted concepts.
This commissioned text is by Jennifer Katherine Shields, an artist, academic, and writer living in Ōtautahi Christchurch. Both her academic and artistic practices examine queer theory, history, sociology, and bodily issues.
written for a pride exhibition at RM gallery entitled ‘a bone, a flesh, a daddy’s nest’ featuring sorawit songsataya and bronte perry. this text was written to accompany bronte’s work and was re-exhibited at the christchurch pride art show 2017.
In her 2015 Sociology of Popular Culture course, lecturer Dr. Ciara Cremin began to express a non-normative gender presentation and attended lectures in lipstick and heels. While the class attendees themselves had very little obvious reaction to this, Cremin talked about the response of some colleagues and, more importantly, passers-by. While she restricted this presentation to the university campus – due to safety concerns – she nevertheless experienced people doing double-takes at her as they passed by. She mentioned this explicitly in a lecture and related it to normative assumptions being challenged. As Cremin was wearing clothes typically deemed those of a woman but did not otherwise fit the societal standard of “a woman”, this perceived dissonance meant people had to challenge their initial assumptions of her and her gender.
This is a phenomenon most, if not all, trans people experience, and on the scale of public reactions, a double take is significantly mild. Most experience harassment, slurs, and in the case of trans women of colour more than any, physical violence. It is a result of the normative confronting the othered, experiencing the abject as a physical reality.
While being visibly queer can be a threat to ourselves, it is also a threat to the normative. To those for whom the abject, the other – queerness – is part of another world, one that does not involve them; to those who believe queer and trans people are not a part of their lives, not people they would ever encounter, being visibly queer is a challenge. Forcing people to recognise our abjectness, our queerness, challenges their stable, normative world. For those for whom events such as the attack in Pulse nightclub is an attack on “all of us” or “every American,” for those who “just don’t know” if it was motivated by queerphobia, active, vocal, and visible queerness is a political and personal challenge.
In a world where, for many of our most vulnerable, being visibly queer and trans is a death threat, the responsibility to embody this challenge may fall to the more privileged. There is a responsibility in the queer community not to succumb to respectability politics, to conform ourselves to heteronormative society. The gay marriage movement fell to this conformity, simply expanding marriage instead of providing the rights and privilege that accompany marriage to those who are unmarried, unable, or unwilling to marry. Hate crime legislation also fell to this conformity, expanding the carceral state and filling prisons with more black and brown bodies instead of taking steps to dismantle it. So, too, was the push for inclusion in the military flawed, similarly expanding imperial forces that put millions of innocent lives at risk. Respectability politics are inherently humanist; an ideology that centres the ‘human’ and the normative. Abjection is post/trans/inhuman, and destroys that privileged centralisation. If humanism threatens us while forgetting us, erasing our histories, experiences, and bodies, then abjection forcibly and violently centres us, staring with a billion unblinking eyes and screaming with a chorus of voices:
W E A R E H E R E
If being abject is distant, is other, is not something normative society wishes to face, then weaponising that abjection, emphasising it and making it impossible to ignore, is a radical act. We wear the abject like an armour, refusing respectability politics and the normalising process. In this work, the abject becomes personal and weaponised. We are brought from the ‘other’ world where normative society relegates us, and into the world they occupy, in a physical and confronting manner. The abject is here, it is in your face, all around you, and it has a body. The space it occupies is one which disturbs identity, system, and order. It does not respect borders, positions, or rules. Parts of the artist’s body normally ruled as disgusting line the walls, creating discomfort, unease, and repulsion. But this piece is as much about your body as it is about the artist’s. It is impossible to distance yourself from the reality of the body; this is a body labelled as other, different, abject, though it may share many characteristics with yours. Let it challenge you and question you, and avoid the urge to distance yourself.
This is an abject realm the artist, myself, and many others occupy; it is not yours, but ours. It is a space where, as Tame Iti said: “No one can tell you that you are not important and your experience does not matter and if they do, I challenge them to say it to your face where they can see your eyes and feel your breath.” Not everyone is meant to understand or relate to it, and it is not intended to make trans narratives and experiences easier for a cisgender and heterosexual audience to consume. It is intended to repel, and if it does, you must question why you feel repulsed.
Antonyms suggested by dictionaries for ‘abject’ may highlight this repulsion: the non-abject is apparently commendable, noble, excellent, exalted, magnificent, and most of all worthy and proud. These are things normative society does not want us to be, at least not without conforming to their standards. This is especially notable in times of turmoil and conflict; during the AIDs crisis, the ‘good’ queers were those who were healthy, ‘clean’, and in long-term, monogamous relationships. Recently a man was arrested on route to LA Pride with a backpack full of weaponry and explosives. People regularly ask “why is there no straight pride parade?” while police forces attend our own parades, arresting queer sex workers and protesters and other abject undesirables. Trans women get told “wow! I wouldn’t even have known you weren’t a girl if you hadn’t said anything!” as if congratulating them. Trans people get refused healthcare unless they conform to heteropatriarchy and its standards – trans women must be feminine and fucking cis dudes if they wish to begin HRT. Trans men must be hypermasculine in every meaning of the word – including the toxic elements that cause violence to so many of us. Humanist respectability politics cause violence to and within our community.
Abjection is a weapon of resistance. I am queer, trans, and crazy. I am abject, but I, too, am divine; I, too, am exalted and magnificent and worthy and proud.
Today Labour voted on and passed a policy for free gender reassignment surgery for the second time at a regional conference. Seeing as the current waitlist is longer than our average lifespan, this sounds like good news!
Andrew Little apparently hasn’t given the policy any thought, and stated that he was happy with his gender. Okay, great for you, so am I, but just because you don’t have any problems doesn’t mean the rest of us have to go without surgery that’ll save lives and significantly improve mental health and living conditions.
Then there was Stuart Nash, MP for Napier, pulling the “we just don’t have those people here” we’re all too familiar with:
“To be honest, never once in Napier has anyone ever said they’re not going to vote for Labour because we’re not funding gender reassignment surgery.”
The thing is, Nash, there are definitely transgender people in Napier. In fact, with an electorate population of about 70,000, there are probably at least 500 transgender people in your electorate (judging from the 1.2% gained from the Youth12 data). And even if there somehow weren’t, does that mean that transgender people outside your electorate don’t deserve access to healthcare? Would you do this for every group of people with specific healthcare needs? If they’re not in your electorate, they don’t matter? Would you ignore the needs of at least 500 of your constituents if it were any other group of people?
Little and Nash’s views reflect a very serious problem: they don’t care about our healthcare needs, not when it’ll come at the cost of votes. Nash was quoted saying “I don’t think it’s an issue that’s important to the people of New Zealand”. Because public popularity is more important than our lives.
This issue is important to those affected by it. This ‘issue’ is our lives and our well-being. This is a human rights issue, not a policy popularity one.
Cheers to those within Labour who are pushing for this. To the rest: sharpen the fuck up.
I wrote about trans healthcare, lives, and safety in reference to state violence last month: read here
I also spoke about this issue and Labour’s response with GayNZ: read here