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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Giessmann

Embodied archives and visceral reading

Updated: May 28, 2021

Sugar makes the back of my mouth throb. I have a cavity that takes sweet things and incorporates a stale pain that is sharp, but not overly so, and expected, but still irritating. I think about the relationship I have developed with candy and chocolate because of a small hole in the enamel and the exorbitant costs involved to fix it. It’s inconvenient and complicates what was often a strategy for comfort and respite, eating a small piece of chocolate after overestimating my hunger after dinner or when it would complement the salty tears that have seeped between my lips.

The mixture of pain and pleasure there, a result of inadequate healthcare in Canada that encompasses the entire body and a turbulent remembrance to floss, has given me another perspective to consider when I look at Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s candy portraits. I’ve looked at images of works like "Untitled" (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) for hours pondering the complexity there. I adore them and feel uneasy, cautious of becoming too infatuated with the glistening cellophane and forgetting the horrific contexts that framed their manifestation or focusing too intently on how systemic homophobia within institutions could redact those same frames altogether to amputate queer canons.

I’ve never been fortunate enough to see one of the candy portraits in person. I rely heavily on documentation and second-hand accounts to ground my appreciation of them. They’ve never been on display when I’ve visited an institution that has one and I’ve never had the means to travel enough to orchestrate the crossing of those stars. I’ll be excited when I finally get to, and yet, at the same time, I’m preparing for overwhelming disappointment. The distance I’ve had and the intimacy I’ve fabricated with these objects as I’ve written and rewritten about them has elevated the sculptures to an entirely inaccessible point—they have ascended and been rendered divine.

A connection I’ve seen made about the candy portraits over and over again is how they relate to communion. You eat the flesh of Christ to commemorate his sacrifice and as the bread is broken down by your teeth, saliva, and stomach your faith is embodied. You metabolize redemption by taking a moment to embrace Jesus in gruesome poetry—its metaphors are beautiful and harrowing. Taking the queer body of someone like Ross Laycock, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s lover who was HIV-positive and died of AIDS-related complications in 1991, a body that was being withered away by a virus coined to be a wrathful plague by religious leaders who endorsed its destiny to eradicate a particular group of sinners—queers—and relieve the world of their crimes, and giving Ross's body a reverence similar to the primary figure in Christianity overflows with affection and despair.

I don’t know if Felix ever ate the candy, it’s not a question I’ve ever thought to ask until now, but I often think about how I might feel when I finally get to. I hope it elicits an intense amount of grief because I’m allowed to enjoy it. The sculptures are a generous project aimed to foster joy and pleasure, and that is a sensation I do not allow myself to experience often, especially when engaging with the ongoing AIDS crisis and its building legacy. The humbling gravity of narrowly avoiding witnessing genocide does not leave much room to pause and appreciate the sweetness of a candy.

The relationship I’ve built with this history, with the continued systemic homophobia and harm caused by privatized healthcare in the United States that necessitates unfair and inaccessible prices to life-saving medications, grows from bitter and angry foundations. Perhaps this disappoints, even upsets or infuriates, the elders who did endure the traumatic peaks of AIDS in the ‘80s and ‘90s and who have committed so much blood, sweat, and tears to create a brighter future for people like me. It might feel like a slap in the face after all my predecessors have been through and lost, for the generations after them to forsake blissful ignorance to cannibalize their mentor’s aged rage. I worry doing so may rip open old wounds, ones that likely took years to scab and still throb, but it would be unwise to assume this legacy has concluded—it isn’t an isolated historical moment and it’s not even close to over yet.

This longing to taste a candy portrait, to be physically exposed to the anguish and serenity of these Gonzalez-Torres works in person, was one of the reasons why I did the performance token. In token, I sat on the floor in front of my peers and ate chocolate I wrapped to feel similar to cellophane candies until I threw it all up. My body could only handle a fraction of the tiny pile I had made which was a fraction of the weight of an actual candy portrait. After several morsels I began to burp, then it became harder and harder to swallow. I was still chewing on two or three chocolates while I tried to coax my throat to open up and let some of the mess fall into my gut. If there was any vacancy between my lips I’d unwrap another, sliding it in and wincing when my tongue realized it was an unwelcome guest.

I’ve thought about what this project would have looked like if I had access to an actual work like "Untitled" (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) and was able to see it for myself. Would I still have felt inclined to reference it so explicitly, or would that proximity have been too much and deterred a gluttonous exploration of what researching the AIDS crisis means?

The candy in Gonzalez-Torres's gestures looks hard, not softer like the chocolate I chose that only required a gentle pressure to crack open. I’d have trouble eating them. The sugar would make me ache, stuck between the excruciatingly slow process of sucking on them until they’re flimsy or disintegrate and risking cracking a tooth biting down on the candies whole. It would be difficult to establish a pace that would make me sick enough to vomit, it might elongate the process from minutes to hours, and instead of throwing up, I might just feel nauseous. Disorientation and weakness would blur the world and sugar would be my only tether to something tangible.

I wonder if the institution presenting the work would intervene and ask me to stop or if other patrons would express their unease or offence. I’m curious if directing the attention away from the sculpture itself and emphasizing the act of eating and illness might prevent others from taking a piece of candy altogether. I’d become an intrusive force. My body, similar to Ross’s but also very different, might then become an unavoidable example of what is undesirable—too queer, too grotesque, and too visceral—and therefore needing removal.

Interacting with work about a history I’ve inherited and continue to grapple with in an unsavoury way, that reveals the realities of what is at stake and how these issues have impacted the people I care about and mourn, is not kind to the public. It would deny the cool and sanitary ecosystem galleries and museums aim to present and uphold, which reiterate their authority and false objectivity. Loud expressions of rage and remorse unburdened by judgement and scepticism are uncomfortable because they’re not easily ignored. These acts ask spectators just how complacent they want to be. Intense emotions, especially those of negative or taboo association, are unwelcome in public spaces and institutions. They’re relegated to private rooms or protest where they can then be dissected from afar and met with force up close. The censoring of marginalized bodies and narratives dissenting these qualms, that actively demand recognizing that these lives matter and are worthy of dignity and respect and life, exposes the disappointing and inconsequential work institutions have done to accommodate such grief.

Museums and galleries are not spaces that sincerely allow vulnerability, they don’t adopt a position that values care, and maybe they’re not meant to. Maybe a hierarchy featuring compassion is unrealistic. As an artist, I think about what strategies there might be to address that problem, what ways I can support the emotions and pain people could encounter in these spaces when they view my work or the work I enjoy. Considering the responsibilities as the person proposing charged crossroads is an aspect of my practice that promotes ideas of collaboration, ideas that I find increasingly hard to consolidate or materialize. Including pamphlets for local resources and organizations dedicated to supporting victims of the violence discussed in the exhibition doesn’t feel like enough, but developing genuine interventions and instances of solidarity excavates an entirely new and overwhelming set of questions.

Being an artist is an exercise in deciding what kind of caregiver you want to be and complicates the extent you can reasonably embrace that role. I want to support my peers, the artists and educators who continue to inspire me by valuing and embodying creativity and generosity, but I also want to maintain a critical awareness about the limitations those titles have in the systems we navigate. I want to bolster the communities I am a part of, particularly the LGBTQAI2S+ community and survivors of sexual violence, with a dedication to reflecting on what queerness means in a world that aims to commodify everything and if colonization has formed a dangerous unconscious pull towards violence and entitlement.

Wanting to interact with queer archives, those housed in institutions like galleries and museums, in a way that is unbecoming or against their protocols fascinates me. It opens up a series of questions about what art might look like that incorporates that resistance and if institutions would be as invested in preserving something that actively disregards their dubiously prophylactic preferences. I’m sure there are countless examples of work that functions this way materially, in its ephemerality or neglect, but I wonder what instances exist that allow for a perverted interaction. What would art that announces to audiences this is a site for recognizing the constraints of their empathy look like? How would an archive that is intended to be ingested and vomited or hysterically cried over and torn apart appear in an institution?

I think these questions can risk advocating for artwork that is irresponsible and actively aims to harm viewers. That is not a strategy I can condone and the reason for that is a lack of consent. The dialogue I am proposing orbits consent—audiences, or the individuals unearthing the archive, need to be in the position of authority about when it starts, stops, and its form next to their bodies. Being an artist means I’m approaching these considerations as a maker, as someone curious about relationships between objects and people and how they might interact with one another, but for the general public this could take an infinite number of shapes.

Perverting the archive, or altering the traditional dynamic that aims to control or filter history and protect us from its dangers, actually feels easier to do at home. This process is visceral reading. Cooking a dish that you don’t like but will remind you of someone you care about or a place you want to reconnect with presents a more well-rounded experience as the sensations become jarring. They twist our comprehension as pleasure and disappointment meld and coagulate, struggling to truly unify but whose boundaries shift from discrete to effervescent. Another example that feels common is the preservation of uncomfortable garments, especially those with sentimental value, but to follow suit with my goal would require actually adorning them and having that encounter with discomfort. By pressing what might be itchy or abrasive against the skin you reach into a realm that is grounded in ambivalence, it requires active navigation lest you want to be enveloped whole by overwhelming stimuli.

Performance art offers an intriguing space where spectators and participants confront these ideas. Watching a body in motion evokes unique sensations where our flesh almost simulates what we see, the artist’s gestures haunt our own skin and bones, and a peculiar link is formed. It can be uncomfortable watching someone under duress, even when it is voluntary or intentional.

An artist who moves through this space is Ron Athey, whose performance work oscillates between the pleasure and pain binary rapidly. It shifts so quickly back and forth as a viewer, even for someone who hasn’t ever seen one of his performances in person, that I’m jostled and left flustered. The stimulation by integrating eroticism and vulnerability often leaves me in a state between horror and curiosity. That murky space features moments of arousal and confusion, where penetration or bloodletting become evocative and repulsive. Seeing images of The Solar Anus where Athey’s face is stretched on hooks or his ass opens around a large black dildo attached to his own high heel can be a lot to digest. The performance reminisces on the flexibility of a body to be augmented, the potential to be bent and gouged, and still return to or resemble something human, meanwhile, it questions how we define humanity entirely and the associations we make between those definitions and appearances.

Looking at Athey’s work always encourages fantasizing about what it would mean to re-enact his performances, or respond to them in a way that consumes some of the methods and materials and reimagines them in a personalized context. It would be a homage that samples the original performance and tastes Athey’s history but transforms it into an intimate experience that muddles his themes with my own. That is how I’ve looked at work like token and what performing it with an actual Felix Gonzalez-Torres would be like—it’s an attempt to imbue an archive distinctly linked to the body using the body as its vessel.

An example of this strategy that I think of is bug chasing, or seeking out condomless sex with HIV-positive partners with the hope to be seroconverted from negative to positive. Tim Dean writes about it in Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking and how trying to become HIV-positive was an act of empowerment for queer men who were overwhelmed by the stigma and relentless homophobia. These men wanted to control how they contracted HIV, a large number tackling the more devastating and seemingly futile question of when as well, directly and with autonomy. Their bodies became a viral archive, one that loosely tracked who they slept with and revealed who had access to treatments when they were made available. Bug chasing allowed an archive to physically alter the immune system of its participants, compromising the cells intended to protect them, and acted as a signal that there is power in determining your fate and allowing love in when it is potentially lethal.

Contemporary instances of bug chasing are interesting as there are treatments available to greatly reduce the risk of HIV developing into AIDS with medications even being able to render someone’s viral load undetectable and therefore untransmittable (U=U). That advancement presents seroconversion, contracting HIV and becoming positive, as something less dire. HIV is repeatedly phrased as no longer being a death sentence and it's a statement I am ambivalent about. I’m glad that those whose HIV-positive status has caused pain, or who have been dehumanized and deemed disposable, might now have access to treatments that can save their lives and that work towards contradicting the harmful narratives surrounding the virus. However, I maintain concerns about lessening the critical lens pharmaceutical companies and healthcare in the U.S. are under as annual deaths from AIDS-related complications go down within the borders of Western countries. There will always be a problem when profits determine access to care. I’m also cautious of the fantasy of eradicating HIV because it has been, and continues to be, a source of strength for people like bug chasers. I remember writing, “I want to live in a world where people can choose to be HIV-positive” and it’s a statement that still urges mixed emotions.

I bring up bug chasing as a potent subcultural example because it prompted an idea years ago for a performance that I have not done but reflect on periodically as an idea. The premise involves following in the footsteps of chasers by seeking out an HIV-positive partner who would agree to try seroconverting me. The word ‘try’ is key here because it’s actually quite difficult to definitively know who gave you HIV if you’re having condomless sex with multiple partners without disclosures and irregular STI testing. This is one of the reasons why HIV criminalization is such a poor policy, and as Sarah Schulman mentions in her essay in Art AIDS America titled, “Dear PosterVirus, This is why you mean so much to me” criminalizing HIV only maintains oppressive power structures and often targets marginalized individuals, therefore, HIV-criminalization doesn’t really protect anyone and does not reduce harm.

This hypothetical performance mimics token in nature by literally engaging with the archive physically, the former using HIV itself and the latter the metaphor for the body of a lost queer lover. It is riddled with problematic positions including the privilege I have as someone who does have access to treatments that could render my viral load undetectable. I’m also a cis white male, a body type that frequently dominates discourses on HIV and feels inseparable from optimistic presumptions that it is no longer a death sentence. The performance and seroconversion might risk being interpreted as a trend or obtaining an accessory, rather than an attempt to understand an archive in ways that books and words fail to articulate.

I should disclose that I’m not currently planning on doing this performance. Its role is to provoke deeper questions about what it means to interact with an archive viscerally, in ways that transcend intellectualized thoughts to saturate parts of someone in a deeply disturbing and heady nature. This process permits a harsher inspection of how sterilizing queer archives renders them inaccessible or nulls their potency. I am unsure if institutions are necessarily the sites for which this transfer should happen but I am curious how it might appear if it was allowed or fostered. There are profound ethical dilemmas here and the scope of dangerous implications is vast. This is not a demand for these accommodations and this text proposes little as a solution, but it is something on my mind as an artist.

Embodying an archive is complex and poses endless risks. It is not something you can fully control because there are factors beyond our comprehension. That unknowing is powerful. Relinquishing authority invites a vulnerability that can be traumatizing but it is in that possibility that we might encounter a broader understanding of what it means to survive. This is not an endeavour I promote lightly and it needs dedicated consideration—you have to be confident that you will get hurt and decide that it is still worth it.

The process is complicated and it places a heavy burden on those around you by forcing a confrontation with their own biases and assumptions about what an appropriate relationship to history and others consists of. The potential for great inspiration and unmistakable harm are consequences that I want to maintain an acute cautionary position of as my goals are for personal growth. Others do not need to accompany me but are welcome if they so choose. I understand if that decision is to decline as the gravity of these topics and the implications of their knowledge in the body is immense. It’s a conversation I am eager to continue having and look forward to sharing throughout—practising describing the taste of candy-coated vomit is something I will gladly do for anyone willing to listen.

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