I am writing this post on feminine monstrosity with much hindsight, reflecting back on both Braidotti’s “Signs of of Wonder and Traces of Doubt: on Teratology and Embodied Differences,” and the discourse that Allyson Mitchell’s Lesbian Feminist Haunted House encouraged, including the art project’s performativity of some of the more monstrous elements of radical feminism, those we might wish would go away. Also relevant is M’charek’s “Fragile Differences, Relational Effects: Stories About the Materiality of Race and Sex,” in noting how identity is not fixed but relational in different contexts and in response to different people with their own shifting identities; the barrage of criticism for the LFHH centered on representation and identity politics, an example of difference within difference; how multifaceted and various the identities of “lesbian” and “feminist” are, and how a diverse audience responded to the project’s provocations.
Mitchell created this maximalist, collaborative performative installation with a dedicated coven of feminist artists, much of the activity taking place during the Summer at the FAG (Feminist Art Gallery), which Mitchell runs with her partner Deidre Logue, the space a beautifully renovated garage behind their home in the Parkdale neighborhood of Toronto. I first visited there to meet with FAG’s July artist-in-residence, Vancouver’s exuberant and brilliant Heidi Nagtegaal, who Allyson introduced me to via email, to plan out a queer art danceparty called Sweaty Bones v. Mary Mack, at the Henhouse.* Other good friends Brette Gabel and Hazel Meyer were also working for Allyson, painting signs and stitching pantyhose crafted “shady ladies” and “polyamorous vampiric grannies,” and I was soon invited to join in on the sign painting, and then signed on to silkscreen print t-shirts and tote bags, merch for the LFHH. Allyson’s nurturing of relationships and networks of queer and feminist artists is an intrinsic part of her practice, exemplified in how she organized the LFHH to include so much collaborative and communal making – she connected and strengthened a community of makers and performers in the construction and execution of this project.
All this is to preface how the project was actually received, what it communicated to a wide and diverse audience. I expected much criticism to come from conservative media, from homophobic, misogynist, or “men’s rights group” types, who objected to the historical and often exaggerated and satirical yet somewhat resonant tones of anti-male sentiment, signs such as “don’t trip over the severed penises,” performances such as the butch “ball bustas,” who smashed dozens of plaster cast truck nuts (an extreme embodiment of the stereotype of the castrating, ball-busting humorless lesbian), or the lesbian folk singer who performed excerpts from Valerie Solonas’ S.C.U.M. Manifesto. Those criticisms only came towards the tail end of the exhibition’s run, and rather, the bulk of criticism and dialogue happended almost immediately, from within the queer community, from folks who felt under-represented and/or misrepresented and/or unwelcome in the LFHH, namely POC and transwomen. Klampex, wrote an initial blog review that was then cross-posted to the wall of the Facebook page for the event, which resulted in hundreds of comments, and within a few days, a very thoughtful response from Allyson, including acknowledgement of the piece’s intentions, and its potentials within an art context:
“The Kastle is an art project. The space and concept are haunted by the undead ghosts and spirits of the whiteness and transmisogyny of feminisms past and present as well as, the iconographies of queer and feminist art histories and activist spirits that will not die. It is meant to be an apt and symbolic funeral for dead and dying lesbian feminist monsters as well as a place to cathartically face fears, self-critique and contradictions.”
As Braidotti notes, “Difference will not just go away.” These critiques speak to the difficulty of representation, particularly in art practice, and also the difficulty in communicating complicated realities with humor, irony, and satire within politically and socially-engaged artworks, and I believe at a base level, speaks to a deep hunger for that representation; how few examples of real queer and feminist culture and lived experiences are presented with this much support, on this type of scale. Kate Barry’s excellent review on her blog, here, noted this, and also spoke to how complicated a project this necessarily is, and to note the way in which it interprets and builds upon feminist history, our need to both acknowledge ghosts of the past for their problematics, but also how we build upon and benefit from the hard and thoughtful work of previous generations (The LFHH directly references 1972’s Womanhouse, for example, in practice and in one of the signs: “This Ain’t No Woman Haus!”). One piece, no matter how many diverse voices were involved in its production, cannot do it all, but can add much to discourse as well as deep pleasure in recognition. I hope Allyson’s extensive extension of resource in contributing paid work and recognition to so many emerging artists will enable others to continue projects of this sort in the future, and perhaps add to the LFHH for its next incarnation, or the next massive feminist art project to make art herstory.
*My friendship and working relationship with Heidi was one of the nicest outcomes of the LFHH for me, and I am continuing to work with her in December, when I will do a week long Hammock Residency (which she runs from her home), and co-organize and DJ a special Sweaty Bones v. Mary Mack Solstice Sweatacular. We also have collaborative artist multiple economic sustainability schemes for the future.
For further discussion please see my video dialogue with Shauna Jean Doherty, which has been deactivated elsewhere on this blog, but is viewable on her Vimeo page, here: https://vimeo.com/77819499