Wednesday, June 1, 2011

feminist art midwife: go perfectly limp

A few weeks ago, I modeled some work for Mariah Tuttle, who is an MFA student in the Jewelry and Metalsmithing Department at RISD. Mariah had created some amazing, aggressively lacy neckpieces made entirely of caulking (yes, caulking—the plumber’s and contractor’s delight). I was flattered to be asked, and totally enjoyed the process of modeling. Being a shy Virgo, I am not the most comfortable kid in front of the camera, but modeling for Mariah was great because I loved her work, and loved having them lay on my body, their weight and texture pressing into and challenging my own flesh.

But as I scanned through the images that Mariah forwarded me, I was struck by a weird contradictory emotion. I felt narcissistically happy that I looked so skinny (I forget I am that thin at times, and I do like to be reminded) but I felt a twinge of sadness about that pleasure. Mariah had created this beautiful body of work, and I was happy to be its hanger/ frame, but maybe I was too happy. I felt this because just a few days before I got the images, I also received from my dear comrade Minh-ha Pham her fabulous article, “Blog Ambition,” in which your true Joony Schecter is featured.

download article here

Reading this articulate, complex work which analyzed this blog was like wearing Mariah’s heavy jewelry. Minh-ha’s summation of my persona as Joony Schecter was so moving:

In forgetting gender, Lee/Schecter refuses to remember and thus refuses to reproduce the two-gendersystem of heteronormativity. Such queer forgetting, Hannabach explains in “Untimely Forgetting,” “is not a passive process, but rather an active venture of tracing the edges of that which must be forgotten in order for subjectivity to be established and maintained.” In the hands of Lee/Schecter, red lipstick is more than a feminine commodity; it is an instrument for making “gender trouble.”

Beyond flattering, Minh-ha’s articulation of my work gave me a fresh perspective of my body. But her words, like Mariah’s materials, and the extreme pleasure they gave me, made me ask myself: am I actually built more to be a model/ muse than maker? Am I too passive a work-maker? Do I enjoy doing nothing to actually making work?

In Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, the heroine Lily receives a warning from her friend (another woman, but one who is married), when she tries to hatch a strategy for landing a particularly rich husband: “Whatever you do, Lily, do nothing!” This is a caution not against the delicate minefield of gold-digging, but actually a dictum for feminine self-embodiment. Lily is directed not to be too intricate in her scheming because the very act of activity in fact will give her an aggressive, and thus masculine, aura. In other words: to “do” anything is to do oneself out of femininity.

This is why in feminist terms, bodily stasis (“doing nothing”) usually equals a passivity against which a woman must constantly and consciously rebel. But the pleasure of modeling, the pleasure of stilling your body toward the construction of a femininity, does not feel like passivity.

The grandest counterexample to what I see as the false equation between bodily stasis and political passivity can be found in the strategy of protest concocted by the civil rights workers of the 1960s against police brutality. Following to beautifully dogged extreme Martin Luther King’s interpolation of Mahatma Gahndi’s philosophy of nonviolent protest, civil rights workers went “perfectly limp” against the physical violence dished out by Southern police. The phrase “perfectly limp” I take from Nina Simone’s song “Go Limp,” a magnificent, complex anthem about racial protest and love. The song also begins with a scene of one woman (a mother) warning another (her daughter) into femininity:

Oh Daughter, dear Daughter,
take warning from me
and don't you go marching
with the N-A-A-C-P.
For they'll rock you and roll you
and shove you into bed.
And if they steal your nuclear secret
you'll wish you were dead.

As with Lily Bart, the daughter in “Go Limp” is warned against (political) activity (“go marching”) because to do so will lead to a loss of her virginity and thus her bounty as a marriageable feminine being. But like all good daughters, the daughter defies her mother—though softly: she will carry a brick in her handbag. Not only that, the daughter goes on to find that political activity, when fighting for desegregation, goes hand-in-hand with femininity-granting body stasis:

One day at the briefing
she'd heard a man say,
"Go perfectly limp,
and be carried away."
So when this young man suggested
it was time she was kissed,
she remembered her brief
and did not resist.

The good people at “the N-A-A-C-P” are giving instructions on how to get arrested while peacefully demonstrating: “go perfectly limp and be carried away”—by the police who attempt to obstruct peaceful protest. But this political pedagogy serves as a feminine one as well, for going perfectly limp and being carried away is in fact what she does to a cute boy with a beard who takes a fancy to her. What I love about the song is not just the complex ways in which it articulates the femme-centric core of the civil rights movement (at least the King, rather than Malcolm, faction) but also the ways in which a political commitment to peaceful protest grants a woman a different way to embody traditional feminine stillness that is not at all “passive” in a patriarchal sense.

I don’t have any urgent political activity in my life that requires me to “go perfectly limp and be carried away” by the police (I have a hard enough time as it is to find a cute boy with a beard for whom to go limp—although I’m getting close). But there is a major, and I daresay, political part of my identity which has everything to do with doing nothing: that of being a teacher. I love teaching my students at RISD. But whenever I get too much pleasure out of it, this old hackneyed adage tears through my brain: “Those who can’t do, teach. As a professor at the college level, I am actually expected to do both: “do” (make my own work) and “teach” (help students make their work). And while I am constantly doing, there are days when I feel like my “doing” is growing smaller and smaller in comparison to the teaching.

Recently, two of my former RISD students, Tara Perry and Greg Kozatek (as a part of the production collective Hunting Party), sent me a music video they created for a raptress. For the video, they created a fake magazine called "lipstickeater":

see the whole video here

So finally, here was the meeting point of "modeling" (Joony Schecter: Cover Girl!!) and "teaching." It encapsulated my relationship to bodily stasis and art making. I think of this teacherly “can’t doing” as going limp. I let myself be carried away by the exuberance and beauty my student’s making. It is always good to find shards of myself in the work of my students, but I feel like I’m truly doing my job, truly going limp, when I see that I’ve been able to assist/ affect/ nurture my women students to create work that challenges the patriarchal norms of femininity. Then, not only am I doing my work as a teacher of art makers, but I am also doing my work as my own cultural worker: a feminist art worker.

These are some of my women students who let me go limp for them:

La Invitación from Diandre Fuentes on Vimeo.

DIANDRE FUENTES’ video employs warped out pop music to give an aggressive, revolutionary aura to the scene of an adolescent girl’s play with traditional feminine trappings.


JAMIE KRASNER’s words and videos conceptualize femininity as fragmentation (an idea which I share with her as a bedrock of my own self-creation these past threesome decades). But her embrace of fragmentation shockingly builds a tough carapace of tenderness.


TAMARA JOHNSON’s performance transforms her petite self into a superwoman—able to hold up a beam that supports an entire building. (The beam is made of foam) Johnson erases her whiteness and blondness by not only shrouding it in masculine workwear, but by making her flesh merge with the “steel” of the scaffolding, she herself becomes the building.


LEXIE XTRAVAGANZA (n√©e Newman) created, for her senior degree project, a collection of knitwear inspired by Paris is Burning (which she viewed in my class). But this gorgeous work was but a material extension of a fascinating work she’s doing in the re-invention of herself as an “Xtravaganza.” In taking on the moniker (it’s her official facebook name) she is linking herself to the famous drag house, but also digitally re-calibrating the boundaries of her body, so that her femaleness becomes distilled to femininity.

I think (and thank) all of these women create femininities that rancor against patriarchal norms of how a woman ought to connect her body to the world. But I think about Lexie a lot these days because I’ve been trying desperately to grow my hair back out to its Medusa length. (And most distressingly, hair growing is not an act of will) Lexie’s most recent facebook profile photo is a beautiful showcasing of big hair. It looks as though the camera caught her mid-hair shake. I love this photo because it reminds me of my own past facebook profile photos.

Lexie is a twentysomething statuesque blond female. I am a thirtysomething flat Asian male. But we are both girls in t-shirts, luxuriating in our hair. This is how gender and racial bodies get crossed: bodies that create echo. I go limp for my students, but they also let me be carried away into my own body. I was reading over the student evaluations for my courses last semester, and I came across one that really tickled and touched me. After the positive comments about the content of my class and the style of my teaching, there was a wonderfully indulgent flourish: “Joon, if you read this let it be known that you have beautiful hair!” If my teaching, my not-doing, leads me back to this place, I am more than satisfied.


Diego said...

We were reading "The Joy of the Castrated Boy" for class at Cornell this week. Amazing as usual ;)

joony schecter said...

thanks diego!! glad that my old song is still shaking some butts!!xoxo