Sitting in an intimate audience at the LGBT Community Center on a recent Tuesday night, I observed an unexpectedly inspirational conversation: three queer artists with different practices revealed their use of art as a means to construct a community, counter invisibility, and declare acceptance of their bodies in a Visual AIDS–organized panel titled Positive Assertions.
Planned in conjunction with Visual AIDS Print + Editions’ Play Smart campaign, which merges art with harm prevention via condoms, lube, and artist-created photographic trading cards, Positive Assertions brought together a group of artists who all use the body to create a dialogue both within and outside the queer community.
Focusing on the statement “Love your body, love every body, love any body,” the panel, which was moderated by Art Matters Director Sasha Yanow, consisted of Jessica Whitbread, a Toronto-based artist and activist; Amos Mac, a photographer and publisher of Original Plumbing magazine; and Ivan Monforte, a Mexican-born, Los Angeles–raised artist who also works in social marketing for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC).
With topics ranging from their own artistic motivations to the use of the body as an artistic and activist tool, to love as a political gesture, the panel revealed the power of art to connect and educate others on the experiences of queer individuals. Not satisfied to just leave it there and end the discussion, I spoke personally with the three artists on the panel to investigate some of the themes that were presented in more detail.
Jessica Whitbread, who has been HIV positive for over a decade, explained on the panel that she employs her body as the primary site of all of her work in order to increase the visibility of queer women with HIV, who have largely been ignored, even within the queer and AIDS activist communities.
Working in several different mediums, Whitbread organizes dance parties titled No Pants No Problem, which feature kissing contests and games of spin the bottle based on ideas of identity and disclosure, and Tea Time performances, which map networks of positive women through letter exchanges.
Whitbread also participates in the poster/VIRUS project with AIDS ACTION NOW!, plastering Toronto with AIDS activist posters in the style of Gran Fury. The project matches artists with activists to design dialogue-inducing, often shocking posters with such slogans as “Fuck Positive Women,” “Silence = Sex,” and “I Party/I Bareback/I’m Positive/I’m Responsible.”
Whitbread revealed that she had felt lonely and was inspired to create art in an effort to find a community. As she explained to me:
For me, it came from this place of loneliness, wanting to feel a part of something. When even the queer community doesn’t have a place for you. I felt like, I’m going to find that place and build something around that.
One of the ways she builds that is through her No Pants No Problem parties, which open up a space for more fluid identities. Not solely for queer-identified people, the No Pants No Problem parties are designed for people of all types of sexualities and genders — straight, queer, or curious.
Whitbread told me many stories about attendees being able to explore their sexualities without the constraints of disclosure and definition. She spoke of a straight-identified man who kissed six men while playing spin the bottle and discovered which was the best kisser.
Similarly to Whitbread, Amos Mac began his career as a photographer through his desire to find a community. As a trans man, Mac felt isolated during his transition and started using photography as a way to connect with other trans people.
Through photography and his magazine Original Plumbing, which he founded in 2009, Mac asserts the visibility of trans males and documents the diversity in the trans community. Depicting such issues as whether to use hormones or surgery, Mac reveals the spectrum of masculine and feminine beauty in trans males.
A lot of what I do is in response to things like shame and invisibility. Some of my models may have anxiety when they get in front of my camera due to extreme dysphoria related to their trans experience, but that also happens to non-trans people in front of my camera. What many of my trans models are doing is claiming a space, being visible and proud of who they are and their story. It’s different for everyone.
While Mac continues to photograph transgender individuals for Original Plumbing, he recently expanded his photography to a series of subjects in their bedrooms. These works, such as “Juliana Huxtable Ladosha,” as well as shots of well-known queer artists like Wu Tsang and musician Cody Critcheloe from SSION, connect to Mac’s interest in “documenting the present to create a more visual queer and trans history through art,” he said.
Raised illegally in the US until he was 14, Ivan Monforte’s work also questions how to function in a culture when you’re on the margins, in his case because of both sexuality and race.
Monforte works in a variety of mediums, making photographs of his tattoos; video art for children, including a piece that features Monforte making out with a man who is on the down low (a straight-identified man who has sex with men); and T-shirts playing on Daniel Joseph Martinez’s famous piece that reads, “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white.” Monforte’s shirts say, “I can’t imagine ever wanting to sleep with a white man.”
Using his own body as the central site for performance and questioning ideas of sexuality, visibility, and race, Monforte also makes video art for adults, such as the work “I Belong To You” (above), in which he painfully and intensely gets a hickey from a man for the length of a song.
For Monforte, art is a means of education. Refusing to show his work in commercial galleries, he exhibits only in museums and nonprofit spaces, which allow for a more community-based conversation.
Asked whether art has a responsibility to educate, Monforte declared:
Art and education often go hand in hand, regardless of what people in the art world would have you believe. Art that educates tends to be viewed as didactic and sometimes dismissed as pedestrian, which in my opinion is completely ridiculous. All museums have educational components built into their programming. Their role in culture is to educate. So I’ve never really embraced the idea that “high” and avant-garde art should be obtuse and confounding in order to be successful. And it’s why I’ve created projects that are for and include children.
Monforte was hardly the only artist or audience member at the Positive Assertions panel who advocated the importance of art as an activist and educational tool. I was struck by the ways all of the artist used their work to educate themselves, their respective communities, and others. “Art has a power to educate me, which in turn connects me to worlds I wouldn’t otherwise know about,” Amos Mac said.
Questioned why she feels art has a particular power to communicate the experiences and assert the bodies of queer individuals and people with HIV or AIDS, Whitbread explained, “Art has room to play, and in the world outside of that, there is less room. Art has these really fluid boundaries and structures. Those are the spaces that I like to do my work.”
Observing the art world, I often and easily become jaded by the seemingly inescapable consumerism and careerism coming from many galleries, curators, and even artists; however, the Positive Assertions panel completely dismissed any sense of doubt I had about art and its unquestionable ability to affect change. Whether moving us from isolation to community or confusion to education, art can assert positivity, visibility, and love for your body, any body, and every body.
Positive Assertions took place on Tuesday, February 12, from 7 to 9 pm, at the LGBT Community Center (208 West 13th Street, Greenwich Village, Manhattan).