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Queer Art Workers Reflect: Jess Saldaña Wants to Decenter the “Genius Artist” Narrative

LGBTQ Pride month is now. Every day in June, we are celebrating the community by featuring one queer art worker and asking them to reflect on what this moment means to them.

Jess Saldaña, “String” (2020) (all images courtesy the artist)

The month of June is a time to celebrate LGBTQ communities. It’s a moment to reflect on the rich history and culture of the queer community, as well as more recent advances made in the realm of civil liberties. This year, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, many queer individuals are navigating greater risks to their health, safety, and livelihoods.

Cognizant of the need to stay connected and elevate queer voices amid uncertainty, Hyperallergic is commemorating Pride Month by featuring one queer art worker per day on our website and asking them to reflect on what this time means to them. If you identify as a queer art worker, we’d love to hear from you. Click here to learn more about how to participate. 

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What’s your name?

Jess Saldaña

Where are you based currently? 

Brooklyn NY, [originally] from the Southside of Chicago

Describe who you are and what you do

Speaking as a Chicanx, enby, anti-disciplinary, art worker, my practice seeks to render the multilayers of intimacy and the hidden potentials of sociality, by emphasizing themes of rest and fantasies of the ecstatic, to leaning into the potency of the queer body to disrupt institutionalized borders. [My] works consider the indexical, regarding presence, absence and disappearance, as it relates to marginalization within the politicized space of the archive. Content is co-made and sourced from digital archives, reframed and assembled for alternative meaning-making and as a mode to work collaboratively, blurring authorship. The gaze of figurative representation is delicately considered, establishing either close contact or distance with the viewer. Filmic mediums, poetry and music are combined to conceptualize other modes of relationality through documented and ephemeral forms.

Jess Saldaña, “Trans Landscape” (2019)

Tell us about your greatest achievement or something you’ve done lately that you’re proud of.

Food is an important achievement — feeding oneself, feeding others — especially now. I find my most meaningful achievements to exist in this banal realm. Rising from bed to make a lovely breakfast out of only a few items. When I grow something on the fire escape of my Brooklyn flat, harvest it, and make something with it, even if it’s small, I consider that to be an achievement.

Favorite ways to celebrate your queerness and community?

I go to Riis Beach, to the far end. I go with friends, or fly solo. For me the beach has always been a place to connect with the earth and cruise at the same time. There is also something to the significance of the history of Riis, as it was a place of refuge in the 1940s for queers to sunbathe. I enjoy laying in the sun, peering over my book to watch all of the bodies, everybody — every body is out there, moving in their body, pridefully.

What’s been top of mind for you lately?

I have been thinking a lot about what José Esteban Muñoz said about hope. He says it is a means for thinking that gives us space to ponder the otherwise. It makes imagining another scenario possible. It is believing that against all odds, we’ll get through whatever we are faced with. He asks us to imagine an abstract, but concrete hope. A hope that is participatory, grounded in response to any obstacle one encounters. In our global case, the virus and its effects, which overflow and overwhelm. Hope is the invisible armor we wear through the struggle. It propels us into dreaming beyond it, and therefore it propels us into acting in relation to overcoming the struggle. There will always be obstacles, which will vary in depth and scope. They will feel insurmountable. They will feel towering. Hope reminds us that there is a reality beyond these obstacles, that there is a way to overcome what may try to break us. I wonder what the long-term effects of this particular grief is doing to us, considering the amount of death, as well as the lack of physical interaction, and the repercussions of the fear and xenophobia, which have weaseled their ways into rhetoric these days. Hope can be sustenance in the face of these fears, it nourishes and sustains through the storm. Hope re-shapes mindsets, world views, and attitudes. The hopeful utterance is in itself, mattering.

Jess Saldaña, “Crowd Study (Times Square)” (2019)

Talk to us about your immediate queer community/support systems. (Feel free to shout out other folks or organizations you think are doing important work.)

I am extremely thankful for my familial support system which is queer in a matrilineal kind of way, consisting of my mother, tias, and little brother in Chicago, my older brother and his partner in San Fran. My artist friends, who were already thinking about the ecologies of care in their life’s practice; Alex Dolores Salerno, Francisco “Echo” Eraso, and Sahar Sapahdari with whom I am co-developing a project called new economies: new internet, which seeks to reclaim the sociality of online space (coming soon). The ghosts of my mentors who care through posthumous messaging; my father and grandmother, José Muñoz, Félix González-Torres, Ana Mendieta, and Laura Aguilar to name a few. My living mentor, Fred Moten. My cat, Dr. Bear has also been a shoulder to lean on and a hand to hold, as well as my house plants, which tend to me as I do them.

How are you celebrating Pride Month this time around?

I don’t know what my plans are for Pride. Making plans right now is tricky. I can however make a playlist that I will be listening to regardless of where I go, or don’t go. Music offers the possibility for celebration in precarious situations.

Are there ways you think queer artists and art workers could be better supported?

The struggle of the queer art worker is inseparable from everyone else’s struggle. Acknowledging that a practice of interdependency is necessary for our communities to thrive is the first step. Acting towards dismantling the logics and policies of a market-centered, neoliberal, colonial, carceral state capitalism, will benefit everyone. Fostering support systems of mutual aid that decenter the ideology of hyper-individuation, and center accessibility across communities, would support not just queer artists, but all artists.

Jess Saldaña, “Bethesda (Diptych)” (2019)

In the communities that you’re part of, what are you hoping to see shift in the future?

There needs to be a rethinking of the cultural narrative of the “genius artist” as this is concept perpetuates the logic of individuation and is a marker of a subjectivity/objectivity that is directly linked to a neoliberal art market. We have seen the tragedy of the genius play out so many times, in literature and in life, especially regarding NYC — it is time to rehabilitate the artist’s narrative for the sake of the artist.

What’s the first thing you’re planning to do when it feels safer to physically gather again?

Queer picnic in the park, everyone is invited.

Enjoying this series? Check out other entries here

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