Artist Joseph Liatela (all images courtesy of Joseph Liatela)

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?

Joseph Liatela

Where are you based currently? 

New York City

Describe who you are and what you do.

I am a multidisciplinary artist based in New York City. Through a trans lens, my work explores the institutional, cultural, and medicolegal ideas of what is considered a “correct” body. Using performance, sculpture, and writing, I make work that examines issues of gender representation, biopolitics, embodiment, and questions of authenticity.

In my recent work, I have been exploring the medical industrial complex and BDSM’s overlap with transgender and queer identity formation and histories. There are many material parallels with medicine and BDSM — for example, stainless steel, silicone, and latex all have queer and medical associations. The ways medicine and BDSM both intertwine with trans and queer histories are starkly contradictory: medicine continues to be extremely pathologizing for all marginalized bodies, and BDSM has been used in queer communities to imagine utopic spaces for sexual deviance, consensual negotiated power dynamics, and agency. As a transgender person who has roots in BDSM culture and navigates the medical industrial complex in order to access hormones, I’m interested in how both of these spaces have been formative to who I am — as well as the paradoxical relationship of having to rely on a medical system that is oppressive in order to access embodiment.

Joseph Liatela, “Untitled Molecular Prosthesis” (2020)

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

Recently, I finished co-authoring a chapter on trans art and cultural production for the next edition of Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, to be released by Oxford University Press in 2021. In quarantine, I have been organizing an independent critique group with a few other artists, and have been making new sculptural work about how institutions regulate and shape our bodies.

I’m lucky to have been able to perform/exhibit in small, local community settings, as well as nationally and internationally, including exhibitions at Denniston Hill, Human Resources LA, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions with La Pocha Nostra, Paul Robeson Galleries, The Monmouth Museum, BRIC, and PS122 Gallery. I’m grateful and proud to have had my practice supported through awards and fellowships from the Zellerbach Family Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, The Wassaic Project, Denniston Hill, California College of the Arts, Columbia University, and the Banff Centre.

Favorite ways to celebrate your queerness and community?

Throwing respectability politics out the window. We are in an incredibly culturally conservative time, more than I think many may realize. I remember attending SF Pride in my early twenties, and public sex in the streets was commonplace and an honored tradition. Why does this feel so out of reach in our current time of extreme censorship? This was not long ago — 2012-2016 at the latest!

What’s been top of mind for you lately?

In our current moment of being in the midst of a deadly global pandemic and a civil rights uprising here in the United States, I have been thinking about how we are at a critical point of being able to shape history with our hands and bodies. We’ve seen it happen in Richmond where people have literally shaped history with their hands by taking down racist monuments, and in New York where 15,000+ people gathered for Black trans lives in Brooklyn.

From an artist’s perspective, I’ve been thinking about how the lineage of performance and sculpture are in conversation with this [moment] — what sculpture and performance “can do” to better our social condition, and how we are in a vital moment to reshape the world we want to re-enter on the other side of this portal of transformation.

Joseph Liatela, “Passage” (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 feel incredibly lucky to be close to or acquaintances with many, many brilliant artists and arts organizations across the country whose work I deeply admire. Some who come to mind are Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo, Serena Jara, Pamela Sneed, Queer|Art, Río Sofia, Nash Glynn, Indira Allegra, Aaryn Lang, Keijaun Thomas, Edwin Ramoran, Kris Grey, Maya Margarita, Malaya Tuyay, Visual AIDS, Phoebe Osborne, Samantha Espinoza, Ms. Edge, and Brendan Fernandes.

How are you celebrating Pride Month this time around?

By continuing to fundraise for G.L.I.T.S. to support Ceyenne Doroshow’s lifesaving and life’s work to secure long-term housing for Black trans people. (If you haven’t already donated and want to support this invaluable and necessary work, donations can be made here!), as well as protesting, making work, feeding my loved ones, and dancing — as often and as safely possible.

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

Yes, absolutely — there are many, many ways. One crucial and concrete step that comes to mind would be for institutions and organizations to prioritize hiring or funding queer artists who are the most marginalized, such as Black and trans people of color, for long-term leadership positions that pay well.

Joseph Liatela, “On Being An Idea” (2020)

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

I want to see sex work decriminalized. I want to see white supremacy, police, and prisons be abolished. I want to live in a world where every trans person can access healthcare for free, on demand, at any age, without apology. I want to both witness and produce challenging, difficult, and transformative work that changes the way we think about ourselves and relate to one another. I believe that all of these things are possible in our lifetimes, and I believe that we will win.

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

I have been thinking through this a lot lately while in quarantine. The spaces I have found myself valuing the most are the performance venue, the protest, and the queer bar, which I see as all very connected to one another. A project that I am currently working on, to be produced by the Leslie-Lohman Museum at the end of June, seeks to re-imagine how we may choose to re-enter the future of the cultural, historical, and political space that is the queer bar once it is safe to physically gather again. When thinking about the future of the gay bar in our current moment of physical distancing and uncertainty, rather than resort to despair, this project will seek to imagine how queer people may re-enter, re-imagine, and re-configure the socially, culturally, and politically meaningful space. In other words, how will we choose to gather when it is safe to dance together once more?

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Dessane Lopez Cassell

Dessane Lopez Cassell is a New York based editor, writer, and film curator, as well as the former reviews editor at Hyperallergic. You can follow her work here.