A screenshot of Steve Reinke’s “Regarding The Pain of Susan Sontag (Notes on Camp)” (2011) (image via University of Chicago Film Studies Center)

CHICAGO — The Great Refusal: Taking on New Queer Aesthetics induces a sort of lonely feel, one that falls closer in line with Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, which argues that “the efficacy of queerness lies in its very willingness to embrace this refusal of the social and political order” than the playful camp of Planet Unicorn. It is after Lee Edelman’s polemic text, and namely the notion of “refusal,” that this video screening and the larger exhibition series takes its name. Yet, if queerness is all about transcending and transforming beyond normative modes of being and believing, why do the works in this screening mostly rely on queer theory texts of the past? This video screening presents 11 videos covering topics of the abject body, intersections of sex and death, the gay mystic, explorations of S/M fantasies and fetish, power plays, the bathhouse, and the odd world of online amateur porn.

Ivan Lozano’s 15-minute video “King Nepture” (2012) explores the intersection of mysticism, astrology, and the general spiritual void through a queer lens. He investigates Neptune, the planet that rules his Pisces sun sign (mind you, his moon is in Gemini, wink). Splicing stream-of-consciousness text with visuals of a flashlight investigating his nude form a la Dancer in the Dark, the video serves to reunite the artist with his ruling planet. At times employing language of a master/slave relationship, Lozano’s play with pop spirituality and mysticism is the least academic queer work in this show.

A screenshot of Dan Paz’s “Bathhouse” (2011). (via Gene Siskel Center)

Building on the archive of queer spaces, Dan Paz’s video “Bathhouse” (2011) charmingly desexualizes the bathhouse experience, moving it from a male-only cruising zone to a completely co-ed, no-private-parts-showing, awkwardly graceful attempt at forming intimacy in a sterile space. In this mostly black-and-white video, an attractive group of men and women, whom Paz admits to having “audience crushes” on, meander their way through a bathhouse that’s masquerading as a spa; at one point, they coalesce in a whirlpool, performing synchronized swimming moves together. The camera momentarily goes underwater and looks back at the dancers. It’s in these moments of warmth that full color invades the frame and the filmmaker’s vision resonates. Yet these moments are quickly snatched away. The constant shift back to an ominous, black-and-white aesthetic and tone leaves the viewer wondering if this bathhouse experience is indeed transformative — imagining what it could be — or just an exploration of the space.

The internet, however, is a non-physical space that often times gets queered. In El Jane Janet Li and Miao Jiaxin’s excerpt from “COLLABORATION #5B” (2010), the artists stage a sexualized homocide on a user-generated amateur porn site CAM4, and get booted off every time. In Meredith Zielke and Yoni Goldstein’s “The Jettisoned” (2010), the artists show one of the three videos form this three-channel series that serve as archives of childhood memories related to the abject. In the video screened, a camera pans over an array of bodies arranged together; each perform some type of bodily exchange. In one shot, a woman allows her spit to drip into the mouth of another; it flows seamlessly, like milk from a cow’s udder.

An image form Ivan Lozano’s “King Nepture” (2012) (Image from Headmaster magazine)

The bulk of shorter videos in this program investigate types of play, in a rather playful way. Co-curator Oli Rodriguez shows “For a Long Time, All I Could Do Was Surrender” (2011), a five-minute exploration into potentially charged fetish situations, including one scene in which collaborator Marissa Perel holds his head underwater for an indeterminate period of time. Collaborative duo Will Haughery and Kris Harzinski’s three super-short videos “Fuck, Piss and Spit” (2012) desexualize the otherwise sexual acts, making them queered in another way. In “Fuck,” Harzinski inserts a white flag on wooden pole into Haughery’s asshole, and then turns on a fan to make it blow. Surrender, bitch! In “Piss,” Haughery stands on top of something and pisses while Harzinksi, with his shirt off, allows the piss to spill off his tongue like a fountain. He stands up post-piss, and makes a grossed out face. In “Spit,” Harzinski spits water at Haughery’s mouth. In each work, the two seem anywhere from mildly to incredibly grossed out by the other; the performances in each video are more of a dutiful explorations of the subject matter than any sort of pleasure-seeking sexual experience.

Videos by established queer artists Doug Ischar, Barbara DeGenevieve, and Steve Reinke are older, better groomed, and know what they want from a partner or the viewer. Ischar’s “Alone With You” (2012), is a painfully poetic meditative video that splices together a physically violent wrestling match from the 1980s, portraits of Robert Mapplethorpe and his work, glasses auctioned off at Christie’s and a table leg inserted into Ischar’s ass over a mosaic warm auditory vibes, including orchestral and contemporary rock music. The result is a layering of sounds and imagery that actually makes the viewer feel movement akin to the stages of a relationship. DeGenevieve’s video “La Petit Mort” (2012) is four minutes of the artist’s face looking like either a dead or orgasming body, asking what’s the difference between these two states, really? Steve Reinke’s “Regarding The Pain of Susan Sontag (Notes on Camp)” (2006) is both self-reflective and reflects upon queer aesthetics. For this work, the artist combines the titles of two of Sontag’s seminal texts, “Notes on Camp” (1964) and “Regarding the Pain of Others” (2002). He travels back to his hometown, venturing into the graveyard across the street from a school in an attempt to more fully understand Sontag’s texts.

Videos Taking on New Queer Aesthetics builds on ideas put forth by theorists such as Edelman, for one, but what new foundation do they lay? Is it possible to extend pass the death drive and into a space of regeneration not dependent on heteronormative time and bodies? This screening leaves viewers with more questions and answers, namely what type of queer aesthetic is the next generation creating? Till those answers reveal themselves, long live the death drive!

The Great Refusal: Videos Taking on New Queer Aesthetics took place on November 5 (8pm) at the Gene Siskel Film Center (School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 164 N. State Street , Chicago).

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED Magazine and the Chicago...