“Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon” at New Museum, New York
Mousse Magazine, November, 2017
From the armed violence epidemic in the United States to the controversy surrounding academic safe spaces, the word “trigger” is inextricably rooted to political turmoil. Curated by Johanna Burton, the New Museum’s director and curator of education and public engagement, with Natalie Bell and Sara O’Keeffe, the exhibition centers on how gender has become a catalyst for debate and action at this moment in contemporary culture.Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon spans three floors of the museum and features 42 artists and collectives.
Rather than an explicit reference to trigger warnings—statements that warn readers or viewers about potentially harmful content—Burton explains that the title Trigger gestures to processes of the unconscious in psychoanalysis. “It seems that our current moment is predicated on an unwillingness to think about the way in which different traumas, historical and present, are being processed culturally,” she says. The curator defines the trigger as a “psychic mechanism” that is “necessary for political change, but it’s also what can keep political change from happening in our current environment.” Burton explains that the exhibition’s subtitle, Gender as a Tool and a Weapon, draws on the 1979 text by Audre Lorde, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. Identifying as a black lesbian feminist, Lorde critiqued white second-wave feminists’ exclusion of communities marginalized by race, class, and sexuality. This show takes Lorde’s criticisms as a directive to encompass a variety of subject positions and aesthetics. Yet there is a playfulness, too, in Burton’s title, which resituates tools and weapons—usually considered masculine implements of construction and war—in relationship to gender.
Over the few years that Burton and her co-curators were developing the Trigger exhibition, she was simultaneously co-editing the anthology Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility with the artists and activists Reina Gossett and Eric A. Stanley. The book, which will be released this November by MIT Press, considers the paradox around representations of trans identity. Burton says that the book is informed by feminist theories around representation, post-colonialism, and critical race theory. Yet it has an urgent ethical impulse. “It is geared precisely to the kind of spectacle culture that’s really hungry for trans bodies right now,” Burton says. “You see this desire everywhere, at the same time that violence, against trans women of color in particular, is at an all-time high.” At a moment when trans civil rights are being stripped away, visibility has the ability to both liberate and compromise the trans community.
Trigger is in dialogue with Trap Door, but it has a wider purview than a survey of queer or trans artists. As Burton explains, “It is a show that demands that we think about everything differently, if we subscribe to an irrefutable new paradigm around identity.” She considers her exhibition in dialogue with a series of show at the New Museum that explored the theoretical discourse and evolving formal approaches of queer and feminist art, including Extended Sensibilities (1982), Difference (1984–85), Homo Video (1986–87), and Bad Girls (1994). But unlike these shows, which often tried to pin down an artistic movement or style (such as photographic appropriation), Trigger presents a cross-generational group of artists working in different modes. The checklist encompasses artists working at the height of the AIDS crisis (like Gregg Bordowitz, who will debut a series of new performances about masculinity) to younger artists dealing with questions around gender, sexuality and civil rights. “It’s less of a celebration of a spectrum of gender, and more of an inquiry into the possibilities that open up around non-binary positions, and the destabilizing effect that has on culture,” Burton says.
Burton describes her exhibition as one with “a lot of humor and beauty and pathos and glamor,” running the gamut from performance and video to abstract and figurative painting. Artists who pursue ideas of abstraction include Sadie Benning—who was featured in the Bad Girls exhibition of 1994—and Nancy Brooks Brody, a member of the lesbian collective Fierce Pussy (founded in 1991). Benning has made a new series of abstract photographs taken from the inside of a car through a rainy windshield, while Brooks Brody shows abstract paintings called Glory Holes, evoking the sexual and spiritual connotations around that term.
A number of artists in Trigger mine the history of feminist and gay liberation movements. Ellen Lesperance, for example, creates paintings and installations related to garments worn by feminist and civil rights activists. The craft and textile artist Tuesday Smillie produces banners directly related to protest signs of the Stonewall era and other moments in LGBTQ history, along with new banners that utilize the protest aesthetic with new messages. The archive plays an equally significant role in Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel’s new film Lost in the Music, an homage to the late activist and drag queen Marsha P. Johnson. Their film combines archival material and what Burton describes as “imaginings of the scenes with contemporary actors.” The artist-comedian Morgan Bassichis debuts The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions—The Musical, a performance based on a 1977 book by Larry Mitchell that has circulated among Bassichis’s friends group.
Finally, as much as Trigger considers sobering political issues, it does not shy away from depictions of sensuality, pleasure, and friendship. The museum will screen Community Action Center, the feature-length film from 2010 by A.K. Burns and A.L. Steiner depicting explicit queer sex acts and everyday interactions within their queer feminist. Works by Mickalene Thomas, Wu Tsang, and Justin Vivian Bond celebrate the lushness and vibrancy of queer and trans bodies. The House of Ladosha, an artistic and musical collective, present a graphic work based on the community’s shorthand exchanges on social media. And for those viewers ready to cross the line into participatory experience, Nayland Blake offers cuddle sessions while he performs as a suited character called Gnomen.