What do you see as the role of public space, and how does your work engage that idea?
We don’t see public space as neutral or abstract. We take queerness out of the ‘abstract’ and enact a queer conversation out in public. Historically, public space has held a contradiction for queer people; on the one hand we have been invisible and on the other hand we are frequently the target of violence in public. Part of the impulse in making this work has been to let other queer people know that we are here, that queer people are everywhere—simply put, we make ourselves visible.
How do you see your work in relation to the idea of ‘queer space’ in the city?
From the beginning, fierce pussy cut to the chase. Rather than taking on the critique of mass media, homophobia and the male gaze, we announced ourselves as lesbians and directly addressed other lesbians walking those same streets. Our first poster project, the lists: I AM A… AND PROUD [on view at the Carpenter Center and the Sackler Museum] speaks in the first person. Here we not only reclaim this derogatory language, we name ourselves and provide a position for the viewer to do the same.
In gutter, we take as raw material lesbian pulp fiction novels from the 1940’s through the 70’s, which were not necessarily written by lesbians. It is often through the act of reading that young people first find possible reflections of their identity. From the first time one looks up the word ‘lesbian’ in the dictionary, the pages of books provide a safe and secret space to explore one’s fantasies, desire and identity. We turn that private act inside out and invert the experience by taking private ‘queer’ reading, and turning it public. We redact the text to arrive at a more satisfying narrative. The tropes of lesbian pulp were: the girl could get the girl, but always ended up dead, sad, alone, sick, alcoholic or married to a man. From the position of the reader we become the writer; by crossing-out and underlining we re-edit these stories to more accurately reflect our experience and desire. In our version, women can have hot sex and ‘happy endings’—in both senses of the word.
How do you view the role of re-appropriation in your work, both in your use of language and in the spaces of intervention?
We use the derogatory names that lesbians have been called and reclaim that language to affirm our identity. We use our own childhood & baby pictures to reconsider the space of family & personal history as queer space. We use found photographs to question the tyranny of assumed heterosexual identity. We use existing historic texts, newspapers, and most recently lesbian pulp novels. The way history is written often denies our existence. We go back into these texts to reinsert the lesbian experience: our anger, our desire, our impact, our lives.
New York City has changed dramatically from the early days of the collective (1991), and along with it, so have the issues of queer identity and visibility. In what ways has your work adapted/resisted/engaged these changes?
Queers may be more visible, but the city, and our country, have become far more fundamentally conservative. Today, ‘gay visibility’, which is more about assimilation & gay marriage, has replaced queer visibility and a vision of radical social change. We are committed to the latter and continue to adapt and find new strategies. We remain radical lesbian feminists.