Becoming an Image: In the Ring with Cassils

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Last night I got to see Heather Cassils perform Becoming an Image. In this performance, Cassils boxes a plinth-like column of clay to the ground. This is done in the dark: the audience enters the room, stands in a ring around the clay sculpture which is lit from above. The room goes black and the artist and photographer are led into the circle. Cassils then attacks the clay – at first you can’t imagine that Cassils will be able to beat it down before “gassing out.”

The photographer (last night it was Manuel Vason) circles Cassils, taking photographs every now and again. The flash illuminates the action – but you of course don’t see action. You only see a flash image, frozen for a second into the retina. It took me a while to conceptually separate my experience of those images from the images captured by Vason’s camera – the image the audience member sees feel distinctly photographic.

For the duration of the approximately 20 minute performance, you hear Cassils breath and grunt like a fighter in the ring. Or a fighter working the bag. It’s gym noise.

I am sure this performance feels very different for people who have boxing or a martial arts practice. Your body knows what is happening to the artist’s body – people train and fight in three-minute rounds for a reason. Punching and kicking is exhausting; these are a technically and physically demanding actions. The more you tire, the harder it is to keep your concentration and hold your form – and if you don’t do the latter, not only will you tire even faster, you’ll hurt yourself. Even if you are fighting a lump of clay. Especially if you are fighting a lump of clay.

Training on a bag is very very hard – and a bag gives to impact. So, if you have some familiarity with the sport this work cites, you know that it is intensely durational. You can hear it in the artist’s breathing – weezing, gasping. A solid block of clay not only doesn’t give – after the performance the artist told me that it seems to push back. It has its own resilience.

Becoming an Image is an engagement with the idea of the object, but it is also a very intense workout with the idea of the athlete, and with the image of the artist. What this performance does to gender – that’s not only another blog post, that’s a whole book.

 

 

Kissing Contexts: Double Personal Fouls in the WNBA

Diana Tausari squares off against Seimone Augustus, looks like regular basketball. Shoulder checking and all that. But then in a lean in, she leans in!

It’s worth watching the post-game interview.  Augustus explains “As far as me and Diana and the tango dance we had – I always say she just wanted some of my deliciousness.”

When asked about this moment Tausari explained: “I was just trying to make sweet love, that’s it.”

That’s it. Just exactly the kind of queer playfulness that mainstream sports folks have feared like the coming of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

Watching The Belles

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The Belles was aired in January 1995 on BBC 1.  This is perhaps one of the most unusual documentary portraits of women athletes I’ve ever seen. It covers a few weeks of the team’s season, moving back and forth between conversations with individual players, match footage, and peeks into the team’s life together off the pitch.

There are startlingly intimate moments, as players speak about their relationship to the sport while, say, lying in bed. Or celebrate a big win in the changing room and, perhaps more scandalously, at a gay bar. My favorite moment: players on the disco floor, FA cup in hand and mirrorball overhead.

FA Cup win The Belles

The FA didn’t take kindly to the documentary: Belles captain Gillian Coultard had captained the England squad and was demoted after The Belles aired.

Writing in the wake of that grim period, Pete Davies describes the team as scarred:

When the Belles let a BBC crew make a documentary that was broadcast last year, they thought they were helping promote women’s football. Instead, they got a sharp letter from Graham Kelly about the tone of the programme, and are now scared stiff about talking to the media. Last month, they felt obliged to turn down Yorkshire TV when that company wanted interviews – and a dread of publicity, when you’re needing sponsorship, isn’t too helpful. (The Independent 11 March 1996)

The Belles – the documentary and the story of this incredible club – inspired a television series that ran for five years (Playing the Field). But in 1995, its airing left the team with a difficult burden.

This weekend the Doncaster Belles will play their last match in the Women’s Super League – the FA’s attempt at the establishment of a professional women’s league. The FA is off to a flying start in confirming at least this writer’s belief that you cannot leave the administration of the women’s game to men whose decisions are guided by sexism and greed.

The Doncaster Belles were relegated to the second division at the start of this season in order to make room for Man City’s women’s side.

I still can’t wrap my head around the FA’s behavior towards The Belles, except as a continuation of their behavior towards the team ever since the FA was  forced to deal with the culture of the women’s game in the early 1990s, when the Belles were a super-dominant club and a fine expression of the independence and autonomy of  women’s football in England.

Some football fans might agree that today, “professionalizing” the sport is synonymous with ruining it for fans and for young players. The story of the FA’s behavior towards this team, which hasn’t not played in the top flight since the FA began organizing such things, is fine evidence of that dismal truth.

To read an excellent overview of the FA’s treatment of the Belles, read Glen Wilson’s article on The Popular Stand.

Kissing Contexts

Gran Fury, Read My Lips

This weekend, the members of Russia’s 4×400 relay team made a point of exchanging kisses on the medal stand at the World Championships in Moscow. A photograph of two of the gold medalists has been widely circulated as a protest image. Folks wonder: Is this a European-style greeting or a political intervention? Is this women being friendly? Or is it anti-homophobic and maybe even lesbian?

Footage of the ceremony shows that it wasn’t just two who kissed. Each member of the relay squad kissed every other member of the squad. It was a flurry of kisses.

 

If you’ve spent time in environments in which people kiss when they meet, the gesture is certainly recognizable as a polite greeting. But it should also seem out of context. Usually you only kiss someone the first time you see them in the day. Kissing someone again after you’ve kissed them hello is odd. And kissing them like this in a medal ceremony is unnatural. There are implicit rules about who kisses who and how – men might kiss each other in one place but not another. Men might kiss women in one place, but not another. But generally, if folks are in the practice of greeting with a kiss, women kiss and are kissed. But not when they are getting medals. In that case, maybe the person putting the medal around your neck kisses you. On the cheek. Maybe. (Generally, it’s a handshake.) But you don’t kiss your teammates. You hug. Which is much friendlier, actually, than a kiss. And, in any case, kissing on the lips – that’s reserved for very particular exchanges. Yes, people kiss on the lips as a greeting – but it is definitely a (very polite) step towards rather than away from intimacy.

The runners gave photographers a very specific photo opportunity. Again and again.

Are these the polite kisses of housewives or are they expressions of gender rebellion? Is it politics? Or is this personal? Is this Western media run amok, looking for gay anything because it makes a good story? In a homophobic environment lesbian desire, love and attachment is both prohibited and also persistently erased. It is erased by the determination to imagine that women have no active sexuality at all (in which case, a woman wants only to be the object of a man’s desire), and also by massive cultural hostility to feminism – as a practice of caring for and about women.

As Dave Zirin writes, folks want to draw from this kiss an analogy to John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s 1968 black power salute. But, he rightly observes, we can’t. He notes, for example that where Carlos and Smith’s raised fists silenced the whole stadium and then drew jeers, people in the Moscow stadium seemed not to notice that the kisses might be an intervention. They didn’t interrupt the ceremony in any way.

The difference between these moments is interesting for all sorts of reasons. But here I’ll just ask: What would a queer feminist power salute look like, if not a kiss? What could be more queer, in fact, than a gesture that makes you look at the explicit homosociality of sports differently – as potentially, at least where women are concerned, always already political? Is it the kiss itself that does that? Or is it, in fact, the homophobic context in which the kiss is staged?

When we look for gay signs and signals, we mirror the homophobic public sphere conjured by Russia’s prohibition of queer “propaganda.” It is not, in other words, Western media that is making a gay spectacle out of sports – it is the virulence of the homophobic public sphere that Russia’s government is nurturing. We can trust that the sport spectacle will inspire new heights of paranoia and fantasy within this Russian context.

Athletes have been asked to tone down even the most discreet demonstrations of support for Russia’s LGBITQ community. Even Rainbow colored finger nails are too political. Nevertheless, women can kiss on the podium at a world championship event in that context, and folks ask themselves “what did we see”? Russian officials are happy to tell us: nothing.

This speaks to a big question – a question at the heart of Russia’s hateful laws: How do we see sexuality? How does one regulate sexuality as something that is seen? That question has never not framed queer activism. It was taken up most explicitly and most consistently, however, by AIDS activist organizations like Gran Fury.

Gran Fury, Kissing Doesn't Kill (1989)

In 1989 and 1990, a poster of lesbian, gay and straight couples kissing was mounted onto the sides of NYC buses. It was a part of a series of images of queer kisses – others were captioned with the demand, “READ MY LIPS.”

 

The Russian team’s kiss draws out their context: a world that scrutinizes every gesture, every movement towards members of the same sex, looking for and beating out signs of the queer from the social body. All public displays of affection unfold within cultural tradition and social practice. There is something distinctly powerful about a group of women athletes staging the warmest and most polite of gestures within a context in which that gesture is also quite clearly political.

What could be nicer, more queer or more feminist that meeting the world with a kiss on the lips?

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Russian women race to a kiss-in (and a gold medal)

The beauty of absolute gender segregation in sports is that it makes a display like this almost impossible to avoid! It’s always either all women or all men on a podium at the IAAF World Track and Field Championship. Every medal ceremony has the capacity to be a gay kiss-in!

They fought for this medal. It’s a great race.

The furtive kiss-in:

I count seven. Maybe eight kisses.

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