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Spirochetes of Contact

Spirochetes of Contact installation selected by juror Gary Schneider for
Faculty 2020 exhibition
Chazen Museum of Art
Madison, WI
February 1-May 17, 2020


If Fire Island—once the rare home to what Esther Newton described as “America’s first Gay and Lesbian town”—was, in its heyday, as Edmund White suggests in his introduction to Tom Bianchi’s collection of Polaroids taken between the introduction of the Polaroid SX-70 in 1972 and the decimations of the AIDS epidemic, the earthly gay paradise of sex on the beach conjured in photographs by Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Peter Hujar among others, where now are the sexual freedoms for which the first Stonewall bricks were thrown? In this year of the official commemoration of the Stonewall riots of 1969 celebrated as Stonewall 50, this is no idle question. Shooting still and now with the swinging SX-70, my speculative practice with the ephemeral technology of the Polaroid mines the aesthetic potentials and political implications of photographic exposure in the context of intensified surveillance the frontal facing drive of which remains the compulsory photographic identification most evident in the passport and driver’s license by drawing out the “sex” implied by the explicit yet estranging “ex” in the invention Edwin Land dubbed “special experiment 70,” that revolutionary instant-developing “magic camera” (the first self-developing SLR) introduced to evade the darkroom (and the local developer) and, thus, used extensively by those on the subcultural margins to avoid the policing scrutiny exercised by the local developer.


For the Chazen Museum of Art Faculty Art Exhibition, Spirochetes of Contact offers a critical dialogue as intervention in the immediate aftermath of the 2019 public commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Stonewall to question the blinkered terms of its celebration that persists in equating a radically limited visibility for white gay men constrained by respectability politics with rights and freedoms for all queer subjects and, thus, obscures the material conditions of exacerbated vulnerability for LGBTQ subjects, particularly for the unassimilated gender queer, working class, rural, trans, disabled and queer of color subjects outside of metropolitan, coastal enclaves in the situation of retractions of state supports for health care in the context of an AIDS crisis that is not over and is, indeed, compounded by viral and bacterial threats not recognized as epidemics and prevalent among women who have sex with other women such as Lyme disease for which Fire Island is now ground zero.


This critical dialogue on sexual freedoms not yet arrived in the wake of the official commemoration of Stonewall 50 confronts as it takes up, on the intimately accessible scale of the hand-held, instant-developing camera, the pervasive social powers of the photographic as still the primary political medium for the surveillance, citizenship-conferring, and rights authorizing apparatus of the state and their contestation across the wide field of taking back the look that connects the seemingly divergent practices of activist social documentary and the presumptively narcissistic selfie among marginalized subjects endeavoring to shift the terms of their being marked for objectification and disappearance.


Spirochetes of Contact takes the form of a collection-reframing installation that brings out of storage an important sub-set of the Chazen’s holdings of Andy Warhol Polaroids (part of a 2008 gift to the museum from the Andy Warhol Foundation), a small group of four intimately explicit and anonymous close-ups of the charged body parts of naked men that represent an important deviation in Warhol’s practice in which the scene of the Polaroid becomes an end in itself rather than a process-based off shoot on route to the celebrity portrait face as main event. The form of the collection-reframing installation is structurally dialogic in juxtaposing these late 70s Warhol Polaroids taken on the precipice of the beginnings of AIDS crisis side by side with a small preview set of the Polaroids I produced on Fire Island (epicenter of the AIDS crisis and now ground-zero for Lyme Disease-- which current research suggests is sexually transmitted between and particularly virulent amongst women who have sex with other women) over the course of participant-observation artistic research conducted in 2014-18 for the photo-essay artist’s book and installation planned for 2020 which I am titling Spirochetes of Contact.


The collection-reframing installation for the Chazen exhibition functions as a capsule preview for the larger project on the biopolitics of public sex in the changing terrain for sexual freedom which takes its animating figure from the spirochete form (Greek for long spiraling hair) of the bacterium Borellia burgdorferi spread by ticks from deer to humans. In setting up the dialogic visual conversation for the Chazen exhibition as a site of encounter among Warhol’s Polaroids and my own and between the out-of-timeness and yet striking currency of Warhol’s and my Polaroids and the larger environment of a world in which photography as the everyday phone-embedded camera technology of instant picture-taking and virtually instantaneous social media sharing is the turbulent water within which we now swim as a site of encounter, the aim is not merely to activate the reverberating resonances and striking differences in orientation, scale, relation, and site across these Polaroids. In setting up the collection-reframing installation as a glass case display that necessarily makes us aware of the vulnerable terms inherent in its conditions of viewing as inevitably threatening the preservation of what it shows, the very real material fragility of the Polaroid as a unique original tethered to a notoriously volatile support offers a palpable analogue to the larger political conditions of precarity in the wake of a Stonewall promise that has yet to solidify for most of us.


At the same time that the vulnerable conditions of the Polaroids’ viewing point up the ways that, contra the photographic contract of documentary capture, rather than resolved or fixed, we affect the image by our looking they also point back out to heighten the sense of the intimately insinuating scene of viewing as a situation in which we also risk being substantially affected and altered not just by taking a picture or being photographed but in our material encounter with the volatile image as its own post-Stonewall enactment of the promise of freedom that, in its embrace of the risks of exposure,  may yet become not the basis for militarized walls of state exclusion but rather bonds we forge in and through difference by the cultivation of a more-than-human sensibility, inter-threading a political survival aesthetics of utopian aspiration, devastation, and camp sincerity in the spirals of strands that entangle, in the thick of the landscape of desire, risk, and exposure, the spirochetes of contacts between human, animal, and environment as the foundation for another union.