QUEER AS AGENCY IN CONTEMPORARY ART :
Denis Maksimov in conversation with Katarzyna Perlak for Arts Territory
Katarzyna Perlak is a queer artist, filmmaker and educator, operating in the multimedia space of contemporary art and visual culture. Her work is embedded in ethos of the critical theory of social and political violence of the institutional power of normalisation, standardisation and oppression. She produces performances, video, photography, collage, textiles and is constantly experimenting with the new media of expression (www.katarzynaperlak.com).
Denis Maksimov is a theorist, curator and critic, whose transdisciplinary practice revolves around the notions of power, art, knowledge, myth and future as the crucial elements within the constant dynamism of making meaning in anthropological reality. He is interested in the agency of ‘queering’ as universally inclusive strategy of softening agonistic nature of politics and ideology, as well as its potentiality to revive the institutional critique towards the vitalisation and new forms of resistance to the oppression of power. He is a co-founder of Avenir Institute (www.avenirinstitute.info).
Denis Maksimov (DM): Let’s start from your video ‘Niolam Je Se Kochaneczke’ (2016). Is it a title of a particular folk song?
Katarzyna Perlak (KP): The title is inspired by a folk song but it wasn’t the title itself, but part of the lyrics.
DM: Was it your intention to redefine the cultural heritage in the direction of queering its nature in the video?
KP: There are several layers to that. I had the idea for this film for quite a while; intentions for making it came for the most part from my lived experiences.
When I lived in Poland I participated in folk singing workshops and listened to EE folk, so I do connect to this music on a sentimental level, I always liked it. There are a lot of love songs, but they (not surprisingly) always represent heteronormative narratives. Queer love wasn’t represented, but definitely, it was present. Here came my idea of creating the archive that couldn’t be there. I wanted to reclaim these stories, if I may say so.
Secondly, it was important to have the conversation about how history and tradition is used - both in Poland and outside, in migrant communities - for nationalistic purposes. For example, images of folk craft are often used by Polish Diaspora Institutions, presenting this image of Eastern European heritage as a sort of culturally simplified entertainment with the focus on what the local public would immediately connect with. My goal is to complicate it and include multiply narratives that populate this heritage.
DM: It is the agency of ‘orientalisation’ (in Edward Said terminology) of this tradition, isn’t it? The gaze of trying to catch something unusual, sort of touristic form of catching the essence of something.
KP: I recently went for a research trip to the Ethnographic Museum in Krakow, and while there I had quite a few conversations about representation of folk traditions. There is a certain, very important social class problematic to it. The traditional folk songs were at times not ‘poetic’ or ‘sophisticated’ enough (or too obscene) for the people who collected and archived them, so at times they censored or modified them. The collectors of the ethnography were mostly coming from the upper class, therefore they were appropriating this heritage in a very specific way. They were trying to change the songs as they were trying to make them more usable for upper-middle-class context.
DM: They were trying to colonise this ‘rural’ experience to something they can understand and use in their ‘oriental’ perspective on the rural life, making a product of entertainment out if it.
KP: Not sure colonised applies here but appropriated them for sure. During the Communist period, there was an operation of adaptation of what was considered ‘low’ culture to ‘high’ places like palaces of culture, where the folk songs were performed for the party nomenclature and city audience. That is brilliantly presented in recent Pawlikowski’s ‘Cold War’ movie. It is interesting for me to register how this folk tradition interpretation is moving around depending on the particular ‘government of the day’ agenda.
In the video, I worked with folk singers from various backgrounds, I wanted to add the narrative of migration there as an inherent part of the whole picture, as well as raise polemics about Eastern European identity being majorly associated with whiteness while the reality of it is becoming multi-cultural and multi-ethnical.
I want to place queer relationships in the space of Eastern European history. Because even if it is unregistered, it had definitely had been there. For that reason, I have started to create the fictional archive of the folk songs.
My migrant experience has been also an important factor here. A need to self - define, free from both Western stereotypes and Eastern nationalistic absorptions. Since I have been living in the UK it became quite urgent and necessary.
DM: Where would you prefer to see this work presented? In contemporary art or folk art museum?
KP: I have mostly presented it in galleries and film festivals (in Western Europe); I would like it to be shown in an ethnographic museum in Poland though, as a fictional museum collection. Yet I wouldn’t want to make a choice between the two, because the audience can have a different experience of work depending on the context. But the impact for a wider public would definitely be more challenging in an ethnographic museum when the audience would be taken by surprise.
DM: Would you find it problematic to show this work simultaneously in both of the institutions of contemporary art and folk art for instance?
KP: In a way, creating this fictional art museum is an operation of thinking on a specific hypothetical level. For me presenting this work in an art gallery (in Poland) is already complicated, a museum seems like almost an impossible option. So it seems that breaking those walls in any form is a definite ‘win’. The spaces where I am so far invited to show it in Eastern Europe are specifically LGBTQ+ friendly, while I would be interested in exposing the work to the wider, “unprepared” audience.
Here in the UK, this border between ‘queer-friendly’ and something else is more subtle, while in Eastern Europe the struggle for visibility is still ongoing. I wouldn’t want the work, in general, to be only shown in a special “tolerant space”. I would like to reach out into further layers of the culture, to the audiences that would be surprised to see it. It certainly doesn’t decrease the importance of showing this work in specifically LGBTQ+ contexts of course, but seeing what’s happening politically around the world I think it is important to go out wider and avoid caving in.
DM: The language and references, I think, is extremely important in a conversation like ours. There is no outside-text, as Derrida was indicating. How do you define the difference between queerness, LGBTQ+ and ’same-sex love’ in your lexicon?
KP: I tend to switch between them depending of the context. I wouldn’t like to pour or to impose an identity on anyone while making work that relates to subjects whose experiences or identities might reflect in any of those terms, so in this way, it is also the question of openness. In my films, it is mostly women presenting subjects, but I don’t want to exclude any other queer identities from there of course so ‘queer’ opens up the narratives, particularly that in all the works main subjects have their faces covered, so gender can’t be easily assumed. Looping to another project, in ‘Happily Ever After’ (2017) the performers that are walking on the streets of Wroclaw have masks on them. Although they wore dresses, it wasn’t totally defined if they are female. This ambiguity is important.
DM: It is more about the strategy of communication of the message. The words are working as a toolkit. The clearness of the message is important.
KP: Yes, we also need to take into account what is lost in translation, or not even translated. In Polish ‘queer’ as term and identity only functions in English with no translation, similarly like gay, lesbian and ‘gender’. Which adds up to the idea that queerness is not part of Eastern European identity, but something that has been imported from Western countries.
I remember seeing once a Catholic poster in Poland on which was written: “Say NO to gender!” The word “gender”, connected to feminist/queer studies was aligned with queerness so what they meant perhaps what ‘Say no to queerness’ – yet the actual message was not knowingly in support of throwing the gender binaries away, which was quite ironic.
DM: Did you have a specific goal when you developed the projects?
KP: My goal was to contribute to the conversation on the visibility of queer narratives and lives in the Eastern European context, present stories that are not being seen or talked about.
DM: By the way, returning to something you said before about your project - I don’t think your work is ‘fictionalising’ archives, as all the archives are fictional if you approach them in a critical way. It is always the gaze of the archiver that turns subjective into objective, fictional into the real. No one could say there were no songs that same-sex lovers wrote for one another, we just didn’t write them down as they were probably not considered to be worthy of being recorded. Do you think we should create nowadays new rituals, maybe inspired by the fact that we don’t have the memories of something from the past, in order to create the legitimisation for the future we want to live in?
KP: Many recognised and recorded rituals came from collective, communal experiences and efforts and in that way is interesting to think how new ones can become alive, formed and narrated through the current collective experiences. I like the idea of the invention of the rituals in everyday life, of its transformative potential.
Anyone can create them for the individual experiences and journeys we have every day, but if we talk about creating them through art practice when they go beyond our individual experience then perhaps there might be some problem with the authorship. If you make an artwork, the whole conversation about the legacy, artist-genius and so on is inevitably coming up. What would be the elements of it to call it legitimate?
DM: Can queer inclusivity counter the agony of the political? Can queer movement become the first political force to avoid ’the winner takes all’ logic and go beyond potentiality to become a new suppressor, something that the right wing are crying about as their largest fear?
KP: Well the right wing has many fears, yet they all come more or less to the fear of losing the privilege and power white patriarchal heteronormative subject have been accustomed to. No ‘inclusivity’ in conversation is going to change that and resistance is going be there to any real (or imaginary) change of the established power dynamics.
Not sure how can you really fight that – big question quite a few try to answer now - but putting the care for these feelings in centre of the movement (if that’s how we call it) would be rather counter-productive.
The notion of queerness has been always ever changing, evolving, and unsettled so in some way it makes sense that it has the potential of becoming quite abstract. Yet its roots are in very real everyday stories and experiences of violence that LGBTQ subjects have been exposed to (past and present). These need to be remembered and not forgotten in this abstraction. Queerness was and has been a tool, strategy, a part of nourishing structure helping those that others want to erase to survive, not a trending critical theory that helps one to contextualize their practice and dip in and out of it when convenient.
The queer movement has been challenging oppressive structures based on patriarchy and heteronormativity but it also included complications of race, class, gender - the politics there has definitely expanded beyond sexuality. The history of the movement is about trying to embrace more conversations and imaginations that are not yet there, bringing them into a space of social and political visibility. We have so many things we still have to open up and confront, so many other ways of living. Exposing it equally makes it more inclusive, but we have to be wary of it getting it appropriated into something else - because those acts can deprive it from political agency.
DM: Maybe we are actually not yet at that moment of political agency, but rather we need to first explore more of those differences in ways of living and then see how we can structure the conversation? Maybe we are not there yet for the comprehensive politics?
KP: I would reply here with a quote from J.E. Munoz’s Cruising Utopia: Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine the future. The future is queerness’s domain. So yes we might not be there but we have to keep on going and trying as we are.
DM: Is it possible to escape the incorporation of the struggle by the market? Can we resist it?
KP: There is no easy answer. The political struggle becomes capitalised on all the time, and while the goals are not there yet and core establishment remains the same we are witnessing ‘moving on to the next thing’ as new trending concept etc arrives. These concerns are present and circulating, once an artist I am in conversation with said that queerness has to be weaponised again, which was a great way to put it.
What it could mean? The term queer was appropriated from something that was an insult. The resistance was to wear it with pride. But now it has been in some way ‘normalised’, and in it lost some of its radical agency. People before would have been disturbed by what it was associated with. Certainly many people still are. Maybe we should bring this element back, in a sense of keeping the uncomfortable, uneasy element in – in whatever context and conversations that un-comfort is needed.
DM: What do you think about the current right-wing movements, who try to use resistance to growing acceptance of the otherness as one of their core drives?
KP: Currently we see and hear things that not long time ago were unthinkable, both in language and in actions. It is driven by fear of losing the power/privilege and resistance to ‘political correctness’. I think we should speak more of political empathy than correctness; maybe this would change the way some engage with it. It is not about saying and doing things to present yourself as politically aware/correct (or however u call it), but truly feeling for those that have been and are discriminated upon and make a real change: personal, structural and institutional. What we are witnessing now is inauthenticity of correctness in the society that lacks in real empathy, with oppressive structures still being perpetuated.
DM: Do you see other ways of achieving visibility of the queerness beyond the art bubble, those special supporting spaces we talked about before?
KP: In my own experience, there is a great potential of achieving that through personal relationships, conversations and networks that have to be continuously built. I myself come from the working class background, which doesn’t have a direct connection with art or academia. Arts and theoretical discourses don’t reach working-class communities very often - even when arts try to be inclusive, it is still a bubble constructed by many forms of inaccessibility. Perhaps one of the ways to open it up is to open the language through which arts communicate and through which that bubble is constructed.
DM: Should then queer storytelling attempt to focus on producing stories in new forms, using contemporary and maybe even aim for the future media?
KP: Good question. Art still has a communicative component in its centre, even if it is very cryptic. Maybe again it could be about looking at how you can go out of this bubble and what this medium/language would be. Some of the public realm works perhaps have been trying to break to be a reason for conversations on the streets. I use public space performances/interventions quite often in my work for this reason. Internet could be an example, providing wider access to a new political space. Maybe looking at our working processes and methodologies is one of the ways.
For example, I recently started working on an embroidery project and I estimated the work would take me many months to finish. I was thinking how it is counter-productive in a way. So if you do something very slow, against the currents of constant acceleration, it becomes in itself a mode of resistance. But the challenge here is in the necessity to co-exist within this real we have now and how can one survive if you resist in this space of totality, constantly demanding a particular form of behaviour?