Queer Urban Geographies Reflection

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All I wanted was a SIM card for my old phone.  And all I wanted to do was to know how to send a text message to a mobile number.  I wasn’t asking a lot, was I?

After approaching the orange information desk for the third time, the woman that had at first smiled at me when I approached the orange desk the first time was smiling no more.  “Oh no, here he comes again.”  I knew she was thinking it.

“No, no!  You do it dis way,” she said as she grabbed my mobile and typed in the number for me.

“Mursee Bod Coop.” I said.

After that I did not forget how to enter French mobile numbers in my phone.

Traveling is always one way to help you wake up to the fact that most of our lives inhabit some sort of vacuum.  As a recent graduate, the Queer Urban Geographies experience reminded me of a world that exists beyond the academic padded room I had occupied for almost a year.  It reminded me that despite faculty approvals, awards, and accepted thesis documents, there is a real world out there that will force you to re-examine your work — again, and again, and again.  This examination is scary, rewarding, and beautiful.  I would argue that, in our case, it was the geographical aspect of it that made it so.

By this, I mean that placing ourselves in a city in which we were vulnerable to an unfamiliar location, language, and customs was key to making this project queer.  In other words, the strength of this project was that I was a foreigner in an unfamiliar, new place – a suburb of Paris, France.  In a strange way, it was like stepping back into the closet.  This time, though, I wasn’t peeking out to tell the world that I am gay, but to see what people think of the homo-normative world I have so carefully crafted in my head, in the safe world of New York City, and in my thesis project.  As an inherently apprehensive and award-winning worry-wort, this was practically terrifying.

Being able to step back and retain a certain vulnerability but at the same time exert a quiet sense of purpose is a trait I am only beginning to undertand.  The issues we sought to address in that suburb were familiar to us, but I now know less familiar to the people we worked with.  We came at a time when the same-sex marriage argument was a hotbed of activity.  At one point during a workshop, I thought I would have to stop.  Questions were coming at me in two different languages, and people, I thought, were getting impatient.  I was unsure, not confident, and a little on edge.  The feeling was all too familiar.

Suddenly, though, we got over the hump.  In some ways, the people I was working with were better problem solvers than I was.  I say this because while I was unsure and on edge, people in the room were thinking; they had ideas.  In the end the people of Argenteuil developed a fantastic methodology for me when I didn’t even ask for it.  After that, we received a sense of warmth and generosity I think few of us had experienced before.  We were given delicious homemade food, given places to sleep, and we even had poems written for us.  It was a blissful reminder that in the end it always works out.

Remembering that it’s going to work out, though, is harder that it sounds.  It’s true, the experiences of being vulnerable allow us to grow as human beings.  Learning to manage and profit from these experiences — and to do so on the spot — is one of the skills I believe my master’s degree sought to address.  Acting in the face of uncertainty is perhaps a skill more closely related to queerness that I had ever thought.  While I think it’s easy to speak of our Queer Urban Geographies project as it relates to topics like same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights, in my own reflection of the week I’m tempted to think of our group’s displacement and vulnerability as a reason in itself.  Being in a new place and not knowing how to talk about who we were or what we did was all too familiar.  Learning to overcome this and still be productive and enthusiastic is a skill that, as I mentioned before, I am still learning.  I think it’s going to be a long process, and I’m sure I’ll visit many more orange desks with grumpy French ladies along the way.

What can I say?  Dis is just how you do it.

 

Paris has burned

rashid_invalides

Growing up a queer person of color (QPOC) in the Midwestern United States, I never dreamed that it would be possible for someone like myself to go to Paris.  In fact, until last year I had never been out of the country.  At 28, the world seemed to open up in front of me.  Now 29, I am here.  I’ve arrived in “the most romantic city in the world.”  Well, as with many romances, it all seems to be built up in our heads as some distant possibility.  A possibility that we desire, but accept as an impossibility – which I believe is part of the attraction.

I recalled my obsession with the documentary film Paris Is Burning.  A documentation of the POC queer community in the late 80s.  Though in many ways the film has become a tokenizing artifact of the African American queer existence it still provided me with some hope as a POC queer coming from a sea of whiteness in much of my youth and young adulthood.  This film inspired me to think about what has been happening in the past months as France has passed marriage reform which includes non-traditional couples in the institution of marriage.

As a queer, Paris is romanticized as a place for queer culture in ways that are similar to New York City or San Francisco – an international gay mecca.  The reality, as we are recognizing in the States as well, is that violence and hatred is re-penetrating our claims to space.  In Chelsea just a week or so before our trip, my roommate and her partner came across the crime scene where a young POC queer man had been gunned down simply for being gay in the wrong place and time where I often pass to ride the train home from Manhattan into Bedstuy.  This carried with me to Paris and on our first day in Argenteuil it was expressed that homosexual people were “not seen” or rather, invisible or intentionally blending in due to some perception of necessity in this space.

These happenings inspired me to think of how performing in public space requires a reading, interpretation, and expression that is impacted by the environmental factors of material, design, and psycho-social influences.  I conceived of a narrative that explored how a queer person might behave in a variety of geographies and urban contexts – on the Esplanade, the train, and in front of Hotel des Invalides (the converging epicenter of the protests against same sex marriage on May 26th).  I hope that my work will be accepted in solidarity with those who have been fighting for equity in the recognition of love and family as determined by each and every individuals’ own experience and capabilities here in France.

For now I have uploaded some raw footage to youtube that can be used for comparison of my embodied identity and translation of the same song in two different geographies.  Later, the project will fill in the story between these two places…

– Rashid Owoyele

Raw footage from Invalides

Raw footage from Argenteuil

Queer Paris: culminating events

Our trip ended with two culminating events. The first was a dinner with queer theorist and curator Manuel Segade, whose writing “focuses largely on the circulation of critical discourses on representation. My basic interests are: the aesthetical construction of subjectivity, the ways in which a community is developed, the history of subjectivity, the complexity of lifestyles, Queer theory or language performativity, intertwined by an essentially political task.” He has extensive knowlege of the ‘hidden’ histories of Paris, as well as contemporary artists who have interrogated the spaces of queerness here, through mapping or otherwise.

The culminating event was a private tour of the atelier Le Cent and a presentation of the collaboration and projects. Hosted by Sarah Goldberg, curator of the ‘Be My Toys’ festival. We hope to continue the conversations here toward future collaborations and projects here, as the saying goes, “we’ve only just begun”…

 

Paris: art & queer culture

“El Caballero Español” by Eduardo Arroyo

“El Caballero Español” by Eduardo Arroyo

While our collaborative engagement with the Argenteuil community has been one aspect of our Queer Urban Geographies project, we have also come here to allow for a diverse set of “queer urban probes”, both in NYC and Paris. Beginning with the one-day Queer Urban Geographies conference in NYC that designed to facilitate a series of questions and perspectives from which to begin a series of discreet projects that can be spatialized. Jane and I have been designing Urban Research Toolkit (URT), an open-source, online, customizable spatial database, specifically to allow for a variety of methodologies that a project such as this one demands. Towards this effect, we are each setting up our own data “layer” within URT to spatialize and cross-reference these layers.

One of the layers I am developing is the “queer image” within artistic practice, how this is articulated, formalized, identified as queer or not. One of the first paintings I came across in Paris is Eduardo Arroyo’s “El Caballero Español”, at the Pompidou Centre. Identifying “queerness” is an emergent and discordant enterprise, defying neat packaging or a tidy historical narrative. Catherine Lord and Richard Meyer have just published Queer Art & Culture, which is “first major historical survey to consider the ways in which the codes and cultures of homosexuality have provided a creative resource for visual artists.” For me, queerness and artistic practice are intrinsically tied, both culturally and pragmatically. Norms must be reconsidered, rules broken, perspectives shifted. I am specifically interested in works that have engaged the city as part of a queer perspective.

Today I visited the retrospective of Keith Haring at Palais de Tokyo. Haring is obviously an artist who worked with the idea of the city–its form, subcultures and population–as part of his practice. It’s always humbling to see the breadth of work by an artist who achieved so much within such a short artistic practice – 10 years, give or take. Because I’ve never been a big fan of his generic human forms (or their commercial reproduction), I was thrilled to come upon an early sketchbook piece at the start of the exhibition which presents a personal geography, urban commentary and private exchange developed at the time he was settled in New York as an openly gay man.

“Manhattan Penis Drawings For Ken Hicks” presents a series of 76 drawings done on a Saturday (November 19th, 1978), with each drawing numbered and geo-referenced as best one could do in the late 1970s: somewhere on the subway, at this intersection, in Central Park. A few are quite specific: “In front of Tiffany’s” and his home address at the time “207 w. 10th St”. The drawings themselves are playful and varied, ranging from personal portraiture, “Erect”, to urban commentary on phallic architecture “World Trade Center”. I re-imagined the route he took in making these, moving through the city, a landscape of penises. A brief foray uptown to critique the systems of power, the landscapes and iconography of romance and cult media, as well as (presumably) the idea of invisibility within this urban matrix before returning to the “gayborhood” of the west Village.

detail penis drawing

detail penis drawing

Manhattan Penis Drawings by Keith Haring

Manhattan Penis Drawings by Keith Haring

The relationship between commercialization / gentrification and gay presence was a reoccurring theme in the Queer Urban Geographies presentations, and could be seen in the traces of “old New York” here as well. Polaroids, graphics and journals, document the last bits of “authentic rebellion” before the culture of the sellout, before you could actually be “off the map”. Following this show I happened to stumble upon some of Dubuffet’s works at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, a happy coincidence, considering he was a big influence on Haring. I’ll sign off with a quote by Dubuffet, describing his “l’art brut” (raw art) perspective, which reads as queer to me:

“the female body, of all the objects in the world, is the one that has long been associated (for Occidentals) with a very specious notion of beauty (inherited from the Greeks and cultivated by the magazine covers); now it pleases me to protest against this aesthetics [sic], which I find miserable and most depressing. Surely I aim for a beauty, but not that one … The beauty for which I aim needs little to appear – unbelievably little. Any place – the most destitute – is good enough for it. I would like people to look at my work as an enterprise for the rehabilitation of scorned values, and, in any case, make no mistake, a work of ardent celebration.

- Jean Dubuffet”

(courtesy: Tree of Fluids via the Tate Modern website)

Workshop 3

Queer Paris: day four

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The forth day of our workshop, Rashid Owoyele led the workshop, using a dry-erase board he had design in the Transdisciplinary program, focusing more one the community’s vision of itself for the future. He writes:

“The prototype is a dry-erase board that seeks to distribute agency in the production of the artifacts generated in conversation around a dry-erase board during the design process or discussion.  For this context I asked participants to think about two timeframes.  The first exercise was intended to be generative of ideas about Argenteuil’s image in the past.  The second exercise asked participants to reflect on their dream for the perceptions of Argenteuil in the future.  Each participant generated 6 words and an image in each exercise.  These were then discussed and determined to either be a single persons perspective or one shared by multiple people.

My hope was that this would start a conversation in which we would develop better understandings of the group’s collective imaginary about their own urban context.  Everyone seemed engaged – despite the length of time the exercise took.  There was a also young person who drew their own ideal space for the future which included a skate park!  This demonstrated to me that this way of facilitating discussions about the individual imaginary could develop an expressed understanding of the shared view of places and spaces.

After the workshop we went out to shoot for my video project.  It was amazing how engaged and inspired the participants became.  Though I had envisioned this part of my work in France would be primarily performed separate and in solitude from the persons we had been working with at the cultural center, it became apparent that performing in a public space can not be done in private.  It was very inspiring to see the hidden talents of folks whom we had been interacting with as they danced after or with me.  Children from around Argenteuil that were passing by or visiting parents became performers in that moment.  One young woman danced and then sang a full pop song in English.  It’s interesting just how much time it takes to actually get to know someone – then you add language as a barrier and that time-to-understanding elongates dramatically.  I realize now that after those first to days, my comfort was assumptive – as designers we need to remain aware that there is always something lurking under the surface that is invisible to us that could provide the most insightful opportunity or experience that we need for our work. This is one moment of queering public space that I will not soon forget.”

Queer Paris day three

playing Elaine's game

playing Elaine’s game

We continued with our workshops on day three, successfully engaging members of the Argenteuil community with related queer themes. It is a very unique time to be in France, as the issues around gay marriage top the news every day, and so these have certainly taken center stage. From what I’ve seen, people seem informed and engaged, and opinions are nuanced and diverse. We had the opportunity to meet two young female architects in the morning, we discussed the concern around female surrogacy being central to the “manif pour tous” argument. The role of women is much more traditional in France than in the US, it seems, revealed in policies such as an age cap of 37 for assistance with reproductive technology for any couple, as well as both adoption and reproductive technology being reserved for married (hetero) women only….until now. I’m not sure if we even discuss “the role of women” anymore in the US, but rather the rights of the female body as it relates to specific issues such as abortion. A new study reports that women now make up 40% of the breadwinners in US households, a statistic that I have wondered about for a long time. Reproductive choices for women are intrinsically tied to these larger choices of ‘career’ or simply employment/survival in today’s economy.

Christopher began stage two of his narrative workshop, presenting two legal LGBT issues–adoption and visa status–within personal scenarios. Two groups collaborated to design the characters within these scenarios, and both developed unique insights and depth within the narratives at hand. There was some confusion within the process, as it is really important when working with groups to make clear both the scope of expectation as well as the core narrative conflict. Both elements here were not as clear as they could have been, which is a great lesson to take moving forward. Christopher will be continuing the final stage of the workshop tomorrow.

Elaine presented her game “Media-tion”, which asks up to 8 players to position their reaction to an image along a dual matrix presenting two pairs of dichotomous terms. For our session today, Elaine chose “masculine/feminine” and “peaceful/violent”. We brought in two images from the “Manif Pour Tous” march to analyze and Elaine left the last round to let the community choose their own image to discuss. Both teams were very engaged throughout the game, and the format of the game allows for everyone to present their own rationale for their position, which affords opportunity for clarification and communication. There were several instances of agreement and disagreement, yet both teams followed with respectful discussion. In short, it is a very effective game for being able to “read” and share many perspectives around a given image or idea, and can be easily adapted for many purposes. Elaine donated the two boards to the community centered, and they received this with much enthusiasm.

After our second community interaction, we met to discuss our collaborative engagement thus far, plan the final day with this community, as well as other ‘queer probes’ that the students had designed within the city of Paris. A few issues that came up in the discussion were needing to accommodate time for translations, the compression of time that comes with these intensive workshops, and some cultural expectations in these types of exchanges. It has been really exciting to feel how engaged this community has been with us in such a short time, and presents exciting new possibilities for ongoing collaboration within the future Parsons Paris.

Queer Paris, day two

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After following the “manifestations” through the main boulevards of the city yesterday, we headed out to one of the suburbs of Paris for the first of a series of collaborations with the community center in Argenteuil. Our collaborating artist Klaus Fruchtnis has worked with the community there in the past and we are interested in engaging with populations who are “off the map” so to speak. Built on a medieval town, this former respite of many famed French impressionist painters is now is home to many of new immigrants in Paris, primarily Muslims coming from Arabic-speaking countries. Anticipating that “queer” is not really a term that translates in French, we initially suggested our formal outreach to this community focus on the idea of inside/outside, as a starting point. Klaus brilliantly suggested the titled “Géographies Urbaines Singulières”, which suggests ‘unique perspectives’.

The French are wonderful hosts. We were received like dignitaries, offered coffee, toured around in a private mini-bus and then served lunch with some of the town’s officials – all at no request. I am always struck when traveling abroad at the generosity and curiosity of hosts from other countries, especially considering a group of Americans visiting must be quite ordinary event. Certainly this is how we casually greet visitors in NYC (hello, nice to meet you, have a great trip.) So, it is always a pleasure to feel sincerely welcomed, appreciated and attended.

Today was an important “ice-breaker” day, a chance for us to see who would be working with, how they have worked in the past, and for them to ask us questions. This being France, this took up at least half of the afternoon, as our large circle of introductions often gave way to other questions. What is design? What does it mean to be a designer? Do we make beautiful things or not? Klaus and Sara did a fantastic job alternating as on-the-spot translators, a very exhausting role.

Our polite introductions stumbled when someone from our team referred to “people of color”. The room went astir and soon we learned that there isn’t a non-offensive term for non-whites in France. Is this really so? Does this assume then that the word “immigrant” is the substitute, and if so, is race really talked about outside of an immigrant experience? I am curious to know if “whiteness” is a concept the French consider, or if this is somehow embedded in their own national identity, and if so, how that is changing. Questions from an American perspective, certainly.

Christopher led the afternoon workshop, which asked teams of two to share personal stories framed by the experience of traveling from one point to another, then collaborate to create a new narrative. Despite arriving after lunch, Christopher effectively tied the exercise to the morning discussions about community involvement, simply by introducing his own experience of expectation and newness in arriving to Paris. Each group seemed to positively connect and engage and afterwards the group reflected on their own ‘design process’ in how they work.

At the start of the day, someone had asked what services there are for LGBT communities in the town, and was told there were no such people seen in Argenteuil. We were off the “Queer Map” here. This raises the idea of how queer identity becomes transitional, masked into Paris, then shed before returning back. While a successful day of communication and connection, we will return tomorrow with an “un-closeted” project, introducing queer themes as framed by our project while remaining guests in this exchange. The meta-narrative for this project may indeed be a directional map itself: moving from biological anxieties of “manif pour tous” to LGBT invisibility in the suburbs to non-invisibility… and beyond.

Workshop 1

Queer Paris, day one

parade branding

parade branding

We began our week of “Queer Urban Geography” in Paris on an unusual note: following the predefined path of two marches against the recently passed vote to legalize same-sex marriage. Several bouts of violence had plagued the city earlier and we were warned repeatedly of this possibility, though mercifully this proved not to be the case. What we encountered were two distinctly different, yet similarly confused “manifestations”.

The first was “Le Manif Pour Tous”, or “the demonstration for all”, which seemed to pride itself on not being “anti-gay,” but rather “anti-a-bunch-of-randomly-imagined-scenarios.” To get at the heart of this “manifestation,” an analysis of the event’s branding is in order, (and a much needed vent from a designer’s point of view.) From the derivative name to the overt use of bright pink, this gathering appropriated so many successful signifiers of queer culture that a person passing by just might think it was a “pro” rally. Alas, this holds up only in peripheral vision, for as things came into focus, they just as soon fell apart. The pink, a shade too light and a bit too saccharine, was paired with bright blue to reinforce gender identity. Lacking the bite of the ironic queer pink, it also clashed with the other graphics as well as the French flag, which was a prominent element.

Upon entering the rally (one of three, diagrammed onto the city like a battle plan), I first noticed the organized group of “security” and “hosts” in red and yellow t-shirts. They stopped one man we befriended, Bruno, who was wearing a t-shirt which said “GAY OK”. He politely said that the march was not about homophobia, and so his t-shirt was reminding people of this. They politely agreed and we bid each other civil good-byes. This is indeed Paris.

What is at stake, according their website, how the law will “jeopardize the foundation of human identity: sexual difference.” How inspiringly reductionist. To further clarify, we spoke with many people along the way, wondering what their core message was, if it wasn’t to tell gay people they don’t have the right to marry. A typical response was, “We believe that children need a mother and a father” or “We don’t think that women should rent out their bodies to make babies” or “The family means one father and one mother”. One wonders about all of the many complicated versions of family that already exist, which have nothing to do with the prescribed image of “family” emblazoned on their flags: man, woman, boy, girl…..all holding hands.

I asked a group of girls if they took issue with the way that many heterosexual couples use technology in reproduction, but none of this seemed problematic. It’s only when gays do it, then it is a problem. Most incredible were the signs these polite, friendly “protesters” were holding. Referencing some of the best protest graphics of yesteryear, the branding strived for a certain hipness and currency the message itself lacked.

A few of my favorite banners:

“Notre Existence Tient A 2 Fils” (our existence hangs by two threads), showing a man holding a pink and blue marked kite strings.

“Nos Enfants Ne Sont Pas Des Cobayes” (our children are not guinea pigs), as a topless man raises his arm in protest.

“La Maternité C’est Pas Automatique” (motherhood is not automatic) showing a headless woman’s body with a washing machine in her abdomen.

“Qi Est Mon Père?” (who is my father?) as Darth Vader looms in the background.

This is truly a science fiction of imagined existential crisis. Most signs we deciphered elicited a collective “whaaa?” I was able to score a few posters, feeling the need for a deep crit later this week with our group. At the heart of this is the deep-seated need to control women’s bodies, there are simply so many interesting ways to say this graphically. As we moved along in the procession, music blasted–ironically mostly what you’d hear at a gay bar–though no one was dancing. Yes, missing was the joie de vivre that you see in a real pride march.

From here we departed to see the more “radical” march of traditionalists soon to descend on the Opera. Based on descriptions, I had anticipated an angry mob; “be careful”, we were warned. What awaited us was a motley crew of older catholics who haven’t changed their wardrobe since 1967, their gloomy charges and a few angry looking neo-nazis grouped in the middle. Some carried brooms, which signified a “cleaning up of the city” they evidently aspired to do. In contrast to the noisy if flatly branded march, this one had a mournful tone, almost like a funeral procession.

Underneath both marches was a core message of underlying economic anxiety. “We want jobs, not this law” a group of young men chanted. Ah, yes, well we all know how bad gays are for the economy.

trio

holding protest graphics

Jane (looking angry), Sarah (looking like she has no idea she may soon become a washing machine) and me (looking scared for my existence).