No Quaint Past: An Interview with Leah DeVun on Photography, Land Dykes, and their Architectures – Anthea Black
Leah DeVun and I have never met in person, but after being introduced, our mutual interests in queer place-making, geography, and architectures across a vast North American landscape began to come together. Leah’s own back-to-the-land project was inspired by a series of interviews she did with lesbians who founded the Women and Their Work Gallery in Austin, Texas, and their personal collections of magazines and journals saved from the 1970s and 1980s. Her exhibition “Our Hands On Each Other” is anchored by photographs of land dyke homes and architectures and includes a Lesbian Shack made of scraps of wood and the collaborative efforts of many hands.
Anthea Black: Your photographs document your passage through women’s lands, and more specifically the fascinating hand-built structures that you stayed in during your visits. How did your interest in these spaces begin?
Leah DeVun: The project in Austin really started when I interviewed some of the lesbians that had been involved in the creation of the gallery. They had personal collections of journals and magazines from the 1970s and 1980s, and I had not encountered anything like that before. And so it was exciting for me to be able to dig through these magazines and try to figure out the networks that created them. That led me to the networks of the spaces that were a part of this overall community of letters. The imagery of those magazines was important in shaping the kind of portraits that I was interested in doing and the ways I wanted to try to set up this encounter of past and present. I started by thinking of the Women’s Land Movement and lesbian separatism as a distinct period of history: it came, it was an attempt, it failed, and people moved on. But that was not what I discovered at all. I entered into these worlds that are obviously still vibrant and continuing, and had to engage with them on their own terms rather than through nostalgia or ideas of a quaint past.
AB: Yes! Historicization is a way of managing feminism and putting it away so that it doesn’t maintain its momentum. It’s so refreshing to hear you acknowledge that the lesbian land movement and related publishing have continued; there’s not necessarily a historical break from a so called “past.”
LD: Lesbian Connection is still publishing, land dyke gatherings and meetings have continued, and there’s a land dyke party every now and then. The exhibition was inspired by the photography and artwork of lesbian feminist magazines of the 1970s and 1980s, like Country Women, Womanspirit, Sinister Wisdom, that promoted the homesteading and back-to-the-land movements as feminist practices. These same magazines were actually published in many cases by women who were living on lesbian land. There are generational divisions; most of the people who currently live on these lands are much older than I am. That in itself is exciting to me, because one of the things that was a really important experience for me in doing Our Hands on Each Other was getting to talk to lesbians in their 60s and 70s, which I have never done before.
AB: I agree. Creating intergenerational queer bonds is becoming a much bigger conversation. Of course, one of the ways to heal any culture is to connect youth with elders or to have participation of people of many generations in every context.
LD: Yeah. That’s exactly what I was trying to bring about with the exhibition. I was intrigued by what I suspected was a feminist past of the Women and Their Work Gallery. It wasn’t much discussed that the gallery had origins as a feminist collective, which it did in the 1970s. It’s one of the only spaces to survive from that time period as a continuously active artist non-profit space. The gallery employees had their own archives: information and photographs of the early meetings. They weren’t all lesbians but there were lesbians and straight women, and they were also focused on bringing women of colour in too – those who weren’t shown in male, white-dominated spaces in town. That’s what brought me into trying to contact and interview some of the women who had been involved in the creation of the space. That kept going further and further out in concentric circles in thinking about queer space and women’s space. One of the things I wanted to do is try to bring some of those women to the opening and into dialogue with some of the younger queers who were in Austin. And then also, when I traveled around outside of Texas to go to the women’s lands, we were really interested in having conversations with those women and found that they were so open to that possibility.
When I went to make the Unfinished Project structure inside the gallery, they asked, “well do you know how to square some walls?” and I didn’t know anything about that; then, “well do you know how to use a chainsaw?” and I didn’t know how to use a chainsaw either. They thought that was absurd that I could be a dyke who doesn’t know how to do any of those things, although I’m a pretty nerdy, academic dyke. But they were pointing out that they built all those houses themselves on the land, which are super impressive and artistic creations in their own right. They said, “the older generation of lesbians taught us to do these things. We learned from our own community how to build walls.
You don’t build a house by yourself. It takes a lot of people to raise a wall. I felt like there was some really resonant historical images that came to mind just about people having to come together forcibly just because these spaces require hands to hold things up, to secure them in place, to make them happen. And so that requires a certain commitment and navigation of those relationships just to make a space that’s created.
AB: Wow, so amazing. We don’t acknowledge the material relationship between our bodies and the things that we make, and the transfer of that embodied knowledge, as a generational exchange often enough.
LD: Right. Your interest in queer craft is really potent to me: the craft that goes into the woodworking and vernacular architecture that people were creating as they went about doing it. Even though they learned skills from these other women, they also had to figure out lots of things. One of my favorites on the land is called the star connector building, the one that looks geodesic; they made so many mistakes along the way, but this bank of accumulated craft-based knowledge hasn’t been passed down. They acknowledge that when they retreated to these communities to try to set up a new way of living and try to break out of patterns of thinking and hierarchies and patriarchy and racism, the ability to speak to people who are younger, who aren’t on the lands, was cut off.
AB: The loss of craft traditions is definitely not confined to queer communities. I find it so interesting to watch the ways that craft is being positioned as a solution to people feeling alienated or disconnected from each other or overwhelmed by technology. The last time this happened as a major cultural event was in the 1970s, and we’re seeing a return of those ideals now: that craft is simple, beautiful, sustainable, and virtuous. Building a house from scratch is not simple! But it’s so interesting to hear about the material relationships between these women and how knowledge was or wasn’t passed down. And so what kind of skills did they teach you, to build your Unfinished Project structure?
LD: They didn’t really teach us. We had to make do once we got back to Austin. So I did, with a group of people, put together the basic structure of what we called the “Lesbian Shack,” the architectural space that I was trying to create in the gallery. I want to come back to that idea of the salvaged materials from these ramshackle beginnings. I then invited everybody at the gallery, at the opening, and in subsequent weeks while the show was up to just add to it as they saw fit. It was a total chaotic scene of people adding all of this salvaged wood and metal to this little house. We all were forced to come together physically, in proximity to each other and brush up against each other and then enact our movements onto this tangible thing that we were building. People were required to take a stake in this building of this community, but they had to consider how they identified to do so.
AB: In a broader sense too, in the unfinished project of establishing space for women and transpeople under patriarchy, despite oppression, there’s always something that undoes your work. Same with the unfinished project of being on the land, whether it’s the passage of the seasons or wear and tear over time – there is always some work to be done.
LD: Yeah, or to be reconstructed. Relinquishing authorial control allowed something to take shape organically through the movements of all these people that were uncoordinated. By the time of the end of the show, the thing embodied the spirit of those women’s land buildings. To me, these iconographic buildings are very creative in their shapes and their materials. Visiting the land was one of the most isolated places that I’ve ever been to. They didn’t clear the surrounding forest, just enough for the road to go through. People were very open about the challenges of living alone. This was a really poignant juxtaposition: you go to be together and to create this close-knit group of people who are often lovers in lots of complicated ways, friends, enemies; to a place that is supposed to be empty. Of course there are neighbors and communities that they coexist with and other ways that bring up all sorts of interesting encounters.
AB: There are lots of ideas there that I want to pick up on. I think it’s important to acknowledge that spaces are not empty: at a point that land was stolen from its original inhabitants.
LD: Black feminist criticisms of lesbian separatism intended to address this about women’s lands, noting the ways that they were based on certain kinds of white privilege. But let me say that when we went out there and talked to the women on those lands, they were fully engaged in those conversations. We had a lot of our own assumptions about what women who were 20 or 30 years older than us were going to be like, and I was really pleasantly surprised by the conversations I had with them.
It has been especially great for me to encounter some people’s recollections of the period of time in which these spaces were created. All these people are, and were human. It wasn’t that there was some utopian lesbian space where everybody just set aside all their various claims and differences and broke down the patriarchy. They have the same problems that we all have.
They were struggling to answer these questions even now, and to deal with these consequences of the kind of choices that they made to create these lives. They were also curious about engaging with art from a young queer point of view, and they asked us tons of questions about our politics. These conversations should be a part of any dialogue that we have about queer space now, keeping in mind that they are still happening.
AB: There is a kind of political continuity, but also an aesthetic continuity that carries through in what you saw in many of the different lands. I love the idea of this aloneness together – I don’t know where you grew up or what your experience was with rural spaces or isolation as a young person – because the idea of imagining a queer community of belonging from a distance and then slowly moving toward that is a psychic process but it’s also a material process. Certain things become signposts or direction markers along the way and that’s very much navigating toward something that’s maybe not necessarily tangible.
LD: I was really interested in trying to capture this kind of emptiness at places where people come together, where they had made us food. There was a bird’s nest quality to it where things were just picked and gathered together in unpredictable ways. I felt that there was just a lot to look at and take in, in a way that was unfamiliar to me. Although now that I’ve seen a lot more lands like that, they have their own kind of language of architecture that is the women’s land look that I love. And maybe it is a sort of queer architecture or there is a queer aesthetic there that’s worth thinking about.
AB: I was thinking about the idea of saving something in relation to salvage, whether that’s saving ourselves or saving our culture. The idea of preservation or continuity or archiving, to me, is also a question of photography and documentation and the role of a photographer. I mean whether that’s in the work of the Depression era photographers, or photojournalism of major world conflicts, or in your practice as an artist.
LD: This fits in with all of the ideas that I was trying to get at also with respect to the touch of an archival object and the amateur, personal collection of things. Because these archives, which include photographs, especially hinge on the materiality of the photographic object as opposed to digital photography (although I know a lot of people would disagree with me on this). There must be something that we charge these objects with that animate them and give them life. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be so significant and so resurgent. Questions of the archive and the collection keep coming up over and over again. I have a lot of thoughts on other aspects of this as well but to me there’s such a haptic, tangible quality to wet process photography and film photography.
AB: I want to get into that. I think this train of thought about the material connection with an object you’re touching and working with that’s also responsive and sensitive to you is really important.
LD: To me, there’s something important about the particular kind of labor of reproduction that happens in that change of state. The way that a moment is recorded on a tangible film not only has a ritual quality that I appreciate, but it also parallels historical and tangible processes that I’m trying to think about. The reproduction of things and the ways that things are altered and recreated and preserved is so crucial to what I’m thinking about conceptually, that it seems as though that particular method of photography is the only one that makes sense to me. Analog photography engenders the love and emotion that is really present to me and the kind of work that I want to do and the kind of subjects that I want to capture.
AB: It’s interesting to think that we may be getting back around to this moment where there are actually relatively few people who know how to do darkroom processes just as there are relatively few people who know how to use a chainsaw. That craft knowledge is contained in a small group of people.
LD: Yeah. The assumption that new technologies and more sophisticated interfaces will eclipse the old and nostalgic object has become focused on the film camera, film itself, and the darkroom. Thinking about the darkroom as a historical space is another point of entry into this. I learned black and white darkroom photography when I was younger, and like a lot of photographers, I had my colour photographs printed elsewhere. I felt that it was so important for me and for my total experience and abilities as a photographer to learn wet process colour photography. I work with a Jobo Processor, where you submerge everything in chemicals. It’s not necessarily something that interests everybody, but to me it was not only a step I had to take to engage with the materials, but it was also an opportunity to apprentice with somebody and learn darkroom techniques that a lot of older photographers worry will be lost. Colour wet process changes your relationship with the craft of photography.
AB: I can imagine! One cannot underestimate the care that goes into learning a process. We have a completely different relationship to things that are time-consuming or require specialized knowledge. Having to build something from scratch forces you to hone the way you work with a material, and in turn, that will change and transform you.
LD: The ritual of going into complete darkness and loading sheet film into holders creates this electrical experience that I think makes me different. It allows me to approach what I’m about to do with a spiritual or a transcendent feeling. It is activated because it is in continuity with the way that I learned. When the actual physical movements become obsolete, what gets lost is not just nostalgia. There are certain physical motions that are important for the ways in which we bring ourselves to make and talk about art.
This is what I’m interested in with craft-based installations of space with the women’s lands and with the collection of the archives: the ways in which people accumulate these things and bring them together and negotiate how we manage a space and share belongings and obligations.
AB: It brings me back to thinking about the Lesbian Shack.
LD: The materials that were used were salvaged scraps of wood… the paper goods that I put in vitrines in the gallery, all these magazines, they were in some ways from people’s attics and boxes that they hadn’t looked at in their garage in like a long time. It’s not a stretch to talk about those as salvaged memories, salvaged boxes and materials that populated that particular show. The kind of care with which people have tried to collect these personal effects and the ways in which I try to engage with them is both a literal salvage and also the ways in which we try to recuperate or connect the past and how that’s absolutely related to saving or making use of scraps and parts. As well as salvaging our own political movement or lineage.
AB: What does it mean to save ourselves or save scraps of ourselves as we’re also constructing who we are as queer people, or what our politics are, what kind of world we want to be part of?
LD: … as we’re saving materials, as we’re saving queer marginalized voices, as we’re saving our own subjective relationships. I think that’s a double meaning that applies centrally to what I’m trying to do. I hadn’t thought about it in terms of salvage but I see that is actually so crucial.
Anthea Black is a Canadian artist and cultural worker. Her work takes the form of posters, publications, textiles, and performances to stage collaborative encounters and insert intimate gestures into public spaces. Her recent exhibitions include Gay Premises: TAG TEAM, Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, Toronto, ON; Queer Survival Campout Snowcave, Neutral Ground, Regina, SK; PopSex! Responses to the History of Sexual Science, Illingworth Kerr Gallery, Calgary, AB; and Gestures of Resistance, Museum of Contemporary Craft, Portland, OR. Her writing with Nicole Burisch on Craftivism and curatorial ethics is included in The Craft Reader, (Bloomsbury) and Extra/ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art (Duke University Press). Her curatorial projects, SINCERITY OVERDRIVE, SUPER STRING, No Place: Queer Geographies on Screen, and PLEASURE CRAFT have focused on embodied perspectives and politics in relational practice, contemporary textiles, queer film and video, and perverse film craft.
Leah DeVun is an artist and historian living in Brooklyn, New York. Her photographs and installations explore the legacies of feminism — the landscapes of rural lesbian communes, the drag-like costumes of pre-teen obsessive Hannah Montana fans, the contents of a historic gay and lesbian archive — with a special interest in queer and gendered communities, fashion and fandom, memory, politics, and identity. Committed to analog/wet-process photography while it lasts, she strives to produce art that is participatory, interdisciplinary, and socially active. Her work has been featured in Artforum, Capricious, and Artlies, and in venues such as the ONE Archives Museum and Gallery at the University of Southern California, the Houston Center for Photography, and the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. She’s written for Wired, GLQ, Radical History Review, and Venus Zine, appeared on a track of a Le Tigre album, and served as a commentator on the DVD of the Showtime TV series “The L Word.” DeVun teaches women’s and gender history at Rutgers University and was a faculty fellow at Stanford University for 2011-12. http://leahdevun.com/
No quaint past: An interview with Leah DeVun on photography, land dykes, and their architectures by Anthea Black and Leah DeVun is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.