Policing Gender: Transqueer Artist Lorenzo Triburgo Discusses Policing Gender with Sarah Gottesdiener

What is a visual record of an emotional metaphor? How do we pay homage to the classical tropes in art while simultaneously wanting to smash them apart? What if we widened our lens, attempted to represent the unrepresentable? How can the political never not be personal? These are some of the questions brought up when engaging with Lorenzo Triburgo’s latest project, Policing Gender. This work is so fascinating in part because of the hugely ambitious themes it attempts to investigate: freedom, imprisonment, absence, relationships, humanity, identities, systemic oppression, the Western canon’s engagement with Queers and other subversive folks, among others. I was lucky enough to get to ask Triburgo some questions about his work and point of view.

Sarah Gottesdiener: You, more than many that come to my mind, are an artist who can stay engaged with a project for a long time! One of your projects, Transportraits, took place over many years. I remember you talking about creating the backdrops for them alone: you painstakingly employed prompts/instructions from Bob Ross and painted intricate oil landscapes to be shown as the background of your subjects, even though you, yourself, were not a painter! Policing Gender also took place over many years, involving 32 people behind bars. It involved a long time commitment, as well as an emotional commitment to your penpals, and a commitment to representation. Can you speak a little about how you view commitment, personally? And with regards to the projects you decide to take on? Also: could speak about the personal, psychic, relational commitment you have with your subjects? It goes deep. You seem to throw yourself all in: body, mind and soul, for years.

Lorenzo Triburgo: True! This is partially, I think, related to my overall commitment to my life as an artist. As you know, choosing the life of an artist can be scary (and hard) as hell. But there’s also the most inspiring community full of interesting conversations, an indescribable sense of freedom in cultivating my ideas into existence, and the very real need for queer and marginalized people to tell our own truths and produce our own cultural artifacts.

It also takes years to reach the depth necessary for me to get at what I am interested in exploring–the complexity of (my) queer existence and the political and psychological impact of photographic images on said existence in the context of larger issues (e.g., masculinity, deviance, criminalization).

With Transportraits, I wanted to present the Natural as a fabrication, linking to a critique of the idea of gender as something natural. I experimented in the studio for months with found art, collage, and projections to create this metaphor. This process–and time–allowed me to realize that it needed to be paint. The narrative of American masculinity was originally visualized and mythologized in paint. Consider Alfred Jacob Miller’s paintings of westward migration and Manifest Destiny. And how better to conjure and critique the sublimity of the landscape than with Bob Ross paintings? Once I had this realization, I was determined to create a different painted background for each of the trans guys I photographed.

Transportraits was also a five year project as a result of my process to find the people I photographed. It is important for me to recognize that I am using photography, and as such I need to address the historical and contemporary cultural ramifications of the medium. As a queer person, feminist, and photographer/media artist I am particularly sensitive to issues of representation and exploitation. I am hyper-aware (and critical) of ‘vulture-istic’ photographers — those photographers who hover over marginalized communities. So, I would give a talk or have a piece in a show and invite people to approach me if they were interested in being photographed for Transportraits. This ideology informed my choices in Policing Gender as well.

SG: It is my understanding that for your project Policing Gender, you originally were going to do a series of portraits of LGBTQ prisoners. Somewhere along the way, you conceptually shifted into stunning abstract photographs of fabric/curtains/drapery presented alongside the people’s voices. You also decided to take photographs of beautiful landscapes from above a hot air balloon, to illustrate the idea of freedom. I’d love for you to share more about when you decided to use these tactics to create portraits of your subjects. This also begins weaving your project around an even larger project of your personal history, and a referenced queer visual history of tropes of representation, and the loss/pain/pride inherent in that. I’d also love for you to share how you decided to reference historical landscape portraits, as well as opulent studio photography. This all seems like the work of making expansive statements about our visual lineages, as well as the Queer lens/gaze. But they also seem like a statement around a certain kind of idea about what Queer historical representation was, at least through a Western, maybe straight lens…

LT: I recently re-watched the film bell hooks: Cultural Criticism and Transformation and, addressing the creation of racist depictions in Hollywood, hooks says, “…it’s not about imagination. It’s about people consciously knowing what type of images will produce a certain kind of impact.” This describes so much of what I’m interested in and my creative decisions. It’s an issue of visual language. After gaining access to various prisons and jails, I thought, “F*ck that! I’m not going to create photographs that could potentially strengthen the association between queer people and criminality.” It’s like what Susan Sontag says in Looking At War–the same violent war photograph can be used for either pro or anti war propaganda. For similar reasons I decided not to create portraits of my pen pals who I met after their release, or who I talk with regularly via Skype. If I wanted to make the portraits, I could have–but to what end?

As you said, the aerial photographs were shot from a hot air balloon and reference perceptions and experiences of freedom. The aerials are about the act of looking. The perspective is from an all-knowing see-er, a position of freedom and power (of note, the first aerial photographs were created from a hot air balloon by Nadar in the 1850’s–this was perhaps the beginning of photography in the service of grand surveillance). You’ll also notice that in my aerial images, where there could be grandiosity, instead the land is hemmed-in and constrained.These images serve as a counterpoint to the fabrics. There’s a bit of a dichotomous relationship between them.The fabrics are staged and lit in the studio — tactics used by portraitists, but more importantly here, used by the pioneering photographic artists who disrupted the visual norms of the medium and queered photography — Cathy Opie, Lyle Ashton Harris, Glenn Ligon, etc. Meanwhile, the aerial images are taken “in the field,” use black and white, and reference the aesthetic that presumes to show “truth,” — so called “straight photography.” I am employing an intentional clash in photographic tropes and aesthetics in order to situate the viewer.

I think what you bring up about visual lineage is super important. During the initial stages of Policing Gender, I recalled a lecture by Cathy Opie where she cited renaissance portraitist Hans Holbein as a major influence. In Holbein and in Opie, we see the use of fabric as a symbol of wealth, power and beauty. Opie appropriated formal aesthetics in order to queer the photographic portrait. In order to move queer politics forward through photographic art it is imperative to acknowledge the connotations of the medium–and this is where it gets exciting–only by undermining its role in perpetuating oppression can it be one of our best tools.

SG: I’d love for you to speak on the ideas of absence/presence that seem to encapsulate both Transportraits and Policing Gender. Transportraits seems to be triumphantly claiming and reclaiming space for Transmen; there’s so much dignity, presence, and the reference to nature/the West with the backgrounds, lends real potency and intention. Of course the tweak/the “absence” is with the artificial backgrounds— a nod to the construction of gender. A lot of the intentionality in Policing Gender lays in the carefulness of imparting absence and loss, it seems. The absence of a subject, which helps retain their dignity. Controlling our gaze so that we end up staring at shadows, so that we end up listening longer. I’m wondering if you can add your thoughts to this? Are you actively exploring absence/presence?

LT: Absolutely. In Policing Gender, I am intentionally depriving viewers of their desire to gape. There might be a sense of disappointment for viewers that I am okay with. I can imagine someone going to my website after seeing the title Policing Gender thinking they will see a bunch of trans people inside prison, especially if they know it is a photography project. This impulse is not out of maliciousness, but from a sense of voyeuristic entitlement. Part of what excites me about working with photographic images are all the built-in expectations and meanings that I get to f*ck with!

There is also an important, inverse relationship between the presence/absence in my artworks and the absence/presence of trans identities in dominant culture. In 2008 when I began Transportraits I was addressing the need to contribute positive representations to the library/catalog of representations of transmen. I was filling a void — negating an absence. Years later when I began Policing Gender, dominant culture was eager to consume and profit from images of trans people. Here, I am creating a lack — refusing to supply that ‘presence.’ The viewer won’t be able to get a rise out of seeing my pen pals in their most vulnerable state. I’m challenging photography as a medium that lends itself to voyeurism and surveillance.

As you said, when viewers are presented with a draped fabric backdrop without a figure or a face, they are guided to listen and contemplate more than consume. It’s hard to convey online but the installations are quite meditative.

SG: Circling back around to the first question, about commitment, sort of…When do you know if a work is finished? Is it a personal list you can tick off? Is it just working through it until you’ve gotten to a place that feels right? What are you seeking, what do you personally wish to receive out of engaging with a project for years at a time? Do you ever receive it? Is that when you know to stop?

LT: It’s interesting. It feels like striving toward something invisible, or digging for something without exactly knowing what it is. At a certain critical point, when I hit upon the right balance of my personal narrative, political concerns, and aesthetic values, I know I’ve found it.

This fall Policing Gender is in the exhibit “Disruptive Perspectives” at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College in Chicago and Pasquart Photoforum in Biel/Bienne Switzerland.

Artist Lorenzo Triburgo employs visual connotations of landscape and portrait photography to cast a critical lens on notions of the “Natural” and the politics of queer representation. Lorenzo has been featured on Slate, Huffington Post, HuffPo-Live and the “The Transgender Studies Reader 2” published by Routledge. His artworks have been exhibited in major cities in the U.S., Europe, and Asia and are in the permanent collection of the Portland Art Museum. His project Transportraits won first place in the international Pride Photo Award based in The Netherlands and he was awarded a Regional Arts and Culture Council of Portland Grant for his current project, Policing Gender, addressing mass incarceration from a queer perspective. Lorenzo currently tours with Policing Gender hosting arts and activism workshops in the context of prison abolition. He holds a BA from New York University in Photography and Gender Studies and an MFA in Photography and Related Media from the School of Visual Arts. He lives and works in NYC and teaches art and gender studies online for Oregon State University and the School of Visual Arts.

Sarah Faith Gottesdiener is a creative living in Los Angeles. She art-directs, consults, and designs for a wide range of clients: educational, non-profit, small business, and corporate. Her line of feminist gear is called Modern Women. Alongside Nicole Killian, she co-edits and co-designs Issues, an annual publication that highlights the work of women, queers, and transfolk from all over the world. She has taught art and design at Scripps, FIDM, and Otis, but now she mainly teaches workshops on metaphysical topics.