Switching Power: An Interview with A.L. Steiner – Anthea Black

Switching Power: An Interview with A.L. Steiner

Anthea Black: Your photographs are part of a practice that also includes large installations, activism with Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) and many collaborations with other artists. Let’s start by talking about working in a holistic way.

A.L. Steiner: Everything is part of a practice, which is always in conversation, expanding: nothing is categorical. That’s what’s interesting about being queer, you’re constantly in a state of questioning to begin with, and that’s not separate from what you might be producing and making.

AB: People who are speaking from outside of a queer position often ask me why my work is so intertwined with what I am doing in life. I feel like it is such an obvious question, how could it not be?

ALS: Where is it supposed to be? That is what is so interesting with questions regarding production. The ideas that a person is separate from their work have been largely post-industrial revolution, but it’s coming together again.

W.A.G.E. has had a big part in articulating what work is. We’re trying to understand intellectual labour. André Gorz said, “work isn’t something that you either have or don’t have, it is what you are doing.” It’s not a possessive form of being. How could it not be intertwined?

Ideas of work come from the idea that it is a sacrifice, something that you do to enjoy other parts of life. That is becoming more vague as people are essentially connected with each other and their work 24 hours a day.

AB: When you are making images that are so full of pleasure, how do you answer questions that pose work against pleasure?

ALS: There is a series of talks by Roland Barthes regarding the neutral or the binary—which is of course part of my inner dialogue—to focus on pleasure means that my art practice is not separated from my life practice. Feminism is really useful because, rather than a historical movement, it is more about the idea of lived practices. I am not a scholar, but I am living feminism. Pleasure can’t extract itself from life, it’s about finding the meaning of pleasure, sometimes it is displeasure.

AB: There is a candid representation, when taken together with collage, as a feminist process, that suggests a pleasure and inventiveness in the process making. When two images are beside each other—like Kitty Neptune dancing on the pole at your Feminist Art Gallery opening paired with an image of artist Onya Hogan Finlay lounging on a tree—it opens up new ways of seeing.

ALS: I like your analysis of collage, and I agree with you. It came from a very feminist critical practice. Beginning with Hannah Hoch, regarding advertising imagery, even Man Ray shows how men question patriarchy themselves, whether they called it feminism or not.

Photography can be so limited as far as the hand goes, it’s always had that inferiority complex, that it’s just a mechanical process. Making, or how one makes, has a lot to do with seeing. The history of photography has been invested in questions of seeing and now visual culture studies is questioning what we’re seeing and delineating sensory inputs. What I find challenging about photography is analyzing the seeing part, not the making.

Points of activating seeing happen with pairing, cutting, collage, the whole philosophy of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin and their cutups, taking things apart, which leads directly into postmodern theory. These ideas of presentation are, in a contemporary way, part of re-presentation, being flexible and queer, not capable of being predisposed. There is not a fixed way that things are. Your practice can constantly say: “this is not the way things are, you can look at this picture and it will never mean one thing, I won’t let it mean this one thing.” That is much more important to me than taking a good picture. It’s not a specialized field, at this point, we can all take a good picture. It’s absurd to frame photography as a way of making good pictures.

AB: Are people who have attachments to the history of photography scandalized by the stance that it’s absurd to emphasize taking a good picture?

ALS: I would switch that around and say I find it scandalous that photography pretends that it’s a very conservative art form. It’s true that it’s unique and about skill and each individual’s imprint in the medium is unique. But to ignore everything that photography supposedly isn’t is the same as the way that people understand normativity, and especially hetero-normativity. To say something is natural and “the way it is,” well actually that framework only looks at part of the picture, and photography doesn’t look outside of that frame enough.

AB: Taking the position of re-centering that dialogue and the practice of photography is very noticeable in the images that you make of women and queers. You’re constructing a whole world of images, particularly in the way you install the photographs as a collage on the wall.

A lot of the reviews of your work and of Community Action Center seem to be premised on a dialogue that pre-conditions people towards reacting with surprise. When actually, this is our whole world and maybe that audience that is surprised has just never “been there”. They’re looking from outside and are speaking from a place that maintains the idea of inside and outside. Those flips that you make—formally, conceptually—and your resistance to that binary, is an exciting inversion.

ALS: They just don’t see it. You don’t really know how subversive you’re being. I call it the “Mapplethorpe effect.” Just to point out the shock value of something, doesn’t mean that the person who made it is trying to shock. The public, or as Lorraine O’Grady calls it, “the consuming audience,” is shocked and that comes from naivety, blindness, unquestioning.

AB: That something needs to be legitimized by the masses, means that certain content will always be subjugated within that hierarchy of what has worth. That’s also shocking, when something that people don’t think has worth, is right there, taking up space.

ALS: Shame has a huge part in a learning process. Embarrassment, shame, and ignorance are how we learn, when you are confronted by something that we don’t know or understand. At the same time, I am trying to fuse this with the familiar. A lot of my imagery is considered as pop, that it’s recognizable. With colour, landscape, the desert, a loaf of bread. But if it’s juxtaposed with my body, then it isn’t just a loaf of bread. It has multiplicity. Embarrassment and shame present those modes of multiplicity: when you don’t feel comfortable, you feel your body, emotions, sensations that are not easy. In the realm of what you are talking about, it is important to be surprised and shocked. Sometimes that has terrible results. People are pre-conditioned towards having warning signs, but that is what is really terrifying about our culture.

The collage Riot, which I think of as a sketch, came out of experiences of showing art. An incident that happened with the collaborative work C.L.U.E. (color location ultimate experience), was not about shock value at all. When it was shown in Arizona, we didn’t want to show it without a statement about the xenophobic and fascist immigration laws that have been passed in that state. At the beginning of the video loop is a statement regarding the Arizona’s State Bill 1070, which allows the state police to check anyone’s ID, [and has been critiqued for racial profiling]. After a contentious dialogue with the museum, we realized that even something like that statement is crossing a perceived line of engagement within the museum.

Switching Power: An Interview with A.L. Steiner

This incident in Arizona was important to us because, we had filmed in the desert. But if we had been detained because we didn’t have proper ID [to be in the state] the outcome for us would be a lot different than someone who is of a racial minority-or majority.

So Riot is about a lot of things, hopefully what people retain from it is relevant right now. It is a landscape fused with an image from a police deployment of 1000 officers at an Occupy L.A. march in solidarity with workers and unions. I always am concerned about creating images that are topical, not only for entertainment.

AB: Many queer cultural workers are having similar dialogues about the freedoms that we have, which are not available to everyone: the freedom to make work and representations, and move unhindered through certain spaces, like borders.

ALS: W.A.G.E. is also speaking is about economic privilege. Who is in a position to create representation? The privileges that we receive as an arts practitioner, are not broadly understood or articulated. The outside world also sees this in a generalized way that recognizes the play, but not the work, because what we do is not easily recognizable in a white collar or blue-collar work environment.

I’ve talked to Wu Tsang a lot about these ideas of privilege. This is reflected in the way that artists are treated: We’re overly valued when we’re asked to come into a [neighborhood] and economically revive a depressed area, and then completely denied economic value within the tax code, [which doesn’t recognize] the market value of our work. That condition of precarity is a condition of the way that we work, and also a part of Occupy as a new international dialogue. The artist has a space of understanding it in a way that a lot of people haven’t, till now.

C.L.U.E. was a self-initiated project. It came out of the desire to make the work, which we filmed and worked on for about a year. It’s important to note that my projects are not predicated on a schedule or exhibition production relationship, they come out of an innate desire

AB: I was at the HOMEWORK conference on collaboration infrastructures recently, and I said there that since Occupy it’s no longer taboo to talk about money. This is something that artists have always dialogued about, whether explicitly or layered into how we produce and participate in culture. Our precarity means that we haven’t had the privilege of not talking about it. The Canadian arts infrastructure has included CARFAC since the 1970s, and W.A.G.E is also tackling these concerns in a very timely way.

ALS: It’s complicated by the fact that every artist is working in a different way within the economy. A long-term idea of sustainability requires a constitution, insight into the future, and prophesizing. The Canadian system and the development of CARFAC means that people are dedicated to this insight: taking precarity and extending into a way of understanding the future.

If you’re thinking about photography not as an art form, but a way of receiving information and way of understanding the world around you, it looks like a really different art form. Similar to economic structures: If you look at the economy as a capitalist part, you’re not looking parts that are structured as micro-economies. A belief in human fragility, that comes out of a more progressive mindset, means that art practice is not always about making work, it’s about developing strategies.

AB: It’s about re-centring an art practice as an open-ended continuing process that keeps moving. You mentioned this in the interview with A.K. Burns, it’s also about being queer and taking parts of culture to re-form them into something more hospitable. Making something fit into your world, rather than trying to fit into someone else’s world.

ALS: That’s what’s interesting about site specificity. To write, make something, show a film somewhere, each place has a completely different relationship. As an artist, you’re coming with all of your assumptions and privileges and experiences. The amazing thing is that when people engage with the work, you learn what it means, and how it [becomes defined in relation] to a particular place.

AB: You’ve called yourself an eco-feminist, and how you’re speaking of the idea of place, really speaks to an ecology. Not only in relation to the earth, but thinking of your practice as part of a bigger picture.

ALS: Susan Sontag wrote about an “ecology of images,” where she called for a careful accounting of what is happening with image making. The proliferation of billions of images is the opposite of this, and the art world essentially rarefies images as a product. But she emphasized choice and understanding rather than taking for granted the idea of looking. The condition we’re in is to detach from the systems that we’re part of—there’s been a very successful campaign for a couple centuries to make people do just that.

[There is] an emphasis on dominion; what we have power over, rather than thinking about engagement with power relationships. Whether they are power over the natural world, interpersonal power, socio-economic power.

AB: Some appropriated text appears in your Positive Reinforcement installation that says “Switching Power.”

ALS: That image is actually a power station, in Long Island. It says Switching Power, which has this incredibly irony, as an architectural structure. When I do installation, these powerful messages of architecture are a platform. To define and analyze those power relationships is always central to any movement, ism, or revolution. Understanding what is happening around you is a queer place.

Justin Bond’s new book, Tango, just released with the Feminist Press, is a short story regarding his earlier teen years. Justin tries to delineate what it meant to have Attention Deficit Disorder. Justin’s view, especially for queer kids, is that it’s not a deficiency in being able to pay attention, because you have to be aware and questioning so much more.

Switching Power: An Interview with A.L. Steiner

AB: Yes, late capitalism produces that impulse and condemns it at the same time.

ALS: Exactly, it’s created the condition. Similarly, I was once asked by a reporter if I was an angry feminist.

AB: Ha, ha! I love that question!

ALS: Of course I am an angry feminist! And then I said, if you’re not angry you’re a crazy person. If you’re unaware, maybe ignorance is bliss, but I don’t know what it’s like to feel comfortable in this system that we’re creating. It comes back to the first question that you asked. The juxtaposition of pleasure and discomfort, or resistance, or being in a state of anxiety are really interesting to me, because you can’t look at my installations and think that they’re only one thing. Whether ecstatic, pleasurable, or angry, there is so much that I am dealing with in the space, the mood, the show, the curator, that factor into how a piece comes together. I use the pictures to mine my subconscious state.

AB: Being minutely aware. Does making work make it easier to be in the world, or more comfortable to be in this broader art economy and political system?

ALS: I’ve always been fascinated by the academic category of art therapy, because I’ve never officially taught or taken anything in that structure, but what part of art isn’t therapy?

AB: Additionally, what part of art making isn’t utopic, or hopeful? Making and projecting an idea into the world can both be interpreted in that way.

ALS: People also ask, “are you a feminist?” Well, what would define someone who is not a feminist? There is a whole netherworld of questioning without answers, and art can help confront it. My work helps me confront that absurdity and irony. Especially, Ridykeulous, the project that I do with Nicole Eisenman, is the most direct form of questioning that hypocrisy, not only within the outside culture, but also within myself. We’re able to be as wrong as everyone around us.

AB: One of those hilariously “wrong” moments happened when you wore the naked boobs shirt for the Community Action Center Q&A in Toronto. That shirt didn’t come from dyke culture, but you brought it back in and it became critical.

ALS: I was having a discussion about that shirt at a Ridykeulous opening, trying to decide if that shirt in fact was nudity. It’s a representation of nudity, but when is a representation too much? In that way, the body is my most useful tool because there are paradoxes and hypocrisies for everyone. Carolee Schneeman, Martha Rosler, and others have articulated this in various ways: the body is the most prescient tool. The ways that I am using the body is to understand those power dynamics. You are told not to do certain things, but being told and then doing them are two different experiences.

AB: The image of a woman with her legs spread is often recast in your work, similar to wearing the shirt with the image of the boobs on the front. It flips it into a different relationship – where the gaze is coming from and who it is being projected for.

ALS: We are always looking at images in relation to our own bodies. This is about how you turn a body into an inanimate object, especially within photography, that has meaning beyond the photographer. It conditions how the audience thinks about the body, and the pussy. If you re-present something like Courbet’s Origin of the World, where he was revering the figure, you also have to think about the body stands in for the artist’s own body. It wasn’t as if he was painting someone else, for me, he wanted to embody that body. I think about the self-embodiment rather than the objectification.

In a text I wrote for the Jack Smith exhibition, I was asking for all bodies to be thought of as penetrable. That is the real dynamic of queer analysis and agency.

AB: Of course, this is how all sensory information comes into our body: through smells, sounds, touching, it all enters us somewhere, however minute.

ALS: Yes, penetration is crucial to looking and understanding all looking, all power dynamics and normative structures. From [theorists] Judith Butler, Jack Halberstam, Laura Mulvey, Fredrick Jameson, in relation to capitalism–all of these things–the core, in essence, comes down to entering the body.

AB: Thankfully, questions of embodiment are becoming so much more important in current theory. That is formally addressed in your work as collage as an intervention into photography, but also as a gesture of feminist world building, to address the viewer’s own embodiment as they approach the work. To close, what happens when the body becomes really small in relation to a vista of collaged, overlapping photographs of other (queer) bodies on the wall?

ALS: The viewer’s physicality is important in relation to viewing: I don’t want a sensation of overwhelmed, I want there to be a sensation of infinity. That this isn’t finished, it’s never ending. This is just ending because the wall ends. That wall has nothing to do with the story ending.

Switching Power: An Interview with A.L. Steiner

Anthea Black is a Canadian artist, art writer and cultural worker. Her work in printmaking, textiles, performance and video is preoccupied with setting a stage for queer collaborative practice and inserting intimate gestures into public spaces. Her recent exhibitions include: PopSex! Responses to the History of Sexual Science at the Illingworth Kerr Gallery in Calgary, Gestures of Resistance at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, and QIY: Queer It Yourself – Tools for Survival at the National Queer Arts Festival in San Francisco. She has written on contemporary art, performance and politics for several publications and her collaborative research with Nicole Burisch is included in new publications The Craft Reader (Berg Press) and Extra/ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art (Duke University Press). She has curated SINCERITY OVERDRIVE, SUPER STRING, and Echo+Response: lipsynchs and remixes for critical queer geographies. 

A.L. Steiner utilizes constructions of photography, video, installation, collage, collaboration, performance, writing and curatorial work as seductive tropes channeled through the sensibility of a skeptical queer eco-feminist androgyne. Steiner’s projects and collaborations are celebratory efforts in dismantling notions of normativity and the sources of constructed truths. Her interventions, sensory advertisements and highly-regarded affects on happenstance have been featured worldwide, subverting and sabotaging the language commonly used to define queer/feminist/lesbian art. She is a collective member of Chicks on Speed, co-curator of Ridykeulous, co-founder/organizer of Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) and collaborates with numerous visual and performing artists. Steiner is currently visiting core faculty at University of Southern California’s Roski Master of Fine Arts Program.