In her biweekly column for Document, McKenzie Wark weekends outside of Brooklyn, finding more queerness and Pippa Garner’s Art Omi show
We were on the wrong side of the train for the ride up the Hudson River. No river views, although there’s other sights to see. Once you get on, it’s a relaxing ride. Jenny and I were heading for the town of Hudson. We were going to see Pippa Garner’s exhibition at Art Omi in nearby Ghent, at the invitation of curator Sara O’Keeffe. Thought we’d make a weekend of it.
Jenny and I usually go to another Hudson river town. I won’t say which, because good Upstate weekend spots, like good raves, are not something to tell just anyone about. I will tell you about Art Omi, as it ought not to be a secret. More on that later.
The thing about being a visibly queer couple of a somewhat unusual kind is that, when outside our Brooklyn bubble, we attract curiosity. When we’re seated at the bar for dinner, particularly seated at the corner, it’s likely that our neighbors will strike up conversation, the subtext of which is twofold. It’s curiosity mixed with a desire to come off as comfortable around queerness. The second subtext is rather undermined by the first.
It’s a good reminder that we live in a bubble world in Brooklyn. Many people there are used to seeing queer and trans people in all sorts of combinations. They are over it. Up in Hudson, we’re running into tourists and weekenders who might even be sighting their first clockable transsexual in the wild. And then there’s Jenny, who isn’t trans, who you could call cis, who I think of sometimes as a secret third thing. I wonder if they’re more curious about her than me.
“A lot of people are comfortable with divergences from a standard model of gender, so long as they can place the divergence in relation to the model.”
I understand the curiosity, as I’m also curious about people. But sometimes it’s more curiosity about a type of person than about me or Jenny. I feel put in the place of a representative. Ambassador from another planet. It’s wild how much what you might think of as the gender unconscious structures how all of us feel and act. A lot of people are comfortable with divergences from a standard model of gender, so long as they can place the divergence in relation to the model. When you belly up to the bar, as a pair, with a bunch of subtle and maybe even contradictory divergences from gender, people get curious and confused.
This can lead to a lot of performative allyship. There really are much worse things, so I’m not complaining. I’m just curious about it as a structure of feeling. I’m actually writing this in a café in London. The middle-aged cis white woman sitting next to me complimented my skirt, referred to owning one like it, complimented my tattoos, then my whole outfit, and then apologized for seeking my attention. Lot to unpack there. I was friendly without inviting too much further conversation. Being singled out for compliments rather than sneers is still being singled out.
Back in Hudson, we took our breakfasts in the café with the queer flag out front. Lovely meal, and everyone was very friendly. On the street after:
Jenny: Sometimes I think servers overperform friendliness because our presence validates the flag-waving.
McKenzie: We should get a discount for that.
I might be trans, but I’m really just a middle-aged white woman turned out in basic low-femme style. Nothing special. Pippa Garner, whose work we have come up to see, is something else. Now in her 80s, she’s a trans art pioneer, who considers her transition a work of art. Who has her underwear tattooed on her body. Who has channeled the ambient fantasies of industrial Americana into weird, unclassifiable objects for decades. A “body” of work which, among other things, taps in sparkling ways into the gender unconscious, even in places where you wouldn’t think there’s gender.
Art Omi has helped her remake one of her classic works—the backwards car. It’s a Ford truck with the body turned around, so when it’s driving forwards, it looks like it’s reversing. The effect is uncanny. And weirdly trans. How can a car spark gender feels? I don’t know, but it does. And, of course, it has truck nuts. Big-uns.
I interviewed Pippa to write a piece for the catalog for this show, which is called $ELL YOUR$ELF. It was a great privilege to sit and talk with her, testing my own curiosity and comfort. Trading on trans privilege, I asked her the questions people want to ask me, about sex and surgeries. And since she was willing to answer them, you can find out all about it from the catalog.
Sara O’Keeffe is an even bigger Pippa Garner fan than I am, it turns out. At Art Omi, she walked us through her selections from Pippa notebooks, her drawings, some of her sculptures, and the t-shirts she makes with slogans on them. Art Omi has reproduced a selection. I have one that says, “Quiet! Mutation in Progress.” We’re both cheered by the uptick of interest in Pippa’s work. Primary Information reprinted one of her books, the Better Living Catalog. Fiona Duncan interviewed her for the Brooklyn Rail’s New Social Environment series.
Sara and Assistant Curator Guy Weltchek gave us a tour of the Art Omi sculpture park by golf cart. Not the ideal way to see it. The sculptures need more than drive-by appreciation. There’s some beautiful works, but I’d like to have seen them properly before writing about them. Jenny and I will be back.
Hopefully, we’ll be back for the next show, 3WI, by Dion “TYGAPAW” McKenzie, which opens November 18. The title stands for “third-world immigrant.” As it happens, I’ve also interviewed Dion, a DJ and techno producer originally from Jamaica. I had the privilege of publishing their text “Do You Remember When We Just Lived?” in the Black Rave issue of e-flux journal. How many institutions have programmed two trans artists in a row? Big ups to Art Omi.
Guy had a promising tip for where to go dancing that night near Hudson, but we weren’t planning on that kind of weekend. Besides visiting the Garner show, we’d be writing. We’re both writers with day jobs. And apart from that—party for two.
On the ride back, we got the right side of the train. Sunlight mirror-balling off the river. The foliage just turning, bristling in bright patches amid the green. A weekend out of the bubble. I chose to become a New Yorker, and a big city lets you get weird. I leaned into that fairly hard. Not as hard as Pippa Garner, who has not always lived in Los Angeles, but whose work channels the sheen of bright light beaming off the curve of a television screen or an automobile hood. Beaming the gender unconscious in all its bizarre fury into our flesh.