MOTHA and Chris E. Vargas: Consciousness Razing—The Stonewall Re-Memorialization Project
New YorkNew Museum
September 26, 2018 – February 3, 2019
In October, the New York Times reported on a Trump Administration memo which defined gender as “a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth,” erasing the estimated 1.4 million trans and gender non-conforming people living in the United States.1 The memo—which would threaten federal protections and recognitions—was met with protests and declarations of #WontBeErased. This was one of many moments exemplifying how trans, gender non-conforming, and intersex people are not only erased—but policed, harassed, deported, and killed. During these moments, considerations of representation, visibility, and inclusion remain relevant and the stakes and demands for museums remain high. The institutional limitations and contradictions of museums, which are complicit in the erasure and exclusion of many marginalized groups, are also called into question.
Perhaps some answers can be found in the Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art (MOTHA), a semi-fictional institution led by Chris E. Vargas which counters the stable, hetero/cis-normative, “serious” structure of the museum with fluid, playful objects and images that center trans people, narratives, and subjectivities. Vargas’s project Transgender Hirstory in 99 Objects (a riff on the books A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor and The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects with the gender-inclusive “hirstory,” as opposed to “history” or “herstory”) began in 2015 and now continues at the New Museum, in an exhibition entitled Consciousness Razing—The Stonewall Re-Memorialization Project, curated by Johanna Burton and Sara O’Keeffe.
The focus here is Stonewall: site of the critical 1969 riot against police brutality, whose own historical narrative is rife with erasure, specifically of the key role of trans women of color. Witness the sculptural monument, Gay Liberation, placed across from the Stonewall Inn in Christopher Park in 1992. The bronze statues were designed by George Segal, a straight, white, cisgender man. They depict two barely affectionate couples, who are coded as cisgender and, notably, painted with white lacquer.
Resisting such historical representations, a model of Christopher Park was constructed on the museum’s fifth floor and twelve new commemorations by an intergenerational group of queer and trans artists were designed and installed as imaginary alternatives. The model, built at a 1:7 scale, slightly cramps the space. When I visited the exhibition, my friend (who is trans and gender non-conforming) stood too close and was misgendered by a guard as they were told to back up.
The proposals were moving and effective. Devin N. Morris’s A Seat for Sitting series (2018) reimagines “a seat at the table” with chairs and furnishings for black trans women, including dedications to Marsha P. Johnson, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, and others. Keijaun Thomas describes her thoughtful installation of five wooden logs (In the Reflection of Ancient Tides (2018); acrylic on birch wood, yarn, multi colored plastic pony beads, and audio) as “connected by hair beads like the kind my momma used to use when she did my sister’s hair,” envisioning the “raft [that] emerges when we combine our forces, keeping us lifted, afloat.” Nicki Green proposes a stack of earthenware commemorative bricks inscribed with “Stonewall” for the park. “Brick” conjures both the “trans vernacular [referring] to trans women who do not pass as cis women,” and one of the potential inciting objects at Stonewall; considering the “protestor and protest tool.” Green describes the piece (“Forces of Faggotry” –or– Brick as a negotiation of the precarious duality of being seen and burning it all down (2018)) as “unfixed and flexible,” reflecting that “its lack of rigidity complicates its status as a monument and speaks more directly to the fluidity of community dynamics, of recording histories . . . expressing a collectivity that is continually evolving, shifting, spreading.” Accompanying these models are audio works by the artists and a display case of “artifacts” from the Stonewall Riot. These artifacts—a fist, coins, bottles, cans, a shot glass, a stiletto heel, bricks, and dog feces—are not literal objects from the event, but are symbolically installed within a vitrine. In their cheeky inauthenticity, they tell a more complex (and perhaps more truthful) story.
The project also includes “Resources for Resistance,” a room curated by Kate Wiener and Vargas featuring publications (including the New Museum’s groundbreaking Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility (2017), edited by Tourmaline (formerly known as Reina Gossett), Eric A. Stanley, and exhibition curator Johanna Burton), audio (including Sylvia Rivera’s 2001 speech to Latino Gay Men of New York, the text of which is also available to read and which is referenced by Sharon Hayes’s proposal Stonewall is not here yet (2018)), and pamphlets (including “Tips for Trans People Dealing with Cops”), compiled in collaboration with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. On the center table, visitors can pen postcards to a (trans, gender non-conforming, or intersex) person in prison.
MOTHA questions institutions of power such as historical narratives and the role of art, specifically, public art. As Vargas states, he “never wanted to make an institution for trans history or trans art because of the limits [of] institutions.” Instead, he is interested in MOTHA’s “impossibility,” stating it is always “under construction.” Many of the commissions selected—with materials such as foil, beads, and “mixed trash”—would be unlikely to be built. With these impossible proposals, the project subverts the supposed inclusiveness of considerations for public monuments and memorials. Like other memorializations, it is site-specific (to Christopher Park, to the New Museum), yet, through the proposals’ weekly physical rotations during the exhibition, it disrupts the notion of a stable history, enacting fluidity and multiplicity. This multiplicity rejects a single (historical, curatorial, political) narrative, presenting instead many possibilities and impossibilities.
As both visibility and violence continue to shape the history, art, and lived experiences of trans and gender non-conforming people, projects like the Museum of Trans Hirstory and Art are vital, if not life saving.
- Green, Erica L., et al. “‘Transgender’ Could Be Defined Out of Existence Under Trump Administration.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Oct. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/10/21/us/politics/transgender-trump-administration-sex-definition.html. The article and estimate cited does not include intersex people, who are also affected by the memo’s narrow definition.