Subtext /

Somebody Wants It

“Thus, one of the things that anyone’s character or personality is is a record of the highly individual histories by which the fleeting emotion of shame has instituted far more durable, structural changes in one’s relational and interpretive strategies toward both self and others.”

—Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick¹

In 2016, I was asked by Flash Art to review Jill Soloway’s (lamentably short-lived) Amazon series I Love Dick. I assume that I was considered suitable for the job because, as a queer/feminist art historian, I must have watched Transparent, and such an assumption is indeed reasonable. Without thinking, I replied yes, of course, I love Soloway’s work. In fact, I had never seen Transparent, and I knew little about Soloway aside from what her work represented, at least within the thin slice of the culture industry from which I operate. I wanted to support someone who I thought was doing important things; the content of Soloway’s larger opus seemed secondary, or maybe I was just lazy. That was a little over two years ago, and I have thought about my impulsive decision at least weekly since.

Time passed and I naturally had to read Soloway’s new memoir She Wants It: Desire, Power, and Toppling the Patriarchy, which I speedily consumed on an eleven-hour plane trip to a conference. Upon finishing, I must admit that I felt profoundly empty and could not entirely articulate why. Sure, the book fails in some ways that have been pointed out (in an unhelpful fashion, I think) elsewhere—it is at times out of touch or overly sentimental or didactic or essentialist. However, it is impossible to speak to queerness or trans-ness without falling into problematic traps, without wanting to speak for everyone at times or only for yourself at others, without failing to recognize one’s privilege, without engaging in methods that seem retrograde or antiquated. We have all embodied a politics that fails in some respects. Take, for example, Jack Halberstam’s commentary on the belatedness of queer identification: “As someone who sexually identifies as a ‘stone butch,’ I am always surprised to hear that apparently there are no stone butches anymore! People often tell me that stone butch was an identity bound to the 1950s and apparently dependent on a preliberation understanding of lesbianism or queerness.”2 Of course, one can identify however one wants, but the political question of “But should you?” often complicates the agency of those who have come to speak in proximity to (not even for) marginalized communities. Such was the case for Soloway, who has been lambasted by writers and activists like Andrea Long Chu for the decision to identify as nonbinary, though such critiques often resemble a new conservatism or policing that falls prey to the elitism and cruelty exhibited by many writers whose primary creative outlet is Twitter.

Halberstam goes on, “So what does it mean to engage in a sexual practice whose time is past?”3 And what does it mean to engage in an identity politics whose time is allegedly past? She Wants It hopes to mobilize rhetoric drawn from second-wave feminism, with all its successes and shortcomings, alongside the advances made by trans activism. Like Lena Dunham, Soloway experienced an extraordinary backlash for attempting to utilize an identity politics of an earlier moment that has been endlessly parodied in academic and popular discussions of feminism alike — the goddess, central core imagery, consciousness raising, the possibility of coalition-building based on gender. Criticisms of these methods certainly deserve to be levied — but with an ounce of foresight and empathy, for it is not queer or feminist to denigrate the well-meaning activism of others. In any case, queerness often requires problematic attachments, sometimes to ideologies with which you violently disagree or that you feel may erase you; no one can say with surety that they have never wanted something that has marginalized someone else.

None of this really surprised me, as these are debates that have been going on for some time in queer and feminist theory, so whence my discomfort with She Wants It? Upon landing in Copenhagen, I texted my boyfriend, who promptly asked what I thought of the book. All I could think to reply was, “I think Jill is very sad about something.” I know that is presumptuous to say, but shame and melancholia are often as coextensive with queerness as joyful liberation. I saw Soloway trying desperately to grapple with mistakes and complex decisions whose magnitude we cannot comprehend, because, and this is the unfortunate truth, some voices will always resonate more widely than others. Thus held universally responsible but in no way claiming to speak for anyone else, She Wants It is often a story of self-disappointment and paranoia and regret. However, Soloway does not become a melodramatic stereotype with which we can all identify. Instead, and contrary to those who attack Soloway’s essentialism, the book is so resolutely individualized as to refute any kind of projection or identification or collectivization. There lies, I think, why I found She Wants It so upsetting — its insights swirl around you like dust, but nothing ever gets in your eye, as much as you yearn for contact or community. Tears held back and not extracted. Nothing quite sticks to you. This is not a book that speaks for anyone else; it articulates only itself and allows Soloway some space from what they have come to represent in narratives of queer visual culture.

I have finally started watching Transparent, and I think my hypothesis is confirmed. It is one of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen. What intrigues me is that within Soloway’s activist cinematic statement is a stream of characters who bear traces of pathos we recognize, even while remaining intensely enclosed and unrecognizable, trapped in the screen and in their own self-destructive arrogance. At the same time, however, someone might see themselves in Maura’s story, or Tammy’s (my favorite), or even She Wants It, and we have to create a politics wherein that choice, as sentimental, regressive, or abrasive as it may be, is provisionally alright.

by William J. Simmons


Subtext is a column exploring new and old books, art and ephemera.


1. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Queer Performativity: Warhol’s Shyness/Warhol’s Whiteness,” in Jennifer Doyle, Jonathan Flatley, and José Esteban Muñoz, eds., Pop Out: Queer Warhol (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), pp. 141–2.

2. Carolyn Dinshaw, et. al., “Theorizing Queer Temporalities: A Roundtable Discussion,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 13, no. 2 (2007), p. 190.

3. Ibid.

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Review /

Rebecca Belmore AGO / Toronto

Rebecca Belmore tackles complex political themes with a daring economy of means. Canada’s shameful record of missing and murdered indigenous women, systems of land use, and the sovereignty of First Nations as well as the vulnerability of migrant populations: Belmore engages some of the most urgent crises of our time. “Facing the Monumental” is an efficient yet emotionally powerful survey of the Anishinaabekwe artist’s career.

The taut syntax of Wanda Nanibush’s curatorial presentation unfolds as a carefully argued sequence of interrelated ensembles. Nanibush, the Art Gallery of Ontario’s first curator of indigenous art, has been lauded for her innovative prioritization of indigenous languages in the gallery’s trilingual didactic materials as well as the culturally sensitive retitling of historic (mis)representations of indigenous cultures.

Tower (2018), an imposing pillar of clay encased in stacked shopping carts evocative of the repetitive grammar of both Minimalist and First Nations art, is a declaration of the exhibition’s multivalent aspirations, where the “monumental” addressed by Belmore is simultaneously the institutional and symbolic legacies of colonialism and the resilient agency of a more-than-human nature. The totem-pole-like Tower is in productive dialogue with other works exposing structures of governmentality and resistance through a tactical repurposing of standardized materials and formats.

Rebecca Belmore Tower, 2018
Rebecca Belmore Tower, 2018. Courtesy of Art Gallery of Ontario © Rebecca Belmore

Belmore broaches themes of mortality and violence with a remarkable restraint that in no way mutes the emotional impact of the final grouping of works encountered by visitors. The two-channel video installation March 5, 1819 (2008), which restages the kidnapping of Beothuk artist Shanawdithit, is granted space for reflection that is unfortunately denied an extensive archive of Belmore’s performance works, which are relegated to a simultaneous, multi-channel projection in a modest room.

A more generous contextualizing of materials would have assisted viewers — particularly visitors and new arrivals to Canada — in navigating the dense histories excavated by Belmore’s layered narratives. Where “Facing the Monumental” triumphs is in demonstrating the provocative potential of the para-exhibitionary gesture. As interlopers in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s permanent collection, satellite works, including Biinjiya’iing Onji (From inside) (2017), a marble tent quarried from the same source as the Parthenon and originally installed in Athens for Documenta 14, forcefully materialize the nomadic logic of the global refugee crisis.

by Adam Lauder

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Movie Night /

Double Take

Mary Evans: Oh, you wouldn’t do this if I were a man!
Lonny Borden: I wouldn’t want to.

What Price Hollywood? (1932)

Last month, gravel-toned actor Sam Elliott appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to promote his supporting turn in Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born (2018). The interview progressed through the usual talk show platitudes — his amazing performance, his incredible voice — before ending with a game. Would Elliott recite pop lyrics written by costar Lady Gaga in his signature growling cadence? He obliged and the studio audience soon broke out in laughter, delighted by the incongruity of a respected artist deigning to read lines from the singer’s various commercial triumphs. Never mind that his best-known credits include boorish fare like Road House (1989) and Ghost Rider (2007).

While not occurring by Elliott’s design, the segment’s conspiratorial humor speaks to the evergreen jurisdiction of such men in distinguishing between high and low art. It is they who reserve the right to look twice, not in the tired sense of hunter and hunted, of suspect voyeurism, of the active and the impotent, but instead in the casual passing of a value judgment. That hierarchy of taste has always informed the narrative backbone of A Star Is Born, from its first iteration in George Cukor’s What Price Hollywood? (1932) to Frank Pierson’s indulgent Streisand vehicle. But, until the arrival of this most recent remake, it has rarely seeped so plainly into the film’s promotional campaign or become a defining hallmark of its production.

We begin where they do. When Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) first encounters Ally (Lady Gaga), she is performing a rendition of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” — sung live and thus distinguished from the played-for-laughs lip-syncing and latex breastplates of her drag bar surrounds. His determined curiosity leads him to Ally’s dressing room after the show where he informs her of her own talent. This is not before Maine, a complete stranger, has peeled off her stuck-on eyebrows. Critical distance that the director might hold from his onscreen counterpart in this moment is blunted by the now notorious anecdote in which Cooper dragged a makeup wipe down Gaga’s face upon her arrival for a screen test. Much like Maine, he reasoned that he wanted to see her “completely open” with “no artifice.” For both men, this translates to a no-less-affected country-sexy-casual aesthetic — all tied-off midriffs and low-slung belts. The arbitrary laws of embodied authenticity are rarely enforced in reverse, of course. Cooper’s approach to portraying Jackson Maine involved weekly spray tan sessions and the near-constant application of a Tom Ford bronzer.

After an evening spent touching her face and sizing it up for stardom — Cooper speaks often about “falling in love” with Gaga’s face and eyes — Maine listens as Ally sings an original composition a cappella. “Can I tell you a secret?” he asks, “I think you might be a songwriter.” It’s a flirtatious line burdened with patronizing charity, and especially faint praise from an artist whose own music trades in county-fair wisdom. He’ll later elevate her song by setting it to music and inserting his own corresponding lyrics.

Both narratives of being seen, that of Ally’s discovery and Lady Gaga’s acting trajectory, hinge on the generous scopophilia of Bradley Cooper and his onscreen foil. Gaga’s widely mocked press circuit refrain — all variations on “There can be one hundred people in a room and ninety-nine don’t believe in you, but [Cooper] did” — in truth has little to do with her. The line is not intended to suggest that she was memorable enough to warrant Cooper’s attention, but rather that Cooper was gracious enough to bestow her with artistic approval, or “take another look” as Maine might put it in the film.

“I remember when we first met,” Cooper recalled at the Venice Film Festival, “after ten minutes we were eating homemade food that she cooked. I love to eat.” The magnetism of modest, down-home womanhood, reliable as ever. It’s the same Pygmalion logic that has grounded everything from Four Sided Triangle (1953) and My Fair Lady (1964) to Weird Science (1985) and the sinister celebritization of Sophia the Robot. The most bizarre element of this artistic dynamic is that — two years ago, at least — the aesthetic convictions of Bradley Cooper should have meant very little given his entire lack of directorial pedigree. Though limited in experience, Gaga had already demonstrated her bankable and award-winning acting talent by that time. It’s to her credit that her performance as Ally feels like a first-time revelation — as it was described by Cooper at the Tribeca Film Festival — among the mumble-speak of her colleagues, breathable air in an onslaught of hot subway wind.

The openhearted relish with which Gaga has approached the promotion of A Star Is Born stands in similar contrast to her director’s often detached stoicism, typified by his childish profile in The New York Times. The manner in which his film distinguishes between the tasteful and the embarrassing, between good and bad forms of self-expression, is no different. In the unabashed contemporary specificity of its references to texting and asses, Ally’s music is located firmly in the now and suffers for it. With her ferocious energy and frankness, she’s altogether too eager to be considered a cultivated artist in the film’s world. By contrast, Maine’s lyrical output is caught up in the vague speak of nostalgia, ruminating on the “old ways” and being “too far gone.” He manages to generate sympathy for a character that has likely never existed — the grizzled country music male with broad crossover appeal, from drag bars to festival stages. It helps that his backstory exists in the untethered language of hero myth: his mother died in childbirth and his father was an absent drinker. Ally is in turn yoked to her father, Lorenzo (Andrew Dice Clay), a man with his own Sinatra-centric beliefs about old-world artistic authenticity.

In another film, this dynamic could operate as a thoughtful meta-commentary on aloof machismo in artmaking. In Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born, no such critique occurs. As Ally rises to fame under the watchful eye of an effete, loafer-wearing manager (Rafi Gavron), her romantic partner grows increasingly alarmed by the updating of her wardrobe and the louche sensuality of her songwriting. For a man so engaged in the exercise of looking, the fact that he can’t bring himself to watch Ally’s performance of the charming confection “Why Did You Do That?” on Saturday Night Live is a revealing moment. Complicit in Maine’s gaze, the audience is encouraged to concede that this dry-humping sellout is “not the real Ally” and to long for her “old ways” — the ones that were introduced to us an hour earlier.

But Ally’s commercial identity is not nearly as manipulated as we’re encouraged to believe. She remains largely in command of her musical output, expressing clear pleasure at her professional direction even as it straddles the chasm between acoustic country and electronic pop. Those are her lyrics, as she so forcefully protests from the bathtub. “You’re just fuckin’ ugly,” Maine eventually retorts, after months spent imploring his wife to ignore such insecurities. It’s the typical defensive reflex of his gaze, riding high on all the joyful qualities of the lowbrow before rejecting them with derision. It’s a wonderful joke that the two finest songs in the film are also, within its own estimation, the worst. The anatomical reverie “Hair Body Face” and Diane Warren-penned “Why Did You Do That?” happen to be the most authentic cuts on the soundtrack, wholly embracing their pop pleasures as opposed to the truly shallow posturing of a track like “Maybe It’s Time.” See: “Nobody speaks to God these days / Well, I’ve seen hell in Reno / And this world’s one big ol’ Catherine wheel.”

Distinct from the more openly envious male leads of the story’s previous iterations — Fredric March’s peevish 1937 interpretation in particular — Maine is here brought low by his own righteous belief that Ally is squandering her potential. Her closing rendition of “I’ll Never Love Again” is a mawkish mea culpa from the now-brunette-again star that assures both the late Maine and intimated viewer that her time spent dabbling in evocative choreography and tangerine coiffure has come to an end. In name alone, the track — composed by Maine and bequeathed to Ally with that familiar, caveat-rich generosity — consecrates an ongoing commitment between partners, a promise that she will remain defined in his image even beyond his undoing.

It’s fitting, then, that her performance has all the trappings of a swan song: a harsh spotlight, Celine Dion-lite balladeering, and a recital hall gown. With no more love to give, it might as well be her final set. Fitting too that the film ends with Ally staring directly into camera, recalling her very first glance at Jackson while splayed across the drag bar countertop. As she raises her eyes to meet the audience, we are made to understand that emotional turmoil has elevated her work to a more fully realized realm of authenticity. A star has been born at the fading of another. In fact, she stares beyond us, seeking the ever-adjudicating gaze of Jackson Maine and, by extension, Bradley Cooper. The show is over. Now what did he make of it?

Joe Brennan is a Sydney-based writer and photographer.

Movie Night is a column exploring film semiotics and thoughts about moviegoing in general.

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Review /

Lawrence Abu Hamdan Chisenhale Gallery / London

“Silence is the master,” says a voice translating from Arabic to English in Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Saydnaya (the missing 19db) (2017). The voice speaking in Arabic belongs to an inmate kept in Saydnaya prison during the Syrian civil war.

Over the course of the twelve- minute audio work, presented in a darkened listening room, the voices of prisoners and a translator are interspersed with the artist’s own as they describe the sonic biography of atrocity. The title derives from the change in the sonic character of Saydnaya from the time when it housed various types of inmates to its conversion into an instrument of political violence. The “safe” decibel level for inmates to whisper to each other dropped by nineteen decibels over this period. The inmates describe the fear they felt when guards heard them making unauthorized sounds, and the way in which beatings became increasingly silent as victims suppressed their own screams in an attempt to bring their ordeals to quicker ends. Inside the listening room, the darkness and silence almost seem to take on weight, exerting downward pressure on a visitor.

Venturing into the main space, one finds the work Earwitness Inventory (2018), which presents the tools used to recreate sounds described by various “earwitnesses” of events. Animated texts elaborate upon the process of producing and inventorying these sounds. The objects are incongruous, ramshackle, surreal; the viewer moves amid an inflatable swimming pool, a helium balloon anchored to the floor with a ceramic weight, and plastic soda bottles. Projected on the gallery’s east wall is Earwitness Inventory’s text component. The events and locations the text mentions — the rooms and doors of Saydnaya prison, sinkhole events, Reeva Steenkamp’s murder trial — all explore the ways in which memory, space, and sound interact. The text is fascinating, and the events it recounts are profound chronicles of the sonic imprint of violence, but there is a strange, almost whimsical, quality to standing among the objects themselves. In an exhibition so concerned with the invisible, the objects feel like a concession of sorts. After a work as powerful as Saydnaya, one understands how hearing becomes believing; in such a context, seeing is almost superfluous.

by William Kherbek

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Report /

AB6 / Athens Biennale 2018

A naked yellow body, head wrapped in bright orange fabric, clasping an enormous bamboo crucifix, spills out of the former Esperia Palace Hotel on Stadiou Street in central Athens. Followed by other figures, one’s back crudely scrawled with the emblem of Golden Dawn, the Greek neo-nationalist party, another circulating with arms raised recalling an ancient Minoan figurine, these members of Panos Sklavenitis’s tribal cargo cult (Cargo, 2018) inhabit an imaginary near future and appear to worship artifacts of Greece’s present and past. Manifesting itself as a mutating, reflecting, and at times grotesque “screenshot” of contemporary experience, the 6th Athens Biennale achieves something not dissimilar to Sklavenitis’s writhing army.

Adopting the title “ANTI,” the Biennale and its four neighboring venues brim with contrasts, reactions, and oppositions. Although careful to point out that “ANTI” is not necessarily a call to resist, the curators Stefanie Hessler, Poka-Yio and Kostis Stafylakis have nevertheless drawn together an uneasy-making collection of provocative artworks and performances that at once provide relief through their conceptual “otherness,” yet still feel uncomfortably familiar.

Drawing us inside a former hotel is Michail Pirgelis’s enormous Memory Games (2017), a section of a decommissioned airliner portraying the vastness of human-made infrastructure and our antagonistic relationship to it. Opposite this hollow hulk is one of Miltos Manetas’s brilliant large-scale oil paintings of cables and USBs, Cables (Togetherness) (2009), which, along with Cables III (1997) and Untitled (hand with cables) (1998), remind us of the apparent simplicity underpinning a constant and tiresome information overload. Elsewhere in the building, one of the most palpable of diametric oppositions: a Chess-boxing arena — the sport’s hybrid matches involve alternating rounds of chess and boxing, straightforwardly straddling the chasm of intellectual and physical pugnacity.

Across the road, the former Hellenic Telecommunications Organisation building, TTT, houses the majority of the artworks contributed by the Biennale’s one hundred participating artists. With the building only officially released to the curators mere weeks before opening, and with the bulk of the artworks themselves not arriving until just days before, AB6 seemed destined to suffer the same fate as the previous Biennale (AB5to6 “OMONOIA,” 2015–17), which was nothing short of a “failure… an experiment with no tangible results,” as Poka-Yio, also founding director of the Biennale, puts it in the AB6 catalogue. Nevertheless, the team behind the Biennale have successfully achieved what they set out to do, citing assistance from large numbers of volunteers working long days.

Despite the somewhat limiting nature of the former office cubicles in which the video-dense selection of works is installed, the six floors of TTT offer a range of discomforting sensations. Ted Davis’s endless youtube.pawgorithm (2016) plays YouTube videos with zero views, essentially self-destroying its future as an artwork. To watch Jon Rafman’s Sticky Drama (2015), which depicts slime-covered live-action role-playing children in saturated color, the viewer must sit uncomfortably close to the screen, ensuring retina burn. Korakrit Arunanondchai’s slick dystopian collaboration with Alex Gvojic (There’s a word I’m trying to remember from a feeling I’m about to have (a distracted path towards extinction), 2016) can only be experienced while being overlooked by a monstrous rat-like creature lacking legs. If Marianna Simnett’s video, The Needle and the Larynx (2016) (the name says it all) or Rachel Maclean’s Eyes 2 Me (2015), in which a doll-like girl is ordered around by an instructive male voice-over, aren’t enough to unsettle viewers, the toxic smell that pervades the rooms of the TTT only heightens the stomach-churning sensation.

Ascending the building, one notices that the depictions of fleeting subcultures, drooling into our sensory orifices, morph into more established representations of resistance: the throb of gabba music subsides into the chirping of Spyros Aggelopoulos’s shadow puppet show (Amusementorium, 2018); and high-contrast digital screens give way to elegant and tender erotic pastel works by Lauren Wy (forty-one in total, displayed in a room with its original carpeted walls). Eighteen portraits in oil from the 1970s and 1980s by the late Celia Daskopoulou line the corridors and still give an uncanny stare. The overarching feeling of unease remains, however, and is successfully contributed to by the docu-film The Seasteaders (2017) by Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman and Daniel Keller, which charts through deadpan clarity the megalomaniac plan of Peter Thiel and others to construct a floating and tax-exempt “substate” off the coast of Polynesia.

As well as being a linguistic prefix, in Greek, anti on its own means “instead of,” which feels prescient in venues such as the Benakeios Library of the Old Parliament, where 32,000 more-or-less obsolete volumes have been replaced with two artworks. Rumba II: Nomad (2015), a video by Cao Fei, which follows robot vacuum cleaners around demolished Beijing hutongs, is projected below a ceiling of the Library that has crumbled to the (un-vacuumed) floor below. Across the corridor lies Pigpen (2016), an enormous latex sculpture of a sow suckling its young, installed by Saeborg, a Japanese collective blending BDSM latex outfits and anarcho-veganism, which is activated during performances by a group dressed as piglets and a maniacal farmer.

Opposition today plays out in a wide array of formats, some of which we may endorse, consciously or otherwise. While the relationship between progressive and reactionary attitudes could be described as a feedback loop, each pole inciting the other, it might also be seen as an ouroboros, with attitudes consuming, rather than feeding into, each other. Either way, our particular idiosyncratic moment is ripe for analysis. This Biennale doesn’t provide a solution, but rather investigates differing and current reactions to it. A man sporting a tutu and painted from head to toe in the colors of the Greek flag wanders back up Stadiou Street; a homeless lady lying adjacent to the Biennale’s entrance looks right through him, unfazed.

by Andrew Spyrou

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A Vogue Idea /

On Fashion’s Runway

As Caroline Evans discussed in her rigorous book “The Mechanical Smile,” the origins of the fashion show reveal a constellation where the body, commerce, and modernity converge. Described as a theater without narrative, fashion’s runway illuminates the paradox of irrational mutability and mechanical standardization.

The “first” runway could be understood as the practice of couturiers sending living mannequins (what we now call models) into the public boulevard sporting new designs, eliciting shock and photographic dissemination. This animation of bodies performing novelty in urban life foregrounded the format we know today: models passing along a strip flanked by their consuming onlookers. Runways express the formaldehyde of a culture in flux. While technological treatments of the runway have modified since its emergence at the turn of the nineteenth century, its underlying edifice has remained largely intact. Despite this ongoing scenographic sameness, various designers have explored the runway as a discursive site to interrogate the mechanics of fashion’s circulation. These runway experiments reconfigure the relations between audiences, arrangements of space, the carnivalesque body and the haunting of its commodity form. Leaping from Paul Poiret’s epic 1911 “A Thousand and Second Night,” the designers exhibited at Kunsthalle Bern have approached the runway-as-medium to extend and challenge ideas within their own practice as well as the fashion system at large.

Passageways curates videos of runway shows by designers that have reimagined the catwalk as an exploratory performative tool to produce fashion. Also exhibited are outfits by some of those fashion designers alongside a series of commissioned replicas that rewrite new histories of the runway as a suspension of fashion-time.

BLESS, N°0-4, Alexanderplatz, 1998

Commissioned for the Berlin Biennale, Desiree Heiss and Ines Kaag of BLESS staged a “living commercial” in Berlin’s large public square, Alexanderplatz. Everyday people as models walked past an inconspicuous CCTV camera wearing pieces from collections N°0-4.

BLESS, N°25, Uniseasoners – Life vs. Consumption, 2005

For N°25, Uniseasoners – Life vs. Consumption guests were invited to a restaurant on rue Portefoin, Paris, to enjoy a light meal served by waiters wearing their latest collection. In a convivial and discursive setting, the waiter-models explained the pieces they were wearing to their guests, foregrounding the relational and everyday codes of their clothing.

BLESS, N°32, Frustverderber, 2007

Taking the form of a soccer match, BLESS left the show’s unraveling completely up to chance. Friends were invited to take part, some more active than others. Delicate objects were placed in one goal, and whether or not these would be hit and subsequently broken was not choreographed or planned.

Helmut Lang, Séance de Travail FW93/94, 1993

“I called the presentations seances de travail instead of fashion shows, as I really wanted to stress another reality on the runway and also allow myself to sometimes transfer an element from one show to the next, leading to something new in a more elaborate manner. The séance de travail concept made sense to me, as it was set up for the press, buyers, and other attendees. I introduced it by eliminating the elevated runway, promoting all age groups of models, supermodels, and friends, sending them on a ground-level runway that, rather than being center stage, had a square-shaped path with two extensions and different exits. This allowed a fast and interactive flow similar to a public space, where some models rotated one time and others walked the circuit two or three times. It was always at random and a decision I took the second I sent them out. I consider these sessions as performances because I did not only want to convey modern clothes, but also a feeling and mood of a moment in time, which, in combination with men, women, speed, and the unpredictable synergy, created a different dimension for most spectators. I consider this approach a countermovement to posing, and the press in a way defined the events at Rue des Commines as cult-like events (for lack of a better word).” — Helmut Lang quoted in Not in Fashion: Photography and Fashion in the 90s, 2011

Maison Martin Margiela, FW97/98, 1997

“For his Autumn-Winter 1997–78 collection, free promotional maps of Paris with three locations and times for the show were sent to journalists, many of whom threw them out, thinking they were junk mail rather than fashion show invitations. At 05.00 hours on the morning of the show, a bus carrying thirty-five brass band players left Brussels for Paris where it met another bus that carried thirty-five models to their first destination. This was an abandoned covered market, La Java, at Belville, at 10.30 hours. The second, at 11.45 hours, was a glass-covered loading bay of the huge Le Gibus building at Republique. The third, at 15.00 hours, was a 1930s dance school, Le Menagerie de Jerre, at Parmentier. At each venue the audience watched the models and band get out and then followed them into the show space as the band played a slow march. At the third, however, instead of going into the building the models simply paraded through the streets mingling with the public. They were accompanied throughout by Margiela’s assistants clad in white laboratory coats, a tradition borrowed from the couture ateliers. By departing from his pre-planned itinerary and allowing his models to ‘drift’ through the city streets rather than model on the more conventional catwalk, Margiela evoked two related tropes from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: the flux of the crowd that was central to Baudelaire’s city imagery and the Situationist concept of dérive.” — Caroline Evans, Fashion at the Edge, 2005

Walter van Beirendonck, W&LT SS98, 1997

This show, titled “A Fetish for Beauty,” explored the carnivalesque nature of gender roles, commencing with a humorously camp male line dance and ending with a dystopic re-imagining of a 1950s ball.

writtenafterwards, SS18, 2017

The two runways exhibited by writtenafterwards use the runway for narrative storytelling more than showcasing discrete collections. In these lengthy shows, makeshift props and ad hoc costumes are used in performances orchestrated by acts. The designer, Yoshikazu Yamagata, also runs an alternative open-ended fashion school, Coconogacco, which, similar to these runways, focuses on fashion as an expression for performance.


“Passageways: On Fashion’s Runway, curated by Matthew Linde, is on view at Kunsthalle Bern through December 2, 2018.

A Vogue Idea is a column by Matthew Linde exploring contemporary fashion practice.

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