PhD: Touching History: Art, Performance, and Politics in Queer Times

“Feminism is a spent force”; “a queer theoretical hegemony is over”; “racism is no longer a relevant topic of concern.” Statements on how political critiques and theoretical perspectives with roots in social movements have outlived their times and are no longer needed proliferate in public debates in the Global North. But how do we know when something is over and done with? And who decides? These are some of the questions raised in Touching History: Art, Performance, and Politics in Queer Times, that examines how contemporary artists, performers, and theorists query and queer the political grammar of storytelling by engaging with unfinished histories of injustice.

Touching History is an interdisciplinary project comprised of a series of close readings of art, performance, and exhibition projects that theorize the temporality of politics and the politics of temporality. The study centers on aesthetic practitioners with queer, feminist, and antiracist perspectives that negotiate between desire for alternative histories, and concern for untimely historicizations that risk disarticulating still pressing problems from the framework of the “now.” Focusing on the effects of history, the artistic projects considered in this study disturb the sense and sensation of the “present” by entering into relationships with pasts that are not passé and presents that are not only present.

Touching History opens in medias res with the text “Queer Preposterousness: Practicing temporally Disorienting History” that centers on the declarations of the “death” of queer theory in the Norwegian media in 2010. The temporal disorientation conjured by these obituaries invites a discussion on how one navigates in time and history when the critical perspectives one works with are repeatedly being positioned as dead and buried.

Chapter 1, “Reading Politically: Police, Politics, and Performance in Research,” draws up the contours of the political reading practice enacted in the project through a rehearsal of a set of queer, feminist, and postcolonial discussions on the politics of research––discussions that lay the foundation for the project’s proposal of a “pedagogy of undecidability.” The subsequent two chapters interrogate the figure of the archive in discussions on the politics of history. Chapter 2, “Queering the Archive: In Between Archivophobia and Archivophilia in Queer Archival Engagements,” surveys debates on archives and archiving in queer theory and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender studies, and sketches a model for a “queer paradoxology” attentive to the affective and political tensions at play in this field. Chapter 3, “Dying to Live: Performing Archives in This World We Must Leave and re.act.feminism #2” examines a set of generative paradoxes in the efforts to preserve movement in the exhibition projects This World We Must Leave (2010–2011) and re.act.feminism #2––a performing archive (2011–2013). Centering on how the projects use the figure of the archive to criticize archival logics, the chapter suggests the importance of troubling oppositional models on the relationship between archives and performance, activity and passivity, and movement and arrest in historical thinking.

Chapter 4, “The Mess of Sameness: Repetition, Reenactment, and Affective History,” examines discourses on reenactment and affective history in contemporary art, and puts pressure on the difficulty of asserting the proper difference between past and present when engaging with repetitions in history. This temporal disorientation is explored in more detail in chapter 5, “Hurting Pleasures: Unsettling Histories in Mary Coble’s Aversion,” that centers on how artist Mary Coble’s performance, photography, and video project Aversion (2007) challenges established frameworks of historical specificity through a “parahistorical” engagement with the radically unfinished history of homophobia. The problem of historical contextualization is also central in chapter 6, “Not Not Now: Arresting Images and Continuing Moments in and Around Sharon Hayes’s In the Near Future.” This chapter explores how the artist Sharon Hayes’s actions and installations In the Near Future (2005–2008) interrogates the time-specificity of political protests by engaging with “continuing moments” and “durational nows.”

Chapter 7, “Touching History: Disruptive Anachronisms in Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz’s N.O. Body,” examines how the anachronistic touches across time in artist duo Boudry and Lorenz’s film installation N.O. Body (2008) shed light on and criticize heteronormative and racist “straight temporal regimes”––regimes that suggest that non-normative bodies belong to so-called less developed and degenerate times. Chapter 8, “History as a Kleenex: Economies of Touch in Queer Art and Theory,” examines debates on “touching across time” in queer historiography from a different angle through an engagement with Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay’s Trailer (2010)––a work that provokes a discussion of some of the theoretical, ethical, and political challenges that touching and retouching historical material calls forth. Chapter 9, “Simultaneously: Queer Politics––All At Once,” surveys recent discussions in the field of queer temporality studies, using the disco track “Simultaneously” by the band and performance collective MEN, as a starting point to formulate a queer politics of simultaneity that insists on the importance of working across temporal and categorical boundaries when engaging with unfinished histories of injustice.

By giving space to consider the duration of struggles, the stickiness of history, and the intimacy between the living and the dead, Touching History complicates political chronicles and chronological narratives that move forward by relegating ongoing fights to the dustbin of history.