In the opening chapter of Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, the protagonist, Jess is writing a letter to their former lover remembering the “loving healing” of her gentle touch after a traumatic encounter with police. In the letter, Jess longs for such touch again to help them heal after additional violence. However, Jess isn’t actually asking their lover to come back; they are sending the letter somewhere else, to “a place where they keep women’s memories safe.” This is the Lesbian Herstory Archive, a community-run archive located in a house in Brooklyn, a place where open access filing stacks with idiosyncratic organizational logics allow for unexpected encounters.
Safe, of course, means the archive preserves the letter while making it accessible to researchers without making them navigate homophobic cataloguing methods that use misgendering and pathologizing lexicons. But does Jess also hope for something else? In archives, people touch and handle material with care. Though a seemingly solitary act, this archival work connects the researcher with a queer past and community. It offers compensation in a highly idiosyncratic and non-transactional way, through the imagination of the letter’s sender who dreams of a researcher encountering their words perhaps decades later and touching the paper they once held in their hands. In the imagination, queer touch heals across time, reaching back into the past and moving to a future.
When I first received We collect together in a net, Kerry Downey’s 2019 catalogue published by Wendy’s Subway, I didn’t open it for some time. The cover is white, devoid of text, and textured, embossed with a raised net. Running my hands over it, I thought of all the documents I’ve handled in archives, as well as skin—filigreed by cellulite or stretch marks, extra soft in some places and then surprisingly without give. It felt like the texture to my own scar, around six inches long running down the side of my leg that the surgeon worried over, fearing it would never sink back to smooth. But I like that it remains, raised and red, crosshatched with evidence of the stitches. It’s a kind of talisman I finger for good luck, a reminder of the body’s stubborn will to heal and how it can transform in unexpected and seemingly miraculous ways.
There is a long tradition of psychoanalysts connecting bodily holes to subject constitution and therefore making them political sites. While they fret over orifices, they say little about scars. To me, scars seem like a different sort of indicator of porousness because they signify not only the body’s capacity to be penetrated and entered, but they are also marks of temporality: a trace of a past wound, a persistent presence, and a future possibility of further healing. A record of transformation.
Once I cracked the spine of the Downey’s catalogue, I saw a similar record of transformation in scraps of paper affixed to surfaces, their peep holes inviting us to peer in and imagine how this final surface was created over time. Though “final” feels too crude here. The transformations in Downey’s work are not a matter of one thing changing into another but a layering of traces transformative gestures make. Even printed in the catalogue, the collages seem to invite further iterations. It seems another one could be made at any moment.
The material transformations that Downey’s prints document are dramatized in their 2016 video “Nothing but net.” In it, Downey uses an overhead projector to spread ink blots, make shapes that expand and contract like lungs, and scatter marks over an already scuffed wall while they read a poem. The shapes that appear and morph on the wall will be familiar to you if you’ve seen their collaged prints. “This is a reenactment but this time it will be different,” they say and here the shapes are different, in motion, slightly stretched or compressed, and warping as various materials are manipulated on the projector bed.
The educational system the old overhead projector served, like the rationality of the institutional archive, is meant to dispense enduring wisdom, static facts, and stolid truths. But the projector itself flashes an image as ephemeral as the fleeting encounter in an archive when a researcher unfolds a letter. Each encounter suggests we can be remade or discover new modes of being if we stick all together in a net that changes shape with each and every gesture.
In Performance and Cultural Politics, Elin Diamond recognizes the disruptive force of the reenactment as something that ushers in new epistemologies, “'Re’ acknowledges the preexisting discursive field, the repetition—and the desire to repeat—within the performance present, while ‘embody,’ ‘configure,’ ‘inscribe,’ ‘signify,’ and assert the possibility of materializing something that exceeds our knowledge, that alters the shape of sites and imagines other as yet unsuspected modes of being.”
What new modes of being does Downey’s work suggest? A mode in which words we understand as nouns, like genders’ markers, are instead formed from “verbs that act like adjectives,” to quote from “Nothing but net.” A new mode that is necessarily relational, the relation of one torn scrap of paper on top of another or in “the thingness of you/the thingness of me/the slow turn of my fist inside you,” a recognition that for queer people, sex is not just a source of pleasure and connection, but also a site of identity de/construction.
Relationality is also humorous, the cheeky bravado of calling the piece “Nothing but net,” the comical way they gesture like an earnest teacher then wander off, or the awkward scrunching of their forehead to make their ball cap move. There is humor in the language too, as they read their “outline” rationally organizing a discursive text that leaps between first-person confessional and third-person description, playing with intimacy and opacity.
The viewer is invited to participate in these relations in Downey’s 2018 collaboration with Joanna Seitz, “Weather Report.” This video begins with an invitation, “Let’s begin with a story. Please lean closer”—a direct appeal to the viewer’s body to change its position in space in relation to the work of art. Similarly, with their collages, I find myself leaning closer, yearning to see them in person so I can get a better sense of their depth.
Downey’s work is most often discussed in relation to Queer Abstraction, which I found to have limited utility for me as I turned the catalogue up against my face or lifted my laptop to examine the details of their collages until they dissolved into pixels. Not to say I disavow that connection, but I felt like it couldn’t explain the distinctly embodied experience of looking at this work, the way I wanted to keep moving myself or moving it as I looked.
In “Queering Queer Abstraction,” Joseph Henry paraphrases David Getsy to argue that queer abstraction is a way to avoid being assimilated: “If queerness can be too easily “read” on its surface, then it can be homogenized, trivialized, and perhaps commodified.” This to me seems true, but I don’t detect any fearful scurrying in Downey’s work, no duck and cover to prevent being snatched by a looming hetero-clutches. Nor do I feel like they are trying to avoid representing the body, in fact Downey renders the body hyper visible with its pocked surfaces, sagging flesh, scars, and holes. It might not be what our idea of a “whole body” looks like but it certainly looks like what having a body feels like—layered, temporal, awkward, uncomfortable, erotic, sensual, confusing, and, above all, relational.
It delights me that I get to participate in that relationality as I caress the cover of We all collect together in a net, but I am equally if not more so delighted that in the context of Wendy’s Subway, a nonprofit reading room, that others are also able to pass their hands over this surface. Even alone in my office, I can participate in a collective queer act of handling queer material.
Elizabeth Hoover is a poet and essayist based in Milwaukee. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Epoch, and The Crab Orchard Review and her art writing and cultural criticism has appeared in Paper, the Washington Post, and the Boston Review. You can see more of her work at www.ehooverink.com.