Queer Art, Neoliberalism, and Resistance

By Stephanie Kang (Department of History of Art)

With the continual rise of neoliberalism, the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic, the global devolvement of environmental crises, and the ongoing targeting of BIPOC and queer individuals, the world has been subsumed by a bleak, dystopian reality. As a result, many maintain that any hope for a future under present circumstances is not only naïve, it is inconceivable. This pessimistic approach has generated an apocalyptic attitude, which insists that it is perhaps time for humans to rescind their place on the planet and accept their impending extinction. Political theorist Franco “Bifo” Berardi summarizes these pessimistic sentiments regarding the future’s failure, writing, “There is no way out, social civilization is over, the neoliberal precarization of labor and the media dictatorship have destroyed the cultural antibodies that, in the past, made resistance possible.”[1]  So if there is no future and we are perpetually trapped in a present state of exploitation and precarity, is there any hope in resistance?

In my dissertation, I argue that an inability to envision a future is caused by a failure to imagine anything beyond the present. Therefore, anti-futurist assessments only identify the end to a certain kind of future, one that is bound up in hopes for the progressive evolution of humankind and the promises of neoliberalism. To reinstate hope, and in turn, resistance, the political imagination must be rekindled with new outlooks for the future. My research explores the works of Wu Tsang, Alex Da Corte, and Jacolby Satterwhite, three contemporary artists who strategically enact their bodies to reimagine the future as queer.[2]  This, I contend, allows the boundaries of the demarcated present to be shattered, inciting hopeful imagination for something beyond the here and now. Through a variety of tactics, these artists utilize their bodies to critique standard modes of existence that have foreclosed the possibility of imagining an alternative future. By reorienting the past and present through queer acts of bodily engagement, their artworks open a new trajectory for the future, where hope, imagination, and possibility can be activated.

To address the complexity of these topics, my research pulls from several areas of study; this includes, but is not limited to, contemporary art history, queer theory, feminist studies, critical race theory, dance and performance studies, and new media theory. By incorporating each of these fields into my research, I take on an interdisciplinary approach, bringing contemporary art analysis in line with a range of other disciplines. This methodology allows me to consider how art and art history have larger implications that can impact the present reality and its future.

The conference Worlds in Contention: Race, Neoliberalism, and Injustice similarly took on a cross-disciplinary approach, presenting a diverse collection of scholarly works that reflected on the history of neoliberalism, its global impacts, and the ways in which racialized groups have developed tactics of resistance against its logics. One of the most pressing issues to which participants continually returned was the innumerable ways in which neoliberalism is carried out covertly through governmental, financial, and social systems. Several of the scholars presented case studies that made those invisible neoliberal structures that encompass our lives discernable. In “The Crimes of Freedom,” Megan Ming Francis drew connections between Black enslavement and neoliberal labor practices, articulating how the relationship between race and capitalism was not dismantled after the Emancipation Proclamation, but was in actuality restored through the new economic system. Additionally, Quinn Slobodian mapped out the history of the gold standard from Nazism to the AfD, a far-right political party of Germany, emphasizing the ways in which cultural and economic phenomena are inextricably linked under neoliberalism. In her discussion of lithium extraction and its impact on the Atacameño indigenous communities in Chile, Thea Riofrancos critiqued green capitalism, which claims to purport sustainable practices while displacing and exploiting local peoples.

When examining the current state of neoliberalism and its global conditions, it is easy to become overwhelmed by a spirit of pessimism. However, throughout the conference, one question continually resurfaced during the discussions: where can we see sites of resistance and refusal under neoliberalism? Essentially, what are some viable strategies for collective action against neoliberalism and its oppressive forces? Again, several of the speakers offered examples of resistance and hope within their research. Through a case study of Colombia’s Cauca Valley, Amy Offner investigated an instance where local communities appropriated methods that government officials had used against them, learning from their oppressors to reclaim regional autonomy. In “The Desire for the Real: Disaster, Capitalism, and Fascism,” Hyun Ok Park examined the various activist groups that emerged in response to the Sewol Ferry disaster, and specifically introduced the ways in which play, noncumulative interaction, and rhizomatic sociability were utilized by the Yellow Ribbon Workshop to undermine fascism and its capitalist intents.

In my research, I also seek to unveil those invisible structures that maintain neoliberal logics as a global force. By examining the work of queer artists, I argue that neoliberalism reinforces heternormative and racialized standards of belonging that continue to harm and target marginalized communities. Queer theorist Elizabeth Freeman identifies this system as chrononormativity, a term that describes “a mode of implantation, a technique by which institutional forces come to seem like somatic facts.”[3] In a chrononormative society, time, space, and even bodies are synchronized to a single narrative, foreclosing the possibility of imagining a future that exists outside of the normative model. However, like Offner and Park, my research reignites hope through tactics of resistance. Each of the artists presented in my dissertation shares a critical dissatisfaction with the present reality and its future trajectory, and thus, they each conjure up an alternative realm for the political imagination. Like the Yellow Ribbon Workshop participants introduced by Park, the artists discussed in my dissertation utilize performative play as a liberatory practice, allowing them breaking out of the confinements of chrononormativity, and in turn, industrial capitalism. By examining the works of Wu Tsang, Alex Da Corte, and Jacolby Satterwhite, I explore how they use their bodies to perform improvised dances, bodily manipulations, and sex acts to open up a new vision of reality that can spark hope for the future. As the Worlds in Contention conference demonstrated, neoliberal logics pervade all facets of society. However, in a time when racial capitalism, exploitative practices, and planetary destruction seem all encompassing, my research asserts that strategic acts of queer resistance can be used to overcome the present moment, which has been immobilized by dystopian outlooks, and reactivate imagination towards an alternative future.

[1] Franco “Bifo” Berardi, After the Future, ed. Gary Genosko and Nicholas Thoburn (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2011), 158.

[2] David Getsy asserts that queerness “offers a strategic undercutting of the stability of identity and of the dispensation of power that shadows the assignment of categories and taxonomies.” Building upon Getsy’s statement, I consider queerness to be not just an identity-based category, but a political strategy. Therefore, imagining the future as queer means rejecting those moral codes and distinct categorizations that maintain the present moment’s fiction of normativity. David Getsy, “Introduction: Queer Intolerability and its Attachments,” in Queer: Documents of Contemporary Art (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2016), 12.

[3] Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 3.

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