Queering and Quaring Virtual Space


Sumugan Sivanesan

Screen grab from Virtual Drag. ‘Virtual Drag Presentation for UNIT Festival’, 2017.

 

Virtual Reality (VR), as put forth via the gaming and film industries, involves the design and crafting of virtual 3D environments, as well as characters and interactions within these settings, often accessed through a viewfinder-headset and other devices that facilitate an ‘immersive experience.’ Inevitably, certain conditions — for example access to technology and education — determine what kind of VR experiences are made. For this text I followed VR experiences being developed by those whose interests and experiences might not be so well represented in the film and gaming industries, but are nevertheless gaining recognition within the art world. It extends research begun at the ‘Closer’ workshop run by the School of Machines, Making and Make-Believe, Berlin[i] which I attended in July 2017, supported by Create NSW’s 360 Visions virtual reality initiative.

 

Queering

While ‘Queer’ is often understood as an umbrella term for LGBTI+ people, I choose to follow scholars of Queer Geography who consider how practices of queering disturb ‘the stable relationship between sex, gender, sexual desire and sexual practice.’[ii] Under this conception, queering exposes and disrupts the enforcing of heteronormativity as a supposedly ‘natural’ condition with homosexuality as its abnormal binary opposite. Scholars of Queer Studies prompt us to be equally critical of homonormativity; the assimilation of certain homosexual practices into heteronormative mainstream capitalist social relations and the adoption of heteronormative practices by queers. This year’s Porn Film Festival Berlin, for example, chose not to celebrate Germany’s recent legalisation of gay marriage, arguing that such legislation privileges the (monogamous) couple as the state-sanctified ideal, further marginalising a range of sex positive relations and practices that continue to be denied certain bureaucratic and social privileges.[iii]

Queer geographers have drawn on the work of philosopher Judith Butler, whose theories of performativity interrogate how gender identities are constituted through social and discursive conventions that coerce bodies to become recognisable as either male or female. Extending Butler’s theories, they propose that space is also constituted through actions. Thus, quotidian space is neither gender neutral or asexual, but rather determined by the repetition of heterosexual practices which render themselves invisible or normal. This is not dissimilar to what critical race theorists describe as the establishment of whiteness as the norm in Western cosmopolitan societies, its invisibility and also its hyper-visibility.[iv] As such, one can analyse the interplay of gender and race (and class) in constituting space and how in turn these spaces shape bodies and sexualities.[v]

My emphasis on queering is less concerned with gender as identity and rather on critical practices of gender non-conformity. As someone having pursued anti-colonial, anti-racist and anti-speciesist politics in art, I have come to approach queerness through a field of Queer-Black — or as performance scholar Patrick E. Johnson puts it, ‘Quare’[vi] — studies that foreground the particular experience and ontologies of Black bodies. As Frank B. Wilderson III, Saidiya Hartman and others pooled into the ‘Afro-pessimist’ label argue, Black bodies are ontologically different to those that constitute humanity. Drawing on a long history that extends back to the Arab slave trade in the Middle Ages and up to the Black Lives Matter movement now, Wilderson III argues that ongoing violence enacted on Black bodies marks the exception by which a notion of universal humanism can be conceived[vii]. While discourses on multiculturalism may have gone some way to expose and decentre whiteness as the universal referent of the modernist project, Afro-pessimists are critical of forms anti-Blackness that are advanced by people of colour (POC) who also suffer under white supremacy. As a POC who identifies as neither Black nor gay my interests are, to paraphrase the quare protagonist of Bruce La Bruce’s recent film The Misanderists (2017), reconcile my revolutionary politics with my sexual practices.

 

Technogender

“Photographic, biotechnological, surgical, pharmacological, cinematographic, or cybernetic techniques come to construct the materiality of the sexes performatively.”
– Paul Preciado[viii]

Following the work of Paul Preciado, recent discussions of gender mark the influence of technology on performativity. This includes how technology can be used to physically and psychologically transform bodies to perform and proliferate genders, how technology operates to shape performances of gender (think of the gender options available on social media profiles), and how networked spaces themselves may be gendered or enable spaces of gender play.

Virtual space is overtly constructed, and arguably understood as, a kind of game space made up of computer-generated graphic interfaces. So is it also (heteronormatively) gendered in the same way that geographers argue quotidian space is? During her talk at the School of Machines Making and Make-Believe, Berlin, Australian artist-engineer and academic Tega Brain discussed the inherent sexism of VR technologies, referring to recent studies[ix], which conclude that current head-mounted VR systems are biased towards cis-males and produce nausea and motion sickness in significant numbers of women. Brain’s notorious Tumblr blog, Something Something End of Men[x], collects images of predominantly white men wearing VR headsets. It resonates with the arguments put forth by feminist media scholar Sara Sharma, who claims that the fantasies of ‘escape’ promoted by mainstream VR are a phenomena that demonstrates privilege under conditions of white-hetero-patriarchy while simultaneously illuminating anxieties about ‘male disposability.’[xi]

If digital technology is perceived as predominantly the domain of white cis-men, who are those out there queering and indeed quaring VR?

 

Realness
The project Virtual Drag[xii] by Melbourne-based artists Alison Bennett, Megan Beckwith and Mark Payne presents computer-modelled versions of drag queens Philmah Bocks, Art Simone, Jackie Hammer and the Transylvanian Gypsy Kings, for users to encounter in ‘fantasy 3D environments.’[xiii] While I have yet to don the headset to experience this work, a 360° video is available online.

‘Virtual Drag! 360º Exhibition Video+Audio’ (2016)

In their documentation, the artists describe how the project was made using 3D scans and photogrammetry, a technique by which photographs of a subject taken from several different perspectives are used to generate a mesh model in 3D software. The models are fitted with armatures, not unlike marionette puppets, and animated. For Virtual Drag, photographs of each drag queen or king are stitched together to form the surface of the model. The errors and imperfections of this process are kept as is, contra to a perceived trend towards smooth detailing and texturing in computer-generated virtual environments[xiv]. The processing error or glitch is crucial to reading Virtual Drag’s practice of queering virtual space. Virtual space might be thought of as a simulation or a simulacrum of the ‘real’ or physical world, and Virtual Drag cite French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s theories about the imbrication of the virtual and the real. In highly mediatised postmodern societies the difference between symbols and their referents, the original and its copies, are blurred, complicating what is significant to shaping subjective experiences. After all, virtual objects and events do have very real effects. Virtual Drag proposes that digitally constructed game space is in a sense a drag version of the real world, and that by aspiring for ‘realness’ (or an Avatar-like ‘hyper-realness’ that appears even better than the real) virtual space accentuates how quotidian space is constituted.

The term ‘realness’ arose in New York’s Vogue Ball scene, the subject of Jennie Livingston’s much- lauded documentary Paris Is Burning (1990). As a form of drag, vogue, as documented by Livingston, was practiced by gay Black and Latino men and transgender people, who would dress, pose and perform as straight men, and sometimes women, for the appreciation of their peers. For those marginalised by race, class and poverty, realness was a measure by which one could be seen to be able to ‘pass’ as heteronormative. While realness might remain an accolade, vogue has developed as a flamboyant expression of Black gay and trans-sexualities that appears to have abandoned and even be parodying earlier aspirations to pass as a straight person. Perhaps then it is ironic that vogue has been successfully incorporated into heteronormative social spheres. For example, recently I attended a large public ‘family’ dance and performance event to launch the Volksbühne program in Berlin. As part of the program, children were split into different dance circles where they were taught an array of urban dance moves including some lifted from vogue. Would those gay Black men, many of whom were closeted, ever have thought that their subversive practices would be one day taught to middle-class pre-schoolers in Europe? This mainstreaming of queer culture has led to claims, such as those made by transgender POC artist Alok Vaid-Menon, that the emergence of trans celebrities has not translated into safety for visibly gender non-conforming people.[xv] As Vaid-Menon emphasised in a recent performance: ‘people on social media love transgender politics, but they don’t love transgender people,’[xvi] rephrasing the words of Black commentators who claim that Americans love Black culture, but not Black people.

Alison Bennett of Virtual Drag also cites Judith Butler in her essay on the project, discussing how notions of ‘femininity’ are not proper to or exclusively performed by the female sex, just as notions of ‘masculinity’ are not to the male sex.[xvii] What drag artists highlight when they adopt or parody gendered clichés is that the performance of gender is always an approximation and imitation of a culturally constructed and socially policed referent. Thus, Butler argues that if all gendering is a kind of impersonation, then the very notion of there being an original or ‘real’ referent is simply an effect of the performance[xviii]. That is, by working with and against pre-established gender tropes —indeed by exploding or glitching gender tropes altogether — drag performers, to use the term developed by the late queer performance theorist Jose Esteban Muñoz, publicly ‘disidentify’ from these stereotypes to reveal the means by which gender is constructed as a category.

Virtual Drag employs glitches as a ‘rupture to disrupt the aspirational realness of many VR experiences.’[xix] If VR aspires towards realness through a smooth and detailed finishing of computer-generated landscapes and figures, Virtual Drag’s fetishising of the glitch sets this trajectory in a different direction. Using the digital and machinic errors of 3D modelling software processes to emphasise and exploit the unstable relation between symbols and referents, they make space for further deconstruction, fragmention and thus set their sights on more irreal horizons. This is a kind of VR concerned not with a representation of reality, but rather ‘a form of becoming in mediation, of performing emergent potential.’[xx]

 

Utopia

“Virtual space for me is a queer arena for my body to perform in.”
– Jacolby Satterwhite[xxi]

If heteronormative space is governed by (sometimes) unspoken rules, safe spaces offer a reprieve from the way non-normative bodies are policed. These are spaces where gender norms may be cast aside and deconstructed and where non-conforming sexualities may be practiced and encouraged to flourish. Sexualities thus, can be understood as being concomitant with the spaces in which they are practiced. To foreground race in this discussion, what is it then to quare virtual space? The (quare) jazz pioneer and mystic, Sun Ra, sought a planet other than Earth as a safe space for Black people in his film Space is the Place (1974), a key document for later Afrofuturist study.[xxii] Muñoz, following the work of Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch and the Frankfurt School of thinkers, proposed that utopian longings in art, such as Ra’s, are effectively a critique of the present, signalling that something, or somewhere, is missing from the here and now.[xxiii]

The video artist and vogue/virtual performer Jacolby Satterwhite is well aware how the (gay) Black body is constituted and objectified in space and how space is politicised by its appearance. His video artworks combine documentation of the artist performing in public, often in elaborate costumes, with multiple 3D models of the artist’s body animated in complex virtual environments. These virtual spaces reference, retrace and extrude drawings made by his late mother, Patricia Satterhwhite. According to Satterwhite, his ‘galactic-looking’ videos are ‘like a metaphor for the safe space that I only understand being someone who was constantly externalized.’[xxiv]

VIDEO: ‘Trailer for Reifying Desire Anthology at Sundance Film Festival: New Frontier’ (2014)

Trained as a painter, Satterwhite eschewed the canon of Western art history and its privileging of the white male gaze to focus on his own personal mythology. Alongside his ‘mentally ill’ mother, whom the artist cites as his primary influence, Satterwhite acknowledges his two older gay brothers who introduced him to clubs in his early teens. Satterwhite refers to Surrealism and plen air painting when describing his process for making the series Reifying Desire (2011–2014) as one of finding ‘disparate archives that are incongruent and making them congruent.’[xxv] According to the artist, the combining of seemingly unrelated symbols was also evident in his mother’s schematic ‘da Vincian’ drawings, which, for example, illustrated the function of a spoon, a battery-charged Tampon or crystalline objects beneath a sentence.[xxvi]

In Satterwhite’s practice, the potentiality of virtual space is not revealed by the revolutionary rupture or glitch that hijacks VR’s aspirational realness, but rather in the compositing, collaging and compounding of references and symbols. Leaking between and linking together the spaces of his family archive, performance documentation and animations, Satterwhite develops his personal mythology by rendering utopian safe spaces in which his sexuality can be expressed, explored and expanded.

 

Leaking and Passing

“Cruising is not so much tied to a fixed site but is all about the flows of movement and passings.”
– Kath Browne, Jason Lim and Gavin Brown.[xxvii]

It seems both Virtual Drag and Jacolby Satterwhite are concerned with the potential of virtual space to transform how we perceive and perform in the world. The provision of dark rooms in sex positive clubs demonstrates how one’s sexual practices and politics are significantly determined by the spaces one frequents. Similarly, it might be possible via VR to alter one’s experience of space to develop new and novel modes of being in a thoroughly mediatised society. As the capacity to feel sensations in virtual space expands, to what extent will the perceived boundaries between virtual and real dissolve? For example, if we consider developments in smart sex toys, such as Kiiroo’s ‘Fleshlight’[xxviii] designed to be used in conjunction with VR experiences, we might ask: what kinds of sexualities could emerge from networked technically enabled (group) sex? Furthermore, how might the data collected from users of such technologies go on to shape the development of these practices and their related ‘deviant bodies’?

When I wore screens on my crotch, chest and head that were playing the videos, it was like an extension of the virtual in real space. I became a computer-generated character in the flesh. I wanted my body to no longer be human, to become a punctuation mark or some kind of musical note, a kind of pivot that facilitates a narrative.
Jacolby Satterwhite[xxix]

‘Leaking’ can be understood as the refusal of the body to contain, behave or conform to pre-established norms. It might also allude to how bodies formed in queer spaces and indeed virtual spaces devised by queer and quare people, leak into and transform white heteronormative space. So how does the valorisation of queer and quare experiences in art, modulate what it means to ‘pass’? What if passing not only draws attention to a body’s capacity to be perceived as white and straight, but also to the shifting space around non-conforming bodies?

Satterwhite’s videos foreground his body, a body that is multiplied, morphed, augmented and folded back into the animated landscapes it performs in. Suppose then, that Satterwhite’s performances in virtual space are not so much fantasy or representation but rather the real thing: his ‘becoming in mediation.’[xxx] Via virtual space the gap between the myth and the man is breached. It is a means by which the artist most profoundly exists as a multiplicity of identities, generating elaborate quare trajectories.

When Satterwhite performs as a punctuation mark or musical note — as something not human, but as a symbol — he manifests as a kind of hybrid ‘body language’[xxxi] around which virtual, real, material and discursive spaces shift and interpolate. He is not so much an outsider in the real world as he is a figure who comes into being in a virtual world, whose composite body leaks into art galleries, subway stations, city streets and other quotidian spaces. As Satterwhite’s quare utopia leaks into the real world, his mother’s drawings, game space and the gay club become ‘congruent’ with the white cube and white heteronormative space. If the actions of bodies constitute space, what are the consequences of Satterwhite’s passing, not as straight or white, but arguably as something more desirable: institutionally valorised art?

 

Queer Futurity

“If we look attentively at the signs of technification and informatisation of gender that emerge starting with World War II, we can even affirm that heterosexuality has been summoned to disappear one day. In fact, it is in the act of disappearing now.”
– Paul Preciado[xxxii]

In his discussion of the entangling of gender, technology, media and pharmaceuticals industries Precadio claims that ‘hetrosexuality will soon be one body aesthetic among many others’[xxxiii], setting us on course for an inevitably queer future. If this is so, then who are ‘we’? Muñoz argued for a revival of earlier radical utopian demands in his theorising of Queer Futurity. Citing a manifesto issued in 1971 by the Third World Gay Revolution, ‘What We Want, What We Believe,’ Muñoz discussed how their radical and now historical demands invoked a society that is yet-to-come; a socialist society that would abolish the bourgeois family and heteronormative means of reproduction, by which new forms of collectivity would emerge. This is not a future that overcomes markers of difference such as race, age and sexual preference, but rather one that evokes ‘multiple forms of belonging in difference’[xxxiv]. When the Third World Gay Revolution state ‘we want a new society,’ Muñoz notes that this ‘we’ is not of the present but rather a we that is ‘not yet conscious.’ It is a wake-up call from a future.

The practices of queer and quare VR that I have discussed emphasise that in contemporary mediatised life, space is still the place. The performances of gender insubordination that Virtual Drag and Satterwhite celebrate are concomitant with the development of fantasy or utopian spaces in which these particular bodies and identities are arguably rendered in their element, or are at least re-made in spaces of relatively uninhibited experimentation. These practices unleash the potentiality of virtual space from being merely a simulation or simulacrum, and indeed institution, of homonormative reality. (Virtually) grasping at the worlds that they gesture towards, these queer futures call to us. That is, to those of us who would make them real.

 


 

 

[i] http://www.schoolofma.org

[ii] Browne, Kath, Lim, Jason, and Brown, Gavin. Geographies of Sexualities Theory, Practices and Politics. Hampshire, England and Burlington, USA: Ashgate, 2007, p. 8.

[iii] Porn Film Festival Berlin 12, 2017 [festival catalogue (PDF 18MB)] URL: http://pornfilmfestivalberlin.de/archive/PFFB_2017_catalogue.pdf

[iv] Dyer, Richard. White. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

[v] Browne, Kath, Lim, Jason, and Brown, Gavin. Geographies of Sexualities Theory, Practices and Politics. Hampshire, England and Burlington, USA: Ashgate, 2007, p. 9.

[vi] Johnson, E. Patrick.‘“Quare” Studies, or (Almost) Everything I Know About Queer Studies I Learned from my Grandmother.’ In Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology, edited by Mae G. Henderson and Patrick E. Johnson, 124–157. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

[vii] Wilderson III, Frank B. ‘The Black Liberation Army and the Paradox of Political Engagement.’ In Postcoloniality-Decoloniality-Black Critique: Joints and Fissures, edited by Sabine Broeck and Carsten Junker, 175-207. Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, 2014.

[viii] Preciado, Paul B. Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era. Translated by‎ Bruce Benderson. New York: The Feminist Press, City University of New York, 2013, p. 128.

[ix] Studies such as: Munafo, Justin, Diedrick, Meg, and Stoffregen, Thomas A. ‘The virtual reality head-mounted display Oculus Rift induces motion sickness and is sexist in its effects.’ Experimental Brain Research, vol. 235, iss. 3, 2017, pp. 889–901. URL: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00221-016-4846-7

[x] http://somethingsomethingendofmen.tumblr.com/

[xi] Sharma, Sara. ‘Exit and the Extensions of Man.’ transmediale/resource, May 8, 2017. URL: https://transmediale.de/content/exit-and-the-extensions-of-man

[xii] http://virtualdrag.net/

[xiii] Virtual Drag. ‘Virtual Drag presentation for UNIT FESTIVAL’, 2016. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JzH-tSSzuWI

[xiv] Ibid

[xv] Vaid-Menon, Alok. ‘Greater transgender visibility hasn’t helped nonbinary people like me.’ The Guardian, October 13, 2015. URL: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/oct/13/greater-transgender-visibility-hasnt-helped-nonbinary-people-like-me

[xvi] Vaid-Menon, Alok. Watching You / Watch Me. [performance] August 6, Werkstatt der Kulturen Berlin, 2017.

[xvii] Bennett, Alison. Virtual Drag, 2015. URL: http://virtualdrag.net/#/essay/

[xviii] Butler, Judith. ‘Imitation and Gender Insubordination,’ 1990. In The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, edited by Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale and David M. Halpern, 307–320. New York: Routledge, 1993.

[xix] Bennett, Alison, Beck, Mega, Payne, Mark, and Hammer, Jack.‘Virtual Drag.’ In The 3D Additivist Cookbook, edited by Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke, 59–61.Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2017, p. 60.

[xx] Ibid, p. 59.

[xxi] Satterwhite cited in Miller, Wesley and Ravich, Nick. ‘Jacolby Satterwhite Dances with His Self.’ art21, New York Close Up, August 16, 2013. URL: https://art21.org/watch/new-york-close-up/jacolby-satterwhite-dances-with-his-self/

[xxii] Oslund, R. Kurt. ‘Jacolby Satterwhite Evokes Queer Spaces of Every Kind in Epic Tribute Album to His Late Mother.’ Out, 3 October 3, 2017. URL: https://www.out.com/out-exclusives/2017/3/10/jacolby-satterwhite-evokes-queer-spaces-every-kind-epic-tribute-album-his-late-mother

[xxiii] Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. NewYork: NYU Press, 2009, p. 99.

[xxiv] Satterwhite cited in Oslund, R. Kurt. ‘Jacolby Satterwhite Evokes Queer Spaces of Every Kind in Epic Tribute Album to His Late Mother.’ Out, 3 October 3, 2017. URL: https://www.out.com/out-exclusives/2017/3/10/jacolby-satterwhite-evokes-queer-spaces-every-kind-epic-tribute-album-his-late-mother

[xxv] Satterwhite cited on The Charlie Rose Show, 2014, URL: https://vimeo.com/92470948

[xxvi]  Satterwhite cited in Moffitt, Evan. ‘Body Talk.’ Frieze, March 11, 2016. URL: https://frieze.com/article/body-talk-0

[xxvii] Browne, Kath, Lim, Jason, and Brown, Gavin. Geographies of Sexualities Theory, Practices and Politics. Hampshire, England and Burlington, USA: Ashgate, 2007, p. 23.

[xxviii] https://www.kiiroo.com/products/the-fleshlight-launch-powered-by-kiiroo

[xxix] Satterwhite cited in Moffitt, Evan. ‘Body Talk.’ Frieze, March 11, 2016. URL: https://frieze.com/article/body-talk-0

[xxx] Bennett, Alison, Beckwith, Mega, Payne, Mark, and Hammer, Jack.‘Virtual Drag.’ In The 3D Additivist Cookbook, edited by Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke, 59–61.Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2017, p. 60.

[xxxi] Moffitt, Evan. ‘Body Talk.’ Frieze, March 11, 2016. URL: https://frieze.com/article/body-talk-0

[xxxii] Preciado, Paul B. Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era. Translated by‎ Bruce Benderson. New York: The Feminist Press, City University of New York, 2013, p. 123.

[xxxiii] Ibid, p. 126.

[xxxiv] Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. NewYork: NYU Press, 2009, p. 20.

Sumugan Sivanesan is an anti-disciplinary writer, researcher and artist. His interests range across: Contemporary Art and Activism, Media Theory, Multispecies Politics, Queer Theory, Tamil Diaspora...


CONNECT WITH US

Search Runway