reflections on my evolution as a producer

01Mar13

ghosts

just ran across this piece, which I wrote for the Queer/Art/Mentorship application a couple of years ago — right before Fame and Shame on the Lower East Side opened.  It’s interesting to reflect on these words now, as I struggle to articulate the theory behind Forest of the Future — the grandest project I’ve ever organized — and try to make sense of my role as a producer and (I suppose) a leader in the queer and trans communities.

Like Artemis, I hunt my photographic prey in the night. Prowling the edges of the queer parties where we go to dance, endlessly searching for the Queen of Hearts. Seducing the disco lights and smog machines instead. Me and my old Nikon and an eternal pile of 3200 Ilford Delta. Under the glow of streetlamps and the moon, we run in packs like wild ponies and dance off our workday identities. I hunt moments of tenderness and truth; I chase the light as it bounces off breasts and shoulders.

Shooting in the dark. Sometimes I get back stretches of negatives with nothing but black. But it’s unfettering to work with fast film – no flash, no checking the back of the camera, nothing major to schlep, the mystery and surprise of film coming back from the lab. There is something epic about the night, something so elegantly appropriate about shooting it grainy. In the daylight, at my job, I was professionally immersed in straightforward documentary imagery. But in my own photography I’m not aiming for the sharpness of a digital image: it’s up to me to remember the details.

That first night shooting backstage at Between Two World, I couldn’t have known that the hunt for images would soon take over my life. Over the next year, I would shoot hundreds of rolls of film, reaching a peak of six rolls a weekend and emptying my bank account on film processing fees. It was the beginning of something big for me, the a bold new chapter in a long relationship with photography. It heralded the unfolding of an exciting new aesthetic, a mechanism for making deeper community connections, an introduction to some of the most vibrant performers in our scene based on mutual respect for each others talents, a vehicle for connection and respect with the world-renowned photographers and powerful photo editors I interacted with at the Open Society Institute, and a means for organizing and archiving the explosion of creative activity that was emanating from our scene. It also provided documentation of the growing movement to break down the gender binary and publicly assert our chosen genders.

I did not consciously suspect that within a year, I would come out as transgender, making me the first out trans employee in the global OSI network and profoundly transforming my sense of self.

Through my position at OSI, I was exposed to some of the most acclaimed photographers in the world and gained an understanding of how those networks function. As I learned more about how distinctly non-queer the field of photography was, my identity as both queer and transgender began to take on more political implications. A 2-year global call for work on LGBT issues netted mostly troublesome outsider perspectives, or community photographers whose images were not strong enough to compete for our exhibition. I became keenly aware of the importance of developing new photographic voices who were talented, technically well-versed, and savvy about the industry, and made it my personal agenda within OSI (as much as an ethically neutral foundation professional CAN have a personal agenda at work) to use our resources to support stronger work with queer themes, preferably made by queer artists.

Simultaneously, as I became more deeply involved in the queer community as a photographer, I noticed there were few opportunities for queers making visual art to show their work. The performing artists and musicians could work the nightclub and black box theater circuit, DJs had dance parties to play at, party promoters were creating social art on a weekly basis, but no one in our scene was organizing the visual artists. And the cultural production was definitely happening: I knew dozens of queers whose sensibilities I trusted, who were making what sounded like brilliant work. I had never seen most of it, however, because there were so few spaces for us to share it with each other. I started keeping mental files of artists I’d connected with, along with potential venues, in my head.

And then there was the matter of my own photography. As the months passed, stacks of negatives piled up and low-res scans filled my hard drive. Facebook and personal interactions gave me a strong sense that my images were striking a chord within the community; critiques with photography friends gave me confidence that there was palpable artistic merit to my work. I loved my work at OSI but considered it a day job of sorts. My true ambition was to find a way to make a living as an artist, successful enough to support my modest needs with a LITTLE less hustle.

My involvement in the photography community as a queer person, and in the queer community as a visual artist, allowed me to see the gaps in both worlds and gave me unique perspective on how my work might be poised to fill them, if I played my cards right. For years I’d been the champion of the underdog. Now, as a radical trans queer photographer, I WAS the underdog. I’d learned how the systems of power worked and this time, I was determined to use this knowledge not just for my benefit, but for my community.

Influenced by a meeting with a respected curator, I decided to start playing with printing and exhibiting my images. I felt like community exhibition would be a safe space to get feedback on my presentation strategies before starting the exhausting process of finding a foothold in the broader art world. But I was determined not to go it alone. I didn’t want to rise higher than my equally talented artist peers and my performing arts peers who turned up in my images. There had to be a way for us to rise together.

Like Artemis, I also felt protective of the creatures I hunted. If my images were destined to be widely distributed and potentially to serve as a springboard for public dialogue about queer and transgender issues, I didn’t want my work, or the characters in my images, to be tokenized. Our individual voices were uniquely important, and we would serve our community best if they were heard as a chorus.

That was the theory, at least, and the initial idea behind Into the Neon, a group show I produced and exhibited in this past January – and the formation of the Department of Transformation, an artists collective I’ve been working to establish.

A lot of things came together for Into the Neon. A initial group of four artists expanded into twelve as word of mouth spread. Through a contact at Chashama, I arranged a donation of 3,000 sq. ft. of gallery space in the heart of the Chelsea art district for 3 weeks. We had enough room to host evening programs, and many of the participating artists got to try curating events. During installation, a fellow artist and I connected deeply as collaborators and he brought me into radical faerie culture, which immediately felt like a natural home. Many new ideas and connections were forming through the process of organizing the show, for all of us.

On opening night, a blizzard plagued New York City. Over 300 attendees still packed into the gallery for hours – a small miracle, we would have overflowed uncomfortably if not for the snow. This also meant everyone who missed the opening came flowing through the gallery over the next three weeks, filling up our programs of poetry and film and performance art and netting us 500-800 total visitors. We held two powerful heart circles which transformed the gallery into a sanctuary space. The closing night party was perhaps the most magical event I’ve ever helped orchestrate, with a drag station at the door for guests’ outfit changes, tiny musical performances at 3 am., and a cuddle pile of forty faeries sharing cheeseburgers at 5 in the morning.

This experience, following the success of another large exhibition I produced in 2010 called The Artist is Absent, confirmed a growing internal sense that my work as a producer could serve a critical function in our community. I enjoyed the process of finding resources (human, spatial, financial) and connecting them with artists whose work deserved to be seen. It was extremely gratifying to see my own art contextualized by others with a shared sensibility. And I was increasingly aware of how much I had learned through the process of leading an immigrant rights organization in Minnesota, my MFA studies under Nayland Blake at ICP, and my work at OSI.

If Artemis is who I become when I photograph, it’s the World that I embody as an arts producer. The World is a card in the tarot deck that I have pulled in nearly every reading I’ve been given this year. It symbolizes abundance, accomplishment and resources coming together. The figure is both male and female, above and below, suspended between the heavens and the earth. The World is at one with the universe, and their full happiness is to give back, sharing what they have learned or gained.

Although I’ve never been able to save much in terms of personal funds, for years I had been keeping track of how fundraising worked and the advantages that access to financial resources could provide. I had successfully fundraised half a million dollars in my three years of working with immigrants, and had a strong sense of what was possible. Through teaching grant-writing workshops to a very broad range of artists, I was keenly aware how few artists really understood the budgeting and fundraising process. Moreover, my training as a community organizer gave me a sense of how to bring groups of people together to work in unity towards a greater goal, contributing their best selves and growing in the process.

My evolution as a producer is starting to feel crucially linked to my development as an artist. Producing IS an art, and it’s a process that feels rewarding to me, yet I’m determined not to let it surpass my creative work as an artist. For years I’ve been circling around thoughts of producing and directing film, capturing motion instead of stills. To me it seems like a perfect vehicle for combining so many of my interests and skills, and an outlet for reaching mass audiences with cleverly disguised queer messages.

To manifest these thoughts, last week I shot my first short film on location with a cast and crew of ten. The Dream of Wild Ponies Dancing is based on a recurring dream I had this fall. The film documents the wild ponies of the night in their natural habitat. In the quiet deep green of a sandy midnight forest, four wild ponies recognize each other as kin and develop a sense of connection and family. Half human, all beast, the ponies run free on a mystical adventure through the dunes, arriving to a deserted beach as gray dawn breaks. The movement is captured silently in super-grainy black and white super-8 film, presented with original score by Princess Tiny & the Meats.

Producing and directing The Dream of Wild Ponies Dancing was an extremely gratifying experience, one I am hoping to repeat again soon.

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