The Masculine Mystique
The bourgeoisie invented the notion of homosexuality and made it into a ghetto. We must not forget this. There are two sexes on earth, but this is only to hide the fact that there are three, four, ten, thousands, once you throw that old hag of the idea of nature overboard. —Guy Hocquenghem1
The 2011 book Queer Spirits documents a performance project in which Canadian artists AA Bronson and Peter Hobbs conducted a series of invitation-only seances under the banner Invocation of the Queer Spirits. “Documents” does not, however, accurately reflect the actual proceedings of the five seances, which remain a secret kept by the two to seven male participants involved. Taking place at night, the seances sought to reach out to the “queer spirits”—marginalized individuals with effaced histories to communicate—haunting the various sites Bronson and Hobbs selected to inhabit. With no division between “performer” and “audience,” the men present during these events related experiencing altered states of consciousness and a warped sense of time as they opened themselves up to visitation from the queer spirits. The publication’s omission of visual representation of the rituals and the spirits invoked offers a fertile gap between the men’s firsthand experiences, knowledge, and emotions and we outsiders curious about those mysterious sessions. Driven by this curiosity, we have to use our imaginations to reassemble what took place those magical evenings by following the book’s “trail of proverbial breadcrumbs.”2 However, the dominant elision evident throughout Queer Spirits is the real and potential presence and value of women within the conceptualization of “queer” that the project puts forward, which compels critical questions such as what are the different meanings of “queer” in our current historical moment, and is there anything the term can’t include under its umbrella? If the central tenet of “queer” is the malleability of all identity and desire, can it accurately—and ethically—describe a project that adheres to gender essentialism? I intend here to poke, prod, and trouble what appears to be an anachronistic and limiting male exclusivity operating within the Queer Spirits project, which ultimately channels spirits originating more in a pre-“queer” era of gendered boundaries and homosocial segregation than from the radical destabilizing of gender and sexuality identity that “queer” represented in the context of the 1980s and early 1990s, as well as during the AIDS crisis.
The Queer Spirits publication is a handsome one: printed on an assortment of stocks and beautifully designed, the entire book is an unquestionably gorgeous record and extension of the project and the ideas behind it. It brings together a preface and an “About This Book” by Bronson with dossiers on the different Queer Spirits manifestations in Banff, Alberta; New Orleans, Louisiana; Winnipeg, Manitoba; and Governors Island and Fire Island, New York. Each dossier lists the participants, the invocations and vows made, and includes supplementary material.3 Each dossier compiles photos of the participants and the sites taken before and after the invocations, as well as charming pencil crayon drawings by Governors Island participant Elijah Burgher that, coyly, may or may not be evidence of what took place during that seance. There are also show-and-tell-style spreads identifying various key readings, props, talismans, and research into the sites visited. The book’s primary piece of writing unfolds in an episodic, anecdotal manifesto by Hobbs entitled “The Art of Drifting: 43 Lessons from a Naked Cocktail Party,” which charts the theory and practice of the invocations while referencing sexual, ecological, financial, colonial, and other contexts for the rituals. Lessons 9 through 37 link back to particular seances, framing the Queer Spirits book as a pedagogical project, in which Hobbs reflects on what the participants had been through before offering the public his findings and attendant insights. The book also includes two photographic folios that act in an invocatory fashion like visitations from past historical moments or from sites that carry a certain historical gravitas. The first consists of spiritualist photography by Dr. T. G. Hamilton, a president of the Manitoba Medical Association who began investigating psychic and paranormal phenomena in 1918.4 The second set of plates reproduces Bronson’s photos of the Magic Forest, the legendary wooded area on Fire Island (where Bronson has a home) that acts as a well-travelled gay cruising “meat market” linking the communities of Cherry Grove and the Pines. (The authors note that a group of volunteer “survivors from the ’80s and ’90s” lovingly tend the forest, pruning its trees and distributing condoms.)5 Hobbs claims that the Queer Spirits book is not meant as an explanation of what took place in the invocations; instead, “the inspiration was to make art for ghosts.”6 The book invokes the past seances and key referents and phenomena in order to learn from them and to ultimately advocate for the value of spiritualist and magic practices to queer people in the present and future.
The Queer Spirits project came about in 2008 in a cabin in the woods near the Banff Centre, where Bronson and Hobbs sought refuge together as gay men from an unsatisfying artist residency.7 The invocations called out: To all the dispossessed and abandoned, to all those who have died but cannot leave this place, we invite each of you to join us in this queer community of the quick and the dead.8 The events involved a promiscuous bricolage of a wide range of rituals, including group therapy, ceremonial magic, sweat lodges, witches’ covens, heart circles, quilting bees, circle jerks, and nineteenth-century spiritualist seances.9 The artists forbade live documentation “out of respect for the dead, and to maintain a sense of mystery, which is all-important to works of magic and art.”10 Only the Governors Island seance had an explicitly public exhibition component, where visitors could peer through peepholes—evoking glory holes—that looked into the room of the historic officer’s house where the invocation had taken place earlier.11 (Of course, one could argue that visitors to the sites were and will be affected in myriad ways by the rituals that took place there.) It is worth highlighting that the secrecy around these seances produces a sense of mystique and glamour to those not involved in them: a lesson learned from the artistic strategies of General Idea.12 However, one could argue that the events’ clandestine quality also shields them from retrospective critical scrutiny, including by the “atheists” that Hobbs warns not to trust in Lesson 41.13
The rituals began with an invocation summoning the presence of the site’s queer dead. The artists extensively researched each site in order to be as specific to the location’s indigenous and settler spiritual practices as possible. For example, in New Orleans they reached out to “the French explorers, trappers, traders, pirates, and other adventurers of an all-male life,” as well as artists, gamblers, spiritualists, activists, Indians, “galley-slaves and prostitutes,” and “the thirty-two men and women killed in the 1972 fire at a gay nightclub in the French Quarter called the Upstairs Lounge.”14 The participants read queer history into the site by casting it as thoroughly marked and shaped by the queer people and spaces typically excluded from heterocentric narratives of place. Sharing similarities to Bronson’s other recent projects, the seances were highly intimate, open-ended, performative, and exclusive to a select group of people who ostensibly trust one another and are privy to a shared experience.15 Participants gathered naked in a protective circle, and as Hobbs describes it in Lesson 2, the seances were akin to “naked cocktail parties in which groups of gay men lounged on pillows, each with a butt plug in his bum, taking swigs from a bottle of whiskey that was passed around the circle. Eventually we would hit a groove—a queer spirit—and find ourselves engaged in deep gossip, chatting about death, community, ghost, history, and boyfriends.”16
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About the Author
Jon Davies is a Toronto-based writer and Assistant Curator at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, where he has organized the exhibitions Ryan Trecartin: Any Ever (with Helena Reckitt, 2010), To What Earth Does This Sweet Cold Belong? (2011), and Coming After (2011–12). In addition to numerous magazine and journal articles, his publications include Trash: A Queer Film Classic (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2009) and The Gossip of Colin Campbell (Oakville Galleries, 2008), which accompanied the touring retrospective of Campbell’s work he curated.