To be Continued: Troubling the Queer Archive at Carleton University Gallery

2 September 2022

By Adam Barbu

With To Be Continued: Troubling the Queer Archive, a group exhibition presented at the Carleton University Art Gallery, curators Anna Shah Hoque and Cara Tierney argue that queer history as we know it is an incomplete, exclusionary concept in need of reinvention. Bringing together a group of thirteen artists and collectives, To Be Continued draws attention to the local trans and BIPOC voices that are repeatedly erased from museum surveys of queer artistic practice. Hoque and Tierney target forms of symbolic violence that underlie this erasure, critiquing dominant queer histories that are narrated from the perspective of the white, cisnormative, gay, metropolitan subject. In this diverse collection of works, including, for example, Ed Kwan aka China Doll’s installation of drag regalia, Aymara Alvarado Sanchez’s performative manifestation of the prophecy of the Eagle and the Condor and Pansee Atta’s sculptural exploration of a mythical gender-bending time traveller, the curators propose an alternative, more inclusive queer archive, one that problematizes what is known and knowable about identity and community across the historical continuum.

Image: The moon upon its fourteenth night, 2020 (detail) by Pansee Atta. Photo by Justin Wonnacott, courtesy of Carleton University Art Gallery.

Alongside other recent Canadian group exhibitions such as Off-Centre: Queer Contemporary Art in the Prairies (Dunlop Art Gallery, 2019), INUA (Winnipeg Art Gallery, 2021-23), and Queersphere (InterAccess, 2021), To Be Continued seeks to render invisible bodies visible, proposing an active mode of art historical inquiry centered on representation and recognition. Hoque and Tierney distinguish their project by calling attention to unconventional forms of archival research that support minor, informal and intimate queer histories. This is evidenced by the muddled research process materials on display in Ashley Grenstone’s Transphoria (2019-20), a writing desk installation through which the artist documents the creation of an autobiographical book project. The construction of identity is also explored in Rosalie Favel’s Plain(s) Warrior Artist painting series (1999-2003) and Don Kwan’s installation, A Foreign Space (2020), both of which map hybridized identities within a complex web of cultural and historical references. Following Grenstone, Favel and Kwan, the artists of To Be Continued conceptualize fragmentary personal histories that destabilize linear readings of progress. Instead, they develop scenes of temporal dislocation that posit new histories from the perspective of the future, thus troubling the notion of a shared past. These works pursue pleasure in the unmemorable and the unknowable, and this care for impossibly is framed by the curators as a uniquely queer intellectual project. 

Image: A Foreign Space, 2020 by Don Kwan. Photo by Justin Wonnacott, courtesy of Carleton University Art Gallery.

Two pieces in particular illustrate this commitment to the queer potential of temporal dislocation. For example, with 2077 (2020), RJ Jones is not simply interested in presenting a more accurate representation of what has been. Rather, they invite us to remember outside the logic of the colonial gaze, signalling a gesture of care for the archives of tomorrow. Styled as a retro-futurist photographic portrait treated with a faux-aged patina, 2077 inserts the queer “chosen family” into the vision of a post-apocalyptic future. On the other hand, Barry Ace’s Stop saying that HIV/AIDS is in the past (because it is not) (2017) encourages us to rethink living histories of the present. This intimate mixed media work, consisting of materials that include rope, electrical wire, cracked paint and a single pill, suggests an abstract bodily presence that appears as both vessel and void. Here, Ace imagines our world with “AIDS”. In this expansive sense of the term, “AIDS” reaches beyond medical discourse, beyond scientific definition. It is instead framed simultaneously as a living crisis of signification, a source of historical trauma and a force of cultural erasure. In this way, Jones and Ace engage in practices of historical disruption that are never fixed and always already to be continued. Exploring pasts and futures at the threshold of the memorable, their works offer new forms of archival knowledge through which counter narratives of queer belonging can be imagined.

Image: Untitled, 2020 by Kole Peplinskie. Photo by Justin Wonnacott, courtesy of Carleton University Art Gallery.

Hoque and Tierney are not simply interested in representations of identity for the sake of visibility alone. To Be Continued investigates the possible futures that emerge from a rethinking of “our” supposedly shared queer history. Kole Peplinskie explores the promise of kinship and solidarity through their research on histories of organized resistance. In Untitled (2020), they use beadwork and screen-printing techniques to pair images from separate protests during the 1970s, one inspired by the cause of Indigenous sovereignty rights and another centered on gay liberation. Alternatively, Lia Walsh’s, Pride Is Political (2017), an installation of repurposed protest posters hung in a salon style, considers the limits of this collectivity by highlighting intersectional trans, Black and Indigenous issues of local urgency. In a nearby installation, Howard Adler fashions a post-colonial queer critique of contemporary culture through the absurdist dark humor of internet memes. As representations of an increasingly fractured social landscape, these works recentre the political focus of the exhibition by raising several key questions. What is common or divided across generations by members of a supposed queer community? What bodies are rendered invisible and thus remain static in the realm of the un-memorable? Finally, is queer community an ideal from which to organize or an impossible object of thought that demands repeated deconstruction? To Be Continued asks us to think beyond progress, beyond “queer utopia,” and towards an itinerant, opportunistic and anti-assimilationist politics of everyday resistance.

Despite the strength of this curatorial inquiry—the rethinking of identity and community by means of temporal dislocation—To Be Continued seems to avoid critical engagement with the site of the gallery as a space of knowledge production and history-making. The gallery itself remains an unproblematic, neutral frame. One exception, it could be argued, is Adrienne Row-Smith’s untitled suite of photographs (2017), which documents a protest at the National Gallery of Canada following their decision to feature an event led by an Islamophobic and transphobic commentator. How might we begin to theorize practices of queer curating that misbehave directly within their institutional contexts—practices that address the problem of exclusion, erasure and symbolic violence not simply at the level of content, but in form and as process? From this perspective, the exhibition offers us the opportunity to rethink the political efficacy of queer curating, as well as the limits of queer critique within the white cube gallery space. To Be Continued thus encourages continued debate about the performativity of inclusion, the discontents of a liberal politics of visibility and the risks of art historical homonormativity.

Troubling the Queer Archive ran from September 24, 2020 – May 15, 2021 at the Carleton University Art Gallery in Ottawa, ON.

Feature Image: Erased, 2017 by Barry Ace. Photo by Justin Wonnacott, courtesy of Carleton University Art Gallery.