TBA:13: AL Steiner and the uses of anger in art

At PNCA the sex gets graphic and political

By MATT STANGEL

Just when I think things won’t go that far, they do.

She’s wrist deep in her partner, pumping into thrust-back hips. Two bodies sharing one pleasure. A sensory ligature between bodies. A climax athletic and musical. Slow-motion fountain. She puts her face in it. Licks at the squirt…

The fisting scene fades into the brooming scene, and I can’t say I’m surprised after the knife play and fetishized urination and chicken eggs birthed from lady regions.

I’ve been intermittently employing the old notepad-as-distraction-opportunity throughout “Community Action Center,” the final video in A.L. Steiner’s “Feelings and How to Destroy Them.” The room is dressed up as a porno theater. A pleather curtain separates the installation from the larger gallery. Two rows of cinema seating are empty, excepting myself.

I write something like, “the woman who’s been fucking the broom is now answering the door for the pizza delivery person. Wonder where this will go, *cough* more intense arty sex *cough*?”

The delivery narrative exists in a forgettable space until the pizza guy’s fake penis is bitten off, gushing soda-fountain splashes of blood.

Meh. I’m pretty over it.

It’s not that I’m squeamish about porn—I’ve been watching porn for longer than I’ve been writing— it’s more that I feel like I’m being led through a surreal mansion of kink/queer/fetish scenes that change room by room. Scenes both distant and intimate. Scenes of which I’ll never be a part.

I feel like a voyeur to a community. A community less geared toward one specific kind of sexuality or singular identity, and more toward harmonious pluralism; toward the countless expressions of sexual freedom.

The mock porno theater and the video that would be all too porn-perfect outside a gallery are the big finish to an exhibition-long illustration. One of anger and community. Of queer frustration and pride. Of sociocultural expectations and how A.L. Steiner and peers gather outside the lines.

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“Patriarchy is a pyramid scheme” reads a sign flanking the entrance to A.L. Steiner’s “Feelings and How to Destroy Them,” a survey of past and recent works—most centrally featuring video, but also collage, photography, and installation elements—on view through October 27 at the Pacific Northwest College of Art’s Feldman Gallery as part of TBA:13.

The TBA:13 program notes describe the artistic, collaborative, and curatorial efforts of Steiner in terms of “seductive tropes channeled through the sensibility of an activated skeptical queer ecofeminist androgyne.”

Meanwhile, the one sheet available at the exhibition says the survey show started as a discussion about presenting an “anger workshop,” also detailing various views held by Steiner, including anger’s role in art: “If you’re not angry you’re either willfully ignorant or economically privileged,” posits the artist, continuing, “Fury is a motivating force; potentially productive and destructive, but always transformative.”

While I’d need a little more support for these statements in a conversational setting—after all, platitudes traverse earthquakes on stilts—”Feelings and How to Destroy Them” presents work made in a community that has a lot to be angry about.

That anger is visible in the show’s opening piece, “WARNING: YOUR FEELINGS ARE YOUR FAULT/THE PATRIARCHY IS A PYRAMID SCHEME” (2008), the all-caps carried into the on-screen action: a group of women in white coveralls and protective gear busting up a white hallway with pick axes and sledgehammers. While the hallway is destroyed hole-by-hole and gouge-by-gouge, the dueling titles appear as text overlays in multiple languages-suggesting that to destabilize the long white hallway of patriarchy is to puncture the veneer of manipulative social stances that shift blame from the discriminator to the discriminated.

This initial angry burst sets up the audience for questions: Which feelings are (or, considering titular rhetoric, aren’t) the viewer’s fault? How is the patriarchy a pyramid scheme? What are we getting mad about, exactly?

The next video encountered in the space—titled, “You will never, ever be a woman. You will live the rest of your days entirely as a man and you will only grow more masculine with each passing year. There is no way out.”—begins to point out the ‘what exactly folks are getting mad about’ of the show.

A collaboration with Van Barnes, Zackary Drucker, and Mariah Garnett, the piece follows the domesti-sexual interactions between a most-of-the-time-nude transgender/transexual male and female. Through dialog of the rated-X, poetic variety, desires to fuck until eyeballs pop out or to lick pus from weeping genital sores are tempered by the social plight of transvestites.

The title is delivered as dialog, shifting away from sexual hyperbole as one character offers that they’re just acting and talking the way society expects them to—they’re living up to stereotypes of trannies sleeping in alleys, working as street whores and infected with AIDs, destined to vanish into the history of disease and fringe culture.

All the hard-to-stomach language and degrading sexual activity described become a reflection of what society expects of the trans community (or, maybe more accurately, what Steiner and associates believe to be expectations held by mainstream culture regarding trans communities).

Other pieces appear to hold the most meaning in their willful violations of social norms. Steiner’s video collaboration with Chicks On Speed follows a group of naked women (and one man) through an art space as they engage the exhibition and perform abstract dance choreographies; her piece with dance duo robbinschilds tracks Steiner’s collaborators as they work through unconventional dance pieces in public spaces.

So we’ve seen anger, the source of that anger and the acting out that follows—and in “Swift Path To Glory,” Steiner begins to tease out the consequences a person can face in bending to the will of the mainstream. “Swift Path To Glory” is a mashup of audition footage captured in a storefront window. Hopefuls read a confessional script—a speech James Dean makes in “Rebel Without a Cause”—about stealing a car and the death of a friend. The character says he was responding to cultural pressure to play bad, to fulfill a role of manliness, outlining the destructive potential of societal expectations.

To locate meaning in this constellation of videos is to draw lines between anger and community, between community and its position outside the mainstream, and finally to dangers of adopting a mainstream identity dissonant to a person’s true self.

Then there’s the pleather curtain and the theater beyond it.

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In the zine that corresponds to the pornographic “Community Action Center,” Steiner and her collaborator A.K. Burns describe their piece as “a sociosexual video which incorporates the erotics of a community where the personal is not only political, but sexual.” So the sex on screen is a political act, an attempt at offering a “contemporary womyn-centric composition that serves as both an ode and a hole-filler.”

While I’m not convinced that the sex acts presented are really a “hole-filler”—there’s a crap ton of porn on the internet, all sorts of queer-oriented stuff included—Steiner’s use of sex as a political expression is mildly intriguing (if vague).

She seems to suggest that the solution to community anger is to brazenly commit to that community, to shamelessly participate regardless of who is watching; to communicate the human element of what is otherwise misunderstood.

What I really want here are specifics: what political changes would quell community anger? What should people hope for from a post-patriarchy society? If we were to eschew visual language, what would be said?

Maybe what I’m trying to say is that “Feelings and How to Destroy Them” is fairly vague in terms of solutions. It’s the classic risk taken when attempting to convey political messages in visual language: without specific points of action, it’s easy to walk away with little more than a nebulous sense of discontent.

Steiner does a good job representing a community that is largely mythical to mainstream audiences, but the big fist-fucking finish doesn’t leave a person like myself—a straight, white male—with much to do about the plight that Steiner relates to audiences. We’ve tracked community anger, why it exists, and the acting-out that follows; now it’s time to be inclusive.

As I leave the theater, the video loops back to a scene where a woman is covered in various messy foods. I can’t say I feel much closer to Steiner or her cause—but maybe that was never the point.

Maybe “Feelings and How to Destroy Them” is here to say: We can’t be a part of every community, but we can ensure every community is treated equally and fairly under the law.

Inclusion be damned?

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