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Terrorist Tactics, Transfeminist Aesthetics

Julia Steinmetz | New York University

Abstract:
The aesthetic can be a key domain for thinking through the possibilities that ambiguity and affect offer for the ways in which trans and gender-variant bodies appear in the visual and social field. Transfeminist tactical media artists leverage the affect-mobilizing potential of mass-media performances, deploying ambiguous aesthetics and reframing mechanisms of abjection. Artist Tara Mateik experiments with the rhetoric of terrorism in Operation Invert and the Society for Biological Insurgents, two video and tactical performances that explore the dense connections between military history, violence, infection, terrorism, gender, public space, and medical/psychiatric protocols. Against dominant discourses that would frame gender variance as a threat to national security and theoretical attention that tends to focus on the trans position only as a perfect foil for the gender binary, Mateik's transfeminist aesthetics reframe the messy particularities and affective force of lived experience.

On 6 December 2006, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene decided to withdraw a proposed amendment to the Health Code that would have allowed access to altered birth certificates for many transgender people in the city on the basis of medical evidence that they had completed their own transitioning process and intended to live permanently in their chosen gender, without the requirement that they had undergone any specific medical or surgical procedures.1 Although the members of the panel, who came from medical, legal, mental health, and transgender advocacy groups, all overwhelmingly supported the measure which would have put New York City at the forefront of public policy surrounding transgender issues, the amendment was unexpectedly withdrawn not due to any question about its appropriateness in the face of overwhelming evidence, but rather because it contraindicated sex-segregated federal prison practices and federal anti-terrorism measures including the Real ID Act.2 The fact that decisions about public health policy affecting the lives of transgendered populations in pervasive and sweeping ways linked to employment, access to health care, and physical safety are being determined on the basis of measures such as the 2005 Real ID Act (which after all was designed to reassure citizens of their protection from invading terrorist forces) should serve as a marker of the necessity of a transfeminist politics that places opposition to war, imperialism, and state racism alongside transgender liberation as central feminist concerns. This fact also makes the position of 'terrorist' an attractive one to take up for tactical media artists whose gender already links them with terrorism in their threat to the stability of identity and state-sanctioned classification of bodies.

The aesthetic can be a key domain for thinking through the possibilities that ambiguity and affect offer for the ways in which trans and gender-variant bodies appear in the visual and social field. Artist Tara Mateik's video and performance work draws together densely connected narratives surrounding military history, violence, infection, terrorism, gender, public space, and medical/psychiatric protocols. His perspective demands an interrogation of what constitutes viable life. Techniques of abjection, invocation of fear and provocation of institutional response, and humor are key to Mateik's project. He is the founder of a semi-mythical organization called the Society for Biological Insurgents, to which a number of political art actions are attributed. As a performance-based affiliation, the Society for Biological Insurgents acts as a platform for tactical media projects and rhetorical strategies that invoke the idea of intersex and trans bodies as agents of a kind of 'biological warfare.' Actions undertaken under the banner of SBI engage in serious play that critiques the hypervigilance and paranoia of counter-terrorist protocols, while at the same time linking institutions of compulsory gender to international forms of biopolitical control. SBI's mission statement engages popular formulations of the structure and organization of groups such as Al Qaeda. The organization is presented explicitly as an 'embryonic cell organization that seeks to overthrow institutions of compulsory gender,' referencing in one breath biological process and the organization and the popular rhetoric surrounding the rhizomic growth of terrorist 'cells.' A manual for SBI is available for download on the internet, inviting the formation of splinter groups extending the rhizomatic structure of the organization as well as emphasizing the 'threat' posed by groups of unknown size and unfixed location.

An interactive approach is needed to shape new alliances, encourage reform, reduce threats and weaken institutions of gender. The required strategic operations demand the installment of a new brigade in the form of a cell, a small group working together clandestinely, in which contact with other cells of the same organization (and even with the command structure of the organization) is limited.3

A 'system of established directives' is named that is supposed to 'govern the action from within the organization.'4 These directives function both as a sort of artist's statement and as part of the tactical media performance asking us to imagine the group's widespread proliferation and influence. Interestingly, these named tactics, although framed within a rhetoric of gender terrorism, extend and apply techniques of forced confrontation with the ambiguous/abject, vague and poetic language, and archives of the ephemeral.

We disrupt codes of gendered territory by altering public space

We usurp the image of 'natural order' with our naked bodes (without being objects of entertainment)

We interrogate the rhetoric of science that pathologizes and even criminalizes us when we deviate from what is considered normal

We make sexy the physical attributes and procedures that would 'normally' be considered grotesque

We archive pervasive social phenomenon and render referential impressions5

The first documented action of the Society for Biological Insurgents was undertaken on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; a video about the action circulates under the title Intersecticide (2005). Signs were placed over the 'male' and 'female' designations on bathroom doors, replacing them with images and information about two species that naturally exhibit intersex characteristics: the Gyandromorph fly and the Crepidula snail. Campus security removed the signs and blocked off the bathrooms until it could be determined that they were not infested with these fly and snail species, harmless organisms rendered threatening in their disruption of sex-segregated public spaces. Further actions of the SBI include performance-events in which recruitment meetings for the Society were staged and tactics discussed. Mateik's deployment of the rhetoric of terrorism counts on the affect-mobilizing potential of mass media for its rationale and force.

Mateik's video work Operation Invert draws even more explicit connections between militarism, biological warfare, and access to forms of gendered body modification.6 In a densely layered assemblage of images, sound and text, Mateik traces the history of botulism's death toll among soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars, the development of botox as a biological weapon by the German military in the period from 1939-1945 and the subsequent production of the toxin by the U.S. military 'to protect national security,' the history of media frenzy surrounding a transsexual American GI who returned home from war as a blonde bombshell, and the naming of botox as one of the 'weapons of mass destruction' stored in Iraq justifying the declaration of our most recent war. Mateik questions the open availability of botox injections and other gender- and age-'enhancing' treatments versus the therapeutic regimes one must subject oneself to in order to obtain plastic surgery that falls outside of normative standards of gender and beauty. Anyone can get a face lift and a boob job, but accessing surgical or hormonal procedures that are perceived to go against the grain of gendered bodily norms requires a performance of the DSM diagnostic criteria for Gender Identity Disorder. A particular mode of bodily comportment, a simplified political consciousness, and a performance of psychopathology are necessary for the process of getting a mental health professional's recommendation, which is required for access to desired surgical services. Requirements for accessing surgical and hormonal procedures that are perceived to alter one's sex or gender are prohibitive; the process of changing the sex designation on government documents such as passports, birth certificates and driver's licenses is byzantine if not impossible. The undue burdens placed on trans people with regard to access to necessary or desired medical procedures and appropriate identification documents underscore the threat to dominant conceptions of gender posed by trans bodies, and the unsettling effect that gender transition has on government agencies intent on controlling the movement of bodies across national and economic as well as gendered borders. Operation Invert draws out these connections, interlacing facts concerning the difficult process of accessing gender-altering medical procedures with video documentation of the artist's double mastectomy and nipple graft surgery, undertaken at the same time that the U.S. waged its "war on terror" and the FDA approved the use of Botox for cosmetic purposes. The same body-altering bacteria is classified, distributed and deployed as a devastating disease, a weapon, an age-defying dermatological cosmetic, and an excuse for invading another country. In his artist's statement about the video, Mateik writes of this strange logic that begs the question: 'Are gender outlaws considered the new biological terrorists seeking weapons of mass bodily destruction?'

Transfeminist artists such as Tara Mateik are engaging in avant-garde media arts practices that deploy ambiguous aesthetics and reframe mechanisms of abjection, calling for a another kind of criticism attending to trans and intersex bodies not for their capacity to disrupt sex and gendered binaries on the matrix of positionality, but rather asking us to think trans and genderqueer bodies in motion, creating social connections, becoming-man, becoming-woman. Feeling trans. A key image in Operation Invert is one of the artist jumping up and down in his bedroom pre- and post- surgery, breasts flapping up and down in one image, and replaced by immobile scars in another. This image forces a confrontation with the artist's transforming body, while simultaneously placing it in the visual field in motion, mobilizing cinematic forces that invite the viewer to imagine the sensation of being in that body: affect rather than positionality.7 Attention to affect opens up a transitional space of potentiality, one that transfeminist artists are stepping into, demanding a new look at the terms of human intelligibility. Against dominant discourses that would frame gender variance as a threat to the stability of identity and theoretical attention that tends to focus on the trans position as a perfect foil for the gender binary, transfeminist aesthetics reframe the messy particularities and affective force of lived experience.


Julia Steinmetz is currently a first- year Ph.D. student in the Performance Studies department at NYU, where she was the recipient of a 2006-2007 Engberg Fellowship. Her research areas include performance and technology, feminism, transgender studies, contemporary art, and visual culture. Her essay "Behind Enemy Lines: Toxic Titties Infiltrate Vanessa Beecroft" was recently published in the Spring 2006 special issue of the journal Signs on New Feminist Theories of Visual Culture. She is a visual artist and co-founder of the Los Angeles- based performance collective Toxic Titties with whom which she has performed and exhibited extensively at venues including LACE (Los Angeles), Art in General (New York), MUCA Roma (Mexico City), and MUMOK (Vienna). Steinmetz also has an MFA in Photography and Media Art from the California Institute of the Arts (2002).


Notes

1 Sylvia Rivera Law Project.

2 Ibid.

3 Tara Mateik, "SBI Manual." PDF file available for download.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Tara Mateik, Operation Invert. Video Data Bank, 2003.

7 I refer loosely here to Brian Massumi's critique of 'positionality,' which is to say the coding of bodies and subjects in a grid system of culturally constructed coordinates of age, gender, sex, race, sexual prefer-ence, economic status, etc. He suggests thinking through the idea of 'movement as qualitative transfor-mation.' The keywords for this investigation are 'matter, movement, body, sensation.' Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002, p. 3-4.