PRINT Summer 2006



“IT IS OUR PROMISCUITY that will save us,” AIDS activist and art theorist Douglas Crimp asserted in 1988, defying the media’s brutal vilification of gay sex—in which a devastating health crisis was portrayed as punishment for pleasure—by arguing that gay men’s sexual flexibility would help them adapt to safer sex. While the AIDS crisis continues, albeit cushioned for some by the effects of life-extending drugs, it is nevertheless difficult to render Crimp’s claim intelligible today. The value of promiscuity considered literally, as Crimp did, seems impossible to imagine given the profound conservatism of much of the contemporary gay and lesbian movement. (The terms of public discourse have changed, clearly, when debates focus on the participation of gays in the institutions of marriage and the military.) Gay couples have perhaps become more tolerated in US society, but other queer practices and community formations have arguably become more limited. Given the current narrow visions of queerness, though, there are still lessons to be learned from Crimp’s promotion of flexibility, openness, and diverse encounters.

The embrace of a kind of promiscuity has driven the New York–based collective LTTR from the outset. LTTR is a shifting acronym; it started in 2001 as “Lesbians to the Rescue,” a superhero slogan if ever there was one, and has since stood for phrases ranging from “Lacan Teaches to Repeat” to “Let’s Take the Role.” Just as the words behind its initials vary, so too do its membership and output. Founded by Ginger Brooks Takahashi and K8 Hardy, LTTR has been joined by Emily Roysdon and Ulrike Müller; all four have ongoing individual practices as artists, video makers, writers, and/or performers, and they frequently participate in other artistic and activist projects. While LTTR began as a collectively edited and produced journal, the group now also organizes screenings, exhibitions, performances, read-ins, and workshops. The original phrase “Lesbians to the Rescue” suggests that someone, or something, needs to be saved (the phrase is missing only an exclamation point to drive home its campy urgency)—and it is clear from the excited, even libidinal ethos of its projects that LTTR sees this redemption as rooted in desire.

In a political climate tinged by anger, defeatism, and the persistent shaming of unruly forms of queerness, LTTR’s objective is a generosity based in exuberance. It is, in other words, with a purposeful critical promiscuity that LTTR puts itself forward. As Samuel R. Delany explains in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999), a hybrid memoir/theoretical inves­tigation of the effects of gentrification on gay public sex in New York, it is the small exchanges of goodwill, modeled for him in the practices of casual sex, that make life “rewarding, productive, and pleasant.” The group’s open calls for submissions and the multiple audiences of its live events exhibit its willingness to engage those with whom the artists might not otherwise come into contact. Promiscuity, whether sexual or—in the case of LTTR as an organization—curatorial, generates all-important moments of unexpected connection.

Brooks Takahashi wrote in an editorial note for the first issue of LTTR’s journal that the project was generated out of eager curiosity, a way “to share our big love for the homos.” The term homo is used in its loosest sense—LTTR explicitly refuses strict self-definitions—and this expanded meaning is quickly discerned in the journal’s makeup: LTTR’s critical promiscuity emphasizes bringing different bodies together across race, gender, and generation. Likewise, the contents of the journal do not conform easily to categories, and often blur the lines of art, criticism, and fiction. In the four issues produced to date (each printed in a limited edition of one thousand copies and distributed mostly in independent bookstores), contributors have included emerging artists, transgender activists, punk musicians, and established scholars. Authors have ranged from Eileen Myles to Lisa Charbonneau, Anna Blume to Matt Wolf; and artists from Mary McAlister and Zara Zandieh to Gloria Maximo and Lynne Chan. To get a concrete sense of the publication’s wide-ranging forms of production, consider the second issue (titled “Listen Translate Translate Record”), which included a CD with audio tracks by Sarah Shapiro, Wikkid, and Boyfriend, as well as an altered tampon by Fereshteh Toosi, a poster by Silka Sanchez, “mood charts” by Leah Gilliam, poetry by Mary DeNardo, an essay by Craig Willse, and a small, stand-alone exam book, complete with a reproduced yellow Post-it and scrawled notes to the instructor, by Astria Suparak. With every issue, LTTR draws on the resources of friends and colleagues, sharing the labor according to skills and energies; as much as the journal stems from do-it-yourself impulses, it is always a finely wrought object.

Emblematic of the collective’s mission, the cover of the first issue featured a photo (part of a larger series) of a masturbating Roysdon wearing a strap-on dildo and a face mask with David Wojnarowicz’s likeness printed on it—underlining an affective fag/dyke connection. This gesture across gender and generation provocatively suggests that LTTR’s inevitable engagements with the past are hardly straightforward, and can be irreverent, joyfully perverted, or achingly intense. The group has numerous queer art/activist precedents, including the AIDS/HIV graphics-making collective Gran Fury, as well as feminist legacies such as the WEB (West-East Bag, “an international information liaison network of women artists” conceived by Judy Chicago, Lucy Lippard, and Miriam Schapiro in 1971) and Heresies (formed in 1976 as an independent feminist, art, and politics publication). In fact, LTTR often explicitly references previous feminist practice, as in the title of the journal’s fourth issue: “Do You Wish to Direct Me?” a provocative question appropriated from Lynda Benglis’s pioneering video Now, 1973. Benglis, in an autoerotic meditation on the possibilities of the then-emerging video technology, poses this question to her own on-screen image. LTTR answers her, dialogically, in its editorial statement, noting that “sometimes, when you call, what you get back is both an echo and a response,” and the playful commands hinted at by Benglis are taken up by the works in the issue, such as Liz Collins’s red knit glove that directs the hand into unexpected configurations. But with its “genderqueer” focus—instead of calling itself a strictly lesbian project, LTTR instead invokes another kind of queer/trans sociality—the collective has an identity-defying attitude that is markedly different from separatist movements in radical feminist art production. For example, consider the Lesbian Art Project, formed in Los Angeles in 1977 by Terry Wolverton, Arlene Raven, and others. That group similarly curated exhibitions, produced small publications, and programmed events, but defined itself as exclusively by and for lesbians.

LTTR’s refusal of such a fixed subjectivity is not an example of what has been termed “post-identity,” implying progress beyond or transcendent of all categories, but is instead a vision of a more permeable, unbounded sense of possible identification. The term queer was reclaimed circa 1990 to signal solidarity between gay men and lesbians (even as the word came off as erasure to some dykes), and the shifting nature of the “lesbian” in LTTR suggests a continuing search for new terminology to help us negotiate increasingly complex relationships to sex and self. LTTR thus underscores the insufficiency of the term identity politics without dismissing identity as political.

In fact, the political resonance of LTTR may be discerned best in its sprawling live events, multiform publications, and curatorial endeavors, as the group reaches out to a somewhat improvised network of artists, activists, and theorists that could be called a community at a time when it is increasingly difficult to speak with any confidence about what was once called the public sphere. The recent upswing in institutional interest in collaborative production may merely suggest the artistic trend du jour (witness the weather reports issued around this year’s Whitney Biennial), but underlying this resurgence in collaboration is a deeper anxiety about shared social space today, whether virtual, ideological, or physical. Against this cultural backdrop, LTTR has programmed a vibrant range of public events at numerous nonprofit art spaces around New York, including The Kitchen and Printed Matter. In the summer of 2004, in conjunction with a residency at Art in General, the collective hosted Explosion LTTR: a monthlong series of events and exhibits featuring, among other things, a talk by Gregg Bordowitz; the Toronto-based troupe Free Dance Lessons grooving with random passersby in Chinatown; music by Lesbians on Ecstasy; and a transgender legal workshop.

For the Explosion, LTTR also played matchmaker by pairing artists—most of whom did not previously know each other or each other’s work—to collaborate for one day in the Art in General storefront window. One such collaboration between Leidy Churchman and Luis Jacob extended the vibe of promiscuity: They installed a beige sofa in the window and invited people to use it as a rendezvous site (Make-Out Couch). Some other pairs, like Matt Keegan and XYLOR Jane, whose mutual interest in pattern led to an installation featuring concentric square spirals in orange tape, have since worked together. As the event progressed over several weeks, remnants of previous collaborations remained in the storefront, and artists responded in part to those traces, creating a palimpsest-like layering. This was made most explicit by Courtney Dailey and Klara Liden, who created exact replicas of the art in the gallery space. These all-white ghost copies then spilled out over and across the street, extending the space of the gallery into the city. For example, one of the Keegan/Jane spirals was redone on the wall opposite the storefront, and it remained as a trace of this experiment for months after the residency ended. In each of these endeavors, LTTR rallies people together with ardent enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm like this, of course, is perilous, and almost always draws fire: Detachment is often more critically prized. As Jacob, one of the Explosion LTTR collaborators, explains, “To ask strangers to collaborate is risky; it’s an experiment that could have collapsed. What’s amazing is how well it worked.” LTTR’s willingness to take such chances with its editorial choices has led to contradictory criticisms. Some see its projects as hodgepodge or ragged (i.e., too inclusive), while others think its scrupulous decision-making process is not open enough (i.e., too exclusive). Despite—or even because of—the sometimes scrappy nature of its enterprise, LTTR presents itself as a vital alternative, and not only to the art market’s high gloss. It also represents a different face of queer aesthetic production, one uninterested in a consumerist “queer eye” that knows exactly which scented candle to buy. “Practice More Failure” was the name of the third journal, and it is a knowing one, as it highlights LTTR’s emphasis on “process and practice over product”—potential criticisms, collapses, and all.

LTTR’s search for promiscuity—and all the risks and rewards that term implies—continues to drive its projects. In September 2005, LTTR hosted a release party in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood for the fourth issue of the journal; the event featured DJs and street performances. It was a strikingly intergenerational, heterogeneous scene, as hipsters young and old joined in the celebration, participating in interactive installations and dancing on the piers. Maybe it was merely a crowd of artists and musicians and self-declared freaks, but it was also a community—a fragile, restless one that is constantly expanding and reconstituting. Lauren Berlant, a professor at the University of Chicago, has recently proposed that negativity and depression could be politically necessary responses to the disenfranchised character of our contemporary age. Yet during an era of real despair, a time marked by hatred of all types of difference, we also need these localized moments of pleasure and unsecured possibility, moments motored not only by passion but also a willingness to fail.

Julia Bryan-Wilson is assistant professor at the Rhode Island School of Design.