Sparkle, Glitter, Pop…or A Field Guide for Spatial Transgression

Allen Gillers
“Instead of places of privacy, where design was unwanted, and public spaces where architecture had to appear in a correct guise, here was a place where the most intimate acts, whether real or acted out in dance, occurred in full view through a structure of lights, sounds, and arrangements that made it all seem natural… Looking back on it, this was queer space.”

-Aaron Betsky, Queer Space: Architecture and Same-Sex Desire 1Aaron Betsky, Queer Space: Architecture and Same-Sex Desire
(New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1997), 5.

Images by Allen Gillers, courtesy of the artist

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In his 1997 rumination on the relationship between queerness and architecture, architectural critic Aaron Betsky uses the world of 1980’s New York City dance clubs as a way to define “queer space.” For him, these spaces defy the strict dichotomy of private and public through performativity, ephemerality, and ultimately frivolity. The ephemeral and superficial performances that defined the extents of their reality is, for Betsky, the way (predominantly white) gay men spatially presented themselves in the late 1980’s, in cities across the world that were luxuriating in the seemingly boundless boom economies of an emerging neo-liberal globalization. However, as he defines them, these spaces have an unresolved oscillation between the real and imaginary. And, as Tom Wolfe popularized in his 1987 novel Bonfire of the Vanities, the morally bankrupt “Master of the Universe” mentality that typified these spaces of luxury and excess, thinly veiled hotbeds of racial and cultural tensions on the verge of combustion. Consequently, whatever “real” spaces these performances claimed were only ever momentarily there, soon after eclipsed by the realities their performances defied.

Today, over thirty years after the cultural moment Betsky and Wolfe both describe, Detroit can be understood as a city most intimately familiar with the fallout that these racial, socio-economic and cultural fault lines fortified. Even as the city exhibits renewal, these fault lines persist. According to the 2010 US Census, of the city’s roughly 680,000 occupants, almost 83% of them are African American, and almost 40% are living below the national poverty line.2http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/26/2622000.html Yet, the majority of urban revitalization and job growth is targeting an influx of affluent white suburbanites and, while there seems to be a notable shift away from fetishizing the criminally abandoned, coquettishly decayed, and pornographically ruinous dinosaurs of American Industrialism, how the city emerges out of bankruptcy is increasingly muted of its longtime occupants’ voices. Pervasive across various depictions of the current situation are extremist illustrations that rely on portrayals of a city on the verge of extinction, or on the brink of renaissance. Detroit is either the post-apocalyptic zombie land where the American dream has died, or the ground zero of new beginnings, where conspicuously white and comparatively wealthy young activists and creatives come to live out their D.I.Y. dreams or satiate their needy altruism. This manifestation of the vacillation between real and imagined urban scenarios, or put another way, reality and its abstraction, echoes the problem with Betsky’s attempt at defining queerness in space.

By mapping the blurred oscillation between the real and imagined queer urban subject onto the complicated stage of a city whose mediated image of itself often precludes the reality of its inhabitants, the built environment emerges as a potential setting for political transgression, the black LGBT community its possible activating agents, and the architect its potential urban choreographer. By interrogating the rift between reality and its abstraction both in terms of trying to articulate a politics of urban conflict, and in trying to understand Detroit’s dispersed and often invisible black LGBT community, a meta-choreography becomes the means by which a collaborative and representative architecture spatializes, politicizes, and renders the invisible explicit.

For architects, the spatial manifestations of this politico-spatial oscillation between the real and imagined weaves together varying political economies across the city to produce a multitude of intersecting and overlapping borders. Beyond the municipal boundaries marking Detroit, Hamtramck, Highland Park, and the suburbs beyond, these other borders reify the existing cultural boundaries, and in so doing make cultural, racial and economic segregation spatially manifest. The queer urban subject, both represented collectively as Detroit’s black LGBT community and as individuals, subverts the fixed spatial narratives of these cultural boundaries by existing, oftentimes invisibly, across many simultaneous urban terrains. As a dispersed network of people across the city, because of their already transgressive spatial reality, the LGBT community has a unique potential to catalyze significant urban transformation that embraces difference rather than externalizing it.

In an interview by Christian Höller for DOCUMENTA MAGAZINE N°3, Jacques Rancière articulates this method of politicization, claiming “Politics is not about integrating the excluded in our societies. It is about restaging matters of exclusion as matters of conflict, of opposition between worlds.”3Christian Höller and Jacques Rancière, “The Abandonment of Democracy,” Documenta Magazine, no. 3: Education (2007): 23. This attitude towards the political provides the foundation for Rancière’s fundamentally novel connection between Aesthetics and Politics. For Rancière, “politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak.”4Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 8. Aesthetics function as its corollary, as “ forms of visibility that disclose artistic practices, the place they occupy, what they ‘do’ or ‘make’ … ‘ways of doing and making’ that intervene in the general distribution of ways of doing and making as well as the relationships they maintain to modes of being and forms of visibility.”5Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, 8. For Rancière aesthetics and politics meet in the way in which they each relate to the distribution of the sensible. Politics involves understanding the distribution of the sensible and how it is mediated; aesthetics allow for the articulation between the visible and invisible, audible and inaudible, sayable and unsayable, which in turn continually redefine the distribution of the sensible. Using this understanding of the relationship between aesthetics and politics, the architect has the potential to mobilize a particular community’s political agency through deploying the politics of a transgressive aesthetic narrative. Like the images of Nick Cave’s soundsuits in Greetings From Detroit, captured throughout the city’s iconic sites where they seemingly don’t belong, and the way they destabilize the viewer’s relationship to the images they construct, the goal of an architectural urban choreography is to politicize through a representational game of destabilizing aesthetics.

 
 

In light of this opportunity we proposed a mobile LGBT community signage, which seeks to embrace this reality by defying the fixity of a permanent building’s location, and aligns itself with the transgressive nature of Detroit’s queer urban subject. Collectively designed and built with Detroit LGBT youth from across the city, this dispersed mobile sign hopes to become a roving icon, inverting the superficially hidden and historically closeted community, weaving in and out of a range of urban, political, social and economic border conditions, while encountering difference in each of the worlds it inhabits. The parts of the sign will never quite belong in any of these locations, and will continuously destabilize an unknowing viewer’s understanding of who has a right to any given public space. The project was conceived collectively, through developing a close relationship with LGBT Detroit (www.lgbtdetroit.org) over the course of a year, understanding the varied makeup of its constituents, and trying to combat a city’s increasing gentrification, where rent prices are currently threatening its very presence in Detroit. We designed four discrete carts, which each separately attach to bikes and can be ridden across the cities varied landscapes. Individually they are sassy, cheeky, and colorful mobile installation pieces. Collectively they come together through a combination of anamorphic projection and moire patterning to read “LGBT DETROIT.” The project culminated in a collaborative performance of design, staged on July 25th at the 20th Anniversary of Detroit’s annual black gay pride, Hotter Than July celebration in Palmer Park, Detroit. Celebrants were invited to participate in painting and assembling the final stages of the sign’s four discrete parts, and after the annual Vogue Ball, they were invited to ride along in the inaugural “gay slow roll,” showcasing the new mobile signage to a lightly raining, misty Detroit summer evening.

To borrow from Rancière, this project is an attempt to shake up the status quo, challenge the distribution of Detroit’s current sensibility and make room for a group of marginalized youth who are trying to find their voice in an urban transformation which is rapidly sequestering them into irrelevance. The goal is for this project to offer a potentially new form of community engaged design that embraces the profound knowledge of its collaborators in producing true urban commons. While the stories of who urban transformation serves here in Detroit is unavoidably enmeshed in racist and classist structures, the question of queerness, inextricably entangled in these struggles, has the capacity for new political purchase in rethinking urban space. Beyond the ephemerality and performativity of Betsky’s “queer space,” rethinking the very borders of built space has the potential to allow for a new protagonist in catalyzing urban change. Borders, real or imagined, visible or invisible, dictate the way we move through our daily lives. As architects and designers, thinking about our role in negotiating the public spaces of our urban environments, these borders create a complex web upon which we have the potential to help choreograph new modes of urban life.

References   [ + ]

1. Aaron Betsky, Queer Space: Architecture and Same-Sex Desire
(New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1997), 5.
2. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/26/2622000.html
3. Christian Höller and Jacques Rancière, “The Abandonment of Democracy,” Documenta Magazine, no. 3: Education (2007): 23.
4. Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 8.
5. Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, 8.