About the Artist
Gwen Shockey was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1988. Her work has been exhibited in numerous venues including A.I.R. Gallery, Equity Gallery and The Leslie-Lohman Museum in New York and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C.. She was a 2018-19 recipient of The Leslie-Lohman Museum Queer Art Fellowship, a 2018 resident at the Wassaic Project and was the first recipient of the Pratt MFA Ox-Bow Award in 2016. She received her MFA from Pratt Institute in 2017. Her work has been featured in publications such as the Huffington Post, Filthy Dreams, Bedford + Bowery, New Now Next at Logo TV and CityLab. She frequently serves as a Visiting Artist, most recently at Connecticut College and the Fashion Institute of Technology. Her work also appears in several collections throughout the U.S. including The Leslie-Lohman Museum permanent collection and the Connecticut College collection.
2017–2018 Winter Residency
with D. K. Broderick, April 2018
Let's start with your relationship to straight culture. Specifically, can you speak to what it means to be stifled by straight culture?
I've been reading a lot of queer theory lately which always helps me feel a bit more awake in my day-to-day maneuverings through hetero-land. There are certain texts, like Cruising Utopia by José Esteban Muñoz, that I like to re-read for this reason. Earlier today I had a really intense conversation with a couple fellow queer residents here about mainstream LGBTQ media. We all felt that most of what we were seeing on TV is still so in service of straight culture. Despite the fact that the new season of Queer Eye dropped for the Straight Guy from it’s title, I feel that it wasn’t made for my community and depicts queer men as useful for straight culture rather than authentic, messy, and real. Long story short I think there is a blind acceptance of the media’s portrayal of queerness but it’s still cleaned-up and straight-ified and it gets me amped up. I guess a part of me is afraid that queerness is being absorbed into heterosexual culture and will start looking like heterosexuality and disappear. At the same time I realize it is an immensely privileged thing for me to be able to critique the portrayal of LGBTQ people in mainstream culture instead of seeing it as a lifeline.
Sounds like whatever was said was close to home and it had an impact.
Yeah. I mean I am incredibly lucky to have grown up in a liberal household but I didn’t really encounter another gay person until high school. I didn't know what it looked like or what it meant. So coming out was a hugely internal process for me. It was work to figure out my relationship with straight culture and how to match what I was feeling inside with what I was hearing in music, seeing in art and movies and in the world around me. That work allowed me to question things, though. I’m so thankful for that.
You mentioned the work of José Esteban Muñoz, I was wondering if you would like to elaborate. Perhaps we could discuss what your relationship to utopia is or isn't. Do you have your own formation of utopia and if so, how does or doesn't it look to the past for guidance into the future?
I've been thinking a lot about this lately. A lot of my work over the past two years has been about community gathering spaces for queer women, specifically in New York City. A lot of it has been research-based. When I first moved to the City in 2010, in an attempt to find community, the very first thing I did was google "lesbian bar". The only lesbian bar I had ever been to was in Paris and it was the first time I had ever been in a room full of queer women. It was the most amazing feeling I'd experienced in my life. So when I moved to New York I tried to spend as much time in lesbian bars as I could - meeting people, talking to people, listening to stories, sharing my story. It felt like this whole other world that existed as such a conditional and specific space. These bars allowed for this opening up and dialogue. I've been thinking about those experiences as utopian. I've done a lot of writing about the rituals that take place in the space of the bar. I’m interested in this sort of collective process of intoxication, language and desire.
When you mention the space of the bar in regards to formations of queer utopias, the bathroom also comes to mind as does the the club and more distantly the gym. With respect to New York City, I am also reminded of Rudy Giuliani's late ‘90s and early ‘00s crackdown. Are these spaces still around, do they still have potential or have they been exhausted?
I do a lot of volunteer work around mental health in the LGBTQ community. In my opinion technology is a huge influence on mental health and despite all of the resources that people have now (which seem endless and wonderful online) depression caused by self-isolation seems to be quite high. Even though people are still gathering physically I’ve noticed less eye contact and less physical touching than I did 8 or so years ago. When I was first coming out and going out there was a lot more hooking up in public. Even in the lesbian bars there was a lot of hooking up in the bathrooms. Couples would get caught and thrown out and it was sort of exciting and very sexy. Now I don't see it much anymore. I'm not sure if that has to do with people not knowing how to approach each other in a non-digital space or whether it just has to do with people hooking up in other contexts like in private or formerly “straight” spaces...
Maybe it's just a safer world now and sex doesn't have to be in a bathroom. That space was really important for me though. There is an incredible description about this man’s sexual encounter with Keith Herring in a bathroom. I can’t remember if it was in Cruising Utopia, but It was so explicit and beautiful, just no shame at all. The bathroom is such a potent space.
But yeah, I’m not sure it happens so much anymore in the lesbian bars. The loss of these activities coupled with the loss of physical spaces for women to gather has become the cornerstone of my practice over the past couple of years.
The urgent need to archive — archive fever as it is often discussed — tends to surface during times of loss, when individuals, groups, and communities are acutely aware of their material culture disappearing or being forcibly destroyed. Your ongoing, open-ended project documenting lesbian bars in New York City acknowledge this. The archive you've been constructing and working through, in this sense, also functions as a process of mourning, of marking the death of individuals, of bars, community, and culture. Photography as a medium of loss also lends itself to this process of mourning. Can you share some more thoughts on your archive project and also its relationship to the past projects you've done around bathrooms?
I think these projects come out of a place of fear that the few spaces lesbians have that are truly ours will be taken away. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the work that Macon Reed, Kaucyila Brooke or the Last Call Collective have been doing? Their work shifts between many mediums and disciplines and it just so inspiring to me. The project I have been working on definitely came from a place of urgency. Right after the shootings happened at Pulse I went to a vigil at Stonewall and then to Cubbyhole (one of the last remaining lesbian bars in New York). I started thinking a lot about how mourning takes place in the queer community. So often enactments of celebration and grief happen in the same places for us. Dancing and drinking, crying and reconciliation... There was a great article about this in The Nation right after the shooting. I think it was called Please Don’t Stop the Music.
My lesbian bar archival work has taken a lot of different forms and it's also been the longest lasting project I've done. It started through oral history interviews I was doing just out of curiosity and in an attempt to get a sense of how important these spaces actually were to women. I was wondering whether others were feeling a similar sense of anxiety as me. I started interviewing women of different ages and hearing these amazing stories from the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and early ‘00s. It really helped me realize how fraught the space of the lesbian bar was and how little documentation exists of its history. I think so much of the focus of archiving has been on Stonewall and more male-dominated places.
So building this archive became a kind of treasure hunt: going and finding addresses, photographing facades with my iPhone, realizing the addresses were wrong and going back again. This process of trial and error came about because I gathered the majority of my information from women's memories, and like I said earlier, oral histories. For example, I spoke with this woman, Cynthia, who mentioned a bar called the Hilltop in Harlem. It was the first lesbian bar she ever went to and she couldn’t remember the address, just how to get there by train and then on foot. I followed her directions but I couldn’t find the building that she described. Only recently I found the address through a show that the Lesbian Herstory Archives curated about the Salsa Soul Sisters. But it’s this secrecy and this word-of-mouth/memory-based map-making that is so intriguing to me.
It feels like a very embodied project.
It's totally embodied. And thinking about embodiment has made me struggle with what to do with this archive. Because the voices and memories of all these women feel so much more important than trying to map the bars or visually represent the spaces.
It's amazing thinking about a space like a bar holding those voices and providing a channel for those voices to be heard and shared, in a way that couldn't happen anywhere else. The bar is a point of convergence for an otherwise dispersed energy and community.
Exactly. Women’s voices and lesbian voices are always being erased and pushed into corners. I feel like a lot is at stake right now for the lesbian voice.
Since you've mentioned this current project in development maybe we can shift to your current projects more generally. What are you working on now?
I'm at a point now with the archive project where I'm starting to reach out to big time activists and party organizers from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. I'm going to talk to Wanda Acosta this week. She owned several lesbian bars and started a party called Sundays at Café Tabac in the ‘90s with a DJ named Sharee Nash which was frequented by famous lesbians during a time when they still had to be extremely closeted. I can’t wait to meet her. I'm also on the advising team for an exhibition about LGBTQ nightlife in commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall riots at the New York Historical Society. I've been drawing a lot lately too. I graduated from Pratt’s MFA program a year ago and I've been trying to get back into drawing because it's been put on the back-burner over the past couple of years. Being here, at Wassaic, in this quiet space with so much open time is just so perfect for focusing on detailed work. In the drawings I'm trying to think about the bar space, celebration, community, utopia and intoxication. These are drawings of jello shots. I've been pulling floral patterns from Botticelli paintings and incorporating them into the drawings around the shot glasses in gold leaf. Ever since I was a little kid I've always just been so obsessed with Botticelli. I only recently found out that he was a “notorious homosexual.”
What does "notoriously homosexual" mean?
I have no idea but a professor at Pratt told me that during a studio visit once. So I suppose I'm passing it on now. Hah. But yeah, I love Botticelli and I've always identified with the faces in his paintings, the sort of quiet and secretive looks. I find it fun to make decorative looking things that have a sneaky gay element to them. I guess I’m trying to make precious something that is otherwise really trashy (the jello shot). I use a combination of xerox transfer and watercolor and graphite. The first layer is a really faint, ghostly, layer of xerox transfer. Then the second layer is watercolor on top and the final layer is graphite on top of that. You can see the process better in this scroll that I just started. Keenan (a fellow resident here) just gave me a copy of The Queer Nation Manifesto. I love the "Rules of Conduct for Straight People" section. It's so good. Look at rule number seven here —
Number seven, “Go Fuck Yourself.”
I try to take note of things I hear people say in lesbian bars - cliches about lesbians, derogatory terms for lesbians — and then use them to create a new utopia type situation. For instance I was at a bar once and a friend of mine gave up her stool for a gay boy nearby and his response was, "Ew! I don't wanna sit on your snail trail." So obnoxious.
Hence the snails. Is there a significance to the grid?
Yeah. I think it’s about time and a progression through levels of low-brow intoxication toward a freer state of being and ability to act on desire. Visually the shot glasses don’t recede back into space, they're all the same size and on the same plane. So thinking about this bar space and weird alternative sense of time that exists within a linear structure but isn’t linear at all. I don't know, maybe that's a bit abstract.
For me it feels like it's outside of time — because of the grid. As in there's no time in gridded space. Which relates a lot to intoxication and also to utopia. Which brings up another question, and in doing so returns us to an earlier moment in our conversation: what's the relationship for you between intoxication and utopia?
Do you know the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa?
By Bernini, at Santa Maria della Vittoria?
Yeah. So she was this nun-turned-saint who spent a lot of time alone. She wrote a manifesto called The Interior Castle, or The Mansions in 1577. It was a manifesto on methods of reaching ecstasy through self-harm and prayer, essentially. I was thinking about that in terms of my own experience letting myself become intimate with other women and what it took (and often still takes) for me to get there. The levels of numbing oneself emotionally and mentally in order to bypass all the internalized restrictions and homophobia. Entering the bar, drinking a fuck-ton, starting to make eye contact, all these incremental moments, until maybe eventually physically connecting. You know there are addiction problems everywhere but there is a lot of substance abuse in the lesbian community. There's a lot of alcoholism. This has come up a lot in many of the interviews I've been doing. Many women have told me that they actually don't really like drinking and don't really want to be in the bar but there's no other option. It's one of the only ways that they've been able to find this sort of community in their lives. It's intense.
It also makes me reconsider what it means to be a bar owner and/or a bartender and to provide a space where substance abuse in whatever form can take place and be given a different kind of support and care and community.
Absolutely. I think some of these bartenders are really the most incredible people. There are a couple women at the Cubbyhole that have been there for years and years and years. They know everyone by name. They're therapists and community leaders. They're icons. People look up to them, love them and come to them like family.
That's beautiful, to be with chosen family in the joyous and somber space of the bar. To shift towards a slightly different albeit related direction, as a way of ending our conversation on a poetic note, I wanted to ask you about the disco ball as it is a form that shows up a lot in your work. What is a disco ball to you?
Wow. That’s an amazing question.
Let’s see. The disco ball is a sphere that has a reflective surface. It lives in the dark, capturing, multiplying and emitting whatever tiny bits of light enter into the dark. It spins and spins and spins, causing a sense of dizziness and a loss of inhibition. It confuses boundaries. It allows for a queer space to feel simultaneously enclosed and infinite.
That's my answer.
Photos by Walker Esner