The scene of the closet & the haptic perception of queer pastness
Special Project by Bogdan Cheta
Part of THE-BLUE-LIGHT
CommunityWise Resource Centre
The Blue Light backroom is an assemblage of discontinuous textualities. It is a thought that becomes a place. It changes forms. It remains unfixed, decentered and perpetually unmoored. It is an adventure that transforms into an essay and an essay that becomes a way of perceiving the world. Here - the act of reading — when reading is spaced as a way of thinking, becomes a frame for acting ethically. To learn how to read is an act of self-education since learning how to read, as Susan Sontag (1933-2004)* has observed in her ongoing study of images — is an altruistic process that teaches one how to listen to the other, the one whose voice and presence continues to be muffled.
(*The Conscience of Words, Susan Sontag, 2001)
In her introduction to Jacques Derrida’s “Of Grammatology” (1967), Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak writes around the provisional conditions that make deconstruction possible as a way of prefacing her subsequent translation of Derrida’s text - but without spacing any particular form of interpretation “in the face of a textual energy that sets itself against congealment” (Derrida, lxxi). Through this methodological deferral of meaning that is de-centralized by its own possibilities for becoming multiple, Spivak seems to emerge as a coauthor that lures out new spacial conditions for dwelling inside of Derrida's text. And then by choreographing the textuality of these hidden pockets of habitation into a perceptual filter that twists the reader towards an open-ended frame for reinterpretation, Spivak virtualizes the materiality of what slips in-between the inside and outside of the text, as a methodological orientation that seeks passage to a way of reading where interpretation can begin to roam - objectless and without a programmable project of signification. Reading, in this sense, becomes a form of dwelling - a method for thinking by-way of inhabiting (and becoming inhabited by) the situations that a text exposes, so that these situations, in turn, can be useful vis-à-vis their potential for being put to “use” as navigational coordinates that spatialize a process where becoming-translated is a collaborative and sheltering actualization for a way of thinking that is also inherently plural — and at the same time, ambiguous — a continual becoming that changes its figuration and the conditions through which this figuration remains in flux. In her introduction, this kind of slippery mental projection that spaces a place where translation is used as a sticky, and what I perceive to be as queer interface for entanglement, allows Spivak to extend (by proxy) Derrida’s own reading of Martin Heidegger’s thoughts around his perception of what becomes locatable as experience, thus momentarily virtualizing a point of co-authorship that invites the reader (any reader) to become laterally implicated in this imaginary, socio co-habitation with other thoughts and voices.
The Blue Light backroom inside the closet-space at CommunityWise. The architectural details, including the furniture from this space, were designed collaboratively by Anna Semenoff, Jeremy Pavka and myself. The photo-shoot in the space was a collaboration between Latifa Pelletier Ahmed and Jeremy Pavka - and it unfolded around a complex process of off-site research that utilized Ahmed’s native plant nursery - ALCLA Native Plants
Kaffeeklatsch Scheinpräparat, 2020, Latifa Pelletier-Ahmed & Jessica McCarrel. Tonic drink that featured invasive plant species that Ahmed collected from local gay cruising trails. The drink was distributed in McCarrel’s café in downtown Calgary, where it was priced at $23 - the same as the the price for entry to the local gay bathhouse. The idea was that the drink would facilitate a sensorial point of contact with local & hidden queer histories - and it followed Ahmed’s research around plants, and their capacity to become entangled with acts of queer pleasure — both as co-creators of alternative habitats and as witnesses that hold presence for anonymous acts of gay sex.
This process of reading by way-of-seeking shelter prioritizes lateral drifts (drifts in-between epistemologies) over more-utilitarian and ethnocentric orientations that reduce the concept of translatability to its utility of rendering meaning visible, and therefore graspable. To translate meaning into something that becomes graspable, is arguably - a form of extraction: a way of legitimizing the unknown, so that the unknown becomes apprehensible, and through this grasp — bracketed from its boundless and unscripted potentiality to space the unspaceable. At its root, Jacques Derrida saw this unhinged drive towards a co-habitation with, and thinking amongst the ruins of meaning as a way of undoing the colonial forces that structure thought (Spivak, 2016). The legacy of this essay is particularly significant to the rise of poststructuralism in queer theory - where queer thought, like deconstruction - becomes a methodology for re-translating the world in terms that move (it) beyond binary positions or static conceptions of meaning that privilege a logocentric hierarchy of signification.
Mirroring this para-architectural method for thinking about translation through a process of spacing that carves out pathways towards virtual islands of co-habitation, the Blue Light backroom-space at CommunityWise also functioned as a mental space for dwelling where textual situations were theatricalized by their potential to be utilized as quasi-domestic backgrounds for open-ended narratives that involved a multiplicity of authors, readers and unfixed migrations of potentiality. Operating from an unused closet that was situated inside the administrative office-space at CommunityWise — this backroom took the architectural form of a miniaturized house and featured areas that were designed to support the spacing of such everyday, domestic actions as cooking, reading and sleeping. When operational, this backroom was assigned on a hoteling basis: visitors were offered keys to the closet and then were encouraged to spend the night in the space, provided that they catered their own meals and remained self-sufficient, without drawing any unwanted attention to the space or to their after-hours occupation of this closet. This hidden room also featured a large selection of queer reading materials that included fictional gay erotic stories written by Rocky Wallbaum - an older gay man from Calgary, alongside a shifting bric-à-brac assemblage that interweaved detritus plucked from my exploratory walks through cruising areas in public parks — with an expanding constellation of domestic props that I found in the basement of CommunityWise — a place that began its history in 1911 as a YWCA homeless hostel. Once they checked into this closet, the invited (and sometimes uninvited) visitor was encouraged to refashion the interior contents of this domestic mise-en-scène in order to assemble their own, live-in temporary homes. They - the visitors, eventually displaced my ongoing presence and their roles gradually shifted to becoming the new homemakers: now they were the ones who dwelled after hours inside the building as a way of making this invisible room, their own. Indirectly, in a non-linear collapse of historical time, these clandestine after-hour infiltrations re-activated the original function of this building, and once again traces of the original YWCA hostel from 1911 began to emerge — but this time, through the cruising fantasies of queer visitations that quietly staged moments of pleasure and solitude in-between the business-time of the 9-5 office work environment that currently scripts this setting.
One of the first visitors to inhabit this closet was Latifa Pelletier-Ahmed. Throughout her residency Latifa designed a placebo experience that prescribed other visitors with what they believed to be a healing tonic. Sourced from outlawed invasive plant species, this drink featured plants that Ahmed collected from local, gay-cruising trails and indirectly referenced an underground history of psychoactive substances that is particular to the ways in which many gay-cruising scenes have fashioned their own non-normative culture of intimacy (from a conversation with local queer historian, Kevin Allen). From a Western ethnocentric frame, invasive plant species are often perceived as a threat to the local biodiversity, but as Ahmed points out in her research, invasives can actually become useful if they are re-cast as valuable co-creators that can redirect the lifecycles of native plant species, so that their topologies can then become more resilient to conditions of disturbance. Invasive plant species are a type of plant that is introduced to native flora through physical processes of disturbance — and the outdoor practice of gay-cruising, from an ecological perspective, could actually become entangled in the pollination and multiplication of invasive plant species, though contributing to the overall remediation of neglected urban habitats. Through this work, Ahmed proposes that the material conditions that make cruising possible in outdoor urban parks are also entangled with the ecosystems through which the local landscape continues to be co-produced, and indirectly positions the search for queer pleasure in outdoor spaces as an intersectional space of encounter where queerness begins to drift in-between human and nonhuman co-actants.
image of a typical communist apartment block from Ploiești, Romania. The shared communal everyday space usually becomes an improvised stage where neighbours can rehearse ways of day-dreaming and constructing temporary abductions of space, through which other alternative forms of domesticity and togetherness can be staged and exteriorized - in a continual and experimental form that migrates narratives of private psychical backgrounds into public, everyday contexts.
a local gay cruising trail from Calgary where Latifa Pelletier-Ahmed conducted on-site research. This section of public land is quite overgrown and neglected by the city, allowing it to become a sanctuary for both wild vegetation and for men who have sex with men. In the evenings the trails are tended by older gay men - who clean-up the trails, trim the bushes and sometimes even leave bags of condoms & lube for the anonymous cruisers to use during the day. Hidden from the general public - these sites become stages for fictional settings of outdoor domesticity and communion.
The first backroom that I staged as a fictional live-in space unfolded secretly, underneath the stairwell of the communist-style apartment block where my family was assigned to live in the 1980’s in Ploiești - a small-sized industrial city from the outskirts of Bucharest (București), in Romania. There, underneath those dark unlit steps, a place where no one ventured because it was a communal depository of abandoned objects (mostly trash), I was able to find the courage, albeit temporary, to change into my mother’s clothes and then to imagine that I was inhabiting (and becoming inhabited by) a different narrative. Sometimes I invited others from the neighbourhood to join me - and for a few brief moments, I became one of them, part of the “group” - the group that inhabited spaces of relation which at the time — I thought, unfolded, experimentally and intuitively, in-between worlds. Somehow we sensed that we lived in a reality that was different from the world that populated Western television - which in the 1990’s — emerged as a technological fixture that began the process of “removing” the Iron Curtain. But as the curtains were opening, there was also a sense that what was beginning to open was actually another kind of closure that did not reflect the lived realities of everyday people. This ambiguous choreography — of moving in-between the back and the front of the curtain, but never quite making it on the stage - was, and continues to be the general psyche through which post-socialism has embedded itself as a method of translation — that thorough translatability, inadvertently also exposes the conditions for what becomes untranslatable. The untranslatable - being that psychic space that Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak identifies when thinking about the act of reading as a way of inhabiting the text, and how proceeding through the textuality of this construction is inadvertently also an ethical position where translation becomes a form of relation with the unknown, the unseen — and the unheard (Spivak, Readings, 2014, 32-6)
image of my old bedroom from Ploiești, Romania. My room doubled as the family living-room which became an ambiguous in-between space where moments of privacy quietly infiltrated the home space as thoughts rather than fixed borders of privacy.
Ashley Bedet, ”the opposite of a look is a kiss" 2020. This work was conceived as a free, multi-use tool (multi-tool) and was distributed in Calgary through Jessica McCarrel’s kaffeeklatsch, Latifa Pelletier Ahmed’s ALCLA native plant nursery - as well as Mark Campbell’s Backlot - a hidden gay bar on 12avenue, in Downtown Calgary.
Ashley Bedet was the second visitor to the Blue Light backroom - and her project also engaged, tangentially with what might be perceived as an ethics of translation. Distributed publicly as a takeaway multiple, the work consists of a credit card-sized mirror that featured an embossed line drawing on the back side. Hand-drawn by the artist, this drawing narrated a kiss that takes place in-between two unknown, and androgynous figures. Bedet envisioned this work as an everyday, multi-use tool that furnished the user with opportunities to virtualize experiences where the act and intimacy of touching could be felt — but without the proximity of physical contact (and the subsequent risk for Covid-19 exposure). Further, through the reflective quality of this mirror, and similar to the ways in which the visitor to the Blue Light backroom-closet replaced my role in this setting, Bedet casts the viewer in a directorial role: the viewer is the one who ultimately selects and crops this sensorial montage (of gleaned images) as they are prompted by a supplementary letter from the artist — to apply this multi-use tool in any way that could become useful for them. In this work, the interweaving drift that roams between the hand-drawn image and the mirrored surface, functions almost like a prosthetic organ that indexes the potentiality for a way of touching and becoming entangled, collectively — through sensorial experiences of touch. And this is the peculiar quality of this work - how it exists in passing, as a private thought - at a point where images become touchable and archived through their potentiality for becoming immersive, haptic experiences.
image of the Blue Light backroom at CommunityWise. Photoshoot was directed by Latifa Pelletier-Ahmed in collaboration with Jeremy Pavka and features a selection of plants that Ahmed used in developing her on-site research for the kaffeeklatsch drink. Kaffeeklatsch first began its operations in this small closet and was ran by owner Jessica McCarrel - and today it has expanded to open its first street-level full size café. The kaffeeklatsch café is the first new queer safe space to open in the city in the last decade.
today, invasive plants dominate the local landscape in Ploiești. Initially these dense residential areas were planned by the communist regime to be as uniform as possible - and detached from their natural environment. Years of neglect and lack of social assistance, however, has transformed these social housing districts into wild spaces where disturbance has lead to an unintentional re-wilding.
a man is cleaning a rug outside his apartment in Bacău, Moldova. My grandparents lived in a remote village in Moldova and followed a popular custom where they would often expose domestic objects to outside air -since it was believed that these items were “living entities” that needed to breathe fresh air. In most Moldovian residential districts local residents have constructed stages for “exposure” - where once a year, domestic items are brought outside to “breathe” fresh air.
Born and raised in Ploiești, Romania, Bogdan Cheta now lives and works in Calgary, Canada. Drifting between the surface of the printed page, the looseness of improvisable walks, or the meandering movements of large-scale installations, his projects usually gather in a search for how to use, and imagine the act of storying as an artisanal technology for place-making. He holds an MFA in Craft from Alberta University of the Arts (2019) and his research is oriented by an attention towards the atmospheric phenomenologies of lived spaces and their potential to re-activate alternative sites for political discourse and social engagement. Recent presentations of his work include projects at Balice Hertling in Paris, 67 Steps in Los Angles, the 12th Havana Biennial, and locally, at Stride Gallery, Untitled Arts Society, The New Gallery and TRUCK. With support from Canada Council for the Arts, this is Bogdan’s second presentation with M:ST, and his first joint collaboration with CommunityWise Resource Centre and the Calgary Queer Arts Society.