Connecting Subjectivities: An interview with Be Oakley

Founded in 2015 the GenderFail Archive Project is a publishing and programming platform for projects fostering intersectional queer subjectivities. Through this innitiative Be Oakley invites artists, curators, librarians, activists, and other engaged publics to “pick a selection of titles from the GenderFail Collection” and generate new readings from the material. After a brief meeting at the New York Art Book Fair last year Emily Dunne at the ICP Library invited Oakley to collaborate on an exhibition series.

That collaboration resulted in Queering the Collection, a series of three exhibitions at the Library to present a variety of curatorial perspectives on contemporary investigations of gender through archives, libraries, and collections. Installations and public readings by The WRRQ Collective and Christopher Clary expanded upon existing contexts for the Library’s selections, but most importantly, Queering the Collection transformed the Library from an accessible repository of meaning into a malleable and responsive
vessel for contemporary modes of visual literacy.

What follows is a casual conversation with Be Oakley, completed in July 2018.

Patricia: How did you begin formulating a framework for queering an archive, and specifically the ICP Library?
Be: As a queer-focused publisher, I look for titles that expand upon queer subjectivities by focusing on the commonality of our struggles.

GenderFail is very small compared to the ICP collection and that draws attention to my archive due to the size and subject matter within GenderFail. This relationship was amplified when the sculptural displays created for the first exhibition were installed.

Be: Did you feel any shifts in the space by having the publications and sculptures on view simultaneously?

Patricia: Absolutely. It felt different to sit on a soft bubbly circular thing rather than on a chair that conditions the body to reference a classroom or an office. Having the books and the interactive sculptures together opened up the space and brought a cozy and intimate atmosphere to an institutional setting.

Be: I’m really interested in how GenderFail fosters a certain queer messiness that helps to adds a productive friction to spaces like the ICP Library.

Patricia: Among heady Semiotext(e) titles and mainstream favorites like Rebecca Solnit are playful works like Holy Bible and Colette. Also, Junk Poems, A Selection which juxtaposes actual text from SPAM emails, “hidden stories that are squeezed between the lines of penis enlargement links.” I’m interested in that juxtaposition.

Be: I heard a lot of great things about Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit. The GenderFail Archive is not an idealized collection of rare, strictly queer, or alternative texts. The way I collect is a very fluid process. Although Solnit is more mainstream than the rest of the titles in the archive, it doesn’t negate the importance of that text.

In the New Museum’s Trigger: Gender as a Weapon and a Tool catalogue, author and poet Fred Moton talked about the “Politics of the Mess,” the importance of intuitions to create new messes rather than cleaning them up. This has been important in how I formulate what the GenderFail Archive Project aims to do: create a messy intersectional collection of texts. The invited curators, including the publics that engage with the archive, are invited to create connections between texts that they have not considered to be connected.

Personally, I see a lot of connections between Junk Poems and Men Explain Things to Me. Junk mail is basically the digital equivalent to mansplaining?

Patricia: I’m indulging in that comparison for a second: junk mail and mansplaining both prevail because people tolerate them both as forms of authority, or as a  solution.

Be: And this presumed authority is in direct connection with privilege. Most junk mail is disregarded and never even opened in our inboxes. Often, I see people on social media sharing how many unread emails they have in their inbox. 99% of these emails will never be opened but sit in our inboxes as digital weight that we carry with us. In some ways, this is what I feel the connection between mansplaining and junk mail: information thrown at us without our consent.

Bar Dykes, Merril Mushroom, 2016

Patricia: Oh, I like how you said that! Speaking of connections, there has been some mainstream media discourse about the loss of lesbian bars and the public culture of queer women. Bar Dykes by Merril Mushroom—a book about the cruising culture of queer women in the 80s—contains a peek into an era where even the word lesbian wasn’t uttered. Women were “gay” and “queer” just like the guys.

Be: Bar Dykes is a really special publication edited by my friend Faythe Levine and published by the wonderful Caroline Paquita. Cisgender white gay men take up a lot of space in queer publishing. Most of the publications I have released through Genderfail have happened to be work by queer women. This wasn’t something I planned when I first started publishing, but it shows where my conceptual and aesthetic concerns are concentrated.

From Pages by Linda Simpson
Pages, Linda Simpson, 2013

Patricia: Pages by Linda Simpson is another terrific book, a slice of New York just before I moved here. How did you find that one?

Be: I picked up a copy at NYABF. I had a really incredible conversation with one of the people involved with Peradam, the publisher of Pages. Talking to other queer-focused publishers like Peradam is extremely important in fostering community among other queer publishing projects.

Patricia: I’m curious about O Syria and Inch by Inch House by House Alley by Alley. At first glance these are not queer books. How do you see them fitting into the Genderfail Archive project show? Maybe a better question is, how can we let go of what keeps us from seeing such works as queer?

Be: For GenderFail, a queer subjectivity is one that pushes against a capitalist, racist, ableist, xenophobic, transphobic, homophobic, misogynistic, and anti-environmental ideologies. The GenderFail Archive Project is not about collecting publications reflecting just the queer experience, but to connect queer experience with other forms of oppression against marginalized people.

When you just focus exclusively on the queer experience, especially if you are white, you are actively deciding to be silent on other issue that are interconnected to the queer experience. As a white non-binary queer person who often passes for cisgender, it’s paramount that my platform does not perpetuate a queer ideology that exclusively benefits white queer people like myself. When someone looks through the GenderFail Archive they are invited to flip through titles like O’Syria, or Inch by Inch House by House Alley by Alley to consider how these titles might intersect with queer subjectivities. The viewer is invited to consider how these subjectivities may be connected or why they might exist in the same archive.

Libya: Inch by Inch House by House Alley by Alley, 2017

Intersectionality by definition is messy, it takes effort and intention to work towards interconnecting our seemingly disparate struggles.

Patricia: Absolutely. Which is why your selections were so refreshing. I also loved Earth First Means Social War.  Specifically the overt declaration that “Activism is the division of labor that specializes in social change.”

Be: That publication was picked by a Richmond based activist group called the Virginia River Healers and really falls in line with their mission. The Virginia River Healers is a water rights organization that aims to restore and protect the water quality in Virginia. They have been doing a lot of work to advocate against the construction of crude-oil pipelines in Virginia. Water quality affects everyone to varying degrees, although it disproportionately affects the poor.

I recently worked with them to print some posters with information about the death of Marcus-David Peters, an unarmed black man killed in Richmond by police. The Virginia River Healers is a great example of intersectionality in action, and lately I have been thinking about alternative forms of activism that work in tandem to groups like them. Not everyone is able to perform typically understood forms of activism, such as direct action in the streets or public forms of protest that require one’s body to be physically present. The typical associations of what an activist is relies on an ableist expectation of bodies in motion. What are the forms of activism that people with non-neurotpyical and alternatively able folks perform?

Patricia: Protest is also mostly defined by folks who don’t have to worry about deportation. Increasingly, folks on visas and green cards have more reservations about public and street forms of protest but are participating in other ways.

Be: I recently came up with a phrase, Radical Softness as a Boundless Form of Resistance, to give language to these alternative forms of activism. As someone with mental and physical health issues I often find myself unable to perform these typically understood forms of activism. My main form of activism takes happens through disseminated printed object. I consider the spaces in the printed page as a form of public space by which I perform my own activist interventions.

I consider protest as a form of allyship, where privilege can be mobilized in support of those who do not have access to these public spaces. That being said, it’s important for those with privilege to be aware of the space we are taking up.

I recently saw a post on Instagram by the group RISE Indigenous that spoke to the function of protest signs as a form of self-care stating, “MAKING PROTEST SIGNS IS A FORM OF SELF-CARE THIS IS HOW WE BUILD AND EXPAND OUR OWN LANGUAGE AS A COMMUNITY TRUST YR VOICE!”. It’s powerful to think of protest signs as a form of self-care. Resistance is as much about building up our communities as it is about direct action.

Guilty Pleasures in the Age of the Problematic Fave, Liz Barr, 2015

Patricia: We need all forms, and I don’t discount what you do for one second. Liz Barr’s Guilty Pleasures in the Age of the Problematic Fave reminds me so much of another form of protest, the public role of the Feminist Killjoy as defined by Sarah Ahmed. I love that call to action: to embody the Killjoy as a form of protest and power.

Be: Yes, I totally agree. Sara Ahmed is one of my favorite writers. I have been really influenced by her texts, the A phenomenology of whiteness and Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. I really how she talks about the way subjects are orientated towards certain objects over others. I think Liz does a really great job deconstructing these “problematic favs” by showing how we are orientated towards these cultural idols. I think Ahmed is such a good example in relationship to Barr’s work by explaining and unpacking societies orientation towards these cultural figures.

Be: I’m interested in what you felt the GenderFail Archive added to the ICP Library? Did you feel that GenderFail Archive added needed intersectionality to the ICP Library or did it highlight the works that were already in the collection?

Patricia: When I think about how intersectionality functions through photography—not alongside it, in the bumpy sidecar—I see that mode of analysis in individual titles that are present in this and other libraries, but people don’t consider them in that way. Gordon Parks comes to mind, but I would also widen that scope to include a book few people ever talk about anymore but seems relevant in the Brexit/Trump age: Ray’s a Laugh by Richard Billingham. The first print run of Ray’s a Laugh was marked by the heaviness of a problematic edit, but the visual story shows a white family marked by poverty, alcoholism, mental health, public housing, and how each of those factors added up to guarantee class oppression. Billingham’s book shows an interconnectedness of conditions that dominant white culture doesn’t ever want to own up to because it disturbs the monolithic institution of Whiteness. An unbearable stain on Whiteness…

I said all that to show how, in relation to image, I think of intersectionality as a viewing modality that is transferable but not interchangeable. So, yes GenderFail brought in significant intersectional transferrence, a looser, more immediate grouping of titles that expanded upon ICP’s holdings and invited new considerations for how our social conditions are interconnected. The installation encouraged intersectional readings across time and movements. It’s difficult to make an established library feel immediacy and urgency. The Genderfail books brought in those qualities.

Be:  Thank you for that. It’s important to find ways to be able to address the issues of poverty, mental health, and housing as how it affects both white families and families of color. In a white supremacist capitalist society, those in positions of power mobilize rural poor whites against communities of color. It’s important to find ways to interconnect how capitalism affects rural white folks while finding ways to acknowledge white privilege.

This is why I think is important for texts such as Ray’s a Laugh to be contextualized by other publications that can highlight problematic aspects of Billingham’s book to create a productive kind of friction. In the future I want to focus on programing that encourages intersectional reading practices between the GenderFail Archive and institutional collections. The GenderFail Archive has always been a socially engaged project.

I was recently at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit and picked up a shirt from the American Coalition for Palestine that said, “Palestine is a Feminist/Queer/Refugee/Racial Justice Issue.” Statements like this express through language a type of intersectionality that I strive towards.

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