The Pink Line Project Project: A By Request Addendum
Photo by Joshua Cogan
In December of 2009, DC Arts Commissioner and Pink Line Project founder Philippa Hughes included me in a magazine article highlighting ten up and coming DC artists. Each of her ten chosen artists were to be photographed for the article, presumably while hard at work in the studio, occupying a familiar haunt, or performing some action evocative of her or his own personal style, career arc, or chosen artistic medium.
Photographer Joshua Cogan contacted me and asked what setting might best represent me as an artist. For me, the question posed problems: I don’t have a conventional studio practice. Further, I’m not necessarily interested in my own subjectivity, or in finding clever ways to express it. I’m much more interested in other people’s ideas—hence the inordinate amounts of time I spend in the salt mines as a curator and a writer, thinking about how and why other artists do what they do.
It occurred to me that readers ought to be more curious about the author of the article itself than about any of the artists it highlighted. Who was this Philippa Hughes, and what were the sources of her authority and cultural capital?
Obviously there was only so much information that could be presented in one small photo in a glossy society magazine. A few superficial cues would do: A blonde wig, a colorful dress and tights, an iconic pink scooter. Add the Chinatown arch as a generic expression of the author's mixed racial heritage and viola: The Mistress of the Pink Line, or something like her.
People responded viscerally to the image; they apparently loved the conceit of a large hairy man dressed as a highly visible female arts personality. Mostly, though, viewers appreciated having the few sketchy details that they knew and valued about Philippa affirmed. She is blonde, artsy, and on the go. This seemed to be the minimum required to construct a plausible likeness, or to absorb and deploy Philippa's formidable aura.
I wondered how else we might exploit Philippa’s public persona—one that, it should be noted, seems to have only a tenuous connection to the woman herself and the arts events she orchestrates. Is Philippa viewed as a sexual libertine? Could she become a pinup girl? What sorts of desires does her image stir amongst DC creatives? I thought of the swing suspended from the ceiling in Philippa’s condo: surely an invitation for lewd behavior.
I also began thinking quite a bit about Marcel Duchamp—specifically, the photos Man Ray took in the 1920s of Duchamp’s female alter ego, Rrose Selavy. Much of Duchamp's varied and thorny body of work exploits the possible traps of seeing; his great final work, "L'Etant Donnes," with its splayed nude female mannequin, glimpsed through two small holes in a large doorway, seems to dismiss the entire tradition of realism in art as essentially a peep show. His forays into cross-dressing for me underline how the objectified female form presents a crisis of representation in art: a problematic blind spot into which the artist, when properly attired, might be able to vanish in plain sight.
I transformed my body in order to make drag more plausible. Via diet and exercise, over the course of three months, I lost thirty pounds. I practiced walking—and dancing—in size 16 high heels. I had my entire body waxed, save for my arms and face: Unlike Duchamp, who borrowed Gaby Picabia's dainty hands in one photo to frame his face and appear less masculine, I would allow the disconnect between a pale, plucked, feminine-seeming body and tanned, hairy face and arms to stand.
This transformation culminated in a performance in which I danced in five local contemporary art galleries one Friday afternoon. The performance operated on several levels: If one accepted that I was acting as a stand-in for Philippa, then my dance could be viewed as an attempt to entice gallery directors with the promise of attention from the press, younger audience demographics, and cultural cachet in general—the fruits of the Pink Line. Some might view such social components of the artworld as entirely separate from the rarefied business of artistic production and exhibition, and possibly a cheapening influence or distraction. (Some might be wrong.) With this view in mind, my dance and the discomfort it caused ostensibly mirrored the competing forces of attraction and repulsion a gallerist might experience in trying to tart up her or his art programming with special events.
One could also simply view the performance as an attempt to deploy Philippa’s image as a Trojan horse—her notoriety served as a shield behind which any sort of action could be taken and justified, no matter how ridiculous. Finally, the dance could be viewed as a metaphor for transactions within the artworld generally, and the web of desires attending them. From the emerging artist cold-calling the gallerist, portfolio in hand; to the curator who promises institutional or critical validation to the artists the dealer represents in return for access to desired artworks; to the collector who wishes to be properly courted before committing to owning a new piece. All of these transactions could be represented with one simple sensual expression: dancing.
Or maybe I just like wearing a dress.
In any event, what started as a sort of humorous PR stunt quickly morphed into a useful tool for thinking about the forces I was attempting to marshal toward absurd ends in "By Request."