Otis Ike, Su Reflejo en el Espejo, 2009; archival inkjet print; edition of 5; courtesy the artist and Domy Books, Austin

How To Be Singular Plural

Andy Campbell

How to describe Libres y Lokas, the latest body of work by Austin-based collaborators Otis Ike (née Patrick Bresnan) and Ivete Lucas? On the surface, their photographs, sculptures and video seem to document two disparate communities in Monterrey, Mexico: lucha libre wrestlers and transgendered or transsexual drag queens. To the casual observer, the wrestlers and drag queens represented by Ike and Lucas are as immediately and irrepressibly knowable as they are enigmatic and mysterious. The gift these collaborators possess, however, is that they establish a closeness with their subjects, and often the subjects reciprocate by drawing the artists close as well. By doing so, it becomes impossible to disentangle relationships—to make remarks one way or the other about the place of the artist or the subject or even to think of either in a traditional way.

The path to such conclusions lies through description—not of the artwork itself but of the processes and structures behind the artists’ visual excavations. To get there, the ideas of Jean-Luc Nancy, particularly his formulation of “being singular plural,” are of use. Let’s be clear—this essay is not about luchadors or transgendered people or drag queens. If these things are the nouns in an artistic sentence, I am more concerned with the verbs—in the doing and the being.

How to play the field
Like other contemporary photographers, most notably Nan Goldin, Nikki S. Lee and Ryan McGinley, the work of Ike and Lucas is suffused with notions of communities and group identities. Yet, by examining each of the aforementioned artists’ processes, key differences emerge. I want to define these differences in the negative, not because I think Ike and Lucas’ work exists in such a state but, rather, to move toward an abstraction of description. This approach is also my way of playing a popular ­game in art history, which is to trace how one artist is like another in an effort to tease out their dissimilarities—in the hope of making a kind of easy grouping more impossible. Context is important, and had the artists presented themselves to me as ethnographers or social scientists I would be writing about contemporary ethnography—or, rather, an anthropologist would be writing this essay.

Nan Goldin documents and performs (in the guise of slideshows) the lives of her closest associates. These people are branded by others as drug addicts, queers, drag queens and East Village weirdos. Goldin calls them friends. This is a lacuna in much scholarship on her work—how to deal with the reality of everyday life as she sees it and honor that vision without attempting to evaluate the artistic product in a strictly empirical sense. One person’s drug addict is another person’s mother, and who’s to say such a person can’t be both—and shockingly—be both reasonably well? Such distinctions are subjective—a fact that social historians and poststructuralist thinkers have known for some time. Thus, when one writes about Goldin, there is a kind of futility in that writing, a making oneself (the writer) known, but there can be no objective way to move a critical discussion forward. Oftentimes, writing on Goldin crosses over into unwitting nostalgia (“Wasn’t the East Village in the 1980s great!”) or tries to describe her work objectively.

Otis Ike, Red Flamer y su Linaje, 2009; archival inkjet print; edition of 5; courtesy the artist and Domy Books, Austin

Both tactics are wrong because both are impossible. You can’t disengage one from the other, and one necessarily subverts the power of the other’s discourse. Talk about friends and you’ll be hard-pressed to talk about formalism with any authority—and vice versa. Ike and Lucas don’t sustain the kind of long, enduring relationships with their subjects that Goldin does. Their photographs and videos clearly exhibit a kind of intimacy between artist and subject, but instead of investing years, they invest weeks or months. This is not a failing on their part; on the contrary, it allows for a greater freedom of movement between social groupings and facilitates a worldliness that the artists share with each other. Ike and Lucas nevertheless present the viewer (and the writer) with a Goldin-esque double bind.

Nikki S. Lee’s Project photographs are snapshots of the artist blending with seemingly distinct social groupings. Here she is as an elderly white woman, there a Latina, here a punker and there a rural Ohioan. While some interpret the work as evidence that all social groupings are mutable, others point out that even though Lee seems to “fit” into each group, she also remains distinct, either because we’ve been conditioned to see her as a plant or because she knowingly signals beyond her inclusion in said social group. Ike and Lucas are like Lee sans the theatrics. In short, they’re not interested in pretense. They don’t assume the guise of a social group. We don’t see them earnestly donning luchador costumes or drag getup and performing alongside the men and women they capture in the video/camera lens. With a few exceptions, they maintain discernable boundaries and, despite some ambiguity, authorial control.

For the past few years, the photographs of Ryan McGinley have entranced the art world. They present, unlike Goldin’s work, an entirely playful and uninhibited view of naked, largely white bohemians cavorting in natural settings. McGinley, along with Dan Colen and the recently deceased Dash Snow, comprise a small group of artists extolling drug-induced hallucination, tagging and casual sex. None of these things are bad in and of themselves, but they are labeled as such by discourses on the position of the subject and their attendant responsibilities. I get the distinct impression (and perhaps it is false) that these are white kids of extreme financial privilege doing bad things. Isn’t that radical? More radical is the notion that many of the drag queens in Ike’s photographs and Lucas’ video are well loved and accepted by their immediate families, in spite of public ridicule and disdain. Such a narrative interrupts prevailing American notions about tolerance in Mexican culture. This is not to deny the violence done to queer bodies in Mexican communities, but neither does it erase the same violence occurring in the United States. Ike and Lucas document the lives of their subjects without an attempt to garner the kind of cultural cachet that someone like McGinley enjoys.

How to judge
October 2008. I, along with a group of other Austin folk, journeyed with Ike and Lucas to a Judgment House in rural Texas. Produced by evangelical Christian groups, a Judgment House is a haunted house in only the loosest sense: scary things do happen. The difference is that in a Judgment House, the scare factor comes from whether someone is going to heaven or hell.

Often elaborate in their production values, Judgment House scenarios are scripted on a national level by church youth group leaders to reflect particular concerns of the day. In the scenario we witnessed, four young people prepare for war in Iraq and are then unexpectedly killed in combat. Two of the cohorts were evangelical Christians and so, thankfully, they went to heaven. One young man was a nonbeliever. The final character in the scenario, a Christian who lived a good life but had not fully and truly accepted Jesus Christ into her life, also went to hell.

What followed were visits to hell itself (sulfur, heat, Satan as corporate executive) and, in heaven, hugs from Jesus (I kid you not) and at the very end of our journey, a long lecture from a veteran pitching the merits of Christ as our personal savior. In this situation we, a group of (mostly) queer individuals, stuck out the moment we entered the church. It was clear that we were punks—a bunch of kids who came not to be judged but to judge and assess those performing for us. We had no intention of converting—or at least I didn’t, being quite happy with my own quasi-Jewish ways. It was meant to be, at best, an interesting story for our arsenal. It was, I admit, slumming under another name.

Otis Ike, Ruda vs. Técnica, 2009; archival inkjet print; edition of 5; courtesy the artist and Domy Books, Austin

Otis Ike, Mercurio y su Bendición, 2009; archival inkjet print; edition of 5; courtesy the artist and Domy Books, Austin

This story seems more important now because, to date, it is the only time I have witnessed Ike and Lucas in the process of making work. Whereas the majority of our group was decked out in a variety of colorful garments, asymmetrical hairstyles and ironically large glasses, Ike and Lucas dressed conservatively. If I’m not mistaken, Ike wore a Christian-themed sweatshirt. It was ironic to us, but not to the churchgoers. Carrying a camera around his neck, Ike immediately began to talk up the volunteers working the church lobby. Meanwhile, we took tea and cookies and spoke in hushed tones amongst ourselves. In his conversations with the volunteers, Ike let slip that the rest of the group were indeed nonbelievers and that he, a true believer, had coaxed us out. He lied.

Before you assume that I found such a move to be subversive, tacky or trite, I should tell you I think that little bit of false information—and false only about Ike himself, as he was absolutely correct when talking about the rest of us—passed from his lips to the ears of the church elders, was perhaps the smartest thing anyone did all night. It was this lie that gave the artists unprecedented access to the inner workings of the Judgment House, and thus to each group of actors along the way. When asked to pose and smile, they did so. When asked to reenact their deaths or say something into a voice recorder, they did so.

Ike and Lucas lied in order to collect sounds and images that would tell a story, not to denigrate their subjects. They were at once like and apart from the rest of our group. While Ike’s actions are conventionally amoral, what he said allowed for a surreptitious meeting between two different kinds of people. It doesn’t mean that such a meeting was easy, or that tensions didn’t arise—quite the opposite, in fact. Things felt fraught for most of our time in the Judgment House. We left scared.

Being Singular Plural – Plural Singular Being
Our outing exemplifies the idea of dealing with the binary of individual vs. community. Nancy’s discussion of the dangers and constitution of communities informs not only subsequent theories (Miranda Joseph’s Against the Romance of Community, Jacques Derrida’s The Politics of Friendship, Maurice Blanchot’s The Unavowable Community) but also begins to schematize this idea of being singular plural. Nancy largely concentrates on what work the mobilization of the term community does within larger national and philosophical discourses, and thereby sets out a course for considering the tensions that arise when considering sovereign subjects and larger racial, national and moral communities. He works against building a codified definition of community, or even a coherent social history of community à la Foucauldian genealogy, but instead offers fragmented visions of communal existence. Nancy seems to react strongly against the national discourses that produce fascist states and subjects—a political ideology that denies or erases a subject position in favor of political aims to subjugate others. To avoid being a cohered mass (and thus running the risk of playing into structures that enable fascist thought), Nancy positions communities as always being in a state of becoming, dissembling, forming and reforming. Thus, community is temporal, and as such, Nancy insists that singularities be taken into account and loosely grouped. The eminence of a singularity (not necessarily indivisible like a lone individual) always remains coherent within a community, despite the best efforts of the community. Yet, without others, the singularity ceases to be.

Nancy is not interested in the eminence of the individual. Instead he suggests that the philosophical history of being, of individual subjecthood, is by necessity a relational discourse. Thus the singularities that Nancy invokes in The Inoperative Community are by definition relational positions. Such a move is exemplary of the critical depth of Nancy, who often refuses to stabilize any kind of position whether singular or collective. When these cohere, as Nancy believes that they can, the community loses the “in” of “being-in-common,” thus rendering singularities within such formations as simply “being common.” This is opposed to Nancy’s claim that we should consider existence as singular plural. In this equation, the verb “To Be” is a priori of singular or plural, and so it attempts to express a condition of existing that is essential. Yet Nancy never speaks of just being; instead, it is always in a singular plural context.

Otis Ike, Dinastía, 2009; archival inkjet print; edition of 5; courtesy the artist and Domy Books, Austin

Plural. Singular. Being. These three words are somewhat interchangeable. If we take the palindromic rendering of the phrase “plural singular being,” we approach something more akin to how Nancy’s original formulation may show up when considering visual representation. While “plural” and “singular” are their own discreet categories, there is the intimation that they may in fact meld and work together—or against each other—to describe this slippery business of “being.” This may be how, as objects, the videos and photographs of Otis Ike and Ivete Lucas appear to us as comprehensible. We may understand the false premises of communities or groups, whether looking at Vietnam War reenactors, luchas, drag queens, Mennonite volunteers or Judgment House participants, as very real.

And, despite all the high theory, we may not be that wrong. If we believe a notion is truthful and that it has purchase over our decisions, then it suddenly does. This is the danger of community. If we believe in community so much that we are willing to consider those not “of,” “with” or “within” our community as alien and as a threat, then we have a xenophobic, racist and homophobic society, and the attendant policies and laws that protect one imagined plural from another follow suit. This is true today. Human beings have created categorical distinctions between pluralities, so much so that we may be surprised to learn the fluidity of certain singularities between them.

For example, what do we make of the fact that many Mexican wrestlers come to the sport via bodybuilding and stripping in gay clubs? Which plurality trumps? Do we immediately assume that a person is gay based on his former employment? It’s the same quandary that many folks find themselves in when considering gay-for-pay porn stars. Sexual identity is so solid in this American subculture, and is defined almost solely by which bodies you have sex with. So to have sex with bodies because it can make you money is an affront not only to some people’s moral codes but to the organizing systems of our lives. Another example: when right-wing fundamentalists claim that gay marriage will destroy the fabric of the nation, they’re right but for all the wrong reasons.

What links Otis Ike and Ivete Lucas’ project to their subjects is a shared sense of performance. For luchadors and drag queens, this performance is externalized in costume and body alteration. But while these performances happen in social contexts—bars and improvised boxing rings—the characters outwardly performed are supposed to be individually distinct. They aren’t. The drag queen singing the Lady Gaga song and donning silver blind glasses is working from a model from somewhere else—and the “real” celeb/diva Lady Gaga is herself modeled on countless Williamsburg hipsters, who are just reformulated beatniks: copies of copies of copies.

But if we consider a Lady Gaga drag queen as a singularity, and in doing so understand that she “is-with” and not just simply is, then the world of social and aesthetic connections starts to open up. Suddenly the reliance on historic and contemporary forms of drag is taken as a given and not as an intellectual surprise. Suddenly our drag queen shares much more with the wrestlers two blocks south. Suddenly the distance between fields of influence, of discipline, of knowledge, seems traversable. What would happen if we saw more connections than we did divisions, the luchador and the drag queen being but one example? Only then could we really start to be singular plural.

Addendum
How I failed
I didn’t write about the work enough.
I didn’t write about the differences between video and photography.
I didn’t do Ryan McGinley’s work justice.
I spent too much time on concepts that may or may not have purchase on daily life.
I didn’t write about the specific context of lives lived in the poor parts of Monterrey.
I didn’t mention that Lucas is from Monterrey.
I ended on a utopian note, and not on a cynical or realistic one.
I went on too long.

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