Queered Time

Karin Wolf speaks with artist and professor Jill H. Casid about her provocative work, theory as practice, and learning to live her dying.

Formidable, dapper, captivating: these are just a few of the attributes that describe Jill Casid—without a dictionary.

Jill is professor of visual studies at the UW-Madison. She has degrees from Princeton, the University of London, and Harvard.

Setting her credentials aside, I found myself curious about her artistic practice of using photographic media in installations and her equally provocative performance art. So, I invited this brilliant art history scholar and artist for tea in exchange for a deeper understanding of her work.

We met on an inhumanly cold day and talked about everything from shame to death, digressing into conversations about her love life and her alluring perfume. I grilled her about her recent contribution to the 2013 Wisconsin Triennial at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

Her piece, Shame’s Glove, for example, is a mixed-media installation piece that includes twelve erotic Polaroids that provocatively pose her body for the camera. I wanted to know if she was trying to force the viewer to be a voyeur of queer female pleasure on her own terms. I also had a few questions about her performance piece Café La Petite Mort, which involved inviting people to, as she puts it, “come talk with me toward your own death.”

Which came first, theory or practice? I think I’ve long had a virulent case of “theory trouble,” but of the lightning-bolt variety. I describe queer theory as a love affair ignited in graduate school that’s far from over. Queer’s not just about bodies, loves, and lives; it’s also about the time of our lives. The relation of theory and practice is to me one of queered time. Not a directional compass that takes us back to origins in a predictable sequence of cause and effect, queer theory enables us to navigate the frictional fold of theory as practice and practice as theory. Imagine here how what comes first isn’t just some art-school wheel-spinning in the ditch of “how do I get started?” but is directly tied to living lives that don’t conform to policed patterns of “development.”

Think also of the ways in which the marvelous complexity of gender performance troubles insidious notions that position femme and butch as failed copies of a fantasized, anatomically-anchored original. Just as daily acts in the everyday theater that is sex and gender plunge us into the disco-ball whirl of a world of copies without originals, the transformative frictional fold of theory as practice drags on enforced conventions about what should come first. For instance, I now take fast, improvised shots with that instant-developing Polaroid camera that was introduced to evade the darkroom. But I deploy these photographs as seductive propositions that alter the world they appear only to document.

What’s queer got to do with it?  Queering as a practice turns the tables to ask provocatively after the ways in which bodies and sex exceed our making sense—questions from which none of us is excluded. I’ll never forget the sweaty-palms terror of coming out to one of my closest college friends who responded, “You’ve obviously read too much feminist theory.” I never did have emblazoned on a T-shirt that controversial slogan: “Feminism is the theory; lesbianism is the practice,” and not least because theorizing is a pretty hot practice. Queer theory’s radical promise still resonates for me as the glimmer of other worlds that shimmer in the here and now through the survival aesthetics of everyday camp—the fiercely fabulous actions of conjuring the bodies, intimacies, and worlds for which we long.

How did “Shame’s Glove” create queer space in the Wisconsin Triennial?  Set up as a folding field, the viewing space of the installation intensified the sensation of being inside the pleated bellows of the camera but also in front of its pointing lens in a room of both intimacy and exposure. Its solicitation to come close enough to stroke the surface emulsions of the Polaroids mounted without glass protection made the installation a rogue love shrine. However, the gambit of these exposing images that don’t actually reveal anything besides some skin or lingerie is that they develop in encounter, demanding an intimacy that isn’t easy, for it puts the viewer on display, asking that molten question: What do you want? As with knee-buckling sex, the photograph has the power not to confirm who we say we are but the radical, queering potential to undo us.

What did you learn about yourself during your Café La Petite Mort performance?  These intense chats over coffee took the form of formal, anachronistic encounters. Picture an ornate lace tablecloth and upcycled Victorian china with skulls over which I urged us toward two questions: what’s the death you don’t want, and what might be the “good death” for you? What I learned about myself in these conversations I never wanted to end is that I want them to be the end. Conversations at the table with sex, death, and the ghosts of the dead I carry with me are the only way I know how to learn to live my dying.

What is that amazing perfume you are wearing?  “Eau de Protection” after the thorns on its top note of roses. A fragrance in honor of the star of the camp melodramas of Pedro Almodovar, the cologne’s a rose with a big prick, a high-femme homage to performing femininity not as passing—as if that ever promised protection—but the gesture that its tattoo packaging describes as “a warning and an invitation.” It’s the perfume allegory of the tie I always wear to lecture and teach.

Visit her website: jillhcasid.net