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Ross Elfline Discusses Queer Video Exhibit

<an style="vertical-align: baseline">Associate Professor of Art History Ross Elfline is the curator of “Failure and Virtuosity: Queer Contemporary Video,” a video instillation in Carleton’s Perlman Teaching Museum. In this Q&A, Professor Elfline comments on how and why he curated this exhibition, its inclusiveness to both the queer and art history communities, and what he wants the audience to experience from the exhibition.

1.     Can you give the audience a brief description of the exhibition?

The exhibition’s impetus is that I was serving on the exhibitions committee, and there was this five-week gap. I thought I could do something.  In my ninth year here at Carleton, there hasn’t been an exhibition devoted specifically to queer art and culture, at least as far as I know. In my field, there’s a lot of work that’s been on queer video, but specifically around the AIDS crisis. I wanted to focus on an exhibition on queer video that didn’t focus exclusively on issues of AIDS but dealt with a broader range of issues. I was also thinking of an exhibition that would model for students different kinds of queer community. There are fifteen artists in the show, fifteen different ideas of queerness. I went back to this book called “Cruising Utopia.” A chapter in the book talks about Jack Smith, a filmmaker in the 50s and 60s. His film work involves two ideas: failure and virtuosity. For the author of the book, Muñoz, failure means this queer notion of refusal of what it means to be queer. It’s failure to conform to heteronormative demands. It is also a failure to conform to homonormative demands. Virtuosity is what unites queer works. These are virtuoso filmmakers. Here there are artists who are going to fail adhering to straight culture, but they’re doing it in a way that is virtuoso.

2.     How did you pick these works or artists?

I took a class in graduate school about queer film. I remember seeing Jack Smith’s film, and I was exposed to Barbara Hammer’s work. I started talking to other curators. What was really helpful was working with this huge video archive in Chicago. That helped with finding artists, so most of the work came from the video data bank.

3.     You managed to get pornographic film within the exhibition. Was it difficult for you? Was there any backlash?

There was no backlash. [Perlman Museum Director] Jeff Rathermel was perfectly open with it, so there were no problems there. Even though there’s pornographic material that’s used in the video, it is still a work of art. People would then realize if they were to reject a work of art then that would be direct censorship. It is true that in queer works of art, there is a lot of explicit material and sex. That’s done intentionally. That’s done absolutely on purpose. Even though there is explicit material in some, not all, of the videos, the artist is using it to make an argument.

4.     You’ve been talking about how this exhibition brings up different issues within the queer community, but what about the art history community?

I would say that queer theory is a methodological tool to understand art.  Queerness in art history is still marginal, but it is something that is more and more foregrounded. For that reason, I think it’s important to have the exhibition, because if queerness is something which is impacting our field so much we have to spend time with the work.

5.     What do you want the audience to get from this exhibition?

For students to feel like there is a model for living in the world which is different than the one they’ve been exposed to, and that encourages them to think differently about how to inhabit that world.

6.     Within the queer community, does the exhibition bring up issues of feminism and the lesbian community?

Yeah, absolutely. There are reasons why it’s called a queer video show, and not a gay video show, because most of gay video, or queer video, shows are largely dominated by male filmmakers. There’s one work in the last series that is the longest video in the show. It’s done by an artist duo, and they are lesbian filmmakers. The video they created is really about a lesbian commune they’ve created in Southern California.  Another artist duo is showing signs of the lesbian domestic life. There are a number of artists that identify as trans, and it was important for me to think of queerness alongside notions of how we perform gender. I was very conscious to include that in the show. “Failure and Virtuosity: Contemporary Queer Video” takes place from March 26th, 2018 to April 27th 2018.

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