Friday 09/07

Museum as Hub: On Queering Dominant Discourses: An Interview with Carlos Motta

by Juana Berrío, Museum as Hub Intern, tagged with Carlos Motta, We Who Feel Differently, ACT UP, AIDS, Against Equality, Elastic City, LGBTIQQ, Museum as Hub
Cover Image:

“We Who Feel Differently: A Manifesto,” 2012. Exhibition view: New Museum. Photo: Carlos Motta

“Difference” is a way of being in the world, and as such it represents
a prospect of individual and collective empowerment, social and political
enrichment, and freedom. Freedom implies the sovereignty to govern oneself:
Being human is being beyond parameters, being without sex or gender constraints.
—Carlos Motta and Cristina Motta

Carlos Motta’s ongoing project “We Who Feel Differently” addresses issues of contemporary queer history and culture through over fifty interviews with people involved in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer, and Questioning (LGBTIQQ) issues in Colombia, Norway, South Korea, and the US. For his multifaceted presentation here, Motta distilled five thematic threads: The Equality Framework: Stop Begging for Tolerance; Defying Assimilation: Beyond the LGBT Agenda; Gender Talents, Silence, Stigma, Militancy, and Systemic Transformation: From ACT UP to AIDS Today; and Queering Art Discourses, which were explored through an online platform, a book, an exhibition, and a series of events—all staged and presented through Museum as Hub. On the occasion of the closing of “We Who Feel Differently” at the New Museum, I spoke with Motta about the ideas that informed the conception of this project and how he will continue to expand upon it.

“We Who Feel Differently: A Symposium,” New Museum, May 2012. Left to right: Ann Pellegrini, Esben Esther Pirelli Benestad, Reina Gossett, Tiger Howard Devore, Julian Carter. Photo: Carlos Motta

Juana Berrío: In your introduction to “We Who Feel Differently: A Symposium” held at the New Museum (May 4–5, 2012), you highlighted the necessity of rethinking the priorities of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer, and Questioning politics and the potential of embracing “difference” as opposed to “equality” as a political position. How do you think this notion of “difference” could challenge the narrow frameworks of identity politics or simplistic narratives of equality in the US and elsewhere? Do you see “difference” as a universal concept?

Carlos Motta: Yes. “We Who Feel Differently” proposes an approach to difference beyond identity politics and towards a broader understanding of social justice. Queer issues transcend an individual’s identity formation—first and foremost, there are complex social and political problems regarding access to housing, health care, education, and other basic needs, as well as issues of race, ethnicity, and class. The use of the category of “difference” is operative and responds to the mainstream LGBT Movement’s insistence on achieving political “equality” in a way I consider rather biased and uncritical. Instead of challenging a system that is founded on exclusionary politics, the Movement has strategically assimilated those politics. A radical queer politic would not conform—however utopic this may seem—it would propose and press hard to transform perverse forms of legitimated discrimination.

“Difference” is not exclusively a queer issue. In fact, I think it corresponds to all those lives that are marginalized and defined by lack of access to rights and privileges: immigrants, workers, women… I believe it is also important to question the models that the Left has adopted to construct its ideas of human rights and how these may replicate the very things it sets out to critique. Focusing on the value of difference can be a way to invert or to “queer” the dominant discourse, which is, frankly, exhausted.

JB: Departing from your statement “freedom implies the sovereignty to govern oneself,” you radically point at the importance of empowering oneself by asserting the use of the first person voice and position. In that regard, could you expand upon the relevance of the “We” in “We Who Feel Differently”?

CM: The “We” in “We Who Feel Differently” refers to heterogeneous, inclusive, and plural communities that self-determine, self-represent, and engage the world on their own terms. “We” is thus empowered politically and affectively.

JB: Your work has persistently engaged questions of social justice. Are there particular elements and experiences from past projects that helped inform the development of “We Who Feel Differently”? Which elements of “We Who Feel Differently” would you like to keep exploring in future projects?

CM: “We Who Feel Differently” is the last project of a five-year cycle of works I like to refer to as the “Democracy Cycle,” which questions “democracy” from different perspectives, spanning religion to foreign intervention to sexual and gender difference. All of these projects are based on wanting to revisit the ways and perspectives from which particular histories have been told and on the desire to self-represent. All of these projects are intimately related: for instance after producing The Good Life, I started to think about the affective side of politics, namely how the Political has an incredible influence on shaping our affective and emotional lives. This, to me, is at the core of “We Who Feel Differently.” The work I am currently developing will attempt to push these ideas even further by highlighting the ways that language can constrict life’s experience to categorical binaries and by suggesting that a touch—sensitivity—may represent ways of relating “differently.” This new work will be a collaborative movement performance developed with Matthias Sperling and performed by a group of volunteers.

“Against Equality: Don’t Ask To Fight Their Wars,” reading and book launch with Ryan Conrad, Museum as Hub, June 2012. Photo: Juana Berrío

JB: “We Who Feel Differently” exists as an online archive and platform focused around perspectives that articulate the many developments of sexual politics in Colombia, Korea, Norway, and the US. What ideas and aspirations went into developing the project for installation in a gallery? Can you talk about the ideas you and the architect Daniel Greenfield discussed when working on the exhibition design and the relationship to the Thursday events organized during the run of the exhibition?

CM: I think of the installation as a social sculpture that allows Museum visitors to “watch” the work but also to gather and interact amongst themselves. By chance, I had the opportunity to witness a spontaneous conversation between two visitors, which showed me that the space was indeed “working” in that way too. In conversation with Daniel, we wanted to design a welcoming space that could be used as a platform to hold events—a comfortable place that would be conducive to “hang out” as well as to engage with the work conceptually and aesthetically. But each aesthetic element in the room has a symbolic and semantic significance as well. The use of colors, the design of pattern, and the distribution of the elements refer to the graphic emblems of the sexual liberation movement in various ways.

“30 Years In, 30 Years Out: AIDS Activism Today: Queerocracy and Visual AIDS,” workshop, New Museum, July 2012. Photo: Juana Berrío

The Thursday Night Events were conceived as a way to bring attention to what I considered key queer issues that aren’t often talked about in mainstream venues: trans histories, race and criminalization, liberation theology, HIV AIDS activism today, alternative forms of building relationships, militarism, cruising, etc. These events were lead by folks that are actively engaged in shedding light on these topics and consequently brought and formed communities around them. To me, an artwork has many sides and lives, but one that is very important to me is how a work is “consumed” and performed by its audience. These events brought life to the space and activated the work’s content in profound ways that made it even more actual and urgent.


Juana Berrío is a graduate student at the Bard Center for Curatorial Studies. She was a Museum as Hub intern in summer 2012.

Carlos Motta has dedicated his multidisciplinary artistic career to highlighting the necessity of understanding and proclaiming social justice via political history. Mostly interested in revealing the existence of suppressed histories, communities, and identities, his work often seeks to elaborate upon narratives that engaging discussions around notions of immigration, gender, race, and democracy at large. Some examples of his work include the multi-part video The Good Life/La buena vida (2005–08), in which he asked more than 360 pedestrians in twelve cities across Latin America to share their personal perceptions of U.S. interventionist policies in their region. In Six Acts: An Experiment in Narrative Justice (2009), he developed “an exercise of collective memory”—a series of performative actions in different public squares in Bogotá where actors read peace speeches originally delivered by Colombian liberal and left-wing political leaders assassinated due to their political ideology.

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