Archive for the ‘Interview’ Category

Interview with Andrew Campbell

In Interview on December 15, 2009 at 8:07 pm

Andrew Campbell’s statement about his piece Lovers of the Criminal Type followed by a brief interview about the work.

Interviewed by Bethany

“In the late 1800’s Francis Galton, a British anthropologist and founding eugenicist, set out to document the criminal archetype.  Two popular beliefs provided the support for his investigation.  First, it was held that the chemical and mechanical nature of the camera could reveal some objective truth that remained unattainable or un-reproducible to the subjective human eye. Captivated with the prospect of recording objective truth, Galton employed the photograph as the mode of his investigation.  Next, the fashionable interest in phrenology and physiognomy provided Galton with a language for reading a person’s nature and ethic, as it seemed to be written on their bodies and in their features.

Galton would use multiple individuals from the group or type he wished to define, and composite photographs of them.  Each layer of the composite would use the eyes as registration marks and from there meld multiple faces together.  The idiosyncratic features of the individuals would fade while their common features would solidify, thus, in Galton’s eyes, revealing the photographic truth of an archetype.  His practice was enacted on the bodies of common criminals, hysterics, and racial minorities.  The proposed discovery of these types would provide a service to the population of Galton’s time, supplying them with the tools to instantly identify unwelcome or threatening persons.

Francis Galton kept the focus of his investigations firmly fixed on marginalized: the disenfranchised, the pathologized, and the othered.  His efforts to delineate these types reduced each mass to a single body and keep it at arms length. Galton’s endeavors inevitably failed given the extent to which physiological study of the time was steeped with aesthetic and cultural biases.  The use of the camera did little to reveal anything of the nature of its subjects, but did plenty to uncover the motivations of those behind it.  Galton’s gesture was a hollow one; it was an attempt to maintain otherness on ultimately superficial standards.  This mode of marginalization is often repeated and always regretted.”

B: There are many studies attempting to prove or disprove our ability to have a “gay-dar”. Some are based on finger size, hair whirls, left-handedness, etc. We as a culture seem to still be looking for ways to identify “others” at a glance. Do you see your work as more a commentary on past or present archetype-ing ?

A: I find past issues of archetypes fascinating and entertaining, but i am way more interested in discussing present issues of othering.  The fact that Galton’s attempts to document archetypes failed is pivotal to my position; I am referencing his work because it failed.  in using Galton’s mode of production, I like to think that i am calling upon or hastening the failure of contemporary attempts to ‘other’ populations.

B: “Passing” is a big issue when it comes to sex, gender and sexual orientation. In one of the studies that I looked at the researcher attempted to remove all cultural signifiers from their subjects (i.e. facial hair, tattoos, piercings, etc.). It was thought they wanted to be able to identify gay men who did not want to be identified. Is it important to you that the subjects in your photographs attempt to pass or not pass? Or are you trying to capture them in their “natural” states?

A: I’m not sure, but i think i read the same study – or at least a report on the same study.  What i found interesting about the way the researchers handled the subjects is that the researchers are the ones who found it imperative to remove the subjects’ social signifiers.  I know they were attempting to create a more stable control group, but i imagine the act of photo-shopping out all these gay men’s haircuts, mustaches, ear rings, and tattoos.  Its like pushing ‘passing’ onto unwitting photos, but the gay men were still identified.  as if the photos refused to ‘pass.’ “you can photo-shop my frosted tips and lip gloss, but I’m still gay, damn it!”  Also, WTF?! only gay men? Why is it so important to uncover male desire at a glance and not female? Is a gay man so much more threatening than a lesbian that we need to instantly know if one is in the room?  Back to the question you actually asked:  Passing or not passing has not directly entered this work yet, but it will; i have plans for issues of gender transgression.  the subject of this first set are all couples, that was my main concern: that i find people who share a life together.  Because this set of portraits is geared to a hetero-normative audience, i wanted to call on the queer issue that is most discussed within the hetero-normative world: gay marriage.  I guess for ease of recognizability it is important that the couples not pass as straight. but to be honest passing, or even the amount of queer signifiers on a person (haircuts, tattoos, jewelry, etc.) was never on my mind while shooting the couples. i was more interested in just physically putting their faces together, getting their eyes to match up, a lot of technical and style concerns.  it was also really important to me that the images ended up looking beautiful – when you start adding facial features to people the results can get real monstrous real quick.  I didn’t want any possibility of misunderstanding.  i wanted to make sure that anyone who saw my picture could in no way think i was damning or condemning my subjects.  And i think i succeeded in this, i find the ways each couples eyes line up very beautiful very romantic.

B: How do you see this work continuing in the future?

A:First off i am going to continue to collect couples, but I want to expand the project by focusing on different body parts and drawing from different studies.  this will start to engage more populations into the discussion of othering that i am invested in.  One of the most relevant concerns that has been posed to me was from Lacey Jane Roberts, she stated that in exclusively depicting queer couples i am excluding the rest of the queer population from consideration.  The use of couples was never intended to be a limiting factor in my work, just an easily recognizable political signpost.  Coincidentally, Roberts’ concerns came up around the same time that started working on sketches for other body parts that i am interested in compositing, and other terms that i want to impose on them.  For example the next group of images i am going to produce are titled (for now) “The Throats of the Transgressive.”  these studies will composite images of anyone who actively engages in defying gender binaries, shot only for their lips to their collarbones.  i also want to figure out something to do with hands, and i should probably start shooting hair whorls also – the funny thing about that is so many of the gay men i know shave their head, maybe i should only shoot the bald ones.


Interview with Pidgeon

In Interview on December 13, 2009 at 9:43 pm

An interview with Chicago activist Jen “Pidgeon” Pagonis about intersex issues and artwork.

Interviewed by Bryce Wolfe.

B: Can you start off by saying a little bit about who you are and what you do?

P: My name is Pidgeon, but my real name is Jen Pagonis. I’m from Chicago and I am an intersexed person who wants to make sure that what happened to me doesn’t happen to other intersex people.

B: How are you working on that?

P: I’m working on different issues that affect intersex people, maybe not so directly, but working on stopping the public health care cuts that are threatening Chicago. Intersex people basically have a lifelong dependency on the health care system and if the city keeps proposing these cuts to cheap and free services like at Cook County and Stroger Hospital and other clinics, it’s going to have a direct impact on intersex people because we often need to go to clinics every six months, every few weeks, every year for surgeries and hormones. If there’s not an affordable option, it’s going to affect a lot of intersex people that really depend on health care.

B: Insurance doesn’t cover intersexed people, correct? It’s considered a pre-existing condition?

P: Yeah. At least for me, I can’t speak for everyone. When I did have insurance, they labeled everything as a pre-existing condition and it’s funny because everything that I needed help with through the medical system, I needed help with because of the surgeries they forced on my body when I was an infant. And older too, but it started as an infant.

B: Do we have a group in Chicago right now (advocating for intersexed people)?

P: There was a small Chicago group that used to meet once a month for brunch. It came out of a larger national group that meets once a year in different cities and has an online listserv and is only for one type of intersex diagnosis, Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, which is what I have been diagnosed with. So we decided, hey, we all live in Chicago. Why don’t we meet up ourselves? Unfortunately it fell by the wayside, but what I thought was interesting was that the shame that gets placed on intersexed bodies is so strong that even among other intersexed people, we were talking everything but intersexed issues. We were talking about football and the pancakes that we were eating and we had to make a deliberate effort to actually talk about our bodies and about what things are happening in our communities and what’s bothering us. When we did, it opened a Pandora’s box. We started peer-educating each other. Me and a younger person, who was actually in high school and I was in college, we were teaching women in our group that were in their 30’s  basic anatomy like where the vagina was, where the urethra was, what a uterus was and whether she had one or not – things that had been kept off limits in her family and from herself because of the immense shame and secrecy. She had no education about her body and she was in a relationship with a person of the opposite sex. They were having sex and she didn’t know if she had a cervix or a uterus or what a vagina was.”

B: “In my sex ed, we didn’t cover intersexuality at all or the fact that people can have bodies different from the ones they show in the illustrations in the books. It’s like, either you’re this or you’re this, and if you’re not, then you look at it and wonder – well, what am I?”

P: “It’s interesting because I had known that something was up with me. Since the time I was young, I was in and out of Children’s Memorial Hospital and the endocrinology department. I remember some of the surgeries. I remember going every six months and getting on these pills called hormones and all this stuff… but when I saw those people’s bodies, I believed the doctors that said everything was okay. I was normal. I just had cancer. Cancerous ovaries when I was a child and they had to take those out, and they were just monitoring. And I really believed it and I think it’s because I wanted to believe it, because during that time of puberty and sex ed when everyone’s getting their period, the most important thing for me at that time was to fit in and be normal. I think I even viewed my body differently. I saw myself as normal. I thought that one day I was going to find my clitoris. Like maybe it was tucked away and I just wasn’t finding it. It was somewhere. And maybe one day sex with a boy wouldn’t hurt and it was me doing something wrong, and it wasn’t the scar tissue they had created or the numbness they had created or the clitoris they had removed. I held onto every word that the doctor said as true. And when I saw those bodies… female… male… I identified as female. I’m female – that’s me! I had the basic things going on. I had a split between my legs. I sat down when I peed. So that was enough for me, even though there was a lot of things that weren’t similar at all to the illustrations, like I didn’t get my period.”

B: “How did you find out that you had the surgeries?”

P: “It’s funny. I had a dream. A recurring dream that I woke up in a hospital bed zooming through the hallways of a hospital and all I could do was see upwards, which was flourescent lights zooming by, and then I looked down and I saw rolls of toilet paper soaked in blood between my legs. I always thought that was just a nightmare. So fast forward. Actually, I had a surgery when I was 11 that I do remember. But the two surgeries when I was an infant, when I was one year old and three years old, I found out about in college. I ended up going to DePaul University which is right by Children’s Memorial in Chicago, and I took a Psychology of Women class. The teacher was trans and felt the need to present all types of sexualities and genders, which was cool. They did a little chapter on intersex and she actually picked up AIS, was the only thing she talked about, and coincidentally that’s what I had been diagnosed with without knowing. So I saw the powerpoint and it said: AIS. Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. 1 in 4,000 children are affected. In a city like Chicago, a certain number of people exist. Doesn’t get their period. Doesn’t have ovaries. Generally has large breasts, tall figure, perfect skin… and then it said, has XY chromosomes. So I was like, “Wow, all those things sound like me except for the XY chromosomes.” I was like, “I’m a girl. I have a boyfriend. I have XX chromosomes. I’m a girl like all my friends. I’m a girl.”

B: Even though you can’t see chromosomes.

P: Yeah, I’m like, “I know I have XX!” Because that is what I identified with and had been told to identify with and believed so truly. Or wanted to believe. So I go home and I call my mom on the phone and I said, “Ma, what do I have? What is my diagnosis? What do they label me as in the medical records that you just got?” Because I just turned 18 and Children’s kicks you out when you’re 18 and tells you to find a gynecologist. So she is like, “Oh, I have the documents here on the table. They just sent them to me. Let me open them.” I honestly don’t think she knew what I had. She couldn’t recall off the top of her mind because she had wanted me to be so normal too. She didn’t even think twice about it. So she opens up the documents and starts saying the words “androgen insensitivity” and I had known that that’s what we had talked about in class. And I had also learned in class that this is what people call hermaphrodites.”

B: How did you feel when she said that?

P: Well, I threw my phone at the wall, which was a cinder block wall, and my phone broke. And I started crying and punching things and throwing things.

B: Where have you come since then?

P: At that point, I was convinced that I would never tell anybody. I still had a boyfriend at the time, so I wasn’t even going to tell him because I thought he would think he was gay and then get freaked out and tell everybody that he was dating a hermaphrodite. And then I luckily met another intersex person that my teacher invited to speak to our class. She told me, “Look, you need to say you’re intersexed, because you are. And you need to get your medical records from Children’s.” She told me how to go about it. I got my records a long time after. It took forever. And once I got them, the first word I read on the first medical record was from 1987 and it was in cursive handwriting – really nice cursive handwriting – and it said “male pseudohermaphrodite 46 XY”. And I had never seen myself referred to as male, let alone a hermaphrodite…

So that was even more intense than hearing from my mom that I had AIS because I had been branded a hermaphrodite for twenty-some years before even knowing it. So I called my friend who was the person who had spoken in my class, and she talked me through it and said, “Just keep reading. I’m here for you, cry or whatever you gotta do, but you gotta read everything they did.”

And that’s when I found out that when I was one, they removed my gonads. When I was three, they did a clitorectomy and clitoroplasty, which are fancy words for saying they cut off my clitoris and threw it away. It made sense because of that dream I kept having. I put together the years and that was when I was like three years old, which means I could still have a memory of that. I had dreamt that I had blood-soaked gauze between my legs in a hospital bed, so I put two-and-two together and realized that wasn’t a dream. That was a memory. Nobody had ever told me that. Nobody had ever decided it was important to tell me they had cut my clitoris off. They thought I would just keep going because, you know, women don’t need to orgasm and clitorises aren’t important, so why tell me? It’s all about penetration anyway.

B: Which was the purpose of the surgery, correct?

P: Yeah. When I was 11 they did a vaginoplasty, which made my vagina more fuckable basically by a normal sized penis, they said. They wanted to make it deep and wide enough to fit my husband’s penis, which is quote for quote what they said. What if I didn’t want to have sex? What if I just wanted to have oral sex? Why did they assume I was going to get married to a guy? So that was then. I didn’t tell anybody for like a year or two and then around my third or second year of college, I met a girl and we started dating. That was big shift for me because I had previously only been dating boys. And she was really big on therapy and talking things out, and I had always been a person who didn’t believe in talking or therapy and I thought I was more strong if I didn’t talk about anything going on.

She was the first person I told that I was intersexed and when she didn’t run away or freak out, it gave me more confidence in our relationship and in my relationship with the outside world. She was the first person I told anything and everything to. Even after two years, I didn’t think I was going to tell anybody else. And then I told my best friend and then I decided to do my thesis on the topic. I got to talk to other intersex people. I got to go to the Oprah show that my friend was on, the one that spoke to my class. I got to see other intersex people tell the world on TV that they have huge clits and they can get off on people jacking them off, giving them oral sex and they can penetrate people and they’re telling this to Oprah’s audience. And I was like, “Damn, she’s brave.”

B: You’ve said before that it’s the secrecy that really hurts.

P: Yes, definitely. So I got to see sombody break the shackles of secrecy on national TV. And this was somebody I had a crush on. And then I saw her tell her story and I still had a crush on her. So I was like, maybe people won’t think of me differently once they know. That was the turning point for me. I was like, look at these people telling the world and people still love them after. In fact, they might love them even more and feel more connected and feel like they can open up and share their stories now.

B: And other kids who are intersexed, or adults who didn’t even know, now they see.

P: They hear their stories reflected. So I was like, this is important. I need to talk about it. So I did my thesis on it and presented it to everyone in the room, like faculty, people in the community and most importantly for me, both of my grandmothers were there and my father and my mother, my sister and my brother. We don’t really talk about these things and to be able to have the microphone and to have them captively listening in the audience and to see them really proud, and for once no one had to feel ashamed. The point wasn’t to be like, “Mom, Dad, you did this to me. I’m mad.” It was more like, “This is a hurdle that I’m getting across. Shit happened but I still love you and I know you guys love me.” And that was it. I had told a whole bunch of strangers and my whole school knew because people talk, and I started giving talks to different classes and in front of doctors and that’s where I’m at today. Now I’m looking at the next step.”

B: How is your relationship with your family now?

P: It’s good. I actually just told my dad that I’m queer this summer. That was the best thing ever, because I had been so scared. We went to the dog beach and had a nice day and then I told him. I was like, “I need to tell you something and if you don’t want to hear it right now and you’re not ready, you can let me know.” And he’s like, “No, I want to hear it.” So I went on and I told him. I’m like, “I like women.” And he’s like, “Yeah. I kind of knew.” I was like, “Really? I wasn’t hiding it from you? I thought I was doing such a good job of covering it up, even though you met every single girl I’ve dated and I haven’t dated a boy in four or five years.” He was like, “I still love you no matter what. You’re still my girl.” So that was a relief. My mom I had told before and then we talked about it again. It brought us closer together. He asks about my girlfriends. After I broke up with a girlfriend this summer, he gave me advice which was awkward because he’s never given me advice about boys or anything. He became like Dr. Phil somehow, like “There’s other fish in the sea, baby, no worries.”

The issues I have with them don’t really stem from what happened to me anymore. It’s other things, like growing up in an abusive household where my dad drank a lot and got violent and leaving us for a long time. It really has nothing to do with me being intersexed. In the beginning when I found out, I was really upset with them. I couldn’t believe they had let some doctor cut up their child. But now I see that they’re a victim of the same society that we’re all victims of, whether you’re genderqueer or whatever. They scared the fuck out of my family. My family wanted what was best for me, and (the doctors) presented what was best for me as normalization surgeries and hormones. My parents don’t have the privelege of Women’s and Gender studies background like I do. There’s not an education out there for most people.

So my goal… I woke up one day and asked “What am I living for? What is my purpose other than working at a coffee shop or whatever?” Before I die, I want to make sure that what was done to me and every other person at Children’s Memorial that was intersexed, and other hospitals, doesn’t happen anymore. I want to see them adopt a hospital-wide policy that respects the patient and works from a patient-centered approached instead of thinking that the doctor knows best and applying their theories on the body of an intersexed child.

B: Some would say they do know best because we do live in a binary system where it’s hard to be different. How would you respond to that?

P: I would tell them that they can suck my clit. No, really, they can go fuck off because they’re not the ones that are intersexed. The intersexed people that I know would say that the number one thing they wish wouldn’t have happened was surgery. It’s hard growing up even if you’re a rich white male kid that’s “normal”. It’s hard growing up no matter who you are. And to use that argument, it’s…

B: Would you no longer be intersexed, if you could change that?

P: No. I like not getting my period. I would have liked having a big clitoris, which they cut away. I think it allows you to become connected to a community that you wouldn’t otherwise have been connected to. It allows you to really understand gender in a way that many people do not. You understand that there aren’t just two genders, like the doctors and other people want to tell you. I like being intersexed. I just wish they didn’t do surgeries because I don’t like being numb. I don’t like having scar tissue. I don’t like that part. But I can guarantee you that a little bit of therapy would have helped more than the surgeries, and to say, we need to fix the individual that is “different” is really not a solution because unless you focus on community changes on perceptions of gender and what’s normal and what’s not, then everyone is going to feel like an outcast. To just chop babies up and move their parts around and say “Look! He’s normal or she’s normal!” That’s not solving anything.

B: It seems most often surgeries at birth are performed for medical reasons, like if they can’t breathe or have a condition that could kill them, but being intersexed doesn’t kill you.

P: Yeah. Instead of doing surgery because it’s medically necessary, they do it because it looks cosmetically nice. It never looks nice. It’s done to make (other people) more comfortable.

B: Can we talk about your art? I know you express yourself through photography.

P: I love photography… I focus on people. I used to be scared to focus on people. I just felt intrusive and nervous and scared.  There’s a whole psychology thing that goes on when you’re interacting with a person on the street that you don’t know and you want to take their picture… I like to focus on people because they’re the most interesting to me, and it’s usually their eyes. I’ll make eye contact with somebody and I get this burning desire to take a picture of them, and then I start talking to them and I get to know them. I find out their stories and I’m like “Holy shit, there’s a wealth of knowledge here.”

B: If you could photograph anyone, who would you choose?

P: I would photograph intersex people reclaiming their bodies. And one way I would do it is by having them stand like they do in medical textbooks with the black and white picture, the naked body, arms out, legs spread and a black bar across their eyes. But to totally subvert that, like have them jumping out of the picture and being fabulous and giving their middle finger to the camera like “Fuck you, medical industry!” And having their dog with them or their art or fashion or whatever they do. And sometimes just showcasing their eyes and blacking out the rest of the body. I feel like our bodies have been colonized for so long by photography in those situations, to then take photography and flip it upside down… That black bar is bullshit. It’s more about shielding the viewer from seeing the other and recognizing that that’s a human being.

B: So how can people become allies? What can people do to help?

P: They can check out There are projects like Bodies Like Ours, Intersex Initiative and Emi Koyama does some cool work around intersex issues. There is the Accord Alliance, which is a more conservative group working to reforms hospitals and the way they deal with intersex people. They came out of ISNA.

B: Do you have a website or a place where people can view your artwork?

P: I have a Flickr. It’s
and I’m going to build a website soon, like everyone says they’re going to do. And that’s what’s up.

Thanks Pidgeon!

For more information about intersexed individuals and current issues, check out these links:

Intersex Society of North America:

Bodies Like Ours: Intersex Information and Peer Support:

Intersex Initiative:

Accord Alliance:

Jen “Pidgeon” Pagonis:

Interview with Christa Donner

In Interview on December 13, 2009 at 8:44 pm

Interview with artist Christa Donner about her art work, imagining bodies and other things . . .

Interviewed by Bethany

B: I was reading a bit on your website and I am really interested in the idea of “misinterpreting the body.” I was wondering when you started working with that idea. Is that something that developed later and post-describes your work or were you originally thinking along those terms?

C: I think it still describes what I do. That’s a good question . . . when [did] I start thinking about that? I was interested in how people imagine what is going on in their bodies – just in general . . . it’s often a misinterpretation. People will feel a pain and they will imagine that it is “this thing” causing the pain when actually it is not. I’m interested in getting at what the sensation is as separate from what is correct or incorrect. Trying to figure out what that looks like or how that might manifest itself. I am also interested in: when we are misinterpreting that sensation, what are we imagining? The super interesting stories that I get when I’m doing field research and interviewing people . . . the parts of that research that really impact what I do and really get me excited about making work are the descriptions that might seem totally crazy. They are misinterpretations – but they are kind of creative misinterpretation. I had this friend that said: “Well I have this ear infection and I was putting in these drops. It was really swollen and I feel it was really red in there. I had this medicine from my doctor and when I put the drops in there it felt like this thing inside me that was turning into a white tree. It was really brittle and parts of it were falling off.” That is totally a misinterpretation technically.

B: Yeah.

C: But it’s so much better. Because she was able to visualize that and it was probably actually aiding her healing process. She was able to come up with this imagery for this unknowable thing. Maybe it’s not unknowable but it’s hard to actually visualize that stuff that is happening in a real way. So by picturing this really clear image of this tree that’s losing its life and falling off and crumbling and that’s the bad thing coming out. It’s a really visceral image and it’s a really useful image for her.

B: Its interesting that she is pretty aware that that is not what is actually happening – but if you go back a ways historically people had crazy ideas about what was happening in our bodies. They had just as bizarre of imagery. Do you prefer to work with content where people are aware of their misinterpretations?

C: I think I try to get them to misinterpret in a way. The project that I did, the Alternative Anatomies project, where I went and was working with this team of teenagers interviewing strangers, I had them try to think of a really memorable injury or illness and then describe that sensation as an animal. That was an attempt to get them to think outside of what their doctor had told them. Just to really get at what that felt like and to try to describe it to someone who doesn’t know what all these words mean or how would you just describe it as its own thing or its own entity. Sometimes doctors will be helpful in that way but sometimes they are not they will say “its probably this” and so you are operating under the assumption that this thing is causing a sensation when maybe it is something else. But to get at what is the actual sensation as its own thing and separate from any diagnosis. Or what does it feel like it is? And what does it feel like if you actually don’t even know what those organs are in your body. So yeah in a way I try to get them to misinterpret it, not for misdiagnosis, but just to try to get at the core of the sensation.

B: I was looking a lot at your work about reproduction. The zine that I’m working on is about how we lump together and really confuse sex, gender, and sexual orientation. One of the ways that we do that is by trying to [project] the idea of female and male. And we do this across species even though their gender system is so bizarrely different. I think your piece makes that really clear. I think it was the mollusks? Or what are the creatures that stack?

C: Oh the limpets.

B: Yeah

C: They are hermaphroditic or they change sex as they mature.

B: Yeah. It is just so different from our female and male but we still call it female and male. I think that there is a lot of interesting misinterpretation that can come from that. How often do you think the misinterpretation [in your work] is about gender and sex or is mostly dealing with pain?

C: That’s a good question. I was going to add to what I said before that when I ask people to misinterpret things is so that we are not dealing with this medical diagnosis that they may or may not actually understand. Instead you’re dealing with a kind of imagery so once you have that imagery . . . once you have your “little white tree” or your “it’s a field of flowers” or whatever it is . . . then you have an image that you can imagine other things happening to. You can imagine how you think the flowers would change if there were a big hormonal change or whatever. How it feels like it is changing or how you would like it to change. Its so you can visualize something and that can actually be a really amazing . . . that can actually cause physical things to happen. The way that I deal with it usually in my work has a lot more to do with sensation then specifically with gender but it is also so tied to . . . or it wouldn’t make sense . . . if it wasn’t for the history of hysteria which has everything to do with gender. It has everything to do with women in particular and the way that they interpret their bodies being dismissed. I may have these sensations or these feelings but they are not valid because you can’t see them under a microscope. So I have to make something up for it or someone else is going to make something up for me. They may say it is because my womb is wandering through my body or it is because I am crazy. I am very interested in the idea of visualizing and of making these things happen but I can’t separate it from gender because that entire history gives this work a context.

B: It’s interesting that your using imagining as empowering instead of someone else imagining it for you.

C: In the case of hysteria the doctors were just deciding things like “it’s the womb traveling and now it’s over here!” So instead it’s a matter of “well there is a hedgehog in here but I’ve decided that the hedgehog is going to do this!” then everyday I’m going to imagine the hedgehog doing this other thing. The aim of it is that it is empowering. Although I deal with it usually in the manner of sensation or more recently reproduction (which is very gender based I guess) it opens up the possibility of all kinds of things. As soon as you can imagine a reproductive system as a chandelier . . . you can do pretty much anything you want with that. It becomes its own character and it’s not limited in this way that we think of our organs normally being limited. Like “your ovaries can’t do that! Because that’s not what ovaries do!” But now that they are flowers maybe they could or now that it’s a light bulb . . . I don’t know. [Laughs] But yeah gender and sensation its all kind of part of the continuum.

B: When I think of misinterpretation I think a lot of it has to do with language and I find it interesting that you are working mostly with images. Is that because the type of misinterpretation that you are working with is image based – or do you prefer to work with images?

C: I think it is because its image based. Maybe that’s not true . . . but for me it is. If I’m feeling a sensation, (and there has been a number of books written on this) in the English language we don’t have words to really describe certain kinds of sensations. Language just doesn’t quite cut it. Language can do amazing things but to describe pain and the sensation and intensity that we are feeling we just don’t have enough language to really cover it. I think that the fact that when I ask people questions about their body they often describe things in these really visual terms. They won’t say, “Well it really hurt” . . . or I don’t even know how do you describe the sensation without attaching it to an image. So, as an artist, that works well.

B: What are you working on now?

C: I’m working on a couple things. There are a couple of little projects that I’m working on now but there is this body of work that I am doing the research for right now and I haven’t actually started making the drawings but I am doing sketches and doing a lot of reading. I don’t know where this came from exactly but I’ve been thinking about creating, designing, and imagining these three sort of tribes or cultures of women whose cultures and anatomy, which don’t actually exist, are based around a set of imagery. I can really loosely put them into these categories of vegetable, animal and mineral. The vegetable group or tribe is all about growing these things and they have organ systems that are based on plant forms that they can kind of remove but there are still roots attached. They can tend to them and they can put them back. Light is really important to them [tribe] water is really important to them and they have become cultural symbols and iconography. I’m also thinking about incorporating mushrooms and fungi into that which aren’t, strictly speaking, plants. But there are so many interesting fancy things that they do. I am putting them into these categories of vegetable, mineral and animal but that is really loosely it’s just generally how I am dividing them up in terms of imagery.

B: So are you researching plants then?

C: I am researching plants. They animal one will be much more based on animal anatomy and metamorphosis, which I haven’t done much with yet, and the idea of changing and transforming in these different ways. It may just be an internal metamorphosis, but I think there will be an adolescence phase where they actually change. Their clothing will be based in scales and fur and things like that. And the mineral one, I really need to do more research on that because it is probably the one that I know the least about.

B: Yeah how do you relate minerals to [bodies]?

C: Yeah. I found these really incredible eighteenth century drawings of minerals that were sort of sliced up. They were really weird drawings you wouldn’t necessarily know what they were if there was no caption. But they just had these really strange and really geometrical shapes that were happening. I was really interested in playing around with that because my work is usually really super organic, curly and ornate. I thought that that would be a really good way to break it down and deal with more angles, straight lines and geometric forms but still acknowledging that that comes from a natural source. Its still part of our natural world and it is the basis for a lot of things. There are all sorts of things that happen to the body actually, that calcification that happens and different things that minerals do to the body that could be really interesting to play around with. Each category in this group has its own sort of color scheme. I am doing character studies with the clothing but also with the color scheme. The mineral one is one that I will play around with having it be much more black, white, grey, brown and maybe one other color. The animal one is much more hot colors more hot pinks, reds, oranges and yellows. The vegetable one is going to use much more greens, blues and browns. It’s a good way for me to get really imaginative with the internal systems. Then I am going to see what would happen if there were trade between these cultures or what happens if they start visiting each other and liking aspects of the other cultures.

B: So are they all a mix between human and the other thing?

C: They are very human. I didn’t want to make aliens; I thought that would be super cheesy. They may where masks or something but I am much more interested in it is imaginary anthropology then science fiction. B: So imagining cultures as if they were here? C: Yeah, as a way of imagining new anatomies. So its sort of fo anthropology [Laughs] fo anatomy by way of fo anthropology. That’s what it is. We’ll see how it goes.

B: The more activist stuff that you’ve been doing . . . are you seeing this imagining and hoping as a more activist thing? Are you hoping that it leads somewhere better or is it a commentary on imagining?

C: When I started doing the work that I do, like that older interview that you were reading ( that is what started things. It came out of my own experiences as a teenager and being super uncomfortable with my body. Partly because of the outside but partly because I was just so mixed up about what was happening inside of it and what my health was or how fragile I was or wasn’t – how sickly I was or how stressed out I was and how stress was impacting my health. I think I went through a series of revelations about that and I just really wanted to provide for other people other ways of thinking about that – especially teenagers but also adults. I’ve never talked to a woman who didn’t have an issue in some capacity. Men often have those issues too but it is a little less potent for most of them. For women it’s just so in your face from maybe age twelve but sometimes even younger. You are just so aware of being looked at and the awareness of being looked at affects your awareness about everything else in your body and really really complicates it. I think that my initial approach was “oh my god this was this terrible thing” that took me so long, it’s not like I figured it out, but it impacted me so strongly that I just would really like to connect with other young women and have everyone thing about it critically or at least have everyone be aware that everyone else is thinking about it too. This is a huge issue and we are not going to solve it but that there are other ways to think about the body that could be really powerful, really magical, really different then the way that you are assuming is the way to think about your body. So that is where it is coming from. I think as I have gotten older I haven’t lost that at all. I still do a lot of projects specifically with teenagers and I am really interested in the ways that they especially think about their bodies and I am interested in changing that or opening it up. I think as I am getting older I am becoming more aware of all these other issues that come in and the complications that adulthood brings to what that groundwork as already started. If we had these issues when we were teenagers then when we are adults and issues of fertility come in . . . then what? Then we get older and our bodies start breaking down . . . then what? How does this all fit together?

Check out:

Interview with Riley

In Interview on December 9, 2009 at 1:19 am

An interview with Riley Johnson about his involvement with the trans-friendly gyne-care program at the Chicago Women’s Health Center and other things . . .

Interviewed by Bethany

B: First I want to ask you what other projects you had been involved in or how you came to head up this project. Were you involved with the Chicago Women’s Health Center already? Or were you just . . .

R: I was sort of limitedly involved with the Health Center. I dated somebody who was a therapist there at one point. She got me connected in one of their first trans panels where they basically had trans people come in and provide our basic experiences of health care. What we were getting into and all that.

B: What year was that . . . ish?

R: I think ‘04 or ’05. They had been seeing trans patients for a long time. They were just starting to rethink and sort of be mindful of what they’re doing and put it out to the public in a really expansive way. I think TGAP in terms of work-wise had kind of spurred out of that in the sense that I came back to Terri Kapsalis who is somebody that I met at that first panel. She asked me to come speak at her class a couple times in that time span (’05 to present). I was seeing this pattern where I wasn’t getting gyne care, my friends weren’t getting gyne care – I had friends who were butch or lesbian identified and they weren’t getting gyne care. It wasn’t necessarily that providers were being bad to us. I mean there were some obviously who were being bad. But there were also a lot of us who weren’t going. What I originally asked her [Terri Kapsalis] was “is there a way that we can bridge that gap? [Can] we make it so that it’s a manageable thing for people to do – to go in and get care?” I think that part has been fairly successful. We built in a buddy component to it so if people want me to be in with them for any part of the exam they can choose that. But realistically what ends up happening thus far is that once – I have personal connections with a lot of people in the trans community here in Chicago and if they know that I’ve vetted somebody, or that I’ve trained them, then they don’t need to know more.

B: That’s good enough. Right.

R: They are pretty much taking my word for it and they know that I don’t put up with anything.

B: Is TGAP . . . what exactly is that?

R: It’s a joint project with – I, back in 2004, I started a project called the Queer Peoples Health Collective.

B: Ok, and that is the website that I saw.

R: Yeah. That was born out of my frustration more then anything else. I, in early 2004, I had a hysterectomy and was not well prepared in terms of my own language and knowledge about it. I prepared myself very well for my other surgery related to transition but I just was not well schooled about that. I had a lot of complications with mine and I was in the hospital for five days. And had a hematoma – about a two by two space or close to it. It impacted my hemoglobin in a big way. You are supposed to be between like thirteen and eighteen and I started when I first got to the hospital I was at thirteen or fifteen and I got all the way down to a seven. They were like we can’t . .

B: I don’t know what a hemoglobin is.

R: It’s this internal blood thing. Your blood has platelets, red blood cells, white blood cells, and plasma – these different sorts of sets within the blood. Hemoglobin is an essential substance in your blood and in my case, like if people are anemic, they are sometimes pretty low in hemoglobins. If they are really anemic they may get blood transfusions. In my case I got three. The nurse at the time said that she had been in there for twelve years and she’d only seen people get two transfusions at a time.

B: Wow.

R: I was pretty far-gone apparently. I was very much out of it and it impacted me. I could not have made good decisions for myself in the state that I was in. I was lucky that I had a partner and friends who were really advocating for me and making sure that I got what I needed and all that. Then I was on bed rest for two months. That process was really kind of hard because I tried to reach out to other trans men about it and their reactions were either “you need to man up” like “don’t talk about it” or a lot of them had had laparoscopic hysterectomies where their reactions and their experiences were completely different from somebody who has a full surgical one where you’ve got abdominal muscles interacting in there. There is a whole other set of expectations. There are a lot more complications with the non-laparoscopic version. There weren’t a lot of people who had the full version that wasn’t laparoscopic, and those that had were in the “man up” category. I was really kind of without a lot of support from the trans community. I tried to reach out to sort of traditional women’s versions of hysterectomy support. There was a website called which is like the big, kind of like the starbucks of . . .

B: Like the mainstream.

R:  . . . hysterectomy support. I’ve pretty much always tried to be upfront if I’m gonna be interacting with somebody in a support role or in a friendship role or whatever. I feel like if I’m not honest with them, then we’ve already started off on the wrong foot. So I said to people there, here is the situation: I’m socially male, I function as a man, I live as a man – that’s not . . . that’s not the problem. The problem is that my biology has made this [the hysterectomy] a necessity for me. I had a hysterectomy and I’m hoping that my social role as a man does not get in the way of me getting what I need in terms of support for my recovery. What basically happened from there was that once I came out as trans they pulled my access.

B: Wow.

R: So I didn’t have the access to ask questions – I didn’t have the access to search for anything. They directed me to the men’s (husbands, boyfriends) area. Which needless to say did not fit. Needless to say I was really up a creek. I didn’t really have much in the way of support or venues to turn to. At first I believed the trans men’s version of  “yeah you gotta man up about it” or whatever and then I realized . . . that’s such a crock. It really is. We need to be able to be conscious consumers of health care. Our gender doesn’t play into that. I mean obviously it plays into that, but it shouldn’t stop us from getting good care.

B: Yeah.

R: So I started Queer People’s Health Collective. Which is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not anybody else – just me. I do have people who are interested who are on the horizon. What that the goal is to create printable web pamphlets basically. PDFs, documents, Word docs and things like that. For both LGBT queer and trans clients as well as their providers. So if you’re going into – lets say you have to go in to go to a specialist and you are concerned about and you are concerned about your provider seeing whatever, your surgery scars or whatever the situation may be. My goal is to get a pamphlet for that so that you can say in the middle of your visit “this is what you need to know about me and this document will tell you more than what you currently know.” A lot of people are getting a bit better in terms of the training that they are getting. But it is still a big kind of crazy world out there. My goal has been to not only increase my own personal knowledge about things but then also to sort of spread that. To spread the idea of people being active consumers and active . . . “consumer” that phrase makes it seem like it’s just a one-way activity. What I’m envisioning is something where people are advocating for themselves- they are making educated decisions and they are really being active in the process as opposed to just listening to what their doctor tells them and doing exactly what that is.

. . . more on the interview with Riley to come!

Check out:

The Queer People’s Health Collective at:

The Chicago Women’s Health Center at: