“So how do you know him?”
“I follow his GIFs online. They’re really good!”
“GIFs are these silly low res animated images for online. You’d know what I mean if I showed you, you’ve seen them.”
“So is this like some sort of flirtation? Is there such a thing as GIF flirtation?”
“No! I don’t even know what he looks like or anything about him! I just like his images.”
The above: an approximation of a conversation I had with two friends during a dinner party in San Francisco, a snapshot of our conversation while we compared people we knew in common across coasts. My two friends, both artists in performance mediums, thought it was silly that anyone might want to communicate through an exchange of authored images online. This conversation makes me feel simultaneous dread and excitement about the future. It also got me wondering what it means to like someone’s online image making – to see that exchange as a valid form of communication.
Contemporary authors see online visual culture as the decline of modern thought, exemplified in Gary Schteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story where users of an analogous site to Facebook, called GlobalTeens, are urged to switch to images to simplify their communication. While Schteyngart uses the popularity of visual culture to symbolize the death of intellectualism and literature in his novel, it’s a sentiment that echoes from other corners of contemporary thought, most recently in the analysis of Millenials written by Zadie Smith for the New York Review of Books. But hasn’t queerness, and how we define what is queer, always been, to some degree, about aesthetics? So couldn’t some aspects of queer thought and ideas somehow be better expressed through imagery rather than words?
One of the wonders of the Internet and the web 2.0 world are the multitudes of ways that we now have available to share our thoughts, our own original content, and appropriate the work of others in order to participate in a great digital group think environment (and to read a great essay on the ways in which digital organization change our thinking, see Brian Droitcour’s essay for The New Museum’s Free exhibition). 2.0 image-based communication finds it’s apotheosis in dump.fm, a site where users ‘chat’ through the exchange of images. While dump.fm can appear as an incomprehensible soup, a more personalized version of this experience, and one that makes it slightly easier to trace the originator of the work, can be found on Tumblr, a micro-blogging platform with social features that allows users to seamlessly share and ‘like’ each other’s content.
An overview of select Tumblr accounts can start to reveal a shared sensibility in image making, something hard to see in the cacophony of dump.fm. Take a look at the following image based blogs: Visual AIDS, CTRL + W33D, Teen Witch, Shamama, Cobain in a Coma, Supo Cupo, and my personal favorite, Rising Tensions. Like pretty much all blog content, these are composed of a marriage of something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. All these blogs share a similar online queer sensibility: a penchant for psychedelia, a solid understanding of online memes, a love of drag ball culture, a nostalgia for the aesthetic of gay cruising in the seventies, a sometimes romanticized yearning for 90s new age culture, a simultaneous feeling of camp and sincerity, and, above and beyond all else, an incredible sense of humor. It’s a grassroots aesthetic with obvious art school, intellectual-insider roots. The aesthetic even partially filters down (or up? I’m not even sure anymore) from more mainstream DIY porn-ish sites like Stocky Jocks and Bears I’m Jealous Of. To call it an art movement would be audacious, but it can’t be ignored as a marker of a broader shift in contemporary queer thinking, intellectualism, and modes of creation.
The most important (and post-modern to an annoying degree) distinction of this unintentional aesthetic collective is that it creates an ahistorical online response to the current mainstreaming and taming of the gay political movement (see: The Battle For Gay Marriage as a movement) and adoption of elements of gay culture into the popular eye(see: The A-List and Glee). A strict divide in the perception of gay history is created within the world of these digital natives, one where nostalgia can be created for a pre-AIDS gay America, the Stonewall riots, and hankie codes alongside the modes of resistance, theatricality, and art of the ACT-UP, Gay Shame, and early Radical Faerie movements. These Tumblr sites glorify key gay moments and iconography created before corporations began to pursue the LGBT dollar through overt and compromising methods. The opportunity to self-publish has created a situation outside of the formal art collectives and art history narratives, a realm where all of art history can co-exist on and within the same plane in time. It is all the more remarkable that such clear similarities and patterns emerge on their own.
To me? The meaning of the collective online queer aesthetic is about a group of people who ask WWLBD (What Would Leigh Bowery Do)? It’s about a group of people who know how hard it is to imagine David Wojnorowicz retired and partnered up screaming on a blog about how he and his partner’s shared inability to have shared retirement funds constitutes some sort of violent discrimination. It’s about a bunch of mostly white, educated artistic minds who just can’t understand Dan Choi’s rage even though they operate within the same class. It’s about queerness as a state of cultural crisis in search of saviors and heroes, in search of a lost history, and determined to create traditions all itself after AIDS threatened to bury our creativity and corporations sought to convert us into pure consumers. It’s about creating a space where history can reveal itself to those who want to learn and find a preservation of meaning in context to the present.
I could be wrong. The phenomenon could just be a bunch of people entertaining themselves online with similar graphic sensibilities. Either way, it’s a thing that can be recognized but has yet to take on an identity of its own. If the recent Smithsonian controversy surrounding Hide/Seek as shown us anything, it has proved that while we live in a nation state that believes there might be room for a ‘gay’ lifestyle, we still live under the constant threat of that same government’s desire to erase all that is queer and different. The new online conversation through images and shared art becomes necessary for the preservation of queer alternative histories.
The grassroots new-media queer aesthetic isn’t something the art world has any problem with – the critical acclaim and popularity of Ryan Trecartin‘s work is clear proof of that matter. DIS Magazine‘s popularity proves that the fashion world is even ready to embrace a queer aesthetic mostly spawned on the Internet and through images and video as well. This makes sense – these industries are founded on the commodity of an image. So then logically, a progressive queer literary movement would learn to articulate the ideas behind a grassroots image based culture, instead of characterizing it, as the mainstream literary world does, as the first horseman of the apocalypse.
Colin Fitzpatrick is an artist and writer living in Brooklyn, New
York. On top of his contributions to Mary Literary, his work has
appeared on PBS, NPR, in BUTT magazine, as well as numerous other
online venues. You can see a conglomeration of his projects and
whatever he’s currently working on at colinfitzpatrick.com.
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