For her 1965 video work Fuses, seminal feminist artist Carolee Schneemann films a passionate and prolonged bout of sex between herself and a male partner. Presented as an anti-pornographic exploration of sex positivity and the intricacies of desire, Fuses uses the rich materiality of its 16 millimetre film to convey the kind of embodied pleasures under investigation in art after World War II. Whether much has changed in terms of art practice becomes a theme of my conversation with the Montreal artist Vincent Chevalier, taking place as he’s moving out of his Verdun apartment to become Media Arts coordinator at ARTSPACE in Peterborough, Ontario. Chevalier’s practice, consistently working around the peripheries of sex and attachment, and how we might plan it or talk about it, suggests more than ever that it’s all about the presentation: how do we publicly make sense of our personal lives?
Schneemann comes up in conversation, part of a lineage of sixties and seventies video and performance artists who investigated the body and its relation to technology that informs Chevalier’s practice (see his half-homage, half-remake GIF GPOY As Fountain [After Bruce Nauman]). He’s suspicious of any sort of ecstasy they might have found in collective, exuberant works like Schneemann’s Meat Joy, a canonical performance of naked participants writhing and smearing themselves with materials from raw chicken and fish to wet paint and transparent plastic. “There was a utopian impulse behind those,” he says, “‘If we all get naked in a room, and roll around in fish guts,’ like [Schneemann], ‘we’ll create a new world.’” If bodies in a room was the medium for a social world in the sixties, for Chevalier it might now be Tumblr: “Hyper Flesh Markup Language (Holy Fuck My Life!)” rings his own site/art project, and it’s this swirl of reality-TV aphorisms, fucking, and new media, all under the influence of a 21st century queerness, that marks his artistic output.
But that’s not to collapse his work into an expanding genre of post-medium, technological practice. Chevalier reminds me: “I don’t like work [where] you walk into a gallery and all you see is the technology, and the question is ‘what is that technology, how do they use it?’ It becomes less about technology being a support for an idea than technology being the object.” Last year, Chevalier graduated with a degree from Concordia’s Intermedia/Cyberarts studio program, in the midst of exhibiting and performing his work in venues from San Francisco to Finland. But the geography of Montreal and environs of his upbringing haunt his ongoing “little black blog” PWIF’d (Places Where I’ve Fucked), an archive of the approximately 100 parks, apartments, and parking lot hook-up backdrops, crystallized in the unassuming form of the Google Maps screenshot and annotated with place, age, and sex acts in the mystifying phraseology of queer sex websites. “#montreal #qc #24 y/o #bttm #pnp #w/s #scat” reads one caption, under the unimpressed gaze of a generic high-rise.
The approach by which we might understand, evaluate, or judge the sort of person we might imagine Chevalier to be, in PWIF’d’s case via the cryptic shorthand of queer culture, forms the core of Chevalier’s artistic concerns. But how to account for our uneasy and simultaneous reliance on and dismissal of our most prevalent means of communication – glamourless internet text – to transfer every matter of information? How to translate things as urgent or vacuous as sex? Chevalier explores this brand of Web 2.0-uneasiness with w. mun :-(, a transcript of a conversation between Chevalier and a friend following the 2010 death of Will Munro, a Toronto-based artist and “huge luminary for Canadian queer culture,” installed on the windows of Concordia’s Fine Arts Reading Room last year. Pale grey vinyl lettering, effectively invisible on the room’s glass surfaces, the chat (“will munro = too fagulous for shitty planet earth,” Chevalier writes) questions how we might attach ourselves to the most banal of media forms. “I don’t want to make these hard and unjust differentiations between our lives spent online and our lives spent offline,” Chevalier tells me. “It’s impossible to take those apart, and it’s really the opposite of techno-fetishism, where it’s this weird Luddite slash ‘well back in my day we did real things with real people…’ These are real things with real people, they’re just different; we need to look at them just as hard as we looked at public space in the past.”
The ways we might talk about sex, sexuality, or dying – out loud or on screen – function not only in Chevalier’s disarmingly poignant So when did you figure out…?, a video of a 13 year-old Chevalier dramatizing the disclosure and then instantaneous death of a person with AIDS on a talk show, but also in his Hospital Documents (2004 – 2011) installation. The piece is a grid of Chevalier’s blown-up medical files from a Montreal-area hospital, which contrasts a Modernist linear cut-and-dry presentation with seemingly the most personal content, yet it’s spun from the interpretations and judgments of medical staff. Considering Hospital Documents’s interest in the public/private presentation of his self, Chevalier notes, “Who is this person who has an HIV diagnosis and goes to the addictions treatment centre and who is described as an ‘awkward-looking young man, casual dress. Not good hygiene today, very friendly.’ I think [at one point] they were writing what I was saying about Foucault but in their analytic psychologist way: ‘thinks of the hospital as an institution blah blah blah.’”
If Chevalier is interested in the ways text and official discourse might make sense of us, he also wants to consider the ways identities might be established and repeated through and against established tropes. In his 2009 performance The Red Carpet Treatment, Chevalier walked from his now former apartment in Verdun to the Belgo Building downtown, but only moving via the repetitive action of laying a two-metre red carpet down, walking its length, picking it back up, and repeating. If speech for Chevalier could stand for erotic preference, medial diagnosis, or mourning, the red carpet is his shorthand for both privilege and the politicized glamour of a past and present queer culture. “Taking up space becomes a political gesture and that can be in crossing gender boundaries, in protesting, [or] in speaking up and being loud. I’m marking this territory as mine. But I was disgusting. I was covered in dirt, sweaty, in pain.” The labourious treatment of a symbol for a positive identity expression seems to wear it out, in ways that suggest the contradictory need to both preserve and revitalize symbols of resistance – a neutralization of queer glamour. Chevalier states his reservations of contemporary queer identity politics, when identity might overly rely on cultural shorthand “as if they’re the full monty instead of a marker.” But, his work seems to ask: could the rehearsed ways in which we might express ourselves be necessary or essential?
These are questions that Chevalier has developed and honed in a distinct queer artist scene of Montreal, one that he’s hoping to integrate into his new job at ARTSPACE; together, we tentatively title this career objective “faggots across Canada.” It’s this kind of humour, tinged with a sociopolitical conviction, that is visualized in Chevalier’s work but also recognizable in the daily dangers and pratfalls of hoping one could be capable of transmitting and offering the sincere, the fake, the worthless, the attached, and the deeply serious. But could such transparency in talking, fucking, or grieving, in fact be possible? When I ask Chevalier if his work might be cynical, he answers, “I think there’s always a little bit of hope. I try to work with a little bit of humour, not really explicitly. My work is earnest, not honest, earnest.”
Chevalier’s work can be seen at vincentchevalier.ca.