We Aren’t Here Alone: An Interview with Chris Vargas on Queer Art, Trans Hirstory, and Prison Abolition

On Friday, October 28th, 2016, Stefania Gomez, Sofia Robledo Rower and Bethlehem Desta sat down with video maker, interdisciplinary artist, and prison abolitionist Chris Vargas to talk about prison abolition, how to embody abolition, and how queer art can be prison abolition. This interview was made possible through the Captive Genders Conference. Described as a “conference that traces the impact of the prison industrial complex on trans and gender nonconforming people” the Captive Genders Conference featured multiple contributors to the anthology, Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, and included a screening of the film “Criminal Queers” directed by Vargas and Eric Stanley, a workshop on  Queer Art as Prison Abolition, and a keynote panel featuring Reina Gossett, Eric Stanley, and Chris Vargas, moderated by Cherise Morris [former editor-in-chief of bluestockings].

 

The full conversation between Gomez, Rower, Desta, and Vargas can be listened to here, and read in full here.

 

Stefania Gomez: Let’s just start by introducing ourselves, saying who we are and what we’re doing here. I’m Stefania, I’m co-editor-in-chief of bluestockings with Sofia, and I believe very strongly in prison abolition.

Sofia Robledo Rower: I’m Sofia Robledo Rower, I’m also co-editor-in-chief with Stefania and I am a queer, white, Latina, from New York and I believe in prison abolition for sure.

Bethlehem Desta: I’m Bethlehem Desta, I’m part of bluestockings’ staff, I’m technically the media editor. I also work here at the Women’s Center as a gallery coordinator and that’s what I was running around doing earlier because we have an artist de-installing right now. I’m from California, I am Black, Ethiopian-American, and I believe in prison abolition. Oh, and I’m queer.

Chris Vargas: I’m Chris Vargas, I’m Chicano, mixed, from LA, transgender, queer, artist, and I believe in prison abolition. (All laugh) Did I cover it all?

SG: I was lucky enough to go to your film [Criminal Queers dir. Chris Vargas and Eric Stanley] last night, and I loved it. I laughed my ass off. So I’m wondering about the role of camp and humor in that work specifically.

CV: Well, there are so many ways to approach the subject matter. I think there are a ton of people doing it in different ways. For Eric Stanley, my co-director, and I, humor and camp is our preferred mode of delivery.

I respond really well to humor and a little bit of silliness and campy over-the-top self-conscious performance. And that is how I entered a lot of more radical queer conversations. I mean, it might be obvious, but I particularly grew up with John Waters movies. What I saw of mainstream queerness, I was not interested in. [With Waters’s work,] I saw a possibility outside of that.

There are so many great straightforward documentaries about mass incarceration, and [they’re] done really well. And I think that is really useful, but it’s not always the thing I respond to best. […] humor to me is a kind of fearless approach that kind of gets to the heart of the matter really quickly. And it often is a lot more palatable for a lot of people, or a lot easier for people, to talk about harder things,if you can laugh at the pain a little bit, or laugh alongside the pain to, just you know, lighten it sometimes? Lighten it up, make it hurt less.

SRR: We have a friend that always says that prison abolition is really fun work and that was definitely true of Criminal Queers, that was so much fun.

CV: I was re-reading some of the essays in the Captive Genders books and just thinking about abolition as a mode of living. If we’re committed to beautiful things in this world, like fun and humor should be part of them. If you’re living in like opposition to all these oppressive structures by having fun, taking care of yourself, then that is part of the work of abolition too.

BD: Yeah, connecting to humor and queer camp, and queer art as prison abolition, which is the workshop that the three of us were able to attend this morning with you and Reina Gossett and Eric Stanley, could you just tell us what prison abolition is to you, whether it is founded in all these ideas, or ways that prison abolition could be expressed?

CV: Yeah, I mean quite seriously it’s just resisting all the logics that make prison and incarceration, and law and order, logics. […] It’s in the simple practices of not calling the police on people, but also taking care of people and responding to harms that are outside of criminal justice solutions or crime and punishment solutions. And there are so many ways, luckily, to respond to harm and to pain outside of getting people enmeshed in the system of oppression that is in more places than we want to admit.

SG: I know the film was produced over a period of ten years. Has the conversation has really shifted since then?

CV: Yeah, I think the issue came out of a conversation that was critical of mainstream gay politics, focusing all its resources on the right to marry movement. We talked about all the ways that it was limiting, and didn’t apply to a lot of people, so we sort of made Criminal Queers in response to that. Backpedaling a little bit, we sort of didn’t want to tell people what they should focus their energy on, but then we’re like, why not? This is a huge issue that makes the most vulnerable around us even more vulnerable to harm and violence and all the terrible things in the world.

I’ve seen the conversation get even bigger around this era of mass incarceration. I think in the beginning, for me at least, and this could also be a part of my own process of being politicized around this issue, I had felt like I had to seek it out pretty rigorously. Now, the documentary The 13th is so accessible to anybody with a Netflix account, you know? In some ways it’s so great that this conversation is expanding and that people are actually talking about issues of mass incarceration in this country, but it does feel like huge growth from 10 years ago.

BD: So, what does gender self-determination look like to you, and how do you understand its relationship to prison abolition? Because, I think at least for the three of us – we got into this conversation the other night about what gender self-determination means, and that I think that we all get what it is meant to convey, but are all struggling with how to determine our own genders.

CV: Right, and when you think about the prison-industrial complex, and being vulnerable to policing and prisons and jails – you can see how the lack of gender self-determination exists in the structure of these very institutions. So it’s the producer of gender as a regulatory body. It reproduces these ideas of the binary and doesn’t allow for anything that exists outside of it.

So, gender self-determination is queer liberation, right? Is prison abolition. All of those things are interrelated. […] I want prison to be the issue of the queer movement. I want that to be the politic that we’re all focusing on; that is not the case.

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BD:  Thinking about the communities around which the film was made, who are the predecessors to you? Who are the ‘Transcestors and Hiroes?’

CV: I know – we aren’t here alone. We are here as a result of a lineage of all these people. Our ‘blood’ ancestors as well as, like, our, ‘thought,’ ‘dream’ ancestors. For me, it’s artists [and] activists, living and not-living. I talked about John Waters. There’s a way that camp has not been politicized in a way that I wanted it to. Oftentimes when I saw John Waters movies, I was like, “This is not as, like, political as I need it to be. But I’ll make it, you know?”

I’m thinking about early queer filmmaking people. Like Jack Smith. But artists like Guillermo Gomez-Peña. Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames, and that is very much – the movie is very much modeled off of her process, you know? And I think she also took ten years to make that film. And it was such, like, this grassroots, sprouting up out of a community conversation. Or, a community in conversation. […] I think in the same spirit as Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames, Criminal Queers kind of came out of conversations within queer communities, you know? ‘Cause we are responding to mainstream gay politics in a really obvious way, right now.

[Eric and I] started the same year that Transforming Justice happened in City College, San Francisco, which brought together all these trans and queer abolitionist voices. And it was so inspiring. There was so much organizing and so much energy around all of this that it felt like it just sort of made itself ‘cause of all the momentum.

SRR: Reina and Eric, used the term ‘criminal’ to describe the making of the film, and I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about, criminality as, like, resistance in this sense.

CV: So the film was, kind of, guerilla-made – a lot of the locations we just didn’t get permission to use at all. We sort of brought the camera, set up what we needed to set up, and then shot for as long as we felt was safe to do without getting in trouble.

But it was very much out of necessity. We went into it with no budget, which, like, even with a $1,000 budget, that’s nothing when you have to feed people and clothe people. It’s aligned with all of these barriers to access that all of these queer and trans people face, [that] force people into underground economies that make them vulnerable to policing and prisons, and the prison-industrial complex more broadly. Very much a ‘criminal’ approach to filmmaking.   

BD: Another topic that we really wanted to discuss with you was the Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art [where Chris is executive director]. The mission statement says that “the museum insists upon an expansive and unstable definition of trans and gender nonconforming art and artists.” In trying to think about what trans visual culture and history can look like, what do these things represent to you, as a starting point for understanding the mission of the museum?

CV: Well, I mean museums by their very nature are these regulatory spaces. As I got more involved and invested in [an] art career, I got more and more critical of the art institution. […] Like, wait a minute, this is just like reproducing all the same oppressions and limited access to certain kinds of people over others.

But, I wanted to create – and this is a self-conscious oxymoron – an inclusive canon, you know? And the mission of MOTHA is an impossible mission, because how do you create a canon without having to stabilize a certain definition of an identity? And so, there’s so many contradictions in this project that I embrace. On one hand, I feel like there’s so much visual culture and history and interesting stuff related to trans people and culture, present and past, that I wanted to highlight, but I also didn’t want to police the boundaries of who would be represented, or who would be pointed to by this museum or by this project.

So, it’s this constant conversation about the institution and what the limits of the institution are, but also what our investments in it are, as well. If institutions wield all this power, why can’t I just create an institution and extend all of this legitimacy to artists I want people to know about? So it’s my way of trying to shove my foot in a closing door, and ushering all my friends in, you know?

SRR: You have spoken a little bit about these projects giving legitimacy and creating histories, so I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about what trans history-making looks like, and why history-making is so meaningful for queer and trans people?

CV: I saw so many other artists who were interested in trans history as a way of trying to understand themselves historically, within a lineage, and there’s so much great work that’s in conversation with that impulse. […] It’s connected to the way that you want to see yourself reflected sometimes, but also a distrust in the way that it has been historically reflected back to you.

It’s sort of a way to take the reins, and point out the ways that we have existed in these multiple forms, and then also point out the ways that these institutions offer legitimacy – but then maybe we don’t want them to, maybe we want to exist outside of that legitimacy […] I mean, I’m realizing how ambivalent I am to all of it, you know? Ambivalent is the exact way to describe it.

SG: One thing that we also thought was interesting is the fact that there is no actual location of MOTHA, and what that means. Is that a choice? Is that going to change?

CV: It’s a choice. […] I think all the critical [components] would be drained out of the project if I were to stabilize, because then I would actually have to police what is and what isn’t inside the walls of this museum, and I want to keep it this amorphous thing, just as language and communities and manifestations of this experience change over time.

I mean ‘trans,’ the term ‘transgender,’ is relatively new. What I’m trying to do with the project is talk about that newness, that evolving language and the way that you can’t pin down or create boundaries around this, that I think is the strength of the experience, and the strength of our history as well.  

SRR: It seems to me as though every abolitionist has their own vision for the future. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the ways that art, in particular, facilitates the imagination of this abolitionist future that we’re all trying to embody or work towards in some way.

CV: I think we talked about it in the workshop today, these kinds of occupied imaginations. Like to be able to radically imagine a future is pure freedom. It’s the thing I fear we can’t do as long as the prison-industrial complex exists. And I think art is positioned so well to be able to encourage the radical imagining. Art is also positioned to address hard things and difficult things visually and conceptually, but it can also point to this thing that doesn’t yet exist that we can make exist, that we can make, as long as we think outside these logics that we are enmeshed in. That’s why I’m still invested in a deeply fraught art world, because of the potential.

SRR: Are there any other projects you’re working on right now that we should know about?

CV: I’m really deeply hard at work with MOTHA. I’m doing this series called “Trans Hirstory in 99 Objects.” It’s about this kind of radical archiving, and this expansive generative view of the past, and looking at trans and queer archives and all the gaps and openings and all the things that are missing from our history that leave potential gaps, that are generative, that artists can fill. So looking at what exists in terms of our history, and also what doesn’t, and all the possibilities that are inherent in those gaps. I like that project.

SRR: We have a bluestockings question we like to ask all the folks that we interview. The question is, what does liberation look like / feel like to you?

CV: It feels light. It feels like light and it feels like lightness. It feels like possibility and it feels like healthy, health, happiness.

 

This interview has been condensed and edited by Salina Tesfay.

 

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