Commissioned Text | COUNTLESS: gender diversity and accounting for the unassimilable
Proper nouns and improper incidents
A name is a word by which a person, place or thing is known, and a name is commonly not chosen by its owner. A name can also keep a person unknown.
I hire a camera lens over the phone and order it under my legal name. I hear the tone of the salesperson clip into more formal pleasantries which makes me suspect that they suspect that I am a transwoman: my voice is bassy and the name I give is resolutely feminising. When the lens arrives at my house, I receive the parcel telling the courier ‘I’ll sign for my partner’ because I can’t be bothered explaining. I am called by my legal name up to the prescriptions desk at the pharmacy to collect my hormones. Unformed questions in the pharmacist’s expression and sometimes the statement ‘This is not your script’. I reply to emails from funding bodies explaining that the name responsible for finances is mine, but please do not use it.
These situations cast an incremental, mildly humorous, sometimes unsettling cognitive dissonance. I feel like I am getting stretched out. I am one person split between a voice, two names and stubble that organising systems cannot make order of. Right now, I am sitting in my local public library using wifi that I was given access to after having shown my expired driver’s license to the person at the information desk. It made me sweat. I don’t have the disposable income to change that name, and I also don’t want to give it away just yet: I didn’t choose it, it doesn’t fit, but it is still mine and I have the right to explore discord.
Anglo-Australian naming practices happen for colonial administration procedures, and they give us things like welfare payments, education, driver’s licenses, bank accounts, medical insurance… Such naming practices function more or less to provide access but do not help us understand people as multifaceted unstable entities. The much more nuanced and often clan-specific naming practices of Aboriginal nations function to reflect age, kinship status, the relationship between people speaking and someone’s current personal circumstances – one person sometimes has multiple names over their lifetime, that arise within their shifting relationships to the land and one another (1). Compared with these naming practices of cultures that predate colonial databasing, the introduced practice of static names expose a dominant cultural conception of people as essentialised, immutable units to be tracked.
Names, numbers and genders are similar in that they are all abstract forms with contested concrete inferences. English names mostly beg a ‘sir’ or a ‘madam’, so such names lend themselves to gendered counting. The act of counting feels reminiscent of colonising actions; an attempt to really understand a situation by way of measuring empirical evidence. For people who have inherited histories of coercive discipline through ‘legitimising’ administrative systems (colonisation, its medical and judicial systems and archival practices), and for those in conscious non-disclosure towards these systems, being counted does not mean becoming accepted, understood or adequately represented. It means precisely nothing other than becoming less yourself.
Problems with problem solving
In our last session, my counsellor suggested I might have dyscalculia, a cognitive disorder that means numbers are difficult to recognise and manipulate. I am mildly embarrassed in any context involving calculation or remembering dates, but I have the unique perspective of being able to experience what is possible and impossible without numbers. My suspicion towards numbers is not solely because I don’t recognise or understand them, but also because, bureaucratically speaking, numbers misrecognise me.
Counting is good for making sense and solving problems. Numerical systems were essential in developing agricultural societies and the technocratic world that followed. Counting numbers and analysing sets of numeric data (statistics) are the organisational processes that were critical to the formation of the first sovereign states, the ability to tax citizens and build militia. A ‘statist’ after all, is a statesman, a politician.
When the instrument of statistics is reclaimed by the underrepresented, the tools of governance are repurposed, building agency where there has been oppression. Masked, overlooked or invisible disadvantages become translated into an inarguable and politicising language of ratios, which in turn leads masked, overlooked or invisible privileges to be revealed in their ubiquity. The collective work of counting is consolidating, and not only because counting is linear and accumulative, but also because it can be a community- and consciousness-building action that brings people and minds together on a single issue to build campaigns and effect change. Such is the work of Countess and other arts organisations that devote time to the activism of counting.
Concurrent to this reclamation of the technologies of state, there will always be experiences that evade numerical assimilation – and most especially within the ballpark of gender, which increasingly exists less as two polarities, less as a spectrum, and more as an expanding constellation in which each point of reference is understood in relationship to surrounding points. If counting is good for making sense, we also need to find ways to respect and acknowledge the kinds of sense beyond our own paradigms. People are not just woman and men, if you want to map a shifting terrain you need a flexible cartography.
Specificity and non-disclosure
Intersectional feminism advocates for recognising the irreducible specificity of multiple sociocultural and economic identities interlacing, often untidily, within an individual (the wealthy refugee, the Indigenous gay elder, the disabled white man). This position brings critique back down to our very bodies and relationships. A lot of artwork made in this current resurgence of identity politics fights for this irreducibility, existing in spite of (and because of) art institutes, that often function primarily to circulate identity as commodity.
Opening to individual particularity complicates statistics and the privilege/disadvantage binary. What privilege is masculinity for transfeminine people, when perceived maleness correlates to being unseen and unheard? What kind of privilege is masculinity for transmasculine people whose identities are often most scrupulously compared to an archetypal maleness? These are important experiences that slip through the sieve of binary gendered statistics. Concurrently, gender nonconformity holds a cachet in visual culture – one that can be tokenised if curated carelessly, or one that can open space for reflexivity and discussion when an artistic practice is adequately recognised by curators (2).
The political convergence between gender non-normativity and feminist perspectives is the knowledge that the gender system we have is insufficient and exclusionary. Diverse forms of response are useful in addressing this. Namely, surveying disparity in gender representation, raising the visibility of non-cisgender people, and refusing to be coherent in a binary system are three different modalities for survival and storytelling under patriarchy. An ability to see the aims and importance of these forms of change-making, without attempting to make them compatible or assimilable, is the necessary work of creating a critically self-reflective methodology.
My curiosity lies in how a politics of gender erosion can be respected and acknowledged as a relevant, if not indispensable critical presence in the field of gender representation in the arts. Such practices request less explanation and more meditation. Featuring the voices of transgender, genderqueer and non-binary people in the art world through conversation, commissioned writing and consultancy may be a more attuned approach to understanding our experience and our work.
Hagen, R. (2015). Traditional Australian Aboriginal naming processes. Gerber, P; & Castan, M. (eds.), Proof of Birth. Future Leaders, pp. 89 - 101. Available at: www.futureleaders.com.au/book_chapters/pdf/Proof-of-Birth/Proof-of-Birth-Chapter7.pdf
- It might be helpful here to cite a few suggestions that redress problematic representations of gender-diverse and transgender experience in the art world: conversing with non-cisgender artists on how their work should be written and spoken about in public programs and catalogues; where exhibitions focus on a broad thematic that gender atypical people are often politically or symbolically adjacent to (for example queerness, feminism and gender), ensuring that inclusion is not limited to a single artwork or practice, and therefore avoiding the propagation of simplistic narratives of transgender or gender atypical experience; employing gender diverse curators to form curatorial propositions; making the whole exhibiting experience safe for transgender and non-binary practitioners, from ensuring there are onsite bathrooms which are safe to access to considering how install decisions may foreclose or expand how their artworks will be interpreted by audiences.
Archie Barry is an artist working in Melbourne on unceded Wurundjeri land. Their performance work has been recently exhibited at The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Buxton Contemporary, Artspace and Sydney Contemporary Art Fair. They have been in panel discussions and given performance lectures at Parsons and the New School (New York), the National Gallery of Victoria, the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Monash University Museum of Art, Testing Grounds and Melbourne Art Fair. Their writing has been published in Art + Australia and Archer Magazine. Recently they co-authored ‘Clear Expectations: Guidelines for institutions, galleries and curators working with trans, non-binary and gender diverse artists’ with artist Spence Messih. They are currently a sessional teacher at the Victorian College of the Arts, the University of Melbourne.