Interview: Patrick Staff

by Iarlaith Ni Fheorais | 23rd July 2020

Patrick Staff, On Venus, 2019

Patrick Staff is an LA-based artist who works mainly in moving images. Recently exhibited at Serpentine Gallery, Dundee Contemporary Arts and The Irish Museum of Modern Art, their work often looks to complicate trans and sick subjectivities, investigating systems of authority and dissent. Iarlaith spoke with Patrick over Zoom in May to discuss shared interests and concerns in tranness/sickness, queer space, white supremacy and appropriation.

What has it been like for you with the BLM uprising across the US?

It’s been a very intense few weeks. My friends, my community, people from all over the city have been out every day marching. It’s precarious not being a citizen, you have to be cautious. Which is difficult, because my desire is to be out there as much as possible.

My friend, curator Erin Christovale said, “One day we’ll talk about 2020 as the year that created a vision of a new decade.” This pandemic and the complete failure of the government to protect its people have created the perfect conditions for a Black Liberation movement. It points to deep-rooted systemic problems, not just in this country, but in the entire project of the sovereign nation-state, the white supremacy and settler colonialism it is founded upon... It all crumbles.

There is so much work to be done, especially as a white British person. And as an artist who works primarily with public institutions, there’s a reckoning to be had. I’ve appreciated being able to turn to my chosen family, my community, to friends and lovers to tackle that moment together. How are we working through this? When do we need to listen, when do we need to act? Sometimes you also just need to stop and study.

Patrick Staff, Prince of Homburg, 2019

Dissent features quite prominently in your work. How do you negotiate these concerns when showing your work within powerful institutions?

I am a “young” artist and at the same time, I started kind of young. I came out of my BA and became involved with collective working, self-organised education projects and residencies almost immediately. It was a reaction to the institution of art, feeling the pressure to professionalise, a desire for community of some sort. I was playing in punk bands too and was involved in the UK queer DIY music scene for a long time. So I feel like what this amounts to, in a way, is a decade of groundwork that’s been about cultivating a sense of “what version of the art world am I functioning in, do I want to be working in and modelling?” This has meant building a strong community firstly. For me, that is a ballast to some of the fucked up dynamics that inevitably emerge when you work with big institutions or in potentially exploitative contexts.

I have always operated in the ‘art world’ with a strong sense of self-preservation. Checking in with myself, you know? Does a situation feel good? Do I feel safe here? Is it equitable? Who’s in the room, at the table? These questions don’t always solve the problems you’re faced with, but I am extremely cautious about where and to whom I put my energy. And there have been times when that has led to opportunities falling away. But by the time it came to doing a show for instance at the Serpentine (On Venus, 2019), I felt that I could implicitly trust the people around me for support. I work with a very collectively focused gallery, Commonwealth and Council in LA, and I know I can talk with the people who run it, the artists that congregate there. My collaborators, and other artists who are close friends, I can talk to them and it sounds simple but it’s so important. They can and will call me on my bullshit when needed. Friends have asked me “Are you sure you want to do this?” about certain shows. I had a very difficult conversation with those friends about what is possible in the context of the Serpentine, and what I could really achieve under the umbrella of an institution like that. 

You have to constantly resist becoming complacent. It’s hard. There are times where I have caught myself being too accepting, too forgiving or just too used to certain dynamics that get produced and reproduced in the art world and I’ve had to check myself. I learn a lot from other artists, from students when teaching, from the observations my family or friends who are not part of the art ecosystem have from the outside. I try to always stay open to that, to learning, to doing better. 

Your work often features queer, trans and/or sick bodies subjected to political, social and environmental toxicity. What is it about our bodies that are effective devices in depicting and exploring the toxicities of power?

Some of it is guided by my own instincts, my own experiences. The way I interface with the world is super bodily, supersomatic, which on the one hand is forced upon me as a queer, trans person. I don’t really have a choice for my body to be a vector in the world and so it naturally becomes the site through which things get worked out. When I talk about my work I often lapse into a language that comes from choreography. While I was at Goldsmiths I was studying dance in the evenings. Then through studying with Ian White and the LUX AAP, a critical place for me in the work has become about understanding the moment of encounter. A kind of liveness; an art-making, art-doing and living as a form of political subjectivity, as having always been a somatic encounter for me.

What I’m often doing in the work is showing with one hand and complicating with the other. There’s rarely a point I feel that anybody is shown in any subjective position, whether it’s sick or trans or queer that is left ‘unflipped’. Which is in part, my own way of investigating the terms or the subject positions of my own experience. A kind of cleaving open all the time.

Sontag writes about the ‘pathology of energy’. Specific energies that are associated with certain diseases, with most contemporary examples being with queer bodies and HIV/AIDS. Is this something you consider in your work?

For sure. I have made work that tries to work through the interconnectedness of illness, suffering, pharmaceutical subjectivities and the carceral state. These are energetic concerns. The ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis has been an intrinsic part of my entire life. It suffuses everything; my entire years at school were under section 28. I was born the same year ACT UP was formed. It’s already there, and I’ve only gravitated more and more towards trying to understand the pathology, virility or toxicity of bodies.

This, partly, comes from the work being informed by queer and feminist practices. Virality is a strategy, more than subject or aesthetic. Intoxication, toxicity and contagion are formal strategies and interior logics of the work, before they are the subjects of the work. In the same vein, I am reluctant to over-simplify these terms; it’s a desire on my part to always trouble or flip essentially what we are told is good and what is bad. It’s a desire to fuck with the given terms, which is in itself a desire to fuck with power. I’m interested in how the rubric of contagion can critique and dismantle systems of oppression, but I want the work itself to enter that system, not just discuss or depict it.

Patrick Staff, Weed Killer, 2017

Appropriation is a common strategy in your work, adapting texts for Weed Killer and The Prince of Homburg. What is the interest in appropriation, and what is its potential in your work?

It’s a few different things. On the one hand, I could never believe that there is any raw talent or original thought, or genius in what I do. What it is really is that I’m photocopying things or just emulating other forms constantly. What got me interested in video and dance was inhabiting a pre-existing genre, structure and form. Being in a host body, virus-like. That comes out of reading – for all the good and bad they’ve done – writers like Kathy Acker, Chris Kraus and Cookie Mueller. These white American 70s/80s/90s writers, who were really informative when I was young. I was really receptive to taking a certain canon and taking the first person subjective position and wreaking havoc. That was really liberating when I was young and felt very radical.

Particularly with Weed Killer and The Foundation, there was a process of appropriation happening that I deliberately entered into. In both of those instances, I wanted to be held accountable to the process whilst doing it, in one way or another. Both projects involved making works that engaged with living people, their work, their lives.

Catherine Lord and I became friends because I really pursued her to write about The Foundation. During that process, I ended up reading her book The Summer of Her Baldness (2004, University of Texas Press). Parts of that book would become the backbone of Weed Killer.

At the time I was grappling with transitioning/not transitioning and hormones/not hormones. I was also dealing with [artist and educator] Ian [White] dying. This book about Catherine having breast cancer, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, was a million miles away from my own experience, yet I am able to find something of me or for me in there. I approached Catherine and asked her, could I completely fuck with the meaning of your book. Catherine’s response was “I’ve written this and published it, it doesn’t belong to me anymore”. I made it knowing there was an inherent fucked-upness in transposing a pharmaceutical trans question onto this pharmaceutical chemotherapy question. A very knowing uncomfortableness of putting transness and sickness into dialogue with each other. I willingly entered into something that was troubling, sticky and difficult but loaded with desire, and with the desire to complicate both of those subjects. Complicate transness, complicate sickness but also allow them to undo and unravel each other. For Catherine and I to also become simultaneously unravelled by it.

I also was challenging my own relationship to appropriation or forcing myself to be held accountable because this was not the work of a dead 19th-century author. It was someone in my life. This was in a similar logic to how I worked Debra Soshoux and Jamie Crewe – the performers in Weed Killer – with all this doubling and refracting going on. Jamie is one of my oldest friends, and I’ve always felt our relationships to our transness developed in tandem in a way. At least being in conversation with them over the years has been meaningful to me. Debra is not Catherine, but in a way, she could be. Jamie is not me, but they could be. There is a complicated act of transposition going on, in speech acts, in confession, in the articulation of pain or trauma or suffering or desire.

In The Prince of Homburg, although this time I was dealing with a dead 19th-century writer, there is an explicit process in the work of just taking the source material and cramming it full. Stuffing it until this text, its characters or its body is overflowing and bloated. I wanted it to be the cup that’s running over, and by inviting in many other friends and collaborators and subjects (these include Johanna Hedva, Che Gossett, Macy Rodman, Nour Mobarak and Sarah Schulman) allow all those people in the work to bring all of their own shit to the table. I’m still architecting that, of course. But they all come with all their own bodies of work and concerns. I was really trying to let the chaos of that play out rather than trying to smooth and tame it. As always, I am essentially trying to fuck with my own working methodologies. Moving from one strategy from another to unsettle myself constantly.

Patrick Staff, The Foundation, 2015

You worked with the archive at the Tom of Finland Institute in 2015 for The Foundation. How did you find working with that distinctly cis masc gay space as a trans artist? I often find those spaces just as frightening and alienating as straight spaces.

In hindsight, I sometimes can’t believe I chose to do that. You know, in 2012 when I first visited the foundation I was presenting much more ‘boy’ but grappling personally with a lot of questions as to whether I was going to transition. It was in a period of my life where I was really starting to articulate a trans identity, and feeling more able to let go of a gay male cis presentation. And I was beginning to have to reckon with microaggressions that would come with that, particularly from older cis gay men. A certain hostility, and a sense of betrayal; a dissolution of an idea of political allegiance. It wasn’t such a conscious decision at the time, but I started working on this project looking at the Tom of Finland Foundation then.

The reality of being at the Tom house is that it is far queerer than a gay bar in Dalston, if you know what I mean. There are some interesting ways in how that plays out generationally. A lot of the guys who live there full time and run it, who are in their 60s and 70s, have lived really radical lives, in one way or another. I sometimes find there to be a strange but sweet political resonance between the younger people turning up at the house and the older folks living there in terms of where their politics lie. They both sit apart from a certain homonationalist, assimilationist models that emerged in the generations between. There are ways that a trans community, and particularly trans masculine community in LA, also gravitates or orbits around the Tom house. I think this is usually the case with queer spaces, but when you really dig into it, it defies a lot of your expectations or assumptions. Despite the fact that the Tom house is intrinsically involved with that creation and distribution of an image of gay male subjectivity, but when you get there, it’s pretty expansive in comparison. I published an artist book from the project and interviewed one of the guys in it and he kind of jokes: “I can’t tell anymore who’s gay and who’s straight. I just have to kind of go with it.” What’s nice about that sentiment is that it shifts into this thing of, “Well, if you’re here, if you’ve made it to the point of turning up, then there’s a commonality. There’s a kinship, and then that’s where we begin from.” I think that’s what’s really incredible.

It’s kinda beautiful when you’re there because they get it. They really have lived through some crazy shit. So the idea that I would ask them to use they/them pronouns, sure it’s new but is it really that big of a deal? There’s a bit of a world-weary, “yeah yeah sure sure” attitude that I appreciate. It’s liberating to be around the unshockable. And queer kinship is often far more unruly than we can account for. I love being in situations where I’m forced to get over myself or my own hang-ups in a way, and so ultimately it ended up being a very healing space for me.

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