T Fleischmann’s Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through is suffused with art. Within its pages, art is found in both white-walled museums and in the improvisational practices of shared community—art is seen, considered, made, and lived within. I’ve long admired Fleischmann’s subtle alchemy in writing about art: their deceptive ease as they render their considered gaze and immersed body into a prose that balances—or sometimes thrillingly totters—between forthright plainness and the flashes and flows of poetic insight. I often think about the relationship of art to freedom, and then conversely (and inevitably) to the undercurrent relationship of art to the commodity. Throughout Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through and in the excerpt of the book I am delighted to share here, I am reoriented and perhaps reassured, with the example of the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres as precursor and Fleischmann as inheritor: there is freedom in and through art capacious enough that it can contain both struggle and beauty. More than this, the turn towards freedom is more important—art is just a means for reawakening us to the possibilities and potentials of a life, and though life must be lived in community and, thus struggle and conflict are inevitable, our best means of coping is generosity. Fleischmann, like Gonzalez-Torres, is an artist of generosity.
My friend Benjy made the gloaming, all-windows building that is on the cover of a book I wrote and that inspired the architecture of the shack I built and inhabited for a while in Tennessee. The cottage he built shines like someone is arriving in the moonlight, but the window framing on my shack is salvaged gray wood, spongy soft and without a good gleam. Before I move to Chicago I take a bus down to Tennessee to visit him. His house is similar, cedar slats and old barn windows for a greenhouse, row after row of flowers I can’t identify, steps up the hillside so the top opens to a garden like the bottom does. Benjy moved here about a decade ago, after growing up in Oklahoma. When I climb the stairs he’s shirtless like he always is, a big beard and a hairy wide chest, and he has a genuine smile that doesn’t seem to go away. “Sterling’s flowers are doing amazing,” I say. It is the part of summer that dips into fall and he shows me one flower, an iris that blooms yellow. It is still hot enough that every step is a bending of grass, white motes of gnats rising. The crawling flower came from Scotland, where Sterling spent the early nineties in an abbey on an island. Our friend Mathilduh visited the abbey after Sterling died, dug up some of the plant, and secreted it back across the ocean. Now it’s in an elevated flowerbed with a bunch of perennials Sterling planted. Near it, off the porch, is an old air-conditioner top he flipped upside down and made into a hanging planter for some aloe plants. They propagate a bounty of baby aloes all summer long, popping out clones asexually. There are more aloe babies than a person would use so some of them end up unplanted, clumps of green spikey leaves with roots dangling out the bottom, on the sills of the screen windows.
Benjy and I have placed a mirror as wide and tall as my arm span on a card table in the flat bit of his front yard. The mirror shows sky, and beside it we set a ladder and his photography equipment. We dump all our prescription drugs onto the reflective surface, bottle after bottle. The pills are tan, light yellow, two shades of blue, one of red, a pale pink, and a paler pink with a purple hue. When they are all mixed together they look like pills, generically, unlike when they are in the bottles and seem direct references to our survival. The mirror’s reflection of sky is both stark and creamy. If I place my hand upon this sky it does not ripple, but there is a fingerprint.
We are here to shape the pills into letters, which takes time, and so we chat all morning about them. Thousands and thousands of dollars worth of medication, they are the most expensive material we have used to make an image. Another in a long series of changes to Benjy’s HIV treatment plan and insurance access in the deeply conservative state means that most of these are not pills he is taking but rather pills he has taken. They are pills that worked, pills he can’t access anymore, cocktails of pills that might or might not act on the body with greater efficacy to suppress his viral load than the cocktail of pills he took this morning. I contribute only three varieties to the mirror, synthetic estrogen and two kinds of testosterone blockers. These pills, too, have been rendered different with the sudden announcement that there’s a shortage of injectable estrogen in the United States, a combination of FDA policies and disinterested manufacturers conspiring to end the production of the oil. I’ve never gone for a shot, and sometimes I mail people pills, just as sometimes friends sent pills to me when I ran out. On the mirror, smooth like the oil is slick, the pills roll with the slightest wind, or when my hip grazes the table edge. My feet, too hard on the ground, make all the blue and white and yellow and tan quake at once. 2015, the beginning of the estrogen shortage, Benjy and I joke.
Benjy and I make pictures because it’s fun and we want to, so we work at a very slow pace, punctuated by beer and cigarettes. These digressions, we decide early on, are the most important part of our process. Today, we read from our list of phrases, academic and technical terms we plan to misuse, ideas like “object orientation” that we will interpret for our personal meanings rather than the meanings everyone else finds in them. I have no skills when it comes to making art, no training and no eye. This is one of my favorite parts of our collaboration, the idea that someone can just make something anyway, away from institutions.
We’re investigating the language of the present from the perspective of the utopic, which is an exploration of difference, and the only way we can find to this language takes us through each other. If the utopic is a post-queer moment, I think that the friendship I share with Benjy can be a part of that. If we have a shared identity it is that we identify with how lovely it is this morning, and the way we talk about our politics is by trying to make something for our friends to enjoy.
I count backward to figure out when I started taking hormones—Seattle, Brooklyn, moving away from the South, Berlin with Simon, falling in love with Otelia . . . I land in some summer, I don’t know when. I distrust linearity, but bodies can seem like one of the only linear things—age, getting bigger and then smaller, death. Another reason to appreciate the transitioning body, which ages backward, every person seeming to become younger, with or without taking hormones. It’s a good reminder that the body was never linear in the first place. And anyway, when wasn’t my desire pubescent? I didn’t know what I wanted until I had it, which was just to feel different. And when I swung a hammer, my inner forearm landing against a new, warm shape, I tired more quickly, and was happier for it.
Benjy and I use maybe one hundred pills. Post-Scarcity, they spell out. The word is multihued and large. I hold the ladder while Benjy positions the camera above, and as the clouds pass in their own game of arrangement, he snaps a picture, waits, snaps a picture. The images show only pills and sky, and it appears as though the word is floating above us. Post-Scarcity, it says, composed of more than one body like all bodies are. I use the crook of my elbow to sweep the pills into a bag and we return to the house, sorting them from one another again, putting them back into bottles. Categorization isn’t how we acknowledge difference, but rather its enforcement, difference leveraged to keep things apart that could well be together.
After we snap the last photos, I throw my stuff in the back of a truck and catch a ride from Tennessee to Chicago. I lived in Chicago for a summer when I was twenty, and when Simon and I met we realized we had lived a block apart from each other, as he scraped by in art school and I rollerbladed to my internship every morning. Maybe I lean on coincidence a little too hard, sometimes, when I’m trying to decide what matters, but I was pretty delighted when I figured that out. Anyway, Chicago today has as much to do with Chicago then as I have to do with that wide-eyed twink on rollerblades, too embarrassed to ask anyone how the buses worked.
To make a bedroom, I hang a curtain across a large room on the second floor of a house, where the windows overlook a quiet street and where my new friend Stevie makes occultist artwork, such as a claw machine, built like the game at a bowling alley, stocked with neon yellow earplugs and in which a living tarantula sometimes crawls, its furry little legs on the compressed foam. Years ago, when they were coming up, Stevie lived in a punk house with one of my best friends, which is how we came to meet each other. I work on transplanting my routine to this new life where I know almost no one and where I spend the days in meetings or teaching, smoking weed out of a carved-out potato in the evening and then going for long walks. I bring some things from my old life with me, heavy boxes of books and a writing routine, and leave other things behind, replacing my tattered t-shirts one at a time with pencil skirts and jumpsuits slightly more appropriate to the classroom. Stevie introduces me to art people and we talk about the possibility that the ice machine at the bar where they work is possessed, which I decide is probably true. “That sounds like something people I know would say,” I say when they first tell me of the possession. I begin to make friends slowly, but, unfamiliar to myself in this context, I feel as though a claw is going to grab my head anytime I leave the house.
Some old friends come to visit, to alleviate my move somewhere I have no old friends, and so we go to the gay beach. Among them is my ex, Otelia, a beautiful alien who came down from the stars to gift us all with light and joy, and who is the love of my life, and who has my favorite dog in the entire world, too, a little chubby orange thing named Georgia who bites people, but usually people I don’t like. When we all get to the beach, the Chicago-area people of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival are having a reunion lunch, and many dykes are gathered. Otelia and I take pictures in front of the welcome sign, Georgia like a baby in my arms, and then try to get the women to give us some of the hot dogs they are roasting. The first people we talk to as we wander closer have warm smiles and remind me of the dykes I love who went to the festival; of the fact of their going, I refuse to have any feelings. Only a few weeks ago MichFest announced that the latest festival would be their last, the tradition closing after thirty-nine years. The organizers refused to officially welcome trans women despite decades of protest for inclusion, and the debate reached such a pressure that the festival collapsed, its ten thousand people ungathered by their refusal of other women’s bodies. Especially absurd, as trans women were already attending the festival, already part of those communities. The dykes on the beach, they sit with their feet in the water, with smiles they have been practicing for fifty or sixty years, smiles from before the first gathering of womyn. One wears a t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, like Otelia does. It is always so clear when dykes love each other. They say they see us and they welcome us, and we chat for a bit—what a lovely lake this is, I’ve always loved the Great Lakes, we all appreciate this place where we are. There is not much to say, but we say a few things anyway, and we laugh together, and I don’t ask them for any of their hot dogs after all.
Tired from the sun, I bring Otelia to the modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, which has “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) on display. I try to see the things I’m writing about when I can and this piece is shown pretty regularly. It’s in a corner of a room up some stairs, like it usually is (maybe not always the stairs though). I don’t like this route of approaching, with a twenty-five dollar general admission, but I pay it to get the experience of approaching and then touching, in that order, and then taste. I think about the people I know who have died when I do this, but I try mostly to fill my mind with Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Ross, and to accept the portrait that is given to me.
In a 1992 letter to his gallerist, Gonzalez-Torres reflected on another one of his takeaway pieces, a stack from which you can take an “uninscribed piece of paper,” which he called “Untitled” (Passport). In the letter, he considers the blank paper as a source of beautiful possibility, “an untouched feeling.” In the same breath of thought, he offers that this paper, once it is taken from the stack, should be inscribed with “the most painful, the most banal” as well as “the most sublime.” It’s a dream where anyone can just walk up and take a passport, which is, yes, sublime, like love—and then we take that paper back out into the world, where passports are denied and seized, love severed in the process. As in an interview with Tim Rollins:
FGT: There is also, of course, Yvonne Rainer’s Journeys from Berlin and a movie by Sarah Gomez called One Way or Another, which is a feminist view of the Cuban revolution, Santeria, and other issues. This movie is very interesting because it’s also about the meaning of love during a particular historical period. I saw that movie the same week that I saw Hiroshima Mon Amour.
TR: That’s a great movie about love.
FGT: No, it’s about meaning and how meaning is dependent on the context.
An annoying thing about gender is that it always gets in the way of people understanding context. Gender confuses people. They are being transformed by it and they don’t pay it attention.
They focus on the language too much and forget to get everyone housing and health care, for example, and they argue for the inclusion of trans people in the military as though the military isn’t perpetrating mass violence and unprecedented environmental destruction. This is another reason I would like to be uninscribed by language, like an uninscribed piece of paper. Of course, this is not literally true: I’ve written all over myself. There is the “no bad” on my arm, some in-joke acronyms in blown-out ink on each hip, the word “shed” on my ankle, and the phrase love me, go away on a leg. At first it was simply “love me,” and my mother used to say it made her sad whenever she saw it, and then I added “go away,” and she said, “Now that makes me even sadder,” and never brought it up again.
It’s taken a lot of resistance, that I want to leave my gender and my sex life uninscribed—that it took me years to consider the fact that I did not have to name my gender or sexuality at all, so that now I must always tell people that I am not something. I insist on this absence more, even, than I used to insist on my identities, that I was a bisexual boy, or genderqueer, or a queer, which was actually just unpleasant for me in lots of ways, come to realize. I stand by only a quarter of what I said when I was queer. Queerness, when I first encountered the idea, aspired to a life away from identity categories, eroticizing what lies outside them, but today it seems the word often points to a reification of identity, to new rules. The uninscribed, like Gonzalez-Torres says, is a site of change, where I might understand my actual context and do something about it, rather than getting tangled up in a game of words, and so that is where I would like to focus. I am of course still written into this whole structure, I can’t escape the language, but that won’t stop me from refusing it anyway, and believing that a blank paper might transport me somewhere else.
That I’m never really in a relationship in a recognizable way puts me at odds with identity also—single and coupled, available and attached, free of the expectations held by boyfriends and girlfriends. Jackson and I settle into a rhythm of first texting all the time and then Skyping. He’s a guy I Skype a lot, is what he is. Sometimes at the end of the conversation he shows me his butt, and I make him a little video where I dance around and jerk off in a pair of heels with Bongwater’s “The Power of Pussy” playing too loud, blaring. To keep us focused, we begin a plan to sneak-install sexual sculptures at the historical sites of gay cruising in Chicago, sites that are new to me and in a city he has never seen. We talk about simple, lightweight constructions with a minimalist design intended to enhance and (very subtly) encourage pleasure-seeking—at a long bit of high plants at the side of Lake Michigan, for instance, he suggests a very short wall, placed just so to offer total privacy to a couple horizontal people.
I would take a legal risk, even if only minor, to honor faggots, because I sometimes feel I have been denied friendship with them. I was surprised how I ended up spending less time with gay men when I stopped claiming that identity—although of course it would be that way, I realized later. Being a faggot sometimes felt like installing the sculptures would feel, like a fear of someone catching you doing something, and in a place you weren’t supposed to do it, which is very different than the feeling I often have now, which is as though everyone is looking at me and what are they going to do about it. So many different ways to be illegal, these constantly overlapping conscriptions to our behaviors by the state, and the countless ways they enact themselves onto us or through us. I dream the sculpture’s wooden weight would somehow be a blockage in that system—clunk, clunk, every time someone is happy because of it.
T Fleischmann is the author of Syzygy, Beauty and the curator of Body Forms: Queerness and the Essay. A nonfiction editor at DIAGRAM and contributing editor at Essay Daily, they have published critical and creative work in journals such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, Fourth Genre, Gulf Coast, and others, as well as in the anthologies Bending Genre, How We Speak to One Another, Little Boxes, and Feminisms in Motion.
John Vincler is editor for Visual Culture at Music & Literature.
Used by permission from Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through (Coffee House Press, 2019). Copyright © 2019 by T Fleischmann.