Repetition and Difference: LTTR

5.2 / Readership

Repetition and Difference: LTTR

By Julia Bryan-Wilson December 4, 2013

An embrace of a kind of promiscuity has driven LTTR from the outset.

“It is our promiscuity that will save us,” AIDS activist and art theorist Douglas Crimp asserted in 1987, a time often marked by the brutal vilification of gay sex, when a devastating health crisis was portrayed in the media as punishment for pleasure. Crimp defied this moralism by arguing that gay men’s sexual flexibility might help them adapt to safer sex strategies. While the AIDS crisis continues, albeit cushioned for some by the effects of life-extending drugs, it is nevertheless difficult to render Crimp’s claim intelligible today. The value of promiscuity considered literally, as Crimp did, seems impossible to imagine given the profound conservatism of much of the contemporary gay and lesbian movement. (The terms of public discourse have changed, clearly, when debates focus on the participation of gays in the institutions of marriage and the military.) Gay couples have perhaps become more tolerated in U.S. society, but other queer practices and community formations have arguably become more limited. Given the current, narrow visions of queerness, there are still lessons to be learned from Crimp’s promotion of openness and diverse encounters.

An embrace of a kind of promiscuity, then, has driven the New York–based collective LTTR from the outset. LTTR is a shifting acronym; it started in 2001 as “Lesbians to the Rescue”—a superhero slogan if there ever was one—and has since stood for phrases ranging from “Lacan Teaches to Repeat” to “Let’s Take the Role.” Just as the words behind its initials are variable, so too are its membership and output. Founded by Ginger Brooks Takahashi and K8 Hardy, LTTR has been joined by Emily Roysdon and Ulrike Müller; all four have ongoing individual practices as artists, videomakers, writers, and/or performers, and they frequently participate in other artistic and activist projects. (Lanke Tattersall was also an editor for the fourth issue.) While LTTR began as a collectively edited and produced journal, the group now also organizes screenings, exhibitions, performances, read-ins, and workshops. The original phrase “Lesbians to the Rescue” suggests that someone, or something, needs to be saved (the phrase is missing only an exclamation point to drive home its campy urgency)—and it is clear from the excited, even libidinal ethos of its projects that LTTR sees this redemption as rooted in desire.

Promiscuity, whether sexual or—in the case of LTTR as an organization—curatorial, generates all-important moments of unexpected connection.

In a political climate tinged by anger, defeatism, and the persistent shaming of unruly forms of queerness, LTTR objective is a generosity based in exuberance. It is, in other words, with a purposeful critical promiscuity that LTTR puts itself forward. As Samuel R. Delaney explains in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999), a hybrid memoir/theoretical investigation of the effects of gentrification on gay public sex in New York, it is the small exchanges of good will, modeled for him in the practices of casual sex, that make life “rewarding, productive, and pleasant.” The group’s open calls for submission and the multiple audiences of its live events exhibit its willingness to engage those with whom it might not otherwise come into contact. Promiscuity, whether sexual or—in the case of LTTR as an organization—curatorial, generates all-important moments of unexpected connection.

Takashi writes in an editorial note for the first issue of LTTR’s journal that the project was generated out of eager curiosity, a way “to share our big love for the homos.” Here, the term “homo” is used in its loosest sense—LTTR explicitly refuses strict self-definitions—and this expanded meaning is quickly discerned in the journal’s make-up: LTTR’s critical promiscuity emphasizes bringing different bodies together across race, gender, and generation. Likewise, the contents of the journals do not conform easily to categories, and often blur the lines between art, criticism, and fiction. In the four issues produced to date (each produced in a limited edition of one thousand copies and distributed mostly in independent bookstores), contributors have included emerging artists, transgender activists, punk musicians, and established scholars. Authors have ranged from Eileen Myles to Lisa Charbonneau, Anna Bloom to Matt Wolf; and artists from Mary McAlister and Zara Zandieh to Gloria Maximo and Lynne Chan. To get a concrete sense of the publication’s wide-ranging forms of production, consider the second issue (called “Listen Translate Translate Record”), which included a CD with audio tracks by Sarah Shapiro, Wikkid, and Boyfriend, as well as an altered tampon by Fereshteh Toosi, a poster by Silka Sanchez, “mood charts” by Leah Gilliam, poetry by Mary DeNardo, an essay by Craig Willse, and a small, stand-alone exam book, complete with a reproduced sticky note and scrawled notes to the instructor, by Astria Suparak. With every issue, LTTR draws on the resources of friends and colleagues, sharing the labor according to skills and energies; as much as the journal stems from do-it-yourself impulses, it is always a finely wrought object.

Emblematic of its mission, the cover of the first issue features a photo (part of a larger series by Roysdon) of a masturbating Roysdon wearing a strap-on dildo and a facemask of David Wojnarowic—underlining an affective fag/dyke connection. This gesture across gender and generation provocatively suggests that LTTR’s inevitable engagements with the past are hardly straightforward, and can be irreverent, joyfully perverted, or achingly intense. The group has numerous queer art/activist precedents, including the AIDS/HIV graphics-making collective Gran Fury, as well as feminist legacies such as the West-East Bag (conceived by Judy Chicago, Lucy Lippard, and Miriam Schapiro in 1971 as “an international information liaison network of women artists”) and Heresies (formed in 1976 as an independent feminist, art, and politics publication). In fact, LTTR often explicitly references previous feminist practice, as in the title of the journal’s fourth issue: “Do you wish to direct me?,” a provocative question appropriated from Lynda Benglis’s pioneering video Now (1973). Benglis, in an autoerotic meditation on the possibilities of the then-emerging video technology, asks this query to her own on-screen image. LTTR answers her question, dialogically, in its editorial statement, noting that “sometimes when you call, what you get back is both an echo and a response,” and the playful commands hinted at by Benglis are taken up by the works in the issue itself, such as Liz Collins’s red knit glove that directs the hand into unexpected configurations. But with its “genderqueer” focus—instead of calling itself a strictly lesbian project, LTTR instead invokes another kind of queer/trans sociality—LTTR has an identity-defying attitude that is markedly different from separatist moments in radical feminist art production. For example, consider the Lesbian Art Project, formed in Los Angeles in 1977 by Terry Wolverton, Arlene Raven, and others. That group similarly curated exhibitions, made small publications, and programmed events, but defined itself as exclusively by and for lesbians.

LTTR underscores the insufficiency of the term “identity politics” without dismissing the politics of identity.

LTTR’s refusal of such a fixed subjectivity is not an example of what has been termed “post-identity,” implying progress beyond or transcendent of all categories, but is instead a vision of a more permeable, unbounded sense of possible identification. The term “queer” was reclaimed in the 1980s to signal solidarity between gay men and lesbians (even as the word came off as erasure to some dykes), and the shifting nature of the “lesbian” in LTTR suggests a continuing search for new terminology to help us negotiate increasingly complex relationships to sex and self. LTTR thus underscores the insufficiency of the term “identity politics” without dismissing the politics of identity.

In fact, the political resonance of LTTR may be discerned best in its sprawling live events, multiform publications, and curatorial endeavors, as they reach out to a somewhat improvised network of artists, activists, and theorists that could be called a community at a moment when it is increasingly difficult to speak with any precision about what was once called the public sphere. The recent upswing in institutional interest in collaborative production may merely suggest the artistic trend du jour (witness the weather reports issued around this year’s Whitney Biennial), but underlying this resurgence in collaboration is a deeper anxiety about shared social space today, whether virtual, ideological, or physical. Against this cultural backdrop, LTTR has programmed a vibrant range of public events at numerous non-profit art spaces around New York, including the Kitchen and Printed Matter. In summer 2004, it hosted Explosion LTTR at Art in General: a month-long series of events and exhibits featuring, among other things, a talk by Gregg Bordowitz; the Toronto-based troupe Free Dance Lessons grooving with random passersby in Chinatown; music by Lesbians on Ecstasy; and a transgender legal workshop.

For the Explosion, LTTR also played matchmaker by pairing artists—most of whom did not previously know each other or each other’s work—to collaborate for one day in the Art in General storefront window. One such collaboration between Leidy Churchman and Luis Jacob extended the vibe of promiscuity by installing a beige sofa in the window and inviting people to use it as a rendezvous site (Make-Out Make-Out Make-Out Couch, 2004). Some pairs, like Matt Keegan and Xylor Jane, whose mutual interest in pattern led to an installation featuring concentric square spirals in yellow and orange tape, have since occasionally worked together again. As the event progressed over several weeks, remnants of previous collaborations remained in the storefront, and artists responded in part to those traces, creating a palimpsest-like layering. This was made most explicit by Courtney Daily and Klara Liden, who created exact replicas of the art in the gallery space. These all-white ghost copies then spilled out over and across the street, extending the space of the gallery into the city.  For example, one of the Keegan/Jane spirals was redone on the wall opposite the storefront, and it remained as a trace of this experiment for months after the residency ended. In each of these endeavors, LTTR rallies people together with ardent enthusiasm.

LTTR presents itself as a vital alternative, and not only to the art market’s high gloss.

Enthusiasm like this, of course, is perilous, and almost always draws fire: detachment is often more critically prized. As Jacobs, one of the Explosion LTTR collaborators explains, “To ask strangers to collaborate is risky; it’s an experiment that could have collapsed. What’s amazing is how well it worked.” LTTR’s willingness to take such chances with their editorial choices has led to contradictory criticisms. Some see its projects as hodge-podge or ragged (i.e., too inclusive), while others think its process is not open enough (i.e., too exclusive). Despite—or even because of—the sometimes scrappy nature of its enterprise, LTTR presents itself as a vital alternative, and not only to the art market’s high gloss. It also represents a different face of queer aesthetic production, one uninterested in a consumerist “queer eye” that knows exactly which scented candle to buy. “Practice More Failure” was the name of the third journal, and it is a knowing one, as it highlights LTTR’s emphasis on “process and practice over product”—potential criticisms, collapses, and all.  

LTTR’s search for promiscuity—and all the risks and rewards that term implies—continues to motor its projects. In September 2005, LTTR hosted a release party in Chelsea for the fourth issue the journal, featuring DJs and street performances. It was a strikingly intergenerational, heterogeneous scene, as hipsters young and old joined in the celebration, participating in interactive installations and dancing on the piers.  Maybe it was merely a crowd of artists and musicians and self-declared freaks, but it was also a community—a fragile, restless one that is constantly expanding and reconstituting. Feminist theorist and English professor Lauren Berlant has recently proposed that negativity and depression could be politically necessary responses to the disenfranchised character of our contemporary moment. Yet during an era of real despair, with an administration hateful of all types of difference, we also need these localized moments of pleasure and unsecured possibility, moments motored not only by passion but also a willingness to fail. 

© Artforum, Summer 2006, “Repetition and Difference: LTTR,” by Julia Bryan-Wilson.

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