“A Sounding: The Body and Queer Listening” – A Reflection by MFA|EDA Alumni Mendal Polish

Photo by Mendal Polish

Through February 18, 2017, the Power Plant Gallery presents Soundings: Protest|Politics|Dissenta broadcast audio exhibition exploring how artists navigate the depths of sound experience and embody protest, politics, and dissent in digital sound files. As part of the exhibition, a special Third Friday Durham Listening Session will be held on February 17, featuring works curated by filmmaker, sound artist, and MFA|EDA alumni Mendal Polish. Below, Polish reflects on the process of selecting pieces for the listening session, entitled “The Body and Queer Listening,” on the heels of a challenging year.

A Sounding: The Body and Queer Listening by Mendal Polish

This year in review is harrowing and painful to even reflect upon, though it is also a synthesis of stories about healing, resilience, and survival. This is where we begin. More than ever in my lifetime, it has felt like a necessary moment to bring queer artists together to celebrate our lives, to grieve, to honor where and who we come from as individuals and an intersectional people.

This installation of sounds and stories opens with a calling in of our queer ancestors honoring them while asking for guidance as we embark on this new and ever changing world. Their legacies of resistance and creative vision have provided survival and guidance for so many of us. In times of disproportionate loss, not only is it important to look towards them, but to look around us at each other, as we navigate and find ways to thrive. We are called to create mentors of our peers while planning for the next chapter in our world and finding new forms of magic in the evolution of our authentic selves.

As I sorted through the tumult of the year in review, I began investigating survival in new ways by looking at the staggering number of queer friends and community members who struggle with under-diagnosed autoimmune disorders, not to mention some of the ancestors who while in body fought to stay alive and keep creating in the midst of catastrophic illness. The opening piece provides an investigation of illness in the queer community, specifically focusing on Lyme disease. It touches upon ancestral memory, community imagination of healing, and information gathering, especially when an illness is so misunderstood and misdiagnosed by the mainstream medical field. This is about looking towards each other for healing, answers, and resources. This piece has taken on many incarnations and was put on hold many times throughout its course; still, I am making dramatic changes to it as we come up against the exhibit.

Some additional notes on curation: I am lucky to live amidst an abundance of imaginative and visionary queer community. I started asking specific artists in my life to make pieces based on their family structures, relationships to families of origin, connections to various political struggles, intersectionality, and reflections about the current moment. I found that people wanted outlets for their stories that were maybe mediums different than the ones they usually chose. Audio is so specific and, in some ways, very intimate. It gives us opportunities to close our eyes and be with each other in the dark, engaging different senses then we might be used to.

Photograph by Mendal Polish

This past year, we were faced with the tragedy of the massacre at the Orlando nightclub Pulse. On that fateful July morning, so many of us woke up to columns of clubgoer’s faces in the national papers and online, dozens of friends and queer family members who most of us had never met and now never will; we couldn’t look away. The travesty deepened as Islamaphobic backlash became the media’s reactionary ruse.

A dear friend of mine who is a musician wrote and recorded a song called “Bombs Away” that morning. It was based specifically on the account of one young person who was texting his mother from the bathroom stall in his last moments of terror. The song is raw, as my friend, Owen’s, grief overtakes him near the middle of the recording. I have carried it with me in my own grief and wanted to create a piece around it. Orlando shook a lot up and brought the sacred space of the gay bar into the public sphere. So many of our queer stories start on loud dance floors in bars, not unlike Pulse, all over the country. Those spaces have been our sanctuaries, the places where we learn how to find each other and build culture, flirt, release, hook up, and celebrate our lives. These places, noting the Stonewall Inn in New York City in the 60’s, were not always safe. Something that became more and more true since the uprising at Stonewall, however, is that there is safety in numbers. The way we come together to mourn this breach in safety, as at Pulse, is how we maintain our legacies of queer resilience. To honor the victims and survivors of Pulse, I wanted to create a piece with Owen that both celebrates the legacy of gay bars and queer spaces and also responds to that horrifying tragedy. We started the piece by interviewing folks about their first gay bar experiences and then we move to the morning following the mass shooting.

Another artist, Nova McGiffert created a piece using hilarious voice mail messages from her late grandmother. This work has a tenderness that shows love and acceptance from her family of origin, while also providing some levity based on this fairly mainstream elder’s understanding of her queer granddaughter’s potential whereabouts when she isn’t answering her phone.

There are ten artists that will be featured in the compilation of work, accessing a variety of tones and interpretations of the medium. I would like to see the listening event at the Power Plant Gallery as a first run of the installation and continue to build on the project.

To pull from the Story Corps motto, “listening is an act of love.” I welcome you into this world that we’ve created, and if nothing else, I hope it inspires you to tell stories as an act of healing and resistance, to listen harder to the world around you and the people, places, and communities that you love.

The Power Plant Gallery is a joint initiative of Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies and MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts program.

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