He Used Their Blood to Paint: ART 321 Exhibit Illustrates Exploitation of Trans People in Media
GRAPHIC CONTENT WARNING:
The following article cites examples of self-harm(cutting) and depictions of violence against trans people. Reader discretion is advised.
He used their blood to paint.
When Tyler Cessor, Executive Director of ART 321 in Casper began speaking during the gallery's Immersive Installations Reception on Tuesday, January 11, people didn't quite know what to make of it. Cessor had done an admirable job as the face of the gallery. He was professional, considerate, thoughtful, and kind. He helped turn ART 321 into a safe place for art and for artists. But on this night, in this moment, he just seemed...off.
It didn't happen immediately. When he was curating a discussion among the artists involved in the Immersive Installations show, he was as professional as ever. He asked the right questions, gave each artist a chance to explain the meaning behind their art, and did everything he was supposed to do. He even cracked a few, safe, jokes.
It wasn't until Gwyn Uttmark took the proverbial stage for their immersive experience, that his tone shifted. It happened gradually.
He began speaking about the past year in Wyoming, and the disheartening stories that trans people faced in their communities. He spoke about the trans magician who had to cancel a show in Gillette, due to community uproar. He referenced the person who was severely beat in Casper. He told us the stories.
"We know, it's been a pretty terrible year, right?" he began. "Everyone knows about it. Everyone knows about the trans-violence that happened last year. We all know about what happened up in Gillette. We know these things. And we should know. But to help with this, and because we've really appreciated the concerns about mental health that have happened this year, we're really going to focus today on looking at the state of mental health for trans folks. We really appreciate all the concern and we hope that you carry that as you leave these doors."
Cessor then delved into the history of the trans community, and how they were/are constantly exploited by those who claim to support them.
"You know, there's a long history of this," he said. "And we wanted to explore it. I've been asked to give this lecture about the history of trans exploitation and commodification by arts and culture institutions. And as we do that, we're going to look at the history of trans people that have been kind of abused and exploited by these institutions."
Okay, so far so good. But then he asked Gwyn Uttmark, a local trans artist, to assist him with the talk. He was a bit short with them, a bit dismissive. But it was probably just nerves.
Cessor then delved into a theory called repressive tolerance. Oxford describes repressive tolerance as "the passive acceptance of social and governmental practices, policies, and actions which restrict freedom in an absolute sense. It takes two main forms: the unthinking acceptance of entrenched attitudes and ideas, even when these are obviously damaging to other people and the vocal endorsement of actions that are manifestly aggressive towards other people."
Cessor referenced the story of Forrest Bess. Bess was an abstract artist who was born in the early 20th century and was active from 1946 to 1970. They also happened to be gay and transexual. During World War II, they enlisted in the army but, according to Cessor, they were "discharged after being brutally beaten just for being gay. This was well before 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'"
Cessor said that Bess' psychologist suggested using art as a way to process their trauma. So they did. And they were really, really good. So good, in fact that they were presented alongside Jackson Pollock and were shown in Peggy Guggenheim's art gallery.
"That's pretty significant, right?" Cessor asked. "If you're as good as Jackson Pollock, you should be up there, right? That's how we award accolades in society, by making sure that you're good enough; as good as Jackson Pollock. It's a great accolade, right? If you're a trans person and can make it into Peggy Guggenheim's gallery, you must be doing some pretty great work."
The problem, Cessor said, was that while Bess was producing art that was so good it could be displayed in Guggenheim's gallery, they were also writing a thesis about gender, non-binary genitals and how they wanted to unify the sexes within their own body. Bess continually asked that this thesis be displayed along with their art and every single time, they were turned down.
While he was lecturing the audience about the unfairness of it all, he nudged Uttmark. "Will you get ready please?"
He asked again. "Will you get ready please?"
So, Uttmark took a scalpel, and made a small incision on their own cheek. They instantly started bleeding and, as they were, Cessor took a paint brush, dipped it, and wrote down the date of Bess' birth.
The audience stood in silence as he continued.
"When researching Bess, one of the things that we found was that for most of their life, they were seen as just a gay man," Cessor said. "It wasn't until later, this last year, that they were seen as a trans person and that changed queer research. I just hope that we're learning about the stuff and we're investing. It's a shame that we don't spend more time talking about this and protecting queer and trans folk."
He then spoke about Christine Jorgensen, who was the first person to be widely known for having sex reassignment surgery.
"She's the first trans person to go overseas and get a vaginal plasty, and she came back and all of the press was outside of the plane, just looking at her, and they said 'Oh my God, she went from a GI to a bombshell," Cessor said. "The media just continued to make this huge fuss about her looking like a woman, and being a woman. She built her whole career around this. But at the same time, she just wanted to have a husband. She wanted to have a husband and be seen as this picturesque housewife. She ended up passing away in 1989."
He took the brush, he dipped it in blood, he wrote down the date.
"The thing about Christine is that she's the epitome of the exoticized," he said. "That's another phrase you should know, right? Cause we need little phrases. We need to learn all of this because that's how we show that we're good allies and great advocates; we say that we know the language. We know what to say."
Cessor said that Christine was exoticized and featured in the media, not for the things she did, not because she was a woman, but because she was a trans woman. 'From a GI to a bombshell' is the perfect analogy for this. She was recognized not for what she did, but for what she looked like.
"So we fast forward to a similar person, Candy Darling, who was born in 1944."
Another date. Another cut. Another stroke of the brush.
Candy Darling was a model and actress for Andy Warhol, the director and artist famous for the 'pop-art' movement. Darling starred in two of his movies and he constantly photographed her. She was, as her name implied, his darling.
"He loved to put her in magazines and in these highly visible places, but he didn't pay her worth a damn," Cessor revealed. "He paid her less than $50 per shoot. But Andy Warhol's rich, right? He made a lot of money, but she didn't, even though it was her body and her presence that was on everything. Again, it's a cis man making a ton of money off a trans person's body, name, and recognition."
Even worse than that, Cessor said, was the fact that Warhol literally could have saved his Darling's life, had he paid her what she deserved.
"Darling died in 1974, but the most frustrating part about this is that, again, she died in part because of her in-access to hormone therapy," he said. "How many of you know what hormone therapy is? Learn it. You should know it, right? If you're a good ally, you should know what these things are."
At this point, it should be noted that masks were required to attend the ART 321 show. If guests didn't have a mask with them, they were given one at the door. It was done for the safety of everyone. But during this part of the lecture, Cessor took his mask off. It was fine though, because he needed to be better understood. He wanted the crowd to hear him better. And it was just one other person that was next to him, anyway. It wasn't a big deal.
What is a big deal is the fact that hormone therapy is still inaccessible to people today, according to Cessor. But it was especially inaccessible back in the '70s. Darling, in fact, had to go all the way to Germany to get hers. She could pay for it at first, because it seemed as though she was on the brink of an incredible career. But Andy Warhol never paid her what she deserved, which meant she couldn't pay for the hormone therapy. She died of Lymphoma in 1974. She was 29 years old.
Cessor gave one final example of how the media exploits trans people. Her name is Laverne Cox.
"How many people know Laverne Cox?" Cessor asked. "Orange is the New Black? If you haven't watched it, you should watch it. That's what allies do; we watch transgender films, right? Er, I mean, films that have trans characters in them; not ones that are written by, led by, or directed by."
He spoke on the success of Laverne Cox. She was a big star because of Orange is the New Black. Interviews, and magazine covers, and Emmy's (oh my). It was a great time for trans people; a great day for America because we were finally showing that we're able to accept trans people. We put them on magazine covers for God's sake, what more could they ask for?
"We see a lot of people say that we've made a lot of progress, but even then it's only in news and in media and in things that are intangible to our local community," Cessor said. "In fact, it's less safe for people that are trans or queer in our community to just walk down the street and hold the hand of their loved one. But it's safer because we're on TV."
Cessor used his paint brush one more time to illustrate the point, to really drive it home, to let it sink in.
"When we look at Laverne Cox's life, she's also abused. She's also taken advantage of. She's also not paid. There's been no progress in this. We're still exploiting trans folk. So I jsut want to encourage you that if you do care about the mental health of queer and trans folk in Wyoming and Casper, that you step up and say something about it. And that you start to engage. Because that's what good allies should do. Right?"
And with that, the performance was over. The audience stood in silence for a few moments, trying to understand what they had just witnessed. Cessor gave a few more notes about the rest of the exhibits and opened the floor up so people could explore.
But it took a few moments for people to start moving. Undoubtedly, thoughts were racing. "What did we just see?" "What were they trying to say?" "How can we do better?"
My own thoughts were racing as well, but let's tell the truth and shame the devil; my first thought was 'This is going to make for an excellent story.'
So I sought out Uttmark. By the end of the performance, it was obvious this was their creation. And I wanted to know why.
"I think in many cases, there are a lot of people who want to call themselves something without necessarily putting in the work to be able to call themselves that," Uttmark said. "For me, that was church. People can call themselves Christian but then be really cruel to their neighbors. And I think nowadays, you see a lot of performative allyship. Folks will ask you what your pronouns are and they'll be really upfront about it, but then they won't use them. Or maybe they'll say they really support trans folks but then they'll make fun of a trans person on TV."
The performance suggests that allyship is easily offered, but only when it's safe. When a trans person is on television, or the cover a magazine, we can raise our fist in solidarity because we watched the show, we bought the magazine...we wrote the article. But what about when it hits a little closer to home? What about when a magician comes to town? Or what about when we see two people kiss? Or what about when an art gallery puts on a show that addresses these issues?
Uttmark said that actual allyship doesn't take a whole lot. The biggest thing, the most important thing a person could do for a trans person, especially in Casper, is just sit down and talk with them.
'We're all people," Uttmark said. "A lot of us are proud to be from Casper. I'm from here and I love it. We're just like you, we just do things a little bit differently But I think there's definitely a space in Wyoming for that."
What Uttmark is hoping to do, what many of the people involved in ART 321 are trying to do, is to make Casper a place for everyone, regardless of whether they're gay or straight or trans or cis or black or white or this or that. So many young people leave Casper, and Wyoming, to broaden their horizons or to 'find culture.' Uttmark and ART 321 want to bring that culture to Casper.
"It's my hope that people who are younger than me have an easier time and that maybe, someday, there's not this obsession with leaving Wyoming and getting to a safer place; that it's actually fine and safe to stick around here," they said.
Casper is trying. Every month, on the fourth Monday of the month, Casper Pride and the Self Help Center sponsor a 'Queer Space,' which is an "inclusive, accepting, safe environment to be your authentic self. To learn and grow." They offer a version for 12-18-year-olds every fourth Wednesday of the month as well. Casper now has a Pride Week, which provides opportunities for all sorts of different people to come together and know that they are welcome, they are worthy, and they are safe. More and more resources are becoming available for queer and trans people, regardless of where they're at in their journey.
And, of course, there is art. There is always art.
"I've been doing performance art for a number of years now," Uttmark said. "And it sounds really 'edgy,' but pain is the universal way to talk about experiences. In art that features more than one person, there's definitely an element of collaboration, but I do want to make clear that the script Tyler read was written by me, and all of that content originated with me."
In essence, the cis man was the bit player. His role didn't matter, because it's one we've seen a thousand times; the straight, white male lecturing the adoring crowd who nodded along with every word. Meanwhile, in the background was the trans person, silently cutting themselves to provide the ink for the story.
That is what Uttmark was attempting to demonstrate with their performance. They said the project was first conceived a couple of years ago.
"This piece originated in 2019/2020 while I was living with a performance group that I started at Stanford and I'm so happy to see it finally come to fruition," Uttmark said. " directed, wrote, and originated this piece and cast Tyler as the protagonist. He has been SO supportive and is a leader of free speech and art in Wyoming for sure - on top of that he was a great performer."
He was. The performance was so subtle, so nuanced, that it took people a while to realize what was going on. They signed a content disclosure and waiver upon entering the building that warned them of "self-induced pain (self harm), trans & queer violence and oppression/conformity, graphic displays of blood & cutting, variable lighting (though without strobes), and examples of chronic illness and medication, so they knew something was happening. They just didn't know what.
Uttmark's website, Queer Pain, states that "Trans and Queer bodies are objectified and commodified constantly; often commodification is insidious and subtle, with lots of middle men."
And that was the point of their performance. Many people who commodify, objectify, or exploit trans lives don't even do it consciously. Many of us don't realize it's happening until it's already happened. We're not malicious, but we're complicit and complacent. And we're so focused on speaking, that we don't stop to listen. But that's the most important thing we can do, as allies; not just listen, but really hear the stories of queer and trans people in our communities.
"I wrote a book and it's in the gift store of ART 321," Uttmark said. "It's about being queer in Casper. And if people want to buy it, great. But I would love it if people came in and interacted with me. You don't need to request an object from me, but I would love it if you just came in and talked. And thought. And maybe when you see some trans folks around town, ask them how they're doing. If you're thinking about this piece, you're doing what I hoped you would do."
I spent a long time thinking about this piece. I wanted to talk to Uttmark more about their experiences as a queer and trans person in Casper. I had so many more questions about how Casper could become an even safer place for people, and how I could play a role in that. I wanted to know how to be an even better ally to the people in my community who deserve the same amount of respect, safety, and worth as anybody else. I wanted to do all that, but I didn't. I left, because I had an article to write.
I was going to write a 3,000-word story on the commodification, objectification, and exploitation of trans people by the media.
Because that's what good allies do, right?
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please contact the National Suicide Hotline 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK
If you or someone you know is a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth, visit the Trevor Project website or call the hotline at 1-866-488-7386.