The word fluidity denotes a flowing, variable condition. Accordingly, the term is used in many different fields. In gender studies, it connotes intangibility, referring to forms of gender constitution that deviate from the norm. In contrast to the norm, which is unambiguous and clearly definable, fluid forms are ambiguous and elusive. Thus, any attempt to define a fluid form normatively will not be free of contradiction.
What do we mean by normative when we talk about gender constitution? Normative is the perception that every person has an innate gender structured as either a woman or a man, and that each sex is ineluctably attracted to its opposite. However, reality proves the categories of woman and man, as well as the resulting matrix of heterosexuality, to be inadequate. Indeed, there are people who do not conform to its underlying binary logic. The philosopher Judith Butler states: “The cultural matrix through which gender identity has become intelligible requires that certain kinds of ‘identities’ cannot ‘exist’ — that is, those in which gender does not follow from sex and those in which the practices of desire do not ‘follow’ from either sex or gender.” (Gender Trouble, 1990)
The now well–known term ‘homosexuality’ was first used in 1868. It was introduced into medical discourse two years later. The newly created term ‘homosexuality’ brought with it the new term ‘heterosexuality’, and then something odd happened: the construction of normality and abnormality. It happened even though same–sex sexual acts were known to be abundant, not only in all cultures, but also in all historical eras.
The introduction of the terms was problematic, not primarily because of their inadequate conceptualization of phenomena, but because of the legal and moral condemnation inherent in them, especially in the medical terminology, which designated the divergent as pathological. That relationships of power and privilege derive from such terminology is obvious.
In the 20th century, power differentials between various societal forces experienced some significant fluctuations. A clear example is the relationship between what is considered gender–normative versus what is gender–deviant. A milestone in this context are the events associated with the term ‘Stonewall’, meaning the ‘Stonewall–Inn’, a New York bar, where, in 1969, non–heteronormative people revolted against degrading and arbitrary treatment by state power. Stonewall marked the beginning of the gay liberation movement.
The gay liberation movement set significant transformative processes in motion. It advocated for the political and personal legitimacy and recognition of people not conforming to the rules of heteronormativity. It stood up for their right to be represented and, thus, their right to be visible in the dominant culture. Therefore, it opposed structures that enabled inequality and oppression to persist.
The successes of the liberation movement are unmistakable. It not only successfully promoted the recognition and legitimacy of non–heteronormative persons, but it also allowed them to publicly develop their identities according to their own particular interests, as signified by terms such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, intersexual.
Assertion of identities was an important means for achieving goals. It served political intervention and self–empowerment. One consequence, however, was the formation of normative categories of identity. And normative categories for constituting identity became associated with centralization and marginalization, leading to divisions within communities of non–heteronormative persons.
The emergence of queer theory in the 1990s opened up new spaces to develop gender divergence. Spaces not tied to the normativity of categories, but to factors such as ambiguity and ambivalence. In this context, the notion of a fluid self gains in importance, as an indeterminate form of gendered existence beyond the binary framework of gender construction, without becoming its antithesis.
Despite the immense successes won in the 20th century for gender divergence in the struggle for recognition and equality, there still exists a need for awareness–raising in broader circles of society. That some successes have been achieved does not necessarily mean that restrictive ways of thinking have all disappeared. Moreover, there is still a difference in the amount of effort that is required to constitute a gendered self. While heterosexual persons construct their identities according to norms attributed to nature, non–heteronormative persons must cope with the power of the norm, and, in addition, form identities adequate to their own existences.
Critically addressing the issues discussed above is a central concern to many artists who do not meet the heteronormative expectations of gender roles. With their work, they not only participate in the historical and aesthetic developmental processes of art, but they seek to stand up for the legitimacy of gender divergence, problematizing power relations. Art is able to reflect on matters of society and of humankind, and is able to do so through its own means.
The exhibition Fluidity is creating a framework for positions in contemporary art that articulate the spectrum of gender divergence. Positions that abolish certainties about gender, sexuality and desire and that illuminate how the commonly used identity categories, man and woman, heterosexual and homosexual cannot claim exclusivity. Based on the work of Loren Britton, Cassils, Shu Lea Cheang, Zackary Drucker, Alicia Frankovich, Philipp Gufler, Maryna Makarenko, Tejal Shah, and Ming Wong, the exhibition focuses on an area that, despite its importance, is still perceived only hesitantly and selectively. The nine invited positions deal with varied topics and articulate differing discourses. Their concerns include representation, self–empowerment, and social criticism. Instead of reproducing normative discourses through affirmation or negation, they destabilize expectations in the normative system, whereby they show the plurality and power of contemporary art in a global context.
The international character of the exhibition — which is reflected in the countries of origin of the participating artists: Canada, Germany, India, New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan, Ukraine, and the USA — underlines the fact that gender divergence exists regardless of cultural background and national borders.
Landschaftsverband Weser-Hunte e.V., Stiftung Niedersachsen, Karin und Uwe Hollweg Stiftung, Waldemar Koch Stiftung, Stadt Syke, Ifa – Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, Video Data Bank at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
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