Queering the Image

Queer is a word with many meanings. In the words of sexuality educator Charlie Glickman, “It can be used as an adjective, an insult, a noun, an identity, a sexual orientation, and as a gender identity.” But queer is also a verb. To queer something means to re-interpret a cultural artifact (which could be art, but could also be literally anything) in a way that often focuses on reversing the heterosexual or heteronormative** way that we are all conditioned to interpret things. But more generally, to queer something is to look at its foundations and to question them. It’s looking at something in a new way that makes us question our expectations and assumptions. To queer something is to push the boundaries of our belief.

Any object (or person) can be queered, because nothing and no one in this world is precisely what we believe it to be. Furthermore, nothing is innately heterosexual. Every time an audience views a piece of art, it is queered. A piece of art has no truth or meaning; it is the audience who assigns the meaning. We don’t consume art. We reinterpret it, and in doing so, recreate it. We assume an active role. This process of recreation is also the process of queering. It’s something that we all do subconsciously, but recently I decided to make my own process more intentional. I believe that it’s important to explore new ways of thinking about our surroundings and relationships, and to expand our vision of the world. So I consciously decided to queer a piece of art.

I chose a photograph: Jeff Wall’s Picture For Women. I first saw this piece last year at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. It was featured in an exhibit titled, This Will Have Been: Art, Love, & Politics in the 1980s. It captivated me, and although I did not realize it at the time, I was queering this image. When we look at art, we queer it in some tangible way. It’s a valuable process that we should all try to acknowledge and encourage.

I picked this particular photograph is because it’s actually a queering of another image.  Jeff Wall has called this work a “remake” of Manet’s The Bar. He says: “I wanted to comment on [The Bar], to analyze it in a new picture, to try to draw out of its inner structure, that famous positioning of figures, male and female, in an everyday working situation which was also a situation of spectacularity…”. Wall re-interpreted the gender presentation of Manet’s painting, and in doing so, transformed the foundation of The Bar. Manet’s work inspired him to create a piece of his own; a separate take on the original. Wall recreated Manet’s painting in the new, more political context of second wave feminism in the 1980s. Picture for Women came into being with a queer intent.

When I first saw Picture for Women at the Walker, the woman immediately caught my eye. She controlled my gaze; I couldn’t look anywhere else in the room. It felt as though she was staring at me, and her stare was almost invasive. The woman’s gaze makes you, the viewer, into an object. Wall plays with the relationship of subject/object, of who is doing the looking and who is being looked at. Heteronormativity dictates that women are objects to be looked at by men. In this photo, Wall creates a female gaze. And through my interpretation of Wall’s intent, I am queering Picture for Women.

The best part is that every single person who has seen Picture for Women has somehow queered it, simply by coming into contact with it. Art is interactive, and each role is incredibly important. We as an audience have the potential to actually contribute to the art that we see. We can queer it, re-imagine it, renew it. And hopefully, we can re-inspire ourselves in the process. 

** Heteronormative is a term often thrown around but rarely defined. It is the belief that people naturally fall into distinct and complementary genders (i.e. man and woman) and gender roles in life. It asserts that heterosexuality is the norm, or the only natural sexual orientation. Often, heteronormativity leads to homophobia.

by Rachel Costello

@r_costello_ on Twitter 

Taking The Risk: Artist Dialogues

Artist Dialogues allow our community to experiment with what we’re really about, to “test drive” the creation of socially aware art. Ricardo Levin Morales’s dialogue about art’s medicinal qualities should be no different—it’s tomorrow, July 15 at 6:30. In case you’re still not convinced, I want to share with you about how special the last one was. 

In June, Face Forward team members and artists came together in a workshop led by Jan Mandell, whose Arts Literacy program has kids getting excited about the arts and about their schoolwork like never before. In social studies class, Mandell’s kids write poems about historical figures. They try their hand at writing in the style of the books they are reading. The classroom flows naturally from traditional learning to movement-based activities.

Why is this work so important to Mandell? When she was in grade school, Jan she was put in special education classes because she didn’t perform to standard on regular tests and assignments. But she was always drawing and writing poems.

When a teacher saw intelligence and promise in her artistic talent, and let her write a poem for a social studies assignment, Mandell finally started to thrive in school.

Mandell’s workshop brought her Arts Literacy program to other artists. It asked everyone involved to take a risk. For example, two people who have never spoken to each other, and may not even know each other’s names, must do things that two strangers in everyday life would never do. They make sustained eye contact. They get acquainted not by talking, but by figuring out how to move in unison, like a mirror and a reflection. They might even come up with a dance move together.

I couldn’t stop smiling during these exercises. There was something so simple and joyful about looking deep into a new friend’s eyes, and slowly raising my arm above my head while he followed suit. Picturing kids in St. Paul public schools doing these community-building exercises every day, as regularly as tests and worksheets, made me smile even more.

To end the workshop, we read Harlem Renaissance author James Baldwin’s letter to his younger brother, and then wrote to young people in our own lives. Jan reminded us that this alone was taking a risk. By sharing with new acquaintances about the people for whom we care deeply, we make ourselves vulnerable.

The unfamiliar can indeed be a little scary. But once you’ve committed to having an open mind, what is so scary about ducking into a community space and remembering how to be a kid again? How to play and laugh, especially with people you’ve never met. How to create something and present it to the world without shame. 

We invite you to come and play with us at our next Artist’s Dialogue. Again, more information can be found on the facebook event page. Don’t miss it!

by Andrea Wilhelmi

AndreaWilhelmi on Twitter

Joe Davis, Martyr for the Arts

“I am a martyr, I live and die in my art form”

Joe Davis, sometimes called the “love poet,” began to get serious about his work in his early teens. He is inspired by the peaceful words of Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon, and Bob Marley. In his work, you can feel him craft his words in a unique manner that pulls at the heart strings and raises the hairs on your arms.

At a recent Maya Angelou tribute, Joe shared some of his poetry with a room full of listeners. He captured the audience, rendering them speechless as he reminded them of the importance of love. “I am a lover and a fighter, ‘cause I fight for love.” I had to stop and think, do I always fight for love? Or do I forget about this in the day-to-day madness of work? Joe’s poetry provides a platform for the listener to be inspired to conduct a life more enriched with love.


Joe and I discussed what humanity would look like without art. In poetic fashion, he said that humanity would be a dull colorless place. We would be like life without breath, a song with no melody, an ocean emptied of her joyful waters.

Quite frankly, there is no better way to phrase what our world would be without art. Our souls pulse with the power of art. Joe captures that picture perfectly, as does his art.

Social media has recently become an important tool to boost this art movement as well. We now have at our fingertips the ability to share with millions our powerful voices. I asked Joe to share his feelings on social media, and how he uses it to promote his art.


“I think the outlet is neutral…I use my ‘Facebook powers’ for good,” which is to say, he doesn’t always promote is art but that of others. Much like other artists he notes that social media has allowed us to reach that would be otherwise unavailable sans internet. As technology advances, artists should employ it responsibly though, as it does influence society as whole.

Visit Joe Davis’s website: JoeDavistPoetry.com

Twitter: @JoeDavisPoetry

Youtube: Joe Davis

by Kallie Schell

@kallschell on Twitter

Artist Profile: Butch Roy, HUGE Improv Theater

It’s pretty common knowledge that the Twin Cities are home to one of the most vibrant theater communities in the United States. It’s less common knowledge, however, that improv theater makes up a significant part of that community.

HUGE Theater, a relatively new but very important player in the local improv scene, is one of the best spaces to experience improv for both newcomers and longtime fans. Founded in 2005, HUGE is an artist-led non-profit that offers improv classes as well as shows, distinguishing itself from other similar companies.

Last week, I sat down with HUGE Executive Director Butch Roy to talk about HUGE, improv, and the enigma that is “Art.”

Immediately after introducing myself, I asked Butch about the theater’s name. I was genuinely curious. How did they first decide to create HUGE? He laughed and proceeded to tell me that it was a “stupid gag.” He and his fellow founders first worked out of a tiny studio with very few instructors, so as a kind of tongue-in-cheek response, they advertised the company’s education aspect as tiny and its shows as HUGE (caps lock and all). As the organization evolved, the name never did. Like most things about the company, the name was born out of a shared sense of humor.


Photo Credit: The New Seed Theatre Company

HUGE is unique in that it focuses specifically on long-form improvisation. Short-form is the improv most well-known to the public, as seen on the popular TV series Whose Line Is It Anyway? “Short-form already has a home at ComedySportz [another Twin Cities improv studio], and we wanted to be a good neighbor,” Butch explained. “Short-form is easier to define and sell tickets to, but there was a wonderful long-form community in the Twin Cities that wasn’t being served. We’ve had to be very aggressive about making HUGE a space exclusively for long-form.”

The artists at HUGE refer to improv as “immediate theater.” Improv fosters collaboration in a very physical way, operating on the basis of raw and honest material. While a lot of people think of improv performance as scary or inaccessible, that’s not the message that the staff of HUGE wants to promote. As Butch elaborated, “Improv is applicable to a lot of things! I don’t want to sound too cult-like or touchy-feely, but improv helps you to create an open environment. It teaches you to act from a place of positivity, not fear. Essentially, it teaches you a different way to deal with fear at its foundation.”

In order to perform as an improv artist, you have to stop thinking and just do. It makes sense that improv can enable a low-stress way of thinking and being in the world. We could all use a little improv in our lives.

Although HUGE is definitely a low-stress space, it’s also important to remember that the company is a non-profit. As part of the Face Forward team, I recognize the difficulty of owning your organization’s success while also being cautious.

I asked Butch how he balances the two: “It’s easy to get overly excited, and as improvisers we focus on the positive. In the early years of HUGE, I think that I accidentally gave people the sense that we were doing fantastic. And we were, but also we were (and are) still very much in need, which is hard to communicate to people. Most of our equipment is donated. At the same time though, you have to be your own cheerleader. I haven’t quite figured out how to balance that yet, but I’m working on it. For now, when people ask me how HUGE is doing, I say, ‘cautiously great.’”


HUGE’s 3 Year Anniversary Photo, credit to HUGE Theater

HUGE consistently donates its space to Face Forward, The Theater of Public Policy, and other organizations focused on the intersection between social justice and the performing arts. Historically, improv (and theater in general) has been used as a tool to deconstruct oppression. Although that history isn’t overtly part of HUGE’s curriculum, the staff realizes that many people will use what they learn at HUGE to work through injustice in their own lives.

The artists at HUGE are very aware of how valuable space is to all performers, and that’s why they are generous with their own venue. As Butch said, “We can’t give money but we can give space, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need.”

During our conversation, we broached the subject of art. “Artist-led” is a phrase used to describe both HUGE Theater and Face Forward, and it brings up a lot of questions: What is art? How do you define an Artist? I am still unable to answer those questions, so I asked Butch for his thoughts on the subject. He promptly informed me that his four years at art school had stopped the “art discussion.” Maybe, he said, we should all just focus more on what we are creating and less on the notion of art. It’s like improv: don’t overthink it, just do it.

For more information about HUGE Theater’s shows and workshops, click here. And don’t miss out on the eighth annual Twin Cities Improv Festival, or as Butch called it, “Improv Christmas.” The festival runs from the 25th to the 29th, and offers both shows and workshops with visiting performers. Tickets can be purchased here. MN Monthly recently named HUGE Theater “Best Theater For Comedy,” so don’t miss out!


Photo Credit: HUGE Theater

by Rachel Costello

r_costello_ on Twitter


Project Earth 2014

Project Earth was a beautiful festival in Harmony Park (Geneva, MN), with dancing, music, and a safe community space. Everyone came together to celebrate Mother Nature in all her glory as well as the power of art.  Every moment of the weekend was filled with music or poetry. You couldn’t walk the park’s paths without seeing someone strumming a guitar, painting, or drumming. Project Earth celebrates not only art and nature, but also humans coming together as a powerful force for change.


courtesy of www.wookiefoot.com

Wookiefoot’s nonprofit organization “Be the Change” puts together this two day event annually. Project Earth promotes peace and social change while 100% of proceeds go to international relief charities. The festival builds community through camping, music, and interactive activities—like yoga and improvisational contact dance.


Face Forward artists collaborate onstage.

One thing that blew me away was the sense of safety and community. Everyone was there to share in the experience and willing to collaborate. Everyone repeats the phrase “Welcome Home” as they hug you, run into you, or just smile at you. Harmony Park really does become your home for a couple of days.

Within an hour of arriving, I explained to a neighboring campsite that it was my first year at Project Earth. A lady, who had been to the festival for many years, said to me “Set aside all of your worries for the next 2 days. Remember that you are here, and only doing good for others while you are here, and that is wonderful.” From that moment on, she always said hello when she saw me around the grounds.


More Face Forward artists at Project Earth

One of the most striking moments of community was on Saturday morning when Face Forward put together a community kitchen that was hosted by Lifted Mindz. Countless vegetables were cut up and dozens of eggs broken. French toast and pancakes were offered up. Fruit was provided. And a variety of sauces, like sriracha, ketchup and syrup, were made available to make each individual’s breakfast to his or her liking.

That’s right; Lifted Mindz and friends made a free, hot breakfast for as many people in the camp as possible. I was touched by this unique moment of hospitality, and so many people were thankful for a free meal before another great day of dancing, art, and music.

To say Project Earth is unique would be an understatement. To experience the festival was truly a privilege, and I encourage everyone to take part at some point in their lives. The sense of community, the beautiful art, and the phenomenal music is both unprecedented and a rarity. Take part. Be the change.

by Kallie Schell

@kallschell on Twitter