For a society recently focused on how rigidly we should adhere to the identities that are supposed to define us, Quintan Ana Wikswo’s new book of photography and stories comes as a spiritual guide. The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far is a book of stories that bend genres but also subject matter: while their plots are able to be teased out, they are written so loosely that any reader would be able to bring his or her own interpretation to them. Likewise for the photography: single images are shot across continents and time frames. To celebrate the launch of the book, Quintan has lined up a series of performances, exhibitions and Q&As across the country.
On the eve of her journey, we caught up with her to find out why she was so interested in weaving together all these story forms and artistic practices.
Alex Teplitzky: I’m interested in the stories in this book and how they relate to the photographs. Can you tell me about them?
Quintan Ana Wikswo: My other bodies of work surround uncovering time-space sites where atrocities have been intentionally erased by perpetrators of bigotry. This book – and its photographs – focus on the intimate lives of trauma survivors as they/we navigate the differences between healing and transformation. Although it is fiction, it is autobiographical, and is a tribute to how brains process memories of the past, perceptions of the present, and visions of the future through an alchemical catalysis of the verbal and the visual.
I write the stories and photographs simultaneously – I have a traumatic brain injury and often the visual cortex alternates with the language center in its functioning. So I haul my salvaged military cameras and typewriters to these sites, and shuttle back and forth between writing and making images as my brain function shifts its capacities.
The stories and photographs are investigations of how humans and ecologies can respond to exploitative trauma by fighting to transform, rather than attempting to repair an eviscerated past. Culturally, we have a punitive rubric around “healing” – similar to how we speak of “winning or losing the battle against cancer.” These are flawed dichotomies and conceptual architectures. I question whether healing is actually the ultimate goal after trauma, and suspect it’s more fruitful to instead take agency over radical transformation – of ourselves, as well as society and its systems.
For example, “The Cartographer’s Khorovod” is about two resistance fighters who have been in some way tortured under repressive regimes, and reunite a decade later and struggle to integrate their past selves with the re-invented selves they have become. The photographs for this story were created at two sites: in the coastal forests of the Baltic where Nazi tank fortifications and mass graves still remain, but the birch trees have used the hollows as incubators or nests for seedlings; in the Adirondack forest battlegrounds of the Revolutionary War where a group of Hessian mercenaries suddenly switched sides to fight for the Revolutionaries, there are traces of their encampments that have now become nesting sites for ravens, foxes, and existentially-tormented artists.
In “The Kholodnaya Voina Club”, a group of cold war enemy test pilots have crashed into the sea and choose to transform into fishes rather than to die as martyrs in the name of state ideology. To make the photographs, I worked with a fabricator to create miniature versions of these fighter planes, and at a 19th century trash dump and abandoned military airfield – now nature preserves – I created crash sites amidst other discarded relics abandoned by an ideologically consumer society, and hidden in the new growth of sea reeds, red algae, and other invasive species.
“My Nebulae, My Antilles” is a Schrodinger’s Box of a story – it’s either about a Latvian intelligence agent in the Antilles whose diary-letters to herself arrive so late that she can no longer recognize her former self, or it is about her erotic affair with an oracle in the Antilles who writes letters to her Latvian lover in the future, urging her to change and grow into something more magnificent than the Communist state will allow. Being a Schrodinger’s Box, it’s actually both at the same time – the internal and external forces of existential evolution are enigmatic. I made the photographs while travelling between the two sites – the photographs were taken in the migratory paths of the Anguilladae eels who are born in the Baltic and take so long to travel to the Antilles that they arrive as elderly adults, and also at a decommissioned Soviet-era paper factory in Latvia on the coastal road outside Riga.
Alex: Other series you have worked on within your Creative Capital project, Mercy Killing Aktion — Fieldwork/Out Here Death Is No Big Deal, Sonderbauten, and Carrie Buried Beneath Catalpa Beans — are in some part reactions to violence against queer, trans and female bodies. Does this new book incorporate these hidden stories somehow?
Quintan: Artistic, historical, and sociocultural gatekeepers’ reduction of queer lives and queer loves to constricted narrative tropes is a punitive and sadistic erasure. It’s a powerful kind of violence. It’s not the same as a mass grave – but yet it is the same as a mass grave.
Every piece this book has a queer romantic or erotic undertow that invokes the dance of power and vulnerability – a tango that is I think more intentionally and consciously navigated within queerness. Equally importantly, each story is written without defining the gender of at least one of the partners. The gender of the characters and the queerness or straightness of their relationship must be determined within the psyche of the reader, who will encounter a very intentional agency around their own assumptions of love, erotics, sexuality, the heterosexual tropes within queerness, the often obscured queerness of heterosexuality, and the biologies of gender.
At the heart of my book is transformation, transfiguration, and transmogification of self and identity. It invokes people who find within themselves the wherewithal to radically shift beyond the conventional definition of human, or woman, or man, or any living creature. The ability to become a hybrid is more possible every day – we live in an era where it is increasingly feasible to gain agency over our own physical and sexual expression. Transmogrification of self is the ultimate power…a potent alternative to letting the conventions of the day define who we are and how we are seen by ourselves and others. And this book celebrates that.
I must say, this book is a direct rebuttal to three cultural tropes that have long irritated the oyster of me into making some rebellious pearls. One is what let’s call the “reluctance” of publishers to print stories with queer characters – an antediluvian tradition which keeps innumerable gifted artists out of print, and one which in this case at least Coffee House Press comprehensively ignored. The second trope is that queer characters seem required to inhabit all their narrative space only being queer, instead of being, say, a mathematician who is queer but mostly is trapped inside a chamber nautilus under the Hadron Particle Collider. The third trope is that most queer characters in literature – and queer literary love – are forced to extinguish themselves in seemingly fated existential tragedies…most commonly suicides and other symptoms of crimes against humanity that masquerade as cosmically-fated hatred against the self. A kind of existential seppuku or hara-kari. My book offers alternatives to these restricted fates.
I understand the cultural and historical context of these tropes. I carry a lifelong obsession with the writing of Djuna Barnes and Radclyffe Hall and also of the gay pulp books of the early 20th century, almost all of which ended in existential tragedies – most commonly suicides or murders. But again, do we try to simply heal from the trauma of this cultural-historical narrative, or do we – especially artists – do the work of offering maps for radical transformation into unconstrained sexual and gender selfhood? What are the new stories that we need to tell?
There are many of us creating new narratives that place queerness within a rich multiplicity of overlapping contexts – sometimes being a human is more relevant than being queer, and yet being a queer human very deeply informs one’s existence. These concurrent identities have to co-exist in a prismatic complexity that inhabits a bigoted past and a determination for a liberatory future. And simply inserting a one-size-fits-all queer character into an otherwise straight story doesn’t work. Our society’s whole approach to narrative needs to be queered: complicated, intricated, dynamicized, inclusive, discomfiting, and shifting over timespace.
Alex: You’ve stated that in your research, you often inhabit a site for long stretches of time, sometimes sleeping there if necessary. For me this dedication to a specific site seems to translate to the viewer as forcing him/her to study the detailed and multi-layered images for much longer than one typically views photographic images. How have you come about this more time-based process, and how has it affected your work?
Quintan: All my projects are largely based on memoir and autobiography wrapped within poetics, metaphor, and abstraction, but two main life experiences influenced this time-based process of long-term dwelling within sites where I work.
One is that in decades as a human rights worker, I know quite well the difference between helicoptering into a complex site of trauma to work one’s prefabricated magic, harvest out some measurable outcomes, and then go home and reduce human devastation to a tidy pile of data…versus comprehensively and humbly inhabiting a community, becoming vulnerable and fragile enough to put oneself emotionally at risk, and developing a consensual conversation with all its conflicting realities, few of which are tidy or pleasant or even comprehensible. There is an exploitative violence to approaching human narratives of trauma – especially the trauma of persecution or profound suffering – as a kind of Coney Island daytripper’s afternoon.
The second experience is that much of my life was spent in places and situations where I experienced myself as an existential or literal captive. Where it was not possible to be a daytripper, even if I yearned for it. Where I couldn’t leave – where escape was for a long time impossible. I learned how that kind of restriction forges an intimacy with place in which one begins to hyper-perceive everything from a stain on a light switch, to the shift from peach to pink in a sunrise after a violent night, to the cry a bird makes when its egg falls from the nest, or the sounds in the night when the police rough up up all their undesirables.
In both those experiences, I couldn’t just move on to the next image, and I still can’t. And I discovered that one image is never enough to encompass the experience – it’s hundreds of overlapping exposures working in concert and conflict with one another.
All attempts at ethical living require infinite tenacity and stubbornness. There is a crucial kind of stamina and a patience that is too often lost in contemporary art, because we are being trained that endurance is only for 24 Hour Fitness, and not for participating in and respecting human self-expression. This is a muscle of the soul and psyche that must be exercised, and I practice it when I camp in an old weapons factory, or lie still at a cormorant sanctuary, or walk in circles for four weeks at the roadside where my friend was murdered.
Alex: While the style of photography in this book looks similar to your previous work, there is a noticeable different in place and cool palette. I see more images of pure sky, less desert, and even the ocean. The wonderful thing about your photography is that these changes in place are clearly visible, but it’s still difficult to pin down any specificity of place. Can you talk about the locations you visited, and why you made a decision to use them in the work in this book?
Quintan: One of the marvelous things about working with old-fashioned film emulsion and badly broken cameras is that they have minds of their own when working with light – in other words, they’re incredibly sensitive and idiosyncratic, and don’t miss a trick of latitude or ambiance or the subtleties of place…they see more than humans see.
It takes me a long time working with each camera to figure out how to produce an image at that particular spot on the earth…it’s partly why I’ve become a bit obsessive about salvaging obscure cameras that were manufactured in the place where I’m working. I think they are uniquely capable of seeing where they come from, where they live. For example, I brought a German Nazi camera to Northern Africa and it burned off all the emulsion on my film, which printed white. But I used it at a killing gas van for epileptic children, and it worked quite perfectly. Although in reality, it also worked quite perfectly in Africa.
I created this book during my so-called free time while I was working on projects about the European legacy of gender-based war crimes. You’re right – for those other images, I sought out profound abstraction juxtaposed against washed-out colors that seem to have faded over decades – as though they, like the sites of atrocity, are simultaneously being erased yet resisting erasure.
I wanted something very different for The Hope Of Floating Has Carried Us This Far. I created this book during the long bright summers of the Baltic Region – Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Russian, Finland, Germany – the visual vocabulary started when I looked out the window of an old cathedral in Tallinn near midnight around summer solstice, and saw a blue sky so saturated and intense that at first I believed I was seeing through stained glass.
But perhaps even more importantly, this book is about intimate erotic love and war stories, many of which come from the Baltic side of my family. Once we arrived in America, these places became stories, and those stories became saturated in my mind with fantasy and romance, war and fear. Like Technicolor movies. I needed to navigate this part of my family legacy, and work between these cinematic imaginings and the realities I encountered in my own experiences. So they’re vivid. And intense.
To be wading in a lake above CERN’s Hadron Particle Collider, or listening to a friend tell of finding the bones of concentration camp victims wash up upon the shoreline near his home, or looking at the yellow sofa where two Lithuanian women made love in 1937 – these are situations where the senses are highly amplified, and overstimulated. Everything is more pronounced. The sea is incomprehensively sea-like. The sky is mindbending. One can spend an entire day just staring into an aquamarine riptide.
Alex: With the launch of your new book, you are presenting an exhibition of photographs and video installations, and a series of live performances. Are these different forms of art (performance, book, exhibition) connected in some way? Are they meant to bolster each other?
Quintan: As artists, we have wasted a lot of time and talent policing and being policed by the petty fiefdoms of linear expression – we are encouraged to affiliate ourselves within rule-bound, isolated practices where only certain senses are welcomed. We can use our eyes to look at a painting, but we are not permitted to simultaneously use our ears to synthesize it with sound, or our arms to move with it. This is a constriction of the human capacity for inhabiting the sensory sublime – we have the capacity to integrate all our senses. It’s how we make love, or walk down the street, or spend time with the dying.
Polemics aside, I do think my brain injury in which unconventional neurological wiring often jumbles my senses – along with my inherent resistance to confinement – have created a patriotism around multisensory freedom of movement. I love to inhabit and invoke an n-dimensional sensory matrix – I’m not interested in inhabiting an isolation tank in which experts move through their proprietary checklist of acceptable methodologies within disciplines. I love the challenge of invoking the often antithetical structures, rules, traditions and values of disparate disciplines and seeing how the comfort and discomfort, awkwardness and grace speak to one another.
My transdisciplinary practice is also an attempt to create an inhabitable world with diverse points of entry in which both artistic expression and complex human perception are stimulated into a simultaneous polyphonic dissonance and harmony. I’m referring to the experience of the audience, readers, and participants, but also of myself, and how much capacity I have to make mistakes, try new things, and share my own overwhelming wonder at the complexities of self-expression.
The solo performance works are vulnerable, emotionally risky, and challenge me to move beyond my introversion into a space of connection, confrontation, and communion; collaborative performance with composers and musicians involves trust and interdependency. The writing is an intensely private act, a descent into the confidential psyche. Photography is a process of audacity and ethics – to assume my eyes and patterns of seeing are respectful and inclusive of our shared, multivalent realities. Video installations control time, and request others to agree to spend time within my world.
Combining all these elements is powerful and somewhat mystical – it’s a view into the processing capacities of the human brain… a terrain which is still a mystery to us all.
To see Quintan Ana Wikswo’s exhibition, performance and Q&As in a city near you, check out our event listings for details.