In conversation with Chris Bernsten

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Photographer Chris Bernsten’s portraiture is focused around ‘queerness’, but it’s a queer representation explored beyond what it’s too often prescribed to- mere sexuality. Tattooer and artist Tamara Santibanez interviews Bernstein about the roles of gender, sexuality and identity in his work before his new show ‘Twilight Children’ opens at Gulf and Western Gallery, New York.

Tamara: First of all, I want to hear about what you’re showing, when you’re showing and what the body of work is for the show.

Chris: My show is called “Twilight Children” and it’s going to be at the Gulf & Western Gallery which is 721 Broadway at Astor place. I am showing hundreds of photographs collaged on the walls from the last few years.  It’s really an exhibition about queerness, not just in terms of sexuality, but in terms of a queer lens on seeing the world and experiencing things. To me the show is about connection and sharing time and space with people, and to me thats always been the driving force for me-actually connecting with people. It’s a fair amount of portraiture and intimate work with people that I’ve known for years and love and care about and I just want to fill the space with them and be able to show people that- show the things that we do and the places that we do the things that we do in.

T: Earlier you spoke about queer spaces, queer communities, and you also spoke about riding trains as queer transit. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?

C: Queer just means so much more than a sexuality or an identity. Queer is doing the thing that is not expected. Doing the thing that doesn’t cost anything or doesn’t get money made from it. If you’re riding a freight train you’re not spending money on it and you’re seeing the landscapes of the country that very few people get to see. You’re seeing the backsides of these businesses, you’re cutting through weird mountains and smelling all the factories that are making cereal for us. You know? And you’re buzzing from one city to another and you’re bringing your ideas and your experiences and you’re going from one community that might not be making a lot of money and you’re going from the punk show to the queer dance party…and you’re in New Orleans at the party and then you go to Memphis and have a whole other different experience. For me in a lot of ways it’s about the act of doing something that might be dangerous and is autonomous. Mechanisms of control have been removed. We are in spaces that there aren’t cops hopefully, we are doing things that we are risking arrest for. Whether that’s having sex in public, riding a freight train or having a weird party. We are just being out and being who we are and risking some sort of confrontation. So it’s really just about autonomy and it’s about vulnerability and sharing that – that is what draws me. Both how fierce all of these people are – the risks that we take just living and the beauty of being able to photograph that with that person- and be welcomed in, in a way that feels really vulnerable. Both certainly for them and for me too in the act of wanting to take someone’s picture and share it and really need to rise to that occasion.

T: I think historically we have seen the ways in which a heteronormative, capitalist, white supremacist patriarchy has excluded so many people from engaging in ways of expression and socialization and participation that those people have been forced to create an alternate world for themselves. Subculturally or on the fringes or within that framework, outside of it, and the ways in which that can become a very vibrant and beautiful place to be, but it remains in opposition to the mainstream. It sounds like what you are describing and obviously what I see it as as well is like a very joyful resistance. So I think that it’s really significant that you are showing that world. I think that there is a lot of queer photography we are seeing now, especially a lot of more maybe less intentionally created queer photography that can be insistent on either driving a wedge that much further between the two worlds or being overly insistent that that one can join the mainstream.  Which is fine if that’s how you want to engage, but there’s also an alternative to that which I find more important to consider. Maybe a little more subtle or more quiet, which I think your photos do really successfully. It doesn’t have to be about wearing sexy lingerie to be sexual or express sexual identity.

C: I want to hold on to that phrase “joyful resistance” that you said. I feel like that’s what my photography is. It’s not meant to be combative, it’s not meant to  make some really heavy-handed statement, and it is joyful. I’m interested in celebrating people. My work doesn’t show how hard it is or the anger. Those things are there, but we are thriving and living and we are totally connected to the world and we aren’t just living in our own world, we are doing all the day to day things but still finding time and space to have some feeling of we are doing what we want, we are being who we are, and there is a joyful resistance. I do think that there’s an interesting nexus- there’s so much assimilation going on it’s crazy. Everyone is just being given bit by bit access to fame and fortune in ways within queer identities- who is being excluded from that or who is being talked about right now vs. in 6 months from now…there’s all this interesting stuff going on and I feel like I guess I’m getting a little lost in it.

T: How do you feel your work fits into what’s happening now in a larger cultural sense, as far as gay marriage being legalized, trans rights being recognized , the gay civil rights movement?

C: I feel like I’m a dinosaur in all these ways. Because my work is documentary in nature it’s pretty true to life even if we are setting up an idea of “oh I wanna take this picture of you” and controlling it is still very much grounded in reality and it’s grounded in a fundamental love and respect for other people and I think thats archaic at this point in art making.  I’m just totally feeling left behind, and I’m really glad to see all of the work that’s being made by queers, I just in a lot of ways feel like a slow moving kind of dinosaur who is just continuing to make this kind of work.  It’s so fascinating to see this changing topical landscape.  I’m on the line at the grocery store and there are trans rights issues being talked about on the cover of People magazine and Time magazine and it’s really amazing and I’m so glad thats happening, and as that’s happening I’m just continuing to make this work and don’t know if it’s affecting me but it’s maybe making people more interested in looking at my work.  I think queerness is a particularly hot topic but I’m going to keep doing this and hopefully in 6 months when people are talking about whatever the next thing is, they don’t forget about queers or justice.

T: Let’s go back to what we were talking about before, about people using images of queers and people using images of gay history or gay lifestyles. People who aren’t themselves involved in that.

C: There is such a trend recently…art has always relied on shock value , right?  And I think so many people are using queer or gay imagery while not necessarily identifying or living those lifestyles.  I don’t want to say that they can’t do that – because we can have conversations that are not about who we are or what our experiences are- but people are relying on it as shock value and it just seems like it’s a disservice to people’s creative practice to do so. I don’t really see what the point is.  What’s funny for me is I love a certain amount of shock value. I want to see people shocked and appalled at like 50 dudes dressed to the nines in leather outside a bar and I want them to cross the street, but I don’t know where that fits into the realm of making art. It seems like it’s this easily digestible thing and i think it’s kind of a…

T: Well it’s all about power, isn’t it?  Whether you as a gay leather man have the power to attract or repulse versus whether you as a straight person are taking that power and using it.  You’re taking it out of the hands of that person.

C: I think that artists can sometimes more easily create work when they are separated from the subject, the content or the experience themselves.  Because they are literally objectifying. So it might be easy for someone to say “oh I wanna make this work and show a bunch of leather daddies,” meanwhile they’ve never been in a leather bar. You know?  They’ve watched “Cruising” or something and then suddenly want to depict fisting and never been fisted. They wouldn’t even know how to act in a leather bar. It seems strange to me. I don’t really know what to say other than I’m not really sure why the work is being made other than to shock people. I don’t know why someone wants to shock people about a lifestyle they aren’t actually connected to. Yeah, there is power in being shocking, right?  In a lot of ways leather was a reaction to showing a hyper masculinity. Both because homosexuality was thought of as being a very feminizing thing.  But also there was a lot of people probably being gay bashed so this was a way of being tougher and being able to stand up to it and I don’t know if people that are using that imagery who aren’t connected to it are necessarily thinking about the historical context as to why does this exist in the first place. It just feels kind of strange so it’s hard for me to want to use…I want to photograph all these leather daddies but it’s hard for me because I don’t know…

T: If you can communicate all of that?

C: Yeah but what’s funny is that I can guarantee you that none of these leather guys are seeing the work that’s being made by these people who have no connection to leather.  They probably have no idea how fetishized in this very moment that life is because they are totally in a different world. So you have this art gallery showing these things and the people who are living the life have no idea because theres no intersectionality. I am too connected to those things. I know these people too much to know that I can’t just use all of that. It would be totally a disservice.

T: Do you think that that type of imagery is losing its potency in the face of greater understanding of varied gender roles and varied sexual expressions?

C: I think that as art has a tendency to show a lot of some thing that has this trickle down effect where eventually you see it becomes just very normative, not shocking. So the fact that it’s this first tier of “let’s all make work that’s kink oriented” and possibly not be connected to it, it definitely waters it down as cultural content for creative practice.  I don’t think it actually ends up effecting the real lifestyle though, the same way that people get upset that when pictures of freight train hopping are depicted in a gallery space. The reality is no one seeing those pictures in a gallery context is going to wake up go and walk into a freight train yard and get on it the next day. It’s actually just too scary. They are too outside of it. No one’s gonna see a drawing of a leather daddy and walk into the leather bar and be in there for more than 10 minutes without either getting something out of it and making connections and growing or being scared off, or maybe just being so socially ostracized to where they just leave. So hopefully the reality of community doesn’t get too affected by these things. Does it get watered down? Absolutely. We see it at art fairs, everyone is just making work about kink and it just makes you wanna walk past that work so fast because it feels very topical. Which is unfortunate for people who want to actually have a long conversation about it.

T:  What’s funny is you said that about art fairs and kink – I see the opposite, I get the impression that it’s so oversaturated with that type of imagery, but when I go to these fairs I don’t actually see it represented there.  Which makes me think that the work needs to continue being made, but then it also makes me think that the people who are making it are some what subculturally affiliated even if they are not as immersed in the lifestyles they are representing as I think that they should be.  Which is a little more disturbing potentially because it begs the question- you are somewhat involved in this, shouldn’t you be more invested in it?  Shouldn’t you be more protective of it or have a little more integrity as to how you want to represent it ?  I don’t think that it’s quite as much being picked up by clueless people with no connection to it. I think that people have to have some awareness to it to have that initiative in the first place.

C: I think I’m just kind of a dinosaur in this way too, like you really need to be able to stand by your work. And I feel like I can’t move that fast. I can’t decide next week to make work about this one thing and keep moving, I feel like I owe so much more to an idea and to a community that I have to move so slowly.

T: Well it goes back to the idea of it being a lifestyle, that your art is made alongside the life that you are living.

How long is your show up?

C: My show is opens on Thursday, December 3rd from 6 to 8 and I am going to be taking over this whole big back space and doing a slide show. The exhibition is on view from that night until January 16th.

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