“Queer life and love in the 1980s was cruelly characterized by the knowledge that time was running out.”—Joshua Chambers Letson, After the Party: A Manifesto for Queer of Color Life
What if queerness is not out of time? What if it is in fact deeply entangled in time, intimate with its intricate loops, its swells, its passing lulls?
Consider the clock to be a geography of relation. To declare queer not out of time but in fact enmeshed with time is to dance towards becoming synchronous against the odds. Attuning across long distances, linking despite (or perhaps because of) grief.
To fall in time is to fall into a love unrequited: time cannot love you back, cannot nurse your wounds, cannot even promise you company. Time is out to kill, racing against us. Even yet—we rush to its side, seeking its alliance at a lover’s deathbed or amidst the off-hours communion of the dance floor.
Lately I’ve been dancing with archives. Everything touches up with everything: I am experiencing what seems a surreal level of synergy. An encounter with an artist’s retrospective at a museum lines up thematically with a new book on my shelf, calls to mind a favorite academic text receiving a new edition… and so a string of coincidences pulls me into the orbit of a cross-generational constellation of time stamps and passports to queer synchronicities.
I’m late to this party, but as I feel backwards, I know I can still reorient my body towards its queer temporality.
It’s been ten years since José Muñoz’s landmark Cruising Utopia came out, and as I revisit NYU Press’s website for the third time tonight to ogle at the new commemorative edition (somebody please buy me a copy), I’m hard-pressed to think of any other academic text that’s given me so much late-night satisfaction. The punk gusto of the opening page’s lyric salvo, gleefully proclaiming “we are not yet queer”—I’m happy to report the line is not yet old.
Undergraduate fervor dies hard. Re-reading my notes, I still want to leap into Muñoz’s time of ecstasy, want to accept his invitation “to stand out of time together, to resist the stultifying temporality and time that is not ours, that is saturated with violence both visceral and emotional, a time that is not queerness.” I want to know what a time that is ours would feel like. Is it sexy? Do I have to change my clock? Are we having fun yet?
12:15 (Chicago) / 7:15 (Cape Town)
Mid-day and I’m at the Art Institute to see Gregg Bordowitz’s retrospective exhibit I Wanna Be Well. As I enter the gallery space, I encounter a bold yellow banner declaring “THE AIDS CRISIS IS STILL BEGINNING.” Before it, a tableaux: on one wall, a clock bearing the time in Chicago (where the artist is based); across the gallery on the other wall, another clock gives the time in Cape Town, where HIV+ activists organize as Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) to access antiretroviral medication. Front and center between the facing clocks, Bordowitz positions a race car dressed in pharmaceutical decals. The installation stages a race against the clock, an urgent and ongoing dialogue of privilege and lack of medical access.
Unpack the present tense and it’s not so “still”—peel back layers of historicity and ambiguous futurities. AIDS may be less visible in Chicago now, but we are all still living with it. Even the week before I saw I Wanna Be Well: a close friend’s HIV positive diagnosis, yet another beginning.
What does it mean to mobilize rather than move on?
To keep watch is to bear witness, to look closely and attend to what is in front of us. It can take the form of a vigil: guarding over the dead.
I’d like to claim annotation as a form of watching. Or at least, an analogous act of care and attention. Stopping at a line or a still frame to look closer and get swept up by its reverberant ramifications. An annotation says: Hold on, there’s more here. I’m not ready to let go.
I am sitting with an image from Zoe Leonard’s Analogue, an exhibit cataloguing transformations in New York’s Lower East Side in the 90s and 2000s.
1 Hour Photo Video captures a closed photo/film development store (shut for the day or permanently shuttered?), reflexively pointing back to Leonard’s camera as complicit in its frame. It is pre-digital—a time capsule of an analog age. But even more, the “1 hr” flash development sign stands in analogously for what was lost in the name of gentrifying “development.” In the aftermath of AIDS and the Disneyfication of Manhattan, New York suffered an immeasurable queer loss of life. Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of the Mind charts the ways AIDS “coincidentally enhanced the gentrification process that was already underway. The process of replacement was so mechanical I could literally sit on my stoop and watch it unfurl.”
Far from mechanical, Leonard’s camera is still mourning.
From Gregg Bordowitz’s book The AIDS Crisis Is Ridiculous & Other Writings:
For an entire year I woke up at precisely 9:20 A.M.—the exact time Ray died—without fail. I watched Ray die… I didn’t make the connection between the exact time of my witnessing Ray’s death and the particularity of my sleep disorder until I woke up on November 9, 1991, at 9:20 in the morning, the one-year anniversary of Ray’s Death. I haven’t woken up from sleep at that time of day since.
What is the precision of Bordowitz’s routine if not an unconscious message from the dead? In a literalization of W.H. Auden’s elegiac imperative to “stop all the clocks,” his body is unable to punch out of the punctuality of Ray’s death. The particularity of grief manifested in the form of a sleep disorder: a physical need for synchrony.
A watch is a timepiece, but is it a piece of time? An instrument of its music? My lover and I are not in the same time zone, but we’re longing at the same time. We’re hungry to synch again, to lock up like melody and harmony.
We’re all in long distance relationships, I’ve declared at poetry readings. By which I mean us queers, running from our pasts, chasing our futures, sleeping with exes of exes. It’s like we’re in our own damn time zone, no matter where we are. I remember June 12, 2016—I was in London, coming out of an after-hours club as the news of the Pulse shooting was breaking. The sudden change in pulse. In that moment, all of the dance floors around the world weren’t big enough to fit our grief in.
I make a second trip to the Art Institute to further contemplate Bordowitz’s exhibit. Circling back to the facing clocks, this time I can’t shake the spectre of another queer work featuring two clocks: Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Perfect Lovers).
Not facing each other, but spooning on the wall. Touching. Their outline an intimate parenthesis or an infinity loop, ongoing and limitless. Mechanically ensured to be perfectly in-synch, the minute hands sweep together for forever. A vulnerable portrait of queer love in time.
As Joshua Chambers-Letson annotates the work in After the Party, “Ross and Felix were together for eight years, and for much of that time they couldn’t be in the same place. But apart, they were in synch. They were with each other. Perfect lovers.” Being with, being in synch no matter what. To keep holding on, to remain present, even during the long distance phase of a relationship (in Ross and Felix’s case: Toronto-New York) or after death’s division.
Of this work, Gonzalez-Torres admitted, “Time is something that scares me… or used to. The piece I made with the two clocks was the scariest thing I have ever done. I wanted to face it. I wanted those two clocks right in front of me, ticking. The idea of pieces being endless happened at that point because I was losing someone very important.”
Face it: face its sea of ticks, its plenitude incommensurate with a lover’s dropping T cell count. Stand in the thickets of time, in the thick of it, its thorny knottedness. Minute by minute, bury yourself in its minutiae.
For the writer, a book rarely begins on the first page. Starting in media res—the assumed familiarity, as if the idea is already in flow, the conversation’s currents in motion—somehow feels easier.
So I was not all that surprised when, in the midst of a conversation with Joshua Chambers-Letson about After the Party, he confided in me that his book began with a middle chapter—specifically, a meditation on Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s art (whom he refers to on a first-name basis).
I went to grad school to study with José [Muñoz] because of his work on Felix. Writing about Felix had always been a way of writing to my mentor. In the weeks after José died, I started writing about Felix as a way of keeping our dialogue alive. That writing was the seed of this book.
For Joshua, annotating Felix’s work is an intimate dialogue with his mentor, an encounter with his absence. Continuing that conversation becomes a way of sustaining memory, of lingering in a time of mourning. Analogously, Joshua points in his book to how, after Ross’s death, Felix “sustained his dialogue with Ross, and unsure of where to go next, he began to make more work.” After stupefying loss, Joshua and Felix both gathered and germinated seeds for more life: more Ross, more José; more art, more writing. For both, looking back becomes the only way forward.
The supervalent bond of an untitled love. A nestling open parentheses perfect lovers close parentheses, whispered almost as an afterthought. Pillow talk. “Perfect” is a loaded term, but here I choose to believe Felix was not advocating for precision or certainty so much as perfectibility. That through love, one can be completed. Where one ends and the other begins, a synching up defies the borderline of finitude and endlessness. Such that, as gay lib activists insisted, “an army of lovers cannot fail.”
We beat on.
Featured image: A race car sits on a white pedestal in the middle of a gallery. On the wall behind it, a yellow banner reads in red letter: “THE AIDS CRISIS IS STILL BEGINNING.” Installation shot of Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well, 2019. © Gregg Bordowitz. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Noa/h Fields is a genderqueer poet and teaching artist from the West Side. They have written for Anomaly/Drunken Boat, Telekom Electronic Beats, Sick Muse, and Scapi Magazine, among other publications. Their first poetry book WITH is out from Ghost City Press. They are fond of techno and avocados.