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Multidisciplinary artist Chase Joynt’s stunning genre-blending book, You Only Live Twice, co-written with Mike Hoolboom, was released in May by Coach House Books. A confessional theoretical exchange of vignette and conversation between Joynt and Hoolboom, You Only Live Twice explores the temporalities, potentialities and narrative challenges of “second lives”: that is, for Joynt, transitioning from female to male, and for Hoolboom, surviving a near death from AIDS. Joynt’s most recent documentary, Between You and Me, produced in association with CBC Docs, takes up the knotty intersection of complicated intimacies, mass incarceration and questions of social morality. Joynt corresponded with RL Goldberg to discuss You Only Live Twice, narratives of becoming, collaborative artistic practice and the future of trans cultural production.
RL GOLDBERG (MIAMI RAIL): In the foreword to You Only Live Twice, you call the conversation contained in the book, “a technology of profound intimacy, one that when rendered public will find new privacy again.” I was wondering if you could speak to what this “new privacy” means in the context of self-narrative.
CHASE JOYNT: I am borrowing from Foucault when I assert that all representation requires stylization. In the context of YOLT, Mike and I attempt to both sabotage and continually mark the failure of story and self-narrative—by undermining divisions between fact and fiction—as a way to create new aesthetic and affective channels for hopeful, collaborative resistance. What happens if we give up on the pursuit of capital ‘T’ Truth?
Foucault’s work continually reminds us that the story of the self cannot be separated from the story of the world—a necessary reminder when considering the historical trajectories of trans narratives in North America. The roots of trans self-summary are found in medicine, often within testimonies from patients published by service providers summarizing anomalies and/or case studies for their colleagues; a key example here is the canonical case study of “Agnes” as published by Harold Garfinkel and Robert Stoller at UCLA. It is easy to track how those medical summaries then become re-packaged as autobiographies, and that formula—moving from dysphoric association to one of binary resolve—is now firmly in place, and is assumed to be the truth of trans experience.
My first access to a public personal narrative that strategically defied easy categorization was through Kate Bornstein. Bornstein’s work mobilizes a version of the personal for strategic, performative, political gain. Similarly, Dean Spade’s essay “Mutilating Gender” is a provocative contribution to the interplay between the medical industrial complex, and the ways in which trans people might/can/could/don’t self-narrate.
RAIL: Definitely! And as you bring up Bornstein and Spade: I admire how your work is foundationally dialogic, grounded in juxtaposition (Resisterectomy, Between You and Me, Imagine Us, Akin, You Only Live Twice). There is a natural fluidity, a back-and-forth, and an openness to ambiguity, dialogue, and revision. This feels profoundly and broadly trans to me (transgressive, transecting, transfiguring, transitional, transdisciplinary). At the same time, trans art often feels singular and individualistic (memoirs especially, for the historical reasons you mention). How do you see your work in the context of a trans narrative or artistic canon? Of a trans aesthetic?
JOYNT: I understand my work to be an articulation of collaborative, interdisciplinary, methodological inquiry, inspired by the cross-disciplinary, conversational theory-making of people like Lisa Duggan and José Muñoz (2009), James Baldwin and Audre Lorde (1984), and Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman (2013). I take up Berlant and Edelman’s assertion that all relationality “puts into play reaction, accommodation, transference, exchange, and the articulation of narratives” on account of our proximity to, and engagement with, various forms of intimacy. As such, I employ—deploy?—conversation in strategic capacities to build upon legacies of thinkers who are collaboratively discussing social issues.
Those of us living in marked bodies—gender non-conforming people, people of colour, people living with disabilities— don’t have the luxury of opting out of the personal as a political project. I hope that my work contributes to a growing canon of work—trans and otherwise—that draws strategic attention to the simultaneous need and failure of the personal, through the manipulation of various aesthetic sign systems.
RAIL: Can I ask a follow-up question about your reference to those of us living in marked bodies? In the November 2015 Transgender Studies Quarterly article you co-authored with Kristen Schilt, you write about how, while working in the Stoller archives, you often wanted to disorganize the boxes to protect the identities of the photographed naked patients. You write, “Who am I? And what does it mean that I want to protect things/people by rendering them unfindable again?” As a multi-disciplinary artist, do you find that some media are better than others in making marked bodies private, politically autonomous, and personal?
JOYNT: The marking of bodies is so often embedded in the making of work. Legibility can sometimes be a choice. Mike and I approached YOLT with the shared understanding that narratives of both living with AIDS/HIV and transitioning had already permeated the literary landscape. As a result, we made choices to strategically experiment with form and genre hybridity. The traps of memoir are akin to the traps of documentary, in that narratives of becoming are often structured through conflict and resolution. By and large, contemporary North American media representation of gender non-conforming people demands that continued attention be paid to the process of transitioning. Artistic cultural production emerges as a method through which we can approach different questions. How might trans narratives be recapitulated as something other than that which presumes a known or necessary relationship
to a gender binary?
RAIL: The question of our relationship to binaries (gender or otherwise) makes me think of something Lauren Berlant writes, in Desire/Love, about how “fantasy denotes a sense of affective coherence to what is incoherent and contradictory in the subject.” Can you speak to how fantasy or desire operates in your work? (I’m struck by how much of trans artistic production refuses or elides description of trans sexuality or trans desire; I love how your work doesn’t!)
JOYNT: Your nod to coherence here reminds me again of the devastating impacts of living incoherently, or of claiming incoherence, in public space. We don’t have to look much further than the trans panic defense, the bathroom bills, or the continually climbing murder rates of gender non-conforming people to understand that living a life that challenges the gender binary can have brutal consequences. In YOLT, we use the somewhat fantastical structure of the dialogue to open up an otherworldly exchange. Talking to Mike openly within the world of the work meant that my soon-to-be-public disclosures had a container, a receiver, and an aim.
RAIL: Speaking of disclosures and aims: how do you know when you’ve reached the end of a narrative—or, if not the end, an em dash, or a semi-colon? What is your process of revision like?
JOYNT: Mike and I imagined a world for each other within YOLT wherein the partial story, and/or the fractional anecdote, could behave as the most trusted connective threads between us. Never imagining we could tell whole stories—and frankly de-investing in the idea and/or pursuit of wholeness as narrative strategy—meant that we met ends constantly. Signing the publishing contract with Coach House offered incredible release from our obsessive tinkering and provided new opportunities for collaborative learning. ‘Tis a strange thing to have an editor say: “Yeah, that part of your life? Not so relevant to the project trajectories.” What a dream!
RAIL: I like the idea of de-investing in wholeness as narrative strategy. I’m reminded of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, and particularly that line when Ismael says, “Perhaps we’re the same person, with no boundaries. Maybe we all flow into each other, boundlessly and magnificently.” This quote seemed to me to embody a lot of the content of You Only Live Twice. Perhaps I’m thinking of the Bergman simply for the scene’s sense of mutability, of both gender and historical inversion (conversion?). In any case, I wanted to ask about how your work has, over time, changed in teasing out the relationship between historical pasts, psychic hauntedness, and boundaries—either as it relates to a trans aesthetic or not.
JOYNT: I love this connection, and this quote. I hope that it lives in public alongside YOLT in some capacity. Thank you.
My early interest in trans narratives began in earnest amidst a crushing period of apprehension in the initial stages of my transition. Trans cultural production became an avenue through which I could imagine a possible future. That said, my early forays into trans art and related criticism also illuminated many missing pieces, and inspired ongoing engagement with the limitations of published trans histories. I continue to learn from work made by queer and trans artists of color, disabled artists, and indigenous artists who are asking similar questions of missing histories within our communities. In thinking about your question further, I realize that the hauntedness, stickiness, and connective traction throughout my work actually have very little to do with transness and everything to do with sexual violence.
RAIL: Can you say more about this? About your film Between You and Me?
JOYNT: As I was radicalizing around my own history with sexual violence while studying at UCLA, my friend Rebekah’s father, Michael, was convicted of 20+ counts of child sexual abuse and sentenced to 29 years in a California state prison. Between You and Me is a short documentary that follows Bekah and me en route to visit Michael in prison, and offers public access to many unspoken intimacies that surround these issues and offenses. The project is deeply rooted in and through questions asked by prison abolition activists, and positions our conversation at the intersection of debates between love, moral panics, and mass incarceration. Between You and Me is currently available online here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1tnBjgQgFY
RAIL: What inspires you? What have you been surprised to be inspired by?
JOYNT: There are numerous queer and trans artists working on and with histories of gender non-confirming people whose work I follow closely. In the digital landscape, Morgan M. Page’s new podcast One From The Vaults “brings you all the dirt, gossip and glamour from trans history” through audio vignette-style portraits of trans subjects predominantly in North America and Europe. Working in parody, performance, and digital détournement, multidisciplinary artist Chris Vargas—also, notably, the creator of the Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art (MOTHA), quite literally the smartest trans art project I have ever seen—provocatively intervenes upon mainstream representations of transgender subjects to offer alternative and often satirical histories.
RAIL: What’s the last thing you’ve read that thrilled you?
JOYNT: I keep returning to Claudia Rankine’s CITIZEN: An American Lyric (2014) with vigor, both for content and form. There, she positions text alongside images that have no immediate caption, a strategy that invites pictures to interact with the written work in a free-flowing, rather than demandingly directional, capacity. From a methodological perspective, I am interested in the differences between what we are told about something or someone and what we actually see; how our own interpretive experiences/silences/occlusions/lapses are informed in part by our own privileges and marginalization, a challenge that I believe Rankine approaches directly in the work.
RAIL: Is there a trans narrative you’d like to see told—by yourself or by another trans artist?
JOYNT: I’m invested in de-exceptionalizing what it means to be “trans.” If we fracture our understanding of trans from a contemporary identity politic, narrative, or related movement, and instead embrace it as a theoretical and/or aesthetic possibility, distinctions between trans and non-trans become productively muddied. In this way, I’m thinking alongside a push made in trans studies by Susan Stryker, Paisley Currah and Lisa Jean Moore to consider “trans” a method of inquiry that exists beyond, but not in spite of, its common suturing to “gender.” To this end, the potential of what might be considered “trans” expands exponentially, and we might be able to think about art and processes of representation as occupying transitional spaces, spaces that can rightfully be considered “not quite” or
“almost,” sparking anticipatory thoughts about future possibilities.
RAIL: In terms of future possibilities: what’s up next for you? Your article with Kristen Schilt in the November 2015 TSQ mentions an experimental book project visibilizing “anxiety at the archive”—is this something we can look forward to?
JOYNT: Yes! Kristen and I have a cross-disciplinary book forthcoming from Duke University Press for Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman’s TheoryQ series called The Case of Agnes. This fall, I will be on tour with multi-media artist Vivek Shraya, presenting You Only Live Twice, alongside Vivek’s debut collection of poetry, even this page is white (Arsenal Pulp).
RL Goldberg is a PhD candidate in English at Princeton University.