Celebrating Difference: We Who Feel Differently

In the summer of 2012, the New Museum in New York City worked with artist Carlos Motta to create We Who Feel Differently, an exhibit on LGBTQ identity and rights. They took an interdisciplinary approach, combining art, oral history, and panel discussions to provide a fuller image of the lives and issues of LGBTQ people.

The core of the exhibit is a video installation, put together from interviews with fifty members of the queer community. The exhibits come from all walks of life. There are scholars, activists, politicians, and many other influential figures in the community. [1] Taking inspiration from the themes in the interviews, Motta created sculptures based on five themes they identified in the exhibit. With Equality, he pushed back against the idea of merely asking for tolerance, instead pushing for a real place in society. Defying Assimilation argued against fitting into societal gender roles. Gender Talents discussed trans, intersex, and other genderqueer groups, moving beyond the gender binary. Silence, Stigma, Militancy and Systemic Transformation looked at the AIDS awareness movement in the face of the US government’s silence, and at the state of AIDS today. Finally, Queering Art Discourses looked at the role of sexuality in art, and how art history has often ignored those issues.[2]

The exhibit space was designed specifically to encourage discussion and group activity, and the New Museum hosted a series of symposiums and discussions while the exhibit was open.[3] The exhibit opened with a symposium moderated by Ann Pellegrini, NYU’s director of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality. The symposium discussed the core idea of the project, that of embracing difference rather than trying to assimilate. Later on, while the exhibit was open, the New Museum held a variety of free public programs dealing with different facets of the exhibit. Group discussions, lectures, and even a walking tour were included in the programs.

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Choi Hyun-Sook speaks about LGBT rights in South Korea.

Motta expanded more on that core idea of difference in an interview with the Village Voice, discussing the exhibition. In it, Motta was critical of straight progressives who presented a narrative that everyone deserves the same rights because they are the same. This “Assimilationist Discourse,” he said, focuses too much on traditional social acceptability, rather than trying to change social norms so that diverse expressions of sexuality and gender are accepted.[4] With this project, Motta wanted to move away from Assimilationist ideas. He wanted to celebrate and encourage difference, rather than encourage conformity in pursuit of tolerance and acceptance. The goal of We Who Feel Differently was a “concept of equality that provides for greater personal freedom.”[5] The art in the exhibit embraces the aspects of gay culture that mainstream society often rejects as deviant. It expresses sex and sexuality openly, celebrating a side of sexuality that the gay rights movement rarely focuses on.

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Artworks from the exhibit.

While the physical exhibition is over, Carlos Motta has continued it online. The exhibit’s website, wewhofeeldifferently.info, continues where the physical space left off.  The original exhibit intended to use the museum as a hub for discussion and critical thought, but even with that done, the hub has continued. The website has video and transcripts of all 50 original interviews with people from the United States, Colombia, South Korea, and Norway. There is also a self-described “sporadic” journal on the issues facing the LGBTIQQ community, with issues from both 2012 and 2014. In addition, the website has audio clips from the symposium and public programs that accompanied the exhibit.[6]

Sadly, We Who Feel Differently  lost something when it went online. While the site offers resources to help people understand these issues, or to facilitate discussions, it lost some of the “hub” idea in its original concept. The website itself has no venue for comment or discussion, something that was built into the design of the original exhibit. While this is unfortunate, I feel it was inevitable. Online spaces are difficult to moderate, and the anonymity of the internet gives bigots an opportunity to speak unimpeded. Without staff moderating the site, the intended safe space would likely turn into a venue for bigotry.  As it is now, the site serves the public better as a resource to spark in-person discussion than it would as a forum.

Both in its original exhibit form and its current online form, We Who Feel Differently provides a broad, diverse view of the struggle for rights and identity. It embraces all aspects of LGBTIQQ identity, ignoring respectability politics and instead demanding a place in society. Not to be seen as the same, but to have the right to be different.

 

[1] “Carlos Motta: We Who Feel Differently” Accessed 4/17/2016, http://www.newmuseum.org/exhibitions/view/carlos-motta-we-who-feel-differently

[2]”We Who Feel Differently: Themes” Accessed 4/17/2016, http://wewhofeeldifferently.info/themes.php

[3]”Carlos Motta: We Who Feel Differently”

[4]”Carlos Motta, Artist, on ‘We Who Feel Differently’ and Obama’s Gay Marriage Stance” Accessed 4/17/2016, http://www.villagevoice.com/news/carlos-motta-artist-on-we-who-feel-differently-and-obamas-gay-marriage-stance-6716914

[5]”Carlos Motta, Artist”

[6]”We Who Feel Differently” Accessed 4/17/2016, http://wewhofeeldifferently.info/index.php

Featured image from Carlos Motta’s website. Other images from wewhofeeldifferently.info.

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