Institute of Contemporary Art presents ‘Tag’ and ‘Cary Leibowitz: Museum Show’ (second review)

Games (queer) people play

My background is not in the visual arts. But here are my qualifications for reviewing Tag: Proposals on Queer Play and the Ways Forward at the Institute of Contemporary Art: I am a lifelong gamer, a queer cis man, and a biracial person of color in my late 20s. I am a performance artist whose work combines live performance with game design. I have a vested interest in the ways that play and queerness intersect, both academically and practically.

Robert Yang's 'Radiator 2 (still)' (2017) shows an image from his video game, which was already locked out. (Photo courtesy of the artist.)

Queerness is innately tied to the body. So, from my perspective, it’s necessary to unpack these identities and discuss them up front. And the intersection between queerness and play, as curator Nayland Blake notes, is where queer people find who we are.

The magic circle

Playfulness is a way of being: always exploratory, sometimes serious, sometimes silly, often both. Through playfulness we discover boundaries. Play is active and invites participants into a “magic circle” with a clear set of rules. It requires consent to work. Participation in furry culture is play. Participation in kink is play. We find how we want to play by being playful.

These issues are deeply personal for me. But while I found Tag’s content successful, I was frustrated by Blake’s curatorial model, which felt neither playful nor queer, creating a limp framework for exciting art.

The works ranged from actual games (my favorite pieces) — both digital and analog — to large-scale environmental installations and traditional art objects. Not every piece involved literal play, but all held the potential for playfulness, a distinction that was overlooked.

The way curator Blake presented A.K. Burns's 'Living Room' (2017) didn't leave much room for living or play. (Photo courtesy of the artist and Callicoon Fine Arts, New York.)
The way curator Blake presented A.K. Burns's 'Living Room' (2017) didn't leave much room for living or play. (Photo courtesy of the artist and Callicoon Fine Arts, New York.)

In failing to define the two, Blake allowed play to become a catchall term, in some ways like queer, but without real meaning. What I wanted from this collection of individually fascinating and personal works was more of both

The exhibit felt too academic and institutional to allow for true play. Consider Robert Yang’s Radiator collection, which lost important messaging because major mechanics could not be correctly communicated, and was intimidating to play in an exhibition setting.

Yang’s Hurt Me Plenty, a digital spanking simulator, operates on the premise that if the boundaries of consent are broken, the game will lock you out from playing for days. At ICA, the game was already locked (someone must have spanked too hard), but with no explanation.

In the presentation of A.K. Burns’s work, an installed space reminiscent of queer-inhabited industrial lofts, a couch faced projected videos. The audience stood on the fringes to watch. It wasn’t until a child wandered into the space that it was clear traditional rules could be broken.

But no one followed suit. I asked the guard if I could sit on the couch, and the answer was no. What is gained in embracing only the idea of play? Queer play is radical; let me sit on your art object.

Who’s playing?

This sense of play felt more successful in Cary Leibowitz: Museum Show (on the second floor, organized by the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco), perhaps because it presented only one point of view. The entire gallery was transformed, painted in Easter-esque pastels and lined from ceiling to floor with Leibowitz’s work (often in a similar color palette). The works all felt self-referential, with one piece pinging off of another across the space, empowering me to be an active participant, seeking out connections one room to the next.

An image from 'Cary Leibowitz: Museum Show' offers a peek into the artist's
An image from 'Cary Leibowitz: Museum Show' offers a peek into the artist's "clearly developed world." (Photo courtesy of JKA Photography.)

Leibowitz’s work, and the way it was presented, made me feel like an accomplice to play by existing in such a clearly developed world. I understood the rules through which this artist created, and could follow the action as if I were the person playing.

If the intent of Tag was academic analysis, its lack of curatorial notes left me without a framework to understand how the artists were playing. With such a vast array of queer play, I could have gained so much with just a little more insight into the games.

In part because queerness is an identity that holds many others, I missed major details of the work by not knowing the identities that created the artists’ points of view. Is Tommy Bruce a member of the furry community, or just someone interested in putting that community on display? Are the photographs of naked men of color being filtered through a white gay eye?

The narrative changes depending on context. On a personal level, that exploration via play is not inherently wrong, but when presented with no context in a gallery space, you run the danger of commodifying already delicate narratives. Queer play must be sensitive.

This is an exhibit worth seeing. It displays such a variety of often unheard voices, exploring how they make sense of an oppressive society. It allowed me to leave with questions about my own relationship to queerness and play. Do we play for ourselves or for others? If we play for ourselves, what is lost when we turn play into an object to be analyzed or consumed, especially as queer people who must adopt a lifestyle of playfulness in order to survive?

I wish that the sense of queer playfulness was engaged in the overall exhibition. I had to work to discover the questions I left with, but if I was asked to play along instead, I could have discovered so much more.

To read Gary Day's review, click here.

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