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Drawing as Repertoire

Three drawing practices that resist embodied matter out-of-place

Martha Newbigging

Drawing to mark space—to tag, to proclaim, to territorialize,
to chronicle, to affirm, to celebrate, and to perform. 

How might drawing be used to contest spatial injustice, violence, and fear within contemporary North American cities? Consider three artists/activists, Coco Guzman, Jeffrey Cheung, and Syrus Marcus Ware, who all make drawn marks to represent the human form. Each of these artists uses drawing to symbolize and represent very particular bodies—queer and trans bodies, Black and brown bodies. Respectively, these drawings occupy the public washroom, the urban streetscape, and the state art institution. To understand how their drawings contest experiences of spatial inequality for racialized and gender diverse citizens, I consider D.B. Dowd’s concept of the graphic in conversation with Diana Taylor’s notion of the repertoire. To further this analysis, I bring in John Berger’s ruminations on drawing and Honor Ford-Smith’s interpretation of matter out-of-place. Drawings are graphic marks of symbolic communication. Drawings can also mark public space as embodied repertoire. Guzman, Cheung, and Ware situate their drawings to perform acts of resistance and survivance, empowerment and resilience. These drawn bodies mark presence in public spaces that are typically exclusionary and/or dangerous to bodies like those of the artists. By locating their drawings within particular urban settings, these artists contest and resignify their own embodied experiences as matter out-of-place in the contemporary city.

Honor Ford-Smith uses the concept matter out-of-place to understand how violent histories such as plantation enslavement in the Americas extend into the present day to geographically shape urban life for Black people. Ford-Smith notes, “there is a spatial aspect to the enduring presence of this violent legacy—both transnational and local—[in] what it does to certain bodies”. (1) The term matter out-of-place was coined by anthropologist Mary Douglas in 1966. She identified that matter, such as human bodies, could arbitrarily be deemed good or bad—in the right place or in the wrong place—based on socially constructed values. Ford-Smith paraphrases Douglas:

The meaning attributed to dirt is connected to the categorical classifications ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ and the distinctions maintained between them . . . what is considered clean or dirty in any particular society has to do with the boundaries that maintain the classifications that hold a society in place . . . Rupturing [such] categories can be dangerous because in rupturing the distinctions that rest on them, they also seem to threaten stability and so called moral purity. Dirt in such a schema is more than a waste object to be discarded; it can also be a metaphor for the way some humans are seen. (2)

Ford-Smith suggests that when certain bodies cross particular spatial boundaries, they embody matter out-of-place and consequently, through their mere presence, challenge dominant notions of who belongs where. (3) This spatial transgression into forbidden space may result in forms of assault on a body. The artists considered here each have lived experience of being deemed as matter out-of-place based on their transgression of social boundaries categorized by race, gender, and/or sexuality. I suggest these artists use drawing, each in quite different forms, to occupy these forbidden spaces. The drawings of these artists enact a repertoire that speaks back to inequity and marginalization as matter out-of-place within urban settings.

To illustrate, consider a much earlier work, Adrian Piper’s The Mythic Being project from the early 1970s, as an example of an artist who used drawing to transgress spatialized boundaries. Early in her art career, Piper observed that once it became known she was a Black woman, she was subsequently excluded from certain high-profile New York art galleries. (4) As an artist who was Black and female, Piper was matter out-of-place in the predominantly white and male commercial art world of the time. Cherise Smith notes that this exclusion led Piper to shift her art practice to a focus on her body and subject-object relations. (5) Piper’s The Mythic Being project consisted of her drag performance on New York city streets in conjunction with a series of graphic ad-works she ran in the gallery section of The Village Voice from 1973-1975. (6)  The drawings Piper published were collages—a cut-out photographic representation of her alter-ego positioned next to hand-drawn text within a cartoon thought-balloon, all enclosed inside a rectangular border to connote a comics panel. In the panel, Piper’s figure is shown in male drag as the Mythic Being, wearing a moustache and Afro wig. The cartoon thought-balloon reveals intimate personal reflections quoted from Piper’s own teenage diary. Piper disseminated this drawing motif by purchasing newspaper ad space seventeen times, repeating the persona with new diary entries in each iteration. The use of the comics form inserted into the gallery ad space enables Piper’s drawings to function as performance. The cartoon persona has transgressed the gallery space of the newspaper. Without seeking approval, the Mythic Being bypasses curatorial jurisdiction to voice personal experience directly to a public art-consuming audience. 

Piper’s use of the graphic ad-works within The Mythic Being project illustrates how the symbolic representation of drawing might be situated to perform experiences of inequity and exclusion. Diana Taylor distinguishes between the archive and the repertoire, noting the contrasting way each holds or transfers memory and knowledge:

‘Archival’ memory exists as documents, maps, literary texts, letters, archaeological remains, bones, videos, films, CDs, all those items supposedly resistant to change . . . The repertoire, on the other hand, enacts embodied memory; performances, gestures, orality, movement, dance, singing–in short, all those acts usually thought of as ephemeral, nonreproducible knowledge. (7)

Curiously, Taylor does not explicitly state where drawings fit in to either form of episteme! Since drawings are a static, tactile object they might easily classify within the archive. In contrast, John Berger claims “there is a deep kinship between drawing, song, and dance”, (8) which suggests that drawings bring a liveliness to the depicted subject. Drawings, particularly drawings that depict the human body, sometimes seem to take on an ephemeral presence. Diana Taylor notes, “the repertoire requires presence: people participate in the production and reproduction of knowledge by ‘being there,’ being a part of the transmission”. (9) The drawn form of Piper’s Mythic Being ad-works asserts an embodied presence within the newspaper page, the persona persists week after week, extending agency over the exclusive space. The drawings perform mixed up signs of maleness and femaleness. The appropriation of the comics panel for publication in the gallery ad space subverts the high-brow New York art scene. (10) By repeating this drawn embodiment in print, Piper speaks directly to a public audience about exclusionary boundaries upheld by the art establishment. Taylor asserts that “performances function as vital acts of transfer, transmitting social knowledge, memory, and a sense of identity”. (11) Piper’s drawn ad-works perform a repertoire that transfers knowledge about living as a gendered and racialized artist. In so doing, Piper’s Mythic Being ad-works contest the problem of being matter out-of-place at the time of her emergence in the New York art scene. 

The manner in which Adrian Piper positions her Mythic Being ad-works enables her drawings to perform a repertoire that contests exclusion. Drawings, as static symbolic representation, may contribute to an archive of remembered experience. Does the quality of mimesis in drawings of human bodies allow them to stand in for actual embodied enactments? Might drawings of bodies staged in certain contexts perform knowledge in the manner of repertoire? Diana Taylor suggests the archive and the repertoire “are linked and mutually sustaining models that humans have developed to think about the transmission of knowledge”. (12) I suggest that the ways in which drawing is utilized by artists Guzman, Cheung, and Ware extends the archival into performed repertoire. Their drawings not only leave a record of life lived as matter out-of-place, but also actively perform in time and space. Their drawings proclaim and resignify belonging for themselves and their communities in spaces that disavow their being. 

Coco Guzman is an artist who works in Canada and Spain. Guzman’s project Genderpoo, has been an ongoing installation set up in both galleries and public washrooms since 2008. Genderpoo started as Guzman’s response to often being “violently questioned” when trying to use the public washroom as a genderqueer person. (13) As a direct challenge to the binary symbols indicating the men’s or ladies’ toilet, Guzman drew a new sign—a mermaid with a moustache—to represent one variant of queer gender The Moustached Mermaid now leads installations of Genderpoo, and is one of dozens of invented iconographic signs that collectively work to complicate the presumption of a simple gender binary. 

Guzman’s drawing style reduces the complex form of the human body to mechanically made shapes constructed from evenly weighted lines suggestive of vector-based digital graphics. In Stick Figures: Drawing as Human Practice, D.B. Dowd states, “the idea of the graphic points to something shared by all persons: the use of symbolic drawing to communicate”. (14) Dowd proposes the term glyph, “to capture linear symbolic drawing as means for asserting primary form”. (15) The conventional symbols found on public washroom door signage function as such glyphs claiming male and female as normative primary forms. These glyphs signify a binary that insists on the segregation of bodies and subsequently situates genderqueer bodies as matter out-of-place. 

Guzman’s drawing style plays with this glyphic mode of representation to destabilize gender binary as an essential primary form. Dowd explains:

A mode must be matched to the surface it activates. The spatial aspect of the glyphic, associated with pictographs and alphabetic characters, is tabular. It involves the presentation of arrays and displays, flat as a page, opaque as a rock. In its purest form, the glyphic refuses depth; instead if throws up a single but infinite plane of meaning. (16)

Guzman uses the glyphic form to challenge the glyph’s own inherent singularity of meaning. By displaying an array of glyphs that depict the human body in many varied and diverse forms, Genderpoo suggests that the primary forms that gender may take are infinite. The glyphic symbols perform queer gender within the public washroom settings of their installation. Guzman explains that Genderpoo “is about the symbolism of communities and identities that are normally invisible”. (17) At some installations, the viewing public is invited to draw their own symbols to signify their lived experience of gender. Through displaying an array of drawn signs, Guzman offers a multiplicity of symbolic possibilities, subverting the oppressive binary of the glyphic marks that polarize gender into either male or female.

In 2019, Guzman installed Ver O No Ver (To See Or Not To See), a combination of the Genderpoo series and their on-site mural-like drawings in the public washroom of gallery Arsenal Habana at the XIII Havanna Bienale in Cuba. This public washroom was pasted with the glyphic signs and further embellished with large free-form drawings superimposed over the walls, floor and fixtures in the bathroom. Life-size black line drawings depict a semi-nude figure reclining in a bathtub. A moustached figure with breasts looks out from a mirror over the sink. A pile of crumpled clothing is drawn onto the floor tiles. Various objects—a toothbrush, eyeglasses, shampoo—are drawn over the sink and across the backsplash wall. Black outlines drawn onto the toilet bowl and extending across the floor delineate human legs and feet; a bellybutton embellishes the raised toilet seat. These life-sized line drawings sprawl freely over the three-dimensional contours of the distressed porcelain surfaces in the washroom in stark contrast to the grid of glyphic signs pasted on the surrounding walls. 

In this installation for Arsenal Habana, Guzman’s drawings perform as repertoire within the contentious space of the public washroom. The large figure drawings of a genderqueer body occupy the public washroom. The array of glyphic signs on the walls continue to resist the essentialization of gender as a primary form that is binary. This is the only public toilet within the Arsenal Habana gallery. To use the washroom, patrons must share the space with the life-sized drawings of the genderqueer body. These figure drawings look out and elicit looking at, which leads to the question, is the viewer meant to feel self-conscious or uncomfortable at the intimation of being watched while using the toilet? The drawn figures seem unperturbed, oblivious to potential other bodies within their private space. The drawings’ embodied presence queers the space of the public washroom. As a repertoire, Guzman’s drawings activate knowledge of being seen, being conspicuous. The drawings bring into focus this experience of being matter out-of-place. These drawings, both figurative and glyphic, tag and territorialize dangerous public space while simultaneously affirming and imagining a public washroom for the genderqueer body.