Activists Create Life-Sized Cyanotype in Trans Solidarity Action

WASHINGTON — More than a hundred trans, nonbinary, and other LGBTQ+ artists gathered on the National Mall on Sunday, March 31 to create one of the world’s largest cyanotypes, entitled “Etched in Light.” Artist Cassils led the participatory visual art and sonic performance, supported by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and soundtracked by a score of vocal invocations from the musical collective Blood Is Here.

“This is a site of revolutionary action, from the March on Washington in 1963 to the Civil Rights movement to the Farm Workers movement and women’s liberation and gender equality,” Cassils, who is based in Los Angeles, told Hyperallergic. “You can feel that. This performance here on Trans Day of Visibility is an act that both shows our collective power and feeds this regenerative, beautiful, and healing space for those involved.”

Participants lay perfectly still on the cyanotype tarp for the duration of the performance, soothed by the incoherent keening and murmurs of circling blue-and-white clad singers, before rising together to wash the cloth in a developing tray and reveal the outlines of their bodies.

While the noon performance lasted less than half an hour, the event ran all day, with more than a dozen trans rights advocates and activists from around the country taking to the stage. Local community organizations tabled to share information about support services while NCTE helped attendees register to vote.

“There’s something going on with toxic masculinity — it’s not a coincidence there are so many bills about trans women right now,” activist Mema Perdomo told the crowd. “These politicians have a thing about controlling young girls, about controlling our lives. But that’s not everybody, we have people who are actively engaging, we have professional football players who love us!”

White Sands photographer Jasmine Albuquerque
Shooting of Cassils’s Human Measure film at White Sands National Park in 2023 (photo by Jasmine Albuquerque, courtesy the artist)

“Etched in Light” got its start in 2016 as a prop for Cassils’s contemporary dance performance “Human Measure.” Staged under the conditions of an analog darkroom, that piece featured a flashing wall that took exposures every time the dancers’ bodies hit the floor. The dark and blinding flashes made it difficult for audience members to see their movements — until 2021, when Cassils started experimenting with cyanotype backgrounds that preserved their imprints. The ongoing series is entitled Movement.

“[We are] trying to think of a formal language that speaks to the problematics of this idea of purely representing; thinking about how trans bodies are often seen under a voyeuristic or surveilled gaze,” Cassils explained. “The performance was really coming up with a visual language that denies that kind of invisibility.”

Such a formulation calls upon the imagery and affective energies of the historic NAMES Project  AIDS Memorial Quilt as well as lie-ins and die-ins led by activists over the decades.

Unlike a photograph, a cyanotype requires at least 20 minutes of exposure. The process made  Cassils realize that more than just a prop, they had found an experience special in its own right.  Sunday marked the piece’s second performance; the first occurred last year on Fire Island, where instead of a water trough, participants used the beach as a developing tray.

Among Sunday’s speakers was former Minneapolis City Council Member Andrea Jenkins, the first openly trans African-American woman elected to public office. She noted that her city was the first in the country to enshrine equal rights regardless of gender identity in 1974, paving the way for Minnesota to become the first state to do so in 1993 and for her own election in 2017 while providing a model for the rest of the nation.

“When I came out 32 years ago, we weren’t trying to be visible, we were trying to be invisible,” Jenkins told Hyperallergic. “So to be here today a part of all this, it’s hard to put into words just how powerful that is.”

“You can see the Washington Monument over there, and the Capitol building there, and here we are creating art — right in the middle of everything,” Jenkins said.

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