MOVE3 / Queer Video in Abject Art (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1993) / Renée Inaiá Steffen

From Isaac Julien’s film The Attendant (1993). The image is licensed under Creative Commons.

MOVE: Subcultures, Movements, Aesthetics is a series of documentation, a critical-collective output of the “Researching Subcultures and Aesthetics Postgraduate Symposium” that took place at National University of Galway Ireland in September 2019. This event was organized as part of the Punk Scholars Network event series, with the aim of bringing students and early career researchers who work on subcultural movements and arts together and offering a space to connect sociological studies on resistance with the more Humanities-oriented discussions around countercultural aesthetics. 

The three episodic clusters in the series are designed to reflect the gaps and connections between disciplines, aiming to demonstrate the necessity of re-conceptualizations and how each paper can be thought as both specific to itself and part of a story, an episode of a collective research chapter. Topics ranged from neglected subjects and refusals in the literary world to the politics of independent music and punk subculture, from experimental filmmaking practices that blur the borders of American video art and cinema to the occupy, diasporic and subcultural movements in Romania, Brazil and the UK.

MOVE will run the course of autumn 2020 while the covid-19 is fluctuating in different time-spaces, gesturing towards new ways of moving under restrictions. Thanks to all the contributors, Moore Institute at NUI Galway and Punk Scholars Network for support and special thanks to Abram Foley, editor of ASAP/J. You can access all MOVE essays here.

– Temmuz Süreyya Gürbüz (Editor)

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This short text outlines some critical issues of a more comprehensive study in which I theorize a history of “abjection” in queer underground film and video production of the late 1980s and early 1990s against the backdrop of the culture wars debates around “obscenity” and, later, “identity politics” in the arts, HIV/AIDS activism, and the dawn of queer theory. I am arguing that figures such as Sadie Benning, Cheryl Dunye, Shu Lea Cheang, Richard Fung, Isaac Julien, and Suzie Silver use abjection to explore queer self-representation. Here I engage with the little-discussed video works of a much-discussed exhibition: “Abject Art. Repulsion and Desire in American Art” (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1993).

Abjection has often been associated with or even used as an umbrella term for related notions like “exclusion,” “disgust,” “phobia,” “horror,” “trauma,” or “stigma.” Initially, it was French philosopher Georges Bataille who introduced the term in 1934.1 He developed the concept of abjection as a shocking, repulsive anti-aesthetic in his essays throughout the 1920s published in the art/ethnography-journal Documents, which he co-edited with other dissident surrealists like Michel Leiris and Carl Einstein. The journal, with its focus on abjection, base materialism, the formless, and heterogeneity, was an intentional attack on the idealist and sublimating tendencies of the surrealists. But it was also a critique of mainstream Marxist materialism for being unable, according to Bataille, to understand irrationalities in ideological formations. Thus, Bataille used “abjection” for political analysis and in direct response to the urgent matters of the 1930s, above all, the rise of fascism. He understood the abject as a product of a repressive social normativity that excludes everything, and everyone considered socially deviant and “low,” but also linked the abject to a possible politics of subversion. He begins his short text, “Abjection and Miserable Forms,” as follows: “The word subversion refers to society’s division into oppressors and oppressed and, at the same time, to a topographical qualification of these two classes whose symbolic relative position is that of high and low: it designates a reversal (real or tendential) of these two opposing terms; subversively, low becomes high and high becomes low; thus subversion requires the abolition of the rules which found oppression.”2

In contrast to Bataille’s mostly sociopolitical approach, Julia Kristeva in 1980 universalized the term through the trajectory of psychoanalysis in her book Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. The “abject,” in her terminology, isa ‘something’ I don’t recognize as a thing.” It is “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.”3 Therefore she defined abjection as a reaction to the confrontation with disgusting or phobia-causing phenomena, such as the products of excretory processes, corpses and insects that do not possess the status of objects, neither do they belong to the ego, which is why the subject considers them as a threat and splits them off. At the same time, she stressed that the rejection and disgust caused by these ambiguous substances are necessary for the genesis of the subject, which becomes the ego only by determining “the other” outside of itself. The primal scene for this psychological mechanism, according to Kristeva, is the moment when the child begins to reject their mother’s body as “abject” to be able to form their own identity.

With the emergence of queer theory, along with Marxist cultural studies, feminist, and critical race theory, more and more scholars began to expand on Kristeva’s widely ahistorical and apolitical approach to abjection. As a merely psychoanalytical theory, it held the risk of naturalizing phobia based on race, class, gender or sexual orientation, as it identified the abject on a primordial stage within the early formation of the subject, instead of exposing how seemingly natural feelings like “disgust” are pre-defined through the codes of social prejudice. One of the first and most prominent attempts to redefine abjection in this regard has been formulated by Judith Butler in her books Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter. Both of these texts influenced the way the curatorial team of the “Abject Art” show would conceptualize abjection as she handed the manuscript of the latter to the curators before its publication.4

Furthermore, the idea of the “abject-as-subversive” attracted various forms of positive identifications. For example, Michael Warner wrote, in his book The Trouble with Normal, that queer relations “[begin] in an acknowledgment of all that is most abject and least reputable in oneself.5 Similar ideas, especially concerning the “negative” feeling of shame, can be found in other influential texts in queer theory, such as Judith Butler’s Critically Queer, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling, Heather Love’s Feeling Backward, Leo Bersani’s Is the Rectum a Grave? and José Esteban Muñoz’s Disidentifications.6

The tendency towards what Catherine Liu has called “affirmative abjection”7 became an increasingly popular expression for theories of queer resistance that “retain… a faith in the possibility of transforming the base materials of social abjection into the gold of political agency.”8 The debates around such anti-assimilationist approaches peaked in the early 2000s under the buzzword “antisocial thesis” where queer theory’s initial emphasis on social negativity, stigma, and shame has been thoroughly discussed. Some of these debates also challenged this initial emphasis as a form of nostalgia and, possibly, regression.9

The strategy of affirmative abjection, however, did not only shape 1990s queer theory, but has also been influential in the arts. At least since the exhibition “Abject Art” (which featured works from queer (video) artists such as Maria Beatty, Sadie Benning, Gregg Bordowitz, Sammy Cucher, Isaac Julien, Jennifer Montgomery, and Suzie Silver), the label “abject art” began to serve as a popular curatorial buzzword for exhibition politics in the 1990s. Since then, it has institutionalized itself as an umbrella term for art that deals with bodily processes, desire, and disgust that works with substances such as excrement, hair, body fluids, or addresses sexual and social taboos and deviancies – linking these to emancipatory political goals. There is, for example, Isaac Julien’s The Attendant (1993), an 8-minute      short but intense film, which investigates how an older black attendant of a museum indulges in sexual fantasies about a young white man who had just visited the exhibition. Within these fantasies the 19th-century painting Slaves on the West Coast of Africa by the French artist François-Auguste Biard transforms into a group of gay leather men. Curator Craig Houser wrote on this film: “Julien uses the abject identifications of sadomasochism and bondage to subvert the racist, homophobic ideology of British culture.”10

Nevertheless, the term “abject art” remained ambivalent among art historians. The most prominent criticism at the time came from Rosalind Krauss and Hal Foster, who dedicated at least two roundtables to the debate around abject art in the art journal October in which they mocked the abject “trend” as an infantilist and primitivist obsession with “literalization,” “content,” “identity,” and “political message” (the “signified”).11

If one considers the fact that film critic Parker Tyler affirmatively stated as early as 1969 that “every underground film is primitivism,” these allegations might fall short.12 The show, and especially its video section, undoubtedly displayed various unapologetic positions regarding the issues of the politics of identity in popular culture. Many of them explored these in a deliberate turn towards the autobiographical and confessional, using “primitive,” low and no-budget methods of experimentation and autoethnographic storytelling.13 The invention of cheap cassettes and portable video recorders made the medium relatively accessible and thus became “an important factor in the proliferation of queer art and activist video.”14 Sadie Benning, with their Fisher-Price PXL2000, recorded their own teenage self-investigations of sexuality and gender identity, and made their short film Girl Power (1992) which can be counted among the prime examples of this trend. But many of the video artists from the exhibition showed tendencies towards embracing the codes of shame as a strategy to re-tell conditions of social abjection by exposing what shame is supposed to hide: while this is the case in Gregg Bordowitz’s intimate Portraits of People Living with HIV (#2, #3, #4; 1993), for Maria Beatty’s documentary Sphinxes Without Secrets (1991), investigating the mockery and hatred of women, and especially lesbians, in the context of performance art; Suzie Silver’s campy and psychedelic allegory on hidden desire features Hester Reeve as naked Jesus Christ, lip-syncing the Doors’ classic I’m a Spy (1992); or Danny Fass and Joe Kelly’s 1-minute short film Skullfuck (1991) displays exactly what its title tells us in an attempt to ridicule straight people’s panic about gay sex.

These works all focus on, in one way or another, personal experiences, but also work with and against abject imagery that conventionally has been exploited by conservatives to propagate discrimination or even violence against marginalized groups – women, queers, and people of color.15

According to the concept of New Queer Cinema (NQC), the essential element of these videos is the fact that they are not ultimately concerned with a positive and flattering portrayal of queer lives. On the contrary, they often aim to appropriate harmful stereotypes to celebrate queer subculture as a rejection of the mainstream and its dominant cultural forms. But even though “(m)any of the new queer ‘auteurs’ (…) began with shorts, documentary, and experimental and activist video,”16 the NQC ended up honoring preeminently feature-length films by white gay men like Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991), Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992), or Todd Haynes’s Poison (1991). B. Ruby Rich herself, who coined the term NQC at a panel at Sundance Film Festival in 1992, early on observed: “the boys and their movies have arrived. But will lesbians ever get the attention for their work that men get for theirs? Will queers of color ever get equal time? Or video the status reserved for film?”17

To be able to find these sorts of works, possibly, “one must look further into the margins.”18 Although the Abject Art exhibition has shown a more promising and diverse program in this respect, it is of course an open question to what extent a museum as established as the Whitney can be counted among the “margins.” Still, since most of the video works are hardly accessible today (and in particular outside the US), the question arises: how is it possible to really separate the mainstream from its margins, or, in other terms, what is abjected and underground from what is canonical and established?

While historically this separation has been closely connected to the more normative notion of obscenity – obscene literally meaning “off scene” – the early 90s marked a crucial moment in the political vocabulary of the culture wars. Because of the increasing visibility of the artworks that were formerly considered as “obscene,” as well as the increasing consideration for marginalized identities of artists, the notion of “obscenity” has lost its power as a devastating judgement and been gradually replaced by the less normative accusations of acting on “identity politics.”

This way of linking certain identities to specific socio-political experiences as a means of artistic expression led to great criticism not only from right-wingers but also from some liberal art historians and critics who labeled it as “primitivism.” Some critics (most prominently in October) claimed that the curators of the Abject Art show misstated the artworks’ thematic connection to Bataille’s philosophy of abjection; because, in their interpretation, Bataille’s abject, together with the “informe,” was not a (however deviant) identity category that can be displayed as such, but something genuinely “ineffable” and “unpresentable”. Critic Dennis Hollier scorned: “When I saw the ‘Abject Art’ show at the Whitney, I thought: What is so abject about it? Everything was very neat; the objects were clearly art-works. They live on the side of the victor”19 – but, do they? While it’s great that he did not think of the works as obscene and repulsive, it is quite a different matter whether they live “on the side of the victor.” In the introduction text to the show, one of the curators asked: “Why do some artists enter the art historical canon while others are jettisoned, or abjected, from historical memory?”20 Perhaps, today, the idea of abject-as-obscene became antiquated to an extent, but this very question about abject-as-marginal has persisted.

Short biography

Renée Inaiá Steffen was born in São Paulo, graduated with a B.A. thesis on Kitsch in Sociology (University of Lucerne) and an M.A. thesis on Georges Bataille in Philosophy (ETH Zurich). At the moment she is a PhD candidate working on the concept of abjection in queer film and video at eikones Graduate School (University of Basel).


  1. The text wasn’t translated into English though until 1999 under the title “Abjection and Miserable Forms.” In: Lotringer, Sylvere. 1999. More & Less 2. Pasadena, CA; Cambridge, MA: Semiotexte. 8-13.
  2. Bataille, Georges, in: ibid., p. 9.
  3. Kristeva, Julia. 1984. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Reprint. New York, NY: University of California. p.4; p. 2.; quote from Houser, Craig, Leslie C. Jones, Simon Taylor, und Jack Ben-Levi (Ed.). 1993. Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire in American Art. New York, NY: Whitney Abrams. p.7.
  4. Most of all in the contributions to the catalogue by Jack Ben-Levi (“A Sadomasochistic Drama in an Age of Traditional Family Values”) and Craig Houser (“I, Abject”), in: Ibid, 17-32; 85-101.
  5. Warner, Michael. 1999. The Trouble with Normal. Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life; esp. chapter 1 “The Ethics of Sexual Shame”. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 35-36.
  6. Butler, Judith. 1993. Critically Queer. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 1 (1): 17–32.; Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1999. Touching Feeling, esp. pp. 35-65 and pp. 93-122.; Heather Love. Feeling Backwards. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England: Harvard University Press.; Bersani, Leo. 1987. “Is the Rectum a Grave?” October 43: 197; Muñoz, Jose Esteban. 1999. Disidentifications: Queers Of Color And The Performance Of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  7. In the comic strip “The Party for Affirmative Abjection”. In: Liu, Catherine, and Martim Avillez. 1993. The Abject, America = o Abjecto, a America. New York: Lusitania Press. 216-225 (p. 225).
  8. Love, Heather. p.18.
  9. Robert L. Caserio, Lee Edelman, Jack Halberstam, José Esteban Muñoz and Tim Dean. 2006. “The Antisocial Thesis in Queer Theory”. PMLA. Vol. 121, No. 3 (May, 2006). 819-828.
  10. see also: Julien, Isaac. 1994. „Confessions of a Snow Queen: Notes on the Making of The Attendant“. Critical Quarterly 36 (1): 120–26. and hooks, bell. “Thinking through Class: Paying Attention to The Attendant”. In: Reel to Real. Race, class and sex at the movies. 1996. Routledge. New York. 114-122.
  11. Foster, Hal, Benjamin Buchloh, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Denis Hollier, und Helen Molesworth. 1994. „The Politics of the Signifier II: A Conversation on the ‚Informe‘ and the Abject“. October 67: 3–21.; Foster, Hal, Rosalind Krauss, Silvia Kolbowski, Miwon Kwon, und Benjamin Buchloh. 1993. „The Politics of the Signifier: A Conversation on the Whitney Biennial“. October 66: 3.
  12. Tyler, Parker. 1970. Underground Film: A Critical History. 1st Da Capo Press ed. New York: Da Capo Press.102-105.
  13. On Autoethnography see: Muñoz, José Esteban. 1995. “The autoethnographic performance: reading Richard Fung’s queer hybridity”. Screen 36. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  14. Pidduck, Juliane. “New Queer Cinema and Experimental Video”. In: Aaron, Michele. 2004. New Queer Cinema. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 80-97 (pp. 89-90).
  15. Houser, Craig. “I, Abject”. In: Houser, Craig et al. 85-99.
  16. Pidduck, p. 89.
  17. Rich, B. Ruby. “New Queer Cinema”. In: Aaron, Michele. 2004. New Queer Cinema. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. p. 22.
  18. Taubin, Amy. 2000. “Beyond the Sons of Scorsese”. In: Hillier, Jim, ed. 2001. American Independent Cinema. A Sight and Sound Reader. London: British Film Institute Publishing. 89-92.
  19. Hollier, Dennis, in: Foster, Hal. 1994. p. 20.
  20. “Introduction” in: Houser, Craig et al. p. 7.