“Queer Correspondence” Alex Margo Arden and Caspar Heinemann, Beatriz Cortez and Kang Seung Lee, Ezra Green and Martin Hansen, rafa esparza, Gelare Khoshgozaran, David Lindert, Atiéna
by Alex Turgeon
In his seminal book Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009), José Esteban Muñoz maps queer strategies for world-building as they pertain to the nature of utopia. For Muñoz, a queer future, and thus a queer utopia, is always on the horizon. As queerness evolves, so does its ideal. As a result, utopia only exists through collective or individual attempts to achieve it, locate it, and access it. For Muñoz, utopia is always “then and there” rather than “here and now.” He names an important component of this action toward utopia as “intermedia,” which he defines as a “radical understanding of interdisciplinarity.” Based not on intersecting disciplines of art, but rather on the intermediate spaces of creative action that skirt classification, intermedia is often located at the site prior to historical canonization. These utopic incentives, whether immaterial, performative, or sent through the mail, are inclusive of social networks, bonds, and kinships between queer publics, existing as an intangible tether. This form of creative production operates at the intersection of the spatio-temporal coordinates between the material and its exchange, with the latter being historically attributed to the radical framework of mail art.
In line with this utopic impulse, “Queer Correspondence” was a mail-art initiative disseminated by London’s Cell Project Space in direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Moving the gallery’s exhibition programming from in-person to remote, Cell Project Space shifted its platform for art to the international postal system. This mail-art initiative commissioned work by artists Alex Margo Arden and Caspar Heinemann, Beatriz Cortez and Kang Seung Lee, Ezra Green and Martin Hansen, rafa esparza, Gelare Khoshgozaran, David Lindert, and Atiéna. Once a month, from June to December 2020, “Queer Correspondence” distributed 650 editions through its subscription service; interested parties signed up to receive these mailings no matter where in the world they resided, ultimately creating a vast network. Over the course of seven months, the bright fluorescent-yellow envelopes would arrive at each subscriber’s address, containing artwork, accompanying press text, and other contextual printed matter formatted to fit the dimensions of the 22.5 cm x 16 cm envelope.
Heinemann introduced “Queer Correspondence” with a facsimile of a well-weathered letter addressed solely to “Dear.” The letter skirts legibility through a form of poetic prose which lives outside of time and gender, traversing dampness, moisture, and melting as aspects in longing for “You,” the ambiguous recipient. The endearing open-ended address welcomes an entry into the correspondences of the mail-art initiative. In addition, an odour by Arden was to be included in the package; however, due to export restrictions brought on by Brexit, the vial was pre-emptively replaced with a likeness of an “International Customs and Border Protection” document indicating its removal. The scent, as described in the accompanying text, was a perfume of “sweat or condensation, or a leak in the roof.” This allusion to moisture evokes the anxiety of droplets carrying potential pathogens, yet emphasizes the very lack of shared bodies in times of isolation.
Cortez and Lee’s subsequent contribution shares an equally porous exploration of identity. Letters between the artists articulate that “we are breathing each other” in relation to coinciding sociopolitical events and actions of the 2020 political climate in the US. Their correspondence blurs past and present by reinterpreting the archives of collective activism while forming a newly shared radical heritage through the re-rendering of queer artefact. Lee responds to Cortez’s letters rejecting identity’s constraints with drawings of artworks by Peter Hujar, Tseng Kwong Chi, and David Wojnarowicz, as well as drawings of note pages from AIDS activist Avram Finkelstein, designer of the iconic 1987 Silence=Death poster. Here their kind of intermedia articulates forms of shared trauma with the intent to bend notions of linear time in an act of solidarity with concurrent actions of public resistance. This contribution frames the intimacies of shared breath, moisture, and dampness in an effort to dissolve authorship, expressing a desire to become collective, fluid, and to exist beyond the taxonomies of the individual.
Green and Hansen’s booklet TO WANT TO LIVE IS NOT TO WANT TO LIVE IN THIS WORLD (2020) includes correspondences akin to a stream of consciousness met with the kind of intimacy reserved for a personal inbox. Their communications flow over themes of mindfulness found in acts of cleanliness, to shared expatriate geographies under quarantine in Berlin. The resulting zine interlaces Green’s poetic writings (inclusive of the zine’s title) with Hansen’s performative prompts for writing in shared isolation. The publication’s title insinuates specific spatio-temporal coordinates of this exchange: the pandemic’s saturation paired with Black Lives Matter protests this past summer underline Green’s invocation as poised at a time pregnant with potential for change. After Muñoz, our world is the “this” of Green’s “here and now,” with the “then and there” of a potential future poised upon the horizon.
As an alternative to the often one-way access points the seven commissions necessitate, esparza’s same shoe (Huitzilin – the healer) (2020) requires the participation of the recipient. The press text defines huitzilin as the Nahuatl word for hummingbird—according to Mayan mythology, huitzilin was created by the gods to “lead from here to there the thoughts of humans.” esparza’s mail art includes a print of a deconstructed Nike Cortez shoe, which the recipient is invited to fold and reconstruct into a hummingbird through origami. In the mid-’90s, Nike Cortez shoes were associated with gangs in Los Angeles. This shoe, with a similar name to the Spanish colonizer Hernán Cortés, represents the hate crimes fuelled by forms of toxic masculinity experienced by the artist. The sculptural reconstruction of these shoes is part of an ongoing project by esparza to reinterpret the racist forces that continue to suppress Indigenous and Latin American communities.
“Queer Correspondence” upends the normalizing aesthetics of contemporary exhibition-making, to frame the intimacy of art as participatory, albeit one sided. The exhibition text states the initiative was intended to “establish connections between queer families [… and] invoke the intimate and invisible gaps of this moment.” The intimacy of each commission highlights the very real bonds between specific queer publics, yet further alienates those who have lost similar emotional tethers as a result of isolation. The often one-sided nature of distribution frames the recipient as witness to, rather than subject of, this newly minted queer family. Mail art’s radical tradition offers an opportunity to rearrange historical and contemporary intermedia, although here the disciplinary dissolve between material and its exchange is left feeling acutely institutionalized rather than overtly revolutionary.
Consistent with this newly articulated network of queer intermedia, Muñoz is cited, among many others, as a conceptual guide for “Queer Correspondence,” indicating that initiatives like these are always striving for a future that is elsewhere. By framing art as tactile and tangible, “Queer Correspondence” exerts to evaporate the strenuous isolation we, and especially those of us filed under the LGBTQ2S+ moniker, have endured while projecting a future that is worthy of our post-pandemic life, as it slowly emerges on the horizon.