In 1992, the American artist Zoe Leonard wrote a poem that famously begins, “I want a dyke for President”. In the wake of another American presidential election, some three decades later, I offer these words, as manifesto, call to arms, and homage.
I want a dyke for President. I want a world in which every child is taught that when you walk out your door, you are stepping on a living thing. Imagine how profoundly our lives would change with that one shift in perception, that one shift in a system of beliefs. I want a world that recognizes that patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism have gotten us into this mess, and is actively dismantling these systems. I want a world that insists on relationality, not positionality. I want a world that recognises politics is too narrow a frame for experience.
Let’s have less politics, and more falling in love. I want a world that values erotics, in Audre Lorde’s sense of not only what we do, but how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing. I want a museum of erotics, or at least a museum built on vulnerability, intimacy, and mutuality. Intersectional, open-source, sharing resources, best practices, legacy-building. A museum that has fully divested from Rio Tinto, Woodside, BHP, and Wesfarmers. A museum with more artists on the board than donors.
I want a world in which chaos is no longer profitable. I want a world without blockbusters or KPIs. I want a museum of mothers. I want a world in which museums hire curators of accommodation, who think spatially, aesthetically, and affectively about access and neuro-atypicality. I want a world in which museums hire curators of art therapy. Or curators of solastalgia, which literally means homesickness, and clinically means anxiety over a planet (our home) in crisis. Or curators of civil disobedience. Or curators of accompaniment. I want museums to stop pretending that they are neutral. Take a deep breath. Imagine the possibilities of releasing ourselves from that fiction.
I want an art world that has ditched the virtue-signalling of diversity and rebuilt its infrastructure. No, even better, museums have generated curriculum on infrastructural racism, which they offer freely to their publics. We use this curriculum to dismantle and build new infrastructures that privilege all the voices that have been left outside, but which we now realise we need more than ever, because, if we care to listen, they can teach us how to survive traumatic events.
I write these words from the world’s longest lockdown, in which all our impulses, however insidious, however altruistic, are amplified to a fever pitch that is surely unsustainable. It must be unsustainable, because I am exhausted. We are clearly at the end of something – an entire way of being in the world that has manifested as the hydra of patriarchy, empire, capitalism, and religion. Thought of the outside would be the thought of all those who have been left outside: Indigenous people, refugees and migrants, “essential” workers of colour, non-binary humans, fast girls, surplus women, whores, mothers, and non-humans.
I want a world that hears Paola Balla when she says, you’re not advancing women if you’re not advancing aboriginal women. Let’s be clear. Violence against women and the earth are always implicitly connected. The violent cutting down of the Djab Wurrung “directions tree” in late October is just the latest proof of this.
I want a world that doesn’t fill me with dread as summer approaches. When my old home, California, isn’t burning, my new one, Australia, is. I want clear guidelines on curatorial ethics for climate change. I want an art world that has ditched its mobility fetishism. I want a world that restores visibility, infrastructure, and support to modes of care-giving that have historically been gendered and raced, and which capitalism needed to become invisible, exploited and unwaged in order to even pretend to function.
Sometimes you get a glimpse of another world, but then it’s gone. Raven Chacon told me he felt this at Standing Rock. For others it was the halcyon days of the pandemic. Or Bhenji Ra and Justin Talplacido Shoulder’s Club Ate. Or the Northcote golf course briefly transformed into a people’s park. I want that world to be our everyday.
The French essayist Michel de Montaigne once wrote, I have gathered a posy of others’ flowers, and nothing but the tie that binds them is my own. So it is with these ideas, for whom I thank: Paola Balla, Robert Duncan, Fayen d’Evie, Gabrielle de Vietri, Mary Graham, Saidiya Hartman, Audre Lorde, Tarini Malick, Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Susie Quillinan, Laura Raicovich, Cauleen Smith, McKenzie Wark, Tirdad Zolghadr, and Zoe Leonard.
This text was first presented as part of the National Gallery of Australia’s Know My Name Virtual Conference and the panel Future Practices facilitated by Julie Ewington on Thursday 12 November 2020, and featuring Atong Atem, Zoe Butt, Liz Nowell, Yhonnie Scarce and Ainslie Templeton. My thanks to the panel, especially to Yhonnie Scarce for permission to reproduce her work here.
Tara McDowell is Associate Professor and Founding Director of Curatorial Practice at Monash University.