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Friday, September 25, 2015

Are Humans the Queerest Animal? asks Artist Craig Calderwood

Posted By on Fri, Sep 25, 2015 at 10:00 AM

click to enlarge CRAIG CALDERWOOD
  • Craig Calderwood

“Why don’t we see gay animal sex in nature documentaries?” is a worthy question that artist Craig Calderwood has considered, deeply.

Right now, Calderwood works from a studio at one of the Mission District’s dwindling art spaces, A Simple Collective, on an SF Arts Commission grant. Her chosen media: almost impossibly intricate line drawing of beasts — homo sapiens included — and fabric sculpture, such as the 16-foot-tall human-giraffe hybrid with flashily painted nails that is currently hanging from the middle of her studio’s ceiling.

The work is also inspired by humans who study animals, particularly focusing on “the sort of appalled, shocked scientists who kill and ask questions later,” and her own experience being genderqueer.

Like any good visual artist, she says speaking about her work “is hard because I tend to draw instead of talk about it,” but she tried her damndest a couple weeks before her upcoming October 3 show. SF Weekly spoke to Calderwood about her latest series, Beast of Burden, nature documentaries, and queer life in Fresno.

click to enlarge CRAIG CALDERWOOD
  • Craig Calderwood

Your new series deals with how people connect to animals, and queerness, which we don’t usually associate with animals. You’ve spent time at the SF Zoo as part of your research — what brought you there?


You can read about giraffes forever and never see one, and the zoo was a place to go see one. Zoos are kind of depressing, and I’m always wanting to draw parallels with prison abolition.

Open the cages!

Right, but I was interested in seeing people interact with animals, watching them say, “She’s doing this, he’s doing this.” The way people anthropomorphize animals into being heterosexual.

When nature is curated in a zoo or a nature documentary, I think people take that as fact a lot of the time, but it’s not necessarily what is actually happening. Zoos are a place where you don’t accurately get to see animals be animals to a degree. It's curated nature.

In the same way History classes are curated.

Right, anything involving the transfer of information, really.

Pretty much any social animal has some kind of queer sex, or queer socializing. Information, history and science being controlled by a specific set of persons, it gets filtered, so if we’re looking at nature and science, how that science is told through straight white men isn’t going to be a complete story. A lot of the books I read [for the series] feel like missing pieces to what people talk about when they talk about nature.

The writing that some zoologists do feels like they’re really appalled, or betrayed, or confused when it comes to queerness. They’ll use terms like “regrettable disclosure” when they’re conveying information about animals having sex not geared towards reproduction. Or they explain it away as being "practice" for the "real thing" or displays of dominance. Personally, I think these men are in the closet [laughs].

Were there animals at the zoo that particularly struck you as queer?

I think I anthropomorphize giraffes as queer in the same way most people anthropomorphize animals as being straight. In field studies, large percentages of all giraffe sex is homosexual sex, and a relatively small percentage actually breed. This isn't that uncommon with many four-legged mammals. Bighorn sheep, kob antelope, blackbuck, et cetera.

click to enlarge CRAIG CALDERWOOD
  • Craig Calderwood
So their social structures are just kind of "gay." You can’t help but look at the animal and be like…there’s a certain type of projection that is always going to be there: “Oh, that animal is queer.” But queer is also a construct that we have.

How do you feel about pop culture-y nature documentaries, like Planet Earth or Cosmos?

I’m a fan. But I’m also interested in what doesn’t get shown. [Planet Earth’s] David Attenborough’s the really famous BBC nature documentarian, I was reading about how his documentaries withhold film of animals having homosexual pair-bonds — they always leave that out of the show.

And they always have these weird, anthropomorphic — like, “The man sting ray is dancing for the woman stingray” — kind of bizarre narrations that are supposed to parallel your heterosexual life [as a viewer]. Pretty much any animal documentary that isn’t labeled “Gay Animals” will have this sort of heterosexist tilt to it. It’s something funny to me, it’s so weird.

This is a nerdy, nature documentary insider question, but I guess because Americans can’t understand foreign accents, they switched out Attenborough for Sigourney Weaver in the Planet Earth series. How did you feel about that?

I feel good about it [laughs]. And yes, I’ve spent that much time watching it to have an opinion on the subject.

I love the Sigourney Weaver version better, to be honest, because in the David Attenborough version he’ll have narrations like, “The falcon penetrates the mountains!” I mean, I’m sure neither of them writes the script, but the Sigourney Weaver one is much more enjoyable.

You have a book by [UC Santa Cruz professor emerita] Donna Haraway on the table here. Her Cyborg Manifesto is read by pretty much anyone who’s taken a feminist studies class. Does she influence your work?

I’m a self-taught, unschooled artist, so reading theory like this takes me a little longer than the average scholar, too. I’m interested in Haraway because a lot of the work I’ve made is about a particular type of male — a straight man, specifically — interacting with animals.

She writes about lives that are “killable”: women’s bodies, or queer bodies, or animals, as being capital in a straight, white, male conception of the world. I feel a sort of interspecies solidarity with animals in this way.

Your last series of drawings was called “559,” the area code for Fresno, California. When you were growing up queer in Fresno, was San Francisco “mecca”?

I think so. Fresno’s a challenging place to be. Fresno, Clovis, Bakersfield; I grew up sort of all over the [San Joaquin] Valley. I have friends who still live there. 559 was about growing up as a queer there, and shame about my body and desires.

Fresno’s a very conservative place. It’s very straight, very closed-minded. The arts scene is very challenging, it’s very male-dominated, and straight-dominated in this really severe way. It’s a place I could never live again, but my work is informed indefinitely by being from that place. Even if I’m not making work about that place it just seems to creep in in some way.

Why do you think artists continue to be drawn to places like the Bay and New York, even though they’re pretty cost-prohibitive places for artists to live?

I think we have a fantasy of what San Francisco is. Even though it’s hard for artists, or anyone who’s not rich, really, to live here right now, there’s still a lot of grant money in the Bay, we still have big arts organizations in Northern California. Like New York, we have a huge history of art, people will just always be drawn to those…maybe, fantasies of “what was.” I mean, I don't think art is dead here or anything, there's still a lot of amazingly beautiful things going on, it's just a lot harder to be here.

So when you moved to “mecca,” was it everything you wanted it to be?

Moving here really helped me clarify an arts practice, in a way that I couldn’t in Fresno. In Fresno it felt like everything I did was so reactive, I couldn’t really hold anything together, artistically. When I moved here, I was able to be away from the trauma of that space, and have some type of structure around making things.

I think early on I felt really let down by where I imagined queer community to exist, the Castro. I didn't move here to be near a bunch of assimilationists, I wanted something a little more radical. But despite all the let downs, and severe changes the city is undergoing, I still like living here. I'll stay as long as I can.

Craig Calderwood: Beast of Burden, closing night show Oct. 3, 6-8 p.m., at A Simple Collective, 830 20th St., #105.
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