Heather COX

Pinned, 2015

I have always loved archives; the musty, dusty, yellow-cracked-newspaper-smell of them. My first summer job at the women’s college I attended was maintaining the dead alumnae file; a daunting row of file cabinets full of carefully-labeled folders. A majority of the files contained two newspaper clippings, one that announced the alum’s marriage, and another of her obituary. This observation was an eye-opener for an 18-year-old lesbian contemplating art, gender, relationships and mortality in the midst of the AIDS crisis.

We now live in a digital world. Our news and correspondence is ephemeral, the vast majority of which is delivered electronically. The Gay revolution and the digital revolution occurred in tandem. Marriage laws are more inclusive. AIDS is still with us but it isn’t a death sentence. We have all benefited from these enormous strides.

As an artist, while I value and appreciate the digital realm, physical evidence continues to invigorate my imagination. This curiosity about material history was peaked by The Center’s Archive with its eclectic collection of documents and objects generated by the queer community since the 1920s. I understand the impulse to collect. Gays and lesbians did not see themselves reflected in the dominant culture. It took enormous effort and courage just to find each other, let alone to keep and honor objects that celebrated their personal alliances and transmitted their political grievances. Many objects were deemed not only trivial but at certain points, illegal. The presence of your picture in a file could mean blackmail, arrest, and harassment, as evidenced by the presence of a heavily redacted FBI file in the collection from the period of the early 1950s through the 1970s. I was particularly interested in the visual materials as a means to critique surveillance, anonymity and privacy.

I was drawn to the ten linear feet of the visual collection that contained uncatalogued photographs and miscellaneous ephemera. The photos consisted of public press photos, headshots, and private snapshots. It led me to think about who puts whom in the viewfinder and why – especially in our age of the selfie. I started re-capturing the images with my own camera, focusing in on the eyes. It felt like a radical act to look directly into them. It made me wonder: how do we find each other? How do we recognize each other?

The boxes of ephemera contained hats, cups, political buttons, matches, badges, keys, wristbands, condoms, lanyards, flags, water bottles, t-shirts, banners, ticket stubs, and ID cards. I was temporarily waylaid by a collection of matchbooks (objects of queer communication and direction, relics of our smoky history, and further evidence of how we found each other in the pre-digital age.) In the end, I found my inspiration in the epic boxes of buttons: colorful and declarative, large and small, the hundreds of buttons were smartass, indignant, snarky, chiding, and daringly dissent. They alternately declared “I am normal, I am happy” and “I am angry, I am a deviant.” There were buttons documenting specific protests and gay-friendly businesses. There were political slogans. There were homemade triangles. There were buttons proudly transforming damning epitaphs.

As material objects, the buttons were compelling because they had had an explicit physical life and showed evidence of its wear and tear. They were unwieldy and sharp, often impaling me as I sifted through them. I decided to recreate their physicality by making 1.25” buttons, the average size of a human eye. Their imagery was drawn from the photos I had taken in the archive as well as the photos of The Center staff. I combined hundreds of them, and started photographing various groupings and configurations.

Through Pinned, I wanted to explore identity, messaging and connection. How do we identify and preserve our ephemeral past, especially in a digital age? Eye buttons are portals that establish a directional gaze with the viewer. More than the text message, the button is a still-point: a material marker of the past, of its places and allegiances. 

Special thanks to Rich Wandel, Mary Steyer, Evan Britt, and Megan Fisk who made this project possible.

I also extend my gratitude to the staff who allowed me to photograph them for this project: Stephen Andrews, Austin Bartsch, Evan Britt, Levi Butcher, Emily Contillo, Sarah Currer, Skyler Cruz, Bret Gaither, Alicia Godsberg, Julia Goldman, Omar Hakim, Anna Hauptmann, Cristina Herrera, Erin McCarron, Kathy Lightsey, Joanna McClintick, Sarah Mikhail, Greg Newton, Jillian Niler, Gregory Reardon, Derrick Rickenbacker, Alejandro Rodriguez, Dori Scallet, Mary Steyer, Alvin Urbano, Olin Winn-Ritzenberg, Robert Woodworth, Ed Wysocki, Yuki Yamazaki, and Jackson the dog.