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Objectifying the Abject: Exploitation, Political (In)Correctness and Ethical Dilemmas

Tuesday, February 07, 2006–Monday, February 20, 2006

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In Objectifying the Abject: Exploitation, Political (In)Correctness and Ethical Dilemmas, Barbara DeGenevieve produces photographs and video documentation of the process of asking male panhandlers, all of whom were homeless, to model for her nude. Confronting an ethical dilemma that has been part of a cultural debate about the representation and agency of the disenfranchised, this project is intended to generate questions of exploitation, objectification, and the sexualization of the bodies of a segment of the male population, which is rarely, if ever, sexualized. DeGenevieve’s own sub rosa presumptions about the men are revealed as she attempts to expose the difficulties inherent in the arguments that circumscribe discussions on race, sex, and class.

DeGenevieve states: “I don ’t make any pretense to create a cross-section of the homeless population in Chicago—there are only five men, all of whom are African American. My intention is to trouble and question issues of race and who is of the appropriate ethnicity to do what to whom. I ’m not trying to make a specific statement, but to create a situation in which the viewer is presented with a certain set of questions, some of which will be ethical, others of which will obviously be personal.”

DeGenevieve ’s process was to meet the men and through discussion, determine if they were willing to participate in the project. The compensation was $100 for the day, shopping for clothing, lunch and dinner, and a hotel room for the night. The hotel room was the location of the shoot. Video documentation took place throughout the day as well as during the photo shoot. After the photographs and video documentation of the shoot had been made, the model was interviewed and asked for his reactions to the experience. The man then signed a model release and was left to spend the night in the hotel. In the morning, DeGenevieve picked him up, paid him in cash, took him to breakfast and dropped him off wherever he wanted to go. She remained in touch with all but one of the men, whom she could not find again.

According to Michael A. Weinstein, Professor of Political Theory at Purdue University and photography critic for Newcity:

“[In Objectifying the Abject,] DeGenevieve shows us that deconstructing the discourses of domination from within does not involve a new form of control. Her project functions most of all to dispel our social fears; in abandoning the mythologies of domination, we need not shrink back from engagement—we can overcome the constraints of received interpretations of race, class, and gender roles without naively pretending they are no longer socially and culturally operative. DeGenevieve’s play with political INcorrectness is lucid, reflexive, and pioneering, breaking into the social terrain that she invites us to explore.”

Objectifying the Abject: Exploitation, Political (In)Correctness and Ethical Dilemmas was commissioned as one of the projects in the 2006 At the Edge: Innovative Art in Chicago
series.

Related:

MEDIA COVERAGE

Mojica, Jason. “Barbara DeGenevieve: ‘Objectifying the Abject: Exploitation, Political (In)Correctness and Ethical Dilemmas.'” TimeOut Chicago, February 20, 2005.

ARTIST BIOGRAPHY

Barbara De Genevieve Head ShotBarbara DeGenevieve is an interdisciplinary artist who works in photography, video, and performance. She lectures widely on her work as well as subjects including sexuality, gender, transsexuality, censorship, ethics, and pornography. Her writing on these subjects has been published in art, photographic, and scholarly journals, and her work has been exhibited internationally. Before joining the faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1994, she taught at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; San Jose State University; San Francisco Art Institute; and California College of Art. Her work has been shown at such venues as University of Connecticut ’s Contemporary Art Gallery, Storrs, CT (2004); Roxie Theater, San Francisco (2003); Screening Room, Los Angeles (2001); and Women in the Director ’s Chair Film and Video Festival, Chicago (2000). She has been awarded two National Endowment for the Arts Visual Artists Fellowships and has been the recipient of three Illinois Arts Council grants, among others. DeGenevieve is currently a professor and chair of the Department of Photography at School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She received an MFA in photography from University of New Mexico in 1980.

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EXHIBITION ESSAY

Beyond the Binaries: Crossing the Boundaries of Identity Politics

Michael A. Weinstein

A postmodern artist from top to bottom, Barbara DeGenevieve takes multi-signification and overdetermination to their outer limits. Her color photographic portraits/studies of nude African American males displaying themselves on beds in hotel rooms seem to be straightforward enough, although they create an inherent dissonance; her subjects express the distinctive individuality associated with the portrait and the formal elegance that characterizes the study of the nude. We do not know exactly what to make of them when we contemplate them outside the artist’s conceptual program.

The meanings of DeGenevieve’s images—none of them determinative—reside in the project from which they result. Her subjects are homeless. DeGenevieve finds the men on the street, negotiates a verbal contract with them for a photo shoot, takes them out to eat, brings them to a hotel room where she takes their pictures, has them sign a model release, and then pays them. Aside from her conceptual concerns, she conducts a professional economic transaction—money and goods for services rendered. She is always accompanied by a female assistant who shoots a video recording the encounter.

DeGenevieve means to be provocative and to challenge the conventions of what has come to be called “political correctness.” She is aware that some people will see her project as exploitative, according to the familiar binaries; she is white, they are black; she is economically secure, they are on the margins; she is clothed, they are naked; she has the camera, they have their bodies. These culturally charged and theoretically troubled binaries are reversed, of course, in one important gendered dimension; they are men, she is a woman.

In challenging the binaries that have become ingrained into the discourses of cultural politics, DeGenevieve is by no means returning to the traditional paradigms of inequality and domination that were prevalent before the social and cultural changes provoked by the panoply of liberation movements in the 1960s. Indeed, she advances beyond the debates that have become rigidly frozen, opening up new possibilities for relations among social groups and for experimentation with social identity.

That expansion of possibility is nowhere more evident and telling than in the way that DeGenevieve fuses the binaries associated with race, class, and gender in her project in order to question them, raising the ante of identity politics to its limits. As a professional, middle-class white woman engaged in a business transaction—laced with erotic overtones—with impoverished and unemployed black men, she restages in contemporary terms an imaginary associated with racist discourse in which the civilized and vulnerable white woman is imperiled by the figure of the lustful, feral black male. DeGenevieve puts that imaginary to rest once and for all; as the photographs and video testify, she is not threatened and her subjects are far from being slaves of their desires. Indeed, her subjects are in control of their responses, taking on the role of model, performing it according to their varied temperaments and raising the encounter to a form of play, when they are so disposed.

An inevitable sexual tension resonates in DeGenevieve’s images. Her portraits/studies are posed, yet not formalized, allowing her subjects to express their attitudes and emotions (which run a gamut in which slyness and insouciance are the points of gravitational pull), and to dispose their bodies erotically when they wish to do so. Proceeding from an appreciation of the sexual tension—always kept within bounds of discretion by photographer and subject—the viewer is encouraged to add the layered significations of race, class, and gender that the images evoke and to reach conclusions on their own. DeGenevieve has been careful not to make any dimension dominant and has not provided conceptual closure.

DeGenevieve shows us that deconstructing the discourses of domination from within does not involve a new form of control. Her project functions most of all to dispel our social fears; in abandoning the mythologies of domination, we need not shrink back from engagement—we can overcome the constraints of received interpretations of race, class, and gender roles without naively pretending they are no longer socially and culturally operative. DeGenevieve’s play with political INcorrectness is lucid, reflexive, and pioneering, breaking into the social terrain that she invites us to explore.

The interpretative openness that DeGenevieve cultivates does not render her images entirely undefined. For all the ample room for exploration that they give us, her images do not lead us back to racism, sexism, or invidious class distinctions, or to the reaction against these identifying markers that can paralyze us and render us incapable of engagement. When we understand DeGenevieve’s theory and practice, the indecision that we experienced from her images at first glance becomes an appreciation of the richness that we sacrifice when we put on ideological blinders.

****

Michael A. Weinstein, Beyond the Binaries: Crossing the Boundaries of Identity Politics, February, 2006.

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PRESS RELEASE

Barbara DeGenevieve
Objectifying the Abject: Exploitation, Political (In)Correctness and Ethical Dilemmas

Gallery 400
Chicago, IL
An At the Edge: Innovative Art in Chicago project
February 7–February 20, 2006

Opening reception: February 8, 2006, 5–8pm
Artist talk: February 15, 2006, 4:30 pm

DeGenevieve ’s project comprises video documentation of the process of asking male homeless panhandlers to model for her nude alongside the resultant photographs. Confronting the ethical issues embedded in the cultural debate about the representation and agency of the disenfranchised, this project engages questions of exploitation, objectification, and the sexualization of the bodies of a segment of the male population who are rarely, if ever, sexualized. DeGenevieve ’s own sub rosa presumptions about the men are revealed as she attempts to expose the problematics of the arguments that circumscribe discussions on race, sex, and class.

DeGenevieve states:

“I don ’t make any pretense to create a cross-section of the homeless population in Chicago—there are only five men, all of whom are African American. My intention is to trouble and question issues of race and who is of the appropriate ethnicity to do what to whom. I ’m not trying to make a specific statement, but to create a situation in which the viewer is presented with a certain set of questions, some of which will be ethical, others of which will obviously be personal.”

DeCenevieve ’s process is to meet the men and through discussion, determine if they are willing to participate in the project. The compensation is $100 for the day, shopping for clothing, lunch and dinner, and a hotel room for the night. The hotel room is the location of the shoot. Video documentation takes place throughout the day, as well as during the photo shoot. After the photographs and video documentation of the shoot have been made, the model is interviewed and we discuss his reactions to the experience. The man then signs a model release, and is left to spend the night in the hotel. In the morning, DeGenevieve picks him up, pays him in cash, takes him to breakfast and drops him off wherever he would like to go. She has remained in touch with all but one of the men, whom she cannot find.

Barbara DeGenevieve is a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her photography, video, and performance work has been exhibited widely since 1990. DeGenevieve ’s visual work and writing has always addressed issues of sexuality and gender. In the current project, she has once again returned to photography (and the male nude) after working exclusively in video since 1998. Most recently, her work has been shown at such venues as University of Connecticut ’s Contemporary Art Gallery, Storrs, CT (2004); Roxie Theater, San Francisco (2003); Screening Room, Los Angeles (2001); and Women in the Director ’s Chair Film and Video Festival, Chicago (2000).

At the Edge: Innovative Art in Chicago is supported by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and the College of Architecture and the Arts, University of Illinois at Chicago.
The Daryl Gerber Stokols and Jeff Stokols Fund provides general support to Gallery 400 programs.

EXHIBITION SUPPORT

Objectifying the Abject: Exploitation, Political (In)Correctness and Ethical Dilemmas is supported by the College of Architecture and the Arts, University of Illinois at Chicago, and a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency.

Special thanks to the jury that selected the 2006 At the Edge
projects: Floyd Atkins (artist), Dianna Frid (artist and University of Illinois at Chicago faculty member), Lorelei Stewart (Director, Gallery 400), Tony Tasset (artist and University of Illinois at Chicago faculty member), and Philip von Zweck (artist).

EXHIBITION CHECKLIST

Barbara DeGenevieve

Dee, 2005
C-prints, 14 x 20 in. each

Gordon, 2004
C-prints, 14 x 20 in. each

Hank, 2004
C-prints, 14 x 20 in. each

Leon, 2004
C-prints, 14 x 20 in. each

Mike, 2005
C-prints, 14 x 20 in. each

The Panhandler Project, 2005
Video, 28:13 min.