Gordon Is It My Body[Sternberg; 2014]

Ed. Branden W. Joseph

Kim Gordon is an historical node from which many chains of influence and association are traced. Kim Gordon had Kathleen Hanna’s back, was a friend and mentor to Kurt Cobain and produced Hole’s Pretty On The Inside. Kim Gordon is a legend. A kind of Godmother to Riot Grrl, often presented or understood as the ‘token’ girl in the band, Gordon has been framed by the mainstream as an exception despite the explosion of experimental female talent her generation produced. But Kim Gordon has also always worked as an artist. Is It My Body?: Selected Texts published by Sternberg Press is a tomboy manifesto written in fragments, slow motion over 36 years, a collection of Gordon’s critical essays and conceptual texts from 1977 to 2013. Its publication marks what seems to be the beginning of efforts to reframe the narrative of Kim Gordon.

The texts collected here are impressively thematically coherent. So much so that it is easy to forget they were written years apart. The chronological distribution of their publication is such that a reader would have had to have very closely followed Gordon’s activities outside of Sonic Youth to be aware of all of this work, which until now functioned essentially as subtext in plain sight. Remarkable though the continuity between these texts is, considering how Gordon’s perspective must have changed between pieces written so sporadically, this continuity is dangerous. It is easy to forget the changing historical contexts in which they were written, how much a person changes from one year to the next and that though they may retain interest in similar themes, their relationship to those themes is altered by experience.

It is a great shame that the collection does not include an introduction by Gordon herself. Editor Branden W. Joseph’s decidedly academia-centric essay focuses on introducing Gordon to an artworld audience and shies away from her persona and rockstardom, claiming the texts, “justify their inclusion in the Institut fur KunstKritik series, ” almost, it might seem, in spite of her celebrity elsewhere. In the earlier texts in Is It My Body?, some of which predate mainstream success with Sonic Youth, Gordon uses such a formal, impersonal, and anonymous critical voice that it is almost a shock when, reading first her tour diary, “Boys Are Smelly” and later, her interviews with Mike Kelley and Jutta Koether, to see her using an active first person. It is the pieces in which she does that provide the most insight into her experiences and which create context most effectively in time. But they can’t make up for the lack of a personal overview of the collection written with hindsight.

Throughout Is It My Body? Gordon’s writing addresses, head on, the connection between her musical and artistic output. Most widely known as bassist, lyricist and guitarist of the band Sonic Youth, Gordon’s considerable output as a visual artist and critical writer has been historically harder to access. Though the presentation of this work avoids referencing her celebrity status in favour of her artistic credentials, the texts in Is It My Body? do implicitly provide the means to join the dots between these two estranged figures, following Gordon’s progress through more than three decades of thinking about art and music.

“Trash Drugs and Male Bonding,” a description of a performance of Rhys Chatham’s “Guitar Trio,” following as it does immediately on from the Fluxus-influenced cut ups of “Proposal For a Story I, II, III and IV,” reads, in this context, as a document of a conceptual performance rather than a gig review, and the juxtaposition of these two pieces sets Gordon’s tone and agenda very clearly. Despite the editorial emphasis on art over rock music, which suggests some kind of perceived cultural incompatibility between the two, Gordon’s writing never seeks to make false distinctions between the two; there is a sense throughout the book that she has always seen them as having been in continuous relation.

Sternberg Press however, makes much of their differences. The austere cover of the book refuses the tropes of rock and roll, firmly staking claims for serious readings with its reserved academic font and delicate pale green dust cover. These are in severe contrast with the grunge aesthetic with which Gordon is usually associated, in both her painting and her music and which is subtly referred to by the inclusion of an abstract, calligraphic, graffiti-sprayed scrawl hidden on the inside of the dust cover. This is a statement, a re-branding of Kim Gordon, and an eloquent reversal of emphasis. Gordon’s been quietly getting on with the critical thinking at the back of the tour bus this whole time and now it’s the rock chick’s turn to fade into the background and let the art writer take centre stage. Might there be an implication here that she cannot, or should not be both?

The documents that make up Is It My Body? chronicle acts of disguise enacted by both Gordon’s subjects and herself in the form of both physical and conceptual passing across cultural boundaries. Several essays, “Trash Drugs and Male Bonding,” “I’m Really Scared When I Kill In My Dreams,” “Unresolved Desires,” and later, “Is It My Body?” interrogate the relations between conceptual art and guitar music. That she is able to do this is, as Branden W. Joseph is right to make clear, a result of her artistic background. Informing her awareness of space, her critical interest in how performance functions her artist’s eye is important. Minimalism is a huge influence, allowing her to examine the interplay between formal elements and the use of repetition.

More easily missed in this context but still clearly present in Gordon’s writing is how time spent in musical subcultures informed her artwork, how noise distorts even the clearest signals if a system is not closed, how the audience’s reception of work can be entirely unpredictable (She provides a riot at a Public Image Ltd. Gig in response to the band playing behind a video projection of themselves as an example), how economies of money, space and fashion influence the nature of performance. As a working musician, Gordon is pragmatic even when at her most conceptual in a way rarely encountered in art criticism, there is an emphasis on a politics in practice, on difficulty and mess at work here which cannot be fully understood without full acknowledgement of both the disciplines Gordon has contributed to.

Almost every essay in the collection either explicitly or implicitly identifies gender and sexuality as crucial variables in the performance of these interlocking disciplines. Her 1980 analysis of the performance of masculinity in “Trash Drugs and Male Bonding,” introduces Gordon’s love for and criticism of, boys with guitars. This analysis is expanded in 1983’s “I’m Really Scared When I Kill In My Dreams,” in which Gordon describes performance work by both contemporary artists and popular musicians and examines the possible use of the structures of both forms to hide out in and take power.

“Boys Are Smelly: Sonic Youth Tour Diary ’87,” one of the most clearly pugnacious pieces in terms of gender, opens with an articulation of Gordon’s rock fantasies in which she describes her own desire to perform music — it reads like a self-parody, Gordon as fan-girl:

Before picking up a bass I was just another girl with a fantasy. What would it be like to be under the pinnacle of energy beneath two guys crossing their guitars, two thunderfoxes in the throes of self-love and male bonding? How sick but what desire could be more ordinary?

It is through self-identifying with this ‘ordinariness,’ she tells us, that she is able to transcend her gender:

 For my purposes, being obsessed with boys playing guitars, being as ordinary as possible, being a girl bass player is ideal, because the swirl of Sonic Youth music makes me forget I’m a girl. I like being in a weak position and making it strong.

Four years later, in an interview with Mike Kelley in 1991, when he asks if her recently increased visual presence in Sonic Youth and newfound ‘sex symbol’ status is a reaction against “the ‘70’s cliché of the girl bass player” and she responds, “I find that really annoying. I suppose that’s one reason for wanting to do more. Not only do you worry about being type-cast as the token girl, but it’s the token girl in the background playing bass.” It seems the fantasy has perhaps not quite delivered on its promises.

The end of Gordon’s 27 year long marriage to Sonic Youth co-founder Thurston Moore and the resulting break-up of the band has for better or worse framed the last three years of Gordon’s work and its reception. It doesn’t help to dispel the atmosphere of oppressive heteronormativity issuing from between the lines of these texts. This recent period has been for Gordon, in addition to the publication of Is It My Body? notable for a major painting retrospective and a general (re)turn to visual art and writing as well as new music project Body/Head. It is difficult to read Is It My Body? without wondering if it would have been possible for Gordon to take such new directions without having cast off both her band and her marriage.

One place this oppressive heteronormativity can be glimpsed is in the gendered division of subject matter in these pieces. Essays such as “The Bedroom Displays Itself,” “Honeymoon Habit,” “Unresolved Desires,” “Turning The Conversation,” and “Making The Nature Scene: Rock Clubs in New York” all document Gordon’s interest in the design and manipulation of living and social spaces. Against the significant group of essays that deal with the performance of masculinity it is difficult not to read these pieces as analyses of practices being characterised in contrast as feminine. There is much to be said art-historically about the power dynamics between passive spatiality and performative action. In an interdisciplinary multi-media future Gordon’s historical observations on the behaviour of diverse forms in relation to one another and the development of spaces in which they encounter each other could be of vital importance. Further, Gordon’s emphasis throughout Is It My Body? is on passing rather than full drag and the potential provided by relative anonymity and this seems to complement ideas about performance environments, galleries and homes.

Designing the space in which you perform or into which you disappear to perform; hiding in plain sight or fading into the background emerges as the focus of Gordon’s formal experimentation and a primary strategy — Kim Gordon might be said to be a key forerunner of the current normcore trend. But while these texts about interiors are fascinating, collected here up against all the guys with guitars there is the queasy feeling that some kind of essential dualism is being posited. Dudes perform their aggressive sexuality onstage and girls create spaces. Gordon can perhaps pass as one or another by disappearing into ordinariness. But if this strategy is to be of use the question must be answered: who gets to be ordinary and what is at stake in being so?

Gordon’s subjects are, with the exception briefly, of Laurie Anderson, Lydia Lunch and much later Jutta Koether, overwhelmingly male. Glenn Branca, Andy Warhol, Dan Graham, Mike Kelley, Raymond Pettibon, Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper (from whom the collection’s title is borrowed) are all described in tones at times approaching hero-worship. Though in the later essays particularly there are distinct undertones of irony to this, it is only very occasionally in Is It My Body? that the asymmetry of gender politics is directly addressed or challenged. Unlike Gordon who, at least at some point, treasured a wish to disappear into the music and who, while a member of Sonic Youth was, for a while, able to settle for a public image defined in relation to others, these male subjects are not presented as ordinary.

To examine Kim Gordon’s role in the grand narratives of pop culture highlights the problematics of mainstream histories. Perhaps other LA women artists and musicians of Gordon’s LA punk generation like Vaginal Davis and Alice Bag would have been granted such widespread recognition had their most significant and longevous projects also been heterosexual marriages, and had the potential for transcendent ordinariness been an option for them. Conversely, at times here it seems like the very heteronormative nature of Gordon’s life and mainstream status is actually forcing her into a passive role.

She is however in a position to highlight something about culture, and does. That rock and roll is conventional. That like conceptual art it is not inherently radical, that both are systems of conventions that can be radically intervened in or conservatively maintained, that they have an inside and an outside. What is it about the duality of binary gender and performance that renders the two so intimately connected? Is It My Body? goes some way toward opening up such questions and shows Gordon as having been working towards this throughout her career. She has, for decades, existed in a swirling nexus of power and culture and has neither gone unchanged by this experience nor lost the opportunity to observe and witness what unfolded around her. It is difficult not to be caught up uncritically in the canonisation of Kim Gordon.

Despite this, Gordon’s analysis of gender, though enthusiastic and enduring, remains distressingly hetero-centric. “Unresolved Desires” — the 1983 essay in which she most directly tackles sexual identity by quoting from Kinsey associate C. A. Tripp as well as Andy Warhol, and by analysing the androgyny of Bowie — seems to confuse where it tries to make sense of sexual orientation, gender, and transgender identities in its discussion of passivity, male homosexuality, and role reversals achieved via s/M practices. Gordon describes in detail the way in which, since the sixties, in pop art and entertainment, passivity, action, and cross dressing have created both straight and gay male identities, but these observations feel non-sequitur-ish.

Very few conclusions are ultimately drawn, the most interesting of which are inspired by the artist Jeff Wall and concern the role of male homosexual identities in the history of interior design. Though this text must be considered a product of its time, it should be said that in the current climate of unprecedented debate around these ideas, driven by the development of queer theory, it is hard to see what this essay has to offer beyond historical trivia. Gordon does not mention women’s drag at all, although it would seem both highly pertinent to her own position and necessary in considering how women might reproduce or appropriate masculinity and so contribute to it’s development.

Lesbian cultures of cross-dressing were eloquently and extensively discussed in 2005 by J. Jack Halberstam in What’s That Smell? Queer Temporalities and Subcultural Lives with reference to Vaginal Davis and many other queer cultural practitioners, and it is scholarship such as this that has raised the bar since “Unresolved Desires” was published. Such awareness of the diversity of subjectivities and their production has perhaps allowed in recent years for the more active and creative use of them in the formation of scholarly positions. Perhaps more so than in any other essay in the collection, Gordon’s use of an impersonal academic writing style in “Unresolved Desires” is opaque and frustrating in its lack of personal perspective. She avoids taking a subject position, pretends objective analysis and ignores the very perspectives that might help her to make sense of her subject matter. Without a contextualising editorial word from her it is hard to give her intentions at the time of writing or indeed now the benefit of the doubt. She clearly, to borrow a phrase from Halberstam’s respectful critique of gender theorist Angela McRobbie, still “presumes a heterosexual framework.”

Kathleen Hanna and her band, Le Tigre are held up by Halberstam in What’s That Smell? as an example of the new wave of queer cultural and subcultural practitioners whose works, in the early years of the twenty-first century, form a hybrid collage of art, music, collaboration, archivism, and academia. Halberstam cites the role-call of queer female figures that is Le Tigre’s famous song “Hot Topic” as an example of an impulse to recognise and amplify the work of those who came before them. Hanna has been one of the most outspoken ‘followers’ of Gordon, quoted in an Elle Magazine profile of Gordon as saying, “She was a forerunner, musically. Just knowing a woman was in a band trading lead vocals, playing bass, and being a visual artist at the same time made me feel less alone.“ In her joyful recognition of Gordon’s role in making a place for women in music and art, Hanna has played a key part in ensuring Gordon’s place not only in mainstream history, but as a powerful subcultural role model.

Gordon’s place in “Hot Topic” is graciously given and inarguably deserved, but Is It My Body? perhaps disappoints in that it does not itself open up this genealogy further. The scope of Is It My Body? is limited by its focus on masculinities without reference to the queer lives and communities which have and do offer positions from which to critique them, by it’s failure to effectively interpret the use of drag and passing which made Gordon’s position possible. This may be the result of historical context collapse. With Gordon’s well-known context as Riot Grrl heroine eschewed by this collection in favour of the history of conceptual art, and no word from her on the collection itself, Sternberg Press’s publication inadvertently strands Gordon in the more conservative mainstream position her fame has placed her in. Enshrined here in art’s institutional canon she is divorced from her DIY and No Wave subcultural roots and her texts suffer as a result.

Raising more questions than it answers, this collection is welcome in bringing the works it contains together after such a long time, but the intervening years have elsewhere seen great strides in the discussion of similar themes leaving Is It My Body? seeming by comparison somewhat toothless. More interesting is what it augurs in terms of Gordon’s future output. It remains to be seen what she will do with the new platforms afforded to her in life after Sonic Youth and which these texts provide the foundation for. If she can begin to answer the questions, treasured over these nearly four decades and now presented here, the best may well be yet to come.

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