Provocation by Cat Dawson

Blood is something we all have; a common substance among all our corporeal forms. And yet blood, in its attendant manifestations, presentations, and allegorizations—and much like the bodies that produce it—is anything but a neutral surface.


We know this from myriad sources, but given we gather today at the Metabolic Museum, I want to highlight one in particular: Anthony Ryan Hatch’s book Blood Sugar: Racial Pharmacology and Food Justice in Black America, which examines epidemiological data to explore how Black Americans are both placed at greater risk, and have a harder time accessing treatment, for metabolic disorders like Type 1 Diabetes.


Today I want to look at a different kind of data—at trans visual cultural production—to explore what the resonances and dissonances between transness and blood can teach us about, as the generous prompt offered by today’s organizers requested, societal and aesthetic boundaries.


To be trans is, in a way, to be a “living alloy;” a recombination of what is given to create something stronger than its originally constituted parts. To become an alloy, something must be heated until it’s molten, a process semi-literalized in by Cassils in Inextinguishable Fire (2007-2015).


But there are multiple and competing truths to transness. While for some the surgical or hormonal defines and facilitates their transness, Cassils’ own understanding of their trans identity does not partake thereof.


There is much to be learned about blood from the multiple, even conflicting truths of transness. I want to get past what I might call the trad politics of blood—such as those which facilitate gatekeeping around cis/het/bionormative family, often at the expense of queer and trans children—to see if we might find a trans aesthetics of blood not only within, but also beyond, the corporeal.


In Elle Pérez’s Dahlia and David (fag with a scar that says dyke), the often subcutaneous is brought out through cutting to produce a historically gendered word on the body of a subject situated titularly as the binary obverse of that word. Yet reclamations of the terms dyke and fag grow out of a queer, even punk rejection of the systems that produced them as hate speech. This ritual scarification, which partakes of BDSM and adjacent practices, repositions the network of inquiries into binary sex and gender surfaced by the words— and by the body onto which dyke is being cut—in a framework of desire that seduces the viewer, in glistening, irregularly blooming bloodlines, towards a relationality that holds skin and its rupture, pain and pleasure, the individuated and the alloyed, together in the frame all at once, suggesting, I think, that the ways in which sex and gender are traditionally structured feed in and give form to other systems of oppression—but also of resistance, restitution, and release.


In a slightly later work, Pérez offers a flooded mangrove plane in tones that allow for the individuation of water and air, and plant matter and reflection, while simultaneously challenging those distinctions at every turn in the fine gradients of contrast. This trans aesthetics—which allows and accounts for a wide and nuanced range of distinctions without either enforcing or eliding differences—also proposes a rather queer sociality; each of these plants are distinct soma, yet are deeply interconnected, and both live and are figured in a way that points up the qualities of entanglements without prioritizing a certain kind of connectivity over another. The flooded mangrove plane also gestures in this direction; mangroves have adapted to thrive in liminal spaces—on loose soil at the edge of land in brackish water that regularly submerges them—itself an allegory for queer and trans survival strategies—but during the AIDS crisis, when blood in queer contexts first took on the homophobic valences of infection and contamination with which it remains freighted today, myriad artists turned to the ecological broadly, and the anthropogenic specifically, to allegorize the Man-made loss of life at scale that also opened onto questions about where my blood ends and yours begins, and where a single body ends and a whole ecosystem begins. Taken today, in the middle of a full-blown climate crisis, Pérez reminds us that today, as has always been the case, the populations most susceptible to the threats to life du jour are often those most vulnerable under the best conditions, including, often, disproportionately high numbers of queer and trans people of color.


The background image of my Bureau d’Esprit is an installation photo of I Want Your Blood by Christen Clifford, consisting of dozens of bottles of menstrual blood collected from friends, family, and lovers, and curated in this particular formation by Jasmine Wahi and Rebecca Pauline Jampol. Menstrual blood and the physical, affective, and identitarian experiences that often accompany, or which are often associated with, it tend to be mapped onto essentialized understanding of womanhood. Both its inception and its cessation are especially of note for those who experience or wish to experience it, yet there is no single relationship to it, and it may be a rite of passage, a curse, a promise, a tell, a rupture, or an opening—whether to possibilities, or to traumas. Yet Clifford collects these from an almost endlessly vast range of embodiments and identifications that wholly undermine the concept of binary sex traditionally thought to enable or preclude menstruation, thus inviting the question not just of what, precisely, menstruation properly is, but of how much we might learn about both gender and menstruation by deracinating our musings on it from binary gender—a system that is, after all, as scholars like Beans Velocci have shown, is largely a precipitate of scientific racism anyway.


Ultimately, a trans position, two words, may offer an aesthetics of transposition, one word, that, however momentary or provisional, offers a glimpse of novel alloys both material and hypothetical that enable us to look in a way that enables us to see not just the skeiny surface, but the bloodflow below. This isn’t some utopian dream or a medical dystopian Albtraum, but a hyper-presentist possibility that, in coming to these phenomena from a slightly different vantage point, enables us not just to glimpse, but indeed to bring about, a world in which trans blood is collected and cared for, for pleasure and admiration, more frequently than it is shed in the streets.