An Essay by Liza Coviello: devynn emory’s Personal Public: On Gender Variance in Performance Art

devynn emory’s Personal Public: On Gender Variance in Performance Art

An essay by Liza Coviello

Work that an artist puts out into the world deserves a conversation, whether that conversation is expected or desired. devynn emory’s Personal Public investigates how one performance artist creates social change, whether knowingly or not, by challenging the status quo and the norms of acceptable representation. Within an open-ended art form, these performances challenge assumptions about our hetero-normative presets, clearing a subtle path towards an alteration of the collective belief system.

My focus as curator for this exhibition is how, through performance, bodies become political irrespective of the performer’s intention. I see devynn’s work as investigating the deconstruction of binary gender and the construction of unassimilated gender, as these ideas intersect with the performance artist and their work. In presenting devynn’s work, I hope to spark a discourse on how the artist and their work help to reconfigure society’s social norm assumptions. There remains a necessity to reclaim or simply create space where queer bodies can become more public – not in the sense that they are made consumables for the whole of society, but in that they are made as visible as non-queer bodies.

(Photo credit: Bradley Buehring)

(Photo credit: Bradley Buehring)

This room this braid, the performance projected in the gallery this month, was choreographed by emory and commissioned as part of ISSUE’s Artist-In-Residence program. The work features emory and dancer Aretha Aoki. “The work was influenced by the history of set design for dance, the grid, queer mapping via organization of space and container, the contemporary wall and floor drawings of Sol Lewitt and John Diviola, devynn emory’s duet work revisits essences of their formal training.”[i] While watching, the audience is invited into a sometimes awkward, yet always graceful, synchronized physical conversation between emory and Aoki using elements of formal dance. The bold colors of their clothing set against the muted drawings and darkened stage generates a strikingly beautiful contrast. I selected this piece because I felt and saw immediate dichotomies that spoke to the purpose of this exhibition. personal_public_2As a viewer, I felt I was intruding into their intimate, personal conversation. At the same time, I appreciated that they had offered the work for public consumption. Likewise, the stark shift from awkward to graceful movements and glorious color against muted tones are hard-to-ignore visual dichotomies. Upon experiencing all of these dualities, I began to consider another dichotomy: emory’s body next to Aoki’s – a body that (visually) falls into the existing gender binary. Seeing this binary opposition, I wanted to investigate how this body might affect my ability to process and appreciate the performance. At the same time, I wondered how other viewers without my particular set of experiences would process and appreciate the work.

This exhibition intends to make a bold public record of emory’s work, in conjunction with both their intentions and considerations of their own identity. With some input from Jeanne Vaccaro, a postdoctoral fellow in sexual studies, I drafted some questions that attempt to elucidate how one gender non-conforming performer feels about their own bodily representation with regards to the public’s viewing of it. In bringing together emory’s performance pieces with the interview, we are able to witness the physical, gender-variant body, the utilization of that body within the confines of an artwork, the evocation of the gender variant experience by the artist in both their work and words, and finally, the reaction/experience of the audience/public to all of these variables. How does the audience react to the work’s manipulation of / presentation of / play with gender norms and expectations? How would the artist react to audience reactions?

There are multiple feedback loops to consider in this exhibition, but it is important to note that the loop begins with the performing GNC[ii] body causing a consideration of our own bodies and their freedoms (or lack thereof). By utilizing the GNC body as medium, artists like emory bring us into their most personal and intimate space, wherein the lines of communication between audience and performer have more potential for exchange. As an artist invites the audience into their personhood, the vulnerability exhibited by that artist has potential to influence and encourage compassion and consideration by the viewer. The intimate experience can then trigger the beginning of solidarity with and understanding of an experience that is foreign to them.

Ultimately, in making this very visible and explicit type of exhibition, the intention is also to bring gender variance into the spotlight, to both set it apart from traditional social constructions and make gender nonconformity understandable to the greater public. emory’s responses to the interview questions provide additional supportive insight, and add depth to this concept by regarding the performers as mediators in a conversation. “My performers are inviting real-time relational moments with each other as a piece unfolds, which encourages the viewer to see us as relate-able humans.”[iii] In this way, the gender-variant performer creates a space that is personal to their selves, personal in their interaction with an audience, and public in their exposure to an audience.

The exhibition is at once very personal and very public. Beyond bringing to light the risk involved, the exhibition is meant to empower both performers and audience by offering a platform and space where social change is both boldly presented and allowed to be quietly considered. As we so often expect social change to occur either as a result of protest and aggressive disruption to social order, or through gradual, slight modifications to behavior by groups of people, this exhibition aims to offer more: explicit public record of feelings and thoughts on one artist’s experience being “other” and a space where this work engenders healthy, well-informed dialogue.

It is important that the audience understand there is an additional risk-taking when these performers enter the vulnerable space of performance, where their bodies are made unusually visible. The particular risk within emory’s work is what sets it apart in the world of performance art – the focus has the potential to veer away from the subject of the performance to the subject of the gender non-conforming body. emory states, “As people who are othered in our society, we often meet in the underground where we have become professionals at exchanging micro relations and codes. This is presented through body language, gait, and choice of garment (for example). The other collective space is out on the street. Here, our modes of being are about subtly cuing to each other whether it’s safe or not, whether to come close, stay back, to touch or not to touch, to hold-on or to move-on.” The concern for acceptance, and ultimately, safety, is very real.

Art has always been a vital method of communicating needs and feelings by our underrepresented or marginalized communities. While emory is uninterested in making work explicitly about their identity – noted in the exhibition interview and previous interviews – it is hardly surprising that the audience responds to their identity, even expects that connection despite the intention. Regardless of emory’s intention, in these performances, viewers can witness the performativity of gender non-conformers – an important part of the breaking down of existing social structures of gender. Carlos Motta recently stated in an issue of Frieze that, “While artists can speak about social change from within art institutions, and sometimes even from the market, we won’t effect [sic] social change unless we destabilize or ‘queer’ their structures with solid critiques and actions that resist assimilation – unless we stop representing queerness instead of performing it.”[iv]

So, what is at stake when an audience rebukes a performer or is deterred from work of art because of their discomfort with gender variance and modes of identifying and/or addressing an artist? Such fractures between artist and audience would demarcate points of entry for social violence and discrimination. On the other hand, in thinking about these fractures, Judith Butler would say “what is at stake is no less than a reconfigured world”[v] where pain suffered from such rebukes is a way towards creativity and generates opportunities for understanding. This second feedback loop is perhaps the most important as it sheds light on how we evolve towards a more broadly accepted understanding and acceptance of issues that are taboo or discriminatory.

About the Author:

Liza Coviello, a really interesting woman living in Philadelphia, is an arts administrator
for the Institute of Contemporary Art and independent curator for NAPOLEON.
Her undergraduate degree is in Fine Arts, focusing on ceramics and art history,
and her graduate degree is in Non-profit Leadership.
Her curatorial interests are heavily concentrated
in issues of social responsibility, justice, and reform.


[i] Quoted excerpts describing performances are taken from:

[ii] Gender non-conforming.

[iii] Emory, devynn. Personal interview. July 2014.

[iv] Taken from Motta, Carlos. “What does it mean to make queer art now?” Frieze May 2014: 134-135. Print.

[v] Butler, Judith. “Transgender and the Spirit of Revolt.” Art & Queer Culture, Ed. Lord, Catherine, and Richar Meyer. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2013. Print.

To download a .pdf version of this essay, click Personal_Public_Print





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