Art school conference explores gender

UC Berkeley Professor Judith Butler discussed gender at a recent conference at California College of the Arts. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

UC Berkeley Professor Judith Butler discussed gender at a recent conference at California College of the Arts. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

By Elliot Owen
Bay Area Reporter 

It was a packed house recently at the San Francisco campus of California College of the Arts as acclaimed queer theorist and UC Berkeley Professor Judith Butler gave a lecture that concluded the college’s weeklong series of events exploring gender.

The series – the latest contribution to a larger project called Gender in Translation – included a visit from French art historian, critic, journalist, and academic Elisabeth Lebovici, who participated in an open critique of student work centering gender in translation on February 23. The following day she was featured in a visiting critic forum where she discussed her explorations of gender theory and contemporary art. Also on February 24, award-winning filmmaker Malic Amalya, who teaches video production at CCA, presented a screening of queer underground films.

Butler’s lecture served as the week’s capstone feature. CCA accommodated 200 attendees in the auditorium where the notable academic spoke, and 50 more watched her lecture in an overflow area via a live broadcast. Another 200-300 people were turned away according to Tirza True Latimer, chair of the graduate program in visual and critical studies at CCA and main organizer for the lecture component of the event series.

In her introduction of Butler, Latimer, a self-identified queer lesbian feminist, spoke of a recent visit to the grave of French writer and feminist theorist Simon de Beauvoir, which she found adorned with offerings – “metro tickets, smooth stones, messages” – from “feminist pilgrims.”

“One of the notes …,” Latimer told the audience, “read: ‘You changed my mind.’ The power of this homage has stayed with me and I’m honored to have the opportunity to repeat it this evening. Judith Butler, with your critical elaboration of concepts from performativity to precarity, you changed our minds.”

Over the next 90 minutes, Butler, best known for her 1990 book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, detailed the history of the term “gender” and discussed the different meanings, understandings, and implications gender embodies when entering different social, political, and cultural contexts. As it relates to linguistic translation, Butler explored how gender emerges and is “performed” via the language the speaker is using.

“Gender is subject to various grammatical formulations in different languages,” Butler said. “That is part of how it operates. There is no referent we might call gender that belongs to the pure order of being. … At the moment one has to explain gender in another language one sees that one’s own language is, hey, one way of trying to present the phenomenon.”

Butler also underlined the historical specificity of language at any given moment; gender expressed through language can shift and evolve over time.

“… When we do feel it quite necessary to be referred to in a certain way, that’s because language has opened up a possibility of self-reference or for pronoun reference for speaking in English, then it’s the historical changes in English that informs pronoun usage that have made the possibility of our self-reference an actuality,” Butler said.

Butler concluded her lecture emphasizing that faltering together in different languages would bring humans closer together under collective humility.

CCA visual critical studies graduate student Eden Redmond, a self-identified white queer girl and fat femme darling, attended the lecture and found Butler’s theoretical work more accessible in-person in contrast to reading Butler’s writings.

“Reading Butler in school,” Redmond, 23, told the Bay Area Reporter, “while I appreciated the prose and what concepts I could glean on my own, it was always laborious to understand. I was nervous that Butler’s spoken presentation would require the same kind of attention … but hearing her speak words animated her concepts giving them tenderness and immediacy that resonated much more readily. … This lecture was incredibly impactful and I feel honored to have seen it.”

Providing CCA students with a “theoretical toolkit” is one of the school’s priorities, Latimer told the B.A.R. The institution’s intent is to introduce conceptual frameworks to work within, expand from, and push forward.

“The hope of an event like this and hopefully part of the outcome in bringing this project and conversation to art schools,” Latimer said, “is that you can move the abstract to a place of action. This is where the rubber hits the ground, in these contexts where people are makers of cultural. To see the ways student work grows and gets traction because of being exposed to, understanding, and even misunderstanding an idea, is always really exciting.”

The CCA events operated under the initiative Gender in Translation, an ongoing academic project created by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in San Francisco, dedicated to questioning the concept of gender in the social sciences, philosophy, and artistic disciplines.

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