Queering boundaries

From Doireann O’Malley’s “Prototypes”
Prototypes by Doireann O’Malley is a multi-screen film installation, a series of dreamscapes interrogating trans* semiotics through psychoanalytic practices, speculative technologies, and live action role-playing. O’Malley’s work references scientific and medical investigations into the human psyche that address wider philosophical concerns relating to biology, gender embodiment, sexuality, utopianism, and biomolecular advancement in human evolution.

In this essay, published in a book in conjunction with O’Malley’s exhibition “Prototypes” at Dublin City Gallery on 2018, Lou Drago reflects upon the themes within Prototypes.

“[An] electron’s very nature is unnatural, not given, not fixed, but forever transitioning and transforming itself” — Karen Barad[i]

Within the first moments of Doireann O’Malley’s film Prototypes I: Quantum Leaps in Trans Semiotic and Psycho-Analytic Snail Serum, a voiceover enumerates the various chromosome composites that humans possess, confronting the viewer with the absurdity of society’s reduction of gender to a binary system. It is explained that several of these combinations extend beyond the limited categorisations of male / female, quickly establishing that there is substantially more involved in understanding the complexities of defining gender.

Throughout the work a recurring iconography of snails, generally hermaphroditic creatures, reminds us that humans have always carefully selected which non-human subjects exemplify traditional values of what is constitutive of being considered ‘natural’. The terms ‘crime against nature’ or ‘unnatural act’, demonstrate traditional Western values that maintain that non-reproductive sex is unnatural, and until shockingly recently was prosecutable by law. A critical, contemporary perspective, however, may question which part of nature is being observed to validate this view? Still considered as ‘crimes against nature’ are: sexual conduct involving minors, incest, public sex, prostitution and bestiality. Aside from perhaps prostitution (under the supposition that no other species use currency), which of these acts do not occur somewhere in ‘nature’? Particularly laughable is public sex, as if other species have sex anywhere other than in ‘public’. The concept of Nature is a human construction, a powerful trope, one of those things that we ‘cannot not desire’[ii]. Yet considering this inference, how is it that we could go against Nature if we are always-already a part of it? The paradox stems from the fact that any crime against nature (or ‘unnatural act’) would, definitionally speaking, have to be committed by “some agent who is outside of Nature, presumably a human agent, one cognisant of his sins”[iii] which, evidently, is impossible.

The casting of the ‘protandrous sequential hermaphroditic’ creatures refers to Karen Barad’s enquiries into largely unrecognised queer occurrences in nature. Nature’s Queer Performativity, asserts that there are many natural actors that serve to queer humanity’s expectations of how Nature functions, including, “social amoebas, neuronal receptor cells in stingrays, lightening, a phantom species of dinoflagellates, academics (a strange companion species), and atoms”, which suggests that Nature is not as heteronormative as is hegemonically postulated. Bruce Bagemihil is right in suggesting that the world is “teeming with homosexual, bisexual and transgendered creatures of every stripe and feather.”[iv]

The snails were not in the first script of Prototypes I but rather they came to the artist through a series of coincidences — or was there some greater unconscious entanglement at play? Regardless of how the collaboration with the Giant African Land Snails began, the terminology used to describe the sex of these creatures offers abundant opportunity for appropriation: ‘protandrous sequential hermaphrodites’[v]where ‘proto-’ means first or foremost and ‘-andry’ means male. In the case of snails, their male reproductive organs come to maturity before the female, but perhaps the literal meaning could be appropriated when applied to humans; first male, then female, the way the term MTF currently functions, and by extension, protogynous for FTM.

Evolutionary biologist, J.B.S. Haldane famously states that “the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose,” reminding us of the limits of human comprehension. This takes us back, full circle, to where Prototypes I begins: with Turing, who was arguably the first to acknowledge the potential of other forms of intelligence exceeding our own. As artificial intelligence develops rapidly, it would be sage to remember Haldane’s humility on human comprehension, considering the common assumption that “performativity is coupled with deep speculation that Turing machines can fully realise human minds, as if the first and only duty of AI should be to serve our rampant narcissism throughout isomorphism.”[vi] However, it is Turing’s lesser-known first test that a voiceover in the opening scene of Prototypes Idescribes; the test in which one must blindly attempt to distinguish between a man and a woman. The act of proposing such a test renders the failed distinction possible, but “what do gendered bodies have to do with the erasure of embodiment and the subsequent merging of machine and human intelligence in the figure of the cyborg?”[vii] Was Turing already positing a postgender future?

As the viewer is guided sonically and visually through various dream- and land-scapes, we observe psychoanalytic references to both shamanistic pasts and speculative futures that employ alternate modes of existence. The characters interact with undefined technologies in which it is intentionally ambiguous as to whether they are rendering themselves in a virtual world, a potential future, or creating their present. Prototypes Ifollows its transgendered protagonists through their psychoanalytic sessions. These emphasise a transgression of boundaries as the viewer becomes increasingly disoriented between the physical and dream worlds, where the psyche presents symbols as metaphors for psychological obstacles to be comprehended and ideally, overcome. A clichéd representation of a psychoanalyst — trinkets, suit, Viennese accent and couch inclusive — suggests a hint of doubt toward the oft-unquestioned supremacy of the field of psychoanalysis. If the unconsciously imagined symbols are a way of showing what is formerly unthinkable and otherwise inexpressible, then how can we arrive at a new reading of these through the limited tools available in the phallocentric, binarised language of patriarchal analysis?

Throughout Prototypes I there is little to distinguish between “the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real.”[viii]As the viewer considers reality’s debatable preponderance, the lack of need for such distinctions becomes apparent. Through this dissolution of boundaries, the artist draws a vector between Barad’s theory of iterative intra-action and the psychoanalytic symbols of hybridisation. A nod of recognition toward the agential cut[ix] demonstrates the futility of attempting to draw clear demarcations in a world where existence is an entangled mass of phenomena in action.

Throughout the film it becomes progressively ambiguous what is real, and we begin to question what it means to regard something as ‘real’. Monique Wittig calls this individual operation of apprehending reality a “subjective, cognitive practice,” and notes that this oscillation between the “levels of reality (the conceptual reality and the material reality of oppression, ... both social realities) is accomplished through language.”[x] After a particularly vivid Ursula K. Le Guin-inspired, science fiction dream, the artist began habitually recording their dreams, the first of which became the catapult for the script of Prototypes I as O’Malley became focused on wanting to “make films as an attempt to visualise dreams.”[xi]  Working with non-professional actors in a collaborative process was integral to the work. Several of the cast attended a dream workshop and discussed their own dreams, which were then too, woven into the script. In an exquisite corpse of unconscious connection, one protagonist’s dream depicts a tongue, the neither entirely internal nor external organ, abstracted and contrasted against the artist’s dream of tentacles growing from a stomach. Dreaming alleviates us from rationality, opening up a whole other multiverse of thought, and having the potential to access this alternate layer of reality is fundamental to O’Malley’s interest in dreaming. O’Malley found that as the practice of dream recording became routine, they became increasingly aware of their dreams and the previously-known borders between lucidity and dream states began to disintegrate.[xii]

Boundaries of gender also prove to be malleable, the periphery adapting in relation to its intra-action within a given context. A questioning of the factoid that assumes the hierarchical privileging of the ‘natural’ becomes apparent through a depiction of plasticity of bodies, their malleability exhibited through the results of hormone administration onto the transgendered subjects. Through the “radical questioning of identity and binaries, including the nature/culture binary,”[xiii]the artist also does not assume an anthropocentric position, but rather reminds us that humanity is intrinsically a part of Nature and that technological advancements cannot be considered as separate. These plastic bodies are painted with various representational symbols of gender, but one could question the way in which oppressive stereotypes are often reproduced in an effort for trans* bodies to ‘pass’ in societies that have such unforgivingly strict boundaries of what constitutes that male / female binary.

Through an experiential understanding of the pliant body made available through bio-hacking, the protagonists begin to sense a form of liberation, “a way to directly denounce systems of control.”[xiv]They experience an expanded potentiality to create for themselves “new meanings and languages, new architectures.”[xv] One protagonist professes that the experience of taking testosterone feels like being in a science fiction movie. This concretes what is alluded to throughout the film, that this depicted version of reality is one formerly unimaginable, consequently allowing us to further speculate on the abundance of potential futurities.

One facet of a potential future is examined for the duration of the second film; Prototypes II: The Institute for the Enrichment of Computer Aided Post Gendered Prototypes. We meet the same three protagonists, joined by several others at the ‘Institute for the Enrichment of Computer Aided Post Gendered Prototypes’, the epitome of technological development for gender deconstruction. The Institute offers alter-subjectivities that transcend the limits of language and medical technologies of bodily transformation.[xvi] A holographic host, Leonard, elucidates that the characters have come to the institute to deconstruct their pre-existing habits in binarisation. They will eventually have to choose whether or not they will commit to entering a portal crossing into another multiverse where an alternate version of themselves exists, albeit, in a world without gender. As the protagonists consider the potentiality of living in a genderless world, the viewer also has an opportunity to reflect on the prospect of living without the ‘political concepts of oppression’[xvii] that account for the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’. Barad urges readers to “interrogate the binaries that support the divisions that are at stake,”[xviii]and this is precisely what the Prototypes are given the opportunity to do.

Utopia is a paradoxical concept. The multiplicity of its constituent subjective qualities alone renders it impossible for an existence containing more than one individual and, considering existence’s constant state of flux, one could never arrive at a fixed point of utopia. In Prototypes II, Live Action Role-Playing is employed as an improvisation technique. The characters are given a framing but with plenty of freedom to project their own ideas and experiences onto their characters, resulting in another form of collaborative process. They share their own insights and apprehensions about their speculative leap into another multiverse, and they discuss which compromises and changes would be necessary to exist in a genderless world. As Leonard asks “How to visualise the as-of-yet impossible?”[xix] How to speak in a society where hitherto, the languages spoken cannot adequately express a genderless existence?

If the limits of language are what dictate the articulatability of our experience, then perhaps dreaming could be a way of stepping outside of language altogether? Perhaps dreaming is a way to express the inexpressible, regardless of whether one is able to express it in words. Wittgenstein’s observation that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world,” holds true now as much as ever. It is imperative to continue developing the words necessary for describing a post-binary, era of complexity, that is fundamental to establishing an existence beyond gender.

As Jose Esteban Munoz offers in the initial lines of Cruising Utopia, “we are not yet queer,”[xx] and perhaps we never will be, as queer is not a destination to arrive at but rather a continual process; an interrogation of contextually-relational boundaries. There is a continuous need to queer terminology — embrace portmanteau, compounds, hyphenated words and neologisms — and accept that these too, must beturned over, inside out,[xxi] and back again, that there is no singular solution (itself a patriarchal construct) only a tangled mesh of re-configurings and approximations.

In the seminal, A Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway asserts that “the dichotomies between mind and body, animal and human, organism and machine, public and private, nature and culture, men and women, primitive and civilised are all in question,”[xxii] yet, thirty years on, how much has changed? The time is ripe to think beyond binarising systems of standardisation, acknowledging ours as an era of complexity. It is time to think with Barad on the iterative intra-action of phenomena and the constant flux in which matter exists. These dichotomies must be constantly re-evaluated “by turning them over and inside out, reading them deconstructively for aporias, and re-reading them through other ideas, queering their received meanings.”[xxiii]

After observing the Prototypes discussing the institute and its possibilities with a new round of potential Prototypes we eventually observe one protagonist, Nika, leave the group to stand before a portal. Although it is implied that he will take the leap of faith, crossing into another multiverse to trade places with a postgender version of himself, like much of the film, this too, is left open to interpretation. In Prototypes, both I and II, we observe a relentless scrutinisation of boundaries. Distinctions between visceral and virtual worlds are questioned, alluded to through discussions and depictions of both the dream and the ‘real’ world. Ambiguous too, are the representations of past, present and future, compounding these tenses into irrelevance. Through this interrogation of boundaries, Prototypes embraces our era of complexity, disposing of distinctions and categorisations in favour of serendipitous entanglements and relational re-contextualisations.

[i] Barad, K. (2015). Transmaterialities: Trans*/Matter/Realities and Queer Political Imaginings. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Vol. 21, pp. 388 – 422.

[ii] Haraway, D. (1992). The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others. In Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, Paula A. Treichler, (Eds.), Cultural Studies (pp. 295-337). New York, NY: Routledge.

[iii] Barad, K. (2012). Nature’s Queer Performativity. Kvinder, Køn & Forskning. Vol. 1-2, pp. 25 – 53.

[iv] Bagemihl, B. (2000). Biological Exhuberance : Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity. (p. 9). New York, NY : Stonewall Inn Editions.
[v] Avise J.C & Mank J.E. (2009). Evolutionary Perspectives on Hermaphroditism in Fishes. Karger. Vol. 3, No. 2-3.

[vi] Bawa-Cavia, A. (2017). The Inclosure of Reason, Technosphere Magazine.

[vii] Hayles, N. K. (1999). How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

[viii] Miller, J. A. (1988). The Seminar of Jaques Lacan. (S. Tomaselli, Trans.). Cambridge, Great Britian: Cambridge University Press. Original work published in 1978) (p.34)

[ix] Barad, K. (see note 3).

[x] Wittig, M. (1981). One is Not Born a Woman. In M. Wittig, The Straight Mind and Other Essays (pp. 9-20). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

[xi] O’Malley, D. (2018, June 3). Personal Interview.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Barad, K. (see note 3).

[xiv] O’Malley, D. (2018). Prototypes I: Quantum Leaps in Trans Semiotic and Psycho-Analytic Snail Serum. [Video]. By permission of the artist.  
[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Drago, L & Marum, P. (2018). Quantum Leaps in Trans-Semiotics through Psycho-Analytical Snail Serum. [Curatorial text] KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin.

[xvii] Wittig, M. (See note 10).

[xviii] Kleinman, A. (2012). [Interview with Karen Barad]. Mousse, 34, pp 76-81.

[xix] O’Malley, D. (2018). Prototypes II: The Institute for the Enrichment of Computer Aided Post Gendered Prototypes. [Video]. By permission of the artist.

[xx] Munoz, J. E. (2009). Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York, NY: New York University Press. 

[xxi] Barad, K. (See note 18).

[xxii] Haraway, D, J. (1984). A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. In D, J. Haraway (Author) Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York, NY: Routledge.

[xxiii] Barad, K. (See note 18).