It’s unsettling to walk out of the Science Gallery London after visiting Genders: Shaping and Breaking the Binary and look up to see the tallest phallic structure in the UK towering overhead. By the time I was on the train having walked past the gendered adverts of London Bridge Station and sat down carefully one space along from a man wearing a suit and opposite a woman wearing a skirt, I was more than aware of being back in a system that generates a binary world. In the exhibition programme, King’s College London neurobiologist Clemens Kiecker is quoted as saying that ‘there is a strong cultural influence on gender and sexuality, and that they are far from being irrevocably hardwired. Our brains constantly undergo substantial changes in response to the environment, and this principle of plasticity is particularly relevant when it comes to our gender and sexuality’. We all know how a binary-gendered environment reinforces binary genders. What, therefore, is the effect of spending an hour or two in a ‘playful and kaleidoscopic’ fluidly-gendered environment?
The first point to make is that going around this exhibition is not like going around other exhibitions because even most avant-garde art, let alone the conventionally realist variety, has a binary context and expects binary reactions. However, in the absence of such binary cues, I simply forgot self-conscious gallery concerns about appearing suitably contemplative or emotionally engaged or intellectually sceptical and just submerged myself into what was more of an immersive experience. There were other bodies around me, some wearing orange stickers proclaiming ‘Justice’ or ‘Big Man Ting,’ but beyond trying not to bump in to them or obscure their view, I minded them not and simply lost myself in the various exhibits. These overlapped in multiple ways and generated a variety of intersecting and cumulative effects so that every couple of paces scaled up into a radically different perspectives. The looping multi-routed layout of partly-enclosed and overlapping spaces aids this effect and suggests the possibilities afforded by a mixture of open and semi-permeable borders. For example, For example, Gaby Sahhar’s Ties That Bind (2019) is a series of drawings that might be found in a more conventional exhibition, but the wider context of ‘Genders’ transfigures their story of a ‘corporate straight couple’ who crave to escape the restrictions thrown up by the upward social mobility and cis gender roles which are the dominant axes of their existence. In the drawings, the constrictive lines of ties – whether round necks or wrists – and stockings and suspenders merge with the coastlines and liminal tidal zones visible from the couple’s second home by the sea. Britain’s narrow borders are marked as the painful limits from which queerer forms of identity struggle to emerge. But here, the beaches of Ties That Bind are not just sites of resistance but also points of entry to a transformed future. Turn one way out of the semi-enclosed display space, and you are offered the chance to experience an array of alternative future legal genders for the UK; turn the other, and you are invited to deprogramme all the material, digital and emotional layers of British identity. I took this second turn and discovered a new law of Physics: in the absence of binary gender, time and space are reconfigured.
Weary commuters, desperate to get home and slip out of their workplace binary identities, might read their phones on the train in the evening, but in the exhibition space, human-phone cyborgs are freed from conventional four-dimensional imprisonment. Cibelle Cavalli Bastos’s installation, IN-BODY:EXO/REAL(I)T.Y #aevtardeprogram (2020), takes the mediation of experience through the digital lens to its nonlinearly logical culmination of extreme self-reflexive recognition, resulting in a new kind of collective solidarity. Just standing inside this mirrored space was like looking at your phone without actually holding your phone; although, of course, many other viewers were looking/filming through their phones or scanning the QR codes dotted around the walls. Walking within augmented reality turns out to be pleasantly weightless. In the interwar years, the German critic Walter Benjamin famously wrote about how the cinematic close-up ‘does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the object’. The implicit hope was that these new structural formations would entail new social relations distinct from those of capitalism; but as Benjamin was aware such new formations and relations could also be combined into the totalising structures of fascism and Stalinism. Postwar fears of such dystopian possibilities have periodically provoked attempts to return to Victorian values predicated on the notion of the classical liberal individual making rational choices according to fixed binaries and hierarchies. But it is now clear in the digital 2020s that the human subject is never going to revert to the structural norms of the century before last. There is no democratic alternative to embracing the fragmentation of the fantastical floating future, which in this case meant embracing a digital flowery halo visible to those looking at you through the screen in the centre of this installation. The divide between subject and object, viewer and exhibit, is ruptured.
Back in the wider exhibition space outside the EXO/REAL(I)T.Y installation, I found that the intersecting and cumulative effects of the surrounding exhibits were not just shifting my perspective but permeating my selfhood. It was as though a hitherto closed sensory node had opened me to the embodied experience of artworks such as Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s photographs and Marilou Pontin’s film of Fannie Sosa twerking. Even as it dawned on me that the Exhibition was framed as an invitation, rather than a challenge, I realised that I had already accepted. A particular set of exhibits are grouped in the catalogue under the subheading of ‘Porous Bodies and Queer Ecologies,’ and the effect they had was to make me conscious of being a porous body in a queer ecology. In particular, Sadé Mica’s Uproot, new roots (2019) reflected my own dysphoric relationship to the classed and gendered English landscape. The way in which Mica bends their body both to and against the contours and rock stratifications of the landscape suggests not just a way of combatting unease that is simultaneously bodily and social but also a reclamation of the land as part of a shared world of which the self need no longer be afraid. In a totally different but nevertheless related way, Adam Faramawy’s Skin Flick (Invasive Species) (2019) invaded my skin to the point where I had to physically resist ‘soaping’ myself both because that felt good in itself and because it triggered a sense of mutant uncleanliness that felt true.
Other exhibits gave space to this desire to participate. Danielle Braithwaite-Shirley’s WE ARE HERE BECAUSE OF THOSE WHO ARE NOT (2020) positioned viewers as ‘visiting video-gamers’ deciding how to interact with black trans experience. Occupying a central and also more closed-off space in the gallery, this exhibit embodies the fragmentary mutability surrounding it while implicitly reminding viewers/players that there are real-life consequences to gender non-conformity. As the catalogue notes, ‘No trauma is recreated within this work’ but we are questioned as to the support we give trans people and to think about our place within the trans community and as allies. That’s a question that we need to answer outside the gallery, but before leaving it’s also necessary to consider the future legal status of gender, because this has a huge bearing on the lived reality of every possibility raised in this exhibition.
At which point, I rewound back to Gaby Sahhar’s corporate straight couple exploring the queer marginality of the beach and took the ‘red exit’ into the world of reproductive technologies to find myself confronted by the prospects of ‘UTERINE TRANSPLANTATION’ and ‘ECTOGENESIS’ raised by Future Baby Production’s UNBORN0X9 (2020). These are very positive prospects in some contexts, but here it felt that I had stumbled into another of the totalitarian futures haunting the exhibition. I was reminded of the 2018 Clarke Award winning novel, Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time, which begins with a tour of a designer baby studio, and then takes us ever deeper into the subtle dystopia with which its mostly middle-class straight protagonists are complicit because their privileges remain untouched. On the wall at the end of this room, amidst the babies, hangs Sarah Jury, Behrooz “Bez” Shahriari, and Rachel Sale’s Challenging Structures (2020), a role-playing game with scripts and character cards. Three future societies are presented to us: one where current gender roles are enforced and leadership and inheritance run on the basis of primogeniture; one where gender is self-selected as ‘man’ or ‘woman’; and one where gender is simply not recorded and most people express ‘fluidity’. The apparent clarity of these alternatives is quickly complicated by spending a few minutes studying the contexts and scenarios outlined. It’s not just that the game invites one to get engaged in working through all the opportunities and challenges of these societies but that like all good science fiction – and the exhibition as a whole – it provokes us to look again at our own organisation of gender as something alien.
This game responds to The Future of Legal Gender, an Economic and Social Research Council project led by Professor Davina Cooper of the Dickson Poon School of Law at King’s College London. This project would require a full post in its own right to do it justice but what is immediately significant to this exhibition is its use of prefiguration. Prefigurative law reform is a way of thinking about legislation as not the prerogative of government-led processes but, rather, from the perspective of the future society sought. As Cooper writes in a project blog post, ‘If we want a society without gender or a society with multiple genders, prefigurative politics means living as if this is doable or already there.’ An important part of this process is enabling various democratic participatory processes, which include imaginative speculative approaches such as the Challenging Structures RPG and the Genders exhibition itself. However – and this is the seemingly inescapable context of the current gender and trans ‘debate’ in the UK – responses to the Project’s survey have revealed ‘the enduring power of biological sex in respondents’ reported understandings’. Beyond the precincts of the Science Gallery and King’s College, it is still apparently the world of the Shard, the daily commute, and biology as destiny. Just as finishing any work of conventional-gender-challenging science fiction, such as Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels or Ann Leckie’s 2014 Clarke-winning Ancillary Justice, leaving the Genders exhibition left me feeling metaphorically thrown back on to the cold hillside. But the melancholy passes quickly in favour of the lasting realisation that the future is out there, and every day it’s getting closer.