Adrien Crossman: Fake Childhood, No Future

Adrien Crossman. Lavender Culture. digital render, 2018. Courtesy of the Artist.

By Adi Berardini

CW: Brief mention of transphobic/homophobic media tropes; discussion of LGBTQ+ suicide

When my friends had discovered that I had never seen But I’m a Cheerleader, they were appalled and assigned the film to me as queer culture homework. After watching it, I could tell why—I had never seen a feature film that distinctly depicted the experience of being femme before. The protagonist Megan is a stereotypical blonde cheerleader; however, she doesn’t realize that the Melissa Etheridge poster in her room, not being that into her boyfriend, and checking out other women, points to the fact that she is a lesbian. Although with a light-hearted approach, the film, with its campy, John-Waters-like, pink and turquoise aesthetic, depicts her condemnation to a conversion camp where she learns the ‘how-tos’ about heterosexuality and gender roles. Any attempt to brainwash Megan into straightness dramatically fails, and (spoiler alert) she falls for the dreamy rebel, Graham. It’s no surprise that the film has now become a cult classic within the LGBTQ+ community. It’s also no surprise to me that I was late to learn about this film since I didn’t fully come to terms with being queer until early adulthood, and like Megan, I think my friends picked up on my queerness first. Although not to be mixed up with confusion, it’s more like a lack of realization as a result of under-representation and erasure.

Often referencing cult-classic films such as But I’m a Cheerleader, interdisciplinary artist, educator, and curator Adrien Crossman both unpacks and reclaims the ambiguity of queer culture, in a heteronormative society that struggles to acknowledge and accept queerness. They are interested in critically analyzing how media largely depicts queerness as either “abhorrent or invisible,” with reference to what Adrienne Rich calls compulsory heterosexuality, the idea that heterosexuality is assumed and enforced by a patriarchal society.[1] Further, Crossman is interested in how the potential of queerness can provide space for exploration beyond rigid binaries and gender roles. They reference how popular childhood characters, such as SpongeBob or Furby, have queerness built into their creation or storylines but were protested by religious groups due to a sense of “moralism” and “protection” of children. As a result, these pop culture figures are often reclaimed or named by the community as signifiers of queer identity.

Crossman’s work heavily points towards queer iconography itself, whether it’s a virtual projection of a neon sign reading ‘lavender culture’ or felt pennants reading ‘Silence=Death’ reminiscent of the posters of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Just as the edited volume Lavender Culture attempts to explore, the neon sign had me thinking what I am always asking myself while doing a project like Femme Art Review—what exactly is lavender culture? The introduction to the book notes how more mainstream culture is influenced by queer culture, yet there’s a failure to name this influence due to homophobia.[2] However, Crossman is more interested in establishing a queer sensibility, or perhaps a shared frame of reference, than defining queer culture, recognizing that queer experiences are intersectional and widely differ. Although without this sense of shared understanding and reference, it can create a sense of isolation within being queer, especially when aspects of queer history remain in the background yet still influences our lives today. For example, the trauma of the 1980s/90s HIV/AIDS crisis that perpetuated, and still perpetuates, stigma towards queerness due to the homophobic media coverage and lack of government response due to conservatism. The Lavender Culture sign is digitally rendered instead a physical object in space, which speaks to the intangibility of lesbian culture often existing on the fringes of LGBTQ+ narratives.

Adrien Crossman. Queer Still Life, digital render, 2016, courtesy of the artist.

In addition, Crossman is interested in challenging the binary of the real versus artificial, or fiction and reality. They form a 3D rendered stack of queer theory books as a still life, including a Furby and a Tamagotchi, that subversively reads an Audre Lorde quote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”[3]  They explore their relationship to these objects and texts, and the power structures that Lorde references in the quote, the force of the white, cis-heteronormative patriarchy that leaves little room for queer expression, particularly for racialized queer people. Crossman has a distinctly digital way of working to subvert the binary of digital and real, rendering in 3D, then casting in aluminum, then back to the digital plane, in order to transcend these binaries and fixed categories. They define these objects, such as Tamagotchis and Furbies, as “relational artifacts” that possess a sense of queer affect and intimacy.[4] The Furby symbolizes the potential for queerness since they are objects undefined by gender or race. Crossman also explores how certain technologies, like the beloved 90s toy Tamagotchi, require human care and attention as a way to exist out outside of the binary of real and fake.

There’s also a lack of representation of outwardly queer women and Non-binary/Trans characters in television and media which perpetuates this sense of isolation and erasure. There’s the obvious L-Word, or Orange is the New Black, however the lack of media representation from our own perspective haunts us with the misunderstanding of our own identities (and other people misunderstanding them, too). Tinky Winky from the Teletubbies carried a women’s handbag, potentially signalling his gayness and gender non-conformity, which was made out to be blasphemy. The original L-Word misconstrued Trans men as violent. Orange is the New Black has representation of queer and Trans women, yet in the setting of a women’s prison. How do we come to terms with queer identity when it’s not depicted at all, or if so, so inaccurately; being fetishized and sexualized, or being made out to be monstrous or criminal? The lack of queer media representations often leads to depictions that are able-bodied, cis-gender and white, which are deemed more ‘palatable’ under the male gaze and white supremacy. The erasure of queer experiences in pop culture and media ultimately contributes to the erasure of us.

Adrien Crossman. Exist, video still, 2019, courtesy of the artist.

For this reason, the words I see depicted on Adrien’s ankle tattoo of a flag reading ‘EXIST,’ and their leg tattoo spelling out ‘NO FUTURE’ in their film Exist, hit me hard. In the film, they tattoo their own ankle with a version of their artwork to address that being queer is an act of resistance in a heteronormative society, providing a new queer orientation.[5] The words of their one tattoo are in reference to the queer theory text No Future by Lee Edelman in which he challenges the archetype of the child symbolizing future and innocence, positioning the embodiment of queerness as anti-social and future-negating.[6] The self-inflicted pain of their stick and poke tattoo reflects the pain queer people experience, a pain that is often left undiscussed or brushed over. To ‘exist’ is to live under adverse conditions—it’s exhausting being labelled as resilient or strong in a world that so often deems queer as “abnormal.” The lack of the reflection of our experiences and the way that queer identity is depicted as too taboo to explicitly address in film and television, re-upholds the belief that it’s morally wrong for us to authentically exist as ourselves. This framework of thinking is so often why we internalize homophobia, it contributes to feeling ashamed to be who we are, and why we lose lives in the queer community to suicide. Countering this, the flag that reads ‘EXIST’ reaffirms that existing in a heteronormative regime is an act or resistance in itself for queer and marginalized folx. The flag signals a sense of protest, pride, and celebration, counteracting the sense of shame these harmful ideologies perpetuate. The film is a meditation that affirms that you are enough—you’re more than enough.

Adrien Crossman, Heaven is a Place on Earth install shot, 2019, photo by Polina Teif.

The title of Crossman’s 2019 exhibition Heaven is a Place on Earth at Patel Projects is not only in reference to the Belinda Carlisle song, but the Black Mirror episode, San Junipero. In this modern cult classic, the shy Yorkie, eventually meets the uninhibited Kelly, a soulmate connection that encourages her to let go. With its 1980s bisexual colour scheme, the episode details their relationship, including hookups in a beach house and convertible rides along the shoreline. Although, (another spoiler alert) the episode becomes a utopia within a broader dystopia—the couple is in a simulation that the dead can live in and the elderly can visit as part of immersive nostalgia therapy. In reality, their lives were much more plagued by hurt and pain. Trans and bi activist and scholar Julia Serano theorizes that the “bi” prefix of bisexuality is not between two genders, but of two worlds—navigating one of heterosexuality and one of queerness.[7] Although she was happily married to a man, Kelly, who is bisexual, feels the grasp of compulsory heterosexuality and never acted upon her desire for women during her lifetime. Yorkie was also never able to act on desire since she was brought up in a highly religious family. The episode uses imagined reality to create an alternate space, one that’s not confined by fear or repression, but love and connection that moves beyond gender and racial boundaries. In Heaven is a Place on Earth, Crossman references Toronto queer spots like the Henhouse bar, addressing how spaces that formed a sense of queer community are vastly disappearing at the hands of capitalism and gentrification. Crossman also subverts the rainbow ‘Cocksucker’ matchbox in But I’m a Cheerleader to the ‘Henhouse’ reflecting on how LGBTQ+ spaces often center cisgender gay men, perpetuating lesbian, bisexual and trans erasure. The necessary physical spaces also disappear, leaving little room for queer connection.

Adrien Crossman. Dystopia, neon sign, 2019, photo by Polina Teif.

All too reflective of the current moment, Crossman forms neon signs reading ‘dystopia’ and ‘utopia’ in Heaven is a Place on Earth. This touches upon utopia and queer futurity (the concept that queerness exists in a futuristic potentiality) with such reference to Cruising Utopia by José Esteban-Munoz, and how it’s necessary to form a sense of political imagination, particularly for queer people of colour.[8] The etymology of the word utopia is ou-topos or ‘no place,’ which is a void that queerness knows well—neither here nor there—but a space of infinite in-between. And with this potential ambiguity or space for liminality, endless possibilities beyond binaries emerge.

Additionally, Crossman co-runs an online publication called Off Centre with artist Luke Maddaford, which covers art exhibitions that exist outside of metropolitan city centres. In my own experience in London, Ontario, a mid-size, conservative city, my queer friends and I create small pockets of utopia in order to counter the outsider feeling of living in a city filled with frat bros and toxic masculinity (a personal dystopia). In the midst of a global pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests standing up to the injustices of a white supremacist police state, things seem rather dystopic. However, there’s an importance of having a sense of hope and collaboratively working towards a goal of a better future. An imagined place, a utopia, where everything is perfect may seem overly naïve, but demanding that queer identities are seen as valid and that our humanity is recognized should not be too much to ask.

Adrien Crossman. Utopia, neon sign, 2019, photo by Polina Teif.

But I’m a Cheerleader likely resonated with young queer people since it was written and directed by Jamie Babbit, a queer director—the fact that so many saw their experience reflected back to them is meaningful when LGBTQ+ experiences are often erased and ignored. Crossman references visual imagery, from pop culture and cult-classics, to ground a sense of unity, countering how queer identities become fragmented due to erasure both in the mainstream media and in physical space. They refuse to let queer culture fade into an un-defined background by reclaiming it through the assertion that, try as you might to erase us, we’re here and we’re queer.

[1] Rich, Adrienne (1980). “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 631–660.

[2] Ed. Jay, Karla. Lavender Culture. NYU Press. 1994.

[3]Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110- 114. 2007. Print.

[4] Relational artifacts, also known as sociable robots, was coined by Sherry Turkle. Crossman speaks more to this in their artist talk as part of Art Intersections Meetup found here:

[5] From Crossman’s description of Exist for Barbed Mag. Likely in reference to Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke UP, (2006).

[6] Edelman, Lee. No Future. Duke University Press. 2004.

[7] Serano, Julia. “Bisexuality and Binaries Revisited.” 2012.

[8] Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press, 2009.

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