Rare Birds and Wild Creatures: Quito Ziegler

Last Monday evening, Dec 9, 2013, friends old and new gathered at The Bureau of General Services Queer Division (BGSQD) for The Queen of Hearts, an exhibition of photographs by Quito Ziegler. Everybody knew each other, so it didn’t feel like a gallery but someone’s living room. Another transient space for this sort of merry flock. The evening’s highlight was a slideshow that Ziegler presented, edited from three years’ worth of material. Ziegler showed this new edit along with stories—interpretations kept alive by the gleeful additions of some in attendance. In some inherent ode to their inter-connectedness, most individuals were not so easily identifiable—figures of light sauntered and swished on the sidewalks of night. Moonlight, streetlight, lit cigarettes and sparklers.

It is too easy to dismiss blurry photographs as the domain of the unskilled, a compromise of the unwilling, a poor substitution for “adequate” representation. As the digital age accelerates depersonalization in the guise of connectivity and efficiency, a longing for the tactile and the imprecise has been visibly emerging in photography, prominently in the past decade. What off-focus pictures easily convey is the unrepeatable formation of immediacy. If sharpness shows the crisp dead wings of a moment’s flight, the blur accentuates the trail alive. It’s also about honesty: most lighting conditions we experience (unless we live in a climate of perpetual F16) do not lend themselves to natural sharpness by a camera. And so, an image is physically fixed in its evolution toward meaning, but remains visually unhinged.

In pairing a slideshow with spoken story, Ziegler expressed how this style of working regenerated a connection to photography, and to those in Ziegler’s social millieu. Verbal language was as fluid as the photographs, each leading us through the tales of how a Transfemininst navigates the world of wonder while healing old wounds. The images might have been fixed (on the wall, or chemically) but not the stories. The stories seemed to belong to all who were there: in or out of the pictures. And then Ziegler went downstairs to smoke a cigarette.


What follows are excerpts from an interview with Quito Ziegler completed in Dec. 2013.

Patricia: You’ve spent the last three years making pictures at night, of and with a spontaneity that belongs to the independent: those not moored by traditional employment. What was it like on the side of night? 

Quito: The year that I was shooting, 2010, I had a full-time job at the Open Society Institute. Every weekday morning, no matter how late I had been out the night before, I had to wake up and get myself to an office by 10ish. Photographing was my night work, the work of my heart. But I never could have done it without the steady paycheck of that job.

It was sort of convenient, in a way, that I fell in love with how film looks at night, because the  night was when I had free time to make my art. And yet—things definitely started getting weird, going back and forth between worlds. The more time I spent out in the queer community, the closer it pushed me towards my own transition. And then I’d have to get up and put on work drag, cute dresses that I couldn’t relate to anymore but were the items in my “professional” wardrobe. I started noticing how different I felt when I was in community, versus my very lovely, but mostly heterosexual work world. I hated getting dressed in the morning. I got a mohawk and felt like a double agent. Finally one morning my boss, who I adore, closed the office door and inquired gently about the shift in my appearance, which had started to stray boldly beyond “nonprofit professional.” I burst out into tears. “My gender is really confusing right now,” I told her. I loved the work I was doing, but the day/night transition became psychologically very, very hard.

Photograph by Quito Ziegler

Then everything changed very rapidly. I remembered some pretty intense childhood trauma in early 2011 and quickly spiraled into a season of PTSD. It rendered me basically immobile, I had to go on leave from my job, and yet it also meant that suddenly I was in the queer world full-time. And except for some consulting gigs, I haven’t really gone back. Once you transition to being a mohawked, tattooed, non-passing genderfucker with a foul mouth and an itinerant schedule your life options sort of change, but you’re kind of OK with it. Because I had over a decade of solid work experience behind me, I was able to hang on to a few freelance gigs, and have had to figure out how to make my life work with more limited, intermittent income. But I wouldn’t trade my lifestyle for anything anymore. The money part is hard at times, but money isn’t everything, and living a life where I can be nocturnal if I want, make art when I am feeling it, schedule time away when city life gets too intense, and live with a lot of queer integrity—is sort of everything.

Patricia: Your current book is called The Queen of Hearts. What does that refer to, and what is the function of that mythology for you, at this point? 

Quito: Oh my gosh, the Queen of Hearts. The simple answer is that I had a super dramatic, mostly unrequited, crush on one person for most of the time I was photographing, we went out together a lot, and I often turned our adventures into metaphorical stories when processing later with friends or in my writings. It’s 3 years later now, we are both really over it and have processed everything, and she totally consented to being cast as this mythical figure for the book.

The complicated answer is about how we project ourselves onto others, particularly those we are preternaturally drawn to. Do we want to DO them, or BE them? I was beginning to realize there was life beyond the gender binary, carefully beginning my own explorations of what it would mean to me to be trans, and here was this fully-formed, flagrantly gender non-conforming person blazing an explosive path beside me. We learned a lot from each other, though the intensity of our dynamics definitely cast a shadow over everything that year.

So in some ways the Queen of Hearts was a person, but maybe she was always just a dream—it’s kind of hard to tell. I channeled Artemis a lot when I was photographing, the lonely androgynous hunter of the night. As I was editing the images, I found myself drawn to the pictures I took when I was lurking in dark corners, cruising for the Queen of Hearts, picking up observations along the way. Her shadow falls over many of these images, though I might be the only one who can see it.

Patricia: In 2011, you curated a show that I just loved, Elegy for A Queendom that Never Became for Visual Aids. Was Queen of Hearts at all influenced by Elegy? What I found so moving about Elegy was how the show identified a clear desire in contemporary artists to bond, linguistically and psychically, with queer heritage from the past…the nearest past.  And those are powerful feelings. Did curating that show influence your book?

Quito: Elegy for a Queendom that Never Became was formed after I took these pictures, and that project was hugely influential on the ways I have evolved since then, particularly in my writing and intergenerational community work. The initial concept was inspired by a friend, Ezra Berkeley Nepon, who produced a play in 2009 called Between Two Worlds:Who Loved You Before You Were Mine that blew my mind apart, and was so beautiful. In Between Two Worlds, as Ezra puts it, “five deviant queers, their mythical beast secret identities, and all of their ghosts walk into a cabaret. The result is a show about yearning for ancestors, the empty spaces left by the first generation of AIDS deaths in fag/queer communities and the way the next generation is called to fill those spaces.”

I have an unpublished piece called Ghosts that picks up Ezra’s thread and directly muses about reincarnation and the connection between the souls that passed during the Plague and those of us queers who were born (or experienced soul-shaking, life-threatening trauma) during those same years, when all those angry souls were exiting the planet. I wrote it last year when I was sitting in my studio at the MacDowell Colony in the middle of the night, with hundreds of my images pinned to the walls all around me—surrounded by ghosts. The ghosts of our experiences, and how timeless they look in black and white, and then suddenly the connection just came to me…we could be them, again. I’ve never been able to shake it.

But all of this came after my time in the Visual AIDS archive, after looking at images from the 80s and 90s and finding myself drawn to the faces of people who could easily pass for my friends. Times change, language and styles shift with the culture around us, but there is just something about queerness that carries on. Not to sound like a queer essentialist or anything, I just…feel connected to those who came before. I walk in their footsteps, advance the paths they laid out for me, and I see a lot of us in those terms.

Photograph by Quito Ziegler

Patricia: Well, I wouldn’t say you’re being an essentialist. Like language, part of queerness is visual language, with typica and idioms that one must constantly learn either as a first or a second language. Or a third, fourth, and so on. What you’re expressing is a form of literacy, not essentialism. But back to one hundred images pinned to the wall: you and I have looked at a lot of photographs. You used to review portfolios for OSI, I was a photo editor for 10+ years. So, when you and I make pictures, we’re emerging from a place of inevitable reaction against what we’re tired of seeing. What was your criteria for making the selections for this show? 

Quito: I was extremely conscious that the work I was shooting was in opposition to the kind of work I was supporting in my day job and the socially concerned documentary work that I had been making for years prior to that. I’ve never succeeded at making anthropological-type work. Even when I photographed working-class immigrants who came from very different circumstances than I did, they were people in my life, part of my social fabric as an activist. I’ve always felt cynical about people who parachute into other people’s lives, wanting to “make a difference,” and at my job I was particularly vocal about work that objectified sex workers or trans people. In fact, it was after a call for work about LGBT issues went out globally, and a lot of “outsider” work came in that totally missed the point, that I became determined to do a better job for my community.

And we’re back that day/night split: I was also visually tired of clean “objective” images shot in crisp, clear color. I missed film, I wanted to make mistakes, let the labor show, put myself into some of the frames sometimes. I have always been drawn to natural light, and black & white was the best way to avoid using flash at night. I photographed for about seven years before digital cameras came along, maybe a decade before they were any good, and even back then I resisted automatic cameras. There is something about a chrome-faced SLR camera that feels right in my hand and fits my aesthetic.

Patricia: Speaking of aesthetics, for your current show at BGSQD, you chose to hand paint the frames for the photographs. What motivated that choice?

Quito: This summer my friend Ethan Shoshan and I ran the craft shack at Art in the Woods, a retreat for queer youth with some pretty tough lives. We were blown away by these young people in a way that feels kinda cliché but is also just TRUE—they were amazing, and it was sort of a miracle to work intergenerationally, particularly as we were borrowing art space from Hunter Reynolds, a deeply compassionate artist who survived the Plague. A lot of good bonding took place.

One of the things that I found inspirational about watching the young people work was their absolute delight in materials like spray paint and tulle. They made a wreck out of Hunter’s fancy glitter stashes, and ultimately created some really inventive stuff. So, when I was thinking about how I wanted my images to look on a wall, I wanted to channel the glee that the young people took in discovering new materials. I decided to go crazy with spray paint and splurged and got all the colors and textures I was drawn to. Bought a small mountain of cheap but workable frames from Ikea, and went nuts with it.

As I made the test batch on the roof of a faerie friend’s loft, I told her, “this is the life that I dreamed of when I was a teenager, and here we are now.” It really felt that way! What a blast.

Patricia: Isn’t this part of healing early trauma? To reclaim childhood/teenage-hood and redirect it on our own terms? There’s something empowering about taking charge of the past like that. That certainly happened for me at one point, does it resonate with you? 

Quito: Yes, absolutely, that is definitely part of it, but also—a way forward.  Reclaiming the exuberance and delight of earlier years is sort of a great way to live regardless of your past, as long as you are also responsible when you need to be.

Patricia: Your storytelling slideshow on Monday night was super enjoyable. Slideshows have this form that reveals sequencing very differently than photographs will do on a wall.  You shared the stories around the pictures, but on Dec 19,  you’re reading from new writings. 

Quito: The story I’ll be reading on the 19th is from Through, a zine I recently made. It picks up where the pictures drop off: around early 2011, when I came out as trans, remembered a particularly brutal bit of repressed childhood trauma, and lived through a hellish season of PTSD that brought a lot of changes to the life I had known. I hit the road after that and did a lot of my gender-questioning and transition as I wandered in and out of Brooklyn, and went to some pretty dark and deep places with it.

The influence of these wanderings have been felt in the work I’ve been doing publicly as an artist, from the Visual AIDS gallery to the moonlight beach parties to the Forest of the Future this past spring, but there hasn’t been a way yet to share the many reflections on queer interdependence, DIY recovery strategies, physical transition, and structural transphobia that have driven them. With Through, I hope clarify for myself the story of the past 3 years, which have been transformational and complicated; to share a narrative with people who are genuinely curious about what I’ve been going through; but also…I thought there might be something I learned from what I endured that could be useful for others who face (or seek empathy for) similar challenges. You’ll have to read it and let me know what you think.