Motha Poster1
In his bio, film and video maker Chris Vargas lists "imperfect role models" as a thematic interest in his work. Keeping this in mind seems key to engaging in Vargas' latest projects, the Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art (MOTHA) and 2013 MOTHA Art Awards (full disclosure: Visual AIDS is nominated for Archive of the Year). As Vargas discusses in the interview below, both the museum and the awards invite conversation around ideas of legitimacy, and recognition.They also make space for new and engaging work to be discovered while commenting on who can make art and be engaged in culture, and who cannot; the last two awards on the online nomination ballot are "Unrecognized Artist of the Year, Hermit" and "Unrecognized Artist of the Year, Too Busy Surviving".

Visual AIDS: What led to the creation of the Museum of Transgender Hirstory & Art?
Many things led me to begin this project. First is that, to my knowledge, a museum devoted to transgender art and history does not yet exist in the U.S. I know so many talented transgender artists, many of whom are not finding sufficient support for their work. I started to imagine a platform that would highlight these artists and offer them the legitimacy that many of them (not all) are looking for. At the same time, a museum is the most fraught institution imaginable. Its history of racist, patriarchal exclusion and colonialist exploitation runs deep. I also wanted to tackle the issue of composing narrative history: what would a trans cultural history look like that is both cohesive and expansive?

In case it’s not clear, MOTHA is a conceptual museum that occasionally manifests materially. It’s also designed as a work of institutional critique. I’m aiming to create a project that validates and upholds the work of trans artists, our visual culture, and activist history, while also encouraging us to be critical about the conventional ways of doing so.

Visual AIDS: In starting the museum—and as someone with a deep history in critical and radical queer politics—what are some of your thoughts around the possibility of “creating a canon” or “institutionalizing” transgender hirstory and art?
Early on, I realized that by creating a semi-fictitious “museum” I could also address the issues of canonization and the legitimacy that affiliation with such institutions inevitably bestows on the artists who are exhibited there. I’m critical of creating a canon, but I also have a deep investment in the work of transgender artists, so I wanted to attempt to make an inclusive canon while remaining critical of the process. I realize “inclusive canon” is an oxymoron, but I think there is something rich about attempting to make something that is, by its very definition, hierarchical into something non-hierarchical. The creation of a canon is a political act, and there are always oversights and strategic omissions, but I wanted to attempt the process anyway.

This is not a project about asserting inclusion; instead, it’s about creating a parallel to popular art culture—the same way that many projects of 1970s cultural feminism did—but in order to both parody that mainstream culture and to understand why we’re so attached to it.

Visual AIDS: Who are some of the people and/or what are some of the institutions you look to as models for what MOTHA can do?
I’ve been looking to the collaborative art trio General Idea and their 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion, Tom Marioni’s Museum of Conceptual Art, Giuseppe Campuzano’s El Museo Travesti del Perú, the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Venice, CA, Bigfoot Discovery Museum in the Santa Cruz mountains, Ann Cvetkovich’s Archive of Feelings, and the Transgender Living Archive in Los Angeles. Also, of course, Visual AIDS for its 25-year history of sustaining conversation around the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Visual AIDS: There is a lack of conversation around HIV/AIDS and transgender lives. Why do you think that is, and what role can art and hirstory play in generating dialogue?
There is a lack of conversation about HIV/AIDS in general. I think many people in the U.S. think HIV/AIDS is over, or at least “manageable,” or that it is something happening in Africa and not a problem here anymore. But for marginalized people, like poor, POC, trans people, HIV/AIDS is still an issue that must be addressed. I admire Visual AIDS for the dialogue it sustains regarding HIV/AIDS, the impact it still has on our communities, and its rhetoric in mass media and popular visual culture. For future MOTHA programming, I plan to use you folks as a model for engaging in that conversation about HIV/AIDS especially as it relates to other systems of violence and negligence.

Visual AIDS: The MOTHA award nominees are now online. Tell us about the process.
I have solicited the input of the larger queer community, both IRL [in real life] and online, for a few projects associated with the museum: the promotional broadside and the 2013 MOTHA Art Awards. For both the MOTHA broadside poster collage and the Art Awards, I invited people to submit names, theirs and others, of artists whom they believe are making an impact on the trans cultural landscape. The result, both times, was an extensive list of names for the poster and nominees for the awards, which I did not edit in any way, and which serves as an incredible snapshot of trans visual culture, and trans hirstory, as it is looks right now–according an extended network of friends and acquaintances. The Art Awards component of the MOTHA project is a cooptation of award competitions in all their inherent flaws, and one can easily read the ambivalence to such structures written into the very text of the nomination and voting forms. It is not my intention to pit people against one another—participation definitely requires humor and good sportspersonship—but I put full trust in the community to engage with the process appropriately at every step: in nominating, in researching every single nominee on the ballot, in voting, and in receiving news of the award winners. Right now we are in the voting phase of the awards, which is also a chance for people to engage creatively. For example, Canadian nominees Morgan Sea and Raphaële Frigon, created graphics that resembles a presidential campaign bumper sticker but utilizes the transgender pride flag in place of the US flag. Hilarious!

Visual AIDS: How does something like disclosure – a term used a lot in the context of HIV/AIDS – relate to goals of cohesion and/or expansion for MOTHA and the awards? Thinking here of figures on the poster and nominees that may not be, or identify as trans, (such as Visual AIDS programs manager Ted Kerr, nominated for Trans Historian).
MOTHA’s Mission Statement maintains that “the museum insists on an expansive and unstable definition of trans and gender non-conformed art and artists.” This means that MOTHA takes an inclusive approach in highlighting cultural figures who explicitly identify as transgender or gender-variant, real and fictional people whom we look to as models of identification and disidentification, as well as figures in hirstory who predate the terms altogether and who may or may not have found refuge in this category had they been alive today. The promotional broadside illustrates this range and in doing so reveals a vast and complicated trans visual culture, as well as a suppleness in the terms that makes them hard to pin down. In relation to the awards specifically, the voting ballot shows a completely unedited list that includes every single nominee submitted during the nomination phase of the awards. Rather than verify the transgender identity of every person nominated, I have full trust that the community of voters will make the most informed choice for each category.

Visual AIDS: Your work is consistently good and bringing together humor, politics and complexity in a way that is engaging and fun. Give us some tips?
Just the tip [insert stock photo: head of dick]. Kidding, thanks so much! I guess my real tips would be, keep company with funny and politically engaged people. Don’t be afraid to get things wrong, and always maintain your own artistic integrity.

Learn more about MOTHA and the awards:
Vote for the MOTHA awards: Nominations