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Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon
“Untitled” from Community Action Center by A.K. Burns + A.L. Steiner, 2010. Digital videoPhotography A.L. Steiner

The artists using gender as a tool and a weapon

As the New Museum opens a stellar new exhibition, we survey those using gender to embrace, reject, and subvert the status quo

Beyond the binary lays a world of infinite possibility, a space of total freedom and fluidity. ‘Male’ and ‘female’ are the space where we begin, and when we liberate ourselves from the paradigm of ‘either/or’ a vast wealth of gender expression begins to reveal itself.

Invariably, not everyone is comfortable within this extraordinary space. Many hold fast to simplistic, reductive thinking that diminishes the complexities and nuances of human experience and may resist enlightenment. Others understand the necessity of expansive and inclusive ideas, conversations and art – and it’s here that Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon takes off.

Curated by Johanna Burton, Trigger is a major exhibition featuring the work of more than 40 artists from all walks of life, which will be on view at the New Museum, New York this month and catalogued in a book of the same name on November 21.

By positioning gender at the intersection of race, class, sexuality and disability, Trigger exposes deep ambiguities, curious contradictions and fundamental questions at the heart of life on earth. The artists featured here offer ways to use gender to construct and dismantle culture, building new spaces and refurbishing the old. We speak with Burton about the importance of the show, and profile the work of six artists using gender as a weapon and a tool to embrace, reject and subvert the status quo.

“My experience of art is that its function is to make you feel not uncomfortable in a bad way, but to make you question your assumptions” – Johanna Burton

Why is gender so triggering for so many people?

Johanna Burton: Assuming that one could walk away from a gender binary, that destabilisation means you have to think about everything, and when we talk about relationships to power, that kind of destabilisation has a huge impact.

I admire that you’re putting out contradictory information, because people are so desperate to get to the solution before they go through the process. How does art have the power transform our ideas?

Johanna Burton: It seems to me that we’ve moved into an unfortunate moment in general about consumption: that one goes into a museum to feel good or to feel confirmed in their ideas. My experience of art is that its function is to make you feel not uncomfortable in a bad way, but to make you question your assumptions.

That brings it back to what I think of as the purpose of art: to depict the profound, complex differences (between us) and also the universality of human experience.

Johanna Burton: The question of universal humanity is one people are debating heavily right now as we talk about experience, and who can represent what. There are a lot of questions that are making people question if we can experience the same thing at all. At the same time, it feels like we’re able to acknowledge our differences and still have conversations that are hard and unresolved – and that’s a way of connecting.


Mickalene Thomas reclaims the odalisque from white male artists who obsessively reduced the figure to serve the male gaze, casting them as a female sex slave or harem member without an identity outside the function of serving male lust. For Trigger, Thomas transforms herself into the subject of her work, with Me as Muse (2016), a sculptural video installation that subverts the traditions of western art.

Accompanying the piece is an audio recording of the legendary singer and Hollywood actress Eartha Kitt (1927–2008), who was conceived when her mother was raped by a plantation owner’s son. In the recording, Kitt recounts the sexual violence she suffered beginning in her childhood, and how she learned to cope with both trauma and discrimination.

Johanna Burton: In her practice, Mickalene is relentless about taking the power back. She has forcefully inverted the lens and (shown) how to take back desire. Here, she makes herself incredibly vulnerable, and at the same time presents herself as larger than life: a barrier that one looks at but cannot penetrate. In the piece, she is appropriating language that is about the ways in which men have dictated the ways that women are looked at and thought about.


Performer, writer, cabaret singer and visual artist Justin Vivian Bond creates ‘trans-genre’ works by crossing disciplinary boundaries. Trigger features a selection of works from ongoing project My Model | My Self, a critique of commercial advertising, femininity and youth culture that takes its name from Nancy Friday’s 1977 bestseller, My Mother / My Self. Without a trans parent or role model, Bond was left to find their own figure to emulate, and chose Estée Lauder model Karen Graham – revealing the necessity of an inspirational figure in a child’s development.

Johanna Burton: Vivian is really inspiring because they have navigated so many questions around their own biography. When identity is brought up, people want to rush towards biography, and Vivian manages to use their own subjectivity. Vivian is a character as well as this incredibly inspiring deep thinker who uses their own biography and creates a whole atmosphere around them. The tool that Vivian uses that is also a weapon is understanding what people want and then giving them something else – and, in doing that, asking people to rethink what that exchange is.


House of Ladosha celebrates its tenth anniversary in 2017. The house brings together the fashion and ballroom scenes to create a self-assembled tribe of sisterhood that uses fashion, music, performance, photography and video to establish itself at the vanguard of the art world.

Johanna Burton: House of Ladosha is an amazing group of folks. We’ve collaborated with different members of the house over the years. They’re in the house legacy, and they’re also nightlife producers and artists. Everybody has their own ambitious and exciting solo careers, and they’re also very purposeful supporters of each other.

We are presenting their work as a collective and showing the ways in which they are negotiating their visibility within the larger culture. They’re some of the savviest in talking about that. How do you use a culture that wants to appropriate aspects of who you are and what you do without being totally sucked in and obliterated by that culture?

We thought they would be a great group to talk about the messaging around the show, so they are going to do a vinyl piece on the core wall by the elevators. It is a poem built out of their exchanges on social media, using vocabulary that’s constantly evolving in relation to the way that folks communicate when they are a family and in relationship to a culture that keeps taking that language and drawing it in. It shows how language is always a weapon and a tool.


Going beyond the binary allows us to bring the non-human into erotic life, incorporating fantastical full-body animal costumes for the fabulous furry scene, which enables participants to don “fursonas” to express their fantasies. Nayland Blake has a long-held interest in this realm and debuts the Gnomen (short for “gnomenclature”), a hybrid bear-bison ob pliable gender and sex for Trigger.

Johanna Burton: Nayland has navigated giving glimpses into subcultural activities that are aligned around gender, sexuality, and race but does so in a very playful generous way. Nayland has work with so many younger artists, including A.K. Burns and Liz Collins, both in the show. There’s a generosity of spirit. I think the tool there is collaboration and really working with other artists and impacting whole communities.


A.K. Burns & A.L. Steiner created the classic video Community Action Center (2010), which toured the United States before being acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The 69-minute work upends porn tropes and reimagines them to represent queer erotic idioms. What’s more, the creators require the work to be viewed communally, rather than privately, as most people choose to to porn. The Museum will also restage Room for Cream, a lesbian soap opera, performed between 2008–2010.

Johanna Burton: Community Action Center is one of the more historical pieces in the show. Having it return gives us a place to talk with the artists about how much has changed in a decade. A.K. and Steiner are just going to screen the movie once and have a discussion. We’re thinking about what it means to have history that is built so quickly. Room for Cream is a great example: not all of the original cast identifies as lesbians any longer. What does it mean to account for those kinds of shifts within the longer legacy around art history and collaborative practice?


Troy Michie uses collage to deconstruct and recreate the world, centring the figures that have been marginalised by the mainstream so that we can take in their full glory. In “Nobody Knows My Name” (2015), Michie draws upon the title of James Baldwin’s 1961 book of essays, to look at the way we look at the black male body. Like Baldwin, Michie addresses the racial and sexual stereotypes by reframing the perspective, transforming any fetishistic impulse into a humanising one.

Johanna Burton: Troy Michie is a promising young practitioner whose weapon and tool is the history of photography. Troy’s work goes back to amateur gay magazines and legacies of desire, particularly for gay men of colour. He uses these layers against and for themselves by multiplying images or cutting and restitching them. He takes a weapon to history that has excluded certain narratives. In his work, it is very interesting see the relationship between the tool and the weapon happen simultaneously.

Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon is at New York’s New Museum from September 27 to January 21, 2018

Cover image credit, Community Action Center, A.K. Burns + A.L. Steiner, 2010, digital video. Photograph by A.L. Steiner