Resident Aliens—A Portrait of the Artists as Penny Arcade and Quentin Crisp, 2009
Fittingly, the first family portrait of Liz Rosenfeld and Richard Hancock took place around their Berlin home. And fittingly, they were not photographed as themselves that day, but as Quentin Crisp and Penny Arcade. Entitled “Resident Aliens,” the three photographs that initiate the project were not an occasion for Rosenfeld and Hancock merely to dress up, but rather to document an inheritance that is as much genealogical as it is aesthetic. At the intersection of performance and being, Rosenfeld as Crisp and Hancock as Arcade suggest that there can be no simple cross-dressing or chromosomal crossover in the queer family: the family portraits that comprise “Resident Aliens” are but the introduction to an other way of theorizing home as a site where one can perform what one is and one can become what one performs. Since the winter of 2009, Hancock and Rosenfeld’s primary project has been the construction of such a home. Berlin as a city provided a rich backdrop: it was not only a fresh start, but a return of sorts, particularly for Rosenfeld, who reclaimed citizenship two generations after her grandparents fled Berlin under the Third Reich. With or without German citizenship, however, Rosenfeld and Hancock were acutely aware of their foreignness, their strangeness to the place that had chosen them–but here, in Berlin, their status as resident aliens presented an invitation to build an existence, a family, as strange as they wanted. The initial reactions to the project—which was not posted in a gallery or an academic colloquium, but on Facebook—assumed that Hancock and Rosenfeld were simply playing dress up. Tavia Nyong’o, queer theorist and friend to both, took this one step further, seeing in the photographs of Rosenfeld as Crisp and Hancock as Arcade still other resonances—of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Rosenfeld as Crisp as Stein, Hancock as Arcade as Toklas. What issues from this is something much more than a formal resemblance, or an imagined identification between queer artists—it is the production of a genealogy through
reverberations between past and present, between people and the characters they play. In a single image of Rosenfeld, stately as Crisp in a wheelchair and bowler hat, and Hancock, languid with kohl eyes and a fur stole, one can see that these resonances upset the clear separations proposed by a chronological history that temporally severs Rosenfeld and Hancock from Stein and Toklas, or a conception of the self that refers back to an individual genetic inheritance rather than intersubjective testimony. At stake in the making of home is also the making of a history. If home has not always been considered the site of history or the site of art, there is nonetheless a tradition of queer artists absenting themselves from corporate or statist academic and art institutions to create a space where aesthetic transformation is possible. Where those institutions threaten to closet the queer subjectivities that generate queer history, “home” has represented a space of possibility, of undomesticated domesticity. It is no coincidence that a withdrawal from those institutions is often accompanied by a withdrawal from the modes of documentation that they endorse. Only after a year of building a home on the fringes of the cultures they came from and the culture that they now inhabit, did Rosenfeld and Hancock consent to be photographed by fellow artist Finn Ballard. And still then, the family portrait was an other family portrait, bearing witness to a larger family than Rosenfeld as Rosenfeld and Hancock as Hancock could have illustrated. Rosenfeld as Rosenfeld and Hancock and Hancock would not, as it were, have been a portrait at all, but a fake, the travesty of unified selves determined by blood and national borders. If there is to be truth in photography for Hancock and Rosenfeld, they must make the medium an occasion not for representation but presentation—a performance that does not reduce the moment to dress up, but rather refracts it into the dynamic inheritance of a queer ancestry still living.
Text written by Alissa Romanow
Performance, Digital photography
Collaboration with Richard Hancock
Photography by Finn Ballard