In Conversation: 
Thresholds


Adam Barbu, Sam Loewen,
Christos Pantieras, and Carl Stewart
Exhibition on view at
Karsh-Masson Gallery in Ottawa City Hall
January 26 to April 14, 2023
Adam Barbu: As the title of the exhibition suggests, what connects us across generational lines is an interest in spatial relations that offer new considerations of queer intimacy. Perhaps we can begin this conversation by exploring the possibility of mapping desire in practice.
Christos Pantieras: In my early work, I was engaging directly with my own experience as a means of inward exploration. As I reflect on the work I have produced more recently, I see this search moving outward. This pursuit of a search that is more inclusive likely reflects the fact of my relationship—that I’m no longer seeking intimacy publicly. As a result, I have started thinking about various forms of intimacy from other perspectives. With the body of work on display, I initially sought to explore exclusion and discrimination within queer communities—how we attribute ourselves as a discriminated community while also discriminating amongst ourselves. Through the process of creating these mats, however, the focus shifted. I felt that I couldn't be the voice for certain members of our community. For example, while I can speak to another and hear their perspective, I can’t extract that language and claim it in the work. As a result, I began to explore themes that connect universally. I look at these sculptures as anthropomorphic forms that are melancholic, experiencing beings caught in the space of the in-between.
AB: In this refusal to speak for another, the work considers power and desire in an expansive context. Here, we move from the specificity of pictorial representation—the constraint, in other words, of fixing the body to a specific image.
Carl Stewart: Echoing Christos’ comments, we alone can’t be the voice. The work that I have included in the exhibition centres on the bringing of attention. It seeks to bring attention to a situation where queer desire is not permitted. Early on, as I was conceptualizing the project, it was important not to simply reproduce traditional textiles from these cultures. It is not my place. When people learn about the patterns I have created, when they learn of the 69 countries referenced, there is often outrage. And there should be outrage. It takes me back 30 years ago when I was involved in activism.
AB: When we speak broadly about intimacy as connection, as opposed to the intimacy of sexual attraction, we are exploring the extent to which community can be imagined through the limitations of language, place, and privilege. We are speaking about the relations that determine who, in this imagined construct of queer community, has a voice. 
Sam Loewen: I grew up on apps and found connections through app-like communities. In a way, friends and lovers were one in the same—you’re all exploring, together. I still engage in those communities but in different ways. What I was looking for at one point isn't what I need now. The idea of mixing is very much at play in this work. I'm interested in the power dynamics that shape our experiences within and outside these imagined communities. I’m looking at the symbology of masculine expression, and, more specifically, social scripts of dominance and masculinity.
CP: In this context, I’m thinking about the welcome mats. Who holds the power? Is the mat engaging, reacting, or suffering?
CS: Further, there is someone who holds the power to put the mat out or take it away, so that you are no longer welcome. 
AB: Preparing for our conversation today, I was reflecting on long histories of censorship, erasure, and desire. The assumption that queer progress has been achieved, that these relations no longer shape queer lives, is, of course, deeply problematic. The very promise of queerness is, as Carl suggests, dangerous. It is dangerous in this world and in this city, even. We aren’t referring to individual bad actors but structural forces that cloak themselves in invisibility. Thinking about the threshold as the space of the in-between, we are asking, is it possible to transcend these invisible limits that have been imposed upon us?
SL: To your question, I would simply say: queer grit. There is a grittiness I see throughout queer history and these implications are significant when we think about materiality, art, and resistance. I always return to that one scene in To Wung Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, where the queens say, ‘All we need are some Turkish rugs and bolts of silk and we'll have a party.’ That’s the resiliency—that I can take nothing and feel the fantasy, no matter the circumstance. We might go through it, but we're going to have a party. We face many issues, even amongst ourselves, but queerness is also about celebration. It isn't always a dim thing. It can be a wonderful thing.
CS: That is what pride has always been. Maybe resilience, grit, and resourcefulness aren’t necessarily unique to the queer community. We see that across different marginalized groups. It is what marginalized people do, and we have no other choice. If we don't, then we have given up and given in. It is what we do to continue to exist.
AB: I’m also thinking about the intersectional queer communities that have been sidelined from these celebrations, from the early prides through to the present. It is difficult to trace the shared parameters of this thing called queer history. 
CP: I’m working on a project for the Diefenbunker on the LGBT Purge. For those subject to surveillance, desire was hidden as they were at risk of being exposed. In Canada, the situation has evolved dramatically.
CS: When I was going to bars in my late 20s, you wouldn’t find men in their 50s because so many had died. There is an entire gap in our history.
AB: And so, we face a certain paradox. That is, to think historically—to recognize, in other words, the work of our queer elders—and to reject essentialist, flattening definitions of community. This process begins with recognizing the privilege we hold in claiming certain histories as our own. Freedom doesn’t simply mean one thing—for those living within borders subject to other laws. Carl, your work speaks to the complexity of this wish for connection. The gesture is one of care. At the same time, you are mindful not to define someone's reality for them.
CS: All the designs are local, which is to say, they were created right here in my studio. I included yarn that I dyed with materials from my kitchen, from my garden, from where I walk, and so on. This is the bridge between one and another. In the context of this discussion on intimacy, though, it is important to underline the idea of visibility. In the 90s, when we were organizing, it was specifically about visibility. It was about being present and confrontational—in your face. We did kiss-ins, we occupied straight spaces, and we claimed gay spaces, just to declare that we were here. Today, in carving out these spaces for visibility, there are struggles within our own communities. Sometimes, we face backlash for being too visible—for being too vocal about who we are or what we want. 
SL: I grew up rurally. The rural queer experience is, even to this day, not the same as the urban experience. We make a serious mistake if we think that it is no longer about visibility—it is still very much about visibility. I can say this just from being home recently. If you're in Western Canada, it is all about moving to Toronto. There is a certain kind of pilgrimage, the possibility of a way out, that defines much of the queer urban experience.
AB: Negotiating these questions of authorship, collective history, and visibility, I’m interested in the ways in which minimalist sensibilities figure in your work. As a means of thinking beyond pictorial representation, it has a lot to offer to this conversation.
SL: In my work, I often reference other historical queer artists. I do this to add to a history or frame a lineage—to let the viewer know that I’m in dialogue with something that came before. As Carl said, a huge absence lies at the heart of community due to HIV/AIDS. A generation of people is not here. I was born in 1991 and these stories simply weren’t passed down to me. In my way, I try to keep this oral history alive, connecting with artists like Félix Gonzalez-Torres, General Idea, and Robert Mapplethorpe. Still, they belong to a certain narrative of Western art history. It is our job to continue to broaden the scope of this conversation. 
CP: The work I’m contributing to the exhibition is in dialogue with minimalism. In the past, I have created large-scale installations. This work is subtler. I’m thinking about liminal spaces, such as entryways, doorknobs, and mail slots. There are only a few signals—I want visitors to generate the story within their own minds rather than telling them what's going on. I'm also experimenting with materiality, pushing myself as a sculptor to use different materials. When we speak of minimalism, we are referring to a sensitivity to form through its practical function, its symbolism, and its history. 
CS: I think of my project as an abstraction of the landscape. The work derives from estate tweeds, which were used as camouflage for hunting parties on Scottish estates. I’m looking to the colors from all these different regional landscapes to create the fabrics. And the fact that the yarn was dyed using materials from my immediate landscape pushes the idea further. As Christos suggests, I wonder if this commitment to abstraction creates a different level of engagement for the viewer. In this country, in this city, we have seen many gains. But in this approximation of distances between borders, these works also suggest a certain fragility. As hard as we’ve worked to create this change, we know that it can all be taken away.
AB: The works brought together in this exhibition draw upon a visual language of reduced form that speaks to an expanded field of relations—at once social, political, historical. Here, we are in dialogue with that which exists at the limits of the seeable. Yet there is an ethical question that remains, that each of us are asking through different means: What does it mean to build community, to form new connections, within this refusal of the image?
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