January 14, 2021
OVER NEARLY two decades of political organizing, archival research, writing, and art-making, Tourmaline has demonstrated that abolition, Black trans liberation, and abundant pleasure are interwoven, inseparable projects. In her first solo exhibition, “Pleasure Garden,” up through January 31 at Chapter NY’s Madison Street pop-up location, Tourmaline debuts a series of five photographic self-portraits alongside Salacia, a cinematic account of Mary Jones, a Black trans sex worker who lived in New York in the 1830s. The works weave together sites as varied as nineteenth-century Black-owned pleasure gardens, the free Black land-owning community of Seneca Village, outer space, and the Hudson River Piers, asserting that all these moments of “freedom dreaming” comingle in the present. The day before Christmas, we sat down over Zoom to discuss time-travel-y dreams, the Concord grapes you may not know are in your garden, and the future that’s already here.
— Cyrus Simonoff
CS: Rather than treating abolition as solely a process of negation—the elimination of police, prisons, the state—you offer abolition as a practice of creation, of life-making. How are you thinking, in your new work, about the relationship between abolition and pleasure?
Tourmaline: In the Mississippi Freedom Schools of the ’60s, there were often three questions that were asked: What does the dominant culture have that we don’t want? What does the dominant culture have that we do want? What do we have already that we wanna make more of? So much of my work as an artist is about that third question. It’s also often how I think about abolition: not necessarily as something that we want to get rid of or even something that we need to bring in, but as something we have already that we wanna make more of. Like, we have freedom, that we wanna make more of. We have our capacity to dream, that we wanna make more of. We have our capacity to see the abundance that’s already here, let’s grow that into a further realization of what feels good.
This work is about reshaping what we know to be possible, reshaping our beliefs so that they’re aligned with our desires, so that we can be the realizers of them. Pleasure gardens, just to give some context, were real places in New York City in the 1820s. They had nature. They had fireworks. They had hot air balloons. Some of them were available for very wealthy people. Some of them were available for poor people. If a politician was running for elected office in a poor ward, they would secure votes by getting a lot of people together, putting them on a steamboat, and paying for that boat to go up to the Palisades or a little further north of Manhattan, to a pleasure ground. There would be a beer garden, and cruising and hanging out, poor people getting to be in the fresh air. And this was in a moment when there were various epidemics happening in New York, cholera and yellow fever. Due to an idea that people, especially poor people, were getting sick because of the air, there was this drive to get them cleaner air. But it was also a way to entice people to vote for whatever politician organized the outing.
There were also Black-owned pleasure gardens. Places where Black people, in this moment before 1827 when slavery was still legal in New York, would go and be able to be with each in nature, and have some sociality with each other. And this was also around the time that Seneca Village was started, which was one of the only places in New York City where Black people owned land.
When Seneca Village was growing in the area that’s now Central Park—Seneca Village was razed to make way for Central Park—Black people were routinely kidnapped from New York and sold South. My larger body of work points to the idea that if you, as a Black person in the 1820s, were going to own land when slavery was still legal and no one was selling you land, you had to deeply and fundamentally reshape your beliefs about what was possible in order to be the realizer of a dream that would seem otherwise impossible. This was a huge freedom dream. It’s impossible to overstate how big of a dream it was and how big the realization was. So, for me, the emphasis is on pleasure as a tool and as a destination for aligning with what we really want and making more of it. Oftentimes, we’re in a world that says the harder you work, the more you deserve, or the more you sacrifice, the better you are. This exhibition is about reevaluating the importance of pleasure, of ease, as a way to remind us about the abundance that’s already here, as a way to smooth and speed up our ability to receive what it is that we dream of.
So much of your art has been about shining a light on the legacy of people whose contributions to collective liberation, to radical life, were obscured in dominant movement narratives and political histories. Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Mary Jones. I’m interested in the shift to self-portraiture in your new body of photographic work. How has it felt for you?
I think that speaks to the idea of revaluation. That’s always been central to my work, a reshaping of who and what matters. There’s an ease I have in saying our community matters, Marsha matters, Sylvia matters, Mary Jones matters. This work was an important way for me to say, well, we can’t say our community matters and leave our own selves out. That ends up reproducing the very thing that we’re saying we don’t wanna value anymore. It felt important to stop leaving myself out and to do what feels like a public performance, a durational performance, of revaluing and falling in love with my own self.
I’ve always felt like your work not only reanimates the archive but also explodes the entire idea of the archive. It demonstrates that if you look closely, and tune in, the lives that have supposedly been repressed, even erased, by the state, by capital, are actually all around us, in everything. Is contending with the absences in the archives something you are actively speaking to in your work?
One of my favorite pieces in the show is Morning Cloak. It’s framed in green and it’s me eating a Concord grape. A few years ago, I was living in a place in Bed-Stuy, and I had some friends over who pointed out that I was living with a bunch of Concord grapes growing in the backyard, that I could actually eat. I hadn’t actually had a Concord grape until my thirties. I remember eating grape candy growing up and being like, “This doesn’t taste anything like the grapes my parents get at the supermarket.” It was because the grape flavor was made from Concord grapes, not the grapes we bought.
It was such a paradigm shift to realize I was living with this thing that seemed really out of reach, but was actually in my backyard. That realization is what the work is about: these things that feel really far off, whether it’s Marsha’s dream of flight, or the Afrofuturist tradition of imagining us as a people in space. Marsha naming her organization STAR [Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries] is a concrete example of that celestial expanse that was her distant dream, which she was making real by transforming the world around her to represent what was possible for gender, what was possible for Blackness. That it was possible for a street queen to have a realm and have a reign in the public sphere.
Che, my sibling, found Mary Jones’s court transcript in the New York City Municipal Court archive. She is being interrogated by a court officer. It’s like a deposition. So often, that’s the little that gets left of us. Saidiya Hartman wrote the incredible “Venus in Two Acts” using a name in an insurance ledger. These remnants, on their own, don’t feel very life-affirming. All of that can feel very dust-to-dusting.
This work is about that celestial expanse that Marsha was summoning, about creating a world where there is a greater sense of freedom felt through care and mutual aid. Mutual aid was something that helped start Seneca Village. There was a group called the African Society for Mutual Relief, founded in 1808, that was down in Tribeca and had a building there until 1834. I know exactly where the people were who started Seneca Village lived. My work concretely seeks to know about the historical details. That’s important to me. But this work also tries to ask—rather than reaffirm or reproduce what feels really dusty—what is happening in our now that feels very alive? What's happening in our now that feels very alive is the grapes in the backyard, our ability to actually take flight, our ability to line up with our desire, and let it in little by little.
Salacia immerses the viewer in Seneca Village in the first half of the nineteenth century, but it’s cut with footage of Sylvia Rivera speaking, over a hundred years later, at the Hudson Piers. In the photographs, you place yourself in these nineteenth-century pleasure gardens, then you’re in flight in a spacesuit. Are you asking people to reconsider time, how it works and unfurls?
Well, it’s all happening right now. That simultaneity is part of my spiritual practice. I remember maybe ten or twelve years ago, I had this dream about going to a bar in Midtown and arriving just as Sylvia Rivera had left, and hanging out with her friends. “Oh, you just missed her,” they said. “You just missed her.” I woke up from this powerful, time-travel-y dream and decided I was going to try and find the bar. So I got in the subway and I went up to Bryant Park, right where Sylvia Rivera used to demonstrate against the Vietnam War. I was like, “I’m gonna find this bar,” and then I remembered it was the African American Day Parade.
I ran into this person from the Sylvia Rivera Law Project named Sheila Cunningham, who is a Black trans woman elder. And I was like, “Oh! This is me realizing the dream.” And Sheila was talking about how beautiful it was that there were so many Black trans people up in the African American Day Parade. I got it. Maybe five or six years later, I did this panel with Sheila and Jay Toole and Ms. Major. During the panel, Sheila was telling a story that I never knew, which was about her friendship with Sylvia Rivera. I didn't know that in the ’70s, Sylvia and her used to hang out in the Lower East Side and hustle together.
All of these currents of time were being activated because of my attention to them and my desire to be touching them. If I had not been tuning my tuner, my consciousness, to their frequencies, I would have missed that altogether. Things are happening in the past that are affecting further past things. Things are happening in my future that are affecting my past.
I’m thinking a lot in this conversation about how much you frame the work in the towards, the for, the within, the what’s already here, rather than the against.
I had this conversation with someone recently about joy, Black joy specifically, and I said, “I can’t be standing in this place, sitting in this place, lounging in this place full of so much joy without having experienced all of the emotions that came before that led to me to get into the joy.” As a much younger person, I was filled with rage and anger. Anger is so helpful for me, personally, as a means to feel like I can reclaim my power. When I’m feeling hopeless and powerless, anger is really important, so is revenge, dreams of revenge, of burning it all down. It’s not bad to be angry. It’s not bad to be vengeful. Knowing what I don’t want has been so beneficial in clarifying what I do want. So I’m trying to hang out a little bit more in the space of what I do want. That’s where I’m at right now. I never would have gotten there without having first gone through all of these other moments and steps.
It’s interesting, so often I feel like artworks are spoken about as isolated objects, separate from the spiritual development, the embodiment, of the artist. Like, I’m always wondering, why was this created, where inside of you did it come from, what did it make possible for you? You really foreground your spiritual and emotional arc in relation to the work.
There’s this book, Dancing the Gay Lib Blues, and it’s by Arthur Bell. Bell is one of the only people who wrote about STAR during its existence. Bell wrote for the Village Voice and wrote about a lot of things in the early days of the gay liberation movement. Bell was also friends with Holly Woodlawn. Holly was in a few Andy Warhol movies, and there’s this one story where Arthur goes up to maybe around Lincoln Center, and Holly is just in the movie theater watching Trash  on a loop. So she would bring her friends in and spend the whole day just sitting in her seat watching Trash. If you were hanging out with Holly in this moment, that’s what you did. You would go watch Trash and she’d be drunk or sleeping or whatever, and that's how you’d hang out with Holly. Something felt so delicious about that experience of Arthur hanging out with Holly, watching Holly be exposed in Trash.
Part of this exhibition has been the experience of me going to Chapter Gallery’s pop-up location on Madison Street, which is literally just three blocks away from the mutual aid society that started Seneca Village and this place owned by the Lyons family that was a refuge for Black sailors. And I’m there, watching people look at this exposed version of me, feeling connected to Holly in the movie theater watching Trash.
And because of the pandemic, only two or three or however many people were allowed in the gallery at once to see your show. So, amid this moment of so much loss and fear, people took shifts having an intimate moment of pleasure with you and the work.
Right, you’re there in the pleasure garden, and I’m there, and it’s an invitation to be in our pleasure, to feel ourselves, and not continue to think that we can somehow separate our pleasure from our desires for freedom for our larger community.