Intersectionality as Context at #CrossLines (Review)

It is easy to mistake the spectacle of diversity for actual impact on the systems of institutional racism. The sight of a few brown faces, visible “others,” in a room full of whiteness can seem like an accomplishment for organizations that struggle to find and retain people of color. Museums, the art world, academia, and many other fields are all susceptible to this image of inclusion.

For those lucky, or unlucky, enough to wear their otherness on the inside, this obsession with the appearance of diversity overlooks their necessary inclusion. For the visibly diverse, it is only a short walk from inclusion to token status: as Eric Jolly put it at a recent AAM panel, tokenism is “input without impact.” For the people who are noticeably different but don’t fit cleanly into a census checkbox or other category, for those who claim a hybrid identity, for those who exist at a particularly trafficked intersection of disadvantages (to invoke Kimberle Crenshaw), the fetishization of visible inclusion can only reduce them to a single characteristic, a single role, flattening their experiences like a multifaceted peg into an institutionally-determined round hole.

So how can the art world, a field that also depends on the visual, combat the temptation to leave efforts of intersectionality at mere inclusion, mere display? There might not be a single answer, easily articulated and put into action, but the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s CrossLines event became a showcase for the kind of work that enables this dismantling.

A culture lab rather than an exhibit, CrossLines gave its artists and audiences the opportunity to experiment collaboratively in answer to the questions above. The artwork played both with and against the visual nature of museums and of diversity tropes at large. Almost every project in attendance had a performance aspect, whether inherent to the artwork itself or brought in specially for this event in the form of an artist on-hand to discuss their work with inquisitive audiences.

These performances made up the unique experience of CrossLines, and lent themselves towards the mission of intersectionality. Rather than simply achieving diversity through the variety of artists and artworks collected for the event, CrossLines underscored intersectionality by encouraging the interaction between people across the delineations of race, gender, nationality, language, and countless other barriers in a performance on the grandest scale: the inimitable meeting of minds in the service of art.

Hoodies and Hijabs project by Tracy Keza
Hoodies and Hijabs project by Tracy Keza

Intersectionality as Context

The whole CrossLines event was framed around intersectionality down to the venue; inside the Smithsonian Arts and Industries building, the event was literally located at the intersection of cardinal directions that made up each of the four halls. Architecture acts, and in this way, the CrossLines event was perfectly situated to prioritize the boundary-defying work by its participants, highlighting the need to understand race and privilege at their most nuanced.

Intersectionality became the context that each artwork was interpreted through, not the final message of the show. Unlike the dated idea of diversity as mere presence of people of color, CrossLines participants spoke with agency about their unique positions within the world. Individually, works such as Clement Hanami’s “Rice Rocket” lowrider rickshaw and the Hijabs and Hoodies Project by Tracy Keza and Studio Revolt each demonstrate the existence of Asian-Latino communities and solidarity between Black and Muslim people, but situated together under CrossLine’s umbrella of intersectional focus, these works can go so much further.

The work of establishing the existence of these multifaceted identities has already been done, and before reaching these works, audiences are already prepared to see art that transgresses traditional borders of race and community. Under this context of intersectionality, audiences are ready to see even further than visual diversity, and can begin instead to consider the challenges, benefits, and needs of the people this art represents.

Both the Lowrider Rickshaw and the Hijabs and Hoodies Project show interracial interactions that exist without the presence of whiteness, without the white gaze that determines these interactions as “diverse.” For audiences of any type, the understanding of  these communities in conversation with each other goes great lengths in undoing an understanding of diversity that requires white people at its center. The perspectives of people of color are seen on their own terms, a context that many viewers may not have come to artworks through before.

What CrossLines achieves here is not only a truly intersectional culture lab event, but also the teaching of viewer skills that allow attendees to take this intersectional lens with them in the future and apply it to any other exhibits or museums they walk into. The skills taught at CrossLines are transferable, increasing the reach of the event far beyond the few days it was in action.

Lowrider Rickshaw by Japanese-American artist Clement Hanami

The Universal Specific

Another triumph of the CrossLines culture lab was the way it celebrated the unique, specific viewpoints of each of its artists. Although the forty-plus artists and scholars were all brought together under the banner of this event, each performance, presentation, and display was unlike any other, telling the kind of nuanced experiences that do not fit into neatly sectioned ideas of identity. Such a large collection of these different perspectives could easily have been disjointed and overwhelming for visitors, but the CrossLines collection managed to do the opposite: through the large display of difference, the universal aspects of these separate messages were made even more clear.

Traditional notions of diversity depend on a strange paradox. Although difference is on display, these differences must be equalized in terms of their appearance and impact. Think of the iconic image of diversity: a chain of human figures holding hands around a globe, each with a visibly different skin tone or gender, but presented in equal size and position. While this is a nice image, it erases the fact that not all discriminations are experienced the same way, and the fact that some people experience more than one of these factors at a time. A traditionally diverse museum exhibit might include artworks from several racial categories or nationalities, but CrossLines moved past this easy nod to inclusion by delving deeper into the specifics of each perspective.

Hybrid identities, multifaceted disadvantages, and unique experiences with race, ability, and gender are often dismissed as “too specific” to appeal to broad audiences. An emphasis is placed on the ability of audiences to identify with whatever they are seeing, and these unique and often erased experiences are labelled unknowable and therefore unarchived by institutions like museums and galleries. As a result, society loses these voices under the flattening framework of visible but silent diversity.

At CrossLines, however, the flaw in this line of thinking is made clear. The specificity of each part of the event lent a theme to the whole culture lab, making singularity the common denominator for the whole experience. That is — what each artwork and artist had in common was the irreplaceability of their point of view. The specific became, at CrossLines, the universal.

In choosing to acknowledge that every identity has facets and depths, particularly after preparing audiences to come to these artworks with intersectionality as a context rather than an end-goal, CrossLines demonstrated that specific viewpoints do not need to be discarded, but can instead showcase the fact that every identity has unique aspects that must be encouraged to be shared. By understanding and empathizing with the performance of specific ways of being in the world, environments, atmospheres, geographies, and even institutions can become safer places for people with unique experiences of their own. By being interested in and supportive of the full depth of viewpoints outside of the merely visual display of diversity, intersectionality is prioritized over inclusion.

From Talk to Action

I hope it is obvious now that the Smithsonian APA Center’s CrossLines culture lab was far more than just another museum exhibit. Like the label “culture lab” implies, CrossLines was a place for artists and audiences to work together in an experiment, a possibility of what true intersectionality in museum spaces could look like. Far beyond the constant talk of diversity, perpetual conversation on the need to make these spaces more inclusive, the Smithsonian APA Center moved forward into action. It is this kind of trial and error, constant reevaluation, reinterpretation, and reimplementation that will ultimately produce the intersectional environment that museum industry needs. Theorization alone, tucked away in conference panels or closed-door strategy meetings, is not enough.

For large organizations and institutions, this kind of action can be difficult to achieve — the biggest obstacle to true intersectionality is the work of ideologic shifts, trying to get the key players to all agree that this change is necessary and must happen immediately. With this understanding of priorities, it is easy to see why this movement sometimes gets stuck in constant “talk,” as ideas and plans are hashed out and people are persuaded through information campaigns. However, through their direct, fully-supported action, the CrossLines culture lab has shown that there can be another method.

Any theorizing talk about the importance of intersectionality at CrossLines was secondary to the actual inclusion of diverse perspectives that made up the event. Rather than talking about diversity in the abstract, as something that should be done by someone at some point in the future, the Smithsonian APA Center truly practiced what they preached. Instead of trying to convince the world of the great work being done by artists and thinkers typically excluded from the museum world, CrossLines demonstrated how diverse, inclusive, and vibrant art and culture museums could be when these voices were given focus. Judging by the audience turnout and rave reviews I have seen, the CrossLines culture lab made a great impact by working towards intersectionality in action, allowing people to see for themselves what a fully intersectional experience could look like.

This is not to totally write off the importance of conspicuous conversation on the importance of intersectionality. An event like CrossLines could, of course, only occur after the talking has occurred, after the subject has been raised repeatedly at the highest levels. Communicating about this issue by any means is important work to be done, but what CrossLines has proven is that action can communicate just as effectively as language, particularly when it comes to issues of diversity, inclusion, and intersectionality.

Again, the unique experiences of marginalized artists and artworks were given the space at CrossLines to speak for themselves, taking their presence far beyond mere token status. The CrossLines culture lab provided the framework for these creators to do the work of explaining and communicating their message themselves, contextualizing these messages as necessary for audiences but leaving the bulk of the connections, and the value of intersectionality, for viewers to understand on their own terms. By valuing the voices of their artists, and taking the action to support them rather than only speaking about the necessity of their inclusion, CrossLines became a truly intersectional event, from start to finish.

Did you go see CrossLines? What was your take? Let us know!

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