Adam Barbu and John Paul Ricco in Conversation

Instagram Live, August 7, 2020

Adam Barbu: Empty History invites us to think through the idea of curating “queer” beyond teleology. Following my time as Vtape’s 2019 Researcher-in-Residence, I presented a selection of works that document various individuals engaging in solitary, indeterminate, and workless gestures and activities. The artists included in this program, namely, Dierdre Logue, Paul Wong, and Lucas Michael, do not seek to repair the unjust and the uncertain by constructing new queer utopias. Instead, they pursue pleasure in pursuit of the broken, the unchanging, and the everyday. Part of what John and I wanted to discuss today is precisely what is at stake in this care for the irreparable, as well as the aesthetics and ethics of queer solitude so elegantly explored in these works. 

I can think of several conversations we have shared, each staked at key moments in the project’s development. Today, more than six months after the close of the exhibition, we find ourselves set against the backdrop of a world in transition that neither of us could have predicted. To begin, I thought we might consider the idea of queer solitude and the various works in the exhibition in relation to the COVID pandemic. 

John Paul Ricco: Over the last couple of months, as I’ve been asked to make comments on the relationship between art and the pandemic, I found myself returning to Empty History. Thinking about the idea of solitude as something distinct from loneliness and isolation, it struck me that your exhibition could become a key reference point. What we’re seeing in each of the works included in the show, presents another way of thinking about solitude—a particularly queer solitude.

Recently, I read an article reporting on a study documenting the effects of the pandemic on members of the LGBTQ population. Researchers found that the effects were incredibly pernicious and negative. The majority of respondents had suffered depression and no less than 90% had experienced some kind of homophobia or transphobia. This was particularly acute amongst young queers who suddenly found themselves back at home, feeling completely isolated, untethered from their support networks, their friends, their allies, and so forth. As we begin this conversation about queer solitude, here is an opportunity to make clear what we’re not talking about. We are beginning to see the emergence of the neologism “queerantine,” or, queering the quarantine. It seems that there are both positive and negative valences of that term. Within the context of this study, it can signal the particular negative effects of quarantine, especially on young queers. There is also another, more positive way in which we can think about putting the “queer” in quarantine, which is what we’re interested in—a certain kind of queer solitude and perversity that would demonstrate that one could still be queer even in the quarantine, against the isolating effects of homophobia or transphobia that so many queers in the pandemic find themselves experiencing.

AB: Speaking of solitude and perversity, perhaps you can briefly introduce Gilles Deleuze’s essay Michel Tournier and The World Without Others.

JPR: This text has become another important reference point as I continue to think about the question of solitude. In the appendix of his 1969 book The Logic of Sense, Deleuze writes an essay on Michel Tournier’s novel Vendredi, or, in the English translation, Friday or The Other Island. In Vendredi, Tournier attempts to rewrite the Daniel Defoe Robinson Crusoe story, and part of that rewriting involves foregrounding Crusoe’s companion Vendredi. Deleuze considers the way in which the other operates here different from what he calls the structure Other—the kind of general way in which all perceptual fields and all senses of possibility are delimited and constrained. He is also interested in life on a desert island, as living in a world without Others, in which solitude is that other island—the other side of which would be loneliness or isolation. In this sense, the essay examines the way in which Tournier’s novel offers a story of escape from an enclosed, organized, workable, and merely possible world of Others.

AB: It will be useful to introduce another text that has become an important reference for us both, namely Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading (2003). Empty History does not attempt to reclaim truths about identity, community, or shared history by exposing the effects of homophobic discourse—a position that Sedgwick would describe as paranoid. Paranoid reading practices are rooted in the assumption that we can only begin to dismantle systemic oppression once such historical truths are uncovered. Reparative reading, on the other hand, is a matter of using “one’s own resources to assemble or ‘repair’ the murderous part-objects into something like a whole.”1

Sedgwick is also attentive to the transitions that take place across and between these positions. This simultaneously paranoid and reparative reading seems to lie at the heart of exhibitions that have worked to reconstruct fragmented queer histories in the name of inclusion, representation, and recognition. Empty History offers us the chance to think beyond paranoia and reparation. In the curatorial essay, I wrote: “Logue, Wong, and Michael refuse resolution and finality, opening up a space of perpetually unfinished business in which action always already fails to result in change. And this is not for lack of care.” At stake here is a certain lateral intensity, one that encourages a shift in thinking from the visibility of queer actors and performances of queer actions towards a non-productive, non-teleological queer worklessness as that which operates outside the logic of queer progress or so-called progressive queer curating. 

JPR: Some of the writing that I have published during the pandemic has focused on worklessness and impotentiality. With this recession and reduction in workplace work comes an opportunity to think about ways of living and doing that aren’t entirely beholden to productivist logics. Certain effects of the pandemic allow us the think about life in terms of the sabbatical or the day off. The works in the exhibition, in their own simple, one might say, minor, vernacular way, allow us to think through these ideas further. Perhaps we should briefly describe them for the audience.

AB: Upon entering the gallery space, one encounters a large video projection of Lucas Michael Fixed Kilometer (2018), in which the artist records himself dragging his index finger approximately one meter in length across 1,000 different surfaces in various private and public spaces—a reference to conceptual process and the work of Walter de Maria, more specifically. Located nearby is Paul Wong’s Perfect Day (2007), a video that documents the artist as he attempts create the perfect day to himself in the midst of a drug-induced hallucination. The exhibition also includes an installation of Dierdre Logue’s Home Office (2017)in which the artist attempts to balance standing on top of the pullout partition of her writing desk. Finally, in the middle of the exhibition space sits a sculptural work by Michael titled Audentes Fortuna Iuvat (2011), which roughly translates from Latin to “fortune favors the bold.” The work is a crushed, warped silver trophy that rests on a mirror placed directly on the gallery floor. As such, it no longer symbolizes progress or victory and is thus rendered a useless object. Each of the works refuse narratives of transformation, self-realization, or overcoming.

JPR: All of these works were created well before the pandemic. They would be interesting at any moment, but it is rather uncanny that your exhibition took place in November and December of 2019, and within a month or two, the world was, in various stages, going into lockdown with many people finding themselves at home. Today, we can imagine ourselves engaging in any one of the activities seen in the works. They are records of a certain kind of ordinary worklessness that suggests a different rapport with oneself, with other things, and with day-to-day life. 

Like the Tournier novel, these works operate without a thesis. And they do not really feature any characters. We are simply seeing individuals whose bodies happen to belong to the artists themselves. Further, they cannot be described as scenes of interiority, since the solitude of the singular bodies function without the structure Other—the structure that would mark social difference and that would provide, as Deleuze writes, the margins and the transitions that structurally divide inside from outside, and organize the perceptual field in terms of what can be seen, what can be done, and so forth. These works, largely free of that structuring of the perceptual field, including the paranoid and reparative positions that Sedgwick describes, seem to be pursuing a kind of mundane adventure involving experiments in the body and experiments in bodily perception. They attempt to find out what might happen to a body and its perceptions if that body and its perceptions were not limited to what was merely possible. It is this reading of worklessness, as that which is outside the merely possible, that connects these works with Deleuze. What we see are individuals operating in a perceptual field that hasn’t been completely structured or determined in advance. 

AB: For viewers who haven’t yet read the essay, it is important to note that, for Deleuze, being in a world without Others is not guaranteed by solitude alone. It entails an entire rethinking and de-structuring of one’s way of thinking and being that cannot be defined as anything like productive. Here, I would like to highlight Deleuze’s description of Tournier’s Crusoe as he begins to face the crumbling of the structure-Other during his time on the island. He writes, “Pulling himself from a wallowing-place, Robinson seeks a substitute for Others, something capable of maintaining, in spite of everything, the fold that Others granted to things – namely, order and work.”2 (314) He then throws himself into a world of “frenetic” production, but, as Deleuze adds, “in line with this work activity, and as a necessary correlate to it, a strange passion for relaxation and sexuality is developed.”3 Finally, as Crusoe inches closer to a workless existence, he enters into a state of “regression much more fantastic than the regression of neurosis […] Whereas work used to conserve the form of objects as so many accumulated vestiges, involution gives up every formed object for the sake of an inside of the Earth and a principle of burying things in it.”4

I am tempted to describe this fantastic regression as the scene of Logue, Wong, and Michael’s, worklessness. As Deleuze writes, being in a world without Others is not simply a question of space but also of time. Worklessness can be figured in terms of a salvation from, or, an unlearning of, the oftentimes comforting yet ultimately brutal logic of capitalist temporality. 

JPR: Why is it that Deleuze describes Tournier’s Crusoe as perverse? Because he is, in a way, wholly oriented towards ends but only to the extent that they provide the means to deviate from those ends. The story is not occupied by questions of origin but instead of deviation. For Deleuze, it is this deviance from that productive end, that objective, that sense of fulfillment or completion that makes the character particularly perverse.

The structure Other, or, Other structuring, doesn’t allow for that deviation from the end. To the extent that that end has already been preordained, what is available to us is simply a matter of the possible. The preordained end constrains, delimits, and defines what is possible. It seems that the least interesting curatorial projects will set up that sort of thematic structure and simply work to fill it with recognizable content. The Vtape residency became a means for you to research works that would not necessarily add up to anything—although, in fact, they do.

AB: The residency calls to mind the idea of a non-reparative curatorial practice that concerns neither ends nor means-to-ends. On the one hand, it is worth highlighting that Empty History is an ongoing project. This particular exhibition does not signal an end. My research continues. Yet, approaching the question from a different angle, we might begin to consider how the works themselves reveal minor curatorial practices. Each individual is seen organizing the world in pursuit of pleasure for its own sake—a pursuit that remains indeterminate and illegible, that cannot be named or revealed as anything in particular. Recently, I have been thinking about workless pleasure as an empty, open, frameless time that cannot be appropriated by the logic of the structure Other.

JPR: Within the installation, the works reinforce, and, in a certain sense, replicate one another. Insofar as each documents an individual subject engaging in this workless work, there is a kind of relentlessness that is accumulated, suggesting that one can never quite find that sense of resolve or finality. The works both support each other and amount to nothing in particular. Turning to Lucas Michael’s deflated trophy cup placed in the middle of the gallery, it is as if this is the kind of award you receive for doing workless work. This may be the one object that ties the works together without really being bestowed upon any of them. Everyone’s a winner and no one’s a winner.

AB: I want to underline your comment about the work of worklessness. Worklessness is, despite what the term may suggest, real work. We are speaking about worklessness as a form of de-instrumentalized resistance that is expressed, for example, in the restless continuity of the performed action—whether that is Logue’s desk balancing act, Wong’s search for the perfect day, or Michael’s invisible line drawing.

What motivates the work of worklessness, then, is a realization that the world is not easily repaired. Non-reparative curating would be a matter of a radical embrace of the irreparable as such. It seems that this embrace should be figured as a discipline of the mind and body—a discipline that is perverse insofar as it cannot be assimilated into the logic of capitalist temporality, the timeline of so-called progress, the world of the structure Other, and so on. Here, we begin to arrive at a particular reading of non-reparative queer curating that is based upon a taking care of indeterminate, illegible, and “empty” history.

JPR: What do we mean when we speak of the politics and ethics of the irreparable? And how should that not be confused with other things with which it is often easily confused? In the literal sense, the irreparable refers to that which either cannot be repaired or need not be repaired. It is in the sense of the latter that one often runs into trouble with those who think of this work as an apology for the status quo, or, a complicity with the way things are. In our view, this is certainly not what the politics and ethics of the irreparable is about—quite the contrary. Returning to Sedgwick’s essay, our interpretation of the irreparable does not reside in either the paranoid or reparative reading position. The perversity of queer solitude, and the way in which that perversity relates to the irreparable, opens up a space between these two, prevailing means of reading, or, to put it differently, ways of relating to others in the world. 

Paranoia, following Sedgwick, is an aversion to surprise. It is a very rigid temporality, at once retroactive and anticipatory. One is paranoid about that which is about to happen based upon some sense of the past. One is, in other words, in the future that is always already in the past. While it is perhaps more palatable, the reparative reading position is based upon the contingency of desire—that is, it still involves the various relations between subjects and objects. In this commitment to the irreparable as a form of non-reparative curating, we are attempting to move beyond paranoia and reparation. 

Instead of the structure Other we are speaking about a perverse structure. This does not mean living in a world with Others but rather with otherwise Others—as Deleuze says, truly concrete Others, not phantasmatic meta-Others. These otherwise Others will always be anonymous, promiscuous, and clandestine. In fact, Deleuze writes that these otherwise Others would be so perverse that they are beyond voyeurism and exhibitionism. This completely bears upon the world of art and visuality and visibility in curating. As Sedgwick herself says, being made visible is its own form of violence, just as much as being made invisible can be.

AB: I have been thinking about the irreparable in terms of a retreat from the traditional model of queer curating—one that is firmly rooted in the logic of art historical inclusion and reparative visibility. How might we figure these ideas of worklessness and de-instrumentalized resistance within the contemporary political context?

JPR: Today, there is a paranoid consensus in which the left and the right find themselves strangely proximate to each other. This has led to a certain kind of political stasis or “civil war”—for instance, mutual accusations on both sides about the deep state, terrorism, and so forth. From the perspective of the left, elections are either about disenfranchised voters or foreign meddling, and on the right, they are about voter fraud and rigging. We find ourselves in this incredible moment of paranoid politics. The paranoid and the reparative work hand in hand. And it is in the oscillation back and forth from the paranoid and reparative positions that the status quo is maintained. A commitment to the irreparable involves a refusal of this rhythm, which is the structure and the motor of the status quo and a certain kind of political gridlock. There is all the more need for an alternative to these two positions. This is what Deleuze offers us in his essay, as well other authors, including, in particular, Giorgio Agamben, who has been hovering in the back of our minds. A more detailed examination of his work on the irreparable and impotentiality would have to be part of a longer conversation, which we hope to have in the future.


1. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003) 128.

2. Gilles Deleuze, “Michel Tournier and The World Without Others” in The Logic of Sense (New York City: Columbia University Press, 1993) 314.

3. Deleuze, The World Without Others, 314.

4. Ibid.

Adam Barbu and John Paul Ricco in conversation

Vtape, Toronto, 23 November 2019

Accompanying “Empty History,” the exhibition curated by Adam Barbu, Barbu and John Paul Ricco engaged in a public conversation about the works in the show and the curatorial premises that guided Barbu’s project.

Adam Barbu: Nearly four years following my participation in Vtape’s Curatorial Incubator program, I was given the opportunity to return as the 2019 Researcher-in-Residence. The residency took shape over the course of a year of self-guided research in which I explored various materials from the Vtape collection and engaged in a series of conversations with peers and mentors about possible new readings of queer curatorial ethics. Early on in the project’s development, I was encouraged by peers to think without direction, restriction or expectation, beyond productive curating, beyond the efficacy of art, beyond the institutional demands that are traditionally placed on curating as an instrumentalized pedagogical practice. As opposed to many of the recent exhibitions that have sought to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, for example, Empty History does not attempt to expose histories of homophobic violence or reconstruct fractured queer histories in the name of inclusion, representation, and recognition. Throughout the course of this residency, I have worked to think beyond the logic of reparative visibility, focusing instead on that which cannot be reduced to representations of identity, community, and shared history. Empty History does not engage with the term “queer” as a descriptor of a sexual identity category but rather as an interruptive force of abstraction and illegibility.

In this move away from traditional articulations of so-called “progress,” I have explored the ways in which artists use video to unwork the narrative conventions of queer history. Dierdre Logue, Paul Wong, and Lucas Michael do not seek to repair the unjust and the uncertain by fashioning new queer utopias. Instead, documenting performances of solitary, workless gestures and activities, their works pursue forms of pleasure in the broken, the unchanging, and the everyday. Life is presented in a fixed state. They appear as artifacts of impossible, empty histories without purpose or end, carried out at the limits of what is often deemed recognizable queer political content. The critique this type of research tends to attract is that it is too theoretical, too abstract, detached from the collective need to produce legible, explicit representations in the fight against social injustice. Yet Empty History examines how this idea of a non-productive, non-teleological, workless curatorial practice offers us a way outside the time of heteronormative capitalist temporality. If the very meaning of queerness is rooted in a foundational rejection of normativity, perhaps it is this commitment to non-teleological thought that renders the practice of queer curating queer. Empty History considers the unworking of the time of progress as the work of curating queer history. 

Through the frame of the residency and materials of my research, I have learned to embrace queerness as an intensified lateral movement. Early collaborators helped me think through the uncomfortable thought of an empty history, as well as my own anxious relation to progress. Having moved back to Ottawa from Toronto after finishing graduate school, I found myself emptying myself of an anxious attachment to productivity and success in the artworld. The structureless structure of The Researcher is Present program allowed me to slow down and let go of meaning. I have learned to embrace the false starts and the unresolved thought experiments—the wandering, the waiting, and the circling back that is queer curating.

Lisa Steele: I can’t help but recall the first wave of inclusive queer curating. From the 1980’s onward, we have seen so many exhibitions that adopt the belief that visibility equals progress—that if we can just be seen, then we are working against homophobia. Your show offers something like the opposite of that. I see works that are not simply identified as “queer.” They don’t reveal themselves. They do not present a story. And today, the story of queer progress has changed. There is gay marriage, there are conservative gay people—lots of them. There is something at stake in Empty History that is clearly different from that earlier notion of queering.

AB: Today, a number of influential curators remain interested in documenting queer progress by means of art historical inclusion. These exhibitions have become popular within major art institutions, functioning as evidence of a politically progressive programming agenda. With Empty History, on the other hand, I am simply interested in rethinking our relationship to the time of progress in ways that might be described as queer. 

John Paul Ricco: A liberal politics of inclusion can never attest to the exclusions that necessarily and inevitably follow this attempt to render the invisible visible. That which is excluded includes those things that don’t get recognized as political in the first place. Because they don’t gain legibility or recognition as markers of identity, they are discarded and considered minor or inconsequential. In the three videos on display, we see everyday, ordinary spaces and seemingly inconsequential gestures inhabiting the empty space that is created through this exclusion from the political. The works reveal the extent to which that empty space can actually become a site of potential that is not attached to any determinate end result. In this sense, they suggest a certain inoperativity. Part of the problem with the notion of political-historical progress is that it is absolutely operative, productivist, and goal oriented, when so much of our lives are, in fact, not lived in this way.

Here, we are seeing both an emptying out of progress, in the way that Adam is speaking about, but also a kind of temporary, inoperative occupation of that empty space that gets created through the necessary, inevitable exclusions that come with a politics of inclusion. Further, what we see is an attempt to occupy that empty space without claiming or appropriating it in the name of visibility or identity but instead keeping it precisely illegible. It is illegible as queer, it is illegible as politics, and it may even be illegible as art. This is, in fact, getting close to what we understand to be the act of artistic creation. We are describing a form of resistance that is, at the same time, de-instrumentalized. And that’s creation—creation as a form of resistance to the operative, productivist model. A politics of progress has kept us from a politics of creation.

LS: It seems to me that Empty History opposes the sort of productivity that is encouraged by most art institutions. I am fascinated by how Adam’s curatorial project has come to mirror the open-ended structure of The Researcher is Present residency program itself. 

JPR: There is a perfect pairing between the research practice, the thematic, and what we see in the gallery, which is somewhat unusual. There is, in other words, a real tightness in correspondence between the four works and the curatorial method. They are following the same kind of inoperative research creation model.

Kim Tomczak: These responses have led me to think about the economy and ideas of growth, perpetual momentum, forward movement, and so on. Today, there are radical economists proposing a non-growth slowness. Adam’s project helps me move into that space. I also think about the extraction economy. We assume that we will be extracting forever but this project invites us to consider how the economy doesn’t necessarily have to be productive in that kind of way. As John said earlier, life cannot simply be described as a progressive process. 

JPR: Researching within an archive is archaeological, and archaeological research is based upon an extraction of content and resources. This project is attempting to call that process into question. It tries to locate that which cannot be appropriated—that empty space that can still function without being extracted and claimed. I find it interesting that Adam spent a year in an archive and produced a show called “Empty History.” It goes to show us that one can, in fact, find that impossible, empty place within the archive. In this regard, the empty is the open. It does not signify a negation or the absence of content. The empty is that which is not appropriated, and each of the works are clearly open in some way. 

AB: Emptiness has taken on many different forms within the context of the residency. Earlier today, we spoke about the exhibition in relation to ideas of solitude and loneliness.

JPR: In each of the three videos, we face a solitary subject engaging in non-productive, workless activities. This inevitably begins to raise questions about whether that solitude is to be understood in terms of loneliness or as something other than deprivation. The works suggest a kind of aloneness that, in not wanting to produce a masterful subject, demonstrates the ways in which bodies can maintain both a sense of solitude and ways of being in a world that are not defined by isolation and loneliness. What we are seeing in these videos is not deprivation and a reduction of bodies but rather a kind of experimentation and openness. 

LS: These three individual figures are quite powerful. In thinking about solitude and worklessness, I find myself reflecting upon the past, returning to what we use to call “the collectivity of the movement.” That sense collectivity, of getting together, of building something, of doing this and that—it didn’t really go anywhere, it didn’t really work out for all of us. 

JPR: What is powerful about this project is that it does not seek to develop a new definition of progress. It simply asks, “Why progress?” At stake here is a certain self-divestiture of the subject, which, through a sense of anonymity, opens up the possibility of relations that are not predicated upon belonging or identity. In response to these works, we might want to think about collectivity or solidarity in ways that aren’t merely about individual expression, the expressive subject, and political polemics.

AB: Within this conversation about a retreat from the logic of political and economic progress, it seems that we are, at the same time, speaking about research and the values that become attributed to this work, both in the artworld and in academia. 

Lauren Fournier: Our generation lives in such a sped-up state—what is expected from a researcher in the artworld and academia is so extreme. The expectation that one can continue to produce at such a rate is ultimately destructive. I think about ways of pushing against this compulsion for speed and progress, which I too have been complicit in as a writer and curator. 

JPR: Those economies always operate based upon some sort of single general measure of significance. That’s capitalist logic, per se. In these works, there is an invitation for us to move away from the fetishization of work and labor and towards use and care. There is a wonderful moment in Paul Wong’s Perfect Day (2007), where he is searching within the archive of his CD collection desperate to find the Lou Reed record. We come to experience his frustration as he plays the CD only to find that it continuously stops and skips. From the point of view of use, what does he end up doing with the CD? He wants to take care of it. He washes the CD with soap and water in the hopes that it will begin to work again. Of course, it does not—but there is a way in which the work itself is still able to retain that notion of the perfect. There is something involved in the use and the care of things, like himself, his computer, his CD collection, and so forth, that this can still be a perfect day even though the scene doesn’t follow through to the end of the song.

Lucas Michael, Audentes Fortuna Iuvat (2001)

LS: Speaking of the individual works in the gallery, I am intrigued by the placement of Lucas Michael’s Audentes Fortuna Iuvat (2001) in relation to Dierdre Logue’s Home Office (2017). From a certain vantage point, it seems as though the crushed trophy sits underneath the scene of the balancing act. On the other hand, it appears that the prize that could be awarded to any of the artists—like it is up for grabs.

Dierdre Logue: When Adam and I unpacked the work together, I thought: There is a trophy I would like. We started talking about the notion of second place, which is my favorite place. The idea that we might reinterpret the value of these measures of success is key, with the added tension that, at any moment, I could fall and crush my own psychic trophy. 

I find it interesting that the sculpture shares a lot with video. It is placed on a mirror, which is reflecting light, and it is shiny and shaped but ultimately flat. It was chosen well, both because of its video-esque sculptural attributes and in its recognition that failure, or the lack of aspiring to the trophy, might be the prize. It is deflated. Its guts have been pushed out. But there were no guts to begin with, right?

KT: I am curious what to make of that term “failure” within the context of this exhibition.

AB: Dierdre, I am drawn to what you said about the symbolism of the trophy—that the so-called prize lies in not wanting it to begin with. Certainly, in recent years, there has been great deal of writing published on the relationship between queerness and failure. But this idea of failure would seem to suggest the opposite of success. And, as John has mentioned, this open-ended, empty space of self-exploration is not simply a matter of failure but inoperativity, impotentiality, and worklessness. In works like Perfect Day, what we see is a kind of lateral intensity that operates outside of the binary logic of wins and losses.

DL: The Queer Art of Failure (2011), along with various other texts in queer theory history, identify failure as a kind of departure from or resistance to traditional readings of success, especially in terms of cultural production. It is important to note that the works are not empty of other narratives, including moments of self-loathing, as in Perfect Day, or moments where the body is trying to work through something that in fact, lacks meaning, as in, Home Office. Failure has led us to think about our futures and how to navigate them as queer bodies. It has also given us certain permissions to begin thinking about ways in which artists might resist through the not doing of something—by means of negation. So, if we think about your thesis and the idea that these works might offer us the opportunity to reimagine history, then, in fact, they also offer us the opportunity to imagine not doing anything. That not doing anything could have enormously powerful implications on the future. In my work, failure has led to questions of future or futurity as opposed to the idea that failure has one necessary opposite or counterpoint.

JPR: I am hesitant about the language of failure simply because it retains so much of the subject and especially the psychological subject. Empty History doesn’t seem interested in documenting those kinds of struggles—of trying to be a subject or even failing to be one. Instead, drawing from the writings of Leo Bersani, what we are seeing is a move from the psychological subject to the aesthetic subject, and from the aesthetic subject to the ecological subject—that is, something beyond interiority or success or failure. It is, in other words, not about who I am but how am I the person that I am. In each of the works, there is an affirmation that, through these inoperative, workless activities, this is how I am who I am—this is my mode. These activities are not necessarily negative or positive but do seem to suggest the extent to which the “how” of how I am is so dependent upon objects, places, and things. In Fixed Kilometer (2018), for example, it is almost as if that is precisely what the artist is pointing out. It is that extension, which is, in passing, there, and there, and there. 

AB: Of course, the invisible distances Michael traces are anything but sequential. The video remains a fragmented portrait of the artist organizing his world at a critical distance. In certain instances, there are significant gaps in time that span between takes. Fixed Kilometer invites us to consider the absences that necessarily give shape to a work’s narrative structure. The video was not created quickly, and there is a great deal of living that is undocumented within the frame of the screen. I find myself returning to that which is not included in the final presentation of the work—namely, the countless surfaces that cannot but remain unscanned and untouched by the artist’s curious, wandering index finger. 

My early work as a writer and curator in the mid-1990s, is taken up by Olivier Vallerand as part of his historical study of the emergence of queer theory and the work that was undertaken nearly 30 years ago, by various authors, artists, curators, and writers to bring this nascent theoretical discourse into conversation with architecture, and questions of sex and space (public, domestic, clandestine, etc.).

Unplanned Visitors: Queering Ethics and Aesthetics of Domestic Space (McGill University Press, 2020).

The book works its way right up to the present, in Vallerand’s discussion of recent projects by J Mayer H., Elmgreen & Dragset, and other architects and artists who have re-conceptualized domestic space from various queer ethical and aesthetic points of view and practices. The book is richly illustrated, and includes a comprehensive bibliography.

Vallerand is part of a new, younger generation of scholars who have revived the field in exciting new ways. It has been especially wonderful to see him and others coming out of the academy today, turn their attention to the genealogy of queer sex space theory.

View to the U: An eye on UTM research · John Paul Ricco

I was recently interviewed by Carla DeMarco for “View to the U,” the podcast that she produces and hosts out of the Research Office at UTM. In our conversation, framed in terms of “the value of art in times of social upheaval,” we talked about my research, and “how past health crises have shaped art movements” and artistic practice. As Carla goes on to describe: “We also talk[ed] about some of the ways in which this current pandemic may influence artists now and in creations to come, and what kinds of things [I have been] doing in this time of solitude.”

If you are curious about social distancing as an aesthetic proposition, or how walking in the city today has taken on a whole new choreographic quality, have a listen.

Here is a link to The New Yorker article that I mention toward the end of the interview:

A New Doctor Faces the Coronavirus in Queens

The title of this post comes from the research project that I embarked on five years ago, with generous support from a grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). I recently returned to my grant application, partly because the funding period for the grant is set to expire this week, and with that ending comes a need to look back and to assess. Yet given the current moment in which this retrospective gaze is being cast, I am inclined not only to try to measure the distance between the beginning of 2015 and the present, but also the degree of proximity between the terms I had used to frame the research project, and my present thinking and writing about the COVID-19 and the latter’s tremendous impact on public health, sociability, and autonomy. Here’s the opening paragraph of my “Summary of Research,” excerpted from the SSHRC application:

What if security is not the means of assuring freedom but of losing it altogether? What if fixed, enclosed, and secured grounds and ends are what we must abandon if the condition of freedom, as unconstrained, open-ended experience, is to be preserved? In the contemporary global context of curtailments of civil rights and liberties, the fortification of borders, and the militarization of society—all in the name of securing freedom—this question is of tremendous consequence and deserves to be addressed in new ways. In my project “The Risks and Pleasures of Bodily Abandonment and Freedom,” I argue that the space of freedom is a spacing or spaciousness that is “outside yet not beyond.” Which is to say that freedom does not belong to a transcendent or abstract realm, and also to argue that our experience of freedom has a thoroughly corporeal basis. In its physical corporeal reality, however, freedom is not absolutely immanent, which makes it imperative to develop an understanding of bodies not as enclosed entities but rather in terms of exorbitant extremities, exceeding corporeal limits. Such excess renders bodily limits as always-unfinished edges rather than as definitive ends. Following the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, whose work has been central to the development of my own thinking, I regard the experience of exorbitant corporeal openness as one of both pleasure and risk, up to and including joyous, passionate abandon to the outside and the uncertainty of what lies ahead.

Johann Peter Frank, M.D. System einer medizinische Polizei, 1779.

The Risk of Health

As Michel Foucault outlines in an interview that took place in 1983, one of the primary risks of security is the risk of dependence upon the State and the system and attendant institutions of social security (public health, unemployment compensation, housing provisions, etc.). Security breeds dependency, and dependency in turn demands greater levels of security. This feedback loop is, at the same time, in tension with the demand for independence (autonomy) from the very systems that are meant to provide security. (Foucault, “The Risks of Security,” in The Essential Works of Foucault, volume on “Power,” edited by James Faubion, translated by Robert Hurley and others; The New Press, 2000: 365-381).

The space of this tension between dependence and independence is quite narrow, and as Foucault emphasizes, this “calls for as subtle an analysis as possible of the actual situation” (367). The latter of which he goes on to define not as the large-scale system of economic and social mechanisms, but the “interface between, on the one hand, people’s sensibilities, their moral choices, their relations to themselves and, on the other, the institutions that surround them” (ibid.). In other words, such analysis of the “microphysics” of power, knowledge, and freedom, is less that of politics in the traditional sense (dare I say, even of “bio-politics”), and more so one of ethics; it is also less about spaces of enclosure than environmental openings. For Foucault, this is the distinction between what he calls “sociologism,” and an attention to ethical problems.

Even further and of particular interest in the current context of the global viral pandemic, is the way in which Foucault understands “health,” specifically not as a “right” but only as something that must be understood in terms of “means:” “means of health.” Before I explain what Foucault meant by this notion, it is necessary to foreground one of the most essential insights he puts forth in this interview. Namely, that the need and demand for health is, by definition, an infinite demand, according to which the problem then immediately arises, as to how this infinite demand inevitably finds itself within a finite system of means (373-74). Given that this is always the case, Foucault says that limits cannot be set theoretically and once and for all, but only established ethically, and in terms of each particular case. Yet such ethical decision would occur, as he goes on to describe it, within a collectively agreed upon framework of decision-making and “ethical consensus,” involving the users as well as the practitioners. This process creates and sustains what Foucault refers to as “a cloud of decisions”—one that in terms of the issue of “health,” need not be entirely determined and dictated by medical reason.

Foucault then asks the question: “must a society endeavour to satisfy by collective means the need for health of individuals?” (374). To which, from the perspective of actual practice, is a question that would need to be answered in the negative, simply because satisfying these innumerable and infinite needs and demands of health, is not feasible. Here’s how Foucault expresses this inevitable conundrum:

I do not see and nobody can explain to me, how technically it would be possible to satisfy all the needs of health along the infinite line on which they develop” (375). The problem raised is therefore that of reconciling an infinite demand with a finite system” (377).

Current public health care systems and its practitioners are always weighing this infinite demand against finite means; just as users are always weighing their dependence on, and independence from, these systems. There are a variety of ways in which people come to accept that their health and their lives will be protected and assured, and that they will, at some point, be allowed to die. One example that Foucault provides, is military service, especially in wartime. Others include those people whose diets are high in salt (risk of hypertension) or sugar (risk of diabetes), and those who are addicted to alcohol and tobacco. We are fully aware of the negative effects of each of these, which are tremendous not only in terms of physical health, but also in terms of economic cost and mortality rates. Nonetheless, these are practices, risks, and costs that neoliberal reason of public health has been willing to countenance, to absorb, to insure against, to pay for. Eight million people die from tobacco use each year; with 1.2 of those being non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke. And yet, what we might now be inclined to describe as “smoking distancing,” typically takes the form of smokers standing little more than a few feet from entrances to buildings and the like. Without providing a response, I will simply ask: what makes the COVID-19 novel coronavirus different, and an exceptional exception?

Means of Health (not Right to Health)

There is much more than can be said about the conjuncture of the political economic, the bio-political, and the social-moral, that constitutes neoliberal rationality, of which social security and public health is one major strand. But perhaps I will bring this post to a close by briefly discussing three things that Foucault advocates when it comes to these issues.

  1. A system of social security that will “free us from dangers and from situations that tend to debase and or subjugate us” (366). Which means a system that first and foremost protects us from the subjugating effects of safety and security—those risks.
  2. A system of social security, or what I have called elsewhere, “a government of the commons,” that operates by way of the current activist motto, “nothing about us, without us.” Meaning: users are decision-makers, and decisions are made from the ground up.
  3. A system of social security that offers means of health (distinct from “right to health” which as such does not exist). For Foucault, means of health is a mobile line traced according to technical-medical + economic-collective + social decision-ethics practices, and that always confronts questions of access and its necessary and inevitable limits and exclusions, yet does so collectively, ethically, and not theoretically-programmatically (i.e. not “once and for all”).

To this I would add that any ethical-collective means to health, while never losing sight of the conundrum of infinite demand and finite means discussed above, nonetheless must seek to find ways to operate as “pure means” (Benjamin, Agamben), which is to say, without instrumental, economized, techno-managerial, rationalized, and generally-equivalent ends.

Virology of the Common

This would require ways of thinking the ontology of the common as a shared exposure to contagion, and to the infiltration and intrusion of unknown forms of alterity into the heart of the self and its rapport with others. This would be to speak and think and write in terms of our common virality, contagion, and collective contamination—those “vectors” that are the forms and modes of undetectable or anonymous commerce and communication. This would, at the same time, not lose sight of the incommunicable that always persists at the limits (but, again, perhaps also at the heart) of the known and the communicable. It is this that makes any community worth living an unbecoming community. And it is to this that Jean-Luc Nancy recently gave the name “commonovirus.”

Below are my opening remarks (slightly revised) to a day-long series of conversations with four of our most interesting novelists writing on sex today: Justin Torres, Jamie Quatro, Eimear McBride, and Garth Greenwell. The event took place at the University of Toronto, on September 22, 2018.


In Jamie Quatro’s novel, Fire Sermon, the main character and narrator Maggie, writes and sends an email to the poet James K. Abbott. Provoked by her admiration of his new collection of poems, she takes it upon herself to write to Abbott, even though they don’t know each other personally. She has however, come to know him, we might say, impersonally, that is, as a reader. This relation between the personal and the impersonal, the autobiographical and the fictional will be one of the topics of discussion today. But the other reason why I make mention of Maggie’s email, is because I wrote and sent out similar emails several months ago (in one case, a couple of years ago), to four authors, and like Maggie, I was provoked by the simple fact that I admire their work so much and wanted them to know that.

In writing to them, as a fan, I also was inviting each of them to come to Toronto, with the idea that not only would they read and discuss their work individually and separately, but that they would also have a conversation together, one that would focus on sex and sexuality, desire and intimacy, kinship, violence, writing and storytelling. While they are fully aware of each other’s work, in some cases having endorsed each other’s books—and at least on one or two occasions that I am aware of, were paired together at a public literary event—Toronto is the first time that all four appear together on the same stage at the same time.

I cannot convey how grateful I am that Justin Torres, Eimear McBride, Jamie Quatro and Garth Greenwell, were interested in such an event, and indeed that all of them unhesitatingly responded positively and enthusiastically to my invitation. It is, at the same time, nothing short of a miracle, I think, that all four of them were available on the same weekend. It is an absolute pleasure, distinct honour and personal thrill to have them here today, for what promises to be a unique and memorable series of conversations on sex and the contemporary novel.

In retrospect, thinking back to the genesis of this event, one of the things that I find most telling, is a complete inability to recall exactly which of the four authors I discovered first. Which book did I encounter first, and in what order did I then go about reading the others. The sheer force of their impression on me has been so great, that I can only describe it as something of a concentrated burst or unabated flood that occurred sometime in the past two or three years. This sense of an acute chronology of reading has not left me, even though I am well aware, based upon publication dates and the good fortune of being able to read these novels almost immediately after they came out, that Justin Torres’  We the Animals, is the earliest to have appeared (in 2011) and Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon, is the most recent (it came out at the beginning of this year).

At the same time, in describing them as a group of authors that I cannot think apart from each other, I am not suggesting that their work has in any way lost its singular distinctiveness for me, or that I am in any way interested in christening a new school or literary sub-genre, under which the four authors would be branded, as though circumscribed by some sheer legibility of a certain marketability.

In addition to inviting four of my most favourite contemporary literary authors, I have also used this event as an occasion to pair each of these authors with a reader (each of whom is also a writer), all of whom I also greatly admire.  Precisely for the ways in which they move through texts, and the insights that I have gained from their singular reading practices. So, this afternoon, I also welcome Luis Jacob, Fan Wu, Mahité Breton and Chaya Litvack, each of whom shares a set of affinities with the author with whom they are paired.

In the overall spirit of wanting to keep this afternoon’s conversations as open, un-scripted and expansive as possible, I have invited each of the interlocutors to pursue their own path, and to allow the conversation to reflect their own particular engagement with the books, based not only upon the thematic of today’s event, but their own inclinations, proclivities, and commitments. All of the conversations that will unfold today will be the result of nearly first-time in-person encounters. Some based upon a extended familiarity with the author and their work, while in other cases, occasioned by the invitation to participate here today.

Here is how the day’s program will run. There will be four consecutive conversations between invited writer and reader, during which the authors might read from their works, and at the end of which there will be an opportunity for you, members of the audience, to ask questions. Ushers will have microphones, which we ask you to use so that everyone in the theatre can hear your question, and so that we can capture your voice on the video recording. We ask that you keep your questions as brief as possible, and that they take the form of an actual question. We have reserved close to an hour for each session, and between each conversation there will be a very short break, in order to facilitate set-up of microphones, switch out water glasses, and take a quick bathroom break. Washrooms are located downstairs, and we remind you that drinking and eating in the theatre proper are not allowed.

At 5:00PM, following the fourth and last one-on-one conversation, all four authors will gather together on stage for a final 1-hour conversation that I will moderate.  This will be an opportunity to discuss issues and to ask questions that in various ways extend across their respective works. After that, at 6PM, there will be a modest reception in the lobby, right outside the theatre, where the authors will be signing books—copies of which are available for purchase in the lobby.

I have organized this event as part of my SSHRC-funded 4-year research project on “The Risks and Pleasures of Bodily Abandonment and Freedom,” of which one component is a working group on “Sex, Ethics and Publics.” With this project, now in its fourth year, I have sought to bring together academics and non-academics in order to think about the relations between sex, ethics and publics, including in public forums such as today’s event. The conviction upon which the research project and the working group are based, is that the political begins in intimacy, and that the aesthetic (i.e. art, literature, etc.) plays a vital role in the conceptualization and imagination of this inauguration. Indeed, I argue that the aesthetic is a principal staging of the scene of intimacy, of which sex is one principal manifestation.

This afternoon is an opportunity to delve deep into the work of four of the most exciting authors writing in remarkably original, provocative, moving, and challenging ways about sex. As such, it is also an opportunity to think and talk about ways in which the contemporary novel is a critical component in the ongoing grappling with such questions as: “how do we talk about sex?” How do we tell stories about the sex that we have, want to have, wish we didn’t have, and, at times, wish we didn’t have to talk about?

Given recent events, it is undeniable that at this particular moment, the need and desire to put sex into words has proven to be as difficult as it has ever been. While sex talk need not always take a narrative form, literary narration—as in the form of the novel and the short story (but not limited to those genres)—can function not only as a zone of translation between sex and language, but more importantly, it can tell stories about the limits of sex, the limits of language, and the limits of their mutual rapport. The latter of which is its own form of intimacy, often structured as an impasse. Yet at times that impasse can prove to be its own form of passage, and even something of a way out.

One of the things that drew me into the work of each of our authors, and has kept me tethered to them, is the way in which each affirms the degree to which intimacy is inseparable from separation. That is, the way in which erotic and sexual—but also social, literary—forms of intimacy are not the overcoming of prior relational separation, but instead is the sustaining of that very space of separation. Each of these authors reminds us that intimacy is an intimate rapport with separation, and thus with that which exceeds the couple or even the group-form, the inter-subjective, the private, the domestic and the personal. Which also means that in intimacy, one is in rapport with what of the other remains impersonal and anonymous. It is here that we can begin to outline an ethical sense of intimacy, one that was aptly phrased by Tim Dean as the final sentence of book, Unlimited Intimacy, when he asked, “Why should strangers not be lovers and yet [still] remain strangers?”

At this particular historical moment, and in light of the social-media saturated environments that we are bound to inhabit, it is increasingly important to resist the data-colonization of the deepest recesses, but also the most exposed surfaces, that constitute the intimate dimensions of our lives.

When the anonymous stranger that I am invoking here has been reduced to an utterly formulaic identity and the algorithmic profile, and when the clandestine is on the verge of extinction through various processes of gentrification, and social-sexual imperceptibilities are rendered as marketable data, we desperately need fiction, poetry and art, precisely because they are places where we can continue to imagine the pleasurable mis-alignment of social subjects and encounters in passing, as scenes of intimacy.

As recently pointed out by Amia Srinivasan (“Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?” London Review of Books, 22 March 2018)—and similar to the point I made earlier about the untranslatability of sex and the erotic pleasure—the care and use of bodies is not a transactional affair, as though following in the norms of capitalist free exchange (the less queer meaning of “trade”). For that way goes a contractual and liberal consensual model of intimacy (and sociality more broadly), that does not pay attention to the conditions that give rise to desires, attractions, impulses, aversions and yearnings. What Justin Torres, Eimear McBride, Jamie Quatro and Garth Greenwell all attend to in their own entirely distinct and unforgettable novels, is the very formation of sexual desire—the social and ethical, economic, spatial and aesthetic forces that shape their protagonists as the sexual subjects that they are.

In other words, for all of the many ways in which one’s sexual taste is utterly unique, it is also political. In reading them, I find sex de-personalized all the while the specificity of taste is not lost. Where the political conditions of sex and how it tastes are implicit, yet without ever falling into either a naive notion of liberal equality or authoritarian moralism. In these stories, the dynamics of sex (power, decision, attraction, repulsion) are rarely anything other than asymmetrical and opaque, and yet this is also precisely where not knowing the limits of the object of pleasure is accompanied by an unparalleled enjoying in the very non-knowledge of this pleasure.

Below are my opening remarks (slightly revised) for a panel on “Queer Artists of Colour in NYC during the AIDS Epidemic,” at the College Art Association (CAA) conference, held in NYC on February 13th, 2019.

Two years ago, when the CAA conference was last held here in New York, I dedicated my paper presentation to Jann Marson and Amy Bingaman. Two friends: one a doctoral student in Art History at the University of Toronto where I teach, the other a grad school classmate while we were at the University of Chicago. Both had died in the past year: so young and smart and full of warmth, humor, and generosity. On that occasion I was part of a panel on Queer Art History, chaired by my friend, the young art historian and curator, Robert Summers. This past summer, Robert suddenly passed away. I received word just days after we had exchanged emails, in which we celebrated the acceptance of our respective CAA panel proposals for this year’s conference. In his email and in his customary way, Robert said: “we fucking better have drinks in NYC!” Well here’s to you Robert! I raise a glass in honour of your memory, and on the panel that you had envisioned.

When I heard of Robert’s death, I immediately knew that this panel must be convened. I wrote to Hunter O’Hanlan [Executive Director of CAA], who unhesitatingly supported the idea and made the necessary arrangements so that we could go forward. Robert was a dear friend and I will always admire his curating and writing, most especially in foregrounding the sex and sexiness, and the unapologetic in-your-face protest of contemporary queer and feminist art. This work included Robert’s founding of the not-for-profit Queer Art Network, in 2016, along with a particularly longstanding and special devotion to the work of Vaginal Davis. To all of his work in queer art history, Robert brought a degree of irreverence, wit, passion and fearlessness that will be missed by so many of us, including each time we gather at the CAA conference. I wish he were still here. I wish I didn’t have to serve as Chair Designate. I just wanted to see him up here, once again. Let’s give him the session that he wanted.

I will keep my remaining comments brief but allow me to say just a few things—axiomatic, no doubt—by way of introduction. AIDS cannot be thought outside of racism, and racism cannot be thought separate and apart from AIDS and all other manifestations of the biopolitical and necropolitical. The ways in which AIDS was racialized in New York City during the AIDS epidemic (and continues to be, right up to the present moment), is different from the ways in which it has been racialized say, in South Africa or other parts of the world. Indeed, between Manhattan and the Bronx, or even between upper and lower Manhattan, East Side or West Side, one must realize and contend with the essential multiplicity and heterogeneity that is the convergence of race, ethnicity, geography, art and AIDS. Which is also to say that it is impossible to designate and to know where each term in the title of our session begins and ends as a topic and object of inquiry (as well as a lived reality). Whether this be in terms of queer (vis-à-vis the history of LGBTQ politics), artists and art (the “who” and “what”), race and ethnicity (“of colour”), New York (i.e. the city); AIDS, and Epidemic.

In turn, if we do not attend to the irrecuperable losses, and the very real disappearances in the history of AIDS—the inescapability of these losses and disappearances—then our stories, and any possible understanding that they might lead to, will be compromised. To the precise extent that they will be limited to what has been preserved and remembered, or that goes without saying—business as usual. To learn how to die collectively: this is one of the lessons that AIDS, and most importantly the artistic and activist work that has occurred in response, bestows to us. Memories and histories that always will be incomplete in the midst of a pandemic that is far from over. This is about an essential inconsolability, but also of what William Haver has described as “the ultimately unspeakable radical historicity and sociality of erotic existentiality” (Foreword to Ricco, The Logic of the Lure, xi).

We are honoured today to have three speakers, each of whom brings to the discussion a unique perspective: historical and poetic, artistic and critical, autobiographical and impersonal. Yet no less embodied, and no less a part of a history that we share, even as we continue to figure out how that sharing might happen. Something like what Robert Reid-Pharr has simply and aptly described as the ethics of our remembrance.

2018 JPR More Sex Poster 11x17 FINAL r1

I have organized this afternoon of readings and conversation with four writers whose recent novels I admire most for their portrayals of the unresolved complexities and driving impulses of sexual intimacy. The event is supported by funds from my SSHRC research grant, and my project on “Sex, Ethics, and Publics.” It promises to be a unique opportunity to hear from four of our most innovative, challenging and exciting novelists—including in conversation with each other, for the very first time.

“On Queer Forgiveness,” the paper that I recently presented at “The Ethics of Apology” conference, held at the Centre for Ethics, University of Toronto, October 20, 2017, is now available at the online, open-access journal C4E: Perspectives on Ethics.


I am so pleased to have my essay “The Commerce of Anonymity,” published in the latest issue of Qui Parle. Here’s the abstract, followed below by a short excerpt. You can access and download a copy of the entire article here: Ricco, “The Commerce of Anonymity” (Qui Parle, June 2017)




Always “within distance of” oneself and others: this is our place,

and to write or to draw is to discover and sustain (to varying degrees

of duration) that distance. In its proximity this distance is the source

of pleasure and the mark of intimacy—but it is also the measure of

the exact equality between one passerby and another. No longer

even in terms of the being-other of the stranger, this is more a matter

of the spacing of passage in its passing, the place that is abandoned

by and that abandons the passerby, in his or her passing, to the outside,

including the outside of identity.


There, where the studio meets the street and the street meets

the study, and the desk meets the drawing table and the drawing table

meets the urban signboard, “each face has value and refers—or

leads—to one human identity that is equal to another” (Genet). To which

we might add: each face leads toward an exact and absolute equality

that renders each of us not identical but incommensurable. Each

time with each other, it is an experience that affirms the essential anonymity

of being-together and the risks and pleasures of our ethical

and aesthetic commerce.


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