Arts and (Mine)crafts

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A screenshot of a sweeping canyon landscape constructed in Minecraft. Pixy

UofR graduate student Cat Haines’ work is featured in the Mackenzie Art Gallery’s Minecraft exhibition

Artist and graduate student from the University of Regina’s Women’s and Gender Studies department, Cat Haines, has been selected as an artist-in-residence of the Mackenzie Art Gallery’s online Minecraft-based “Ender Gallery.” Haines’ exhibit, consisting of a Minecraft server where she has built a digital “replica” of her surgically constructed vulva and vagina, will also serve as an interrogative satire of the way trans women’s lives and stories are often overly focused on their bodies. This work is connected to Haines’ thesis work about transmisogyny and the “abject,” where “trans women’s subjectivity and bodies are abject in society and in feminist/lesbian art and literature – a big way we see that is through…’pussy art.’”

As well as the giant vulva looming impressively over the pixelated landscape, Haines’ server includes a wood-cabin-like community centre that she built for the guests who will visit when the exhibit opens in May and continues through June. Inside, there are tables with Minecraft cake, and an upstairs with coolers containing beverages and seating areas for conversation. There is also, of course, a window on the upper floor with a grand view of the vulva outside. Visitors can also actually go inside the constructed genitalia, where there is a series of photographs from Haines’ personal archive, accompanied by Minecraft “notes” with poetry and theoretical musings. These notes feature a story from Cat’s wedding, plus other surprises on the topics of feminist theory, transition, and living as a trans woman. Another large theme of the exhibit is lesbian history, as Haines explains: “we frequently re-write trans history, [so] can we re-write it to be a lesbian history too? If cisgender women can do it, why can’t I?”

The Carillonhad the opportunity to interview Haines about the vision behind this exhibit, her imagined audience, and what she hopes patrons will consider after visiting the Minecraft server. Haines joined the project excited to provide some local representation, as the Ender Gallery takes residencies from places outside Regina as well. Additionally, she is a longtime player of Minecraft, using it to socialize with friends from a young age, and wanted to tackle the concept of a feminist art installation within the game.

She introduced herself to me as “a master’s student…trans women and dyke. What I’m working on is the histories and subjectivities at the intersections of those identities.” She was inspired to build her piece by a physical feminist art installation called “Killjoy’s Castle,” a castle that contained several scenes focusing on women’s rights and struggles. Killjoy’s Castle, however, was criticized for being bioessentialist and trans-exclusionary. Haines wants to use its framing to build a narrative about trans women, and particularly their place in lesbian history.

In the case of trans subjectivities, Haines explained it as the study of “[trans women’s] own personal, subjective experiences.” Many feminist methodologies are based in this focus on experience instead of a “strict patriarchal western canon”; in particular, Haines draws from the phenomenology of sociologist Henry Rubin. In short, Haines is concerned with understanding transmisogyny and the lives of trans women by examining true stories from their lives – including, in the case of this exhibit, her own.

The “pussy art” that Haines means to interrogate with her trans feminist ironic reading, she explains, is “art that centers the vulva or vagina in some way.” Haines clarifies that she doesn’t mean to entirely “devalue” pussy art. “A lot [of it] is made as a revolt against the perception that vaginas are dirty, nasty, [or] should be hidden away,” she says. “Artwork that works to reclaim the body is one thing. But when what it sets out to do is construct femininity around the vulva/vagina, that becomes boring and problematic.” Haines wants to challenge the way trans women are talked about by revealing within the constructed vulva a trans narrative that is not necessarily a bodily one. Although the narrative is set within the context of bottom surgery, she says it’s not one that culminates in that procedure. The story being about the body and not the subjective experience of transness, Haines said, is “not a narrative we need to hear more of…that’s not the story I want to tell. What can we tell about transness that’s more liberatory?”

We spoke about the multiple audiences of Haines’ exhibit – a cisgender audience, who may be exposed to a trans narrative for the first time, and a trans audience who may see themselves represented in the work. Haines said these audiences may take away different things from the exhibit while consuming the same piece. “I envision trans people as being a really important part of my audience,” she says, wanting to “challenge [the] body-centre city of transness. I want people to come and maybe be surprised that it’s not about the body, because that is so often the narrative that we’re given for trans people…I want it to be primarily joyful and expansive, rather than dysphoric and contracting.” She wants to move away from the original focus on trauma and mentions the way “the cis gaze [looks to] consume trans pain to understand it.” She replaced that pain with the true and often joyful stories inside the exhibit, like the story of her and her wife crying “tears of joy when we discover that we’re wives one night.” In this story, she writes in the medium of the Minecraft notes system “the first lesbian wedding I attended was my own. I just didn’t know it yet.”

Haines says that because trans people are such an important part of her audience, she hopes to host some events around the exhibit that will be centered around or held just for trans people. To subsidize trans people who may not have a copy of Minecraft or be able to afford it, she says she wants to be able to offer some a free copy with a micro-grant from the Gallery. Patrons can also look forward to recorded tours of the exhibits, a performance, and an artist talk. She is even thinking about having a virtual Minecraft dance party inside the exhibit, as an event that can be held during Regina’s Pride festival this summer.

While Haines describes herself in her bio as an “academic/artist/weirdo,” and much of her art in the past has been tangible, activist art such as zines, show posters and colleges, she says it “is really exciting to have a paid residency where [she] can intentionally devote some time to [her] art practice.” Whether or not you are familiar with trans studies, theories of gender, or lesbian history, it is a rare and exciting opportunity to have an exhibit on these themes in Regina. Haines also suggests that those who are excited by the Ender Gallery project take a look at Manito Ahbee Aki, an Anishinaabe community built in Minecraft meant to explore Anishinaabe history and culture in cooperation with Knowledge Keepers. In addition, of course, keep an eye out for the future residencies at Ender Gallery now that Haines is starting the program off with a bang.

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