The Emotions Issue: Del LaGrace Volcano

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We’ve had an email correspondence with artist Del LaGrace Volcano for about two months now. We originally contacted him for The Boundaries Issue, but, as happens, things didn’t work out. Sitting down to play The Emotions Issue, we knew we couldn’t pull it off without his help.

Our entire mission with this issue revolves around the idea that love is not one set things – it’s a melange, a collage, a medley of emotions, sentiments and, at times, constraints. Volcano’s work addresses the space between gender, sexuality and everything in between.

On his website, Volcano writes,

As a gender variant visual artist I access ‘technologies of gender’ in order to amplify rather than erase the hermaphroditic traces of my body… An intentional mutation and intersex by design, (as opposed to diagnosis), in order to distinguish my journey from the thousands of intersex individuals who have had their ‘ambiguous’ bodies mutilated and disfigured in a misguided attempt at ‘normalization’. I believe in crossing the line as many times as it takes to build a bridge we can all walk across.

Like The Power Issue subject, Claude Cahun – who, you’ll see, Volcano cites as an inspiration – Volcano’s work seeks not simply to test the viewer’s perspective, but to extend it. Break it, even. As in love, one walks away from Volcano’s work having learned something new. Or, we should hope so, because no life’s worth living if you don’t open yourself to new experiences, right?

Lucky for us, Volcano opened himself up to us. See what he has to say about the all-pervasive nature of androgyny, “coming out” as “intersex”, and his sexually frustrating teenage years, after the jump…

Queerty: Your work deals with “intersex” – the space between male and female, when someone has both male and female physical characteristics. In your opinion, how can more room be made in the wild world of mainstream love for intersex persons? Can there be a Sam Delany-esque world a la Trouble on Triton where gender variance plays a role in how all people relate sexually/intimately. Can there be a “mutation” – to borrow the term you’ve said “invokes the idea of humanity’s psychic evolutionary integration and the abolition of sexual dimorphism?

Del LaGrace Volcano: I would say that my work deals with sex and gender, rather than with intersex specifically, although there are some aspects of my work that do. I don’t see intersex as being a ‘space between’ male and female. Most people have both male and female characteristics; “‘intersex’ is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.” (ISNA)

But to address your question, my answer is “yes”! Gender variance already plays a role in how people are relating – socially and sexually. You have only to look at lifestyle magazines, from ID to Dazed & Confused and Vogue to see how ubiquitous the concepts of gender variance and androgyny are.

QT: Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve had to “come out” [as intersex], so to speak, to a romantic partner? If so, how did it go down?
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DV: Personally speaking, I have not had any situations where I have had to come out, as such, because I am so out already. One of the perks of being a public person is that people are attracted to you because of who and what you are.

However, there are other situations where it is not absolutely clear to others what my gender is, or they assume that I am ‘just a man’. Usually this involves the relatives of my partners. I ended up coming out to the brother of my most recent ex when he watched me on Swedish TV. Prior to that he had related to me and seen me as an ordinary, albeit rather short man. I was happy that nothing really changed between us once he discovered that I am not a man.

QT: We all remember our first love – or, at least, the emotions surrounding that first love. Do you remember when you first felt that pitter-patter? How did you interpret it? Was it a heterosexual crush or more of the lesbianic variety?

DV: I had lots of crushes on both boys and girls as I was growing up. The one I remember most vividly though was on a woman, so, it was a ‘lesbianic’ crush, to use your term. My teenage years [were] quite sexually frustrating. I had many so called straight women teasing me, flirting heavily but not willing to have sex with me, even though I was over the age of consent! These ovular experiences put me off straight acting/looking women for life.

QT: Does your intersex status complicate finding lovers?

DV: I don’t know what you mean by my intersex status! But as far as finding lovers is concerned I continue to be blessed in that respect. However I have some intersex friends for whom finding lovers is complicated, usually due to the way in which their bodies have been mutilated by the medical profession and by the shame attached by their families regarding their ‘status’ as intersex.

QT: In a previous conversation, you referenced Claude Cahun as a “validating” artist. How did you feel when you first experienced Cahun’s art? Cahun’s body literally became her art. Do you feel that way: that your body’s your art? If so, how does that come into play in sexual relationships?

DV: Claude Cahun’s work and life excites me aesthetically, personally and spiritually. It feels both in conversation and in kinship with my own. I’m sure that a part of this is because of how literally her work and her body are intertwined. I work with many bodies, other than my own, yet there is still a very strong connection in her work and mine between the personal and the political. In Hermaphrodyke: Self Portrairs of Desire, (made in collaboration with my-ex lover Simo Maronati) there was a moment where work, life, body and mind became one. I can also see that making the video Pansexual Public Porn: AKA The Adventures of Hans and Del was another moment where I used my body as a part of my work. However, those are the only two cases where I would say that my sexual and artistic relationships, love or friendship, have intersected in such an intensely visceral manner.
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QT: We’ve previously discussed the range of masculinities/femininities that exist as part of the larger culture. No personal relationships are entirely equal – at least, not in my opinion. Of course, two big femmes or two big butches can come together, but there will always be some division.

DV: Or two small femmes or three small butches… Yes, power comes in many forms. For example, I am much older than the person I am living and loving with right now. We are in very different stages of our lives and yet it works because we are equally committed to the relationship and most importantly, to open and honest communication about the power dynamics involved. I feel it is important to acknowledge all different forms of power; the power of youth, the power of beauty, the power of age, education, class, ethnicity, gender expression and ablebodied-ness, to name just a few that spring to mind. It is what you do with those perceived power differences that is important.

QT: As a photographer, you maintain a certain amount control over your subjects. What is the nature of that control? How does it make you feel? You have to direct them to achieve a certain result.

DV: I would paraphrase it like this: As a photographer I maintain a certain amount of control over the images I create in collaboration with my ‘speaking’ subjects. The nature of this control is that I am the owner of these images and retain the copyright as well. However, an exchange is always negotiated beforehand and usually involves the right for the ‘subjects’ to also use the images, for their own personal use or even professional use, as long as I am credited. Sometimes I ask them not to use them publicly until after I have published them.

For the past 4 years I have been developing what I call a queer feminist methodology which is invested in making images with, ‘speaking subjects’, as opposed to taking images from subjects who are given no voice in either the creation, distribution or consumption of their own images. I believe there exists an inherent violence about the way in which many photographers pursue their profession. Even the way in which I speak, the language I use has been altered. When I ask to photograph someone I ask if I can make photographs with them, whereas before I might ask if I could take their photograph. Subtle but significant shifts are required.

QT: In your notes from Dynamics of Desire, you write about seeking out a subject:

I find the people I want to photograph everywhere. They are the people about whom I find something irresistible. I may be walking down the street, or on a bus, in a club or a café when I see her. She has caught my eye. I look. Giving myself permission to look. I may even find myself staring, lost in the fantasy of her face. She has a presence that captures me completely. I want her. I want to see. I want to know. I want to have, if only for an instant. This is my most vulnerable moment…

It’s almost like landing a date – your work deals with the “oscillating” relationship between photographer and photographed. It’s much like a sexual relationship, really.

DV: Yes, negotiation and power exchange. When I wrote that piece it was predicated upon my understanding of how a consensual lesbian SM relationship works. I think it is important for viewers to consider that not every photographer experiences themselves as all powerful, that there are moments of vulnerability on both sides.

QT: Is it frightening putting yourself on display in your work?

DV: No, not at all. Being visible and exposing/expressing myself on my own terms has been an empowering experience. Though perhaps at times not entirely comfortable, such as when my partner’s mother ordered Sex Works from the internet so she could see what kind of work I do. We both said, “No, no, no!” and asked her to change her order to something a bit more representative for her introduction to my work. So she ordered Sublime Mutations instead. Her only comment was, “You don’t usually see a person’s genitals before you meet them!”
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