Chicago-based artist, cultural activist and organiser Latham Zearfoss has been a key figure in activating new queer and non-binary spaces. Concerned with inherited queer histories and the everyday realities of social and political life on the margins, Zearfoss’s intersectional practice focuses on formative experiences of “selfhood and otherness”. Their creative practices beyond the studio space have seen them build a reputation for producing activist projects that contribute to “collective motions towards joy and reflection.” A DJ, Zearfoss produced Chances Dances. The nomadic queer dance parties were intended to bring people together through “themes of love, agency and community”. As performance-based interventions Chances Dances formed a set of utopian social spaces created for unrestrained imaginings of queer futures - discursive spaces undiluted by hetero-centricism. Chances operated as vital contact spaces of collective action providing moments of imagining, recognition, connection, hope, and pleasure.
In an interview about how their social projects intersect and inform their studio practice, Zearfoss reflects on how Chances Dances and other social projects provide a platform for supporting the work and lives of others. This ethic of stewardship and care is intended to supercede the primacy of producing any kind of art object. Rather, Zearfoss says the collective members of Chances “work ‘through’ our projects just as our audiences do.”
Operating in mainstream cultural spaces has led Zearfoss to reflect on how art and art labour are valued, as well as how audiences connect to and engage with the work. Their latest project All Labor is Emotional (2018) is a mixtape that can be found on the website for Open Engagement, another collaborative project supporting the practices of those committed to transforming the world through creativity and radical imagination. Open Engagement is an itinerant, artist-led conference that features artists, activists and projects that prioritize community-building and social justice. Zearfoss has played a key role in the expanded programme of Open Engagement which started in 2007. This year’s conference, which has just recently finished, focused on Sustainability, and for 2019 Open Engagement has committed to undertaking site-specific research intended to evaluate the field and needs of social practice. All Labor is Emotional is a soundtrack mix of the work of some of the greats - PJ Harvey, Sonic Youth, The Pointer Sisters - to name some of the more obvious on the playlist, but there are many others. Zearfoss describes it as something “for the frustrated fantasies of arts administrators [featuring] femme-centric meditations on money, revenge and living a life of purpose.”. Well worth the listen.
Zearfoss’ studio-based projects typically develop as video, sound and sculptural installation. They have participated in numerous group exhibitions in the USA, including YesX1000 (2015) in Chicago, and Bruising Darkness (2014) in Baltimore. In 2017 their exhibition Intents and Purposes at the Andrew Rafacz Gallery in Chicago included a number of different works in a variety of media. One of the works, Dirge (2017), consisted of a large-scale single video and sound installation of a moving escalator travelling upwards. A soundtrack composed of the atypically loud, screechy sounds coming from the escalator, is mixed with 3 vocalists who make interpretations of the escalator sounds. While cacophonous and domineering, it is a beautiful lament, one made by human and machine, in the context of a new era in politics in the USA as Trump took up the presidential seat.
The video is an endless loop that works its way off a back wall onto a floor of mirrored tiles where it reverses direction and travels out towards the audience as a shiny, hypnotic invitation - or maybe as a warning? As such, it mucks about with our desire to seek out what lies beyond. Do we, or don’t we step on, which way might take us closer to where we want to be? Here we are going somewhere and nowhere all at once - caught in a continual loop. Dirge like grief awakens the soul, softens the heart, reminds us of our vulnerability and humanity, our connections to others who remind us of who and what we want to become, and a world we desire because we can ‘be’ in it and be safe in it.