But/Also: Visuals for ‘Grow a Pair’

[Joanna Walsh]

So I haven’t done any visual work for a long time, long before I made the stories for these paintings. ‘Made’, ‘visual work’, those are words I wouldn’t have used before either. I’d have said ‘drawn’ or ‘wrote’; I’d have called them ‘illustrations’ (I’m still calling them ‘stories’, though I’ve flirted with ‘texts’). These are ‘illustrations’ for a book I wrote a few years ago, that did not originally include visuals. It’s a tiny book, only 10,000 words long. I published it with a tiny publisher in Berlin. I can’t remember how it started. Yes, the first story was a commission for a magazine. It was a magazine that paid and I needed the money, but the magazine was in the US and when the editors ‘killed’ the piece, which is what I’ve since learned to call it, they didn’t offer any payment, although I’d written to commission and they didn’t kill the story for any reason but that their issue theme changed, and I was too near the beginning of my career – if it can be called that – to call them out for commissioning the work but not paying me some of the money they’d promised. I sent the stories to the tiny publisher in Berlin and I can’t recall how it was that I was in touch with them but they read the book and they liked it and where it sold it was popular, but the publisher decided she needed time for her own writing and very kindly gave me the rights back. So now I want to republish the stories and I thought I’d do some ‘visuals’ which is what I used to call ‘illustrations’ but the word didn’t seem right. I don’t know where I got the idea about visuals from either. It was either the idea of giving something extra or getting something extra in the process of re-publication: an ‘also’, and also a ‘but’. I don’t know if I’ll get paid for them: maybe I’m doing it ‘for the exposure’. I’m not sure I need the exposure. But I like to expose myself. 


First I should say a bit about the stories and a bit about the illustrations. The stories are stories about bodies and about objects; about how the body can be taken for an object and how objects can be taken for bodies, and how they can be desired, and how and these object-bodies are interchangeable – you can screw off a dick or a tit and attach it to another body, perhaps your own, perhaps both at the same time – and also the desire. The stories are about how bodies are divisible and also how bodies can be rolled into one, and how both of these processes are all about fun and all about pain. The stories are based on fairy tales which, Vladimir Propp wrote, can also be detached and reassembled: a princess swapped in for a milkmaid, and a monster for a king, and a mother for a witch. Propp wrote a book called The Morphology of the Folktale, which is about how stories morph; how every form is in formation, if that’s what you could call it. 

So I hadn’t done any ‘visual work’ for a long time and I found that in order to start I had to start feeling. I mean physically. When I think about putting the tip of the brush to the page, I think about a point of feeling. The point is the point; the point of colour at the tip of a breast or clit. Or, no, I don’t think about it, I feel it, and as soon as I feel it I let the brush touch the paper. To paint is desire ‘but’ I can’t tell if I desire these bodies or if ‘also’ I am them. To make a mark, my brush must be smoothed to a point. Behind the point is a fat bulge of bristles that can hold a great deal in reserve that only lets loose when you want it to, when you handle it a certain way. I put the brush to the paper and the brush makes a point of paint. Paint exists across time which means each point is its own orgasm, and what is shows is both the point of that explosion and ‘also’ its movement across the body, over time. When I paint, I don’t know if I’m looking at this moment or feeling it, if what I’m feeling is my own body or someone else’s, or both at once.

When I wrote the stories it was a million years ago or approximately five, before I was able to use the word queer to describe the variety of my sexual experiences which seemed not to entirely fit the words ‘gay’ or ‘straight’, not without saying, ‘but’ or ‘also’. I am keenly aware that I have been a useful brick in various systems by virtue of what I could not call myself, and that this inability to be called has limited me, ‘but’ has ‘also’ contributed to a delusion that I could for any moment escape classification. ‘Queer’ was hardly new in-formation but to allow the word to call me morphed all the information available in my own body, ‘but’/’also’ in everyone else’s without it changing their form – or rather to be called that word was to call into existence something uncalled for that refused entirely to take form and be called any one thing over time, but was morphable, detatchable, reconfiguable. It is less like an object and more like a story. You can go back and say, no wait, it didn’t happen like this, let me start again. What if..? It is a word that queers itself. 

Joanna Walsh is the author of seven books including the digital work seed-story.com and is a UK Arts Foundation Fellow for Literature. She is a current PhD candidate at the University of East Anglia, where she works on writing the digital self, and also runs Critical Acts.

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