Focusing in particular on how affect theory has been informed by art practice, this article develops the concept of the “sovereignty of the senses” through queer and feminist installation projects by Rachael Shannon and Zoe Leonard, as well as Alison Bechdel’s account of retreat from the social in her graphic narrative memoir Are You My Mother? (2012). Aiming to articulate notions of sovereignty, democracy, and freedom in affective and sensory terms, it conceives of sovereignty as an embodied practice and something that must be learned and experienced collectively over time rather than a fixed condition of a discrete individual or nation. It explores tensions between Indigenous notions of sovereignty and queer notions of the antisocial or non-sovereign, as well as recent discussions of the commons as an affective category, to offer an anti-racist and decolonial account of queer feminist affect theory and cultural politics.

For quite some time, my interests in affect theory have operated in tandem with installation projects by artist friends and fellow travelers that have served as material experiments in different ways of living, sensing, and being with others. Central to Depression: A Public Feeling (2012), for example, was the craft-based installation work of Allyson Mitchell and Sheila Pepe. By creating immersive environments that people can get inside, these artists literally produce new feelings. (I use the term “feeling” here in part to sidestep sometimes tedious discussions about the distinctions between affect and emotion, but also to indicate material forms of touch and sensation, categories that have been given new life by affect theory.)1 These feelings form the basis for new kinds of collectivity, what Pepe calls “common sense”—affective rather than rational public spheres where embodied experience is the ground for forms of sociality that are shared rather than individualized.

In writing about these projects, but, more precisely, thinking and feeling alongside artists with whom I’ve had ongoing relationships, I have also found myself ruminating on embodied and affective methods. I want to underscore that my thinking has emerged from the process of actually being in and interacting with the spaces these artists created and hence a form of affective inquiry that is sensuous, embodied, and tactile.2 Thinking becomes a practice of engaging with the material world—of feeling and touching both people and things—and it is one way, in the words of my book, to “make room for crazy thoughts to become intellectual projects and communities and movements.”3

In this article, I turn to installation projects by Rachael Shannon and Zoe Leonard and place them alongside Alison Bechdel’s graphic narrative Are You My Mother? (2012) to explore queer feminist dreams of radical democracy, the commons, and decolonial practice that make room for feelings, including negative ones. In attending to the forms of embodied and sensory experience that they enable, I have found these installations productive for thinking about “the sovereignty of the senses,” a phrase that first emerged in the context of the Depression book, where I used the term “felt sovereignty” to describe crafting’s potential to create a different relation between mind and body than that conventionally understood by the term “sovereignty.” I was interested in sovereignty as a process “not of exercising control over the body and senses but instead of ‘recovering’ them from the mind’s control or integrating them with it.”4 The term signals a desire to articulate notions of sovereignty, as well as democracy and freedom, in sensory and affective terms rather than narrowly political ones. It understands freedom as an embodied practice rather than an abstract concept, and as something that must be learned and experienced over time and collectively rather than as a fixed or final condition of a sovereign or discrete individual.

I use the term “sovereignty” with some critical trepidation, mindful of Lauren Berlant’s characterization of it as “a militaristic and melodramatic view of individual agency,” as well as her ongoing exploration of the concept of “non-sovereignty” regarding the ways in which people are not coherent to themselves and undone by social intimacy, both sexual and affective.5 But I have also been drawn to it as a way to engage with the contested but lively use of the term in Indigenous theory and politics. In placing “sovereignty” alongside the “senses,” I follow the inspiration of queer Indigenous theorists such as Mark Rifkin and Qwo-Li Driskill, who expand the notion of “decolonizing the mind” to include the body (or the entanglements of bodymind) and embodied practices of intimacy, sex, and the erotic that encompass affect, feeling, and sensation.6

One inspiration for these theorists of queer indigeneity has been Audre Lorde’s work on the erotic. Lorde’s version of what I am calling a “sovereignty of the senses” emerges from her capacious understanding of the erotic, which includes a deep respect for the power of feeling and sensation. Writing about the power of the erotic, a concept that goes well beyond sexuality to embrace the senses, Lorde calls for “disciplined attention to the true meaning of ‘it feels right to me’” and thus articulates an affective politics in which embodied or felt desires, which she understands as not just individual but collectively shared and exchanged, are the foundation for imagining and creating new worlds. “Disciplined attention” is necessary because feelings can be difficult to access, and the deep work entailed in coming back to the body in order to trust feelings is a version of what I mean by the term “sovereignty of the senses.”7

It has been especially interesting for me to return to Lorde on the politics of affect and the senses because, as a white feminist theorist trained in critique, I have had a tendency to align her with traditions of lesbian feminism that place too naive or essentialist a faith in the authenticity of feeling, or that traffic in overly simplistic dichotomies between reason versus emotion or surface versus depth. But Lorde’s legacy is a complicated one, as Sharon Holland reminds us in her account of how Lorde and other feminists of color are sometimes forgotten in lineages of queer of color critique.8 Returning to Lorde now in the context of contemporary affect theory, I find myself reading her differently. In calling for “disciplined attention” and acknowledging that the “true meaning” of “it feels right to me” may not always be immediately available, Lorde allows for the ways in which feelings can be deceptive and suggests that acting on feeling is not a matter of impulse or natural expression but a difficult practice of coming to know or inhabit the self and of engaging with others.

In exploring the contradictory, even oxymoronic qualities of the “sovereignty of the senses” along with Lorde’s inspiration to “just trust your feelings,” I seek also to resist lineages for affect theory that make it exclusively white. I would trace its sources in Black, brown, and Indigenous feminisms rather than in Gilles Deleuze, or even Eve Sedgwick (although the strong links between Sedgwick and José Esteban Muñoz establish the intersections between queer and racialized affect theory).9 This alternative lineage for affect theory can also be seen in another category important to this essay’s concerns—the commons—which, while central to radical thinkers such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, has gained momentum from Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s version of “the undercommons” as a place for Black study and cultural production against the university, and Muñoz’s notion of a “brown commons,” his term for Latinx and queer of color forms of gathering that are based in shared affective experience.10

The concept’s attractions are also exemplified by a recent special issue of GLQ on the queer commons, which tracks the ways in which queer collectivity is generated in clubs, activism, sex, and other forms of creative intimacy and sociality. Affect is central to the concept of the commons because it aims to recognize or name alternative modes of being, and being with others, when established cultures and institutions might not be available. As such it represents the latest version of discussions that have circulated around keywords such as “subcultures” and “counterpublics” as ways to name a desire, a question, or a challenge, more than to define something. Central to these shared collectivities is embodied, sensory, affective experience, which is often all that makes them real (albeit often ephemeral or hard to document or track) because they aren’t bolstered by institutions (or what Berlant would call infrastructures). Muñoz, for example, comes to the brown commons through his long-standing interest in understanding race, especially Latinx brownness, as affective sensibility rather than bounded identity, and in finding vocabularies for the spaces and feelings shared by queer brown folk. As part of his evolving thinking, he switched from “affect” and “feeling” to the term “sensation” (evidenced by the change of title of his posthumous book from Feeling Brown to The Sense of Brown) in order to more fully develop a vocabulary for the lived, felt experience of “brownness,” whose ephemeralities are also evident in his work on queer utopia.11

The dream of the commons that has circulated in queer and brown, Black, and racialized contexts has also generated critique of its utopian aspirations. Berlant offers an eloquent critique of the term that draws on her concept of the non-sovereign, suggesting that the dream of the commons needs to reckon with ambivalence, with the way that people are not all equal or in agreement when they get inside a common space, even if they share identities, and especially if affect and the messiness of intimacy and relation are taken into account.12 Another important critique comes from Indigenous perspectives on the grounds that the modern notion of the commons, especially in the Americas, presumes the dispossession and displacement of Indigenous peoples and territories to create public spaces (such as the historic Boston Common).13 Within recent histories of radical activism, for example, the naming of the Occupy movement has often been mentioned as a site of internal contradiction or neocolonial blindness. The invocation of the commons as a site of freedom dreams for queer, Black, brown, and Indigenous scholars and activists is driven by questions of affect since the desire for a better future can sometimes only be conjured affectively because it doesn’t exist in the present. An “affective commons” may not have a fixed location or territory but instead exists only in the shared sensory experience of its participants. These thinkers and visionaries seek models of collectivity that scale up from the experience of bodies—with their senses and feelings—being together in space, and they reframe democracy to acknowledge messy and uneven histories of colonization, decolonization, survival, and resistance. I would also argue, in keeping with Berlant’s critique of the commons concept, that these versions of the commons make room for ambivalence, mixed feelings, and negative affects, one source of which are the messy feelings of processing that come from lesbian feminist cultures and politics.

With these tensions in understandings of the commons and the sovereignty of senses in mind, I look at environmental installations by two visual artists, Rachael Shannon and Zoe Leonard, who are both engaged in imagining utopian space for radical democracy or a revitalized commons. Shannon’s Breastival Vestibule (2013–ongoing) is a portable inflatable that exemplifies the tactility and materiality found in recent queer and feminist returns to craft that are connected to concepts of queer utopia.14 The cameras obscura built by Leonard “feel” quite different from Shannon’s inflatables, in part because they are based in photography and vision and hence are less immediately connected to texture and touch. But although she doesn’t use craft, Leonard is also interested in how attention to sensory experience can produce new kinds of democracy and collectivity. The differences in how these spaces “feel” reveals the capaciousness of the genre of installation and environmental art.

I juxtapose these two projects with Bechdel’s graphic narrative Are You My Mother?, which combines images of built environments from Dr. Seuss with text from Donald Woods Winnicott to explore the relations between body and mind. I revisit the concept of a “room of one’s own,” which is a staple of second wave feminism and visions of retreat and separatism, via Bechdel’s complex meditation on Virginia Woolf, whose concept is also put to the test by new forms of cultural activism and theory that challenge the idea of a discrete or autonomous self. Bechdel’s representation of “a room of one’s own” as not just a metaphor but a literal reality also complicates her critique. In considering how Leonard and Shannon promote utopian concepts of the commons, I want to be alert to the ways in which the retreat into separate or private space can be racialized as white and middle class—a critique that can be further bolstered by Indigenous critiques of settler colonialism. While these white queer feminist artists might seem an unlikely trio for exploring racialized versions of affect theory, my hope is to show the links between such theories and these artists’ shared sensibility in traditions of lesbian feminism that include processing, safe space, and other affective modes of negotiating and acknowledging social difference and group conflict. Exploring the versions of collectivity and shared public space that are being created in queer feminist art practices, where utopian concept meets material practice, yields important insights about the legacy of feminisms and the troubled intersections of the private and public, intimacy and collectivity, that are important to reflect on for multiracial and anti-racist feminist and queer publics.

This cluster of artists is also appropriate for this special issue’s exploration of the intersections of affect and feminist media histories because the installation genre used by Shannon and Leonard arguably seeks to invent “new media” that address the limits of embodiment (and sensory and affective experience) in other media, such as film and video, aspiring to expand experiences of visual media that are haptic, tactile, and immersive, and that create a synesthetic experience that engages all of the senses.15 In the different ontology of print media, Bechdel’s graphic narrative practice also aims to reframe traditional distinctions among media by combining the textual and the visual. The graphic narrative has exploded in recent years as a way of rethinking media (including the relation of drawing to photographic forms of reproduction).16 While this choice of artists might seem unlikely, it is also quite suggestive for the issues under consideration. Attention to the intersections of media and affect, including histories of media that are especially evident in Leonard’s work with the camera obscura, makes possible new reflections on affect theory, including its relation to feminism, queerness, and race. The relation between affect and artistic production across a range of media is also central to understanding how the sensory dimensions of public space facilitate democracy.17

GayBiGayGay, Austin: My first experience of the Breastival Vestibule is at Austin’s annual queer festival, GayBiGayGay, which started out in the organizer’s backyard and still feels like a casual party even though it’s moved to a bigger site. Rachael has brought her MICA thesis project home from Baltimore to Texas, and I’m excited to see the bulbous tents across the grass on which people are sprawled in their gay finery. The bigger of the two is large enough for groups of ten or twelve to gather comfortably in a version of the little worlds that people make on their blankets at an outdoor festival. The smaller of the two contains a TV monitor where you can watch a video of queer testimony about toplessness and fill out a survey about your own experiences while sequestered from those outside. I place my crocheted blanket bearing the words “Feeling Public” (made by my artist friend Allyson Mitchell) at the entryway to the big vestibule and take pictures of the crowd from inside my bubble (fig. 1).

Figure 1.

Rachael Shannon, Breastival Vestibule, 2013–ongoing, pictured here at the GayBiGayGay festival, Austin, 2013, with “Feeling Public” blanket by Allyson Mitchell. Photo: Ann Cvetkovich.

Figure 1.

Rachael Shannon, Breastival Vestibule, 2013–ongoing, pictured here at the GayBiGayGay festival, Austin, 2013, with “Feeling Public” blanket by Allyson Mitchell. Photo: Ann Cvetkovich.

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NGLTF Creating Change conference, Houston: It seems odd to find the BV indoors, but it provides a welcome alternative to the bland, generic hotel spaces of the Creating Change conference. Its organic forms contrast with the square walls and institutional atmosphere, like a little mushroom colony has grown up in its midst. The terrible, loud carpet somehow looks better alongside the multicolored pinks, lavenders, and flesh tones of the vestibule (fig. 2). And it is perfect for a conference, whether for small-scale workshops and events, or for a break from the overwhelming crowds. Every conference should have a tent for time-outs or naps.

Figure 2.

Flyer for NGLTF Creating Change conference, Houston, 2014, featuring a photo of Rachael Shannon’s Breastival Vestibule (2013–ongoing) installed at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, 2013. Photo: Ann Cvetkovich.

Figure 2.

Flyer for NGLTF Creating Change conference, Houston, 2014, featuring a photo of Rachael Shannon’s Breastival Vestibule (2013–ongoing) installed at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, 2013. Photo: Ann Cvetkovich.

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Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, Hart: Rachael brought the vestibule to Michfest, where we are both longtime workers, and got permission to set it up after the festival, nestled in the woods a little off the main path but still visible and so beautiful to look at amid the trees as an inviting little sanctuary. With the crowds gone and the rented circus tents the festival uses for performance, eating, and other community activities coming down, it’s nice to have another space for the workers—more public than a sleeping tent, more intimate than a big circus tent. I spend some time in there alone, especially looking up through the opening at the top, the blue sky framed by the light colors of the vestibule. One night after a dance, a bunch of us gathered in there to chat and sprawl on each other, coming in close to keep warm in the night air, laughing, being together.

An inflatable and portable structure made of lightweight ripstop nylon, Rachael Shannon’s Breastival Vestibule has a balloon-like but irregular shape whose bumpy quilt-like surface is composed of smaller triangles and other shapes hand-dyed in shades of lavender and brown (fig. 3). Once inside, it offers a tent-like feeling of both enclosed sanctuary and access to the outdoors; the roof is open to the sky and light comes through the fabric (fig. 4). It was inspired by Shannon’s experience of “intentional community” and temporary structures at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (which ended, after forty years, in 2015). As the reference to the word “festival” in the work’s title suggests, Shannon has installed Breastival Vestibule at a variety of temporary events in addition to Michfest, including Austin’s GayBiGayGay, which from 2006 to 2016 was a queer alternative to the increasingly corporate SXSW; MIX, the New York queer experimental film festival, which combines screenings with art installations to create alternative social spaces; and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s annual Creating Change conference, where Breastival Vestibule transformed the sterile environment of the convention hotel (fig. 5).18 As site-specific and temporary celebrations and collective gatherings, festivals are often built around temporary structures such as tents and stages, which bring together nature and culture, indoor and outdoor, rural and urban, retreat and sociality. Against the sometimes generic nature of these makeshift structures, Shannon pursues more imaginative solutions to the task of creating a built environment that can respond to the existing space, alternately embracing the antisocial and enabling forms of queer sociality that extend kinship and intimacy beyond biological family and sexual relations.

Figure 3.

Rachael Shannon, Breastival Vestibule, 2013–ongoing, pictured here at the GayBiGayGay festival, Austin, 2013. Photo: courtesy Rachael Shannon.

Figure 3.

Rachael Shannon, Breastival Vestibule, 2013–ongoing, pictured here at the GayBiGayGay festival, Austin, 2013. Photo: courtesy Rachael Shannon.

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Figure 4.

Rachael Shannon, Breastival Vestibule, 2013–ongoing. Photo: courtesy Rachael Shannon.

Figure 4.

Rachael Shannon, Breastival Vestibule, 2013–ongoing. Photo: courtesy Rachael Shannon.

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Figure 5.

Rachael Shannon, Breastival Vestibule, 2013–ongoing, pictured here at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Creating Change conference, Houston, 2014. Photo: Ann Cvetkovich.

Figure 5.

Rachael Shannon, Breastival Vestibule, 2013–ongoing, pictured here at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Creating Change conference, Houston, 2014. Photo: Ann Cvetkovich.

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Shannon is building on the ambivalent legacy of lesbian feminist space, including its back-to-the land sensibility, which has drawn criticism for being naively utopian or appropriating Indigenous cultures as well as for its separatisms, especially its exclusion of transgender people. With full awareness of these critiques, Shannon has nonetheless sought to explore the potential of festivals and intentional community for utopian collectivity through bodily transformation and forms of liberation that can include the sexual but also other forms of physical intimacy. Focusing on “toplessness,” the full installation of Breastival Vestibule includes a second, smaller space in which Shannon exhibits a video featuring interviews about toplessness alongside a comment box that invites written responses to prompts about toplessness and intentional space. Toplessness has had specific histories for women assigned female at birth within lesbian feminist and separatist spaces, such as Michfest, where it has been a way to signify both safety and erotic openness. For Shannon, toplessness is not just a feminist issue but a queer one as well; the baring of breasts as a sign of gender and sexual liberation has acquired new meanings in the context of body modification by trans-identified people, some of whom might not see display of their naked bodies as liberating.

Also central to the spatial politics of the project is the concept of the vestibule, that interim space between rooms or between inside and outside that also becomes an interim or transitional space between cultures. A vestibule facilitates, for example, the process of transitioning from alternative or intentional communities, including separatist ones, back to the heterogeneity and potentially oppressive environment of mainstream culture—although it could also be a transition from lesbian separatist space to queer heterogeneity. Adaptable to a variety of locations and occasions, the vestibule is a space for reflection and retreat as well as sociality, for solitude as well as collectivity, for meetings and discussion as well as quiet meditation, including naps. (In some locations, it can even be a place for semi-public sex, thus combining both!) In general, Breastival Vestibule aims to be a space of potential, of different kinds of feelings and activities, of unpredictable and unspecified happenings.

And what about the “breast” part? Breastival Vestibule’s openings and protrusions can be read in gendered and sexual terms, particularly terms associated with femininity such as breast, vagina, and womb. But considered more carefully, it is not necessarily legible in conventional terms; its orifices could be assholes, mouths, or other bodily openings. Especially important is the small hole above the entryway (different from the larger oculus in the ceiling), through which you can see the interior of the inflatable, which is another form of imaginary space. Breastival Vestibule thus constitutes a queer body, and a place where the body has the potential to be occupied differently, including in ways that free it from conventional genders. This has been the aim, for example, of toplessness at Michfest, where it functions both to desexualize the breasts and to claim the public toplessness traditionally available to men. In opening space for nonnormative bodies, including gender-nonbinary ones, Breastival Vestibule also operates in the spirit of disability activisms that create accessible spaces for a range of bodies.

Important to this creation of a queer body is the use of ripstop nylon, which is like both skin and clothing, or clothing as queer skin. In her previous work as a costume designer, Shannon often worked with spandex as a form-fitting second skin that can also transform the body sculpturally through alternative shapes and appendages. She can be linked to other queer fashion designers making innovative use of textiles—Liz Collins with knitting, Gaelyn and Cianfarani with latex—and shares the sensibility of queer craft artists who make large-scale installations, such as Allyson Mitchell and Sheila Pepe.19 Against the denigration of fashion and craft, Shannon is among those who connect fashion to built environments as ways of altering relations between people and spaces and undoing distinctions between bodies and environments.

Fusing fashion and installation, Shannon describes the vestibule as a costume design for a body of air, and she sees the inflatable as a way to use breath or air to give life to an inanimate object. Animated by electricity that keeps air moving through the structure, the light ripstop nylon only partially encloses air, which exits though the oculus and the orifice over the entrance. You can put your face up to the latter to feel the air coming out and also look into the interior, which has its own architecture. The structure is rigid enough to hold its shape, but also flexible enough to be moved if you choose to engage with it. Thus, although Breastival Vestibule is an object, it is also alive and in relation to both people and its environment. Read alongside contemporary theories of animacy and materialism, Breastival Vestibule exemplifies the collapsing of distinctions between the animate and the inanimate, and between alive (or vibrant) bodies and fixed or immobile material objects.20

Adapting to different environments and communities, Breastival Vestibule aims to be a genderqueer and gender-inclusive space that draws on lesbian feminist histories of intentional community that destigmatize the body. As a place for different kinds of sociality, the aesthetic is playful, drawing on the futurism of the geodesic dome, the blow-up dynamics of the children’s party fun house, or the makeshift fort. It is literally air—light, open to the outside, and available to be occupied in a range of ways not dictated by its design. It is committed to creating enclosure and safety, but also remains porous and open to the outside. Embedded in both queer and lesbian feminist histories whose connections are now contested and fraught, it suggests that Lorde’s vision of “it feels right to me” or the sovereignty of the senses—the freedom that comes from trusting your feelings or fully inhabiting and being in the body—might be possible in the literal sense and thus possible in the more figurative sense as well.

I first saw one of Zoe Leonard’s camera obscura installations in London in 2012, after she had done an installation in Cologne and before she brought the project to two different locations in New York—a gallery in Chelsea and the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2014 Whitney Biennial—and to the art world’s more remote outpost in Marfa, Texas.21 Arkwright Road (2012) was part of a solo exhibition called Observation Point at Camden Arts Centre, which is in northwest London (fig. 6). It’s walking distance from Sigmund Freud’s house and neighborhoods such as Willesden, which was recently brought to attention by Zadie Smith’s versions of a racialized and immigrant London in the novels White Teeth (2000) and NW (2012).

Figure 6.

© Zoe Leonard, Arkwright Road, 2012, lens, darkened room, installation view, detail from Observation Point exhibition, Camden Arts Centre, London. Photo: Richard Shellabear, Todd-White Art Photography, courtesy Zoe Leonard, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, and Hauser & Wirth, New York.

Figure 6.

© Zoe Leonard, Arkwright Road, 2012, lens, darkened room, installation view, detail from Observation Point exhibition, Camden Arts Centre, London. Photo: Richard Shellabear, Todd-White Art Photography, courtesy Zoe Leonard, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, and Hauser & Wirth, New York.

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I begin by way of description, which is a useful method for capturing the affective and sensuous experience of Leonard’s project:

It’s dark, but my girlfriend and I find our way to the beanbag chairs on the other side of the room from the projected image. Eventually our eyes adjust and we are looking at an upside-down version of the Finchley Road intersection we just crossed and back along Arkwright Road in the direction we came from. It’s a pretty nondescript stretch, dominated by a giant billboard and a construction site. At first the eye is drawn toward movement, especially the cars turning from the side street onto the main road. We start to notice people, too, mostly out for Sunday morning activities—running, walking the dog, drinking take-out coffee. We could perhaps just as easily be out on the street watching them, but in the slightly quavering and flipped image they take on a somewhat ghostly appearance. It’s like we’re watching a movie where something unexpected could happen, and if we don’t look closely we might miss it. The image is somewhat blurry around the edges, especially where it bleeds up into the ceiling, and as the sun goes in and out behind clouds, the light changes and things fade or suddenly become bright. Eventually patches of color start to pop out—the blue of the sky, the bright red of the construction crane, the backward letters of the word REPAIR on the billboard advertising Sensodyne toothpaste. For a while I’m quite literally fixated on, or fascinated by, the motion of the crane swaying in and out of the frame. We are mostly on our own and, although we can hear the faint hum of traffic, it’s quiet and we have a nice conversation while watching the scene unfold.22

Leonard’s camera obscura series invokes not only the early history of photography but the history of sense perception to stage a slow encounter with what it means to sense and feel the world. Like Shannon, Leonard seeks to build from there to a different notion of democracy and the public sphere—one based on an understanding of cognitive experience as sensory. Although she is an artist, I also respond to her as a theorist, and indeed, it may be the mark of a certain queer sensibility to draw inspiration from the dense transfers of meaning that happen when ideas are rendered material through the media of video, photographs, and visual art.

Installation is especially rich in this respect—it creates spaces and environments that facilitate new forms of embodied experience, including feelings that take the form of moods and sensibilities rather than specific emotions. Refusing stable boundaries between the interior and exterior of both self and space, it also creates new forms of collectivity and sociality. Leonard’s camera obscura project, with its multiple locations, has a particular thrill for me because of the way it speaks to Karl Marx’s famous reference to the camera obscura as a metaphor for ideology—as the world turned upside down—and my investment in reading Marx against the grain in order to argue (in a proto-queer way) that the fetish or the attractions of the sensuous surface should not be rejected because they offer a way to come to knowledge.23 Leonard’s work not only affirms but enhances this reading of the camera obscura because she makes it possible to experience the source of the metaphor, to see and feel this historical technology and the images it produces inside a site-specific material space. Once the fetish is reclaimed as both surface and material object, we can stop thinking of the camera obscura as producing a false image, and instead reckon with the shimmering surface that encourages us to slow down to watch and feel (and experience watching as a feeling or sensation).

In taking up the camera obscura in the wake of her other archival projects, such as Analogue (2007), a series of images of storefronts and markets in New York and around the world, Leonard extends her engagement with early photography and the material specificity of the street.24 In each camera obscura, the street has become an image both ghostly and material. Leonard has insisted that resurrecting this precursor to the photograph is not a nostalgic move, but rather a reminder that photography remains a point of view on the world, not a universal truth or realist document. In her words, there is an important difference between saying “this is how it is” and “this is how I see it”; the camera obscura’s encouragement to pay attention to how seeing takes place renders standpoint epistemology literal, asking us to consider how “ways of seeing” or “viewpoints” are not just metaphors but grounded in actual practices of vision.

Leonard’s camera obscura project is also the work of someone whose sensibility was profoundly shaped by the AIDS crisis. AIDS activism drew from and created queer ways of seeing and being together. Attention to the everyday and slow time, the crafting of an appreciation for the present and for the sensory capacities of the body, is a sensibility that emerges from an attunement to the ephemerality of the present that can come from being in the presence of those who are sick or dying or living with ongoing loss. Perhaps Leonard’s interest in the materiality of “this how I see it” is also motivated by the need to imagine how others might see things too if they were still here.25

Leonard’s critique of mainstream documentary and insistence on point of view certainly come as no surprise to anyone familiar with AIDS activist culture (especially practices of video making), but contemporary queer affect theory also helps explain why the camera obscura gains new meanings in the specific context of Leonard’s other work and her social milieu, including her AIDS activist history. The camera obscura reflects a desire to think about perception as embodied experience as well as to historicize sensory experience by archiving technologies of seeing, such as the camera, that are linked to modernity. Leonard’s desire to slow down the process of seeing, to ask us to notice everyday details and the mundane, contributes to a politics of affect that emerges from new ways of thinking about the senses.26

The camera obscura links up the eye to the body, intervening in the process whereby vision has been disembodied through photographic technologies that make images float free from the circumstances of their production. It creates a sometimes disorienting and profoundly spatial form of seeing—an image projected onto a wall/space that affects one’s ability to see the image, the sense of being inside a perceptual mechanism rather than simply holding on to a camera. It also keeps the field of vision diffuse, with no discernible punctum, or a ceaselessly shifting and idiosyncratic punctum, where we’re not quite sure what we are supposed to see, and must work to pick out details or objects or events. In my own account, for example, which engages in a practice of description that extends Leonard’s invitation to pay attention to the ordinary, I refer to the street as “nondescript,” as that which doesn’t seem to be noteworthy or to warrant description. The image is also non-reproducible; you can photograph it (which I did), but it doesn’t have a fixed material status other than its wavering presence on the wall, ephemeral and constantly changing.

In Leonard’s rendition of it, the camera obscura also socializes vision. You have to be there to see it, and others have to be there too if you want to share the experience. To sit looking together in present time is to engage with the world in a different way. It interrupts the portability of the ubiquitous screens through which we mediate our relation to others. Like other queer installations that create built environments, the camera obscura aims to forge a commons or a radical democracy from live bodies, based in a belief in the value of each person’s embodied sense perception as the foundation for collective forms of witness that are multiple, partial, and affective. Rather than a rational public sphere of talking heads, such installations produce sensory bodies connected to one another and to the environment in unpredictable ways. Such spaces draw inspiration from the collective energies of activist spaces, including not just street protests or demonstrations but also meetings, which in the case of ACT UP were scenes of cruisy energy and intimacy.27 A queer politics of gender and sexuality is also a sensory politics—a way of making space not only for different kinds of bodies but for different modes of perception, and ones that are fully embodied or material. A radical democracy of shared sensations is open-ended rather than fully achieved, and it is an ongoing practice to respond to feelings of impatience, discomfort, aggression, and checking out that collectivity regularly produces. The built environments provided by artists—and also by activists in spaces such as ACT UP meetings or Occupy encampments—are like experimental bubbles that provide a laboratory for checking in with ourselves and others.

Leonard’s work also speaks to discussions of the commons and assembly in which cultural theorists are trying to find new vocabularies for forms of collectivity that can provide a somatic democracy in the face of the disintegration of meaningful public participation in conventional politics.28 At stake is a framework for making physical gatherings meaningful as ways people come together to form collectives, especially against concerns that such gatherings are too small-scale or atomized. I would argue that these artist projects contribute to that work by introducing variation and complexity to the embodied nature of collective experience—and in Leonard’s case the focus on “this is how I see it” (or “this is how I feel it”) underscores the value of radical democracy, the dream of the commons, and the sovereignty of the senses, focusing on individual embodied perspective even at the risk of over-valorizing felt experience.

The Breastival Vestibule and the camera obscura projects have their differences—one is light and the other is dark, one is more material and the other more immaterial, and one emphasizes touch over sight while the other makes sight tactile. But Shannon and Leonard each in their own way facilitate new sensory sovereignties by bringing the intimate or private into the public sphere, drawing on and extending feminism’s tradition of undoing divisions, both literal and conceptual, between the private and the public. An interesting critical perspective is provided by juxtaposing their built environments with that of another queer feminist, graphic artist Alison Bechdel, who invokes the fantasy of “a room of one’s own.” In Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama, the follow-up to her brilliant and much-lauded memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006), Bechdel writes of the “perfect environment” she created for herself as a young girl in order to retreat into a space of independent creativity—a space that values the isolation and privacy that Shannon and Leonard seek to counteract.29 Exploring how the fantasy of a “room of one’s own” may begin in efforts to repair early childhood experiences of rejection and dissociation, Bechdel’s take on Woolf’s classic vision of individual autonomy and creativity, so central to second wave feminisms, complicates Leonard’s and Shannon’s more utopian vision of collectivity and integration of mind and body. The tensions between these two fantasies of twentieth-century feminism—an erasure of the borders between public and private or the solidification of retreat—are worth considering at this moment in the twenty-first century when lesbian and queer feminisms seek to reflect on their histories and think critically about their imbrication with white, middle-class, and settler colonial norms, as well as the entanglements of body and mind.

One scene in particular speaks to Leonard’s and Shannon’s installations: Bechdel’s unexpected pairing of Dr. Seuss and D. W. Winnicott to explain the “perfect environment” that the young Alison creates both spatially and psychically in the absence of her mother’s full attention (fig. 7). The account of how she creates her own little fort-like office inside the house occurs in the context of a chapter on “Mind,” in which Bechdel seeks insight from Winnicott’s essay “Mind and Its Relation to the Psyche-Soma” (1954) about how the psyche and soma get disconnected because the child does not receive enough mirroring from the mother to get their needs met. Withdrawing from soma, or body, the “mental activity of the infant turns a good enough environment into a perfect environment, that is to say, turns relative failure of adaptation into adaptive success.”30 Via Winnicott, Bechdel offers an intriguing model for how the retreat from somatic forms of feeling into analysis that Shannon’s and Leonard’s installations seek to critique and transform can in fact be productive. (It is also a familiar condition for academics, even those interested in affect theory, who are often accused of “intellectualizing” or “abstraction.”) In what is also a version of Sedgwick’s reparative mode of reading, Bechdel transforms the pathological into an alternative way of being by showing the “perfect environment” for intellectual withdrawal to be the scene of artistic creation.

Figure 7.

Alison Bechdel, ARE YOU MY MOTHER?: A Comic Drama, 130–31. Copyright © 2012 by Alison Bechdel. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Figure 7.

Alison Bechdel, ARE YOU MY MOTHER?: A Comic Drama, 130–31. Copyright © 2012 by Alison Bechdel. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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Using the mixed mode of graphic narrative to juxtapose Winnicott’s theories with drawings of her own embodied experience, Bechdel shows how she responded to her mother’s unavailability with her own version of “clocking out” or “getting away from the press of others’ needs.”31 (Here and elsewhere, bolstered by Winnicott’s account of the “good enough” mother, the suggestion that she and her mother are not so different has the effect of depathologizing or destigmatizing her mother’s behavior.) Alison would build herself a little “office” by enclosing herself in a closet or a corner where she could work on her drawings. She uses Winnicott to describe this as the desire to “go-on-being without disruption,” thus suggesting the reparative quality of this process of withdrawal or getting away from “the press of others’ needs.” On the page that introduces this concept, we not only see a frame that depicts Alison wedged into a corner of the dining room (as well as her mother sending her away by saying “don’t bother me now”), but also, as is typical of Bechdel both elsewhere in Are You My Mother? and in Fun Home, her use of graphic genres such as the map or diagram to reflect on her experience. In this case, she depicts the spatial configuration of her office through an aerial floor plan of the house that shows the layout of the rooms and her and her mother’s disparate locations. The use of the map to represent her position—a view of herself from outside (and above) rather than from inside—also illustrates a separation of mind and body and depathologizes forms of psychological dissociation that are connected with accounts of trauma, including diagnoses of PTSD.

This scene also displays how Bechdel uses the graphic narrative genre to put her own idiosyncratic twist on psychoanalytic theory when, in addition to Winnicott, she turns to Dr. Seuss as part of her archive. (Although Dr. Seuss is perhaps a predictable choice for a writer who also works in the domain of the visual, it is also Bechdel’s version of the queer tendency to love the unexpected object.) Accompanying the text that explains that in the “perfect environment” of her offices she would draw other “perfect environments” such as the “enclosed, impregnable spaces like this bug’s home under a mound of earth,” Bechdel provides a re-creation of one of her childhood drawings. This technique of redrawing print artifacts is central to Bechdel’s archival method of tracking her history, especially her combined development as both artist and queer, through documents that she has scrupulously saved.32 This early childhood fantasy of “enclosed, impregnable space” and the simple rendition of a “bug’s home under a mound of earth” as a paradigmatic example of such could easily be a resource for Leonard’s and Shannon’s work as well.

Recognizing the “keep out” sign as a Seussian influence, Bechdel seeks out its source in his Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book (1962) and discovers its uncanny resonance with her Winnicottian analysis of her relation to her mother and her childhood retreat.33 As a sign of the importance of Sleep Book, Bechdel reproduces a two-page spread from it as part of her own large-scale two-page spread that includes the letters her father sent to her mother when she was pregnant with Alison, more text from Winnicott, and her own glasses (fig. 8). In this Seussian version of the “perfect environment,” a deceptively small door bearing a “keep out” sign hides a large amorphous structure with protruding antennae-like structures (part machine and part living organism). Inside this “plexiglass dome,” a tally of sleepers is being kept by a proto-computer that is both human and mechanical (including an adding machine that resembles a player piano). Bechdel recognizes her own reproduction of the “keep out” sign as a reference to the major impact of this utopian space: it’s a “picture of me in my office” where she is “alone” and “physically cut off from the outside world” “but taking detailed mental note of it”—descriptions that she places in separate text balloons. Superimposed on the reproduction of Dr. Seuss is the text of Winnicott’s account of “mental functioning becoming a thing in itself, practically replacing the good mother and making her unnecessary.”

Figure 8.

Alison Bechdel, ARE YOU MY MOTHER?: A Comic Drama, 132–33. Copyright © 2012 by Alison Bechdel. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Figure 8.

Alison Bechdel, ARE YOU MY MOTHER?: A Comic Drama, 132–33. Copyright © 2012 by Alison Bechdel. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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Bechdel highlights the Winnicott text in white against the pinkish background used throughout, a citational practice that repeats or represents the text by copying it over, which is another of her characteristic strategies for using drawing as an archival practice. In this case it is also a reading practice, rendering in graphic form the “excerpt” that is so crucial to close reading in literary studies (and also providing a literal form of surface reading or description through reproduction).34 Bechdel puts Winnicott and Seuss (as well as her father’s letters) together, represented by both word and image, as her own form of theory or analysis. Using the multiple layers of the graphic, she combines concepts and readings with her own lived experience, which is also accessed indirectly through historical documents from her personal archive.

Adding to the depiction of the Seussian environment as a big brain (which has become her body) is the inclusion of Bechdel’s glasses, laid over the top of the dome in the place where the eyes might be. In addition to being a visual representation or drawing of the mind sustaining itself in isolation, Bechdel also finds the Seuss image valuable because it turns out to be the source of the term “plexiglass dome,” which she has used in therapy to describe her mother’s state of withdrawal, where she seems to be visible but does not make contact.

How might we link this sequence of images to Shannon’s and Leonard’s utopian dreams of public space? As a scene of disembodiment, of the withdrawal from the body into the mind, it might be construed as what they are working against. But Bechdel also describes this environment as a comforting space, as a version of a reparative womb in which one is both nurtured by an other (loving presence) and a sovereign subject. In creating an imaginary “perfect environment,” Bechdel in her own way resembles installation artists such as Leonard and Shannon, who create tactile environments in order to generate different kinds of feelings, senses, and relations to people and material worlds.

Moreover, as someone who works in the world of image and drawing, not just abstract concept, Bechdel establishes a strong relation to materiality and soma. Describing, for example, what it feels like to be young Alison in her office, she writes, “The sensation of being invisible, inviolable, was a kind of ecstasy.” This is a bold statement—“invisibility” as “inviolability” certainly lends itself to notions of individual sovereignty or autonomy as a function of strong boundaries between self and other, although it is significant that invisibility can also be achieved through a Plexiglas dome that allows one to be seen, if not touched or reached, by others. To describe the sensation as one of ecstasy is also suggestive because ecstasy can be a state of being outside the self by transcending the body, but also of being so deeply or fully in the body that one is dissociated from the world—in a bubble of one’s own environmental making. By describing this state as a “sensation” or feeling, Bechdel also suggests that it has a strong sensory or physical dimension, in which case the mind-psyche possesses its own form of materiality or soma/body. Bechdel’s practice of drawing, both as a child and as an adult, to create perfect environments—her rendering of them in the graphic form of maps, diagrams, and childhood drawings of imaginary spaces—gives them a sensuous materiality. Although the words and theories of psychoanalysis are central to her investigation, her use of drawing to create images and spaces (as well as to render text visual) is a material and embodied practice.

Thus even as Bechdel seems to present a reparative version of retreat into the mind-psyche, the mind that she creates is very insistently embodied or material, or a form of soma-psyche. (Later Bechdel will also link this Seussian brain to her mother’s womb, further complicating the relation between body and mind.) Although Bechdel often seems to stay in the brain rather than the body, as for example in her commitment to talk therapy rather than somatic therapy, her use of the graphic and her images of the body at work retain a sense of the somatic specificity of mental states and of the inseparability of brain and body.35 For example, she depicts talk therapy as an embodied practice in the many scenes in which Alison sits across from her therapist in a complex combination of thinking and feeling, and she also shows the somatic aspects of conversation in the poignant moment of both crying and repressing tears when she cuts off a phone conversation with her mother and sits doubled over in a paroxysm of feeling. As rendered in Bechdel’s graphic practice, especially her use of Dr. Seuss, Winnicott’s soma-psyche is very much an actual material place.

Bechdel’s work on the tradition of a room of one’s own, including its links to the childhood dream of retreat to a perfect environment, provides a critical lens through which to think about the forms of public or commons represented in different ways by Shannon and Leonard. Bechdel’s insistence on the value of retreat even as Shannon and Leonard want to make retreat public underscores the antisocial dimensions that are present in their queer feminisms as well. The public-private divide may not be as easy to traverse as is sometimes suggested by queer feminism’s efforts to make intimate publics.

I want to close by suggesting another possible frame through which to acknowledge the cultural specificity of the fantasies that are played out within these three works—an Indigenous perspective that illuminates the white, settler colonial, and middle-class aspects of queer feminism’s dependence on notions of public and private even as it seeks to challenge them. An Indigenous frame can add to the critical perspective on “a room of one’s own” provided by women of color feminisms that imagine cultural production as collective, rather than the work of the artist as a special being sequestered from others or in need of unusual economic and material resources.36

What would it mean to view Leonard’s and Shannon’s installations and their locations through an Indigenous frame—and to acknowledge that in the Americas we are living on stolen Indigenous land, territory that is often unceded and unsurrendered or seized through questionable treaties? How can respect for Indigenous sovereignty inform the concept of the sovereignty of the senses? Both Leonard and Shannon have designed projects that can be adapted to and installed in a range of spaces and locations. The Breastival Vestibule is portable, and although it requires electric power to be inflated, the entire structure can be compacted to the size of a duffel bag or suitcase. It can be indoors or outdoors; it can be sited in locations specifically marked as galleries or art spaces but can also transform any space into a place of retreat or gathering. As a “vestibule,” it can attach itself to any space in order to foster the utopian vision of radical democracy that is embedded in the lesbian separatist spaces that are one of its inspirations. Although Leonard chose each site very carefully and had a new lens ground that is specific to each one, in principle, the camera obscura can also be set up in any room and any location, especially since Leonard encourages viewers to look closely at any place and offers a de-dramatized, non-spectacular, or ordinary view of even its more famous locations, such as the view of Madison Avenue from the Whitney Museum. Its technology is also very minimalist—just the lens that transforms the existing space in which it is installed, which Leonard generally doesn’t change in any way other than to secure the room so that it is dark. Both projects have traveled serially and their meanings are multiple and contingent, adaptable to the places they have been installed and inflected by the specificity of local histories and geographies.

Emerging from the back-to-the-land movement that underlies feminist music festivals, Shannon’s work explicitly references questions of land and hence the complex relations between settler colonialism and Indigenous sovereignty. Within the context of Michfest, for example, Breastival Vestibule stood alongside the sweat lodge that was also constructed on the land each year by an Indigenous knowledge keeper as a space for collective gathering and ritual primarily designed for Indigenous women and women of color, and it even resembles the sweat lodge with its dome-like structure. Both are temporary architectures that aim to touch lightly on the ground they occupy. Rather than becoming permanent settlements or making claims of ownership, they produce forms of sociality that are contingent and ephemeral, and that provide sanctuary and a sense of connection to land.

In their discussions of radical faerie communities that resemble Michfest in some ways, both Elizabeth Povinelli and Scott Morgensen have critiqued the romance of the land and appropriations of indigeneity that can often reproduce forms of settler colonialism, but their ethnographic methods also reveal the complexity of such practices.37 While its space was fraught for many reasons, especially in its later years around issues of trans inclusion, Michfest, for example, made explicit acknowledgment of Indigenous lands and traditions in its opening ceremonies, and Shannon’s Breastival Vestibule draws on this sensibility in seeking to create an orientation toward the environment that can acknowledge both natural and cultural histories, rather than treating land as terra nullius. The portable status of Breastival Vestibule (and the camera obscura) resembles the seasonal or temporary nature of settlements by many Indigenous peoples in North America, whose mobility often enabled the seizure of land and the refusal of land claims by settlers with a different understanding of what it means to “claim” or “occupy” terrain. Like Michfest, with its temporary village of tents and commitment to stewarding the land by leaving no built structures or permanent damage, Breastival Vestibule shares a respect for land that comes from many sources, including Indigenous ways of thinking.

The locations for Leonard’s camera obscura installations have partly been determined by her status as a visual artist: galleries and museums in Cologne, Venice, London, and New York, including a prizewinning place in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, which has been at the center of the contemporary US art world. At the Whitney, it was situated in relation to the surrounding neighborhood of the Upper East Side but also to Marcel Breuer’s architecture, on the occasion of the last biennial in that location before the museum moved to its new downtown spot. It was much commented on for the way it drew attention to the Whitney’s impending departure through its homage to the building and its site (fig. 9).

Figure 9.

© Zoe Leonard, 945 Madison Avenue, 2014, lens, darkened room, installation view, detail, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York, courtesy Zoe Leonard, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, and Hauser & Wirth, New York.

Figure 9.

© Zoe Leonard, 945 Madison Avenue, 2014, lens, darkened room, installation view, detail, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York, courtesy Zoe Leonard, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, and Hauser & Wirth, New York.

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Equally resonant is the camera obscura that was set up in Marfa—the one non-urban location, albeit one that is equally charged with art world status. Marfa, the place where Donald Judd landed when he rejected the art world’s commercialism and headed west, bears a complex relation to space, location, and histories of colonialism and border cultures. There are neocolonial dimensions to Judd’s transport of art world Minimalism to the landscape of the desert and his settlement in a putatively empty town, in military barracks that carry their own history.38 Leonard’s relation to the legacy of Minimalism is an ambivalent one, as she is one of few women in the pantheon of male artists of an earlier generation who predominate in the Chinati Foundation collection, or the similar collections of Dia Beacon.39 In a publicity photograph for 100 North Nevill Street (2013), sky meets land to form a long, straight horizon, further accentuated by the railroad tracks running through (fig. 10). The image is both a compelling alternative to the cosmopolitan and urban locations of the other installations and a familiar iconography of the West and the frontier. How does the camera obscura, so much a part of the early technology of photography and its complex relation to colonialism and racialized representations, settle into such a location? Can it help us see and feel the longer history of this place, including its natural landscape of desert, its Indigenous history and border cultures and skirmishes, and the marks of settlement and westward expansion?

Figure 10.

© Zoe Leonard, 100 North Nevill Street, 2013, lens, darkened room, installation view, detail, Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy Zoe Leonard, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, and Hauser & Wirth, New York.

Figure 10.

© Zoe Leonard, 100 North Nevill Street, 2013, lens, darkened room, installation view, detail, Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy Zoe Leonard, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, and Hauser & Wirth, New York.

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Leonard’s camera obscura project, particularly the 100 North Nevill Street (2013) installation, has potential as a way to think about settler colonialism and Indigenous relations to land. So, too, might Shannon’s dream of a portable tent have other resonances. It might touch down on unceded territory only temporarily in the form of a structure that treads lightly and respects the land it is on. In the form of a camera obscura, it might leave little material trace at all—functioning as a lens for viewing the land differently, a view that could include its Indigenous histories. Bechdel’s model of the “bug in a mound,” which borrows from the animal world, also suggests ways of being in the world that are about sharing space in an environment that includes dirt, earth, land. It gestures to an Indigenous connection to land and to a flat ontology or eco-politics in which the human is connected to other beings and even nonhuman objects such as typewriters and motors.

Returning to Bechdel’s ingenious adaptation and merger of Virginia Woolf’s “room of one’s own” with Dr. Seuss’s “perfect environment” with this Indigenous frame in mind, we can see Shannon and Leonard seeking to transform the model of a “room of one’s own” into public and collective space. The “perfect environment” of the fort or the bug house provides enclosure but can also be shared with others, and offers a model for a commons that is affective rather than rational, and that embraces shared affects rather than a discrete or autonomous self. The connection with the legacy of a “room of one’s own” also invites speculation about the cultural (and generational) specificity of this fantasy as a version of white middle-class and/or queer lesbian feminism.

These artists are not creating utopian space that is free of conflict. They are creating space for what might be difficult conversations or experiences of the antisocial, and they are also creating retreats that provide solace from the hostility and indifference of the world. In conversation with affective and materialist turns in cultural theory, they experiment with spaces that acknowledge the entanglements of body and mind and suggest the importance of a sensory and tactile aesthetics that can foster a somatic politics. The return to the body for those whose boundaries have consistently been violated—or the return to the land for all of us, settler and Indigenous, who live on unceded territory—can involve both retreat and sharing space with others, both of which Shannon and Leonard seek to provide. Whether juxtaposed with Bechdel’s entanglements of soma-psyche or placed within an Indigenous frame, Leonard and Shannon both explore somatic life and potential connections with bugs and nonhumans. They build on older models for feminist publics such as Woolf’s, refusing rational subjecthood or the bounded individual as the condition of public participation or sociality and instead giving us back to the body, or staying in the body, to produce a collectivity of shared space and feelings, or a sovereignty of the senses.

Many thanks to the artists—Rachael Shannon, Zoe Leonard, Alison Bechdel—who have shared their work with me though our shared social networks. This essay is dedicated to the memory of Christina Crosby, with whom I shared the experience of developing the early thinking on Marx and sensation that is one foundation for this essay.


On the “affective turn” see Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, eds., The Affect Theory Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009). A sampling of work on affect and emotion, as well as emergent work on sensation, that is relevant for this project would include Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003); Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004); Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006); Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007); Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012); Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017); Amber Jamilla Musser, Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (New York: New York University Press, 2014); Amber Jamilla Musser, Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance (New York: New York University Press, 2018); José Esteban Muñoz, The Sense of Brown (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020). Just as, according to Lauren Berlant, “affect” was once the new “trauma,” “sensation” may now be the new “affect.” Lauren Berlant, “Affect Is the New Trauma,” Minnesota Review 72 (Spring 2009): 131–36. For an early version of the relation between affect and sensation see Ann Cvetkovich, Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture, and Victorian Sensationalism (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992).


Another important project has been my collaboration with the visual artist Karin Michalski on The Alphabet of Feeling Bad (2012), a video that has been installed in a variety of exhibition formats, including a wall of ice on a public street and the ceiling of a hotel room (where it could viewed by lying in the bed), as well as a print publication and an audio LP version of the text. It is thus a project that has inhabited multiple material forms and media in order to address feeling bad. See Ann Cvetkovich, “The Alphabet of Feeling Bad: Environmental Installation Arts and Sensory Publics,” in Public Spheres of Resonance: Constellations of Affect and Language, ed. Anne Fleig and Christian von Scheve (New York: Routledge, 2019), 151–72.


Ann Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 20.


Cvetkovich, Depression, 168.


Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 96. On non-sovereignty see Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman, Sex, or the Unbearable (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014); Lauren Berlant, The Inconvenience of Others (forthcoming).


On erotic sovereignty see Mark Rifkin, The Erotics of Sovereignty: Queer Native Writing in the Era of Self-Determination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012); Qwo-Li Driskill, Chris Finley, Brian Joseph Gilley, and Scott Lauria Morgensen, eds., Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011). On sovereignty in Indigenous thought more generally see Joanne Barker, ed., Sovereignty Matters: Locations of Contestation and Possibility in Indigenous Struggles for Self-Determination (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005). See also Dylan Robinson’s very suggestive notion of “sensate sovereignty” in Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020).


Audre Lorde, “Erotic as Power,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1984), 53–59. On Lorde’s erotic as a source for thinking about sovereignty see also Lyndon Gill, Erotic Islands: Art and Activism in the Queer Caribbean (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018). On not knowing what one is feeling, see Sianne Ngai’s concept of meta-feeling in Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 14; as well as my use of the term “mixed feelings” in Mixed Feelings.


Sharon Patricia Holland, The Erotic Life of Racism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012).


For one version of Sedgwick’s role in the affective turn see Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, “An Inventory of Shimmers,” in Affect Theory Reader, 1–25, who trace one lineage from Deleuze and another from Sedgwick. See also Robin Wiegman’s account of the influence of Sedgwick’s notion of the reparative on what she calls the “queer feminisms” (a term I’ve borrowed from her here) of my work in Depression and that of Elizabeth Freeman, Heather Love, and Lauren Berlant. Robin Wiegman, “‘The Times We’re In’: Queer Feminist Criticism and the Reparative Turn,” Feminist Theory 15, no. 1 (2014): 4–25.


For the rejuvenation of the notion of the commons in response to the account of its demise in Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 162 (1968): 1243–48, see Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009). On the undercommons see Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Minor Compositions, 2013). On the queer commons see Gavin Butt and Nadja Millner-Larsen, eds., “The Queer Commons,” special issue, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 24, no. 4 (2018). On the brown commons see Muñoz, The Sense of Brown, 1–8, 128–40. See also the concept of assembly in Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015); Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Assembly (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). This recent body of work addresses long-standing efforts within cultural studies to identify alternative public spheres through vocabularies such as counterpublics (Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics [New York: Zone Books, 2004]), the feminist public sphere (Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” in Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig Calhoun [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992], 109–42), subcultures (Jack Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives [New York: New York University Press, 2005]), and queer utopia (Jill Dolan, Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theater [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005] and José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity [New York: New York University Press, 2009]).


On the relation between the brown commons and racialized affect see Muñoz, The Sense of Brown. For further discussion of Muñoz’s concept of race as affective structure of feeling see Ann Cvetkovich, “Tuning In to The Sense of Brown,” boundary 2 (2014): See also work on the flesh and senses in Musser, Sensational Flesh; Musser, Sensual Excess; Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014); Zakkiyah Iman Jackson, Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World (New York: New York University Press, 2020).


Laurent Berlant, “The Commons: Infrastructures for Troubling Times,” Environment and Planning D 34, no. 3 (2016): 393–419. This essay makes explicit the relation between the commons concept and Berlant’s thinking on non-sovereignty.


For this Indigenous critique of the commons see the aforementioned special issue of GLQ, “The Queer Commons,” especially the introduction (399–419), and the essays by Eric Stanley, “The Affective Commons” (489–508), and Macarena Gomez-Barris, “How to Block the Extractive View” (527–32), which cite J. Kehaulani Kauanui on the settler colonial history of the commons: J. Kehaulani Kauanui, “Nothing Common about ‘The Commons’: Settler Colonialism and the Indigenous Politics of Land Dispossession,” paper presented at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, October 9, 2013. It is important to keep in mind, however, that while Indigenous scholars may reject the concept of the commons, they often retain some version of the concept of sovereignty.


On queer and feminist craft see Maria Elena Buszek, ed., Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); Julia Bryan-Wilson, Fray: Art + Textile Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017); Cvetkovich, Depression.


For challenges to understanding film and video, and what gets called “visual media” in narrowly visual terms, an important starting point is Laura U. Marks on the haptic in The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000); Laura U. Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002). My essay seeks to join that critical project by focusing on mixed-media installations that embed the visual within other sensory experiences. See also Rizvana Bradley, ed., “The Haptic: Textures of Performance,” special issue of Women and Performance 24, nos. 2/3 (2014).


See Hillary Chute, Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010); Ann Cvetkovich, “Drawing the Archive in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home,” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 36, nos. 1/2 (Summer 2008): 111–28.


Relevant here are new understandings of art as sensory or tactile practice, such as Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible (London and New York: Continuum, 2004), and the concept of relational aesthetics as articulated, for example, in Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon, France: Les presses de reel, 1998).


Other important installations include Shannon’s 2013 thesis show at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and Nuit Blanche in 2016 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the vestibule was displayed outside alongside inflatable balloons on which were written the words of Zoe Leonard’s “I Want a Dyke for President.” For more information see Shannon’s website,


For an example of Liz Collins’s recent work in the context of other queer art that includes installation and craft, see the exhibition catalogue Johanna Burton and Natalie Bell, eds., Trigger: Gender as a Tool and Weapon (New York: New Museum, 2018). For a discussion of Mitchell and Pepe see Cvetkovich, Depression, 177–89.


See Bennett, Vibrant Matter; Chen, Animacies; Mel Y. Chen and Dana Luciano, eds., “Queer Inhumanisms,” special issue of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 21, nos. 2/3 (2015). For more on breath see Ashon T. Crawley, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017).


For more on the camera obscura project see Zoe Leonard: Available Light (Brooklyn: Dancing Foxes, 2014), which includes documentation of the installations in Cologne, London, Venice, New York, and Marfa, and the exhibition brochure that includes an essay by Elisabeth Lebovici and her conversation with Leonard, Zoe Leonard: The Politics of Contemplation/From There and Back Again (New York: Murray Guy, 2012). For a fuller account of Leonard’s work see Zoe Leonard: Survey (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art; Munich: Prestel, 2018).


For another descriptive account of the immersive experience of the camera obscura see Eileen Myles’s essay on the 453 West 17th Street version at Murray Guy Gallery, New York: Eileen Myles, “Needleshine,” in Zoe Leonard: Available Light, 82–86. Myles’s sensory style, and shared social networks with Leonard, provides a good match for her work. Descriptive accounts of the camera obscura experience as both sensory and social are also central to the dossier of essays on 100 North Neville Street in Marfa, published in the Chinati Foundation Newsletter 19 (October 2014): 30–53, which includes artists in Leonard’s social networks, such as MPA and Carrie Yamaoka.


For a fuller version of this argument see Cvetkovich, Mixed Feelings, 165–97. Jonathan Crary’s account of the history of the camera obscura in relation to the early history of photography has circulated widely, including among artists, and suggests the rich relations between the two that Leonard is drawing upon. Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990).


See Zoe Leonard, Analogue (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), and my discussion of it in Ann Cvetkovich, “Photographing Objects as Queer Archival Practice,” in Feeling Photography, ed. Elspeth Brown and Thy Phu (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 273–96.


See for example Leonard’s work with the visual collective fierce pussy, whose installation for the 2010 White Columns exhibition of the ACT UP Oral History Project consisted of a series of sheets of paper taped to the entryway that began with the phrase “if he/she were alive today,” for instance: “if he were alive today, he’d still be living with AIDS,” “if she were alive today, you’d be so her type,” “if he were alive today, he’d be in this picture.” For Leonard’s work with fierce pussy, see the online exhibition notes for arms ache avid aeon: Nancy Brooks Brody / Joy Episalla / Zoe Leonard / Carrie Yamaoka: fierce pussy amplified, Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, 2019,


See Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology; Chen, Animacies; Musser, Sensational Flesh; Bradley, “The Haptic.”


For more on ACT UP’s erotic energies see the interviews on the ACT UP Oral History Project website, including the interview with Leonard,; as well as Ann Cvetkovich, An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).


On neoliberalism’s undoing of democracy see Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015).


Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006).


Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), 131. The full Winnicott source is Donald Winnicott, “Mind and Its Relation to the Psyche-Soma,” British Journal of Medical Psychology 27 (1954): 201– 9.


Bechdel, Are You My Mother?, 130.


For more on Bechdel’s archival method see Cvetkovich, “Drawing the Archive,” 111–28; Chute, Graphic Women, 175–217.


Dr. Seuss, Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book (New York: Random House, 1962).


For more on surface reading and description see Stephen Best, Heather Love, and Sharon Marcus, eds., “Description across Disciplines,” special issue of Representations 135, no. 1 (Summer 2016), including Cannon Schmitt’s essay, “Interpret or Describe” (102–18), on Bechdel’s practice in Fun Home.


She thus echoes the work of materialist feminists such as Elizabeth Wilson, Gut Feminism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015); Victoria Pitts-Taylor, The Brain’s Body: Neuroscience and Corporeal Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).


As an exemplary case, see the foundational edited collection This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color, ed. Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga (Boston: Kitchen Table / Woman of Color Press, 1983), whose editors and contributors make the case for working-class and women of color forms of cultural production both within the collection and in their other writings.


See Elizabeth A. Povinelli, The Empire of Love: Toward a Theory of Intimacy, Genealogy, and Carnality (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006); Scott Morgensen, Spaces between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).


For an overview of Judd’s presence in Marfa, but one that doesn’t include any kind of colonial or Indigenous critique, see Martina Stockebrand, ed., Chinati: The Vision of Donald Judd (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010). In “Sunset Limited,” Chinati Foundation Newsletter 19 (October 2014): 34–37, David Tompkins considers Marfa’s history of colonial settlement, especially the role of the railroad, but mostly from a settler perspective. From the same dossier of essays, the artist MPA is the only one to touch on the question of an Indigenous presence in Marfa (in “100 North Nevill Street,” 45–46). Leonard herself now maintains a home in Marfa and spends part of the year there, and is working on projects that address the US-Mexico border less than one hundred miles away.


For example You See I Am Here After All (2010), Leonard’s installation of historical postcards of Niagara Falls at Dia Beacon, New York, placed her in conversation with the (mostly male) artists of a previous generation that are displayed there, but also represented a feminist and queer swerve from that body of work.