By Noé Gaytán
Sille Storihle is an artist, curator, and researcher who has been mining the repositories of ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at USC to explore the history of California’s LGBT communities through short films, which she describes as portraits. Storihle’s most recent film investigates the exceptional story of Stonewall Nation, a gay separatist utopian community that was proposed in 1970 by gay rights activist Don Jackson, but never came to fruition. Having cast Michael Kearns, an actor and AIDS activist based in Los Angeles, as Jackson, Storihle is now turning her camera on Kearns’ own life trajectory. Together the two films create a dialogue about the ways historical moments and issues can relate to a contemporary discourse.
Los Angeles is not new to Berlin-based Storihle, who earned an MA in Aesthetics and Politics from CalArts in 2011. Her residency at 18th Street Arts Center this October through December was funded by Office for Contemporary Art, Norway, with whose support 18th Street hosts a Norwegian artist each year. Storihle originally came to California because “I wanted a critical studies degree. It was what I was becoming more interested in and it shaped my practice.” This interest in critique can be seen not only in her solo artwork but also in the collaborative work she does with FRANK, a community-building platform meant to engage critically with gender and sexuality issues. Her academic, research-based approach to art is precisely what led her to ONE Archives to look into LGBT histories in California. “In terms of doing an artist residency, I find it important to work with a project that is specific to the place I am in” she says, referring to her project’s focus on Southern California. Working with archival research seemed like a relevant method for Storihle because she was already working with history as a subject, and wanted to stay as close to her source material as possible. She says that her approach to art making involves learning the appropriate skills for each project, such that, having never been trained as a filmmaker, she has been learning about producing films as well as making them through this body of work.
In “The Stonewall Nation,” Storihle recreates an interview conducted with Don Jackson in 1986. The artist says she was interested in contrasting her own ideas about sexuality as a millennial with the way things were perceived within the gay rights movement of the 1970s. This is further complicated by the perspective that actor Michael Kearns, with his own history of activism amidst the AIDS crisis, brings to the table. Storihle’s film re-performs this historical document to create a new narrative form between fiction and non-fiction.
Kearns’ Don Jackson describes his vision to make Alpine County, California the first gay county in the US. The plan was simple: since the county only had 350 registered voters, Jackson imagined that if he could get 351 members of the gay community to move there then they would have a political majority. Once they did that, they would be able to vote in a gay mayor and gay city councilmen, creating a governance structure that would protect and serve gay interests. Kearns-as-Jackson goes on to speak about his personal traumas and experiences of oppression. He observes, “A heterosexual couple can walk arm in arm, laughing, tickling each other, and they would not be arrested or deemed insane. A homosexual would be deemed insane, and that would stay on his record for life.” The idea of a separatist community puts forth a space of safety and belonging where a gay lifestyle can be practiced in the open. “So where are we supposed to live?” he continues. “Where can we function? We’re not marching in with bayonets and guns, but we’re saying this piece of land is now our land.”
Considering these points, Storihle remarks, “What kind of a society is he describing? What are the ideologies that drove this project?” Since the project never came to fruition, the shape such a space would take is left up for imagination. She elaborates, “I think his idea was imperialist, or even colonial, in the sense that Don Jackson wanted to takeover a piece of land, hoping that the local community would ‘move away.'” In making the film, Storihle looked to her encounters with American suburban culture: “Quiet streets and white picket fences.” The suburbs are all about safety and containment-communities forged out of a shared identity and a sense of belonging. Jackson hoped Stonewall Nation would be a “clean and well-kept place,” one that Storihle visualizes with a model of rainbow-colored track homes that she identifies as her image of the gay suburbia that Jackson describes. This confined and protected space is juxtaposed with California tropes such as the frontier, where fertile land sits ready to be taken, perhaps by force. Montages of collage works by the artist Olaf Odegaard juxtapose male genitals with the rocky outcroppings of the American West. Storihle describes Jackson as “A cowboy in pursuit of the gay American dream,” but his idea of a separatist gay community never quite took off, and the dream was never realized. Her portrait of Jackson ends with another frontier trope, the hero walking off into the vastness of the desert to the strains of a slow and powerful rendition of the country song “Streets of Bakersfield.”
Beyond painting a pretty picture of a utopia that almost was, Storihle is interested in unpacking and complicating some of the problematic aspects of The Stonewall Nation. The imperialist implications of taking over Alpine County are not lost on her; rather, her use of the cowboy and Wild West landscapes contrasted with the ideal of the suburbs draws out the connection between utopian communities and colonization. “Of course, suburbs are sort of imperialist by nature, with dry deserts being reshaped into manicured lawns,” says Storihle. “That’s also part of the reason I chose the desert, because nothing should really grow there, yet you still have these suburbs imposing themselves.” The refuge of the suburbs comes only with complete control of the ecological, spatial, and political environment, as indicated by Don Jackson’s plan for The Stonewall Nation. Storihle was also troubled by the level of misogyny she discovered through her research. Stonewall Nation was less an LGBT county than one that catered to gay white men. Of Jackson, she says, “He never talks about race, and speaks quite derogatorily about women. It is clear to me that these things were empty from his imagination.” Just like most other suburbs, this gay suburbia might have been for middle-class white Americans longing for white picket fences.
Storihle plans to screen the two short films in both cinema and gallery contexts as she wants to be in dialogue with different audiences and fields of interest. She will also present her film in high school classrooms in Norway through a national artist funding program that fosters direct engagement between artists and youth, which she hopes will enable the types of conversations about social issues that her films seek to spark amongst viewers. So far, her experiences have been very positive in this regard. “It was really exciting to be in this room with teenagers, and they are totally engaging in conversations about class, about race, about sexuality beyond the school curriculum and through their personal experiences.”
Storihle’s next film continues the interplay between reality and fiction that she began with “The Stonewall Nation.” When she first cast Michael Kearns in the role of Don Jackson, she did not expect to continue working with the actor, but became intrigued as she learned more about his life. “I came to know Michael, and in many ways he became a way for me to understand a part of gay history in California,” she explains. Many years before Kearns met Storihle, he was already making headlines as one of the first openly gay actors in Hollywood. In the mid-1970s, he had modeled for the cover of “The Happy Hustler,” inhabiting the role of the titular character for a host of public appearances made to promote the book. “He disintegrated into this character of ‘The Happy Hustler.’ He reached a point where his identity and persona were blurred,” says Storihle. The film she is working on now will similarly interplay archival material, assumed to represent historical truth, with staged footage to create a work that mimics the way Kearns swayed between fact and fiction during this era of his life. “In “The Stonewall Nation” you are believed to encounter the real person, but its actually not, it’s an actor. And in the second film you will see an actor but don’t quite realize the connection between the actor and the role he plays.” The relationship between the cowboy and the hustler proves incredibly complex. Later in his life, Kearns was diagnosed with HIV, and went on to play several characters who also had HIV/AIDS. As Storihle puts it, “His visibility has dictated his career, so it’s interesting to see how that shapes the audience’s imagination of HIV or AIDS.” These representations are of interest to Storihle because Kearns is an actor, yet he is being typecast in a role that is very close to his reality.
Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. In the years between the founding of The Stonewall Nation and Sille Storihle’s 18th Street Arts Center residency, California has had two former actors serve as governors, yet the idea of a county governed by homosexuals remains in the realm of the imagination. Michael Kearns, a leading AIDS activist who also happens to be an actor, has spent the intervening years playing parts in film and in real life that similarly blur the boundaries between reality and imagination. Storihle’s work poses some much-needed questions, and may not always provide answers. This ambiguity is consistent with her approach to history and the archives that carry its memory forward.