A.L. Steiner’s Personal Archive: Underground Heroes, Everyday Lovers, and Global Catastrophe

A.L. Steiner, "Untitled (Anna eating)," 2014, and "Untitled (Layla looking at picture)," 2005. Courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe.

Underground heroes. I’ve had many.

Some of them I stole from the high shelves and long racks of chain bookshops. Novels and art catalogues, comics and poetry, CDs and essays. Too much religion and not enough money at home, theft was the only way I could possess these treasures (a debt I still owe and will one day find a way to repay.) Illicit material not carefully hidden was regularly confiscated by my mom. In each book and record, I found strength and force in punk anthems; awareness and education in philosophy and history; in literature there was freedom, pleasure, and provocation; in all of it, empathy, communion, and most importantly, hope.

Some of these underground heroes I knew. Broken-down poets presiding at coffee shops; old queer nudists that hit on me first and educated me later; burn-out punks clerking for minimum wage with the knowledge of scholars; trans grand dames with five o’clock shadows and stories for days; lesbian mothers that nurtured children both adopted and birthed; nurturers of plants and animals; tattooed feminists that left smeary red lipstick all over my face and convictions in my heart; ne’er-do-well-has-beens and never-were’s too broken by prisons and poverty to be anything but streetcorner sages; scientists studying, collecting, and speaking about all they found; animal-rights and environmental activists bearing pamphlets with terrible images and convincing empathy; sleepless lawyers defending the weak; gangsters with the grace of dancers; survivors with a vengeance for justice; drug-addicts nursing their diseases with hard medicines; and more writers and artists than I can count.

I loved and love them all.

In the most aboveground of galleries, hanging along the walls, overlapping and collaged, a clutch of photographs shows humans, candid intimacies and aggressive poses, naked, fucking, dancing, joyful and angry, quotidian and occasional. In the center sits a series of birch drawers filled with mostly 4 x 6 inch snapshots, a professional archivist dispensing them to a table alongside for viewing, but the categories are poetically, accidentally, and incidentally organized, a file for a longtime partner, many for trips, some from a phone, my favorite title and file: “Angry, Articulate, Inevitable.”

All of this is the work by A.L. Steiner and, in many ways, her community. A self-described “skeptical queer eco-feminist androgyne,” Steiner has spent decades in activism and collaboratives that inform the poetic of her work, ranging from video and performance (most notably as a member of collective/band Chicks on Speed) to photography, often collaged into immersive installations. Bodies, her own and others, appear in all of their raunch and glory throughout her works, celebrating all of these individuals and their physicality, but also all of our bodies (with a particular focus on queer women) as sites of both conflict and pleasure.

The pictures are of her people, friends and lovers, colleagues and cohorts. The places she’s lived and visited, the people she knew there, (and for this installation specific credit to Shinichiro Okuda who helped build the drawers and Jaye Fishel who works as the archivist). In these drawers is her personal archive, beginning in 1995, and apparently stretching into the future for a decade more. It’s titled, Selexxx: 1995-2025 (2015).

What unites these works besides the artist herself is love. A few framed works say it with their titles: Love Changes the Lover (2015), Lovers Love Loving Love (2015), Change Loves Loving Change (2015). The kind of love made from friendship, romance, common cause, and special sympathies. Most of the photographed are queer and trans humans from Steiner’s community, huge troves of snapshots of lovers and partners. You feel Steiner’s particular charisma in the look of the people that surround her; even in the most defiant poses, a certain love for the photographer shimmers in their eyes.

Above all, this projector beams some troubling numbers, ticking away.

It’s usually a bit lazy to reprint lines from press releases, but this one has a flavor worth savoring: “Between the interlude of state-sanctioned exploitation and violence, the Amerikkkin project of mass incarceration and slavery, the uncertain future of California’s viability, and planetary implosion, A.L. Steiner presents an overview of her photo archive from 1995-2015 at Blum & Poe.”

As of Saturday, August 15, 2015, 5:35pm:

– Forests loss this year (hectares): 3,229,673

– Land lost to soil erosion this year (ha): 4,348,014

– CO2 emissions this year (tons): 22,506,830,572

– Desertification this year (hectares): 7,452,339

– Toxic chemicals released in the environment this year: 6,081,344

These are just numbers, abstractions that are hard to feel. An American football field is roughly half a hectare. So about 6.5 million football field-sized swathes of forest have been lost this year. We still have four months to go.

All of this. My life, Steiner’s life, your life, happens under this, the destruction of the planet. It’s literally illustrated with these numbers shifting ever upwards. With every struggle and celebration, with each orgasm and tearshed, the hours of depression and productivity, the phone-calls to our mothers and lovers, deciding which car insurance or variety of ice cream, the time you spend cruising social media and commuting to work. All of it happens while machines and men destroy the forests, one hectare at a time, and clog the skies with CO2 in every passing hour. Count all the hours you spent masturbating this year and conjugate that with number of hectares of forest destroyed per hour. However frightening, these realities are, of course, not directly related. But they are happening at the same time.

We breathe it with every breath, we drink it with every paper cup of coffee, we burn it with every gallon of gas.

Nearly all of the underground heroes are forced underground by their spirits and proclivities, by the circumstances of their birth and genes or the content of their ideas, the illegality of their actions or the privileges denied them. A few chose their way out of lives of comfort, demonstrating a saying made by Eugene Debs, “While there is a lower class, I am in it; and while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Some might say that underground, like the avant-garde, is dead. This is a myth spoken to scatter and weaken those who might resist. They are all still there. Their dream endures and their fight goes on, many have no other choice. Sometimes they are co-opted by the current regime to remove the rebellion from their content, but this isn’t new. Many underground heroes have been absorbed into the canon after they’re safely dead, with the pretense that their cause has been satisfied. The United States government surveilled and harassed activist preacher Martin Luther King, Jr., but once he was murdered, they named a holiday after him. King’s cause, racial equality, still struggles on. Every day there are new casualties beyond the count of grief.  

But the underground, those who live against the current regime and its injustices, includes, as Steiner does, those who fight against human and environmental degradation: the social and political radicals, weirdos and freaks, deviants and dreamers; they are all still here, still resisting in large and small ways, every day.

On occasion, the underground heroes I’ve come to know have overlapped with the ones I stole as a kid from the bookshop. I know mostly artists and writers, but also a few scientists and journalists, lawyers and advocates, each attempting to change the way things are to the way things could be. I know quite a few people, who simply by living openly and bravely every day, push our civilization forward.

I’ve never been able to point a camera straight, so my personal archive of the heroes I’ve known is mostly in my mind, in words, lives, and struggles witnessed. I celebrate them all.

As soon as all people have equal rights and treatment, privilege and opportunity, and this otherness dissolves into an inclusive one-ness, and the planet is no longer being destroyed, and the suffering of all life is taken into account, the underground heroes can collectively retire to heaven. In the meantime, we can join them with awareness and action, cohorts to support, to help change, to witness, to nurture, to love.

Is A.L. Steiner an underground hero? Of course. And so are all of her subjects and collaborators. And so maybe are you.  
An underground hero is someone to be.


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