Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Anti-Wedding: An Interview with Ariel Goldberg

I’m really into weddings. I mean that in the most complicated way possible—weddings have caused me a lot of misery, but at the same time, they’ve been a really bountiful source of material. My work as a caterer inspired the wedding reviews I’ve posted here, and I made a comic explaining the underlying gayness in straight weddings for the first issue of Runx Tales. I’m now gearing up to write a novel framed around the ceremony. I’m interested in how the points of view of the different participants—the couple, the parents, the wedding party, the guests, the caterers, etc.—might interweave/clash with the vision of a dictatorial wedding planner.

Ariel Goldberg, a New York-based writer/photographer/performance artist, has spent the past several years doing something similar: brazenly competing with the event’s master narrative. It is a confrontational project in a setting that strives to be devoid of conflict. Weddings, of course, are actually Petri dishes for conflict: nerves are high and multiple relatives are gathered in one place. Yet, still you’re expected to smile. And this is what Ariel refuses to do. They attend the weddings they’re invited to with camera in hand, wearing either high-femme drag or traditional tuxedo butch. Then they ask fellow guests to take their picture. The results are brilliantly uncomfortable. Not only do the photos speak to the strange role-playing that happens at weddings, they also make you re-think throwing around the word, happy.

Ariel has also inhabited their role as the Photographer in many other settings and incarnations. They are currently writing a related epistolary novel. I chatted with Ariel recently while they were lounging in New Jersey, wearing their dad’s sweats and drinking Ketel One on ice.
Matt Runkle: One of the reasons I’m so interested in weddings is because they are such a defining—maybe the defining ritual. I mean, we’re kind of inundated with this from every direction—our families, pop culture, etc.—from childhood on. Was there ever a time when you could picture yourself walking down the aisle?

Ariel Goldberg: Never. I imagined my Bat Mitzvah, very clearly, because it meant the end of Hebrew School. But then I went to Hebrew High, then I got a job at the Hebrew School...
I imagine books and art projects, I think, like people imagine weddings.
MR: Yes, weddings are so aesthetically crafted, they do seem like weird art projects if you step back for a minute. I think when I was a kid, I just assumed I would get married one day. Never thought I would be a priest, though, which is what my parents really wanted.

AG: I actually couldn't imagine my future when I was a kid. Or I cannot remember my imagination of the future. I think my parents wanted me to enter a more lucrative professional class than an artist who teaches. Lawyer? But they deny that accusation.

A priest. Have you ever been one for Halloween?

MR: No! I always thought they were so boring. Did you ever consider becoming a rabbi?

AG: No. Hebrew School was mostly social. My parents' friend has a lesbian daughter who is a rabbi and is married to a rabbi. This satisfies them.

MR: That's nice, it takes the weight off your shoulders. OK, I really want to talk about your wedding photography project, but first, one more warm-up question. What is your least favorite wedding tradition?

AG: When the bride and groom sit alone at that table that is in between the bride's side and groom’s side—it reminds me of bored couples out to eat at restaurants.

MR: Like a harbinger of the boring years to come?

AG: Or just symbolically unnecessary isolation.

MR: That's interesting. A wedding is ostensibly about the joining of two people. Do you think it's actually a more divisive event than it lets on?

AG: To join two people, but also to make them like celebrities to their families and friends. I think it's a risky event. Fun in a way where you have to work for it. All the triggering moments come up with people in your life, it seems. But I also feel like someone who cannot speak for a wedding being divisive as a guest. Or it has only seemed like a party I get invited to, and asked to celebrate. So I cannot call it divisive.

MR: You’ve written about your wedding photography project: “I was very insistent on being alone in the pictures, as if I was imitating the grandeur and spotlight on the bride, but I was the anti-bride.” Can you talk a little bit about the role of the bride and your role as her sort of foil? Have you gained any insight into bridal psychology through posing as this “anti-bride”?

AG: The bride is supposed to look beautiful. And they do in this very prescribed way. I think I am a foil of another version of feminine. Thinking about Judith/Jack Halberstam's Masculine Femininity. It's like that question of if you wear a suit, do you then identify as a man? Am I in drag? Or am I passing as the gender my family doesn't know me as? I just want to disrupt whatever molds are happening.

MR: Do you think these roles manifest themselves more when we’re wearing our wedding “best”? Boys wear suits and girls wear fancy dresses. Do you feel the pressure is greater?

AG: Definitely. And also my family doesn't really see each other much outside of holidays and birthdays. So it's a performance day in general. But I think it's important to think about how I might go to a wedding in a dress and feel like it is drag, or in a suit or tux and want to pass, and I don't think much about what I'm doing in the moment. It's more to pose a bunch of questions about my role as going to a wedding as an artist. Like I cannot just go and not be an artist. I want to perform with the bride and groom. The performance I do is incredibly slight, but it has read as insensitive and selfish.

MR: Can you talk about this a little? What sort of conflicts have the performances caused?

AG: Well, I think the biggest conflict is that they haven't gone away. At the most recent wedding (of my family's, which was the third one where I asked other guests to take my picture, in a directed self-portrait way), I was accused of being a show stealer, or just doing something that upset the whole dynamic of it being the bride and groom’s special day.
My pictures take about one minute or less to shoot. I asked about 30 people at that wedding. I'd say half of them know me. What was interesting was comparing the way I ask people to take my picture alone—as if I am in a foreign country—to how people at weddings will always have cameras, and the photographers are constantly taking pictures, and they also ask people to take their pictures. It is disturbing, I think, for someone to ask another person to take a picture of them alone. And this is strange because people are photographing themselves more and more because of the demand for an online profile to represent you.

I think my pictures are not in the vocabulary of the posed picture. People were confused about me not wanting to smile. I think I make pictures better when I don't smile. I think smiling in pictures is like saying something inauthentic. People are terrified of looking unhappy.

MR: I know this sounds dramatic, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt as abject as I have as a wedding guest—it’s worse, even, than when I’m working as a caterer. With catering, at least, I’m anonymous and I can go hide if I want to. Do you feel like not smiling is reflecting your misery in the moment?

AG: Well, it is hard for me to splice. Because as a photographer, and someone who thinks so intensely and constantly about the way people are photographing and the pictures surrounding me and the history of the medium, I am across the board not interested in smiling in pictures. I think I am not necessarily miserable at weddings. I may be having a great time. I have had fun at weddings. I guess it depends on so many things. But what does make me miserable is the command to smile. The sort of presumption that if you are not smiling then you are miserable.

MR: I've had fun too, but I feel like there's always this underlying resentment, because my experience doesn't translate into the “straight” world. All the rituals (bouquet toss, garter toss) point us down this trajectory toward marriage we’re all expected to—enthusiastically—pursue. And if we don’t, then we’ve ruined the wedding. Everyone is required to be happy, because that is the goal of a wedding, isn’t it? Enforced lifelong happiness?

AG: Yes, that is an interesting point. There is a lot of myth making. Like how can you be at a wedding when you don't totally agree with the institution of marriage? How can you be at a wedding and be happy for people who have rights you don't have? How can you not even harbor resentment to the powerhouse gay rights nonprofits at these weddings for fighting so hard for assimulationist rights?

The happiness weddings are ushering in—"they are so happy together," "we are so happy for you"—is like billions of probiotics. It cannot be a whole emotion. But it is totally expected to be. There is a lot expected of wedding guests, I think. They have to be obedient extras.

MR: Totally! And there’s even more expected of the bridal party. There’s this real objectification that takes place. You’re being shuttled around like a prop, and you’re kind of there as an item in the bride’s collection. Can you contrast your experience being photographed as a member of the wedding party with being photographed by other guests as The Wedding Photographer?

AG: The experience of being a bridesmaid—or "bridesgay," as the other two gay male friends in the bridal party called it—felt like somewhere I didn't belong. I don't know what to do in formal group portraits besides write down notes of what the photographer directed us to do so I could work it in to some of my writings on photography. It was something I felt like I would mess up. Or that it was an unrealistic commitment. It was out of love for my friend, to be part of it, and to represent this part of her life that was high school, but then I felt like this loose screw. There was a lot of waiting around. I felt like as soon as the wedding started, and the group pictures were over (there were many stages of photos, I mean, so, so many photos—candids while getting ready, the ceremony, at a location near the reception, group portraits at the reception, and then they did family portraits, then candids of the party) … Simply put, I felt exhausted by the photos in the wedding, taken by the photographer.

I felt like my role at this recent wedding was to be an observer. The only person I wanted to photograph me, in a directed self-portrait way, was my partner, Amanda. And she did a very nice job. But I wanted it done quickly. I knew what type of directed portrait I wanted, and we just did it. This was a big break from the other three times when I would go up to many more people. I think I've become slower and more refined. It can be more a performance for myself. I mean, a photo—even one—can be an infinite gesture.

MR: I want to talk for a second about the groom. He kind of occupies this weird realm of masculinity, like in between virility and emasculation. He’s in the spotlight, yet remains overshadowed (or out-lit?) by the bride. Did you find yourself identifying with him at all as The Wedding Photographer? Or were you just as much the anti-groom as the anti-bride?

AG: I think I am the “art-wedding”—can I take back the “anti-bride”? I guess “bride” is some metonym for the whole wedding, because women are thought to get more into wedding fantasies than men? Like there is Bride magazine but is there a groom magazine?

I guess I am the anti-wedding, or maybe just the problem or the consciousness at the wedding. Because I don’t think marriage should be what we’re working towards. I think it is nice for some people, it is right, it is perfect, but for me right now, I see love and relationships outside of marriage. I would prefer it to be de-gendered. So I don’t associate with the masculine or feminine side.

MR: That makes sense. I like the idea of you calling yourself the anti-wedding. OK, last question: Where are you now? You’ve mentioned you feel like you’re through with being The Wedding Photographer. In what ways do you expect to cope with future weddings you’re invited to?

AG: The last family wedding I was invited to, I did not attend. I actually couldn't be faced with the question of: do I continue my pictures as I was doing them, or do I stop them, or do I change the project? My family actively requested me to stop the project. I think it was misinterpreted for attention grabbing, as opposed to a minor and necessary part of the wedding landscape. What I needed was time. I think when you do a project that is serial, it is hard to know when to stop it. I think the way of asking many people to take my picture is over. That project has ended. It will be different now.

A lot of queer people I know, they just don't go to weddings. Perhaps I need to sit out a few more. I'd like to go to weddings when I am actively part of the people's lives getting married. But having some picture of me at weddings seems important. It would be interesting if everyone did that in some way. I see my project mostly as a performance script; I'd want many more people to do it. We come so close to those self-portraits in the total abundance of photography, but everything is posed. I want less posing, more confrontation with cameras.

I have been to two friends' weddings this year and felt no interest in taking any pictures of myself, in "doing my project." I did ask friends what they thought about me doing these pictures of myself at their wedding and they gave permission, but then I didn't do it. In that way it is shifting. It cannot be this totalitarian prompt. I have to feel it out. Maybe the ingredient is estrangement. I didn't feel an outsider among these friends' weddings, and one of them was a lesbian wedding, where I knew so many people. There is less to resist or critique when you can feel a critique of marriage amongst us.

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