Feminist speculative fiction: inventing foremothers

Feb 14, 2023 | Art Insights

Featured Image:
Kathy High and Guy Schaffer, History of Shit, 2017. Photo: Shannon K. Johnson. Image courtesy: Kathy High.

By Paula Burleigh

Expanded abstract for presentation at the Women’s Caucus for Art panel, 2022 College Art Association Annual Meeting

Convening the Women’s Caucus for Art Panel, Patti Jordan asked: “What are optimal means to transcend histories and advance intersectional feminist art and social justice issues in our given climate?” In response, I explored how visual art strategies associated with feminist speculative fiction in art serve as creative catalysts for social and political change. Encompassing science fiction, fantasy, and Afrofuturism, speculative fiction (SF) is a literary genre of conjecture, in which authors imagine alternative realities in order to question current norms. In literature, where SF is a well established genre, it is most often associated with imaginative futures—from utopian visions of all women societies to dystopian cyberpunk landscapes of techno-corporate domination. However, the artists I focus on share a backward looking gaze: they invent figures from bygone eras or fill in the blanks of women’s lives about which little is known. Deeply influenced by Saidiya V. Hartman’s work on critical fabulation—writing beyond the existing limits of the archive—I name the strategies in this presentation as works of speculative historical fiction. Artworks by Cheryl Dunye with Zoe Leonard, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Nuotoma Frances Bodomo, and Kathy High are all the result of research with the aim of expanding or altogether dismantling established historical narratives shaped by sexism, racism, and colonialism, among other oppressive forces.

More than just historical fiction, which extrapolates fictionalized narratives from established fact, speculative historical fiction takes a non-normative approach to time itself, working from the premise that “history” is neither linear nor irrevocably past, but part of a sprawling rhizomatic network of time and affective relationships. Speculative historical fiction not only questions the boundaries between fact and fiction, but ultimately points toward the artificiality of such categories. Some artists working in this vein explicitly mimic the attributes of an archive or a curated exhibition, while others stage more imaginative dialogues with ghosts of the past, rendering them material and present. An artist who deftly imitates archival conventions is Kathy High whose installation, History of Shit (2017), comprises photographs, glass colons, writings, and other assorted objects related to the history of proctology. These are the surviving attributes of Challis Underdue, a queer feminist researcher who pioneered the theory of “excrement vitality,” which held that the complexities of individuals’ excrement mirrored those of human society writ large. Underdue is a speculative fiction created by High and her collaborator Guy Schaffer: to imagine Underdue’s existence posits a subversive counter-narrative to a history of science from which mentions of sexuality, gender, and shit are largely absent. 

Using film, photography, drawing, and collage-based practices, High and other artists invite audiences to see their own intersectional identities reflected in history, constructing a powerful archive of foremothers. I read these anachronistic interventions through the lens of queer temporality, which suggests that the construction of transhistorical lineages of influence and affinity—factual or fictional—disrupts heteronormative definitions of progress and time. Rather than privileging the biological nuclear family and its imperative to reproduce, these artists picture novel kinship structures between humans across time and space. A culture is defined by its myths and stories: writing and re-writing those stories is a means of finding pathways through an increasingly perilous future. 

Paula Burleigh is an Assistant Professor of Art History at Allegheny College, and director of the Allegheny Art Galleries.