There are a few things in life that one can fall in love with: a person, the arts (in the broad sense of the word), and a city. Relating to the city, after many wanderings, I feel most at home in Amsterdam, and have fallen in love with Paris, where, with my friend Julie, we used to home swap as often as we could. As an adolescent I grew up in the Red-Light District and queer areas of Amsterdam amongst self-chosen family. At both cities one can easily access public transport or walk within a reasonable timeframe from place to place. Every ten minutes—especially in Paris—one enters a variety of environments in terms of appearance, smell, rituals, and community care. Both are cities where I feel welcome as a person, as genderqueer, and where I can live in space in ways that do not conform to strict social norms.
With the pandemic, significant changes have been taking place. The cities I have fallen in love with are being altered drastically. Polarization and gentrification are advancing in full swing.
In Amsterdam, one art institution after another is collapsing. Brilliant artists and curators are changing professions, encouraged to do so by the Dutch government to promote a greater chance of a stable income for the future. If I return—post MFA—to my beloved Amsterdam, or even Paris, what will I return to? Is there another city or place that I could fall in love with after these years abroad? With a public space for everyone, without impediments or special privileges for only a select group of residents? Can a sex-positive space for friendship and solidarity exist, as Canadian geographer Leslie Kern writes about?
If feeling at home is about finding our way, it is important to consider how to find our way as a process of reorientation as we reinhabit spaces. As Sarah Ahmed writes, “If spaces are like second skin that unfolds in the folds of the body, can we all create new possibilities of landscapes, the air, smell, sound, which accumulate like points, to create new textures of the skin and reshape the body surfaces?”
Here on campus – Cranbrook Academy of Art – I am aware of my temporality. After two years, this will no longer be my home as my graduation will make way for new students. In recent weeks, I have been repeatedly asked if I would like to stay in the United States after completing my MFA. The honest answer is that my first-year experiences were based on visits to the supermarket and stories from podcasts, news items, or those around me. A mental construct in which the United States, full of rituals, politics, public spaces, and cities that I inhabited in some ways, simply exist as an image in my head, as the pandemic has forestalled a broader introduction.
As the world has cautiously taken a deep breath, opened a bit for those who could afford it, my summer took place in the US across land, water, and air, with new friends and old acquaintances, mostly over seventy years old: Birmingham to Pittsburgh, Lake Tahoe, San Francisco. I witnessed intimate moments of people’s lives, iconic landscapes across the states from the midwest to the west-coast, were past and present overflowed between collective and individual memory, identity, desires – my own subjective experiences.
I met many who left a deep impression on me personally and artistically, who became part of my toolbox, my research mapping and archive. And I started to wander, while looking at the various physical and digital sex positive spaces, questions simmered up. What are the different vernaculars, gestures, scents, sounds and colors that we use to communicate with one other? How does such communication define, evolve, intersect, and influence – on a personal and cultural level – in the public realm, digital space, and physical tools that we use?
One of these moments came to shape within the collaborative project ‘January’ with Mario, Kate, and Carr in Brooklyn, during my residency at Tisch School of the Arts. With ‘January’ we followed my neighbor and drag queen January Bones on their pole-dance-repetitions at home for their first one-woman-show in New York.
Multiple (render) techniques are used – Rokoko MoCap suit, for instance – to capture their fluid ways of being and choreography on the pole, into a digital avatar animation. This tool is originally designed to gain linear action from A to B, where in the case of the pole dance choreography, the software became tremendously confused in pinning positions of the performer, floating in a non-existent space, disappearing into thin air, while being present at the same time.
For some, a bias of software, an error in space, while for us as a team, a wonderful glitch in our avatar existence, a gem of non-conforming bodily surfaces. And it makes me wonder, as Paul B. Preciado writes so well, “When can a body be said to exist? What if a body is made of signs, image, and sound? Can those signs, those images, those sounds be mine even if my body is not?”
During this academic winter break, I spoke with people active in the kink scene in the US and Canada. Some just started. Others have been active for longer. All reclaim agency over their bodily perspectives, achieved through acts performed with communication and social relations.
For most, during these challenging times, a certain struggle of connection seemed so familiar to my own quest to bond over the past couple months. Social clubs – a boarding chance to get together with like-minded people – got closed, some temporarily, others permanently. Online cruising exposed a sea of possibilities, anonymous vernacular at odds with personal body language.
Others played a solo show at home – collecting signs of empowering beloved ones (gestures, behaviors), fusing into a persona or dominatrix, preparing for more sociable times to come.
It makes me think about the role of all-in social visibility and political resistance and reminds me again of the writings of Leslie Kern and Sarah Ahmed around feeling at home, where the social world (in western society), driven by, for example, fear, love, desire, greed, and compassion, is so attached to the built environment.
For my latest project, “Cruising Kink Gates,” I am combining these affects in a multilayered installation with handmade tools, performances, video projection mapping, and soundscapes. Inspired by interviews with (online) sex workers, BDSM practices, community care, somatic experiences, and the queer kink scene, the research focuses on tricks of the trade. Sculpted to reinvent the self and its environment, “Cruising Kink Gates” gives expression to needs within the field of setting boundaries, what it means to be visible, to give space, and to let go.
It aims to organize a system of visibility, representation, right of self-determination – as something feeling-authentic, as a sense of coming-home from a perspective of the complexity of life, where friction, strangeness or dissonance create a space of imagination in and through which a multitude of undefined positions can exist alongside one another.
Natural pine branches form the background of this multilayered video installation. Two-part, flower-like bud, pink, red, blue-colored, transparent sap form as a drop at one of the tops, digitally manipulated. Tools designed with aluminum pouring and sand casting, performed with green screen, rendered in an otherworldly setting, accompanied with AI generated text.
Data from the interviews and public platforms such as FetLife train the lGPT-2 models, which intake a sentence or partial sentence and predict subsequent text, question-answering, and summary of long articles.
In this case, the generated text was trained from personal stories, life experiences, questions, general statements and communal guidance around Queer and Kink across the USA into more then 20 samples. All focused on the idea of becoming, agency over the body, and who we are along the way. Every sample generates an experimental enthusiasm of a constituent process that is constantly open.
What interests me in this process are the personal, yet anonymous phrases and cognitive differences at these platforms, as a basic model, which mingle into one communal text, accumulating like points: surprisingly poetic, sometimes abstract, or elusive.
“Sexual: not kinky, not kinky kinky, not kinky kinky
Sexualism: interested in physical things, sexual places, places that are physical.
Sexual sensuality is a sub-type of sexual interest. Sex involves desire for place, surface, object, rhythm, direction, energy, so on. Sexuality involves places, objects, energies, parts.
Sexual activity involves things like touch, smell, taste, type, amount, quality, and rhythm. Sexual energy is often subtle but has some relation to place.
Sexual nature is a dynamic process with changes happening in places that are not seen or mentioned in numbers.”
The aim is to further invest and transform research material (tools, image, sound, smell, color, text) into physical and digital interactive experiences. Fluid spaces transposed into a shared, visual language. Multiple render techniques, sound design, queer communities, sex coaches, and projection mapping transform site specific places of everyday life.
With these interactive series, I commemorate promiscuity – intersectional perspectives on socio-global issues fracture dominant models of production, image, and bodies, where I present 4D as a socio-political activation.
Merel Noorlander is based in Metropolitan Detroit, MI, currently completing their MFA in 4D Design at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Noorlander navigates technology, social design, and performance, where bodily perspectives become non-normative storytelling. They engage with likeminded avatars in Metalsmithing, Architecture, and critical writing, amongst others. Prefers coffee in trees, challenging gravity. A slayer of dragons.
Photography copyright courtesy of the artist.