(This has been reblogged from the UC Humanities Forum.)
I just got back from UCLA’s Queer Studies Conference this weekend, which was as exhilarating and educational as I would have hoped from my first time. The theme of this year’s conference was fashion, queerly constructed, and many of the academic presenters took the opportunity to exploit the performative and experimental aspects of fashion to forge a conference experience unlike many others I’ve attended.
While the conference program reveals some clear playfulness in paper titles and panels, it doesn’t really communicate the breadth of performance that was going on at the actual event. Whether it was Deborah Vargas wearing a guayabera shirt for her talk on guayaberas and brown butch culture or Micha Cardenas modeling her wearable electronics at our panel on techno-queer self-fashioning, it was clear that people were taking the academic conference to a different level. Personalized academic narratives found a place amongst more traditional ones, and every talk that I saw – even, and especially the experimental ones - was robust and full of intellectually stimulating material.
One moment I won’t forget took place during the first evening reception, when I was approached by Lynetta and Finesse Coif, sister/proprietors of Merkeyna Coif Boutique, a retailer of fine handmade merkins. They were modeling their products over their clothing and had display boxes hung around their necks. I browsed through their wares, captivated alternately by the craftsmanship and wit that went into each – a pedometer on one, a fake iPod Nano on another – and received a great education on the history and meaning of these little-discussed hair pieces. It was a scene fit for the Vagina Monologues – students and professors alike contemplating what one’s vagina (or penis!) would wear if given the choice.
At the end of the reception, Lynetta Coif revealed herself as Bianca McGraw, a performance artist who had come to the conference with Erin Coleman-Cruz, who played Finesse, in order to talk about their work as the Coif sisters. They frequently invade conference spaces such as our own and clear a space in which to talk about women’s bodies in ways that aren’t quite socially sanctioned. Their academic panel would be the next day of the conference, but their work was spanning the entirety of the two-day event.
My experience at UCLA Queer Studies was peppered with these kinds of encounters, and the conference’s closing event, the QUEERTURE Fashion Show, was the perfect way to end my experience. This celebration of queer couture mixed stunning runway styles with history lessons, performance art, and academic community the likes of which I may never experience simultaneously again. I will forever curse the LA Metro for forcing me to leave early in order to get to the Greyhound station on time.
Coming from the digital humanities, I’ve been to many alternative conference formats, including the national series of THATCamp unconferences and UCSB’s own Research Slam. Sometimes we digital humanists get really smug about being on the bleeding edge of academic research and exhibition, but what I got out of this weekend’s conference was really unlike anything I’d experienced before. I’m so happy I got a chance to attend and present at this event, and can only hope to see this kind of expanding of the boundaries of academic communication taking place in other fields, as well.