On the opening night of Gender Agenda, the He-Bops kicked out a short set of Clash-style Cyndi Lauper covers that got a flamboyant crowd dancing. Against a backdrop of pop art collages held together with blue tape, the irreverent dude trio made noise as harmless yet ironic as a teen garage rock band with something to say about the world. And as they blared their femme punk and testosterone fusion tunes "She's Calling London" and "I'm So Bored with the Goonies," performance artist Melanie Manos stood perfectly still in the center of the room. Wearing a strangely sensual, absolutely regal red and white gown that sprawled around her in a perfect circle, she looked as if she'd been shot into the center of a target. She was a blindingly whimsical vamp version of The Cat in the Hat.
So what does all that mean? What does it matter? Gender Agenda, a multimedia exhibition at Ann Arbor's Gallery Project featuring 21 local, regional and national artists, is an attempt to open up the space in which we define male and female.
The art on display is a raucous mix of photography, video, posters, usable toys, yarn, drawings and more. Besides Jada Schumacher's aforementioned dress, entitled "Barnacle Belt and The-[Slimy]-Skin-I'm-In Bodysuit," several pieces in Gender Agenda blend the concept of masculine vs. feminine into dramatic and often beautifully unrecognizable syntheses that refuse to bow to mainstream considerations.
Curator Andrew Thompson, guitarist and vocalist for the He-Bops, says, in this exhibit, "Oftentimes there are two subjects or polar forces at play within a piece," creating tension or humor.
Artist, writer and editor Debra Broz, who lives in Austin, Texas, conveys amazing conviction with her mixed media on paper, "Lexicology of a Breakup: You Don't Own Me, Owe Me, Know Me" and "Why Every Woman Needs a Man." With the simplest materials, she creates pieces that are strong, wry and refreshingly unassuming. Broz's work speaks boldly, shrugging off the idea that women can or should be characterized as dependent, domesticated or delicate. Her ideas are personal and radical, even when they are humbly scrawled in pencil. In one of her pieces, a tangle of fine golden thread hides behind a rectangular pocket of paper with one short length hanging on the outside like a secret that's just starting to be told. Her hand-bound books, Biological Gender Study: Essential Similarities, Essential Differences get to the guts of the matter with sealed samples of human blood, hair and saliva. The twin volumes tell the story of a male and a female who are made of basically the same stuff.
Living up to its provocative title, Mike Richison's "Screw You Blow Me" video pits a pink hair dryer and a blue hand drill against each other in a gender-morphing duel. The artist, who recently moved from metro Detroit to teach art and design at Monmouth University in New Jersey, uses motion graphics to merge and morph everyday household objects. He mounts the objects themselves, as documentation, above the video player. If part of the intent of the show is to "tear away binary descriptions," Richison accomplishes this in a way similar to transgendering.
Heather Ault presents four digital prints from a series called Ancient Choices: Remembering the Reproductive Choices of Our Ancestors, which examines the history of birth control over the past 4,000 years. From ancient Egyptian "spermicidal cervical plugs" ("Crocodile Dung") to the introduction of "the pill" ("For Married Women Only"), Ault's prints are informative yet subversive. The graphics and layout have the feel of vintage advertising posters; they grab your attention. The difference is Ault's reaching for your consciousness instead of your wallet.
Perhaps one of the most elaborate and interactive parts of the show is University of Michigan assistant professor Heidi Kumao's mechanical wonder "Translator." It's a dazzling combination of video, sculpture and installation. A robot wearing baby-shoe roller skates moves back and forth between two chairs mounted with projectors. His head is a white basin that serves as a screen; when he gets close enough to one chair, the abstract image of a spine appears as his face. When he skates over to the other — by hand crank — his visage takes on the image of a mass of cells. "Translator" is a work of innocence and curiosity, hinting at the element of chance in who or what a person will become.
Gender Agenda runs through Sept. 14, at Gallery Project, 215 S. Fourth Ave., Ann Arbor; 734-997-7012.Norene Cashen is a poet whose recent book is The Reverse Is Also True (Doorjamb Press) and a freelance writer. Send comments to email@example.com