I saw this rusty old motorcycle the other day. It was standing at the side of the road next to a lawn, and some long blades of grass had found their way through the spokes of the front wheel. This lovely retired vehicle had a beautiful, clear display: it bore two big green dials, one for speed and one for rpm. Below these two green plates was a small black rectangle with four hexagonal lights in four different colours: orange, red, green and blue, respectively indicating turn, oil, neutral and beam. I found this piece of old machinery extremely attractive, the display in particular, as it almost read like a little poem on simplicity: you are either turning or you are not; you either have enough oil or you are running out.
Now try to imagine your own life as one gigantic dashboard. This has switches that go either up or down, buttons that can be set from zero to ten, indicators that say minimum or maximum and lights in primary colours that are either on or off. For instance, there is a red light that says man and a blue light that says woman. One of the two is lit, the other one is off. Or, if it is a switch, it is either up for man or down for woman – or vice versa, whichever way you imagine it. Of course, having a switch implies that you can simply flip it and switch between male and female as if you are changing clothes, so that might be a bit inaccurate. So let us say that sex is a light and gender is a switch, or maybe a button. Or even two buttons – one male, one female – and you can choose your own setting for each, anywhere between zero and ten. Or should gender be an indicator? With a needle that just points to a certain percentage of male and female, which is how you feel and what you have to deal with for the rest of your life. Or, yet another option, the indicators change every now and then so that maybe you are ten per cent man in your twenties and then fifty per cent in your thirties?
Which parts of us are buttons and switches, and which are lights and indicators? Or, in other words, which parts can be changed and which are fixed? Which are either on or off, and which are in a permanent grey zone. When we are born, there are two things that are instantly determined as being either one or the other: you are either a boy or a girl and you are either alive or dead. But out of the two, only one category leaves absolutely no space for ambiguity. So if we return to our dashboard metaphor, there is only one real switch that can only go up or down. Everything else is buttons, lights and indicators.
In her* short video When Did You Become a Heterosexual?, Rowena Buur challenges the default setting for sexual preference by asking people exactly that question. A simple and effective strategy that flips the script by changing the default sexual preference setting from straight to gay. His follow-up questions follow the same strategy: when did you tell your parents, how did they react, are you sure you’re straight, maybe you just haven’t met the right guy/girl yet. The video is straightforward in content as well as in form: it is shot with a hand-held camera that only captures people’s legs and feet, preserving their anonymity and keeping the focus on their spoken answers. Despite being a graduate of the Department of Visual Strategies, Buur does not seem interested in applying an outspoken visual aesthetic; rather, she designs through asking questions. One could say that his style is the way he approaches people.
The value of these condensed interviews lies not in their overall statement – we already know that heterosexuality is the norm all over the world. Instead, it lies in the questions themselves and the uneasiness of the answers their subjects give. A discomfort that comes from confusion over the questions – “But this is about heterosexuality?! Man and woman!” – as well as their personal nature, as questions that are usually directed to gay, lesbian or transgender people. Sometimes I did wonder whether the answers were not too correct, especially when a heterosexual couple answers that a penis is not required to have good sex: “You can also have foreplay”. That sounds a little too much like the respondents are trying not to offend the interviewer, who might just have a sex life that does not include a penis.
The other video shown by Buur – clearly her central piece – is a documentary called Zonder hoop heb ik geen dromen (Without Hope I Have no Dreams): an intimate portrait of her father, who turned to the bottle and lost his grip on life after his seven-year-old son died from an unknown metabolic disease. The video consists of footage of Rowena visiting his father in his trailer mixed with old home videos of their family in better days: everyone still together, her father still sober. There is pain in almost every scene, but this is never thickened or dramatically underlined; nothing is made too heavy or sentimental, the pain is simply there, right in front of your eyes, caused by the stark contrast between a complete past and a broken now, between the dilapidated state of his father’s trailer and the heroic American flags that decorate his home, between the small talk they exchange and the grim reality of her father’s existence, between the longing to be seen and a vast distance caused by loss, grief and alcohol. Again, Rowena’s visual style is dry and without any effect or ornament, but his work is compelling because her subject is; the story is convincing because his approach is convincing. Not to mention the fact that making a graduation piece about the conflicted relationship with your alcoholic father is a courageous move. Such private subjects always carry the risk of becoming too personal, losing their possible relevance for a broader audience. Luckily, Rowena manages to skilfully balance between painfully personal and professionally distant.
Out of all the painful contradictions in this video, the thing that struck me the most was to see the light in her father’s eyes amidst all the dimness of his lonely life (am I getting sentimental now?). We see a big, broken man with swollen fingers and tattooed hands trapped in a small trailer, boasting about his fist fights, drinking alcohol from a five-litre jug, slowly losing grip, but still with a flickering light on his dashboard that says hope. Or is it a button? Can you turn hope up or down as if it were the volume of a song? I guess that making a video like this is a testament to having hope, an exercise in searching for that button and then turning it up a notch.
* As Rowena Buur does not fully identify him/herself as male or female, the writer has chosen to flip the switch between he and she, and him and her, throughout the article.
Yuri Veerman is an artist, designer and performer who lives and works in Amsterdam. Through posters, books, videos, websites, campaigns, flags and performances, he tells seemingly simple stories about an increasingly complex world. Yuri also teaches Graphic Design at HKU University of the Arts, Utrecht.