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Sex in the public eye


By Caitlyn Spencer

Precious few art exhibits start off with distribution of a course package. But PopSex!, an interdisciplinary project focused on the early 20th century circulation of sexual images in the public sphere, started with Annette Timm and Michael Thomas Taylor doing just that (more or less).

“Our goal was not to make the artists do things a certain way, but to make the material easily accessible,” says Timm, an associate professor in history. “In some senses, we were the artists’ research assistants.”

Timm, an associate professor in history, and Taylor, an assistant professor in German, carried their reluctance to limit interpretation into the aesthetics of the exhibit. Images and videos produced by the artists were on the walls, but the scholarly explanations of the archival material to which this art responded were presented as “footnotes” in a brochure distributed to visitors.

“We thought it was important that visitors have the information,” says Taylor, “but we wanted to let them experience the images and make connections themselves.”

The project has won Timm and Taylor one of four inaugural Distinguished Research Awards from the Faculty of Arts. They share the credit with Andreas Puskeiler, the exhibition’s concept and graphic designer, and with Wayne Baerwaldt, the curator of the Illingworth Kerr Gallery at ACAD, together with the gallery staff and a team of advisors and contributors.

PopSex! was focused on the research done at Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science, destroyed by the Nazis in 1933. Hirschfeld was a prominent advocate for the rights of sexual minorities, and coined terms such as “transsexual,” still a common part of discourse today.

“We still use these words and categories,” says Taylor. “We wanted to look at the conversation between then and now.” He and Timm pointed out the relevance of Hirschfeld’s work to contemporary issues such as the funding of gender reassignment surgery in Alberta, and the rash of teen suicides related to sexual bullying across North America.

Far from done with PopSex!’s subject matter, Timm and Taylor view the exhibition as only the beginning of a much larger project. “There’s not enough discussion about how sex fits into the public sphere,” says Timm.

PopSex’s conference papers and a catalogue of its art are currently being sent to press, and Timm and Taylor have applied for a SSHRC grant to look into the influence of the Institute of Sex Research on American sexology, including the Kinsey Institute.