PreTeen, Post-Coma

by Harry Burke

Flatland is a social satire by Edwin Abbott Abbott, published in 1884. The book describes a world of only two dimensions, in which each character is a different class of geometric shape, and is narrated by a pseudonymous ‘Square’. One day,  the Square is visited by a Sphere from Spaceland, a world that has three dimensions. The Sphere visits Flatland every millennium in an attempt to introduce a new apostle to the idea of the third dimension. Plot spoiler: the Sphere convinces the Square of the existence of the third dimension by  showing it Spaceland. In a moment of enlightenment, the Square is, however, unable to convince the Sphere in return that there might be, theoretically, a fourth dimension, or a fifth, or sixth, or so on into infinity. Returning to Flatland, the Square is unable to convince any of its inhabitants of the existence of Spaceland, either. The Square is eventually imprisoned for its madness.

Abbott Abbott was an English theologian, as well as a schoolmaster, and the novella can be read as an allegory of belief and spiritual transcendence in an increasingly rationalised and class-structured Victorian society. Yet in our own secular, financialised society, it might also be taken as an allegory for the flatness of contemporary art, where all objects or experiences can be reduced to images shared between different hierarchies of Facebook friends, collectors and museum directors.

When you look at Preteen Gallery’s website it states that they are “now based in planet gay 5th dimension.” Preteen Gallery is a small contemporary arts space founded in Mexico in 2008 by Gerardo Contreras. It was originally based in Hermosillo, a town in northwest Mexico, before relocating to Mexico City in 2011. Since 2013, it has been roaming, working on offsite projects in Athens, Belgrade, Madrid and London (most recently curating the show ‘it’s been four years since 2010’ at Arcadia Missa), as well as participating in art fairs internationally. You maybe know it for its Twitter presence @preteengallery, which falls between art, poetry and Weird Twitter circles, all gay, all internet, all high and all day.

It would be tempting to think of Preteen as like the Square in Abbott’s novella; we don’t know where it’s been but we know it’s trying to tell us something. Yet the gallery is also like the triangles in the book – squares have a tendency to fit in, whereas the shape of the triangle is more disruptive. Isosceles triangles are soldiers and workmen, with only two congruent sides. An equilateral triangle symbolises the craftsman class. Triangle-shaped houses are banned by the ruling powers, as they are afraid that careless travellers will run into their corners and get hurt.

When we were hardcore, before we were cute

An art opening,, Hermosillo, 2008. Artie Vierkant, with a tussle of red hair and a hard drive full of DVD-ripped films, drives down from San Diego. Petra Cortright, playing with video software on her ThinkPad, flies in from Berlin. Cédric Fargues is there dressed up, singing Madonna with his friends from LA. Bea Fremderman is talking with Hazel Hill McCarthy III about psychedelics. Luis Miguel Bendaña is the only one walking around looking at the art. The local scene are there, too. Someone’s trying to convince someone else to urinate in the sink, so they can take a picture of it. Gerardo Contreras (aka Brokeback Hermosillo) is louche, hands behind his back, offering people beer, saying wouldn’t it be great to screen some porn, like a gallery screening – films by the porn director Joe Gage have never been screened before. Carlos Laszlo and Abdul Vas are somewhere in the parking lot.

None of this is true, but this is a moment when a number of similar stories originated… Preteen Gallery opened its doors to the world in December 2008 in a street in the northeastern suburb of Hermosillo, two blocks from the hospital and a cybercafé. Recklessly symbolic, Contreras had spray-painted “PRETEEN” in bright red block capitals above and down the right hand side of the doorframe. Nine months later, in September 2009, Aids-3d curated the ‘AFK Sculpture Park (Away From Keyboard)’ in Kreuzberg, Berlin, a show that propelled a generation of internet artists away from Flickr and online surf clubs and into a newly networked conception of sculptural practices – and towards the art market’s impending jaws. In March 2009, Aids-3d showed at Preteen Gallery with ‘OMG AND WTF’, an exhibition that spanned video, animation, sound, image and text to explore relations between pagan ritual, rave culture and cultural distribution on the internet. And in June 2010, Petra Cortright had her first exhibition at Preteen, of video work and small landscape renderings. Hers was also the first show at Preteen’s new Mexico City site in April 2011, with a show entitled SO WET, which displayed her digital landscapes printed on silk.

But back, for a moment, to Contreras. He moved to Mexico City to follow a job and rented a flat that was within walking distance from his new workplace. Upon trying to find black or dark brown enamel for the flat’s floor, he said, “Wait, no, give me white enamel please,” and painted it bright white. Preteen Mexico City was born. As artists were finding new ways to distribute their work and forging communities online, many were quick to utilise social media and use their networking capital as a fresh type of trading power in the art world. However, away from cultural centres and market-led discussions, there was also a sense of being able to expand collaborations and networks across different territories and of the idea that there might be new ways or places to show new types of art. Preteen was at the centre of that network and at its edge at the same time; too hot for you but already inside you.

At Material Art Fair in Mexico City in February 2014 there was a panel discussion entitled ‘Is Mexico City A New Berlin?’ “Of course not,” says Contreras, when I ask him about it. “There’s no Turkish cock in Mexico City.”

In 2012 Preteen stopped working with “new media” or “net art” artists,  and decided to continue their focus on film, painting and photography instead. Preteen was among a wave of galleries who were learning how to have 15 people attend an opening and hundreds look at the documentation online, but the work they showed didn’t necessarily satisfy any algorithm of these viewers’ tastes. A solo show by Mike Paré in 2009 explored 1960s rebellion, collectivity and mythology through ink drawings – a look back at the culture that the contemporary tech boom evolved out of, however bastardised it has become. Abdul Vas, who the gallery has worked with a number of times, meanwhile, builds his practice around a seemingly interminable study of the rock band AC/DC. Rendered through birds, hats, the colours red and black, and the ominous presence of American corporate rock culture, the work is mainstream while flippantly rejective of the mainstream at the same time.

“I’m wicked underground”

In March 1973, CERFI (the Centre d’Etudes, de Recherches et de Formation Institutionnelles) published a special issue of its journal, Recherches, devoted to homosexuality in France. ‘Three Billions Pervert: A Grand Encyclopedia of Homosexualities’, as the issue was named, was edited by activist and schizoanalyst Félix Guattari, and featured contributions by Gilles Deleuze, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Jean Genet and Guy Hocquenghem, among others. The contributions were all anonymous, although a list of contributors was included, so you weren’t sure whether an interview with Marie France or a schoolboyish drawing of a penis could be attributed to Foucault or to Genet. The issue was quickly banned for its references to masturbation and paedophilia, although a copy resurfaced online in 2002 (it has since been taken down).

In his 1976 cult classic Diary of An Innocent (republished by Semiotext(e) in 2010), Tony Duvert introduces his reader to an unnamed protagonist living in an unnamed city in what resembles North Africa. Here, attempting to escape the moral policing of western culture (“Call it winter in this world without seasons; my friends desert me; living weighs more heavily”), the protagonist fulfills his nights and his sexual desires with an unceasing chase for young boys. Not boys who look like young boys, but prepubescent boys. Duvert’s is a politics of pleasure: there’s no question of what constitutes the object of this pleasure, and no sense of guilt for finding it.

However, if there is indeed an ‘innocent’ in the book, as the title suggests, it is not the young boys who are tenderly and pornographically described, neither is it any of the animals who the narrator also attempts to have sex with. Rather, it is the narrator himself who is suggested to be the most innocent, because he is breaking himself away from the reproductive process, and desires the only subjects in French society that have full ownership of their bodies, the lower class street boys who roam around in almost full autonomy from their family or from the state. Duvert further argues in his non-fiction book Good Sex Illustrated, it is the cultural institutions we sanctify the most – the rearing of children, education, the family, our legal and medical systems, the clergy, marriage – which are the most violent. His translator, Bruce Benderson, explains in the introduction to the 2010 edition: “The raising of children, as [Duvert] sees it, is a ruthless commandeering of their impulses and the capitalisation of their bodies by an enslaving process of marketability.” In other words, it’s the idea that you’re not born innocent but, in opposition to normative logic, can still claim innocence in rejection of this moral order.

The same writers and philosophers who were involved in these radical initiatives of the 1970s are today revered in the Academy and reproduced in press releases and artists’ statements across the art world. It is equally in complicity with these structures that Preteen Gallery emerges. “THE MAIN THEME OF THE WORKS OF BRITNEY SPEARS IS THE COMMON GROUND BETWEEN CLASS AND SOCIETY. HOWEVER, AN ABUNDANCE OF SUBLIMATIONS CONCERNING THE ROLE OF THE POET AS ARTIST MAY BE DISCOVERED,” reads one press release, in full caps, for the show ‘VHS AIDS’, featuring Petra Cortright, Duncan Malashock and Rafael Rozendaal in June 2010. This is French theory translated badly into English that reads as if it was typed up by an intern at a gallery, re-appropriated without irony by a native Spanish speaker living just south of the US-Mexico drug wars, fluent in the (emergent) language of bots. It’s Britney Spears being deconstructed by Deleuze, as if Britney Spears was a post-Cold War invention of a paranoiac Deleuze, bordering on Žižekian nonsense. “IN HEAVEN ON EARTH, SPEARS EXAMINES CAPITALIST DESUBLIMATION; IN CIRCUS, HOWEVER, SHE DECONSTRUCTS SUBCAPITALIST CONSTRUCTIVIST THEORY… IN A SENSE, ANY NUMBER OF RELFECTIONS CONCERNING SUBCAPITALIST CONSTRUCTIVIST THEORY MAY BE REVEALED.”

Isn’t all contemporary culture a post-Cold War delusion of the paranoiac Deleuze? How can there be a counterculture when Britney Spears has more followers than Petra Cortright? Preteen’s lineage runs parallel to small, insider histories like Blow De La Barra gallery and White Cubicle Toilet Gallery in London, the anti-commercialism of  American Fine Arts in New York, the spirit of magazines like La Tempestad or Néctar in Mexico (both edited by Óscar Benassini), old Peres Projects shows in LA and Berlin, and Maurizio Cattelan’s The Wrong Gallery. “All these people were doing whatever the fuck they felt like doing, [it’s] very inspiring,” Contreras tells me. Real Fine Arts and Peres Projects are among the better galleries you might see at Basel these days. Pablo León de la Barra (Blow De La Barra and White Cubicle) is a curator at the Guggenheim. Massimiliano Gioni, who set up The Wrong Gallery, with Cattelan, curated the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013.  

Contreras is currently in Nogales, in northern Mexico, right by the border, as far as I can tell. Because of its proximity to Arizona, Nogales has become one of the largest providers of medical dental care in Mexico for patients from the US, with services that are just as competent as those of its northern neighbour, yet with prices between 40 and 60% cheaper. It is also estimated that over 80% of the US’s produce passes through this town every year. And it’s one of the top 10 most common foreign destinations for a US citizen to get arrested, according to statistics released by the U.S. State Department in 2006. Contreras messages me: “The idea of PRETEEN here is making my dick so hard.” No gallery’s born innocent, but maybe they can still become so.

Pure me from my fantasy
But Preteen Gallery isn’t really hardcore like Duvert or Deleuze or Guattari. It’s hardcore in a way that a New Inquiry editor might be into; hardcore in a way that’s full of self-referentiality and Twitter jokes. But then no one wants to be hardcore like these modern French philosophers anymore, if they were even hardcore at all. In a recent interview, Joe Gage said: “In general, people have much more ethics in hardcore than in the real world.” Queer theory has come along way from fantasies about Arab boys, and the traditional ethical dilemma of rejection or affirmation seems increasingly less applicable to art as it comes to realise it is not a place of exemption from the realities and problems of the social world.     How then do we find a space that sits between rejection and affirmation? A space that can be contemporary in its outlook and working practices, but also maintains a link to the countercultural strategies of the previous century?

Preteen mines these radical histories and re-performs them, if to no other end than revealing how the history was actively performed in the first place; performed as in invented, improvised, messed around with, like drag. At the same time, it has provided a space for emerging artists of this century to work out how to perform themselves, and a space where they can work this out in proximity to these histories. And they’ve managed to do this without concession to the art market. Preteen’s anti-commercial stance is one that operates right in the middle of the market infrastructure: for example, installing work at an art fair and then not manning the booth for four days. The new ethics of the art world is one of progressive galleries’ survival in this infrastructure. “Gilles Deleuze or Félix Guattari?” I ask Contreras, finally. “Nick Land and post-crunk,” he replies.


Photograph by Preteen Gallery

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