CrocoDykes Bite Back: Janie Stamm at Granite City Art and Design District
The LGBTQ movement and environmentalism are inspired and driven by a vision of sustainability, whether it be more sustainable social, political, and economic conditions for queer folk or a greener, eco-friendlier lifestyle aimed at protecting the planet. The queer and environmental movements also both respond to erasure; be it culturally, systemically, or physically, erasure is a process against which environmental and queer activists organize. With the current presidential administration defining gender as determined biologically while concurrently seeking to dismantle environmental progress made in preceding years, both queer identities and the coastline are threatened. As such, members of the LGBTQ community are frequently at the forefront of environmental activism, including Florida-born, Saint Louis-based artist Janie Stamm.
Many cultural theorists argue that the current environmental crisis is caused primarily by the Western tradition of separating nature and culture. Stamm’s work, however, brings the two together. Although currently residing in Saint Louis, Stamm is a Florida-native. Much discussion concerning climate change in the US revolves around Florida and other coastal states as sea-levels rise at a rate of one inch every three years. Steeped in fear brought about by a dying planet, Stamm cites her work as a reaction to what she has characterized as the “impending doom” of climate change. Her work specifically focuses on the documentation of queer histories in the face of natural disaster, prioritizing what is frequently peripheral.
Stamm’s work was on view in the Granite City Arts and Design District (G-CADD) in Granite City, Illinois as part of Exhibition #18: Girl / Boy Hyper Nation (October 26 – December 7, 2018). Featured in the exhibition, CrocoDykes Bite Back (Figure 1, “Variation”), is a handsewn red vest with bold black lettering that is decorated with the green, serpentine crocodiles that are native to the state of Florida. Stamm’s work asserts queer agency within the environmentalist movement. The slogan, “CrocoDykes Bite Back,” reframes the rally cry of “pussy bites back,” a cautionary aphorism targeted at abusive men that emerged during the 2016 presidential campaign, as a queer environmentalist declaration. Stamm’s choice of the crocodile as the mascot for such a movement is more than apt. Although the status of the crocodile on a global level is still listed as endangered, the outlook for the crocodile population in Florida is optimistic given recent sustainability efforts. Because effective protections of the reptiles as well as their nesting habitats have been put into place, the number of crocodiles in Florida are happily on the rise, according to the National Park Agency.
The crocodile also has underlying connections to the LGBTQ movement. Unlike mammals, the sex of a crocodile, and many other reptiles, is not established chromosomally at the time of fertilization. Sex, in the case of the crocodile, is exclusively shaped by the environment. After an egg has been laid by the female, it is the temperature at which the egg incubates that determines the sex of the animal. Temperatures of 88 to 91 degrees Fahrenheit produce mostly male offspring, and temperatures lower than 88 degrees result in mostly females. Consequently, there is no genetic predisposition for the embryo of a crocodile to develop as male or female and the embryo does not technically have a sex at all until it enters the thermosensitive period of its development. Crocodiles, therefore, broaden the range of sexual behaviors articulated in nature, disrupting and defying the biologically-based narrative put forward by heterosexist politicians.
Another layer of meaning is revealed in Stamm’s use of the crocodile symbol in her work. Climate change has a profound impact upon the sexual reproduction of crocodiles and other animals whose sex is determined by the environment. Since lower temperatures result in mostly female crocodiles, hotter incubation temperatures might shape reproduction trends that favor the development of male crocodiles. Other reptiles are conversely affected by climate change. Rising temperatures, for example, could trigger a mostly-female population of sea turtles. At its most destructive, climate change could also render the environment inhospitable to egg incubation, drastically lowering the number of crocodile and other reptile hatchlings overall. If able to survive hotter temperatures during the incubation period, scientific studies still show that the cognitive abilities of those reptiles are negatively affected, or put more simply, a hotter planet literally makes dumber lizards that are less likely to survive. These changes could adversely affect reproduction rates overall within reptilian species.
On the front of Stamm’s vest is a small pocket with the number “88” sewn in black lettering. 1988 is the year that Stamm was born, lending a personal tone to the piece, but with unintended additional significance. In 1988, National Coming Out Day was founded at the peak years of the period commonly referred to as the Gay Liberation movement, the start date of which is frequently recognized as beginning with the Stonewall riots in 1969. The cultural work done during these years helped give rise to a socially-conscious generation of activists. Stamm’s work in the area of queer environmentalism is evidence of this fact. National Coming Out Day, and other social measures formed to intervene in the erasure of queer folk, is about increasing visibility and creating a more sustainable life for all human-beings. However, as Janie’s work argues, these advances must coincide with environmental sustainability as well.
Janie Stamm’s work was on view in the Granite City Arts and Design District (G-CADD) in Granite City, Illinois as part of Exhibition #18: Girl / Boy Hyper Nation, October 26 – December 7, 2018.
Photo courtesy of the artist.