The Movement Lab in the Milstein Center hosted the exhibit “Gender* in the Archives” from October 3 through October 6, creating a space to record aspects of the transgender and gender queer experience. Guest writer Sofia Montagna attended the exhibit.

The Movement Lab in the Milstein Center was created to be a space for “experimentation and exploration at the intersection of movement, performance, and technology.” A sign on the door tells passers-by that it welcomes all races, religions, countries of origin, sexual orientations, genders, and abilities—and, below these words, reads, “We stand with you/You are safe here.” It was the perfect place for the exhibit it held—“Gender* in the Archives”—a multimedia installation in which images and text were projected on the walls and on the floor of the room, and a speaker played recordings of accounts by Barnard alumni and students about their experiences with gender at Barnard. 

Upon entering the room, viewers were required to take off their shoes—creating a comfortable, free environment—and were free to interact with the space as they wished; some people chose to sit on couches near the entrance, some sat on the floor, and some wandered throughout the space.

On one of the walls of the room, text was projected detailing the creators of the exhibit’s definition of an archive—that an archive is “a collection of materials subjectively considered to hold historical value” and “is not a politically neutral site”—thus setting the tone for the rest of the exhibit. On another wall, images and videos of gender nonbinary couples were projected along with quotes from students and alumni. On the ground, various definitions of what it meant to be transgender were displayed: at times, viewers read, “to be trans is to be myself,” at others, “to be trans is to be free,” and, sometimes, “to be trans is to be home.”  However, the installation was as much an auditory learning experience as it was a visual one: recordings of members of the gender nonbinary community talking about their views on gender and the struggles those that don’t conform to stereotypes face played throughout the exhibition. In one person’s interview, they said that they didn’t believe that there was a “nugget” of gender inside anyone—rather, that gender was fluid, and those who are gender queer have simply chosen to “call something out in themselves to make life a little bit more spicy.” Another speaker shared that, in their experience, the Health Center at Barnard was mainly equipped to assist the needs of cisgender straight women, and thus far less equipped to assist nonbinary members of our community.

The combined effect of these elements of this installation was the creation of a space of empowerment, safety, reflection, and meaning. The presence of empowering quotes displayed in large text on the walls along with people sharing their stories of what gender fluidity means to them and how it helps them become the best version of themselves made the event a place of empowerment for people who identify as gender nonconforming as well as for those who are questioning their gender identities. The creators of the exhibit also reserved the space for trans and nonbinary students on Monday, October 3 from 6 to 7pm, thus intensifying this empowering environment by creating a time in which the exhibit could be a safe space for trans and nonbinary members of the Barnard and Columbia community to gather. Additionally, many speakers talking about the ways in which nonbinary Barnard students are marginalized—from “othering” on campus to the absence of transgender and nonbinary narratives in the archive to the requirement that applicants to Barnard check a box verifying that they live and identify as a woman—created a meaningful environment for reflection on our campus’s culture that has the potential to spark change.

This multimedia installation’s focus on recording aspects of the trans and gender queer experience that are conspicuously absent from the archives is particularly important for the Barnard community because, while Barnard advertises itself to prospective students as a school focused on empowerment, it is still in many ways stuck in the gender confines of the past: Barnard was the last one of the Seven Sisters Schools to make its admissions policy inclusive of trans women (in 2015), and the pamphlet for the event reported that transgender students have “consistently described their experiences across interactions with peers, professors, and the administration as isolating and othering.” Furthermore, one of the central messages of this exhibition—that absence has a presence—can be related to the narratives of other minority communities as well. By calling attention to what the absence of a minority group’s stories from documentation signals about the institution that omits such narratives, “Gender* in the Archives” can be interpreted as a signal to re-assess the archives to ensure that they are inclusive of all minority groups’ stories, as well as the practices of our school as a whole.

Images by Sofia Montagna