A Safe Place to Pee Art Installation by Harley Kirschner
If there’s one thing I can count on Albuquerque for is some good art. The 505 supports many visual, written, and spoken word artists. Many of the residents make statements with their art, like Harley Kirschner with his Installation piece A Safe Place to Pee.
Harley is Trans. I met him at the Three Sisters Kitchen during the ABQ Zine Fest 2018. He and his support people were just a few tables down from me. I took the time to read his zine and it sent chills down my spine. Just the bravery of telling his truth, and talking about the dead person – the person he never was, the person he had to be in order to survive. It turned my veins icy.
Harley lived a life as a skilled laborer and carried with him a real fear of being found out he wasn’t a “real” man. He found safety in being one of the tough ones. Someone who could handle pipe fitting and welding with no sweat. Someone who, when confronted with the signs hesitates picking which bathroom to go into, but dives into the Men’s anyway.
A Safe Place cites the 2016 North Carolina ruling that stated a person must be of the same sex that is on their legally issued identification card to use the corresponding toilet. And while this might be a trivial thing for one person, for someone like Harley and myself, who live in constant fear of which direction to go, left or right. Women’s or Men’s, it becomes a battleground. And this installation captures that feeling.
These days we have the blessed unisex bathrooms, signified by a sign with both sexes. They keep popping up everywhere. I’ve been driving the same routes to and from Arizona and Kansas for many years, and I’ve noticed improvements along the way. The biggest change for a weary traveling non-binary gender person is the “Family” restroom, where adults can take their younger charges to pee together, and non-binaries can pee in peace. And while not as safe as a both signs bathroom, it comes close.
Part of my exploring Albuquerque was visiting Winning Coffee where the Installation resides. I wanted to stand in this space that Harley transformed by blowing up the text and layering text and image over each other ala Zine making techniques. Other pieces were just a few words with lots of white against the stark, black background. I felt like I was in some kind of Temple, a personal diary of someone seeking solace from their daily torment, the constant reminder that you are just pretending. You aren’t a real boy.
I didn’t really know that I had that many feels about the bathroom gender issue. I’ve fought it all my life, from the time I was little “Hey little boy, you can’t go in there,” not knowing that my mom who had to use crutches to walk was in a stall and I was protecting her. It was a job I was proud of. But my mom kept my hair short and I looked like one of those angelic blond haired boys that always get in trouble but never get blamed.
As I experienced the art, feelings bubbled to the surface. I just stared as words like ‘restrict” and “hidden people” and I could relate. Conjuring up unpleasant images of non-conforming throughout my life.
Breaking the rules is breaking the rules. I stood there understanding the kind of iron will it takes to put out pieces like this one. Knowing that the patrons of that particular cafe will be encountering this work every time they go pee. They will be reminded. Much like we are on a daily basis that bathroom politics will exist as long as we have a binary gender society. And that does make me feel very angry.
Brilliant work Harley. Keep making art!
UPDATE JUNE 2021, STILL THE PANDEMIC
As I wandered through the website, fixing things here and there, updating it, I found that the coffee house Winning Coffee is closed for good. I don’t know if Harley’s installation survived. So please don’t plan to go see this art.
It does make me sad, but so many places closed over last year, 2020.
This is a post written freely without any compensation from either artist or coffee house.