The origins of this project probably go back to Our Lady Queen of Angels school. If you wanted to get out of class early, or go on a field trip, you had to get your parents to sign the slip. Our glamorous school secretary, Mrs. Motter, kept the book of pink permission slips behind the desk in the front office. She was a real-world Dolly Parton, curvy and perfumed with long press-on nails and a blonde Aqua-netted updo. Mrs. Motter was the one who distributed the slips, but Sister Linda, our nun-principal, was the final authority. She was tall and stern and a little bit scary, and once I saw her squeegeeing the tops of the lunch tables after a rainy night.
Growing up as a closeted gay boy in Catholic school, prohibition was a more familiar concept than permission. I remember anxiously parsing the distinctions between mortal and venial sins, unable to fathom how a soft-eyed, honey-haired Jesus could condemn me to hellfire for skipping Sunday mass or touching myself under the sheets. Repentance was an option, but if you died before making your confession, you were toast for eternity.
Our closets, of course, can be various. Though I had been out as a gay man for fifteen years when I began this project, the boy who used to melt crayons in his mother’s saucepan, pouring layers of colored wax over household objects to create “sculptures,” was still hiding in there. This is the boy who imitated William Wegman by taking pictures of his Golden Retriever in homemade costumes and sets, the aspiring artist whose book reports were invariably accompanied by elaborate shoebox dioramas. I can still see a tiny cemetery illustrating a scene from a Nancy Drew mystery: the mound of dirt scooped from the garden, the tiny cardboard headstone.
Midway through college, I dropped my Fine Arts major and switched to English, and then I followed this trajectory through a Master’s degree in Poetry and into a doctoral program in English at the CUNY Graduate Center. But the younger Matthew never stopped knocking on the door, so when I discovered Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s course listed in the CUNY bulletin—“How to Do Things With Words and Other Materials,” my pulse quickened. Permission to open the door.
Doctoral students are not always on a first name basis with their professors, but everyone called Eve Eve. That is not to say the she didn’t inspire reverence. At the time of her death (following a long battle with cancer) in 2009, Eve was one of the most prestigious members of the faculty, a brilliant thinker and writer widely recognized as one of the creators of Queer Theory. She was also approachable and warm, and she actually held “How to Do Things” in her Chelsea apartment.
Eve had converted her one-bedroom flat into a kind of art camp for PhD students, and within this confined space, she managed to squeeze two picnic tables and a collection of meticulously-organized shelves and cabinets of supplies: old magazines, postcard collections, stamp sets, watercolors, markers, beads, stickers, sheets of colored felt, fabric swatches, pipe cleaners, you name it. My permission blog began in this room as a small series of slips that I stapled together during one of our class meetings. It happened by chance: I lifted an old illustrated card from a box labeled “ephemera.” On it, two Roman soldiers hold hands in matching red skirts. I combined this with other found images and paired them with permission-themed captions; then I stapled the stack into a “book” and shared it with the class. I liked idea of giving them away like valentines, or sticks of gum. Here, have some.
Later I realized that Eve had planted this seed of “permission” already. In the footnote to her groundbreaking essay “A Poem is Being Written,” which is part childhood memoir, part literary theory, part a call for cultural discourse around female anal eroticism, Eve wrote: “Part of the motivation behind my work…has been a fantasy that readers or hearers would be variously–in anger, identification, pleasure, envy, ‘permission,’ exclusion–stimulated to write accounts ‘like’ this one (whatever that means) of their own, and share those.” The notion that one could transmit permission in this way rang a bell in me, and here she was, giving us free reign to “make and do” as we pleased. Permission was an important aspect of Eve’s pedagogy and scholarship, but it was also an act of friendship and respect.
All of this began in Eve’s course in the Spring of 2008, and around the same time, I was obsessed with a pop-up Polaroid Land Camera that I had found in a cabinet in my parents’ house. It used SX-70 film, the classic, super-saturated Polaroids that Walker Evans and Andy Warhol made famous. At the crossroads of Polaroid’s decline and the rise of the iPhone, I grieved the loss of the photograph as object (still do), but I saw no other choice but to go digital. A friend turned me on to Shakeit Photo–one of the first apps of its kind to give phone-photos a Polaroid resonance, including a wheezing sound effect and the gradual appearance of the image. It gave less fetishistic pleasure—no shiny souvenir to hold in the hand—but I glimpsed other possibilities. Digital images are infinitely easier to circulate. So, in the summer of 2009, more than a year before Instagram was released, I began posting these “permission slips” to a blog as a daily meditation. It was designed to be a daily practice of taking pictures and writing a line of permission to go with the image, and since my first post in September 2009, I have followed with over 700 slips to date.
Within two years of my first post, Instagram had made the daily practice of taking pictures and writing captions ubiquitous. Whatever novelty my project had possessed was now in question—in a way, everyone is now doing it. We are glutted with snapshots of our friends’ and strangers’ daily lives, and my project seemed like yet another feed of images – except for the “permission” part, which is what got me started in the first place. Permission to keep going.