Firewalking: The Institute of Queer Ecology on Fire Island
"A queer ecological practice demands that we see ourselves in community with other species, instead of above them."
Reflecting on a research residency they ran on Fire Island in 2019, the Institute of Queer Ecology (IQECO) takes the barrier island as a case study to etch an understanding of “Queer Contemporary Island Biography”. Lee Pivnik writes on behalf of IQECO, responding in part to the Serpentine Podcast, Back to Earth: Queer Currents episode.
As part of the BOFFO Fire Island Residency, the Institute of Queer Ecology came together as a rotating cohort of 22 artists, writers, biologists, dancers, birders, curators, and poets to learn about the island’s unique socio-ecological history and collectively map an empathic display of research.
Fire Island is a windswept barrier island and it owes its existence, in part, to the grasses that root into sandy substrate: forming dunes over the span of years, and laying the foundation for terrestrial life, terrestrial love and terrestrial lust to sprout alongside these primary producers. As wind rushes over the island from the Atlantic Ocean, it animates their blades, and the grasses scrape a circular etching around their wingspan, like a person making a snow angel. Announcing their presence, forming Venn diagrams with their neighbors, mapping their bodies, temporarily.
Not far down the beach, the American writer, poet, and art critic Frank O’Hara’s life came to a premature end, when he was laying in the sand in the early morning hours and was struck by a Jeep. So many of his works continue to resonate on the shore here.
When your left arm twitches
it’s like sunlight on sugar
to me and my tongue seeks
the sea of your skin, it’s oily
calm of green light on the floor
of the ocean
as in parting,
there’s a flutter between us
while I haul down a flag and
you look absently out of
my heart so you won’t see
what light one fears in the
sea that I don’t want you
to know is of you in me
For decades, countless queer people have flocked to this narrow beach, fleeing their day-to-day routines for some temporary escapism. Many of them we know by name, others we feel ancestrally, when stumbling down the boardwalks after midnight, or when floating on our backs, staring at the sun. Some folks come in search of a summer fling, or the feeling of liberation that comes from being wholly surrounded by other queer people. What also greets everyone arriving is a rich multispecies community, a setting that many remark is one of the drivers that keep them returning each season.
Walking from the Atlantic Coast, north towards Great South Bay, you’ll begin on the shoreline where the waves spit on your ankles, as frothing seafoam brushes over seashells and tidewrack. You’ll cross over the beach grasses, which stabilize the primary dune, an elevated ridge running parallel to the ocean, mainly supporting low-lying, salt resistant shrubs. Behind the first dune is swale, an area more sheltered from the kiss of the sea, where dense thickets of herbaceous plants like beach plum, Virginia creeper and poison ivy grow. This shrubland, sandwiched between the communities of Fire Island Pines and Cherry Grove is known as the Meat Rack (although officially named the Judy Garland Memorial Pathway) and it’s the main artery between Fire Island’s two historically LGBTQ+ communities.
It’s the most interesting socio-ecological site on the island, where generations of men have broken branches, tamped down grass and carved out trails amongst the trees while establishing this forest as a mecca for cruising. This has resulted in a sprawling trace fossil where gay men have carved out so much space for themselves that it’s become imprinted on the landscape. Continuing Northwest, you’ll encounter the Sunken Forest, another sheltered zone behind dunes, where tall forests of sassafras, serviceberry, American Holly and other hardwoods thrive amongst small freshwater ponds, mosses, ferns and other bog species. Finally, the forest meets the salt-marsh, and ultimately the bay. Here, on moonlit summer nights, the horseshoe crabs seethe onto the shores, coming up from depths to fuck in swams on the beach, bringing with them some of the energy O’Hara describes as “the oily calm of green light on the floor of the ocean”. By dawn, many of their overturned carapaces will be scattered in the sand.
Across the island, the human and nonhuman communities are engaged in a multitude of their own complex mating behaviors. On Fire Island, there are many worlds. While the Absolut-sponsored Pines Party shuttle arrives for an all-night “Island of the Lost Boys”-themed extravaganza, the nocturnal snapping turtles that live in the scum-covered pond beneath the boardwalk may be coming out of their mud-burrows, searching for a mate as they navigate using the Earth’s magnetic field.
In 2019, I was part of a group of twenty two Artists that worked as the Insitute of Queer Ecology (IQECO) to lead a research-intensive on Fire Island as part of the BOFFO Fire Island Residency. In addition to its historic queer community, Fire Island’s other defining feature is its designation as a national seashore and subsequent wildlife preserve. IQECO sought to understand how the human and more-than-human communities collectively create a kind of utopia (or at least, a very magical vacation spot).
As a starting point for our research, we looked towards E.O. Wilson, famed sociobiologist and ecologist, who published the “Theory on Island Biogeography” in 1967, asserting how multispecies communities reach a state of balance. His book details experiments in the Florida Keys that required simulating a localised extinction, sealing and gassing a small mangrove island to obliterate the ecosystem and then record the rate and diversity of species arriving back to recolonise the island. The book became a seminal work of the early ecology movement and still influences how people think about the balance of nature, harmony and equilibrium today.
In contrast to that unabashadly human-centric way of working, the Institute of Queer Ecology conducted its research by relying on significantly more passive means of observation. A queer ecological practice demands that we see ourselves in community with other species, instead of above them. Our cohort had conversations with rangers of the National Parks Service, who told us about their favorite queer instances across species on the island, like the time three Blue Jays built a nest together and raised a chick in the forest to the east of us. We had conversations with residents, who had seen the population of deer surge over recent years and considered them pests. We had conversations with each other, identifying how the particular kind of beach-modernist architecture was inhospitable to migrating birds. Homes across Fire Island Pines featured huge glass panes that opened up your life to your neighbors, making the private both public and performative, but all this glass was an issue for birds, who often collided into these windows.
Working on the Island, we presented two nature walks as part of our research. The first of which brought a group of about thirty attendees on a late-night hike to see the Horseshoe crab orgy in the bay. The second, was an early-morning birding trip to Talisman Beach, where two of our collaborators from the Feminist Bird Club, Molly Adams and Tristan Higgenbotham, helped attendees spot thirty-six species, including a Glossy Ibis, Eastern Kingbird and even an escaped domestic Cockatiel.
As the sun set on the last night of our residency, the Institute of Queer Ecology translated the mating rituals of five species found on Fire Island, including some from our favorite oral histories collected on the island, like the bluejay throuple and other behaviours we observed first hand, like the horseshoe crab orgy and a snapping turtle duet. These translations, taking the form of mark-making in the sand, were performed in five movement phrases on the beach and accompanied by a live score of music with field recordings responding to the island’s natural and social ecologies—tidal shifts and pop cultures mixing with animal tracks and seduction rituals.
Looking back now, a year later, the experience of Fire Island feels a world apart from our current condition of physical distancing. But I hold the island close in my heart, knowing that it, with all its messy flaws, is important to queer culture because it’s physical evidence that another world is possible. Is it a fully realised utopia? No way. While it has slowly shifted to be more intersectionality queer in recent years, it’s still very white, very male and very concerned with body image. It’s someone’s utopia, but for the Institute of Queer Ecology the Island at large was more of a case study – a facinating confluence of queer history, environmental concerns, and other species that are leading parallel lives on the same skinny stretch of sand.
Our residency, however, felt very utopic. It left me feeling so empowered, so hopeful for the future, so grateful to have shared space with nearly two-dozen other artists that were grounded in the same ethos as myself. We keep the memory of Fire Island close now as we continue to dream of a future where the Institute of Queer Ecology can lay-down roots and create a more permanent opportunity for site-specific collaboration, without the timelines, demands, restrictions that are far to familiar under capitalism.
As we dream up what role IQECO can play in creating these opportunities, it’s helpful to reflect back on Macarena Gómez-Barris’ contribution to the Serpentine Podcast, Back to Earth: Queer Currents episode, in which she describes thinking of her concept of submerged perspectives alongside the actions that “those seeking spaces outside of the purvey of capitalism are already doing so to tether ourselves to each other” and the place those actions have in the long history in queer theory, defining what it means to be in relation to each other. What actions do we need to take to find each other, to hold each other and to work with each other to resist the forces that kept us apart (from each other, and the more-than-human world) in the first place? Jack Halberstam adds that one of the main barriers to creating the world we want to be in is that all mainstream attempts to produce this world are moving forward through our current apocalypse, attempting to make it incrementally better for each other, for other species, while leaving the mechanisms of suppression somewhat intact. He advocates for destroying the world humans have built, for destroying these apocalypse-driving mechanisms like heteronormativity, white supremacy and the domination of the wealthy, that return us to the scenarios where “the same people have the power over and over again”.
“What actions do we need to take to find each other, to hold each other, and to work with each other to resist the forces that kept us apart (from each other and the more-than-human world) in the first place?”
I’m left with the sharp feeling that what is preventing Fire Island from reaching any semblance of true utopian potential is that it was constructed with all of those mechanisms still very much intact. As we co-create more equitable spaces, all of those mechanisms of extraction, suppression and isolation must be destroyed with the world that produced them.
The Institute of Queer Ecology (IQECO), is a collaborative, decentralized organism that works to imagine and realise an equitable multispecies future. With interdisciplinary programming that oscillates between curating exhibitions and directly producing artworks/projects, the Institute of Queer Ecology lays the groundwork for a (bio)diverse utopia.
Listen to the Serpentine’s Back to Earth podcast here. Visit The Institute of Queer Ecology’s website here.
The Institute of Queer Ecology produced these images as part of the BOFFO Fire Island Residency from May 24th – June 9th, 2019. This project was enacted by Molly Adams, Nicolas Baird, Trevor Bashaw, Evander Batson, Parker Bright, Andres Chang, Allyson Church, Francisco Cordero, Tiger Dingsun, Luba Drozd, Charlie Ehrenfried, Casey Halter, Tristan Higgenbotham, Wilson Keithline, Deirdre Keough, David Kim, Aidan Alexis Koch, Shannon Lee, Jolie Ngo, Lee Pivnik, Jake Sillen and Yannik Stevens.
BOFFO is a non-profit organization that presents innovative and experimental art, architecture and design. Our initiatives include artist residencies, digital commissions and the creation of spaces, experiences and exhibitions. Since 2009 we’ve served the artistic community by supporting new work and stimulating interdisciplinary dialogues. We serve local communities by offering access to voices of all media, generations and practices in unexpected and unconventional ways.