Vancouver artists Jen Crothers and Kona have created a delightfully nerdy project to raise awareness of queer language and its evolution, and to raise money for the local organization Out in Schools, which educates young people about homophobia and bullying. It’s called the Queeriodic Table, and it’s going places.
The idea for the Queeriodic Table came when Kona found a link to a Boing Boing article on a periodic table of cupcakes. After deciding making a whole series of queer cupcakes would be impractical, they started working instead on a series of posters and buttons. I asked Jen and Kona about how they put together the table:
Jen and Kona: Unlike many of the “periodic tables” on the Internet we’ve tried to stay as true as we can to the real periodic table. However, there were several things that we were unable to do. We were unable to keep the original letters of the table although we tried for a while. What aspect of the queer universe would be represented by “Xe”? Also, it wasn’t possible to map queerness onto the table in a way that would gesture at the qualities of the original table. Who doesn’t want to be a Noble Gas? It would have been fun to have the Transition Metals be a gender themed group, but there are 40 terms.
Where possible, we retained the idea of clustering elements that share properties in columns. We’ve spent dozens of hours on element placement and have built in jokes and intellectual candy for those who are observant and take their time with the piece.
Their time and effort paid off. They debuted the Queeriodic Table at an Out in Schools fundraiser last fall and it was an instant hit. In late May they took the project on the road, now featuring an 8.5’ vinyl banner, to the Seattle Erotic Art Festival, one of only 17 installations that was funded by the festival to be present, out of over 2000 applicants.
Jen and Kona: We had such a positive response [in Seattle]. Of course, most people at the festival were straight but everyone could relate to something on the table. We dressed in lab coats, had a “sexy teacher” assisting us and spent hours explaining the project and what the symbols meant to hundreds of people. It was a blast.
Mostly people asked questions about elements that they were unfamiliar with. Elements such as the Australian “Lemon” for lesbian and the Caribbean “Zami” for black women who love one another. They sat in our desks and we schooled them. Sometimes they talked amongst themselves debating what elements meant in general or in their personal lives. Some people made repeated visits within one day or over the three days. They challenged us about the content and format, and gave us ideas about how to proceed next. The science nerds asked smart questions. A few people cried as they told their stories or learned new language to describe themselves.
It’s been really interesting to see how people engage with the project. Jen and Kona have found that initially people get drawn in on a superficial level, noticing that it’s colorful and clever: “But then they think. And then they have questions about what a particular element means. Why don’t we have X? Why is Y in that category? And so on. Big philosophical discussions can start in minutes.”
Because the table and the project are iterative and constantly evolving, just like the real periodic table, there are lots of opportunities for new ways to engage people. In Seattle Jen and Kona encouraged people to think about creating molecules of representation by combining individual elements, and they also provided coloring books with one element per page and space to write underneath. On their website, people can submit “Reflective Descriptions” of what the individual elements mean to them. Their answers are then curated into the website.
Another evolution of the table—the third version—will take place during June.
Jen and Kona: One thing we want to do is add even more words that aren’t centered in North America or in English speaking traditions. Additionally, we are looking at the concept of “isotopes” and how we might represent them within the project so that more queer language can be included while retaining the original nature of the table which only has room for 112 elements to be displayed.
Ideally, Jen and Kona are looking at using the Queeriodic Table as an educational tool across North America and beyond. Currently, most of the funding for their work comes from selling artifacts like buttons, magnets, posters, and the coloring book through their website, with partial proceeds going to Out in Schools. I’d encourage you to check out their site and engage with the discussion.
(photo by Sarah Race)