The Kentucky State Fair

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  • This year at the Kentucky State Fair, organizers introduced a new Fine Arts category: “Designweb Interactive Art: Websites, Apps, Media, Games.” Excited at the possibility of participating in an event with as storied a history as the Kentucky State Fair, I decided to submit my oddball interactive control – Centenntable – into the competition.

    As a little kid growing up in a semi-rural part of the state, county fairs were an important summer activity and something that I participated in a deeply peripheral way. They were hot days in the sun, wandering around raising money to fund building restorations for an Art Deco theater, while hoping to stop at a booth that sold fudge or tie-dyed shirts. There were quilt competitions in quiet rooms, where you could see each precise stitch under heavy fluorescent lights, and ugly dog competitions on poorly kept church lawns. These competitions, their sweetness and intangibility, are weirdly foundational to who I am as a person — that cultural shit that stays with you even when you’re sure that you’re past it.

    My grandparents — former state employees, God fearing Christians who won prizes for “Best Classical Christmas decorations” understood the fairs more than they would ever understand something that was a part of my world. They were good people, but their impressions are best kept preserved in amber, a fondness that feels like strawberries dipped in sugar, long nights in places where fireflies are an actual thing, where buckeyes are plants that grow in back yards. The fond memories are the ones that I nestle with, but they’re tempered by the knowledge that my grandparents would’ve had a hard time understanding me, loving me, if they’d known anything about the me that wasn’t that Southern girl-child who sat with her grandmother in Bible study group on Sundays in Summer.

    I’m one of those rural queers you never hear about. You haven’t heard of me, only of the places I’ve been.

    The fond memories are the ones that I nestle with, but they’re tempered by the knowledge that my grandparents would’ve had a hard time understanding me, loving me, if they’d known anything about the me that wasn’t that Southern girl-child who sat with her grandmother in Bible study group on Sundays in Summer.

    There’s something to be said, maybe, about my acceptance of the word “queer.” It’s undeniably a slur in these parts. It was a word my grandmother always pronounced with an elongated drawl, an extra syllable in the grand Kentucky accent while declaring, “I don’t hate queers, I just think it’s sad that they’re all going to hell.”

    My professional life is a tour of the Midwest by highway, a timeline of icons – the Hell is Real sign, Wisconsin highway oases, porn stores surrounded by crosses as though they were warding off vampires and the white windmills in the Indiana fields East of Chicago. I live in a college town. For most of my life, I’ve lived in college towns, spread along the knobbly spine of the Appalachian mountains. It’s the kind of town that doubles in size when school is in session, down the street from bars that blast “Sweet Caroline” into temperate nights. I like my town, celebrate it whenever I talk about it, strike out at the few ignorant enough to apologize for my upbringing. I know the power of my accent, the way that it inevitably paints me as dumber and cruder than I actually am, a skill set I have long utilized. There is no power greater than being underestimated and I am frequently underestimated. I love the best parts of where I’m from, and the way that they come together to form who I am, but I am not blind to the history of this place. The nature of college towns is that they’re always more liberal than their surrounding areas and, in this manner, I’ve been comforted and swaddled against the worst of the South.

    Telling my grandparents about my career was always a habit of careful lies. Not quite lies, but the kinds of subtle mistruths that come from you knowing that the other party will not understand. “I build websites” I would say. Or “I write for a newspaper,” when I was still making most of my money from online articles. These aren’t fundamentally untrue, but they’re a version of lying. My achievements, the ones that I’m proud of, don’t translate to my family. They’re so niche that I’m not sure that anyone that doesn’t interact with them everyday can understand them. In a lot of ways, it’s like the lies of omission I would tell my grandparents in regards to my gender. To them, I was always and forever going to be a girl, a woman, a granddaughter. There was no other option and trying to get them to understand that I was not “she” per se, but more “they,” would’ve been an exercise in futility and unhappiness for all involved.

    So I did as a good Southern woman would do, and I let it lie. I still let it lie.

    I have long accepted that one of my pronouns will always be “she,” because everyone will refer to me that way since they see child bearing hips and this hair and think “woman.” I’ve also accepted the cadre of well-meaning men who have defaulted to making sure I know that they’ll use my “real pronouns,” as if the choice to allow for both was not ultimately mine to make.

    Which brings us back to the Kentucky State Fair, or close to it.

    I have attended a few events this year, small and large, bringing with me a game that features 100 buttons. I’ve shown with Red Bull and next to Babycastles and in large convention halls and in the back of co-working spaces. I have driven hours and hours or taken trains across country to do this and I would do it all again. And each of these steps is another in a boundless chance to actually reach people with an installation that has no life other than this. There’s no monetization future waiting on the horizon for me to come and cash my check. No one is hoping to buy this project out from under me. It is perhaps the closest to art I’ve ever been. Which means, in a lot of ways, it’s further than I’ve ever been from something that would make sense to someone in the industry.

    On the first day of the Kentucky State Fair, I texted my mother to tell her that this was the first time I felt that my grandfather would’ve been proud of my work.

    This is also the year I attended the Kentucky State Fair as an artist, where I joined those peg board booths of paintings and stained glass, and baked goods left to mold for two weeks in glass, refrigerated cases. I won a prize too, a large blue ribbon that wasn’t actually first but rather a “Sponsor Rosette.” I showed my game next to bales of alfalfa hay, near a main street of county booths where each county’s tourism board tried to sell you on visiting Prestonsburg or Louisville or Madison County. The Kentucky Expo Center is a large feature, a behemoth of a building that I’ve never seen filled, but which was so massively packed for the event that a reasonable person could say that several thousands of people walked past my board every day. For two weeks.

    On the first day, I texted my mother to tell her that this was the first time I felt that my grandfather would’ve been proud of my work.

    He wasn’t a hard man to please, and I think he would’ve tried before, but this wasn’t his world. Showing at MAGFest, or Bit Bash never would’ve been a thing he could’ve had the context for. Here, among the giant threshers and men dressed as Abraham Lincoln, it was finally a world I think he and my grandmother would’ve got.

    So here’s for you, Jane and Jim Wallace, from the granddaughter you never 100% understood but tried just the same.

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