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Shen He on texts by Simon(e) von Saarloos

5 March, 2024

On Valentine’s Day 2024, Shen He invited a group of people for an Anti-Valentine’s discussion and meal. These were Geraldine Tedder, Tine Milz and Helen Thomas, who came to Kunsthalle Winterthur for a conversation about Simon(e) von Saarloos and their book Playing Monogamy, which brought several of their works into play. Each of the speakers brought a guest/observer, so we were joined by Niloofar Rasooli, Lulu Mayer, Martina Bischof and Gritli Faulhaber.

Tine Milz and Lulu Mayer at Kunsthalle Winterthur Anti-valentines supper. Photo: Gritli Faulhaber

The discussion was introduced by Geraldine Tedder, Director of Kunsthalle Winterthur, followed by a brief discussion, highlights of which can be read below:


Simon(e) van Saarloos is a writer, artist and curator based between Berkeley, California and Amsterdam, the Netherlands. They are the author of Against Ageism. A Queer Manifesto; Take ‘Em Down. Scattered Monuments and Queer Forgetting (Publication Studio 2021) and Playing Monogamy (Publication Studio 2019), which we are discussing today. Van Saarloos also writes fiction. Recent works include the short sci-fi story “Dreamdead Surrender” (Postmodern Culture Journal) and works as an independent curator of public programming as well working as an artist. Together with Kim TallBear, they wrote The Non-Monogamy Letters at; held a conversation on commemoration with Pamela Sneed and Claudia Rankine at UC Berkeley; and curated the ABUNDANCE exhibition at Het HEM and the multi-year transnational queer community, nightlife and art project Through the Window, to name but a few.

Playing Monogamy juxtaposes monogamous / polyamourous relationships: monogamy connected to an idea of fulfilment, linear thinking, and closing off to the unexpected for the sake of security // polyamory connected to a constant active awareness for the other(s), a relativity of the self within the world and a, to use a term by Van Saarloos, “anti-fragile” openness toward change and risk that is a condition for unpredictable moments to arise. The book Playing Monogamy is written in a very accessible style, and could be liked to a guid book slash journal with personal experiences slash bibliography for further reading, and I found myself writing down keywords in a sort of glossary (which reminds me of the womenwritingarchitecture glossary) that included:


The symbolic spatial image they gives us distinguishing monogamy from polyamory is an escalator (the linear one-way up at a reasonable pace) and the platform (no up or down or direction or pace).To start off the conversation I wanted to draw on when Van Saarloos mentions Valentine’s Day quite in the beginning of the book, describing walking down Ocean Drive in Miami and being ignored by waiters luring customers in because they were walking alone, and then buying a t-shirt sporting the slogan “Whatever, I’ll just date myself” in humorous protest.


Report on a discussion


I think that some of the ideas in Playing Monogamy are elaborated in Against Ageism, which I read first. They are connected with discourses such as disability and coloniality. So when I first visited Playing Monogamy, I was resonating with what we call linear time. For me this was a useful concept in thinking about gender, architecture but also race as well as ableism. Specially in my own work and thinking I find the term chromonormativity very interesting and effective in thinking about how normalise and prioritise certain ways of being becoming through, actually the management of time, and how that in turn produces spaces around us. I’m also surprised, because when I informed Simon(e) that I recommended this book, they automatically recommended the Monogamy Letters they wrote during the Covid pandemic with the indigenous scholar from North America Kim Tallbear. I was surprised to see that without admitting that this is a linear process, the change between the original book that is written in Dutch in 2016 with prefaces written in 2019 when it was translated into English. They are saying “there are a few things that I would write differently nowadays” And then revisiting the letters in 2021 I see that a few things have changed in Simon(e)’s voices. That’s something I’d like to hear how the rest of you react to that.

When thinking about monogamy and non-monogamy, maybe to start with, we are also very likely to fall into this trap of binarism and this dichotomy of on the one hand, we have monogamy and on the other side we have this polyamorous relationship. We’re choosing one after the other, one is better than the other. Today Niloofar and I were talking, and we figured out that in Simon(e)’s writing and specifically in the letters with Kim Tallbear, they use the word non-monogamy instead of polyamory. In relation to Simon(e)’s critique of monogamy, I can well relate to how monogamy has been established in politics and tie the idea of love, intimacy, into the obligation of reproduction. I think there we can unfold and talk about work, labour and how gender has played a role in redistributing our labour. I find the notion of dependency very effective in thinking about how we relate to each other, how we need each other. The politics of intimacy for me can also be interpreted as the politics of dependency and co-dependency, the refusal of independency as well as interdependency that has more and more been foregrounded when we talk about care and when we talk about differences and different groups. To that, also, I would add that monogamous relationships, as previously mentioned, cannot be reduced to being only bad. For me the crucial question that arises from my reading is to think about how we are taking care of each other. I ask this question to start.


I think that’s really important. I’d like to pick up on this issue of responsibility. Something that I found really helpful in the book was the notion of taking responsibility for your own emotions and I think that one of the critiques that Simon(e) von Moos has about monogamy is that it’s a way of putting aside responsibility for your emotions, and there are all sorts of reasons for that in this kind of contract-situation, a contractual relationship that you set up in a monogamous or a marriage kind of relationship. But then you also mention this notion of children or caring for other people. When you started to talk about this issue of responsibility … actually there’s a quote that I wanted to refer to in relation to this, I found it really helpful, when they say “while the other person is responsible for what they decide to give, I am responsible for the reception of what I am given.” For me that was really powerful – so often you have expectations about somebody about what you want them to give you, and how you deal with the disappointment of that is within the informal contract that you have with that person. I think that the suggestion that you can move away from this contractual relationship towards something else is very powerful.

When we come to the issue of responsibility for the vulnerable, I think that it becomes much more complex because then we’re talking about social contracts, which are beyond the individuals or two individuals or in a polyamorous situation, an individual with other people in intimate relationships. A loving relationship is something which ostensibly everyone is seeking, whether it’s with one or several people, but a caring relationship isn’t necessarily what everyone’s seeking, its often a duty or a responsibility. So, I’m wondering how this argument engages with that – I imagine that this is a conversation that you have a lot in your chair, Shen, of architecture and care. I’m wondering how it translates into this more complicated notion.


I think picking up responsibility is a good way to start the conversation. To start with I’ll pick up what you said about social contracts and how care is organised within society and vulnerable groups. I’d like to quote Judith Butler in her text about vulnerability, where vulnerability is very present in our society, and it can be politicised. Butler talks about how power and rights are taken away from vulnerable groups, which they are not supposed to do. In some cases, it creates an overload of care, and we are trapped in this binary of care giving and care receiving. Care giving is also a powerful relationship because you are caring for them, you are in a position of making decisions for them. So how we figure out the social contracts of taking care of each other and how it may be related to what we’re talking about today, the politics of intimacy, its generative to push against the idea of responsibility and also the given patterns of who is taking care of whom.


that’s interesting in Simon(e)’s text, in non-nuclear families – LGBTQ and non-monogamist families – everyone is taking more responsibility of their role in the constellation, and arguing against this natural bond of OK you’re a nuclear family, now you have the responsibilities of the mother, father, child or children. In other constellations people are more conscious of “who am I?”, which I think is so important because of course if you are a father or a mother, you go into this binary – OK this is my role, this is your role, you’re taking care of feeding the baby or you’re taking care of bringing the baby to childcare, I think in other constellations you’re much more aware of “what I’m offering” and “what’s my position in this constellation”, “what is someone else offering and what can we share differently than in these natural constellations of families that we are used to.” That is our social contract, it’s also a super-capitalist system around what is property, who belongs to whom, who is taking responsibility.


I actually want to comment broadly on the title of the book. When I saw it I was a bit hesitant, I felt that it was referring to categories – monogamy or polyamory. It’s a book starting with categories rather that with a concept for collective liberation. I’m just coming to queer theory through lived experience, and also black and colour queer theory where everything is collective. I was saying to Shen, I am sensitive to the word polyamory, we have this joke among us that 100 years ago we had Orientalists coming to the Orient and looking top down and dehumanising Middle Eastern and Arab men for practising some kind of polyamory, and describing as an immoral practice, an immoral sexual behaviour of uncivilised Arab or Middle Eastern men. Then I come here and in discussion with some comrades, I’m accused of being not left enough because I’m not practising polyamory. But with all the violence that so many people are going through, apart from the western world, with this categories. One thing that I was thinking was “do I want to know more about radical and revolutionary love?” but again this discussion about what to label it, right. This is my question – do we need more categories; do we need more naming? Naming is very appropriating – you categorise, you appropriate.

Radical and revolutionary love as an idea comes from the writing of black feminism, starting from bell hooks, Audrey Lourde, Gloria Anzaldua, Jordan and the rest. Also, it’s something that is practised without necessarily having a name, or trying to sound so academic. It’s the practice of unconditional love going beyond the borders of individualism, not for the personal matter but for the collective matter. In Arab feminist writing they write about how the body and the land are loved the same. You hand your unconditional love to something because you need to save that something. It doesn’t matter if it’s a person, if it’s a community, if it’s a child or if it’s a land. It’s because you have grown into protecting something because if you do not protect it collectively it’s going to be lost again. Its about collective liberation and collective care for a collective end.





Shen He on texts by Simon(e) von Saarloos

On Valentine’s Day 2024, Shen He invited a group of people for an Anti-Valentine’s discussion and meal. These were Geraldine Tedder, Tine Milz and Helen Thomas, who came to Kunsthalle Winterthur for a conversation about Simon(e) von Saarloos and their book Playing Monogamy, which brought several of their works into play. Each of the speakers […]