“Simplicity Craving” from The Estrangement Principle
My desire to write is connected with my homosexuality. I need the identity as a weapon, to match the weapon that society has against me.
Being queer makes me feel more vulnerable.
[Sontag] later regretted that she had not spoken more publicly about her lesbianism, but that kind of personal revelation was at odds to her cool analytical tendency.
Wall text in “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire
in American Portraiture”17
I was shooed out of the National Portrait Gallery when it was closing. It was
January 2011, and I was in Washington DC to see portraits of or by gays and
queers since the 1880s. The gallery before this show’s entrance had portraits
of civil rights leaders and activists. For a moment, I thought I was still in
“Hide/Seek” and had missed something. After the initial reminder the guard
watched me with begging eyes to follow the rules. I took a quick detour to
a black and white photo of a guy marching in a Silence Equals Death t-shirt.
When I was walking out of the museum I paused by a row of Matthew Brady
studio portraits from the late 19th century. There was a really butch woman in
a military uniform. A not-separated, not-difference-labeled subject.
The National Portrait Gallery claims to be, in the wall text for “Hide/Seek:
Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” the “first major museum
exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American
Portraiture.” Yet this claim is tricky because the first is with portraiture, but not
in thematizing sexuality and gender difference. We can’t continue to measure
shows with explicit queer content by an audience that seeks to silence them,
or requires some form of a milestone to legitimize them.
The dose of perspective moment creeps up on me. I can throw a dart to
when I was born and find that in the early 80s people thought it would ruin
their careers to come out. Jane Chambers’ play Last Summer at Bluefish Cove
beautifully handles this by telling a story of a lesbian vacation spot that a
recent divorcee lands at only to the horror of the famous feminist author who
intensely fears being outed. At first, this Feminist author pathetically attempts
to scheme how they are all friends, not couples and exes, so that this outsider
doesn’t have the chance to spill the beans.
But history is different than the present. How do we carry it? I think
about how The New Museum had what now sounds like a kitsch title,
all the way in 1982: “Extended Sensibilities: The Homosexual Presence
in Contemporary Art.” Some artists refused to be a part of this show;
they refused to be thematized, or to be outed. And then in 1996
there was the Berkeley Art Museum’s “In a Different Light,” whose milestone
was being the first queer art show that had artists in it who did not even
identify as queer.18
While the “Hide/Seek” show offered a canon of sorts for the mainstream
perspective, that still felt risky. David Wojnarowicz’s “Fire in my Belly” got
censored. But the censorship wasn’t interesting.
Because of the national venue, the work has something yearning to speak to
America at large, and not the fringe within it. The multiple audience.
It’s important to note the word “queer” or “gay” does not make it to the title,
or subtitle, of “Hide/Seek,” perhaps as a result of unclear problems with labels.
I cannot parse the words “difference” and “desire” as euphemism or rejection.
Many of the smaller shows that thematize queerness play effusively with the
word queer. For example, San Francisco’s SOMArts June 2011 show “Queer
“Hide/Seek” is record-breaking only in terms of how many tax dollars funded
it.19 It’s not new or historic outside of its tenuous government sanctions and its
focus on portraiture. The majority of the wall text in “Hide/Seek” was concerned
with decoding the “desire” embedded in the portraits by pointing out
either that the artist was known to be gay/queer or the subject was gay/queer.
The show was curated by two white men and has a strong hierarchy of gay
men. Almost every queer art show that has a catalogue places itself alongside
the history of queer art shows like a wedding invitation uses the names of the
parents to introduce the event. Like it is all one queer art show family and we
must honor our ancestors in a sonorous fashion.
It is January 2012. I go to see The Builders Association production of Sontag
Reborn, her adapted journals. A video of an older Sontag plays throughout,
talking back to the younger Sontag, as she so painfully struggles with lovers,
soaking up philosophy, being a helpless wondering prodigy in Europe, and her
mistake into marriage. I left the play unsure of how to maintain my criticism
of Sontag being not out enough, later in her life. I started to realize I needed
to have more sympathy for someone who came of age in a different time. A
time when the word queer wasn’t actively being used as a label potentially
describing an aesthetic.
There exists both an aesthetics of queerness and not one at all. You stack and
sample artists who are queer and just see what happens, disperse them and
not segregate them. You can put them together and draw similarities that tell
us something about the moment we live in. It can be real and fake: the movement,
the aesthetics. These are proclamations I make with exaggerated tones.
Of course our lives are mundane in their living so how can we know what
mythologies will be? Of course our lives are completely urgent and bewildering
so how can we know what the mythology will be? What is crucial is the
evasion, the embrace, the ambivalence, and whatever shakes out in between.
I have an uncomfortable memory of going to see Annie Leibovitz’s retrospective
at the Brooklyn Museum in 2007. The many pictures of Sontag on contact
sheets felt like I was getting a lesbian newsletter for the first time, long after it
had been in circulation. I needed to be reminded Sontag was a dyke. The sense
of reminder, as opposed to recognition, was also a betrayal. I felt it more with
myself. I had not yet sought a strong queer history of my own.
Sontag’s New York Times obituary clearly maps her marriage to a man, and
their divorce, which, in the scheme of her life, was a blip. In the year of her
death, 2004, The Times mentioned absolutely nothing about her lesbian partnership.
Only an insulting trace: she was photographed by Annie Leibovitz for
an Absolute Vodka ad. The Believer ran an article on how divisive the obituaries
for Sontag were in the international media: the overtly supportive and then
the overtly undermining or challenging of her writing and thinking.20 But one
point remained united in her obituaries: no mention of her dykehood. The fear
of being reduced or dismissed is a palpable fear operating in the omission of
her sexuality. All I can see is the omission when I read her obituaries. I then
think of AA Bronson, who is 13 years Sontag’s junior. I think about how
Bronson’s career as a very successful gay male artist has total credibility and
power in the art world. How does a comparison fail here as unmatched? How
is the comparison devastating? Bronson is a sort of inspiration, while Sontag
is a problem for queer women in particular to reckon with. Sontag being not
not out and this remainder in the social consciousness of her legacy have not
gone away since her death.
You don’t have to look very hard to find the lesbian Sontag. My need to
be reminded Sontag was gay, or care that she was, ushered in the haunting
affirmation of a Sontag-inspired attitude I had developed, up until I found
out about New Narrative writing, to dismiss any trace of the autobiography.
Sontag’s journals are not censored at all. They are edited by her son David
Rieff, but they are meticulously preserved to unleash the details of her personal
life after she died.
When Sontag writes in her early journals, Being queer makes me feel more
vulnerable, her use of the word “queer” could be read as the dictionary definition,
or old-fashioned “queer” to mean strange. The use of this word lives
two lives in unstable times: however much in code or derision it was then,
versus the norm it is now; we cannot strip the then or the now from it when
reading Sontag’s journals and criticism and fiction. While “queer” may sound
antique in the context of her journals, Sontag’s relation to her sexuality and
its relationship to her work cannot be phrased as outdated. It’s intriguing, and
necessary. That time of extreme closeting and discrimination is over for some
people, in some places.
We are arriving at a time, in the United States, perhaps in the big cities, when
it is not possible to decide not to address publicly your identity—if in fact your
identity is partially tied up in making people less invisible. I am hopeful the
fear outness will overtake or discredit your work is subsiding. In a sense, this
was Sontag’s problem—not mine, but I cannot help but explore the problem’s
importance, as it has yet to disappear.
Sontag’s private hold asks what further might be subject to invisibility and
what are the implications of the invisible artist in the United States? How do
we calibrate art that does not operate within the label of queer but is doing all
the necessary political work that queer art does?
Art and writing made by queers falls prey to extremes—I am interested in a
turning point, of making a place for the simply out artist, with their queerness
unmistakably there but not advertised as being there.
Art is both privileged and disadvantaged with the “queer art” label. Calling
your art queer ordains an audience, but also a separatism. Artists could feel
invisible inside a queer arts communities if they don’t actively label their
Thematized curation or editing of work on any category linkage like nationality,
geography, gender, sexuality, race, religion, age, is to varying degrees
distinct from themes that draw on a notion of objective style.
Is “queer art” coming, going or staying as a theme, or as a movement? It will
be everything, to a wide range of people inside and outside the nomenclature.
The label pushed me to name a discomfort and to move more freely between
what is and is not labeled “queer.”
It seems clear there is a “queer art” that serves a queer community. And then
there is “queer art” of “Hide/Seek” that serves a queer and not-queer community.
Of course there is overlap, but also a sense of gaps, of islanding. Producing
“culture” to be received is bizarre especially inside a history of being kept
unseen. Eventually the journals get published.
The abundance of “queer art” as so identified, with a language-label, might
produce a zealous break into what are not immediately thought of as queer
realms, debunking any sort of line drawing to begin with. That vague labeling
of the mainstream, the art markets, even the experimental literary worlds, will
get diversified for the sake of reducing invisibility of the minorities inside the
minority—people of color, trans people, and women.
Artists will likely reject any labeling unless they are the ones labeling.
Artist A.L. Steiner’s introduction in MOMA PS1’s 2010 “Greater New York”
show catalogue reads, “A self-described cynical queer eco feminist androgyne.”
As if the curator hesitates to label Steiner this, it requires self-description. Too
touchy a subject? Not a queer curator? The curator follows this introduction
with a list of Steiner’s mediums for making art, which is usually the first
sentence for everyone not foregrounding their work in their queerness. Is queer
in this sense a responsibility?
In October of 2010, I went to San Francisco Camerawork show “Suggestions
of a Life Being Lived,” which was the more common “queer art” show, the
one in a smaller city: the home-town turf of queer Mecca. I was eager to see
how a show “unconcerned with coming-out narratives,” as the press release
promised, manifested itself. The political action and alternative world building
of queers was the unifying factor of the show, as if wearing a fuck assimilation
bumper sticker on its forehead.
‘Suggestions of a Life Being Lived’ originates from a place of ‘outness’ and considers
how a sense of liberated queerness is pursued and mediated within public spaces
The show opened at a time of protesting how Proposition 8 had passed to ban
same-sex marriage in California. The show addressed the goals of a dispersed
urgency for queer rights compared to the governments’ doling out of unappealing
institutional doormats that don’t always lead to doors (gay marriage
is not a federal right).21
Act-Up and Gay Shame protest documentation began the show like a history
lesson. What I was relieved to find in “Suggestions of a Life Being Lived”
is that the curators, Danny Orendorff and Adrienne Skye Roberts, seemed
to know the show’s problems, and they became part of the exhibit. Aren’t
In my first interview for this essay, Skye Roberts tells me: What I’m interested
in is a queer set of political alliances. When I asked her why, on encountering
this show, I felt so frustrated with the phrase “queer art,” she told me she could
relate. She had just been interviewed for the web video series Culture Wire,
where Meg Schiffler of the San Francisco Arts Commission asked What’s the
show about?… What is queer photography? Skye Roberts tells me: I was like, I
don’t know. I have a better sense of what queer means to me. Queer art is what
makes that sense of queerness visible.
The actual proposition to define something hits as the gravest offense. What
kind of microcosm are you? I find this interaction between one of the curators
and a local non-profit’s director to be one of the most intriguing situations the
All the artists chosen in the show name their art as queer or name their art as
dealing with queer themes. Yet the focus of the show was not on “queer” but
more on the possibilities of politically charged art. I decided to rate the work in
the show on a spectrum of how intense or literal the word or self-defined ideas
of queer were. Kirstyn Russell’s large-scale photos of American landscapes
are whispers of queerness. Her series “Where We Are Not Known” is of gay
bars or exteriors of buildings that have a trace of a word that can be read as a
queer, even if by the cropping or the recontextualizing of the photo. “Dyke”
on signage for a store could be a part of a business owner’s last name. Then
on another side of the spectrum was Aay Preston-Myint’s improvisational,
audience-solicited-for-a-photobooth picture “Smile,” for which the wall text
invites visitors to imagine themselves within a post-apocalyptic family portrait
studio where gender and sexuality have become fluid. My experiment of making
a spectrum of queer content proved to be a totally bunk way of looking at
the work. Rating queerness seemed irrelevant—so what good could it do?
Would a curator of a “queer art show” ever use this absurd technique?
The greatest success of “Suggestions” was its investigation of how the adjectives
“queer” and “political” both operate similarly and are mistakenly associated
with one another. What the two words have in common is a fearless agenda or
an ambiguous repellent—the risk of being taken seriously because the work
might be under some presumption of lacking further, or other content, if it
is firstly or openly named as “queer” or “political.” These words perform very
different operations than the work itself. The words are risks some people
want to take in every step of putting their work into the world while others
avoid them and deem getting labeled by them as a mistake or accident. If you
have any content related to oppression or aggression and you happen to be a
minority, watch out for the labels.22
What happens when wall texts, press releases, and artist statements are littered
with the word queer is I start to grow suspicious of what the word is trying
to say, as if temporarily I was fooled into it actually being a measuring tool.
The effusiveness of queer the word makes me nervous because I fear it will
lose its intended gunpowder and become not just banal but banal seeking to
be wild. The balance feels tipped in one extreme direction or the other. The
reality of queerness, in a life, I find difficult to track or represent. Just as the
irreducibility of lived experience plagues any artist.
The investigator in me, who in one moment speaks with Sontag’s ghost and
in another pulls my binder up from my ankles and puts on my tilted white
leather cap to go see some “queer art” being iterated, explicitly or implicitly, in
an uneven variety of literary, performance, and visual art events, knows there
cannot be one answer, one argument. There is a bareness in this collecting,
My primary apprehension about “Suggestions of a Life Being Lived” was based
on the paranoia that this is the one chance a San Francisco alternative art space
gets at a queer show for at least a few years—outside the month of June—there
are always multiple “queer art” shows in June. What did I want from this show?
For there to be art with no trace of typecast queerness? That would be impossible.
The typecasts are too wide, too subjective to quantify, and something
the art and the show are working to resist. I don’t want to feel paranoid about
there not being enough space for artists who are queer.
I am asking why I have the feeling of too small a space and the rationing out of
visibility within it, as opposed to vaguely asking for more space. The question
of whether we can subtract radicalness from queer or subtract the margins
from queer, feels too dangerously similar to a symptom of the assimilating,
marginalized American wanting more space, more recognition.
There are systems for separating art by queer people, there are systems for
inclusion of art by queer people, and there are systems for queer people being
excluded from both of the above.
Laura Arrington’s Spontaneous Queer Art (SQUART) is a curious consideration
in the debate about queer themes and queer content verses invisibility.
SQUART holds scheduled performance pieces produced with teams, basic
criteria, and a limited time frame and materials. Each piece gets voted on,
reality TV competition style, with local artists/curators/critics who appear to
be of authority. People come to watch the results of the make-something-from-nothing.
According to the mission statement, SQUART intends to do away
with “preciousness” and duly respond to it.
Arrington does not cast exclusively queer people for these events, nor does she
cast exclusively queer people in her own choreography, but she is the queer
ringleader. Perhaps what strikes me about SQUART is the overt use of the
word queer, but no pointed definition of queerness therein, other than making
work that is filled with way too many people to actually define or describe it. It
strives for a fun party-type atmosphere. I wonder why the theater happenings
use “queer” other than to secure an associative aesthetics. SQUART in its
mere name brings up important questions about what style the word “queer”
renders. DIY? Collaboration? Ability to represent the non-mainstream not
just in terms of gender or sexuality? How vague can that be? My list of styles
I’ve associated with “queer” is terrible. Perhaps this frame for theater attempts
to make queerness a banality. Using the word queer to identify
the happenings asks the question of what people expect from events or groups
named as queer. And yet that is not being directly addressed.
SQUART is emblematic of a legacy in San Francisco: in a place that makes a
ton of money off all the gay pride tourists, where else does “queer art”
get so readily funded and supported?
In April 2010, the San Francisco Bay Guardian cover read: “Radical Zones,”23
with a huddle of local performance-based artists below the title. Naming a movement is a great way to congratulate and piss people off simultaneously,
sending us unapologetically into a language trap economy.
I was excited to see that the artists featured in Robert Avila’s article were not
necessarily making work explicitly about their sexuality, gender, or the body.
The article focused on this idea of a queer performance scene “creating new
zones,” as the title portends.
The online comments section for this article was on fire with accusations
of Avila making too white a portrayal of queer performance art. Offended
response to this accurate criticism highlighted the assumption that everyone
was white, just from what can be seen in a photo. The comments also brought
to issue my confusion about what gets called radical—if it’s funded can it
really be radical? What are the “new zones” being ushered in by artists who
are queer? Duration? Non-institutional organizing? Performance spaces have
long been inside homes, long before Phillip Huang began the Home Theater
Festival. Are anachronistic memories up for debate?
The San Francisco performance event Queer Rebels of the Harlem Renaissance24
has run for a weekend in June for the past two years to showcase a time-travel
theme. Tonight, Queer Black luminaries commemorate our forgotten legacies.
Tonight, we reclaim history and the urgency of our art and activism… We see
queer traditions as living, breathing legacies, which could be more widely documented.25
What makes a radical rebel visible, when the oppressed-to-inspired
spectrum of history we carry along with us in our art and outside of it is not
always visible? The radical rebel seems to be one way to survive, to name a
lifestyle that is still difficult, every moment of it.
The Bay Area performance space The Off-Center, which self-identifies as a
queer space, hosted a “Blog Salon” in June 2011 called “Mapping our World”
in response to Avila’s “Outside and Inside.” The virtual salon solicited 10
articles by artists in the Bay Area answering questions like What were the
best queer performance moments in the past year and What is queer? What was
missing from this salon were artists who are queer who do not parade that
word in relation to their work. There was not one article taking issue with the
labeling of “queer art” being an actual situation. There was the star of queer,
Michelle Tea, who concedes:
I don’t want an identity. I’m bored. I know that queer is this country that I come
from, or more like a city, like my hometown, Chelsea. Like, I’m always gonna be
from Chelsea. I’m always gonna be from queer. But I’m sort of all over the place
now. That’s queer though, right? Maybe I’m just sick of the word. I mean I’ve heard
it more than any other word, more than my own name, for the past decade. I want
a new word, I’m just sick of the tone of it in my ear is all.26
The contributors accepted the label “queer art” as something very clear to
talk about. Perhaps more of the language wrangling was put on to the word
“queer,” as it begs for anyone to problematize its defining. This topic feels
cursed. Highly personalized. The result is often history-book writing, a tracing
of “queer” as a fluctuation between oxygen and limb.
By rejecting the whole concept of identity, we risk participating in the homophobic
project that seeks to annihilate us. Leo Bersani27
Perhaps it is not that I want to stop critiquing what is labeled queer art,
but just to recover from being barraged by it. That this particular type
of grouping and naming needs a counterpart of asking always, what
about all the things that fall outside this category that might really be
sharing something with this category? One way of doing this is more
queer-themed shows with not explicitly queer work. Or letting up on
Word play is one coping mechanism with infinite indefinite uses of “queer” as
a descriptive. This feels like a form of catch with linguistic history. In Portland,
Homoground is a weekly radio podcast. Homobile is a new car service based
in San Francisco. The Lesbian Lexicon Project takes queer slang words and
sets them into a definition list, 8.5x11 folded four times and one staple to bind.
Homoflix is a review site exclusively for the instant section of Netflix. We are
on a road trip and the game is to riff off word combinations for neologisms, to
take queer and gay and homo and latch on to them feels contagious, fun, and
ephemera and a reaction.
Putting on names given to you like dress codes, mixing them up so they clash
and come from all sorts of decades. It’s the moment of wearing something so
unexpectedly out of style it becomes the coolest thing ever. While a common
tactic, this performance of language has the unintended side effect of queerness
being read as the ingredient in an artists’ work. As much as queerness
is increasingly not just adjective or noun, it still has a long way to go from
shedding its primacy in identity. I have yet to read a straight white male artist’s
bio beginning with that identity pronouncement.
The San Francisco performance art space Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory closed
in 2010. From their mission: We place special emphasis on supporting the work
of Queer People of Color, Trans People and artists living with HIV/AIDS. Their
website used to stand as teetering ephemera, red background with a calendar
that looks active in any year, with just months and dates:
Come and see what all the “POW-BANG-KA-BOOM” is about at Crash Cabaret:
Where Queers Collide, a nuevo punk variety show extravaganza…This month’s
“Battle of the Bands” features Dreamboat Where Are You? Bad Girl Punky
Priestess Mistress XXX-Storm, Soma’s Hottests Hole: Mercy Fuque, International
Supa-Star: Kitten on The Keys, Our Favorite Accordion Drag Queen Lunch
Lady: Kielbasia, Trantrrick Master of Funky Love Songs…Plus, back by popular
demand, The Karaoke Relay and the “So You Think You Can Prance” dance-off...
Come one, come all, you Dragon Queens and Kings, Dirty Dykes on Motor-
Cross Bikes, Punk-Rock Trannys, Artsy-Fartsy Fairies, Holistic Homos, Anarchists
and Cosmetologists, Lizzies and Boy-Girls and Bears to San Francisco’s underground
Explicitly queer spaces are carving out from negative space. Who are they talking
to? This is a space beyond the queer art show, one that bleeds and blends.
There is always going to be someone who will arrive in a city and need a map.
If I try to make sense of who or why an organization might be a specifically
queer space as opposed to taking a more subtle air, it feels more like necessary
rights needing to be met that are not being met. A specifically queer space is
named one out of urgency. It is markedly different than thematizing a show.
Spaces labeling themselves as Mama Calizo’s did are actually demanding
something outside of themselves, something that still doesn’t get heard by
all the spaces that don’t have high enough numbers of queer people of color
performing. The histories of Mama Calizo’s and Dixon Place in New York
are demanding that more spaces not labeled as supporting minority groups be
more aware of the un-visibility of a lot of minority artists. In all the exuberance
of separatism, that separatism is part grieving, in not all present time,
but future time. What can the secret power of impermanent performance art
16 Susan Sontag’s December 24, 1959 entry, from Reborn: Journals & Notebooks, 1947-1963, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.
Return to Reference.
17 This is the wall text next to Peter Hujar’s portrait of Sontag laying on a bed. The catalogue for the show is excellent: Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, Jonathan D. Katz & David C. Ward, Smithsonian Books, 2010.
Return to Reference.
18 In the College Art Association Journal in 1996, Robert Atkins, founder of Visual AIDS, tells the story of identity politics being out of fashion post culture wars and how difficult it was for museums to get funding to represent it (?). Atkins criticizes the Berkeley Art Museum’s 1996 In a Different Light, the first “queer art” exhibition, for including artists and writers who didn’t identify as queer, a decision that appeared to him “apolitical” and “over-aestheticized.”
Return to Reference.
19 The whole enterprise looked like an exercise in Hall of Fame-building, rather than like an effort to chip away at the very idea of hierarchy and exclusion. Holland Cotter, The New York Times, December 10, 2010.
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20 Lisa Levy, “Critical Intimacy: Comparing the Paradoxical Obituaries of Susan Sontag,” in The Believer, April 2006.
Return to Reference.
21 For an eloquent and wide-ranging international clump of interviews and summaries on fringe queer politics and representation, mostly outside of the arts, see We Who Feel Differently, edited by Carlos Motta and Cristina Motta, Control +Z, 2011.
Return to Reference.
22 As Chris Kraus begins her critique of the MFA programs in LA, in “Art Collection,” her essay opening Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness (Semiotext(e), 2004) she points out: If a black or Chicano artist working outside the institution were to mount an installation featuring the words “Fuck the Police,” [as a white affluent male UCLA student did] I think it would be reviewed very differently, if at all. Such an installation would be seen to be mired in the identity politics and didacticism that, in the 1990s, became the scourge of the LA art world.
Return to Reference.
23 Robert Avila’s “Outside-and-inside,” San Francisco Bay Guardian, April 12, 2010.
Return to Reference.
24 Kali Boyce and Celeste Chan’s statement: Our vision is to enhance the presence, visibility, and artistic excellence of new multidisciplinary work by intergenerational LGBT artists of color. Recent performers included: Adee Roberson, Anna Martine Whitehead, Brontez Purnell, Crystal Mason, Earl Thomas & The Blues Ambassadors, F. “B.J.” Browne (Stephfon Bartée-Smith), Kirya Traber, Griot Noir (Vanessa Rochelle Lewis, Jessica Jordan, and Chanel Timmons), oriana bolden, TuffNS tuff, The Lady Ms. Vagina Jenkins, m.a. brooks, and J’ai.
Return to Reference.
25 Celeste Chan on the deeper purpose and motivation of the Queer Rebels event.
Return to Reference.
27 Leo Bersani, Homos, Harvard University Press, 1996.
Return to Reference.