Ronika McClain & Mo Costello
̶I̶̶̶n̶̶̶ ̶̶̶c̶̶̶o̶̶̶n̶̶̶v̶̶̶e̶̶̶r̶̶̶s̶̶̶a̶̶̶t̶̶̶i̶̶̶o̶̶̶n̶̶̶


M: Over the last couple of years, i've been slowly revisiting a number of photographs made in and around a long-term relationship while simultaneously reflecting on illness, addiction and (to no surprise) contact relations more generally. With an exception of a small show in Athens, i've never really shared any of these images, including contact sheets as well as a selection of framed prints that sit in my studio or friends homes.

i've been thinking about these images, and really photography more generally, in relationship to a selection of texts, a couple of which I’ll add as attachments. Specifically, the work of Gregg Bordowitz (The Aids Crisis is Ridiculous and Other Writings) and Samuel Delaney as well Christina Crosby and Janet Jakobsen’s (among others) work around illness and disability justice. What is not here, that i've been reflecting on as well, is your writing around the films of Céline Sciamma. Specifically, in relationship to images made of one another, by one another. A reciprocal looking and shared longing.

I realize this would alter the initial direction of our exchange, and yet wondering if somehow... previous writing of yours was weaved in and around the images ive shared here. This is perhaps an odd analogy, but i often reflect on trauma work i've done in relation to making/writing/teaching. In that, so often w/ traumatic stress disorders there is an emphasis on maintaining some kind of distance. In revisiting memories that are painful, direct confrontation often exacerbates whatever associations, thoughts or feelings that are found there. Learning, slowly, to revisit memory at a distance and gradually over time. By staying in my body (as opposed to say, dissasociating) there is the potential for destabilization or disorientation; a dislodging of some kind of whatever associations are in place.

I think much of what kept me from returning to our previous exchange was not just that we were exhausted and overworked (which is fucked up and real) but that much of it was so raw, so fucking close, to shit i'm still processing/navigating in this very moment. and in its rawness, i was somehow paralyzed, particularly in relation to autoimmunity. Our initial exchanges is something i would love to revisit at some point in the future in that the element of 'liveness', or a coming undone that is messy, is at the heart of everything i care about... i just fear, as far as a public exchange of some kind is concerned, im without the time or space to look at/reflect on/ things as they stand today, in this moment.

okay, all for now as getting picked up to head back to my sister's place. but will check back in this evening. Mostly, love you and here however/whenever for response <3. With evenings, for the first time in a long time, (as opposed to endlessly, desperately, trying to catch up on classes/work more generally).



{from here on out, the “initial exchange” will be italicized, including a selection of alt text that refers to images shared in an ongoing email correspondance. The later framework, written by Ronika, will be straight text in brackets}

R: okay, starting the conversation..idk where even to start (lol) but here are two photos i love from the past two days. everything feels significant these days, especially in this weird isolation zone. shit is breaking my heart more than usual but it's mostly just because life is so different. what do you THINK? send me some pics.

[sequence of images: sunrise/sunset in athens, ga. the sky is pink; black text on yellow billboard photographed from the driver’s seat of ronika’s car and across the highway intersection. The billboard reads ‘JESUS’ in all caps]

M: god. good morning. those photos. how many times, ive driven by that sign now...between athens and atlanta. and its counterpart, some ten miles away w/ 'COMING SOON' in all caps.

this morning ernesto held my face and said what he always says to me when i first wake up,

"hi beautiful boy." and every time it feels like the first time hes ever said it.

i love that i don't know the difference between sunset and sunrise in a photo. i love that i get to write to you.

can we give each other permission to say yes to whatever arises and edit later? for you to be my only audience? for me to be yours?

i love you,


[sequence of images: ernesto in a long, plastic silver-beaded necklace, and michelle, his sister, take turns applying lipstick onto one another’s faces. While the sun, coming through the trees, slowly renders their likenesses abstract]

R: yes permission to speak freely / edit later)

omg these photos - i can't. wtf.

ernesto - the purest of souls. i can barely read your email because it breaks my heart, which is good. i'm yours/you're mine. the energy i get from y'all as a couple is otherworldly and so deeply tender, so beautiful. kind of like the last photo you sent - close to total abstraction. rn i'm like clinging to any sliver of that i can get right now (it mostly happens in memory)

but mostly i am so tired of waking up alone ...!!!!!!!!!!

i got my first phd rejection today ( usc ) which makes me feel simultaneously enraged and relieved. and disappointed. i've been so on edge these past few weeks waiting to hear back and so it feels good to know that i will know soon about berkeley. but i just kind of...took it in stride and walked naughty as the sun comes up, which we do nearly every day. shaunia and i have almost completely opposite sleep schedules, so i heard her going to bed when i woke up this morning. i miss rolling over and kissing sloane first thing, whispering hushed i love yous to each other in the
dawn light.

[screengrab: Background of Ronika’s phone. Notifications (Channi and iMessage from Fait Poms) are visible just below Sloane’s mouth and above her chest. A silver necklace reads, S-L-O-A-N-E. Faggot and Easy are tattooed, respectively, across her collarbone and chest]

incidentally, i took this screenshot of my phone last night as i got this chani notification about venus (so maybe it's appropriate we're talking about love in some way). an intersection of these new and great affections in my life (one of my favorite parts of sloane...her TEETH weirdly enough, and how they interact with her lips / fait <3). venus is conjunct saturn ....

{from what I remember about that essay (i feel too embarrassed to revisit it rn, will before this is all said and done), i just remember thinking there is this other particular way of seeing that happens between two women (define as you will) that occurs outside the parameters of heterosexual desire. but also - what is striking me about these images, really, truly, is the way that we engage with both your sight, kong's sight (which is really just the vision of the OTHER in this instance - we only really clearly see you), until later in the sequence, but who would even know that it was a relationship.....

but the relationship is so apparent.}

M: 11:47 and its almost noon. its almost noon and im still in bed. covid wrecked me, wrecked us. and symptoms, whenever given the chance, come back as flares and in full stride. turning over, phone in hand, i think of richard siken;

look at the light through the windowpane. that means its noon, that means / we're inconsolable./ tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us./ these, our bodies, possessed by light. / tell me we'll never get used to it.

now im eyeing your phone background, and sloane (gorgeous sloane) and sloanes mouth and what i first read as 'fait poems' and i remember that i thought of fait last night when i couldn't sleep. there is a photo you shared once of a facetime call between the three you. you are laughing and fait and sloane, on the other side of the call, are sitting, respectively, in the driver and passenger seat of what looks like, in passing, a cadillac. or a lincoln town car. because its so wide.

fait poems.

i love that photo, do you have it saved somewhere? and then there is this:

[screengrab: ronika’s ig story. Selfie (waist-down) from the driver’s seat. Black polka-dot tights, with upper inner thighs visible below a yellow and orange dress, made up of graphic fragments of palm trees at sunset]

a new favorite. whenever i wake up late, which either means ive driven home from atlanta or, more likely, i am in athens and i had trouble sleeping, i think about how, in all likelihood, you have been awake for several hours now. naughty has been walked. and the house has been cleaned. you have showered, and dressed, and your makeup is done. and you are alone in your large room.

"i miss rolling over and kissing sloane first thing, whispering hushed i love yous to each other in the dawn light".

siken again:

sunlight pouring across your skin, your shadow/ flat on the wall./ the dawn was breaking the bones of your heart like twigs./ you had not expected this, / the bedroom gone white, the astronomical light / pummeling you in a stream of fists.

or maybe you're driving to american thrift. anyways, im sorry for the delay. is there a timeline or can we take our time? and, more importantly, fuck usc. im so sorry, if only because i know it hits like bricks everytime. if they had seen your lecture last thursday, you would have been a shoe in. do you have a transcript of the lecture? and the slides? or simply the recording? i'd love to spend more time with any combination. which, these days/screen days, also just means more time with you.

for now there is this;

[screen recording: Ronika at a red-lit karaoke bar in Ashville, North Carolina]

R: covid. what. the. fuck. when you were most sick with it i was sick with worry about 1) how very very serious the disease is, and 2) how i was devastated at the toll it was taking on you. although now you are "better", it feels all the more heartbreaking to know the ways in which the virus' effects still linger. so crazy that i have not seen you in months - yet i feel so intimately connected to you, more so than a lot of people in my life.

here is the original of that photograph - i am obsessed with the way that necklace ( i got it made for her for her birthday - she's a pisces too!) hangs on her perfect neck.[image: previous image of sloane, no longer as the background of ronika’s phone]

ironically, that photo of all three of us - they're in sloane's FIT - which does look impossibly big because of the iphone wide angle. they will always facetime me when they're hanging out. i love them both endlessly in different ways, both deep, both dripping with desire.

I am hoping you're resting as much as you can stand it. seeing you out and investigating your abandoned (but pregnant with potential) spaces, which i know you love. when i watch the sun rise as i walk with naughty i always think of you and ernesto in bed, and smile. knowing that someone else has a true love, too.

i'm going to see your silken, and raise you jamie hood:

how to be a good girl /u are a proliferation of concessions / u tilt ur head & the sun flares & burbles / u spit shine shoes w ur pink tongue / & when u widen ur terrible maw u /

never say no

i have been living in this space for two years now - never saying no. reaching my limits and pushing past them for what i thought was "love" and now i am unsure of what that feeling was. duty? servitude? i am devastated by clyde - our friendship has completely disintegrated. and i feel unfulfilled, lost and upset, ANGRY, and like i'm really losing grip on what really happened as i hear their voice in my head. the breaking point came the 28th, the day before my show opened, when i told them i wanted to move to california and they screamed at me on the phone for 15 minutes because i wouldn't be paying them rent anymore. did not hear from them for over a week, when they told me how much to pay them for utilities and that my talk was "good" (i had no idea they were there...). i told them the plan for leaving (march 10!) and they texted me back this morning about how much they wanted me to pay them, and it seems like that is that.

lots of love, intimacy, time - just gone which feels so so heartbreaking. what do you do when someone consistently tells you they can't live without you and shows you that was a lie?

anyways, i won't be seeing them again. which seems like a good thing.

we are supposed to take our time with this - about a month. so respond when you can, with as much as you can - your words are so important holy shit.

{i feel like with these images you're embodying this alternate gaze i wrote about in the piece - like it's. a different kind of imaging. the contact sheets are so baldly intimate in a way that feels simultaneously matter of fact but also so deeply personal, like i shouldn't be looking at them. and there's a practical "i shouldn't be looking at them" because the contact sheets involve your process to a certain degree (like i should only be seeing the framed prints). ironically, i'm looking at one of the framed prints right now. the humongous, pristine, cream colored mat that envelops this tiny, precious, gorgeous photograph is what really knocks me down every time. and that's what struck me about your inclusion of the install shots in this set of images - like what you see is the gesture towards the image. you'd only be able to see the image if you got close - got intimate - and once you're there you realize you're looking into this other-worldly- vision.}

M: sunday morning and missing you (feb 14th).

today is usually laundry day. for a brief moment i dont let ernesto put the sheets on the bed. i try to explain to him that the drawings i like most are like photographs. in that they involve contact, collision of some kind and are somehow instantaneous, quick, not preconceived, but more so inevitable. bodies, two bodies, more bodies, mark-making over time.

arising out of necessity. like they can't not be made, you know? he laughs and leaves me to it, the clean sheet left to drape over the chair. i took this photo with my phone to send to you.

[image: stained mattress, no sheet, abuts a corner wall, similarly marked]

drawings like this, house drawings, found drawings, somehow help. im in my body, im in the pain, the flares, the swollen hands, the long nights and little sleep. and yet, for for a brief moment and in this fleeting encounter, im able to stay there, somehow. not fighting it. Exhausted, ecstatic and outside of myself with joy.

today its the bed, but yesterday it was the bathroom floor.

[image: spilled liter against the dark tiles of the bathroom floor]

i can see the window from where im sitting. the rain has stopped and im going to walk in order to bring myself to sleep.

i love you,


M: going to try to start the day writing to you, where able, when i still am in my body and before work. when i can still taste longing. knowing much will get cut but in order to keep moving and get somewhere together before the deadline?

maybe ill try and sit down with your lecture notes and bring in some munoz or crosby in response. i think theres something really incredible about writing (drawing) in dialogue with one another. i can imagine a similar structure for making a video (how beautiful).

hoping the rain lets up soon for a fire. finally saw neil again yesterday.

love you,


R: had just woken up when you emailed - it's like you were conjuring me awake!

anyways -

i feel like these two (in the screenshot) are avatars for you and ernesto making messes and making marks together - it's so wild how LIFE IMITATES ART/ART IMITATES LIFE (lol)... i mean your work is so much about consuming the index and creating it simultaneously. I think of you every time i make any kind of smudge on anything. anyways, this is the last shot of the living end by gregg araki - a film about two hiv + 20 something year olds on a gonzo road trip in the early 90s. very very very thelma and louise. i watched it the other night on a whim, and fell asleep to the ending, which is just these two holding each other on the beach after they try to kill each other...lord.

the pain! i am so sorry about the pain!!!!! i am so sorry about the lack of sleep!! god i wish there was something i could do.

spending the morning listening to björk and writing emails. just wrote isabelle, jane, and my committee and marni that i'm taking a leave next semester. it felt really emotional - i felt the need to be as gracious as possible.

but now it's done and i can move on to other things, like leaving.

but the funny thing is, i need to make something else for my review this semester. i'm thinking of a photo book, and some writing (my go to, but also my godsend). feeling like my heart is cracked open again. feeling like i'm simultaneously 1000000 years old and 29 (my real age, i guess). keep looking at naughty and tearing up, i'll probably never see her again. trying to make images that feel like what i feel like and i'll im coming up with are screenshots from films and memes and other images (which makes total sense).

i wish i could carbon copy that wall of marks and frame it and hang it in my new apartment with sloane so i have an index of you.


ps there is something about the silhouetted embrace of two lovers - the way that bodies touch each other and lean on each other - like a house of cards - delicate/sturdy/precarious/sure.

(je le revue une autre fois - i saw her one last time)

(the line of dialogue spoken just before the epilogue of the film)

(which feels like the energy of this entire body of work)

(and i love that the thread of this set of images is the gesture, the grit, the paper, the folds in the paper, the quotidianness of the text, how every splash of ink on the page holds weight when you rephotograph it, how i get three, four, five opportunities to see your eyes and the trouble in them, immediately recognizing that look in an instant, thinking of you sleeping on the couch in katja's apartment, thinking of us on that weird and wild road trip, thinking of the cooler in the rocks and the shadows, and delany and the contact - THE CONTACT)

i hung your print next to a print of my friend ian's image of the bathroom inside gingers, the park slope dyke bar that i love. and how they live together WELL. the print is a slice of the most ridiculous bathroom wall i've ever seen, plastered with lesbian icons - specifically kd lang. and someone's drawn a mstache on her face.

paired with the gaping mouth of kong - the flowers - the image i just want to fall into because of the unspoken knowing and thinking of the spaces in between the silver


the opportunity to scroll through these and see/see/see again in so many different ways is a blessing. not to mention threading the needle on the dis/ability and illness (shared illness) and bloom that so strongly flows throughout the whole body of work

Idk, just spitballin’



Mo Costello is an artist and educator drawn to the social life of images. Mo lives and teaches in Athens, GA

Ronika McClain is a leatherdyke, artist, abolitionist, thinker, writer and teacher.  She works with and through history and popular culture, drawing connections between our constructions of self and our collective experiences of cultural production. She is primarily concerned with how we construct the idea and category of “woman”. She has a passion for cinema,  fashion, camp, sex, and deep intimacies between friends. She identifies as a leatherdyke, former barista, sexual assault and abuse survivor, singer and gay divorcée. Ronika lives in Oakland, CA