November 29, 1993|By TIM BAKER

"WHO are you?'' the Caterpillar asked Alice. Well, she said, she hardly knew, what with all the changes she'd gone through that day. ''I'm not myself, you see.'' But the Caterpillar didn't see.

Well, Alice suggested, when he turned into a chrysalis and then a butterfly, maybe he'd feel a little queer himself. At least, ''it would feel very queer to me.''

''You!'' said the Caterpillar contemptuously. ''WHO are you?''

Who would you be if you were suddenly changed into a different size or form? Stupid question! You'd still be yourself, right?

Are you sure? Suppose, for example, you suddenly changed sex? What if you suddenly became a woman? Or a man? Who would you be then? Yourself? Just walking around in a different biology?

The question here is one of identity. How do you define yourself?

''I am a man,'' I say to myself. Is that a definition? Or merely a description? A description is a picture. In my case, it depicts a male human being. In yours, it might be a female. To what extent do we each incorporate our respective pictures of gender into our different senses of identity? Indeed, what do we see when we look at our sex?

Definition is the act of giving meaning. Who determines what meaning each of us finds in our gender? How much of this aspect of our individual identity is shaped and molded by our culture and society? How much of it, on the other hand, is an individual declaration -- a creative act of choice?

Who defines you?

I am a man. I can conceive of myself, if I want, taking a heroic stance. Here I stand. Let the winds blow. But suppose one day I found myself braving the storm in a woman's body. Would I still be me? Or would I feel lost? Maybe I'd just change my tape and listen to Helen Reddy singing, ''I am Woman. Hear me roar!''

I have identified myself with my gender for so long that it's hard for me to think about these questions. But they confronted me in ''Ciphers of Identity.'' It's a traveling multi-media exhibition of work by contemporary visual and performing artists. It will be on display through January 15 in the Fine Arts Gallery at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

The exhibition explores the relationship between identity and gender, race, class, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Its radical political perspective may alienate some viewers. But the provocative polemics heighten the challenge which the exhibit hurls at our normal socio-cultural frames of reference.

The title ''Ciphers of Identity'' has a deliberately ambiguous meaning. First, ''ciphers'' means nonentities -- things which have no value or importance of their own but which, like numbers, derive their meanings entirely from their respective positions in a system. At the same time, ''ciphers'' also refers to coded signs

which convey encrypted messages.

From this perspective, gender, race, class, ethnicity and sexual orientation are all nonentities and, at the same time, socio-culturally encoded signs and symbols. Maleness, for example, means nothing in itself, the exhibit argues, but historically our culture and society have endowed it with superiority, power and dominance. The culture, I would add, has also burdened it with roles, duties, ways of being and modes of feeling.

In this exhibit the artists use devices of displacement to turn our conceptual categories of ourselves topsy-turvy. Men present self-portraits of themselves as women. Women cross-dress as men. For example, one female performing artist, now a philosophy professor at Wellesley College, spent a year going out into white society disguised as a young black male street tough.

The photographs of her masquerade made me wonder: How would I experience myself if I dressed as a woman and spent an evening sitting on a bar stool in Fells Point? Stupid! That's how I'd feel. Stupid and scared!

Which demonstrates how much I identify myself with the outward presentation of a male. I'm sure I'm also attached to being white, straight, American. In some little corner of myself, I'm probably still holding on to where I went to school.

We all live in these categories and stereotypes. They're boxes. They confine us. How many boys in high school feel uncomfortable about themselves because they don't like playing football? How many men define themselves by where they work or the amount of money they earn? How many women wish they had slimmer waistlines? To some extent each of us permits someone or something else to define us. How much do we incorporate within our identities this society's and this culture's definitions of what it means to be man or woman? White or black? Young or old? A success or a failure?

In fact, we live in the interstices among multiple identities. Some of them have been imposed on us. Some we create ourselves. But we cannot be everything to everyone without disappearing. Self-definition inherently requires each of us to choose -- to create our own identities, to draw our own lines, to establish our ++ own boundaries.

I am this. Not that.

Then who am I? Well, in part, I choose to define myself as a man. You may define yourself as a woman. But what do these concepts mean? Do they define us or do we define them?

''When I use a word,'' Humpty Dumpty told Alice, ''it means what I choose it to mean.'' But, Alice objected, how can you make

words mean so many different things? ''The question is,'' said Humpty Dumpty, ''which is to be the master -- that's all.''

@4 Tim Baker's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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