May Morris: Art & Life (& Lesbian Erasure…. again)

I seem to start every blog post with an apology for how long it’s been since I last blogged, so I won’t with this one. But I will try to blog more regularly now that my thesis is out of the way. I want to post about some of the work I’ve been doing at Sutton House recently, a recent visit to Gunnersbury Park and some amazing interpretation at Nunnington Hall. But in the mean time, I want to address a glaring problem with the May Morris: Art and Life exhibition (on until Jan 28th 2018) at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow.

It is, of course, really lovely. Morris’ talents have long been in the shadow of her father, so it’s no wonder that such a comprehensive overview of her design and craftswomanship is so beautiful to behold. The problem I have with it is, perhaps predictably, the lack of mention of Mary Lobb.

To get up to speed with this particular bugbear of mine, check out my earlier posts about similar problems I had with Kelmscott Manor, former home of May Morris and Mary Lobb, and the artworks I made in response to it here, here, here and here. (I should note that an exhibition about Mary Lobb has just finished at Kelmscott, I didn’t get the chance to see it, as it’s difficult to get to Kelmscott if you don’t drive, so I can’t comment on how it covered their relationship, but it’s great to see a spotlight on her).

First, I’ll highlight all of the mentions of Mary Lobb in the exhibition, then I will address some of the objections I often encounter when highlighting the absence of a queer narratives in such exhibitions, with this one in mind.

Mentions of Mary Lobb in the exhibition:

  • A text panel about Kelmscott Manor begins: ‘In her later years, the majority of May’s time was spent at Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire, which she shared with her ‘housekeeper, cook and companion’ Mary Lobb’
  • A photograph of the pair on holiday in Wales in 1926
  • Two further small photographs of the two in Iceland in 1931
  • A caption for a photograph of May on a pony in Iceland from the same trip, which reads: ‘William Morris first visited Iceland in 1871 and was captivated by the dramatic landscape. In 1926, May and Mary Lobb followed in his footsteps. They returned to Iceland twice more. One their last trip in 1931, they were accompanied by Mary and Margaret Pierce, whom May had befriended during her lecture tour of North America’
  • In a display case of jewellery, all of the items were given to the V&A by Mary Lobb. It fails to mention that this is because May bequeathed the majority of her money and belongings to Lobb when she died.

Nowhere in any of this do we get a sense of the closeness between the two that would be evident with better interpretation. They lived together for the best part of 20 years, and hearsay has it that they shared the same bed, this seems to me that once again Mary Lobb’s significance in May’s life is being overlooked or swept under the carpet, whether platonic or otherwise.

The following are things I often hear in response to historic figures being read as LGBTQ, so I thought I would respond to them here. I also expect these would be the kind of defences people would make about Lobb’s exclusion from the exhibition:

The exhibition was a showcase of Morris’ work, not a biographical exhibition

That’s not strictly true. The exhibition of work is shaped around a timeline of May’s life, which includes biographical information throughout. Curator Michael Petry once said (I’m paraphrasing) ‘if you mention the wife, you have to mention the relationships he had with men’ (about a male artist), and since there is mention of the May’s relationships with George Bernard Shaw, and Henry Sparling, so too should there be information about her relationship with Lobb.

There is no proof that their relationship was anything but platonic

There is also no proof that she was sexually attracted to George Bernard Shaw or Henry Sparling. There is proof that Lobb and Morris lived together. A few years ago I spent a day at the archive at the William Morris Gallery and asked to see all of the material relating to Lobb, so I know that there is plenty of material that shows that other people around them thought that there was an atypical closeness between them, or more to their relationship than merely companionship (in fact, I made a sound piece called The village folk had a lot to say about it using the words of their contemporaries verbatim).

Lobb was not a designer/ well known figure/ pre-Rephaelite beauty/ important enough to feature

All the more reason to include her. She was a working woman, and an important part of May’s life. Figures like her are all the more relatable to visitors today than anyone else in the exhibition. I was first drawn to Mary Lobb because she is an androgynous figure, she instantly spoke to me in a way that many historic figures do not.

Lobb, and more specifically, the relationship she had with May Morris is not well documented enough

Indeed not, but curators and interpretation staff in museums draw conclusions every day. I’m not asking that they ‘out’ May Morris, but that they aren’t dismissive of such an important relationship, or that perhaps they acknowledge that many, even in their lifetime, assumed the two were a couple.

The curators did not want to make any assumptions/ jump to conclusions

To say this, assumes heterosexuality as the default, or that May Morris being a lesbian, or bisexual is somehow shameful. How often do we assume that someone was straight with no proof? There’s plenty of proof that Morris’ relationship with Mary Lobb was a more enduring and important one than any she had with a man. I think it’s not too far of a reach to jump to this conclusion.

Those are just some very quick thoughts about it. I’d be really keen to hear from anyone who visited, or was involved in the Mary Lobb exhibition at Kelmscott Manor, to see how they approached the relationship, and to hear if any more archival material was dug up in the process. That all said, if you want to have a look at a load of very beautiful embroideries, for free, then I recommend the exhibition. If you’re looking for any mentions of the queerness of the relationship between May Morris and my favourite historic butch, Mary Lobb- then you’ll probably be disappointed.

 

Petworth (and a very queer statue)

I was lucky enough to visit Petworth this week on a training day. The West Sussex country house contains one of the most iconic art collections in the care of National Trust, and a Capability Brown landscaped deer park in the 700 odd acre grounds are home to the country’s largest herd of fallow deer. We only had time for a brief whistlestop tour, but I will definitely make time to go back to have a closer look, and also to explore the grounds more.

There was one particular statue in the collection that stood out for me. The Petworth twitter feed helpfully pointed me towards this record on the collections website.

This is Pan and Apollo (or Marsyas and Olympos or Pan and Daphnis). In other words, it’s potentially any of three combinations of mythical figures. I was struck by the tenderness, and lets face it, queerness of the statue. Let’s consider for a moment that the sculpture depicts Pan and Daphnis, Daphnis was a Sicilian shepherd whose mother was a nymph, and is often depicted as an eromenos, which means the younger man in a pederastic relationship- a convention which was both socially accepted, and recognised in Ancient Greece. Pan fell in love with Daphnis, and taught him to play the panpipes. These models of relationships can be problematic to use as parallels with contemporary understandings of sexual identities. There were no rules or laws about age when it came to sex in Ancient Greece, but there were about consent. Either way, it’s certainly one aspect of Greek/Roman culture that hasn’t directly informed our own ‘civilisation’. The curators of the British Museum’s Warren Cup exhibition in 2006 no doubt had to think very carefully about how the object, which more blatantly depicts sex between erastês and erômenos, was framed in contemporary conversations around sexuality.

Apart from being a really striking statue, it serves to remind us that you never have to look too hard for queer histories and narratives in historic houses, or at least for artworks, furniture and objects that lend themselves well to queer readings and interpretation.

I was also compelled to do a little sharpie doodle of the statue:

BFI Flare: LGBT Film Festival 2015

The BFI Flare festival is over, and I just thought I’d plug a few of my favourite films that I saw.


Something Must Break

I saw this film at the BFI London Film Festival in Late 2014, and I’m pleased I got to see it again, it stars Saga Becker (who won best actress at the Guldbaggegalan 2015 awards ceremony, becoming the first trans woman to do so) as a non-binary trans person. It’s empowering and beautiful, and along with other lead Iggy Malmborg, the acting is phenomenal. Becker’s portrayal of Sebastian/Ellie is one of the most relatable characters I’ve ever seen in a film. It’s a triumph and is hitting UK cinemas in April, so make sure you check it out.

Also, I’m absolutely delighted that the incredible Saga Becker agreed to be part of my exhibition 126 at Sutton House. You can see her contribution here:

My other favourites included:

We came to sweat

This was a particularly topical documentary given how gentrification in East London and beyond are seeing the closure of many queer venues, including the Joiners Arms. This film looks at the Starlite, the oldest gay bar in Brooklyn that was particularly important as it offered a safe space and community for LGBTQ people of colour. The building that housed the Starlite was bought without them knowing, and the film deals with the campaign to save it, as well as documenting the community that has been built there, and the legacy of the venue. It’s a very moving film with an excellent soundtrack and documents a really important part of black LGBTQ culture.

In the turn

This was the huge surprise of the festival for me. I knew nothing about Roller Derby, and frankly wasn’t that interested, but the film is about more than sport, it’s about the power of a community that values respect, kindness and warmth. The film is framed around the story of a ten year old trans girl called Crystal, whose mother reaches out to Roller Derby collective Vagine Regime, after Crystal is no longer allowed to participate in team sports at her school, because of the staff’s discomfort and inability to deal with a trans student. The Vagine Regime, who are a queer international community, raise money to help Crystal attend a Roller Derby camp, where she can play with girls her own age for the first time. I balled happy tears for so much of the film, it’s so positive to see what a beautiful thing the queer community is when you see it depicted so carefully on a big screen.

The trailer is perhaps a bit deceptively bleak, but alongside the sad stories of suffering, is an overwhelming sense of hope and positivity. We were lucky enough to meet the director Erica Tremblay, who is a complete babe and super humble, and seems genuinely overwhelmed with how well the film is being received. It’s a definite must see.

And here are a couple of my favourite shorts:

Sticks and Stones: Bambi Lake

A documentary about Bambi Lake, I can’t find a trailer for this, but it was the first film in the Transcenders shorts, and the series ended with the incredible Justin Vivian Bond covering one of Bambi’s songs, there’s a bit of footage from the documentary in the music video:

Last time I saw Richard

Creepy queer horror- my favourite genre



The Last Time I Saw Richard – Trailer from Nicholas Verso on Vimeo.

Some honourable mentions: Hidden Away, Drunktown’s Finest, and Stories of our lives

My favourite thing about BFI Flare is what a lovely space the BFI becomes for a fortnight. It’s like a glimpse of what a lovely, safe and respectful queer utopia looks like.

Roll on next year!

V&A Friday Late: Queer and Now

I’m delighted to have been invited to speak at the V&A’s Friday Late ‘Queer and Now’ which takes place on Friday 27th February from 18.30 – 22.00

The event is free and consists of talks, music (from Amy Grimehouse), performance, food and drink and first come first served free haircuts from Open Barbers!

My talk is called ‘There’s no place like homo: the deconstruction of the queer country house’ and takes place in the beautiful National Art Library at 19.30.

Last year, the V&A celebrated the 40th anniversary of the influential and groundbreaking exhibition ‘The Destruction of the Country House, 1875-1975’. While the exhibition was concerned with the preservation of houses, this presentation will look at the idea of the preservation of homes, specifically the homes of those who could be considered queer figures. Domestic spaces have historically been some of the very few places where queer lives could be safely enacted and lived. Using a number of case studies, including National Trust properties, and other historic houses open to the public, I will make a case for activism in heritage sites to ensure that queer voices are heard in the spaces they called home. I will also showcase some of my own interventions, specifically my audiovisual exhibition at Sutton House in Hackney, and a multimedia protest based on Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire.

You can see the full programme of events here. Hope to see many of you there!

‘The village folk had a lot to say about it’ – a sound piece for Mary Lobb

Back in July I contacted the staff at Kelmscott Manor about the neglectful way they had dealt with Mary Lobb in their interpretation. I subsequently offered to put together a sound piece for visitors to listen to, to the staff at Red House in Bexleyheath, that was made from verbatim snippets from sources I had found during a visit to the William Morris Gallery archives in Walthamstow.

The aim was to show that even when they were both alive, contemporaries of Mary Lobb and May Morris considered their relationship to be more than just ‘companions’ and the hope was that this sound piece, presented as gossip, would serve as a small way of remembering the close relationship between the two women, that has for so long been overlooked.

Unfortunately, the staff at Red House refused this interpretation, saying first that the exhibition programming for 2015 was to be all about architect Philip Webb, as 2015 is the centenary of his death. When staff from the London Project asked about it again, they were told it was due to staffing and budget issues, which seems odd, as I was offering to make the sound piece for free.

Fast forward to the end of 2014, and the opportunity arose to be part of a group show at the Institute of Education to showcase the work of five PhD students in the Art, Design and Museology department whose research includes elements of practice. Rather than just showing some of the work I’ve been doing with Sutton House, I instead decided to use this as an opportunity to revisit the idea for addressing Mary Lobb, and alongside the sound piece, I created a protest banner out of a William Morris tea towel, and a fan zine for Mary Lobb, explaining who she is, and how she has been overlooked at various heritage sites.

While the sound piece (recorded thanks to Joe Lewis-Nunes and Ellie Lewis-Nunes) obeys the convention of heritage interpretation, it is offset by the objects more closely aligned with activism: a banner, zines.

It’s important for me to consider how my work changes in an exhibition environment, to consider what it becomes. I want to avoid fetishising paraphernalia (such as banners, zines) used to enact change. The inclusion of such objects here raises questions about what is allowed and expected in a gallery space, but refused (as it was) as legitimate interpretation in a heritage site. Interestingly, and perhaps proving that the inclusion of these objects was not successful in fetishising them, at the private view, the plinth upon which a stack of zines (masquerading as museum objects) rested, was treated by visitors as a table, rather than a plinth, people leaned against it and rested drinks on it, rather than revering the plinth as is often the case. Observing people interacting with the plinth in this way was a nice piece of accidental data.

On Thursday 29th 4.00- 7.30, there will be a seminar in which we will discuss the nature of practice-based research.

In the mean time, here is the sound piece.

I will make the zine available online at some point, when I work out the best way to do it.

Queerly Theorising Higher Education & Academia: Interdisciplinary Conversations

Queerly Theorising Higher Education & Academia: Interdisciplinary Conversations 
Half-day International Symposium 

Monday 8th December 2014, 12 noon – 7:30pm, followed by a drinks reception

Room 802, Institute of Education (IOE), 20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AL 

This half-day international symposium brings together queer theorisations of higher education and academia that are currently developing within discipline-specific contexts. At this symposium, we will explore the ways that academia and higher education are being queerly theorised, and discuss how these theorisations are situated within and yet pushing against disciplinary settings. With an emphasis on conversation and discussion, the event will provide a platform for the collaborative development of ideas over the course of the day. Contributors to the round table and discussion-presentations range from established scholars to doctoral students, and are from a variety of disciplinary locations and institutional settings.

Round table participants: 
Oliver Davis – University of Warwick
Michael O’Rourke – ISSH, Macedonia & Global Center for Advanced Studies
Nick Rumens – Middlesex University
Yvette Taylor – Weeks Centre, London South Bank University
Kathryn Medien – University of Warwick (Chair)

Presenters:
James Burford – University of Auckland, New Zealand/Aotearoa
Jennifer Fraser – Birkbeck
Vicky Gunn – University of Glasgow
Emily F. Henderson – Institute of Education
Genine Hook – Monash University, Australia
Z Nicolazzo – Miami University, Ohio, US
Sean Curran – Institute of Education (Chair)
Emma Jones – Institute of Education (Chair)

Discussants: 
Elliot Evans – King’s College London
TBC

The event will be hosted by CHES (Centre for Higher Education Studies) and is funded by the Bloomsbury ESRC Doctoral Training Centre.

Registration is free, but places are limited so booking is essential.

To book, or for further information, contact Emily Henderson:ehenderson01@ioe.ac.uk

RSVP by 14th November 2014.

genderlessness

Apologies for the radio silence recently, I’ve been working on a conference paper for an upcoming event in Taiwan (I’ll blog about that soon). But in the mean time, some words:

I’ve been thinking a lot about academic writing using autobiography, and about the difficulties of striking a balance between anger and scholarly rigor (whatever that is, I’ve yet to achieve it). The book Why are faggots so afraid of faggots: flaming challenges to masculinity, objectification, and the desire to conform – a collection of essays edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore has prompted this, as well as my disenchantment with a lot of academic writing which is, frankly, unreadable and pitched in its humanless tone at a privileged few, one of which, in spite of being half way through my PhD, I (thankfully, or perhaps, worringly) don’t consider myself to be. I heard recently a fellow PhD student say that during the research process, the thought of being a ‘writer’ doesn’t occur until the final stages. This is far from my experience. For me, writing is as important, if not more important, than the data collecting, the reviewing of literature and a whole host of other rather shudder-inducing bullet points in the thesis recipe.

I thought I’d try writing, quite informally about my own experience as a queer person, as a particular type of queer person; someone who presents themselves as gender neutral/gender queer; someone who feels marginalised (thankfully, or perhaps, worryingly) from mainstream gay male culture; someone who feel marginalised within academia (or, at least, in my own higher education institution); someone who constantly carries around class guilt at referring to myself as being from a ‘working class background’ but having found myself, having tumbled down the rabbit hole, in the very privileged position of studying a funded PhD; someone who feels perpetually underequipped for higher education, due, partially to this guilt, partially to my queerness, and partially to my constant eye-rolling at the absurd world of academia. I said once in a queer reading group (eye roll), that I thought that writing a thesis, particularly in the arts and humanities is an act of narcissism, that essentially we spend three years researching and writing, about ourselves. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing, I think there is real value in research that is rooted in the personal, that’s angry and involved, and a bit bruised and damaged. That said: I will now write about ME.

I think constantly about gender. It’s pretty much my main preoccupation. We were sat in Soho square one summer day, and a drunk old woman, who we assumed had been sleeping beside us, suddenly arose and crawled towards us (like Sadako mounting the inside of the well in Ringu) and exclaimed to me “you think you’re a woman, but you’re not”. A violent start to an uncomfortable and incoherent conversation. My friend later said, of the rather unusual exchange: “It’s weird that she said that, it must have been the only time we’ve ever not been talking about your gender issues.” While this was said in jest, like most funny things, it was based somewhat on the truth. What is it about me that day that said to a woman – with her eyes closed – that I believed myself to a woman? My appearance often elicits a double take (sometimes welcome, othertimes an awful intrusion, stop looking at me, get a grip etc.), because I happily present myself as femme, but she couldn’t see me. My voice, to the unenlightened is a man’s, camp and sibilant at times, but I’m not softly spoken; I bark. And bark even louder when I’ve had a few cans of red stripe in the sun. Not to mention I swear like a fucking trooper. I think ultimately, what stumped me and my friends that day was that my gender presentation is fast becoming an afterthought to us, there isn’t, I’d like to think, anything contrived about it (or at least no more so than anyone else’s), for the past ten years I’ve worn makeup and had long hair, and while at first it was an act of some delayed teenage rebellion, and a plea to be noticed, it is now something that I don’t really think about- unless someone else’s response to me makes me think about it. The act of putting makeup on is no more or less part of my routine than brushing my teeth. My close friends, too, are taken aback if someone says something offensive or stares or nudges a friend on the tube to point at me, because they don’t see anything else other than Sean. What is everyone else seeing? And why are they interested?

An interesting thing happened at work today. Three or four of my colleagues, who have all seen me present as femme for many years now, commented on me wearing a bright pink tshirt. My response was, perhaps defensively, perhaps self-deprecatingly, “I thought I’d go for something a bit more masculine today.” Would they comment on a cis woman colleague wearing a pink tshirt? Maybe. Maybe I’m thinking about it too much. I probably am. But I can’t help but think that people who compliment what appears to be a boy who presents as femme are really saying “I get it, I’m okay with it.” A round of applause all round. It’s just a pink fucking tshirt. I know I’m defensive about this, but I’ve been conditioned this way (spit on me in Manchester as you cycle past on your bike, take a picture of me on your iPhone on the bus, called me a tranny etc. etc. etc.), much the way that my colleagues have been conditioned to make doubly sure that I know that they ‘accept’ me, just the way that boring oafs on the tube have been conditioned to resent women, and anything/anyone feminine by proxy.

I do think about gender all the time. I have to, I’m constantly reminded about it, whether I want to be or not. When I was an undergraduate, I was asked to leave the men’s toilets in the student union club because they thought I was a woman, a bouncer then removed me from the women’s toilet. My friend, who remembers the event more clearly than I do, told me the next day I had said to the bouncer “where am I supposed to piss then? A pint pot?” the answer I’ve learnt, is not a pint pot, but the disabled toilets, which I feel incredibly guilty about using, because I am able bodied. I am reminded about gender every time I need to use a public toilet, because of other people’s discomfort. Not my own.

I’m reminded of gender when I’m in gay bars. Where women and trans people are cast aside, where gay men aspire to be seen as ‘straight-acting’, where beards have become currency.

I was reminded of gender on the bus the other evening, I was going to my friend’s for dinner. I could hear a group of school boys behind having a very involved conversation about whether I was a ‘man or a girl’ (funny that I become infantilised if the latter is the case). I didn’t really think much of it, aside from being mildly irritating (and a bit surprising; for once I had no makeup on, my hair was tied up and I was wearing a bloody hoody). But afterwards I thought about it again and about how intrusive the conversation was, because, since they didn’t seem to be able to glean any idea of my gender from my appearance, what their curiosity ultimately boiled down to was about my genitals. I expect more from kids usually, they tend to know better than their parents, but on the other hand how long can we excuse people’s behavior because of youth? When they turn 18? 21? When they have a child? When they or someone they know is a victim of misogyny, transphobia or homophobia? (to borrow a phrase coined by Nigella Lawson – intimate terrorism).

I’m constantly aware (and feel guilty about- I am part of the twitter generation after all) of my privileges. Even as a queer person, I am very privileged. I am able to be very visibly and unapologetically queer, I’m not sure I’d be afforded such a luxury if I still lived in Sunderland. But until people stop thinking about my genitals, I won’t be able to. I’ll keep banging on about my gender identity and about gender inequality until I stop being reminded about them by other people’s incapacity for critical thought. Sometimes I’m happy to engage with people who are curious about gender variance, but other times, I wonder why it’s my fucking place to educate them.

I’ll finish with a song.

 

Notes on ‘Notes on Neo-Camp’

Last night I attended a panel discussion called ‘Notes on Camp’ at the ICA, which aimed to ‘interrogate the term camp and consider its relevance to contemporary art’. Oddly enough, it seemed that the focus of the discussion was actually the term neo-camp – a rather muddy term coined by curator of ‘Notes on Neo-Camp’, Chris Sharp. It was this confusion over the attempt to revise, reclaim or reimagine the already heavily contested term camp that caused a lot of discomfort for me.

The panel was chaired by the brilliant Gavin Butt, whose work I find really challenging and interesting. The panellists were: Chris Sharp, who, following a rather exhausting article about so called neo-camp, curated the exhibition ‘Notes on Neo-Camp’; Daniel Sinsel, whose artworks were included in the exhibition; and Ellen Feiss, who had reviewed the exhibition.

In homage to Sontag’s Notes on Camp (and through laziness) I’ll put my thoughts about the event in note form.

1. Gavin Butt’s interpretation of camp was the only one that echoed my own, he said that camp was an answer to “straight seriousness”, for when sincerity was not enough. He highlighted three key changes that have occurred post-Sontag’s seminal essay; when written, pop culture as we now know it was in its infancy, now sincere speech is not taken at face value in the age of political spin, ideologies are no longer so readily believed or unchallenged; he referred to “come dine with me” syndrome- i.e.: the way that “trashy consumerist taste” now dominates in ways that it didn’t in the early to mid 1960s; and finally, LGBT political and legal developments- meaning that (arguably) LGBT people no longer need to find a place in society solely through irony and aestheticism.

2. Both Chris and Dan’s interpretation of ‘neo-camp’ was to do with the covert, the unspoken, the euphemism and the suggestive gesture; some sort of coded language. They both seemed to identify camp as solely the territory of the gay male- which I find quite a difficult thing to get on board with. Ellen criticised the exhibition as being under-theorised in the context of camp, and Sontag’s essay- which all three seemed to be quite dismissive of, and Chris in particular seemed to suggest was not relevant anymore.

3. While I agreed with a lot of Ellen’s critique of the term ‘neo-camp’, the examples she gave to endorse her own reading of camp were equally troubling, there were a lot of erect penises and imagery of queer activism. The heavy focus on (homo)erotica I found quite unusual, it’s not camp. Likewise, the political elements of camp (which Sontag refutes by suggesting that camp is apolitical – presumably in the sense that its aim is never to be political, regardless of whether the outcome is or not) for me, are only a small part of what camp is, and the focus on queerness (read “white gay men”) was completely misguided. Women, queer or otherwise, were barely a footnote in this discussion.

4. Ellen highlighted an image of an object (if memory serves it was a ladder) that was rendered functionless because of the way it was arranged – she identified this as camp. This is one of many examples where queer (or queered) art works were misdiagnosed as camp (or neo-camp).

5. There was a lot of talk about us living in a “post-marriage” queer time. And a post queers in the military time. Chris identified neo-camp as being post-closet, but it seems to be that neo-camp is indeed post-camp, in other words, a product of assimilation. Assimilation that I feel is thoroughly un-queer and the realm of a tediously homonormative approach to LGBT politics.

6. Dan and Chris both suggested that, the very fact that ICA was having this discussion showed that camp has become institutionalised, I think this talk proved quite the opposite- that camp has been tamed, sanitised and diluted into a completely different, less exciting (/comprehensible) beast, for the purpose of academia and visual art.

7. The strongest comment, for me, came from a woman in the audience, who said that ‘camp is female’. This comment aside, there was no mention of the role women have played in the story of camp. (I recommend Pamela Robertson’s Guilty Pleasures: feminist camp from Mae West to Madonna as a good counter to this).

8. While a very interesting discussion, the fact that Chris Sharp’s exhibition (and thus, by proxy, Daniel Sinsel’s work) had been framed as ‘neo-camp’, made it difficult to engage wholly with any aspect of it, as a great deal of their images seemed to me, the very antithesis of camp. Thankfully, Gavin Butt in his closing remarks, admitted that many of the images shown throughout the talk had prompted the reaction ‘I don’t think that’s camp at all’ from himself.

9. Without having seen the exhibition, it’s unfair to be dismissive of it, but based on this discussion, Neo-Camp seems to me to be straight, highbrow, abstract and thoroughly un-camp. I’m not sure I can even imagine what a “new” camp might look like, or even if this body of work could be called post-camp- it seems to me that ‘anti-camp’ is a more appropriate term.

10. As my friend Judith, who I attended the talk with, said; perhaps once you start theorising camp, you kill it. However, I’m sure that won’t stop us trying…

Call for presentations / performances

Unspeakable!

The Eleventh LGBTQ History and Archives Conference
7 December 2013, 9.30am-4.30pm
London Metropolitan Archives, 40, Northampton Road, London, EC1R 0HB

Call for Presentations / Performances

Due to much of LGBT History being shaped around legal and political landmarks relating mainly to the experiences of gay men, other queer voices often go unheard. The eleventh LGBT History and Archives Conference explores the histories and experiences of Trans, Lesbian and Bisexual people. These stories are rarely told and, if presented, often not listened to. Come and make some history.


Contributors are invited to submit proposals for performances, presentations and talks lasting ten-twenty minutes,  which explore marginalised experience within an apparently liberated community. Suggested themes: the creation, control and breaking of boundaries; self-asserted and imposed identities; labelling – the liberation and constraint of language; activism – meeting challenges

Deadline for submissions: 6 September 2013     email: ask.lma@cityoflondon.gov.uk

LGBTQ History conference: LGBTQ Narrators and Oral Histories

I attended the What is LGBT(Q) History and Where do we stand? conference at Queen Mary, University of London on Wednesday 7th-Thursday 8th September. I decided to do a few blog posts, just to make it more digestible, and because my notetaking tends to be a bit scatter-brained and excessive.

My first question before even getting there was why the Q for Queer was in brackets…

Rather than going through each of the papers, I’m just going to pick out some of the points I found most interesting.

You can find out more about the conference here: http://whatislgbtqhistory.blogspot.co.uk/

The first panel was about LGBTQ Narrators and Oral History(/ies)

Jane Traies, a PhD candidate from the University of Sussex spoke about her work with older lesbians and oral history. She said that older lesbians are overlooked in both academia and in popular culture, and the older queer generation is particularly hard to access. She managed to survey around 400 lesbians aged between 60 and 90, and then followed up with 50 indepth life story interviews. She referred to older queer people as “the closeted generation” which was a turn of phrase I like. Oral histories with older people, specifically marginalised people, is about restoring the historical record, and not only treating them as museum pieces with an interesting past, but capturing their experiences of today, the present. One of the questions asked was “do you consider yourself a feminist?”, a staggering 80% said yes, which is much higher than any other statistics for 3rd age populations, is it because they are older? is it because they are women? is it because they are lesbians? these are ideas she needs to unpack.Many of the younger women she interviewed (around their 60s) were young during the second wave feminist movement and thus may see feminism and lesbianism as inextricably linked. Those who formed their lesbian identities before the 1960s were less likelyto consider themselves feminists, she also found that those from working class backgrounds were also more likely to consider themselves feminists. Of the non-identifying-feminists, the adoption of butch/femme and mirrored heteronormal roles were more common. Jane’s research has confirmed for her that personal histories and identities and socio-political histories are linked and often in conflict. She also said it was important to disaggragate the LGBTQ acronym, but also to knit it back up again.

Of LGBTQ history, she said it was still troublesome to the academy, as it erodes traditional boundaries of histories and is interdisciplinary, and that LGBT histories are a political act and activism. She also identified that LGBTQ history is almost always researched by LGBTQ people, thus bias is unavoidable, and there are some academics that still believe that history can and should be completely unbiased.

She spoke of her methodology, which as an early stage researcher, was of great interest to me. She said that she feels she has a responsibility to the community that she is studying, and has been careful to include them at all stages and has co-produced their life histories and allowed them to choose their own psuedonyms and has consulted them with the transcripts. She also seeks feedback for her research with non-academic LGBT people, which she says is good practice for eliminating academic jargon.

More about her fascinating research can be found here: http://womenlikethat.co.uk/
Elizabeth Young (Uni of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada) and Alva Traebert (Uni of Edinburgh) were both looking at place in their research, Elizabeth at the ‘Bible Belt’ of Canada, Lethbridge, and Alva in Scotland from 1980-2000. Ideas that cropped up included; the importance of geography on shaping and informing sexual identities, how this geographic influence impacts oral methodology, the importance of preserving voices, issues of labelling and terminology (which was a theme that cropped up throughout the day and a particular anxiety in my research), the importance of being reflexive researchers who are mindful of ourselves and our own influence and interpretations of the stories that are told.

Alva was looking at AIDs/HIV and how young queer people in Scotland would have educated themselves during the AIDs/HIV crisis without the internet or access to formal education on the subject due to Section 2A (Scotland’s version of Section 28 which was repealed three years before the rest of the UK repealed Section 28), the absence of women in queer AIDs/HIV research, apart from as care-givers, how the “scene venues” as viewed by mainstream society are mainly very gendered places (ie: gay bars, parks etc.), the importance of acknowledging the tensions within the community and who polices the boundaries of community membership, the difficulties some lesbians find in being part of the lesbian community due to their femininity (which some of my friends have experienced first hand). She spoke of how she was using queer as an umbrella term for all LGBT people and their allies (which is what I plan to do in my research), but is mindful that it’s not a widely embraced term. She sees her role as not giving voices to queer people, but as facilitating queer people to find their own.

She finished by saying that being a queer researcher, working on a queer research project in a traditional university is still a challenge (I have recently faced a sea of blank faces when describing my research to some fellow PhD students at a university that is primarily education and social sciences) and that we need to start thinking about what it means to be a queer researcher.

Some good points cropped up in the Q & A which followed:

-“community” should perhaps be viewed as what we are not, rather than what we are.
– there is a queer generational gap, older queers believe firmly in identity politics (and therefore labels) whereas younger people are more inclined to think of identity as fluid. Jane said that she felt the LGBTQ were not great at intergenerational relationships.
– when doing oral histories, there is no truth. You get the stories that people want to/are prepared to tell and you become the co-producer and the storytelling becomes a conversation.

I’ll do a follow up blog post with more from the conference soon.