GM I’m interested in the idea of foregoing critical distance and scholarly objectivity, particularly when thinking about cruising as a performative or auto-ethnographic methodology. It’s impossible to maintain distance and objectivity when the subject is a culture that you have directly engaged in on some level.
FA For me, this really came out of feminist scholarship and activism and the idea that the personal is political. So often, work by women is dismissed as emotional, sentimental, decorative, and excessive (too this, too that). The notion of a universal subject – whether it’s ‘the viewer’ or ‘the artist’ – is a fallacy that positions the experiences of white (mostly straight) men above any other perspectives or experiences. At the same time, I’m not keen to make my work all about myself or to relate my writing about, for example, queer cruising in 1970s New York to my own experiences. That feels reductive, even myopic. Equally, I am not a gay man and have not been able to experience cruising in that way. Clearly, it excites me. I really believe in rigorous scholarly research in archives, books, and through interviews, and in detailed critical analysis, but I think pure objectivity is neither possible nor desirable. I can’t distance myself from artwork about, say, queer solidarity. And I’m moved by it. But there’s ways you can reject the idea of a universal subject and point out the impossibility of total objectivity without referring back to yourself all the time. It’s self-evident if you approach your work from a feminist perspective. Concepts and practices like solidarity and intergenerational friendship have been really important for me in thinking about this.
GM It was also great to talk to you about painting as process and how it allows for formal considerations to come to the fore in the studio, thinking about ways of working and material or process-based concerns, responding more immediately as work develops, without trying to understand (beyond decisions around subject matter) whether or in what way the work is linked to a broader methodology.
FA I suppose this is partly about the difference between being an artist and being an art historian. In some ways, painting is your method, or gathering found objects, that’s a methodology. I need to work out a strategy for analysing an artist’s work and placing it in a critical context, so I work out a method for doing that. Cruising is not my only methodology; I also use archival research, oral history (where possible), primary and secondary historical research, and close visual analysis. In many ways, I’m an unreconstructed Modernist and I like medium specificity – cruising as method came out of the work I was writing about. How could I write about art that explored the experience of cruising, looking closely at that work, and not address the fact that cruising is also a practice of close looking and visual analysis? I felt it was there already and I helped draw focus to it.
GM What are the limitations of a literal interpretation of cruising as method (suggested in the title of your essay), where there is perhaps a value to critical distance? I’m thinking about the addictive nature of cruising and where there can be a kind of slippage between cruising as a methodology and a more primal engagement with it. This perhaps comes back to the point of being turned on by your subject. I suppose I wonder where a line is drawn in terms of what constitutes art and research and/or to what extent that’s relevant?
FA I suppose I’m arguing that you can be turned on and produce a rigorous piece of scholarship at the same time! The reason I think cruising as a methodology has limits is that making anything into a research method runs the risk of totally divorcing it from its historical, social, and material context, like ‘queering’ has been to a certain extent. I developed cruising as method in order to write about historic cruising cultures, not to write about any mode of moving through cities or any kind of erotic or artistic encounter. In William E. Jones’ work Tearoom, for example, as I wrote in the essay, ‘he draws parallels between the gaze of the police and the visual codes of cruising in order to demonstrate the ways in which the methods of cruising in public toilets were appropriated by the police to ensnare men who participated in it.’ I still think that ‘engaging with cruising as a method is most effective when it is used to trace and share the history of cruising itself, when it is not a metaphor but a way of thinking queerly about the practice of looking for something that is not immediately visible.’ That’s one reason why I was so excited to discover that you have drawn upon this text and how you’ve explored this idea in your own work. Why did it appeal to you as a method?
GM In your book Cruising the Dead River you write that time itself was in ruins on the New York waterfront, with past and present coalescing in ruinous buildings, which I found fascinating. The portal fragments in the exhibition are part of a larger body of work where I began exploring this idea, initially through series of performances that I documented in an abandoned warehouse in East London. I was also thinking about Harold Offeh’s work at the time. He suggests that through performance, we can place ourselves in specific contexts to explore connections to certain places and cultures, and that by placing ourselves at the centre of the work we are also able to control the narrative.
Cruising as Method and its Limits was a revelation. It shaped my understanding of this performative methodology in a way that more closely related to what I was doing, at least a literal interpretation of it, whilst validating that method of research. At the same time, it prompted me to explore less narrative-driven approaches to making by introducing me to some of the ideas that we’re discussing here, in particular, the idea of looking for and/or suggesting something that is not immediately visible.
Working in a way that doesn’t prioritise critical distance and scholarly objectivity is also echoed where you reference Freeman and Time Binds in your essay:
“It accounts for the fragmentary documentation, the archival gaps and mainstream cultural omissions, the experience of trying to record and reclaim that which is difficult to see (or has been continually elided through cultural exclusion) and the discrediting of research that is not distant or objective, that is turned on.”
I am interested in this idea as an extension of our conversation about critical distance but, equally, how it relates specifically to a shared experience under Section 28. I was thinking recently about how much of the queer theory that has driven my research or informs my practice is US-centric – why?
FA It’s such an important question and one that I’ve been thinking about a lot in conversations with Sunil, but also with fellow art historians and writers like Laura Guy, Flora Dunster, Theo Gordon, James Boaden, and Ed Webb-Ingall. I always looked to the US as a student because that’s where the queer art historical research seemed to be (Warhol, Rauschenberg, Johns). The modules which addressed these themes seemed to focus on the US. I love researching and writing about US-American art. I started to think more about queer British art when I struggled to find much scholarship about AIDS in the UK. And I think you run into trouble if you try to apply theory developed in a US context to British art and politics. For me, it’s crucial to think about historical and political context. You can’t seamlessly apply US theories to British art that responds to AIDS because the healthcare systems are so different.
How did you start to address that US-centrism in your own practice and education?
GM It came up in conversations during my studies at the RCA, in particular with fellow artists Tommy Cameron and Leon Pozniakov. I think this prompted me to consider what was happening culturally in the UK from the years that preceded HIV/AIDS onwards and my focus drifted from the NY piers to the public parks and toilets in London. It made me aware however that cruising the Heath, for example, is romanticised in a way that say cottaging or bathhouse culture in the UK isn’t. Perhaps it’s more palatable, less threatening, or fits more neatly within heteronormative stereotypes. That shift in focus was also driven by an interest in the historic legislation that criminalised homosexuality in the UK and wanting to understand the influence that societal attitudes, HIV/AIDS and the media had upon legislative reform in the UK. US queer theory nevertheless remains an important point of reference.
In the studio, we also talked about the role that Section 28 has played in these archival gaps and mainstream cultural omissions. How has it driven a need for cruising as a practice, as a form of art making and research?
FA This is such an interesting question. One of the most insidious effects of Section 28 was self-censorship: exhibitions at local authority funded galleries being shut down for fear of losing funding, student lesbian and gay societies quietly folding, and school teachers going back in the closet or looking the other way when it came to homophobic bullying. And to take that further, there will be relationships that never happened, art that was never made, and exhibitions that were never conceptualised as a result of Section 28. I bring this up because it raises interesting questions about what a queer archive is. There are histories that no archives can uncover because artefacts were destroyed, but also because they literally never materialised. What search terms can you use to find stories that were never written and art that was never made as a consequence of censorship and anti-queer legislation? How can that be catalogued? For me, that’s where queer methods like cruising come in.