Portals: A Conversation Between Fiona Anderson and Graham Martin

IN: (Jul 07, 2022)In Conversation

Portals (Installation), 2022. Photographic image transfer on found sink fragments and suspended found sink fragments.

Portals (Installation), 2022. Photographic image transfer on found sink fragments and suspended found sink fragments.

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?  Fiona Anderson

Furtive Modes of Research

“Thinking of cruising in this methodological way suggests a furtive mode of undertaking artistic research and practice”.

The different sections of the conversation begin with quotations selected by Graham from ‘Cruising as Methods and its Limits’, – an essay by the art historian Fiona Anderson, commissioned by LUX in 2017 in partnership with the research project Cruising the Seventies: Unearthing Pre-HIV/AIDS Queer Sexual Cultures (CRUSEV), as part of CRUISING GROUND, a programme of writing, exhibitions, screenings, and workshops bringing together a range of perspectives and discourses on cruising in theory and practice. More

 

 

GM      I thought we could begin by touching upon the furtive nature of cruising and how this can be employed as methodology. In the past, much of my research has drawn from explorations of abandoned sites where access is restricted. When entering and cruising these spaces unnoticed, gathering objects and ephemera, and consciously or unconsciously leaving traces of those visits, there’s a sense of risk (whether actual or perceived) to personal safety and of incrimination. Searching for clues pointing to queer pasts in these spaces, or ‘queering’ to some extent the environment through installation or performance, that risk, or at least the perception of it, intensifies. The furtive nature of this way of working seems to arise because there’s something at stake.

FA      Historically, cruising has often been a hidden or furtive practice because of the very real risk of entrapment, arrest, police harassment, and queer bashing. There are other practical motivations for this furtiveness too: cruising somewhere fairly off grid like the West Side piers in the 1970s means that people are likely there for the same reason as you. This furtiveness also has an erotic charge or can acquire one. This is something I explored in my book Cruising the Dead River: David Wojnarowicz and New York’s Ruined Waterfront (2019): cruising in ruins was risky in terms of personal safety for various reasons, but that was also a turn on. 

Something that drew me to the idea of a ‘furtive mode of research’ was the fact that, like cruising, it is a phrase that has different connotations, depending on who is reading. It can refer to feelings of isolation or alienation, or to the necessity of reading between the lines in a culture that doesn’t value or represent you or keep you safe, but it can also speak to that thrilling experience of queer recognition, a glance across a room or with a comrade in a poem, a painting, or a photograph. 

GM      That idea of queer recognition is really interesting. Those charged and often fleeting exchanges are inherent in cruising and part of that thrill is its coded nature. I’m conscious that exhibition making or publishing ultimately makes public, to some extent, work and research that responds to cruising generally. The studio feels like a place to explore these ideas freely and openly, as well as a space where decisions are made around what is shared in terms of context and what is reserved. Exhibition making, which places some of these ideas in the public sphere feels problematic in a way. 

As queer people, we’re able to and are indeed nourished by speaking openly on these subjects, yet perhaps also mindful of protecting ourselves and those within a community who engage with a culture furtively, either by choice or lack of it. In what ways are notions of care that we discussed also wrapped up in that? 

FA     In terms of cruising in an exhibition context or exhibiting art that explores cruising publicly, I share your concerns. For me, the issue isn’t so much about making something private public, since cruising is a public sex practice, but rather that it might lose its queer erotic charge altogether or become an easily packaged example of ‘queer art’, a saleable category that can be really limiting. Ariel Goldberg explores this in their book The Estrangement Principle (2016), how to make queerness visible without reducing its complexity to a recognisable image or a style. 

GM      I think part of my hesitation in releasing work from the studio or making it more public is also tied up in shame. Making work that engages with this subject partly comes from a place of countering that, of revisiting personal experiences and deconstructing oppressive narratives we have grown up with and internalised. In that respect, exhibiting the work becomes something empowering. 

I’m interested in how shame correlates with the Scottish experience – perhaps one that is more generally influenced by the Kirk [the Church of Scotland]. Shame continues to be felt more widely amongst the queer community, particularly by gay men of our generation and the generation that preceded ours, but I wonder to what extent it was felt more intensely or just differently in Scotland? 

FA      I thought about this a lot in 2017, when cultural institutions and organisations in England and Wales were marking the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act and the partial decriminalisation of sex between men in private. (And, of course, it didn’t apply to sex in public spaces! Arrests for that in England and Wales actually increased after 1967.)

Partial decriminalisation didn’t happen in Scotland until 1980, just 7 years before the introduction of Section 28. I think that had a lot to do with the Scottish Presbyterian tradition and the dominant role that the Kirk played in public and private life in Scotland in this period. Of course, there are also large and historic Catholic communities in Scotland. For so many Scots, if you weren’t growing up with Calvinism or related forms of Presbyterianism, you were growing up with Catholicism. A lot of that shame is inherited. 

GM      It’s crazy to think how recent that was. Prior to Section 28, I think the influence of the Kirk also filtered down through state education in Scotland, and certainly remained embedded in the education system in the 80s, 90s, and 00s, even in non- denominational schools.

I wonder to what extent residual shame exists across generations within the queer community and how it is experienced and countered. In Beyond Shame: Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality (2004), Patrick Moore suggests that at the turn of the century the 70s were viewed as a period of shameful sexual excess that segued into HIV/AIDS, resulting in an intergenerational divide within the gay community, as that generation were prevented from passing on a sense of pride and identity. He writes specifically about the American experience but I think that rings true in the UK. 

FA      I think friendship, conversation, and intergenerational connection is another way to counter that shame. It’s not without its challenges, of course! All friendships are complicated and intergenerational ones can bring up issues around hierarchies, respect, and different experiences of state discrimination. I think it’s also important to think about all those queer ‘elders’ who didn’t make it, who died from AIDS-related conditions, suicide, or other forms of violence that come with living in a queerphobic society. And to borrow from Fierce Pussy, for those with HIV and AIDS, if they were alive today they would still be living with it.

How would you describe your relationships with queer elders? And how have they shaped your work? 

GM      I have so much respect and admiration for the founding members of the GLF – Stuart Feather, Ted Brown, Andrew Lumsden, Nettie Pollard and others – who I met through a good friend Dan Glass, but I don’t know any of them personally. I’d say the importance of those relationships only dawned on me relatively recently. My most formative relationship, if I can call it that, is perhaps with Derek Jarman, and one that sort of exists across time and space. Although he died from AIDS-related conditions in 1994 aged 52, his memoirs still speak to a shared contemporary experience. In At Your Own Risk (1992) he writes that ‘the absence of the past was a terror’, which struck a chord and has informed the direction my work has taken. It also prompted me to draw from personal experiences in You of a Better Future (2022), which explores the impact of Section 28.

You spent a decade cruising the archives of David Wojnarowicz. I’d love to know more about your relationship with him and his work and if/how that has perhaps changed with the direction your research has taken more recently.

FA     When I started that book project, David Wojnarowicz wasn’t that well known. I’m so glad that’s no longer the case. Wojnarowicz’s archive is held with such care in the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University. It was a privilege to be able to spend so much time there and have various archivists as guides to its contents. Archival research, particularly when you’re working with an individual’s collection, can be totally absorbing and quite overwhelming. That has a big impact on my methodology. I write in Cruising the Dead River that it’s not so much a book about Wojnarowicz, but around him, using his work as a guide to a wider culture, time period, and place. That approach has become increasingly important to me, based partly on my experiences in his archive and the routes my research has taken over the past few years. I think it’s important to value queer elders but to resist hagiography and, instead, think about ways to write and research these histories collectively and collaboratively, rather than through the stories of exceptional individuals.

Urinals. Wilmer & Sons glazed stoneware urinals with brass spreaders and oxidised copper pipe

Resistance to Predetermined Outcomes

“To see cruising as a method for art making evokes a similar sense of resistance to the projection of a predetermined outcome or product for one’s work in advance, working in an open-ended or non-linear mode, without a delineated narrative.”

 

GM      In the studio, you were drawn to some of the found objects that I have accumulated. I was interested in the things we discussed around that, particularly in relation to the experience we have of those objects that have been subject to intervention in some way and others that haven’t.

Much of the work in the exhibition is narrative-driven, particularly that which engages more literally with cruising as method, and involves a range of media and processes. In the studio, we talked about the subtle shift that occurs when historical or archival objects are linked to queer histories simply by placing them in specific contexts. I’m interested in how that invites a certain reading and how it informs how the objects are understood.

Take Penny For Your Thoughts, for example. There’s no easy way of tracing the object’s history beyond what we know about public toilet door locks generally. However, as we can situate it as functioning during a certain time period, given the dates of the coins jammed in its operating mechanism, it becomes loaded with meaning. I also think of the installation of the urinals within the gallery space in this context, perhaps more in the sense of resistance to predetermined outcomes.

FA      While I developed cruising as a method for thinking about a set of existing artworks and the practices of close looking and queer archival research, I’m excited to think that it might offer artists a way to approach the making and sharing of their work. There is a tension here, between wanting to leave the work open to interpretation by a viewer while also wanting to ensure that it doesn’t lose its queer character and erotic charge. Perhaps that can’t be resolved.

GM      I also wonder at what point these objects become something else, something separate from the research, perhaps more easily categorised or something commercial. I’m not sure how I feel about that but am interested to explore it. I tend to dissociate somewhat the images I use from the underlying methodology, particularly as the source material is so personal and exposing in a very literal sense. I suppose it depends on the context in which they are shown and the audience.

FA     I would probably separate the fear of commercial intent and the fear of the artwork acquiring new meanings beyond the artist’s original intent. The latter is, to me, just part of being an artist. I’d take this back to Duchamp’s idea of ‘The Creative Act’ as a collaboration between the artist, the viewer, and the work. The artist is ‘a mediumistic being’, but the viewer has power and agency too. In terms of commercial intent, I understand where that anxiety comes from and I think it’s bound up to a certain extent with the theme of shame that we talked about earlier. In a capitalist society, you need to make a living. Artists selling their work aren’t really the problem.

GM      Going back to the subject of found artefacts, the idea that through touch we can unlock their latent potential, access queer histories, or even connect with past experiences in a tangible way, interests me more than something driven by nostalgia. Elizabeth Freeman writes about this in relation to the work of artists like Sharon Hayes in her book Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (2010), saying:

“Pure nostalgia for another revolutionary moment, their works seem to argue, will not do. But nor will its opposite, a purely futural orientation that depends on forgetting the past. Instead, the queerness of these artists consists in mining the present for signs of undetonated energy from past revolutions.”

That idea of mining the present for signs of undetonated energy from past revolutions. I love that.

FA     Me too! I like it as an approach that gives this past work and that history its due, while still giving people in the present agency and energy. It’s playful. Maybe it’s also one of the things that draws us to connect with real queer elders and vice versa. One of the aims with the Cruising the Seventies: Unearthing Pre-HIV/AIDS Queer Sexual Cultures (CRUSEV) project was to uncover visions of the future that were forgotten or became unsustainable in the context of the AIDS crisis and the experience of mass death, loss, and political neglect. I think that looking for those shelved futures is a way of attending to the past, present, and future all at the same time and not prioritising one over the other. We know that things don’t inevitably get better, but that doesn’t need to be an anti-utopian argument.

Penny For Your Thoughts, 2022. Graham Martin

Critical Distance & Scholarly Objectivity

“Other than conveying a sense of detachment and staging, [Neil] Barlett’s notion of cruising as method is erotically charged, tactile, and eager. It describes the feeling of being turned on by your subject and deeply invested in it. Cruising as method, for Bartlett, is the antithesis of critical distance and scholarly objectivity.”

 

 

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.

Installation View. Graham Martin, Portals, 2022.

Fiona Anderson is Senior Lecturer in Art History in the Fine Art department at Newcastle University. Her work explores LGBTQ+ social and sexual cultures and art from the 1970s to the present, with a particular interest in gentrification, preservation, and the politics of urban space, mostly in the USA and the UK. She is the author of Cruising the Dead River: David Wojnarowicz and New York’s Ruined Waterfront (University of Chicago Press, 2019). Her writing has also been published in Third Text, Journal of American Studies, and Oxford Art Journal. From 2016-2019, she was UK lead for Cruising the Seventies: Unearthing Pre-HIV/AIDS Queer Sexual Cultures (CRUSEV), a collaborative research project which explored and reconstructed aspects of LGBTQ+ social and sexual cultures of the 1970s and examined their significance for LGBTQ+ people, queer organising, and queer artmaking across Europe in the present and future.

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