BY Chris Hayes in Opinion | 31 AUG 21

Richard Porter Wants to Make ‘Queer’ Weird Again

Pilot Press’s hit ‘Queer Anthology’ series is coming to an end after four years – what’s next for the indie publisher?

BY Chris Hayes in Opinion | 31 AUG 21

In 2017, Richard Porter was one of 10 queer artists invited to take part in a Canongate reading event at the Horse Hospital for the launch of a new edition of David Wojnarowicz’s memoir Close to the Knives (1991), which details, amongst other things, his experience of the AIDS epidemic. ‘The warmth and friendliness around quite an emotional subject was really magic,’ he explained. ‘Something just clicked.’ Not long afterwards, inspired by this experience while also grieving the loss of his sister and a close friend from suicide, he launched Pilot Press to create a space for similarly raw, open and accessible approaches to queer art and writing.

Harold Budd, Elizabeth Fraser, Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde, The Moon and The Echo, 2021. Courtesy: Pilot Press

As a small, independent publishing project run by an individual artist, Pilot Press punched well above its weight. Its series of ‘Queer Anthologies’ (2017–21) on themes ranging from loneliness to joy, rage to sickness, wilderness and healing features pieces from notable literary heavyweights who were supportive of the project. As well as emerging writers, the contributors list includes the likes of AA Bronson, Lubaina Himid, Olivia Laing and Eileen Myles. Chris Kraus described it as ‘a much needed-need gift right now’.

It wasn’t an easy start. Porter was sleeping on his brother’s couch at the time he founded the press. A friend initially lent him money to print 50 copies, and from there things began to snowball. At first, this threatened to overwhelm him, as he had to rely on every small reprint to fund the next one. ‘People began to buy [the books] but I couldn’t keep up,’ he said. ‘I didn’t have the money to print 1,000 and just be done with it.’ An invitation from the New York non-profit Printed Matter expanded Pilot Press’s burgeoning fanbase into the US.

Paul P. and G.B. Jones for A Queer Anthology of Rage, Richard Porter (ed.), 2018. Courtesy: Pilot Press

Embodying an experimental legacy, the distinctive art style references exhibition posters from Black Mountain College, with their minimal typefaces, subtle imagery and expansive white space. This nod towards an artistic community is reflected in the publishing approach, too: open calls on social media welcomed emerging artists and writers alongside more established names, while quick turnaround times of between three weeks and a month encouraged ‘instinctive’ responses to the loose, emotionally themed briefs.

‘I had no idea what I was doing really,’ Porter says, looking back to the early issues. ‘I cringe a bit when I look at the typesetting of the first one.’ That same lack of experience also meant a lack of pressure, constraints and expectations. Figuring it out was freedom. Founded from a heady combination of loss and inspiration, Pilot Press built its reputation on its ‘Queer Anthologies’. Yet the ‘Healing’ issue, released in 2020 while bookshops were closed during the pandemic, will mark the end of the series. Sellers and distributors strongly recommended Porter continue. Yet, the popularity of Pilot Press came with other problems: the open calls received huge numbers of submissions, meaning Porter had to reject a lot of people; a growing expectation of authority around the project didn’t feel natural either. But, perhaps, a simpler explanation might suffice: there was an emotional impetus to start the series, Porter suggested, and over time the project naturally reached a crescendo.

D Mortimer, Last Night A Beef Jerk Saved My Life, 2021. Courtesy: Pilot Press

After four years of their hit ‘Queer Anthology’ series, Pilot Press is opting for a more difficult direction. Porter, aware of how challenging it is to get a first book published, will focus on debuts of queer writing that might not find a home elsewhere. Most recently, this has included Last Night A Beef Jerk Saved My Life (2021), by D Mortimer, a writer interested in trans crip narratives, and Sam Moore’s All My Teachers Died of AIDS (2020). A new anthology has begun; its first issue is called ‘The Moon and The Echo’; the second, ‘Now I Know, Daylight’, has recently launched. The new series will explore contemporary responses to art made during the AIDS crisis since 1981, the date that the first HIV cases began to be reported in the US.

The legacy of queer art and writing is more than an aesthetic or historical footnote to Porter: it represents radical morality based around care, equality and freedom, and a body politics that resists the professionalization of the art world and the commodification of queer life. ‘I’ve always felt that the AIDS crisis is why we had the yBas,’ he told me. ‘AIDS decimated so much of culture that we then had to endure a decade of straight white British people making banal art that eventually sold for millions. I want to reclaim the weirdness of the word “queer”: its difference, its danger.’

Main Image: Richard Porter. Courtesy: Pilot Press

Chris Hayes is a writer based between Ireland and the UK with an interest in contemporary art and politics.