BY Kevin Brazil in Opinion | 04 JAN 21

The Art of Queer Support in 2020

This year has shown many of us the importance of community-building, but for queer artists it isn’t just about mirroring an existing public sphere

BY Kevin Brazil in Opinion | 04 JAN 21

In June 2020, London’s Cell Project Space posted hundreds of fluorescent-yellow envelopes to addresses in the UK and abroad. Each contained a photocopy of a handwritten letter that described the feeling of being drenched by ‘the waterfall of the world’, plus a vial housing a scent recalling the smell of sweat, mould and damp. For recipients outside the UK, the vial had been removed by the fictitious ‘International Customs and Border Protection’, but droplets remained, leaking onto a slip saying ‘OBJECT REMOVED’, subtly subverting the ‘system that may have otherwise prevented its safe journey’, as curator Eliel Jones observed.

Queer Correspondence Cell Project Space
Alex Margo Arden and Caspar Heinemann, Queer Correspondence #1, 2020, image submitted by Raymond Gemayel, Paris. Courtesy: the artists and Cell Project Space, London; photograph: Raymond Gemayel 

These envelopes, filled by London-based artists Caspar Heinemann and Alex Margo Arden, inaugurated a six-month mail-art initiative, ‘Queer Correspondence’. In a year of mounting isolation and anxiety – compounded by lockdown measures, economic insecurities and anti-Black brutality demonstrations proliferating on global screens – a number of projects activated queer community-building as a source of relative comfort. Sexual and gender minorities and QTBIPOC communities have long created alterative structures of support, care and pleasure for themselves and others who are (or have felt) unable to express their desires or embodiments in public. It would miss the distinction of these systems to see them as building a kind of substitute public sphere, as if the goal of queer life were to mirror that which already exists. Projects like ‘Queer Correspondence’ enact different ideas of community, beyond the divisions of public and private, individual and collective, mine and yours.

Rob Hesp in the river 2020
Rob Hesp, in the river (shuddering), 2020, film still. Courtesy: Rob Hesp; photograph: Matt Mead

Reading, as the artists’ posting of letters suggests, is one act that can blur these divisions. In 2019, the London-based writer, artist and curator Ama Josephine Budge began assembling The Apocalypse Reading Room – an onsite library of texts broadly responding to our state of social, political and environmental collapse, housed in the café of the London arts organization Free Word. (Currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the library will be physically re-installed at Toynbee Studios, London, in June 2021.) In response to the lockdown, Budge organized a series of online events: each week, a different author would read a book they considered their ‘apocalypse survival guide’ from their home. Poet and performer Kai-Isaiah Jamal selected Jay Bernard’s Surge (2019), while writer and drag artist Victoria Sin did a reading of Chuang Tzŭ’s The Inner Chapters (1974). In conversation about the project, Budge describes the feeling of being read to as ‘wrap[ping] someone up in syntax and alliteration, subtleties of tone and the interpretation of punctuation’. It is ‘such a profound act of care’ that it almost becomes ‘a sort of queer re-wombing’. Shifting the project online brought into focus the reciprocal nature of that care: the way it transforms the readers’ relationship ‘to the text, their voice, to others whom you don’t know and may never meet – simply because there was a call, an ask, a need’. Neither extractive nor profit-based, these acts of generosity are ‘patriarchal capitalism’s best-kept secret’, Budge explains. ‘[They] feed the one offering, as much as the one receiving.’

Raisa Kabir House Made of Tin
Raisa Kabir, House Made of Tin (A Socially Distanced Weaving Performance), 2020, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist and Ford Foundation, New York; photograph: D. Mortimer 

While these London-based projects drew upon practices of textual exchange, on the other side of the Atlantic, an ongoing series of online exhibitions at New York’s Ford Foundation makes visible the resilience of communities in the here and now. Begun in September, and curated by Jessica A. Cooley and Ann M. Fox, ‘Indisposable: Structures of Support after the Americans with Disabilities Act’ brings together artists and scholars from across the globe to highlight the intersecting care networks that have emerged to counter the continuing global effects of white supremacy, heteronormativity and ableism. As part of the project, interdisciplinary artist and weaver Raisa Kabir recorded House Made of Tin (A Socially Distanced Weaving Performance) (2020), a work that built upon a wider investigation into the networks of labouring bodies involved in neo-colonial textile production in the global south. Kabir observes how these methods of manufacture exclude trans, genderqueer and disabled bodies for not being ‘functional’, yet, for the artist, that very exclusion makes those bodies sites of resistance. Eight performers, assembled in east London’s Springfield Park in Hackney, built warp looms and wove webs of cord, cotton warp yarn and wool. In conversation about the work, Kabir informs me that this weaving process allegorizes the ways in which ‘marginalized communities rely – and have always relied – on support networks of care and structures of mutual aid to survive that are separate to the state’. Yet, as Kabir points out – and the focus of Cooley and Fox’s project suggests – ‘disability justice is dependent on wider society believing in, and participating in, creating access for all’. The performance illuminated a fundamental tension running through any alterative structure of support: how to make it universal? But, in making that very point, the work was an act of beautiful care. In the words of one participant, the writer D. Mortimer, what also came together was colour: the ‘reds and golds’ of autumn trees; the ‘pinks, limes and duck-egg blues’ of the yarn.

Rob Hesp in the river
Rob Hesp, in the river (shuddering), 2020, film still. Courtesy: Rob Hesp; photograph: Matt Mead

Making visible the beauty of queer networks of support, as well as their constraining conditions, also motivated Rob Hesp’s short film in the river (shuddering) (2020), which premiered as part of the Queer Pandemic Response programme of London’s Fringe! Queer Film and Arts Fest in November. Hesp tells me that the work originated in ‘the feeling of falling, being unable to orient or find any kind of bearing to navigate with’. Shot on Walthamstow Marshes in northeast London, the film shows ten bodies slowly falling into damp grass and gently, hypnotically, rising together. Their movements are so subtly co-ordinated that it is only in retrospect you realize they have remained two metres apart throughout. For the artist June Lam, who appeared in the film, the choreography enacted the way support can be realized across distance ‘by moving with intention and in relationship with other queer dancers’. But also, sometimes, as in the river (shuddering) attests, just being still together is enough. Lam remembers: ‘Palpable in the air on the day that we filmed was how indestructible queer community actually is.’

Main image: Alex Margo Arden and Caspar Heinemann, Queer Correspondence #1, 2020, image submitted by Julius Pristauz, Vienna. Courtesy: the artists and Cell Project Space, London; photograph: Julius Pristauz

Kevin Brazil is a writer and critic based in London, UK. His book, What Ever Happened to Queer Happiness was published by Influx Press in 2022.