Standing in Dublin’s renowned queer bar, The George, on Pride weekend, watching a drag show competition with beer in hand, the girl I was dating asked me “Do you feel uncomfortable here?” I took a drink, looked her in the eye and replied “Why should I?” After all, a straight couple on a date in such a place, we were the queerest couple in there.
Before the word “homosexual” was coined in the 19th century, and before the Liber Iudiciorum of the 7th century, the idea of same-sex relations was a lot like that which is idealised today. A character in Plutarch’s Erotikos (Dialogue on Love) argues that “the noble lover of beauty engages in love wherever he sees excellence and splendid natural endowment without regard for any difference in physiological detail.” One must question where things flipped and that which was considered normal human behaviour became “abnormal” or “queer”. We could go on quoting historical instances of Greek and early Roman understanding on the subject, note Alexander the Great or Stoicism’s Zeno of Citium’s exclusive preference for men, but we won’t. This is about today’s society and our understanding of what it means to be queer in the 21st century. So let’s talk about not going shopping…
Commissioned by Photoworks as part of their Queer in Brighton anthology in June 2013, artist, educator and writer Anthony Luvera has created a unique newspaper publication titled not going shopping. It’s a combination of portraits and extracts of text from social media platforms by the 11 participants, including Luvera himself. Pretty straightforward one would think, but as with all good art, that is an illusion. In fact it can get willfully complicated in places, especially when reading what it means to be gay or lesbian or bi or trans or what the word “queer” and the acronym LGBT* insinuates (even the asterisk after the T can be complicated).
Not going shopping is the product of an artist-led process scrutinising the meaning of what it is to be queer in Brighton, long considered the “gay capital of the UK”. It began with Luvera putting out an open call for participants and after a series of friendly meetings and dialogue the group of relative strangers came up with the idea of using photobooth and site-specific portraiture to convey what is a genuine and honest discussion around their culture and it’s place within a wider society. The notion of a “community” is examined, as well as all the usual sexual/gender politics, though in a non-academic and in some cases light-hearted manner. There are one or two moments when reading the participants’ blog posts reprinted in the newspaper, that a light of stark clarity is shone. Indeed there is one particular entry which is poignant and poetic, and filled with a renewed sense of hope that not only cuts through the semantic noise of social politics but also the core of photography as an artform.
Each participant has a page with four panels – two mock photobooth portraits, expressing a more personal and introverted approach in which we see moments of quiet contemplation or “bedroom mirror” exhibitionism. In these images, there is a stripping down of the sitter, or alternatively there is a literal and figurative dressing up. There is a third panel which displays the public image, the external portrait. It is staged at a location carefully chosen in Brighton or Hove that has a significance for both the sitter and the queer community (for lack of a better term). The final panel is a hand-written note expressing the participants’ individual motivation, such as “Liberation”, “I don’t have to explain myself” or “Smash the boundaries”. It is interesting that the younger participants use a more combative phrasology, full of resistance and stoicism (perfectly apt in this case), while the older participants seem to express a more passive language such as “Just another person”, “Average baldy queer” and “Are we a community?” This can come across as a little ironic being that the younger group have grown up in an age with less prejudice in the UK, though no one would suggest prejudice has altogether gone. The hard-fought battles of the previous decades have obviously left some with a more philosophical outlook.
Being a gay man himself, Luvera knows queer culture, and being a well respected photography professional he also possesses the skills and expertise to get to the root issue without falling into the traps that can stifle a project such as this. His intelligent use of social media, printed matter and especially the power of the photographic image combine seamlessly. The portrait images were also pasted to specific walls in Brighton as part of the wider Queer in Brighton project and this shows another side to both the artist and the participants; it shows a bravery and willingness to stand out from the crowd regardless of the outcome.
The free newspapers and street posters integrate the sitters and subject back into the social fabric of the place, acting as a kind of charm offensive that declares in no uncertain terms that the participants do not only exist within a sub-culture, but are in fact part of The Culture. Not going shopping repositions the idea of queerness, not as an outsider theory, but as an appreciation of the other situated inside the parameters of society proper. The portraits are simple, effective devices for communicating this idea without reinforcing stereotypes, while simultaneously allowing the participants room to be themselves. Not going shopping does not necessarily celebrate the other, rather it is more to do with understanding and respecting those who would be as any other.
You can view more of the process on the not going shopping blog.
Anthony Luvera was co-editor on SMBHmag ISSUE 15 ‘Queer Times’