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Digital Programme: The Archive Is Permanently Under Construction

Selection of LGBTWQ+ posters

Hear directly from fellow young creatives about the history and nature of queer archives.

As a Collective in the Creative Learning Programme, we have had the opportunity to meet artists, educators, curators and archivists across the Barbican and the Bishopsgate Institute and beyond, in order to discuss the history, the nature, and the role of the archive, as well as exploring and interrogating the presence and/ or absence of queer bodies and narratives within the archive.

During these conversations, we shared stories and ideas about what the archive means to each of us - about the power, good and bad, the archive has historically held over our personal and community histories. 

From the basis of these discussions, we have explored new ways in which we may conceptualise, and engage with, the archive. As a Collective, we agreed on the importance of perceiving the archive as ever-expanding yet embodied; that is to say, we celebrate the positioning of our bodies, both in terms of our material corporeality, and in terms of our senses - of touch, smell, of joy and pain - as archival practice.

This praxis, we proposed, would give us the ability and the right to influence and exert control over the archive - to reconstruct and represent queer narratives, and their intersection with other identities, such as race and religion.

Therefore, we invite you to enjoy, and to engage with, the installation tonight. We have prepared a series of audio interventions into each of our favourite objects: we discuss why and how these objects speak to, and move us; what stories each photo, notebook and outfit gesture towards; and how the presence of each object might go some way towards addressing our definition of the archive.

While you listen to these, we encourage you to respond to the installation in a similar way; we have come up with a list of questions and prompts that we would like you to consider while making your way through the Curve. Most importantly though, we hope it’s a bit of fun for your Thursday evening - thank you for taking over the Curve with us!

Mannequin dressed in khaki army style suit with a hijab

Alwi Saad - Faizaan from the Imaan project

So. I was looking at notes, trying to conjure up a response to Faizaan from the Imaan project. Their mannequin, if you will. But it wasn't working. 

It felt too curated, rigid, and too much like I was regurgitating opinions that I'd seen from everywhere else. I don't even know if I really agree with half the statements I came up with in response to this display. Which is fine. We're always changing our minds anyways. 

I found this though. An empty notes document called fear of being seen. And I think this is very relevant because its a phrase I'd heard on an ex-Christian podcast where the host linked their fear of being seen with their religious trauma. And I'd never thought about it before until then. How being witnessed can be a form of violence towards anyone who's already had visibility weaponised against them. Be it the eyes of God, or your community, or your immediate family. Being seen, truly seen, is nothing short of a nightmare for many closeted queer people in fundamentalist settings. 

But, ironically, staring at this clothing shell of Faizaans presence at pride over a decade ago, how could an outfit that I now so strongly disgree within its conventional usage due to the conclusions I've come to about the veil and the hijab and how it has made the female or femme Muslim body a political playground for men inside and outside the Muslim community, serve as a form of protection? How can being hidden in that moment, speak louder volumes than were they to have worn something less symbolic? 

So, this brought to question ideas about being seen, unseen, visibility or invisibility in the archive, and what is most effective for a community that has not yet been acknowledged within its own religious walls. And also how much should I base the societal status of queer Muslims on the consensus of the general Muslim population. 

I, unfortunately, missed their talk last week, which is a shame but perhaps my blind reaction will add something of value to this discussion, as opposed to if I had a tangible image of a person to project onto. I don't know how much of this fit was planned and how much of it is just a subconscious choice in the daily life of a Muslim who wears a niqaab and a military tunic, but I think it was very smart.
 

Black stripped dress inside a picture frame next to a tv plasma screen

Aurora Fantechi - Untitled (2022)

What would I say if I could speak?

 

I would tell what I am not.

I am not a layer to hide who I am.

I am not made to conceal or deceive.

I am not a surface between a pathological body and the body you want me to have.

 

I am just fabric

I am just fibres

 

Isn’t that enough?

It is.

It must be

 

 

Listen to me!

Are you listening to me?

 

I am not an object

 

I am flesh

I am cells

 

Like you, I  a m  b e c o m i n g

A table with various magazines displayed

Gabriele Uboldi - Stolen magazine

Something I won’t forget about this exhibition—something that will become part of my personal archive, if you will—is not so much an object, but an event. Something that really happened, right here in front of you: one of the magazines was stolen. One of the porn magazines was stolen.

One Saturday afternoon a couple of weeks ago, a visitor opened the brown covers to admire the muscles and bodies of hunks from the past, seeking to cruise at the Barbican, cruise across the past four decades. In an extreme attempt at queering the archive, this visitor grabbed the magazine and left with it—no one saw. From the personal collection of a generous donor, to the Bishopsgate Institute, to the Barbican, to another personal collection, the magazine’s trajectory through time maps a powerful sexual history. It raises crucial questions such as: Who owns the archive? What is the relationship between the archive and the body?

If I were to steal a magazine from the exhibition, I’d do it for the nostalgia of a sex past. I’d think of the magazine as a portal to a different time, a means to become part of a sexual history, the history of gay arousal. I think about the choreographies of bodies across time, around the missing magazine. The bodies that were photographed in it, those that bought it, were aroused by it, those who preserved it, put it on display, the body who took it away from here, and so forth. Against an attempt to archive arousal, I stand with the magazine thief to propose the embodied memory of a time-travelling wank—a mischievous, queer act to remind us of one thing: this archive is sexy!
 

Holly Stepp - QUIM

Front cover of a magazine called Quim

Holly Stepp - QUIM

I was immediately drawn to the collection of QUIM magazines as it centred the importance of play and desire within the LGBTQIA+ experience. Within queer archives, the spaces that we are presented with are usually dominated by political action or nightlife and clubbing. Whilst QUIM has its roots in politicised disputes at Chain Reaction – an S&M club in London where goers were greeted by sex cabarets and mud wrestling – the sex-positive images, poetry, writings and illustrations that fill the pages of these magazines are a welcome intervention in how important it is to archive stories with the community at their centre, whilst also platforming the stories that are deeply personal and intimate. The magazine was set up by a group of sex radical friends, known as the ‘Rebel Dykes’, in reaction to the hostility they faced from women who they deemed as ‘sex negative’. 

The magazine also forgoes binary definitions in that it embraces ‘dykes of all sexual persuasions’, and there truly is something for everyone when rifling through the pages. Tucked away on a side wall of The Curve, it admittedly took me a long time to find the copies but being able to physically go through the contents of the magazine and explore the different community submissions that were so integral to its foundations makes you feel deeply connected to the past and those who fought against the censorship of desire. Despite the hostility it faced from some lesbian feminists and the state - in that some shops refused to stock it due to the restrictions of state laws prohibiting the promotion of homosexuality - the explicit sexual imagery, discussion of sadomasochism and articles on safer sex for its readers allowed sexual desire to not only be discussed but openly celebrated.

The importance of celebrating desire is stated in The Issue 1 editors’ letter “too much [has] been kept shut away and it had to be set free. QUIM is the product of that mood; that urgency to talk about and celebrate what makes us lesbians- our sex with women.”

There is a conversation to be had about archiving pleasure and joy in the ways that it is often overshadowed for more political, legislative stories when joy and play is an integral part to how we understand ourselves and build relationships. Often, when LGBTQIA+ histories are mainstreamed there is an attempt to make experiences more palatable or ‘family friendly’, which is a key thing I love about ‘Out and About’ in that it explores the nuances of the queer experience – from community meetings to political rallies to kinky magazines. For me, seeing and reading examples of uncensored queer intimacy in a published magazine from 40 years ago was a breath of fresh air. The importance of pleasure for the creators of these works is apparent in the magazines – it obviously intended to centre pleasure for its customers too, but often with pornographic work it is created for the viewer’s desire, but I firmly believe that the works created in QUIM were a joy for all involved. QUIM’s role in making pleasure and fetish visible in the face of hostility from other women and censorship is a testament to how important it is to make all experiences visible. Have a look through the magazines here, I think they speak for themselves.

Photo album page displaying three images of a person called Russell Watkyn's

Jackson Deans - Russell Watkyn's Photo Album

Russell Watkyn’s photo albums are a document of a gay life from a man’s school days through to his old age. The photo albums feature portraits of individual men with their full names given; latterly, some of these portraits are nudes. The two albums on display at the Curve show three ‘profiles’ of these men, each with their own page, Polaroids showing them in various states of undress, and their full names handwritten beside.

These albums, tucked away behind a curtained area in the gallery, seclude the viewer spatially from the rest of the archive. The voyeuristic nature of viewing such material, even so in the context of a bustling gallery and through a perspex encasement, is exciting to me and poses questions about the purpose of queer intimacies in the archive and how the viewer interacts with them.

I felt a strange level of intrusion and voyeurism looking at Russell’s personal archive. The full collection apparently comprises twenty-eight albums, covering most of Watkyn’s life. The impressive timespan of these albums allows us to only imagine the number of men that he documented in this way, as only two albums are presented and they are in a sealed case separated from the viewer. The short bio for the objects acts as a tease for stories that can only be imagined, as the viewer yearns to flip through the pages themselves to look at the supposed nudes.
   
The curation of these objects raises questions about queer censorship and whether the type of sexual material that is apparently hidden is palatable to the general audience at the Barbican. Watkyn’s example of physically documenting his sexual experiences also speaks to how present-day queers may still archive their sex lives digitally. Friends of mine have various ‘Notes app’ documentation; you could even potentially count your Instagram messages as a sort of sexual archive - It’s important to note that there is still a taboo here as there was when Watkyn was making his.

I think that Watkyn’s photo albums open up the definition of ‘archival documents’ by transforming originally private and intimate queer experiences into public documentary material.
 

Stonewall FC jacket next to a news article clipping about the Stonewall football club

Min-Kyoo Kim - Stonewall FC Jacket

One of my favourite objects in the installation is the Stonewall FC jacket: on the surface, it’s got the kind of vintage ‘90s sports aesthetic, which you would see on the set of Bend It Like Beckham or being peddled to you for triple digits on Depop. To me, the jacket stands out as a material embodiment of the encounter between queer identity with football – the most “masculine” of spaces, the most global of all sports, yet in which there is yet in which there is only one openly gay male footballer currently active in professional top-flight leagues around the world, and where the women’s game is systemically and chronically undervalued and underappreciated.

In my view, this empty jacket addresses both a presence and an absence: the undeniable, ebullient presence of queer identities within and across football, across sport; and the enforced, the toxic imposition of silence, and of erasure of people’s identities in the public discourses around football and other spaces traditionally coded as hetero- and cisnormative and masculine.

And to me, this double-movement of the jacket towards both presence and absence speaks to our discussions as a Collective regarding the nature, and the role, of the archive. In these conversations, we have asked if we even need an “archive”, whatever that means, today. For me personally, I’m drawn to the idea that the archive could not – even should not – be a perfect, immaculate catalogue of everything that has ever existed. In fact, I’d like to believe that queer identities and radical ideas could always evade, even defy such categorisation. But, on the other hand, I certainly don’t think the archive – even with its gaps, its omissions – is a meaningless, useless concept. 

In the same way that the sports jacket embodies both presence and absence – of both celebration, and of the suffocating, stifling hostility towards supposed difference – I believe that the very imperfection of the archive is a critical space to occupy with our questions and conversations. And so, ever-expanding yet flawed archive is always enriched by our engagement; it is when we bring our empathy and our lived experiences, that we celebrate the marginalised, the “misfits”, and expose the discriminatory practices of our institutions of knowledge production and preservation. In the end, I think that’s the goal worth striving for.
 

An open scrap book with 4 photos on the left hand-side and 5 photos on right-hand side

Morisha Moodley - Nicky Stones Scrapbook

When I first looked at Nicky Stones’ journal, when I first read their eventual growth into a non-binary identity, I was happy in that simple and sweet way of recognising a person you know in a crowd to see someone who would use the same words as me to describe themselves. It was a joy, too, to see someone who had gone through ‘The Transition’ and reframed it into ‘a transition’, continuing to question and trouble gender. 
Over the course of the programme, we have visited the question of representation over and over again. Why do we so desperately want to see ourselves in the archive? Like with my encounter with Nicky Stone, to see someone like us means feeling validated, less lonely, and having a history outside of our experience that we can point to. 

But I can’t help thinking about who else is seeing this? Who else is walking around the exhibition? What is their gaze like, why are they here, what stakes do they hold in this archive?
There’s a narrative that the archive should be open and accessible to all and that everything must go into it. All so the full range of what it is to be queer is visible and can be known to as many people as possible. It’s a fight against the erasure that has plagued our history and communities. 

But I have to question how much of ourselves we have to give up for the sake of being understood by others. Journals and scrapbooks to show humanity, banners, and posters to show resistance, dresses and club flyers to show celebration, community. 

Should it all be displayed for appreciation, intrigue, or consumption? Should everyone be allowed to see this no matter what stakes they hold? Is there something that we can hold back? Is there something that is just for us?
 

Three magazine -Bi-Frist, Bi-Monthly, Bi-WEEKLY

Zoe Sutherland-Row - Bisexual Magazine

When I entered the exhibition I was immediately drawn to the bisexual section and I picked up each of the magazines and had a flick through them. I was surprised that they existed and that they had a place in the exhibition, I’m used to Bi experiences often not holding space in queer discourse.

Why as queer people do we often feel like we need objects like these and the stories that they tell to feel validated? Why are they important? I think in terms of the Bi experience specifically we are often told either explicitly or implicitly that our sexuality isn’t real or that it’s a new invention. In my personal experience, depending on the gender of the person I date I’m usually seen as either straight or gay, the only time my sexuality is taken as truth tends to be around other bi people or when I’m single.

I think a lack of a feeling of validation also comes from the lack of intergenerational relationships between bi people, an issue that most queer people deal with. I can talk to my mum about growing up AFAB and how attitudes towards women have changed over her life, but as far as I know none of my older family members are bi, and so I explore this history on my own.

Objects like these, created while my parents were young adults, help close this generational gap and give me an insight into the history of my bi predecessors.

One article from these magazines particularly stood out to me called ‘queers in history’. It tells me that the bi people in the generation before me also had this longing to learn their history and to feel validated in their sexuality, having the evidence to prove that they were real and that we have always existed, with the article saying "one of the most valuable things for me was the reinforcement that such a large number of the great and the good have had similar desires. An eyeopener and a good way to feel vindicated and to boost your self-esteem at the same time". In the creation and preservation of these magazines, they have helped the next generation of bisexual people feel that same vindication.