I have been considering two specific aspects of the issues raised in my previous post in relation to my ongoing investigation into the history of queer culture for my Connect/Exchange project. Firstly, I’m interested in the ways in which documentation and remaining objects can provide extended life or access points into fleeting moments from cultural history, particularly with regard to events that derives their political energy from specific objects, environments and circumstances. Whether these details are weighted through a sense of the political or personal, I am interested in approaching objects as synecdoche for wider culture. Secondly, I’d like to contemplate the ways in which communities that are perhaps more generally considered to be ‘sub’ or peripheral to the mainstream proclaim identity through means of self-documentation and regulation.
In researching the evolution of queer identity in the twentieth century I have often found conventional modes of archiving and presentation (please see my earlier post regarding the Schwules museum, Berlin) to be entirely inadequate in their reflection of particular ‘flavours’ and attitudes of the time. Museum and archiving practices as a rule overlook or disregard those aspects of modern social history that could be considered apolitical or pedestrian. Hollywood and even independent film-makers often fail to represent queer society outside of its key moments of crisis and celebration, coming out stories and AIDS driven plot lines being the most commonly used. Of course I’m not saying that these moments should go unrecognized and indeed many of the freedoms now afforded us in the 21st century are due perhaps in part to such exposure. However I can’t help but feel that the nuances and complexities of gay life are not yet fully recognisable to the wider cultural gaze. So to begin with, how does one begin to represent those aspects that are in essence non-representational in nature? The answer lies in the hands of contemporary artists of course!
I now shift my attention to the photographs by Diane Arbus that are hung above my computer at Stills gallery, namely Identical Twins, 1967 and A young man in curlers at home on West 20th Street, 1966. Whilst these works have been widely discussed and criticised, most notably by Susan Sontag, for their purported voyeurism I begin to ask myself questions about how ‘successful’ they are as documents and how far they activate their subjects beyond the plain of the photograph? We understand that as an observant outsider looking inwards Arbus’ motivations towards her subjects are perhaps questionable, however I wonder what the implications would be if the work hadn’t been produced at all? In many ways I’m grateful for Arbus’ motivation to document, to capture moments that would otherwise slip away unnoticed by no more than a hand full of people, providing the opportunity of mainstream exposure and recognition for her subjects. Conversely though, how far can we assume that the aim of any marginalised community is to find representation or acceptance within the mainstream at all? If I may ask a more pertinent question, how far does ones sense of community and identity derive from ones sense of being ‘queer’?
Had Arbus given over her camera to her subjects, allowing them to take it away to document themselves then the implications would of course have been entirely different, perhaps more ethical, perhaps more irresponsible? We live in a culture where self-documentation and ‘the selfie’ are commonplace, spontaneous and disposable. Whatever the motivation behind this phenomenon its significance lies in its ability to publically represent moments that were previously considered unworthy of documentation and also to capture personal and frenetic aspects of everyday life through cohesion with wider and notably impersonal industrial processes.
During the initial week residency at Stills I re-read Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies from 1971. In this book Banham proposes that our experience of Los Angeles should be facilitated by the industries that most heavily constitute it, however expedient – Hollywood and the automobile industry. Banham declares “I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original”. In other words, our complicity with a mainstream culture industry does not falsify our experience of the everyday. It is possible to define our identity in relation to it, through utilisation of it even. I am reminded of the various ‘realness’ categories as shown in the drag ball sequences from Jenny Livingston’s brilliant documentary from 1990, Paris is Burning. Through the subversive quotation of hetero-normative i.e. ‘mainstream’ aesthetics and aspirations each model finds a mode of re-enactment that entirely belongs to them, an original expression of their political and personal frustrations and desires.
Ephemeral objects and styles drive these fashions forwards however, even evolving throughout the duration of the film. Queer fashions and aesthetics are changeable like any other. But how are these changes documented for posterity, for people such as myself? Is it through documentaries like Paris is Burning or in photos by Diane Arbus? Perhaps in Hollywood movies like Milk? The answer is yes, yes and yes. Perhaps methods of documentation within queer society take an alternate form, manifesting themselves in practices that are less tangible, perhaps in the lived experience? Does my day-to-day experience and freedom as a gay man in Glasgow tell me everything I need to know about gay culture? Perhaps I could examine today’s pop culture for traces of queer style in order to understand its legacy – should YouTube be my next stop? I have a feeling that what I’m looking for should not be found using conventional means of research.