@gaybar is a critical, anarchic and queer take on gay history
While questioning queer history and the homophobic present, artist duo Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings are creating critical spaces for all forms of queer culture to thrive.
In the past two years alone 25% of London's LGBTQIA spaces have simply dissolved into nothing: their histories ignored, the communities that once gathered there forgotten, their facades boarded over by pictures of dull, wealthy white couples eating avocado bagels on the penthouse balconies of what promises to be a 'creative living' luxury tower block. In this Tory austerity of choice—where the rich win while the oppressed lose visibility, space, money, and thus any semblance of safety—it is no surprise that anything that is not for the wealthy white elite is priced out of public view. Our streets and our cities are rapidly homogenising, and while another All Bar One opens in central Soho, queer people wave goodbye to our pubs, our shops, and our clubs.
Frustrated by just how little LGBTQIA space there really is available, and with how much of the space that does exist caters solely for rich white gay men—who very often come with their own set of misogynies, racisms and transphobias—artists Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings decided to start the project @Gaybar back in 2014, to realise a space where queer people could congregate more safely.
"We started doing queer reading groups in our bedroom, and it was a really intimate and beautiful space with all our queer friends. We basically had a lot conversations about queer space and about queer sociability, and whether this [safe] space can exist… and about problems to do with mainstream gay bars," Rosie told i-D. "And there was a lot of frustration expressed, it felt like there wasn't a space for our bodies—for gender queer people, trans people, queer people of colour—so what we started doing with @Gaybar was to try and create this space for our friends but to also try and re-materialise political issues we had been thinking about: assimilations, the way gay narratives get consigned to mainstream history, or just ignored, for example."
The space feels like a gay bar: something about the drinks, the music, the laser lights, the wipe-clean furniture: think decor like the Manchester bar scene circa Queer as Folk — but much more diverse, and much less misogynist. The difference in energy is down to the 'punters' who are encouraged to come and enjoy the space: there is a diversity unlike the popular gay bars on Old Compton Street or the regional boozers some of us grew up in: at @Gaybar people come to celebrate with each other.
Now exhibiting at the David Roberts Art Foundation in Camden, the duo have looked at a post-Hurricane Sandy Fire Island, using CGI, found video of the Island after the disaster, gay bar style furniture and music to create an @Gaybar within the gallery space, entitled How to Survive a Flood. "Fire Island is such a dominant male narrative in our history: it was this gay male utopic space in a time when it was illegal to be gay. We found footage of luxury boats and gay bars being engulfed by the sea and we used this as a point of departure to re-imagine the future of Fire Island as this post-human space. We use CGI to imagine new queer realities."
@Gaybar is evidently a true work of love, but also of intense critique of the dominant white male structures that isolate queer people from public gay spaces. The artists recognise the importance of somewhere such as Fire Island in the history of gayness and even queerness, but as two queer people they are now asking why they can't be involved in that history? And why queer people can't imagine a collectively more utopian future.
"White gay male spaces are really dominant in historical narratives and they are the spaces that have been offered the most privilege so they're the ones that get historicised more," Hannah adds. "A lot of what we do is a messy relationship to the idea of archive and history, and a play with fact and fiction. When you do, as queer people, have a lack of history, the idea of an objective history becomes quite absurd because who gets control of history? We don't want to replicate white, western linear history. We don't want to find a bar and recreate it photo-realistically. We are not looking for facts because those are the things that have kept queer people out of history as we know it."
The pair speak with radicalism attached to every phrase—something the LGBTQIA community certainly needs now. The artists express their frustrations at the fact that all of our resources are dedicated to gay people and marriage, or gay people in the military, but not to the experience of anyone else, of which there are so many.
Their work is about creating a space which de-privileges the white, male body and gives privilege to other types of queer body in space. It is about taking traditional gay bar aesthetics and inserting queer bodies into the space they have created: their practice involves fabricating all elements within the space, from scratch, themselves.
This comes in combination with a questioning of gay assimilationist politics: this is where gay people seek to appear as 'normal' and 'acceptable' in order to become normal and acceptable to the over-riding heteronormative narrative that Western society is founded upon. One can't blame people for seeking assimilation into the heteronormative world: after lifetimes of oppression and traumas because of someone's sexual orientation people are tired, people want to feel safe. "But what is important is to reflect upon is the fact that within our community there are certain bodies that can't assimilate because the system is against their bodies from birth. They are the ones who we have to protect." says Rosie.
"As long as there's one white person in the room there will be racism, and as long as there's one cis-male in the room there will be misogyny: it's about acknowledging these problems as structural rather than placing individual blame on one person." Hannah adds.
As 'equality' for a very specific, privileged set of white gay men is within grasp, it is time to turn our conversations to those members of the LGBTQIA community who don't have the same opportunity, or desire, to assimilate into heteronormative society. This is what Hannah and Rosie are doing with @Gaybar: allowing space for queer people to congregate and enjoy themselves, aiming for safety, while also reimagining the picture of a new future or new reality through CGI.
"It's the choice of music, the type of drinks, a sort of magic. At the beginning maybe some fuckboys or some really cis-guys will come, but towards the end they all get pushed to the back and it's always the queers at the front, ripping it up."
When life for gay people, queer people or any minority oppressed group remains a fight for space and for safety, we need artists like Hannah and Rosie: people who continue to open pockets of safety and comfort for those who have nowhere else to go.
How To Survive A Flood @Gaybar is on display in DRAF Studio 14-28 May 2016. The commission is part of Curators' Series #9. Ways of Living by Arcadia Missa, 15 Apr-23 Jul 2016. For more information see davidrobertsartfoundation.com
Text Tom Rasmussen
Portrait Francesca Allen
Styling Max Clark
Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings, installation view of How To Survive A Flood @Gaybar, DRAF Studio, 2016. Courtesy the artists and Arcadia Missa, London. Photography. Tim Bowditch