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Queer today, gone tomorrow: The exhibition exploring queer London

Queer today, gone tomorrow: The exhibition exploring queer London

Public Toilets, by Ralph Dunn

In life, it’s easy to forget things.

You forget the carton of orange juice from your grocery shop. You forget it’s your friend from high school’s – you know, the one you studied Math with – birthday. You forget what you ate for dinner four Sundays ago.

We often leave it to the history books, yellowing away, to remember the big things in life, like history.

But queer history – glittered, powdered, and preened – is forgotten. It exists in the margins. In silence. In invisibility. In closed down, boarded-up pubs and trodden-on flyers on the sidewalk.

This might change, though. Queer spaces: London, 1980s – Today opened at the Whitechapel Gallery, East London, last month. It maps out the clubs and theatres that made the city’s queer scene iconic.

But it also looks at the damage done by the rise of gentrification, digital dating apps, and glassy luxury apartments replacing the brick-and-mortar spaces of queer subversion. What happened to them?

‘Queerness is changing’

Gathering rare archival material together from queer night clubs, cabarets, community clubs, and cruising areas – the exhibit aims to capture queer London as something concrete.

Literally. Buildings that once or currently act as safe spaces for the LGBTI community are the heart of the exhibition.

The receptionist at the Whitechapel Gallery looked at me through heavy eyeliner and the frame of her brown bangs. Thick glasses reflected her iMac screen. She directed me to the café to wait.

But I decided to swing by the exhibition space before meeting one of its’ co-curators. It’s a small white cube-type space overcome with papers, photographs, and art pieces.

Artists include Evan Ifekoya, who uses sound, collage, and poetry to explore blackness, gender, and queer nightlife culture.

The Scarcity of Liberty #1, by Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings
The Scarcity of Liberty #1, by Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings | Picture: Arcadia Missa

While Ralph Dunn’s photographic series, Public Toilets, with its cool, icy tones, pays homage to historic gay cruising sites.

And Prem Sahib salvaged furnishings from the gay sauna Chariots, which closed in 2016, and reworked them into an installation that mediates on how the body is modified to express sexuality.

Though, what pins to the minds of the viewer is a cork board. Not the one typical of an office. Suffocated by Post-it reminders to pick-up starch white shirts from the dry cleaners and buy three-ring binders and paper for the Xerox machine.

But one mounted on a wooden frame, heaving with color. Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings pinned dozens of back copy editions of Attitude, flyers, leaflets, and paper flags wrapped around wooden sticks onto a gigantic board.

Dominating the space. Demanding attention. The pair’s pinned piece ropes together the physical trail of the LGBTI, one of community and locals supporting one another. But also, one presently overtopped with white, cisgendered gay men.

‘Offering space for people to feel safe’

After trying to count how many Attitude covers there are, I went met co-curator Nayia Yiakoumaki. Sitting in a blank conference room out of public reach, she told me over a glass of water why she got involved in the exhibition.

‘Exhibitions have histories that are not widely known to the public,’ she told me, ‘whether it is the art history, social history, the unknown.

‘We have to represent examples of venues that were not just there for socialising, but those that contained elements of organisation, protest, offering space for people to feel safe.’

To Yiakoumaki, queer identity is broad, but queer space is shrinking. While the show does not aim to survey the sheer multi-sided world of LGBTI space, it does hope to motivate people.

To what, exactly? ‘To go Google and to go to libraries and ask what “Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners” were, what that does not service the mainstream.

Not all spaces are successful

‘Some of the spaces featured are not successful,’ she said as she sipped her water. ‘They do not all resist time and still run, some are gone, some places compromised to still be alive.’

She’s right. Between the years of 2006 and 2016, the number of LGBTI venues in the capital plummeted from 125 to only 53, with many more being threatened with closure.

Cabarets, cruise clubs, and community areas have vanished from London’s streets over the years. Sidewalks once covered in glitter and false eyelashes from the night before are now instead settings of glassy marketing agencies and pop-up oddly specific restaurants.

‘A need for alternative’

‘I was shocked as how many LGBTI spaces were closing, and I wanted to look at the impact this was having on the cultural landscape,’ co-curator Vassilios Doupas told me over the phone.

LGBTI people certainly have more legal rights than ever before in the UK, but ‘there is still a need for queer sociability. A need for alternative, and a need for community.

‘We looked at spaces that, after they closed down, provoked a response. People got together or tried to plan to stop its closure.

‘A queer space for me is a space that breaks with normative expectations and offers a vessel of potential and possibility. Open and inclusive.’

Soroya Marchelle, photographed Léa L'attentive at the Royal Vuaxhall Tavern, London
Soroya Marchelle, photographed Léa L’attentive at the Royal Vuaxhall Tavern, London | Photo: Léa L’attentive

A recent study by Popsa concluded that 77% of UK people spend three hours online each day. That’s a lot of thumbing through the tiled torsos of Grindr.

How we interact with screens and the displayed versions of ourselves is central to the exhibition. Especially to one artist in particular.

‘Continually being forgotten’

One name kept coming up when talking to Yiakoumaki and Doupas. Again and again as if on-loop; Tom Burr.

Burr has worked in queer art for three decades. He’s the oldest artist in the group featured, and his work is titled Blue Shoe Mirror (2005), a cool colored mirror placed on the floor in the center of the gallery room.

It’s a piece that, to Burr, looks at ‘the strangeness of simply seeing your feet and part of your legs, and not just the ubiquitous “face.”‘

‘For this exhibition the blue works well. It’s sad, of course, the associations. But also sexy too, this sort of club-like aura it casts over the room.’

Speaking over email, the artist expressed his fears that queer histories – often surviving from being told and re-told in club bathrooms and underground galleries than in classroom textbooks – are being erased.

First Out Café
First Out Café | Photo: Malcolm Comley and Robert Kincaid

Queer people and their histories are always continually being officially forgotten, always having to struggle against dominant forces that want to erase them,’ he said.

‘Throughout the ongoing AIDS crisis we’ve seen certain queer histories become institutionalized, like gay marriage for instance, while other more precarious modes of living are without voice.’

Burr pointed to realizing the intersectionality of the subject, that ‘a person is never only queer’ but are also gendered, racial, and differently bodied beings as key. ‘Some subjectivities are more vulnerable than others, and some are more privileged than others.

‘Understanding this and recognizing that some of us have more access to public speech and visibility than others, and using that, is one way to attempt to resist that erasure of our distinct and collective histories, as well as present lives.’

Are queer spaces out of time?

As being queer goes more online than offline and LGBTI people’s Instagrams become digital archives, are queer spaces out of time? What need so we have for them?

Cities change to the rhythm of signed development contracts and the whistling of coffee machines in franchise cafés. A space can close down just like that.

But throughout it all, queer people will remain. The Whitechapel Gallery will be London’s latest, but not the last, queer space. If only for a few months.

Queer Spaces: London, 1980s-Today is at the White­chapel Gallery, London, and runs from 2 April to 25 August.