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Traveling the world in search of queer artist activists

Traveling the world in search of queer artist activists

What are the queer communities like in South America compared to Australia? Singapore compared to India? South Korea to Turkey? Recent college graduate Miyuki Baker is finding out by traveling the world in search of queer artists and activists, like herself.

After graduating from Pennsylvania-based liberal arts college Swarthmore, Baker won a $25,000 (US dollars, €19,000) Watson Fellowship that allows her to travel the world pursuing a particular project.

Her project, Visibly Queer: Exploring the Intersections of Art and Activism, explores how social and political environments and historical traditions affect art and queer activism in the countries she is visiting. For each country, Ecuador, Argentina, Singapore and India so far, she is creating a zine compiling the work of the people she meets.

What was the idea behind this trip? Where did you get it from?

One of my best friends got the Watson Fellowship and he took in a magazine which I had drawn the cover for to his interview and the interviewer said “who is this girl? she needs to apply for the Watson”.

So that made me think, maybe I do have a chance at this, because it’s a very competitive fellowship.

You can do any project you want, so at first I was thinking of looking at the origins of all of my art supplies and learning how to make them myself. But then I reflected and thought about my life and what I was most interested in, and what I always end up doing when I go to a new place, which is seek out queer communities, art communities and activists.

Where have you been and where do you plan on going?

I started in South America because it was the closest, volunteering for a educational program in Bogata, Colombia. Then I made my way down to Ecuador, then Peru, Bolivia, Argentina – all by bus. And then to Australia, Singapore, then India, then South Korea where I am now. After this I’m going to go to Turkey, then I’m still not sure if I’m going to go to Morocco. If I can fit it in, then yes. Then Germany and the Netherlands.

How did you chose the countries?

I think ultimately it came down to where I didn’t understand the most.

I didn’t know a lot about South America, that each country has such distinctively different culture. We just don’t hear about South America at all in the US which is really bizarre because they are our neighbors practically.

Then, because I love textiles and crafts, a lot of the countries I chose have strong textile cultures.

Other than that it’s other people telling me ‘hey, do you know that the queer scene in Korea is really awesome. There’s a really great underground film scene’.

So have you found that in South Korea?

Yeah, there are a lot of documentary-making collectives that do films on ftms [female to male transgender people] or I’m going to a screening this Saturday on an all female traditional theatre company in Korea and the filmmakers are mostly queer women.

In terms of LGBT rights, what have you found most shocking on your travels?

I think that each country has its own set of dilemmas but when I was in Singapore. I felt really restricted and I think that a lot of artists make the best of that by using that as a source of inspiration.

Can you give an example of that?

For example, there’s one artist who did a piece called Archiving Cane and it was a response to a piece from the 90s called Brother Cane which caused the artist to be banned from performing ever again because his content was supposedly too graphic.

In the early 90s there were a lot of entrapment cases when police officers would pretend to be cruising to entrap them gay guys and arrest them. And the men were caned as a punishment. As I response to that this artist, Josef Ng, did a performance where he laid out blocks of tofu and then he smashed them with a cane. And then cut his pubic hair and sprinkled it on. It was performed in a really small venue but it blew up in the media and performance art was banned in Singapore for ten years.

Then this most recent artist, Loo Zihan, responded to that and decided to archive everything that happened at that time. Singapore has a lot of rules about what they’re allowed to show to people under the age of 21. And so to get around that, he had every single participant in the gallery give him their ID cards so he could photocopy them and put them into this collage wall piece. And he had every single permit that he had to get from the government displayed so it was in conversation, every single step was documented.

He also did a re-enactment of the initial piece. And in the initial piece the artist took a cigarette and he was smoking it and then he put it out on his body. So during the re-enactment the artist had to say ‘I’m going to walk outside of the building now because in Singapore you’re not allowed to smoke within ten meters of a building’.

He was really commenting on the rigidity of life in Singapore, emphasizing the fact that this is boring as hell. A lot of people criticized the performance for being dry and he said ‘that’s because I had to do it this way’. So he was using the rules to critique the rules themselves.

Could you feel those restrictions in Singapore?

Absolutely. I left two weeks earlier than planned because I just couldn’t handle it. And it wasn’t like I was performing myself. I thought about performing but I just didn’t feel creatively inspired. I was really impressed with all the other artists but I couldn’t use that repressive environment in the same way as them.

What have you found most challenging during your travels with this project?

When I don’t speak the language, that’s the toughest. In Korea at first I felt bad even when people were being super welcoming. I don’t enjoy being the person that someone has to translate for.

For instance there was this meeting in Delhi for queer women and trans folk and there were a couple of people who couldn’t speak English they could only speak Hindi and no one readily translated what I was saying in English to them, but when people were speaking in Hindi they would jump to translate that into English. And I felt like, I’m a guest here, I’m not the focus of this group. I found that double standard embarrassing.

Also when certain communities have been exploited then I felt them to be wary at being questioned by a foreigner.

Where did you find that?

In Buenos Aires there was a queer artist space and when I asked them what they were doing, they were rude to me. They said, ‘you need to send an email and have a formal interview’. I learned that because Argentina was the first country in South America to pass gay marriage they get a lot gay tourism. And I think that by the time I approached these people I might have been the 1,000th person who asked them, and there is a limit.

And then also in India there was some pushback. One hijra [transgender women] didn’t respond to my messages and she was good friends with people who I became good friends with too. So I asked them ‘what’s going on? why doesn’t she respond to my messages?’ And then we had a talk about how so many people have approached her, and she is that one very vocal hijra activist. There’s a certain point where she feels exploited.

Was it hard to find artists/activists to contribute to your zines?

It always seems difficult at first and then things start pouring in at the last minute. Korea seems hard. That’s because the people I’m hanging out with consider themselves activists and not necessarily writers. They’re people who go to rallies. But I try to tell them that that’s also an art – getting people together and organizing in that way.

But it does seem so far that I’m just going to have to get a lot of screen captures for the films that I’ve been seeing. So far Korea has been tougher to find people.

Who are the most inspiring people you’ve met?

I was really moved by Eli Vasquez’s work. She’s not a visual artist per se. Her partner does photography but she really likes collaborating with artists and I think that’s a real skill. She’s a lawyer herself but she lives in Quito, Ecuador and she started this project called Proyecto Transgenero – Transgender Project. She decided that she was going to start working with trans women who were sex workers on the streets and she created these cards that had a list of their rights in the case of any kind of hassling that they got from the police, they could whip out the list and say ‘according to this law, you can’t be doing this to me’.

Vasquez is also working with her partner on a photo series to show different types of families who have formed with sex workers, transgender women, different family structures.

Another artist who inspires me is Tania de Rozario in Singapore. I had initially been in touch with her two or three years ago to interview her for my website Asian, Gay and Proud. Thanks to her, in Singapore, even though I felt the need to leave pretty soon, I felt extremely welcomed and felt very much part of the queer arts scene. And she makes really amazing art herself that comments on the government. She writes and does visual arts as well. She’s a real powerhouse artist activist. And queer. So I really have a lot of respect for her.

You’ve done some performances on your travels. Can you tell me about them?

One is about masturbation. It’s all about the journey that I’ve taken with masturbation. And the funny stories, weird stories, bizarre stories. At the end I talk about how if we can’t love ourselves then how can we love anyone else?

I wanted to talk about an issue that is translatable to everyone, whatever your sexual orientation is. I performed it in several places in South America. I performed it here in Korea as well but I did it in English. I wish I could do it in Korean!

Can art and activism co-exist happily? Are there tensions between the two?

I think that does happen. That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently because I’ve found that certain activist communities don’t value art enough and the power that art can have, and the role that it can play in their activism.

For example if at a rally they are only handing out pamphlets that are just filled with only text. Who wants to read that? As a visual artist, I don’t. I want to see something that has art in it. Something that really makes me compelled to continue looking at it and want to share it with friends. That’s just a really straight-forward example.

And the commercially driven venues such as the gay clubs always have the best posters that make lots of people want to go and get excited about. But they’re commercial driven, so you often lack the activist component and people will often separate those two worlds. As being ‘they’re into the party scene, not really activists’. I think that those need to been tied together more.

You said Singapore was the least creative and freely expressive place you’ve been to, but where has been the most?

I think Australia was really amazing in that sense. I was in Newcastle in New South Wales. It’s just a random little town two hours north of Sydney and it happens to have a large queer artist population there. People were expressing themselves in such different ways – music, theatre, wall art, gardening, spoken word – such a variety of media.

And in Melbourne I felt that as well. Maybe there is some self-censoring but a lot of the time I felt that people were just letting it all out. And doing what they felt.

And then in La Plata in Argentina there was a small but really vibrant lesbian feminist community. In terms of self expression – the way that they dressed themselves, the way that they did their hair. It was a really strong visual subculture. And they collaborate with each other and do amazing installation pieces, or impromptu street performances in drag. It was a lot of fun to see that.

What are you going to do after you get home to the US after your travels?

I want to publish all of the zines I’ve made in hardcopy. They’re just online at the moment. It doesn’t have to be through a formal publishing house. I’ll just print them some in color, some in black and white and will ship them to people who helped me or contributed.

Eventually I’d like to go on tour to share the stories and talk about the zines. But I think I want to resettle back in the states for a while first. And give my parents some attention, because I haven’t for the past six years. And just live for a bit, and maybe get ready for grad school.

What have you learnt from doing the fellowship?

The fellowship is a really unique experience in that, because it forces you to go to so many different countries within a short time span, it really allows you to be hyper-aware of the similarities and differences between all the countries that you visit – because you’re really focused on this one topic.

I truly feel like I have a good outsider’s perspective but also insider’s perspective of how the movement is internationally. Of course I’ve haven’t been to even close to a quarter of the countries in the world but it feels like a nice representation of a variety of countries.

What is the most pressing issue for the international LGBT community?

Phew! That’s a big one! I don’t know… I wish I had a really simple answer to that!

I think that the intersectionality of the movement needs to improve. A lot of the time queer communities alienate themselves from other social movements. And what we need, as a world, is that collaboration that comes from really being allies to environmentalists, labor rights movements and disability activism.

It needs to come from a genuine feeling of connection with these people, because first of all there are lots of people who overlap from different realms. You’re not just a queer person. You might be a queer, mixed race, differently abled person.

So realizing that we all share different worlds, I think we need to learn that liberation does not come from helping ourselves out. It comes from working together with parallel or intersecting movements. That way we can get more people as allies and collaborators, and really just liberate everyone.