Zines: a Queer Method? by Frances Williams
Last October, a group of queer artists, health workers and researchers met at QUEERCIRCLE in London to discuss the idea of ‘Queering the Asylum’ using Queer methods. In this blog, Frances Williams explains how this came about and explores how zines and visual notes can capture the essence of Queer methods.
QUEERCIRCLE is a new LGBTQ+ arts organisation that took-up residence in North Greenwich’s Design District in June 2022. It was set-up to counter the disappearance of LGBTQ+ spaces in recent years, offering exhibition space for queer artists and social space, more broadly, for LGBTQ+ communities to meet and organise. It brings a mission to work at ‘the intersection of arts, culture and social action’. I took on the role of Learning and Participation Manager here in May 2022, piloting a health and well-being programme, part of a small team intent on learning through doing.
Enabling queer art and artists to become more or less visible informs a large part of QUEERCIRCLE’s reasoning. The need to facilitate safe and inclusive spaces necessitates elevation and championing but also involves certain discretions, selections and foreclosures too. On taking on my new role, I wondered how – as much as what – to programme. Methods more frequently appear under different headings in the arts sector – as ‘pedagogy’, ‘delivery-style’, or more bluntly, ‘brand’.
‘queer not being about who you are having sex with (though they can be part of it) but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent or create and find a place to speak and to thrive and live’
hooks implies a special place for creativity in giving us the imaginative tools to see beyond the parameters with which one is usually presented. In embarking on the new adventure that QUEERCIRCLE represented, I wondered how much deviation from normative models of arts-sector working would be possible. This presented an exciting possibility for someone, like myself, who finds a lot to query about how power is exercised within the art gallery’s proverbial ‘white cube’ (as Brian Doherty famously critiqued the neutrality of this space).
In an essay titled Take Care, critic Anthony Huberman suggests that smaller arts institutions might be better placed to operate beyond an art world unhealthily ‘obsessed with knowledge, power and scale’. He quotes Martin Luther King in claiming ‘maladjustment’ as a virtue in a racist society, reclaiming a term ‘usually associated with a psychological defect or illness’. These ideas struck a chord with me when thinking about queerness as a term reclaimed from the historical preserves of pathology and criminality.
These topics found a place in our Queering Asylum event that we hosted at Queercircle in October 2022. A group of us met to discuss what we called ‘queer methods’ and the idea of ‘Queering the Asylum’. The initial idea came from a conversation between Phoebe Eustance (Hospital Rooms) Hel Spandler (Asylum Magazine and Madzines research) and myself (QUEERCIRCLE). We work under different, if related, auspices. Hospital Rooms is a new organisation that enables contemporary art and artists to find a welcome place on psych wards. Asylum magazine is a long-standing radical mental health magazine that acts ‘as a platform to voice and discuss all ,perspectives on mental health’ – comprising cartoons as well as written creative pieces.
The three of us speculated as to whether it was possible to ‘queer’ (query or subvert) the mental health system using Asylum Magazine as exemplar/or tool. Hel told us how Asylum was recently rejected by one psychiatric institution on the grounds that its circulation amongst patients might be too ‘risky’, revealing the extent to which prohibitions, as well as possibilities, were prompted by its distribution.
We decided to expand our discussion by inviting other queer arts practitioners to join us for this event. Our discussions found fresh format by way of visual notes sketched by artist Sarah Smizz.
Jess Ogelthorpe talked about her work as an occupational therapist in a prison which brings her in touch with intractable – often violent – systems of control and incarceration. She reflected that in such settings, creative acts of self-expression could be limited to being allowed to act upon one’s own basic needs: like cooking a meal for oneself and the chance to savour the taste and textures of one’s own cooking.
Long-time advisor to Bethlem Gallery, artist Nicky James, attested to the repressive histories that continue to inform LGBTQ struggles in (mental) health contexts, those present in the hospital as well as the prison.
Mental health activist and artist, Dolly Sen, talked of the harmful experience of having to submit to government ‘support’ systems as performed by The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). Dolly uses tools of humour, but also rage, carefully distinguishing ‘rage as fuel, but never a driver’. She conjured-up the image of ‘my little pony on acid’ as ‘Trojan Horse’ to enter and exit institutions – using playfulness with serious intent. This tool featured in a zine she made after the event, a unique guide to her own ‘queer methods’.
Phoebe Eustance linked Dolly’s unicorn to historical precedents – namely ‘Marco Cavello’, the papier-mache horse processed by patients and doctors out of the doors of an Italian Asylum in 1974 to celebrate their liberation. While fellow researcher, Tam Hart, spoke of the long links between mental health and queer movements, delighting us with a pseudo-scientific Venn Diagram to make a point about how such intersections are usually presented.
Tam spoke to the idea of ‘tenderness as a tool’ in order to confront the brutalities of unjust social structures. She heralded zines as offering pocket-size objects – able to fit into intimate places where their informal, half-hidden knowledges might be touched and felt. (Tam ran a Madzines workshop on this theme at the Feminist Library earlier in the year, repeating it at Queercircle in December.)
The visual notes and zines generated out of this event felt better suited to capture the spirit of our exchanges than the social media platforms we also floated them upon afterwards. This blog is another ‘outcome’ too, but zines have proven a consistent form that queer artists recognise and use across Queercircle’s programme – one that allows a range of emotions to find a home. June Bellabono’s workshop at QUEERCIRCLE, exclusively for trans people of colour attested to this, providing an outlet for example for those who have lost queer family and friends to illness and suicide to express and share their grief.
As QUEERCIRCLE’s public programmes develops beyond its first six months, I hope we can retain space for intimate and semi-public exchanges before they are posted on social media platforms. These seem like useful, if sometimes also difficult, invisibilities to navigate, alongside the offer of bright and easy comforts. An open-submission of queer zines will make for a mis-fitting exhibition at Queercircle in January, with other conversations rolling and unfolding beyond.