January’s Double Feature presents the latest work by Scottish artist Luke Fowler. Following a discussion with the artist, there will be a screening of his favourite film “Paris is burning”.
In a certain way the 20th century can be seen not only as the century of the major, national/ideological collectives, but also as that of small-scale organized groupings. Be it communes, working parties, art collectives or subcultures: everybody had their own points of view shared within the group or collective of which they were part. In the context of even the most recent of events so rapidly being treated as history, it is not only outsiders who are quick to examine the ideals and actual realities of such collectives. Indeed the participants themselves are of course able to have their say by way of a sort of “oral history”.
Working twice as hard as a man
In their collaborative piece, Glasgow-based artist Luke Fowler (1978) and sound artist Mark Fell (1966) explore one such group: a UK feminist photography center, the “Pavilion” in Leeds. The Pavilion was established in 1983 when its founders set themselves the objective of promoting and encouraging female photographers, critically questioning the representation of women in photography and the media, and bringing about a change in the situation. The almost 80-minute work “To the Editor of Amateur Photographer” (2014) resembles a documentary montage: A total of 1,200 photos from the Pavilion’s archive, documents such as financing and exhibition plans or dossiers of what content should be chosen for the right alignment of the photography forum, and even covers of feminist, socio-critical magazines are interwoven with passages of interviews with the members of the Pavilion. In the latter, the interviewees describe selected photos that always create a bridge to subjective observations of the work going on at the time.
Thus one of the women questioned remembers that it was always assumed that at some point working-class women would also start attending the center, but this never actually materialized. Photographer Jennifer Ransom, who worked for Kodak at the time, remembers that her male colleagues, who generally supported her in her professional endeavors, always drilled into her that she had to work twice as hard as a man to get ahead in the job. Deborah Best, on the other hand, believes it is particularly telling that it is two men who are reappraising the feminist photography center – just as it is always men who judge the actions of women.
Fowler and Fell thus subject their own position as supposedly objective evaluators of the historic facts to renegotiation, as at the level of content too, the individual, very subjective accounts given by those interviewed means they distance themselves from one clear line of interpretation. In previous works, Fowler has used collage-like documentations time and again to examine historic figures, such as the Scottish psychiatrist Ronald D. Laing and the anti-psychiatry movement he founded, or the British composer and improvisation musician Cornelius Cardew.
Insight into a subculture thus far unknown to many people
For the second part of the Double Feature, Luke Fowler has selected “Paris is Burning” by Jennie Livingston. The film, which was released in 1990, highlights the “Ball culture” of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi- and transsexual) subculture and its primarily Latin and Afro-American protagonists in the New York of the 1980s. Referencing the Travesty shows of the 1930s, which took place several times a year in small gay bars, from the 1960s rapidly expanding events took place in Harlem, the so-called “balls” – where drag queens put on fashion shows. Over the years the number of participants grew continually, and in this way family-like groups – the so-called “houses” – began organizing themed balls.
In “Paris is Burning”, Livingston gave a broader viewing public a first insight into what had up to then been an unknown subculture to many, and at the same time allowed its representatives to have their say. The antithesis to the carefree, boundlessly joyful images of the balls are the comments of those interviewed, who recount with distressing candor their traumatizing experiences of exclusion, violence and contempt. It is only at the balls that they see the opportunity to present, just for a moment, what they themselves wish for and what is continually denied to them: acceptance and admiration rather than exclusion. This generation of awareness of the contrasting reality thus links “Paris is Burning” in terms of both content and agenda with Fowler & Fell’s reflective-documentary examination of the Pavilion and its protagonists.