I’ve travelled fifty miles from South Manchester to get to Blackpool for First Outing, a group exhibition produced by Queerly Made. Queerly Made started life as an Instagram account by artist-curator duo Daniel Fountain and Matt Gale. The idea was to investigate queer approaches to materials and making in artistic practices and spotlight work by featured LGBTQIA+ artists. For First Outing – their first physical show – Queerly Made commissioned the work of three LGBTQIA+ artists, Dan Chan, Matthew Rimmer and Claye Bowler.
Blackpool is not just the home of the exhibition (which was split between the Grundy Art Gallery and Abingdon Studios) but was also the location of a forty-eight hour micro-residency attended by all three artists. None of the works displayed were based on preconceptions of Blackpool, but rather the complex cultural geographies at play in the coastal town. Themes of marginality, transformation, and queer ecologies gave space to explore the relationship between Blackpool’s queer and coastal habitats.
The residency and resulting works highlighted the slippages and overlaps between coastal practice and queerness, a topic which was explored further in the accompanying a-n Assembly in Blackpool: The Coast is Queer. The conference was organised by the Director of Abingdon Studios (and artist-curator) Garth Gratrix, who mentored Queerly Made over the course of the Future Producers programme.1
Artist Dan Chan’s work was displayed in the foyer of the Grundy Art Gallery. Three TV screens lined the left-hand wall with imaginary scenes on a continuous slideshow. Like the pictures on a slot machine, the sequence of images flickered every now and again as they were randomly assigned a new order. At the centre of each scene was an enchanted being. There is Lady Kelp on the Leavers, Cog Queen, and on the final screen The Helping Hands of the Ball Machine. Each one, Chan imagines, controlling a different game on the pier.
We are welcomed into this underworld, running parallel to ours where a queerness permeates everything. The trellis frame around Lady Kelp in Chan’s video work is punctured by phallus shapes, and a hovering photograph of the artist’s face in drag transforms the Cog Queen, who is attached to elongated interwoven arms that extend outwards, drawing in the other elements that are set in kaleidoscopic patterns.
It’s not hard to imagine these characters at play on the pier, an extension of the coastline erected in a sea which we know very little about. In The Anthropocene: Temporarily, Paradox, Compression (2017) Stacy Alaimo describes the unknown organisms at home on the sea bed as ‘Icons without images, names or lineages’. Chan’s work at the Grundy Art Gallery breathes life into these imagined beings, giving them faces, names and lineages picked from the queer imagination.
Chan describes the dream of bringing this fantasy world to life, transforming the all-encompassing sensory environment of the pier into a drag show involving AI, projections, performance and printed textiles. For Chan drag is ‘the closest way you can get into a different world’; they say it is a ‘happy place grown from an unhappy place’.
An attention to lineage adds another element to the work. Chan, of British-Chinese heritage, hopes to address the lack of Asian representation in drag, and through their central presence in the work Asian-British youth can see themselves in these queer worlds. Chan will further this cause by performing at Homotopia Festival, the LGBTQIA+ arts and culture festival staged in Liverpool later this year. Like the images on the TV screens their practice opens up queer avenues for other worlds to flicker in and out of being.
We leave Queen Street, and head down the road to the double-fronted old market windows at Abingdon Studios, home to Matthew Rimmer’s work. Stained glass windows line the top portion of the shop front. The afternoon light floods through and paints a hazy multicoloured patchwork on the far white wall. Closer, but still separated by the shop front glass, a series of plastic bags hang at different heights, each connected to a metal chain by coloured aluminium carabiners.
The shapes and colours of deep-sea organisms have inspired the individually packaged plastic beings that, in the shop front at Abingdon, appear ready to be sold to consumers. ‘I have a lot of fun creating these works’ Rimmer says, a joy which transpired in the works’ multicoloured beauty. In some instances Rimmer has sculpted two colours together leaving a marbled effect. Others are formed from one continuous line of cobalt blue, yellow, seaweed green or hints of a neon yellow and pink appearing as a flattened plane of coloured lines against the glass.
The containment at play in Rimmer’s work addresses his masculinity and intersexuality, both of which, he says ‘tell you not to expose anything and keep things inside’. His work draws attention to the clandestine way in which many LGBTQIA+ individuals live and work. The chlorine, the bags, the locks, chains and glass, even Abingdon Studios itself is masqueraded by a market shop front all adding layers between us and the beautiful floating beings.
Plastic itself is inherently self-containing, whereas the formation of rocks and organisms is informed and reliant on the ecosystem in which they live. Plastic, instead, ‘wants to hold onto its identity against all outside influence’, says Heather Davis, researcher and Assistant Professor of Culture and Media at The New School in her lecture The Queer Futurity of Plastic (2016).
Rimmer’s work reminds us of the comfort to be had in these moments of containment – ‘when you close your eyes, or when you are in the water, an all-consuming sensation makes you forget your body’ he says. ‘That love of being enveloped’ he tells me is central to his practice, a feeling that provides respite from an environment that, at times, feels inhospitable. Rather than a place of shame or hiding Rimmer says that he is keen for this self-containment explored in his work to be thought of as a site of queer possibility, recuperation and experimentation.
When seaside resorts began to close in the 1970s, British coastal towns became the sites for an already brewing queer culture to flourish. In the opening to his collection of essays Queering Utopia (2009), the late Cuban American academic José Esteban Muñoz considers queerness in terms of time, as the not-yet-here. It is a ‘horizon imbued with possibility’ and, he says, ‘the future is queerness’s domain’. In search of a future beyond the rigid heteronormative expectations of Britain’s urban centres LGBTQIA+ individuals, couples and communities cruised the peripheries of the UK, from Brighton to Bournemouth, Margate to Torquay, and, of course, Blackpool.
Here on the peripheries occupying queer time marks the leaving behind, or escape of ‘the temporal frames of bourgeois reproduction and family, longevity, risk/safety, and inheritance’ says American theorist Jack Halberstam. As both Chan and Rimmer’s work demonstrate, queer time can be carved out in those moments of self-expression and celebration. It is as out of sync as it is ahead of its time. Whether performance or self-containment when occupying queer time the straight and narrow ideals of heteronormative neoliberalism evaporate and in its place a more lucid, queer utopia is in the course of forming.
With the horizon in sight, coastal towns such as Blackpool are a good place to think about a queer future. But they are also places where we get a sense of the present ecological epoch. The Anthropocene, whilst not officially acknowledged by geologists, has been adopted to describe the period we find ourselves in. The term brings into mainstream thought what feminist and indigenous scholars have long described, that the ecologically destructive impacts of racialised colonial capitalism have forced an irreversible collapse between social and natural systems.2
Up a narrow staircase inside of Abingdon Studios Bowler’s sculptures are a reminder of the traversed boundaries of our time. Spaced out, across the sea of the grey-blue floor are four individual plaster boulders covered in coastal debris. Surrounding them, barely visible, are tiny hand drawn recordings of rocks taken by Bowler on his residency spent trawling Blackpool’s water’s edge.
These bundles of coins, rope, seaweed and plastic become densely packed plaster bodies. They resemble plastiglomerates, the scientific name given to rocks formed from both sediment and plastic that have begun to appear on our beaches. In one sculpture a small orange ball is wedged into the plaster, its smooth surface reflecting the bright white studio lights. The invention of plastic introduced new sensorial regimes into the most intimate aspects of our lives, its brightly coloured, smooth, silky, hard surface a stark paradox to our naturally porous, glutinous, muddy earth. But, in the age of the Anthropocene, as Bowler’s work reminds us, these textures and materials mutually convolve.
Bowler shared how he enjoyed this change and working within the constraints of new materials. Coins are so tightly packed that they stick out dropping off the sides onto the floor. The layered coins resemble coin pusher machines on the pier where the mechanical tide-like motion of the rotating metal arm guides them off the edge.
The intimacy with materials which prevails in much of Bowler’s practice is not lost in Abingdon. In a previous work ‘Fine, I’ll do it myself then’ (2020), Bowler uses a sculptural cast of his chest and performance to tackle the UK’s astronomical wait times for gender affirmation surgery and ongoing trauma of chest dysphoria. Here in Blackpool the physical task of collecting and moulding materials together, and giving in to their properties, foregrounds a playful relationship with sculpture.
Bowler shares how collecting and archiving run deep in his practice. He is studying to be a registrar and says he wants to challenge ‘who dictates the archiving process’. Queer lives are still lived out in ephemeral moments, the intimate and every day need an archiving process which respects this. In his work fleeting moments caught between the ebb and flow of the tides are lightly sketched in miniature drawings, hung on each of the four walls at different heights; they demonstrate an attempt at capturing coastal slippages.
No one in England lives more than seventy five miles from a coast. Yet when we look out to sea we still know so little about what is in its depths. Because of the rate at which we are poisoning aquatic ecosystems, there is no longer just the extinct and undiscovered but a not-yet-nor-never-to-be-discovered. Unlike straight time which is monodirectional, queer time is multidirectional, non-linear and non-heteronormative. The sheer expanse and simultaneous rates of discovery-destroy at play just off our coastlines force us to relinquish colonial pursuits of mastery and give in to queer time. Queer time is slippery, beautiful and messy; like the algae which moulds around rocks along the shoreline, no one is ever too far away from it.
In Take Ecstasy with Me the last essay in his book Cruising Utopia (2008), Muñoz tells us that ‘What we need to know is that queerness is not yet here but approaches like a crashing wave of potentiality’. First Outing readies us for the inevitable coming in of the tide, which may carry with it Chan’s underworld controlled by queens, leaving plastiglomerates like Bowler’s which sit on the floor in Abingdon, and littered with beautifully coloured plastic beings from Rimmer.
First Outing was on display at Abingdon Studios and the Grundy Art Gallery 26 September – 09 October 2021.
Nia Thomas is is a Manchester based freelance arts writer, graphic designer and publishing assistant for Comma Press. They are one of the founding members of Salt Magazine, an online publication set up to showcase contemporary arts and culture in Greater Manchester.
Future Producers Blackpool is made possible by UK New Artists Ltd supported by Arts Council England and in partnership with Abingdon Studios.
This review is supported by Queerly Made and Arts Council England.
- Future Producers is a project by UK New Artists, funded by Arts Council England through National Lottery Project Grants. Queerly Made is one of three artists selected to create and exhibit work in either Blackpool, Derby or Lincoln with the help of a mentor in each location.
- Of course, the thought that these systems were or could ever be separate in the first place is rooted in colonial belief systems.