- Laura Castagnini
- I met Rose Gibbs in December 2015 when I attended a two-day workshop at the Showroom in London entitled, fittingly, Our Future Network. Led by the artist Alex Martinis Roe, our small group of participants experimented with feminist collective strategies by undertaking a series of exercises developed from research into the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective’s practices from the 1970s to today. Several months later, I saw Rose again at the opening of Sharon Hayes’ first UK solo exhibition, In My Little Corner of the World, Anyone Would Love You, at Studio Voltaire, where I learned that she had assisted in the project’s development by undertaking its research of lesbian archives in the UK. Considering the links between Martinis Roe and Hayes’ works, which both perform a literal re-staging of collective activist practices developed in the 1960s and 1970s, and Rose and my shared participation as audience members (as well as Rose’s more formal involvement in Hayes’s project as researcher for the UK archives), it seemed apt to ask Rose to reflect on these two projects with me. What follows is our conversational review, written as a series of snippets and exchanges in response to one another’s texts.
- Rose Gibbs
- One of the most moving of practices that Alex Martinis Roe developed for the workshop, Our Future Network, was that of ‘affidamento’ or entrustment. This workshop was based on exercises practiced by the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective. The introduction to their collectively authored book, Don’t Think You Have Any Rights (published in English as ‘The Practice of Sexual Difference and Feminist Thought in Italy: An Introductory Essay’), describes affidamento as a relationship:
… in which one woman gives her trust or entrusts herself symbolically to another woman, who thus becomes her guide, mentor or point of reference — in short the figure of symbolic mediation between her and the world.
For Martinis Roe’s workshop this involved the group dividing into pairs and telling each other about a relationship with another woman where this woman had in some way supported them. These stories of ‘female sociality’ were in turn written down into narratives by the listener that we then, as a group, read to one another and presented as a ‘gift’ to those the narrative was about.
Not only was it very beautiful to hear a whole series of stories of female friendship, but also to hear one’s own story told through the words of another. It was like encountering oneself almost as a stranger. The stories offered perspective on one’s life, a wholeness that is in stark contrast to the way in which we encounter our own selves. Where my own emotions, competing desires, insecurities and egotism crowd in on me, here I was presented as a tangible entity, a being whose life has meaning in the world.
- I’m so pleased that your experience of affidamento was so gratifying, particularly as we were actually partners for one of these exercises! For me, the affidamento exercise was similarly illuminating but for slightly different reasons. It highlighted the importance of female mentorship in my life, while also presenting this relationship as practical application of transgenerational feminist politics. The relationship I shared with you was a work-related one, with my mentor and former colleague Vikki McInnes, and through the process of speaking our story aloud (and listening back to it thereafter through your ‘gift’) I retrospectively realised how impactful this act of mentoring had been for my professional and personal growth. Female mentoring is, I think, a feminist issue.
Another aspect of affidamento I found productive was the framework of disparity, which recognises that there are innate as well as environmental differences between women and thus any relationship involves hierarchies. ‘We were not equal, we had never been equal, and we immediately discovered that we had no reason to think we were.’ This emphasis on difference was, for me, an antidote to the flattening form of equality feminism (speaking for ‘all women’), which seems to dominate second-wave Anglophone feminist literature and reappears today in neoliberalist agendas. Alex explained to me that the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective used the practice of disparity as a way to begin relations between women as affirmation and celebration of the uniqueness of each, focusing on situated knowledge without claims to an ‘objective’ viewpoint of difference. However I found that disparity helped me to think about privilege within female relationships, in regards to race, class, sexuality and other intersecting identities. As the wonderful black, feminist, lesbian poet Audre Lorde said: ‘It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate these differences.’ I must admit, before the workshop I had previously considered my feminism to be founded in principles of both equality and intersectionality — so it was a real light bulb moment to realise that these two concepts might be somewhat conflictual.
- Making space for difference is vitally important for all feminist projects, otherwise we risk doing to each other what the world has done to womankind throughout history. One of the difficulties of being recognised as a member of a group, in this case a gender group, is the expectations that come with that. Those expectations, and one’s failure to live up to them, can be particularly alienating when they come from other members within that group: they are accompanied by an ‘invitation’ to share in a set of assumed hopes, fears and interests. The practice of affidamento pre-empts this action by offering participants the opportunity to tell a story from their life.
There are elements of this narration of the self that feel very familiar. The situation recalls the kind of conversations that get repeated over and over between good friends, as we articulate and revise our story in what is ultimately a thwarted attempt to explain who we are. There will always be something that is left behind, something that we haven’t yet managed to express. I think this is what Lacan would call the ‘remainder’.
Where Martinis Roe’s workshop and Sharon Hayes’ work connect is perhaps in this narration of the self. Hayes’ work draws upon letters sent into gay and lesbian magazines in the US and the UK in the 1960s, where often these letters were the first point of contact with other gay women. This writing down of one’s story becomes the beginning of being recognised in the world, a particularly urgent necessity for lesbians in the 1960s, where lesbianism was still referred to as an ‘inversion’, a psychological disease that perhaps could be ‘cured’ by therapy or electric shock treatment.
- The urgency of this self-expression was incredibly moving. To briefly explain the content of the work, Sharon Hayes’ In My Little Corner of the World, Anyone Would Love You was a five channel video installation that re-performed material from feminist and queer bulletins, newsletters and small run publications produced between 1955 and 1977. The texts speak of harrowing isolation experienced by their authors, such as lonely lesbians without the economic means to drive several hours to visit the nearest gay bar, as well as the strain of living one’s life as a visible lesbian during a time of explicit and rampant homophobia. Watching the video, it became clear that, for many readers, subscription to these publications formed a lifeline of communication to other lesbians — to someone else ‘like them’ — and thus their sense of self identity was formed in relation to the collective.
Decades after the texts were written lesbians of various ages, races and gender expressions read them aloud for Hayes’ camera. These performers are contemporary members of feminist and queer communities in Philadelphia and, for many of the younger women, I imagine the context of the 1960s and 1970s felt entirely distant from their own lived reality today. Yet these stories speak of a loneliness that resonates with queer people of all generations within an oppressive hetero-patriarchal society (or at least it does with me!). The narrators perform alone or in pairs in bedrooms, kitchens and dining rooms — switching to another location after each text is finished. Hayes calls these enacted readings ‘speech acts’, suggesting that there is an action accomplished by the utterance. This term commonly refers to legally binding language, for example the statement of a criminal’s sentence. In Hayes’ work, however, I feel the re-enactment (and embodiment) of lesbian stories enacts a sense of collective selfhood across historical moments. That is, I listen to the stories of a previous generation and, despite the time lag, I share in their collective self-identity. The speech act in Hayes’ work is the creation of a new kind of collective, one that is temporally dispersed.
- Sharon Hayes’ work reminds us of the debt we owe to these small organisations that would otherwise be forgotten. Certainly in the case of the lesbian group much of my research for Hayes’ was focused on (the Minorities Research Group, whose magazine was entitled Arena 3), one can trace the steps of this progress. These organisations not only provided a vital means of communication for isolated gay and lesbian people, they also positively impacted the mainstream homophobic world around them. The group became the subject of articles published in mainstream magazines like the New Statesman, as well as featuring in BBC documentaries, which in turn provoked more newspaper articles and magazine features, all which expanded the organisations reach. It is important to remember that it is the accumulative effect of these small steps that leads to change, reminding me of Quentin Crisp’s grim conclusion towards the end of his autobiography: ‘Tolerance is the result not of enlightenment but of boredom.’
What became fascinating was the way in which the lives of the editors and other contributors were revealed through the magazine. Their lives become material for the magazine, and therefore also become the tools with which to campaign for political change. But this is not some pre-planned programme that sought to unite means and ends, more the effect of the urgency of their task.
What I perceived in Hayes’ use of the material is an eliciting of a connection between the queer and feminist performer/readers in contemporary Philadelphia and the writers whose letters they read. The connection feels as though it occurs if not at a practical level (laws, popular opinion and so on have changed) then on the level of analogy: it is as if the letters speak something of speakers, while not revealing their actual lives. Though there may have been much progress since these letters were written, LGBTQ people still face prejudice on a day-to-day basis. The reading of the letters work as a way into an experience of the letter writer, bringing that history to the fore and in the process working as a reminder of pain of these ongoing battles.
- It strikes me that the 1960s and 1970s collective practices that Martinis Roe and Hayes excavate and re-perform in their work look very different to the way activists form communities today in our networked and globalised world. Their emphasis on the past appears to be part of a broader revival of interest in feminist collectives, particularly in London, where you are an active member of this groundswell. I know it is a little unorthodox but, by way of conclusion to this review, I’m wondering if you might reflect on Martinis Roe and Hayes’ restaging of collectivity in relation to examples from your own practice as an artist, activist and writer?
- Like Hayes, in my own work I have used speech as way to allow people into an experience, drawing on the resonance of the voice as a way to elicit a personal, embodied encounter. This aspect of my work uses the voice, where it can both bring people together in unison, while at the same time indicate a unique personal ‘throat of flesh’. It seems to me that feminism attempts both these actions: that of bringing people together to recognise group treatment, while at the same time attempting to probe the validity of that grouping. Women’s collectives confront that very conundrum and can be seen as a temporary strategy to achieve long-term change. In light of the atomising effects of neoliberal capitalism, sites under which to bring people together are withering away. Against this background, women’s artist collectives provide an interesting feminist alternative to individualistic practices. In the 1970s and 1980s women’s art collectives abounded, and it is useful to look at and draw upon their strategies. In a similar way to Martinis Roe I always attempt to route my research in practice, and currently I am working on two collaborative projects: one could be understood as an alternative art practice where I research and make work collectively, while the other is a group I co-founded with Catherine Long, that meets on a bi-monthly basis, where we explore our practices from a feminist perspective. We held our first exhibition, Feminist Practices In Dialogue, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in December 2015, alongside a talk and the launch of our first publication.
Laura Castagnini is an Australian curator and writer based in London.
Rose Gibbs is an artist, writer and organiser.
A complimentary article by Laura Castagnini, ‘Dear Homophobia’, appears online as part of un Extended 10.2.
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