RCA Students & Alumni look to the future of queer politics this Pride month
To mark Pride month this June, we spoke to students and alumni from across the RCA’s queer community to explore their creative work, the need for LGBTQ+ spaces and the representation of queer lives. With a global outlook, these projects demonstrate a future-oriented and inclusive approach to queer politics – bringing into question the notion of pride itself and the ways that institutions celebrate it.
Hear from a range of artists, activists and creatives below on their work – and what Pride means to them.
Queering Now, Whiskey Chow (MA Contemporary Art Practice, 2017)
You might recognise Whiskey Chow from her tenure as RCASU Co-President. Since graduating in 2017, Whiskey has continued working as an artist, activist and drag king with exhibitions and performances across the UK and internationally, as well as being a Visiting Lecturer for our MA Digital Direction and MA Sculpture.
The recent digital exhibition she curated and presented new work for – Queering Now brought together 16 queer artists from the Sino/Asian diaspora including RCA alumni Mathis Zhang (MA Contemporary Art Practice, 2019), Sin Wai Kin (fka Victoria Sin, MA Print, 2017) and Zhu Dansiyu (MA Visual Communication, 2020).
Supported by Chinese Arts Now (CAN), Whiskey’s aim as Director and Curator was to create a space beyond the institutional and white gaze. ‘I see it as a value-finding process as well as creating a non-oppressive space for my peer Sino/Asian queer diaspora artists in the West.’ Creating or allowing a space for self-expression with equity was central to this – ‘radical care was embedded in the process of delivering the exhibition. I treated the featured artists as equal collaborators and protected their own agency and subjectivity.'
On the future of queer activism, Whiskey asks ‘The key point is how are we going to maintain a critical narrative, which can keep questioning the power structure – to queer the future, for a queer future?’
Stonewall 2069, Samuel Douek (MA Architecture, 2016)
Can technology help the cause of queer liberation? Stonewall 2069 from MA Architecture graduate, Samuel Douek imagines a future in which a trans activist attempts to hack the human body with ‘transhuman’ tech.
The film’s inception stems from Samuel’s interest in where queer politics is headed and the pervasive presence of body modifying tech as a potential mode of liberation for queer people – a way of realising your identity more completely. ‘For me, pride means embracing and celebrating who you are. Too many of us spend our lives pretending to be something else to make other people feel more comfortable.’
For Samuel, there’s reason to assume the queer community with their aptitude for identificatory signifiers might be quicker than the rest of society to see the potentials of tech modifications. ‘Biotech will become recognisable in day to day life’, Samuel told us. ‘The challenge arises with affordability. Will a queer elite with disposable income gain access to the new frontier of biotech whilst the struggling artist class are left behind?’
We Exist x Koppel, Luca Asta (MA Contemporary Art Practice, 2019) and Donna Marcus (current, MA Writing)
Taking place deep in the second UK lockdown, We Exist x Koppel brought together over 20 Trans, Non-Binary and gender non-conforming artists for studio residencies leading up to an immersive exhibition. Our current MA Writing student Donna Marcus led on the communications and press of the project as Co-Director of We Exist, and our MA Contemporary Art Practice graduate Luca Asta was one of the resident artists exhibiting.
‘It offered a family and gave me hope. And I mean, trans and queer people are obviously some of the best creatives out there’, Luca told us on their time at the residency. Conversely both Luca and Donna call into question the way that institutions and companies have celebrated Pride. ‘Corporations slap a rainbow flag on their logo, make some vague innocuous statement about love or authenticity and call it a day. I find it difficult to associate myself with these performative gestures’, Donna told us.
Luca also pointed out the inherent contradiction within Pride month. ‘It means a lot of contradictions, because it involves tokenised visibility. Pride originates in a riot against police violence and must remain a protest. It’s so much more than rainbow glitters. Anyone in the position to do so please consider donating to the We Exist trans* healthcare fund and provide support to our siblings in need.’
Emil Lombardo spent four months of early 2021 cycling around London to create his photo series of trans and non-binary people outside their homes – documenting the unique experience of a community separated from chosen families and safe spaces.
Series from an Unending Sunday Morning, Emil Lombardo (current, MA Photography)
Inspired by the quiet of pandemic London, which had the feeling he told us of an endless Sunday. The photographs’ mood of tranquillity intentionally belies the difficult circumstances of their subjects under the restrictions of the pandemic. ‘There’s a sense of a parallel reality where these portraits might or might not have been taken on a calm Sunday morning.’ With the hope of challenging the cis-het gaze, Emil intends his photographs to ‘show how beautiful trans people are.’
On what Pride means to him, Emil said: ‘Pride is a protest. A reminder that I have rights thanks to trans women of colour working as sex workers, and of everything we have accomplished and how much still needs to be done.’
Make me Feel, Mighty Queer, Giulia Astesani (Current, PhD Arts & Humanities)
What does it mean to live queerly? Giulia Asteni’s research interrogates how queer lives re-imagine the search for happiness, drawing from feminist and queer theory, archive material, pop culture and autobiographical fragments with a focus on queer women and the gender non-conforming.
‘Queerness to me it’s a crack, or better, a deviation from everyday normative paths, a reminder that the ways we are expected to live or that we are living are not the only possible ways’, she told us. Giulia's theoretical work is supported by an artistic practice across video art and performance; ‘ I aim to physically embody this uncertain space, exploring and narrating pathways through it.’
This critical perception of course extends to Pride and particularly to the organisational co-option of pride – for her pride should remain political. ‘Pride to me means looking back while moving forward. I think individuals and organisations should use Pride as a tool to oppose those neoliberal strategies that have been co-opting queerness whilst focusing on empowering the voices that have been (and still are) silenced in the LGBTQ+ community.’
You can find out more about Giulia’s work on the RCA Research Biennale 2021 website.
RCASU Q.U.E.E.R. Society
The Q.U.E.E.R Society is a safe, fun, inclusive space for queer students at the RCA to meet, exchange ideas and collaborate. They put together an annual publication featuring work from queer artists from across the RCA, and this year the theme is Queer Fictions.
You can buy a copy 28 page zine in either pink or cream, and help raise funds for Gendered Intelligence, a trans-led grass roots UK charity working to improve the lives of trans people. And if you’re looking to celebrate pride in person, the society is putting on a picnic in the park! Check their Instagram for details. Details on both are on their Instagram.