Duke Mound, Brighton’s Palace Pier, the Marina, Brighton Sauna, Black Rock place, Portslade Basin Road Local Wildlife site and its naturist beach, Brighton Pavilion, the Pride parade, your home during the lockdown and sometimes your body… all these are heterotopias – places that are outside the norm, that are strange or in other words queer. Brighton, as a holiday seaside town where non-normative and even transgressive behaviour is rife, can be seen as a heterotopian city. As such, it has attracted throughout history the LGBT community and it is no wonder that it became the UK’s LGBTQ capital.
The “Queer Heterotopias” exhibition, at the Ledward Centre, produced by SEAS Brighton in collaboration with the NY Centre for LGBTQ+ and the Preus Museum (Norway), celebrates these spaces and takes the visitors on a tour of past and present heterotopias.
“Let’s go outside”
Heterotopia is a concept that was coined by philosopher Michel Foucault in the 1960s and means literally an “other place”. Heterotopias are worlds within worlds, mirroring and yet upsetting what is outside. Their physical or social makeup and what goes in them are outside the norms. Foucault provides examples: ships, cemeteries, brothels, prisons, gardens of antiquity, amusement parks, Muslims baths and many more which can be seen in the exhibition.
One of such spaces that the exhibition celebrates is the pier; this is portrayed in the work of Leonard Fink who documented the dilapidating New York Piers during the 70’s and 80’s. Stripped of their financial and utilitarian functions they became the focal point for the gay community for socialising and cruising: a kind of Duke Mound on speed. In the exhibition, Duke Mound as well as other LGBT spots are celebrated in a large-scale illustrative map by Beth Easton.
Heterotopias are created when particular sites have more than one social order, histories or when the sites contain conflicting activities. In a mock tourist promotion film for Athens, allegedly commissioned by the Greek Tourism Ministry, the Greek porn director, Menelas, shows the city’s must-see spots and reveals their homoerotic past and present. The film was deemed to be so explicit that it was never used for the tourism campaign. Until now.
Another important trait of Heterotopias is the fusion of real and unreal, of nature and the unnatural artificial. A key example that Foucault gives of such spaces is the Persian Garden: a real space that was transformed through various artificial means into an utopian place to resemble a kind of paradise.
This space is celebrated by the works of Abdullah Qureshi and Mustafa Boga in connection to the Muslim queer cultural history. In a different way, nature and what is considered unnatural are beautifully shown in the socially engaged photographs of Nelson Morales and his work with Mexico’s third gender community – the Muxes.
The Queer Body
The earliest example in the exhibition of a setting that mixes different worlds and of the transgression of the heteronormative space is the private collection of the female Norwegian photographers and Suffragettes, Bolette Berg & Marie Hoeg (1895-1903). Considered as the first example of selfie-like photography, the couple and their guests took self-portraits with painted, nature themed backdrops while crossed dressed, consequently subverting cis-heteronormative expectations of portraiture. Going forward in time to the modern day the exhibition includes the picturesque series of performance photography by the South African artist Nomusa Musa Mtshali who, adorned with a beard, is photographed in a garden in what can be seen as a re-interpretation of the biblical story of Adam & Eve. The fusion of real and fiction in a domestic setting can be seen in film and photography work by the artists Hanneke Wetzer, Claudia Sneddon & Joe Morris, Leonie Bellini and Emilie Christine P. Newman. Created during Covid19 lockdowns, these artists transformed their homes into queer wonderlands. In other works, such as by Tate Anderson at their home, and Istavan in Brighton’s Palace Pier (in collaboration with Gil Mualem-Doron) it is the presence of the queer body that change the heteronormative space into an heterotopian one.
The re-politicizing public space
Some heterotopias have less to do with space and more to do with time. Such spaces are the fairgrounds, festivals, parades, demonstrations and artists interventions in public spaces. The exhibition champions the work of the international group Queeruption who in the past twenty years has created temporary occupations of empty buildings and public spaces and transformed them into spaces for queer political actions and celebrations.
Yet, it has been argued, already by Foucault himself, that heterotopias have been gradually disappearing. The weakening of the boundaries between public and private, much due to technology, the changes in social norms, the rise of digital or augmented space are all contributing to this. In contradiction, others have argued that, in fact, all spaces – even the most traditional ones such as the home, are becoming heterotopic. If you work from home, order your meal from a local chef, visit a safari or chase criminals on your 3D consul, watch a film with your high definition projector, and end the night with a home or sex party, your home function is at once a place of work, a restaurant, a playground, a cinema and a club. Covid19 lockdowns have amplified this change in the domestic space as we can see in some works in the exhibition.
On the other side, during the lockdown, with the restrictions of meeting people at home we saw public spaces being used in much more diverse and creative ways and transformed beyond their original plan. The public space, with Black Lives Matter, for example, or with the now more politicized LGBTQ+ prides around the worlds, has become more and more heterotopian. ‘Queer Heterotopias’ exhibition seeks to both highlight and celebrate this.