UPCOMING
22 March – 18 May 2024 – I can fit a fist in my mouth, curated by Seán Elder, Cubitt Artists, London, UK

Cottaging the Hedgegrow

A four part chronicle by Mathew Parkin, foraging queerness and rurality in recent artist moving image for MAP magazine, read here.

COTTAGING THE HEDGEROW: PART 1

There is that old idea of nature vs culture, female vs male, emotion vs intellect, but I’m not sure where queerness fits into this. If it’s linked with camp, and often it is, then via Sontag it’s about artificial exaggeration and performance of the natural (please don’t @ me for this reading, or any of the other readings) because queerness is muddy. It is hard to grasp with both hands. It is a trajectory, it shapeshifts. While queerness is often dripping in memetic cultural references it is of and for the body. It is of sweat, the bowel and the body hair. It is of the belly, both in laughter, six-pack, good food and anxiety. It is not just that queerness is concretely about what bodies do with other bodies, mutual pleasure and collective pain, but it is concerned with authenticity or realness.

I won’t and can’t stand by this writing. I am wary of writing. I use it as a way to think through ideas but often it seems too solid. I do not seek to be an authority. Nor am I seeking to make an argument. To paraphrase Ursula K. Le Guin this text is a vessel to hold some thoughts together, it’s not a spear with a point.[1]

A windmill is on the front cover of Bridget Penney’s Licorice. A windmill features in the story it contains, of the low budget production of a folk horror film. It’s easy to point to windmills as now aestheticised industrial buildings, either as housing or conceptual photography. Ironically windmills as a renewable energy source are often protested as blighting a constructed natural landscape. As if fields are devoid of labour. However Licorice is more interested in trying to record the sound of the windmill, which brings to mind Maria Fusco’s assertion that, ‘I have absolutely no access to how history sounds’ in Legend of a Necessary Dreamer. The windmill in Bridget’s narrative is a device to hear a past, adding the same authenticity to the film production as hand dyed burlap wardrobes and the real life sexual relationship between the actors. I guess what I am trying to clumsily gesture at here is the distinction between the real and simulated sex, landscape, narrative.

‘Tilting at windmills’ means attacking a perceived enemy of threat. I wonder how much it is connected to a strawman argument. A strawman, according to Wikipedia, is a form of argument based on giving the impression of refuting an opponent’s argument, while actually refuting an argument that was not presented by that opponent. A symbol of the rural, and particularly farming, once again stands in for a fake, perceived or constructed enemy.

I think I was tilting at windmills when I suggested this writing. I was reading Licorice.

I have had sex outside, but very rarely have I lain in the mud for it. Or on the hay. Or in the manure. Or on the scrub. Or on the sand. Or the rock. It’s mainly been stood and fumbling. It’s mainly been swift; anxious about a perceived threat. Animals often try to make themselves look bigger when confronted with a perceived threat.

The windmill Grindr. Scruff works best for me, or a moustache. It’s not that I’m not attracted to smooth faces, but they are better with a bruise and an accent.

I hate to do this, I really do, but mills at the moment (whether wind or otherwise) are struggling to meet demands for flour during the coronavirus lockdown. Well, they are struggling to meet a rise in domestic demand, ‘it is not the flour that is lacking so much as the ability to package smaller units in greater numbers’.[2]

I wonder if the farmer is trade. Or the farmer’s son. The labourer is I guess, but I find it hard to map my class politics onto this. What makes trade, is it the presumed heterosexuality and by extension masculinity, or is it proximity to manual labour? The mill and the field are both sites of labour, but are they both sites of radical organising and collective bargaining? I’m not going to get into the enclosures here as I fear I don’t have the word count or the knowledge.

In Jamie Crewe’s Ashley, their Margaret Tait Award commission which recently screened at Glasgow Film Festival, we see the titular character taking a trip to a rural cottage in an attempt to regain or consolidate their sense of autonomy or selfhood after a break-up. Travis Alabanza’s narration contextualises the landscape as belonging to the ex, however the threats seem mainly situated in the domestic environment, not the outdoors. What we find in the landscape instead is a trans body glowing among the green: a powerful being running amok through the field.

At a screening event programmed as part of Jamie’s sister exhibitions at Grand Union and Humber Street Gallery Love and Solidarity and Solidarity and Love, we collectively watched a YouTube playlist that Jamie first compiled in 2017 for Art In America magazine. Accompanying this communal remote watching event was a chatroom, which for me became an essential part of the experience. Finding togetherness while apart.

One of the films in the playlist was Juliette of the Herbs, depicting the life of Juliette de Bairacli Levy, a ‘world renowned herbalist, author, breeder of Afghan hounds, friend of the Gypsies, traveller in search of herbal wisdom and the pioneer of holistic veterinary medicine.’ In the film, they talked us through the plants in their gardens, and the names of the herbs alone were so provocative. Large bushes of antiseptic rosemary, dew of the sea, by the door of her house. I keep lavender, rosemary and thyme by my building’s door. The opening scene was of someone swimming on a blue shimmering sea, slightly distorted by dated VHS technology that in some ways made it more tangible. I longed to be enveloped. The film was shown alongside drag performances, sometimes from trans performers, who were occasionally naked, and I was interested in the coexistence of these two types of film styles–documentary and cabaret–and that they may mush together better than we have been led to believe. Lady Bunny and RuPaul cooking on an open fire.

Through digital communications geographical importance lessens and discrete social spaces become a larger overlapping space. In Sgàire Wood’s Extreme Beauty YouTube video for Vogue, she succinctly expresses an idea I’ve tried to talk about in previous work: that finding community online is a queer millennial experience, perhaps equal in significance to the ritual of coming out and moving to the city for previous generations. However the importance of where one grew up, and an origin story, seems to be just as important. Through the internet I can understand other specific and nuanced queer cultures. Queer expression can become more multitude. What I am saying is through the internet I can find people who understand my reference to French and Saunders, rather than having to align with other forms of dominant cultural production.

I wish I hadn’t pitched this as talking about queerness, and I wish I could stop using that word.

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[1] Expanded from the theory of the novel as a vessel not a spear outlined in Ursula K Le Guin’s 1986 essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. The essay argues the vessel is the first human tool, not the spear, and links this to a feminist critique of linear storytelling and time.

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/fo…

COTTAGING THE HEDGEROW: PART 2

I text Marcus to ask, is Margaret Tait queer? His response is no LOL, ‘Why u ask?’ I guess it was something about what you choose to document, who you are addressing and how you are looking.

I’ve often thought about the long lazy cruising look and the outdoors. For a long time I followed a porn Tumblr that was short iPhone videos of people having sex in the outdoors, but all that was really visible was a shaking branch, or a mound of scrub.

A common narrative which seems to play over and over again in literature, films, and TV is the coming out story. It’s an origin story we are asked to repeat and perfect. I am aware at this point that the coming out story also has different importance for members of the queer community. I don’t want to present gay male sexuality as a vector for the whole of queerness. I’m not sure if asking why we have to come out is a useful project. The coming out feels less like a large revelation, then a focusing–a making visible of that which was often sensed, but on a periphery. The common narrative goes that after it has rendered itself legible, a queer body migrates to an urban centre. Que Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy.

Eternity Knocker by Andrew Black shows this tension of sites of rural labour and how they can be aestheticised, calling into question the taxonomy of industry and leisure. The work seeks to explore previous attempts by Marie Hartley, Ella Pontefract and Joan Ingillby to preserve a way of living through documentation; and trying itself to preserve or document something of a way of life through the conversation Andrew has with current farmers. The film feels like a development of Black’s earlier work Submerged Village, which explored his position as a queer in the rural landscape. In Eternity Knocker he asks questions about how the landscape was constructed, and what his role in it may be. There is a scene of tagging lambs ears—lambs have long been a beloved animal of mine, I made my first sculpture in memory of a lamb at Yorkshire Sculpture Park as a child, I always felt like some of the lamb was in me—and I can’t help but think of gay boys earrings. A single earring in one ear, one ear means you are gay, one ear does not.

Urban centres are historically places where queers can find community as well as opportunities for inter-class encounters, as discussed at length in Samuel R Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. Proximity to others’ pent-up sexual desire is intoxicating through pheromones alone. I often think of being able to walk lit-up street after street late into the morning in the way Eileen Myles describes in Chelsea Girls. I tweeted in 2016 while visiting the city how thickly sex hung in the air in London, not just because the bodies that populate it are consciously maintained and presented, but because things are endlessly open and available. The off license doesn’t shut. Although in Scotland it does at 10pm. But I don’t want to get into queer futurity and the idea of youth.

I don’t disagree with this grounding, or the work that is made as a result of it. I live in a city and grew up in a town fantasising of living in London, Berlin or New York. I remember once talking to Jamie at a private view before a long drive down to my partner’s family’s farm, explaining my reliance on the convenience of urban living, a lack of knowing what to do with myself at the farm. In return, they exclaimed something along the lines of no, ‘just bathe me in manure‘.

I guess what I am actually talking about is language or semantics. It’s about legibility: which queer bodies are legible, who gets to identify as such, and who actually chooses not to? How is this complicated by place?

The windmill I was tilting at was the idea of trying to queer the rural. As constructed as I think the ‘rural’ is, it is for sure already queer. Animal husbandry feels queer, and when non-exploitative feels to me like something to do with radical mutual interdependence. In most conventional folk horror there’s something evil in the soil, in the carnal, the breeding, in the kids. That’s queerness. Faggy-ness. But how useful is it to continue to present ourselves as monsters?

Francis Lee’s film God’s Own Country is as much about shame and how to have conversations as it is about gay love on a farm. It’s not that Johnny doesn’t understand his own desire, it’s his shame and inability to vocalise this that causes the ensuing drama. Dealing with the shame is part of the coming out narrative. Do I really dream of some pastoral fantasy where one doesn’t have to come out? I imagine a dialect, a slang, similar to Polari [1], a secret queer language or slang, but of rural queers. Words for lambs, twinks and fisting.

The rural is magic and magic is gay so therefore the rural is gay. Not just for the radical faeries. I’ve stolen that. But gay is to steal. The gay faerie movement. Cats are magic, and gay, and rural, and lazy in the sun.

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[1] https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/staff/bakerjp/polari/home.htm

COTTAGING THE HEDGEROW: PART 3

I remember a conversation with Laura Guy about trying to act against the American-centrism of much queer theory, and–as an extension of that–to act against the urban-centrism of this theory as well. In the essay ‘Eroticizing the Rural’ about Southern American horror cinema, David Bell argues via Foucault that in the rural hillbilly filled country depicted in these films, sexual acts and sexual identities are ripped apart. There is the penetrator and the penetrated. Whether you are a sissy or not pays little heed. The locals of the narratives enjoy sodomising outsiders, and don’t see that as unnatural. A footnote in the essay also introduces the idea of Dolly Parton as a folk she-devil.

Cases of sodomy in early modern Scotland were often actually cases of bestiality. The two actions were fairly interchangeable and were both somewhat related to age. Sodomy in a young person could be seen as something that you would grow out of, a youthful experiment. Bestiality was often also included in the accusations of witch trials in Scotland.

I’m not so interested in identities vs acts. What I am interested in is queer bodies in landscape. Hannah Hauxwell is arguably not a lesbian as much as a spinster, but her historical independence can be read as that of a butch queen. [1] In Charlotte Prodger’s recent trilogy of films, Stoneymollan TrailBRIDGIT and SaF05, we see many examples of the queer body—and the queer gaze—in the rural, the outdoors, the sidelined. These bodies do not feel like outsiders arriving to queer the landscape, but are instead inherently of and in the landscape themselves. Prodger achieves this not just through the queer readings woven through the narrative overlaying the footage, but in her ways of looking. The trainered feet moving over the stones. Rushing snowy landscapes edged by glitches of the video-camera codec. Trainers on the couch backed by a window blown out by the sun. A grid over standing stones.

Charlotte’s interest in technology and industry develops further than machinery to include standing stones and ancient pilgrimage routes. These routes are forms of knowledge that are passed like queer gossip among those who need to know. The stones can be a sparse visual language, like that of speakers or cube monitors, of measuring time or space. They are primed for projection. Could these stones mark queer space and time?

Introducing his project Open Ramble EastIan Giles explains, ‘historically queer lives and achievements have often gone unrecorded within regional settings: this project is part of a wider invitation to correct this’. [2] Giles organised a queer rambling group as a site of communality in the country, creating temporary meeting points and making space for queers to come together. When presented as an installation, the project exhibited artefacts to re-read the rural through the lens of communal queerness.

But we are not the only inhabitants of the land. The well policed category of human has used its boundaries to exclude queers, BIPOC, migrants, women and working class people. As well as the lives of animals, plants and minerals. Other critters as Donna Haraway might say. There is a recognisable trauma in the reduction of animals to their sexual organs and acts, and the usefulness of those organs and acts to humans. Emilia Beatriz examined human and non-human relationships in their 2019 exhibition at CCA, Glasgow, declarations on soil and honey. The works present the negotiation and management of relationships between bodies—animal, mineral and geological—through fact and fiction. There is a focus on the maintenance of the health of these bodies which seems to problematise the boundaries of bodies. This included the geographical boundary of the nation state. In the installation a visitor negotiates a bodily interaction with moss covered seating, becoming part of the interdependent web Emilia creates.

Charlotte’s film SaF05 allows us to spend time around a queer butch queen lioness, who has taken on some of the forms of behaviour and looks of the male lion, not just his sexual appetite. This is not an attempt to map a human identity onto an animal or to gesture at some essential biological self, but instead to understand that social and sexual behaviours are more complex than the binary they are often distilled to. The mapping of these identities onto humans may be as ridiculous as doing so onto animals, but some pleasure can be gleaned at the recognition of perceived queerness even if that recognition is not mutual.

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[1] Hannah Hauxwell was a farmer who came to fame through several ITV documentaries about life on the Dales. She lived most of her life on the farm she was born on, running it on her own after the death of her family, living what could be seen as a solitary and frugal, or even austere life.

[2] https://www.kettlesyard.co.uk/events/ian-giles-outhouse/

COTTAGING THE HEDGEROW: PART 4

There is something about knowing without being able to vocalise how you know. We are back to language, legibility and magic. Gaydar I guess. You can recognise something in another person and can’t explain beyond that. You know that holding their gaze will affirm a desire to fuck. You can tell the weather is shifting. You can feel when something bad is coming. I don’t know what wild garlic looks or smells like.

I guess this points towards indigenous knowledge and health. Witches, midwives, healers. Carolyn Lazard’s film Get Well Soon is a complex and rich work, and I don’t want to read it too reductively in this context. There is a body struggling to survive in an apartment navigating the American healthcare system, and then a vulnerable body surviving in a beautiful field. Dressed in a nightgown that brings to mind a pastoral damsel, Lazard navigates the field like a quest computer game. Perhaps she is seeking an older form of natural healing, mediated through a frame of computer games and selfie technology.

The move to the city–finding community, finding kin—is a search I understand. But what I am trying to argue is that by re-looking at the spaces we instinctively moved from, we can see how those kin may be pre-existing there. We should not allow the assumption that the rural environment is synonymous with the heterosexual family unit. As queers, we should not automatically seek to disrupt the rural–we should acknowledge that its connection to the traditional is constructed and forced.

Queer child-rearing in the film Strangely Ordinary This Devotion by Dani Leventhal ReStack and Sheilah ReStack is not only situated within the landscape, but is of the landscape. The reproduction comes from and with the water, conjured by older lesbians. Then raised alongside love making, feasting and ritual. It is not seeking to be extraordinary, is it seeking to be as it is. This interrogation of geography, community and relationships to animals builds on previous work by Dani. Not just in building works through relationships, and the interrogating of distinction between document and story, but through the taking of animals as talismans—horses in Hard as Opal and coyotes in Come Coyote—moving between loneliness, contact and locations.

Of course this formulation is complicated by intersecting oppressions, and at times being in the landscape can be transgressive in itself. Jade Montserrat has explored this in her collaborative films CLAY and PEAT. ‘Appearances suggest we were not meant to be here. Alienation is magnified by a landscape scarred by borders, raised inscriptions of territorial ownership.’ [1] The videos are tender, moving and beautiful. This sense of belonging, or not belonging, is complicated by Jade’s own biographical anecdotes and references to Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff. I wonder what it can mean to use mud as a balm for a legacy of alienation. White supremacy sits at the root of all oppression and queers should fight against this. Violent borders (or ‘enclosures’ to take a Federici slant) resonate through the urban and rural and need to be resisted and dismantled. To quote Montserrat again ‘The questions are geo and bio–political, of universality. The challenge is to pass the caring on. Articulating a different kind of usefulness might be. What is the true purpose of our illimitable nature? New and revised systems.’[2]

I want to ask myself what is rural, who is rural, what counts as rural, and who decides it. Can the Christopher Street docks, an ex-industrial landscape offering space to a queer community, be read as a rural landscape?

I should have asked is land art queer? It often feels like dick swinging.

I’m attracted to the idea of the man who goes cruising in the park as much to be outside as to be fucking. Fucking on the grass, against a tree, in a haybale. These are romantic images, but also sensory excesses. If the pleasure in sex is often understood as a moving from the singular to the collective, a shattering of boundaries of the self, then surely in nature this can be heightened.

I’m attracted to the idea of the man who goes cruising in the park like a bird watcher. There is a nerdy similarity in watching for rustles in the bushes, taps of feet, long lingering glances, following the trail of condoms. A replication of that teenage desire to go for a walk to allow yourself breathing space to act how you want to act. Ain’t nought as queer as folk.

This is not a colonist or militaristic fantasy, to impose queerness on a beautiful landscape. The rural I speak of is just as violent, as constructed, and its boundaries as policed as the urban centre. It’s not an attempt to read and codify things in a way that suits a political agenda. It’s an attempt to recognise that assumptions have been made about where the queer imaginary belongs. Subversiveness, queerness and cultural production are not exclusively properties of the urban cultural classes, and following these assumptions plays into historic binaries. I want to recognise that the margins that we thrive in must include the hedgerow.

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[1] https://shadesofnoir.org.uk/jade-montserrat-clay/

[2] https://shadesofnoir.org.uk/jade-montserrat-clay/