Artists Talk Bodies,
Visibility, And Violence
A roundtable panel discussion on the traps of visibility, the risks of violence, and making art while experiencing the world as a marginalised body.
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Bridget Minamore, Sugar (Objects of Desire), Rory (Objects of Desire), Otter Lieffe, Jon Bellabono (Decolonise Fest)
gender based violence, sex work, art, racism, sex work, accountability, transfeminism, LGBT, organising
Bridget Minamore (BM);
Sugar (S) – Objects of Desire;
Rory (R) – Objects of Desire;
Otter Lieffe (OL);
Jon Bellabono (JB) – Decolonise Fest.
00:00:00 BM Hello. Welcome. I hope you’re all well this morning. My name is Bridget, Bridget Minamore, and I’m a writer, and a poet, and a journalist. And welcome to our first panel this morning. I’m just going to—feel free to come and sit inside . And also, for the record, this is relaxed. So, at any time you need to leave, that’s totally fine. We’re going to have a nice little chat this morning. I’m just going to [moves equipment] looking up the title of the thing that I didn’t bring with me. Perfect! Welcome to ‘Artists Talking Bodies, Visibility and Violence.’ We’re here today with Objects of Desire, Decolonise Fest, and Otter Lieffe. I’m just going to read a little bio for each of them, so you know who we’re speaking to this morning, and then we’ll get into it. So, to my right is Otter Lieffe. Otter Lieffe is a working-class femme trans woman and sex worker. She is the author of two trans feminist novels, Margins and Murmurations and Conserve and Control, which are both for sale if you would like to buy them afterwards, which I assume you will. And she’s been a grassroots community organiser for over two decades. In February 2019 she also founded Transfeminine International, an organisation that centres the needs of trans women in intersectional feminism. Can we have a little round of applause for Otter please? [Audience applauds]. Thank you. Next up are Sugar and Rory. They’re both from Objects of Desire. Objects of Desire is a collaborative project led by sex workers, through archiving and exhibiting objects donated by sex workers, they aim to preserve their stories and challenge stereotypes about the work. Objects of Desire currently also have an exhibition at the Schwules Museum in Berlin until the 2nd June 2019. Round of applause! [Audience applauds]. And last but not least, at the end, is Jon Bellabono. They have been a co-organiser of Decolonize Fest since 2016. They are interested in curating events and spaces which prioritise marginalised community. They also research and write about queer and trans identities in south east Asia. Finally, for the past year they’ve also been offering manicures in a queer friendly setting at events and festivals, which is clearly the best thing in the world. A round of applause for Jon! [Audience applauds]. So, today we’re going to be talking about lots of things . I’m really excited to be here, and thanks very much to SWARM for asking me . But I thought it might be nice for us to have a little intro from each of the people on the panel to tell everyone a bit about their work, and how they got into it, and what they do. So, perhaps let’s—maybe let’s start with Objects of Desire, because there’s two of you. And then we’ll go to Otter. So, would you guys like to have a little chat?
00:03:02 S Shall we use this one or—oh, two mics? Oh, we have two.
00:03:08 R Dream!
00:03:08 S Yeah, so Objects of Desire started in 2016 when me and Rory met and we organised quite a small exhibition in London which was on for two weeks, or so. And it came from the idea, basically, that we just wanted to, sex workers to, to have a kind of collection of sex worker stories that were told in our own words and objects were a good way to access the stories, preserve anonymity of sex workers, and have—to create this exhibition of all these different perspectives, and so on, without people having to tie them to themselves and their own experiences, like their own personal identity or whatever. And that was quite successful, and it went well, and we really enjoyed doing it. And so, in 2017 there was a call out from Open Society, so we applied for funding to do a much bigger version in Berlin, and the laws in Germany had just changed. So new laws had been brought in around prostitution that summer of 2017 which made it mandatory for sex workers to register in order to work—changed laws around what defines a brothel and how those can be run and a lot of stuff around the control of sex workers, how you’re working and so on. We thought it was really important at that time to do another version of Objects of Desire there. And we got the funding, so we ended up doing a ridiculously bigger project that was eighteen months’ long in the end. So, the exhibitions been on since March and ends in June. So that’s like a three-month run. And—how many in two years did we do in the end?
00:05:27 R We did interviews with over forty people living and working in Berlin. So, in London I think we interviewed maybe fifteen, sixteen people? And then in Berlin we also had two other people working with us. So, we did interviews in English, German , Spanish, Bulgarian, Hungarian, with translators . Also, because we had funding, we could pay people to do interviews which we thought was important for people to have access, to be able to give time to the project. It was much more expansive and had a wider range of voices than in London, which I think was very important.
00:06:08 S Yeah, and yeah. We ended up with this—we also did an open call for artists to respond to… so it was artists who were also sex workers to respond to the themes in the exhibition which ends up being quite wide. And we picked out—I think, and I always forgot how many we got, but I think it was about eight different artworks. Some made collaboratively and some made individually. And they’re really varied. And that formed the second room of the exhibition. So, once you’ve been around all of the objects, you go into the second room and then there’s the artworks there. And we had a series of events and performances as well. And all of those, they all linked into things in the archive—which is the objects section, which actually is just so broad anyway because there are stories about all different ends of what sex work is.
00:07:15 R Yeah, I think that’s what we saw the strength of Objects as being, that there’s so much pressure as a sex worker when you’re talking about experiences or stories that you’re representative of all sex workers. And so, to have objects, there’s objects that tell violent stories, objects that tell stories of sadness, objects that just tell stories of about being really bored at work. So, it’s that whole kind of range and nuance that comes through objects. So that’s where we see the power of that concept. And then the artworks grew out of the London exhibition. One artist made a piece that was just put in with all the other objects that was basically this—do we have time? Are we going over? Okay—just stop me if… so, it was basically this chair with—covered in leopard print, then it was attached to a bicycle. So, you could ride the bicycle and kick yourself in the balls with the high heels—because there were high heels attached to the thing. It’s hard to explain but it looked amazing [audience laughs].
00:08:17 S There’s a picture—oh, we don’t have a catalogue.
00:08:20 R Yeah, I left mine at the airport. Shit.
00:08:21 S Well, we meant to bring a catalogue, so we had a picture of it but it’s on our website.
00:08:27 R Yeah. But what was really interesting about that was that this artist, Ginger Angelica, who also has a piece in our Berlin exhibition. She had this whole backstory to the object of how it was this dad who was so in love with his domme that he was in the shed building this contraption for her.
00:08:46 S And nicknaming it a time-saving device that she could use with clients. And it had a few different names over the time?
00:08:53 R ‘Do It Your Damn Self Chair’ was one.
00:08:56 S One of them was , ‘The Do It Your Damn Self Machine.’ [Rory laughs]. It ended on—I can’t remember the name of it now. That’s really bad! But yeah, the name now is based on some kind of appliance.
00:09:13 R But that really brought this aspect to us of fiction and fantasy in the archives. So, we’re archiving all of these stories and objects, but some details may be changed for anonymity. So, for example, if somebody gives us as bracelet but thinks it would identify them, we would change it to a necklace. Or change certain details. So that was always kind of present, that idea of playing with the truth and playing with fantasy and telling our stories as we want to tell them. And then with this completely invented object we were thinking more through that. And so that led us into us doing this call out for artists, and all of the objects that were created as artworks will also be archived as part of our project.
00:09:57 S Yeah, so that’s also a section of our project I don’t think I mentioned in the beginning. It’s that we have an online archive or all of the objects. So, the idea is that we have all the objects there from the London exhibition and once we close the current exhibition we’ll spend all the time uploading all the photos of every object with the stories now in English and German—because we’ve been doing it in Germany. And then wherever we hopefully go on to do it next we’ll archive all of those, and gradually the online archive will build into something that maps sex workers across the world, and their different experiences.
00:10:34 R Because the objects also say a lot about the legal situation in particular places. Like, in Berlin, as you mentioned, the research was undertaken in the period following the implementation of this law which required a lot more documentation. So, documents were this material object that we were looking at. And the processes that those documents enacted, that people are going through in these various bureaucratic offices is very different from the kinds of objects that people had in London. And, for example, brothels being legal in Berlin, so there’s a whole different set of objects that might reveal that. Whereas in London, also people work from home more often, there’s more of a culture of in-calls, so domestic objects where much more present in the London exhibition. So, without having this overarching aim of showing, “Oh here’s sex work in Berlin, here’s sex work in London,” the objects do that work themselves.
00:11:34 S Yeah, and just the last thing to say, maybe, about the artworks is that we ended up with this range. We kind of pictured, I think, because of Ginger’s original piece that was made for the London exhibition, that more things would be, “Oh people are going to create objects that will go into the archive, that are going to have these fictions,” and that was a really interesting things because then the artworks that we had in the end, some of them—one of them is a craft that someone picked up while in deadtime waiting for clients in a brothel. And he got really into making origami, and so we have all these origami pieces just in a vitrine that he’s made during this dead waiting time, and then sent them all to us in a box. And then we also have masks that were made from sections of the interviews where people talk about their different personas. And we also have pieces that people made—a couple of them have this theme of things that people made based on doing the same kind thing at work all the time and wanting to invent something that looked at some, totally out there, fetish or interest or desire that they had that they weren’t getting to express at work. So, creating tools that they wish they could use at work and things like that. So, some really interesting types of stuff came out of it and it was really, really cool to have a bunch of sex workers that we could actually commission to make artwork and put them all together and just see what came out of that.
00:13:11 R Yeah, there was another performance last week that was two artists that created this time-based musical score out of an online chat with a client that started out as a—these two guys, this very macho role-play of them fighting over a woman and wrestling and then it turns into this really erotic chat. And so, these two artists set that to this musical score and performed it along with this whole visual projection that they made, and it was just incredible. So, yeah, it’s been amazing to see the series of performances. Someone else made a performance about the new law in Germany and I think—you touched on this—but I think that aspect of community has been very important to us. It’s looking, or just being able to work with other sex workers and using the skills that we have already to produce this exhibition. And being able to spend that time together, and all of the events. How much it’s made connections, for me—I don’t know, for everyone, I think, because it’s… there is this aspect of, “Oh, people are coming to the exhibition to hear these stories about sex workers!” And there is this voyeuristic aspect of it. I think that’s why the fiction and the fantasy is really important as well, because, it’s confronting. It’s like, “Okay, you’re coming here to hear our stories, and to see how sex workers live but actually, you don’t know what’s true!” So, I like that kind of challenge. And I think, yeah, there’s that. And I think, yeah, the community and the ties that it’s made is a really important aspect of the project.
00:14:58 BM Thank you so much. Jon—actually if we keep the microphone over there—Jon, would you like to do a bit of speaking about Decolonise Fest.
00:15:03 JB Sure. So, Decolonise Fest is the first ever DIY punk festival by, and for, punks of colour in the UK. It started in 2016 out of frustrating from punks of colour about being in the white punk scene—which is meant to be a scene that’s technically anti-capitalist, and welcoming, and open, and the experiences of punks of colour was very much not that. I think lots of white punks are comfortable talking about veganism and stuff like that. But there was so much colour-blindness and so much straight up racism and microaggressions. And so, I just started a festival for punks of colour I guess not to feel alienated . I think the experience is being one of the few people of colour in an audience resonated with most of the organisers. And then not being tokenised—I think lots of line-ups had maybe one band that included people of colour out of five. And it was usually on at like half-seven. So I think we wanted to organise a space that didn’t tokenise punks of colour, and prioritised them. So, it started in 2016 so this will be our third year, it’s the last week in June, this year, DIY Space, if any of you are free, come through. So we do a weekend every year where we include workshops, bands, and it’s all around—it’s a space that prioritises punks of colour, and we only showcase bands that have a least a person of colour in them, and we’ve always had an international band for the past three years, which has been great. This year we’re going to have a band from Kenya coming over. They’re called Crystal Axis and they speak loads about African colonial history and the violence behind it. We have WEEDRAT which is a Native American band coming from New Mexico, who speak about aboriginal rights. And I think that’s something in the UK there’s not much talk about. We’ve also—apart from the festival—have also done one off events. Last year we curated an exhibition for 198 Gallery that was on for two weeks. And this year, 1st June, again at 198 Gallery we’re doing a retrospective about Polystyrene, and her legacy. And, yeah, we’ve curated bands for that as well. And this year we’re also co-programmers for Supernova Festival which is an experimental arts and music festival. We’ve curated part of their programme. I think that covers it.
00:18:07 Chair` Thank you. I’m really strike by how international—the international connections have already come up quite a lot. So, we’ll talk a little bit more about that in a bit. But finally, Otter, would you like to tell us a little bit about your writing and everything else.
00:18:25 OL [Laughs] I like the background noise. Hi Everyone. So, I’m just going to read from a couple of things that I wrote. I’m very nervous with microphones so I wrote it down, it’s better that way, trust me [chuckles]. Can you hear me, as well? Yep? So particularly I wanted to focus on visibility as it was in the title, and a little bit about, I guess the origin story for the books, and how I, as a precarious writer without a lot of resources, how that was able—how it was possible. I’ve never been more visible in my life and sometimes it terrifies me. Over the last years I’ve become more public, more seen, more known, than ever before. Being visible is literally part of my survival now. And it’s how I put food on the table. But with every book sold, every reading given, every activist project organised, I know that I’m also more at risk; more of a target for those who would eradicate people like me from the world. Visibility is profoundly complicated. When I think of visibility I think of incarceration: the populations of trans women made invisible by society, hidden away behind bars by those in power, and more often than not, locked away with men—at risk from both visibility and invisibility. I think about the trans women, usually young, poor, and of colour, caught in this relentless wave of trans-misogynistic violence; too visible to be safe, and too invisible for the mainstream to pay any attention. I sometimes walk a similar line: am I femme enough today? Shaved enough? Made up enough to get into this queer or feminist space? To be accepted as who I am? And yes, obviously forcing only trans women to jump through those hoops is both sexist and deeply cissexist. And then later, back into the street; tucking my skirt in and pulling down my sweater. I wonder if tonight is the night, I am too visible to get home safely. I still don’t have many good options. The only thing I’ll say for visibility is that while increasing my risk of danger, it’s also widened my support network. I gave my first public book reading on a theatre stage in Marseille to hundred and fifty sex workers and trans, and sixty-five more readings after that. In a squatted trailer park in Berlin I had my first musical collaboration. I gave my first radio interviews in Germany, in Australia, in Switzerland, in the UK. People I don’t know come to talk to me at parties to get a copy signed. People I don’t know have my poking out of their sparkly handbags. And it’s a bit weird. Also, because writing a book probably isn’t the most important thing I’ve done. And, don’t get me wrong, I poured everything into these books, and I think they might even be important. But I’ve also come to realise that a novel comes with a certain recognition; that background feminised supportive labour never does. People whisper the word, ‘author’ with an awe that ‘community organiser,’ ‘cleaner,’ ‘trauma supporter,’ ‘squatter,’ ‘gardener,’ ‘therapist,’ or ‘teacher,’ just didn’t attract. Maybe it’s because novels are art and art are considered something very important by certain people with power. I feel like a lot of, yeah, virtually all successful authors are middle class for a reason. In these years writing has connected me with literally thousands of people. Which is very strange for me? [laughs] I’m really very introvert! And for a person who lived a life in the shadows, working invisibly, it feels something like fame. But it isn’t in any real sense and probably won’t ever be. For one thing I’m too precarious. So, I basically scrapped this whole project together with several years of seven-day weeks. I couldn’t afford a proof-reader, so the first edition of Margins was full of embarrassing typos that I only caught when I worked myself to collapse recording an audio book version. I had to crowd-fund the editors fees. I literally sat in a room on a mountain for a week teaching myself to typeset, because that shit’s expensive. I was supposed to be on holiday. I carry copies in my luggage and distribute them one by one to sex shops, and squats, and community centres, and activist meetings, and conferences. Because trans women like me don’t have publishers. And poor people don’t have the right contacts. And I’m amazed it worked at all, it really wasn’t supposed to. I don’t belong to the class of people who are supposed to write novels. The class that has media friends, and the right literary or business education, and can afford to advertise themselves whilst taking a few years off work to write some nice stories. But it kind of has worked. Not in the sense of bringing me fame or riches, but that was obviously never my goal. And in fact, the one thing that’s got me through the lists of disappointments and obstacles and challenges, is that this has actually never been about me. The books are about the starlings, for example, letting people know how fucking beautiful and heartbreakingly threatened they are in Europe. It’s about bringing nuance to conversations around sex work. It’s about having characters with oppressed intersections at the front of the story, just for one in this fucking world. It’s about getting someone through their difficult week and keeping someone else up all night with excitement and bringing a third person back to activism after a period of burnout. It’s been about connecting people through a crowdfunding project that printed and sent nearly two hundred copies to trans women incarcerated in US prisons. It’s about building the foundations for my new organisation that I founded this March, Trans Feminine International in Berlin. And my little books have crossed time-zones and oceans with barely any resources except my stubbornness, my capacity to work hard, which is not something that everyone has, a cheap laptop and the incredible support of the communities that came together around them. And that’s how it happened. It looks like people passing dog-eared copies to each other while discussing politics over coffee. It looks like learning all these new skills; social media, and typesetting, and publishing, and printing, and public reading, and public speaking—I’m still in a process of that one!—recording, sound editing, interviewing, everything from scratch! It looks like pushing through my fear and standing up in front of other people and being seen. Because of my own precarity, because I couldn’t just click a button and instantly reach a million people, this project has literally brought new networks, and new projects, and new friendships, into life. These books have achieved so much and so much more than anyone expected from them, and I’m grateful every day for what they’ve brought to my life. [Audience applauds].
00:25:31 BM Thank you so much, everyone. So, just to let you all know, I’m sure you already have loads of questions, but there’ll be a bit of time at the end for everyone to ask some questions. But as chair I get to asked questions, so that’s really exciting. So, I get to ask loads of them first and then I’ll let you guys come in. So, I guess the first thing is—oh, my head is like going round, and round, and round, and round! I guess, maybe we should start with the title, that word, ‘visibility,’ which all of you touched on: making things visible but also the ways in which we can play with that. Whether that’s by—what did you say? Playing with fantasy and reality, or whether it’s just a case of, “We exist as people of colour in this scene.” Or, “I exist as an individual in my work.” How important is visibility for artists, do you think? Anyone? Who’d like to take us off? Maybe you could go through…?
00:26:37 JB I think for us at Decolonise Fest it’s… I don’t know, such like a double edge sword because on one side we kind of need to—like, we’re a volunteer run collective so the more visibility we get the more money we get and the more we can do. So, there’s , yeah, we’re trying to reach out—also, apart from that, we want to reach out to punks of colour that feel alienated, that feel lonely and alone and so that’s what visibility allows. But on the other hand, the more visibility you get the more hate you get , the more online trolls you get, and stuff like that. So, I think last year we were covered by The Guardian, which was wild, and we had a massive backlash of yeah, pretty much all the comments were hate comments, or being like, “Ugh , why are you making this about race?” “Maybe people of colour just don’t like punk’s music?” “Maybe it’s just not your thing.” And there was literally like ninety-five percent of the comments and it was—this was right after the festival happened which was such a high and then for us to be pushed down like that was like, whoa. So I think, yeah, it’s an essential thing and it can be really… yeah, powerful thing and I think what through the festival, and through being visible we’ve been able to reach out to people that didn’t know about bands and that the space like this could exist. And we’ve had like bands form from Decolonise Fest, which is amazing. And, but then on the other side there’s just been a lot of online trolls and backlash that’s come from the more visibility we get, the more backlash we get, as well.
00:28:37 R I think for us that’s part of the reasoning behind this focus on objects, because of this need for some kind of visibility, or some kind of space for nuanced narratives around sex work, but at the same obviously questions of anonymity and also wanting to get out of this demand to self-represent, and this frame of really one dimensional depictions of sex workers. So for us, the focus on objects, and using objects to tell stories, confronts that demand for us to either come out and be identified and for this whole—there’s so many tropes in representation around sex work of a memoir, these, you know, stories of the fallen woman. There’s so many different kinds of slots that these stories fit into. So, Objects is a deliberate way to confront that, and we really saw that in the exhibition in London when people would come. And even in Berlin, also, people constantly, if they don’t know I’m a sex worker or even if they do it’s always, “Where did you find these sex workers?” There’s this real wanting to put a face to all of these objects because people are so used to having that, I think , in representations of sex work, so there’s a desire to identify something that they can hold on to. Also, you know, I say to them, “You probably know sex workers! There’s not this community of sex workers that is completely isolated from—it’s just you might not know about it. “ So, Objects, for us, really confronts this double edge sword of visibility, in a way.
00:30:27 S Yeah, I was basically going to say the same thing. Just that I feel we’re more focused not on like—on making the stories that people want to tell visible, but protecting the anonymity of people, and making sure people are comfortable with the way those are told, and the details in them, and the things that are identifying. Because visibility is something that can be really dangerous. And even when we had—even where the museum where we currently have our exhibition first announced it, they got a load of letters from mostly people who were part of I guess the LGBT community in Berlin who were connected to the Schwules Museum who—which is the gay museum, it’s like the first LGBT-dedicated museum in the world, I think. So, there’s a lot of people who’ve been connected with it for a really long time and a lot of those—we got all these letters that they sent to us and said, “What do you want to say in response to this?” Which were like all the typical anti-sex work rhetoric that we’ve heard; stuff about it being perverted, stuff about it not being—having a place in the Schwules Museum, obviously not having heard the stories, not having seen how intersectional they are, how many trans stories and queer stories were in there as well. And for a minute we were like, “Oh, at the opening are people going to come and protest?” “Is us doing this—“ and also, we’re having press done and stuff, like what’s that actually going to bring? And there was a time coming up to it where I was really nervous about that stuff. And I think we were all quite nervous about it and responding to those things, as well, and having to be like, “Please come to the exhibition and see for yourself.” And having to try and be really diplomatic. And also, I think, we want to do press, but we don’t want to be visible. So, we just want to be the collective and we don’t want to be the faces of something just because we have this position of being able to do this project. And yeah, everything you said really. That’s why it’s been a really cool thing to find this way of doing it that’s through the objects, and you still have these things to engage with when you go around and you can still read all those stories and they still feel personal but they’re not attached to people’s faces and names and yeah, people are always searching for that when they come out of the exhibition. It’s like, really typical.
00:33:05 OL [Laughs]. So many to choose from! Yeah, that really resonates with me, that double edged sword that you mentioned of needing visibility and then fearing visibility and it being, it is working for us and against us. It’s very hard to control. It’s like we need people, but then we’re scared of people—not scared, but have genuine risk. And yeah, it’s a difficult negotiation, I think. I think we’re often just in that, and I think lots of sex workers and other marginal groups are in that all the time. On another thought, I was thinking about some of the structural barriers to visibility. So, something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is that you know, I managed to write these books and get them out through loads and loads and loads of hard work. And I feel that there’s two parts of that; there’s the part where I’m like, okay, great, I did what I—I showed up, I did my hard work. And also, I had the capacity to work really, really hard to gain visibility. And yeah, a lot of my friends are disabled, chronically ill, who do not have that option. People are working too hard with just survival work, do not have that option. And I feel like the lack of access to visibility is a really big deal, as well. Because, yeah, my friends are writing amazing stories, like much more important than mine and they can’t do what I did. So, of course, I’m doing what I can to share my platform or something. But it’s really tragic, all the stories that never gets told, all the visibility that never gets gained. There’s something in there that I find very sad and angering. It’s… yeah, awful.
00:35:05 BM Thanks. I guess what’s interesting to me is that, again, with the question of visibility, one of the often repeated anti-sex work tropes that I’ve heard so often is, “The people who are speaking aren’t the most marginalised, aren’t—“ And every time I see that I get so confused because I feel like we can apply that to everything in the world when it comes to art, when it comes to media, when it comes to people we see on TV, when it comes to people writing books, it’s almost always the people who are upper middle class, it’s almost always people who could be white, who are able-bodied, who are able to push themselves into that space of visibility. Which maybe leads quite nicely into my next question. Just, what are the practical challenges of working with sex worker communities? Working with marginalised communities? Working with people who, like you said, might be—maybe not always, but it’s no surprise to me that a lot of—all the sex worker projects that I’ve seen and interacted with have explicitly reached out to POC, to trans people, to queer people, to disabled people, in a way that lots of activists, lots of other activism doesn’t. what are the practical challenges of working with these communities?
00:36:25 S Shall I start as I’m holding the microphone? I think one of the big things is actually just about—well, I guess the first time we did the exhibition, we were very limited to people we knew and people who you know, friends and then friends of friends. And once we had money it made it a lot easier because we could go to people and not just be like, “Hey, do you want to give up an hour of your life to talk to us?” Whether or not you’re interested in the exhibition, if you don’t have the time, it’s really hard. Whereas if we can offer even a small amount of money just to be like, “Just for your time.” And a few people said, “Oh no, it’s okay, I don’t want it. Keep it for the project.” And a lot of people were like, “Yeah, great.” And obviously there’s issues with that as well because there’s also the ethical debate of like, if we’re giving people money for the interviews do, they want to do the interview or not? But then we tried to also make sure we go back to people and say, “Are you happy with what’s going in?” And blah, blah, blah. But I think that can be one of the issues, is just that if you are in this position of being the more—in a more difficult situation, I guess, you tend to be limited on time and limited on what you can give up. You tend to have less time to be in a band, for example. Or be involved in organising. Or anything like that. So that can be one of the challenges, I guess, people’s resources. If you are in these more marginalised communities, your resources tend to be more limited.
00:38:08 R Yeah, no, I would just agree with that.
00:38:11 JB Yeah, I think, I’m kind of echoing that. Yeah, I think there’s just, I think when you’re structurally marginalised, just tend to be exhausted. At least that the vibe we’re getting in the collective, it’s like all of us are doing this as volunteers. On top of this, we all have jobs, some of us are in bands, at Uni, whatever. So, it’s just like the fact that there’s, yeah, it’s really hard to get funding and none of us yeah, don’t have the background that allows us to get funding easily. None of us knows how to write a successful funding application easily. And I think there’s so—because there’s been so much questioning around the project and the validity of it, people are really wary of giving us money. And I think we were like, terrified before the festival, we’re all like, “Yes, there’s eight of us, we’re organising this. And we all have two, three punks of colour friends. What if that’s it?” [Laughs]. And like, we’re putting up this weekend and it’s going to be a massive fail. And it wasn’t, which was nice! But I think it’s just, yeah, I think when people from the outside question your existence, you tend to start questioning it yourself. So, I think that’s a big challenge. And I think another one that I would say would be if when you’re trying to prioritise a specific marginalised group and offering a space that prioritised them and that’s meant to make them feel safe and welcome. There’s a really big fear of actually not being able to fully guarantee that. And I think with Decolonise Fest we yeah, that’s the whole basis of it: we’re trying to have a space where people can feel safe and not alienated. But also, there’s only so much we can do to guarantee that. We can’t guarantee that there won’t be microaggressions or that there won’t be an incident. And I think that’s a massive fear when it comes to organising or doing anything. You want to make sure these people have safety and are happy and are in a space that they wouldn’t find elsewhere. And there’s no way you can fully guarantee that.
00:40:41 OL Yeah, exhaustion, burnout, safety. They’re massive things, right? It’s the beginning and the end of our work somehow. I feel that it’s just always present. I’ve also met a lot of—with myself and—so after writing the books I started running a course called, ‘Writing from The Margins’, it’s online and I do workshops in person. So, particularly focusing on just encouraging people with marginal experiences to write something. And there’s a whole load of imposter syndrome there. There’s a whole load of these blocks that I had to push through. And in a way the course is like the course I wish I had, right? It’s like I didn’t see a lot of representation or something, or people like me writing books or something, and then I wasn’t really encouraged to, I just forced it into the world. And there’s also all those—it’s not even psychological, although that puts it on the individuals. There are like structural, internalised messages that we should not be making art, that we shouldn’t be writing our stories, we shouldn’t be telling our stories. There’s something, this big block that’s I think is really a big thing to push through. And I also think in my experience with that idea of risk and danger, there’s also, even within our communities, I think for people with intersecting marginal experiences, there’s often a sense that we have to get everything right and never make a mistake. And that’s a huge ask [laughs]. And I see it a lot—particularly with trans femmes, trans femmes of colour, particularly, working class—people are just waiting for us to make a mistake. Everyone else is making really like problematic stuff sometimes. I’m kind of like, you just have enough social capital to have safety and then one mistake and you’re out. And there’s something in that, like double standard that we often recreate within our communities that adds risk as well. We’re often the people who most need our communities and we’re just on the edge, and we’re just tolerated, but people are waiting for us to fuck up. Which is really bad, and we need to do a lot better, actually.
00:43:12 BM Thank you. Yeah, well, maybe leading off from that as people from marginalised identities, but also everyone who might be marginalised in other ways who’s also an ally to someone else in another way, what are the sort of practical ways that we can support one another, both to make our—whether they’re collectives, or art projects, or whatever, for your own identity but also as allies for other people. And obviously you’ve all done the work for yourself but some of you have done it in collective ways as well? Any thoughts? Microphone musical chairs [laughs].
00:43:49 JB I think the—sorry I feel like I keep talking about money, but I’m just kind of like, I think we’re crowd funding for international bands to come over this year so it’s just on my mind. But I think if you’re well off, give money to the communities that need it. I think that’s probably my number one thing to be a good ally would be support financially as much as you can, people that don’t have that support. I think yeah, prioritise people that have multiple marginalised identities and think about the way they are structurally oppressed and systems that you can put in place to challenge that. And yeah, also I think one thing is be always cautious of how much space you take up, both physically and non-physically. I think that’s a major thing. I think that’s when—I see a lot of people that feel entitled to take up space because they hold a particular identity and yeah, there’s so many issues in that.
00:45:11 R I would second the thing about money, financial support, as being really important. And I think, yeah on a personal level maybe supporting the people around you who are doing this kind of organising. Because like we said before, with sex work, when it’s quite precarious and so you’re constantly having to move around things because you get a booking and you need to take that booking. So, I think in a very basic way being there with time, offering to cook your friend meals who’s organising something. Just all of this basic care for each other is really important in this context.
00:45:48 S Yeah, and also just feeding on from what you said, being adaptable to people and to their different circumstances. And yeah, like you said, that people’s situations change and yeah, being adaptable [laughs].
00:46:12 OL Yeah, I feel like it’s something I think about a lot as a community organiser. I’m often trying to focus on—you know, I’m very cynical and pessimistic, it’s easy to focus on all the bad things. But also, I’m trying to build things and focus on what works. There usually aren’t easy answers. But I also find that in those conversations there’s an idea that it’s just so complicated—particularly for people with privilege who are trying to be better allies, for example. So, there’s this idea that, “Oh! I need to learn about all these different experiences and identities, and I can’t possibly get it all right! And it’s so difficult. And I really just want a bath!” [Audience laughs]. And there’s something in that that I find interesting. Because actually, it’s quite simply. I think it’s like, be humble and follow through on your shit. Know that you don’t know. Know the experiences you have and the experiences you don’t have. And show up for people. And we will tell you what you need to do [laughs], it’s not difficult [laughs]. People like, “Oh yeah, sex workers really need a voice!” It’s like, we have voices! Yeah, other marginal groups, there’s something in that that. Otherwise it’s also like people are like, “Oh! It’s so complicated, I can’t possibly do anything. I’ll just carry on living with my privilege!” Or, it’s ally theatre and it’s pretending to show up for people and doing a whole big performance on Facebook or something without really following through. And I think the following through is really important for me. I’m just very pragmatic, I’m like, “Okay, prove it. Okay, show me. Like, show me you’re doing it.” And show me in a way that isn’t like making you seem really amazing. Just like go behind the scenes and quietly do the thing and don’t take any credit for it, and then I will believe that you’re doing it.
00:48:08 BM Thanks. I might just also add that in my experience—and I’m sure a lot of you will echo this—it is always the people from the most marginalised backgrounds who show up for other people from other people from marginalised backgrounds. When I look at things like when we talk about money and I look at Crowdfunder lists and it’s always people who I know don’t really have that money to give, who give the most, and people who I also might know [laughs] have a bit more money and a bit more economic capital who might be giving less. And I think it’s difficult sometimes to navigate that and to try and address that because there’s no line where we’re like, “Okay, this is enough. You’re giving enough now.” And there’s no line where you’re not giving enough. We’re all trying to, hopefully, give as much as we can. When it comes to art and activism, how important is art to activism? How important is—whether that’s music or physical art, visual art, writing—how important is that to activism? Is it necessary, also? Is my other question. Who’d like to start us off? Otter?
00:49:17 OL Oh. [Laughs]. Okay [Laughs]. Usually I like to wait and compose my answer [laughs]. I think I have two things. One, I didn’t grow up around art—or what’s recognised as art, so if I find it really difficult—I literally just wrote an article called, ‘Not An Artist,’ so it’s really amazing that I’m on this panel. I do find it difficult. I think I have some reverse snobbism or something. And I live in Berlin, imagine! [Laughs]. But yeah, I think the best art is political art. It’s impossible for me to do anything apolitically, this is just who I am and who’ve I’ve always been. And of course, art for its own sake is also beautiful and amazing. I think it’s just I grew up with TV and McDonald’s, it wasn’t really the idea of art as a thing. And I understand that it’s very broad and I understand that I’m being a reverse snob. But yeah, I still find that quite challenging. That said, I wrote a couple of books [laughs]. And what’s been really interesting with the genre that I write in, which is trans-feminist speculative fiction, which is not a genre, but now it is! So, the interesting part is the speculative fiction and that’s really come up a lot with the ‘Writing From The Margins’ series—has been this idea, has a long queer, feminist, history and there’s something in that of asking, “What if?” And using it as a political tool to work out where we’re going as organisers or communities, or resistance movements. And that’s something very powerful in that, I think. In particularly, yeah, not necessarily my work but the work of my friends, when people have marginal experiences, know what the world is about, right? Who are the people least represented in literature? And they’re like, “This is what I want. And if we change this, this is what will happen.” And people are very real and very—and there’s something in that of, “Okay, where are we going? How do we respond to things? How do we organise? Let’s use our imagination, let’s have a vision, let’s have a goal.” And I think, as an organiser, I’ve often just got lost in the moment. Which is often very important. I’m often reacting, I’m often not able to plan very far ahead, and I think there’s something in speculative fiction that’s often been a political tool that people like, “Yeah okay. But what if?” And there’s something very beautiful in that, politically.
00:51:54 S Yeah, I guess I’ve just always felt like it’s important to have these different ways of communicating because people respond to different things. And I have conversations a lot, especially like other sex workers who are more—who just say about themselves, “Yeah, I’m not creative. I know about how to do the legislation lobbying, the dry stuff that also needs to be done, and the backings to the campaigns, and stuff like that, but I don’t know how to be creative.” And I think we need all of those things because people—the people who are responding to that stuff respond to different things. Lots of people are not going to pay attention to the legal stuff in a different format. Whereas if you show them a piece that’s like, “Here’s an artwork that’s like this piece imagining our utopian working conditions,” or something, then that could really connect to someone in a different way. And I also think in terms of, not just for communicating to people outside of those communities, but for communicating within a community it’s also important to have ways of sharing those ideas, making art together as well as a kind of activism. Like, it doesn’t always have to be going outwards. It’s also about sharing ideas together and coming up with stuff together. That, I think, for people who are creative and who do respond to art like that, that’s a really valuable way of doing it. Because not everyone can sit and always have a conversation and take in that stuff from just being told the facts or, “Decriminalisation is better for us because dah-dah-dah-dah.” Like, lots of people don’t necessarily soak it up that way.
00:53:57 R Yeah, I would just add to that that it’s also, if we don’t make this art about our experiences, other people are going to do it. And then that’s going to be the predominant—I mean, you see this proliferation of Netflix series about a dominatrix or about sex workers. And so, if we’re not doing that it’s going to be made by people who are doing it in this voyeuristic way. And then that representation is just out there and there’s nothing to counter that. So, I think it’s also that it’s important that we find these ways to tell our own stories or else they’re going to be told for us.
00:54:39 JB Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. And I think yeah, the whole collective of Decolonise Fest is people of colour, which is essential. And I think that coming from the get-go we faced backlash around that from white people feeling excluded from—who like wanted to support. And I think there was a struggle to understand why they can support by not being part of the organising committee. So, I think yeah, I think for me it’s like art can be a really—both like a really accessible or really inaccessible way to access activism. I think a lot of the time arts made that just really like contrived and pretentious in its attempt to communicate politics and activists’ ideas. But then on the other hand, I think it can be the most accessible ways for people to find out about a cause and how to support it. Yeah, sort of like… yeah, just like a particular activist cause. So, I think it’s kind of both.
00:55:48 OL Oh, I’m responding! laughs]. It’s going so well! Yeah, I think that idea of like pretentiousness and inaccessibility is like definitely the first thing I think of when I hear the word. And that’s definitely just my class upbringing. Oh no—I’m responding, I forgot what I wanted to say. [laughs]. But, yeah, okay. I think that’s also the way it’s constructed to belong to just a certain elite of people as well. Of course, the most privileged people. And actually, even when it’s not politically, even just sharing art. Sharing creativity, at least—I do find the word difficult, but creativity, sure. I’m okay with that word. There’s something amazing when it’s more grassroots and it’s more available to everyone and everyone can create it and co-create it. And there’s something… and I feel like that used to happen. I feel like that’s much more the way we organise those things. And the way we’ve grown up is with this idea of elitist art that only belongs to a few people. I think what we’re doing is bringing it back to regular people. And that can be the most powerful thing because, exactly as you’re saying, it’s accessible in a different way to different people. We kind of need everything. We need the data; we also need to make people feel things. Just stats don’t work and yeah, we kind of need all of those things and it does have that value. Yeah.
00:57:24 BM Completely. And, I guess it’s that thing where, traditionally, throughout history, so many of the most exciting, incredible art forms from like music to visual arts have come from working class communities, have come from POC communities, have come from sex working communities, have come from activist communities who do want to talk about their message, but also sometimes not. But just are, you know, are creative—as creative, if not more so, than everyone else. I might come back to your point, Rory, when you were talking about people who are telling stories for marginalised groups. How do we feel about non-sex workers making work about sex work? As you said, there are countless Netflix series now, there are films, there TV shows. Sometimes they are based on sex worker narratives—at least at the beginning. But sometimes it is someone reaching out and telling—maybe reaching out is the wrong word—telling someone else’s story. Is it a good thing? It is a bad thing? Is it always one or the other?
00:58:32 R I mean I think, yeah, there’s a long history of this in relation to sex work, of this trope of the muse who’s a sex worker who’s providing inspiration for the artist in literature and in art. So, I think that has a really long history. I think all of—I don’t really watch these Netflix series so I don’t know, I can’t really comment other than what I’ve read. But it’s just like ugh, yeah. So, I think in general, yeah, I have quite an allergic reaction to people—to sex worker stories being told by others. Because it’s just wrong, it misses out so much, and I’ve never really seen a decent example pf it.
00:59:25 S I mean yeah, same [laughs]. And yeah, it’s interesting this thing also about sex workers as the muse as well because I feel I know so many people—myself included—who have had clients who are writing books about their experiences of being a client and getting to spend time with these amazing people who’ve changed their lives who’ve, you know, in their late fifties, they suddenly had all these revelations and essentially they’re just writing the lives of the hookers they’ve been spending time with because that’s the most interesting part of their life [audience laughs]. Because we’re the most interesting people they know. And so, I think it’s often there’s so much stuff that comes from this perspective. I was in a shop and I picked up a book because it said something about sex work on it, and I picked it up to be like, “Oh! This looks interesting, it has cool illustrations!” And it was like—I can’t remember—this guy who’s written a bunch of stuff about being a client, as well. And I feel like that’s really pervasive, and that’s just, that’s wrong. And it’s so hard for people who are writing—first of all, it’s hard to write from your own perspective as a sex worker, or as any—especially yeah, from these really stigmatised positions because you can’t say you’re a sex worker. So, you can also work on projects and you can work on books and you can say—they can be from this perspective. But then also everyone’s looking at it like, “Is that person coming from a position of actually knowing this experience?” And having to trust that it is or be dubious that it’s not, and that’s really hard as well. Because there’s this position of, obviously, when you can write and be honest and be out as a sex worker everyone is like, “Well, that’s an authentic experience.” But, a lot of the time you’re working on these things and having to cover up that identity. Then there’s always this tricky ground as well.
00:59:25 JB I think, for me, when I don’t—yeah, I think, from what I’ve seen, it’s really, really, really rare that if someone does art that’s not about their—that’s about a particular marginalised identity, that it doesn’t belong to them, that it’s accurate or not fetishizing or problematic. I think the only incidences where I could maybe support it if it’s done in a collective way and there’s a person with a lot of wealth who is willing to redistribute it to the communities that they’re talking about, and it’s involving them in every step of the way. So, it’s not a solo project but it’s a collective project of someone being like, “I have these resources, let me make the most of this.” That’s the only case where I can be like, “I could potentially stand behind them.” But I also hate this idea that like, if someone who is part of a marginalised community does work about their community, it’s immediately seen as they are radical and accurate and fully representative of their community. I don’t know. I hated, like, Crazy Rich Asians, but, like, I feel like I’m the only Asian person who says that [laughs]. So, it’s kind of like, yeah. And I think just because there’s a space to—yeah, just because someone from a marginalised community is given a platform, a lot of the time there’s a lot of just gratefulness that we have that platform. And that’s where it ends a lot of the time.
01:03:25 OL Yeah, it really resonates, that idea of being forced to represent the whole group. I think that’s something super common, super difficult. And people will be like, “No, a sex worker wrote it and it’s about sex work!” And it’s like, yes, but this person wrote about, I don’t know, webcamming, but they wrote—they experience webcamming, but they wrote about street work as a different experience or something else, something like that. It’s like, there is no, this idea—I mean, it’s very whorephobic to just be like, “We’re all the same! We all experience exactly the same thing!” What we all experience may be whorephobia and sex work but that’s it. Like, there’s no… there are so many intersections, so much difference there, I’m there as the trans woman, and I’m like, “Oh my god, we’re so different!” [Laughs]. What an idea! And so I think, yeah, absolutely, that I’ve definitely experienced that a lot where I feel like sometimes people without very interesting lives will rotate around me and they’re kind of like mining a bit, there’s a little bit of colonisation, or something, they’re a little bit, like, mining me for interesting stories, and then I’m like, “Oh,” and then I’ll hear about it on the poetry slam or something. And it’s just kind of like, “Okay, yep, that—yep, that’s what I said!” You know, I had this bizarre nightmare of somebody—I was in some kind of museum or something and it was like, ‘The Otter Museum,’ and all the words I’d ever said to people over coffee were being scanned across the wall or something, without my consent and it was, there was something really weird [laughs]. Anyway, it was a weird dream. But yeah, there’s definitely that sense of people occupying and gaining capital and social capital from mining other people’s experiences. Also, there’s—people can’t represent a whole group. So, it doesn’t work that way, and it’s very transmisogynist to say that I represent all trans women, it doesn’t make any sense. And also, I think sometimes the lines blur and I feel like there’s that sharing of wealth that you were talking about. And, for example, we talk a lot in trans communities and organisations about trans representation and who gets to represent trans women on TV and stuff. And who’s that actor and something, something. And that’s massive, and it’s super, super important. And also like, I just want the story to be told really, really well. So, just the fact it’s a trans women playing a trans women, maybe it’s a horrible transphobic story! It isn’t necessarily a fix, this very simplistic version of, “This person can tell this story, but this person can’t.” It’s like, what is the story? Is it useful? It is even good? Is it really awful? Yeah, I think that’s important to me as well. There’s just a lot of nuance to it, right? There’s a lot of complexity.
01:06:21 R Yeah, I just wanted to come back to what you said about this issue of wanting things to be somehow representative but also with sex work people not wanting to be out. And I think that’s something that a lot of people would come to our exhibition and just ask me directly if I’m a sex worker which I think is not an appropriate thing to do. So I think you also have to take some care to be conscious of that’s why we’re in a collective, there’s things that working in a collective allows us to obscure that and make it a bit amorphous and so that’s our refuge from being in the spotlight and being identified. But I think it’s important, especially if—I think sex workers are really aware of this kind of stuff. And so, there’s often, you might see work done by someone and think about it and be like, “Oh, they’re probably… you know….” You kind of recognise that and you don’t… you respect that. And often I think people who aren’t sex workers maybe don’t know to do that. So, I would say, from the previous question about being an ally, to kind of be aware of that and be conscious of that.
01:07:26 BM Yeah, that’s really—it’s funny, I retweeted something about hosting this panel and someone DM’d me on Twitter like, “Are you a sex worker?” And I was like—and I had this moment where I was like, either I don’t answer, either I do answer, but I’m really aware I don’t want to take up space because what if maybe they’re a sex worker and they’re reaching out to me on that level. So, I don’t want to be like, “You shouldn’t ask me at all.” But then I was like, if I just say that they’ll probably assume that I am, and I don’t want to take up that space. And it was this, yeah, eventually after like three hours I was like, “Why are you asking me?!” But also—and then they were like, “Oh, but I didn’t think you were.” And I was like, “Well, I’m not but I also don’t—“ Yeah, and we just had a bit of a fight. So, there was no good answer to that little story. But it was a reminder that that is always the personality is always the first thing. And even by—yeah, I think about it a lot, maybe not as much as I should, but again, just that bind between taking up space but also not, by virtue of answering questions like that, you are—you could out someone, you could not out someone. Like, if someone says, “Oh, here’s a panel of—at twelve o’clock there’s going to be a panel of sex workers.” Is that a useful thing to be saying? Even at a…? I don’t know. I don’t really have answers. I’m just throwing out my thoughts from this morning into the space. I think I’ll open it up to questions in a second, but I thought it might be nice just to end of off the back of that: are there any representations of sex work but also if you can’t think of sex work examples, other examples of art around marginalised groups that you think are good? But also that we think are really, really bad? So, I feel like the bad one might be easier. But if the good one—if you can’t think of any good ones then feel free to use other representations of marginalised—of art around marginalised identities. Anyone?
01:09:27 R Okay. [Everyone laughs]. Yeah, I think we’ve talked about this a lot, that we’re really inspired by a couple of sex worker organisations: Empower in Thailand, who make—they have this bar which is where they, it’s a bar where people work and it’s to kind of demonstrate their ideal working conditions. They have Bad Girls Printing Press, so they produce a newspaper. And a Bad Girls Dictionary which has a lot of terms from sex work to human trafficking, to NGOs, to human rights discourse, and they’re defining these terms in their own words. So that—
01:10:05 BM What’s it called again? Sorry, I’m going to write this down.
01:10:06 R ‘Bad Girls Dictionary.’
01:10:08 BM ‘Bad Girls Dictionary?’ I’ll take notes. [Laughs].
01:10:14 R And that’s Empower, Thailand. And they make films, and so all of their artistic output is just so inspiring.
01:10:27 S Yeah, I was literally going to say the exact same thing. And also, the Daspu organisation in Brazil. We did a screening last year of the documentary that they made and it’s a group of sex workers who made a fashion show which was in response to—it was because there was like a big fashion show, right, like a big kind of London Fashion Week type of thing. And they were like, “We’re going to make our own catwalk, we’re going to make our fashion.” And they sewed all their own costumes and stuff and just did a massive like, put up a catwalk in the middle of the area where they work and there’s a whole documentary about them putting stuff together and it’s amazing. And all the films that Empower make as well. Like, these kind of like—everything they do has this really good humour to it that’s like, yeah, all the definitions in the dictionary are very cynical and funny. And then some of them are just like you’re reading them and they’re really funny and then some of them are just like really touching and like, I don’t know. I love all of their output. And the films they make, they did one, I think it’s called… I can’t remember the name of it but a few of them are on YouTube. And there’s one that’s like a re-enactment of a raid, and somehow, they make it really funny, but also like, “Oh, shit,” at the same time. Yeah, those are the first two that I thought of as well [laughs].
01:12:02 BM Anyone else?
01:12:05 JB I guess I’m inspired by like—I’m doing like a self-promo—but like all the bands that have played at Decolonise Fest. Come see them, last weekend of June! And then I’m inspired by my friends and the art that my friends make. Especially my friends that hold similar identities to mine. And I’m also inspired by people that maybe like within like really not ideal circumstances make good work. I like, yeah, worked at like, the Tate for three years and hated it but people inside the Tate managed to convince the people at the top to have an exhibition that showcases Tate worker’s art, and it was led by the catering and retail team, who are like so underrepresented and fucked over the most. So that was great to see. And art that I hate? I think it’s just like any band that has a white man with dreads [laughs].
01:13:14 BM Anyone? Otter, did you have something?
01:13:18 OL Yeah, I was just looking up the name because I couldn’t remember it. Recently, reading Care Work Dreaming Disability Justice. Which I guess is art? I don’t know what art is, so I didn’t know how to answer the question. But it’s really amazing, and super powerful, and really important and I’m so glad it exists. By Leah Lakshmi—I’m not going to get it right—Piepzna-Samarasinha. It’s amazing. It’s called, Care Work. Maybe it’s art?
01:13:48 BM I think it counts. Thank you. That was so, yeah, so many resources. So, we’re going to open it up to questions . If you ask a question, I’ll repeat it back. So, hopefully, you need to be loud enough for me to hear. So, oh! There’s a roaming mic, that’s even better, thank you! Okay. And then we’ll go up, and then we’ll come down.
01:14:09 Q1 Hi everyone. So, my question for the panel is about headlines and titles. Because sometimes you’ll do a bit of art and then maybe it’ll get a review, or you’ll submit an article and maybe the publisher will stick on their own headline and you won’t have full control of that. Sometimes people see that as the sensationalism will bring in different crowd versus having control over it. And I just wondered what people thought as far as which angle is something you find acceptable. Or which you find is—yeah, your thoughts on that.
01:14:48 S Yeah, it’s funny because I immediately thought of like, we had a couple of articles written about, ‘Objects of Desire,’ that were—Like, there was one even when we did the London exhibition. It was a great article, but the title was like, ‘ Weird Gifts That Sex Workers Have Been Given.” And it’s this thing that’s like, we were like—I mean, it was in VICE, so we were like, okay, well, yeah, they’re going to put that, it’s clickbait, and once people read it it’s a bit deeper than that, hopefully. But it was immediately like it’s embarrassing to share, as well! When you want to be like, “Hey, look! We had this piece written on our exhibition!” And then you’re like, ugh, that’s really not the angle that we’re going for. Yeah, and we had some other press as well that you know, the area where the museum is? Where the current exhibition is also like Kurfürstenstrasse where a lot of sex workers are working on the street. And one of the articles had this whole kind of introduction about like walking down that street, and being hit on by the sex workers, and then like turning the corner into this completely different world. And we’re like, I mean, half the stories here are contributed by people who are working there. And so, you just, you can’t have control over those things. And it like, I don’t know, I don’t know what to do with it really. I just always feel like, well, hopefully the people—people are always going to come into it with their own perspective and you can’t really control that. And visibility, that’s one of the risks, visibility, that people are always going to come in with their own perspective and they could come in and write something horrible and really discouraging and gross about it if they wanted to. And you just have to hope that people see that that stuffs not under your control. Yeah. That’s… yeah.
01:16:45 BM Sorry, just I think the responsibility often lies with the journalists. As a journalist myself, and as someone who tries to be an ally as much as possible, a lot of the time the people who are working with marginalised groups are sometimes marginalised themselves, but also are freelancers, don’t have a lot of cultural capital, but you can fight for these things. And as a really small example, I interviewed an artist who’s trans and non-binary and I said to my editor that I didn’t want the focus to be about their non-binary identity because I’ve read—I read all the articles about them and they all talked about that. And I was like, obviously I’m not going to miss this out, but I want to talk about the art exhibition they’re doing, about the play they’re taking to Edinburgh, all of this cool stuff! And I send an edit through, and my editor was sick and someone else edited it, and the first four paragraphs had just been changed and reordered to be about an incident where they had gone viral. And I was—and it’s a thing where normally I just sort of stop 01:17:49 but you just have to be, “Absolutely not!” And kick off and promise that if they publish this you’ll go on Twitter and you ‘ll lose your shit, basically. And my editor, thank god, luckily, was like, “Oh, whoa, I’ve been sick. What’s going on? Why are you kicking off? Okay, sorry, sorry, we’ll go back to the original!” But it was really empowering because that—I’ve never done that before for smaller incidences where I’ve felt, “That’s not really what I said.” But in that case, I was like, “Oh, no, I can’t—“ And I think we do have that power. Particularly as artists who maybe aren’t sex workers, as allies, that’s our responsibility, that’s where we actually have to go to bat because we can. Maybe not easily, but more easily than the person you’re interviewing, the person you’re talking to. So yeah, that’s just my little like, thing. I do think we just forget the role that we can hold as allies and the way that our support sometimes, unfortunately, is a lot louder than the people we’re talking to. Which sucks. Did you guys have anything else left to say?
01:18:55 OL I guess one of the really fun things about self-publishing, because I have a lot of control and freedom. So, the books end up very closely connected to LGBT Books to Prisoners, Books Beyond Bars UK, working particularly around prisoner support, prison abolition. If I had a publisher, I’m not sure I could get away with that. So, I didn’t have a choice, but great, self-publishing is nice! It’s a lot of fucking work as well!
01:19:26 BM Hello, at the top.
01:19:27 Q2 Hi. I just wanted to ask about the, like you talked about the relationship between art and activism, and I was just really thinking about the fact often in activism there is often a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes that’s never really recognised, or it’s like not valorised in the same way as speaking engagements or writing articles, and writing books. There’s so much that goes on even just to making a conference like this actually happen that is invisibilised. And kind of have a community that fosters care for one another and recognition and everybody pulling together to do those things is a real struggle and a challenge sometimes, and I wondered whether those similarities in art and producing that where I’m assuming there’s probably performers or the front people who are often recognised in a way—often because of social capital or whatever—in a way that maybe people in the curating or all those things that are involved in making something happen might not be and I just wondered whether there were lessons or experiences from your own collective working that you could maybe share to help in the other side of things as well? And also, I’d said Empower, another plug, if anyone saw the AIDs Conference last year in Amsterdam, the Empower workers came dressed in police military attire to demonstrate the fact that they were being policed. And the militarisation of sex work in Thailand was happening. And they basically were such an incredible intervention into that space because they weren’t able to actually get involved in the main conference but were in one of the side events and Charlize Theron ended up having a conversation with them and it went off online and stuff. And so, it was a really interesting way to bring attention to the issue without doing it through a traditional lobbying lens.
01:21:36 R I mean, I was going to say that for us having funding changed everything because then you can just, all of these things that are happening behind the scenes, we tried to pay for as much as possible and have sex workers do the work as much as possible. And so, it’s also this resource for people. And then I think that yeah, that helped a lot. Just to feel things were quite balanced. And for us, I think, I don’t know because it’s a kind of sex worker-led project and I think for us, everything we talked about visibility, that it’s okay, I want my friends to know about it, and everything like this, but I don’t otherwise there is this comfort in being anonymous with it. And I think people—most people who were lending a hand were happy to be involved in the project and also with getting paid, and then happy for people who were performing to be having that experience. I don’t know, there was... I didn’t feel at any point in the project, for us, that there was any kind of like, “Oh, so and so is getting recognition, or so and so is getting too much spotlight.” It was just like, “Oh, this person’s doing a performance! Amazing!” So, I don’t know the atmosphere, for us, from my perspective of it is just that it was really loving and really supportive of everybody doing different things.
01:23:09 S Yeah. I also think that you need to be able to have those discussions and say, if people are like, “Well, I want to be….“ Like, we had these discussions about press. When press people said to us, “Well, we need a photo of one of you.” We went away and had a discussion and some people were completely happy to be photographed and others weren’t. But then we realised the same faces were always going to be associated. And we had to have this conversation where we were just like, “No. We’re not doing it.” And just say really true to it and be like—obviously, you know, in stuff like this, coming to the SWARM Conference, like we’re always more associated with it than other people because this is also the community that we’ve come from but in Berlin I feel like it’s much more broad, people don’t really know who’s part of the collective, and that’s a really intentional thing. When we have had press photos we’ve just dressed up and worn masks and done silly things. That we were just like, “Let’s just commit to it.” Because it protects everyone even if some people are, “Well, I don’t really care.” Like, just really yeah, everyone agreeing to just be like, “I’m going to put that aside and be like, let’s do—let’s all make the same decision together for the good of everyone.” And then, yeah, also, no, I lost my other point [laughs].
01:24:34 JB I think, yeah, something that you said earlier that I can echo is the fact that marginalised communities tend to be the ones that actually give the most, and appreciate other marginalised communities the most, and tend to be there for the other. And I think that’s something that really resonates with our experience. And so, yeah, there’s never been any form of like—yeah, maybe from an outside perspective people have tried to be like, “Oh, this person’s headlining Decolonise Fest, this person’s getting more attention.” But I think within the collective and the artists that we work with, we’ve never had that experience. And it’s always, yeah, we don’t do headliners and stuff like that. It’s just more of a non-hierarchical situation for us.
01:25:26 OL I think I have had a lot of those experiences. I’ve also been in community organising forever so, yeah, it was bound to happen. I often find those hierarchies are invisibilised so that’s definitely a thing, and I’ve often, our groups have often had really good intentions of horizontality and then it’s usually not true and it’s like, yeah, the imbalance of social capital, or the imbalance of visibility and the social capital that it attracts. I think that’s… yeah, I’ve definitely experienced that many, many times. And I had something else to say [laughs]. No, that’s it [laughs]. Oh, yeah, so maybe I think in like in terms of constructively dealing with that I think we almost need some kind of cultural change, or like subcultural change. And I’ve definitely been involved in groups that I think even just—I mean, ‘visible’ is a really difficult word, but like visibilising some of those invisible hierarchies and kind of recognising it and bringing it to the table. Even with your question I feel like that brings that to the table. Can already start to break that down and highlight it and make people think about it. I think, also, the fact that invisible work is so feminised and racialised and class-ised. And that’s obviously part of that structural oppression. It’s like that’s why it’s invisible! But I think highlighting that and if we’re trying to centre marginalised experiences and oppressed experiences then that’s the place to start, that’s the first thing. And it also changes the direction that a group is moving in artistically, or activistly, or both—politically, sorry, that’s the word. Because it’s going to be, depending on who gets centred and who has more power, it’s going to depend on what is being focused on and what is being prioritised. And that changes there is a different power balance.
01:27:45 BM Thank you. If we have one last question and then we’ll wrap it up.
01:27:50 Q3 Do you think if we adopted the word, ‘artivism’ instead of, ‘activism’ that somehow would bridge the divide between art and the whatever, the sex worker rights movement? Because I think when people hear the term, ‘art’ it comes with that middle-class slur that then excludes you from participating in the sex worker rights movement. For instance, if you exist online as a sex worker it’s because you’re middle class, you have access to the Internet. So I was wondering if we adopt the term, ‘artivism’ as somehow bridging—I don’t know if I’m asking the question right or—say, it’s going to bridge your worlds between art and activism and make it more socially palatable than just saying, ‘art’ or, ‘activism.’ Does that make sense?
01:28:38 OL Yeah, it makes sense. I would say activism has a lot of those similar associations for me. I rarely talk about—I mean, I sometimes use the word because people know it—but I’m usually talking about community organising, mobilising, things like this. The idea of activism as this particular lifestyle or something, also feels quite white middle class to me. So, actually combining those two things, they both sound white middle class fairly from my perspective. I like the idea, though, of like creating new words so that things that are more accessible, or reconceptualising it so that people get that it’s political art. I love that idea. I think, for me, combining art and activism doesn’t work because I have similar associations with both words.
01:29:29 R Yeah, I don’t know. I like the ambiguity of—maybe of having those two phrases not joined together, personally. And I think so much of art and making art—I mean I think everything is inherently political. And obviously there’s this maybe on one side of the spectrum, political lobbying and doing this kind of work and then in another kind of side of the spectrum, interpretative performance piece about the new law in Germany. I think there is that. But I think they’re all kind of divisions that we’re somehow putting to classify things to ourselves and kind of, for me, the idea that yeah, if you don’t feel like the art that you’re making is political then you’re just so subsumed in the prevailing political order that you don’t recognise that it is somehow. So, I like the—not ambiguity, I can’t really find the word that that affords, of not having that.
01:30:32 S Yeah, I also think that more so it’s just important that when you’re talking about art that you’re always referring to—like, if I’m referring to art I’m not referring to fine art or this idea of stuff that’s only in the Tate, or something like that. I think it’s just important that when you are talking about art that you’re always referring all the different things that that could be. And that could be your community garden, doing origami when you’re waiting for your clients. And to just always keep that definition really broad. I think that’s more important to me. But I also quite like holding on to the—I’m not so into making new vocabulary for stuff like that all the time because I think it stops people from broadening their definitions of the original thing. Because art has always been something that is—you know it shouldn’t be something that is boundaried like that, and people feel shut out of, and you have to consciously keep making it not be as well.
01:31:53 BM Have you got something to end?
01:31:54 JB Yeah. I think, yeah, I like the concept, maybe. But I also don’t really like the idea that—I don’t know, I think for me, if someone used that term for us, I’d feel like there’s an expectation that we need to be very sort of like, literally politically. And I think there’s actually quite a lot of power in marginalised communities doing wok that’s not about their marginalised identity. And I think if someone said, “Artivism,” that for me what the expectation would be. Just that I would have to make something about my identity and it’s maybe that I just want to talk about flowers or whatever. And that can also be political.
01:32:39 BM On that note [laughs]. Thank you so much to our amazing panel. Just before we go, as a reminder, Decolonise Fest is on at DIY Space for London, at the end of June. Objects of Desire have their exhibition on in Berlin at the—how to say it?—Schwules Museum until the second of June, so not too long, if you’re in Berlin. But you might be! And Otter’s books are both for sale. There’s also some Objects of Desire merch that they have. So, get involved. Come down. Support. Can we have a big round of applause to everyone on our panel today? Thank you so much.
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