What is queer identity in 2018? These artists are looking to the past to understand the present

A new exhibition asked 10 folks to explore their LGBTQ artistic, cultural and political lineages.

A new exhibition asked 10 folks to explore their LGBTQ artistic, cultural and political lineages

Adriana Disman's for the archives to feel real. (RT Collective)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

Last year, 10 queer artists were asked to spend some time at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives. Their mission? To reflect on its contents and consider the ways in which LGBTQ creators today can search for and understand their own artistic, cultural and political lineages. What resulted is now on display at Toronto's Gladstone Hotel, where each artist has made a video installation that represents what they've discovered.

The exhibition is called Now And Then, and it's a collaboration between the archives, the RT Collective, the Myseum of Toronto and the Gladstone. On video screens in two rooms on the hotel's second floor, viewers can explore 10 different perspectives on the contemporary crossroads that is queer identity.

As we celebrate the victories and achievements certain parts of our communities have experienced, we are simultaneously forced to reckon with the fact that those gains are far from universal.- RT Collective, organizers of Now and Then

"As we celebrate the victories and achievements certain parts of our communities have experienced, we are simultaneously forced to reckon with the fact that those gains are far from universal," the RT Collective says. "As a starting point for this conversation, [we] have sought to situate these questions within the historical frameworks provided by the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives."

You have until the end of March to head to the Gladstone and see the answers the artists — Aidan Cowling, Adriana Disman, Bretten Hannam, Emily Eymundson, Gein Wong, Kathleen Mullen, Mark Pariselli, Sammy Rawal, Mée Rose and Wy Joung Kou — came up with. But if that's not possible, nine of them explain their discoveries below...

Aidan Cowling, "DAISYCHAIN"

Pornography consists of one third of the CLGA's archival collection, so somewhere in this X-rated material we recognize ourselves and our desires. My video is a supercut of one shelf of this massive collection and tells the story of a pre-web era of sexual material. This video also tells us of a network of sharing and recording VHS tapes called "daisychaining."  Imprints of this sharing are visible in the glitches and demagnetized portions of the VHS tapes.

Through the warnings and disclaimers, the porn tapes proclaim that they are presented "solely as visual fantasy." These fantasies are policed and not to be distributed. They are "a viable alternative to actual sexual contact with another person" — but what else do these VHS tapes tell us? By centring these authorial voices, I wanted to show that theses threats of reproduction stands in opposition to the imprints of degradation left behind by an intimate network of sharing and daisy chaining.

In an era of personal mobile devices, I can't help but think about how our contemporary modes of image distribution have affected our relationship to porn and the body, and how these threats of distribution can speak to how bodies are criminalized today. What interpersonal traces are left behind in online media?

The presence of celluloid film on some of these VHS porn tapes speak to a larger history — a history of gaps. "In lieu of the 'AIDS' crisis, the producers wish to educate." Many of the people in these VHS tapes are gone and I yearn for teachable moments, for knowledge that is passed down from generation to generation, from film to VHS and to the digital. This absence of the body is where I locate these gaps. The text, graphics and fonts mark the threat and morality of an era, and in the surveilled sexual space of the B-roll, the voices of "education, entertainment and authority" speak to us so that we can engage a present and future.

Adriana Disman's for the archives to feel real. (RT Collective)

Adriana Disman, "for the archives to feel real"

In attempting to locate my queerness, I began with my body. Where does my queerness live in my physical body? Generalized identity markers implode when they meet an actual, specific human. The archive's holdings tell me, and so many others, that we don't exist in complexity — because an identity-based archives is inherently reliant upon the general.

I considered donating a part of my body to the archives, to be collected when I no longer need it. But then I decided I didn't want to give that, there. Instead, in this video, I mark the queerest part of my skin with a razor blade. Creating a trace that will stay and change. Treating my body and skin as its own archive that offers documentation of its holdings to the CLGA.

Bretten Hannam's elmiteskuatl. (CBC Arts)

Bretten Hannam, "elmiteskuatl"

My piece is called "elmiteskuatl" and it means "chasing or tracking down". When I first got involved, I was excited to see what the archives had in terms of two-spirit material. I didn't think there would be a lot (especially since the term is a more recent one) — but there was even less than I anticipated. So when I got home I started to think about how archiving is a very colonial concept. Memory institutions themselves aren't unknown to Indigenous people thanks to oral storytelling and traditions, but the framework of museums and archives had played, and continue to play, a part in the marginalization and oppression of Indigenous people — two-spirit histories and stories among them.

I go for a lot of walks in the forest and spend a lot of time on the land. It helps me think and to be close to where I come from. The more I walk, the more I think. And I found that although I wasn't surprised there was a lack of two-spirit material in the archives, I was maybe not surprised for the wrong reasons. That's where the notion of "a coyote is not a dog" in the spoken word of my piece comes from. It's silly to look in a kennel or a doghouse and think a coyote is living there. A coyote lives in the forest. On the land. With the land. Fundamentally, I think that's where our stories live, even for those living in cities or urban areas — the land is where those stories begin. Two-spirit identities are fundamentally different from western LGBTQ+ concepts in that they are rooted in the communities they come from and are anchored in an Indigenous worldview. To look at one, single thing in isolation like an archive does is difficult, since everything is part of a continuum or spectrum. Those are the fundamental ideas behind the video.

Kathleen Mullen's ButtonOUT! (RT Collective)

Kathleen Mullen, "Button OUT!"

When I saw the massive collection of over 1500 buttons at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, I instantly knew that I wanted to focus on them for this video art project. In 2012, William Craddock and the CLGA curated an amazing exhibition of the buttons for The Pin Button Project, and I felt there was a lot of potential to play with the visual appeal of the buttons and their defiant, humorous, provocative and courageous messages.

The buttons speak to me in a profound way as they encompass so many experiences that I have had in the queer community since I came out in 1985. The majority of my work as a film programmer and curator has been in promoting queer arts and culture, and this has given me my community, culture, career, art practice, lovers, loves, friends and chosen family.

In the first half of the video, I digitally archive my own perspective as a queer woman, gender pronouns she/her, by using stop motion animation to highlight buttons that speak to me personally (women's marches, parties and events, art, activism and the all-important art of flirting). In the second half, I expand to highlight buttons that showcase the whole of the CLGA collection and reflect on the experiences of many others from the LGBTQ+ community in Canada and internationally and how we protest homophobia, experience life, and express our queer cultures.

The CLGA collection is a living archive that continues to expand and develop. Buttons change as our times and issues do, and more than ever we have to be vigilant about fighting for our history and our present-day rights.

This is a rallying cry. Speak OUT! Button OUT!

Mark Pariselli's Outside. (RT Collective)

Mark Pariselli, "Outside"

Like most people, I was shocked by the news of Project Marie and police targeting men seeking men in Toronto in 2016. I wanted to make a piece about this, but it expanded after conducting research at the CLGA and learning more about the city's shameful history of police intimidation, harassment and entrapment even after the violent bathhouse raids of 1981. My film "Outside" is a tour of Toronto's outdoor cruising sites chronicling the history of police regulating and targeting men seeking men in the city's parks. Culminating in a defiant reclamation of public space, "Outside" hauntingly and humorously confronts institutionalized homophobia. 

Sammy Rawal's The Hanky Code (RT Collective)

Sammy Rawal, "The Hanky Code"

My video piece was inspired by a flyer for a fetish night at [now-closed Toronto bar] The Barn from the mid-1980s that I came upon at the CLGA during my research process. Underground cultures, fashion, music and queerness have been re-occurring themes within my work in music videos and commercials, so using the Hanky Code to build my video around just felt right.

The Hanky Code first emerged in San Francisco in the 1970s (with its roots starting in the 1800s in the States) as a way for gay men to communicate sexual preferences with one other in a time when being openly gay wasn't necessarily accepted. Coloured handkerchiefs corresponded to different sexual acts/fetishes that the wearer was into; furthermore, the side one would wear the hanky on would dictate his role in the sexual act — being the active one or the recipient. As with any other language, over time, this visual vocabulary evolved based on geography, creating slightly different regional dialects of the code. I wanted to create a stylized A-Z type of lo-fi video that acts almost as a legend for the code. It breaks down this culture's surprisingly elaborate lexicon while capturing the look and vibe of the mid-to-late 1980s.

Mée Rose and Wy Joung Kou's Call Tony. (RT Collective)

Mée Rose and Wy Joung Kou, "Call Tony"

"Call Tony" is an experimental documentation of our personal kink histories as we relate to the CLGA, one another and community. Our creative process was in part shaped by the pieces of history that we did but mostly did not find at the archives. "Call Tony" is archival itself as it documents us as queer living kinksters exploring safety, healing, belonging and play. This video hopes to inspire conversation about what we, kinky elders of the future, imagine femmifesting as our own legacies.

Gein Wong's Two Spirit DNA. (RT Collective)

Gein Wong, "Two Spirit DNA"

I started this project by talking with some two-spirit people about what sort of things they thought would be in an archive and what things might not be. This discussion would often expand to different ways that Indigenous people pass on and preserve stories and knowledge, as well as what things people would or would not  have permission from their elders and communities to even put into an archive. With such a long history of cultural appropriation, as well as the storage and display of sacred items in museums and galleries, it is a sensitive topic.

For me, knowledge is already preserved in many ways: it is in trees, in the stories passed down through oral traditions, in blood memory, in grandmothers, in each other and the generations to come.

Now and Then: A Video-Art Exhibition. Featuring work by Aidan Cowling, Adriana Disman, Bretten Hannam, Emily Eymundson, Gein Wong, Kathleen Mullen, Mark Pariselli, Sammy Rawal, Mée Rose and Wy Joung Kou. Curated by the RT Collective in collaboration with with the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (CLGA), Myseum of Toronto and the Gladstone Hotel. Until March 31st. The Gladstone Hotel, Toronto.​


Peter Knegt (he/him) has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada and nominated again this year) and spearheading the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.


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