Sandra Alland presents the second of two articles featuring artists who work against, outside or despite the ‘mainstream’. Last week was all things bookish; this week highlights artists who favour video, audio and live performance. Featuring Ellen Murray, TSVprojectD and Quiplash.
What kinds of art do we treasure? Continuing on from my piece about bookish artists Bani Amor, Maddy Burnhope, Jacq A and Rowan Hughes, I explore what makes non-mainstream creators tick. Four fabulous LGBTQIA+ artists working in video, dance and drag share their reasons for art-making against the grain.
The first way to get tossed out of money-making arts scenes, besides being from a marginalised background, is to be leftist, (trans)feminist, anti-racist, or loudly supportive of autistic pride.
Activist and multimedia artist Ellen Murray tells me from Belfast, “The vast majority of things that I do are political, mostly related to human rights. With the exception of The Bilbcast, my cat’s purring podcast, which is very much a purely lovely space.”
Each episode of The Bilbcast is 30 minutes of Bilbo purring. If you need something to relax you, the murmurings of this gorgeous five-year-old orange tabby should do the trick.
Without even trying, Bilbo is arguably closer to mainstream success than Ellen, having his own website, almost 100,000 Twitter followers, and scoring co-author on her forthcoming book How To Be a Good Bboy. But work with her cat is not a frivolous side-project for Ellen. It’s instead “a way to channel the greater goals of my work to a wider audience”.
Ellen heads Transgender NI, an organisation focused on legal reform, policy, community resources, and lasting change. In order to study for a Masters in disability law, she recently passed the running of another organisation she founded, Belfast Trans Resource Centre, onto others. She has lived in Belfast all her life, a contributing factor to her not feeling any real connection with mainstream arts. Let’s face it, if you live outside the Republic and NI, how many Northern Irish artists can you name?
Ellen notes that being geographical and political outcasts means the Northern Irish mainstream promotes marginalised arts groups that would be ignored in other parts of the UK:
“These sorts of groups are more involved (here), because of our location, the history, the politics. I think that does bring a better willingness within arts to explore more difficult issues. Art has been very important in the peace process in Northern Ireland. And although I don’t consider myself as intrinsically part of that… the work that I do, like building trans communities or publishing things to YouTube, is ultimately about making people’s lives easier. And that is a form of peace, so.”
After a fun stint featuring amateur radio as a teenage YouTuber, Ellen took a ten-year break, and returned to video creation only last year. She’s dedicated to making approachable video essays about complex issues such as disability rights, and has “a wrangling for wanting to make those more widely recognised as creative things”. She tells me, “When I got into activism I found dense theory to be really inaccessible, and I still struggle with it to this day. I want to make things that help others get involved in an accessible way that doesn’t require a vertical learning curve.”
Ellen aims to make videos monthly, captioned and with transcripts. One stand-out is Cat Twitter, a piece that again subverts the idea of ‘silliness’ with regards to humans’ love for animals. At almost 5000 views, the video documents an online cat community that offers immense amounts of support and creativity.
“It’s quite an unusual but lovely space,” says Ellen. “I suppose I wanted to capture that small piece of culture, of online lore, and wanted to present my reasons why I think it’s important. And the sort of respite and spaces that it gives some people who are struggling, to deal with what they’re struggling with.”
After studying film at Edinburgh College of Art, Romanian artist TSVprojectD (Teo Vlad) moved to Berlin a decade ago to pursue community theatre. He’s now an audio-visual designer, performance artist and dancer. Like Ellen, he feels the mainstream art world has little to offer.
“I enjoy the idea of avant-garde art,” he says. “And also of community-based projects, where art becomes a medium for connection and collective growth more than a platform for self-expression. I see myself as an underground artist and am happy to keep it that way.”
Besides performing solo and curating site-specific festivals, TSVprojectD makes some work that isn’t public. This includes experimental performance research in energy transmission and trauma healing. When he shares it at all, he performs this private work with small groups doing similar research. “It involves rituals of energy channeling from spaces, stones, trees and other natural elements”, he explains. “And trying to translate the vibrations captured into voice and movement.”
The switch to a movement-based practice was unexpected for TSVprojectD. After trying a random dance class a few years back, he found himself laughing out loud on the way home: “I was so shocked because I hadn’t felt happiness really for three or four years.”
He had been struggling with autoimmune disease, depression and anxiety, and had poor mental health related to experiences of anti-trans discrimination. But discovering dance led him on a path towards healing; he pursued butoh and movement of all kinds.
“For me, it’s more than just art or performance. It’s a language, and a gift to communicate with the unseen world. But again the mainstream likes to format everything, so if you look even at contemporary dance it quickly got assimilated into form. Nowadays most dancers look and move the same… But independent dance creates a tiny frame for continuing your own experimentation.”
TSVprojectD knows his body is inherently political in a cissexist world, and his public and collective work focuses on gender identity and other politicised bodies. Drawn to the intimacy of underground spaces and “the fact that people who come to these places are not so tuned in to the whole consumption mechanism”, TSVprojectD specialises in the uncomfortable. He challenges himself to disturb routine through one-to-one interactions.
“We are not used to being addressed directly with intimate or hard topics,” he says. “Also we are not used to seeing the suffering of others face to face… This is Western culture, I think.”
In his performance art, TSVprojectD often portrays “the grotesque body” and stark, intimate emotion. He tells me, “You have no choice but to look very closely, and I don’t hide much. It is a hard but empowering process to learn to be so completely honest in front of strangers.”
He adds, “I also like to mix hard political facts in my pieces, and create a sort of mockery of political dogma. In one piece, I stand up from the mud with a dildo in my hand singing my national anthem, which is a clear punch towards a conservative system in which people like me are hunted and killed. Yet I can rise out of it, powerful enough to cut it in pieces with my blue dildo.”
A politicised dildo is maybe the best segue I could ask for into the work of queer and disabled couple, Al Lander and Amelia Cavallo. As Quiplash, the duo creates performances and events by and for queer disabled people. They also do access consultation with a focus on low-cost and creative audio description (AD). Quiplash’s first performance project, Unsightly Drag, placed LGBTQIA+ blind and visually-impaired (VI) performers in collaboration with professional drag performers and AD consultants.
“The goal was to teach the blind and VI people drag,” they tell me. “And to teach the drag performers how to make their work more inclusive to blind people.”
Through being in London and Amelia’s connections in mainstream theatre, Quiplash has received more notice than similar groups might have achieved elsewhere. They work from a radical political perspective, but note their privilege in having accessed arts funding:
“We are super aware that most of the events we work with do not and probably will not get an opportunity like Unsightly Drag, so it often feels like working in a duality… We also obviously work hard to keep whatever doors we manage to wedge ourselves through open for others.”
Quiplash was started less than a year ago “for purely selfish reasons”. As bisexual and non-binary people, the couple was constantly misgendered in disabled spaces, and queer spaces are largely inaccessible. Amelia is blind, and Al would end up being audio describer and access worker for them. Additionally, Al’s behaviour as a neurodivergent person was policed. Amelia was even once called a ‘bully’ for asking about AD at a supposedly accessible event.
“We got sick of waiting for people to sort stuff out for us,” they explain. “And decided if we wanted spaces where we could both be comfortable, we’d better start training people and making them ourselves.”
This is a familiar story: queer crips (or ‘quips’, as Al and Amelia say) caught in the double-bind between ableist queer spaces and cisheterosexist disabled spaces. Likewise, we’re used to our work being rejected by traditional critics:
“Words like ‘mainstream’, or ‘real’ or ‘high’ art, are absolutely connected to the people that have easy access to the mainstream,” the couple respond when I ask about drag being ignored as art. “Which usually means being cisgendered, male, straight, white, non-disabled, young and middle class.”
They continue, “Drag at its best is hyper-critical and resistive to the mainstream. It is a radical art form that revels in things like failure, campness and otherness. Despite historical white and cis washing, many drag pioneers have been trans people of colour, and many of these artists could have quite easily been disabled, even if history doesn’t label them that way.”
Al and Amelia like to keep in mind the drag and disability aesthetic of consciously positioning oneself as “an antithesis to the mainstream”. While they might be performing at National Theatre, they have intimate knowledge of the historical struggle it’s taken for queer disabled people to get this far.
“We are happy and grateful to have access to these spaces,” they conclude. “But we want to make it clear that we know they were never made with us in mind.”
Sandra Alland bio (audio):
Sandra Alland is guest editor at DAO from 25th March to 26th April. Check out all San’s commissioned pieces on their Project page. Audio versions of all pieces can be found on San’s dedicated SoundCloud channel.