Archives, oral histories & subjectivities : in conversation with Flo Brooks & Beth Emily Richards

As part of Visual Arts Plymouth CIC’s 2017-2018 talent development programme, VAP has been matching early career artists, creative practitioners and arts professionals with mentors (more established artists and professionals in the region) through the Plymouth Platform scheme.

Install details of Flo Brooks’ What Comes To Matter – shown as part of Plymouth Art Weekender 2018

We join two of the artists involved in the 2018 Platform – Flo BrooksBeth Emily Richards  – to find out more about the processes of working together over the last year…

About Flo’s Platform project:

What Comes To Matter is a research project and installation exploring LGBTQ+ narratives galvanised through conversations with local people and objects from the Plymouth LGBT archive. The work culminates in an audio and soft sculpture installation, taking place at The Lion’s Den, a historic gay cruising ground, for Plymouth Art Weekender 2018.

Beth: One of the things that struck me about your PAW Platform proposal Flo, was your very clear approach to archives and h/stories as a way of accessing and sharing queer subjectivities. For those who aren’t familiar with these terms, can you please explain how you are using them?

Flo: Sure. I guess for me in the most basic sense I think about the word ‘queer’ as signifying a resistance to or a way to challenge normativity. And by normativity I’m talking about systems of oppression, or social norms we are faced with in society, and the barriers these can create for people who are seen to be transgressing these. I use it as a form of positive and critical re-appropriation, but I’m aware, especially within wider LGBTQ+ communities, and older generations of people, that it comes with baggage and there’s a lot of stigma attached.

For the PAW project I was thinking about queer subjectivities with all the above in mind, the kind of subjectivities and narratives which aren’t clearly defined, which resist popular or dominant identity categories, and the ones which need excavating, revealing and listening to within a wider LGBTQ+ historic context. I started writing history as ‘h/story’ in my project summary, as a way of making the word more inclusive to people of all genders and sexualities, but to be honest I haven’t been dogmatic or entirely consistent with it (and I wont be in this!).

Install details of Flo Brooks’ What Comes To Matter – shown as part of Plymouth Art Weekender 2018

One thing I really learnt from this project was as much as I think it’s necessary for language surrounding LGBTQ+ people to adapt and extend, I also was witness to the particular geographical, economic and social issues and preoccupations people in Plymouth and in this part of Devon were experiencing/experienced, which of course differ widely to those of people living in London, or Brighton or other places in the UK. I guess in that way I wanted to try and let go of all my own preoccupations and preconceived notions – maybe around language – and just start by trying to listen to people and be as open as I could be.

Beth: As h/stories is a more inclusive term to narratives of the past, it makes absolute sense that you are using oral histories within this work. For me, what I love about oral h/stories is the way it platforms memories, rather than an idea of ‘the past as it definitely was’ in any sort of top-down, objective or didactic historical narrative. It gives voice to individuals rather than imagining some sort of homogenous re-telling. We have both used oral h/stories in our recent work, how does this feature in your PAW project?

Flo: Yes I love that too! I like the idea of ‘platforming memories’. When I first heard about the Plymouth LGBT Archive I was intrigued to find out what was held ‘within it’, and Alan Butler showed me all the oral interviews he and volunteers had conducted with local people from the LGBTQ+ community since 2011.

They are amazing documents, people talking so honestly and intimately about coming out in the 60’s, falling in love, transitioning, being in the army, the police force, and all the kinds of everyday and fairly innocuous stuff that make up our experiences… anyway I loved this format, and I wanted to find a way of engaging with both local people and the physical objects in the archive, so I basically invited people to pick an object from a cross-section in the archive, and we chatted about it, and I asked them each to share their own too, and the conversations just sort of unfolded from there.

Beth: During the development of your project, we spoke a lot about the responsibility you have as an artist, working with people’s stories, with people’s pasts. We both referred to The Oral History Society guidelines to help us reflect on the ethics and politics of using other people’s voices via oral h/story interviews in our own artworks.

One thing that we both did, was ensure that everyone who we interviewed had a right to withdraw, and that they were aware of how their voices were represented before the work was made public. A recent example of this in my practice, is a performance work Like A Pantomime, which used oral histories to investigate Michael Jackson’s 2002 to Exeter City Football Club. I interviewed Michael Jackson and Exeter City football fans who were there, who had very different perspectives and told very different versions of the same event.

I recently made a new version of this work for my show Poor Copy at Jerwood Visual Arts, with a slightly new edit of the verbatim dialogue. Because of these changes, I wanted to get back in touch with the people I had interviewed. One football fan, checking over the new, shorter edit of part of our conversation, realised that what he said was actually totally factually incorrect. ‘I must have got a bit carried away about the glory of the club’, he told me, referring to his claim that Exeter City in 2002 was the first and only football club to be owned by the fans.

This was the third time he had seen a transcript or edited version of his interview, but it was only over a year later after the original interview that he realised this. After discussing this point, we both decided to keep it in the script – oral histories are often used to bring to light individual’s recollections, not about platforming a supposed objective historical “truth”.

Install details of Flo Brooks’ What Comes To Matter – shown as part of Plymouth Art Weekender 2018

Flo: That’s really interesting, and makes complete sense. I like the idea that we’re essentially telling a story about something, an event or series of events, like the Michael Jackson visits, and then the next day we might tell a completely different story about the same experience, and so on. And of course we may look back – within the oral history context- and think, yeah that’s not what happened, it was more like this …. And relate to it differently. Or think, oh I wouldn’t say/think that now.

I guess in that way I enjoy finding ways to expose language and the telling of memories/stories, as something which is always in flux, and in the same way that we are – within our selves and the ways we relate to each other and the world around us. It’s interesting for me as someone of trans experience to listen back to myself in previous audio recordings, or videos, as not only do I relate to myself differently now (who doesn’t?), sound different – having been on Testosterone now for 3 years (again, vocal change- that’s not exclusive to trans+ people) and having gone/going through puberty again, socialization and working all that out, but also being aware that what I was saying wasn’t ‘untrue’ back then, or ‘wrong’, but it felt ‘right’ at the time.

I feel uncomfortable with those kinds of binaries of right/wrong, true/untrue, and the pressures people face – often younger people in having to maintain a kind of consistent personal narrative, in terms of our identities, thoughts and feelings on things… it’s unhelpful, we should be allowed to feel one way one day, and something different the next, and one doesn’t invalidate the other. People of trans experience are often pushed to conform to a certain kind of narrative to obtain support, healthcare and be safe, I’ve done that. I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent! But basically I enjoy how oral histories sort of occupy this inbetween timeless space, and working with people from the LGBTQ+ community, was kind of amazing in using it as a format to talk about our memories, concerns, how do we relate to these objects from “the past”, are they so different to the ones in our lives today, do they carry similar messages, what can we take from them?

Beth: So true about our own narratives of self changing, and really important point about dominant narrative expectations of people of trans+ experiences. I think one of the amazing things about your practice (both for the PAW project and your wider work) is how thoughtfully and sensitively you portray a breadth of these experiences, and do this with a real warmth and at times humour too. In the audio element of the work, your aural presence was great – the interviews were obviously real conversations, it didn’t feel like you were trying to create a kind of ‘objective’ space of historical enquiry, you were there to respond, sometimes share your own experiences, while still giving the interviewee the space to tell their stories. Did you think about how this relates to what you call your model of ‘social portraits’?

Flo: Yes definitely. I started this project called Outskirts a couple years back now, and one of the things I wanted to do was find a way of recording our experiences of liminality through this model of ‘social portraiture’. Liminality can be defined as a transitional inbetween space, a threshold, and it’s an idea I’ve been exploring in my wider practice, thinking about it in relation to identity.

So I ask people to select a number of items, such as an object, image, text and sound (with material component) which for them in some way represented the ways they experience liminality in their life. They write their thoughts and experiences down with each of their items, however much or as little as they want to share, and send them to me with the items. We often do these exchanges through email, and I paint the items and arrange them into a collage, a sort of ‘portrait’ of their experience, or a translation of our exchange. Each collaged portrait is accompanied by their text, and each person receives a print of their portrait and text, and with their consent I share these on social media or in exhibitions.

I’m always interested in how to approach representation, especially in relation to experiences which resist definition. How to talk about ‘being’ anything without reducing embodiment or ideology or identity or anything to any kind of essentialist or fixed idea?… how to get beyond ‘this is how I feel = this is who I am (and who I will always be)’, and allow for space, complexity and movement? For the oral conversations I had with the individuals involved in What Comes To Matter, I wanted to be as clear as I could that the conversations were a chance for us to talk to each other, share our experiences, and respond to the items they had selected. I wasn’t looking for anything to ‘make’ the audio work, in fact the recording of the conversations was kind of secondary anyway, I didn’t think about it much, and it was more important to physically connect with people in the space, and listen to them.

The editing was more difficult, because I wanted to include as much as I could of our conversations, to not reduce their stories to digestible soundbites, and I was thinking a lot about how I would approach it, the silences, the mishaps, the phone interferences. I also didn’t want the audio work to become a kind of educational tool, because I know we can all take things, learn from listening to people, and that’s important, especially listening to people with experiences different to our own, but when you’re part of any minority group you’re often treated a bit like a spokesperson, as if an identity category is monolithic, and as if it’s your duty to educate people. I resent that, especially when you’re literally just trying to get through the day and feel ok about yourself.

It was a huge privilege to talk to these folks and have them be at times so vulnerable and open with me, their intelligence and humour and presence was wonderful, and intimidating (in a good way) and heart warming, and I wanted to do them justice. So I hope the audio work has movement to it, friction, clarity, and reveals thoughts, feelings and snippets of our lives without reducing us to someone who is solely X or Y. But I guess there has to be a balance, I knew the audience at the Plymouth Art Weekender would probably be predominantly cis and straight, and I want things to shift, people to challenge the ways they think about gender, sexuality, identity, community, any of that, because right now I think we’re all especially scared of what’s happening in the world.

Install details of Flo Brooks’ What Comes To Matter – shown as part of Plymouth Art Weekender 2018

When I got to the Lion’s Den (the space where What Comes To Matter was situated) I found  some fresh graffiti on the walls, “Ur Mums Gay” and “Harder Daddy” caught my eye, almost as if someone knew ha!, and each day as I installed the work I did so whilst one or two fishermen had set up by the waters edge. They eyed me up anxiously as I moved all the sculptures and banners down from the van, or seemed indifferent to what I might be doing. I felt uncomfortable at first, lump in my throat, oh god remembering what it was like growing up as gay, and later trans in Devon, feeling the shame, being watched suspiciously or threateningly in a space by men, a space which doesn’t feel ‘mine’ anymore, and maybe it never was. And here I am this privileged outsider in many ways coming into Plymouth and queering up their space, and who am I to think it needs queering anyway?

But a few of the fishermen stayed even when I settled the ‘Eliminate Heterosexuality’ and ‘Come Out’ sculptures down, some smiled or made a comment about the tide or the weather. It made me question my own assumptions about other people, I didn’t know anything about them, I felt foolish, ashamed, and I thought how quickly fear of the unknown can turn into something bitter, into othering. But I also felt comforted in a way, knowing we’re all susceptible to judging one another, to jumping to conclusions based on very little, because importantly that doesn’t have to define us, we have the capacity to change, to transform, that’s what brings us together. So I like that the The Lion’s Den became this space where multiple histories, or h/stories, could be held within it, and commingle over the weekend, even awkwardly. LGBTQ+ narratives from the archive and from local people nudging up against Weekender visitors, Plymouth residents, Freshers from Uni, people fishing, swimming, getting drunk on Kopperberg in the corner, all with their own h/stories and narratives unfolding and absorbing in the space.

You can see Flo and Beth’s work at:

Solo show (Title TBC)
Project Native Informant, London
Nov 8th – Dec 15th, 2018

Survey (group exhibition)
Jerwood Space, London
Oct 3rd – Dec 16th, 2018

PooR Life by dog people, Owen G Parry and Beth Emily Richards
Transition Two, London
November 1st – November 25th, 2018

Plymouth Platform is designed & coordinated by Visual Arts Plymouth CIC, informed by previous mentoring schemes run by VASWa-n (review bursaries) and Hand in Glove (Bristol) and is supported financially through Horizon – a collaborative two year programme of visual contemporary arts, funded through Arts Council England’s Ambition for Excellence fund and supported by Plymouth Culture.