Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings

Interview

Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings (both born 1991 Newcastle & London) live and work in London. They have participated in group shows including the recent 'Breathless' Ca' Pesaro International Gallery of Modern Art, Venice, ‘Cruising Pavilion: Architecture, Gay Sex and Cruising Culture’, ArkDes, Stockholm; ‘Kiss My Genders’, Hayward Gallery, London; and ‘Queer Spaces: London, 1980s – Today’, Whitechapel Gallery, London (all 2019). Solo presentations include "In My Room" Focal Point Gallery, Southend-On-Sea (2020)  ‘Something for The Boys’, Two Queens, Leicester (2018) and ‘Gaby’, Queer Thoughts, NYC (2018). Recent performances took place for Image Behaviour, ICA (2019), Art Night (2019), Move Festival, Pompidou Centre (2019), and Kiss My Gender Live, Southbank Centre (2019). The artists are represented by Arcadia Missa, London and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin.

 

Q: Your latest exhibition ‘In My Room’ at Focal Point is your first institutional solo show, how long has it taken you to produce the works in the show? 

Katharine Stout invited us to produce a solo exhibition in May 2019 which gave us ten months to plan and execute a new body of work for the exhibition. It was Katharine’s first exhibition as director of Focal Point and our first institutional solo show so it felt like a big deal!

 

When we first started talking to Focal Point we were juggling a crazy workload  - a major live work commission for Art Night, group shows at the Whitechapel Gallery and the Hayward Gallery and a bunch of other stuff. We were in an absolute art spiral and barely had a moment when we were not working or panicking. We somehow survived the onslaught of deadlines and in July we moved to Barcelona where we had some breathing space to contemplate our FPG show. We started by writing an Art Council application, and although maddeningly confusing, the application forced us to gather, polish and refine our ideas. In the application we wrote: 

 

Our project explores UK male sex culture, linking this to a broader phenomena of male dominance within society and thinking socially and historically about how public sex culture has shaped and gendered urban architecture and public space. We wish to disrupt contemporary discourse that situates public sex culture within “radical” queer practice, showing how this culture reinforces rather then disrupts power structures of gender, class and race.

 

This was the root of our ideas. From that point Katharine and the team at FPG helped us structure our production timeline and everything started falling into place although not always smoothly or easily. 

 

Q: The works in the exhibition extensively reference to your previous work the UK Gay Bar Directory (UKGBD) (2016), a moving image archive of gay bars, responding to the systematic closure of LGBTQ+ dedicated social spaces. What made you want to focus on Birmingham’s gay village over other cities for your show at Focal Point? 

 

The UKGBD is our foundational work and a resource that we return to time and time again. When we were travelling around the UK we encountered so many strange and fantastical spaces and people. At the time, we were incredibly focused and absorbed a vast amount of information in a short space of time. Making films such as Something For The Boys (2018) gave us the opportunity to zone in on specific places such as the Blackpool gay scene (where Something For the Boys is shot) which we first visited whilst filming the UKGBD. Making films became a way of committing more time and research to a particular place. 

 

When we first visited Birmingham’s gay village in 2016 it had a robust scene that seemed uniquely unaffected by the rapid spate of gay bar closures spreading through the UK, in many ways it was one of the most functional gay scenes we encountered. We were particularly struck by the geography of the gay village; located in the centre of the city, a stone's throw away from the Bullring (Shopping Centre) but cut off by a series of hostile motorways, abandoned car parks and barren land. Its geography felt illustrative of the status of the gay village within the city, integral to daily life, yet physically ostracised or obstructed, heightening a sense of ghettoisation. 

 

We were drawn back to Birmingham because its gay scene is so heavily dominated by male-only venues. It was the gay scene we had the most trouble archiving when filming the UKGBD as most venues simply would not admit women. When we thought of the male domination in the gay scene, we thought of Birmingham. The Birmingham we returned to in 2019  was very different from the one we visited in 2016. Homogeneous luxury apartment blocks in various states of completion spread like a rash over the gay village, the barren land separating the gay bars from the town centre was now stripped and divided in to multiple construction sites.  Every single men-only venue had either closed or was scheduled to close in the coming year. The village was being gentrified in anticipation of the highly politicised HS2, a high-speed rail line connecting London and Birmingham. City planners were essentially hollowing out their gay village to build a London commuter town. 

 

We were appalled to find out that Bar Jester,  Birmingham’s oldest gay bar had closed only a few days prior to our visit. We made contact with the owner who agreed to hire Jester and his second venue men's only Core Club to us as filming locations. The owner wasn't overly concerned by the closures, he saw himself as a businessman disconnected from the health of the community.

 

This was our first time filming in a closed venue and it affected our ambitions for the film. We were representing these spaces of male power at a moment of vulnerability and change, and we felt a responsibility to use our film to archive and uphold these venues as we critiqued them. It feels important to note that we are not advocating the closures of male-only spaces nor are we opposed to sex in public. We are interested in exploring how male-only spaces and public sex between men has ramifications culturally, socially and politically and in proposing strategies for a redistribution of this power. 

 

Q: In your film ‘In My Room’ we see two men performing a slow line dance in an empty club, without any emotional connection to the music or to each other. How do you see dance being used as a tool to execute ideas surrounding male dominance and power in your film?

 

We worked with the amazing choreographer Les Child. We were trying to understand masculinity as a series of codes, gestures and behaviours. Public-sex spaces largely function non-verbally. We were reimagining non-verbal communication in the gay club as a dance used to assert dominance or submission, desire and violence, a social ritual that consolidates male power. We wanted to show that male power exists on a spectrum and that what happens in the sex club is a version of what happens in the boardroom or the war room, a pattern of behaviour that conforms to and strengthens the status quo.

 

Les developed a series of movements to help the dancers get into character but much of the final material was improvised, it was important to leave the performers room for their own feeling in the role especially considering how intimate much of the footage is. In the final scene of the film we see Lucille Marshall, an incredible dancer performing on the pole. This scene was intended as a sort of upheaval or crisis in the film as a whole. 

 

With Lucille’s scene, we were thinking about how women’s access and inclusion in public sex culture has been dependent on their labour as workers - sex workers, escorts, strippers, caregivers, etc, as opposed to their custom. We were also thinking about how public sex spaces are designed or chosen to heighten a feeling of risk, for example, dark rooms are dark and often dilapidated. In sex clubs, there is a direct link between risk and pleasure. We were questioning: Who is able to take risks? Who is allowed agency over their own pleasure? How to be visible without being exploited? How to lay claim to public space? 

 

Q: When did you realise you wanted to learn fresco and how did you go about learning this ancient process in 2020? 

 

It's very cliche but we were in the Sistine Chapel staring up at Michelangelo's fresco and we just knew we had to paint a fresco. It was a complete revelation. We visited the Vatican right before we started pinning down our ideas for the FPG exhibition and Katharine was very supportive, even though trying a totally new process within a strict time limit was a high-risk endeavour. Fresco felt like a bridge between drawing and painting. Drawing plays such a large role in the fresco but ultimately it is a painting, it was the compromise we needed to pick up a brush. On the whole, deciding to paint a fresco felt like jumping off the edge of the art cliff, we honestly had no idea where we would end up. 

 

Learning how to make fresco was a massive headache, there are very few practitioners and most of the short courses on offer are weekend retreats in Italy for tourists. We must have emailed every working fresco painter in Europe! Most fresco painters work in restoration and conservation - there was no map to follow in the contemporary art world. Eventually, we were put in contact with Fleur Kelly, an amazing fresco artist in the romanesque tradition and she agreed to take us on for a week’s tuition in her isolated farmhouse in Toulouse. It was honestly one of the best weeks of our life. Sadly, it was very difficult to replicate the process Fleur had taught us back in London and we had a couple of very stressful months trying to understand the process and source bespoke materials.  Fresco opened up a new area of material possibilities for us, there is a whole world of pigment and plaster to immerse ourselves in, it's something we will pursue.  

 

Q: The show has many 2D works; from small drawings depicting women in front of closed gay bars in Birmingham's gay village to giant wall rubbings from the outside of the now also closed Jester club. How do you collaborate when producing highly detailed visual works together?

 

This is the number one question we get asked about our work!! Most of the time we joke and say we just sit next to each other and hold the same pencil, which doesn't feel far off from the truth given our extreme physical proximity to one another. We have a very set-in-stone process that we enforce with ruthless discipline. Without our laws of drawing, things very quickly spiral out of control. Normally we work on two or more drawings at once that we rotate between us in stages, one person does the composition, the other does the shading etc. When we work on a large drawing we use two sheets of paper so we can still rotate the work between us, eventually there are so many drawing layers that it all collapses into one style which is consistent in all of our work. 

 

The psychological dimension of drawing is very intense. Drawing makes us feel exposed, vulnerable and inadequate so a large part of the collaboration is shepherding one another through various drawing crises. It's rarely peaceful and we are always fighting!  

 

 

 

Q: And lastly, what are you working on next? 

 

We are preparing to start work on our next solo show at Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi in Berlin. For our show with Isabella, we want to make a series of large fresco panels and drawings that will tell a narrative or a story when viewed as an exhibition. We want to focus on the disturbing issues of hate crime legislation - does it protect LGBTQ people or only serve to reinforce the carceral system? How has structural oppression against the LBGTQ community been weaponized by the state to give the police new powers and gentrify urban areas? How has the gay liberation movement been complicit within this process? 

Published: 15/05/2020 by Queerdirect

Edits by Tamar Clarke-Brown