Saturday, April 28, 2018

Hacked Knits

Last year I showed this piece (Hacked Knits 1, All Art is Gay) in a group show called G0dbottom, (curated by Stevie Hanley at Condo Association, Chicago). I wrote this text to accompany it, and as I'm going to show the second scarf in the series (Is that a man?) in London next month I thought I should share my thinkings.

Last Winter my Mother taught me how to knit, or she at least tried to. I sat on the end of her bed and she regaled me with all the tales that came to her mind when she started to knit, real working class stories of the women on Liverpool’s council estates knitting for children, grandchildren, godchildren, and beyond. Coming as I do from a sizeable Irish Catholic family, these hand-knitted garments, cardigans, scarves, sweaters, and even booties, were passed between siblings and cousins. They were so well made, and knitted with such tender conviction, that their usage spanned seemingly impossible lengths of time. They often lasted in excess of a decade, worn by numberless different children, still in pristine condition, somehow as indestructible as any holy relic on occasional view in Rome.

Knitting makes me think of all the knowledge (often domestic) passed down on the maternal line (and all of the knowledge which is sidelined/ignored), but also makes me ponder on what else apparently comes to us directly from our female forbearers. Several prominent theories of homosexuality/queerness look to the Mother as the source of inherited non-normative sexual identities, just as canonical thinking says Jewishness comes from her too. (Catholics however don’t much mind how you find your way to church, they’re the original evangelicals always looking to expand the fanbase).

I can remember my Nan (my Mother’s Mother) knitting me a Thomas the Tank sweater, which was later passed to my cousin (and so on). Thomas’ big beaming blue face smiled out on all who beheld him until long after his fashionable heyday. My Nan was canny, knowing that as a child I wouldn’t really know if the Thomas the Tank sweater was handmade or store bought, she in effect produced counterfeit merchandise, using Thomas’ licensed image in her own production. (Coincidentally I recently bought an contraband East German “fake” Mickey Mouse scarf in Berlin). Hacked Knits I is likewise “counterfeit”, it explicitly (and illegally) incorporates the Liver bird logo in its design.

Whenever I tell someone that I’m from Liverpool, inevitably they will either say, “Oh like the Beatles?” or (if they’re a straight man), “Like the football team?” The Liver bird is the city of Liverpool’s emblem, originally a badly drawn eagle which has become synonymous with the town, and sits (in sculptural form) atop the city’s famous Liver Buildings (built 1908). However, Liverpool FC, one of the world’s most prominent soccer teams (currently valued at $1.5 BN), have preposterously owned the copyright on the Liver Bird since 2010. Liverpudlians have made appeals but the trademark remains.

I have always abhorred soccer, to me it has always stood as shorthand for homophobic harassment, and ritualised acts of bullying as milestones in attaining masculinity. As the UK is still bewilderingly obsessed with class stratification, football retains its working class aura (unlike bourgeois games of rugby or cricket) and with it the irksome fetishisation of working class masculinity (and the ridiculous projection that all woking class men are sexually virile and indomitably heterosexual).

This scarf was knitted by Jack Randall, I remain a lousy knitter.

You could map the popularity of football, and the presence of soccer teams around the globe, and use your doodle as an at-a-glance map to see how far the British expanded their colonial rule. As the Empire swelled it exported cultural products (such as football), alongside the Protestant moral values, codes of behaviour, and laws which almost completely eradicated previously existing expressions and understandings of gender and sexual identity. Liverpool itself was a major hub or the Britain’s slave trade, becoming enormously wealthy earlier in its history from the infamous trade of bodies. Liverpool’s culture, architecture and (now depleted) grandeur was built on this. Contemporary culture cannot be excavated from the bloody history which birthed it.

As a way of dealing with one small part of its exceptionally ugly history, in 2017 the UK commemorated the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, with a national series of exhibitions, commissioned performances, and discussions. With the exception maybe of “Coming Out” at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery, these were almost all sentimental, majority white, cis focused, and male-centred; they sought to obfuscate the inescapable responsibility of the same institutions which hosted them in the anti-queer status quo, through blame off-loading and it-gets-better-isms. As if it’s possible for galleries to wipe their hands in January 2018 and say, “Well that’s gay art done with for a while - who’s next for a fix ‘er up?”

This scarf is my reaction to 2017's endless year of gay art shows.

What the much celebrated anniversary represents is a partial decriminalisation, the change which came in 1967 didn’t bring an equal age of consent, it didn’t allow any kind of public sex, nor did it allow more than two men to have sex with each other (women having sex has always been unimaginable in British legal codes). This was not queer liberation, that particular revolution was not handed to dykes and fags by the government, it was pretty much forced into being by them. The blithe statement, All Art Is Gay, is a directly descended from this propagandistic panoply of these shows, mocking the opportunistic and insincere marketeering behind many of them, whilst simultaneously giving a genuine nod of admiration to Gay Lib slogans such as, “Gay is Good”.

This scarf disrupts the gift shop.

All Art Is Gay, underlines the presumed effeminacy of creativity in contrast to the masculinity of production, highlighting its lesser/lower status. Hacked Knits I was made with a hand operated knitting machine, a piece of kit which sits ambiguously between handmade and machine-made. It’s standard, even rows mimic a mass produced garment and talk to how significant moments in cultural history are blindly celebrated in mass market souvenirs. The scarf’s finish (following as it does LFC product design) also allows it to mimic its template (an official team scarf) more closely. When I wear it, witnesses familiar with soccer merchandise read it as a gesture of fandom (or sartorial subversion) without observing the actual text. I like to imagine that an unsuspecting straight dude might confuse his scarf with mine and leave the pub wrapped in my counterfeit. (This reverie puts me in mind of one of Twentieth-century’s pop culture’s most brilliant coups, in which Freddie Mercury lured his unwitting rock bro fans into wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the word QUEEN).

Football teams have been the cause of much social violence, and even as this proportionally abates, dedication to teams can be almost tribal. (I am using “tribal” here as defined by Merriam-Webster; “solidarity that transcends all other loyalties or bonds”). This loyalty can dictate what a fan wears, or even where they can go when they are dressed in team colours. The songs, catchphrases, and heroes of the fans of particular clubs, seems to me to line up somewhat with the queer obsession to define community members. Being an Arsenal fan or a Juventus fan is almost the heterosexual equivalent of being framed as a bear, a twink, a butch, or a femme. Almost.

This scarf is a moment of camp minimalism.

I have tried to hack contemporary culture with this piece, as a way to carve a place for myself and my own impossible identity as a trans* underclass class queer. My obvious contempt for soccer, and my simultaneous inability to hand knit, flags up my own failure (and celebration of that failure) to be successful as either a man or a woman. I’m fabricating my own identity as I go on fabricating these scarves. (The others have texts such as, Is That A Man? and Sodomite Zionist, which refer more explicitly to the harassment queer people and I apparently provoke by walking the streets).

Returning from Documenta in Kassel, I was with a friend, when we unfortunately came into proximity with a group of football fans who obviously took it as their right and duty to harass us as we changed trains. Five metres away from the mob stood four armed police officers who viewed the scene with disinterest. My friend and I acknowledged that the authorities had made their position clear enough, and we not likely to help us out if we were to fight back. This compliance between criminals and the authorities allegedly responsible for protecting the populace from them, is as for queer people (and for POC), as expected and unremarked upon as the identikit scarves the soccer fans wore over their shoulders.

This scarf can be wrapped around your face for protection against tear gas and surveillance cameras.

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