We are Inga and Sam, and together we are artist duo Status Queer. We are two visibly queer, non-binary people in a sea of beige and navy; two sore thumbs piercing Gothenburg’s normative monotony. Working as a duo and collaboratively with artists at home and abroad, we use art and culture for and by marginalised LGBTQ+ people to build a new kind of community – one which is expansive, supportive and diverse. In this article we are going to tell you what we are doing and what our demands for system change in the arts and culture sector are, but first, let’s look at how we got here.
Section 1: Sweden, The Progressive Paradise
Sweden has one hell of a marketing department. Like many of you reading this now, we too fell hook, line and sinker. We once eyed this feminist utopia hungrily, longing for safety and equity. Onlookers from around the world oggle Sweden for its progressive politics, yet under the crisp crust of the politically correct pie you’ll find a rotten mouthful.
Sweden ranks as having one of the lowest levels of discrimination and verbal and physical violence against LGBTQ+ people. So it is all fabulous, right? The thing about Sweden is you can be as gay as you like, just as long as you and your partner look like normal beige-clad scandinavian men and women living a normative life in your fancy flat in the once-cool-now-gentrified part of town. Be a fag, just don’t show it. Don’t dress over the top, don’t be flamboyant, don’t fuck around too much, or in the words of our Deputy Prime Minister, “just because you’re gay, doesn’t mean you have to be slutty”. So, there you go, be as gay as you like hun, just be normal. And if you don’t want that? Well then that’s where your problems start.
So that’s being gay, but what about being trans? It might shock you to know that in a recent study by Transgender Europe, Sweden ranked alongside Poland and Romania when it comes to trans healthcare. From the far right Sweden Democrats to the centre left Social Democrats, transphobia is tightening its poisonous tentacles around political opinion.
You might recognise this absolute classic corker of a narrative – it is timeless, it is iconic, and it has plagued us for decades: all this trans hullabaloo is dangerous ‘gender ideology’ that must be stopped for the sake of the family, for the safety of women and for the good of the children. Here transwomen are male sex perverts pretending to be women and ready to smash swimming pool changing room doors open to rape women.
Unlike transwomen, drag queens are out for the kiddies – they are just men in wigs feigning an interest in children’s literature so they can expose themselves and their perverse lifestyles to the innocent future of the superior race. This is the call to arms here: save the children from rhinestoned bodices and comically large eyelashes! Transmen, on the other hand, are made out to be desperately confused mentally ill “biological girls” who have been tricked into self-mutilation by a rampant social contagion.
If that last one seems particularly confusing to you, have no fear! You can find a whole series of documentaries by our national broadcaster that spells it all out for you bit by bit. You will find kinder and gentler forms of these arguments throughout the political spectrum, but these are the narratives all roads lead back to.
Moving beyond the ‘normal’ genders, gender non-conforming and non-binary people are, as we all know, symptoms of a feminist agenda gone too far and the imminent collapse of Western Civilisation. But don’t worry, the Sweden Democrats have swooped in to the rescue to make sure ‘Sweden shall be good again’. Urgh gross, did someone let off a great steaming Trump in the room? Last but not least, intersex. Luckily that one’s easily fixed, we just mutilate them at birth with invasive unnecessary medical procedures and pretend they don’t exist.
That is Sweden, but what about Gothenburg? Perhaps you didn’t already know, but we live in the shadow of a brutal past here. To show you our dear adopted city’s underbelly you only have to look at its loving nickname: ‘bögknackerstaden’ or ‘faggot-bashing-city’. A name it got for its notorious street violence against queer people during the late 90s and 00s. While we might be past the worst of that now, it is far from over. As a gender-bending explosion of colour, Sam faces stares and glares on a daily basis, angry fits of shouting from strangers on the weekly and in their three years here, they have been chased, spat at and had stones thrown at them, to name but a few highlights. And they are white and European – from our work with people of colour, newly arrived people and refugees, we know the situation can be so much worse. So while some of us have been welcomed into the warm, many of us have been left sitting out in the cold, the door shut firmly in our faces.
The LGBTQ+ community is a community of communities. We are not just our sexual orientations or gender identities. We cut across all other groups in society. We are queer and trans but we are also immigrants, we are working class, we are ethnic minorities and we live in poverty, in economic precarity and with disabilities. The sad truth is that Gothenburg is one of the most ethnically and economically segregated cities in all of Europe. It is a classic tale of white flight: areas with high concentrations of immigrants and people of colour become labelled as dangerous and problematic. Swedes who can afford to leave such areas do so, turning their backs and walking away in an act of self-segregation. Without “high quality” intercultural contact; misunderstanding, suspicion and even hatred flourish – the mysterious stranger easily becomes the demon to a society nostalgic for a Sweden of equality and justice that never really existed. Stigma rises, opportunities shrink, the struggle intensifies. But how would you know when marginalised minorities are just that – only a minority in the statistics that otherwise typify Sweden as a paramount of progressive politics.
It is not just our city that is segregated, it is our community, too. No wonder when you consider the city-wide spatial and social segregation in combination with a dominant culture of separatism within the movement and a complete vacuum of permanent queer spaces. Well that last one isn’t quite true, we have got one “gay club” – their words not ours – which is infamous for its infestation of straights and its inaction against hatecrime. Despite the rosy picture a Gothenburg likes to paint of itself as an LGBTQ+ friendly city, city-wide initiatives like West Pride and the Rainbow House are nothing but empty and broken promises, lip service along the lines of the Swedish ideal of acceptance in name only.
No community, so what?
But what do we really even need our own spaces for anyway when white normative gay men and women who blend more seamlessly into the bland fabric of Swedish conformist culture can get along just fine at normal bars? The short answer: without spaces where we can meet each other, we can’t understand each other. Many normative members of the community are shocked and appalled by Sam’s experiences, not to mention those of more marginalised people in the community. While some suspected such cracks with a resigned nod and an avoidant eye, others cannot comprehend this reality for LGBTQ+ people still exists in Sweden today. But how could they know when we are never even in the same room together? And even if we would be, how would we understand each other when we don’t know how to get along, what to say or what not to say? So here we all are, paralysed by inaction under the thumb of political correctness, quaking in the looming shadow of cancel culture’s punitive and irredeemable branding iron.
For those of you still looking on and pointing at our free education, our socialised healthcare, our protection of normative LGBTQ+ families in law and our comparatively low incidence of violence of LGBTQ+ people and thinking, “It could be worse, you should be grateful you are not in the US, or Poland, or Uganda.” We get it, it is worse in many other places. But in no way does that mean the movement here is over. We are a community of minorities. Minorities within minorities. Just because we are a small part of the statistics, those of us who are multiply-marginalised make up a majority of those statistics. Or at least we believe so from our work within the community – of course we can’t be sure as under the guise of colourblind equality the Swedish government refuses to collect statistics on ethnicity. The bottom line is, that all lumped together we are many, but when we are shattered, scattered and separated into small packets, we are few. I mean, how many other economically precarious non-binary immigrants with a disability do you know? How about newly arrived trans women of colour? We need community so we can fight for each other, but that is not the only reason we need it.
Section 2: What We Are Doing About It
This is the landscape we arrived in: city specific segregation, separatism and a queer cultural vacuum alongside nationally embedded white supremacy, xenophobia and transphobia. Like we have said, at the heart of our bid to not only survive but to thrive in this environment lies community. A community which can care for, support and even carry each other when we need it. A community which reaches out and brings people to the table. A community which is open, easily accessible and actively inclusive. We knew art and culture had the power to scaffold the development of our community-to-be. And we have seen it work. Not only through our own experiences, but also through the work of ethnographer Maros Ondrejka who came to Sweden to study our activities over a number of months. In our social practice we have identified three pillars necessary for building a community: 1) Seeing each other, 2) Becoming a symphony, and 3) Centering queer and trans joy.
Let’s break it down.
1) Seeing Each Other
Being seen is being understood. When you see someone, you are getting a window into their experience. Not through their eyes, but on their terms. Seeing someone means listening to and accepting that person’s truth. Often when we see someone, it is a moment of realisation, an a-ha moment. Sometimes it is a small gasp of shock, a tingling wave of self-aware guilt or the grumbling stir of a simmering outrage.
When we view the art of others we can catch a glimpse of their experiences and perspectives. In this way, art has the potential to help us see each other. Yet it is the act of creating together which holds the most potential for connection. As we have seen in our work, by creating together, we are able to offer more of ourselves to each other, to enter into dialogues and to create meeting places. We gain different kinds of access to each other’s experiences. In ishort: to really see each other, we make together.
2) Becoming a Symphony
It is clear that by creating collectively we open up a space where people can share and understand each other, but we knew we could take this further. To deepen these connections we create a group dynamic. Here we want to make clear this dynamic doesn’t necessarily mean a communal feeling of sameness. Rather, we find ways in which we can harmonise our differences, drawing on our experiences and memories to relate to each other. To do so, we use relational interventions. Yikes, now we are getting into the art-speak. When we say relational interventions we mean we create scenarios where people interact with each other. In our work we use two different types of scenarios: scripted and negotiated.
Scripted scenarios do what they say on the tin. They get co-makers to interact within a specific scripted framework. Side note: read below why we use the word co-maker instead of participant.
This can be everything from the silly to the ritualistic – from a cacophony of animal impersonations to a throng of cult-like chanting bodies. We use scripted scenarios to both peel off the layers of expectation of the arts space as serious and pretentious, and to begin taking down the barriers we put up to protect ourselves against the hurt we are all able to inflict upon each other.
Whether serious or silly, for us the key concept here is play. As we age, we are discouraged from playing. Plagued by a deep rooted self-conscious self-censorship, many of us lose access to our ability to play. Yet there is a visceral radical potential in play. On one side, play is about pushing boundaries and teasing hierarchies whilst keeping the stakes lower than if we address these issues head on. On the other, playing together also opens up a different kind of access to each other and ourselves, something we will talk more about below.
Where scripted scenarios are fleeting actions and sounds, negotiated scenarios focus on hands-on collective making. Like the name suggests, negotiated scenarios are more open. Our job here is to create a specific framework to foster co-makers’ interactions, yet to leave space for them to take control of the direction of their making.
One way in which we explore negotiated scenarios in our work is through our ‘Together Tools’. Together Tools are tools for making which have been designed to be used by many hands at the same time. Our latest tool Meteorite brings together between 4 and 16 people to scrawl collectively broad strokes of ink across a large scale paper floor. Each co-maker holds a string, reeling in and out to help steer the brush across the room-sized page.
The tool belongs to our workshop series Rebel Drawing. The workshops each start with the relational. We begin by using different visualisation tools to draw out co-makers’ lived-experiences and perspectives through a queer and trans lens. Moving from the individual to the group, we then share single objects and sensory experiences from specific memories – a small glimmering hammer, the cold touch of a moist park bench on bare thighs or the pungent smell of oranges tantalising the tongue and nose. These become an anchorpoint to share and explore our experiences as a group. By using this relational work to explore our memories, we find points of similarity and difference in our lived-experiences as queer and trans people. This lays the groundwork for seeing each other. These objects and senses are then carried through the workshop, constituting the subject matter in our collective making.
To use Meteorite, we first use scripted scenarios to create a common language of emotive sounds – humming, wooping, yawning, squealing. We then use this language as a way to direct each other in the making phase. Each direction is assigned a sound, and co-makers emote to indicate desired directions to each other. This loud, even chaotic play opens up a different kind of access to each other as expectations of how to behave, what is permitted and what hierarchies exist within the room are disrupted and distorted by rambunctious laughter.
All together, this works to create a space which has a baseline understanding of some of our collective sites of similarity and difference as well as a playful and open atmosphere. Using this group dynamic as a springboard, we then further activate the large-scale collective work with more focused, interpersonal and relational work. Here co-makers break off into smaller pairings, describing and discussing their own experiences whilst recording each other through more detailed small scale drawings. The workshop closes with a reflection and tour of each others work – further sharing the deep-end understanding co-makers gain of each other in the more detailed inter-personal work.
3) Centering Queer and Trans Joy
Queer and trans joy is a corner stone of our activities. We define this as joy that stems from our specific lived-experiences as queer and trans people. This joy can be many things – it can be a fleeting bolt of electricity between hands accidentally brushing together, it can be the growth of a single chest hair or the glimpse of someone who looks like you on the tram. We often centre on reflecting on these joyful experiences in our relational work – like in Rebel Drawing, where we explore joyful and euphoric memories and experiences individually and as a group. That does not mean however that we censor negative memories or emotions. As LGBTQ+ people, our joyful experiences are so interconnected with our lived-experiences as marginalised people, and thus they can act as a gateway to many of the difficult experiences we face. So by focusing on these positive experiences, we do not prevent meaningful conversations or connection about our individual struggles. Instead, we use joy as a platform from which we can draw out the nuances of these struggles whilst maintaining a retreat we can return to, to process, to connect and to heal.
We take joy and play very seriously, but we know not everyone thinks this way. Some people argue that we are frivolous and overlook the seriousness of the challenges we face as a community. We know there is so much to be angry about, and trust me we are angry too. It sizzles and spits like a hot stone plunged into a stomach of acrid bile. This anger is important. It pushes us to act when we are scared or stunned and we must harness it in our struggle for rights. But our community – the reason we are fighting – cannot be built on anger. Community is not only motivation for our struggle, it is both a driving force and sanctuary. Anger will not drive us through the years of struggle stretching beyond us, joy will. Joy and play build the bonds of compassion between us. Ultimately, if we are fighting for a community which does not centre joy, compassion or care, then what future are we fighting for?
Section 3: Our Culture, Not Theirs
But how do we make sure that we are reaching those in the community who are most marginalised? Those most in need of the community we are trying to build? Because let’s be real right now: It is not enough to just state that a space is welcoming to all to ensure that it is welcoming to all. Our approach here is two pronged:
1) Firstly, we implement a range of active inclusion measures. From our analysis of the socio-cultural landscape in Gothenburg we have identified five groups within the LGBTQ+ community which are the most marginalised in the city.
- Binary & non-binary trans people
- Newly arrived people
- People living with disabilities
- Racialised people
- Working class / economically precarious people
We call these our priority groups. Some of the inclusion measures we use to maximise the participation of our priority groups in our artistic activities include reserving spaces in workshops, designating ‘safety people’ and exit strategies, paying ticket fees when we can’t negotiate totally free activities and paying for transport. Of course, these measures and the way in which we implement them must adapt as the conditions on the ground adapt. That is why we use a continual process of theorisation, consultation and evaluation.
While these measures are an important step in increasing our reach into marginalised communities, they alone are not enough.
2) That brings us to our second point. While so far we have talked about our own practice, the full scope of our work together is not only to centre our own artistic voices. Rather, our goal is to foster a sustainable cultural democracy within the community.
When we talk about cultural democracy, we are talking about an environment where people from across the community – especially those who are most marginalised – have the space, tools and resources to create. Centering of a variety of artistic voices isn’t just vital for reaching out, it is crucial if we are to build the kind of community we need – one that can stand against the ableism, classism, sexism, racism, queerphobia, transphobia and xenophobia that swirls around us. In short, a community that is for us is held together by culture that is by us. So by making sure that a diverse range of artistic voices can be heard, we are ensuring that the community we are building is also diverse, nuanced and inclusive.
When it comes to us, Inga and Sam, we belong to some priority groups, but not all. Yes we face some struggles but we are still white middle class Europeans. Yes we are queer and yes we are trans but we still hold many of the privileges required to needle your way into the art world. We were set up to enter the pipeline from academy to profession. With the encouragement, support and safety nets needed to take risks, we were able to enter higher arts education. With our academic qualifications we learned to talk the talk. Using the right language helped us persuade people to take chances on us, to let us prove we could walk the walk, too. Of course it helped that we can make ourselves look like and sound like those above us. With our country-hopping and our growing CVs we wielded the accolades and prestige to unquestionably claim the title of ‘working artist’. Brought altogether, we now have the tools and the reputation needed for success in accessing arts funding. Yes it was all hard work, yes we fought and bled and stressed and cried but it was still luck of the draw. If we hadn’t had our white privilege or our class privilege, then the obstacles we had to face would have been higher, wider and thicker.
Marginalised people are less likely to be able to access higher arts education.  They are less likely to hold the social or cultural capital to find and access opportunities in the sector. They are less likely to look like and sound like the people with the power to hire them. They are less likely to fulfil the demands of funding sources to be a “professional” artist. But you know what? Fuck professionalism. When we define good art as art made by a “professional” we are policing what art should be funded or not, shown or not or made or not based on criteria set out by the white supremecist cis-het patriarchy we live under. The path to becoming a “professional” artist is littered with barriers which filter out specific intersections, one by one. Yes, some of the most marginalised get through all those filters. And great! But a pitiful few do not save a sector which consistently fails to engage and include marginalised people within and throughout.
You can almost taste the dripping irony in the oxymoron ‘diversity opportunities for professional artists’. What are you scared of anyway, you who hold the money and the space? That we will ruin your white walls and polished floors? That we won’t bow our heads in submission as we walk up the cascading stone stairs to your gleaming glass entrances? That we will stain the air with our foul peasant words?
So, fuck professionalism. But what about The Academy™? Bluntly, academisation of art fails us. The endless art-speak wankery of interpretive texts that our master’s degrees barely equip us for reading fails us. The self-congratulatory masturbation of another prize given to the chief bullshitter of the year fails us. By us we mean the people. We mean everyone who doesn’t have a PhD on the ontology of technologies of bodies in space across time or in the (re-)gendering of practice as process through method. We mean anyone who has been made to feel alien, inadequate, uneducated or uncultured by a sector still so plagued by pomp and prestige. If we define good art by what hangs on white walls in galleries made by people who spend their “professional” lives spouting such impenetrable art-speak that most of us can’t understand them, then what the fuck is good art for? For the two PhD students at the back pensively looking at a watercooler they have mistaken for an artwork? Don’t get me wrong, important work does get done in academies; but do hear me clearly, the academy as a dominating defining force moderating taste is a brutal barrier to the democratic cultural production we so sorely need.
When we – Inga and Sam – are playing our role as Status Queer, working for a democratic cultural production means leveraging our privilege to get resources, tools and space to those without that luxury. So, how do we do this? Here our methods range from economic, advisory and administrative support for other creators to knowledge sharing and network building, as well as work exchanges, shared creative processes and collaborative making.
Questioning who has access to space and resources is not just about opening up more channels so that artists from more marginalised backgrounds have more access to the means of artistic production. To make a truly democratic cultural production, which we so crucially need to build the community we need, we have to dismember a key hierarchy that so often arises in the art world: the difference between participant and maker. In normative art spaces the artist is superior, rising to the heights of mystified artistic genius towering over squabbling prestige hungry temple servants who themselves preside over a select sea of knee-bent worshippers. In our own practices, and in our facilitation of other artistic voices, we make clear that everyone who takes part is an artist.
The art we fight for is about human connection. When we are at the front, organising and bringing people together, we are the conductor but we are not the orchestra. As the conductor, we are there to bring different tones and rhythms into harmony, not to make the music ourselves – that is the job of the musicians. In our work that is the job of the co-makers. They are the makers, the sharers and the community builders; they are the experts of their own experiences, with the passage they play in the symphony uniquely tuned to this expertise. Ultimately, they are the artists and if we are to move beyond the structural failings of our sector we must respect and treat them as such.
A CALL TO ARMS
We live in an ableist, classist, racist, sexist, queerphobic, transphobic and xenophobic society. We were raised to be all of those things. We are sure that you reading this here today have spent time and energy unravelling those poisonous beliefs and changing those damaging behaviours. But the sad truth is, we also know that that process is not complete. It never will be. We are all capable of doing harm to each other. No matter how ‘woke’ or ‘PC’ or accepting or kind we are. We live in our broken society and everyday we play a role in replicating its oppressions through our speech, through our actions and through our contributions to its institutions and markets. But this is no moment to throw your hands up in the air and give up, this is a call to arms. If the idea that your actions contribute to a system which hurts people weighs heavily on you, turn that around and think of the people further down the dog pile. Our guilt does not set us, or anybody else, free. Only our actions can.
Our call to arms is not a call backed by the punishing crack of a flogger – not unless you ask nicely anyway. Our call to arms is a call to care and to be cared for. We need you to engage with what we do, to take our art seriously and to join us at the table. Together we are going to make mistakes, rub each other the wrong way and put our feet in our mouths, but together we can also build understanding, weave new connections and find joy.
What we are doing is not unheard of. It is not reinventing the wheel, it is not alien or delusional or unhinged, but it isradical. We need radical change now so get on board and be on the right side of history.
Text: Status Queer
Images: Status Queer, Kristina Kolaric, Levi Karvonen, Ta Plats! Frilagret, Sara Lindquist
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