'Me Maskuline' [sic]

A transcribed talk originally given as part of a series of artist and academic talks on masculinity during the 'me maskuline' exhibition Alex curated at King College London, first seen earlier last year at Camberwell Arts, a DIY artist-led space...

“This is an exciting exhibition that brings together important feminist and queer works to turn the gaze on masculinity. In doing so it asks probing questions about the nature of power and gender relations today. These are complex works that take us far beyond the usual pronouncements about masculinity being 'in crisis'."

Rosalind Gill, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at Kings College London

The context to this coming together now was that I met Tracy Allen who runs a DIY, artist-led space in Camberwell. We talked and realised we had both taken images of men. And decided to show our work together and from there I wanted to also show what other artists were doing with men and masculinity, how they were putting it on the spot or just looking it up and down. Thanks to the other artists for getting involved in something so DIY and unfunded. My little hair-brained scheme. I’m not a curator.

Then Professor Rosalind Gill agreed to give a talk as part of that. She saw that the exhibition could fit well with this festival even when it felt a bit unclear to me. I was surprised myself when I started looking into how it related to the theme of this festival on memory and violence. I was surprised at how much violence figured in the exhibition — either because the artists themselves were accused of violence towards men (Rosie Gunn and Alexis Hunter) or because there was a threat or possibility of violence from the defenders of masculinity (as in Oreet Ashery’s work and my own).

In fact underlying the whole exhibition is the question of whether masculinity can be challenged, put on the spot, prodded and poked without violence.

I think a lot of artists shy away from staring down masculinity — or even just assessing it. Maybe that’s because of that threat of attracting violence and the fear of being seen as violent. Focusing on masculinity can feel like putting your body on the line in a very real sense. It’s far easier to turn a critical and voyeuristic gaze on the marginal, and those less powerful than ourselves. After all, the powerful can always take their revenge and they’re in a better place to take it. Jeremiah Shabazz said: “every black person knew one thing about the white man — if you said something he didn’t like, he was going to get you, and fear of the white man’s retribution was greater than any fear of God.”

Masculinity can mean so many things. It can be enjoyed, and embodied too. And I think much of that comes across here but lets not blank out the uneasy feelings.

When I think about masculinity — aspects of it — I often feel powerless, stuck and tired. The aspects I’m talking about are the vying for dominance, the act of masculinity as superior that so often leads to violence. Should I confront it? Should I complicate my view of it and hope it dissolves in front of my eyes? Or should I tease it? Stare it down? Should I act aggressively or peaceably? Or turn away from it because it’s tiring to keep your head there for long.

I do think something has to be done about masculinity and its reliance on domination and violence. And I do think the finger needs pointing - especially at white, hetero, middle-class masculinity: mainly because that type of masculinity has spent so much time persuading us all that everything and everyone is inferior and because it’s persuaded so many of us that everyone and everything is to blame for society being somehow ‘wrong’ - except itself. Because it puts itself in the position of the judge. This type of masculinity needs to prop itself up and it does that through creating hierarchies in capitalism, neo-colonialism and sexism. It’s the guardian of a culture that only has a 6.5% conviction rate for reported rapes. And a police and prison system that does nothing to bring about social change. Because real social change would mean scrapping those institutions of domination and bullying.

I guess this exhibition was about finding out what other people I respected were doing about masculinity. All the work in the exhibition interested me because it’s about experimenting with different ways of interacting with masculinity - teasing it, confronting it, complicating it often with tenderness and vulnerability on both sides.

It seems to me that the artists here are willing to act as a catalyst to change and willing to be a witness to the possibility of violence. All the artists in one way or another face up to masculinity. They’re all risking the boundaries. And that brings us closer to meaningful possibilities for change.

My own work was about putting myself into positions where I could experiment and think about the ways I was interacting with masculinity and some of the reasons for my behaviour. I put myself in positions where I most wanted to retreat into passivity and acquiescence. A few of the images from the project are on the wall over there. In that project I approached men in public spaces — mainly in London’s Square Mile but also in Liverpool, outside ‘Gentlemen’s Venues’, pubs, offices and cafes. I approached them confrontationally in that I wasn’t asking for permission for those initial street images and I was trying not to be appeasing. I then entered into a negotiation with them to get them into a private space like an alleyway, car park or back at mine or theirs. Once there I’d ask them to remove items of clothes. A coat and jumper, shirt, then t-shirt, perhaps trousers and boxers. The project was a process. I started with acquaintances and explained the project in some detail. I didn’t think that was getting me far enough in finding out why the power dynamics with men made it so difficult to objectify them. I needed to move onto strangers.

It’s not a headspace I much liked being in. The threat of violence was very much in my head when I first thought about doing the project. The idea of the threat loomed much larger than anything that actually happened. But although I’ve lived my fair share risky behaviour without violent repercussions or feelings of fear, this project did ignite fear in me as well as in family, friends, acquaintances and strangers. There was a tightening box of safety telling me not to behave in certain ways, not to do certain things, not to aggravate the situation with men. And yet the biggest difference I can see between this and my previous risky behaviours was that I was not going along with what men wanted. The process forced head under surface and woke me up. bell hooks in ‘Feminist Theory from Margin to Center’ said: “the world we have intimately know. The world in which we feel safe (even if such feelings are based on illusions) must be radically changed.” And I had felt safe and I was beginning to see it as an illusion.

My experiences were thankfully fairly mundane and often very human. Sometimes filled with tenderness and vulnerability on both sides. Nonetheless between each man I photographed there were days when I just walked the streets without lifting my camera up. Every time was a struggle with myself. The heaviness of my interactions with men and what I might come up against was a bit paralysing. I wasn’t a photographer doing this project. I’d just given up a ten-year safe career. My camera was a way of testing the boundaries with men and experimenting with my interactions with them. To then also keep a record of the moment. To maybe get to a place of objectivity. To rearrange my own thinking. But rearranging myself isn’t enough. And me being critical of masculinity isn’t enough either. It’s important that masculinity looks at itself critically, psychologically, emotionally. How does masculinity relate to and experience power in patriarchy? Is this violent posturing for superiority going to go on forever?

Doing this exhibition as part of this festival on violence forced my head back under the surface. Back into the headspace of masculinity and violence. It made me think more about what I’m doing with my own work and how I’m relating to masculinity right now. It’s forced me to come to terms with the reality that I’ve been avoiding those aspects of masculinity.

Thinking about this talk has felt really heavy because violence isn’t something to play around with and just discuss. How do we have discussion that isn’t just a vent, a safety valve. A way of avoiding the core and diffusing the situation. What are we actually doing here? How can we manage to be fully human rather than just thinking about interesting ideas. Because that’s keeping a distance and erasing the realities and enormity of the stress and self-hate and the destructiveness of violence.

I’ve not provided new thoughts or angles here. This talk has to be old hat because we haven’t moved on. This is IT. Can we find ways of letting it get to us in a way that doesn’t feel like a diversion or an avoidance tactic?

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