We invited That Looks Queer’s Steve Allen to tell us a little more about their practice ahead of our next digital coffee morning on Wednesday 10 February.
Britain needs a new avant-garde and Sheffield is the place for it to begin. It’s just a little bit odd. It’s full of surprises but it make you work for them. It’s a lot to show for itself but it doesn’t show off. And most importantly, and much like me, Sheffield is “unforgivingly queer as fuck!”
There’s a grubbiness and a grit, perhaps that’s why I love it here and why writing about the creative people that run through my city like the steel slag laden roads is what I turn my attention to. At this time, and as always, it’s been about the unconventional safe spaces it provides. That’s why in lockdown I set up Zwischen, a way to connect those people because a safe space doesn’t have to be four walls, a ceiling and a floor but one person reaching out to another.
In the before times I had been volunteering at Site Gallery and the community spirit and feeling of warmth and love it had afforded me was something I missed and foolishly I felt that if I could recreate that digitally others would flick towards it. I also included my love of the Bauhaus, as I believe that its parallels as an inter-war time of a nation striving to find its new cultural identity are where we see ourselves in this Covid maelstrom. Are we ever going to return to normality and if not, what is the new normal? Creating something new that is more inclusive and diverse would be to the benefit of all and that is where I and Zwischen pitches itself. I started off with weekly workshops with guest speakers and soon realised that while the desire was there my mental capacity wasn’t! Figuring out how to use borrowed technology, ticketing and self promotion all while under the gaping maw of disease: I never like making things easy for myself.
I now set myself the aim of monthly workshops so that I have time to research the subject and the works of the guest. I also don’t keep to these limits too rigidly, the spontaneity is part of the fun of it and why I refuse to have a script. I like conversation to flow so we end up where we end up.
Thankfully I had a great deal of wonderful help from Paul Boardman in creating a new identity for That Looks Queer and Zwischen. When I began my writing practice thinking that I had to be the loudest and proudest in everything I did and while I am those things, the work speaks for itself. Paul made me see that a visual identity should be one that is timeless and infinitely adaptable rather than conforming to trends. The “queerness” was incorporated in the typography and the use of the gradient adds the inference of the familiar rainbow but in a modern interpretation. You don’t need a sledgehammer to swat a fly.
But back to the avant-garde. A grand notion dreamed up by a banker, “the power of the arts is indeed the most immediate and fastest way to social, political and economic reform”.
Olinde Rodrigues was a social reformer who was also a patron of the arts. Through his essay L’artiste, le savant et l’industriel (“The artist, the scientist and the industrialist”, 1825) Rodrigues set out his thoughts, as well as those of his close friend Henri Saint Simon, recognising the value of art to heal and to see that its value was more than monetary.
It is to this distinction that we must look to when we promote the arts within our region. All art has merit and worth but we must be wary of those who would use that as a means of exclusion. The reforms of old sought to bring about an improvement in the social standing of all people and now our politicians refer to museums as being the seat of ”western thought.” They do not recognise the privilege in their words nor the hurt they are doing to the rich multicultural society we are as a people and a nation.
We must look to the intersections of our racial, spiritual and national identities to create the history of our new art. Colonialism has no place within it. That is why I set up That Looks Queer and Zwischen, a place that relishes in these communal unconventional safe spaces.
Anyone who has a little bit of German knowledge knows that Zwischen means between two states. I like to think of that space as somewhere we can all find each other. I hope you can join me there soon.