The Re-appropriation of Sensuality
When I’m having sex, places I’ve often been to randomly flash into my mind, clearly rendered for what feels like an extended moment. These site-memory-flashbacks incorporate a diversity of the familiar and the less familiar. Regardless of the amount of contact I’ve had with the recalled space, the internalized visual is always crystal clear.
These visual renderings have some aspects in common. They are always urban points of convergence – roads, buildings, pedestrian pathways, wastelands, crossroads – seen from a slightly elevated angle and always devoid of people. Imagine a part of the mind shuffling out 3D SketchUp memory files of detailed spatial architectures, but only when that part of my mind is stirred awake by sexual intimacy.
The corner of Dame Street and George’s Street in Dublin has been a recurring site for this imaging experience. On the George’s Street side there is The George, a long-standing gay bar and nightclub of the same variety found in many cities around the world. Tacky, vulgar and familiar, I imagine that The George being located on this corner has some connection with my spatial recall of this particular location.
The exterior of the George is purple, pink neon, rainbow, gold, textured glass, wood; you cannot at any point see inside. The corner of the large building edges down an alleyway where there is a single door, painted black, for late night entry. The internal architecture of The George is specific and amenable to the cruisy walk around. There is a continuous line of sight towards the elevated stage, mirrored along its back wall. The bar is central and runs across the front of the stage, doubling as a dance floor after drag shows, bingo and karaoke. Imagine smoke machines, microphones, wind machines, props and spotlights.
There are three flights of stairs, which allow for continuous and fluctuating channels of movement from above and below. One staircase holds a huge mirror with an overtly ornate gold frame that momentarily contains your whole body as you move towards it. Another staircase snakes down the side of the stage with a small landing halfway. On this staircase people throughout the club can easily see you. The third staircase meets the toilets, cigarette machine and small huddle space.
The upstairs space is wrapped by a balcony and overhangs the stage. From above you can see the crowds beneath reflected in the mirrored wall; here, you can watch people watching. Alcoves, mirrors, stage, elevation, red, gold, pop star, animal print, pillars, faux leather, black painted, sticky floors, bodies, eyes, velvet, cigarette machine, tiles, ATM machine, reflective copper colour, blue colour, pink colour, plastic pitchers of cider, beer, shots, pints and smoking area.
Gay and lesbian bars are closing in America, in England; longstanding bars in London, New York, San Francisco; institutions, patchwork histories. The George only recently escaped receivership and subsequent sale.
I can see The George in my mind’s eye – a thumbnail-sized model on a rotatable axis, swaying slightly, waiting to be spun and viewed from all sides, washed with bright coloured lights: blues, pinks, purples, and a strip of yellow.
There is something obscene seeing this space displayed this way, without people, a disembodied, depopulated object. It makes me feel nauseous and queasy to hold it there, a miniature model of a space dripping and oozing years of hopeful, desperate, compromised, fulfilled, frustrated, disappointed, ashamed and indifferent desires, including my own. Seeping and making me seasick at each turn of the axis. Maybe it’s the limitations and lack of imagination woven into this particular overarching aesthetic: the nasty high-pitched pop music remixes and dance anthems, or the casual misogyny encountered across time, or all eyes on the drag queens impersonating, emulating and adoring the skinny, the blonde, the famous. Maybe I feel queasy because in its almost closing I can acknowledge some deep and awkward feelings towards that place, the pull of whatever it is we do when caught inside a continuous cultural compromise.
The Dragon, Loafers, The Other Place, The Lexington, Phase 1, The Other Side, Meow Mix, The Joiners Arms, Kazbar, gone, going, gone, gone…
The T.A.Z. or Temporary Autonomous Zone, is a concept by anarchist writer Hakim Bey in a chapter called “The Psychotopology of Everyday Life.” Bey describes T.A.Zs as nonpermanent spaces of potential that can erupt and exist outside of the ‘mapped’ and the ‘controlled’ – liberated zones, outbursts or uprisings, psychic ‘nomadisms’. In a similar way to something going viral, the T.A.Z. is difficult to predict. The T.A.Z., in Bey’s own words, proposes that:
“For the time being we concentrate our force on temporary ‘power surges’, avoiding all entanglements with ‘permanent solutions’….We are looking for spaces (geographic, social, cultural, imaginal) and we are looking for times in which these spaces are relatively open, either through neglect on the part of the state or because they have escaped notice by the mapmakers, or for whatever reason. Psychotopology is the art of dowsing for potential T.A.Z.s….The art of spontaneity is crucial.”
Bey claims that the repetition of structures and the mindset of working towards permanence eventually, inevitably and fatally falls into destructive power dynamics and oppressive routine.
On Wednesday, February 2, 2011, around 2,500 members of Berlin’s police force were deployed to evict 25 residents and to quell crowds of supporters at the X Liebig squat in Friedrichshain, close to Frankfurter Allee in East Berlin. There was a five-hour struggle to break through the doors that had been barricaded. The police and bailiffs finally gained entry using axes and sledgehammers to break through barricades of barbed wire, sharpened metal poles and concrete blocks.
The tenement building was first squatted in 1990. Berlin City Council made a lease agreement with the squatters allowing them to live there legally on a very low rent. At that time Berlin’s City Council was happy to repopulate the largely abandoned Eastern parts of the city. X Liebeg was well known as a self-organised queer and trans-feminist-activist centre, home, bar and party space. Since February 2011, the building has been redeveloped and renovated as apartments.
In my own strong desire to make space (architectural, cultural, libidinal). I want both Hakim Bey’s temporary power surges and the fixed location of the X Liebeg squat as a place to return to. I want the T.A.Z. unhinged from the “power dynamics of oppressive routine,” with the potential to erupt and disrupt unexpectedly, and to disappear before becoming encased in repetition and solidification. In these ways, the T.A.Z. appeals to me very much and I understand that it has become a tactic throughout my own life. It’s a queer tactic – a means of occupying spaces of satisfying togetherness without binding to structures or systems that demand stability through repetition. A way to occupy and share space when you have no access to or interest in capital.
But there is a niggling doubt as I recognize that T.A.Z.s are being appropriated by the neoliberal ‘pop up’ event: art space, shop, café, club and bar. I appreciate more and more the meaning of holding space. I feel the profound loss of places like the X Liebeg squat and also – along with a nauseating ambivalence – the gay bar. I am swaying along this line of tension between the building of something, and the very different intention of ‘making something happen’. And I wonder, if you imagine something, does it begin to exist?
Lesbian clubs, dyke nights, queer parties, generally happen sporadically, monthly, once off events, occupying space temporarily. I once attended a sex party for women on a Monday night in Berlin, housed in a small, sailor themed bar in Friedrichshain usually, always otherwise, a regular venue for gay men, with a darkroom taking up twice as much space as the bar itself. I imagine it’s an easygoing gay bar with the possibility of casual sex and a beer. Why, in Berlin, the mecca of queer sexual exploration and urban spatial appropriation, were dykes using a space specifically designed for sex between men, on a Monday night?
Where are the spaces designed, organized and maintained by women for women, where are the buildings and backspaces, basements and sweathouses imagined and realized through channels of female desire?
Where are the public spaces where I can cruise another woman and foregoing conversation engage in shared sexual pleasure without returning to the domestic?
Where are the women with enough money and power to build and legislate these spaces into existence? And if that is the wrong way to go about this project then how do we do it?
This script was recently performed by Emma Haugh at Archive Kabinett in Berlin for “The Re-appropriation of Desire in Public: Emma Haugh with Paper Visual Art,” which included the launch of her recent publication with Paper Visual Art, Having a Kiki: Queer Desire and Public Space, and her exhibition “The Re-appropriation of Sensuality.”
Having a Kiki: Queer Desire and Public Space (edited by artist Emma Haugh and published by Paper Visual Art in Dublin/Berlin) provides an intersectional examination of public space and the built environment through queer, dyke, and transgender perspectives.
“The Re-appropriation of Sensuality” is a long-term, collaborative project by artist Emma Haugh that seeks to reformulate representations of desire and the politics of architecture, looking at the relationship between body knowledge, performance, and the anatomy of space. Underpinning the work is the question: How do we imagine a space dedicated to the manifestation of trans and queer-feminine desire?