A Very Queer Night at the Museum

By Josh Emsley (he/him)

This year saw the 16th anniversary of Belfast’s Outburst Queer Arts Festival. As a week dedicated to an all-embracing explosion of queer art, performance, thought and representation, Outburst brought a colourful and flamboyant, yet carefully crafted itinerary to Belfast, totally consuming the city’s attention. From the 11-19th November, we witnessed a rainbow of events from a suite of LGBTQ+ films showcased at Queen’s Film Theatre; live poetry and performances across Belfast’s stages; to the queerly enchantment of familiar places across Belfast, conjuring up time and space for queer gathering, sharing and creating.

Queer Possibility in the Museum was one such event, curated at the Ulster Museum in partnership with queer exhibit designer Margaret Middleton (they/them). For one night only, the museum was reorientated in its narrative and focus, subverting the familiar. The evening featured two local artists, Carl Hart (he/they) and Ross Anderson-Doherty (he/him). Having received an initial brief to find inspiration from the museum’s objects on display, they set out to performatively reimagine queer possibility in the museum’s past, present and future contexts.

First, Carl took us back in time to the 1920’s, creatively using boylesque to actively question the gendered and sexual narratives told in an exhibition on the liberating changes to women’s fashion. With Carl centred in the exhibition space, the audience surrounded him in awe as he performed to ‘Creep’ by Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox, slowly taking off his black and white suit to unmask a hidden, glittery “creep” stitched onto his pants. In that moment, Carl’s performance became the focal point of the exhibition and transcended the stories of easy-fit women’s garments, recasting an alternative narrative of queer subculture within 1920’s fashion. With the performance nudging toward the rise of androgenous clothing, cross-dressing and non-conforming visibility amongst queer folks in the 1920s, Carl left us fruitfully questioning, “what other queer narratives might remain untold in these everyday exhibitions?”

In a similar vein, the evening’s curator, Margaret, supplied each attendee with a free paperback guide that offered tactics to aid us in the identification of queerness mostly disguised and usually unnoticed amongst the museum’s exhibitions. Drawing on the well-known notion of the ‘gaydar’, Margaret insightfully illuminated that this capacity to spot queerness is actually a way of knowing. Like putting on a pair of sunglasses, we might then calibrate our gaydars to see things anew in different ways, to expose a kind of ‘lavender layer’ that is, at first glance, rendered invisible by choices of language and the narratives being told. Eager to expose this queerness lurking in the shadows and coded in historical writings, Margaret pointed out that gendered and sexual normativity continues to preclude queer narratives from being told. This idea that the museum continues to operate under heteronormative laws, was a central theme that the event actively sought to challenge.

The night concluded with cabaret performer, Ross Anderson-Doherty, taking centre stage on the museum’s ground floor in a magnificent white dress and dazzling white and gold wings. “It’s odd and wonderful” Ross declared while looking across the audience from his perch on the staircase, “that we are gathered here among the symbols of empire, and attachments to an empire that is cracking”. Reflecting on the original brief he was tasked with, Ross discussed his attempt to “find the glitter in the cracks, the queerness in the margins”. In challenging conformity to the mainstream art world though, Ross posited that as queer performers, artists, and a community, we might instead look to a process of total reimagination. In his zealous pursuit toward a horizon of queer possibility, Ross endeavoured to completely appropriate the museum building with his spectacle performance, captivating the audience as they joined him in singing the pop classic Rhianna hit, ‘We Found Love’. This moment, where the audience had their hands and arms in a perpetual ‘middle-aged swing’, was perhaps the most powerful of the whole evening. It was here that the voices of Ross, an audience of mostly queer folks, and full-volume Rhianna, synergised together to send vibrations through the whole building, making the very bones of the relict dinosaurs and mummies tremor. And as we sang along together, I thought to myself, “might these very tremors be symbolic not just of this single event, but maybe of an impetus that is, in its very essence, destabilising, non-conforming and all the more queer?”

So, as we say goodbye until next year, what are some takeaways from this queer evening at the Ulster Museum and the Outburst Queer Arts Festival more generally? In sum, the event did a lot of productive work in terms of charting new kinds of queer possibility within the museum and beyond. Firstly, it brings to the fore, a recognition that these everyday, taken-for-granted spaces are embroiled within broader normative ideas of gender and sexuality. To this end, we – not just queers – are all tasked with the burdensome work of detecting queer traces under a veil of censorship. But why should we do this? What have we to gain from queering the places we visit, the things we read, the ways we think? One reason might be that it is a form of activism with a small ‘a’. I refer here, to one of the central tenants underpinning Outburst’s ethos, as laid out by the festival’s artistic director Ruth McCarthy. In bringing together art and activism, Outburst really is about the cultivation of community support. If we are actively engaged in a form of critical thinking that necessitates a queer lens, might we then nudge toward not just the destabilisation of normative thinking on gender and sexuality but also an understanding of “us” in Belfast’s past, present and future context? In a city that is characterised by its heavily divisive ethno-nationalist identity politics, might a queer way of thinking potentially lend us new ways of reimagining Belfast anew in all its colourful, friendly, and queer diversity? Maybe we could be onto something here…

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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