Thursday, 29 November 2007

practices of everyday life - free pansies in church st, liverpool...

you might remember that i have for some time now been involved with the pansy project, a site specific artwork by paul harfleet which interrogates issues around homophobia, location and citizenship.

i have already ruminated on these pages about the pansy project, its impact on myself and the world viewed and explored through its eyes. its large scale intervention in liverpool’s st john’s gardens was a fascinating creative process of activities leading up to the installation and unveiling of the artwork, a long, bold yet delicate line of pansies cutting through the formal landscaping of the memorial civic gardens. my involvement in these practices led to a breakthrough appreciation and glimmer of understanding into the differences between the actual ‘process’ of art as it happens in the field, as it were, as opposed to the academy, where so often, in a somewhat sterile and sanitised fashion, such work is debated and critiqued.

i also noted my own revelatory moment, as i drew on the phenomenological impact and performative experience of my years as a jobbing archaeologist, where my academic training and field practice informed and engaged the other; where practice and theory could energise each other. this is something that my tentative forays into contemporary art and visual culture have stubbornly refused to grasp, too intellectually intimidated by the mythology of the creative genius to simply experience. my contact with socially engaged practices such as harfleet’s and apartment have begun to allow me to bring my own viewpoint and discourse to art practice; to appreciate the validity and insights that this old boffin might bring to the contemporary. i had forgotten to trust in the archaeological viewpoint and the impact that its decade of reflexivity, its deconstructing of what appears orthodox or apparent, natural and permanent in academic discourse, can bring to interdisciplinary practice and theory.

at the end of that piece i noted that i was looking forward to the pansy project’s next participatory ‘conversation’, in the centre of liverpool, on sunday 18 november, and as predicted it was informative and confusing in equal measure. my thoughts on this are still in flux, subject to many more conversations with two other brunswick bluestockings, maureen ward and chris buckley, who are busy planning a proposal for a shared paper for next summer’s TRIP conference; territories reimagined: international perspectives. more details later, if they are accepted! or take a look at the website;

sunday the 18th was predictably cold, really cold, and we set off early in a swirl of scarves and the threat of rain. arriving mid morning in liverpool the streets are already lively and one can sense the gearing up to christmas: the streets are congested, people are seriously preoccupied with hunting and gathering, bags galore, anticipation in the air. who in their right mind is realistically going to stop and chat about homophobia on a day like today…?

paul, robbie and i set up a small table to one side of church street opposite m&s, fill the table with little pots of flowering pansies and erect some small signs that simply say ‘free pansies’. not much happens; people notice us slightly out of reach, eye up the flowers, peer at the sign and back away. only a brave or foolhardy few approach and ask what’s going on….it all feels a little lacklustre and we feel certain we won’t be able to empty our table.

then the cavalry arrive - well, the community police actually - and take stock of the situation. part of the contingent involved in the st john’s planting, they prove to be firmly committed to the idea of promoting the project: move right in, they say, get close up and personal, don’t let them keep their distance. they move us right into the throng of shoppers…immediately we are thrust into the limelight and under liverpool’s nose. suddenly it’s all action, we are surrounded on all sides - mooching huddles of boys, excitable gaggles of teenage girls fresh from triumphs at primark, mums, dads and kids clutching bags and booty on their way to macdonalds, couples on day-long dates, emos hanging out, all hair, eye make-up and skin tight ankles….

from being a detached experiment, we are now live and kicking, vulnerable and on display like our array of pansies. i busy myself taking photos, documenting as much of the process of the day and the dynamics of exchange as possible, enjoying the performance of paul as chief protagonist and ringmaster and the reactions as he draws people close, as they simultaneously accept the gift of a free pansy and the conditions of engagement, as the penny drops in the ensuing conversation that there is indeed no such thing as a free gift, that they have unwittingly become an agent, an actor in the ritual of the hand-out, that an exchange has occurred and that they have accepted not just a flower but knowledge, and with it an acceptance of responsibility. they have been changed and whether they like it or not have lost their innocence, their ignorance, in this faux garden of eden.

just as suddenly its all over - from being a heavily laden blaze of colour, the table is now almost empty, dusk is drawing in fast and the stores have done their days business. only a few bedraggled pots and our own cold and rather bedraggled selves remain – its time to pack up, warm up and return home…

ostensibly at these events paul hands over control to public participants, to passersby in the streets, regardless of whether or not they are aware of the issues imbued in the project, insisting that it is in these accidental social exchanges that the true meaning and purpose of the process is enacted. yet interestingly perhaps there is something of an inversion in this relinquishing of power, as in actual fact paul imposes the pansy on a largely unsuspecting public, effectively handing back the collective insults that are captured in the material and metaphorical body of the pansy – the embodiment of the ‘effeminate’ gay outsider, the pansy or faggot of heteronormative discourse. by the simple act of giving a member of the public who approaches curiously or unwittingly a gift of a pansy (he is always insistent that no donation or monies change hand on hand out days; it is always a giving) he has created a symbolic act or exchange, and queered or altered the relationship and power dynamic between ‘outsider’ and ‘insider’ in society.

The pansy in this context becomes a positive acknowledgement of shared citizenry, responsibility and the possibility of planting a seed of change, of remedy, out of a hitherto negative situation as well as an opportunity to create dialogues and reach beyond the confines of the usual gay networks.

do visit the pansy project web or blog site for images, information and reflections;; or join the facebook group for informal updates...

the fresh perspective and lucid insights that anthropologist chris buckley has brought to this project cannot be underestimated and i look forward to his forthcoming papers at goldsmiths and TRIP conferences with much anticipation.

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