1989 -2017 BRISBANE ART & ACTIVISM by EVELYN HARTOGH
1989-2017 BRISBANE ART & ACTIVISM by EVELYN HARTOGH
In 1989, my political activist art practice was motivated by 3 events: the eviction of 4ZZZ from the University of Queensland; the introduction of up front university fees in the form of HECS; and the Queensland parliamentary debates concerning the decriminalisation of homosexual acts.
I moved to Brisbane in January 1989, to study journalism at the University of Queensland (UQ). A month before, at 4.17am on 14 December 1988, UQ St. Lucia campus’s public radio station 4ZZZ was raided, and threatened with eviction, by police brought in by the National Party leaning student union president Victoria Brazil. I immediately became involved in the protests, speeches, and sit ins, to try to keep 4ZZZ on campus, and retain student union funding, and spaces, for disadvantaged minority groups. HECS introduction meant the end of free university education, and increased inequality, by giving the wealthy a discount when they paid it as a lump sum, while the poor would be faced with a much larger debt differed via taxation.
I bought a ‘Mable Loves May’ singlet from the 4ZZZ lesbian radio show Dykes On Mikes. My fashion choice outraged the deeply conservative students at my residential college. There was only one other ‘alternative’ student at Women’s College, and we were dubbed the ‘swampy monsters’ by the chambray shirt, beige slack wearing conformist majority. Residential colleges frequently had ‘ugly’ dances, and students would knock on our doors and ask to borrow our ‘ugly’ dresses. They were surprised we both insulted, and treasured our vintage op shop frocks. The general consensus among the conservative students was that ‘alternative’ dressing (or thinking) was only done out of ignorance of ‘normal’ dressing (or thinking). Our conscious rejection of bland uniformity was considered a form of mental, and moral, deficiency. In the 1990s fashion was strictly divided between conservative yuppies, and alternative subcultures. Grunge, Punk, Mod, and Goth, were yet to be co-opted, commercialised, and watered down, by capitalism. In the 1990s the Brisbane lesbian community had a strict butch dress code, of flannelette shirts, Bonds T-shirts, Levi jeans, Doc Martin boots, and very short hair. Femmes like myself were routinely ejected from lesbian bars, and ended up going clubbing with gay men in venues that embraced flamboyant dressing.
On 31 August 1989 the first rally for gay law reform was held with chants of, “Say it Out and say it Loud, we are Gay and we are Proud”. I spoke at rallies at UQ, and went on Freedom Of Choice marches. I also published articles, about this discriminatory law which justified a host of human rights abuses, such as; denial of hospital visiting rights, denial of inheritance, housing, and employment; to gay bashings, and unsolved murders of queers.
Despite the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1990, Queensland queers largely remained in the closet at work, or risked dismissal on trumped up transgressions. The Queensland anti-discrimination policy was woefully inadequate, because it made an exception for discrimination against homosexuals being lawful, if it offended the religious beliefs of, for example, an employer or a landlord. Effectively this meant that any right-wing fundamentalist Christian group had the power to censor state housing, educational facilities, libraries, shops (demanding the removal of tenants, teachers, books, comics, or anything which depicted, or mentioned, homosexuality). Homosexuality may have been decriminlaised, but discussion of it remained suppressed. Common homophobic abuse included: blaming queers for AIDS; confusing homosexuality and paedophilia; and vitriolic propaganda which misused biology, history, and religion, as ‘factual’ justification for discrimination.
Despite the weight of prejudice, queers mobilised to educate the community about safe sex. At UQ in the 1990s, I threw condoms into lecture theatres as part of the Latex Liberation Front, repeating the slogan, “if its not on, its not on”, and would later reprise this safe sex activism in cabaret performances, in the 2000s.
Law reform paved the way for the Brisbane LGBTQIA+ Pride Festival, which began in 1990 with a Rally in the city, followed by a march to Fair Day at Musgrave Park. The first few Pride marches were sombre affairs with the police, and homophobic protesters, outnumbering the marchers. The early marches focused attention on the death toll of the AIDS epidemic, a health crisis exacerbated by prejudice, and we would lay down in a silent protest on the bridge, surrounded by police, and homophobic church groups.
Amid this hostile atmosphere, in 1991, I gave my first nightclub spoken word performance at Gavin Waller’s unique queer cabaret nightclub Fag Bar where we had came to see Adrian Barker perform as Kylie Minogue. Gavin would later interview me for Scene magazine in 1994, when I was a regular performer at Bartleme Galleries doing spoken word political satire as Barbie, Domestic Wonder Woman, Lillith, and many more characters. I was doing Performance Art for events organised by Christine Ploetz and Rod Bunter at Isn’t Studios, and was a model in the chaotic, colourful and frenetic fashion parades for Mark Wilson’s label Hairy Dog.
Combining art with activism gave visibility to queers in a period of under-representation, (to the point of invisibility), in mainstream media, and culture. This silencing and invisibility was why I chose to use Popular Culture Icons as my medium, as a way of reclaiming the central cultural environment, for oppressed groups who were pushed aside, or over the edge. Performance Art allowed me to simultaneously be both the subject, and the object, of art. Spoken word was a way to reclaim the narrative of my life. To write the script, and create the character, and then be that character, and speak those words, meant I could escape the derogatory descriptions of ‘undesirable’ and ‘deviant’ for anyone in Queensland who was not white, heterosexual, male, economically privileged and/or right wing.
Mark Wilson encouraged me to make my own costumes for my spoken word and kinetic performance art, and Christine Ploetz gave me the corset that was the structural backbone of the first Wonder Woman costume I made. I was anti-capitalist, and anti-fame, knowing I was creating transient art that could not be sold in mass produced units. Ironically, I became the commodity itself, and was being booked almost weekly, for everything from unpaid benefits for causes, and community groups, to profit-shared independent art spaces, to government grant funded festivals.
During the 1990s I released a series of handmade artist books with the satirical names of ‘Soldout’, and ‘Buy’, which combined my scripts, with photographs of my characters. While publicising the books, journalists were suprised to discover I wrote my performances. There was a widespread belief in the 1990s that there were two Evelyn Hartoghs, one a writer about Barbie, the other a performer of Wonder Woman. By the 2000s this shifted to a belief that ‘Evelyn Hartogh’ was a stage/pen name, not a real person, and I would be met with disbelief, and even anger, when I introduced myself. I was completely unprepared for the bizarre side effect of fame where people would insist on knowing me well, despite having never met me, or claim to be my lifelong partner after we worked together once. It was a nonsensical experience which made me wish I had kept using the stage name ‘Eve International’ that I had used briefly in the early 1990s.
In 1992 I first performed Domestic Wonder Woman as Eve International at Boulder Lodge. This Fortitude Valley art space was run by Joseph O’Conner, who also organised the Brisbane LGBTQIA+ Pride Art Exhibition in 1993, and later became an artistic director at Metro Arts. Joseph called Yootha Nasia the truest performance artist in Brisbane, due to Yootha’s creative pop art punk dressing which outraged conservative Queensland. I became friends with Yootha in 1989 at UQ, and he modeled prolifically for Mark Wilson’s Hairy Dog. In 1995 I first performed my Slapstick David Bowie Drag King acts at Buggered, a queer art cabaret nightclub run by Yootha Nasia at 81 Elizabeth Street. Yootha later ran a similar club called Unco, at The Zoo, where in 1999 I also performed drag. Alternative queer clubs like Unco, and Buggered, were rare, and often short lived. One exception was Omo which was intermittent, and regularly changing venues, but enjoyed longevity, and great respect, in the avant garde queer club community.
The politics of drag were not as straightforward as simple cross dressing. Drag Queens, even when dressed as women, retained patriarchal power, while simultaneously making fun of the time consuming aesthetic demands placed on women. The ability for men to imitate women, simply by painting their faces, and wearing flamboyant clothes, demonstrated the complete facade of femininity. However, Drag Kings only had to strap down their breasts, and go without make-up, to allow women to experience the greater freedoms, unearned power, and automatic respect, given to masculinity. Attempting to satirise machismo was difficult because patriarchal power was utterly unquestioned, completely unrestrained, and male aggression dominated public spaces.
Since men dominated the queer clubs, Drag Queens dominated queer entertainment in Brisbane. Venues such as The Terminus, The Beat, and The Wickham in The Valley, and Options, and The Sportsman’s, in Spring Hill, all offered female impersonators lip synching under witty stage names. Women only queer clubs were few, and usually only monthly offerings in one room of a larger male dominated pub club. Drag Kings were a rarity in the 1990s, but by the 2000s Brisbane boasted the lesbian Drag King collective The Twang Gang who empowered women through drag performance. The Twang Gang were non-competitive, and inclusive, with a welcoming policy of telling women that if they could count, they could do drag.
During the 1990s The Zoo, on Ann Street in the Valley, served cheap vegetarian food because a requirement of their initial liquor licence was patrons purchasing a meal before drinks. The Zoo hosted a wide variety of artist run events, under collectives such as The Dada Club, Mindscapes, Glam Slam, university cabaret events for Queer Collaborations, National Organisation of Women Students Australia, International Women’s Day, and Blue Stocking Week, and fund-raisers for a multitude of community groups and activists. The Zoo also hosted The Brisbane Writers Fringe Festival, which was the inclusive queer, feminist, social justice, avant garde arm of The Brisbane Writer’s Festival. In later years, due to its focus on the spoken word, the fringe event became the more conservative, and mainstream Queensland Poetry Festival. However, QPF sometimes incorporated more inclusive radical satellite events into its line-up, such as the longest running spoken word event in Brisbane, No Boundaries, which ran from 1995 to 2003, before the gentrification of West End, and consequently The Boundary Hotel, pushed radical locals out.
In 1994 The Zoo hosted the Hairy Dog tribute fashion parade, after Mark Wilson’s death from ‘misadventure’. Many people believed it was yet another unsolved gay bashing, as Mark had frequently been the target of violence from right wing subcultures. His response to homophobic abuse was to sing in reply, “Boring Straight, Boring Straight, Hetero, Hetero, Hetero”. His nickname for Brisbane was Brisbanal and he was often frustrated to hear his creations simplistically described as ‘innovative’ and
‘eclectic’. Bartleme Galleries also exhibited Hairy Dog clothes as part of the memorial following his death, prior to his designs being archived at The Sydney Powerhouse Museum.
In the early to mid 1990s Bartleme Galleries was run by Edwina Bartleme and Dallas Baker, and exhibited fine art, and hosted performance art events, with a strong feminist and queer focus. At the gallery on 3 February 1995, I recited a monologue about witch hunts while dressed in a clear plastic toga, standing in a kiddie pool filling with water, while The Toilet Doilies walked on flaming stilts. The fire alarm went off, and the entire of Elizabeth Arcade, where Bartleme Galleries was situated, had to be evacuated. The source of the alarm turned out to be the restaurant beneath the gallery, and although a reviewer later claimed I “stole the show”, I was devastated, and inconsolably upset at having my performance cut short. Edwina Bartleme went on to form Women in Art (WANDA) and created queer, feminist events at venues such as Bauhaus Gallery, Man Bites Pumpkin, and the UQAM, University of Queensland Art Museum, St Lucia, Brisbane..
In 1997 Secuumb Space was located behind The Zoo, and hosted multi-art social justice focused events in association with 4ZZZ, and International Women’s Day, among others. On 31 August 1997 I performed my Baby Doll spoken word, dressed in pink bubble wrap provided by Secuumb’s Alex Gillespie. It was eerie to perform political satire about the idolising, and tearing down, of white blondes, on the very day the news reported Princess Diana had died in a car crash. In 1997 I was also writing a dissertation on Barbie, for a Masters of Arts in Women’s Studies. I spent 1997 looking like Barbie, in a year long performance of immersion into my subject matter, including a very physical slapstick act called Barbie Behaving Badly, and I did.
Many multi-art artist run social justice events took place at alternative stores in the 1990s, such as Scrabble, Man Bites Pumpkin, Trash Video, and Red Books In the Valley, and The Sitting Duck Cafe (nicknamed by locals as The Sitting Dyke Cafe), Avid Reader, Cafe Babylon In West End, and The Hub Internet Cafe in the city. These businesses acted as cheap, or even free, venues for alternative queer book, and zine launches, bands, and performance art.
In 1998 I produced Art Love Jam, a queer avant garde cabaret as part of the Brisbane LGBTQIA+ Pride Festival, and the first event was held at The Hub Internet Cafe and featured local lesbian pop stars Lollie, and Jami, queer spoken word artists Vanessa Crowther, Mark Eades, Dallas Angguish, and myself, with Yootha Nasia and Tam Patton DJing between acts, and Dougal as the MC. The event’s popularity led to James Lees coming aboard as my co-producer. James liased with the larger venue of The Zoo, and utilised his contacts to source us cheap poster printing, and distribution. Art Love Jam ran at The Zoo from 1999 to 2001, and we expanded the show to include feminist circus artists, and added a talent show, which provided a launch pad for numerous up and coming queer performers. In interviews with journalists I spoke about the political motivation for the event; namely increasing visibility, and acceptance of queers, and thus hopefully reducing queer youth suicide; addressing the sources of homophobia; and uniting the arts community under the theme of love. As the event grew in size, sponsorship partners demanded an ‘apolitical’ stance on posters and handbills. In the 1990s this was a common stance in Brisbane, with many businesses, and government funding bodies, happy to support gay artists, but not overtly ‘gay’ art.
Prior to the prolific internet social media of the 21st Century, the 1990s were dominated by street press which gave a voice to subcultures, alternative arts, and left wing politics. Promoting events was done via university publications like Semper, Utopia, and Gravity, and entertainment guides such as Time Off, Scene, Rave, Queensland Pride, Brother Sister, Q-News, Green Left Weekly, Lesbians On The Loose, and a multitude of underground zines. I joked that publishing documentation photos in the street press, with circulations of hundreds of thousands, was a way of exhibiting my character creations to a larger audience. However, utilising the media as part of my art practice, was a serious matter for me. I considered media publicity a vital component of my art practice. I consistently documented my costumed characters, and performances, as both a way to publicise, and record, a transient art form where I was both the subject and the object.
In the 1990s it was difficult to document performances. Video cameras were expensive, and very few people, besides film studies students, had access to them. I concentrated on having regular stills taken of my characters, and sent out the photos, along with media releases I wrote, to promote my gigs. Anna Zsoldos took my first documentation photos, of Domestic Wonder Woman, Barbie, and Lillith. In 1996 Ivan Nunn photographed me as Domestic Wonder Woman, both for his series of artists in their homes, and for me to use in publicity. In 1997 Alex Gillespie documented my Barbie Behaving Badly and Babydoll performances. In 1998 and 1999 Christine Polowyj photographed my new Eric/Evy character, and documented my live David Bowie and other Drag King acts. I wrote for Queensland Pride Newspaper from 2000 till 2009, and my editor Iain Clacher documented many of my characters, until his death in 2009.
For most of the 20th Century the subject, and photographer, shared equal usage rights. In 1998 this changed to a photographer automatically retaining usage rights of photos, with a few major exceptions. A performance artist would have equal usage rights to photographs, and film of live acts, even if they did not pay the person, using the camera, that they had asked to document their work. If a photographer wanted to use the photos for publicity, commercial, or fund raising, ventures, then they would need the performance artist to sign a release form. Despite these legal protections of performer’s rights, the complexities of copyright had the potential for misunderstandings, and exploitation of performers, and writers, especially. Prior to smart phones making video recording highly accessible, in the 1990s, and the 2000s, it was possible to pay a person to operate a camera, to film a few minutes of a performance, then wait months for the documentation. Many times the footage of my performances was lost, or recorded over, and once I found myself having paid for documentation, and music usage rights, only to discover I had become the unpaid performer for a camera person who declared the documentation of my live performance to now be their ‘work of art’. It was a gamble, to pay anyone to document my performances.
In 1994 I joked to journalist Nicola Robinson that I would love to vacuum the mall as Domestic Wonder Woman and use the newly installed video cameras in the Queen Street Mall to document the performance. She ran with the idea as the main angle of her article, and I photocopied my Sunday Mail interview, and sent it with a letter asking the City Heart authority for permission. They called me very confused because I wasn’t asking them for money, nor was I planning to busk, and collect money that way. My lack of capitalist impetus made no sense to them, but eventually they agreed to allow me to perform on one condition: I did not speak. I made this restriction part of the performance, and surrounded myself with friends with clipboards, and asked them to record the reactions of passers by, and if anyone questioned them, or me, we were only to reply, “we may not speak, we must be silent, or it is considered soliciting”, and, to any insult or praise, I instructed everyone to only say “Thank-You”, which was the title of the performance.
As well as the written accounts of my friends who were present, my Domestic Wonder Woman Vacuum performance elicited numerous reactions, and interpretations, over the years. In the 1994 interview promoting the event I had brought up the inequities in the amount of unpaid, or underpaid, labour done by women. I was surprised that few people linked my vacuum cleaner to a witches broomstick, but it hardly mattered in the 1990s context of privileging the infinity of audience interpretations. Many journalists later described the performance as “cleaning up the city”, or concluded that I liked to shock. One journalist, interviewing me in 2006 for the Brisbane Fringe Festival, assumed the performance was about reclaiming public spaces for women. The queerness of the performance was all but ignored, until the documentation was included in the Museum Of Brisbane’s 2010 Prejudice And Pride Exhibition which celebrated twenty years of law reform. Wonder Woman, at that time, was the only lesbian DC Comics super hero (she is now officially bisexual, having had sex with Steve Trevor in a 2017 comic released at the same time as the 2017 Wonder Woman movie). By the 2000s DC Comics had many queer comic book characters including Batwoman and White Canary.
The freedoms enjoyed by artist run events, unhampered by bureaucracy, and authority, changed dramatically after the 11 September 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York. Insurance policies sky-rocketed, and security became a major issue, and expense. Events that had been free, such as Brisbane LGBTQIA+ Pride Fair Day, were faced with so many additional costs to remain legal, that they eventually had to charge an entrance fee to ensure the event broke even. In response to rising entry fees, events like the 2017 LGBTQIA+ People’s Pride Day at The South Brisbane Bowls Club offered a free alternative.
The Queensland Association For Healthy Communities (formerly Queensland Aids Council) supported numerous community queer artist events, such as 2009’s Cabaret Q which focused on the diversity in the queer community, and the specific needs of different groups. QAHC, along with many other social and health services, had its funding cut in 2012 by the LNP’s newly elected Queensland Premier Campbell Newman. In response to this funding cut, many artists, like myself, worked for free at QAHC community events and fundraisers. Andrew Costi organised an art auction to raise funds, and community groups banded together to show solidarity and support to the organisation which had supported them for so many years. QAHC continued to organise events designed to reassure minority groups in the queer community, that they would continue to provide a safe space, education, information, plus health and social services.
One event which withstood economic conservatism, and the gentrification of working class neighbourhoods, is West End’s Kurilpa Derby. This annual festival of human powered wheels began in 2007 as wheelchair races in association with The Sporting Wheelies. It quickly expanded to include bicycles, skateboards, roller skates, and numerous costume, and cart, creations of locals. Boundary Street, right up to the main intersection of West End, at Vulture Street, is closed to cars for the day, and non-petroleum modes of transport are celebrated in hilarious races. Starting with a people’s parade, performances from local dance studios, and an enormous variety of home-made costumes, and contraptions, the Kurilpa Derby gives the streets, and the arts, back to the people.
Once a suburb famous for its left wing, working class, feminist, and queer communities, West End is now prime inner city real estate. Thanks to the ongoing enthusiasm of locals from the arts community, the Kurilpa Derby has endured the rapid rise in population, and increased urban density in West End. My last performance in Brisbane was as a guest MC, as Wonder Woman, at the 10th annual Kurilpa Derby in 2017. I had previously MCed the event, as Wonder Woman, from 2010 till 2013, until health concerns forced me to take a break from performing. By 2018 I had joined the annual southern migration of Brisbane artists to more progressive cities, but am heartened to see the Kurlipa Derby still going strong.
EVELYN HARTOGH 10 SEPT 2019