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July 23, 2018 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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Words Cut Loose

Accidentally, between this week and last, this section has become a two-part discussion of No Common Ground. In Ella Sutherland’s current exhibition at Enjoy Public Art Gallery, Margins & Satellites, she explores what she calls “a queering of mechanical reproduction”. Sutherland has created a series of silk-screened images that borrow from the typography and design elements of early lesbian publications, produced during the 1970s and 80s. Arranged between them are recognisable sets of eyes, politicians punctuating a timeline of policy that has marginalised the queer body and its visibility.
In hearing Sutherland talk about her work, she articulates a sort of nostalgia for the queer literature and publications of the past. Margins & Satellites retraces the archive to understand what this might mean. The archive is an important space that Sutherland navigates, for two reasons specifically in Aotearoa: the Lesbian and Gay archives (LAGANZ) were formed by the LGBTTIFQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, takatāpui, intersex, fa’afafine, or queer) community as a recognition that their contribution to our society is valuable and rich, and secondly, there are still obvious gaps in the archives, sections which have eluded documentation. The self-made archive is difficult because it always relies on personal foresight as to what will tell the most critical narratives in the future.
At No Common Ground, Sutherland noted that typography histories often focus on the clarity of words. In contrast, Sutherland is looking at words that have been cut loose, words no longer in service, but independently transmitting ideas through their form and arrangement. A meaning does not always have to be legible — sometimes an intentional obfuscation of meaning can convey more complex concepts. The way media is forced into subservience means it is contained within expected mainstream bias. Through confusing the legibility of graphic design, bias can be overwritten, a game of textual subterfuge.

In looking back to the archive, Sutherland makes an aesthetic out of what was once necessity. In early lesbian publications specifically, a number of which Deborah Rundle (another speaker at No Common Ground) was an organising member of, typeface and illustrations were often hand or type written, to allow ease of reproduction and dissemination. The layout, similarly, was restricted by a lack of technology or software, of which we are fluent in now. The resulting aesthetic of these newsletters, as they were often known as, was ephemeral, fugitive, and resourceful. However, Rundle noted that there this was not a deliberate style, but borne out of necessity. It reminds me of Zadie Smith’s “doing more than is necessary with less than you need,” in her essay Feel Free, in reference to the idea of camp. As she noted, the less-than-you-need part is a crucial characteristic; under-resourced-ness leading to innovation. So, even as there was perhaps no intentional aesthete to early lesbian publications, such as Rundle’s Witches, Bitches and Dykes, their hand made nature has come to be an object of nostalgia for contemporary queer publications and imagery. The ephemeral publication, that which has been hastily put together, is for marginalised groups that fail to be recognised by the Xeroxed mainstream. Within Margins & Satellites, this is also manifested in real-time, though the workspace in the middle of the gallery, where visitors can assemble their own collections of queer images and texts from a selection provided to take away with them, another transient document with many variations that will go home and enter a personal archive. Words cut loose are words that continue to hurtle forwards.

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