The ninth Homotopia Festival runs from 30 October to 30 November 2012. Michael Langan talks to Artistic Director Gary Everett about this innovative queer arts programme.
Since its inception, the annual Homotopia festival in Liverpool has developed one of the most exciting and innovative queer arts and culture programmes in Europe. This year’s festival is comprised of 35 events, including new commissions and world premieres. Homotopia has also worked hard to create collaborative projects and artistic relationships with nationally important venues and organizations, such as the Liverpool Biennial, Walker Art Gallery and the Unity Theatre, ensuring that the festival has as wide an audience as possible. It takes over the whole city, rather than lighting up a ghetto.
Highlights of this year’s offering include the premiere of Epstein, a specially commissioned multi-media play about The Beatles manager; drag fabulist Dickie Beau’s exploration of stardom using rare audio footage of Marilyn Monroe, exhibitions showcasing the work of photographer Mark Morrisroe and Rachel Adams’ photos from Uganda Pride, and a special acoustic performance by Patrick Wolf.
I spoke to Homotopia’s dynamic Artistic Director, Gary Everett.
This is Homotopia’s ninth year. What was your thinking behind setting up the festival?
The idea to develop Homotopia first came in November 2003 and we had the backing of the team behind Liverpool’s bid for European Capital Of Culture, 2008. The planning for the first festival took a year so we launched in 2004. It felt important to me to contribute something to Liverpool’s cultural landscape that had been missing. Raising the visibility of queer art was paramount for me, and given the city’s richly diverse and queer cultural heritage it felt like the right thing at the perfect time. Art, engagement and participation were, and remain, at the heart of Homotopia. Also, Liverpool was at a turning point in its history, a sense of true renaissance was in the air, and there had been no real focus for the LGBT community for a significant number of years.
And do you think you’ve achieved what you set out to do?
I’m immensely proud of the last nine years, very lucky to have a talented team around me, and eternally thankful that they believe in what we’re doing. The organisation is unique as we also are the only UK gay cultural festival that has a year round participation and social justice programme, reaching over 125,000 younger and inter-generational audiences. Homotopia has remained true to its original vision and we’ve never compromised – it’s become a gay cultural nirvana and I hope as many people as possible come and experience that.
For this year’s festival, you’ve chose the theme of ‘Traditional Family Values’ – what does this mean in the context of a queer arts festival?
The term ‘Traditional Family Values’ is often used by politicians and religious leaders to attack the rights of the gay community, both historically and today. We are living in uncertain times, religious extremism and dogma are becoming stronger forces in some parts and that is having a profoundly negative effect on society. Art has the potential for social change and Homotopia 2012 is a politically charged campaign – as an idea and a theme it was designed to subvert the notion of heteronomativity and attract attention to our mission. We commissioned Liverpool-born artist Trademark to convey this in his wonderful, dynamic and heroic painting of two queers celebrating love, strength and companionship. This is vital to promote a sense of unity and community in a festival like Homotopia. So many gay festivals around the UK feel bland, commodified and corporate and seem to have lost their way. I hope through our message of art and social justice we connect with queer and LGBT audiences as well as the wider community.
Homotopia has also commissioned brand new work – how did that come about and how do you decide what you want in the festival?
We have recently become a regularly funded organisation in Arts Council England’s national portfolio 2012-2015. This has brought with it a greater degree of certainty and of course we can plan and take bigger risks. As the festival takes about a year or so to plan I spend time visiting artists, seeing work in development, researching and developing relationships for new projects. I’m already well into planning the 2013 festival and making new projects happen for 2014. It’s a luxury we’ve never enjoyed before so of course we want to make good use of this time.
You’ve had some international success as well, including the major Tom of Finland retrospective. How did all that happen?
Its fair to say the Tom of Finland Retrospective has been one of the most rewarding and fantastic experiences for the organisation. I was privileged to be invited by the Turku 2011 Foundation to curate a year-long exhibition of his work, especially given that Turku was Touko Laaksonen’s [the real name of Tom of Finland] birthplace. The Foundation had seen the success in Liverpool back in 2008 when we curated the same exhibition. It attracted over 90,000 visitors in Turku and recently toured to Kulturhuset, Stockholm, where it attracted 31,000 visitors.
You recently secured a major award from the Heritage Lottery Fund to create an exhibition and archive around the life of Liverpool-born transgender pioneer April Ashley, which sounds amazing.
This will be one of the centrepiece projects for our 10th birthday in 2013: a groundbreaking project that will tell the story of the life of Miss April Ashley, utilising her unique collection of photographs, letters and personal documents supplemented with archive materials from Liverpool Records Office, Liverpool Museum and other sources. It will be at the Museum of Liverpool for a year and will explore the significant role April has played in making social and political history in Britain from 1935 – 2012.
In detailing April’s life, the project will tell the wider story of social, political and legislative change affecting Trans, LGB and many other people in Britain over the past 70 years, and of the impact April’s story has had on family law and legal definitions of gender and identity. We are thrilled it’s happening in Liverpool. It will be a special time for all of us – especially April, who is fully supportive and involved in the project.
A collaborative event in Russia had to be cancelled recently. What happened there?
We were due to show an exhibition in collaboration with Queerfest St. Petersburg, called ‘Art As Social Change,’ chronicling the emergence of the gay rights movement in the UK and Europe. It was launched following the Tom of Finland exhibition but we pulled the programme after being advised by the British Consulate that we could be arrested and imprisoned as a result of presenting it in Russia. It’s especially sad as Turku is twinned with St. Petersburg. The city’s Governor has passed an anti-gay ‘propaganda’ law that effectively gags any public discussion of LGBT issues or events targeted at gay and trans people, including Pride. I’ve never encountered these obstacles before but it’s more insidious than that. It’s more severe in terms of the law’s enforcement. They will arrest people – they’ve already arrested Russian activists so what would stop them from doing that to someone from our country?
Next year’s your tenth anniversary – what do you have planned for Homotopia for then and for future years?
A lot of our birthday plans are under wraps, naturally. The April Ashley exhibition will open as a trailblazer in October 2013 and we will be announcing some of the bigger projects in Spring 2013. We are also producing another Alternative Miss Liverpool, which is going to a bi-annual fixture, and many other big surprises. We’ll be 10 years old and we really want to make some noise and let off a few fireworks! Watch this space…
To visit the Homotopia website and find out more about the 2012 events, click here.