Inside RFR, the initiative exploring and retelling queer histories through art

"The workshops are centred on the participants and never have a prescribed outcome. We have an ethos of listening. We sit with groups and collectively develop creative strategies to explore problems together and to highlight or overcome societal issues through arts practice."

RFR flag at Dublin Pride.
Image: Anthony Haughey

REWIND << FASTFORWARD >> RECORD (RFR) is a national initiative aimed at exploring local LGBTQ+ histories and representation to expand their retelling and relevance through artistic expression. For Issue 372 of GCN Magazine, one of its founding members Brendan Fox wrote about the project, describing its conception, what it has accomplished to date, and where it can be found in the future.

I still find it hard to locate my ‘queerness’ at times. I genuinely worry about it. Is it at the bottom of a pint in the gay bars or clubs I frequent? Or did I leave it in my house next to my keys? Perhaps it’s in the pocket of my partner’s jacket that I borrowed? Or I might have left it at that protest we were all at? I feel like I’m always looking for it, trying to define it, to make it tangible so I can ask it questions, give it a snack, or just say thanks.

I’m Brendan Fox and I work as the curator of the Museum of Everyone (MOE), an inclusive portable platform for artists and creatives that aims to amplify a diverse range of voices and perspectives through both artist and community-led initiatives. Workshopping is at the heart of what we do. Since we launched in 2019, MOE has collaborated with over 160 artists and creatives, workshopped with numerous community groups, planted over 10,000 trees, raised money to educate young people who have been through the Direct Provision system, and had exhibitions exploring everything from Black Hair Culture with African Diaspora led by artist Breda Mayock to highlighting the Dublin Castle Scandal and the work of John Joly’s RGB photographic process with Alan Phelan. It’s a dynamic and exciting space and above all a place to learn from each other.

The workshops are centred on the participants and never have a prescribed outcome. We have an ethos of listening. We sit with groups and collectively develop creative strategies to explore problems together and to highlight or overcome societal issues through arts practice.

Last year, a few months or so before Pride Festival, I asked Han Tiernan to join the MOE team as our Queer Program Manager. Han’s area of interest is contemporary Irish LGBTQ+ history and expanding voices within the Irish LGBTQ+ community. She has a sincere sense of responsibility toward queer history and is passionate about sharing her knowledge and unearthing new narratives to extend the existing archives.

For her first project, Han hosted a series of queer talks on our MOE channel with topics ranging from ethnicity to disability*. Through these conversations with younger queer groups, we realised that there was a sense that our community was somehow fractured. The pandemic had left many queer individuals isolated and feeling disconnected. Through further conversations, we realised that this was something that was felt even more deeply by older members of the queer community in rural Ireland who were also geographically at a disadvantage socially. We knew we wanted to elaborate on our queer program, tackle the issues we encountered when interacting with queer groups, and fundamentally knew we wanted to work more together.

Han and I ultimately identified a lack of intergenerational connection and a void between contemporary queer issues and the accessibility of queer Irish history. We developed a proposal entitled REWIND << FASTFORWARD >> RECORD (RFR) an initiative aimed at engaging with LGBTQ+ community groups on a national platform to uncover queer histories and expand their retelling and relevance through artistic interpretation. As part of each regional exhibition, a series of local talks and workshops would generate new creative responses expanding the material as it toured to each new location around Ireland. This cumulative material would form both a historical and a contemporary archive of hidden queer histories and current perspectives of RFR participants. It is essentially an exploration of queer identity; past and present, and our aim is to connect us with both our history and our community.

RFR is an intergenerational space where younger queer people and the older community can share their personal stories and develop a better understanding of our collective histories as well as the issues facing the new generation. We received seed funding from Dublin LGBTQ+ Pride and began our first pilot project with Fatima Groups United (FGU) LGBTQ+ in Dublin 8. We developed a series of workshops that would respond to queer histories in Dublin. Historian Brian Crowley gave us an extensive and haunting tour of Kilmainham Gaol with the group which focused solely on the incarceration of queer individuals and sex workers. Through the subsequent workshop, it became clear that the tour had a profound effect on the group and the exploration of this history had given the group a foothold to discuss their own contemporary struggles as queer individuals. In late 2021 we received Arts Council funding and we were elated that our program could now reach across the island of Ireland and we could connect with groups that would have been impossible to reach without that support.

In March, Sean Kissane invited us to take a three-week residency in IMMA where our first RFR exhibition took place in conjunction with the Outing the Past Festival. We opened with a performance by the estimable Stefan Fae and over our time there we engaged with groups of both artists and non-artists and responded to The Narrow Gate of the Hear and Now: Queer Embodiment Exhibition. Workshops took their cue from the artworks of Derek Jarman and the AIDS quilt among others. In tandem with our pilot project in Dublin 8, we were engaging with Offaly Youth LGBTQ+ Group, many of who were under 19 years old and were budding artists. We bussed the group up to Dublin and toured the exhibition and the workshop that stemmed from their experience was both wonderfully poignant and massively instrumental in them sharing their own stories as queer and non-binary individuals in Offaly.

The connection between both groups became apparent when the FGU group decided to come to Tullamore to support ‘Offaly Proud’, the launch of Midlands LGBT+ Project in Offaly and their fellow RFR participants. This coincided with the launch of the RFR exhibition in Tullamore which took the form of a series of flags designed by RFR participants – a project facilitated by artist Anthony Haughey – and the unveiling of Joe Caslin’s work for MOE at Tullamore train station. Over this period, I hoisted the queer-inclusive flag at the government buildings in Tullamore, my hometown. It was a very emotional time as the recent murders of Aidan Moffitt and Michael Snee had sent shockwaves through our community. We felt their loss permeate through the work we were doing and connecting with groups at that time was a blessing for both Han, myself, and our participants.

In May we spent a couple of days in Derry during LGBTQIA+ Awareness Week ahead of our residency at the Void this August. The welcome afforded to us by Maeve Butler and the founders of Foyle Pride was extraordinarily formative. Eimear Willis of The Rainbow Project hosted a workshop orbiting an archive of the history of Foyle Pride and we were also honoured to have been invited to a screening of Different Journeys, a documentary on the formation of the festival. The “troubles” were deeply felt by the queer community there and individuals often received death threats and had to leave the country for safer shores during the 1970’s. Martin McConnellogue was one such individual and spoke passionately after the screening about his experience. This archive will be the instigative engine of our workshops in Derry this summer which will culminate in an exhibition at Void.

The rest of 2022 sees RFR working with groups at Uillinn West Cork Art Centre in Skibbereen, Limerick City, The Dock in Leitrim, and Galway Arts Centre where we are collaborating with the winners of the 2021 Turner Prize, Array Collective, who are known for projects that support gay rights, marriage equality, feminism, reproductive rights, and anti-austerity activism.

Through our encounters to date, Han and I have been overwhelmed by the bravery in people’s capacity when sharing their stories with us. The power in our participants inhabiting their vulnerability as queer people is simply astounding to witness. We have facilitated workshops with young individuals who have discussed moving schools three times due to online and physical bullying, others spoke of being ostracised from the Traveling community for being lesbian.

These young people were sharing their stories in an intergenerational group where older individuals discussed losing their partner to AIDS and the stigma attached to the disease or their families disowning them simply for being gay. The empathy that comes from such exchanges is incredibly powerful.

Through the workshops, we have witnessed older individuals develop a sense of responsibility toward the younger participants. This creates an environment that is nurturing and encouraging, and in turn, we have seen the younger participants develop a sense of respect for the more senior group members and realise that they are part of a larger entity, an Irish queer community that has battled through decades of history to ensure equal rights for us all.

A queer community that has lived through the snarls of the darkest bigotry, the punches of homophobia, a community once ravaged by disease and decimated by the media, that has fought the Catholic Church and the Irish government but, above all, a community that has survived. The new generation of queers in Ireland have new battles to fight and a fresh set of contemporaneous problems. But if we can do something to accommodate an understanding that they come from a long line of queer warriors these battles will be less lonely. The course of equality never did run smooth and our tribe has never been more multifaceted, colourful, or beautiful. This vibrant energy is apparent especially when it is encouraged in an open and creative environment. RFR workshops can also be a lot of fun and there is a great sense of kinship and camaraderie.

REWIND << FASTFORWARD >> RECORD has helped me locate my queerness. It is in the eyes of the shy non-binary kid from Derry who found the courage to be themselves despite the challenges of being misunderstood. It is in a cell behind the walls of Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, it flies at the top of a flagpole in my hometown. Our queerness is made tangible by our defiant togetherness, in our seeking each other out. It is reflected in our collective history and in the sharing of our contemporary struggles. It is in the empathy we extend to one another when we show each other who we are. It survives through our creativity and our willingness to be ourselves against the odds.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank our collaborator Sarah Edmondson and to acknowledge the support afforded to us by Jed Dowling and all at Dublin LGBTQ+ Pride, The Arts Council of Ireland, FGU’s Richie Keane, Curator Aoife Banks, Researcher Ellen Reid, Curator Sean Kissane at IMMA, Megs Morley at Galway Art Centre, Justine Foster at West Cork Art Centre, Eimear Willis at The Rainbow Project Derry, Maeve Butler at Void Derry, Queer Culture Ireland and all of our participants to date.

To stay informed of RFR projects or to attend a workshop series near you,  follow us on @rewindfastfowardrecord. RFR opens next in Uillinn, West Cork Arts Centre, on Wednesday, July 13.

© 2022 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

This article was published in the print edition Issue No. 372 (June 10, 2022). Click here to read it now.

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