Susan Lord, co-curator of a new exhibition about Polari at Bury Art Museum, writes for Northern Soul about the genesis of the project, its ground-breaking work and the importance of preserving the language for the gay community.
Polari Mission started life in 2012 when Jez Dolan and Joseph Richardson set out to save Polari, one of the world’s most endangered languages and a bold yet secretive part of gay history.
The second stage of the Mission began when the two artists were invited to exhibit in Bury Art Museum‘s fourth Text Festival, an internationally-recognised event investigating contemporary language art, poetry, text, sound and live art. With its focus on an at risk language, Polari Mission fitted the Text Festival brief perfectly.
As many homosexual men worked in theatrical entertainment it was also used among the gay subculture at a time when homosexual activity was illegal to disguise homosexuals from hostile outsiders and undercover policemen.
Polari was first heard as long ago as the 11th century as thieves’ cant, an effective way for this underworld culture to disguise illicit behaviour. It then surfaced as a distinct subculture in the early 1700s, employed as as secret means of communication by mollies – men who dressed up in feminine costume for fun and met in ale houses under the cover of darkness.
The language has many influences and cultural crossovers including Italian, Yiddish, Romany/gypsy, Cockney rhyming slang and the vernacular used in the travelling circus and fairground communities. Ironically, its growing use gave rise to its decline.
It reached its apogee in the 1960s on the popular radio programme Round the Horne through the characters Julian and Sandy, two out-of-work and explicitly camp actors who spoke in Polari. But this meant that people outside gay culture started to understand it. Polari lost its impact and fell out of use.
The Polari Mission exhibition begins on May 3 in Bury. In order that the Mission should progress, the artists have created new art works such as screen prints and quiche charts. After an extensive tour of the museum stores, Dolan and Richardson were keen to include some of our objects alongside their artworks, such as items from a Punch & Judy puppet collection, a glass rolling pin used by sailors as a good luck charm and a pair of size eight red patent leather stiletto heeled shoes – all which have a link to the Polari language.
Also on display is a Polari etymology which begins in the 13th century with the thieves’ cant and ends in the present day with Polari Mission. A Polari Flash Card game created by the artists invites the viewer to brush up on their Polari words. Two video pieces, Cottage and Theatre Curtains, can be viewed in a small space just off the main museum stairway aptly named The Toilet Gallery. The exhibition also features a display of personal archives made up of items on loan from members of Bury Council’s LGBT group; the artists ran a personal archiving session with the group prior to the exhibition. They were interested in exploring people’s feelings around ‘coming out’ and wanted the objects to reflect this. A Polari App designed by Richardson is available for visitors on an iPad in the gallery foyer. In this way, people can search the Polari Language and post their comments via Twitter.
Polari Mission Archive
The artists are interested in ensuring that the Mission becomes a continuous piece of work. So, once the exhibition finishes in August, they have agreed to donate their research to Bury’s Text Art Archive. The archive, based in Bury Art Museum, was established in March 2013 in conjunction with the Centre for Poetics at Birkbeck University in London and Bury Archives Service with the intention of documenting, securing and making easily available information on the history and practice of language art.
The archive holds hundreds of physical and digital items including scanned images, correspondence, artists’s personal documents, audio, video, and original artworks. What makes this art archive truly unique is its mix of art and archival material and the fact that it holds the largest dedicated collection of original language artworks in the country. The Text Art Archive’s aim is to stimulate critical thinking and writing in the field around the subject and to re-imagine the role of an archive by unlocking its artistic wealth, as well as inviting artists to work with the Text Art Archive and create new works.
Archives Study Trip to NYC
Earlier this year I secured funding from the Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grants programme for a study trip to the Fales Archive & Special Collections and the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York. The Fales collection includes The Downtown Collection and The Riot Grrl Collection, primary resources dealing with feminism, queer theory, gender theory and punk activism, the downtown New York art scene, DIY culture, and music history. The Fales’s Downtown Collection is special in that it has art at its core as does Bury’s Text Art Archive.
Meanwhile, The Herstory Archives, which was established in 1972, is home to the world’s largest collection of materials by and about lesbians and their communities. What is interesting about the Herstory Archives is that they openly admit that some of their principles are a radical departure from conventional archival practices. I am planning to meet with the co-founder Deborah Edel to discuss these radical departures and to explore new ways of working with archives.
Visiting the Fales Archive and The Herstory Archives is the next step in our plan to bring innovative thinking and best working practices to Bury and the Text Art Archive; to forge transatlantic relationships and promote cross-cultural projects and partnerships. I am interested in exploring the terminology that the two New York Archives use to catalogue their collections and the language they use to interpret their exhibitions. I want to discover the ways they draw upon and showcase their gay legacy materials. Do they for instance use the words gay/homosexual/lesbian/transgender or do they omit them altogether? How do they decide whether an item should be classed as ‘gay’ and put into their collection?
I am also interested in seeing their collecting policy. Does it make clear to the donors that their items would be described as gay and would be interpreted as such and how do the donors feel about this? This research trip will feed directly into how we categorised the Polari research archive here at Bury.
The Polari Mission research archive is the first queer collection to be donated to Bury’s Text Art Archive and we wanted the documentation and categorisation of it to be totally visible and transparent right from the outset; we wanted to facilitate marginalised voices. We are in the unique position of putting in place a completely new and transparent approach to documenting and categorising this part of queer history.
By Susan Lord, Curator at Bury Art Museum