Audrey Gillespie is currently a fine-arts student who focuses on themes of LGBTQ through various mediums. In this particular photo-series, she has documented the small but vibrant drag-scene in her immediate surroundings, visually mirroring the strident conditions found both socially and environmentally in the small Northern Irish town she resides.
Most compelling is her use of contrast, of sharp make-up and soft focus, of pastels and fluorescent colours, of rebellious attire and melancholic expressions, which give shape to a surreal and intoxicated mood. The blurred and overlapping boundaries, much like in dreams, make everything and nothing seem out of place. By transcending the physicality of the space where one can act freely and find belonging, Audrey’s latest work is a dreamscape. One that suggests it exist outside of exaggerated performativity, outside of gender, and outside of Northern Ireland.
Our interview started off by considering the application of “self-taught”, a term she ascribes herself as a photographer.
CH Being a fine-art student, you still made a point out of being a self-taught photographer. Is this an attempt to somewhat separate yourself from the institution in which you are taught, to not having been entirely shaped by it?
AG Truthfully, I’m still trying to find the exact description for myself as both an artist and a photographer. I work in a lot of media but when I present my photography I generally address myself as a self-taught photographer. I feel that the reason I specifically throw in ‘self-taught’ comes down to the popularity of digital photographers presently, and the fact photography classes are commonly taught with digital cameras. I’ve never met a person who has ever presumed I work in 35mm format if I’ve only mentioned ‘I’m a photographer’. I think it was more the personal success of being able to say I did it myself, but not in spite of being taught in an institution. Also, adding that I am self -taught usually opens the door for more questions, which in turn, lead people to find out exactly what I do.
CH How do you consider the discourse of art schools, and; on the one hand, gaining experience, but on the other, being shaped and heavily influenced by the current creative discourse?
AG I find that the act of becoming an artist, not shaped by an institution, and to learn on your own and in different forms sounds very liberating. But, in an art institution, one can benefit wildly from things like guidance, connections, and motivation. However, you can’t assume that the institution can and will do everything for you, and not every piece of advice and guidance is necessary or even helpful. It is still very important to take the initiative for yourself, and for those who can do it all without being in an institution – I applaud you.
CH What is your relationship to photography in comparison to other mediums?
AG Working in a variety of media, I’m not just submerging myself in photographers and their work, I continuously research many different art forms to accommodate for me working in different ways, so I find that I have a mix of things influencing all my works. My relationship with photography is dominant at the moment, but that is purely due to the time it takes to produce certain things. This is one of the main reasons I enjoy photography so much, it’s very fast, instantly gratifying, and I really enjoy the social aspect of it. Things like painting and sculpting are very isolating for long periods of time and involve so much stillness that I sometimes can’t endure. Photography generally involves another person or persons, and it’s like a little ‘art party’ for me, whereas creating self-portraits can make me a little bit nervous. Usually, the subject for a photography-project is someone or something you have a bit of distance from, personally and aesthetically, but this changes when you throw yourself in front of the lens.
CH The social aspect comes through in your work, but also a feeling of remoteness. A strong connotation to the small-town ‘outsider’ is the coming-of-age stories, which look back to times before the technological boom and the rapid growth of globalisation. How would you compare this traditional small-town framework to a globalised one?
AH I find using the small town framework provides more of an intimate setting or atmosphere within my work. The topics at hand are those affecting me every day, and I don’t think I could apply anything other than that approach, even if I tried. I would probably lose track of the point and perhaps apply a false sense reality to my work. I feel that if I focused too much on using a contemporary framework, I’d end up with something very boring. I’m not specifically trying to paint a beautiful or pleasing picture. I’m trying to express what feels right to me.
CH How do you think the ability to reach a community and find belonging online affects the outsider, both personally and creatively, in their acute surroundings?
AG I feel that having a broader community online gives the ‘outsider’ a better perspective and outlet on what’s happening in their front yard, compared to the rest of the world. It’s like the best research you can give yourself, by just witnessing and taking in what’s going on in the world and comparing it to your own. Personally, I have found parts of ‘myself’ due to having the possibility to go online and see what’s up in the world. For the creative part, I do find it useful to see what’s currently created within contemporary art, and at times I will apply that to my work, but, the majority of inspiration will come from experimentation within my circle of creativity. So far the effect has been a benefit to me, but I have seen those who found a safe place online and gotten comfortable. That can become the death for big parts of creativity or output, to feel safe and create what is also perceived as safe. Such work becomes rather bland, which can also happen in reality too of course. Don’t get too comfortable and keep questioning yourself. That is what I’m trying to imply, I suppose.
CH You have mentioned the rise of the female drag. Currently, there are opposing opinions on the matter, and terms such as ‘bio-’ and ‘faux-drag’ are definitions that have been generated, as a result of these debates. Proponents claim that the function of drag artistry is the exaggeration of the physical and performative aspects of gender, and thus the female drag should be accepted because they, in the same manner as their male counterparts, exaggerate their own, already performed, femininity. The opposing argument takes a wider perspective, arguing that by diluting and normalising the practice and community, both recognising the need, and meeting it, becomes problematic. A desire for acceptance and belonging has generated the community, but consequently, for such a sanctuary to exist, there needs to be an exclusion of ‘the other’.
AG I wouldn’t say that specific terms for contemporary queens have only bloomed out of the debate, I’d assume that they possibly made certain terms recognised and popularised. I would say that ‘finding’ labels is never really a finding-process when you look into it. I also wouldn’t like to think that, by drag artistry becoming more inclusive, that it would ‘dilute’ the practice. That more people are involved doesn’t necessarily imply this. If anything, more diversity should only push and challenge the method of drag, creating something even more interesting, I would assume.
With concern for normalising it, we all witness what normalising and acceptance mean in today’s world, capitalism gets a hold of it and waters it down to the general public. Which, I feel is separate from drag normalising itself to become more inclusive of different sexes and genders participating. I think this debate comes from the fear of letting in those who only want to market off the back of the artistry, which is a valid fear to have, and for the art to become something mundane. Drag relies on being perceived as shocking and unconventional, and normalisation could potentially take away a very fundamental element of drag. Still, I do feel that including a new variety of participants to continue the unconventional aspects of drag, can only lead to good things.
CH You are right in stating these debates don’t generate such labels, but instead unveils them. This is where I encountered the terminology and the tension at first. My initial reaction was the correlation with previous tensions within feminist groups at on point, debating whether or not transwomen should be accepted as a part of the community. One side was arguing that as they have never experienced being raised as a girl, to become a woman, they can never understand what it is like, fully and wholly, to be one. One can argue that they experience much more discrimination and bias, but that is beside the point. So, apart from the capitalism you mention, I think this is also a big part of the agitation: the feeling of women appropriating something from a group experiencing even more discrimination. How do you perceive this tension that emerges when striving for acceptance without neglecting difference?
AG I could go on forever, but in short, I believe trans women are women. There are many definitions of what ‘woman’ is, and from observation, the argument seems one-sided, and mostly argued by Cis-gender heteronormative women. They are resisting inclusion based on fear, a valid fear, but still solely fear. I wouldn’t say that trans women are appropriating anything, they simply want to live in the life and culture they never had the chance to embrace. I feel that capitalism has a lot to do with so much of the miscommunication between feminism, gender, women’s rights issues, and so on. As it all becomes watered down and made trendy, there’s a lack of seriousness as a result, but I suppose it’s the price that everything made popular has to pay in a capitalistic society.
CH Yes, rarely is any side in such debates entirely in the wrong, and it often boils down to miscommunication, as you say. Speaking of communication, let us return to your work. In finding your voice as an artist, I, personally, find it very useful to look back at previous work and distinguish the red thread that remains through the process of development. When looking back at your work, what themes, expressions, and perceptions do you identify as the core of your work?
AG When I look back on my work, I try to use it to progress in something I’m working on currently, or if I’m feeling weird or lost, I use it for motivation. Having looked through it, time and time again, I find that frustration is usually the key to what I center my pieces around. Indirectly, the core consists of things I have issues with or find problematic in my community: LGBTQ+ representation, feminism, the list goes on. I feel like when I mention that frustration is at the core of my work, people usually take it as negative perception, which was strange for me to hear, as the deep-rooted frustration of the things I produce have pushed me through some weird and complicated issues within my discourse. I wish I could see a more linear line of development that I could pick out in my past projects, but I’ll probably be looking back my work for the rest of my life finding new angles and uncovering things I never meant then, and which only appear through time. But, I’m happy with this, I feel that if I found what I was looking for straight away, I wouldn’t have much of a project.
Words by Nicholaus Hedman