This winter, Chelsea Space presents ‘After BUTT’ a new film and installation by Ian Giles. The film explores the cultural and social impact of BUTT magazine; a publication made by and for gay men. BUTT was known for its iconic pink pages and candid interviews with musicians, filmmakers and designers such as Michael Stipe, Gus Van Sant and Marc Jacobs. Giles and his collaborators engage with BUTT as a prism to consider gay histories, the presentation of gay men within mainstream media and links between medical advances and sexual freedom. The film also interrogates BUTT’s imbalances, raising questions around the magazines handling of race and gender.
Giles interviewed the international group of men who produced BUTT from 2001-2011, including editors Gert Jonkers and Jop van Bennekom. He then shared the transcribed interviews with a much younger group of gay men in London, exploring the themes present through a series of workshops. Giles filmed the final workshop during which the young group re-voiced the original interviews as an act of oral storytelling between generations.
The group of twelve embodied the texts rather than performing impersonations of a previous generation. In the film we hear them sharing the collective histories, sexually charged narratives and frank reflections of men who have gone before them. Throughout there is a playful relationship with language: words becoming portable between originators and speakers.
Ian Giles: I discovered BUTT magazine in Chelsea College of Arts Library when I was a student at the college in the mid 2000s. Although it might have been the provocative title that caught my attention and whilst I was interested in its subject matter, it was actually the design that engaged me. Black ink on pink paper, its zine-like form felt bold and remarkable. Within BUTT’s pages were images of men in their messy east London flats, shot in daylight; it challenged the mainstream presentation of gay men. These were real people, all be it very hip and hairy ones, they opened up what a gay man could look like, do and be. They presented articulate and creative men, men who understood their history, politics and agency. The publication was loose and creative and yet was skillfully put together by editors who knew who they were and what they wanted to talk about. For the exhibition at Chelsea Space I was interested in using BUTT as a way to share the experiences of a previous generation with a current group of gay men in their 20s. Beyond the desire to make a film about BUTT I wanted to try and locate where we are today within a ‘gay history’ and to offer the wider public a presentation of the multiplicity of voices and individuals that exist within the perceived gay community and beyond. Through interviewing men in their 40s and then working with men in their 20s I was able to understand how far we have come within a relatively short space of time.
Ian Giles spoke with some of the men who took part in a series of workshops and script-readings that resulted in the production of his new film:
Ian: How does it feel to be a twenty-something gay man in London today?
Julian Triandafyllou: In London I feel incredibly privileged to live within a society that gives me space to be myself, with most of the same rights and privileges that exist for heterosexual couples. I don’t essentially need to think about being gay or not. My experience doesn’t speak for everyone however. My partner has yet to come out in his homeland for fear of losing ties to his family. So in some ways things have improved massively (even in my lifetime), and in others it’s still the same game of trying to find an identity which feels acceptable to all parties, but this is more to do with education than anything else. I have hope for the future as the trans, and non-binary movement is really taken on by millennials, they are no longer directly discussing sexuality, but what it is to be a man, a woman, neither, both…. it changes the game completely, and opens up much broader spectrums away from our generic identity values.
James Tobin: In terms of body politics, I feel like the image crazed Matthew Rush days are over. But the thing that won’t change is the gay hierarchy – especially when we’re 18-30. The saviour at the moment is the rise of being queer. The Clapham gay man is drifting out of relevancy and into the ordinary. Queer scenes are our only chance of saving ourselves from being so fucking mean to each other and it starts with properly accepting women/femme.
Nick Palmer: I’ve never really had to think about what it means, but having the freedom to be your honest self is amazing. Current turmoil and homophobia going on in the world make me more appreciative that I have the ability to express myself and not have to fear. John Giannini: Being a gay man in 2017 can be a bit of a paradox; on the one hand, my generation enjoys rights that have never been experienced by the LGBTQ+ community before, and the general attitude towards homosexuality in the UK is the most liberal it has ever been. At the same time, homophobic prejudice is still a huge problem, particularly when certain political events, such as Brexit, legitimise discriminatory right-wing opinions that condemn gay rights. Internationally there is also, obviously, much more to be done, but often it feels as though young gay culture in big cities like London forgets about this, as it doesn’t experience homophobia so directly. Gay culture is also very sexualised in 2017: Pride is extremely commercial and caters less and less for those that don’t look or act a certain way. This is another reason I was keen to do the After BUTT project – to re-engage with a conversation around LGBTQ+ equality in the UK right now.
Ian: Did working on the film make you more aware of a gay history?
James Matthews: Massively, I learnt important milestones in history that have pretty much allowed me to live the life I lead today: the
John: A lot of the time our history seems to be compartmentalised into before Stonewall and after, but of course there is far more to it than that, and reflecting on the impact of magazines like BUTT is a great way of reconsidering the position of LGBTQ+ rights.
Louis Rembges: Working on the film gave me another window into what it was like to experience the stereotype of what the mainstream thought queer people were and what they liked and how they lived. Something that stuck with me was that before BUTT the only thing representing the queer lifestyle in America was TV shows like ‘Will & Grace’ and a bit later ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’. It’s difficult to imagine the balls it must have taken to create and succeed with a publication like BUTT that was so different to what was being presented. Working on this project made me aware of different areas of queer history that overlap each other through things like BUTT magazine. The growing representation of queer people through time has been performed by revolutionary projects; BUTT represented a type of person that back then wasn’t thought to exist. We’re not living in the perfect gay utopia now (yet) but hopefully with more things loudly and openly existing, like BUTT and its legacy we can get there eventually.
Ian: What did you personally take away from the workshops?
Julian: During the rehearsal process we worked together through the verbatim script to pick out the various nuances, and information. It was an interesting process to understand how the visible presentation of a group, or an individual within society (in this case that of a gay man), was entangled with the mental & physical health implications of an era shaped by AIDS. To be a gay man, seemed to be inextricably linked to the ‘health’ of the group at large.
Ian: How did it feel to be embodying the words of another man – did you feel a connection with the material?
Julian: I connected to the material. More than being just about being a gay man, there was definitely the feeling that it was an exploration of identity within culture. A few of the boys expressed to me that the words they were saying were having real-world implications for them, that they were having really physical reactions to the embodiment of these issues. Likewise to suddenly be exploring as a group themes that are essentially a part of our history felt empowering. There was this feeling of a knowledge transfer, and of continuing the legacy of understanding within what can sometimes feel like a highly ‘commodified’ experience of being gay today.
John: I became immediately aware when the words I or others were speaking felt genuine; over-acting would have meant the words lost their sincerity. Maintaining sincerity was key in communicating the issues the project debated. It was an interesting challenge to act as almost yourself, entering into a conversation with words that weren’t specifically your own, but you could empathise and agree with.
Josh Enright: My sections were very sex positive and called for diversity within BUTT which is something I feel very strongly about in the queer community. As a person of colour I feel it is important for a diverse group of voices to be welcomed into the narrative of queer history to enrich what it means to be queer today, in a world where the other is still questioned by the mainstream.
After BUTT is at Chelsea Space from 24 January – 2 March, with a drinks reception on 23 January.
The exhibition will be presented alongside a publication featuring the film script and an essay by a curator and critic Jeppe Ugelvig.
For more information about the exhibition please visit the listings pages and the Chelsea Space website .
After BUTT was made possible by a grant from Arts Council England.