Interview by Toby Sharpe
Editing by Abigail Eardley and Toby Sharpe
Could you start by explaining what Queering the Map does – and why you think it’s important?
Queering the Map is a community-generated mapping project, which geo-locates queer memories, histories, and experiences in relation to physical space using an online platform. Part of the idea is to open up the question of what constitutes queer space, or even more basically, what constitutes queerness. So, it’s a very open call in terms of submissions: whatever counts for the person submitting counts to the project and the process of queering space.
In the context of queer theory, there’s value in trying to unsettle what queer identity means. Queering the Map offers the opportunity for people to define what queerness means for them on their own terms, adding nuance to this term which can be endlessly changed and expanded – moving beyond a singular understanding of queerness, towards a collective understanding.
Could you explain how you came up with the project, and how you actualized your aims?
It came from three places, if I can talk about the theory behind it.
Go for it!
I’m primarily a designer, but my more academic research is in queer theory, sexuality, and gender studies. There’s a tension between my design brain and my academic brain, specifically in terms of a leftist academic politic which is invested in critique to the point where it becomes immobilizing. A design methodology tells us that the world sucks, but that we have to do something about it. I’m really invested in working out how to put queer theory into practice, rather than just letting it sit within the ivory tower of academia.
One of the starting points for this project was this tree in Jeanne-Mance Park that I would bike past. I met one of my partners there, and it’s there where we once had an explosive argument, where my femme insecurities had really pulsated out of me. That feeling of insecurity is very much a part of my queer experience, and that experience seemed so in relation to that environment. Every time I passed that tree, there was this feeling, what Sara Ahmed calls ‘sticky affects’, of queerness attached to it. That tree is not inherently queer. That’s part of the project of marking out these sites of experience: it doesn’t matter that these spaces aren’t obviously legibly queer. To mark out these spaces is to contribute to a queer relationality of the world.
I think that the project really works in that way. Going through the points on the maps, in Montréal specifically, there are all these places marked where I haven’t necessarily experienced queer affects, but now vis-à-vis someone else’s relationship to that environment, I have some feeling of queer kinship. Me marking out my own experiences is so limited to my own positionality that I don’t think it’s as interesting as a collaborative mode of trying to understand this always-changing concept. The idea was to try to figure out what kind of platform would be the best way of exploring that.
On the topic of collaborative queer history, do you feel part of a wider movement of people doing this work? Do you think that small projects like this will, or should, be the future of queer activism?
I saw Marlon M. Bailey, a queer theorist, at a lecture last year. He did these performance ethnographies in relation to people’s experiences of HIV/AIDS and seropositivity. One of the things he explained was the necessity of understanding that every queer person, regardless of whether they’re publishing queer theory, is doing queer theory. People have conversations about queerness and what it means to be queer… and that’s queer theory in action. I totally subscribe to that. As we continue to do the work of archiving, and thinking about queer history, there’s also the question of whose queer histories are remembered and in what ways. One obvious example is how Stonewall is remembered, and who gets credited for that. Living archives like these give space for multiple interpretations of events that are biased from their own positionality, but in relation to each other they can create a more nuanced history that’s less essentialized.
That’s an interesting part of my project, seeing how spaces are connected. The Drugstore in Montréal was a lesbian bar, and someone early in the project tagged it from a historical vantage point, explaining its role and when it was closed. Then two other people plotted their experiences at the bar, creating the opportunity for multiple interpretations of that environment that then takes us from a subjective into a collaborative memory of these places. In a broader context, I think there is a lot of work being done using queer history.
There was an article by Attitude UK arguing that queer people don’t need to know their history any more, as if that’s the best sign of progress. That’s an infuriating position, given the very real fact that people are still fighting to have their histories remembered correctly. What kind of queer people was Attitude talking about?
That’s the kind of thought process that I want to refute through Queering the Map. In this inter-generational exchange of information, we can see that spaces people have experiences in now were inhabited thirty years ago by someone that had a very different experience, whose struggle made it possible for our comfortable habitation now! To say that we don’t need to know queer history… is horrifying.
Your site was recently shut down by aggressive Trump supporters. I don’t want to linger too much on what they want or think. I wanted to know to what extent you’d anticipated that backlash, and what lessons you’ve learned from this experience?
I’d not anticipated it: I’m operating from a techno-utopian, early days of the internet ethos.
I did a residency to build the project: as it grew, we talked about what to do when someone posted something hateful or unsafe. That was a real concern for this project, but I thought we would deal with it on a case-by-case basis, because I wanted to let the project be open for people to say whatever constitutes their queer activity. I could just go into the site and delete tags if necessary. Until about 600 points on the map, there was no issue, it had stayed within queer networks. Then, within three days, it went from 600 points to 6000+ points.
We’re moving the site to a database so that it can’t be attacked in the same way. We’ll set up a moderation panel as the site continues to grow. The issue of security is a concern for me as the curator of the project: what if someone posts a phone number or an address? There’re lots of benefits to collecting user data: we could tell who’s been spamming us, and block hackers. The issue is that we’d be collecting data from anonymous queer people, and anonymity is key to our ethos. We won’t know who’s attacking us, but it’s worth it. We shouldn’t collect data from people.
Has Queering the Map shown you that there’re common threads to queer life the world over, or has it made you see more the diversity of our lived experience?
Predominantly the latter. On the map, people list singular experiences, but most of them seem to be in relation to other queer people, or other people in general, like in a coming out story. There’s a subjective experience, but always articulated through collective subjectivity. A friend of mine who contributed said that the process was interesting in terms of wondering what constitutes their queer experience when the call for submissions is so broad. What they had appreciated was that the process wasn’t visual, it wasn’t taking them back to a photograph of a moment, which can be ephemeral but still works to solidify that experience. Queering the Map removes that solidity. Words allow for endless interpretation, and there’s a link there in how something is recalled and the way that space, architecture, geography, plays into that recollection.
I was about to ask you more about queer history. Contemporary queer theory tells us to queer our perceptions of time and history, whether by saying that to be queer is necessarily utopian, and that to be queer is to live for a utopian future… or saying that queers should only live in the now because there’s no future… right?
This is my favourite conversation.
Mine too! I was wondering how you saw the queer politics of time working in your project. Do you favour one of those ways of looking at queer history? I personally, looking at your work, was intrigued by the idea of queer moments, that queer history is not linear chronology, but is made up of random haphazard instants of beauty or trauma. How does that play into your project?
My bible is Cruising Utopia by Muñoz. My second favourite, critiquing my optimism, is Cruel Optimism by Berlant. My least favourite book of all time is No Future, by Edelman.
I knew it!
This is the debate in queer history, between queer utopianism, or queer optimism, versus queer negativity or anti-relationality. I am very much in the camp of queer utopianism. It’s a beautiful approach: Muñoz is thinking through Edelman, thanking him for bringing up these points, but then pointing out the flaws and privilege in an anti-relational queer theory. One of the thought processes behind Queering the Map is that Oscar Wilde quip about how a map of utopia wouldn’t be a map worth looking at. I think I’m drawn to something that utopia offers us, the idea that there’s a productive tension when we don’t place the utopian in opposition to the nihilistic. In utopia, there’s always a critique of the present. The here and now doesn’t work for every single person, but Muñoz shows us that the utopia lives in the now through the action of queer people, through performances by queer people of colour, specifically. We’re doing that world-making as it happens.
Queering the Map touches on this queer temporality. There’s a danger in a utopia that doesn’t understand the past. Part of Queering the Map’s purpose is to point out moments of queer futurity in the now, while marking out in the same spaces the reality of a present and a past which haven’t been utopian. We can’t go too far in either direction. I’m a utopian through and through but I understand critiques of it. Utopia never comes, but that’s not the point of it: we’re always engaged in the struggle. A tuned-out utopia would be a problem.
The issue with nihilistic queer theory is that it’s a cool thought process, but how do you live that? The most infuriating answer to that question is: that’s not the point! I think it is the point. I’m frustrated from the design standpoint there. It’s frustrating to invest in a theory that’s never meant for practice. Sure, it spurs a thought process, but there’s a necessity for action.
Project Myopia aims to democratize academia, to decolonize, queer, and remove patriarchal bias from the ways in which we learn and teach. Much of how we do that is through crowdsourcing articles: I was wondering if you could speak to the nature of crowdsourcing knowledge, which is key to your project as well: do you think that’s the future of education and history?
It’s the future of academia and re-engaging in the collective in the age of ossifying neoliberalism. It’s incredibly important, maybe the only way out. Thinking about crowd-sourcing in relation to Queering the Map and Project Myopia, these online environments: it’s key to create a platform where everyone’s voice is on an equal plane. Rather than going ‘that experience isn’t queer enough!’ or ‘my experience is harder than that’, we’ve got to see experiences as just as valid as one another. We’ve got to remove the top-down mechanism of judging which experiences are valuable. I’m so glad you brought up queer utopianism, because though I’m infuriated by queer nihilism, I need to engage with politics I disagree with. A collective approach to the production of knowledge, especially in the context of decolonizing academia, is extremely important.
Our project is based in the UK, where many are ignorant of global Indigenous movements, when arguably we should be some of the most aware, given our colonial past and present – I was intrigued by your CityLab piece, where you mentioned the necessity of integrating your queer geographical project with an awareness of Indigenous politics. Bearing in mind that our audience might be not familiar with Indigenous movements, how are you going about that, and why’s it important to you?
Queer space can be, and often is, colonized space. To not make that an equal part of the conversation removes any radicality from thinking about queer spaces. We can think about queer space only when we simultaneously contend with the fact that queer history in many places occurs on unceded Indigenous land. Part of the engagement with geography from a queer perspective, and the politic intent of Queering the Map, is re-engaging with a collectivity that embraces differences. We need a politic that’s in co-operation with Indigenous land politics. We have a land acknowledgement for Montréal, which is where the site defaults to opening. We link to Native Land, an incredible resource for Indigenous history. Someone suggested that I take more concrete action, and once we’re back online, that’s the next step: we need to engage in making queer spatial politics coalitional with Indigenous movements. It’s not radical if it can’t do that.
If you had to recommend some queer theory to our audience, where would you point them?
Cruising Utopia is the most accessible and beautiful queer theory I’ve ever read. Muñoz has a fantastic piece called Hope and Hopelessness: A Dialogue, in conversation with Lisa Duggan. Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology is fantastic.
If you had to recommend some queer art & culture: what are you loving right now?
Everything that Juliana Huxtable does and says, especially her book, Mucus in My Pineal Gland. There’s a friend of mine with whom I collaborate a lot in Montréal, an incredible musician, called Mind Bath. I’d also recommend Mich Cota’s album ‘Kijà / Care’, Kai Cheng Thom’s novel Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir and any of Santiago Tamayo Soler’s performance work.
Thank you so much! I’m so grateful for this conversation.
About the contributors:
Lucas LaRochelle is a multidisciplinary designer using their work as a tool to both critique contemporary culture and explore tangible alternatives. They view design as a critical mediator between the individual, the collective and the environment, and as integral to the actualization of an ecologically responsible and socially just world. A firm believer in the necessity of imagining utopia, their work engages with the problems of the ‘here and now’ in order to populate the future imaginary. They received a certificate in Co-Design from the Utrecht University of Applied Sciences in 2016, and are currently completing their BFA in Design and Computation Arts at Concordia University. They are a member of the Speculative Life Lab, where they research and develop projects at the intersection of the life sciences, architecture and design, and computational media.
Toby Sharpe has two degrees from the University of Edinburgh. He misses living in Montréal, and currently calls London home. He is the co-founder of Project Myopia, a movement to diversify university curricula, and his poetry can be found in publications such as The Glasgow Review of Books, and One Sentence Poems.