Saturday, September 26, 2009

Raincoats at NPG

Raincoats at NPG; photo by Val PhoenixWill be covering this gig for a feature on Gina Birch in Wears the Trousers, but wanted to share a few highlights from the Raincoats' Icon-i-coustics gig, in connection with the Gay Icons exhibit, at the National Portrait Gallery tonight.

Ana handed every member of the audience one of her drawings (mine features lyrics from "No Side to Fall In"). Gina showed a film about her icons made especially for the night. Shirley read poetry at the swanky 1940s radio mic that was far too tall for her. Anat Ben David recited from the SCUM Manifesto. The lights came up far too soon during the finale of "Lola". Truly an epic.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009


This week sees the return of Rampenfiber, Fiber magazine's performance extravaganza, to sunny Wien and it truly is a multi-media affair, with a logo, jingle and even a trailer!

A feminist response to pop culture, Fiber has debated issues, conducted probing interviews and spotlighted talented women and queers over its eight years and 15 issues. Though written in German that is sometimes over my head, I find it quite the tonic: intelligent writing that makes connections between the artistic and the political.

Though Vienna has hosted many women-oriented events such as Queer Feminist Tage and Ladyfest, this one is more focussed on Fiber's interests, as they are the organisers. The first Rampenfiber, in 2006, featured an array of discussions and performances focussed on music.

This second edition of Rampenfiber includes a strong film programme, as well as live performances by Scream Club, First Fatal Kiss and Kevin Blechdom. There are also discussions on queering the stage and Ladyspace. A full programme is online.

Iris Hajicsek, a veteran on Vienna's queer feminist scene who performs as Norah Noizzze, commented: "I like the idea of Rampenfiber - female self-empowerment in pop culture - and I like the Fluc Vienna, where the gigs are going to happen, and that's why I am glad to play there at the 26th."

Rampenfiber runs 24-27 September in Vienna.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Gay Icons

National Portrait Gallery, London
through 18 October

In an age in which empty celebrity is exalted above achievement, in which 75% of UK girls aspire to be WAGs (according to this morning's Radio 5), an exhibit called Gay Icons poses some interesting questions: what is an icon? What is a gay icon? Is it someone to aspire to be? Someone who is inspirational? Someone specifically gay who is inspirational to other gay people?

National Portrait Gallery; photo by Val PhoenixWell, the answer certainly does not lie within the confines of the portraits on display at the NPG. With minimal text accompanying the pictures, I was unsure as to the thinking behind the choices. A panel of 10 "selectors", chaired by Sandi Toksvig, chose a total of 60 portraits. It would have been very interesting if this panel had convened and argued over every single choice, Mercury Music Prize style, but it seems they made their choices in isolation.

Accordingly, each icon seems to have been chosen on the whims and criteria of the individual selector. And some conform to type: Lord Waheed Alli, who made his name in TV, chooses celebrities such as Will Young and Princess Diana. Sir Ian McKellen, a founder of Stonewall, chooses campaigners, such as Angela Mason and Harvey Milk. Writer Alan Hollinghurst chooses writers and composers such as Tchaikovsky and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Where the exhibit picks up considerably is in the quirky choices. Graham Taylor? Nelson Mandela? Well, yes, if you are Sir Elton John and Billie Jean King, respectively. The first makes some kind of sense, given Elton's connection to Watford Football Club, while BJK speaks of Mandela's dignity in the face of oppression. But, clearly there is no unifying agreement on just what makes a gay icon.

The portraits are also of varying quality. Some are glossy PR shots, such as the one of the Village People (an Alli choice), while the one of Martina Navratilova (a Ben Summerskill choice) is a press shot taken after a Wimbledon triumph.

Chris Smith's choices include no fewer than three subjects who killed themselves, suggesting a link between gayness and tragedy or at least gay icon status and tragedy which is echoed by other selections such as Diana and Bessie Smith (selector Jackie Kay even states that Smith's bisexuality and alcoholism make her a perfect choice as an icon, to which I can only reply: WTF?!).

Surely, in the modern age one could sever this link. But, perhaps his point is that even such high achievers as Alan Turing and Virginia Woolf suffered from social prejudice or mental illness, making them vulnerable beings.

I found myself drawn to two photos, in particular, which hint at the subject's personality and some kind of otherworldly, steely inner quality which would allow for survival and success in the face of such travails. The first was a black and white shot of the social reformer Edward Carpenter (another McKellen choice), pictured in what looks like the entrance to a garden. There is something quite defiant about his jaunty pose, in three-quarters profile, and slightly slouching in his natty plus fours, hat and tie. Even his sandals can't detract from the portrait of a dandified mystic.

The second was of author Patricia Highsmith (a Sarah Waters choice), whose most famous creation, the shape-shifting Tom Ripley, continues to entrance modern readers and filmgoers. In a 1960s publicity shot, Highsmith, whose life spanned the pre-and post-Stonewall eras, gazes moodily at the viewer while holding a book. With her sleeves rolled up, and peering out from her tousled fringe, she oozes sensuality as well as gravitas. Clearly, a woman who means business and my kind of icon.

Accompanying the exhibit is a series of talks and performances, which includes a gig by the Raincoats on the 25th.
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Sunday, September 06, 2009

Avengers tour

Back in the early '90s when I used to haunt the dank and spooky basement of the Main Library of San Francisco seeking out month-old issues of the NME and Melody Maker, I used to disturb the tranquility of the assistant there, one Penelope Houston, late of first-wave punk band The Avengers.

Most famous for opening for the last ill-fated Sex Pistols show at Winterland in 1978, The Avengers kicked up some pretty fierce agit-punk, such as the anthems "I Believe in Me" and "We Are the One", for which Penelope was the shaven-headed, snotty-voiced singer. Later she became a neo-folkie and released some pretty cool albums, as well as becoming quite successful in Germany.

But, the old punk instincts returned at some point in the late '90s and the band has gone on the road periodically. I never heard the album that came out in '99 but I still have some tattered unofficial vinyl of their original recordings which I found in some second-hand shop years ago, with a grainy Penelope (it's not really a very punk name is it?) on the pink cover.

This month she, Greg Ingraham and some recruits go out on the road with Paul Collins' Beat and Pansy Division for a West Coast tour. There are also some accompanying events, including a photo exhibit (in the Main Library!) and discussions, including one on queer punk. Wish I could be there.

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