Notes on Queer Wilderness: In conversation with Charlotte Prodger (full text)

Published in the catalogue for Berwick Media Arts and Film Festival 2017

LG: Initially you framed your residency period in Berwick through the idea of ‘queer rurality’. It makes me think of Jackie Kay’s ‘Grace and Rose’, a short
story about a lesbian couple who live on Shetland in which the whole island
community comes together to celebrate their wedding. It’s a story about a
queer rural experience that is entirely affirmative – wonderfully so. At the
same time, there is something uncomfortable about it because the only way
you are allowed to imagine their integration into island life is through their
assimilation into a heteronormative framework.

CP: I’ve started to think about the idea of wilderness rather than rurality.
Wilderness is also a tricky term but it feels more animal, more to do with the
body. It’s also to do with privacy. Privacy is something you don’t have when
you live in a small town or village as a queer person. I’m drawn to places
where no-one can see me, even if I’m not doing anything except walking and
mooching about and pissing.

LG: In your film Stoneymollan Trail (2015), walking becomes a method of
storytelling. It’s a system through which subjective narrative finds form. Not
only that, it’s a practice. Why do you walk?

CP: The conditions surrounding my work have come to define the material
and processes that I work with. I have a lot of anxiety, partly brought on
by the institutional pressures and unregulated labour conditions of the art
world. There’s a complex tension between public and private that I’m acutely
aware of. I find myself hiking to relieve anxiety. I’m drawn to isolated places
where there are no people. The sustained metronomic rhythm of walking
can generate a flow of ideas. It feels structural, akin to the rhythmic pulse of
scenery seen through the window of a moving train.

LG: Contrasting the routines of work with a withdrawal into the wilderness
sets up a dichotomy between culture and its supposed other. There’s a risk
that romanticising this withdrawal also valorises the dualism that underpins
traditions of Western thought. Historically speaking, wilderness is a colonial
fantasy. It’s a myth against which ideas of progress and civilisation take shape.

CP: It’s not romantic for me. Withdrawal comes out of a material necessity.
Actually I think it might be aggressive. An assertion. Like… ‘Back off!’ It’s
not binary. Withdrawal also produces anxiety: What am I going to do when
the withdrawal has to end? While on residency in Berwick, I became fixated
with the Pacific Crest Trail. The narrow path stretches from Canada to Mexico
and is 2,659 miles. There’s a massive production of bro culture around the
PCT; it’s very male and very white. But there are other dimensions. I follow
an Instagram feed called Unlikely Hikers where a lot of queer, POC and differently-abled folk post content. I also follow the blogs of a number of lone female and queer ‘thruhikers’, who are hiking the PCT from beginning to end in one go.

LG: Your interest in the PCT is particular rather than the trail standing in as a
generic placeholder for the wild?

CP: I’m interested in the fragmented relationship to time and space that
you experience when you’re following the PCT remotely, seeing people at
different points on the trail who can’t see one another. In my work I try to push
against the ways that landscape scenes are so often read homogeneously.
Rather than present a shot of landscape generically, I use subjective narrative
and oral histories to try and explore each landscape as a distinct location,
shaped by its own complex set of ecological, socio-political and economic
conditions. I mentioned an interest in the queer body ‘alone’ in landscape. But
even in the most remote locations you are situated within a place that is far
from empty because there are the multiple, complex and overlapping systems
of animals. That is what strikes me about the blogs of the PCT hikers. Their
world becomes very narrowed down whilst walking these vast distances. All
they do is walk – sometimes 30 mile days, all day every day – and obsess about
what to carry and what and when to eat. Their bandwidth becomes tiny.
Maybe that is quite animal, which brings us back to the slippery question of
wilderness-as-other.

LG: Queer identity is often associated with metropolitan centres but in your
most recent works such as BRIDGIT (2016), Passing as a Great Grey Owl (2017)
and the in-progress LHB, it’s something you increasingly explore in non-urban
contexts. I’m thinking, for example, about the pissing footage in Passing.

CP: I do love to piss in landscape and have a compulsion to document and
archive it. It’s only recently that I have begun to work with that footage. There’s
something about territory and about gender and the delineated spaces – such
as gender-segregated toilets – within which bodies are and are not allowed to
piss. Are these protocols unanchored in ‘nature’? There was a text in Jamie
Crewe’s show Female Executioner at Gasworks earlier this year in which they
talk about the complexities of gendered identity. They describe a restlessness
within all the codes and signifiers of gender and write of a time when they:
‘have no mirror and only close friends around me, who do understand me, and
I can forget about my gender, while still feeling it, like there’s a strong rod in
me — this last happened in the countryside’. This seems to have as much to do
with being in a sparsely-populated area as it does being defined in the eyes of
the people you trust. I really identify with that.

LG: In queer theory, which is not to describe some field of scholarship
alienated from queer experience but one that has both shaped and been
shaped by lived experience, queer identity is contingent. Even amongst
friends, recognition is the limit of identity. Your work seems to conceive of
identity differently. It removes that limit. Simply put, it asks what happens to
our sense of self when the only eyes upon us are animal ones?

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