The following text is a transcript of a presentation at the European Lesbian Conference, which was held in Vienna in October 2017. The presentation was a part of the session Lesbian imagination: production, publication and sharing of lesbian culture, which hosted Hilary McCollum, Karin Rick, Nataša Velikonja, Nina Dragičević, Renate Klein and Susan Hawthorne.
And then what?: The future of lesbianism
Imagine the European lesbian community a hundred years from now. It’s the 22nd Century. All the activist work has paid off: the hegemonic society had finally given up and granted the homosexuals equal rights, the homosexual people from Chechnya are now safe – that is, they’ve been given permanent asylums abroad -, not one lesbian is beaten up in the middle of Sarajevo, the pride parade in Rio is green with envy because now the LGBT people in Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania are hosting the largest pride parades in history, lesbians are not only holding hands in public spaces, they now all have the right to get married, to adopt each other’s children etc. Lesbian lives are finally decent lives.
So, a hundred years from now, after all has been said and done, after we have achieved what we strived for … then what? What will remain of us, the lesbians, those eternal nomads, refugees, as Monique Wittig puts it? Will the lesbian remain at all? What will she be remembered of? She will be said to had fought many battles, she had struggled both with the outer world as well as her own sisters, but what will remain of her after her explicit political efforts are no longer needed?
Because in our struggles, we have failed to put sufficient emphasis on forming, strengthening, expanding, sharing, documenting, archiving our cultural, artistic, intellectual achievements. We have failed to preserve our common lesbian culture. And I suggest that our culture and arts are precisely what might assure us with our future.
In its most basic interpretation, art can be understood as space which is not this space. It is everywhere but here. It is the opposite of this and here, and therefore, it is the opposite of life as we know it. But, who is we who claim to know this life?
Throughout the history, lesbians were a taboo; in Europe, for example, in the 19th Century, after biopolitics really kicked in, lesbianism was not even criminalized – in society, it was simply non-existent. One might remember Queen Victoria, a kind of a supreme ruler of a certain era, who claimed that there was no such thing as lesbianism. In Yugoslavia, homosexuality was criminalized, but there was not even a word about lesbiansim. How did the lesbians reply to that? How do we even know about them from that time? We know of them because: They. Created. Art. They were poets, novelists, painters, composers. By making art, they articulated their desires, they formed their specific vocabularies, they discussed their lives and wrote, painted, sang about them extensively, and on the way, they connected, started creating lesbian scenes, spaces, bars, clubs, publishing houses, bookstores, libraries, galleries, concerts, albums, music festivals … Creating art was a way of not only articulating their lesbian desires and identities, and not only forming utopias as ideas of an alternative, but actual alternatives, utopistics, as Wallerstein would call them. The real utopias, the alternative realities which are not only historically possible, but are also better from the current realities. They created what in the material realities was non-existent.
In that sense, it is the lesbian art which assures us with both historical and current presence of lesbianism, as well as its future. And a century later, here we will be. Or will we? In rather successful projects, also known as necro-capitalism and hyper-digitalisation, and through a new cycle of traditionalisation of society as well as anti-identity or queer politics of the late 20th Century, the lesbian is disappearing. After all, look at us here, we came to a lesbian conference, but somewhere on the way, lesbian was equipped with an asterisk; when did that happen, and why? Why were we mostly asked about our gender when applying to this european lesbian conference, a conference on sexual difference? There is a name for what is happening both out and inside this large lesbian community. It is called the disappearance of lesbianism. Or, as Bonnie M. Morris says, the disappearance of L. The L is being extinguished.
Let us not be fooled: the process mentioned can not be stopped easily. If it can be stopped at all. Therefore, the question that remains is, again: what will be left of us? Or, put in another way, what is the future of lesbianism? Is there a future of and for lesbians?
Perhaps. But it requires serious work. It demands us to go back to our roots, to the strategies that got us where we are now, or, as a lesbian singer from the 80s Judy Reagan said when she was singing about butch and femme lesbians: remember who pointed the way. With each new generation, the knowledge about lesbian histories is further away. Disinterest in knowledge is a rather common phenomenon of current times, but it is not some historical amnesia, it is simply anti-intellectualism, hatred towards knowing. It is our responsibility to preserve our histories. In the European context we have an insanely rich history (as well as presence) of lesbian arts. Nataša here just presented the first anthology of contemporary European lesbian poetry. A book long overdue, but still, and precisely because of that, one of the most important books for lesbians in this area. In that sense, we do speak about our poetry, literature, about Renee Vivien and Gertrude Stein, Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Elizabeth Bishop, Kirya Traber, etc. But, you see, we are persistently overlooking, or rather, overhearing a crucial constituent of lesbian as an identity, subjectivity in becoming and a political body. What we don’t speak about or rarely mention is our music.
Lillian Faderman wrote in Odd Girls, Twilight Lovers that “in its success in reaching large numbers of lesbians, women’s music was perhaps the most effective of all the enterprises undertaken by the lesbian-feminist community in the 1970s.” She was speaking about the North American movement, not European lesbian collectives. However, there is a rich history and presence of musicians, composers lesbians (in Europe). I suggest that we dig into precisely that history.
Why? Because sound, and therefore sound arts are in the core of both the world and the construction of lesbian spaces. As Jacques Attali said, the world is to be listened at. Sounding is unavoidable, it is what assures our presence. The sounding of lesbian, lesbian desire and lesbian identity is presence of lesbian. And on the other hand, it is important to learn about, preserve and create our sound arts, because music has an incredible power to speak of the unspeakable. Even more, it emerges in the midst of socialisation. It is literally between the two, who together are lesbians. It is through being with lesbian that makes a lesbian; it is the need for socialisation which is the initial lever for a lesbian movement. In that sense, I propose the lesbian socialisation to be observed as a specific music, a constant sounding of that which is indescribable in conventional terms. It is through sounding that lesbian becomes a political force. In that sense, for example, Pride parades are not a march of bodies, but a force of loudness, declaration of existence by sounding existence. Resistance is more than anything audible. That means that, added to the rich history of literature and other arts as well as their authors that are being discovered, analyzed, published and archived in Europe, we must urgently do the same with music. Yesterday we heard a wonderful performance of Ethel Smyth’s music in production of Attilia Kiyoko Cernitori and Angelika Silberbauer. But Ethel Smyth is just one of many composers lesbians in Europe. Even more, our lives are not a repetition of history. Among us there are incredible lesbian artists which we have never heard of, because despite the easiness of connecting online, our artistic works are lost in the endless pool called the Internet. And in Europe, our communities are, of course, quite dispersed. The importance of our history and our present and the need for connecting, which is also in the core of this conference, are then the reason for what I am about to propose:
In Ljubljana, at ŠKUC Association, we are developing a digital archives, streaming, publishing and event organising platform that would (and will) connect lesbian artists – starting in Europe, but with no real geographical limitations. I present to you the Lesbian Arts Platform.
With the Lesbian Arts Platform we aim to map the unheard and the unseen and the unread, to document lesbian artists and their works, to make unheard heard, unseen seen, unread read, and to offer a domicile to lesbian artists. This means, first, creating a digital encyclopedia of lesbian artists, collecting archives all over Europe, researching the educational curriculum, analyzing it and making a public statement on the representation of lesbian artists in our history books, making an action plan for changing the situation, which is, quite frankly, terrible. Second, it means forming a lesbian arts journal and a publishing space for books and music. Third, it means organising an annual symposium on lesbian arts as well as regular events across Europe, enabling live-streaming, for every lesbian should have access to her culture. And fourth, we are planning the first lesbian residency for lesbian artists in Europe.
We are looking for partners in this complex project. My time is up, but I can discuss the details with all who are interested later.