Creative Health: Seeing Expression As Well-Being, with Ashley Joiner
(As originally featured in the Spring / Summer 2023 Issue of Tracy Anderson Magazine)
QUEERCIRCLE is an LGBTQ+ led charity that seeks to develop an ecology of artists, curators, thinkers, thinkers, community organizers, grassroots organizations, and charities to reclaim space to celebrate the incredible talent of the LGBTQ+ community.
We spoke to founder Ashley Joiner about the philosophy behind QUEERCIRCLE, the diverse efforts of their collective, and how self-expression impacts the well-being of all people.
TA: QUEERCIRCLE is all about reimagining the role cultural spaces play in society. As you celebrate QUEERCIRCLE’s one-year anniversary, what has the process of reimagining become for you? Has it changed?
AJ: I think for us it was understanding the necessity for change, first and foremost. We have this lease at the Design District for five years, and the way we’re approaching that is it’s a period of experimentation for us as an organization. So, what does it take to reimagine those cultural spaces? The last year has been an opportunity for us to test out different things, to get things wrong, importantly, because they tell us just as much as the things that are successful. In this short period of time, we’ve trialed a lot of different methods and styles of programming to understand what it is our community needs and wants. We’ve come to understand that we now program through commissions, co-productions, and through the community. They are our three strands now, and those strands overlap at times, they come apart at times.
Then, we’re also learning how each of our program strands convene at different times. We have our arts and culture programming, particularly our exhibition programs. We also have our learning programs, which is free learning. We’ve taken a very broad approach to that, so it’s learning at all ages. We’ve done stuff with LGBTQ+ families and their young ones, all the way through to LGBTQ+ elders, working with those who are now in assisted living and care homes. All of those opportunities are free.
Then there’s our health program as well. We’re actually just about to publish our first creative health report, looking into the impact of creative health on LGBTQ+ people. So, there’s lots of things happening at the same time, and it’s important that it’s the case, because through that, we’re learning who our long-term partners are. By programming a lot–particularly in the first six months–we’ve basically said yes to everything, and through that process, we’ve been able to start to understand who we are, and what our role is. Some of the long partnerships have happened, some of the program strands have strengthened. For instance, when we opened the health and well-being program, it was just a program strand. We were just going to program these weekly events around health and well-being. Now, through this process, we’ve learned that actually, everything that QUEERCIRCLE offers is about creative health. The exhibitions programs play a role in that, the physical space plays a role in that. Free learning opportunities play a role in the health and well-being of LGBTQ+ people.
We’ve also been experimenting with more somatic approaches. We’ve partnered with Clod Ensemble, our neighbors, who are a dance company, and they have a health arm to them as well. We’ve partnered on a yoga workshop to release shame, and those negative experiences associated with queerness, and we’re now developing further programs with them. One thing that’s important to articulate is that we’re taking a very broad vision of what creativity is, and embedding somatic approaches too.
TA: When we talk about health, expression, well-being…they all come down to so many things–all of them at once.
AJ: We base a lot of what we’re doing here on Max Neef’s take on fundamental human needs. It basically counters this idea of a hierarchy of needs, which would say that food and shelter is at the very base, and once you’ve achieved that you move up the next level to experience relationships and then creativity…Max Neef suggests that, actually, all of those things need to be considered at the same time to support our existence in honor of well-being. His categories are: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, creation, identity, and freedom. Within those, there’s obviously more subcategories. Check it out. I think those classifications are really helpful.
TA: The theme for this issue of Tracy Anderson Magazine is expression. I’m curious–what happens when you create a space in which people can express themselves freely and fearlessly?
AJ: I was basically looking to secure a space for two years, and we passed from council to council. We were initially only looking for a “meanwhile” space, like a temporary space just to run a pilot, basically. We weren’t making any progress with that, then we secured this location for five years, everything grew quite quickly. The reason it took so long is that we had certain requirements. There had to be a lot of natural light in the spaces because most queer spaces that exist in London tend to revolve around nightlife, so we wanted to emphasize that this was a daytime space, and obviously we know the benefits of sunlight (not that we get much of that in London!). The other thing was it had to be completely wheelchair accessible, because most nightlife venues–or LGBTQ+ venues, actually–in the capital aren’t wheelchair accessible. Moving beyond that, we needed the local transport to also be wheelchair accessible, because there’s no point in a space being physically accessible if the local transport isn’t. We also didn’t want to contribute to the displacement of people from their homes. We didn’t want to be part of this gentrification narrative, so there were a lot of requirements and thinking that went in before we even secured this space.
Part of our programming is through the community, so we give free space to other LGBTQ+ groups who want to run their own sessions, workshops, and programs. One of the groups we work with is called United Queerdom, and they initially came to us at the very beginning–we hadn’t even opened. They were an informal group of Russian-speaking migrants that needed a space to come together and socialize. They formed in response to the Russian-invasion of Ukraine. So they were Russian-speaking people, but from various countries. It was really about building, for them, solidarity beyond borders.
Particularly, people who are seeking asylum, they all went through discrimination and traumatic experiences, and having this space where people feel free to be themselves, as a given, is really a gift. And this is about expression, right? We don’t have to mask those parts of ourselves or censor any part depending on what institution we’re navigating. For asylum seekers, often they don’t reveal certain aspects of themselves when they’re talking to certain government institutions, or when we’re applying for housing or any of those things, so to come to a space where you can be free to express yourself completely, and not have to consciously think about every move you’re making,…you’re able to freely be yourself. Artists have expressed how working in a queer institution as a queer artist means that they can be supported in their explorations, whereas in other institutions, they might have to articulate that in a non-abstract way for them.
TA: You feature people from all different backgrounds and identities. How do you go about making sure your space doesn’t “other” any of them?
AJ: That’s something we’re still learning, to be honest. One of the things that our communities–because obviously we’re a broad church–one of the things that’s come up in the evaluation is that our communities appreciate the reliability of a fixed space: the permanence of that space, all the while remaining flexible about what happens within it. It allows people to take up space in a way that they need and want, and that it’s led by their needs and wants. That’s the main way we’re trying to approach that, is to offer reliance and reliability. We’re here for you. That steadiness is important, but remaining flexible and agile as to what happens within it.
It’s also about taking those things into consideration in the programming, and being conscious of those things. Where other institutions that don’t focus on marginalized communities would like to be more inclusive, for us it’s already embedded in what we do, so we’ve maybe got a head start on those things because it’s ingrained in our thinking, it’s at the heart of what we do. When thinking about inclusivity, we don’t think of inclusivity for LGBTQ+ people, we’re thinking about all these intersectional identities, because the queerness is a given. When we’re thinking about inclusivity, we’re going deeper.
Just to give people tangible things, we opened with Michaela Yearwood-Dan, and I purposely opened the space with Michaela because we’re aware of all the challenges that are ahead of us as a community, but before we get to those and start challenging those things, I really wanted to create a space of love, so that everything we do moving forward is informed by that love. That love for ourselves, but also that love for one another. Bell Hooks defines love as “the willingness to extend oneself for the benefit of another.” That’s the ethos we have here: we’re trying to build that sense of solidarity through this love ethic.
TA: With love as your principal ethic, your space and the artists that you feature deal with heavy topics. Is that a conversation you have when you’re trying to build a joyful, restful space, and also trying to honor the darker sides of those histories as well?
AJ: I think it would do all of us a disservice to imagine everything’s okay. We would do a disservice to our history if we didn’t acknowledge the hardships that come with that progress. We also need to acknowledge that history is not linear. We’re not always moving in the same direction. Arguably, the UK is actually in regression–it’s probably quite true of the US as well. These rights are not progressing. We have to be aware of those histories to equip ourselves with the knowledges and the tactics that need to be employed in order to counter that regression. In terms of the programming that we’re doing here, one of the criticisms I got during the development–and this probably came come more conservative voices–is that you’re going to “ghettoize” artists by focusing on queerness. For me, QUEERCIRCLE is about always expanding what it means to be queer, and what it means to be a queer artist. One of the things we found in our development was that LGBTQ+ artists were feeling like they were getting curated or commissioned when they were talking about their marginalized identity. That’s true of any marginalized group: (air quotes) Black artists can only make work about the Black experience, and queer artists can only make work about their sexual orientation and gender identity–as if we don’t think about anything else. For us, it was always about understanding that we, as queer people, can actually contribute to the wider society and public discussions on everything. This year’s theme was ecology because that’s the most pressing thing. We are a queer organization, but these conversations that we’re having are relevant to everyone. It’s just that we’re offering a queer perspective on those discussions. Next year’s theme, again, will be a topic that affects everybody, but we’re just coming at it from a queer perspective again.
TA: As you progress further, is the goal to bridge movements?
AJ: Everything we’re doing is taking an intersectional approach. There are really great examples of this, and I’ll give a historical example that happened in the US. When Huey P. Newton organized the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in 1970, he was the first person to welcome gay politics into the revolutionary ranks. It was a very important public demonstration of solidarity and intersectional politics. The Black movement has to campaign to LGBTQ+ people because there are Black LGBTQ+ people, and vice versa: the LGBTQ+ have to support BLM–one, because we should all be supporting BLM–but also because you can’t support LGBTQ+ politics if you don’t support BLM.
If you then apply that to everything: we can’t campaign for environmental rights, if we’re not campaigning for LGBTQ+ politics, and vice-versa. In the same way, you can’t campaign for LGBTQ+ rights if you’re not campaigning for migrant rights, because there are migrants that are LGBTQ+. If you just apply that to everything, eventually you get to a place where there’s active solidarity between everyone.
TA: Do you find people struggle with these ideas?
AJ: Yes (Laughs). That’s the differentiation, I guess, and the reason we’re called QUEERCIRCLE rather than “LGBTQ+CIRCLE”, because I think there is a distinction between those two things. For me, on a personal level (I’m not sure if this is where QUEERCIRCLE stands yet or not, because that’s a communal decision), queerness has everything to do with sexual orientation and gender identity, and nothing at all. I know plenty of non-LGBTQ+ people who are queer, plenty of LGBTQ+ who aren’t. That tends to come with the involvement of politics, when we’re thinking about those things. Basically, I think there is a distinction between LGBTQ+ politics and queerness, and I think it’s this involvement of politics. If you bring in someone like Jack Halberstam, the theorist, he would say that we’re beyond queerness now, and that queerness is dead.
TA: How do you feel about that?
AJ: I’m on board with it. Jack uses the word “wildness”.
TA: You’re also an incredible artist yourself. As you’ve stepped into this role of helping others express themselves, do you have pillars of self-expression as part of your creative process, and does that inform how you show up for the artists that you support and champion?
AJ: I hope it does have an impact on the way I show up for other artists. I think what we’re trying to build here is a culture of care. One of the artists got sick in the middle of their installation, and they really appreciated the fact that they didn’t even have to ask–we just delayed the show. We said, “Take as long as you need.” I think we don’t have to fit anyone’s calendar. We don’t need to be on that hamster wheel, so I hope we are building that culture of care. We think about QUEERCIRCLE as an ecology of partnerships, collaborations, and solidarity. The proposal is that maybe QUEERCIRCLE could be considered an ecology of care, so that care is at the heart of everything we’re doing.
I think that QUEERCIRCLE is an evolution of Are You Proud (Ashley’s award-winning documentary about the LGBTQ+ Pride Movement in the UK). I’m very proud (laughs) of what we managed to do with Are You Proud, because it does mark a moment in time. I had a slight issue with the fact that there was a product and it ended. For me, QUEERCIRCLE is about bringing the same approach that we took for Are You Proud, and giving it a physicality and a longevity so that these conversations constantly evolve. I see my role at QUEERCIRCLE the same as I did in Are You Proud, which is really about providing a space for others. Then, taking what everyone else is doing, and giving it some shape and maybe some direction, but with a very light touch, so that there is this momentum. I see QUEERCIRCLE still as my practice, even though it’s taking a different form.
TA: I stumbled across a review talking about the museumification of queerness, and expressing criticism around the idea of institutionalizing the LGBTQ+ experience. It seems like everything that you do is the opposite of that. When it comes to claiming your space in the art community in London, do you have to actively deinstitutionalize yourselves?
AJ: It’s a really great question. I think it’s important to articulate that I started QUEERCIRCLE in a garage with no funding. Then, it pretty much got developed in my bedroom in isolation, because of lockdown. When opening QUEERCIRCLE, I still viewed it with that same mentality we had when we were in a garage–this very DIY type of thing. I never personally called it an institution. However, since opening, that title has been projected onto us, and we have to acknowledge that. That’s how we’re perceived and the space we’re taking up, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but we do have to be conscious of it. The concern about institutionalizing queerness is the right one, because there isn’t any one thing that defines queerness. It’s an expansive thing, it’s a boundless thing. So that concern is correct, and we do share that concern.
For me, it’s always about creating spaces and programs that complement each other. We’re not here to say that other spaces are bad, we’re just saying we deserve choice. If you want to take up this space, you deserve to take up this space if you want to.
TA: A mindset of abundance.
AJ: On that, marginalized communities are always having to deal with scarcity. We’re always trying to counter that. This came up in development. Everyone kept saying, we need this, we need that. I was like, we need to get beyond this need. We need to get to a place where we realize that we deserve these things. We deserve these spaces. We deserve this support.
It’s scarcity that drives a wedge between us: “If a certain group gets this, that’s going to take away from me.” That’s just not true. If that person’s liberated, you’re liberated. Another way of looking at that is, if you’re not liberated, I’m not liberated.
TA: “Dust Bathers”, one of QUEERCIRCLE’s current exhibitions, is an immersive experience that even allows passers-by to view the art from outside. Can you talk about the choice to showcase immersive art, and how has the past week been opening your space to the world/public?
AJ: What we’ve created is a dust-bathing site within the gallery, so if you want to come in and dust-bathe and get dirty, you can. If you don’t want to do that, you can still view the work from outside, which hasn’t been possible before. It’s not just a case of being a classic viewer, that’s also part of the work: this idea of interrogating queerness under this microscopic lens. It’s a critique of this corporatization, rainbow-filled LGBTQ+ and getting towards this dirtier, grittier, earthly queerness. I think the viewing stages, whether it’s the window or the glass doors–it’s us observing that, or feeling like we’re also being observed in this pathological sense.
TA: The other exhibition happening right now, “Ogoni 9’ by artist Chiizii, commemorates an important moment in Nigerian history. Have you noticed what conversations this exhibition is sparking? There’s an element of reimagining to constructing a new future, what does it feel like in the room when you’re there?
AJ: Ogoni 9 is in our Reading Room. This is our third season, and I think we’ve finally found a format for that room that works. I think Chiizii has really set the standard and helped us clarify what the purpose of that space is. For the first time, the two exhibitions are in conversation with one another. Both of them are talking about agricultural protest, dissent, the need for commonality and community. That’s what this space is about: how we’re building solidarity. What are the tactics we’re taking on to better the lives of queer people or non-queer people? Chiizii is a very generous artist. All of her work is about the sharing of knowledges. They’re very generous, and again, it’s this culture of generosity, which counters this idea of scarcity.
TA: What are some projects for QUEERCIRCLE on the horizon, and what are your hopes for the future of the organization? What do you hope is on its path as it grows?
AJ: We have a lot of conversations about what we mean by growth. Growth, for us, doesn’t necessarily mean getting bigger. We prefer the concept of growth as getting deeper. We’re not a space where we’re worried about getting thousands and thousands of people through the door everyday. What we’re worried about is when people do come in, we are supporting them. We’re starting to build those relationships with people now, where they’re recurring and coming back through various programs. They might come for the exhibition, but then they learn about the health program, so they come for that. They’re able to access all these different things, and I think it’s in building that community where we’re able to deepen our impact and support for them. It’s maybe not a sexy answer–we’re not going to be taking over the Millennium Dome–but for us it’s about that deeper impact and genuine support.
If it gets to a point where expansion is important because it means we’re able to reach new people in a different location, we’re keeping it open. This is a period of experimentation and learning to find out what that growth is. It’s two answers: there’s the deeper impact, but also recognizing that if it is possible and necessary for us to grow, that could look like very different things. It could mean we have to take up a bigger space to accommodate the additional things we’re delivering. Or we take on a hub-and-spoke model, where we have a central base with regional sites where we’re delivering health provisions. It could be that we have an international site where the context of LGBTQ+ politics is very different, so the service provision is very different. It could be any of those things, but for now we’re focusing on delivering deeper, more meaningful impact. Externally, it’s about increasing our leverage to create change: working with the public sector and other charity partners to create systemic change for LGBTQ+ people, as a preventative measure for future people.