Looking backwards, thinking forwards: an essay

A piece of writing to capture the spirit and feeling of “Thinking Queer: Bloomsbury Group”, a performance of work by Jacob V Joyce, Nando Mesias, Marisa Carnesky and Alok Vaid-Menon brought together by the Marlborough Pub and Theatre at the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, 10th November 2017. This piece has shifted into an essay on some of the many threads of ideas brought together by the artists – chiefly how we can look back at the past productively and we can go forward with mindsets which are more open and welcoming, less hierarchical and elitist.

Bloomsbury Group author Virginia Woolf depicted on the poster for “Thinking Queer”.

 

In a time of flux as nationalism draws on forms of nostalgia, there might well be a reaction of a different sort of yearning amongst the radical, the creative and the queer – a yearning to look back in anti-nationalist ways at a history of resistance.

 

They might find themselves reflecting on who has been privileged with creative agency, who has gained a place in the history books, what that agency was used for (and for whom it was used) and what traces we can see of this today… And they might strive to create alternative belongings and groups outside of the pernicious logics of the times’ nationalism.

 

Perhaps the backward-glancing exercise is an attempt to rediscover roads less travelled and revisit neglected ideas that might still hold value. Looking at the past has been standard practice for artist since time immemorial” says artist Nando Messias.

 

Nando was one of a group of artists from diverse radical movements and collectives who came together one evening recently in Brighton’s Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts to look back at the group of radical queer artists, thinkers and above all friends known as the Bloomsbury Group

 

The event’s mission was forward-thinking:  “Considering [Bloomsbury’s] values and ideas, we will be dreaming about what a radical queer collective might look like today”.

 

Approximately a century on of the Bloomsbury Group’s initial heyday, there have been many different types of looking back at this particular web of close friendships between the British artists, writers, intellectuals and philosophers who gathered to discuss their work and challenge the ideas of the status quo.

 

The Bloomsbury Group started regular meetings in 1905, apparently over cocoa and whisky (mixed). Or so I remember learning from a friend – for the most sustained way of “looking back at Bloomsbury” is probably the everyday work of a fanbase of aspiring writers and artists and intellectuals over decades who have often wished they (we) could be part of a creative collective of friends and lovers like that.

The famous Virginia Woolf portrait. Image: George Charles Beresford, 1902.

Indeed, part of being a fan of Bloomsbury involves absorbing strange details which get passed on from one fan to another like currency – and I have been an unashamed fan of Bloomsbury for years now. I remember another friend telling me that Virginia Woolf rolled her own cigarettes out of licorice paper, but I have no idea to this day if that is true. I did, however, respond with my own tidbit: Woolf pre-rolled all her cigarettes so that she could write uninterrupted and she mixed her own special blend of tobacco (I promise you this is true because I learnt it at Woolf’s Sussex second home, Monk’s House).

There is a sort of lore to Bloomsbury, a fascination with this group of culturally eminent people who met around 1905 and continued to be in each others’ lives in various ways through to the 1940’s and then, although their group was shrinking and changing, on towards the 1960’s. “Bloomsbury” has embedded itself in popular culture, not just through the fans who study Virgnia Woolf at university (like me) but in far more visible and expansive ways, too. Bloomsbury inspiration has filtered onto the catwalk (Gucci, Autumn/Winter 2015), British TV (Life in Squares, Vita & Virginia), film () and of course cinematic adaptations of famous Bloomsbury member Virginia Woolf’s books (Mrs Dalloway, Orlando). These are just a start.

 

The very term “Bloomsbury” is a complex one: they aren’t one defined collective of people but rather a social group who together moved in and out of different meeting and organisations which they established over the years.

 

The enduring fascination with the group probably stems from a continued concern with the issues they tacked. Through their friendships, romantic relationships and creative output they challenged the restrictive Nineteenth Century ideas of marriage and intimacy, the nationalism and horrors of the First World War, the rise of fascism in Europe and Britain, heteronormative sexuality and gender inequality.

 

The event in Brighton which Nando Messias took part in was starkly lacking in this fanbase Bloomsbury lore and attention to the lives of Bloomsbury members – although it did take place on the edge of a university campus and the audience was peopled by students reading Virginia Woolf. The event turned its back on this, instead playing with the range issues so central to Bloomsbury thinking.

 

This was very clearly not a simple re-assessment of Bloomsbury or a way to re-visit Bloomsbury sentiments. What it means to be thinking Queer, of course, is far more expansive than thinking Bloomsbury, and indeed “Thinking Queer” performers tackled head-on the racial and class pitfalls of thinking Bloomsbury.

 

The group: Angelica Garnett, Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell, Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes and Lydia Lopokova sitting outside. Picture from Virginia Woolf Monk’s House photograph album via Wikimedia Commons.

Nando Messias and his fellow performers Marisa Carnesky, Alok Vaid-Menon and Jacob V Joyce used Bloomsbury as a (sometimes daringly fragile) thread holding the artists together which helped them tackle the art world’s elitism and racism. They showed us that thinking queer can mean challenging the past and tracing its pitfalls to radically confronting the wrongs of the present.

 

Questions of social authority were at the heart of the what “Thinking Queer” addressed. The performances were beautifully staged, uplifting in the power they transmitted to the audience through radical messages – and yet they also highlighted all too plainly the issues around us.

 

Nando Messias’ performance was a dance – a mystical transformation of movement set alongside the voice of “Frances”. It is Nando who I will focus on because of the “backward-glancing exercise” he performed and the radical questions he raised about interaction: amongst these, questions of interaction with the self, with the past, with the collective, and with gender.

 

Nando dressed in a fine black flowing dress – maybe it should be called an evening dress, or perhaps a Flamenco dancer’s dress – with jewels and light-catching pink makeup. Frances started to speak and Nando turned in the light, willowy and shadow-casting, beginning to perform movements in keeping with the sounds of Frances’ words. All the time: Nando mouthed Frances’ words.

 

Nando’s melding of Bloomsbury with now happened through voice and dance – those immediate and very physical things which the art world doesn’t transmit as easily into the future as it does books and paintings.

 

“They did more or less what they liked.”

 

“One noticed [their] freedom when you weren’t with them.”

 

“I don’t think they paid any attention to rules… They were unconventional… They did what they liked very much….”

 

“I don’t think they paid any attention to rules… they did more or less what they liked…”

 

There was a slow unravelling of Frances’ Bloomsbury narrative about being young in London with a room of her own in her mother’s house and working in a bookshop which was owned by her brother in law and was, in Nando’s words, a “meeting place for stray painters and artists as well as Bloomsbury figures”.

 

Nando set her words to music and her narrative swelled into the gentle sound of a violin as her words about freedom began to reappear and eventually clearly repeat. His dancing became more expansive – until delicately he bared his shoulders, first one and then the second too. His shoulders were angular and very pale against the black cloth of the evening gown. As the music, movement and Frances’ words continued, he began to shimmy the dress down. “I don’t think they paid any attention to rules…” I wrote in my notes that it felt like watching Nando shedding a skin.

 

“They did what they liked very much…” the dress fell to Nando’s waist and purple petals fell out, a beautiful and abrupt changing of the seasons. I heard audience members gasp.

 

The dress’ top half still hanging around his waist, Nando shimmied on a new, more glittering skin – a black bolero.

 

Slowly, slowly, Nando turned to face away from the audience for a moment before continuing in a circle returning – all the while Frances and the violin continued – to reveal a long piece of black piping clutched at their groin with their hand circling the head. The audience reacted with laughter and a smattering of appreciative applause.

 

Nando looked up, fell, and everything stopped.

 

It was a performance which poignantly challenged heteronormative and oppressive conventions of genders and bodies, the beauty and the final dash of humour in keeping with Nando’s previous work combining dance, theatre and performance art to articulate fierce critiques of gender, visibility and violence.

 

These challenges draw on the gender-questioning, sexuality-interrogating attitudes of Bloomsbury and Nando explained for us his connection with the group: “as a queer artist, I have always found inspiration in the Bloomsbury group. Their ideology, their way of life, their creative output have all, in my view, challenged the status quo in one way or another.

 

“I don’t think it is even possible to create work alone–completely isolated from the rest of the world. No man is an island, as they say. All ideas and inspirations connect back to something that already exists in the world or to someone else in it.

 

“The way intimacy has been expressed in my work is, for instance, by finding images or written words that spark an idea and to bring these into the studio (in hard copy form) with me so that they share the space with me in a physical, material way.

 

“For “Thinking Queer”, my starting point was to read as much as possible about the Bloomsbury group. My point of entry was Virginia Woolf since I have always loved her writing. The artistic process is capricious, though, so I ended up finding my way to another, more obscure member of the Bloomsbury set in the end”.

 

His choice to center the voice of a “more obscure member of the Bloomsbury set”, Frances Partridge, within this exploration of queer freedom spoke of how a collective today could tackle issues of erasure. Where groups like Bloomsbury have been charged with sidelining figures like Sophie Gaudier-Brzeska and even Frances Partridge herself, a collective today can center marginalised voices – and this was one of the great teachings that “Thinking Queer” transmitted, especially when it comes to the great neglect of Bloomsbury for the voices of people of colour.

 

Frances Partridge was the last surviving Bloomsbury member – and her involvement in the group stemmed from the symbiotic relationship which she and her soon-to-be-husband Ralph Partridge maintained with his first wife, the artist (Dora) Carrington, and her great love Lyton Strachey (who himself loved Ralph). It was a complex, intense relationship but something of the tradition-questioning spirit of it feels importantly linked to Nando’s performance. In terms of reclaiming a story of Frances which tells us more about her as an independent individual -she had been a translator throughout her time with Ralph, and in later life she published her diaries and letters. She was more than just the “Bloomsbury groupie” as The Guardian called her even in the last years of her life. These are important things to celebrate in a woman previously marginalised.

 

Nando’s fellow “Thinking Queer” performer Marisa Carnesky also drew attention to an often-overlooked member of Bloomsbury, also a woman who joined the circles because of love: Russian prima ballerina Lydia Lopokova who came into contact with the group through marrying John Maynard Keynes in 1925.

Marissa performing in “Thinking Queer”. Image: The Marlborough Pub and Theatre. 

My friend Georgina made an insightful point after Marisa’s performance. Lapokova’s artistic output was the most physical and the most in line with the performance work we were seeing that day at “Thinking Queer” – and yet her work disappeared after her death.

 

Indeed, Marisa’s performance was all about physicality: she appeared wearing a caste of her own body, breasts and stomach artificially laid bare but painted in a homage to Bloomsbury artist Duncan Grant. There was great humour in Marisa’s unveiling of her body parts and it turned out that the cast acted as a sort of living doll’s house – for she had little figurines to represent the Bloomsbury group hidden in her breasts, womb and heart. These were rooms of a house like the brightly painted Sussex farmhouse at which they congregated: Charleston House, belonging to Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.

 

Throughout the evening I felt that the politics of inclusivity/exclusion were addressed in the very set-up of the room we were in. “Thinking Queer” arranged the audience into little clusters of seats around tables as though we were in a coffee house dedicated to political and artistic discussion. We were encouraged by the Marlborough Pub and Theatre hosts to chat to our neighbours and get to know the people around us in the gaps between performances. All of this felt very outwards-looking and generative: true to the promise of the night, it felt like we were taking part in imagining queer collectives ourselves along with the artists leading us. The night was meant to culminate with a round table discussion between all the artists – drawing them together into a sort of collective for the night and allowing them to interact. Sadly, poor timing meant this was cancelled and instead audience members were encouraged to approach the artists individually on their ways out, atomised and individual. The ethos wasn’t too badly let down by this, but it did show how even the best intentions to create spaces can go awry.

 

Marisa’s performance itself brought up other concerns. She celebrated the queer sexualities of Bloomsbury with deft humour, showing the figures in all sorts of potentially sexual groupings and narrating the rooms with a deadpan sense of humour.

 

The emotional and sexual intimacy of Bloomsbury which Marisa addressed was all the more significant and radical for the fact that homosexuality for men was criminalised in Britain until as late as 1967 and celebrations of Bloomsbury’s plural and complex sexuality came later.

 

Marisa has been thinking about intimacy within this context, and within the current context:  “I guess a lot of experimental performance work, live art and new queer cabaret/theatre draws on the artist’s own intimate and personal experiences in the work. Obviously our boundaries of what you share publicly and particularly around subjects which in the past which held shame have changed through the openness of social media and the influence psycho-therapeutic practices.


“Recently I’ve been thinking and talking about the Big Brother theories and conspiracies around social media, if you are engaged with activism and have a strong public presence on the net are you not just building a file on yourself for the state, for the banks, for the corporations…..The more we break down what is private and bring taboos out of the closet, how do we protect ourselves as communities from corporate and state interests and greed….”

 

In her own sort of looking back, Marissa said: “I’ve always been fascinated with the Bloomsbury Group, from reading Virginia Woolf as a teenager and seeing images of the Charleston House.

 

“I have a romance with a sense of nostalgia for the era of my grandmother, the design, the clothes, a time before supermarkets and mass production and television. There’s something seductive and appealing to me about the idea of bohemians and artists in that era.

 

“But of course for my family it was a time of struggling out of poverty as the second generation immigrants in the Uk and a fear for extended family and friends fleeing persecution from the growing anti semitism in mainland Europe. So the twenties and thirties has difficult and strong resonances with me but is strong in my imagination and sense of identity.

 

“I guess what’s interesting now is that there are many creative circles and subcultures and queer communities that mean that millions of people have the opportunity to make choices about they way they want to live their lives. So many of us creating new forms of queer creative collectives and communities are from immigrant and working class roots. It obviously a wonderful thing that class barriers and access to education and the arts has changed since the Britain of the Bloomsbury era, but essential now more than ever that we maintain this diversity and access to culture.”

 

“Thinking Queer’s” reassessment of the past allowed for those voices – the ones from immigrant and working class roots – to take the stage. The experiences of people of colour with Bloomsbury were summed up by Jacob V Joyce when they said of Virginia Woolf and Duncan Grant: “‘their interactions with people of colour was a bit shit”. The dreadnought hoax which saw Bloomsbury members in drag but also in blackface springs to mind. These are the realities of the institutional privilege of these creative men who met at Cambridge and were part of a discussion group which was rather exclusive and was called “the Apostles”. These are also the realities of the privilege of these women who, although barred from university, were in Woolf’s own words “the daughters of educated men”.

Jacob V Joyce performing at “Thinking Queer”. Image: Marlborough Pub and Theatre.

Jacob V Joyce, a member of the “SorryYouFeelUncomfortable” collective, stood in green velvet in the grounds of a campus university created in the 1960’s to challenge the hegemony of Oxbridge – and they reject the words of Bloomsbury as “incredibly boring and dry”. Instead, they weave together quotes from people in their queer collective and alternate this with a song – lines include  “cut me to pieces till I’m cohesive”, “label every part of me with sublime cartography”. It makes absolute sense that Jacob should privilege the artists working today in radical tradition rather than harking back. Jacob wants their own work to challenge colonialism, they explain, and they go on to “use colonialist tactics like anthropology and ethnography to create white middle class proverbs” in their second piece of art. There is humour in this performance but it is impossible not to notice how white, how middle class is the audience even these days. Jacob’s final proverb, “Z is for Zoe Zeldana playing Nina Simone” invoked “the lengths Hollywood will go to basically keep away heroes who are further away from Bloomsbury”. The people who had access to creative agency in the past were white and middle class – and it is an ongoing struggle to wrestle power from these hands.

 

Alok V Menon sendt in a video for the night but they could not be there to take part in the grouping in person. The film, which closes the event, is called “All dressed up” and it goes through defining the concepts “queer”, “radical” and “collective”, raising a myriad of questions integral to that central idea of what would a radical queer collective look like today.

 

And Alok V Menon left us with the painful knowledge that today there are gaps too, just as there were in Bloomsbury. Alok was filmed dancing alone in their room holding their mobile phone outstretched but unable to leave the house… “I am harassed so much sometimes I just stay in my room – let’s call it a room of one’s own.”

 

“The people we should have heard from were too busy dying to write.”

 

And, Alok says, we must start with queer loneliness before we can tell the story of queer collectives…

 

In the end, when I myself look back at the Bloomsbury group, my response is informed by the things I have heard and the things I have been challenged by in “Thinking Queer”.

 

I’ve been a fan of Virginia Woolf for years now in the sort of intense way which means I think about her a lot living in Brighton near her countryside holiday home and Bloomsbury meeting place at Monk’s House… It is also the sort of intense way which means I’ve in the past created my own idealised vision of a creative collective like the Bloomsbury Group… Perhaps even in my work with the Corrugated Wave, I still find myself at times thinking about how I can introduce the right people and nurture the right work and forge the right friendships to realise some of these old yearnings for belonging along Bloomsbury lines…

 

And yet there are many warnings about collectives to be taken from a critical look at Bloomsbury like that which “Thinking Queer” offered – the dangers of erasing the peripheral women, excluding working class people and people of colour. I’ve been thinking about “Thinking Queer” in terms of our own historic moment and the historic moments which surrounded the Bloomsbury Group and in the end, I think that an important part of Virginia Woolf’s thinking about community and collectives comes out when she grappled with the fascist sentiments stirring before the Second World War. When she wrote The Waves especially, I think she was trying to navigate a distinction between the pernicious, nationalist sort of collective sentiments which fascism encourages and the productive, radical collective which respectful and inclusive community can foster. This same issue transfers onto how we can gaze back on the Bloomsbury past from this moment in Britain at the end of 2017: we can look back, avoiding the idealised nostalgia of nationalism, and we can engage with the past in an attempt to foster that more respectful, inclusive community today.

 

For, as Alok warned in their film, if we talk of us and them, “us” splits into another “us” and “them, and that “us” again splits into “us” and “them”… 

 

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