For the first time, contemporary British artist Annabel McCourt exhibits her works Flying the Flag and Electric Fence in Australia at Abbotsford Convent for Midsumma Festival as part of the British Council – UK/Australia Season 2021-22 themed
‘Who are we now?’
Flying the Flag
St Helier Street Gallery
25 Jan – 27 Feb 2022
When did the idea of flags and queer history first come to mind when looking at the theme ‘Who are we now?’?
The flags were initially commissioned by The Collection Usher Gallery for my solo show to accompany ‘Happy Hour in the Harmful Factory’ neon and the ‘Electric Fence’. The theme ‘Who are we now?’ forms the basis for the British Council UK/AUS Season 2021-22. ‘It is an opportunity to look at who we might be in the future in the face of global challenges.’
For me, ‘Electric Fence‘ speaks to the theme ‘Who are we now’? by exploring LGBTQIA identity as Victoria marked the 40th Anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality. ‘Electric Fence‘ was initially developed for UK City of Culture – Hull 2017, to coincide with the 70th Anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK. It was always intended as a provocative and interactive art installation, exploring societal barriers. ‘Electric Fence‘ evokes the horrors of the past and creates a sensory experience to challenge people’s perceptions of hate crime. The work takes on a new, loaded resonance within a Covid context, directly questioning touch and physical connection.
Our uncertain world of borders, boundaries, terror, immigration, fake news, Brexit, pandemic…can be seen to be fuelling fear. In the UK there has been a marked increase in the reporting of hate crimes in the wake of Brexit, and with attitudes changing, it could be argued that new-found and cherished LGBT+ freedoms are being thrown into question.
The work has specific interest and connection to Midsumma Festival as there are still many communities impacted by policy, and I wanted to learn more about the Religious Freedom Act and Gay Panic Defence, to name a few.
How have flags marked pivotal times in queer history?
This will sound odd given the context of this exhibition, but I always used to feel uncomfortable under the umbrella of a rainbow flag. It’s only as you get older and realise that we are moving into ever-terrifying realities; that you begin to fully appreciate the sacrifices your community made for you and the importance of just owning your queerness. Just as the triangle was reclaimed, it’s a powerful thing to turn hatred into hope and pride.
Queer cultural movements appear to transform repressive ideation and dehumanisation into symbols of empowerment. What was it like to look back on the history and symbology surrounding queerness?
I like to try and keep my work as fresh and of the minute as possible. I want it to be an interrogation of humanity’s age-old collective struggle between morality and power, right and wrong, good and evil.
It was particularly horrifying researching the puerile and hateful gang symbols. Horrifying in the sense that we never seem to learn lessons from the past and the odious predictability of it all. I turned to an interesting online resource called ‘Hate on Display—Hate Symbols Database.’ This database provides an overview of many of the symbols most frequently used by a variety of white supremacist groups and movements and some other types of hate groups.
Are there symbols that surprised you during the process of creating this exhibition?
The potency of seeming-innocuous symbol such as the milk bottle in my ‘Section 28 flag‘ to get so under the skin of local government; that it was banned from my exhibition 48hours before it was due to open!
So inextricably linked with our former Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher—Milk Snatcher—that it was immediately decoded by the mysterious official who happened across it. I was absolutely furious at such a grotesque level of artistic censorship but am ultimately satisfied that such a simple design could have such a profound effect. I guess what I’m trying to say is never underestimate the power of a symbol.
I really wanted to exhibit the actual ‘Electric Fence’ and create a site-specific and responsive version for Australia. To examine cultural links, work with all communities, not just LGBTQIA+, to discover their personal fences – just like in the accompanying film ‘Your Fence’. To further explore and acknowledge the toxic colonial links. Essentially, I wanted to be educated by new experiences and reflect on this in my artwork.
I see ‘Flying the Flag‘ as a starting point for this exploration. I’d absolutely love it if the Abbotsford community designed their own flags responding to this exhibition and for them to be displayed in the UK. Then we can work out how to ethically and responsibly exhibit the ‘Electric Fence’ at the precinct. It would be superb to collaborate with local manufacturers and XR experts to see what could be achieved.
This is your first exhibition in Australia, as part of the Midsumma Festival. What conversations are you excited for your work to spark?
It’s obviously incredibly exciting to have my first exhibition in Australia. It’s bittersweet in the sense that I cannot be there in person, but it reinforces that even a global catastrophe such as the pandemic can still unite people through art. I love the idea of being part of a global conversation and artistic community. It’s so easy to feel isolated and pretty useless in post-Brexit times, but I’m utterly galvanised in my mission to confront hate crime through art.
Just as I’m writing a response to these questions, I have received a video from my cousin visiting family in Melbourne. She is walking around the gallery with her son and daughter-in-law, and their young daughter Margot is playing by weaving in and out of the flags.
Nothing could make me feel prouder!