by Megan Daly
"I’m not necessarily trying to document trans lives, I’m more trying to find the way trans life belong in archives and memories of communities and places."
Caleb Steer is a queer artist and activist from Birmingham. Freshly graduated from Birmingham School of Art, his final year project was an exploration of the TAGS (Trans and Gender non-conforming Swimming) group in Birmingham, which he was a member of until its discontinuation in 2018. A personal response to a loss in his community, Steer uses performance, collage and textiles to commemorate and archive the group. We met up to discuss the work in depth, touching on community activism, queer art processes - and a bit of Depeche Mode.
Let's start by talking a little about what TAGS is about. Was it already an established group in London, before one was set up here in Birmingham?
Yeah. Roberta Grand and Chryssy Hunter set up the first group in London in 2014, they're legends! Travelling around the country setting up swimming groups for trans and non-binary people - absolutely outstanding work. The Birmingham group started in summer 2016 and ran monthly. We swam for the most part at Moseley Road baths, but eventually moved to Linden Road pool in Bournville for a while. It sort of died off in early 2018. Fewer and fewer people were going, and then we were struggling to get the space provided.
Was the group funded by the council?
Originally we had to pay for entry, so it was dependent on numbers showing up. Then we got a chunk of funding, but that ran out. Really, I think the reason it died off quickly was because it didn’t have a strong base of community. If you’ve got somebody coming from London to set a group up, they can’t be there week on week, and just be with people. There were people at different stages that took on some responsibility, but nobody was really there to hold it together.
I feel, and a lot of people feel, a real loss over it. Trans people need non-club spaces, different spaces. With this project I wanted to explore these different spaces at the edges of, or not necessarily aligning themselves with, queer culture - whatever that means. All of this work is me trying to respond to what happen to TAGS.
Just to give you a bit of insight, I’m a housing activist - I’m part of a tenant’s union, so I do a lot of community organising. You could say for sake of argument, why didn’t I just put my energy into restarting the group? I think I will, I’d like to. But I wanted to dig a bit deeper, through art - through this feeling process - and explore why it fell apart. Why is it so hard to make trans groups? I didn’t want to just charge into it.
So, using your art practice to find the reasons the group started and ended before setting it up again.
Exactly. I also feel very strongly about situating this as happening in Birmingham. There was a short film made about TAGS in 2016 called The Swimming Club. I think it’s a really interesting piece of media, but one of my gripes with the film is how it was shot in Moseley Road Baths, with no mention of it being in Birmingham. They brought up swimmers from the London group for filming. Being a bit cynical, they shot it here because it's more photographically interesting than the baths in London.
As somebody who’s from Birmingham, and who tries to organise in Birmingham, it’s a city with a lot of challenges. There’s real violent austerity in Birmingham that’s different to other places in the country, which I talk about in my video piece Meet Me At The Deep End. I feel like, as a trans person from Birmingham, in Birmingham, I need to be making work about what’s going on here.
Looking at some of your collages, can you tell me about these photographs of swimming baths? Did you take these?
I looked online to find what images of TAGS exist. A lot of them are low quality snaps off somebody’s phone who’s a member of the group. I think Roberta probably took them to put online and show what TAGS is doing. I’m really into low-res photographs that aren’t professional looking.
When I do stuff with Acorn, my tenants union, we reproduce our activity through these quite shoddy photographs.
We did an action recently where we went to a letting agent and delivered them this massive scroll. Instead of the ‘Ten Commandments’ it was the ‘Tenant’s Commandments’. All we have are these scrappy photos of people standing outside a letting agent in Selly Oak to share. I love that the photos are so full of life. But also, it's our way of documenting what we’re doing in real time, and publicising it as well.
I’m interested in how photographs are used to mobilise people. A lot of photos documenting trans lives are poor quality, because they're taken on people’s phones. It’s all we have access to, but we’re still going to do it.
I was countering the low-quality photographs of the swimming baths with archival images from Birmingham Library. They’ve got these boxes, called The Baths Boxes, full of photographs of the swimming baths across the city. This one was in Moseley Road Baths - this is a group of swimmers from around the 70s, I think.
I did a lot of research into the history of Birmingham’s baths and when they were formed. In the 19th Century a lot people moved to the city and were living in slum conditions, often without a bathroom. The baths were built as an answer to a public health crisis, so they’re very much entwined with the class politics of the time. The images of pools that come from the archive: they’re very grand. They’re the council saying, ‘Look what we’ve produced! Look at how much we care about the people!’
I feel like those images still have a massive impact on how we see those spaces. These grandiose interiors, they’re really separate from our actual experience of the place. Swimming pools, for me, are like putting on wet socks.
As I was cutting into these photos, working with this collage process, I started to feel weird about the way I was handling people’s bodies. Normally when people collage, they slap bodies here, there and everywhere. But when you’ve got an emotional connection to the people in the photographs, like I do to the TAGS group, how do you treat their bodies? I never wanted to cut them. It felt really sensitive.
I guess having control over the narrative of the image, when these people already have their narratives defined so much by others, you have to question your approach. Also, if you cut people out from the archival photographs, you don't know what you're removing from history.
Yeah, exactly. I’m really interested in how things get cut up and moved around under the influence of authority and power. This is an archive image from Kent Street baths, which has been demolished now. These baths were the first public baths in Birmingham, and they were right opposite where the Nightingale is (Birmingham's oldest and largest LGBT club). The property developers Seven Capital have proposed building luxury flats on the empty plot, and now people are worried that, if they're built, the club will get shut down because of noise complaints.
I noticed this cyclical narrative - first the public baths were built and demolished, then the club was built, and now that's threatened too. So, with this awareness of how communities and spaces are destroyed, the way I collaged felt crucial.
"Rather than directly representing us through what we look like, I wanted to visually and materially imagine how our community functions."
I’m also interested in the way bodies are used to construct a certain narrative. It’s something I’ve experienced a lot as a trans person. Often, narratives are projected onto trans people's bodies which play out violently. That’s done on an interpersonal level, with trans people being subject to abuse and harassment; or on a state level, with trans women being locked in men’s prisons. I don’t want to enact that violence on other bodies in my collages. I don’t have a right to use people’s bodies to create meaning, really.
But I’m still cutting, because that’s how I’m processing, through cutting.
There's something powerful about retaliating to these events by using a similar process. Is it possible to story-tell with archives and collage without changing narratives?
Yeah, I’m always going to be dictating the story essentially. But, cutting can also be a very positive thing. You can give something a clean edge, you can delineate something, you know, surgery can be a very positive thing for a lot of people. It’s one of those things that’s taboo, especially in a trans context, but it’s actually a very healing process.
I just pulled these images off the internet. They’re 1930's male swimmers, which I felt really drawn to. As a queer, sort-of butch, trans person, I'm always seeking out images I can relate to, because you don’t often see them. Often those images appear in different periods of time. I’m really drawn to this image as a way of locating my own body.
Swimming costumes for men used to always cover their chest. In the 30s, this new image of masculinity emerged and it became fashionable to be the muscle man. The company Jantzen designed this new swimming costume with a detachable top called the Jantzen Topper - which is hilarious! That's my new drag name!
When I saw it I thought - this is the most trans thing I’ve ever seen! This is like every young lad I’ve seen in his binder. But it’s finding an image of ourselves, in this 1930s swimwear advert!
I tried to see if I could buy one on eBay but they were hundreds of pounds, so I decided to make my own! I bought loads of bikinis from international stock, and I cut them out and remodelled them into this quite weird, makeshift, hotpants, bikini, mash-up. Again, cutting is a really positive thing, because by cutting them up I can actually…
You can fit them to your body.
Exactly, because I feel like there isn’t swimwear that fits my body.
Talk us through this collage you've stitched together.
I started off with an image of a 30s male swimwear model. I didn’t have as much of an issue cutting this up, because it’s an advertising image! My approach was to use this body as a host site for multiple bodies; to personify the TAGS community somehow. Rather than directly representing us through what we look like, I wanted to visually and materially imagine how our community functions.
I collaged him with photographs of the swimming group. You can see bits of people’s bodies, like the odd foot. I didn't want to show their bodies, but I really like these pool noodles people were swimming with - they're sort of a prosthetic body part, but there's also just something really funny about them. They’re quite innocent, you know.
I don’t want to sound too lofty in my interpretation of what they could mean, but there’s something about the way they relate to bodies… I related to them in terms of this genital obsession towards trans people, the whole ‘what have you got in your pants' thing, which I’m tired of people mentioning because it's boring.
For me, there’s this link to the different technologies that you use to extend your body as a butch, trans, queer person. Being a bit blunt, fuckin’ dildos, you know. Being a bit crude, sorry, but these things are actually important. You’re put in this awkward position where everybody is obsessed with your genitals, but nobody wants to have a conversation about the real lived experience of these things.
So, I wanted to use these pool noodles playfully. Not say anything directly, it’s just fun. Swimming pools are a space you experience as a child, with your family - there is a real innocence there. Trans people being seen as predatory, it really upsets me, because, do you think that we don’t come from families? Or trans people don’t have children? A lot of trans people do have children! There are ways for queer bodies to exist in public spaces, family spaces; queer bodies can be sexual, but they can still be part of these public spaces.
So, you printed this collage as a repeated motif across the curtains you created to fill the space of your degree show. Did the curtains create a full enclosure in the space?
Yeah, it was two curtains running parallel wall-to-wall, with a little opening at each end so you could walk through. I’m trying to temporarily designate a bit of trans space in this very arty place. I wanted it to be excessive and take up room, even if only temporarily. I feel like that’s what the swimming pool is about as well. As trans people we live in a lot of secrecy… when you’re in that pool you can take up so much space with your body, do the starfish, expand!
There’s also a bit of a deliberate reference to hospital curtains. I think that was a slightly bitter reaction to this constant feeling of a medicalised gaze towards not just our bodies, but our lives. I’ve been thinking – what defines a trans space? Because typically we’re a community without many resources or access to leverage, power and space.
It’s interesting how in other parts of the LGBT community there are specific icons and subcultures, and groups that can form around that, that maybe doesn’t exist in the same way for trans people on such a large scale.
I think there are many trans communities, maybe just not as visible. A lot of media coverage of trans people doesn’t take an interest in what’s happening on a community level. I feel like there are pockets of trans communities, that pop-up in other, often hostile spaces. That’s why I’m so fascinated by the baths. They’re not just very a gendered space, they’re a very classed space.
The baths don't meet our needs, because of the way that gendered space operates. Bodies have very strict spaces that they fit into or don’t, and trans people don’t fit in. So I find it really amazing that a load of us have created this little pocket, which isn’t there now but was for a while.
So, when I was making the curtains I wanted them to reflect, not just hospital curtains because we’re medicalised, but the way that we move through these spaces. I’m not necessarily trying to document trans lives, I’m more trying to find the way trans life belongs in archives and memories of communities and places.
Could you talk me through the images you chose for the curtain, and the process of making the design?
I had around four images which I wanted to float along the width of the curtains. I scanned my collages, printed them out - I printed about 14 copies of each image - and then heat pressed each one individually to the fabric using what's called a sublimation print process. Then I'd move the fabric along, place the next image, press it, and keep repeating.
The curtain is a metre and a half high, seven metres wide. The press was only about a metre deep, and a metre and a half wide. So, I had to go along each width twice, composing the layout of the pattern as I went along. It was so exciting. It’s a bit of faith you know, trusting that it’s gonna come out alright.
I find textiles workshops to be very nurturing, feminine spaces. I have a lot of respect for the traditions in textiles and the knowledge which is passed down by women to women. But, as a masculine, queer person, I do feel out of place, and I know I don't follow those traditions in the same way. So, while I'm making these sublimation prints in this quite irreverent manner, I don't want to disrespect the process, but I'm also aware it's a queer process, you know.
"A lot of art is so alienating and doesn’t speak to people. I don’t believe in dumbing things down, but I want to give people permission to make stuff with what’s around them."
You respect the craft, you just work with it in your own way. It sounds like a very physical, performative way of working.
Yeah, I was trying to embrace that. I love the physicality of lifting the fabric and moving it - it took the scale of my body to make. That’s what I love about textiles, it’s about the relationship between you're body and the space you’re in. You know, clothes mediate our bodies and our public experiences.
By composing as I go along, I'm embracing the immediacy and necessity of image-making. These poor-quality photographs, they’re taken in quite an immediate and necessary way. I feel that making art and images to explore and represent trans experience is a necessity. So, when I’m printing, it’s a joyful thing, it’s the joyful immediacy of making images. Not worrying, just doing it.
That's part of what TAGS is about too. One of the moments I love in the film… Roberta tells a story about how she enjoys swimming in the pool topless, because she’s proud of her breasts, and she just says, 'fuck it!'. It’s part of that ‘fuck it’ mentality. For all of what you go through with your body – just fuck it, just do it! That’s how I want to make, just get there with the material, slap bang wallop.
I worked back over the curtain with a red marker pen, actually. I realised people might not know they're trans curtains, so I decided to just put loads of trans symbols on them! By this point, I’d pressed the whole curtain four times, and this particular material is really synthetic. There’s only so much it can take – the plastic had already started to get crinkly. So, I got out my marker pens! This was my stencil. On each curtain, there are probably about 30 of these.
Using these marker pens... it’s not some high-tech process, it’s quite childish, but I like how it makes my
work easier to relate to.
Lots of my friends came to see the work who aren't from an art background, and that’s always scary because a lot of art is so alienating and doesn’t speak to people. It makes people feel stupid. I don’t want to do that. So, my friend came to see it, and I said, 'Oh yeah, I used marker pens!' and she had a proper laugh at me and said, 'I can tell!'.
I am making this work in a fine art context, but I want to give people permission to make stuff with what’s around them. Myself as well. I don’t believe in dumbing things down – you can have an intellectual thought process, but work with what’s around you.
That’s another reason I did shower curtains, because people can look at them and recognise what they are. It’s an entry point. I want to make things accessible in some way.
Tell me about your performance. Had you performed it before the degree show?
I’m loosely involved with the drag king scene in Birmingham; I’m very tentatively taking my first steps in it. In the degree show I performed a two-part, Depeche Mode drag act in my space with the shower curtains. Similar to my feelings towards textiles, I wanted to be careful about doing drag in an art context. I didn't want to do this extractive thing where I'm taking drag out of the bars and communities where it belongs. Still, this is how I express myself, and a lot of drag has passed through Margaret Street.
I really like the culture around Depeche Mode. My Polish friends told me how much of a big deal they are in Eastern Europe. They're a big fucking deal. They used to have Depeche Mode parties in the 90s when a new album came out, piling around the one house with dial-up internet connection, and play Depeche Mode all night. They’d put a picture up of David Gahan, the singer, as Jesus. In this deeply religious country!
"I feel like there’s a lot of power in using your emotions, using your voice in an authentic way. Just letting things come to the surface…"
They’re really dark, really sexual, but also kind of cheesy and naff. The way he sings about his emotions, he’s excessively emotional, he’s taking up so much space! They have an album called Music For The Masses, which is an outrageous title. I love the way their deeply personal narratives around dark themes relate on a mass scale in Eastern European culture. Also, I don’t know if any of them actually are, but the imagery around them is just so queer.
They demonstrate this bridge between personal and historical narratives, which relates to the work I'm trying to do. I feel like there’s a lot of power in using your emotions, using your voice in an authentic way. Just letting things come to the surface… all this water imagery as well, being with your body in this watery space, it’s emotional. So, I wanted to use this outrageously emotional 90s music...
Which also links back to talking about childhood and childishness.
Yeah! This archival thing, time-travelling a bit, going backwards and forwards between different eras.
So, I performed two songs at the degree show opening. I started off with Everything Counts. I love Depeche Mode lyrics because they’re so minimal, they give you so much room to live out whatever you want. Everything Counts is a song about this business trip abroad, I guess. It’s so cheesy.
'The handshake seals the contract
From the contract, there’s no turning back'
When you’re trying to tell complex narratives, there’s something comforting about these blunt lyrics, that give you a lot of room to tell a story. I related these lyrics to the experience of trying to fit in with an act of masculinity.
I wanted to do drag with these really boring clothes. I had on a blazer, my first piece of masculine formal wear; some naff purple swimming shorts, the first trunks I'd ever bought; and these grim B&M bargain flip-flops with diamanté on them I've had for yonks.
When you're transitioning, you buy loads of bad clothes because you don’t know how to dress yourself. It’s like a cut and paste collage of these different fragments of clothing that weave together a narrative around bodies. I’m dragging them up, but they’re actually connected to my real life.
Yeah, and speak of the performance of real life.
Yes. Feeling trapped between the material conditions of your life, and the performance you’re supposed to put on.
And the clothes that exist in the middle when you think, ‘maybe these lilac shorts will help’.
Haha, yeah, and they did, for a bit! They had their time. I want to speak about the material conditions of trans lives, because people don’t really think about it. A lot of us are really struggling to get by, but we’re enjoying life still. Our lives aren’t about mystery, aren’t about suffering. There is real suffering, but you can’t let that define you. So that’s the space I’m performing in.
"I just want people to feel they have permission to just be expressive people."
For the second song, I stripped it down. Stripped down into my bikini outfit, and performed to Never Let Me Down. It’s a real pumping anthem. You’ve got this big orchestral symphony, it’s really euphoric. I pulled on a Zoggs swimming cap. That’s a bit of drag king culture you know, this real humour.
Yeah, just taking the piss a bit, having a laugh and letting it out.
Yeah, having a laugh, but it was also really emotional! When I performed it, my mum was there, my friends were there, and all these arty people that didn’t know me. A lot of people said it affected them emotionally watching it, which was so powerful for me. In a drag context, people will cheer for you no matter what you do. Performing in an art gallery, people are very cold and detached. I wanted to break that down.
To start the performance I kicked people out of the space, shut the curtains, then opened them again. My aunty – we had her watching it on livestream – said to me afterwards, ‘I felt you were really setting the boundary of what people are allowed to see of you'. For me, that’s what performance is about. It’s a power play, an exchange, you being very visible in what you’re doing with your body… that’s why I ended up making this work in my bikini!
As a trans performer, I want to confront the fact that people are looking at my body and making assessments of it. I guess that’s why I’m drawn to this Depeche Mode music, it’s all about power plays.
But also, I don’t want people to feel uncomfortable, because a lot of people that come into an art space, who have never been there before -
They already feel uncomfortable.
Exactly. I just want people to feel they have permission to just be expressive people. Try to open a space where people can be expressive for a safe period of time. I like that about performance as well - people think it must take guts, but it’s also really safe. It has boundaries: it starts here and ends here, and then everyone can leave.
Did anyone from the swimming group come from the degree show?
No, they didn’t. I made this work in quite a secretive manner in a way, but I felt like I needed the space. When you’re working publicly, you need to be responsible to your community. I can get so worked up worrying about representing things incorrectly, before I can even make anything.
Yeah... before you can get to the final stages, you’ve already stopped yourself a thousand times.
Right. Also, having done loads of community arts in the past, sometimes things can claim to represent communities and they just don’t. I didn’t want to fall into that trap. So, whilst this is about TAGS, I want to be honest that this is work I’m making as a ‘fine artist’ from quite a personal place. I love doing things in the community, on the street, but it’s a lot of pressure and often has less space to go deeper into these personal narratives.
Now that I’ve finished the project, I would want to open this work up to people, and share it with people who were part of this group. Maybe an art show isn’t the right place to do that. I want it to be the right time.
"How can I make art practice a good thing for people around me? I think the key is sharing and a process of exchange."
You are part of the community too, so I don’t think there is a clear distinction between personal expression versus community representation with this project. Do you think you will continue working on this project in the future?
I don’t know, honestly, right now. I feel like I will come back and re-engage with this material, but I need to just let it sit for a while. As I said, the next thing I want to do is get TAGS going again. I think that was always the intention. Also, my circumstances have changed, and you have to adapt to the different circumstances you find yourself in. I want to get back to working with fabric for pleasure, and I’m also just enjoying doing drag.
I’d like to work on making more spaces for trans people to express themselves. I don’t know what sort of format it would take, but I’d like to make an opportunity for people to get together and make things, collage, different people passing stories around, sharing feelings, and pictures… I feel it’s important in terms of how trans people survive, the process of making and sharing. People are always clothes swapping, all sorts.
The biggest eye opener of this project has been about how you position yourself as an artist in relation to your own communities. I feel like a lot of time when people make art about communities its very outside-looking-in. Looking at your own surroundings is very different.
You wonder how people are going to relate to work made about them. You have to ask - Can I speak about this community? Is it for me or is it for them?
Yeah! Who is benefiting from it? At the same time, I think it’s really easy to get really down on yourself as an artist by thinking only rich people can enjoy art, and art isn’t for marginalised people. You know it’s not true, and you have to fight against that all the time and consider – how can I make art practice a good thing for people around me?
I think the key is sharing and a process of exchange. Recognising the making that people are already doing! A lot of the time people are making art in their home. Things like costumes for their kids, or weird Christmas cards. For me, part of this exchange is not seeing fine art as separate or superior. Because the art world looks in on itself, people forget that there is such a diversity of creative practices outside of the art world that are amazing. I love finding out what people are making and want to encourage them.
Birmingham School of Art Graduate Show 2019 ran from the 11th to the 18th of June at the Margaret Street campus.
For more information, you can contact Caleb Steer at firstname.lastname@example.org
To find out more about Acorn Housing Union, visit: https://acorntheunion.org.uk/