Greeted by a stack of mattresses in Ian Giles’ exhibition, After BUTT, at Chelsea Space at Chelsea College of Art, only the most churlish viewer would reject the invitation they extend. Upon taking a place on the pile, it is easy, particularly if others are present, to feel a sense of casual conviviality, even a strangely immediate sense of community wherein confidences may be exchanged rapidly and sympathetically, and new friendships may be just a word, or even a syllable, away. This mood continues in Giles’ video work, which shares its name with the exhibition. It documents a series of theatrical workshops in which a group of young gay men met to discuss the legacy of the relatively short-lived magazine BUTT (2001-2011), and read from collected interviews with the prime movers behind the publication, including its founders, Gert Jonkers and Jop Van Bennekom. It is a testament to Giles’ sense of space that his approach to display so seamlessly blends with the visuals on screen and the pervading sensibility of BUTT itself, which, over its lifespan, both documented and created an aesthetic that crystallised into a community.
For those unfamiliar with the magazine, Giles’ film—though by no means a documentary—will provide a solid introduction. Created in the wake of the bleak denouement of the AIDS crisis, BUTT provided a new outlet for representing and expressing male homosexual identity. BUTT-world is informal and friendly, a world in which one may have more or less randomly found oneself enjoying a gluteal massage from AA Bronson of General Idea one day, or hanging with Dirty Danny the “Homo Hobo” from Amsterdam the next, whose rancid sheets have not seen the inside of a washing machine—but have seen much else—since the 1990s.
In the film, through the young readers’ voices, the creators of BUTT describe an easily recongisable state of affairs for those living in the present, albeit from the perspective of over a decade ago. The young man voicing Jop says the following: “I think we responded to what was basically a representation crisis of homosexuality. The representation of gays was so commodified, so made into a lifestyle, cocktails, very clean, so commercial.” Though of a different generation, the crisis of which Bennekom speaks very likely resonates with a young queer person in this age of pervasive and invasive social media. How one’s identity is represented is one aspect of that crisis, but what that identity means, once expressed, in a wider discourse, is also at the heart of the discussion of the evolution of BUTT’s meaning.
Sadly, even a magazine concerned with inclusion is shown to reflect some of the limitations and blind-spots of its time. The film includes, for example, an important moment in which the man reading Adam Baran’s words notes that “Race is a blank space in BUTT. It’s not an intersectional magazine to use the sort of vogue word today. There is (sic) not a lot of people of colour in that magazine.”
Regarding the film in its own right, it is sharply edited and direct, though perhaps a bit polite in its presentation given BUTT’s determined informality. Nods to the visual identity of BUTT as a physical object are judiciously woven into the film’s narrative; the camera documenting the read-through occasionally passes between a coloured rectangle hanging in the space that renders the speakers a shade of Colorado Pink similar to BUTT’s pages. There is a deftness in this choice, in that it seems to ask the viewer to understand the young men as potential subjects of BUTT magazine, but then, on its own terms, the film appears to reject this possibility. BUTT, as the founders themselves seem to acknowledge in the text, represented a brilliant moment, but a moment that was meant to pass. Trying to recapture that instant, or trying to see the world through Colorado Pink spectacles, is, at best, an exercise in vacant nostalgia, at worst a kind of coercive distortion.
In an interview text accompanying the exhibition—which, having been alerted by gallery staff to its presence, I feel represents an important, even indispensable, meta-element of the show—Giles speaks of seeking to “try and locate where we are today within a ‘gay history’ and to offer the wider public a presentation of the multiplicity of voices and individuals that exist within the perceived gay community and beyond”. This conception of creating an archive of lived, embodied experience is as urgent as it has ever been. Giles proceeds in the article to interview the men who read the interviews with BUTT’s founders in his film. This vertiginous dynamic feels integral to the exhibition in a way few accompanying press materials do. In the interview, the men speak of the struggles of representation they face and the ongoing battle for self-definition and identity. Their concerns reflect those of the founders of BUTT, yet do not mirror them; each generation’s experience of gayness (or, indeed, of queerness) is unique, and the need to include as many first-hand voices as possible is an imperative the crisis of the 1980s made only too clear. With After BUTT, and its accompanying materials, Giles provides a narrative that is as engaging, encompassing, and inviting as the mattresses on which viewers of his film recline.
William Kherbek is the writer of the novels Ecology of Secrets (Arcadia Missa, 2013) and ULTRALIFE (Arcadia Missa, 2016) and the epic poem, Pull Factor (2016). His new poetry collection, Everyday Luxuries, will be published by Arcadia Missa this year. His essay, “Technofeudalism and the Tragedy of the Commons” (2016), appeared in the first issue of Doggerland’s journal, and he has contributed essays to the “Intersubjectivity” series from Sternberg Press. His journalism has appeared in Block Magazine, Rhizome.org, Berlin Art Link, Flash Art, Spike Magazine, Sleek, Samizdat and numerous other publications.