3 March 2014

Contributions wanted for gender identity section of Women In Clothes

I'm curating a few pages of the crowd-sourced book Women In Clothes, currently being put together by a group of writers including Sheila Heti and Leanne Shapton for Penguin.

The section I'm curating is on gender identity and clothing - I'm looking for answers to the question "Which piece of clothing makes you feel most comfortable in your gender identity?" For example, in my entry, I spoke about a black dress with a white sash that I really love, and how it tied into my changing pre- and post-transition idea of what sort of woman I wanted to be.

But you don't have to be or identify as a woman to take part - you just have to write around 300 words. You'll also need a photo - co-editor Leanne Shapton says "
Image specs are perfect square format, item in middle of square, with plenty of space around it so nothing gets cropped out. Could be either shot on a hangar on a wall, or on the floor from directly above, on a solid-color background. And obviously large files in focus are better than small files out of focus!" (These should be high-resolution - 300dpi if possible.) You'll need to get it to me by Friday 14 March.

Full disclosure: there is no payment for contributors, so please don't give up too much time (unless you really want to). Contributions can be anonymous/pseudonymous if you'd prefer, too.

So - please email me if you'd like to contribute something. More details on the project are here.

27 January 2013

Little Stabs at Happiness, or: Writing with Depression

I've had depression for as long as I can remember (even if there were times in my younger life when I didn't realise it) and I have always wanted to write. It's been a constant depression, rather than bipolar, which has been worse at some points, especially during sustained hot weather, than others, but which has always present. In my early thirties, I've had to grudgingly accept that everything I've tried - trying to pull myself out of it, numerous periods in counselling or psychotherapy, anti-depressants - will not dispel it, and the best I can say is that by now I better recognise the symptoms of particular severe bouts, and that I've managed to arranger my life so that there are very few people around me who are not understanding.

(Rightly or wrongly, I feel bound to clarify that I never thought or intended transition to be a panacea for depression - more that it would make it easier to manage. This has proved the case, and I wrote about the relationship between my gender and mental health, which is ultimately a separate issue, here.)

I realised that I wanted to write during the worst depression of my life, during Years 9 and 10 at school, when I would tell anyone who'd listen that life was fundamentally pointless and that nothing could change this. Not many would listen, certainly not for long - it wasn't until I got to sixth form that I read Camus, Sartre, Kafka and others who would help me to articulate these feelings, and the realisation that there were authors who had shared this outlook provided tremendous comfort. Then, I decided that the only way I could find any meaning would be in trying to make material conditions better for people, as far as possible, and that I was best equipped to do this through writing.

So writing became a tactic against negativity, despair and defeat - it was never hard to find inspiration from the cultural or political climate, but nor was it uncommon to feel overwhelmed by it, unsure of what to focus on and pessimistic about whether anyone was even reading, let alone if it was making any difference. This feeling has hardly changed as my platforms have become larger, and nor has the unwillingness to take part in public debate that comes with depression - the sense that I will have nothing to say at any exchange of ideas, in person or through writing becomes insurmountable during its worst spells. Even if I am still capable of producing rather than procrastinating, the depression shapes the subject - I am far less likely to offer a view that might prove contentious or tackle a controversial issue head on if I'm particularly down, even though some of my favourite articles were written during severe bouts.

The formation of my aims in direct relation to depression often led me to prioritise them at the expense of my own wellbeing - I'm thinking particularly of the Guardian blog on transition, when friends warned me that putting so much of my life into the public eye could have strange and damaging consequences, but I felt that I was already deeply unhappy, so how could it make this any worse? In the main, it was cathartic, allowed me to feel I'd achieved my teenage goal and was positive, but in some ways it exacerbated the problem, especially as it brought me into contact with many people who had found that discrimination had shaped their lives in very sad ways. After several years, unable to shake this feeling that short-term successes always faded into long-term failure, I had a mini-breakdown in December 2011 and had to stop writing for a couple of months whilst I sought more counselling and thought about where my work, and its underlying motivation, had taken me.

So I still can't say if writing makes my depression and anxiety better or worse: I can only conclude (in true History graduate style) that it does both, providing an outlet for and alleviating some sadness whilst constantly keeping it at the surface, often facilitating conversations with like-minded people which can be inspiring or despairing. The drive that it gives during better periods means that I can be very productive, which keeps giving me reason to live; at other times, I feel unable to work at all, each day that passes without a word making me more anxious, the cycle rapidly spiralling, disproportionately affected by the most minor failures or rejections, this fixation often preventing me from pursuing any other action that might improve my mental health (such as taking a holiday, or even a walk, or taking time to cook and eat properly).

Even now, for all my familiarity, it can be weeks before I become aware of it, although I find that keeping a journal helps me to monitor my feelings, tracking heightened periods of depression or self-absorption, and means that I don't stop writing entirely. It's not going to go away, so right now, this is the best solution. Speaking about the subject helps, though, and having raised it on Twitter recently, I was heartened by the number of people who felt able to say that they were exploring a similar relationship, which a range of responses - it gives them ideas and experiences, they lose motivation, sometimes they create a lot (and then have to edit heavily) and at others they cannot write a word. All things I can identify with - how about you?

21 January 2013

Sanja Ivekovic: Unknown Heroine

Yesterday, I went to Calvert 22, near Arnold Circus in Shoreditch, to see one half of Unknown Heroine, the first UK solo exhibition of works by Croatia photographer, filmmaker, video and performance artist Sanja Iveković (1949-). Iveković is understudied and underrated in this country: indeed, I only discovered her recently, when I told a Croatian friend that I was writing on Marina Abramović and she told me that (in her opinion) Iveković was far better.

Then Iveković cropped up in the Tate Modern's Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance exhibition, in a room full of works by the wave of feminist and queer artists from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. The Tate Modern showed her video Make Up - Make Down (1978), in which Iveković ritualistically picks up and puts down make-up, opening and applying it although the viewer never sees her face. Iveković graduated in Zagreb during the Croatia Spring of the early 1970s, when poets and artists demanded improvements in human rights and rejected officially sanctioned art, preferring to engage with video and performance works being created in the US and Europe.

Unknown Heroine is split across two sites - the South London Gallery, which showcases Iveković's exploration of female identity and consumerism, and Calvert 22, which foregrounds her engagement with the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia, state surveillance and the gendered division of labour under socialism and capitalism. The link between the two, above all, is the invisibility and erasure of women within historical narratives, before and after the collapse of communism and the break-up of Yugoslavia - the works exhibited at Calvert 22 examined both periods, moving from the concentration camps to 11 September 2011 and beyond whilst remaining faithful to this theme.

Tragedy of a Venus (1975-76) was a series of juxtaposed photos, each showing a scene from a photo essay about Marilyn Monroe's emblematic life on the left and Iveković's less spectacular existence on the right. In Gen XX (1997-2001), there were a number of détourned images from fashion magazines, showing contemporary models, the captions referencing partizan women who died or were tortured after opposing the Nazi occupation.

One of these, Nera Šafarić, was Iveković's mother, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 but survived - in 1949, the year of Iveković's birth, she was declared unable to work by the state and granted social security. Iveković's efforts to find out her mother's prisoner ID at Auschwitz and chart her mother's interminable quest for support from the Yugoslav state made up one of the most powerful installations here, Searching for My Mother's Number (2002), comprised of archival documents, black and white photographs and email correspondence with the Auschwitz museum.

Several of Iveković's shorter video works were exhibited: my favourite was Personal Cuts (1982), in which she wore a stocking over her face, gradually cutting circles out of it. Every time she made an incision, the film would cut to an extract from the state TV documentary The History of Yugoslavia, in which women perform purely ceremonial roles - such as turning out, well-dressed, as the state's male rulers parade victoriously through city streets. The film is here:


My favourite piece here was the documentation of Triangle, a performance devised by Iveković in 1979 and repeated in 2005. The piece needed three people: Iveković; someone stood atop the tall building opposite her apartment; and a policeman on the street as a world leader - Tito in 1979, the visiting George W. Bush in 2005 - drove by. Women were expected to either remain invisible, or enthusiastically support the parade: Iveković did neither, lying on her balcony, smoking, reading, and performing gestures that looked like masturbation. The balcony was visible only to the person on top of the opposite building, with binoculars, but in both cases, the performance ended with the policeman coming to order Iveković to 'remove herself and the objects' from the space they occupied, making a powerful commentary on the paranoid nature of surveillance both under Tito and the paranoid post-9/11 liberal democracy.


There were several longer films, such as an hour-long documentary on women under Yugoslav socialism, but I didn't have time to watch them all. The catalogue, selling at just £7, offered several short essays on Iveković's works, but she is an artist who deserves a larger, fuller retrospective, and I would love to see a company such as LUX issue a DVD selection of her video works. In the meantime, Unknown Heroine runs until 24 February.

Further reading

Dazed Digital interview with Sanja Iveković