Queer through the lens of the camera

2016-09-09 11:41

How can queer community be portrayed through photography and photographic practices? Annica Karlsson Rixon has explored this question through two artworks, which are now becoming a PhD thesis in photography.

Annica Karlsson Rixon is an artist and a photographer. On 26 August, she completed her PhD project by defending her PhD thesis, titled Queer Community through Photographic Acts, in which she explores how queer community can emerge through photography.

Annica Karlsson Rixon is eager to point out that her PhD project is focused on photographic gestaltning. Gestaltning is a Swedish word without accurate English translation which is why Karlsson Rixon has chosen to keep the Swedish word untranslated in her thesis.

Gestaltning means giving something form and to show what happens in that process of giving shape’, she says.

‘I work with photography as an expression; my research is conducted through the photographic practices. This makes the outcome different from other researchers work, even though I do have a lot in common with researchers in other disciplines. Most artistic researchers write at the same time as we work with other formats, materials and expressions,’ she says.

The thesis is based on two artworks that show queer communities in Russia and are currently on display at the Museum of World Culture. State of Mind, an installation combining photography, video and sound in a three-dimensional staging, was completed by Annica Karlsson Rixon and Anna Viola Hallberg in 2006–2008 and sheds light on the situation of lesbian and bisexual women in Saint Petersburg. At the Time of the Third Reading consists of a series of photographs taken during a yearly lesbian women’s camp in Russia. The camp happened to coincide with the State Duma voting into effect a new law forbidding conveyance of information on ‘non-traditional sexual orientations’ to children under age 18. The latter project, including texts written by Russian activists, will also be published as a book in connection to the defence of the thesis.

‘A lot of the work I’ve done has revolved around using the camera to portray, explore or create a sense of community. For example, in a project that started in the 1990s, I follow a group of contemporary artists. I view photography as a practice and am interested in the performativity of research,’ says Annica Karlsson Rixon.

Annica Karlsson Rixon has chosen to present her research in the form of a compilation thesis: instead of articles it consists of artworks and the exhibitions replace the ‘publications’. The thesis also has a written theoretical framework that introduces to the artworks and the queer theoretical starting points.

‘One example of how “queer community” can be considered as a practice in State of Mind is that the viewer is first exposed to simple portraits of kind-looking women on the outside of the installation. If you don’t know anything about what you are looking at, you probably only see pictures of women and don’t interpret them as queer. In this situation, even homophobes can identify with the women and enter a queerness they weren’t prepared for. One might wonder what happens when the same person enters the installation and watch the openhearted interviews shown on the seven monitors. In this way, the queer aspects of the work can be considered to both destabilise norms and do something queer. Does the viewer gain confirmation or is he or she provoked or maybe disarmed? This is the type of ”practices” I’m interested in in my research,’ she says.

State of Mind has been displayed on 11 occasions, including twice in Saint Petersburg in Russia, once in Minsk in Belarus and twice in Ukraine. The project has attracted a great deal of interest, not least due to the recent media focus on Russian LGBT policy.

‘But if you want to learn more about LGBT activism in Russia, you shouldn’t read the thesis. Instead you should check out the artworks or read the artist book At the Time of the Third Reading,’ she says.

Annica Karlsson Rixon held a doctoral studentship at Valand Academy, the school of fine arts at University of Gothenburg. Although several feminist researchers have found their way to Valand in recent years, she describes her first experiences there as ‘patriarchal’.

‘I ended up in a homosocial group and even if several of us were women, the culture at the faculty was male dominated and male oriented. None of the offered courses felt relevant to me and there was no opportunity to discuss what I was interested in with my colleagues.’

She found the right context in gender research. She took a course in intersectionality, attended gender research conferences and met other gender researchers she could work with.

‘I had to find another platform in order to develop but also in order to survive. I found my right element in gender research.’

After getting her PhD, Annica Karlsson Rixon is hoping to continue doing artistic research on the topics of community and difference.

‘To move around in the world with a camera, to find strategies and methods to bring attention to issues in society in this intimate way, that’s something I’ll keep doing,’ she says.

Author Anneli Tillberg
Photo Anneli Tillberg
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