Re­mem­ber­ing vic­tims of ho­mo­pho­bia

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When and where did you start the Pansy Project? In 2005 a string of ho­mo­pho­bic abuse on a warm sum­mer’s day was the cat­a­lyst for this project. The day be­gan with two builders shout­ing, “It’s about time we went gay-bash­ing again, isn’t it?”It con­tin­ued with a gang of yobs throw­ing abuse and stones at my then boyfriend and me, and ended with a bizarre and un­set­tling con­fronta­tion with a man who called us “ladies” un­der his breath.

Over the years I have be­come ac­cus­tomed to this kind of be­hav­ior, but I came to re­alise it was a shock­ing con­cept to most of my friends and col­leagues. It was in this con­text that I be­gan to pon­der the na­ture of th­ese ver­bal at­tacks and their in­flu­ence on my life. I re­alised that I felt dif­fer­ently about th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences de­pend­ing on my men­tal state, so I de­cided to ex­plore the way I was made to feel at the lo­ca­tion where th­ese in­ci­dents oc­curred.

What in­ter­ested me was the way that the lo­ca­tions later acted as a prompt for me to ex­plore the mem­o­ries as­so­ci­ated with that place. I wanted in some way to ma­nip­u­late th­ese as­so­ci­a­tions, in or­der to feel dif­fer­ently about the lo­ca­tion and the mem­o­ries it sum­moned. I be­came in­ter­ested in the pub­lic na­ture of th­ese in­ci­dents and the way one was forced into re­act­ing pub­licly to a crime that of­ten oc­curred dur­ing the day and in full view of passers-by.

I had ob­served that the ten­dency to place flow­ers at the scene of a crime or ac­ci­dent had be­come an ac­cepted rit­ual and I con­sid­ered a sim­i­lar re­sponse. Flo­ral trib­utes sub­tly aug­ment the read­ing of a space that en­cour­ages a passer-by to pon­der past events at a marked lo­ca­tion, gen­er­ally un­der­stood as a crime or ac­ci­dent; my par­tic­u­lar in­ter­ven­tion could en­cour­age a passer-by to query the rea­son for my own rit­u­al­is­tic ac­tion.

How­ever, I did not feel it would be ap­pro­pri­ate to equate my per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence of ver­bal ho­mo­pho­bic abuse with a death or fa­tal ac­ci­dent. I felt that plant­ing a small un­marked liv­ing plant

at the site would cor­re­spond with the na­ture of the abuse: a plant con­tin­ues to grow as I do through my ex­pe­ri­ence. Plac­ing a live plant felt like a pos­i­tive ac­tion, it was a com­ment on the abuse: a po­ten­tial “rem­edy”.

Why a pansy and not some other flower?

The species of plant was, of course, vi­tally im­por­tant and the pansy in­stantly seemed per­fect. Not only does the word re­fer to an ef­fem­i­nate or gay man, the name of the flower orig­i­nates from the French verb penser (to think), as the bow­ing head of the flower was seen to vis­ually echo a per­son in deep thought. The sub­tlety and ele­giac qual­ity of the flower was ideal for my re­quire­ments. The ac­tion of plant­ing re­in­forced th­ese qual­i­ties, as kneel­ing in the street, and dig­ging in the of­ten ne­glected hedgerows, felt like a sor­row­ful act. The bow­ing heads of the flow­ers be­came mourn­ful sym­bols of in­dig­nant ac­cep­tance.

So my even­tual strat­egy would be to plant un­marked pan­sies as close as pos­si­ble to where I re­ceived ver­bal ho­mo­pho­bic abuse. I would then en­ti­tle the lo­ca­tion after the abuse and post a pho­to­graph of the pansy along­side the quoted abuse on­line. What was orig­i­nally an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal work has be­come a project that has been em­braced by the gay com­mu­nity, who seemed to see the project as way to deal with a shared ex­pe­ri­ence, as many mem­bers of the LGBT com­mu­nity have ex­pe­ri­enced bul­ly­ing or abuse at some point.

Events where I have handed out pan­sies for peo­ple to memo­ri­alise their own lo­ca­tions have been well at­tended as have ses­sions I have hosted which have been de­signed to in­tro­duce the Project to a wider au­di­ence. My re­search has re­vealed that the process of plant­ing a pansy at the scene of th­ese in­ci­dents al­ters the par­tic­i­pant’s ex­pe­ri­ence of the city. The memo­ri­alised lo­ca­tions pri­mar­ily be­come a place where the par­tic­i­pant has planted a pansy, not where an at­tack has oc­curred.

This ac­tion ad­justs the mem­ory of each lo­ca­tion which has the ef­fect of over­lay­ing the re­mem­bered event in the mind of the par­tic­i­pants with a more pos­i­tive as­so­ci­a­tion. The web­site (thep­an­sypro­ en­ables the images of the ephemeral acts to be col­lated and pre­sented to a wide au­di­ence who can then vi­car­i­ously ex­plore the na­ture of the in­ci­dents. The jux­ta­po­si­tion of the images of the del­i­cate flow­ers placed in derelict ur­ban set­tings with fre­quently of­fen­sive and hurt­ful abuse cre­ates a com­plex an­thol­ogy of ho­mo­pho­bic ver­bal abuse as ex­pe­ri­enced by gay peo­ple in towns and ci­ties to­day.

The hum­ble planted pansy be­comes a record; a trace of this pub­lic oc­cur­rence which is deeply per­sonal and con­cur­rently avail­able to the pub­lic on the city streets and on­line. When ver­bal ho­mo­pho­bic abuse is ex­pe­ri­enced the as­sailant forces the un­will­ing par­tic­i­pant to as­sim­i­late and re­spond to this pub­lic ver­bal at­tack: ig­nore or re­tal­i­ate. The Pansy Project acts as a for­mula which pre­vents the “vic­tim” from in­ter­nal­is­ing the in­ci­dent, the strat­egy be­comes a con­cep­tual shield, a be­hav­ior that en­ables the ex­pe­ri­ence to be pro­cessed via the pub­lic do­main, in this case the lo­ca­tion where the in­ci­dent oc­curred, and lat­terly the web­site which col­lates and presents the in­ci­dents and op­er­ates as a vir­tual lo­ca­tion of quiet re­sis­tance.

What has been the re­ac­tion to your pan­sies?

The re­ac­tion has been very pos­i­tive. I’m of­ten on my own when I plant pan­sies and I have to take into ac­count my lo­ca­tion and the con­text of how I re­spond to ques­tions from passers-by. I’m ef­fec­tively out­ing my­self if I tell peo­ple too much,

“I had ob­served that the ten­dency to place flow­ers at the scene of a crime or ac­ci­dent had be­come an ac­cepted rit­ual and I con­sid­ered a sim­i­lar re­sponse”

which, of course, could lead to a neg­a­tive re­sponse. This has never hap­pened, as I tend to be cau­tious es­pe­cially on my own. Now guer­rilla gar­den­ing is so well known peo­ple gen­er­ally as­sume it’s some­thing along those lines. I don’t al­ways have to say that it’s about plant­ing pan­sies at the site of ho­mo­pho­bia.

I plant pan­sies where I have ex­pe­ri­enced abuse and where high pro­file at­tacks have taken place. I also seek out the lo­ca­tions, and I ask on Twit­ter or on Face­book if any­one has a lo­ca­tion that they would like me to mark. I set my­self a goal of plant­ing 100 in London this year, the late spring meant I’m fall­ing be­hind, but in the au­tumn I will reach my goal. The pan­sies are sea­sonal so that dic­tates when I can plant. If any­one has lo­ca­tions they can let me know, just search The Pansy Project on Face­book or Twit­ter and you’ll find me.

How does the plant­ing and pho­tograph­ing of the pan­sies make a dif­fer­ence?

In terms of mak­ing a dif­fer­ence, I guess art has the ca­pac­ity to make peo­ple ques­tion the world in a dif­fer­ent way. As The Pansy Project is an art project it is its art cre­den­tials that are im­por­tant to me. It’s art first, cam­paign next. I fun­da­men­tally am an artist who is in­ter­ested in the way any per­son, re­gard­less of sex­u­al­ity, walks the streets. I’m in­ter­ested in mem­ory and the way peo­ple in­ter­act, and my own sex­u­al­ity clearly has an im­pact on the way peo­ple in­ter­act with me and other gay peo­ple. I’m con­tin­u­ously per­plexed that my sex­ual iden­tity is so prob­lem­atic in the world.

How can other peo­ple get in­volved in the Pansy Project?

Any­one can plant a pansy where they have ex­pe­ri­enced ho­mo­pho­bia. I’ve had so many re­quests for peo­ple to get in­volved I drew up a “how-to” sheet which can be down­loaded from the web­site ( The Pansy Project is pri­mar­ily an art­work so how things look is re­ally im­por­tant. I have a pref­er­ence about how the pho­tos of the planted pan­sies are taken so I have some guide­lines about how to achieve this. The way peo­ple en­gage with my work is end­lessly fas­ci­nat­ing to me. The amus­ing thing is that the more I do the more peo­ple imag­ine The Pansy Project is a large or­gan­i­sa­tion. It is, after all, just me. I have no fund­ing; I rely on work­ing with fes­ti­vals and ex­hibit­ing the photographs to gen­er­ate in­come.

What does the fu­ture hold for The Pansy Project?

I in­tend to keep plant­ing, and keep try­ing to take the best pic­tures I can. I’m cur­rently writ­ing a pub­li­ca­tion that ex­plores some of the is­sues The Pansy Project ap­pears to en­gage with, from guer­rilla gar­den­ing to cog­ni­tive ther­apy to the pol­i­tics of sex­ual iden­tity. I’m hop­ing to find a pub­lisher for that. I’m also cur­rently work­ing on a chil­dren’s book that fol­lows a boy who is bul­lied at school and starts plant­ing pan­sies. The idea of re-imag­in­ing my own child­hood and re-mix­ing more re­cent his­tory came to me in a dream. I’m writ­ing and il­lus­trat­ing the book my­self and will be look­ing for a pub­lisher for that project too.

Ba­si­cally, I love The Pansy Project. I feel that I found this idea rather than came up with it and, as a con­se­quence, I feel com­mit­ted to com­mu­ni­cat­ing the idea to a wide an au­di­ence as pos­si­ble.




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