The Club’s Conception (or How the Egg Was Cracked), currently on show at Recent Activity in Digbeth, retraces the demolished past venues of Birmingham’s The Nightingale Club, the city’s longest-running queer space. In collaboration with those who attended its three preceding venues, Ryan Kearney and Intervention Architecture map these spaces from recollections, replacing absent photographs and creating an archival presence.
We talked to Ryan about the exhibition.
Can you tell us more about the starting points for the exhibition?
The project began out of a visit to the LGBT archive held at the Library of Birmingham. There’s a small cardboard box dedicated to the history of Birmingham’s queer spaces, containing items like the poster for the city’s first pride in 1998 and various local gay publications. Most of the box, however, consists of meeting minutes from The Nightingale Club and plans for its relocation in the 1990s.
A document titled ‘The Conception (or How the Egg Was Cracked)’ mentioned that the club had occupied three venues since opening in 1969: a terraced house, an ex-working men’s club and an anglers association. As there were no photographs, I became interested in what the venues might have resembled. I put out an open-call to speak with those who attended the club, hoping to use descriptions and sketches as a replacement for images. It came to light later on in the project that people didn’t want to have their photo taken in a gay bar, some even remember whole groups hiding at the sight of a camera.
How does the project fit into your wider curatorial research?
Much of my previous work is around the subject of queer histories and how an awareness of these can allow intergenerational discussions. I first explored this through Queering the Archive at Recent Activity in 2017, a screening of Sandi Hughes’ documentation of LGBTQ+ and BAME communities in Liverpool, prompting discussions on the accessibility of the archive and its impact on younger generations. The Club’s Conception (or How the Egg Was Cracked) continues this, using processes of oral histories and their visual transcriptions to contribute towards the archive while bridging generations of clubbers.
How have you developed the objects and drawings that are on display?
Following the open-call, I met with the participants on a 1-1 basis. I started out by asking them to sketch floor plans of the venues they attended using pen and paper, we then talked through the floor plan to establish an idea of the interior – the furniture, wallpaper and flooring of each individual room. I didn’t provide prompts but as I met with more people, the drawings became increasingly alike, showing that there was a collective understanding of what each space resembled.
Using the sketches and descriptions, Intervention Architecture produced renderings and models combining how the participants remembered each space. The sketches and renderings are printed on polyester drafting sheets, a material used when printing in progress architectural plans, suggesting that the findings aren’t final. It’s possible that someone could walk in and claim that the renderings are incorrect or that a certain feature is misplaced, and that’s what the project is about. Unless you’ve spoken to everyone who attended each venue, which for several reasons is impossible, there will never be a complete picture.
How did the collaboration with Intervention Architecture arise?
I have been familiar with Intervention Architecture for a while and was interested in learning more about how they branch across both their architectural and artistic projects. Considering the architectural nature of their practice and their work on artistic commissions such as ‘Ways of Learning’ at Grand Union and ‘Next Generation Design’, I was keen to collaborate.
Can you talk more about the continuing significance of The Nightingale Club to its communities?
I had my sights set on the Nightingale as a teen and made sure I went on my 18th birthday. I think this is something that a lot of queer people in the region can relate to; the club is a rite of passage. Also, its familiarity and history of relocation make the club a great instrument in discussing the issues of displacement currently threatening Birmingham’s queer community. While there’s definitely a positive significance, many of those I interviewed expressed that the club was no longer their scene, even those who had been attending since it first opened. Ageism – along with issues with racism and sexism – are rife in the LGBTQ+ community, leading to spaces not feeling as safe as they might have before.
What do you hope will be the legacy of this research – for its participants, the public and LGBTQ+ communities?
Women weren’t allowed into The Nightingale Club until the mid-80s and only then under the condition that they would be signed in by and have their drinks purchased for them by a man. It was only in 1994 that they could become members. I hope while the project is a positive description of queer spaces, that it will also prompt thoughts around exclusion and to what extent it happens today.
Also, the documenting of histories relating to Birmingham’s queer scene is long overdue. Everyone I got in touch with was eager to talk and the project also provided an opportunity for the participants to reconnect with each other, to meet those who attended the club at different times. I would hope there might be more interest in speaking to those who came before us, understanding their experiences, how they differ to our own and how they might apply today.
The Club’s Conception (or How the Egg Was Cracked) takes place at Recent Activity, Birmingham until 1 June 2019.