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Puer (they/them), multidisciplinary artist
Puer (they/them), We Exist x The Koppel ProjectPhotography Antonio Perricone

Meet the trans and non-binary artists forging a community in lockdown

We Exist x The Koppel Project is the trans artist residency creating an inclusive space for self-expression

2020 was a particularly hard year for the trans and non-binary community. Not only were we struck by the morbid, isolating restrictions of lockdown, but we faced increasing global violence (particularly against trans people of colour), transphobic tirades, and the implementation of devastating policy by Liz Truss.

Now, against the advice of healthcare professionals, court orders have halted puberty blockers being given out at The Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust (the London-based Gender Identity Development Service), thereby restricting the access of these drugs to under-16 trans youths. Amid this backdrop of hostility, violence, prejudice, and isolation a group of artists came together during lockdown to resiliently forge a creative trans community. 

Trans healthcare charity We Exist teamed up with artist studio initiative The Koppel Project to facilitate an artist residency exclusively for trans and non-binary folk. Running from November 2020 to the end of January 2021, the residency provided studio space for 30 creatives in the heart of London. The space was open to trans artists of all creative backgrounds, from dancers and designers to writers and sculptors, covering a wide diversity of gender expressions and identities. 

The residency took place at the abandoned, old campus of Central Saint Martins, a building which birthed such legends as Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, and Christopher Kane. Taking it over in 2016 in order to provide affordable studio spaces and teaching for artists, The Koppel Project's intention is creating ”a safe, inclusive community for artistic expression and a platform for all emerging makers.” Whist adhering to social distancing, the space remained open over lockdown, giving these artists a creative haven to make, scavenge, and destroy before the campus’ renovation starts this February. 

In December, photographer Antonio Perricone visited the artists for a series of portraits. Being on location at the eerie old campus set the tone for the shoot. ”Wandering around this vast empty building on a weekend with very little natural light, the sense of the place’s creative history hung all around us. We were inspired in part by the scene in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita where a group of strangers walk around this huge old house together by candlelight,” Perricone tells Dazed. “Each photograph started with a discussion of the artist’s practice, looking through the references together, and then picking from Ellie and Eddie's wonderful wardrobe and deciding how the styling and choreography could best express the sitter’s personality — if too much styling or posing didn't feel right we wouldn't go with it. I wanted to show every artist’s dual vulnerability and strength.”

Take a look through the gallery above to see Antonio Perricone's stunning portraits of the artists at We Exist x The Koppel Project while, below, we spoke with some of them about lockdown, the residency, and being a trans creative in the art world. 

Obviously, the pandemic has been a hard year for everyone, but it’s been particularly difficult for trans and non-binary folk. How have you and your community been affected by lockdown?

Willow (she/her): Collectively we experienced heartache through lockdown – the uprise of transphobia across the world with violence and murder, attacks from Liz Truss and JK Rowling in the media… Words can’t describe the anger I felt. But that anger kept me through to remember to keep on fighting. We need a revolution. 

Ivie (they/them): Being Black, queer, and trans means that I have to think about how I am perceived regardless of what environment I am in. Coronavirus and lockdown have unfortunately taken away the few spaces where me and my community could go to exist without judgement or prejudice. I think what this year has shown to a lot of people is that the core of human existence revolves around connecting with other people, and not being able to see or touch the people that make you feel safe in a world that is designed against you can feel incredibly isolating.

Puer (they/them): Being part of Bangladeshi diaspora and also within a community of QTBIPOC, we are more at risk of suffering from COVID-19 and its consequences. It’s affected us mentally, socially, and physically, which is why it’s important that community-orientated projects which uplift marginalised voices continue and become more integral to the British art landscape. Communities in the UK are so rich in culture and care and this needs to be celebrated more for, with, and by authentic voices, to prevent further social isolation and to create more spaces for genuine representation, community gathering, and learning. It’s been financially detrimental, which is why we need more representation from the most marginalised – dark-skinned, trans, disabled, fat, and working-class people – to keep making lasting systematic changes, to question and dismantle the oppressive ways of society, and working industries.

June (he/him): It feels more important than ever to be fighting for the protection of trans rights, especially those of trans children and teenagers who have become a scapegoat for the pushing forward of transphobic agendas. At the moment, I’m genuinely really concerned about the effect that these high-profile transphobic agendas are having on trans kids who aren’t in situations where they can be openly and safely themselves, and who don’t have the same kinds of community support that most of us on this residency have.

Alex (they/them): Many trans people have been forced to move home. This is particularly the case with black, brown, and working-class trans people who have lost their jobs and can no longer afford rent. Returning home – where transphobic violence and micro-aggressions are more likely to be a daily occurrence – is an issue that is not being spoken about. For trans people in particular, who spend their lives cultivating spaces of healing and joy, the fragmentation of our communities is such a huge loss.

Georges (he/him): That being said, this is one more moment where we see that community is crucial and we know we're sticking together and helping each other out. 

“For trans people in particular, who spend their lives cultivating spaces of healing and joy, the fragmentation of our communities is such a huge loss” – Alex

Many cis people don’t quite understand how uniquely important the sense of community is to trans folk. It’s such a key part of our survival and safety. Without the community during lockdown, how has your art and creative process been affected?

Ivie: I have had periods during lockdown where I’ve had so much going on in my head that I’ve been super productive, just to get out all those emotions and thoughts. On the other hand, I’ve had periods where I’ve been so overwhelmed that I haven’t been able to make anything at all.

Dee (she/her): The sense of aimlessness I felt made it very hard to commit to creating things. It took me a very long time to come back to a point where I could make again.

Quinnely (he/him): I couldn’t pick up a paintbrush in the same way, neither did I have that drive to make a garment like I used to. I didn’t even really want to write. I just wanted to be around people, even if it was just to sit at their ankles, so that I acknowledge them and they acknowledge me.

Luca (he/they/she): I see lockdown from a dual perspective – it made it okay to rest and promoted a much-needed sense of self-care over productivity. But, at the same time, it made it impossible to grow in so many social aspects that my creative practice needs.

June: As trans artists, a lot of us have been hit incredibly hard financially. Before the pandemic, I was working a number of zero-hour hospitality and freelance jobs and lost virtually all of my sources of income. I’m really lucky to have a creative community which really came through for me and uplifted my work during a time where I really needed the income.

Caz (they/them): Lockdown has put a halt on events and clubs, which has meant I have not been able to perform, play live music, or DJ any shows. However, I have had the opportunity to perform on a few live stream events. Though it is not the same euphoric experience as being present in a rave or club, it is the best we can do right now, and having some outlet and connection to the community, even digitally, is better than none at all

Iro (they/them): Dance is a physical and often communal practice, so it has been extremely difficult to stay motivated to train and create in a time when we can’t work together physically. However, lockdown has allowed me some time for artistic reflection and encouraged me to develop my practice as a choreographer and artist who uses dance as their primary mode of expression. I have spent much more time focusing on dancing in a way that makes me happy and helps to sustain me, rather than dancing in order to please other people or satisfy their artistic needs.

Alex: As a performance artist, I was also estranged from my stage. The notion of queer ‘visibility’ failed to resonate with me. I found it difficult to understand how resistance could only relate to visual acts of disruption, particularly when I wasn’t performing in front of a live audience or even leaving the house. I wanted to discover a language of queer liberation that existed outside of this framework. What does it mean for trans people to be listened to and not just seen?

Trans people can only be listened to if their platforms are raised. This is more vital than ever in the wake of 2020. So how do you feel about having an arts residency only for trans and non-binary artists at this time?

June: It is incredibly important to carve out intentional opportunities to publicly support trans people when transphobic and exclusionary rhetoric is so currently prevalent in mainstream media and academic spaces.

Iro: Providing space for trans people to create safely, without requiring them to adhere to cis-het culture or environments, allows for so much authentic creativity than would otherwise occur.

Luca: Developing new things within a safer space brought me back to a more playful and sincere approach to creativity and productivity. This experience is also teaching me a lot in terms of my own constant transformation, especially in regards to my gender identity as it is giving me some sense of a chosen family within a year that’s mainly been seclusive.

Quinnely: The people I have met on this residency have been a great support in my personal growth in confidence both as a human being and as an artist. They not only made me feel welcomed, but many of them have taught me not to be sorry about who I am and the value of what it means to be visible.

Puer: It has been an eye-awakening experience because we’ve all come together with sensitivities to different abilities and access requirements. I’m excited to present work in a space where binaries and homogenous norms are distorted and politically challenged.

Dee: I believe that any residency seeking to include us needs to place more focus on our identities as artists rather than as trans people. The fair inclusion of marginalised people must be coupled with an adequate structure to uphold the work of those involved or it risks slipping into tokenisation. 

Willow: The art world is very ‘gatekeeper-y’. It is so limited in who it approves as an artist. Being trans challenges that. It’s like a big two fingers up to them. We are here.

So as a group of artists first and foremost, what have you been working on over the residency?

Yaz (they/them): Over lockdown, I spent a lot more time thinking about photography and writing, so I’ve been writing a book titled do I need a dick to be a male artist. It looks at gender and being trans in the art world and what it means to exist as a masculine trans person in a space that’s dominated by so many cis men.

Dee: I have been working on a lot of different collaborative pieces with Willow, most notably our ‘prepared piano’ titled ‘La Dona (Arca)’.

Willow: We loved experimenting with obscure sounds and mechanical aesthetics, so we found an old piano in the basement, pushed it up the lift and started to deconstruct it and then reconstruct it, using wires, metal plates and anything we could grab throughout the various halls and offices of the residency space.

Dee: There was the intention of blurring the line between the discarded and objects to be upheld as art; spaces with unclear narratives designed to confuse or intimidate. 

Willow: Sometimes there is less than meets the eye as, at the end of the day it’s just a piano we found in the basement, even though it looks like a transformer.

Quinnely: I’m working on a collection I’ve had in mind for quite some time, but I never had the right perspective to pursue it. It’s a lingerie collection, inspired by the changes that come with testosterone. I’ve also been creating artefacts alongside the garment construction, one of which is a multi-media 98-inch penis painting.

Puer: I have been working on constructing elements of sculpture and set to embody a performance piece exploring gender fluidity. Using real and sculpted flowers to create a landscape that transports viewers into an alternate space encapsulating the performers, where reality is blurred into surreality.

Ivie:  Having so much time to think over lockdown has definitely clarified what’s important to me in my work, and that is capturing the QTIBIPOC community in London that has been like a second family to me. So I’ve been working on a series of portraits of Black trans, non-binary, and queer people, exploring the themes of community, utopias, and euphoria.

June: I’ve been developing a concept for a gay porn film featuring only trans men, which will be shot in a traditionally gay male sex club. I want the film to be incredibly high-camp and femme, pushing back against all of the assumptions about trans men wanting to necessarily conform to the aesthetic ideals of cis masculinity or needing to be invited into those spaces. More immediately, I have benefitted creatively from the support networks that have arisen with other queer and trans folk and will continue to benefit from this outside of the duration of the residency. 

On the February 27, We Exist will be holding Trans Day of Joy – an online healthcare fundraiser featuring work and performances by many of the artists featured above, alongside a lineup of appearances from the likes of Travis Alabanza, Crystal Rasmussen, Bimini Bon Boulash, and Juno Birch. Follow their @weexistlondon for more details