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Gut Level (2023)
Gut Level (2023)Courtesy of Gut Level

These photos celebrate queer hedonism in the north

Gut Level is the Sheffield-based queer-led collective occupying Barbican’s The Curve throughout June, with a celebration of finding ‘joy in precariousness’

In 2019, four friends – Adam, Frazer, Hannah and Katie – took over an abandoned building in a Sheffield railway arch, and started throwing “word-of-mouth parties” for their friends, advertised through a secret Facebook group.

Four years and two venue changes later, Gut Level – as they’re collectively known – has been tasked with taking over London’s Barbican Curve throughout June, as part of RESOLVE Collective’s Them’s The Breaks. As well as workshops, events and a ‘cretinous’ afterparty on June 3, the exhibition will feature images from venues and collectives across the North of England, including Mondo Radio, Wharf Chambers, Cosmic Slop, QUARRY and Partisan Collective

Based around the theme of ‘joy in precariousness’, these vivid photographs capture the chaos, community and queer hedonism at the heart of DIY scenes across the north of England. From half-naked bodies slathered in mayonnaise to wholesome snapshots of community gardens and karaoke nights, the exhibition bears witness to a shared determination to wreak havoc, on a budget.

Of course, it shouldn’t have to be this way. These collectives all have shared obstacles: greedy property developers, a global pandemic, and an ongoing cost-of-living crisis. “There’s no such thing as a stable space,” says Frazer, describing an endless cycle of “rolling contracts” and “lack of investment.”

DIY scenes have been forced to adapt. In 2022, government funding during the pandemic enabled Gut Level to program a summer of back-to-back parties in 2022, just before they were booted out of their longest-running venue on Snow Lane, which they describe as their “spiritual home”. These nights were gleefully raucous, with parties lasting way beyond sunrise. DJs from Sheffield, Leeds, Liverpool and beyond, played eclectic sets of dance music, from thumping techno to campy, euphoric disco. Sweat-drenched bodies glimmered under a disco ball, taking regular breaks outside in the sprawling garden.

Even with the latest venue change, Gut Level has prioritised outdoor space. Step outside and you’ll find drag queens cracking jokes and straddling the railings for impromptu photoshoots, while partygoers drink their own booze and laugh around a communal bonfire. “We really believe that club spaces don’t need to be hostile,” says Katie. “It’s important to have those spaces for people to sit and be social, because we don’t want to focus solely on the dance floor.”

Gut Level has sunk its roots further over the last year, opening a community space, free for “friends with benefits.” This has enabled them to diversify their programming: from community meals to letter-writing sessions, organised by abolitionist groups, these get-togethers allow for “more intimate moments”. Membership is priced at a tiered scale, and nobody is turned away for lack of funds.

Gut Level exemplifies left-wing values in action. “That’s the most motivating thing for me,” says Frazer. “It started as a party space, but now it’s where I see the ideals of socialism play out in reality. It’s rooted in those values of sharing resources and providing for each other, in a non-judgmental way.” This ethos has cemented its status as a queer utopia. “Within the LGBTQ+ community, there’s been this swing towards a more inclusive, queer umbrella,” says Frazer. “We never explicitly said that we’re a queer space, but we’ve always prioritised other queer people and made an effort to book queer DJs. We want marginalised people to feel like they have a home here, but it’s always been for everybody.”

Especially over the last few years, collectives across the North of England have taken a similarly inclusive stance. “I find a lot of queer bars too polished and clean,” says Sam, a newer member of the team, who reiterates that Gut Level’s lineage is in the “subversive, dangerous” aesthetics of provocateurs like John Waters and his drag muse, Divine. It’s a common misnomer that discrimination is more prevalent in the North, but in reality, plenty of cities like Glasgow, Liverpool and Sheffield have long, socialist histories, based largely in solidarity and class struggle. Coming together up North is nothing new.

Cheap venues with long-term contracts are getting harder to find, but Gut Level is committed to creating these community spaces. Currently, they’ve got their eye on a more permanent venue – and if they can secure a contract, they’ll be providing a vital, community-led space for those who need it.

As part of their mission statement for the exhibition, Gut Level writes: “We’ve never been polished, always messy.” As long as you’re respectful of their values – as long as you’re not a dick, basically – anyone can get stuck in. “I’m trying to use that language of socialism to describe what we’re doing a little bit better,” says Frazer. “I think being able to place it in that context is really useful, because ultimately it makes me feel great that we're part of this broad movement that's been going on for hundreds of years; we're just doing it in a slightly different way.”

Throughout June, them’s the breaks will host a residency by Sheffield-based, queer-led DIY events space and collective Gut Level in The Curve gallery at the Barbican. The Cute and Sexy North Party takes place June 3 2023. Book your tickets here.

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