how the world works, spatial poetics

On gay bars, and the geography of belonging.

1. Some years ago, I created this blog to separate my writings on theatre and on geography – people were confused about why both, and no amount of saying ‘theatre is a building’ and ‘a performance is all about invisible lines in space’ and ‘architecture and urban design are about making spaces for people to come together’ made a difference. Perhaps things have changed; but I still have two blogs.

2. Taylor once said: “The first time I entered a gay bar was the first time I felt I had found my people.” I never forgot that sentence.

3. The first time I entered a gay bar, I also felt I had found my people. It didn’t matter that there were mostly gay men around me, and that I wasn’t a gay man. It took a long time to work out why this was so.

4. I have had conversations about this, long, important, difficult, many times. Here is one I have had, almost identical in form and content, with two women. Both were basically straight, and both were working out how queer they were through how they related to me.

Both said it was not right that they felt unwelcome, or were expressly excluded, from gay bars.

I said, both times, that gay bars were created for gay people. That they were the one place where a woman could hit on another woman without having to worry about being rejected for being a woman.

They said: that is demeaning to gay people and to gay bars, to reduce their identity, their social life, only to sex.

What I should have said is that it is the rest of the society that has historically reduced gay people, their identity and their social life, only to sex.

But what I said instead was that they didn’t seem to be aware that gay bars, historically, were safe places for gay people, islands of safety and belonging, tiny places where a queer person could be part of a majority, where they could be surrounded with people like them.

And they said they too felt safer and better among gay people.

And I said: you are welcome to do all you can to gay up your local bar or cafe or restaurant until you feel sufficiently safe there. But when you’re in a gay bar, you are being allowed into a space that has been fought for, carved out, protected, maintained, you are a guest, and that must be OK, because everywhere else it is queer people who are guests, and often not very welcome.

In particular, these women took umbrage with lesbian bars, where they felt particularly unwelcome. It didn’t seem obvious to them that their own hostility to lesbians – with their short hair and butch ways, what they perceived as an exclusionary uniform – was hugely contributing to the problem. No amount of explaining that lesbian bars are particularly difficult to maintain, that they are a financial sacrifice more than a money-making enterprise, and how closely related this is to the historical exclusion of women from public spaces, could convince them. It didn’t seem apparent to them that they preferred gay bars to lesbian bars because they were uncomfortable in places that had a majority of women – not even queer women, just women – because these were by default uncool places, whereas gay bars, for them, were cool places. They didn’t see themselves as parasites on social spaces; they didn’t see themselves as gawking; they didn’t see themselves as disrespectful. Even when they disclaimed that this or that butch lesbian is ugly and they would never fuck her.

5. I once witnessed the following conversation, in Silver Future in Berlin.

I was sitting at one of the outside tables with a friend, next to a table of three straight people, next to a lesbian couple (these were judgements made with a corner of my eye, you will soon see why), when suddenly the couple got up and went inside. A second later, the waitress came out to tell the straight people they needed to leave, because they had offended a customer.

They were confused and wanted to know why. As more of the management team came out to talk to them, we were able to hear the entire conversation.

The couple got offended because one of the straight men had addressed them as ‘ladies’. One of them identified as trans*, and went straight to the management to complain.

The men were surprised. They had gone in to order some crisps from the bar, and the waitress had told them the bar had run out of crisps, but “the girls next to your table have just been given a whole bag, so you might want to ask them to share”. Having been told to speak to “the girls”, they did.

The management wouldn’t budge. They said: “You are heterosexual. You can go to any of the dozen bars in this street, and you will be welcome. Our patrons can’t. Our job is to make sure our patrons feel safe here.”

The straight people said they didn’t mean to offend, it was a mistake, could they apologise in person? No, said the management, they don’t want to talk to you, they want you to leave.

This conversation went on for good 45 minutes. My friend said: “Only in Germany. In any other country, they would be either kicked out or not, and it would take all of five minutes for that to happen.” But they discussed, and discussed, and discussed, and eventually they shook hands and the straight people were allowed to stay. Which I think was fine; and I also think they learned a lesson.

6. We speak a lot, in feminist and queer circles, of safe spaces. And, as someone wrote recently, in the light of the Orlando massacre: If you can’t wrap your head around a bar or club as a sanctuary, you’ve probably never been afraid to hold someone’s hand in public.

7. Or how about that time when I was dancing in a club on a gay night, and this man, whom I superficially knew, started coming too close, grinding against me and trying to kiss me. And I said: “You need to stop, or I will make a complaint.” My bag, wallet, were in his car. It was not nice, it was not safe. He didn’t stop. I moved away, to dance far away from him, my eyes closed to protect them from the strobe lights, when I literally felt his tongue in my mouth.

I walked off, to the bouncer, pointed at the man and said: “He is bothering me.”

The man got kicked out within seconds, and the bouncer watched over as I took my bag out of his car. The man drove off, angrily, and sent me a barrage of text messages about how I can’t relax and how I have ruined everything. I knew, then, that I had just dodged a very dangerous person. Or rather, the club had protected me. No one asked what I was wearing, how much I was drinking, or whether I was leading him on. One word from me was enough.

A gay club is a safe place, among other things, because the burly man at the door understands the meaning of consent.

8. Because we live in a world in which gay panic is a legitimate defense for murder, because we live in a world in which a woman who got raped gets told “what did you expect if you were drunk?” and the rapist gets defended as “too drunk to have known better”, because we live in a world in which trans people get murdered every day, because we live in this world, gay bars and clubs are a sanctuary. A sanctuary in short supply, and I understand why semi-straight women find them comfortable and want in.

But this, too, is about consent. To understand consent is to understand that you don’t have the right of access to everything: a man’s tongue doesn’t have the right of access to any female mouth, and a straight person doesn’t have the right of access to every queer space.

And unconscious privilege is when you think you do.

9. Late at night, a friend and I name all the lesbian bars that shaped us, and which of them have closed. They have mostly closed.

10. Or how about this: the first gay party I went to was in the offices of an NGO, in the basement of a residential building, and the door was unmarked and the address was not listed anywhere. As a security measure. “We don’t want a bomb thrown in,” joked one of the organisers, but it wasn’t just a joke.

11. It was only after an entire year spent mostly in queer spaces that I noticed that straight men talk so much more than anyone else, in every social situation. That straight women listen and laugh, so much more than talk. That their opinion is rarely solicited, waited for, made space for. Suddenly, all those feminist separatists made so much more sense.

12. And Stonewall was a gay bar.

13. I am no longer offended by those sex nights for gay men only, when women are banned from clubs where they are normally welcome. I am no longer offended when people of colour ask white people to shut up and listen. When butch women ask other women to shut up and listen. When femme women ask other women to shut up and listen. I no longer feel insufficiently butch to be in a lesbian bar. I no longer feel insufficiently nice to be female. I no longer get confused about what to do when a person intrudes into my personal space or doesn’t understand that my “no” is a full sentence. This has been a great gift of having spent so much time in queer spaces: a more nuanced understanding of the extent, and of the limit, of my freedom. A more nuanced understanding of privilege, of difference, of the fact that we need different things at different times and that’s OK. I can ask for what I need, and so can anyone else. It took a long time to work it out. And it happened in gay bars.

It goes beyond being able to hold someone’s hand without fearing that a rock may come your way.

It goes beyond feeling safe enough to close your eyes when kissing someone.

It goes beyond knowing that the people around you grant you the right to close your eyes on the dancefloor without fear of sexual assault.

It goes beyond, but it starts with this. All of this.

It starts when you first find yourself surrounded with people just like you, and ends with the realisation that you are all different from one another. And it starts when you first find yourself surrounded with people that are completely different from you, and ends with the realisation that you are all the same.

14. This is why the queer community, everywhere in the world, has reacted so strongly at the attack in Orlando. A gay club is not just a club. It’s a home, a safe space, and a sanctuary.

poetics of life, travel notes


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As a person who often carry a backpack in public transportation or a luggage in airports it is my duty to condemn with the strongest words those who carried attacks in Brussels today, and to remind you we are not all like that.
… Sounds ridiculous ? Well, don’t ask Muslims or Arabs or anyone to do that.
– Timothée

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J’ai toujours aimé “L’Union fait la force”, pied-de-nez un peu absurde à la réalité d’un pays désuni. Mais ce n’est qu’aujourd’hui que j’en perçois vraiment la portée. Il y a dans cette devise nationale pas seulement un trait d’humour narquois, mais aussi une injonction fondamentale, un rappel que notre identité, à nous qui n’en avons pas, c’est précisément d’être ensemble, forts, même face au néant. “L’Union fait la force” nous dit qu’appartenir à ce pays c’est avant toute chose d’être là avec et pour les autres. Et elle nous annonce ainsi, avec presque deux siècles d’avance, qu’il n’y a pas de place pour l’islamophobie en Belgique.
– Caroline

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Today Brussels is in pain. A city that is my home and a city that I love. We are frightened and confused. A terrorist attack has hit another European capital, just as attacks inspired by an extreme misinterpretation of Islam struck London, Paris, Madrid…just as attacks have flashed and crackled across our continent and our world in the past decades – inspired by separatism, nationalism, leftist extremism and fascism, inflamed by exclusion and division. Today is a day for sadness, for holding our breath and holding each other. Tomorrow is a a day for asking why and hoping never again.
Unfortunately, the vilest segments of the British right (UKIP, Telegraph columists, etc) have already jumped on today’s events, on today’s corpses, to peddle their tired call for European disintegration. We are stronger together, as Belgians and as British, as christian, as atheist and as muslim, as Europeans.
The UK is not in Schengen. Its borders are not “open”. Yet Britain has also experienced terrible terrorist attacks, despite its “closed” borders. European cooperation and solidarity are vital to keep us as safe as we can possibly be. Brussels’ agony is no reason for Brexit. Now shut up and be sad with us.
Can’t believe we are having to say this today.
– Bryn

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I hadn’t cried all day, and now it transpires I am a sucker for the kitsch of violent nationalist symbols after all, because I have just seen a picture of the Belgian flag projected onto the Eiffel Tower and started crying. And then Bryn pointed out that they’ve got it the wrong way round, and so what’s on the tower has more in common with Germany. And now I feel much better. Fuck, this has been a terrible and strange day.
– Catherine

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That moment where sadness and mourning is starting to be replaced by anger, an anger for change and action. Not one filled with hate, but instead one that strives to bring people together, to wake people up out of their long sleep of media-indulged misconceptions, to share my own thoughts and experiences. Yesterday, to me, was a moment to realise that you can’t just sit down and watch it happen, because then the wrong people will take over. I’m a proud Brusseleir, but my identity is much more than that. I’m Brusseleir, Antwerpenaar, Tunisian, Belgian, European, Arab, Muslim, woman, queer and happy to be alive. I feel as much at home meditating in a mosque as I feel being in a packed bar drinking the best Belgian beers with friends and new faces. And no one is going to tell me I can’t. ‪#‎jesuissickofthisshit‬
– Sara

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poetics of life




He says, “Sometimes it’s OK to hate people.”
And I say, “I know. But I don’t hate anyone. I’m just not a hater, I don’t have it in me. I get angry, it lasts all of ten minutes, and then it’s gone.”
“But it’s OK,” he says.
“I know,” I repeat.

I happen to think anger is a good emotion. It moves us. Because what is anger, if not that surge of energy we need while we’re frantically trying to find a way to right something that isn’t right? It is only when we exhaust our options, when we run out of ideas, that we resign to sadness.

I don’t think anger is compatible with hate. I’m not sure that sadness is. Seething resentment, on the other hand – being nice – playing nice – politeness – depression-

Who knows.

It is Easter, and Easter means spring and rebirth. Since Easter means more in Croatia than in Australia (or Germany, or Belgium), Easter also means a touch-base for years of Jana bringing together everyone loved and important at that time, a temporary showdown of love, a mapping of affection. It is not playing nice, being nice. It is breaking bread; it is love.

The implied plea is (as is always with love), “please treat this gift kindly; don’t break it”. The implied risk is not that of hate, but of sadness. As per above.

poetics of life, travel notes

The question of home.


Travel makes so keenly apparent how tenuous are the binds that hold us together. Families holding onto each other with invisible strings made of nothing but care and blind tenacity, trying to stay still while everything else is changing. We are so naked while we transit: no address, no furniture, no proof of who we are and only a flimsy permit to be where we are, no web of people to say: yes, she is herself, we have gone to school together and her mother cooks good chicken. We are nothing but flesh and thoughts, a speck of life.

I have always loved to travel, and I had, over the years, learnt the craft of bringing out the most flavour from travel. There is a set of skills there: being in the moment, even when overwhelming, even when extremely slow; seeing people for who they are; responding to people as they are, without muffling them with your own narrative; taking in the heat and the cold; letting it all seep through you like moonlight. The art of travel is the art of letting go of yourself, letting your own rhythm and temperature and structure fade away, letting other rhythms take over you. Travel, like a good rave, is disappearance.

And I travelled too much in 2015. I became a very small speck.

There were some important conversations. Bea said: you are so much like Bruce Chatwin. I said: thank you (because I loved Bruce Chatwin). She said: I don’t mean it in a good way.

Ana couldn’t believe when I told her I’m very homey. She laughed. But I am, and I knew that even in that kitchen, which belonged to neither of us.

Home is what allows us to travel. One exists in contrast to the other: the movement and the stasis, the point of departure and arrival, and the path and time between. Not for nothing do the traditional nomads move along structured paths. They don’t wander aimlessly in all directions: they return and revisit the same places. Being able to return is important. Being able to rest is important. Small things, even: being able to buy something and put it down somewhere is important. I had too little home in 2015; I had frightfully too little home. Strings between me and everything were tearing, and I couldn’t stop them, I could just watch them go, with a slow accumulation of horror.

After a while, travel becomes an experiment in which home breaks down to single elements. What is home becomes a tangible question. Is home a bed, a tent, a chair placed in a square? If home is a roofed structure, how permanent must it be? Is home a family, a partner, a friend? One friend, three, five, ten, how old do these friendships need to be? Is home one’s books? Is home a washing machine and a laundry line? Is it possible, I wondered for a long time, that home is an equipped kitchen, and a dining table, around which these ten friends can sit while I cook a single meal?

I once said: home is where people are happy to see you return. This turns out to be incorrect: there were many places where people were happy to see me, and none were home. Someone said: home is wherever they cannot turn you away from, and this is more accurate, but not entirely true, because our right to squat is a sum of lines of inheritance and charity, and it is not the sum of inheritance and charity that makes home.

Home, I think now, may be whatever matter we weave around us (we have woven around ourselves, or has been woven around us) to feel like we are more than a speck of bare life. Because that truth is too hard to handle.

Home may be something we carry inside us, if we’re big and strong. I have been that home to others. But only so much. I think now that home, like peace, like rest, is a resource we need to constantly replenish, otherwise we run out of home, like we run out of breath.

Bruce Chatwin’s wife Elizabeth remained his home throughout, even as he gallivanted around the world, sleeping with men, catching AIDS – because how could she not? How could this perpetual traveller travel without her, not staying at home, but being the home? She took care of sheep, and was, by all accounts, happy. Unhappy people cannot be a home.

For me, for four long years, home was a person. And then, for a while, home was nothing more than a bottle of Marseille soap. And now I have a dining table again, and a kitchen equipped enough to cook for the friends that can sit around that table. How strange that that’s enough.


I am, of course, against the notion of pedestrians waiting for cars – we know that this curtailment of the citizen right to public space was never voted on, and was implemented stealthily in most cities during the early 20th century, largely to protect the (wealthier) car owners from legal culpability.

But I am also a huge fan of dancing in public, so it evens out.

This short film introduces Berlin as one of the European cities aligned with the URBES – Urban Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services project. The URBES project is funded as part of the EU’s 7th Framework Programme for Research by BiodivERsA, which is a network of 21 research-funding agencies across 15 European countries promoting pan-European research that generates new knowledge for the conservation and sustainable management of biodiversity.

What I really love about this video is that, as our technological abilities increase, and every research project can make its own movies (soon, if not now), we become better able to explain the hidden poetics of things, even dull things, like policy.

Of course, dull things are only dull if you don’t understand them. The strange, two-dimensional emptiness of architectural plans only exists for those who cannot read them in three dimensions. And there is deceit in a rendered image, just like in there is deceit in all images. But movies of this sort, they genuinely show the beautiful part of what I do, the way I see it, the way not everybody necessarily sees it. It is good.

Such an interesting feel, this city. At times I think, it seems to have picked up the most lovely aspects of Latin and of Northern Europe; of Catholicism and Protestantism. It has the elegance, charm and that slightly creative chaos of France, and then also the simple, humble practicality of Flanders or Germany. But it is so much more beautiful than Germany, because Germany is rarely ever truly beautiful.

But here it is, in no particular order: a particular combination of light blue and light brown; a particular combination of dark blue and dark red; straight lines (sometimes); floral curves (at other times); rectangles that are almost squares, but aren’t; eclectic combinations of texture and material; and every so often, an unusual and unexpected touch of Tokyo.

spatial poetics, travel notes

The poetics of a city: Brussels style.


“This is incredible! She looks like a normal woman!” said Robin, who comes from Belgium.
“What do you mean, normal?” I asked.
“She wears no make-up and her clothes are normal!” Robin was very surprised. “Do men in Australia have no problem with having women on TV who look like that?”

I showed it to her trying to explain something about the feel of the city, though, of inner-city Melbourne.


The most extraordinary thing happened this weekend. Around 3am, we left the club to get some food. On the way back, in front of Alan’s Music Store on Bourke St, we came across a group of girls dancing in front of a busker. We sat nearby, to have a smoke, when three guys walked past and joined in. They seemed nice, and the song was good, so we joined in, too. As other people were walking by, the guys started motioning them to join. After a while, it became an organised move: someone would point and say: “Get them!” Or point outwards, saying: “Get more! Get more!”

At the height of it all, there were around 50 people, strangers to one another, dancing on the street, clapping their hands in the air, and singing along. There was a group of Middle Eastern men, some guys with medals on their chests, many girls in very high heels, two Frenchmen, some older people. The busker (Tony) played RHCP, Wonderwall, The Beatles, Australian hits I don’t know, and anything by request. We never returned to our club. We stayed there, dancing.

What almost spoiled it was that this is enforceably illegal in Australia, because any group behaviour on the street here can be classified by the police as one of many kinds of nuisance that the police has the right to intervene in. And there was a palpable sense of potential illegality in the crowd. But, although there were 6 police vans just a block away (there had been a fight), and although two police cars passed by very slowly, strangely, miraculously, they ignored us.

It was the first time I saw a crowd of Australians self-regulate, especially on a Saturday night, and I was amazed at how good-natured it remained, how lovely. Even when the (inevitable) rowdy men went past screaming or shouting, they were neutralised quickly by people smiling, waving at them and shouting: “Join us!”

It was very beautiful, and extremely moving. It made me think of Europe, particularly of Berlin, where such incidents are relatively commonplace. It made me realise that, were there less regulatory intwrvention into every aspect of life, miraculously beautiful things would happen in Australia all the time, because people here clearly have every ability to self-organise, self-regulate.

The party lasted about 2 hours, beginning to end. Tony played Under the Bridge and Wonderwall twice. (Towards the end, a man walked past shouting: “Chilli Peppers!” The crowd shouted bqck: “Duh! Where have you BEEN?”

In the end, Tony played Here Comes The Sun, and Norwegian Wood. We all said goodbye, and went home, talking all the way about how this was the best party ever, still amazed at how the police never came.

poetics of life

The most extraordinary thing.