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.


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.

spatial poetics

Australian public signage: Brisbane edition

Just like in Victoria, the pure excess of these signs, with their attempts to regulate public behaviour in intrusive detail, creates confusion, because one is not used to being regulated like that. It feels like either (a) the signs are being written in a foreign kind of English, assuming a great deal of local knowledge, or otherwise one sinks into a feeling of fatigue: maybe (b) it’s better not to try to use these spaces at all.

For example, what could it possibly mean that “the playground is designed for children aged 2 to 12 only / Children must be supervised at all times.” What kind of regulation is that, what does it actually proscribe? Are people older than 12 allowed on the playground only as long as they supervise other children? What are we allowed to do, within the limits of our supervision? Are adults allowed in, if they’re not supervising children? If they are, what is the point of the sign? Who is actually banned? Is it to make sure nobody older than 12 tries to play? Are 13-year-olds allowed in if they’re supervising younger kids, or are they just blanket-banned until they have kids of their own? Are 12-year-olds allowed to hang out without playing? Is a 12-year-old allowed to supervise a 6-year-old, does that count as supervision? What kind of regulation is that anyway?! Who in the world cares? And what are the sanctions? Who is even capable of policing that amount of behaviour in an entire playground?

And yet, the tone of the Brisbane signage is slightly different to Melbourne. While Melburnian signs always seem a little more hostile than strictly necessary, that points to the likely existence of opposition. In Brisbane, on the other hand, the most impractical demands are made on the pedestrian without so much as a blink. It doesn’t appear that anybody thinks that being told to KEEP TO THE LEFT and NOT BLOCK THE PATH is slightly too much control for a pedestrian&cycling-only path in a large leisure zone.

spatial poetics, travel notes

A Small Collection of Obnoxious Public Writing

In 2011, I started taking photos of public writing around Australia that I noticed was characterized by a particular TONE of overt, dictatorial nastiness. Of overstatement. Of non-negotiation. I was reminded of this project recently, while reading this post on Mikael wrote:

When I was in Australia last summer I was surprised, daily, at the tone of the signage. I’ve never seen such strict, nanny-like texts on warning signs. Sure, in the States there are warnings on everything but in most cases they are just “Coffee is extemely hot” kind of stuff. In Melbourne, the Authorities are keen to play headmaster, it seems. But thank god they have signs explaining in detail how to operate a pedestrian crossings. Because people are too stupid to figure that out for themselves. I got a kick out of all these warning signs in restaurants and bars. Penalty: Intoxication! $13,000!

Trying to define what sets the tone of this writing apart from what one might get in other countries, here is a tentative list:

1. THEY ARE ORDERS. They are not, technically speaking, warning. There is no appeal to common sense, individual judgement, or assessment of risk, and there is no discretionary element to your decision. ‘Heavy traffic. Cross with care’ is a warning. ‘Crossing tracks is strictly prohibited’ is an order.

2. THEY DON’T EXPLAIN THEMSELVES. When they do, it is simply to say that something is ‘AN OFFENSE’ or ‘AGAINST THE LAW’ or that ‘PENALTIES APPLY.’

3. THEY ADVERTISE A LAW, NOT GOOD CITIZENSHIP. And because of that, they don’t explain themselves, there is no argument behind these regulations other than ‘this and that is illegal.’ ‘IT IS IN BREACH OF HEALTH AND SAFETY REGULATIONS TO PARK YOUR BIKES HERE’, rather than ‘don’t inconvenience your co-workers’. When rules of conduct are advertised in Berlin, they tend to be little illustrations of why you should behave in certain ways: ‘Don’t make other people have to listen to your private phone conversations’ or ‘don’t make your heavy luggage other people’s problem.’ In Melbourne, the equivalent is ‘NO FEET ON SEATS. PENALTIES APPLY.’ Why? ‘IT IS AN OFFENSE TO BE…’

4. THEY ARE LEGAL ICEBERGS: there is often much more to the law than is said. For example, the invisible nine tenths of ‘NO FEET ON SEATS’ is that ‘anything other than the floor’ classifies as ‘seats’ for the Melbourne transport system. You would never know that from the sign. Let me speak here as an employee of a Faculty of Architecture and say that ‘anything but the floor’ is NOT a common-sense definition of a seat. But these signs do not explain themselves. Indeed, demanding they do is often seen as extremely disrespectful attitude. One issue arising from the hidden 9/10 is that one often feels defeated in advance.

5. THEY ARE OFTEN UNNECESSARILY BROAD. Sometimes it’s unclear how you could live without breaking some of these regulations. ‘Intoxication: Penalty $13,000’ is an example. Is one always guilty when drunk? Are you guilty if you haven’t been fined? Is one guilty everywhere, or only in some places and at some times? Whom to ask? Is it disrespectful to ask?

6. THEY ARE OFTEN VERY PETTY, BUT IN OMINOUS LANGUAGE. For example, ‘HOLD THE RAIL’ on public transport. Or the signs telling you how to use a zebra crossing, or how to leave a bus. Is that necessary? Is that a law? Can I be fined? Am I allowed to choose?

7. THERE IS NEVER, EVER AN APOLOGY. I have never seen a ‘WE APOLOGISE FOR THE DELAY’ sign on a train schedule screen, or ‘WE APOLOGISE FOR THE INCONVENIENCE’ on a sign blocking off a footpath.

8. EVERY SO OFTEN, THEY ARE PATRONIZING AND RUDE. For example, the ‘swap your stop and walk part of the way’ sign, apparently to prevent one’s risk of chronic illness. There is an incredible wealth of scientific evidence out there showing that people who regularly use public transport walk much more than those who don’t (because they walk to and from the stop). When I’m on a tram that’s running infrequently and is often late, I don’t want anyone to worry about whether I’m walking enough. I would much rather be reminded of the efforts to improve the public transport system. There is no possible excuse for that sign (or for that campaign).

So here is my growing collection.

CITIES, spatial poetics, things I have liked

Robert Dessaix: Arabesques

It often strikes me anew how many of my favourite artists are men on the fringes of gayness, men who are not heterosexual, but are not quite at home in whatever we might call the ‘gay world’, the however-much-coherent culture it is. These men have followed me through my life, right from the start: Morrissey, Michael Stipe, and finally Robert Dessaix. I’m not sure, not yet sure, if it’s a personal affinity I feel, or if their profound non-belonging, queerness about as fundamental as it can get, has sharpened both their sensibility and their minds, and made them able to accurately perceive the complexity of, and judge with understanding, both the world and themselves.

In any case, Robert Dessaix is perhaps my favourite Australian writer (speaking empirically, I enjoy Dessaix’s writing often and much). Reading Arabesques in parallel with a scholarly history of the Arab world is a great pleasure, because the shortcomings of each book cancel each other out. Whereas one provides clear facts ad dull nauseam, the light and self-centred (and West-centred) musings of the other are the easiest to enjoy when you, as a reader, feel confidently knowledgeable about the places and people he encounters to enjoy your read dialogically.

When I read Dessaix, I often find many quotes to quote, of both kinds: sometimes I feel like Dessaix says things I think and feel, and sometimes I feel Dessaix is being told things I would like many (Australian) people to know and understand better. In particular, I felt great relief when Dessaix was prepared to dissect the Protestant nature of his own culture. It is one of those aspects of Australia I find most infuriatingly, bafflingly, indefensibly horrible, and so much of it comes from its own extremism (if there is one great notion that Protestant Christian culture has no grasp of, it is the concept of balance or moderation, and the best way to understand this is to observe people’s eating habits). They are good quotes for a Saturday afternoon, and I type quickly, so here they are:

1. on happiness

‘You Westerners,’ Yacoub said with his usual elegant weariness, ‘seem fixated on the idea of happiness. You chase after it everywhere, yet you never seem to catch hold of it. I understand pleasure, comfort, beauty, passion, peace, love…’
‘You? Love?’ Zaïda was open-mouther. A drop of violet ice-cream trickled down her chin.
‘…but I don’t understand what you mean by “happiness”.’
‘I can tell you,’ I said, trying to head Zaïda off before she made a fool of herself. This was the woman who had once rung her lover to thank him for a bouquet of white roses he’d sent her for her birthday and eaten them, petal by petal, while they exchanged honeyed nothings across the Atlantic.
‘Camus came up with the perfect definition.’
‘Camus!’ Zaïda looked puzzled. ‘But he committed suicide.’
‘What’s that got to do with it? Clamence in The Fall says: “I took pleasure in my own nature, and we all know that that’s what happiness. is.”
‘That’s a rather self-satisfied, self-serving notion of happiness, don’t you think?’ I hadn’t supposed that Miriam would give in without a tussle. ‘What about…’
‘Feeding the hungry? Helping the blind to cross the street? I’m not talking about the morality of it, I’m just saying that that’s what we Westerners, as Yacoub calls us, want in order to be happy: the right to take pleasure in our own nature as we see fit.’
‘Whereas we Orientals only want the right to take pleasure in God’s.’ Yacoub smiled one of his smiles.
‘But you don’t believe in God – you told me so yourself in Blidah.’
‘No, I don’t believe in God, and I’m not an atheist.’

2. on protestantism

…surely there are two kinds of forgetting: one is forever and the other is a momentary frenzy. Well, the frenzy might last a month or even a few years, but it doesn’t blot out memory for good. IT’s just taking your hidden self out for an airing.
‘Even some Buddhist monks,’ I said to Daniel, as we walked back to the car, ‘have days of divine madness. It keeps them sane. They take up with loose women and go on drunken rampages.’
‘Yes, it’s called “Crazy Wisdom”. It’s Tibetan’ How annoying that he should know that. ‘And it’s not about “keeping sane”, it’s about flux. It’s about taming instead of clinging, and then letting go. I have the feeling that your Gide may have been too Protestant to believe in flux. He probably believed in virtue and sin.’ I think he partly meant me. But he had a point: Protestants are particularly given to dualities such as sin and virtue, belief and unbelief, spirit and matter. It’s one thing or the other with us. Catholics, on the other hand, have ways of striking a bargain with God. Flux is something they understand.

(There follows a 10-or-20-page discussion of being a Protestant heathen, of Catholic comfort versus Protestant austerity, of Protestantism leading naturally to atheism, etc – but which I am too lazy to reproduce here.)

3. on travel

‘When the absurdity of my life begins to nauseate me, I don’t commit suicide, you see, as Camus did, I travel.’
‘How could being in Algeria make your life less absurd? If life is nauseatingly absurd anywhere in this world, it’s in Algeria.’
‘It doesn’t make life any less absurd, but for a few days, a week, a month, it can make mine seem worth living. I can take pleasure there in my own nature.’ This sounded less flippant than Gide’s observation about places where he found himself interesting – but it amounted to much the same thing, I suppose. ‘In a way I can’t at home – or at any rate not often.’
‘Like Gide, do you mean? Les petits musiciens?’
‘Yes and no, actually. Travel is an art, it seems to me, just like painting or writing a novel, it crystallises things. It crystallises me. Whenever I feel that I’m on the point of disappearing, dissolving into a thousand selves – and that happens when you don’t feel you have a single source – I make art. I tell myself a story, I tell others a story, and I travel. And tell stories about my travels. I crystallise anew. (…) I make art – and travel – both to remember and to forget. Like a crystal, you see – both solid and translucent at the same time.’
‘To remember and forget what, precisely?’
‘To remember who I’ve been and also who I wanted to be, to write a new script and act it out without shame. To find my source.’
‘That sounds like God again. And does it work?’
‘No, of course not, but that’s no reason to stay at home. But I also travel – and write – to forget, to sink into the river of unmindfulness, to be utterly transparent, crystal-clear, to just be.’
‘And does that work?’
‘For a day or two, if I’m lucky.’

4. on how Australians perceive Europeans

Yacoub spoke with his accustomed world-weariness tinged with mischief and, as usual, he was annoyingly difficult to read.

CITIES, spatial poetics

Berlin-Kreuzberg, 1979 on Vimeo

Schlesisches Tor und Umgebung
Das Bildmaterial ist der Dokumentation “Spreeufer Süd-Ost” aus der Reihe “Berlinische Berichte” von Ingeborg Euler entnommen.
Musik: Brian Eno – “Dunwich Beach, Autumn 1960” aus “Ambient 4 – On Land”
Montage: Falko Brocksieper

I have never been able to quite wrap my head around the appeal of the Berlin Divided, Berlin during the Cold War, Berlin with the wall cutting through. You see the camera in this film circling around Schesischen Tor, but always unable to get from it to my house, because my house is on the other side of the wall. I cross this path almost every day, and the film fills me with sadness.