Artists Jez Dolan and Joe Richardson are on a mission to save Polari – a little known, high camp and now sadly endangered gay language. An exhibition currently on at The John Rylands Library is only the start of a wide-ranging and multi-disciplinary project that promises further exhibitions, performance, visual artwork and audience participation. On a wet Sunday afternoon I threw on my fortuni lally drags for a guided troll around these very queer (and slightly risqué) archives and a screeve with Polari Mission. Fantabulosa (as they say)!
Andrew Hardman: How did the project come about?
Jez Dolan: Joe was the starting point for the collaboration, specifically with the idea of making the Polari app. Joe and I started talking about a year ago, and the project has formed pretty organically since then. We are aiming towards an exhibition in September 2013, but The John Rylands Library asked us to curate something for Manchester Pride this year. We have produced a “curator/artist tour” which is performative in feel, though not strictly performance, which covers some history, some etymology, and some of the context of why Polari existed, then declined. The next stage will look at Joe and I collaboratively making some new visual art work and we are also looking at gathering participants to become more involved in the project using oral history, exploring archives etc.
AH: How does this project relate to your previous work?
JD: A couple of recent projects of mine have had an LGBT aspect to them, but personally the Polari Mission is the first project I’ve done which has such a strong research starting point, and an open framework. Collaboration has always been crucial to what I do, and how I do it. I’m really interested in the possibilities of collaboration between artists and non-artists, and how that process can be inclusive on all sides.
AH: Are there difficulties in creating visual work based on something that is hardly even written down?
JD: For the blackboard drawings we used Polari words and phrases with a few drawings to illustrate them. The idea behind these is that they are obviously repeatedly drawn/written/rubbed-out/recovered, which we felt embodied the hidden/disguised nature of Polari and the way in which, to most people now, Polari is a mystery. I think that we’ll also utilise the language itself, and look at typefaces which were (again) contemporaneous. I’ve been lent “THE CHELSEA COOKBOOK” (1970) – “a cook book for the bona viveur” with “camp cooking for town dwellers.” Again, something else that we can adapt a visual language from
AH: Is your mission to save Polari about archiving it? Or putting it back into use?
JD: I hope that we’ll get the opportunity to archive some of the material we collect. Not least personal stories, oral histories/interviews. I think we are interested in getting people to use and enjoy Polari, whilst recognising its place in English LGBT heritage. I’m also interested in looking at people’s personal archives. What (and why) people choose to keep things as a way of telling stories.
The next Polari Mission curator tour(ette) will be at John Rylands Library on Sunday 16 September 1.00 – 2.00pm. The artists will be presenting a performance based version of the Polari Mission at Contact, as part of Queer Contact 2013 on Feb. 9. See www.contactmcr.com for details.
Andrew Hardman is a researcher in visual culture at the University of Manchester.