Interview #71 — Alan Weedon
Interview by Adolfo Aranjuez
Alan Weedon is a Melbourne-based photographer and publisher. He is the creative director of Swampland, a biannual print journal of longform Australian music journalism and photography.
His work has been published in VICE, The Quietus and Men In This Town, among others, and he has edited nonfiction for publications including Voiceworks and Foreground. Currently, he is a digital producer at MPavilion.
Alan spoke to Adolfo about urbanism, masculinity, and the tricky collisions between politics and art.
You work across a number of artforms—photography, literature, music. How do you juggle the demands and expectations of each? How do the various communities differ?
I’m hesitant to use the word ‘communities’ in this answer because anyone really can have a love, or participate in these artforms. I’m not very much interested in trying to give weight to the idea of a ‘scene’. All cities incubate communities relating to various interest areas to varying degrees—the ones that do well (which, largely, is down to a critical mass of people) are those that allow the communities to form, break up and turn into something new.
I wouldn’t necessarily say I juggle the expectations of these artforms. The one expectation that rules my creative output is my internal critic. Questions such as ‘Do I feel I’m saying something new?’ are always on my mind. Given the saturation of visual media, music and writing, the one thing I want to do is make sure that, when I speak, I’m cutting through the noise. I don’t feel as prolific as I should be—which, I realise, is the Achilles heel of most people in the creative industries—but, essentially, I want to say it right (as Nelly Furtado used to say).
Homing in on what you’re perhaps most known for—photography—why do you take photos?
Put simply, I take photos because I have anxiety. Not the fashionable ‘so anxious right now’ type, but the one that requires medication. It took me a while to come to this understanding, but as someone who, at times, finds it incredibly difficult to participate in social spaces, having a camera is a literal barrier that puts me one step removed from the social space that surrounds me. For me, a camera signals affirmation, the right to participate in a space, and perhaps that’s the reason why my initial training in photography was around music gigs.
Secondly, as someone who lost a parent quite young, one who didn’t really leave much in the way of artefacts and pictorial material, my drive towards photography is ensuring that I archive and leave behind something. As Roland Barthes noted, all photographs speak to one’s mortality.
As I see it, the prevailing themes in your photography are masculinity, youth, intimacy and sexuality; on top of these, you often shoot in hyper-domestic spaces (bathrooms!), and set your subjects in liminal or odd spaces (near water, corridors, the corners of buildings). What informs all this?
Your references to masculinity, intimacy and sexuality speak to my photo series called Intimacy as Artifice. The reason I’m compelled to make this work is how it’s refracted through the lens of lay observers. This work was initially tabled as part of a group exhibition for the Sydney-based journal Apathetic, and it’s since grown to a number of subjects as my research and curiosity has moved over time.
To begin with, conceptions of Australian cultural masculinity inform the series. I’m always fascinated by how mainstream Australian culture polices gender identity and conceptions of how gender is performed. But, of course, Australian culture is also one that cannot be separated from camp—so I’m always fascinated by this tension. The Sydney 2000 opening and closing ceremonies are documents I always revisit when thinking about this. With Intimacy as Artifice, I was interested in teasing out this tension.
But the series also delves into conceptions of how visual language and technology have shifted the terms of reference for what is defined as ‘intimate’. As a queer photographer, I’m acutely aware of the role that technology has played in inhibiting expressions of homosexuality (up until the Polaroid came along, there were very few places where someone could capture openly queer sexuality—it’s no wonder that Tom Bianchi’s Fire Island Pines series is revisited by mainstream gay media ad nauseam). But, when you cut to 2018, an intimate self-portrait can now be broadcast to tens of thousands of Instagram followers, to the point where you can monetise the eroticism of your body to flog your bod-as-product. I find this an incredibly fascinating time in the way that capital has moved into digital space, and how it completely reconstitutes the way that we see ourselves and others. As such, Intimacy as Artifice is an ongoing project that is my way of thinking about this context out loud, using straight male subjects to perform the hyperreal, i.e. the hyper-domestic, hyper-intimate.
In the act of the shoot, a number of things may happen. Internally, there’s an interrogation of desire; on the part of my subjects, it’s usually their first time thinking about how their body can be eroticised (a privilege not afforded to queer people, gay men, or women). A shoot may only last twenty to thirty minutes, but, in all, it touches on my sweeping thoughts about contemporary visual language and Australian masculinity.
The liminal or odd spaces to which you refer simply point to the contexts in which a new form of visual language is taking place. Instead of the classical self-portrait taking place in front of a grand vista, we’re more likely to catch ourselves represented in the spaces in between—a bathroom, corridor or train platform, for instance.
As a queer photographer, I’m acutely aware of the role that technology has played in inhibiting expressions of homosexuality...
Obviously, then, place is a key preoccupation in your art. Does this stem from your having grown up in Melbourne’s western suburbs? And is it tied to your upbringing as a biracial Australian?
I have an ardent fascination with urbanism. And you’re right: it’s undoubtedly got to do with the fact that I was raised across Melbourne’s west, first in the now-gentrified suburb of Footscray, and later in the horrifically underdeveloped outer suburbs of Sunshine West and Kings Park. The reason I care about urbanism is that I’ve lived through how design can be used to harm.
If you don’t have adequate transport routes, if your local area’s sense of community is only defined by public-private shopping centres, then you’re going to be at a disadvantage when it comes to participating in your city’s story and, in turn (especially being the product of working-class parents), your social mobility.
When I was shooting a gig every week trying to get some experience in music journalism, and later in photography, I remember having to leave a gig three-quarters of the way through a set in order to make the last train home around midnight—and then rely on my mother to pick me up from the station as the walk to my house was forty minutes. This behaviour was instigated by the fact that I was playing catch-up at the start of uni. My school wasn’t very privileged, but wasn’t woefully disadvantaged to attract enough government attention to receive adequate curricular support. So, while other uni peers had years of writing, radio and photography workshops under their belt, I went to a school where those programs were cut, or didn’t exist in the first place (and I only found out about Melbourne’s youth broadcaster, SYN, at age eighteen). Of course, my concerns pale in comparison to say, women fleeing domestic violence who have to use paltry public transport to access the critical services missing from their suburbs.
Margaret Simons has a stellar essay on the outer-western suburb of Tarneit—a new community on the urban fringe that’s recently come into the Australian public consciousness thanks to the fearmongering around South Sudanese Australians. The area is a prime case study of the preoccupations you allude to. Being a product of a biracial union, I’ve lived through the common narrative arc of new migrants: You usually start off in a low- to middle-income area, usually not serviced very well by transport infrastructure and adequate social infrastructure (be it a high street, community hall or library), and it’s a dog-eat-dog context for a little while. And, of course, coming from a migrant background, you’re not allowed to put a foot wrong while trying to break free from the socio-economic context you find yourself in.
Urbanism, for me, is a study of power. Who gets to define your city’s story? Who gets to participate? Who gets to live well, and who doesn’t? That’s an articulation of power for me.
As fellow Filipinos, we often joke about our hilarious titas (aunts) and extended-family reunions. What’s your experience been of the Filipino diaspora in Australia?
Two words come to mind: colonialism and Catholicism. The two really are inseparable. Put simply, the reason we joke about having big extended families is really down to the fact that the hierarchy of the Filipino Catholic Church has been strident in blocking access to contraception and abortion. I have cousins my age who now have kids to raise because they weren’t adequately taught about safe sex. When I go back to the Philippines, I intend to fill a leafblower with condoms and flick it on reverse.
But I must confess I’m a bit of an anomaly in my gregarious Filipino-Australian family: I’m the only only child, and I’m the only biracial offspring—so there’s a curious mix of internalised racism that I have to contend with, as I have, at times, been regarded as guapo (handsome) purely down to the European aspects of my Eurasian heritage.
Of course, all families have their quirks, and everybody in said families harbours internal phobias that articulate themselves in curious ways. While my mother’s a devout Catholic, she’s one of the most liberal people I know (as is the case with most women in the Church). So, for me, I can’t detach Catholicism from my experience of the diaspora (and how exciting it is to meet first- or second-generation children who’ve lapsed).
We met in 2011, when we were both part of the literary magazine Voiceworks’ editorial committee; opportunities like this are quite rare for young people, though. As a multidisciplinary artist, do you feel concerned about the state of arts labour and funding in Australia today?
Oh, of course, but that’s the terms of reference for living in Australia. Sure, we’re more well-endowed when it comes to the share of arts funding we get, say, compared to New Zealand or the United States, but that is counterbalanced by economies of scale. Our major cities don’t have the critical mass of people to support European, American or Asian markets for art. Even now, I’m seeing a bunch of incredibly talented musicians tour in China, Japan and Taiwan who would otherwise languish in Australian cities.
In time, I imagine I’ll be moving overseas in perpetuity. You hit a ceiling pretty hard in Australia, especially when you couple it with the conservatism of mainstream Australian cultural bodies (the refusal of the Ian Potter Cultural Trust to support the Soda_Jerk film Terror Nullius is a recent, and common, example of this).
But, as I’m sure you’re aware, it all boils down to money—and it’s not like Australia (being the world’s thirteenth-largest economy) doesn’t have much. If you really want to understand the Australian arts landscape, you just need to follow the money, because then you’ll realise a lot of arts funding is down to a few families across Australia. Some do it well, but others take it as an opportunity to build themselves grand mausoleums (if I had the money, I’d cremate myself at MONA).
Regarding arts labour, that’s a question worth a PhD. File under: neoliberal economic ‘reform’ and the gig economy.
What about the state of independent publishing today? You’re a writer as well, after all, and Swampland is decidedly longform.
When thinking about ‘state of the nation’–style questions about longform publishing, we need to acknowledge the sheer epistemological shift in the way that humans with an internet connection now consume information. We’re consuming at a scale and speed that’s completely unprecedented. One of the things that angers me is when people equate producing or consuming longform writing with being ‘smart’. For me, it’s about modes of access. Someone who only reads longform articles could be consuming the same amount of information as someone who gets little bites from Twitter, Instagram or live blogs. And that’s the conceptual paradigm we’re in.
Ultimately, this question boils down to money, and it’s one that I’m intimately familiar with as a journalism grad. In short, no-one knows how to adequately fund media. In a sense, the genie’s been let out of the bottle: people got news for free in the halcyon days of the early internet, and as revenue streams whittled away to new forms of media, the old dogs now don’t know what to do (even VICE is finding it hard to find a potential buyer).
When you look at the places that still champion longform in Australia, you’re either in the shoestring (and, at times, inaccessible) literary sector, or you’ve got the likes of Schwartz Media. If I made my money in property development, I’d launch a media company, too.
When thinking about ‘state of the nation’–style questions about longform publishing, we need to acknowledge the sheer epistemological shift in the way that humans with an internet connection now consume information. We’re consuming at a scale and speed that’s completely unprecedented.
Further on the Swampland note, how important would you say live music is—not just as a source of entertainment, but also as a conduit for community or self-expression?
Again, questions like these, for me, point to questions about urbanism. Can a community (be it a city or town) provide space (both physical and temporal) for communities to form and break apart? Live music is a prime example of this. Obviously, there’s a lot of chatter about Melbourne v Sydney at the moment when it comes to ‘underground’ live music: the former has the highest concentration of live music per capita globally, whereas the latter has seen it strangled due to lockout laws. Personally, I find that the lockout laws, in an Australian context, fuel a much more interesting counterculture that responds in opposition to it. Sydney’s FBi Radio, Body Promise and Motorik are some bastions answering to the city’s mainstream conservatism.
But this is a different conversation to experiences of the ‘underground’ around the globe. For queer people in cities such as Lagos, Moscow or São Paulo, live music isn’t just a source of entertainment, but of survival: parties, gigs and clubs provide some of the few, if only, safe spaces in which to meet peers or lovers.
Shifting gears to gossipy territory for a sec: As a queer person of colour, how would you describe the local dating/hook-up scene?
I’m reluctant to use the term ‘person of colour’ in this context because I know I have white-passing privilege. But dating and hook-ups are two different things for me.
Like most people, I go through periods of activity and stasis on apps such as Tinder, Grindr, and Scruff. On it, you get the occasional ‘hey where are you from’, which usually is a sign of someone who’s never washed their dick. But, unfortunately, whatever constitutes the ‘Melbourne dating scene’ is one of complete, suffocating banality.
Do you have any advice for emerging photographers?
One of the best pieces of advice that has been given to me was, ‘You’re only as good as your past.’ So keep shooting, be discerning about who your clients are, don’t drink the Kool-Aid and don’t be afraid to reach out.
Who are you inspired by?
George Michael and the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
What are you currently reading?
I’m an avid subscriber of serials, so on rotation would be The New York Review of Books, The Saturday Paper, n+1 and Record mag. I’ve always got a shapeshifting bedside book stack, but at the moment I’m reading Fiona McGregor’s Chemical Palace—a tome charting the nineties queer rave scene in Sydney.
How do you practise self-care?
Swimming. It’s a cheap form of therapy for when you can’t afford therapy, and it’s a great way of screaming into the void. Would also highly recommend heading to the cinema on your own.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
It’s an acknowledgment that globalisation is nothing to be afraid of. Given the current sociopolitical context of a lot of Western states in 2018, where nostalgia for (historically inaccurate) ethnically homogenous utopias abound, being Asian-Australian is a wonderful story I bring to contemporary Australia. It’s a privilege to be able to trace my story back across continents, be it through force or chance. All of this means I get to travel through the world with a rich story that informs everything that I do.
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