Clay AD on Renèe Helèna Browne's 'Rebuilding Urania'

Part of ONE WORK

Rebuilding Urania Episode One at TULCA Visual Art Festival. Produced with Oreet Ashery, Mason Leaver-Yap, Marian Mayland, and Hamshya Rajkumar. Image courtesy the artist.

ONE WORK is a series of online discussion events to think more deeply about how an artwork came into being. Focusing closely on a single work, these generous discussions provide space for an artist to present a recent work and talk through the work’s creation. The events are accompanied by a month-long online screening and specially commissioned written response published on the LUX Scotland website.

Renèe Helèna Browne took part in a ONE ARTIST | ONE WORK event with us in November 2021, presenting and discussing their work Rebuilding Urania (2021 – ongoing).

We commissioned writer Clay AD to respond to Rebuilding Urania and we are delighted to publish Clay’s response below.

Clay AD is an interdisciplinary artist, writer and somatic bodyworker living and working in Glasgow. Their practice centres illness, ecology, science fiction, transformation and the politics of care under capitalism — by themselves, collectively and with their clients. Their first novel,​“Metabolize, If Able” is available through Arcadia Missa Press UK and was named a finalist in the 31st Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror.

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Dear Renèe,

I want to tell you about a memory I have from 2014. I was jammed in a minivan with five friends driving 12 hours straight from New York to Tennessee. We were headed to a queer land project, of which there are many stories to tell, but what I’d like to describe now is the feeling I had in the darkness tucked between forested hills. As we crawled out of said minivan into the dank humidity of the night our eyes slowly adjusted to lights leading along pathways casting shadows of humans moving about and a melody of strange operatic sounds drifted from a barn in the distance. I was young, buzzing with anxiety in my chest, as equally excited as I was scared shitless for the unknown world I was about to enter.

That moment was the beginning of a portal, like the past and the future were splitting open to be made obviously available in the present. Like most moments when we’re lucky enough to be fully there and awake, I had no idea how special a time that would be. Special, visceral and painful in that it showed me all the space and lineage that there was to grow into. I met so many trans people that weekend, so many genders expressed and laid bare in this rural space in a way that is nearly impossible to create in most urban contexts. It’s also an easy place and time to romanticise and therefore flatten. There were lots of issues present as well, but I won’t get into those stories here and now. However, they are important to mention when we’re flirting with concepts of utopic pockets.

Being in that space offered guidance, by simply witnessing those around me: their beautiful, perverted, whole selves openly together and recognising myself as part of that soup. I see it as a key moment which helped midwife me into the person I am today.

I’m writing this pretending that I’m sending you a voice message. Pretending like this won’t be floating text on a public website for the preservation of some kind of intimacy between just you and me and the language. I also know that purity of experience is more of a performative joke on my part to allow myself to enter the double world of this project. The world of Urania itself, and the world you’re making of rebuilding it through the process of a‑livening the archive through conversation and connection.

I was thinking about the word rebuilding’ a lot through my listen to Rebuilding Urania, and your decision to place it in the title of your work. During your talk on November 25th 2021 with LUX Scotland you said that through the work there is a desire to, rebuild the sensibility that Urania had to bring people together.’ Here I’ll place the definition for rebuild:

[to] build (something) again after it has been damaged or destroyed.

I wonder what has been damaged or destroyed. The queer underground and overground (and middle-ground) has been continually shifting and rebuilding to hold the contexts and politics of its times and places. Offering space for survival and protection as well as joy and expansion. What does uncovering Urania specifically offer?

I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to find Urania (the original journal) in the early 1900s as a queer person. My only embodied comparison is the feeling of waking that I experienced getting out of that van into the Tennessee heat. Like the world was suddenly full of a possibility that was always there but needed a sense of belonging and resonance to expose into my vision and proposition a clear (and glitter strewn) pathway forward. The veil hovering ready to be stepped through by finding one another — on the internet, in the bar, at a party, on the street, in school, in a journal. The portal changing shape through time and context. I think about it as a coming in rather than coming out.

Lisa Fannon, a queer bodyworker and writer based in Edinburgh, speaks about rest in her book Warp & Weft: a Psycho-emotional health, politics and experience in an expansive way that I can’t help relate to Urania. She says that by being with those with whom we have lived affinity, whether that be trans, queer, BiPOC or disabled, we are able to let go of a kind of embodied vigilance and violence that exists within our daily lives. Coming together literally becomes a place of healing, a place where the body, mind and spirit can finally settle.

My mind races with questions on this topic, probably because it feels so tied to how I think about organising my own life. How do we create spaces of rest like Urania, or the fantasy of Urania, without renouncing or being in denial about the outside world? How do you take the magic and possibility of the nurturing that is forged within affinity and allow it to transform life from its mere existence, inside out?

Historically, queer separatist spaces have often arisen from somewhere in between an impulse of survival and a drive to create and experiment with new forms of living. The 1970s in particular are a ripe reflection of that, lesbian and gay communes sprang up, rurally and in urban spaces, to hold the spectrum of those desires. The South London Gay Community Centre in Brixton, London is a good example, also called 78 Railton Road, was squatted and established by Gay Liberationists, radical fairies and lesbians. It offered a roof to young queer people leaving their homes of origin, and an open space to experiment with sexuality and gender. Those organising and living there were politically embedded in the community. I think of 78 Railton Road as a place of rest and play that wasn’t trying to leave the world, but through retreat, allowed further engagement with it.

I think bringing Urania back, at least for me, is a reminder of the portals of these time slips. That all the rhetoric of it gets better’ and flattening of the complexity of the past sells ourselves short. Undeniably there is a privilege in the present times. We can find each other so much more easily now. Queerness in the present has much more space, but that space has been capitalised and disciplined in other ways.

The essence of what Urania was doing, proposing a completely different world, a world without the binary of sex, a world that prioritised the sweetness and independence of the individual’, and a world that was contingent on people feeling whole is still so radical. It wasn’t an affinity simply based on having deviant desires or a complex relationship to gender, though those were catalysing pieces, it was an affinity built from trying to imagine a world that could hold those without violence, by prioritising communal health and with space. The possibilities suggested in the journal, through the manifesto, personal stories and articles still beat like a living heart. These possibilities are needed now more than ever, to show examples of living and possibility in a country whose trans healthcare system is broken and transphobia gets national public platforms. Amongst this we know (when you know you know) that the underground is still there, taking care of one another even when it’s a struggle.

I fantasise about sitting on a bench in a park in London, a knowing look passed between me and another as they catch my eye walking past. A few steps away from my seat they innocently drop a copy of Urania on to the ground. They’ve gone and turned behind a tree before I can give it back to them. I inspect it, then open the first page of the journal where the manifesto begins, To our Friends’. I hear birds singing, my skin tingles and I feel, the truth of [the] wholeness of being when the shackles are removed.’

Audio Version

ClayAD's response to Renèe Helèna Browne's 'Rebuilding Urania' (2021-ongoing).

Part of ONE WORK

ONE WORK is a series of online events that focus closely on a single work. These generous discussions provide an opportunity for an artist to present a recent work and talk through how the work came into being. Each work is available as a month-long online screening, followed by a specially commissioned written response that serves as documentation of both the work and the discussion.

Learn more