By Jacqueline Grima
Manchester Metropolitan University’s (Manchester Met) Humanities in Public (HiP) Festival continued this weekend with a presentation by performance artist Bird La Bird. The presentation was part of a two day event entitled ‘Queer Film Festivals as Activism: An International Symposium’ which explored the rise in popularity of queer films and film festivals and their impact on the LGBTQ community.
Bird was introduced by Dr Jon Binnie of the Manchester Met School of Science and Environment and Dr Christian Klesse of the Department of Sociology who thanked the HiP team for holding the event. Bird then introduced herself as a “Queer Femme Feminist Performance Artist” before going on to talk about the impact queer film had had on her life both in childhood and adulthood.
Bird described herself as a “late bloomer”, starting her career as a performance artist when she was 35. She told the audience, “So if you’re thinking you want to write a film or you want to write a book or you want to write a blog, it’s never too late.”
She founded the Bird Club, an initiative designed to bring Queer Femme culture into the public eye, with her friend Maria Rosa Young in 2006. The pair started out performing in working men’s clubs as a cabaret duo. Bird said, “We wanted to see Queer Femininity on stage. We set out to achieve our aim of increasing Femme visibility.”
She went on to say that her punk-style recreation of the ‘toilette’ of French aristocratic ladies was “a pivotal moment in my artistic practice.” She also discussed the many characters that she has created during her performance career, including Queer Queen Victoria. Bird said, “It’s amazing what you can do with a pair of net curtains.”
Bird then went on to talk about the many films that have influenced her life and career. She began with a discussion about Hammer Horror, a series of British horror films made between the 1950s and the 1970s. Bird described the films as “heterosexual camp” and “old-school horror” which featured strongly in her childhood games.
She then talked of her love of the Carry On series of film, showing a clip of Carry On Camping, in which Barbara Windsor loses her bikini top during an exercise class. Bird said, “I love dodgy, British Sex comedies.”
Entering her teens, Bird discovered The Rocky Horror Picture Show as well as the transgressive cult films of renowned American director and film writer, John Waters. John’s films often starred American singer, actor and drag artist, Divine, a well-known figure in the LGBT community. Their most commercially successful was 1988 film Hairspray. Bird stated, “John Waters gave us one camp, f**ked up opus of trash after another.”
Referring to the red warning triangle that once warned Channel 4 viewers of the presence of sex and violence, she added, “In the days before the internet, you were my signpost to another world.”
Bird then told the audience how film had influenced her performance work, showing photographs of the images of Divine and John Waters that she had hung outside London’s Victoria and Albert museum in front of the statues of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Her performance piece entitled The Cleaner is Present was also inspired by the 1995 drama Safe starring Julianne Moore as a housewife who becomes allergic to her surroundings. In her performance piece, Bird focusses on the role of domestic staff in the film. She said, “I decided I wanted to explore the anxiety created by class conflict.”
Other films that Bird discussed in the presentation included the 1980s Liverpool-based romantic comedy Letter to Brezhnev and British filmmaker Campbell X’s BD and Fem. Of BD Bird said, “It was one of the first times I saw Femme and Butch Femme portrayed on screen in a positive light.” Campbell X’s films were also some of the first to show black lesbian and transgender characters.
The two day film symposium was supported by Manchester Met’s School of Research, Enterprise and Innovation and formed part of this term’s Humanities in Public ‘SEX’ strand. The next events in the strand are ‘Sex, Sexuality and Cancer’ on Monday 8th February and ‘My Name is Gerry Potter’, a documentary screening, poetry performance and Q&A session on Friday 12th February. For more information, see the HiP webpage.
For more information about Bird La Bird and the Bird Club, see Bird’s website.