Event Review: Class, Queers and the Avant-Garde at the ICA

‘Kathy Acker’s use of the first-person singular may have been plural, but it wasn’t communal’, Isabel Waidner announces in their text commissioned in conjunction with the ‘Class, Queers and the Avant-Garde’, an event that was part of a programme accompanying the ICA’s I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker exhibition. Waidner’s event and their essay, was a brilliant departure from all-things-Acker. Leaving behind the New York avant-garde ‘80s writer with little more than a few mentions, this was an evening that allowed for a celebration and championing of a contemporary, queer avant-garde.

The sold-out evening saw new poetry from Kashif Sharma-Patel, the co-founder of The 87 Press, exploring a poetic of histories, dislocation and emotion. Huw Lemmey (author and co-host of the Bad Gays podcast) read an extract from his novel Red Tory: My Corbyn Chemsex Hell, featuring a vivid, trippy, drug-fuelled Chillout where reality and fantasy dissolve in an acidic #piggate political parody. Writer and performer Ray Filar explored queer hook-ups, anxiety, mental health in their fiction. They interrogated the capitalist conditioning surrounding drugs and how, why, where, and when they are perceived as either medication or abuse. Novelist and poet Roz Kaveney read from her novel written in the ‘80s about trans street life. Belatedly published in 2015, this novel offers a glimpse into the lives of Natasha and Annabelle living in London in the ‘70s. Mojisola Adebayo (playwright, performer and director) performed a scene from her play STARS, the story of a very old lady who sets off in search of her own orgasm and journeys into outer space. Adebayo told us that this was not usually performed as a one-woman show and would usually be accompanied by music running throughout the dialogue (STARS is described as a ‘concept album for the stage’), but Adebayo conveyed the emotion and hilarity of this transformative and turbulent tale beautifully. Waidner, the organiser and curator of this brilliant evening, read from their ICA commissioned text (available in full here), which captured the impulse in the work of many marginalised writers writing today to form manifold linkages and chattering connections between ‘queer, working-class and diasporic cultures and lives rn’. They drew connections between their recent novel WE ARE MADE OF DIAMOND STUFF and Caspar Heinemann’s poem ‘Situationist International Airport’. They praised the writers and performers that made up this event, listing so many radical and independent publishers, and so many more contemporary queer writers; Waidner challenged the reductive, oppressive and exclusionary Establishment review culture (Guardian Books, we’re looking at you).


This was an event programmed into the I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker exhibition that, I’m delighted to say, had incredibly little to do with Kathy Acker at all. Acker has been consistently platformed and discussed within the postmodernism, experimental, transgressive writing. Her depiction of a New York avant-garde in the ‘80s sky-rocketed her to fame: the South Bank Show host Melvyn Bragg referred to Acker as in 1984 as ‘at the top of the New York avant-garde art world. Kathy Acker and the group around her are present leading the pack’. However, as Waidner noted on the night and in their text, the uncomfortable fact of Acker’s upper-class background and her notoriety within the establishment, means – in Waidner’s words – ‘it’s like I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker, arguably at the expense of everyone else’.

From left to right: Ray Filar, Mojisola Adebayo, Isabel Waidner, Huw Lemmey, Roz Kaveney and Kashif Sharma-Patel. Photo courtesy of @isabelwaidner on Instagram.

Instead, Waidner organised an evening that showcased some of the incredible, exciting, moving, insightful and important craft and work being made and performed today. The Kathy Acker exhibition is on until the 4th of August, so you could still catch it if you wanted to. However, instead of that (and especially if you’re strapped for time), I would heartily encourage you to join Waidner’s protagonist in WE ARE MADE OF DIAMOND STUFF (who looks like Eleven from Stranger Things) on the Isle of Wight watching sharks fight dinosaurs, and to question which side Tom Buckle will take (pigfucking PMs or falafel-throwing communists, Tom?) in Lemmey’s Red Tory. To go watch STARS and journey into space in search of pleasure, and follow Adebayo’s writing (she is currently writing Wind/Rush for the National Theatre). Buy Sharma-Patel’s poetry collection and keep an eye on the events that The 87 Press are putting on (they look fantastic). To read Kaveney’s semi-autobiographical Tiny Pieces of Skull from cover to cover. Read ‘Situationist International Airport’ in Heinemann’s Novelty Theory. Go see Filar’s current show, Non-Binary Electro Hour about genderfuckdrag and queer iconography. Search out new work and spread the word. As Waidner so beautifully puts it in their commissioned text, there are so many amazing queer, working-class, LGBTQI+, POC creators that are not getting write ups and space in the Guardian Books review section, and this needs to change. A fantastic evening.

Words by Polly Hember

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