​Claiming Space — architect statement and exhibition walk through

To address the lack of queer-inclusive spaces for minorities in Oslo and the lack of knowledge about this issue, it is crucial to understand and discuss what a ‘queer space’ is, how it is produced and perceived, and how we can advance queer narratives and safety in mainstream spaces and discourses. When positioned as a narrative, architecture can question and interrogate the perspectives and need for a ‘queer architecture’, which is not simply the production of a place appropriated by non-heterosexual people but a space that challenges assumptive, dominant and normative behaviours, social codes, rules, expectations, and situations.

Norwegian culture can be considered a culture that is fixated around “dreams” similar to the “American Dream,” and it's architectural and material signifiers — white picket fences, sports bleachers, office buildings and cars. This dream, closely connected to notions of labour, reproduction and economic policies closely connecting e.g. home ownership to the concept of security and privacy, has over decades established social structures based on a concept of a majority population and their needs based on a constructed, aspirational image specific to a 'productive’ and normative middle class. In Norway, this enacts itself primarily through the (re)production of hetero—monogamous units that inhabit 1) enclosed “private spaces” — such as homes, apartments, and cabins, 2) “semi-public spaces” — offices, meeting rooms, cafeterias and backyards, and 3) “public spaces” such as parks, squares, streets, supermarkets, bars, gyms, and public-facing institutions. However, as has finally become a mainstream topic in recent years, members of both the majority and minority population in Norway live lives that do not fit into categories defined by these socioeconomic norms: the “male/female” gender binary, or the predominantly white, reproductive, heteronormative, and economically intertwined middle class. Which begs the question, what spaces in society and everyday life exist for them, and how are these spaces initiated, produced and maintained?

Lives outside of the normative are pretty much non-existent in the world of architectural theory and education. In architectural discourses and curriculums, sexuality, gender, orientation, class, and race, are over-looked, ignored and thius erased from the perspective, history, and influence of our profession. Thus interrogating and questioning these theories and the structural short-comings which have led to this homogeneity is essential, and a new and better understanding of architecture for people, our built-in environment and the needs they produce, is needed.

In Fotogalleriet's exhibition space in Møllergata 34, the narrative architecture of 'Claiming Space' is built to evoke a series of undefined contexts and encounters: “The outside” space, “The In-between,” “The Passage,” then “The Recreation.” The architecture calls for emotion, and emotions call for understanding. It is a prerequisite, subjective journey from “the outside” to another understanding of space which culminates in the shared “Space of Projection.”

“Recreating” queer spaces

While ancient gymnasiums are deemed as the historical origins of queer spaces and informal LGBTIQ+ hangouts, bars and nightclubs have in recent decades become one of the most prominent sites of refuge and exploration for queer people and communities. While urban spaces like parks still play venue for encounters with like-minded strangers who can open doors into hidden and underground communities, the online virtual world has also emerged as a contemporary way for interactive networking, cruising, and exploring different identities and desires.

Queer spaces are not only defined by their aesthetic appearance, but arguably even more by the interior sensations of desire, fear, longing, release, tolerance and acceptance they create in its visitors. In queer spaces, the relation between the ‘viewer’ and ‘the viewed’ is transformed to one of tangible possibility.

Therefore, the “recreation” of queer spaces and their signifying elements is necessarily a testament to the significance of these spaces, socially, culturally, and historically, and an invitation to consider how much architecture and social signifiers contribute to and affect our interior lives, shaped by the internalisation of our experience of the outside world and the knowledge and awareness of social codes which can grant us access to invisible worlds and new communities.

This is physically illustrated throughout the interior of Møllergata 34. Present here is ‘the closet’, the queer art venue, the mirror-bar, a library, a bleacher (a cheap bench seat at a sports ground, typically in an outdoor uncovered stand). These spaces and elements evoke invisible social lives and networks. They refer to queer communities which suffered and disappeared during the AIDS epidemic, have continued to struggle with the emergence of social media and gentrification of larger cities, and have now almost completely dissipated during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Not to mention, there is a lack of concrete political measurements in Norway and many other countries to ensure the protection and accessibility of these spaces, and they are not treated an integral part of society and culture.

I invite you to treat the experience as much as an internal emotional journey as an external, sensory one.

- Antoine Fadel, architect

Exhibition walk-through

01— The Outside

The outside is the space outside Fotogalleriet, a non-coherent and fluid (hetero)normative space where the norms are fixed, and the lives are arranged around them. Individuals are unaware of the true identity or identities surrounding them, and the reality that we see is not the only reality. It is an unknown, and for many, unsafe space. It is a space of heteronormative dominance. This outside world is interrupted by the four vitrines (windows) of Fotogalleriet in a glass along the sidewalk, creating a visual disruption in the everyday movement and circulation of the space.

02— The In-between

“The In-between” is located in the backyard of Møllergata 34. It is a space preparing for another space; the transition from “the outside” to something else. The passage is lit, creating an extended entrance in the form of a coloured funnel awakening curiosity and suggesting discovery. The person is “shocked” to think of themselves as queer surrounded by “unqueer” space. Could I be queer? Who am I? The discovery of the body and that there is a wide range of categories with most individuals not fitting into one category. The answers could be acceptance, self-denial, rejection, or confusion. This space leads us to “The Passage.”

03— The Passage

"The Passage” is an open mesh of possibilities, imbalances, gaps, overlaps, dissonances, resonances, lapses, and excesses of meaning. The visitor might become confused by its (lack of) reality. The transition continues through a passage of light guiding the visitor into an architectural installation — an attempt to shift away from the norms that we live with into another understanding and perception of ourselves and our surroundings. Through the art of illusion, light, perception, and purpose, space is transformed into a verifiable show in the viewer’s mind. Queer space, according to architecture theorist Aaron Betsky, puts on the same show.

04— The Closet

Queer spaces have always existed from the classical Greek gymnasiums as an open sport, where queer spaces were omnipresent, not repressed. How did this happen from omnipresence to absence enclosed in the closet? It is the possibility of another arrangement, another way of organizing. Same as the greek columns that once surrounded the ancient gymnasium, suspended lighting columns are implemented floating from the ceiling to floor that appears in a blend of directions and control in the immersive space representing this new “open closet,” unique arrangements.

05— The Mirror-Bar

The Mirror-Bar space reflects one’s identity: a place of reflection. The queer person is hiding, rejecting, and projecting the existence into a world of fantasy, “the mirror” directly relates to the body. While architecture acts as a window for a better world that inhabits “everyone,” “queer space” serves as a mirror, suggesting a search for the same.

06— Ahmed Umar, Carrying The Face of Ugliness

In this space, the exhibition begins its transition from a purely architectural experience with the display of artworks by Ahmed Umar. In these works, titled ‘Carrying the face of ugliness’, mirroring a popular Sudanese saying, Umar literally uses his face and body to both protect/conceal and “give face” to LGBTIQ+ individuals in his homeland of Sudan, where queer people and communities suffer great social stigmatisation and live under threat of violent persecution based on their sexual or gender identities. The works are displayed to allow the visitor to discover one part of the image before the rest is revealed.

07— The Library

This part of the exhibition is consecrated to the presentation of literary works. Fifteen literary productions of queer writers are displayed on this wall using a structure that resembles an open book and follows the exhibition’s color scheme. The visitor can pick the books up and read or skim through them. These are displayed like artworks, giving not only visual satisfaction but also relevant materials and documentation closely related to cultural protection in terms of gender and sexuality that have not been prioritized previously. The books present in the library are selected by Piniel Demisse on behalf of the activist library project Assata. You are welcome to read the books in the space and take a copy of the recommended reading list home.

08— Chai Saeidi, Yareta Cannot Grow in Shade

Here, artworks by Chai Saeidi are displayed as if all the pictures are part of one big scene, engulfing the space. Architectural elements blur the boundaries between spaces and perspectives, expanding thresholds while giving the visitor a degree of control in the appropriation and reorganisation of the space. Bodies interact with architecture, perhaps even becoming architecture. The work acts as both screens and masks that a visitors can wear by moving through the space.

09— Damien Ajavon, Ode à Ndate Yalla

The suspended textile works by Damien Ajavon challenges the notion of gravity (invisible) and ground (visible). These artworks work with the architectural partitions to separate the viewer and that of ‘the viewed’. The concept of ‘protection’ plays a central role in Ajavon’s work, and the artist describes working with textile as a way to explore and create forms of protection using their own hands. The spaces created are flexible, and can slide, pivot, and open.

10— Space of Projection

The “Space of Projection” is where the viewer and ‘the viewed’ become indistinguishable from each other. It’s an arena for conversation and discussion to facilitate new perceptions through better understanding.

The viewer and ‘the viewed’, the speaker and the ‘spoken of’ become one and produce acceptance and tolerance. The curtains in the space give the bodies inside the space the choice between exposing the space, making it semi-public, or covering it up, making it private. The visitor exits the exhibition with another vision, a heightened perception of the self and experience of the outside space.

Mapping Queer: Where Does Queer Happen in Oslo?

A map of central Oslo present in the exhibition space invites visitors to contribute to the locating queer moments, memories, or histories in Oslo connected to a physical site or location, from bars, parks, public toilets, and the spaces of institutions and organisations.

Feel free to mark and claim your space!