At home, practicing kinship.

 

Since the turn of the millennium, Western economies of queer kinship have mutated beyond recognition. Not long ago, our participation into the institution of marriage—and the nuclear family model it serves—wasn’t just unwanted but illegitimate. Now, it is celebrated by some, tolerated by others and, well, still frowned upon by many. This makes for a tricky terrain for queers to contemplate the prospect of starting a family, one which artists Yorgos Petrou and Victor Esses navigate with candid vulnerability in their autobiographical video installation Unfamiliar to Us.

 

Shot from different angles inside the couple’s home, the hour-long video has been assembled into a four-channel kaleidoscope of frontal, rear and high-angle views, like visual fragments which try and fail to complete one another. We accompany the pair—two gay men—as they reflect on their bumpy journey into parenthood, punctuated by recorded testimonies of other queers who discuss their experience of kinship. (‘When we fall in love with people,’ one says, ‘we accept them into our lives in very sustainable ways.’) The light is harsh. So is the sound. They are components of a lo-fi aesthetic regime which functions as a truth-claim, a disclaimer of sorts: ‘this is real, and the real isn’t always comfortable.’

 

Unfamiliar was initially conceived for a live audience. (The paradox of a performance about parenthood—an irreproducible treatment of reproduction—is not lost on me.) Then, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was adapted into an online performance streamed live from the couple’s flat, which has now morphed into an immersive video piece. In fact, the domestic setting of the work seems to speak equally to the theme of family than it does to that of confinement. (There is, historically, something confining about queerness and something queer about confinement.) I am reminded of Hervé Guibert’s 1992 video diary, La Pudeur ou L’Impudeur, in which the French author and photographer uses a camcorder to document his last months before succumbing to AIDS, showing his emaciated body dancing in his living room, like a little theatre of mortality. Unfamiliar is far less somber, of course. Yet in both works, the home appears as the cramped space in which queer bodies negotiate life and death in their own terms. (After all, the drive for gay marriage was partly symptomatic of the legal battles to care and grieve for loved ones dying of AIDS.)

 

Throughout the film, Petrou and Esses discuss the reactions they received when announcing their desire to start a family. ‘A child needs a mother,’ one friend objected. Meanwhile, another gay man insisted that ‘gay liberation is not about [marriage].’ As queers, we are told that we ‘get to choose our own family,’ as RuPaul likes to remind his queens and millions of devoted viewers around the globe. But why does gay parenthood remain so contentious, both for bigots and queers? Judith Butler describes kinship as ‘a set of practices that institutes relationships of various kinds which negotiate the reproduction of life and the demands of death[1].’ It seems to me that kinship ought to be practiced as comprehensively and gleefully as possible, both across state-recognised relations and non-familial bonds. At least, that’s what I’m left thinking after watching Unfamiliar to Us.

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Benoît Loiseau is a writer, critic and scholar based in London, UK.

 

 

 

 

[1] Judith Butler, ‘Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?’ in differences, 2002; 13 (1): pp14–15.z