Okay, so this one is going to take a bit of explaining.
How was it, back in 2001, I ended up choreographing and compèring a male strip show? How was it the participants in the said strip show were also my students at the time? It all sounds rather unsavoury, even more so for actually writing it down these twenty years later!
The short version is we were raising funds for the student degree show for the undergraduate photography course on which I was teaching film and video – an extraordinary project undertaken by an extraordinary cohort of final year students.
Not content with just finishing their respective degrees, the students decided to turn a long-abandoned secondary school in Hackney Downs, London, into an exhibition space for their photography and video work. What ensued, for them, for the photography department’s staff, and for me, was a sometimes gruelling, but deeply satisfying adventure in collaboration. The damp, derelict classrooms and corridors of the school were transformed into clean, white exhibition spaces, the old, empty swimming pool into a venue for the aftershow party. I spent a whole lot of time sitting atop scaffolding towers and shovelling pigeon poo – and likewise everyone else. It took over one hundred days, and hours of hard physical work to prepare the exhibition space – and a lot of money, which is where the male strippers come in….
You have to remember, back in 2001, I was twenty-six years old, so not much older (and in some cases younger) than the students I was teaching in my professional capacity. I was also the licensee of the student campus bar, and so found myself in this rare halfway space between different roles, expectations and responsibilities. I’m happy now, but I was very happy back then, teaching film, talking film, running a very busy bar with all the banter and sauce and boisterousness you’d expect, and working with a team of dedicated educators, who were fearless when it came to fostering extraordinary student experiences.
I don’t think it struck anyone as particularly odd or left-field, or suspect, when I first came up with the suggestion we could ‘put on a show’ to raise funds for the In-Motion degree show big-build at the derelict Secondary School. The Full Monty (1997) must still have been looming large as a pop-cultural touchstone, because the idea of a group of ordinary-shaped students taking their clothes off in support of a good cause didn’t seem problematic in the slightest. I don’t recall a single objection or raised eye-brow.
Contrary perhaps to the associations that go with the objectification of male bodies, I look back at this unlikeliest of episodes as a moment of utter sweetness. As an openly gay member of staff, you might consider how my shifting role from ‘teacher’ to ‘choreographer’ was difficult for some of the young men involved, but apparently not, considering the ebullience and gusto and trust.
One of my fondest and enduring memories will always be, not the pectorals or inguinal creases of these photographers-come-strippers, but the joyousness of that raucous, perfect night; the roar of the crowd, who were in on the joke of it, and what was so charming about the pleasure these blithe young men were taking in their riotously ramshackle show.
Video footage was taken at the night of the performance, and one of my roles, as the resident videographer of the In-Motion project, was to put the content together for posterity. You’ll see straight away how long ago all of this was, on account of the 4:3 aspect ratio and less-than-broadcast quality. I was learning my trade as a video editor at the time, playing fast and loose with copyright and music soundtracks, so interpolating entire sections from the movies A Chorus Line and Cabaret to dial-up the show business accordingly. I appear in this film too – in a fabulously shiny silver shirt, and so young-looking and sleight, I can’t help but sigh.
I’ve only recently dredged up this film from an old DVD and haven’t thought about this particular night in years. To watch it again is to return immediately to that humid bar, which was crammed beyond its capacity with art students of all stripes, all of whom had paid their money to see their friends and classmates bare their bums in a bid to buy litres of white emulsion, hire a crane and scaffolding, buy lights and wire, to make something amazing happen. The film goes someway to conveying the noise in the bar that night, but not all the way. The roof was raised, and then some, by the delightful hooting of students, who couldn’t quite believe we were actually going through with it.
It will sound strange if I admit, that about this one night in the service of one huge transformative project, I feel a genuine sense of achievement and pride. Obviously I’m not talking about the choreography (talk about murder on the dancefloor). I’m talking instead about the directness of what we did that night; I’m talking about our lack of worry and the way we just decided to do an improbable, stupid thing, and then went ahead and did it. I’m talking too about all the people who allowed us do it, about the trust and safety we all felt, and I’m proud of it too, because in this film – on this night – I’m completely confident in all my identities.