Participatory Environments

Dylan Fox’s practice explores the physical, medical and emotional  elements of gender transition. The socially engaged works and participatory events are specifically developed to replicate the feelings of frustration and lack of control he feels throughout his own transition.

 A: Your practice involves exploring the physical, medical and emotional elements involved in gender transition. Why do you think that it’s important that artists respond to contemporary political issues, and why do you think that your work speaks out at a particularly relevant time within history?
: I think its really important to fight for the things you feel passionate about, using the tools at your disposal, so for me that means responding to political issues directly with my work. I find its easier to have those conversations within an art context as well, as most people often have an open mind when they come in to an art space so I feel I can be much more open with my work because of that.

Getting this message out there, to a range of different people, using art as a platform, also means that as artists we can protest on multiple levels. Its important to use this platform to be open about things, showing others that it is okay to talk about sensitive issues, but also to publicise the correct information, the correct terminology and help to promote important messages. For me that’s why I am currently making the work I am, to speak out against the harmful misinformation being provided by areas within the media, to show others that being open in the public sphere can be okay, and to share my experiences in relation to the much larger global context of LGBTQ+ rights.

A: Your series break down boundaries between creative expression and social activism; ideas about injustice are communicated through conceptual installations. Could you talk about your favourite work to date and how it fits into the wider global discussions about gender and stereotypes?
My favourite work to date, Safety Card, combines an adapted aeroplane safety card with an inflight safety announcement, in the form of a screen-print and accompanying audio, which together detail my daily morning routine prior to undergoing “Top Surgery” in March 2016. Aspects of this routine give the viewer an insight in to some of the emotional difficulties that I had whilst dealing with severe gender dysphoria and waiting to access gender healthcare through the NHS.

Although some transgender issues are beginning to be publicly discussed within mainstream media, issues relating to the availability of specialist healthcare, and the effect this has on mental health, are often not discussed and so this work provides an opening for this type of dialogue. I have also been closely following the recent political events in America, and this piece feels especially relevant right now due the Trump administrations threat to accessible healthcare and LGBTQ+ rights.

A: How do you begin to choose the form / media with which you will address these concepts?
Most of my ideas come from experiencing certain situations within daily life, which summon emotions that can be related to my experiences of gender transition in some way. I look for situations that elicit strong emotions similar to those I feel when dealing with gender dysphoria, or waiting for appointments, and then attempt to recreate these situations to provoke the same feelings within the participants of the work. This means that a viewers emotions are in fact the main medium I work with, often frustration and disappointment, whilst the media used to provoke these reactions is always what ever is the most appropriate in order to make the experience feel realistic.

For example Candyfloss uses a real candyfloss machine and sugar with the addition of a white plinth to create a fully functioning stand. Each participant has to take a ticket and wait some time until their number is called, using time and frustration as a medium, creating a work that may remind people of freedom and fun, whilst actually addressing the fact that waiting times are not fun, and there is little control and freedom involved with them.

A: In what ways do your pieces provoke frustration within audiences, and in doing so connect viewers through shared emotions, particularly in Border Control, which won the Free Range Graduate Show in 2016?
Border Control recreated the experience of being at the airport, complete with a long queue, unapproachable border control officer, and a landing card form that participants had to fill out before being granted or denied access through the exhibit. This work provoked frustration at a number of points, firstly the complicated task of filling in the form; again at the desk when the majority of participants were denied access on unidentifiable grounds; and then finally when the participant got through to find nothing on the other side.

The idea behind this, and my other participatory works, is to lead participants in to thinking they are getting one thing, but they actually get something else.  Each participant also gets a unique experience when engaging with the work due to variations in waiting times, access and the conversations that are had with whoever is running the piece of work.

Because of each tailored experience, my works are often unfair but I find this creates competition amongst participants; once they realise what it is they are getting, or often not getting, there’s competition to see who can get that first.  Returning again to Candyfloss as a prime example of this, although each participant becomes more and more frustrated at having to wait, when their number is called they still run to get their candyfloss, eager to get something they didn’t even know they wanted until they walked through the door.

A: Comparing this to some of your other pieces, including Reader Board, which utilises the iconography of American advertising, how does the use of different recognisable objects elicit different responses?
As the subject matter that I deal with can often be hard or uncomfortable to engage with, using something recognisable, even if it has been modified, helps to make the works more accessible. Even when the topic is addressing something which may not be familiar to them, because the objects and materials I use are familiar to start with, it allows people to relate to the works on a personal level, connecting their own ideas and memories of those objects with the work in front of them. This initial familiarity puts the viewer at ease, often leading to a conversation about the aspects that are not familiar, engaging the viewer in a dialogue around the subject matter that might be harder to achieve without that initial familiarity.

In relation to Reader Board, even if a viewer has no prior knowledge of this specific form of advertising, it is hard to avoid. With its associations to Americana and the culture of cinema, this form of advertising is designed to be enticing, making it an effective way of displaying slogans that are potentially hard to engage with. Its almost a case of tricking the viewer in to believing they are looking at something recognisable, but the subtle adaptions allow me to push for different responses.

 A: This work was displayed recently at Frontier at the Old Truman Brewery, London, amongst many others. As this was also the setting for Free Range, how did you respond to the gallery space, returning as a solo artist?
: The opportunity to develop a whole new body of work this time around, instead of exhibiting just one piece, has meant I can exhibit works that require different levels of participation, different levels of engagement and different levels of thinking, connecting these works in one exhibition. As you move around the exhibition, the works tell a narrative of my transition, starting with Reader Board which displays direct messages which set the tone of how the viewer is expected to behave in the space, asking them to respect pronouns and end gender norms. This work is positioned next to Candyfloss, which is much subtler, giving the viewer a chance to wait around and look at the rest of the exhibition whilst considering the importance of this waiting time in relation to the more personal works within the show. Safety Card and Postcards from Florida give the viewer an insight in to my life as a transgender adult, whilst a new series of smaller prints relate this experience to some of my earlier childhood memories.

Developed in conjunction with the curator, Billy Hawes, this concept of creating a flow of activity based on my personal experience of transition seemed an interesting way of connecting the works. A viewer can take a ticket from Candyfloss, and whilst they wait can half-listen to the audio aspect of Safety Card or read Postcards from Florida. Having the opportunity to connect these works in this way has meant that the messages within the show are amplified, using each work to give new context to the next, which is something that simply isn’t achievable with just one work.

A: What do you have planned in terms of other projects / exhibitions this year?
: I have some ideas for one-off events and participatory works that have come out of my research for this current exhibition, which could lead into potential shows that I am currently working on, but for now my main focus is on learning from this recent body of work and spending some time in the studio. I am also currently looking for ways to involve the trans gender community more within my practice, and so will be reaching out to various organisations and groups over the coming months to further this dialogue.

1. Reader Board: Protect Trans Youth.  (2017) Courtesy of the artist.
2.  Reader Board: Respect Pronouns (2017 Courtesy of the artist.