Interview: Derek Sargent on The Grave Project
Contemporary Art Stavanger
10/08/22 • Interview : Heather Jones
The Grave Project is an ongoing performative research project by artists Jess Miley and Derek Sargent, in which they research historical individuals who have had an impact on queer and non-normative culture. In April, Miley and Sargent presented The Grave Project (Skeiv norge) at Studio 17 in Stavanger. Below, Sargent discusses the impetus and history of the project, the challenges in researching queer historical figures, the importance of the body as part of this process, and the creation of a new archive.
Heather Jones: I’d like to focus this conversation specifically on The Grave Project, your ongoing collaborative project with Jess Miley. But before we start discussing the project itself, can you briefly introduce who you are, and how you and Jess Miley met and started working together? Do you maintain your own individual artistic practices or do you always work collaboratively?
Derek Sargent: Jess and I are artists from Australia. We met ten years ago while running an artist-run gallery in Adelaide called FELTspace. Jess currently lives in Berlin, and I moved to Norway three years ago to study for my Master’s in Bergen. I have an individual practice and only collaborate with Jess on The Grave Project, but it takes up a large chunk of my practice.
HJ: For those not familiar with the project, can you give an overview of The Grave Project? When did it start and what the impetus?
DS: We research public figures who have had an impact on queer and non-normative culture. The project examines the ways in which the queerness of these historical figures is used in the construction of their historical biographies and how the places they lived had a profound effect on their queer story. These personal histories act as a framework to examine contemporary ideas around queer existence. This research culminates in a pilgrimage to the burials sites of these individuals which is
documented in photography, film and text in order to create an alternative historical archive.
The idea started in 2018, Jess was living in Budapest, and I was doing a
residency there. We were conscious of being outsiders in terms of our own queerness and with the current government trying to erase queer existence. While at the residency, I discovered that Karl Maria Kertbeny, the person who coined the term homosexual, is buried in Budapest, and we visited his grave.
HJ: What locations, or chapters as you refer to them, exist so far?
DS: So far, we have done six chapters since 2018, and a chapter is usually based in a country, region or city. So far, we have been to Hungary, Paris, the South of France, Spain, Berlin and Norway.
HJ: You mentioned the project utilizes concepts of pilgrimage and eulogy in order to highlight the lives and influence of queer folk across a wide range of geographic locations and socio-political contexts. How are the specific subjects and locations for this project chosen? And why did you and Miley choose gravesites and tombstones as the focal point?
DS: We have chosen their gravesites as a marker in their narrative, the halfway point between their lived life and their biographical legacy. Gravesites have also traditionally had a strong association as a location for remembering and reflection. The places we choose to go are often based on where we are located personally in the world; Jess living in Berlin, and me in Norway, directed the last two locations. The next location we have chosen is Poland, and that was selected because of the current oppression of queer existence there.
HJ: The project website describes The Grave Project as performative research and the creation of an alternative historical archive. The website states:
“In the tradition of normative archives, evidence of queer life often tells a story of medical and criminal deviance. At the same time, we encounter this significant absence, where non-normative lives do not meet the requirements of knowledge institutions and miss the historical methods of depicting personal accounts, community and thus the complexity of queer pasts. Instead, we find and interpret their evidence in gossip, innuendo, and fragments of history.”
The last sentence about evidence of the rich complexity of queer lives existing mainly in fragmented gossip and innuendo struck me. How does one go about researching histories that were not accurately recorded? And why is the performative – or body-based – aspect centralized in your creation of a new historical archive?
DS: The lack of queerness in many people’s biographies is related to the performativity and temporality of queer acts, as a means to survive in a heteronormative world. Queer history has often been recorded differently from normative history. Queer lives have mostly been lived secretly. Leaving physical evidence of one’s queerness could lead to severe consequences. The performative action of the pilgrimage in The Grave Project is a way to highlight the ephemeral queer gestures of these individuals’ lives. The queerness in many of the biographies of the individuals we make a pilgrimage to has been lost or diminished. By making this performance of visiting their grave site, we are creating a physical form of their queer life. The written text we make for each person is created from what has been recorded about their lives – the information that has survived. Our presence is a way to represent what hasn’t been recorded.
HJ: What is the final outcome of this research process? How do you present it to a larger audience?
DS: Each pilgrimage we make, we enter it into an archive we create; an archive that holds the collection of stories, moments and images we create for each individual. Our archive presentation uses various mediums and methods to make it accessible to the public, including exhibitions, online platforms like our website and social media, and publications. We are also working towards having a book published next year.
HJ: The Grave Project was presented in April at Studio 17 in Stavanger. Can you discuss this chapter of the project? Which lives did you choose to highlight and why?
DS: The work at Studio 17 was a chapter of The Grave Project we did in Norway in 2021. We made a pilgrimage to ten gravesites in five towns. Wenche Lowzow in Geilo, Ambrosia Tønnesen in Bergen, Borghild Krane in Tromsø, Lorentz Severin Skougaard in Langesund and Bolette Berg, Gunvor Hofmo, Pauline Hall, The Rocky Twins, Per Aabel and Alfhild Hovdan in Oslo. The restraints of finding a queer person who has lived a public life and has a grave make the selection pool relatively small. For the research for this project, we came up with about twenty-five names, and we selected the ones with the most interesting and diverse stories to tell.
HJ: As a methodology, The Grave Project “extracts narratives and histories obscured within the recording and public representation of dominant histories.” Would you say the goal of this project is to subvert or correct the dominant historical narrative for the general public? Or is it to create an entirely different historical archive for the queer community? Or both? For whom are you doing this work and do you have an overarching goal in mind?
DS: I would say both; doing the research on queer people’s lives, you often find historians are really dismissive of certain aspects of queer individuals’ lives, and it is essential to correct these facts. Still, we are not historians, and we are trying to build an alternative archive of stories and gestures that is different. We don’t really make this work for a particular group of people, but we do find the people who have the strongest positive reaction to the work are often queer, and the ones who are most dismissive of it are usually not queer, which to me is a sign of why it’s important to continue to create this work.
HJ: Are there any plans to continue The Grave Project beyond this most recent iteration?
DS: Yes, we see this as a lifetime project and will continue to work on this as long as possible; part of the work is our ageing, using our bodies as a marker of time. We are currently working on the research for a project in Poland, and hopefully, in the future, we can bring this work outside of Europe.
Genuine & Authentic
8th - 24th March 2018
James Dean’s seductive blue eyes gazes down at the viewer, in one hand he holds a pool cue, the other is placed out of sight, behind Marilyn Monroe's little black dress. We are presented with an image of pinup perfection. An real insight into the sexual tension of 1950’s Hollywood. most historians suggest Monroe and Dean never met.
Derek Sargent’s exhibition and installation ‘Genuine and Authentic’ presents a delicious opportunity to review strongly held historical narratives by giving each viewer a pair of achingly sharp queer lens goggle. Sargent’s practice meticulously investigates the way queer history is recorded in opposition to more normative histories. Each work he produces is a result of carefully accumulated tidbit and fact mined from sources as varied as prison reports to wikipedia.
Sargent excavates popularly known histories and cultural norms, examining each strata for clues evidence of queerness. He sieves and stacks these histories to present a new mode of looking at history where the queer takes priority. James Dean legacy depends on whether you want to believe the rumours that he and Marlon Brando enjoyed a romantic and sexual relationship or if the image of Dean and Marilyn are more comforting.
Sargent’s large cuboid sculptures leverage the language of pop art, his references to the queer and constructed nature of Andy Warhol’s factory are not unintentional. But they do more than just create an alternative surface to examine. The brightly coloured boxes make no excuses for explicitly referencing sexual practices within gay male culture.Developed during Sargent’s NARS residency, the works offer an insight into a coded world of gay sex in clubs and in public space.
Queer theorist Jack Halberstam make connections between queer lives and ‘the wild’. This notion can be further developed when we think of the much feared and revered idea of anal sex occurring in public parks and toilets. This wild act being done in a location as wild as city and suburbia offer. The practice of searching or solicitation sex in sex clubs or public space is known as cruising “Like poems, cruising carves privacy out of public spaces,” say author Garth Greenwell in recent interview. Just as the act creates a poetry, so do to Sargent's work. The cuboid metallic boxes hang at eye level inviting viewers into an illicit world.
The zipper holds the potential of the desire, the act, the wild. In Sargent’s work the zipper also acts as metaphor for control, for solidity in its new form. Here is it straight and neat and conforming, its history and story is being presented in a way acceptable for public discussion. This zipper isn't being pushed against. It’s open, the potential mystery of the covered is undone. The zippers are flying low. Inside, disappointingly, only contains ourselves.
In the advent of the AIDS epidemic cruising became less popular, with gay men dying in huge numbers. An unforgivable number of gay men from that era were lost to a disease and with it a culture that redefined sex. Our current queer and gay icons are the over commodified RuPaul’s drag show and the occasional middle class couple on a cooking show.
How will our current histories be recorded? Australian LGBT were recently subjected to months of public ridicule and shame by the current government and dominant media. So quickly this event has now been celebrated and ‘remembered’ as the time our neo-liberal government came to the rescue of gay people in Australia offering them the token gesture of marriage equality. Facebook feeds from gay Australian’s ‘thanked’ Australia for the law that would allow them to be married.
It is these instances that makes Sargent's work urgent and necessary. May Sargent’s work be a reminder of the power our genuine and authentic selves have to offer.
Genuine and authentic is more than a re-reading of possible historical narratives, it is an invitation to reconsider our contemporary formulations of queer life within and outside of the neoliberal heteronormative society we occupy.
By exposing the duplicity of history we are able to more clearly carve a new type of story.
Jess Miley, 2018
Samstag Scholarship Essay
Derek Sargent’s multidisciplinary practice investigates themes of adolescent sexuality and identity within the formative years of development. By reinterpreting space and objects and subverting popular culture material, his work is motivated by queer theory and the exploration of reinforced standards in gender and sexual roles. Sargent disrupts seemingly hetero structures by reworking this imagery to formulate a statement on the lack of adolescent homosexuality representation in mainstream media.
Sargent’s practice is informed by a number of historical and contemporary modules. He notes Michael Warner as a source of inspiration as the first queer theorist to coin the term ‘heteronormative’—a belief in people falling into distinct genders that align with ‘natural’ biological roles in sexuality and identity.
Gay and lesbian studies are a relatively recent construction, with the term ‘queer’ taking on different levels of value in society. From its origins as a slang term for homosexual (both in a positive and negative sense), 'queer' now represents the culmination of marginalised self-identifications. The term itself is widely distributed yet it still remains unaligned to a specific identity, aiding its use across a number of considerations. The ‘product’ of this contextualisation of queer culture is an amalgamation of gender, identity, and homosexual studies that emphasises the incompatibilities between these theories and heterosexuality in current society.
Allure Me, 2015, a solo presentation of Sargent’s at Project Space, Contemporary Art Centre of SA, is an immersive installation of multimedia and sculptural works indicative of the artist’s research into subverting mainstream media into suggestive environments of desire. Sargent explores sexuality through images of adolescent boys merged with steel sculptures that bend with refinement and purpose. The penetration of tightly wound fluorescent thread juxtaposes masculine and feminine ideals to counteract established stereotypes. The work is forceful, overwhelming, and almost unbearable in scale if not for the imagery of tenderness between the young. Sargent presents a series of reflective, sincere ‘moments’ that reveal an honest portrayal of masculinity stripped of prescribed meaning.
Presented at Fontanelle Gallery in 2014, I Wish I Could Be Youis an 8-channel video and sculpture installation that envelops the space with moving images from nostalgic and contemporary feature films, punctured by fluid, steel forms. The film footage is sharp and fleeting, void of its original context, leaving the viewer with only a sense of the characters' intentions. Its luminosity and quick pace flash across the room, maintaining its voyeuristic stance whilst creating a kind of restlessness in the space. We’re given only a short glimpse into these beguiling human relationships, stimulating a heightened sense of allure and mystery.
Through sculpture, installation, photography, and moving image Sargent constructs interactive and suggestive environments that confound and obstruct archetypal readings of hetero and homosexual descriptions within pop culture media. Through the lens of queer culture, his artwork motivates audiences to reread heteronormative media. His practice revisits personal experiences sited around current motivations within gender and sexuality theory. His work questions our relationships, regardless of any particular sexual orientation, focusing rather on our shared understanding of attraction, yearning, and connection.
Rayleen Forester, 2016
Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia – Project Space
6th June - 10th July 2015
The need for a kiss
“But if there’s no sex, then what’s the point?”
Tender embrace. Innocent lust. Private desires. Soft skin contact. Carefree intimacy. Open kiss.
Images of intimacy between people reflect common desires that make us human. In adolescence these images are eagerly observed, aspired to and reenacted in awkward first sexual encounters. Through mainstream media pervasive heteronormativity is established, giving the impression that teen sexuality is something that occurs between good-looking twenty-year-old women and men masquerading as fifteen-year-old teenagers.
Popular culture fails those of us in adolescence that don’t identify with the conventional narrative. We waited for the arrival of the TV guide to hunt for hidden codes that might suggest that elusive queer movie. You find yourself in a dark lounge room with the anticipation, anxiety and excitement of the suggestive keywords written in the guide “two women find themselves in a cottage”. Could this be me? There is an isolated, desperate yearning in this quest. This is particularly true in eras where the Internet was not a means to find resources. It was slim pickings. Although there are more representations now, they are rarely realistic or appealing. Homosexuality in pop culture is often stereotyped men that many queer adolescents wouldn’t relate to: flamboyant fashionistas, bitches, sex workers or victims of crime.
Adolescence is often riddled with anxiety about belonging. Representations that validate innate desires are frantically sought after in hope to construct and justify emerging identities. Michel Foucault observed that people living in Western countries have increasingly attributed their identity with their sexuality; “it was everywhere present in him at the root of all his actions”. The quest for self-reflective imagery in adolescence is central in developing ones place in the world. When satisfying imagery is unavailable counter-reading enables the viewer to reimagine the narrative of an image with one that fulfills their own desires.
Derek Sargent’s sculpture and installation practice seeks to subvert heteronormativity in adolescent sexuality by privileging queer imagery of intimacy and longing. His auto-ethnographic approach invites us to counter-read the pop culture imagery that he applied to himself at the critical time of adolescent sexual development. Using found footage and images and symbolic manipulation of materials and colour; Sargent creates immersive queer utopias where desire and expression are honest and relatively uninhibited.
Sargent’s installations are wholly consuming, if we were able to look away or evade the intensity, we would miss the point. In Allure Me, the height of the gallery is reduced, concentrating the space and imagery in it and creating a new, unchartered territory. The ceiling is harsh and structured but softens and bends at the corners and is manipulated by colourful wool, which seems uncharacteristically strong. The feeling is a slightly uncomfortable cocooning. We know the ceiling probably won’t fall but we’re aware that danger hovers above. There is also the possibility of magic in this structure- a colourful, shiny canopy that makes me think of big city lights and the potential of an exciting party.
Materials are used in unconventional and thoughtfully intentional ways. Steel bends and curves, embodying an almost fluid form. Wool is pulled straight and taut, developing strength and purpose. We could consider the application of these materials as contradictions of how masculinity and femininity are stereotypically viewed. The wool is holding it together, and seemingly deploying the steel. The steel is bent and in some cases, appears droopy.
Images of intimacy between boys are at the centre of this environment. We are drawn into private worlds of tender, lusty connections. These representations are rare. Not just between two boys but of boys at all. The vulnerability and care hidden in us all is open and exposed in the imagery of romantic longing. The humanness of these moments liberates masculinity from its typical disconnect with vulnerability and homosexuality from a question of morality to one of humanity. By drawing people into common understandings of human relationships, Sargent reveals the universality of gay experience. It is important to him that people are consumed by the imagery, rather than alienated by it. The sensitivity of this approach creates a kind of heartbreaking realness about the obstacles people face in order to feel connected.
Expectations of gender and sexuality can be a confining social structure, one that limits and transforms the way people behave. The way identity is constructed could be seen as learned behaviours that are repeated and adapted through routine. Judith Butler considers gender and sexuality as ‘acts’ that are necessary in order to be seen as “a recognisable human subject”. We become more visible to others through well-known language and signs, but are obstructed through the curtain of convention. Sargent considers the way imposed imagery shapes feeling and thought and restricts vulnerable behaviour that is free of public, or contrived performance.
Allure Me doesn’t just speak of queer adolescence but the human yearning to feel connected to others. We are voyeurs to a place where expression is free and queer adolescent intimacy is at the centre. There is optimism in the warm colours and the way tender moments between boys are celebrated; yet a jarring uneasiness lingers. Perhaps we are reminded of the difficulty of adolescent terrain. Perhaps this uneasiness is another reference to Sargent’s experience of adolescence, aware of his desire, yet restricted by the potential isolation of it.
Kate Power, 2015
 In conversation with Derek about art
 Michel Foucault, The Will to Knowledge, 1st ed. (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1976)
 Judith Butler. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. (Routledge: London and New York, 1990)
6th November - 28th November 2014
Maybe it’s everyone
‘What I mean is… maybe it's us.’
Our sexuality is something we all have to come to grips with. None of us are prepared for it; we're only children when it first starts to prick. Paradoxically, it is the innocence of early adolescence - the time when many, though not all of us, start to address the issue - that frees the imagery of popular culture for our use in this ritual. The object of our first crush creeps up on us subconsciously, and we don't get to choose their gender. All is well if your affections set you on the path with the guidebook. Pervasive heteronormativity has set out through film, pop music, television and the bright covers of young-adult literature, the next decade of your life. Watch Zac Efron show you how to win all the girls' hearts with the help of carefully styled hair, and wipe the tears off of your diary because you're not alone, Taylor Swift really gets your unrequited love of the most popular boy at school.
But sexuality is a many splendoured thing. For those of us whose beginnings of a sexual identity suggest one that does not feature in the hetero-dominant narrative construct of society, where is the point to which to anchor our adolescent curiosity? At this age, we all seek reflection of our inner-selves – affirmation of them – in the pop culture we consume. It is a jolt to the core to realise that our innate, uncontrollable feelings do not sit within the ‘normal’, because what else is this lack of reference in our culture to suggest?
Emulate agitates the strict codes of heterosexuality transmitted through popular culture by involving the viewer in an act of counter-reading. The search for self-reflective imagery by queer adolescents is often met through a process of removing a story, image or text from its original context and reinterpreting to fulfil their own needs, and it is to the cognition of this act that the viewer of Emulate is given access. Here, we witness the reinterpretation of Lord of the Flies, the 1963 film about a group of early adolescent boys stranded on an island and left to self-govern their microcosmic society. In the film, the vestiges of civilisation give way to savagery as the boys succumb to unspoken fear; they fight, hunt and give in to a primeval bloodlust they barely understand. In Sargent’s work, the expression of their frustration and terror is isolated from the exploration of the evil inside us all, as is oft referred to in the crib notes for those who study (or rather evade the study of) the film. Instead, the uncertainty of the teenager is captured in circular vistas; red and blue tinted close ups of young faces struggling to express complex emotions, and the physical scuffles arising from moments when those emotions become too much to internalise. The general confusion of a time spent somewhere between child and adult hood is multiplied through a queer lens.
This is an invitation into the artist’s experience in viewing such films as a child, an auto-ethnographic trawling of individual memory to subvert the heteronormativity of our society’s culture. The vivid red and blue haze of the nostalgia leaks from the polished metal portals through which we are lead to review our recollections of a seminal film text, by examining the boys’ gestures without the original narrative’s dystopian vision. Our focus is instead on Sargent’s queer contextualisation of the imagery, skewing the narrative towards one that jars with the common interpretation. The point at which this cognitive jarring occurs represents what theorist Alexander Doty refers to as a ‘queer moment’ – when the narrative of heteronormativity is thrown off course for a moment, for anyone of any sexuality.
‘…You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close!’
It’s a difficult focus to reconcile given the general reluctance of mainstream society to allow the notion of queer desire to enter discussion around adolescent sexuality. However, at the hand of Sargent, we are delivered an experience of gay identity with a base for universal understanding. Counter-reading is undertaken by most of us at some time – even the movie quotes in this essay have been massaged with new intent – but the extent to which this becomes a necessary tool for queer adolescents is not perhaps something of widespread knowledge. Making the viewer complicit in this act reinforces the universality of gay experience, and seeks a point of common understanding. Emulate becomes a space in which to question the lack of complex queer representation in our culture when the need for self-reflective imagery is such a universal constant in the reckoning of adolescent sexuality. This is our experience, regardless of gender or sexual identity. Let the conversation begin.
Gillian Brown, 2014
 This line is spoken by Simon, the quiet dreamer amongst the lost boys in Lord of Flies, as he begins to realise that the ‘Beast’ may lie within the children themselves.
 from Sargent’s Honours thesis, ‘Queering the adolescent experience’, 2013, p.5
 Nicki Sullivan, A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory, 3rd ed (New York: New York University Press, 2003), p 191 thesis
 The ‘Beast’ speaks these words to Simon in a hallucination, confirming his suspicions of the boys having given form to their inner evil through fear.