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An interview with Macon Reed
Artist Macon Reed’s Eulogy For The Dyke Bar (2015) features a jukebox, two neon signs, and 20 framed archival photographs from lesbian bars in San Francisco, calling attention to the rich history of spaces in San Francisco and around the world, which demonstrate the value of convening queer communities in real time and space. The installation is included alongside work by Tammy Rae Carland in the exhibition To Know Herself, curated by Yomna Osman, CCA’s Graduate Program in Curatorial Practice Class of 2019. Osman sat down with Reed to explore the history of dyke bars in San Francisco, the archives preserving their past, and the venues today where Eulogy For The Dyke Bar has appeared.

Read more about the exhibition To Know Herself here.


Yomna Osman: Thank you so much for being here. Can you talk to us a bit about the full installation of Eulogy For The Dyke Bar?

Macon Reed: Absolutely. Eulogy For The Dyke Bar has been going on since 2015 and this is maybe its fourth iteration. Each time it happens it's a little bit different based on the needs of the particulars of the community. I started thinking about this project when I was living in Chicago. I have this amazing queer community there, but very, very few women and very few bars that I could go to to meet other people like me.

The only gay neighborhood in town was called Boystown and it felt really clear that that wasn't for me. I felt kind of isolated with that and I started talking to people. I realized that all around the country dyke bars have been closing en masse. Interestingly enough, the more a place is welcoming and supportive of its queer community, the less likely they are to have dyke bars, which is really interesting to me.

I started asking people, why do you think that is? And increasingly I heard all of these stereotypes come out about women not being as cruisey or sexual or not liking to party as much, and I joked about this at the opening the other night, but that, you know, they wanted to just stay home and pet their cats and drink tea, which I always say is a great thing to do. But it was a sense inherently, in a sort of essentialist notion, that people who might want to go to a dyke bar were very few.

And so I started thinking about that more, because some of my favorite feminist, queer people are giving me this as true. Am I the only one having this need? Et cetera.

I started looking into the history more and I realized that, basically, a few factors come into it, but socioeconomic disparities between basically—it's hard to use the language, it's very binary in terms of the way you think about it. But in terms of men getting paid a certain amount and women getting paid a certain amount, when you have communities of people who are assigned to those genders, that disparity grows.

Historically women haven't had access to the funds for going out or participating in party culture or any of that in the same way. And then also gentrification hits women much harder. Of course, if you add in any other identities to that, intersecting, it just kind of grows exponentially.

When I started learning about that and the way that assimilation has played a role in this—because to an extent somebody joked at one of our events that you can go to Applebee's now and be gay and safe for the most part. So do you really need to go to the dyke bar? I'm like, I hope Applebee's isn't our goal, you know?

But there is this quality that as it becomes more and more safe, these spaces don't feel as essential in a way to people, or they might not realize it, that they're going as much. But they still feel so important. So I thought, I need to build this whole project out. I'm going to build a dyke bar to have the conversations that I need to have.

My role as an artist is to create a container or some sort of site for other people to bring whatever they have to offer. In this case, I build up the whole sculptural environment, build out the installation, invite people that I trust into the space to speak for various events, and then I usually disappear. If I have a question I'm asking, it doesn't feel like I'm the one to answer my own question. So I went ahead, I started building the dyke bar out.

Another thing that came up to me when I was having these conversations was how much the experience around sexuality and gender are really depended on people's age and generation. People had really different experiences. What I started doing was thinking about the project not only as something to talk about dyke bars and gentrification, but to also think about it as a space to bring older and younger queer people into the same room, to share space and share stories. Not necessarily even about the things that maybe are the issues that make people get upset with each other and not understand, but to just share space.

We had teenagers all the way to people into their late seventies and eighties listening to each other. People were crying and having all the feelings and I realized that that is also a really important part of the project.

YO: The installation includes a lot more elements than the ones we have in the room. Maybe you can walk us through it. What elements does the installation usually include?

MR: Yeah, absolutely. Usually the installation, again, shifts a little bit based on each space that it's in, but usually a sort of fully flushed out one includes a lot of the main things I thought about as being important in bar spaces. So as my research for this project, I got to go hang out at dyke bars a lot, which was really fun, and hear all these stories.

There are things, like the pool table was always sort of a center of drama and intrigue and showing off. I had a pool table in the center of the room and a full bar, a dart board, a bunch of paintings based on images from dyke bars past. And then I also had a full wall of archival images in each iteration that represent all sorts of different parts of dyke bar history. All of those things kind of come together.

Then on the front in the window, there's always a sign that says “Dyke Bar,” which I like thinking about too, because it's not only for the people who come into the space. All the people who walk by inherently have to take a minute. The fact that Dyke is sort of this reclaimed slur makes people have a double take. And at Pulse [Art Fair]—we did it at an art fair one time—it was interesting to see people, who I think maybe were straight, debating: Can I come in and use this bar? Because it's the only bar at the art fair, people had to, so I saw a lot of people standing by the dyke bar sign, looking, wondering, and crossing in.

Those are the main components, but usually there's also an element of programming, because the main work of the project ends up through conversations people have, either directly in the space or afterwards.

YO: The neon signs that are right behind us, so many people at the opening would take pictures with the neon signs. They really help bracket, or punctuate, the exhibition super well. If you could talk a little bit about the neon signs.

MR: Part of one of the things that I kept seeing in bars, especially divier bars, were these neon signs. Especially the first space where we had it, it was a scrappy space. Wayfarers Gallery. They're great. They're in Brooklyn. They're kind of off the beaten path and people might not know it's a gallery and I thought, how can we make this announcement into the neighborhood of what we're doing? I looked into it and found out I can make a neon sign and get that made.

It's always felt like it just does something to make that space between the art and real life. It walks that line, because people may or may not actually take the time to read that it's this dyke bar instead of just being a neon sign. It's a kind of advertisement out onto the street and it also holds the space a little bit I think, especially in San Francisco where we don't have these bars as much. It puts the idea that that can be here into the minds of passers-by.

YO: Can you talk a little bit about your choice to use the word “dyke.”

MR: Yeah, I'm glad you asked this. One of the most important things for me about this project is that it can be something that is healing and inclusive and expansive for people in the various queer communities that I spend time with. From the beginning, I always knew dyke bars as dyke bars, so it was just, that's the thing that people casually call it. But also the term “dyke” as a reclaimed hate word at one point. It's been reclaimed for a long time, but I still think it has a sort of challenge to it. “Dyke” was, for a lot of people, a little bit of about like, fuck you, like a term that people use because it has an apparent feminist social critique in it.

That being said, there are also all of these divisions now around ideas of gender and who gets to be a dyke, who gets to be included in that. It was absolutely important to me that this project was as inclusive as possible and that anyone who identifies as a dyke feels welcome and safe at any of these projects. But also, some people maybe used to identify with the term dyke and don't anymore, but they still need to feel a part of the community and included.

It was really important to me that people feel an affinity with the term and particularly that trans women who identify as dykes know that this space is for them, because some of those generational, and also just persistent, fights have been very exclusive. That's why it felt important to use the term “dyke,” but then also on all of the information, the invites, everything, there was a little statement that said, we use the term “dyke” in the most expansive way possible. Anybody who feels like they should be here should be here.

YO: The archival images, you touched on how they change as the exhibition travels or in every iteration. Can you talk a little bit about this and the archival images framed here?

MR: I think it's always a little bit hard to choose which images to include or not. I tried to both make the conversation local and specific to the community that it's in and also connect it to the larger issues. It isn't just that dyke bars are gone in San Francisco—I think Jolene's [Bar and Restaurant] is one of the few places open—but that they're closing everywhere, at least in the U.S. and in a lot of other countries. It feels like you want to have images from here and also connect to those conversations. In this case, San Francisco has such an amazing history and archives available that it was pretty easy to find images from the area.

When I choose the images, I've worked with a number of different archives. Here, I got to work with the Lexington Club Archival Project, which is pretty incredible. I also worked a lot with the [Lesbian] Herstory Archives and both places had things from San Francisco. I was looking for a full array of images that could give people a sense of the history and some more recent times in these spaces. We have everything from Facebook posts from Lila [Thirkield] who used to own the Lexington about why she's closing to letters and [other ephemera].

A lot of people might not know who are younger especially that dyke bars used to have police come and raid them all the time. There were times in history when if you were in a dyke bar and you got caught in there, the cops take your picture, put it on the front of the newspaper, and you would lose your family and your life and your job and everything.

I was trying hard to find pictures of people in these spaces from a long time ago and mostly they just don't exist. But I did find flyers from when the police came and beat up customers at Peg's Place, which was here in San Francisco, the community trying to do outreach after that. We have flyers from the Duchess of New York. They were trying to be closed down after the police raid. And then some of the protests that happened at the Lexington around gentrification here more recently.

So we have all of those and then party flyers from different events. There are also, like the big sign up there that says “Nanny's: A Place for Gay Women, Biological or Otherwise.” I appreciate it, because that was from the nineties and is early trans-inclusive language that feels a little bit wonky now, but was really great to find in the archives. We have basically a combination of all of these images and some pictures of people inside the Lex. My sense is that people could come into this space. They're all printed in black-and-white, so you can't tell what era they're from. People might be able to piece together a story from all of those.

YO: Wonderful. How do you work with the archive usually? Do you start with a conversation?

MR: I'm such an artist-researcher, but not an official researcher. When I first started, most of my research started with conversations with community members, so I talked to so many people about these spaces, what they mean, asking them what I should look into, who I should talk to, where to go, and all that.

From there, I ended up learning about places like the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn. When I went there, it was very informal. It's a big townhouse in Brooklyn, often staffed with these rad older dykes, sometimes younger people. They're doing the best they can with very little resources. Basically, I am going through giant folders that are marked “bar.” You don't know where any of it comes from. You're trying to figure it out. And then I end up having conversations with people about that. But really it's a community process.

I also ended up finding out about the Lexington Club Archival Project through those conversations and they have already done so much of the work. That's something I think is important is the collaborative nature of the project. It's not like I'm doing everything from scratch. I'm trying to pull together these resources from multiple communities, and give them credit for that. I'm grateful for those images.

It's really an organic process and sometimes it's taken me a long time to know where an image actually came from, because it's stuffed away with something in pencil on it. So it's a process.

YO: Let's talk about the jukebox. Everyone who came to the exhibition during install or during the show had a lot of questions, because it's such an attractive piece and it also meets the body in a very interesting way. Can you talk a bit about this choice?

MR: For one, I love that people are so drawn to these objects. I think part of it is that the materials aren't clear. I work with mostly DIY cheap materials. Part of that is because that was all that I had for a long time. Part of it is that I really liked that through the process of building it up with the paper clay and the joint compound, you end up with this weird, uncooked ceramic quality to it. People don't know what it's made of. When people don't know what something is made of, it makes them sit with it a little bit longer.

The bright colors are pretty consistently part of my style. For a long time I didn't know how to answer the questions people inevitably wanted to ask, like, What's up with these bright colors? Part of it is that I really like things that are so bright that they're almost aggressive, which I feel like these colors walk a line with. And at the same time they feel really accessible. People who maybe don't have much to do with art spaces, you know, when they see bright colors, I feel like often ... it grabs their attention. It pulls them in. So some of it's sort of about making the work not feel too untouchable and serious, the way art can.

And then also, there's just something that feels kind of like a little bit of like a fuck the patriarchy, with the bright colors that make you have a jolt and feel like, Oh, I'm in my body. I have a body. I'm an embodied being.

Historically, I didn't understand how much strong color within the Western art tradition for a long time has been associated with queerness and effeminacy and all sorts of things. There's a real tendency to want to use these strong colors in response to that.


YO: How do you think the installation changes every time it travels? I know it's shown in multiple different settings.

MR: The project does change. With each showing it's in a different venue and part of that is just inherently the shape and size changes, but also what that community needs changes. The first time I did it was at a really small venue in Brooklyn, an art venue. It didn't necessarily have tons of people who came to it regularly, but it was really accessible and easy to get my people into, not very alienating. The next time it happened was at Pulse Art Fair in New York, which was a fancy art fair. We had to do a lot to make it feel accessible.

It was $25 to get in so I worked with Pulse to make it so that it was free for the community to get in. It also suddenly was intermingling with a very hetero space. It wasn't all queer people. There was that moment of it being the only bar at the fair, so people who maybe would never walk into a space that said “dyke bar,” contending with that. It was a really different situation, so we did a lot to make it feel inclusive and accessible how we could.

But also it felt like this incredible opportunity to get this conversation and awareness about how gentrification is affecting queer women and adjacent communities into a more mainstream audience. A lot of conversations came out of that that were great.

The next time it happened was at the University of Southern Maine. I worked with a professor, Wendy Chapkis, there, a Women's Studies professor. We had an amazing night of story-telling from people in the local Portland area. So some of the images from the archives then became about Portland. Really what I like to do with each place that it goes to, I ask the community what it would need, what it is talking about, and to bring it's people in. Because again, as an outsider, it's not necessarily my position to choose that. And here [at the CCA Wattis Institute], I feel like it's also interesting because this is the first time that it's been part of a show with another artist. I think Tammy Rae Carland is such a good fit. I'm excited to be included in a show with her.


Visit the exhibition here. Click here for images and more information.