When I Was at Art School in the 90s

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Here, we republish an essay from Marc Vallée’s latest zine: a reflection upon the lives of Vallée and his art school friends amid the walls of their vibrant east London home

“How does one visually represent a community that has gone through so much?” Asks Marc Vallée. His zine When I Was at Art School in the 90s is documentation of quieter moments of queer youth in the late 90s, but also something more complex. It is Vallée’s response to what came before: a community slowly emerging from the horror of the 80s and early 90s global AIDS epidemic. The pictures, which were shot over one day in 1998 in an east London student house, depict an alternate vibrant world of experimentation inhabited by Vallée, Jamie, and Lloyd — all art students at the Cass School of Art opposite the Whitechapel Gallery.

The work is distinct from the photographs we commonly associate with the epidemic: from melancholy images of hospital wards to the hedonism and joy of the alternative queer club scene spreading across London. Vallée’s intimate frames capture Jamie and Lloyd, lounging, smoking and dressing up in different outfits. A casual yet poignant representation of their lives, straddling fiction and reality. Indeed, beyond the four walls of their dilapidated Stratford house, homophobia continued to rage.

A certain nostalgia imbues the delicate zine: its rich colours and crisp printing reveal the objects that populate the residence and the men’s clothes and haircuts themselves, all of which speak to that period of time. But, more than anything, the work feels honest and candid: a gentle observation of friends and the domestic haven they collectively carved out for themselves.

Below, we republish an essay written by Jamie Atherton, which features in When I Was at Art School in the 90s. Today, Atherton is an artist working with performance, writing, drawing and video. And the founder and editor of Failed States.

© Marc Vallée.

I recently read Neil Bartlett’s Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall for the first time. Published in 1990, it describes a gay London topography of the preceding years. Bartlett’s is a city I recognise. When I arrived in 1995 it felt similarly empty, especially in the east where the towpaths I’d follow for hours were overgrown with brambles and vast wastelands lay dormant, unaware of their Olympian future (starchitect pleasure domes, parachuting monarchs).

As in Bartlett’s novel, this was a dangerous landscape for an eyelinered young homo to be flitting about. Fear tinged my wanderings: lone strangers, groups of lads, flashes of panic upon realising I was truly lost. East London wasn’t empty, of course; people were living their lives everywhere. But when I was at art school in the 90s, I was new to the metropolis and seeking something else. In a wooded cemetery, I scribbled over the sharpie swastikas on a bench with glitter pen.

Marc has retroactively given this body of work an emotive title. “Art school,” is such a good phrase — as if it was the 60s and we were at the Slade, accused of being part of a gay mafia by seriously bearded straight boys in roll-necks. All credit to Marc for imbuing the project with a dose of nostalgia — a sensation more about the longing than what was actually real.

© Marc Vallée.
© Marc Vallée.
© Marc Vallée.

These photographs have me thinking a lot about realness. The four of us living in that house in Stratford did everything to avoid it — constantly dying our hair, pretending the matted stray cat was ours, planting a garden of plastic flowers in the living room. I wore fake glasses for a while; a handsome tutor at the art school asked if they were real. “No,” I confessed. “Wrong answer,” he admonished with a wry smile. This has stuck with me. I felt embarrassed at the time like I wasn’t committed enough to the pretence. But in retrospect, I rather like that I owned up to the artifice — declaring my queerness; a constant game of dressing up and trying on. For weeks those glasses framed my gay gaze, much as the camera’s viewfinder framed that of our new friend, Marc Vallée.

Marc was an MA student, a little older and more worldly than us. He carried a skateboard and had met Derek Jarman. He was a flirt, unabashed about his sexuality, which informed his horny, boy-crazy work. But that was by no means the entirety of what his camera saw. Revisiting these pictures I realise they’re not just about the erotics of half-naked pasty twinks lounging around (although they certainly are about that). But, moreover, invite us into an almost spectral realm between the real and unreal, a sort of photographic witching hour.

The dilapidated house, constantly at risk of disappearing into its own terrifying basement, was real. The remarkable wallcoverings, which were chosen by our landlord (aka The Reverend) were certainly real (almost surreal), as was our extensive collection of junk, all shown just as it was. There was the Hulk Hogan tank top; Sesame Street toys; a Carl Andre-like arrangement of Silk Cut boxes; Fire Walk With Me poster; Smells Like Teen Spirit poster; a Club Kitten flyer; a multitude of televisions; spray-painted bedding; a Robert Frank book; white DMs; that painting from Abigail’s Party, and a panoply of pound shop plastic.

© Marc Vallée.

What wasn’t real was the suggested relationship. Lloyd and I, although close friends, were never lovers. I was wholly devoted to the boy in San Francisco I’d later marry (look closely, he’s very present here — I find my own private punctum in the pictures of him dotted around my room). Nonetheless, through the performativity of collective art-faggotry, an ambiguous reality presented itself.

Revisiting these fin-de-siècle photographs 22 years later marks one of a couple of recent encounters with my younger self as told by other authors. In this instance, I recognise a passing flicker of time lived and seize on the autobiographical, aware though I am that there are many other stories here, not least that which occupies the territory radiating outward from the flagpole-like “I” in Marc’s title.

I find myself looking for ghosts, not so much from the past but of the future. In the coming months, the bohemian love-in would sour (perhaps that wallpaper did a Charlotte Perkins Gilman on us). Everyone else moved out before the lease was up, and I was left in the dark, rummaging behind damp couch cushions in search of coins for the electric meter.

I moved to San Francisco to be with the real boyfriend. Sometime later, we drove to Las Vegas for the wedding of Lloyd and another of the housemates. They divorced not long after. She remains one of my dearest friends, and Lloyd… well, who knows? We’ve not heard from him in years.

© Marc Vallée.
© Marc Vallée.