St. Patrick's Island
The following excerpt was published in "Knock on Any Door (A Revised History): Art and Social Engagement in Calgary 1912 - 2012" edited by Eric Moschopedis and Mia Rushton
Expert from: St Patrickʼs Island & Local Queer Spirits
St. Patrickʼs Island is one of the oldest public spaces in Calgary and is currently undergoing a massive redevelopment as part of the East Village regeneration project. Its development as a park began in the late 1890s with one of its earliest uses being a rowboat destination for opposite-sex romance. It has since been a campground, disc golf course, swimming hole, and general recreational site among other things. Today we find a poetic maze of little paths that travel between trees and run into areas of overgrown weeds and swamp. It is here, among a host of other illicit and unsanctioned activities that some of Calgary’s queers go for sex. Walking through the hidden paths, one can feel the history of this place—the spirits of the men that have become sick seem to meander through the air. The best time to visit the Island is just after sunset. There is a volunteer group of mostly older men, survivors from the 1980’s and 1990’s, who tend the paths faithfully, leaving food supplies, cutting out dangerously low-hanging branches, removing trash, and hanging handy bags of condoms in the trees. As artist AA Bronson, who recently documented the presence of a similar group of men on Fire Island—a gay cruising ground that also happens to be a forgotten island just outside Manhattan—said “these men are responding to a call that celebrates pleasure as a positive force”.
In Semi-secret Spaces, Men Come Together to Exchange Neither Names nor Rings
but Something More Fragile and Impermanent
In the Practice of Everyday Life (1988), Michel de Certeau outlines a performative research methodology that imagines the city as a text; one that is written and re-written by citizen’s practice of walking and appropriating the topographical landscape. It is this mobile language and rationality that I used while conducting my research of St. Patrick’s Island. Walking supports my belief that lived experience is a way to know, feel, and understand something in relation to critical discourse. However, in regards to my research of St. Patrick's Island as an ephemeral urban textbook, I had to remain cognizant that ecology is about human and non-human interactions in systems of constant change, but I also had to define and redefine my relationship to walking and the act, and space, of everyday first-person encounters. I did this because I was curious about the anomalous relationship of sexuality to nature in the midst of a real and current urbanization process. To me, the St. Patrick's Island story has as much to do with the politics and anxieties of displacement, as with the effect/affect of gentrification. If you were/are part of the community that is inevitably being pushed out by gentrification, then no doubt the East Village’s precious attention to symbols of decay and ruin—all those meticulously landscaped weeds and refurbished heritage buildings—will seem designed to piss you off. If, on the other hand, you are part of a gentrifying wave, as so much of Calgary’s oil rich youth now is, then the new St. Patrick’s Island will seem to be singing from your hymnal, and you will revel in it’s distressed aesthetics of meaningless urban ruins (not unlike a pair of well-washed American Apparel jeans that many, myself included, seem to unconsciously wear). In other words, is the authenticity of local queer urban ecology worth ‘preserving’?
Encountering the Ghost of St. Patrick’s Island
Walking here at night, one can feel a kind of quiet desperation floating above the Island.
In the summer this is the place where gay homeless men sleep together with owls and hawks or with each other. Tonight I meet a man who is raking the river with his hands. He has large, strong hands - you can tell that he is a builder of things just by looking at them. I ask him if I can photograph what he is doing and he agrees. While waiting for other men to approach him, he arranges rocks that he has randomly lifted out of the river. He collects them because they are ancient. He looks like he is about sixty-years old, with long, silver hair tied in a ponytail. At first, he seems almost shocked that I am chatting with him instead of pulling my pants down. I feel safe in his presence. We take our shoes and socks off and walk in the river. He gives me a rock. It is black, the size of my hand, and the small white fossilized marks make it look like it came from outer space.
St. Patrickʼs Island Today
I am interested in the many ways in which St Patrick’s Island is a liminal space; it’s relative openness allows it to be repurposed for new needs and desires that might emerge in a post-industrial city such as Calgary. Initially, I was hesitant to conduct research about St. Patrick’s Island, because secret queer spaces in a contemporary urban context have traditionally been embodied by a geometry of gender-based aesthetics, one that embraces deliberate gestures of resistance. And perhaps most importantly, I did not want to be the kind of person who shares secrets that might compromise the safety of others. However, through developing a close relationship with other liminal sites in Calgary (alleyways, empty houses, late night diners etc.) and their inhabitants, I have come to realize that urban spaces like the Island are important to many outsider communities, because they represent a voice—a site of agency—for those individuals who cannot or will not organize their desires or their attachments according to a hetero-normative value system.
And given the status of the current gentrification efforts to shift St. Patrick’s Island from a largely natural/wild habitat to one normalized by the spacial logic of capitalism (proposed deforestation, large concrete platforms as stages, and vendor spaces among other initiatives,) I thought that the year 2012 was an appropriate time to reflect on the ways in which the Island has affected the course of local transgenerational queer narratives in downtown Calgary. That is, before it is erased by a new non-descriptive urban space designed as an asset to the property value of the reincarnated East Village.
In many ways, the men on the island—through their commitment to seeking out a space that embodies their identity (or lack thereof)—have rejected the pervasive societal perception of their social decline. Instead, they look to an idealized and imagined future—one where their condition is not something in need of active rehabilitation. Instead, like the protagonist in Joris-Karl Huysmansʼs 1884 novel, Against Nature,who renounces his environment and retreats to an artificial world of his own making, the men I met on St. Patrickʼs Island have built a shared reality where, temporarily, they do not have to be in opposition to anything. In this temporary utopia the men have no need to be angry; their feelings of openness, in and of themselves, represent a large-scale generosity simply because the kind of passivity with which these men actively participate—to borrow from Bronson—is positive. These queer men, like some of the homeless men I’ve met in Calgary (who value their poverty as an eremitic opportunity to maneuver on the edges of established cultural rules), have used the Island as a liminal site to tactically operate outside of heternormative urban spaces. They have, de Certeau might conclude, temporarily re-written the Island through their transgressions. Their passivity is an act of production. The men place trust in a kind of faith that the world around them is essentially good. And giving trust away is about generosity. In his theory of Relational Aesthetics, French critic, Nicolas Bourriaud reminds us not to look for the meaning, but to look for the use, in art. And in a sense, usefulness legitimizes non-art activities as possible sites that can effect/affect tangible change in a particular community. Perhaps understanding non-art activities through an art context is a way to acknowledge them—to give voice to practices that are otherwise unnoticed or placed at the margins of mainstream cultural narratives.
1 AA Bronson & Peter Hobbs, “Queer Spirits”, ( Winnipeg: CREATIVE TIME/PLUG IN editions, 2010)
2 Michel de Certeau, “The Practice of Everyday Life”, (University of California Press; Reprint edition, 2011/ first published in 1984)