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'Meet Me at the Deep End': Queer Archives and Swimming Baths with Caleb Steer

Updated: Oct 13, 2019

by Megan Daly

 
"I’m not necessarily trying to document trans lives, I’m more trying to find the way trans life belong in archives and memories of communities and places."

Caleb Steer is a queer artist and activist from Birmingham. Freshly graduated from Birmingham School of Art, his final year project was an exploration of the TAGS (Trans and Gender non-conforming Swimming) group in Birmingham, which he was a member of until its discontinuation in 2018. A personal response to a loss in his community, Steer uses performance, collage and textiles to commemorate and archive the group. We met up to discuss the work in depth, touching on community activism, queer art processes - and a bit of Depeche Mode.


 

Let's start by talking a little about what TAGS is about. Was it already an established group in London, before one was set up here in Birmingham?


Yeah. Roberta Grand and Chryssy Hunter set up the first group in London in 2014, they're legends! Travelling around the country setting up swimming groups for trans and non-binary people - absolutely outstanding work. The Birmingham group started in summer 2016 and ran monthly. We swam for the most part at Moseley Road baths, but eventually moved to Linden Road pool in Bournville for a while. It sort of died off in early 2018. Fewer and fewer people were going, and then we were struggling to get the space provided.


Was the group funded by the council?


Originally we had to pay for entry, so it was dependent on numbers showing up. Then we got a chunk of funding, but that ran out. Really, I think the reason it died off quickly was because it didn’t have a strong base of community. If you’ve got somebody coming from London to set a group up, they can’t be there week on week, and just be with people. There were people at different stages that took on some responsibility, but nobody was really there to hold it together.


I feel, and a lot of people feel, a real loss over it. Trans people need non-club spaces, different spaces. With this project I wanted to explore these different spaces at the edges of, or not necessarily aligning themselves with, queer culture - whatever that means. All of this work is me trying to respond to what happen to TAGS.

Trans and Gender-nonconforming Swim club is a swimming club based in London providing a friendly and safe space for transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming people to swim.

Just to give you a bit of insight, I’m a housing activist - I’m part of a tenant’s union, so I do a lot of community organising. You could say for sake of argument, why didn’t I just put my energy into restarting the group? I think I will, I’d like to. But I wanted to dig a bit deeper, through art - through this feeling process - and explore why it fell apart. Why is it so hard to make trans groups? I didn’t want to just charge into it.


So, using your art practice to find the reasons the group started and ended before setting it up again.


Exactly. I also feel very strongly about situating this as happening in Birmingham. There was a short film made about TAGS in 2016 called The Swimming Club. I think it’s a really interesting piece of media, but one of my gripes with the film is how it was shot in Moseley Road Baths, with no mention of it being in Birmingham. They brought up swimmers from the London group for filming. Being a bit cynical, they shot it here because it's more photographically interesting than the baths in London.

The Swimming Club, Directed and Produced by Cecilia Golding and Nick Finegan

As somebody who’s from Birmingham, and who tries to organise in Birmingham, it’s a city with a lot of challenges. There’s real violent austerity in Birmingham that’s different to other places in the country, which I talk about in my video piece Meet Me At The Deep End. I feel like, as a trans person from Birmingham, in Birmingham, I need to be making work about what’s going on here.