When I log into my Zoom call with Birk Thomassen, I am met with an empty screen. All I can see are wooden beams and a tall-ceilinged, well-lit, white room. He suddenly swings into a shot from one side. He’s in his studio, scanning his immense backlog of negatives for his next big project: a book of his collected works.
Based in Copenhagen and educated at the Glasgow School of Art, Birk Thomassen is a queer visual artist and photographer. Within the surreal dream worlds of his photography, Birk approaches queer identity through fragmented shots of queer bodies, often in movement, recording fleeting moments, or momentary narratives, before they disperse into the air. His work is heart-warmingly intimate, both celebrating queer sexual liberation and capturing the wisp of fear, and unease, that inevitably follows an identity that is still, to many, new and dangerous. Birk is as warm and open as his photography. We chat for close to an hour; about his life, his works, the queer community we both find ourselves enveloped in, and our favorite sci-fi novels.
Miruna Tiberiu: So why choose photography, a medium often associated with recording ‘objective truths’, as a tool for the narratives of queer fiction? Birk tells me that he feels naturally attracted to photography precisely because it has the potential to go beyond the objective, journalistic lens.
Birk Thomassen: What I enjoy the most is that I make the rules myself. Photography in Denmark is not always considered an art form because people tend to think that it must be the objective truth. For me, you have the picture, and after that comes what I enjoy the most: scanning the material, looking at it, cropping it, selecting, and sequencing. You can make a lot of very different stories from the same pool of images depending on how you sequence them. That, to me, is the fiction of photography: the potential to create.
Birk did not, however, always see the camera as an extension of the free-forming artistic imagination. I chuckle over Zoom as he remembers how rigid he used to be about his work as a teenager at art school.
My art teacher was this wild woman, with a very big personality. She would have us paint on big canvases, and then she would ask us what we liked about [our paintings]. Then she would pour paint over them and scream, ‘Kill your darlings!’ That was a big eye-opener for me.
The most striking qualities of Birk’s work, the spontaneous, fragmentary, and surreal, came slowly, meticulously, across years of experimenting at art school. As he trod through the unknown, uncontrollable world of analog photography, point-and-shoot camera in hand, Birk simultaneously continued his technical work in digital photography, a form that is more malleable and that he felt he could control to a greater extent.
I would take walks in parks and greenhouses at night and take [digital] photos with flash. I had these alien-like images of flowers, and everyone kept telling me that they were about sex, which surprised me because I had always been, as a teenager, very uncomfortable with skin and intimacy. I had pretty bad body dysmorphia until I was 21, so for me to make something that people thought was sexual was very scary, but also interesting. I started thinking about that as I produced work.
Indeed, sci-fi and horror are both genres that have been reinvented by queer artists to celebrate our community. Birk’s Blood series, selected for an exhibition a few years ago, displays this reappropriation of horror tropes to a more profound, queer exploration. The series is made up of abstract close-ups of blood, and thick-red waves filling the shots. I ask him what he saw in these close-ups.
People see something and they’re interested in the surface, or the texture, or the abstract quality it has, but I took these pictures because I wanted to make something beautiful out of something I associated with horror. For me growing up gay was the same as being terrified of dying of AIDS, or at least getting HIV and being an outcast. That was also part of those images.
Queer people see themselves in characters from horror and sci-fi films. We are monsters, aliens, and witches among humans, fundamentally different from the heteronormative world and therefore shunned to its outskirts. We also, however, find ourselves attracted to the dramatic spectacle, the colors and costumes, and the sense of community that forms as we are all collectively ostracised. It brings us a sense of identity. When I ask Birk why so many queer artists, himself included, pay tribute to these two fantastical genres in their work, he mentions yet again this ‘lack of rules’ that both photography and sci-fi share. He hopes that his photography can offer the viewer an alternate universe to escape to.
I’m trying to create something that I did not have as a teenager. My real life was bleak and boring. After [finishing] school I moved back home and lived with my dad in the basement for a year and a half. I would stay up late and talk to my friends on MSN messenger, watch movies online, listen to music and read books, and escape in that way. That must be why I really want to make my images look larger than life sometimes, or at least put them in a context where you can have those ideas.
As an adult, Birk still turns to escapism through sci-fi and sci-fi-inspired art. He runs me through a few favorites in his massive library at home, from X-Men to Mysterious Skin, pausing occasionally to shake his head in disbelief at the sheer range of pop culture references he holds. He jokingly tells me that he feels somewhat embarrassed by his love for ‘cheesy culture’, as he calls it, but makes sure to also emphasize its importance in his growth as a queer artist.
When I moved to Glasgow, I started to feel very nostalgic about the Copenhagen queer scene. It felt that I’d left a very important part of my identity behind because, even though it was art school, no one shared my references. The culture I consumed was a big part of me; there are a lot of references that I rely on when I speak to my friends. In that respect, I think that the queer scene in Copenhagen has influenced [me]. Otherwise, I don’t know if queer culture and imagery would have appeared so heavily in my work.
He seems to settle back into this nostalgia. Despite initially protesting that he is ‘not the right person to ask, he immediately begins describing this queer scene in Copenhagen, forming buildings, and spaces, and peopling them with various eccentric characters. He tells me about Warehouse9, a queer performance venue and party spot run by a drag queen called ‘miss fish’ and their husband, about LGBT+ clubs that used to offer free pints between 11 pm and 1 am, and the community that formed around this promise of free booze; the Britney Spears queens, the old queers, kink culture, allies. This queer space features heavily in Birk’s work. The sheen of nostalgia that I can see forming in his eyes as he recounts his fond memories is matched in his Copenhagen photo series. I can feel his presence in that community, in the blurry night-time film photos of bars and queer cabarets, in half-drunk beers and Nokia brick phones set against crushed velvet backgrounds. Relics of the past immortalized, ready to reminisce. ‘There was room for everyone, he tells me.
I ask him, then, if the scene has changed now.
I don’t like how the scene [now] depends so much on identifiers: what clothes you wear, what color your hair is. What I really miss about the Copenhagen queer scene is this one big space where everyone is welcome.
Birk tells me that, since returning to Copenhagen, he hasn’t felt completely welcome in this new queer scene. He was met with the pressure to comply with a group that once offered him freedom, a place to learn about his community. There was suddenly the need for a uniform and a checklist of ‘approved’ tastes (he cites techno and drugs among them). Out of freedom, he has seen a return to a certain rigidity.
This duality of fear and celebration brings us back to the double-edged sword of Birk’s photography. We shift our conversation towards the idea of freedom in the queer context. We talk about religion, the age-old tool for queer oppression, and his newfound interest in its potential, now, for queer liberation. He tells me that, within his left-wing artist circles in Glasgow, the student community became ‘religiously atheist’, forcing him to adopt yet another marker of identity to assimilate. We talk about a documentary project he started a few years ago with his childhood best friend, a ‘lesbian, feminist priest’, centered around these intricacies in the idea of freedom. Taking Kierkegaard’s three personas of freedom- ethical, aesthetic, and religious- Birk and his friend traveled around, interviewing a range of people about their ideas of freedom. This multimedia project, blending photography with sound and writing, marks a liberating detour from Birk’s previous work. He tells me about an interview they carried out, deep in the Lithuanian forest, with nuns who had chosen to express their faith through a vow of silence.
These nuns don’t talk at all, they only use their voices when they meet for mass in the morning and evening, when they sing. I was very much interested in getting to know what they think ultimate freedom is. I assumed that the nuns don’t read the news, they don’t engage with the outside world, and it sounds very rule-bound to me. But it must be the ultimate kind of freedom to some. I also feel that living like that is the most selfish thing you can do. I carry that with me, even though I am not religious. I am very interested in religion.
I can see the links forming between this polarising idea of ‘absolute freedom’ in religion and in the queer context of Birk’s photography. Bringing in his experiences with body dysmorphia, and unease with bodily intimacy, I find Birk’s depiction of queer sexual liberation refreshing within a community where questioning this absolute celebration of sexuality is not always welcome. Drawing on his work for a Grindr unlimited campaign shot in 2019, I ask Birk if he feels that young queer people feel the pressure to fit into this hypersexualized community even if they may not be completely comfortable with it.
This hypersexualized culture can be scary, and not always positive, even though its core concept sounds good. Sometimes, in the queer scene and culture today, you must be completely free and prepared to fit into any kind of situation or relationship with your body, for instance being ok with every single fetish, every single body type, in an open relationship. I think extremes can be unhealthy if you don’t stop and think for a second. Even though I’m part of it, and I love this culture, it’s very important for me that I never get too caught up in it and stop listening to my own boundaries.
Whilst Birk’s work often focuses on intimate portrayals of queer bodies, he has also found ways of approaching themes of sexuality through a more figurative, atmospheric approach. Let us not forget that he began his journey towards these themes in parks, at night, shooting close-ups of flowers and leaves. He tells me about the thought processes behind choosing works that wholly display his ‘artistic persona’ for exhibitions. He mentions an exhibition called Young Danish Photography that he did a few years ago and runs me through how he blended close-ups of skin, legs intertwined, and bodies, with his documentation of the cruising landscape in the parks of Copenhagen.
I really admire cruising culture, and the mood you feel just walking around, even if I’ve always been too timid to be part of it. It was a summer evening in a busy park, and as soon as I step in through the bushes it was like a different world. There were 20 to 30 men walking around, completely silent (you communicate only by gestures and eye contact). The atmosphere was completely charged with sex, and it was like the wind- (he mimes an act of pressing down). Instead of taking photos of the people there, I took photos of the indentations in the patches of grass where people had camped with picnic blankets and on the paths that men had been taking for years. I wanted to make something that captured that mood but also kept some of that fear to keep it real for me as well. That’s important to me. I really hope that I will never make something that’s just completely a tribute.
Birk’s photography is deeply personal, so much so that his viewers find themselves forming intimate bonds with subjects, moments, and narratives that they might not have ever experienced. It is his vulnerability, and his unapologetic honesty, that lulls us into feeling part of these moments and sharing his dizzying nostalgia. The queer freedom in his photography stems precisely from this vulnerability: the ability to admit fear, discomfort, moments of non-belonging, and disillusionment with performativity in queer circles of today, as well as celebrate love, sexuality, belonging, and art within those same circles. I think back to what Birk said about his photographic narratives: ‘I’m trying to create something that I did not have as a teenager. I think this is what he is referring to. I hope that, as our queer communities continue to expand, and as queer art continues to flourish as it has been recently, we will also continue to keep our queer discourses open, and nuanced. I would love to see the comeback of this space “for everyone” that Birk describes.
Now, what’s Birk’s future look like? It’s usual for him: an exhibition in a gay fetish bar, a dive back into his archival material for his book, and a bit of commercial work for financial security. Sexual liberation, nostalgia, fiction, reality.
An interview by Miruna Tiberiu.
Birk Thomassen website can be found here.
Miruna Tiberiu is an editor of GAY45. She is an undergraduate student at Cambridge University. She has written for numerous publications, including The Cambridge Review of Books, and the Cambridge Language Collective. She is also the co-founder and co-editor of Cambridge’s first all-queer magazine, Screeve. Miruna is currently in Paris carrying out her dissertation research on Franco-Romanian cinema and hopes to continue this work as a postgraduate at Cambridge. To keep up with her work, follow her on Instagram or Twitter @mirunii_t.