Academic journal article Ethnologies

Postcards from the Edge: Decoding Winnipeg's "One Gay City" Campaign

Academic journal article Ethnologies

Postcards from the Edge: Decoding Winnipeg's "One Gay City" Campaign

Article excerpt

Janice Oakley

University of Winnipeg

When visual artists Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan embarked on their "tourism campaign" in September 1997 (created as part of a collaborative photographic art show), they thought they might attract visitors to Winnipeg, Manitoba by promising them a "gay old time." At first glance, the bright colours and playful images of their three postcards appear to be standard advertising fare. Closer inspection reveals a more subversive message, though -- one that might have made some representatives from Tourism Winnipeg blush.

The artists' three postcards, collectively entitled "Winnipeg: One Gay City!," construct Winnipeg as a homosexual Mecca while mocking its popular "One Great City" slogan. One image features a man wearing only gold body paint, assuming the pose of the Golden Boy, a landmark statue of a naked man that stands atop the city's legislative building. The caption reads: "(Winnipeg): Where everyone is light in the loafers!" (figure 1). A second postcard shows a woman dressed in rugged outdoor clothing and holding a string of fish, appropriating the popular (male) Manitoba pastime of fishing, with the caption, "Where the fishing is great!" (figure 2). The third features an ultra-feminine young girl with a delighted look on her face, sitting behind a birthday cake decorated with toy boats and trains. The caption on this postcard: "Where every child can grow up to be whoever they want to be!" (figure 3). All three postcards prominently display the "Winnipeg: One Gay City" slogan.

When I first saw these images in the November 1997 edition of Swerve, Winnipeg's lesbian and gay publication, I was intrigued by their political and humourous content. I contacted Swerve's editor to find out where the postcards could be purchased, and was directed to a local gift shop. Three dollars later, I had a copy of each in hand, and had learned of the project's history from the shop employee. Convinced the postcards would generate a rather fruitful analysis, I contacted artists Dempsey and Millan to learn more about the tourism campaign, and thus begins my discussion here.

Were the postcards innocuous tourist paraphernalia, or a deliberate attack on homophobia? This was a guiding question of my research, and Joan Radner and Susan Lanser's discussion of coding provides a useful model for responding to it. In Feminist Messages: Coding in Women's Folk Culture, the authors argue that coded acts are deliberate or unconscious expressions of disturbing ideas, presented in ambiguous ways to protect the "coder" (in this case, the artists) and often the audience as well, from potentially dangerous responses. The authors define "coding" as:

a set of signals -- words, forms, behaviors, signifiers of some kind -- that protect the creator from the consequences of openly expressing particular messages. Coding occurs in the context of complex audiences in which some members may be willing to decode the message, but others are not (Radner and Lanser 1993: 3).

Though protection of the openly lesbian Dempsey and Millan is not the issue, four of the coding strategies Radner and Lanser identify apply to the "One Gay City" campaign: appropriation, juxtaposition, distraction and trivialization. This essay examines the connections between these strategies and Dempsey and Millan's artwork and suggests the value of coding in these circumstances; but first, an overview of the artists' tribulations is needed to provide context to the tourism campaign.

A festival of controversy

Dempsey and Millan are no strangers to controversial artwork. Through diverse media including video, stage performance and magazine, their past works have exposed female sexuality, lesbian experience, and gender inequities in employment, fashion, romance, and gay culture. From a performance video called We're Talking Vulva, in which Dempsey dresses up in a body-sized vulva costume and raps about topics from safe sex to masturbation, to a magazine spread called A Day in the Life of a Bull Dyke, which traces a blossoming romance between a woman and a "butch" butcher (Millan), the artists' work is feminist and subversive. …

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