My Journey to LONDON / LONDRA
Undone Theatre Artistic Director Gabriele Uboldi talks about their digital, autobiographical project LONDON / LONDRA, which explores migration, queer history, and London's urban spaces.
When I began thinking about creating LONDON / LONDRA, the first question I asked myself was: why should anyone care? I wanted to share my story of how I moved from Italy to the UK when I was 19, but I wasn’t sure this story was important enough to deserve a platform. Sure, it felt important to me, as it’s the very narrative that sustains my sense of self: the story of growing up queer in a conservative, catholic country that is not accepting of LGBTQ+ folks—and still fails to protect them under the law—before finally moving away to become the queer person I wanted to be, the queer person I am today. But I was afraid of asking others to listen. I was worried I’d take up too much space.
Then, I found out about Mario Mieli. Mario Mieli (1952-1983) grew up in Lora, a small town near Como and not too far from where I was raised—a provincial, conservative area of Northern Italy. Over several stays in London in the early 1970s, Mieli involved himself with the Gay Liberation Front, before returning to Italy to create FUORI! (Fronte Unitario Omosessuale Rivoluzionario Italiano, or Italian Homosexual Revolutionary Unity Front), one of the first and most important Italian organisations for homosexual liberation.
My own experience could be the starting point for a larger story that could resonate with so many more.
My connection with Mieli’s story, in that we both moved from Italy to London for reasons related to our queerness, changed everything. Suddenly, the story I wanted to tell felt bigger than myself. My own experience could be the starting point for a larger story that could resonate with so many more. It became a story about my present exploration of queerness in London, but also one about discovering a disappearing queer history. My project shifted from the personal to the political level: at its roots, LONDON / LONDRA is an autobiographical story, but it is also a story about the wider intersection of European migration and queerness, sexuality and belonging over the course of the past 50 years.
As I started to look for the traces of Mieli’s queer past, the public spaces of London became the main focus of these stories, acting as portals which allowed me to explore all the overlapping narratives embedded in my project—my story, Mieli’s story, the GLF’s story. London’s public spaces acquired different and contested meanings: sure enough, London was the queer city I always imagined, with its rich nightlife and history of activism, but it was also designed as a stage for the oppression of people like myself. Historian Matt Houlbrook, for example, in his book Queer London, points out that the historical presence of LGBTQ+ folks, and especially the way that gay men engaged in cruising and public sex, affected modern urban planning, which endeavoured to exclude them from public life. But there is no need to look at the past to explore the ways in which cities can be unwelcoming, if not dangerous, for members of the LGBTQ+ community even today. With hate crime rates increasing in the UK, especially against gender-non-conforming folks, navigating the city while being visibly queer can often result in a gamble with one’s safety.
...in London the percentage of foreign born/first generation migrants reaches a staggering 37%. However, when it comes to their representation in the theatre industry, their presence is almost non-existent
Similarly, migrant communities are also excluded from public spaces, as exclusive historical narratives and national identity are inscribed in monuments and city spaces, determining who belongs and who doesn’t. While my position of privilege has meant that—at least in 2016—moving to Britain was relatively simple, a negative attitude towards migration is something I came to experience myself after the Brexit vote. Other than more aggressive xenophobic attacks, anti-immigration sentiment can take different, more subtle forms, as I discovered within my own industry. Migrants In Theatre put it very eloquently in their open letter when they state that “in London the percentage of foreign born/first generation migrants reaches a staggering 37%. However, when it comes to their representation in the theatre industry, their presence is almost non-existent”.
After reckoning with all these issues, I felt that my story does deserve the platform I wasn’t sure it needed when I first started. And for the same reasons, it was important to me that, while dealing with a queer past and my present journey, LONDON / LONDRA should also tell a story that looks to the future. Inspired by the demonstrations organised by the GLF in the 1970s, aiming to reclaim public spaces and promote the visibility of the LGBTQ+ community, I wanted to view urban spaces through a utopian lens. With the wealth of information I had acquired through archival research and interviews with living GLF activists, I wanted to ask: what does a queer city look like? And, through my own experience of moving to post-Brexit Britain, I wanted to raise other questions such as: who is welcome in this city? Who is being excluded?
My project attempts to juggle all these different layers and complicate definitions of urbanity, belonging, and identity.
The interactive map I have created in LONDON / LONDRA is a platform where I can ask these questions. It traces a personal topography of London where site-specific storytelling becomes a methodology for self-exploration, queer visibility, and migrant home-making. The city I have attempted to draw is at once real and imagined, public and private, personal, and political. London is simultaneously presented as the physical geography it is made of and the plural meanings that are attached to it: exclusive notions of national identity alongside promises of prosperity to those who gravitate towards it, the concrete, economic forces that sustain London, as well as its literary mythology, the history inscribed in public monuments and personal memories, nostalgia. My project attempts to juggle all these different layers and complicate definitions of urbanity, belonging, and identity.
To an extent, LONDON / LONDRA is my invitation for you to get lost in London and appreciate the city as all of these different maps, places, and histories that co-exist. By going to each location, by listening to the recordings that I ask you to listen to as you travel, you join me in staging the (hi)stories I have traced around London, you take all these narratives on yourself, you embody them as you walk around the city. It’s a place for new encounters to take place: as you listen to my story, you get to see London under a new light, and I reach towards you, I welcome you in the London that I know, I discovered, or that I’d like to get to know better.
I hope it can link a queer past to a shared present and resonate with others, so that we can look towards a queer and migrant future for the city.
I hope that in the intimacy of this audio encounter, through the labour of love that is required to go to each location, LONDON / LONDRA can do just that. I hope it can foreground queer and migrant issues before it can propose solutions, I hope it asks meaningful and difficult questions. I hope it can link a queer past to a shared present and resonate with others, so that we can look towards a queer and migrant future for the city.
We have lots of exciting plans to share our ideas with other LGBTQ+ folks and migrants, and we’re working hard to create learning and outreach opportunities—but this is as much as we can say for now! If you’re interested in the project, or if you’d like to participate, ether by sharing your story or letting me know about any feedback you may have, you can get in touch with me by emailing email@example.com. We’d love to hear from fellow creatives as well as anyone who shares our interest for queer, migrant stories and the way these intersect with London’s urban spaces. We’d love to hear from you!
LONDON / LONDRA is an online collection of site-specific audio walks around London, following the traces of the 1970s Gay Liberation Front (GLF). By presenting this material from an autobiographical perspective, my project maps my own journey of discovery of queer history and allows me to construct and reflect on my own identity as a queer, European migrant in the United Kingdom. The identity I construct here is shared to a large extent with Mario Mieli (1952-1983), the Italian LGBTQ+ activist who joined the London GLF before creating FUORI!, a parallel gay liberation movement in Italy. Through archival research, photography, autoethnography, interviews with my own family and living activists that knew Mario from the 1970s, LONDON / LONDRA presents a series of sites that relate to Mieli’s activism and stages my process of learning about them while mapping a personal topography of the city.
You can explore LONDON / LONDRA for free on its dedicated website: www.london-londra.com. You can also experience it for free as part of the Peltz Gallery’s INTO VIEW festival and the Bloomsbury Festival. An interview with Poltern, where I talk about the project and talk about sharing my story can be found here.