A Chat With: Char Binns from Homotopia

Homotopia is a festival with history and heritage. It is the UK’s longest-running LGBTQIA arts festival, launching in 2004 with 16 events across four venues in Liverpool. 

Over the last 16 years, it has achieved significant growth and welcomed some of the biggest names in LGBTQIA arts to Liverpool, including John Waters (twice!), Boy George, Maggi Hambling, Armistead Maupin, Sarah Waters and many more. 

In 2011, it was included in Arts Council England’s National Portfolio of regularly funded organisations for the first time and – at the time – was the only dedicated LGBTQIA arts organisation to be recognised in this way. 

As we use our Arts week to explore the richness of LGBT+ creativity across the Liverpool City Region, we grab five minutes with Homotopia Festival Director, Char Binns…

Hi Char, thanks for chatting to us today. For those who don’t know the festival, can you tell us a little bit about what Homotopia does?

“Homotopia is an arts and social justice organisation making art, interventions and participation to inspire and unite communities. We produce and present great LGBTQIA art, including visual art, theatre, dance, cabaret and heritage, in Liverpool, with a local, national and international outlook.”

What challenges are faced by LGBT+ artists and performers and how does Homotopia seek to address them?

“The arts is often considered a safer space for queer and trans folks than other sectors, but just because there is a gay person in the cast and a lesbian stage manager, it doesn’t mean that the sector is doing anything to empower LGBTQIA people or to raise our voices. 

“We programme the kind of art that you might struggle to find elsewhere. I should emphasise that we present the work we do not simply because it is queer but primarily because it is great art.”

COVID-19 has hit the arts sector particularly hard. How has the pandemic affected Homotopia and how did you respond to the challenges it presented?

“Our festival takes place in late October/November so lockdown wasn’t an immediate panic for us, compared to other festivals in Liverpool. That said, we soon realised that artists were having their work cancelled and therefore had no income. We responded by creating a £10,000 commission fund called Queer Art Always, asking LGBTQIA artists to come up with art that could be enjoyed by audiences in a time of social distancing.”

A fantastic initiative! What was the response to the call out?

“We were overwhelmed by the response, with nearly 160 applications. This was whittled down to 13 commissions, with 50 percent based in the North West. 

“The art that has been produced ranges from pop-up drag cabaret in the streets of Liverpool to a play about dogging, and from a new fetish fashion collection inspired by African fabrics to a poetic song examining what it is to be queer and disabled during the pandemic. You can view many of the commissions on our YouTube channel.

“The response has been really good, mostly because the art produced has been so fantastic. Liverpool’s own drag superstar Filla Crack has clocked 8,000 views of her project Surprise, Surprise.”

So has COVID-19 impacted your plans for the 2020 festival?

“Yes. At the moment we’re trying to finalise our plans for this year’s festival, but it feels like looking into a crystal ball. It is very unlikely that theatres will be open properly by November, so sadly, we won’t have our usual residency at the Unity Theatre. We’re having to reimagine how the festival could look and while it is challenging, it is also a really creative process that is opening us up to ideas that we might not have ordinarily explored.”

We’re certainly looking forward to seeing what you come up with! What is your take on the impact of the pandemic on the wider sector?

“The arts, in particular theatres, could be in real trouble. A lot of theatres already struggle to make ends meet and social distancing regulations will prove extremely difficult to implement in smaller venues. If theatres are having to operate at a much-reduced capacity, it could cost more to open the venue than to remain closed. It is a serious worry. So please support your favourite theatres through this difficult time folks.”

So, can you share any teasers for the 2020 programme?

“I’m not sure how much I want to give away just yet but one thing you can expect is more focus on Liverpool. Think local LGBTQIA artists and the city as an exhibition space. We’ll also be putting QTIBPOC (Queer Trans Intersex Black People & People of Colour) artists and trans artists front and centre, not as a one-off but as an ambition to represent and champion the most marginalised members of our LGBTQIA communities in everything we do as we continue to grow. We will be sharing more information as and when we can, so keep an eye out for announcements and mark your diary for 29 October – 15 November 2020.”

How have you stayed connected with your team and the artists you work with during COVID-19?

“We have a small team of just two part-time members of staff,  our Producer Alex and I, plus a regular freelancer, our Marketing Assistant, Ceri, as well as freelance PR and design support. We’ve mostly been relying on Zoom and it has worked well for us. Yesterday, Alex and I actually went on a socially distanced bike ride to scope out some possible locations for a project we’re planning and it felt strange to see his face in real life but really nice!”

This year our theme is ‘Young At Heart’, which promotes the right for LGBT+ people to live happy, healthy and carefree lives, regardless of how they identify. Do you believe that art plays a part in wellbeing and overall health?

“Massively. It is scientifically proven that engagement with the arts – getting stuck in with painting, sculpting, knitting, whatever! – improves mental health. The kind of art we produce is often provocative and I wouldn’t say it is carefree, but it is about living our best out and proud queer lives. Art gives voice.

“We’ve always been big supporters of Pride in Liverpool. As we’re such a small team, we won’t be marching just the two of us, but we will join our friends such as Liverpool Queer Collective and get involved in the online march in that way.”  

Homotopia 2020 will take place from 29 October – 15 November. Find out more about Queer Art Always and the upcoming festival at homotopia.net or follow on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and  YouTube.

Images: Main, On the bus with Licorice Black and Cheddar Gorgeous (Homotopia launch party 2017); Body Image, Char Binns at Homotopia 2019 launch. Photographer: Jay Chow.