Opinion: 'Straddling fact and fiction, it situates me as a queer artist, engrossed within a world of Catholic culture'. Artist Austin Hearne writes for Culture about his new film, Whispers.

I don't know how anyone else feels, but I experience the constant spectre of the Roman Catholic Church in daily life. Our national airwaves are flooded with news stories surrounding this institution. The Angelus bells ring out on TV and radio at six o’clock every day. Mass, papal visits, clerical vox-pops are given regular slots on all media platforms. Christenings, communions, confirmations, weddings and funerals are all fundamental rituals in Irish family life. The omnipresence of beautifully ornate church buildings dominates every city, town and village across this land.

As a young boy, confused about my sexuality, I felt bombarded by their politics. Coming of age as the AIDS crisis hit in the mid to late 80s was terrifying; the Catholic Church where quick to take advantage of the vulnerability of queer people at this time and sermons from the pulpit raged against us. I was still forming, maturing at this time and the effect of all this was profound, leaving its mark. As the AIDS crisis peaked, news of clerical abuses was starting to surface; here, homosexual men were being blamed solely for this horror too.

The panic I felt at the prospect of coming out to my family at this time slowly turned to rage and the seeds were sown. I was triggered and continue to be to this day, by the hypocrisy and repugnance of this corrupt institution. Unbelievably, here we all are, in 2021, in the wake of two tumultuous referendums, a populous set up by church and state to vote for or against lives, loves and bodily autonomy.

I see the value that other people get out of their religion and faith. I experience and benefit from it too, the sereness one can feel in the quiet, sublimeness of a church building or during a ceremony. I light candles for my deceased parents and niece, taking time out to remember and reflect. There really are no interiors like those of the cavernous spaces of churches and cathedrals. The clash of architectural styles, the beautiful marble, the ghoulish artwork and the oh-so-drag costumes inspire in me an almost fetishistic drool. I am still a member of the Catholic Church. I was too slow in taking the opportunity to be counted out. Count Me Out was a campaign in which an option to formally defect from the church was available.

However, in 2012 changes in canon law took away this choice, so there is no way for me to de-register, and so I am still a child of God. A very bold child of God. My practice is grounded in photography with an openness to branch into other media. This medium, in its infancy, is ripe for experimentation and opportunities to create something new. Photographic practice is still progressing at lightning pace, unlike the ancient medium of painting, where its advancement has slowed. The portability of smart phones, with their ability to manipulate, mediate and publish, has shaken the foundations of the photographic medium. I have always been aghast at the inference that analogue photography is the premier mode of making and taking photographs. I have embraced the iPhone with its tiny camera lens, its size, its silence, its ability to become part of me and not be seen. It gets me into spaces like churches, where I am just another parishioner with a phone in my hand, invisible. It is important to me that I am not seen as an intruder, a clicking voyeur.

Undeniably, the most important thing to happen to the medium over the past decade or so is social media and in particular, Instagram. Its story function has long been a weapon that has aided and added to my arsenal of generated material. I use this snappy tool to create 1 to 15-second videos that dissolve from public view after 24 hours. My visits to ecclesiastical sites to photograph, naturally progressed into shooting moving image. Performing with and for the Instagram-supported video camera, asserting my queerness into these monumental spaces and moments, this marriage of platform, tool and artist became the genesis of my first film, Whispers.

Whispers is the culmination of ten years of short video snippets, filmed in and around ecclesiastical sites. As a flâneur of these sites, with an interest verging on obsession, I record and observe an institution that asserts its power, turning the tables, staking a claim over time and space in the buildings to which I have been cleverly indoctrinated into. These are, after all, my halls of splendour. I realised that I had hundreds of these short video clips on hard drives and computers and decided that it was time to edit them down. Initially, this was an
exercise in safeguarding my video archive; however, I soon saw the opportunity that this material had to be edited together to encapsulate the many aspects of my practice, to create a film work.

These snappy vignettes, edited together crudely in a cut and paste fashion, result in a jarring kaleidoscope of sound and imagery – ranging from quiet, reflective beauty, to snide side-stabbing statements. This document is never ending, looping, non-linear. Straddling fact and fiction, it situates me as a queer artist, engrossed within a world of Catholic culture. It is a purgatorial, gloomy romp around the days of the same-sex marriage referendum of 2015, the abortion referendum of 2018, and the delightfully damp Papal visit of Pope Francis to Dublin in 2018 also. Whispers, like most of my output, posits a world in which the Catholic Church’s dominance is diminishing on one hand and on the other, distilling into a newer, more intolerably repellant form.

As soon as is possible, I’d like to leave the Catholic Church, to be one less. Canon law says that I can’t, so I’ll stay, play and prance merrily and gayly down the aisles.

Whispers by Austin Hearne is available to view online until 27th May 2021 - watch it here. This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 edition of The Visual Artists' News Sheet.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ