A neon sign that spells the phrase "dyke bar," a hand-painted fake jukebox, a TV broadcasting people sharing bar stories and an entire wall of posters, pictures and letters thanking bar owners for their years of service — these are just a few of the items that make up Macon Reed’s installation "Eulogy for the Dyke Bar," on display at the University of Southern Maine’s AREA Gallery through Dec. 7.
The multimedia art installation examines the history of these queer spaces and their cultural impact. Professor Wendy Chapkis brought Reed's installation to USM as part of a three-year oral history project.
The "Querying the Past" project documents oral histories from Portland and Maine's gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans and queer communities and collects them online. The project pairs students with members of the LGBTQ community in Maine who are interviewed about their experiences in the state. These interviews are stored as part of USM’s digital commons.
The installation is displayed as a capstone to the project, according to Chapkis, who invited Reed to present the installation on campus. Chapkis says that for her generation, the dyke bar — a bar that caters to lesbians — was a cultural institution.
"When I was coming out, the gay bar was the community center," she says. "It was the place where we did organizing. It was the place where we found each other. It was the place where we looked around the room and saw ourselves mirrored in the other faces around us. Where we could flirt without it being risky."
The term "dyke" was used derisively for years, but has been reclaimed by lesbian and queer culture as means of self-identification.
Reed mined her own experience with bars and the stories of older generations for inspiration while creating the installation. Reed's work centers around the question of what’s at stake with the loss of these cultural centers.
"I wanted to bring people into the room and talk about that, and say if these spaces are closing, what are we losing with their closing? And what do we want to create in their place, to both celebrate and think of where we're moving forward as a queer community?" she says.
Reed currently resides in Brooklyn, New York, but maintains connections to Maine, some of which influenced the creation of the "Eulogy" project. She says she recently attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and studied documentary production at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies years ago.
Macon kicks off each presentation of her installation with a storytelling event in which people share the influence dyke bars had on their lives.
She says her work at Salt influenced the "Eulogy" project.
"So I feel like Salt really kind of spiked that excitement of storytelling in me," she says. "It seems almost like now I’m using the visual art as an excuse to create these elaborate installations that then I just have people tell me stories inside of again."
In November, Sarah Holmes and several others participated in the storytelling event "See You at the Bar." Holmes shared her memories of turning 21 at Sisters, a bar in Portland that closed years ago. For Holmes, the space offered something she couldn’t find elsewhere.
"It was a place where we were at home," she said, "and we were part of a family that was in some ways far stronger than blood could ever be, far stronger than legal connections or legal equality could ever be. It was a place that was ours."
Reed says stories like Holmes' help bridge the generational gap between people able to experience dyke bars and people growing up without them.
"It feels very healing where we don’t necessarily talk about the things that we don’t agree with," she says. "But just listening to each other share stories from our lives felt really very powerful."
Chapkis says she also finds power in the work. For her, sharing those stories and exhibiting "Eulogy for the Dyke Bar" is an act of resistance, a testament to an evolving culture that won't succumb to prejudice.
"We're just not going to be erased. We're going to make our history accessible to the public. We're going to record it. We're going to perform it," she says. "We’re not going to be silenced. We’re not going to be erased."