GONE DYKE is a multimodal work of performance/poetry/music/photography/video that explores the queer in landscape, and the queer as landscape via the Klondike Gold Rush. The Klondike has been a potent part of the Canadian imaginary (within and without) and largely constructed through the novels of Jack London and poetry of Robert Service (who actually arrived in Dawson 10 years after the Gold Rush) that sanitized and romanticized the frontier life. Histories of other gold rushes, and Klondike origin port cities of Seattle and San Francisco revealed several accounts of “gross indecency” (to the Victorians) amongst men – who definitely did not magically turn “straight” when they arrived in the Yukon. Recent historians have uncovered the prevalence of frontier sexual codes and behaviour between men that have been censored from the American West narrative and mythology of American Masculinity which still persist today.
Furthermore, young London was cute (W.B. Hargrave wrote a glowing account of his beauty) and shared cabins with other men. He even wrote, “I was never a prushun (young bottom / one who offered sexual favours), for I did not take kindly to possession. I was first a road-kid and then a profesh (older top / one who took advantage). . . They are the lords and masters, the aggressive men, the primordial noblemen, the blond beasts so beloved of Nietzsche.”
GONE DYKE interrogates the dominant white heteronormative Klondike narrative and draws parallels to contemporary notions of masculinity and landscape (just as the Canadian sesquicentennial was a time for celebration and interrogation). The Klondike Gold Rush occurred around the time Victorian ideals of masculinity as a refined, cultured gentleman became displaced by the muscular, unfettered frontier man that has long since dominated Western imagination – the frontier became an ideal, a performance of masculinity (which attracted men who sought freedom from the rigid mores of Victorian society). This combined with the economically opportune news of Yukon goldfields after a series of recessions and bank failures in the 1890s, its promotion by newspapers of the period; and as historian Pierre Berton describes, the Klondike was psychologically “just far enough away to be romantic and just close enough to be accessible”; created the mass interest and mythology of the Klondike.
Ironically, this nature-based notion of masculinity came at a time when the wilderness was disappearing and urban areas began expanding. Just as the Second Industrial Revolution and the Romantic movement (which fetishized the lone individual/artist in a remote, wild landscape) shaped the definition of this new heroic manly individual, Nature became reimagined as a site of exploitation (by the former) or contemplation (by the latter). These men were connected with nature, a sense of belonging in the wilderness and ability to dominate the landscape. Even today, the “worth” of nature continues to be defined in relation to use by man as resource or recreation (epitomized by UNESCO World Heritage Sites). This mode of masculinity was both defined by nature (i.e. pioneer braving and mastering the frontier) and in turn defined notions of nature e.g. indigenous people were seen as barbarous nature and uncivilized, and homosexuality was seen as against nature when the Gold Rush died down (sodomy laws prosecuted “crime against nature”). The paradoxical signifier of Nature as the fringe of society and site of desire, manifested in indigenous peoples sent to reservations yet romanticized as “noble savages” and a “dying race” (in relation to the evolutionary superiority of Whites), while gay men took to cruising in parks as a means to meet potential partners.
The narrative of Nature became the sole province of the White Middle Class – the Klondike narrative centred around a sanitized white heterosexual experience, ignoring and displacing the experiences and involvement of the indigenous people whose lives were disrupted by the influx of white men; and further credits the gold discovery to George Carmack instead of his Tagish brother-in-law Skookum Jim. Our National Parks were founded on this displacement of indigenous people from history and the environment, to protect it for White conquest and enjoyment (many of the landmarks lost their original native names to memorialize Whites of middling accomplishments).
Despite the difficulties they faced, many of the men who embarked on the Klondike Gold Rush were not poor – one had to have sufficient means to charter passage and to fulfill the requirement for a year’s provisions at hand (Jack London’s brother-in-law paid for both men). Those who could afford to hired indigenous porters and horses to haul provisions across the pass. The Klondike thus traces its origins to Renaissance Europe, where exploration and adventure have been the province of the wealthy and bourgeoise who stocked cabinets of curiosities (“Kunstkammer”), to its contemporary expression in the modern outdoor industry with its parade of expensive gear and adventure tours. Instagram is filled with aspirational pictures of the White middle class doing yoga poses or staring pensively at a beautiful view/campsite dressed in newish gear – most poor people can’t afford to camp or take time off. Being able to “rough it” is a hallmark of a privileged existence.
Ultimately GONE DYKE is a performance of the history of privilege, manliness, and queerness in the environment as Stephen Chen retraces the routes of the Klondike gold miners (Chilkoot Pass, White Pass, and the lesser known Chilkat Pass) tweeting geo-located haikus (via an InReach Satellite Communicator) that reflect the intersection of contemporary and historical place and experience, and singing Romantic-era arias contemporary to the gold rush on the trail while dyked out in some form of mauve (echoing the hanky code where gay men wore coloured bandanas to indicate sexual preference that was thought to originate during the earlier San Francisco gold rush) – Dyke originally referred to a well-dressed man before becoming a pejorative for lesbians who dressed like men towards the end of the Victorian era, while Mauve was the most fashionable colour of the Victorian Era due to the discovery of the first aniline/synthetic dye (but has since become associated with homosexuality). Simultaneously blending in and standing out from the other hikers/tourists, Stephen probes signalling as a queer tactic of negotiating visibility as emancipation and mode of camouflage in a public space.
In doing so, Stephen deconstructs the reified landscape to show it can have different meanings and histories where different discourses and myths take place. He also subverts the white middle-class narrative that dominates Klondike writings (and the third-hand mac-and-cheese poetry of Robert Service) as well as the trope of European classical music videos in the ongoing tension between self-restraint and unfettered nature. That and the “unnaturalness” of his voice becomes metaphoric of the impulses of colonization and the shifting definition and performance of masculinity and the frontier in the period.
Conceived & Created by: STEPHEN CHEN | Duration: Aug 20 – Sep 4
Geo-located Haikus (91 haikus over 17 days)
haikus also available on In(tima) Moralia
Performing the tensions implicit in Victorian mores (where precisely prepared cucumber sandwiches were popular for afternoon tea) and the emerging frontier-based notion of masculinity during the Gold Rush by preparing cucumber sandwiches on the trail with implements at hand.