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  • Ru Pearson

Driving us Furious: In Conversation with Artist and Dancer Mx Ted Rogers

Presenting Ted Rogers, accomplished dancer and multidisciplinary artist, and their sardonically sexy new exhibition, Vile Diva.

On an uncharacteristically wet and windy evening in July, Quench gallery invited Margate’s art-lovers into the world of Vile Diva, a fabulously twisted exploration of desire, anger, and Ted Rogers’ complex relationship with dance. After leaving London, Ted developed their creative practice with support and guidance from Margate’s close-knit artistic community. In this show – their first for over ten years - Ted exhibits an impressive range of mediums, from film and photography to drawing and ceramics. Through the lens of their non-binary and neurodivergent identity, Ted casts an acerbic eye over the intense physicality, perfectionism, and unwavering devotion demanded of professional dancers. Paralleling this with the judgemental nature of the gay scene and the ordeals they have suffered in a world that “talks about autism pathologically rather than culturally,” Ted’s work is borne from a body run ragged by dance and a mind that society deems “disordered”. It’s no wonder that they feel angry.

“The word disorder feels so hateful. I’m kind of here for the gag of it, though, because, if you’re in any kind of underground scene or marginalised group you can just make your shit happen. We can just get on with being rad. You can hate on me or dismiss me, but I’ll get on with my creating.” - Ted Rogers

Strikingly expressing the ugly side of dance and celebrating the “dark, exciting facets of bitchiness,” the eponymous diva emerges as a deliciously subversive symbol of gays gone bad.

When I met Ted a couple of days after the show’s opening night, the diva was devoid of their distinctive fishnet bodystocking. Instead, I was welcomed in with peanut butter crumpets and a generous, open conversation about the show, their creative process, and the beauty of community.

Hi Ted! I was really captivated by the show’s opening night. There was such a nice energy in the gallery; people really came out to celebrate with you, didn’t they? Imagine I hadn’t been there, though. Can you tell me a bit about the concept behind the show? What do you want people to know about it?

The show is about anger and dance and evil gays. I don’t mean that gay people are evil, obviously. I mean it in a descriptive sense: evil gays. I mean villainy and nastiness and all of the dark, exciting facets of bitchiness. It started when I got a DYCP grant from Arts Council England to make a film. I’ve made films with other people, and I’ve performed in lots of films and music videos, but I’ve never directed one myself. For the show, I wanted to make a film about a sexy seizure because the only way people will talk about seizures is if we make it hot.

I am proudly autistic. For me, being autistic is like being gay or non-binary. It’s just who I am. It’s not a fucking disorder; my order is great. In fact, the world isn’t ready for my order. But part of my experience as an autistic person has been learning to deal with rage fits - complete meltdowns, aggression, violence, all of it. Societally, these moments are terrifying. My partner would have to hold me down sometimes. The way they present could be mistaken for an arrestable offence, but I don’t need to be locked up. Autistic people just need the world to understand what is driving us so furious. I tried my best to hide it because who wants to know about all that? And who wants to admit that they have these meltdowns where, in that moment, you truly hate everyone and everything? It feels like you become the devil. Until you’re revered for having a special skill, in society’s eyes people with autism are either fallen angels or monsters that bite their mums. That is such a huge pressure, but the rage fuels so much of my creativity.

© Photo by Ted Rogers and Petor Georgallou performed by Tolu Oshodi, Steffi Elton, Gus Sharpe, Sean Goldring, Pierre Babbage and Ted Rogers

You can definitely feel the anger in the show; the tattered boots, the ceramic handbags that have been stamped into deformity, the ballet bar scrawled with phrases that scrutinise, demand, belittle… it’s powerful. How did your background as a dancer inform the work? I sense a sort of love/hate relationship with that aspect of your life.

I have danced since I was three. I made a career out of it, mostly doing cool, contemporary things or gallery/arts-based projects but these jobs rarely have budgets. It didn’t matter how established I was becoming because, unless you’re part of a very specific dance culture working a million commercial jobs, it’s unsustainable. If you dance, you only ever get paid for the time that your body is in that space, working itself to the bone. Then the moment has been and gone, you’ve probably been paid less than minimum wage and you’re broken. And no one is paying for your osteopath appointment or for therapy or even buying you lunch.

From a spectator’s point of view, dance is beautiful, but I guess we don’t see what goes on behind the scenes or the historic labour that goes into such a skill…

Yes! It’s not like I just woke up talented, it took work. Dance is like a car crash on your body. You’re constantly smashing yourself against a floor or a person or you’re bleeding or grazing or rubbing or friction burning. It’s so, so visceral. The drawings in the exhibition represent dance for me; they are twisted and mashed up. They were the first pieces I made for the show. I tried to do at least one a day. I’m a perfectionist so I used charcoal to undo that. I was bored of my old drawing style which was very precise. Charcoal meant I could just chuck out drawings onto the page. I think, at first, I actually tried to get away from drawing bodies, but I just really like them. I like muscley bodies, chunky bodies, thick bodies, curvy bodies, dicks, vaginas… I like them all. Drawing them feels great in your hands. My drawings come from a place of sex and desire and viciousness and ooziness. It’s nice to invent forms –

So, the drawings weren’t modelled? They aren’t of any one body in particular?

No, all of those bodies were invented. The process was automatic. I’ve got maybe 70 or 80 of those drawings. I only put eight in the show so I think I might do a sort of B-sides exhibition in September. I did a drawing show in Shoreditch something like ten years ago, but it just wasn’t the same. I still had so much to experience in the world, so this show somehow feels like it’s my first. I don’t think I was taking my art nearly as seriously back then and I stopped believing in that early work very quickly. I was just drawing hot gay men. My work is still focused on bodies but for me the experience of it all has changed a lot. A lot of the bodily focus of my work is also about transness now.

© Stills from a film directed by Ted Rogers, DOP Diana Olifirova, Edited by Clémentine Artaud

The photographs were my favourite element of the show. With the intertwined limbs and mesh and fishnet stockings they felt voyeuristic and derisive in equal measure. Can you tell me more about their place in the exhibition?

As a dancer, I’m totally body obsessed. Dance is full of lust and desire and bodily trauma and bodily expression. The photographs are a celebration of punky, enmeshed bodies. They were taken by my friend, Peter, but I wanted to challenge the way photography and ownership are at odds with one another. I wanted to find a way to own the pictures because, as a dancer, you never own your body or your image. Basically, if you make photographs, you can reproduce the print as many times as you like. You can sell it and sell it and sell it. So, for me, honestly, a huge motivation to make art was an economical shift in my expression. I can’t keep putting everything out there when I perform and getting so little back. I told Peter: “I want to do a photoshoot. I want you to assist me on a technical level but there has to be a way that they’re mostly my photos.”

In a situation like this, where I’ve organised the shoot, booked the people, put together the outfits, established the vision – my vision – it feels wrong to me that, legally, the photographer still owns the picture. When I’m working with my body, and utilising the bodies of my peers and friends, that doesn’t sit right with me. If the photographs sell, of course the photographer will get a cut. That’s only fair. Ideally the performers would too, but I haven’t figured out a way to ethicise that yet. I was straight up with them at the beginning and said I had no budget, but I would buy them all dinner. I hate doing that, but it’s the reality of putting on your own art show. The free labour thing becomes less of an issue when you’re part of a creative community and you can all help each other in return.

I like this idea of give and take and localised skill sharing. You moved to Margate from London eight years ago. How has your environment shaped your creative process?

Margate is a ridiculous place because every skill that was necessary to put together an art show – a set of skills that can get really, really niche – was available to me through my community. I was able to make ceramics with a famous ceramicist as my teacher – Lindsey Mendick. She let me sit in a corner of her studio with some clay and just experiment under her guidance. She’s been like my art mother. Every skill I needed to learn or every obstacle I ran into during the process of putting the exhibition together was overcome by reaching out within my community here in Margate. Everything I needed, from framing to screen-printing, was within a 15-minute walk. There’s literally a fucking clay hospital here. My ceramics looked great, but they had a few cracks, so I sent them off to Clay Space where Brigit and Ian fixed them up for me.

Quench is actually Lindsey’s gallery, and the whole set up is really amazing. Basically, they do a crowdfunder, get arts council grants, and sell editions to pay for the next set of exhibitions. They give you a budget and you get 100% of profits if you sell a piece. They also offered me mentorship sessions and as much help as I needed with the initial installation. I don’t know where this sort of support exists anywhere else. I certainly never felt that I had that in London.

Margate has become a sort of home-from-home for me over the last year and this is exactly why I love it so much; I can walk down the street and see people I know and stop for a chat. I don’t get that in London, despite having lived on the same street for three years now. It seems to me that people are more willing to help each other out here by sharing their skills and time.

I think that’s because people have to try harder to survive in London, though. They have no energy left to give. That was part of the reason why I left. I was so spent on giving that I could never recharge. Being with London is like being in a relationship with an ex – sometimes you’re able to deal with its shit and other times you aren’t. It always tries to draw you back in, but you have to disengage because it’s not always good for you. I do think that I have found genuine, honest community in Margate. Some people have said to me that they’ve struggled to find friends or that it can be cliquey but that’s wild to me. I obviously have to honour the experiences of those people but it’s not my experience.

I moved at a time when I could afford to live here then I inherited privilege and bought a flat. That saved my ass. I was able to spend my inheritance on security and its one of the best things I’ve ever done. I can talk about Margate as this amazing creative hub – which it is – but it’s important to acknowledge that I’m able to stay here and live the way I do now because I own property. On top of that, I’m a landlord. It’s hella capitalist but it’s a way I’ve been able to play the system. I certainly don’t advocate for capitalism – I don’t see myself on the left or the right – but I will play the system to survive in this world because I have enough shit to deal with as it is. If I can use my capital to feed and support others, then I will.

© Stills from a film directed by Ted Rogers, DOP Diana Olifirova, Edited by Clémentine Artaud

You’re right - in a world that seeks to discredit or undermine your gender identity, and an ableist society that offers little support to autistic people, you have a lot to deal with.

Totally. I’m a survivor of the mental health system, I’ve been medicalised and institutionalised. But I feel really protected by the community I’m in. The people around me now understand what I’m about. No one’s doubting my order. Rather, most people in my close spheres acknowledge that my order is maybe even the kind of order they need to get on board with. If I work with friends on a project, I don’t ever charge my standard day rate. That would feel so wrong. But we help each other out regardless because we’re all riding a wave right now. Creativity is blooming everywhere.

2023 feels big for a lot of people in my life, actually…

I think post-pandemic everyone just collectively said “come on, let’s get the fuck on with it”.

I think the immediate post-pandemic moment was purely about recovery. But maybe we’re far enough past it now, that we can build ourselves up again with a hopeful future ahead of us.

I also think that it’s in the mainstream to be healthy right now. Mentally and physically. I am an introvert. I can exhibit myself all the time; it’s my most practised trait. But I recharge when I’m on my own, I need regular alone time. The art studio has become that sacred spot for me.

© Photo by Ted Rogers and Petor Georgallou performed by Tolu Oshodi, Steffi Elton, Gus Sharpe, Sean Goldring, Pierre Babbage and Ted Rogers

Margate is becoming known as a bit of an “art scene” nowadays, which is a far cry from the picture painted of the area a decade or so ago. Have you noticed a change since living and working here?

Margate is definitely changing. It’s becoming really popular. It’s doing the whole gentrification thing, which is sad, but maybe if the government acted as a government should and assisted tenants and enforced rent caps and was a bit more “berlin” about things, then the gentrification thing could do what it’s doing without also destroying the livelihoods of the people who were here first. The U.K. is so hateful towards the working classes. We live in a blame culture. Margate definitely still has a community of wicked weirdos, though, and although I always had a personal community in Margate, everyone would talk about this elusive “art scene” that I didn’t feel a part of. Boat pictures and tote bags are not my scene. But now, with galleries like Quench providing such great support for artists, I’m beginning to feel it. Some of that is definitely because of the new money coming in; millionaires have moved in, and they can fund shit. There’s a part of my soul that would love everything to be far more socialist and far more counterculture but here we are.

Then again, saying all that about the art scene, I don’t want to discredit anyone’s creative output. As an entertainer, I definitely believe that art can be both nuanced and entertaining. I don’t believe that art needs to be entirely evasive to be “academic”.

Right! There’s this gross idea that “good” art is so complex that only those who are the most educated about it can understand it.

Exactly, which is bullshit. I have been a bit of a terrible art fan in the past. I used to hate reading the descriptions you’d see next to artworks because I’d think, “I just want it to speak to me”. My perspective on this is shifting the more I get into art, and the more I’m able to read around and understand it, though. I’m realising that most work is really about the artist and the art is just their offering. I realise now that the descriptions are helpful for gathering context. I’m not an art hater who makes art anymore, and I want to make art that anyone can get something from. Maybe one day I’ll make “mature” art haha! But for now, even the music I listen to when I work is all emo stuff from my teenage years.

Does that feed into the rage that comes through your work? The angst of a teenage Ted?

Definitely - those years are so potent. I’m never not going to go back to that time. They were the hardest years of my life; I was so abused and bullied and cut down, but I have also never been so passionate about music as I was at that time so they’re really fun to go back to and make art from. I listen to emo music, or really dramatic classical stuff. Or Aretha Franklin. Music that stays with me and brings me the highest catharsis. Basically, I can’t make art to music that merely tickles the surface. It’s got to churn me up inside.

Vile Diva is open at Quench until the 27th August. What’s next for you when this is over?

Yes, it’s open for a month but if Quench gets their arts council funding, we’ll extend it until mid-September, which is exciting.

Next for me right now? I need to sleep. I need to do some invoices. I want to go camping. I’m doing a performance in Edinburgh soon. I might go and shoot a music video tomorrow. Next for me slightly more long-term? I want to get an agent this year. I need someone who can find good, paid jobs for me so that I can work hard, get money, and buy some nice furniture. I also want to learn how to paint. So, my dream for winter is to listen to music and paint.

You can catch Ted Roger’s multidisciplinary exhibition, Vile Diva, at Quench Gallery until August 27th.

Find Ted and their art on Instagram.


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