One of Australia’s most celebrated photographers, William Yang’s work has provided a visual archive of the development of Sydney’s queer underground, from the birth of the gay liberation movement, to the glamour of the eighties and the trauma of AIDS during the nineties. William’s work which engages with his queer and Chinese-Australian identity has been shown in galleries such as the MCA, the National Gallery of Australia and internationally. William has developed a unique style of presenting his photographs in a performance, backed by music and returns to this in Party (Verb) to be performed at the Opera House in May. We spent an afternoon speaking over tea and mooncakes in his apartment in Arncliffe, touching on performance, what it means to party and sharing his archive with future generations.
BYO: What led you to performing your photography with slides?
William: I'd been taking photographs for about ten years; I had exhibitions and I'd even brought out a book, but it was out of my budget to print my colour prints. I started to project them just as a way of showing them. The very first pieces I did were audiovisuals, just image-image-image [and] Phillip Glass-type music. Once you start projecting images on a wall to a room full of people there's a natural tendency to talk with the images, so I started talking with the images and I did this for about seven years.
The third piece that I did was called Sadness and it was about the AIDS pandemic in Sydney, and it was also about me discovering my Chinese-Australian heritage by travelling up to North Queensland and that piece was very successful; it was the most successful piece I've ever done. It took me around Australia and around the world and ever since then if I need to do a new piece I'll do a performance piece. During the nineties and halfway through the noughties I had quite a glamorous lifestyle doing my performance pieces around the world on a festival circuit and so it became my main form of expression.
BYO: Have you seen your performance style develop over the last 30 years that you've been doing these shows?
William: Yes, it's changed a lot, but very slowly. I used to use slide projectors for about the first ten years. We used to carry quite a lot of equipment around the world on these overseas tours, seven projectors and screens. Music was a different thing because the first ones I did I just used recorded music off my library with an emphasis on Phillip Glass, minimal music and then from there I went to commissioned scores, and then I went to live musicians. I try to keep changing my musicians because there was always me and then there was always the slide projection but the music, I could change that, so that was the one thing that I changed a lot.
BYO: How did the collaboration with Stereogamus develop for the current performance, Party (Verb)?
William: Well I hadn't done a piece for a while. I started to do teaching, I did a piece The Story Only I Can Tell which was really right back to the living room talk with images, but I also did a lot of workshops. After five years of storytelling workshops Jeff Khan from Performance Space asked me if I'd do a piece about dance parties for [Liveworks](https://www.backyardopera.com/art-culture-4/2018/8/22/liveworks-2018-taking-performance-art-to-the-precipice) and he threw me together with Stereogamus, — Johnny Seymour and Paul Mac — and so we just kind of did it.
The difficulty with the piece Party (Verb) was that there was no story to it, so I kind of had to invent a story because if it was just all dance parties it wouldn't have worked. For the Opera House season I am going to put myself into the story more and just tidy it up a bit. The music in it is good and it's the most dynamic, loud soundtrack I've ever worked with.
BYO: There's a history of partying across your oeuvre of work from the 1970s when partying was part of the gay liberation movement and now talking about partying brings up discussions about the city we want to live in.
William: I don't talk about the lockout, but it is tied around the story of gay, queer Sydney. From gay liberation in the seventies to the eighties where partying and bars was really very much part of the gay lifestyle, people lived to party.
Then Jac Vidgen, he was a person from Brisbane who came to Sydney and put on parties, RAT (Recreational Arts Team) parties, and I became involved in them. They were more than just a dance party where you went along to dance with music, they had there was an art element to it where they had installations and they were consciously artistic. They started them in 1985 and they went until the early 90s but the most interesting thing was that a dance craze swept Sydney at that times, the late eighties to the early nineties, and it was like a fever that people became dance crazy. There would be at least one dance party every week, and sometimes on the long weekends there'd be three dance parties and this was on top of the popular nightclubs. Now there's three dance parties a year.
When I look back what I'm saying is that it went hand in hand with the AIDS pandemic that was sweeping Sydney and it was a subconscious escape from that, that horrible world of AIDS for a gay person.
BYO: Partying can be an escape as well as a venue for social experimentation and change - do you see it as a bit of both or more of an escape?
William: Oh no, it was definitely creative. In its heydays, Jac's RAT parties sponsored or supported a whole range of performance groups around Sydney. The performance that evolved during that time and was very much a non-textual performance, they were to do with costumes and movement and not much talking.
BYO: Partying can also be a place where other social norms or conversations are acted out, you've spoken about how in the eighties the party scene developed into looking a certain way and catering to a certain kind of person?
William: I was talking more about the evolution of the gay male scene in Sydney rather than parties per se. In the seventies gay men had a lot of trouble recognising other gay men and we spent quite a lot in the seventies saying, ‘Is so and so gay, do you think?’ Over the years a dress code, something that was ultra-masculine, moustaches and that, evolved and they were all signals signifying that the person was gay. In the eighties there was a conformity amongst the gay scene, moustaches and that village people look, leather and all of those.
BYO: Did you feel like that was a world that you could be a part of?
William: Personally I preferred the seventies to the eighties because I didn't fit into that masculine [style], just by the way I looked. I found it harder to find partners in the eighties and then with the Asian Lesbian and Gay people we bound together and talked about what it's like to be Asian in a predominantly Anglo gay community. That happened in the nineties, and at that same time it was the first time that Asians had a float in the Mardi Gras or a walking group. That's twenty four years after the Mardi Gras started it took for the Asians to have a participation in the Mardi Gras. There's quite a lot of Asians now and huge number of people come from Hong Kong and Taiwan, Indonesia just to come to Mardi Gras, that's pretty amazing I think.
I think that the general community is more embracing of Asian race than it was in the eighties, although there are lots of diehard ‘no Asian’ people out there.
BYO: What's your process of going into the archive and selecting images for a show such as Party (Verb)?
William: What I had to do was just get my boxes of contact sheets and I went through all of them, and ticking them off and scanning them. We scanned thousands of photographs and then it was a matter of putting them together. I've gone through a lot of my collection but there are still parts which I haven't gone through and I want to have it all in digital form before I die.
BYO: How do you hope to keep engaging with your archive and showing it to another generation, beyond this project?
William: I've still got a few stories left in me. I've got at least one or two performance pieces that I want to do before I die. The next one will be a very reflective one where I'm reflecting on my life and it'll be about the indignities of old age. I've got enough material for it now. I'd somehow been putting it off, but I've just had an experience where my sister died two years ago and now I'm the last surviving member of our family and so I think I could build a piece around that event.
Party (Verb) runs as part of Festival Unwrapped on Friday, May 10 and Saturday, May 11. Tickets and booking details are available here: https://www.sydneyoperahouse.com/events/whats-on/festival-unwrapped/2019/may/party-verb.html