Paul Harfleet’s The Pansy Project

Since 2005 artist Paul Harfleet has been planting and photographing pansies at sites of homophobic abuse around the world. He talks to Pride Life about the meaning and importance of the Pansy Project

When and where did you start the Pansy Project?

In 2005 a string of homophobic abuse on a warm summer’s day was the catalyst for this project. The day began with two builders shouting, “It’s about time we went gay-bashing again, isn’t it?”It continued with a gang of yobs throwing abuse and stones at my then boyfriend and me, and ended with a bizarre and unsettling confrontation with a man who called us “ladies” under his breath.

Over the years I have become accustomed to this kind of behavior, but I came to realise it was a shocking concept to most of my friends and colleagues. It was in this context that I began to ponder the nature of these verbal attacks and their influence on my life. I realised that I felt differently about these experiences depending on my mental state, so I decided to explore the way I was made to feel at the location where these incidents occurred.

What interested me was the way that the locations later acted as a prompt for me to explore the memories associated with that place. I wanted in some way to manipulate these associations, in order to feel differently about the location and the memories it summoned. I became interested in the public nature of these incidents and the way one was forced into reacting publicly to a crime that often occurred during the day and in full view of passers-by.

I had observed that the tendency to place flowers at the scene of a crime or accident had become an accepted ritual and I considered a similar response. Floral tributes subtly augment the reading of a space that encourages a passer-by to ponder past events at a marked location, generally understood as a crime or accident; my particular intervention could encourage a passer-by to query the reason for my own ritualistic action.

However, I did not feel it would be appropriate to equate my personal experience of verbal homophobic abuse with a death or fatal accident. I felt that planting a small unmarked living plant at the site would correspond with the nature of the abuse: a plant continues to grow as I do through my experience. Placing a live plant felt like a positive action, it was a comment on the abuse: a potential “remedy’”.

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Why a pansy and not some other flower?

The species of plant was, of course, vitally important and the pansy instantly seemed perfect. Not only does the word refer to an effeminate or gay man, the name of the flower originates from the French verb penser (to think), as the bowing head of the flower was seen to visually echo a person in deep thought. The subtlety and elegiac quality of the flower was ideal for my requirements. The action of planting reinforced these qualities, as kneeling in the street, and digging in the often neglected hedgerows, felt like a sorrowful act. The bowing heads of the flowers became mournful symbols of indignant acceptance.

So my eventual strategy would be to plant unmarked pansies as close as possible to where I received verbal homophobic abuse. I would then entitle the location after the abuse and post a photograph of the pansy alongside the quoted abuse online. What was originally an autobiographical work has become a project that has been embraced by the gay community, who seemed to see the project as way to deal with a shared experience, as many members of the LGBT community have experienced bullying or abuse at some point.

Events where I have handed out pansies for people to memorialise their own locations have been well attended as have sessions I have hosted which have been designed to introduce the Project to a wider audience. My research has revealed that the process of planting a pansy at the scene of these incidents alters the participant’s experience of the city. The memorialised locations primarily become a place where the participant has planted a pansy, not where an attack has occurred.

This action adjusts the memory of each location which has the effect of overlaying the remembered event in the mind of the participants with a more positive association. The website (thepansyproject.com) enables the images of the ephemeral acts to be collated and presented to a wide audience who can then vicariously explore the nature of the incidents. The juxtaposition of the images of the delicate flowers placed in derelict urban settings with frequently offensive and hurtful abuse creates a complex anthology of homophobic verbal abuse as experienced by gay people in towns and cities today.

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The humble planted pansy becomes a record; a trace of this public occurrence which is deeply personal and concurrently available to the public on the city streets and online. When verbal homophobic abuse is experienced the assailant forces the unwilling participant to assimilate and respond to this public verbal attack: ignore or retaliate. The Pansy Project acts as a formula which prevents the “victim” from internalising the incident, the strategy becomes a conceptual shield, a behavior that enables the experience to be processed via the public domain, in this case the location where the incident occurred, and latterly the website which collates and presents the incidents and operates as a virtual location of quiet resistance.

What has been the reaction to your pansies?

The reaction has been very positive. I’m often on my own when I plant pansies and I have to take into account my location and the context of how I respond to questions from passers-by. I’m effectively outing myself if I tell people too much, which, of course, could lead to a negative response. This has never happened, as I tend to be cautious especially on my own. Now guerrilla gardening is so well known people generally assume it’s something along those lines. I don’t always have to say that it’s about planting pansies at the site of homophobia.

I plant pansies where I have experienced abuse and where high profile attacks have taken place. I also seek out the locations, and I ask on Twitter or on Facebook if anyone has a location that they would like me to mark. I set myself a goal of planting 100 in London this year, the late spring meant I’m falling behind, but in the autumn I will reach my goal. The pansies are seasonal so that dictates when I can plant. If anyone has locations they can let me know, just search The Pansy Project on Facebook or Twitter and you’ll find me.

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How does the planting and photographing of the pansies make a difference?

In terms of making a difference, I guess art has the capacity to make people question the world in a different way. As The Pansy Project is an art project it is its art credentials that are important to me. It’s art first, campaign next. I fundamentally am an artist who is interested in the way any person, regardless of sexuality, walks the streets. I’m interested in memory and they way people interact, and my own sexuality clearly has an impact on the way people interact with me and other gay people. I’m continuously perplexed that my sexual identity is so problematic in the world.

How can other people get involved in the Pansy Project?

Anyone can plant a pansy where they have experienced homophobia. I’ve had so many requests for people to get involved I drew up a “how-to” sheet which can be downloaded from the website (tinyurl.com/puhvc4y). The Pansy Project is primarily an artwork so how things look is really important. I have a preference about how the photos of the planted pansies are taken so I have some guidelines about how to achieve this. The way people engage with my work is endlessly fascinating to me. The amusing thing is, is that the more I do the more people imagine The Pansy project is large organisation. It is, after all, just me. I have no funding; I rely on working with festivals and exhibiting the photographs to generate income.

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What does the future hold for The Pansy Project?

I intend to keep planting, and keep trying to take the best pictures I can. I’m currently writing a publication that explores some of the issues The Pansy Project appears to engage with, from guerrilla gardening to cognitive therapy to the politics of sexual identity. I’m hoping to find a publisher for that. I’m also currently working on a children’s book that follows a boy who is bullied at school and starts planting pansies. The idea of re-imagining my own childhood and re-mixing more recent history came to me in a dream. I’m writing and illustrating the book myself and will be looking for a publisher for that project too.

Basically, I love The Pansy Project. I feel that I found this idea rather than came up with it and, as a consequence, I feel committed to communicating the idea to a wide an audience as possible.

Go to: thepansyproject.com