Take a Polari safari
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PUBLISHED  08:21 November 24, 2013

Artists save historic gay slang with an app

By Andy Carling

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Two British artists are trying to save an old slang language, Polari, most commonly associated with the gay scene from extinction.

Jez Dolan and Joe Richardson are using many creative strands to revitalise the language that is believed to have started in the 18th century, that includes Italian, Romany and street slang used by thieves, sailors and others.

It was a secret language for many years, beginning to die out in the 1960s but is now seen as an important part of gay culture.

Professor Paul Baker explains, “Polari was a secret form of language used mainly by gay men, lesbians and people who worked in the theatre. It was most often used in London and other UK cities with a gay sub-culture, and was popular between the 1930s and 1960s. It was introduced to a wider audience through a 1960s comedy radio program called Round The Horne. Apart from a few familiar words, it is hardly known today.”

The artists ‘Polari Mission’ uses Polari as a starting point to examine how contemporary LGBT groups and individuals view, understand, appreciate, utilise, or see reflected in their own ‘communities of language’ the influence of Polari, and its impact on how we communicate today. Dolan and Richardson are using exhibitions and a range of methods to learn and explore Polari, but their first venture as an app. Jez Dolan spoke to New Europe about it.


What made you think of having an app for your project, what were you hoping for?

The idea for the app was really the starting point for the project. My fellow artist Joseph Richardson had previously made a project in which he first started to think about Polari (‘the lost language of gay men’) and how in some circles it was completely unheard of (mainly younger people), and some older people found it embarrassing and didn’t want to talk about it. In our initial discussions we started to think about the place in LGBT heritage that Polari had and has, and how although it is a relatively small aspect of a shared heritage, it still has a significance politically, socially, historically, and linguistically.

We looked to creating an app which would enable people to have the Polari lexicon in their pocket, and enable people to sure words and phrases via social networks i.e. Facebook, Twitter etc. we also wanted to include a comprehensive etymology, something which had not been done previously. I think that our aim is to ask people to think about Polari and its significance in terms of LGBT heritage, rather than an attempt at a revival of Polari as a ‘live’ language form. Also, some of it is quite funny!


Artists need to have an income, do you see earning posibilites for creatives?

We have found the earning potential fairly limited from  the app. Obviously they are not cheap to create (we engaged an app developer) so the expenditure is in the thousands and the income in the low hundreds. We were lucky enough to get grant funding for the project, via Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund, so any income from the app is an added bonus.

Whilst we have been delivering the project spending time and energy on marketing the app more widely has been quite low on our agenda, and also Polari itself is quite a niche interest. I think in terms of earning possibilities, anyone thinking that an app can make significant money would have to be very sure of having a wide target audience, and also means of marketing the app as efficiently as possible.


What are the limits and possibilities of using apps in the creative process?

From my own point of view it is great that we now have the most comprehensive Polari resource which (I’m pretty sure) has ever existed, in an easily accessible format. The creation of the app I didn’t find a particularly creative process, and I’d be interested to see if other artists have been able to do this in a more creative way.  I feel that our app has been an add-on to the overall project, and although interesting has not really been as successful as we could have wished. This of course could be down to the marketing


Any advice to other artists?

Apps are expensive to produce! Be careful what you think you are going to get out of making one, and who is going to see / use it


Any good or interesting examples of artists work in app form?

Not sure I really know of any, although I’ve seen an iPad app for Grayson Perry’s ‘Vanities of Small Differences’ exhibition, currently in Manchester.

More Information:

The project has a website at www.polarimission.com and the app, for iPhone and iPad costs €1.77



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