Celebrating a decade of work, Scottee is returning with Hamburger Queen. He chats with Josephine Balfour Oatts about how, when it comes to ‘fatness’, society is the problem.
Scottee sounds as if he is six feet under. At the time of our call, he is in the foyer of HOME in Manchester, where he is currently in residence. Geography tickles the receiver of the telephone and makes his vowels tinny, blurring the edges of his words. The artist and writer is due to arrive back in London this week to prepare for a reprisal of his acclaimed Hamburger Queen, a beauty pageant and talent contest reserved for “fat” individuals. To celebrate a decade of his work, the event will be playing at Shoreditch Town Hall for one night only, and will see 20 contestants competing for the coveted title.
Ultimately, Hamburger Queen was created as a response to anti-fat culture, aiming to provide a forum in which “fat folk” are granted permission to take up more space within a performative setting. “I live in an environment where I’m constantly being told by the TV and media that the body I have is a health risk, that my body is broken and that I’m a loser,” he says, “so I wanted to do something that counteracted that.” Each participant will be judged over the course of three rounds by a celebrity panel. First, is the Trend Round, which focuses on fashion. Second, is the Taste Round, to test the contestants’ culinary skills, and finally there is the Talent Round, which demands a three-minute performance of their choosing.
During the event, there will be an announcement by in-house doctor, Charlotte Cooper. Noted for her work around ‘fatness’ and the fat body, Dr Cooper will deliver a polemic or paper (potentially as performance) designed to transform what is seen as a typical encounter between a “fat” person and a medical professional. “She has a different outlook, shall we say”, Scottee suggests, wryly. This is refreshing, as one’s health is not limited to what they eat and drink, but also extends to the dialogue that they have with themselves as well as with those around them. It seems that today, the word ‘health’ has become mystified and as such, misunderstood. “Totally,” he replies passionately, the airwaves nodding in agreement as he slides in and out of focus.
Scottee touches on experiences of verbal and physical violence that he has endured as a result of the way he looks. “Fat people are policed on a day-to-day basis. Laughed at, mocked,” he pauses, “I’m not trying to promote obesity, what I’m asking is: Do you feel we deserve that level of abuse?” It is no secret that social ideals demand thinness, and for aesthetic reasons encourage being underweight. Devised in the 1830’s, The Body Mass Index (or BMI) attempts to quantify one’s tissue mass (muscle, fat, bone), and is a system employed fiercely across the NHS. “We have to recognise who invented that framework,” Scottee says categorically, “this country is governed by those who have capitalist-invested interests in making people lose weight”.
In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in those suffering from mental health conditions such as anorexia, with an estimated 1.25 million people suffering from eating disorders in the UK alone. I broach the subject with Scottee, asking whether or not he has known contestants of Hamburger Queen to have experienced some form of overeating disorder. “That would (mean) that fatness and mental health go hand-in-hand, and I don’t think that they [do],” he replies, maintaining that one’s mental health presentation is more affected by, if not the result of public shaming and trauma, as opposed to a direct consequence of the body they inhabit. “It’s the way society behaves around that body” he adds, “fatness isn’t a mental health problem”.
According to Scottee, making work based around fat pride is still seen as radical, and is a perspective that is not particularly popular among wider audiences. He does however, recognise that this is an opportunity for conversation, and understands his responsibility to those that bear witness to or participate within his pieces. “I didn’t think that in 2018 I would be coming back with this project, [or] for it to still be a point of discussion,” he says, his voice turning blue. For this reason, he feels sad about the lingering need for work such as Hamburger Queen. Alongside this re-staging, he is currently touring his most recent production Fat Blokes, which celebrates big bodies and queer identity through movement theatre. Activism is at the heart of his practice, and over ten years of progressive artistry, he has become a prominent influence across an array of social agendas.
“I’ve always set out to have difficult conversations that most people tend to avoid,” Scottee muses. Making these discussions accessible and inclusive are major players in his approach to making art. He also has three performance-based projects in development at present, and is designing several 10-year programs – one, a collaboration with artist Selina Thompson (salt.) in rethinking the UK adoption system, and two, a plan to create a queer and trans art school for teenagers offering non-traumatic education. As the distance between us claims more of our talk for its own, electrical signals lift sentences up until their volume becomes less and less. Despite this, Scottee’s voice remains strong – solid enough for one to marvel at how for him, even the sky is not a limit.
Hamburger Queen is playing at the Shoreditch Town Hall on Dec 8. For more information and tickets, see the website.