rules to live by

No ‘Geniuses’ Allowed

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Rene Matić

Ten years ago, Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings met as students. They’d both been awarded a chance to participate in a weeklong workshop with New York–based artist Martha Rosler, and despite attending the same university in London, New York was where they were introduced. “We ended up going to a gay bar. We had our first kiss and then they closed the bar, but they let us sit there for hours while they cleaned up,” remembers Hastings. “We love coming back here. It feels kind of like having an anniversary.”

While in New York, they took the opportunity to visit MoMA PS1 together. In another borough, their work was on display at Frieze Art Fair. Hastings and Quinlan are not just a couple — they also share a creative partnership as solid as their romantic one. Once their relationship had hit the six-month mark, they started making art together, and since then, they have cycled through several mediums: film, performance, installation, drawing, and now fresco painting. “Rosie always says that we started working together because we didn’t want to spend any time apart,” says Quinlan, joking about the pair’s codependency.

Codependent or not, it seems to be working out all right. They completed four new fresco paintings to be displayed by their London gallery, Arcadia Missa, and Emalin. Having to carefully plan and structure their painting days can feel uncreative and even oppressive at times, but it also allows for a unique sort of flow state, says Hastings: “Because it’s such a time sensitive medium, it forces you to be so in the moment of painting that it almost becomes a transcendental moment. You have such an intense connection with what you’re doing.”

Hannah Quinlan & Rosie Hastings, After the Protest, fresco on wooden panel, 2023, 200 x 240 cm. Copyright: the artists. Photo: Courtesy: Hannah Quinlan & Rosie Hastings and Arcadia Missa, London. Photography: Josef Konczak./Josef Konczak

The new Frieze frescoes were shown weeks after the close of “Tulips,” their collaborative exhibition at the Tate London, which displayed collaged street scenes depicting power dynamics in queer public life. The four new frescoes were made in response to the U.K.’s cost-of-living crisis and the ongoing nurses’ strike. “It’s a crisis for a lot of lower-paid workers, and nurses are the lowest-paid of any public-sector workers,” says Hastings. “Nursing is traditionally seen as a female job, and a lot of British nurses are women, but they’ve also often been recruited from Commonwealth countries. We were interested in the connection between that and the low pay.” The works, say Hastings and Quinlan, are meant to tell the story of the nurses’ strike and highlight the massive scale of the modern workers’ movement, while bringing in the disjointedness and the complexity of the discourse surrounding it. Like Italian frescoes of the Renaissance, their works are loaded with visual symbolism that both tells a story and sends a moral message.

Hannah Quinlan & Rosie Hastings, The Strike, 2023, fresco on wooden panel, 213 x 152 cm. Copyright: the artists. Photo: Courtesy: Hannah Quinlan & Rosie Hastings and Arcadia Missa, London. Photography: Josef Konczak./Josef Konczak

Do you have any personal boundaries or rules, either agreed upon or individually, that benefit your work or the relationship between you?

Rosie Hastings: Rules are actually really important for us. We’re doing drawing and painting, which is not normally considered a collaborative medium. We’ve had to bring in a lot of rules and structures to be able to make that work. In terms of our lifestyle, we make sure that we have two modes: We have work time and we have time for ourselves as a couple.

The fresco project that we’ve just finished for Frieze New York took us six months, and we made a schedule where we planned out every single day and what we would be doing in advance. There’s no space for spontaneity. You’re not allowed to get sick and you’re not allowed to have mental health days. When we’re working, we’re like monks. Our time off is the opposite; we have no plan. We just float from one thing to another, and these periods are when we get our inspiration.

Hannah Quinlan: It wasn’t until four or five years into our collaboration that we started working in drawing and painting. Before then, one of our first rules was to lose your personal ego and sense of ownership over your own creations. When we first started our practice together, we were making installations, films, and performance art. Those mediums that are more naturally suited to collaboration and teamwork, such as filmmaking, built up our tolerance and confidence for collaboration, because I do think some people would find the idea of not being completely in control of every single aspect of their artmaking quite unpleasant.

R.H.: Yeah, there are no geniuses in our studio.

H.Q.: When we did start drawing, we were incredibly interested in the rules of drawing. I think we drew solely in graphite for almost two years before we even introduced color, and it’s only recently that we’ve started to paint. Even if it feels completely unobtainable, if you are drawn to a particular medium, even if you don’t have the technical ability yet, we’re confident in the fact that no matter how long it takes, you will be able to achieve those skills. I think that’s a good rule to have — to keep educating yourself and learning new things and not just sit with what you know.

Hannah Quinlan & Rosie Hastings, The General Meeting, fresco on wooden panel, 2023, 200 x 200 cm. Copyright: the artists. Photo: Courtesy: Hannah Quinlan & Rosie Hastings and Arcadia Missa, London. Photography: Josef Konczak./Josef Konczak

Is there any one rule you follow in all of your work regardless of medium?

H.Q.: We’re interested in creating an emotional landscape.

R.H.: A lot of our practice is quite research-led, and we use color or sound or different types of imagery to create an emotional connection with the viewer. For us, that’s a way to democratize the image. Anyone can walk into a gallery and be moved by the beauty of an image. Sometimes that means taking a more academic approach to painting or drawing, rather than a more impressionistic approach.

H.Q.: With fresco, we’re doing what the original medium was intended to do — traditionally, frescoes were used to impart a moral lesson.

Hannah Quinlan & Rosie Hastings, The Picket Line, 2023, fresco on wooden panel, 200 x 200 cm. Copyright: the artists. Photo: Courtesy: Hannah Quinlan & Rosie Hastings and Arcadia Missa, London. Photography: Josef Konczak./Josef Konczak

I also imagine that you might have a strained relationship with rules themselves; so much of the LGBTQ+ community’s history has been about breaking rules that are harmful or unnecessarily imposed, and your work has centered the ways that state-imposed rules have resulted in state-imposed violence against queer people. What’s your rule for breaking rules?

R.H.: We take an approach that is both celebratory and critical. One of our foundational works is a moving-image archive called the U.K. Gay Bar Directory — we spent a year traveling around the country making films of gay bars and documenting these spaces at a time when a lot of them were closing and we wanted to understand why. We went in quite naive, thinking we were doing this heroic thing for the community. Our ambition was to create a blueprint for future generations of queer people. What we found is that so many of the venues that we tried to film actively didn’t want us in there, because it’s such a male-dominated scene. We became aware of how, within the community, there are these rules and regulations that are still kind of oppressive and mimicking the wider world’s power dynamics. Being critical of that whilst also celebrating these spaces was really important to the final version of the project.

H.Q.: Queer people living within queer communities don’t only face issues from outside, but there’s also all these internal politics that, as Rosie said, represent the politics of the world at large. We wanted to expand this idea of what a queer space contains and how it is connected to politics at large. You can’t ghettoize any smaller culture and not see it in relation to the whole world and society.

R.H.: When we first started making work, we were put into this queer artist genre, and people wanted us to come and do exhibitions as queer artists. There was such a pressure on this idea of visibility — making something visible. But what we felt is that an increase in visibility was also paired with an increase in violence; the trans visibility spike has been met with an increase in trans death and these new really transphobic laws that are being put in place all across the world. For us, it wasn’t enough to do events that coincide with pride. We had to create a more principled perspective that had deeper roots.

H.Q.: Any venue that wasn’t incredibly profitable couldn’t exist, and gay bars in the U.K. were notoriously the places where the drink prices were low. They were in areas of low rent. As soon as an area became affected by gentrification, all spaces that weren’t based on a huge profit margin just disappeared.

R.H.: And that often coincides with an increase in policing and state surveillance and criminalization of nonprofitable spaces.

The art world is notoriously exclusive and has this strange blend of artists who can be rule-averse and the buttoned-up business people who buy, sell, and curate the work. There are different rules in different arts spaces. Do you have etiquette that you follow depending on the space you’re in?

R.H.: It’s quite a complicated terrain. You have to try to find a fine line between being a sellout to some of the most evil people in the world who are the main buyers of art and also being able to have a wide audience for your work and connect with the public.

H.Q.: That dynamic within the art world is very representative of, again, the world at large. Anyone who has managed to accrue a vast wealth has done so on the exploitation of others to a certain extent. You’re interacting with capitalism.

R.H.: But the reason why you’re pushed into those spaces sometimes is because the public infrastructure of museums is exploitative of artists. You’ll get asked to spend a year working on an exhibition and you’ll get paid, like, a thousand pounds. The assumption is that the money you live off is going to be made from the commercial world.

H.Q.: When you do institutional work, there’s often an idea that somehow you’re able to do those projects because you’re getting money from elsewhere. You can apply for funding; not all artists interact with the commercial art world as much as others.

R.H.: But the commercial art world also isn’t inherently evil. It is what generates culture.

H.Q.: There’s amazing galleries that are very committed to certain political agendas, like our gallery, for example. I feel like they’re very resistant to the idea of an elitist art world.

R.H.: Often it’s commercial galleries that are the vanguards of social change, bringing in new artists, different voices, different agendas, and that then leads into the wider art culture. It’s complicated. There’s no straightforward good, there’s no straightforward bad — except the Sackler family. But we feel incredibly lucky to be able to support ourselves and make the work that we want to make and have very supportive galleries who have our back in a quite genuine way and will support us to make the work that we feel is important.

Do you have any rules about how, where, and by whom your art is displayed?

R.H.: No arms dealers, that’s the main rule. In an art world that’s got money coming in from such diverse sources, the idea of remaining morally pure is a fantasy. Sometimes you have to make compromises. But within that, there’s always a power to say no. So that’s a rule that we try to stick by.

H.Q.: Beyond institutions, it’s about who you develop relationships with.

R.H.: We have a very close relationship with Rózsa Farkas, who’s our London gallerist. We really trust her. She’s kind of like our mum. That’s what we call her — or dad, depending what mood she’s in.

H.Q.: And artists are very good at talking to each other. If someone starts acting dodgy, it tends to get around. There’s definitely a huge support network that we have.

R.H.: All our best friends are artists and curators, and, you know, it’s like a band. It’s in a way, it’s like a family. So that’s a really nice side of the job.

What’s your number-one rule for a successful dinner party?

R.H.: Effort. That’s it. Maximum effort. Rosie does the cooking, and Hannah does the tidying up.

H.Q.: Make the food amazing.

R.H.: Generosity.

H.Q.: You get what you put in.

R.H.: Yeah, it’s like making artwork.

H.Q.: You can’t have people showing up for a cold bag of crisps.

What’s your best rule for engaging with people at parties?

H.Q.: You’ve got to be nice. Don’t try and act all cool.

R.H.: It helps if you’re like a chronic extrovert.

H.Q.: If you’re not, just be nice.

What is your number-one rule for meeting other artists?

R.H.: Oh my God, just message them. I feel like we need each other so much. And having solidarity between artists is your most powerful tool within the art world. It’s almost like an unofficial artists’ union that’s quite global.

H.Q.: Yeah, and don’t get jealous of other artists.

R.H.: Don’t compare yourself.

Do you buy off of gift registries? For weddings, or birthday parties?

R.H.: We never go to weddings. I think we’ve been to one wedding together. But when we give gifts, we always give an artwork to special close friends. I think that’s the best gift you could give as an artist — a bit of yourself.

What is your number-one rule for tipping?

H.Q.: It’s totally different in the U.K.; in most places there isn’t a tipping culture, apart from fancy sit-down restaurants. It’s between 10 and 20 percent. It’s very different.

R.H.: I would say the rule is tip like an American.

What’s your number-one fashion rule?

R.H.: Wear what Hannah tells me to wear. She’s just got really good taste in everything.

H.Q.: I’m really into the fabric. What is it made out of?

R.H.: Hannah’s a Taurus, so she’s a quality queen.

H.Q.: I’m more obsessed with like, is it 100 percent cashmere? Is it wool? Is it linen and wool? Is it cotton? What kind of cotton is it? Is it soft?

What do you sign your emails with?

R.H.: Normally, an R and an H and then a few kisses, even when it’s really inappropriate.

What’s your texting style?

R.H.: Text vomit, where it’s a million messages, each with a couple of words. Chaos.

H.Q.: Voice notes. Rosie, you’re not really into voice notes.

R.H.: We have some friends we speak to every day. I don’t know how we fit in with our work. Our friend Gaby Sahhar, who’s also an artist, London-based, we genuinely speak on the phone for like an hour every day, and I don’t know what we talk about, but it’s very important.

Do you gossip?

R.H.: Yeah, gay gossip! That is the fuel of the gay community. That’s what we all run off. Goss. But be nice. Gossip, but be nice.

No ‘Geniuses’ Allowed in These Frieze Artists’ Studio