With Forests in Our Mouths
Speaking Queer Utopias into Being

Format: Constellation artwork
Dates: Jan 2024 - Dec 2025
Venues: Multiple locations and online
Chapter One: 05-21 Apr 2024, Titanik, Turku (FI)
Chapter Two: 06-09 Jun 2024, Hiljaisuus Festivaali, Kaukonen (FI) & from 20 Jun 2024, Online
Chapter Three: 30 Aug 2024, Kaivos Festivaali, Outokumpu (FI)
Language: English, Damiá
Project website: Coming soon
Poetry open call: Information here (deadline 01 June 2024)
Article: A Constellation Artwork

Artistic direction, text, performance, design: Chris Gylee & Aslan

Working together as the Queer multidisciplinary performance collective ONCE WE WERE ISLANDS, we will create and present the project With Forests in Our Mouths: Speaking Queer Utopias into Being. We will bring together live performance, filmworks, sound installation and publication to explore multiple visions of Queer utopias. We will use Queer biography, speculative fiction, and auto-ethnography as the raw material for this two-year project.

With Forests in Our Mouths is a ‘constellation artwork’ and each chapter offers an entry into the artistic enquiry of the overall work. It can be accessed in various times and places and in various different combinations. Audiences are given space to overlay their own interpretations and to make their own connections.

The stories we will tell are Queer myths brought back from a place that exists outside of time and place — a forested planet, ghosts from utopias of the past, journeys through time and space, sex and starships, strange grammar. We ask: What if Queer people had brand new words to speak with? What if we had a place that we could truly call home?
The project is an urgent attempt to imagine kinder, more accessible, and more sustainable futures where Queer bodies can thrive; it is an artistic attempt to answer the question: Where do we go from here?; and it represents a radical reimagining of our working practices, freed from the limitations and demands of the boom-bust cycle of short-term funding models.

For With Forests in Our Mouths we will be based in our rural home and studio in Outokumpu, North Karelia, with research trips, residencies, and public sharings taking place in locations locally, across Finland, and internationally.

A Vision

We reimagine ourselves as 21st century travelling players.
Living novels.
We will hold a repertoire of stories in our bodies, ready to be told.
It is our magic that we can see the edges of other worlds, hear the words spoken there, feel it all keenly under our skins.
The stories we will tell are Queer Myths, brought back from a place that exists outside of time; an elsewhere; a simultaneous layering of future, present, and past.
We arrive quietly, by train or boat or on foot, with just the clothes we wear and the bags on our backs.
We take our places on the simple wooden stage under the cinema screen; on the diving platform at the edge of the lake; in the clean white box of the gallery, facing out through the windows onto the river beyond; in the artist’s studio, the grand piano to our left, brushes and colour lined up on shelves under the window.
We close our eyes, take a deep breath, open our mouths.
A forested planet emerges.
Ghosts. Journeys through the stars. Strange grammar. Sex and starships.
Every time we tell our stories, they change form, take on new orders.
They are never the same twice.
Sometimes they are urgent; sometimes pulled up like strange fish from muddy waters; sometimes hanging in the air, bright and transparent.
We do this job already — we have done it for years — but it’s easy to get lost in the glare of the lights and the glitter of costumes; the clutter of posters hanging at the door of the theatre; the press of the crowd.
But when we take a moment to look inside ourselves, this is why we come here; why we put our bodies on view; why we travel to new places to find new stories; dig snow; hitch lifts; walk for endless hours in the forest.
We also have a new magic.
Our bodies can travel to multiple places and times as copies, traces, digital signatures.
We are faith healers, not just of flesh, but as words on a page, shapes on a screen, vibrations from a machine.
We become an archive, a song.
We whisper into your ears wherever you are; in the city; on the bus; running through the trees; looking out over the endless sea.
Our stories will be heard wherever they are needed.

Chapter One

Like Déjà-Vu But The Other Way Around

Format: Exhibition, sound installation
Dates: 05 - 21 Apr 2024, Vernissage 04 Apr 2024
Venue: Titanik, Turku (FI)
Language: English, Damiá

Artworks; sound installation: Chris Gylee & Aslan

Artwork contributions: Esther Boles, Óscar González, Elena Polzer, Julia Cervantes & Zach Blumner 
Poster banner: Elena Polzer
Poster photography: 
Óscar González
Sound support:
Arvid van der Rijt
Featured voices: Olivia & Margaret Basterfield, Jennifer Bell, Abby Boak, Elliott Cennetoglu, Amber Fasquelle, Kit Gee, Óscar González, Fedor Herrmann, Mmakgosi Kgabi, Inky Lee, Elena Polzer, Animal J. Smith, amongst others

Like Déjà-Vu But The Other Way Around is the first chapter in the durational constellation artwork With Forests in Our Mouths — Speaking Queer Utopias into Being by ONCE WE WERE ISLANDS (2024-25). It explores Queer futures through a constructed Queer language called Damiá.

The front room of the gallery houses a ‘folk archive’ (2020-24) including artefacts produced by the emergent Damiá speech community, such as textiles, photography, fonts, bookworks, films and songs. In the back room a multi-channel sound installation evokes a utopian Queer bar where only Damiá is spoken. Over interwoven voices, a large handsewn banner declares: bacve, asi ca asi daz, camsa! An ink drawing reimagines The Stonewall Inn in a parallel reality. The artefacts and installation blur fact and fiction and reflect the ongoing proposal of Damiá as both an idea and real-world multi-year community art practice. Together they ask what it would mean for Queer people to have our own language.
The works fantasise on the notion of the Queer Bar as a kind of utopia — an everywhere and a nowhere. In this iteration, it is also a linguistic space; a quantum universe where we can speak to each other with brand new words.

Aslan began creating Damiá as a Queer teenager and has worked with it ever since. It is a fully functioning language, with a dictionary and grammar, and Aslan speaks it fluently. In 2020, after more than 10 years living and working together, Chris began learning it in earnest. In the years since, ONCE WE WERE ISLANDS have taught online classes to a growing community of Queer learners, and created and shared texts, performances, and artworks in Damiá. Damiá has only ever been spoken by Queer people.

If you would like to find out more about Damiá, or even learn it, then contact us at info@oncewewereislands.com.

Chapter Two


Format: Short film
Dates: 09 - 11 Jun 2024 (festival premiere) / from 20 Jun 2024 (online)
Venue: Hiljaisuus Festivaali, Kaukonen (FI)
Duration: 17 min
Language: English, Damiá, Finnish

Text, film, performance: Chris Gylee & Aslan

Finnish translation: Roy Boswell
Additional photographic imagery: Óscar González

THICK TIME (OS GERMA / TIHEÄ AIKA) is the second chapter of the ‘constellation artwork’ With Forests in Our Mouths. This chapter centres on a short film inspired by visits to the home of visual artist Reidar Särestöniemi (1925-1981) on the banks of the Ounasjoki near to Kaukonen village and research into the Queer histories of Reidar and fellow artist and lover Kalervo Palsa (1947-1987). Poetic text and imagery together dream a speculative moment from their lives in a parallel utopian reality.

“Come on Cial, let’s make a new life / I’m out / Digging the patch / Thinking up a new name for you / It’s a serious business / I’m hunting for a colour in the wet earth …”
The film lingers on ideas of re-naming ourselves and starting again. If Reidar were called Amber, and Palsa had called himself Chalk, would a different future have become possible? What’s in a name? THICK TIME weaves together English, Finnish and the Queer language Damiá, through four memories, as time layers up with earth, ink, roots, and dancing bodies.

THICK TIME will premiere for live audiences at Hiljaisuus Festivaali and then be available to view for online audiences from summer solstice onwards, here on this website and on Vimeo. During the festival days in Kaukonen, the short research film Self Portrait as Heliotrope (2022) will also be screened.

The above images include photography by ONCE WE WERE ISLANDS and Óscar González. 

With Forests in Our Mouths is a ONCE WE WERE ISLANDS production, supported in 2024 and 2025 by the Kone Foundation, and part of the Metsän puolella community of arts and research projects. Also kindly supported by Titanik, Silence Residency, TUO TUO Residency, Mustarinda, Theater neben dem Turm, Ballhaus Ost, Finnish Institute in Berlin. 

Additional thanks to: Arnita Jaunsubrena, Kristin Gerwien and the team at Theater neben dem Turm; Karita Tikka, Joonas Martikainen and the team at Hiljaisuus Festivalli; Mirjami Schuppert; Olivia Basterfield; Jennifer Bell; Abby Boak; Esther Boles; Niklas Ekholm; Amber Fasquelle; Ethan Folk; Kit Gee; Óscar González; Mmakgosi Kgabi; Inky Lee; Anna Matveinen; Taylor Mac, Machine Dazzle, and Pomegranate Arts; Anu Pasanen; Elena Polzer & Fedor Herrmann; Juliana Irene Smith & Arvid van der Rijt; Remi Vesala; Esko Vihava.