Friday, 26 August 2016

Inarticulacy




I noticed today that I am becoming less and less able to be articulate on cue. It feels troubling, because I rely on articulacy for a certain kind of passing - it is how I have managed to stay afloat thus far in life: by using words and voice to become convincing, accommodating, educated - in the way that I speak, the way I string words together. Losing a grip on this feels difficult, but I am writing this to remind myself that I also welcome it.




1.
I am at a public talk in a town hall, a panel on feminisms. I am in the audience. I have something to say, something that expresses a frustration I feel, but I cannot quite find the courage to say it. Then two other women speak. They speak from a position of difference, and they speak about difference, about who is not in the room, about which writers are not being referenced, about alternative histories, and about how a simple inclusivity may not always be the best or most appropriate tactic. They speak from a place of power but they acknowledge that there is a lack of invitation for their power in the room.

I hear myself in their words. I realise that this is the moment when I might be able to say something, so I raise my hand. And then I speak. Voice noticeably trembling. I speak like someone who has never spoken before, like someone who is not used to speaking in public. I speak about who is already perceived as articulate and who is not. I speak about desire and about anger. I speak about the chairperson as a person of certain privilege and how this certain privilege has allowed her to be in a position of privilege as chairperson. I speak about how it feels important and near-impossible to acknowledge these things. I speak, as an artist, about our responsibility to create structures within which ‘awkward silences’ can be held: structures of gathering within which we can pause, reflect, feel angered or at odds; structures within which we have time to feel challenged and confronted, and in which it is not already time to move on so that we can go home and forget, but in which it is time to find a way to be with each other.

The trembling in my body and voice. The desire to say these things without flipping them from being inarticulate to being articulate. Being inarticulate mostly means becoming invisible, unable to be heard or seen. But being articulate also means a kind of invisibility, a kind of eliding with the main-stream of the argument, gliding into the space of speaking that has already been set up or decided. Sometimes I give myself permission to not reply immediately, and this helps. But if I have not given myself this permission in advance, then I am carried away by the rush and desire towards articulacy.

When people speak of diversity, so often they mean diversity within the terms of expression that are already understood. So someone who speaks, say, in the context of a debate about feminism in a town hall in North Melbourne which also happens to be an arts centre, has to speak in a way that is already able to be heard in that context. If they speak in a way that is not already understood as articulate, their difference is so different that it simply cannot be registered within the frame of the room. I am not talking about myself here. I was afraid to speak, yes, but my language is exactly the language that could be understood in the context. I am talking about the many people who may not even have felt invited into the room.



2.
An academic panel. I am presenting a paper, alongside two other people. I have prepared my paper well, it is clear and articulate, and it is well received. And then it is time for ‘questions’. I express a desire to not engage in the format. I try to say that my paper, the one I just read, the one you said you enjoyed, was exactly about this problem: about how the spaces in which we gather, and the ways in which we are invited to be together in those spaces, affect what is audible and visible within them. I try to express that the format of the question and answer session is a problem for me, because it is already rigged to repeat a certain performance of knowledge, because I want to question its very format. But there is not a way for these words to be heard. The format is set. And so we continue.

I was born in Oxford, England. I have a certain accent. I went to a school and a university where I learnt to be articulate in ways that would buy me privilege. I know that I have the skills to be received as articulate. And yet, during this Q&A, I was deeply inarticulate. I said muddled things, I did not succeed in answering the questions that were being asked. I did not succeed in bringing myself into the room during that moment. And since then, I have replayed that scene many times, knowing now how to speak articulately about the inarticulacy I was experiencing. Later is always easier.

And yet, what bothers me is that I have this feeling that I was exposed – not as the person with the gentle voice and the Oxfordshire accent who can put you at ease, who can be heard if she needs to, and who can be accommodated and accommodating if she needs to – but as something else, woman maybe, she who cannot come to the point, she who does not understand how to become heard and at the same time cannot stop speaking. What terrifies me and saddens me is that there was not a place for that kind of voice in the room.



The feeling is of having the words that we wanted, but only having them later. Or of having the feeling but not the words. Or of having the words, but they were not the kind of words that could be heard in that particular setting. Or of having the right words for that particular setting but having the wrong tone or accent or pitch or body to be accepted as someone who could be heard.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Giving up and giving away

                                                                               

I could see you were standing there fierce with something but I didn’t know how to ask you.



A while back
, some years ago now, I wrote a long blog post about disappointment. It was around the time that I gave up being what I have come to call a ‘career artist’. And of course, in the process of giving up, of letting go, I found that all kinds of other things emerged and continue to emerge as new structures for life, and as life-giving structures. But I’ve kept thinking about it. We have such narratives of keeping going, especially in the arts, but really everywhere. We encourage each other to keep going, to find a way through, to keep afloat, to stay on board. And it’s problematic, this urge to keep going, keep succeeding, keep producing, keep showing up. Not only because it fails to acknowledge that there is value in stopping, pausing, not being productive – that there is value in creating spaces where people might do those things together, as part of a social rhythm. But also because it’s a plea to not diverge.

There are times when it’s not possible to go on; when it’s not possible to go on in the ways in which we are expected to go on. When ‘progress’, in the narrow definition with which that term is used in western models, is the very thing that is holding us within dis-abling structures. In those moments that are dark and difficult, we might be able to see something more of ourselves and our interactions, if only we were brave enough to look into them for a sustained moment together.


A few months ago now, in February 2016, some people gathered in a small room in London and celebrated endings together. We were an odd bunch, and a small bunch. It was part of a long process of ending something: ending a company, ending a possiblity, and confronting some impossibilities. It was a beautiful moment that felt solemn and light at the same time, that was filled with goodwill and also a kind of refusal to yield. For me, it marked my move away from the UK for a few years, my move away from the idea of building a career as an artist in which I needed to constantly evidence ‘success’, a move away from (professional) relationships based on sustaining a social and operational model that felt immoral and uneasy at best. It was a giving up, a letting go, a giving away. But those three things have very different connotations. To give up is still very much seen as a failure to move forward, and to move forward is too often perceived as the ultimate goal. But giving up is something I have been doing a lot of.


Recently I watched a livestream of a theatre show about a white man’s journey into the Amazon rainforest and his encounter with some of the people who lived there. It was a show about a white man’s journey and it was performed by a white man who already has a good reputation as a theatre-maker. It was performed in theatres across the country. And many people I know loved this show, they thought it was sublime, and exciting, and somehow they found it not to be racist or problematic that this white man was standing on a stage telling this story in big theatres. But I found that no matter how much the man in the show talked about a complex web of presence and authorship, he was writing the end to that story as his story, as the story of him standing on a stage and receiving critical acclaim. He was buying into the myth of authorship and authority and colonialism even as he claimed to disavow and disrupt it. He made that story end with him standing on a stage telling it. Even if I had enjoyed the show itself, I’m not sure I could ever understand why he made the choice for it to be him telling the story, at this moment in time, the choice to place his body on the stage in that way. It baffled me. It could be that this was his way to look into darkness for a sustained moment together. It could be. Maybe it was. But it was also married to his own continued visibility.

I have made a show that was seen in a similar way to this – the way I decribe seeing the show above. I made a show called Glorious where local performers were invited to stand on stage and make music and speak words, and in which I stood, for most of it, in the middle of the stage on a podium inside a sculptured costume. I stood in the costume and sang, and all the other things that happened in the show happened around me. It was, among other things, described as “a vacuous ego trip” by Libby Purves in the only mainstream press review it received.

I have made several shows where I have stood in the middle of a stage, as the ‘centre’ of a piece of theatre. In making those shows, I was always making a choice, and that choice was about having a short-ish brown-skinned shaven-headed body in the middle of the stage, holding the centre whilst embodying western clichés of ‘beauty’ and ‘power’. It was a choice I was making even when I knew it could be read as egotistical. Whether rightly or wrongly, it seemed important to me to make that choice. Even as it engaged with a certain relationship to power, it felt like a place of resistance.

At the end of Glorious, after everyone else had left the stage, I stepped out of the costume and left the stage, and the audience were invited to populate the stage as they exited the theatre. The idea for that show, in a way, is that it could be anybody who stepped into that costume and then out of it again, holding that central place of power for a night so that people could gather around and perform as audience members, speakers, technicians, or musicians. The idea was that all of us were standing in those positions temporarily, each of them as important as the other. But of course it also wasn’t just anyone. On those evenings, it was my body standing in for power. Libby Purves clearly felt that I made the story of Glorious end with me, with my ego, with my body, in a way that negated the other stories for her.


I’m interested in how all of these things sit together
, in what it means to give up, what it means to give away, and how power operates in the tiniest details of a seemingly simple structure like the theatre. Quite apart from ‘the work’ itself, I am thinking about the acts of watching and seeing, listening and hearing, and interpreting. I’m thinking about what is held open during a performance, and whether that confronts or conforms to the power dynamics that we may have brought in with us. I’m thinking about what people are ready to notice, what people are ready to say, and what people are prepared to ignore. I’m interested in whether it is possible to give away power and remain visible, or whether it is possible to retain a kind of power while being invisible. The relationship between noticing something, acknowledging something, and understanding something. What it means if giving up and giving away are a kind of giving over of attention. What it means to hold quite still and listen intently and not turn away. What it means to give ground, to enact giving ground, or to not give ground. And how different these are, and how different these all seem, depending on the body that you happen to inhabit that night.


It’s just words, asking.
It’s just words.
It’s words.

It’s words, and you.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

A new normal



Some wandering thoughts on ‘here’ and ‘there’ following a move from London to Sydney (having moved to Sydney in June 2015, and then spent four and a half months back in London October-February)…


Transition

I’ve been thinking about what it means to transpose myself from one sense of local to another. To understand what ‘makes sense’ what is ‘default’ and what is ‘invisible’ in a place. This moment (of transition) is important. This, in some ways, is the moment I would always wish to inhabit.

The moment right before I grow any roots or find any bearings or create any categories.
The moment in which I am aware of my own assumptions.
The moment in which I know that what I am calling ‘normal’ is just one version of things.

To feel my body as curious in a place, not already imposing an understanding on how I might fit there.
To not yet know how to assimilate the weather into my physical being.
To not yet know the solutions to small everyday problems; to not have routines fixed in place; to not possess ‘knowledge’ that shuts down options before they have been considered.

Of course, it is near impossible to always inhabit this place, but it appeals to me, the idea of always seeing the world anew, and most of all the idea of being able to encounter other people as new, with their thoughts, their feelings, their histories, all curiosities rather than problems or – worse - things to be dismissed because somehow I already know better.

Learning to be a local somewhere new.

Of course, I have done this before. I actually moved here almost a year ago, in June 2015. The privilege of my situation is very clear to me. Also, the privilege of taking time to assimilate, to even be able to consider not assimilating as a choice; the privilege of being able to take time to feel lost here without the imperative to lock into survival mode. It takes very little to make humans lock down into survival mode. I know this. So to push forward into a not-knowing that is about choice is perhaps the greatest privilege.

But also, it is something worth fighting for. Because caring for this is also about caring for each other, if it is about caring enough to create those spaces where not-knowing can be chosen.


Acceptance


I know now that my body eventually did find its place in London. I found a way to belong, and I began to make a lineage, a family of sorts. Those past few months back in the city made me realise that the place where I had lived for the past thirteen years has become familiar to me, and me to it. I know people who live nearby. I know shopkeepers and market sellers. I know teachers. I know certain routes to certain places. I know how to walk to trampolining, and who I might see when I get there.

And yet, this place has not changed, it is me that has changed.

When I first moved to London, I felt scared and alert and unsure. I was younger, of course, and London was new(ish) to me. But also, I hadn’t made myself feel secure through my own rhythms and relationships yet.

Nowadays, when I walk the same streets, there are still many people I don’t know, many people behaving in ways I don’t understand. But I see them in a place that I do understand, or at least that I understand myself within.

Perhaps that is the other side of not-knowing. Like a crescent, at the one end not-knowing is a kind of acceptance because I do not yet have another category. At the other end, in a familiar place, perhaps I can hold my own ground enough to accept whatever is there. It is a different kind of acceptance, the acceptance of the familiar. It sits in the body differently.


The speed at which I am moving

I am reading Jo Carson’s Spider Speculations and a kind of truth comes back to me. I remember that sometimes I am moving too fast to take in the person or the thing or the writing or the idea that is in front of me. And then sometimes I am moving at exactly the right speed to take it in. And so the quality, or worth, or value, of what is in front of me is not given by that thing but by me. By the speed at which I am moving. Which is quite radical when it comes to ascribing value to things in a new place. It means that what is before me can always be encountered – there is always that possibility. It means that there will always be a way of seeing, a way of hearing; and the only work that can be done to make that encounter happen is within me.

I’m not saying that I feel the need to be able to encounter every person or thing that comes my way. But I am saying that there is something fundamental in recognising that the value of what lies before me is far from being intrinsic to that thing.

We are so used to the idea of ‘forming opinions’ - digging ruts for ourselves in the form of belief systems - that it can feel naughty to stay open to the idea of change. But somewhere in there lies a great possibility. I love coming back to books or pieces of art or even people whom I had previously dismissed and realising that it was me who was moving too fast to be able to notice them.

I wasn’t yet the person I needed to be for that to happen.

I wonder if I could live in a way that included the possibility of being that person
– which is not to say that it will happen for sure, but that it could, and it might, and to not dismiss this possibility seems important.


In terms of Sydney, my new home-city, what is happening here is not yet in focus for me. I am far from being able to tune into the frequencies of this city. But I’m noticing my points of resistance, and trying not to take the easy route of translating them into judgments either of myself or of this place and the people in it. Instead, I’m holding open the possibility that one day I might be able to be here; that one day I might be able to encounter this city.
And for now, our encounter makes visible the contours and pitfalls of my supposed knowledge.


A big silence

Recently, at a screening of Experiments in Listening, I insisted that we invite silence into the room in our discussions. I was hoping to un-anchor us all a little from the need to speak as a way of affirming. I hoped to invite curiosity over visibility or the display of knowledge. I hoped to loosen some of the hierarchies that were in the room. Many people I know fear silence. They fear what might emerge in silences.

I think I am trying to hold a big silence in my entry into Sydney.

It can seem rude sometimes, as I refuse to declare “who I am and what I do” when I meet new people here. It’s strange, it’s not courteous, to refuse to offer what is expected as a guest. But that silence, that holding off, that act of waiting, is all I can do. That silence is what I have to offer right now.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Structures of Listening

Last night, I went to a talk. The talk was about the invisibility of women in art – the way that women only become visible (and valuable) after they are dead. The introduction was all about women’s voices, about how we (in the arts) might work differently, about structures that would allow for new ways of thinking and viewing and making and coming together, and about new spaces for visibility and audibility. And yet, there we were, sitting within a traditional power structure, in a room with experts on stage and the usual question and answer session, and it killed my spirit.

And this keeps happening.

I keep finding myself at events like this where there is no room for thinking, no room for processing, and no consideration given to how this thing might happen. But if we don’t consider how the power structures are operating in the room, then traditional power dynamics emerge. I’m nowhere near the first person to observe this. And yet it keeps happening. I keep finding myself at events where the topic up for discussion is compelling and important, and then there is no way for us, the people in the room, to reach the place we want to discuss. We’re stuck in a place where we perform change but we perform it within structures that are oppressive and non-conducive to the very change that we are discussing.

                                              This change, it happens slowly. It happens over centuries.

Over years, I will keep saying the same thing. I will keep saying that we need to listen better. And what I will mean by that, what I will mean every time I say it or write it or fail to say it, is that we need better structures within which to listen. What I will mean is that this voice you are hearing, it is the voice that is permitted within the structure you have created. And very often there would be a more interesting and more present and more considered voice here if the structure allowed for it. What I will mean is:

What if my voice were invited?

What if I were invited to speak uncertainly, or in a language you can't comprehend? What if there were really space for that? And I don’t mean invited like, “yeah, anyone can speak, anyone is welcome to speak” said from the front of a room in which there is an unspoken hierarchy; but I mean really thinking about how the space invites the words. I mean spaces that have easy exits and different kinds of entrances so that people can find their appropriate way into and out of them. I mean spaces in which the etiquette is clear and transparent. I mean spaces that welcome silence. I mean spaces that welcome silences in which we can hear and understand coercion as well as silences in which we can hear complex thinking that has not yet settled.

What I mean is that every space has a choreography, and to ignore that act of choreography when setting up any kind of event is to ignore a certain politics that holds our conversation. I mean that the aesthetics and the welcome of the space are not an add-on or a frivolity but formative features. How and whether we approach something or someone is entirely determined by what we can see or hear from afar. Politics. Choreography. Aesthetics. It all comes down to the details of how we are invited to be in the room.