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, and you.