Sunday, 22 March 2020

Today everything changes



I always hope to use this blog to write quickly and in the moment – writing as process rather than reflection. Somehow, it usually still takes me months to get anything up. But in this moment, I offer this from right here. Because this is a special moment. Things are changing quickly. These words will resonate so differently, even in a week. So here are some thoughts, from where I am right now, March 21st, a marker of Spring or Autumn in some places. 2020, a marker of change on this planet. Tiohtià:ke/Montréal. Alone in my apartment. Falling through uncertainty.

*

I’ll tell you a secret, something I’ve always been a bit ashamed of. When things fall apart, when projects fail, or plans – even big ones – fall through, a small part of me rises up. I feel excited by change, by the possibiltiies of thinking wider, of cancelling and finding another route at another time, of starting all over again. I think of myself as a good leader in these moments because even as I might feel challenged, I love feeling new futures emerge.

But this time, none of that. Just grief for a whole life lost. My plans this year – to deliver listening workshops and a beautiful symposium, to celebrate my dad’s 80th birthday, to be with my family who live in other countries – all cancelled. Universities closing. Borders closing. Everything closing. I am left with some hard decisions about whether I can or should travel to be with loved ones. And even harder decisions to come.

When the wildfires raged earlier this year where I and others were living, I thought: this is a time of reckoning. I wrote the last blog post in response to that moment, while wondering how to write from what felt like the end of a world. At that time, I felt a certain horror that everything kept functioning while the world was on fire. But now I feel the horror of everything shutting down and breaking apart. It is this, it turns out, this virus moving very much like wildfire, that provides the moment of reckoning. And I am not ready for how much that reckoning hurts.

I have a cardboard sign I made for the climate march in Montreal last year. It was the first sign I ever made for a rally. I felt so proud of it. I brought it with me to a performance I did that night, and then I brought it home with me. Ever since, I have looked at it and it has looked at me. A kind of daily impasse has developed. I started to wonder what it even meant.

But now everything has changed. And I have to change.

*

What I haven’t done yet is slowed down enough to really feel the shifting rhythms of this city, this mountain, to know these birds. What I haven’t done, in a long time, is felt into the rhythms of sleeping and waking without electronic input. What I haven’t done is let go of my plans. Instead, I have postponed them in my mind, to carry on with later.

Some plans will get postponed.

Some plans will get postponed indefinitely.

I want to remember that I have everything I need inside me, now and always – not in a ‘my’ and ‘mine’ kind of way, but in the sense that we are universes. In the sense that looking in is already also looking out, if we let it be that way. In the sense that my inside is not separate from the world. And the world as I have known and lived it is breaking open.

*

Many years ago my friend Mark Trezona gave me a pack of cards he had made. They were designed to help with running an Action Learning Set, so each had an open question that would help someone think through a problem they were confronting in their lives. I still use this pack often, and treasure it. But there are two questions from the pack that I carry inside me:

What is the most radical thing you could do?
and
What is the simplest thing you could do?*

I wrote in my last blog post that I have been struggling to argue for listening in a world that needs action. I was thinking about the way that listening in a time of urgency sometimes feels inadequate or even silly. And I still feel it. I feel the trace of those thoughts in here, in this moment. But I also feel something different. I feel that listening is here, right here, urgently and proudly present in this moment. It’s not feeling ashamed any more in the face of activism. Today listening and being are activism. This moment, a deep acknowledgment that we are intricately bound whether we like it or not. That my touch, my breath itself, affect your breath, your capacity to live. The virus and its behaviours are us.

As we find ourselves in global shutdown, breakdown, and the sorrows that come with this collapse, I have a feeling that we must do what is at once simplest and most radical. Take to the roots. Know or trust that we have what we need within us, and therefore without. And listen in before we move forward.



*It turns out the actual questions are: ‘What is the most radical thing you could do to get what you want?’ and ‘What is the simplest useful thing you could do?’ but they have simplified in my head

Monday, 20 January 2020

Listening / in a time of urgency



It seems I have a tradition here of first signalling another blog post that has inspired me to finally sit down and write this one. Today it is ‘umb’ by So Mayer, which – exactly one month ago – flung me into the present moment, reminding me that writing doesn’t have to go somewhere else, be something else. That it can sit right in what is happening, even when that thing is unspeakable, hard to process, unprecedented, and beyond the confines of this language system I have found myself bound to.

So’s words don’t try to move beyond a state of (n)umbness, but to speak from it. The deep strong resonances their words create in my body remind me that the work I am constantly trying to make happen in the world is about just this: providing places and times when humans can come together and do nothing, move nothing forward. Places and times when we can be together without the need to also demonstrate that we are here.

It’s quite hard to say that out loud with conviction. The debate about whether this listening-gathering work I do has any worth goes around and around inside my head, as well as passing between me and brilliant others who do activist work that allies listening with politics in more obvious ways than mine. As I write it, now and every time, I feel ‘need for change’ and ‘need for action’ telling me that I should be doing something different. How can I argue that we should stay still, be together, without action, in a moment like this? The world is quite literally on fire.

“Numb. Succumb. A rhyme lost and found in the silence of an excrescent letter is a signal alerting us to be ready. To hold, open, even as we are going under. To let things echo in the hollow, however uncomfortable and hard – in their complexity, in their absoluteness, in their burden – to speak or to keep silent.

In that strange, held, horrible, heart-hollowing moment between the two – speech and silence – in the –umb, is listening.”



*


The blog post I began writing back in September was about a series of events I recently organised called Listening Tables – gatherings in which a group of up to 25 people collectively performs an act of reorientation, attempting to meet across difference from a place of listening, while taking on roles that we are not usually assigned within mainstream culture. In other words, an attempt to literally change who gets a seat at the table, who is heard, and how listening happens.

In a document about the project, I describe it as follows.

Each event will take place in two halves:

From 5-6.30pm ten people will drop into a place of listening, and collectively discover the words that arise from there. This is the Listening Table. Audience members who are not taking part in the Listening Table will have the opportunity to listen in via headphones from another room.

From 6.30-8pm we will enjoy a more convivial gathering in which everyone will be invited into a loosely held discussion together, shaped by the Listening Table that has just taken place.

It sounds joyful, doesn’t it? That’s the betrayal of words. The reality of doing this work is that it feels like a full body encounter with the stuckness, stubborness, and confrontedness of human beings facing change. It is some of the most complicated and challenging work I have ever done.

As anyone who has attended a workshop or gathering that I’ve organised in the past few years knows, I like to hold space by proposing parameters that challenge default modes of communicating. Something like:

No questions.
Silence and speaking are equally valid.
Anything is welcome.
Challenge your usual behaviours, so that those who are usually heard might find this a place in which to practise listening, and those who are usually unable to come to voice might find enough time and space to be able to speak.

These parameters always provoke relief/revelation and frustration in equal measure. By which I mean that there are always people who are frustrated by the amount of silence, who find the invitation to listen constraining, challenging, even violent; and there are always people who find the very same invitation a huge relief, a revelation. I have repeatedly been surprised that the ways in which people interpret the invitation fall so clearly down race lines: those who are used to being heard tend to find the experience silencing and oppressive, and are often the people in the room who pass as white and/or male; those who are used to not being heard are more likely to find it generous, and generative, even tender.

(image from Listening Table I)

*


Listening has a relationship with the unspoken, of course. When a room of people are collectively attempting to listen, there will be things that are not spoken that might otherwise have been voiced. And there will be things that are unspoken because they cannot yet be voiced. And there will be silencing, of self, perhaps, or coming to voice. And these things will be felt in bodies with histories, threaded through with the resonances of other stories from other lives, before and after, and alongside: our peers, mentors, parents, siblings, lovers, friends, and those who we pass by without realising that they changed our lives.

And yet, the invitation to listen is not an invitation to keep things unspoken. For me, it is actually quite the contrary. When we attempt to listen, we can more clearly perceive the extent of what is not heard, what is not said, and how speaking or declaring are only a part of what we share, navigate, and negotiate together with other humans. The things that are unspoken sit in the room with us. In the act of sharing listening, a slower, more careful dialogue unfolds. Unless it is arrested.


*


Listening  Safety  Whiteness.

Already those three words, sitting next to each other, do so much work. And that work lands differently in our different bodies. What is obvious in seeing those three words together changes as they are read by different eyes or heard by different ears.


When I say that I’ve been surprised that people’s behaviours so often fall along race lines, perhaps what I mean is that I’m disappointed at the impossibility of the task. My goal is not to reorient spaces that usually centre whiteness. My goal is to do the listening work that becomes possible having performed this reorientation. But it is hard not to get stuck reeling at the apparent enormity of the first task. The reorientation is such a surprise for some that they seem to experience a strong sense of vertigo. In response to this sensation, they hold on tight. And it is hard, if not impossible, to hold on tight and listen.


I want to keep safe those who are usually harmed within those spaces.

:
:

But I also want to let go of the illusion that I can keep anyone safe.


During the time that I've been running Listening Tables, I have come back to those three words again and again. I've been forced to feel the violences that run through a room when they are brought into proximity. And I've been forced to confront my own limits, my own desires, my own hurt.


*


I’ve been living and working on the unceded lands of the Gadigal people these past few months, witnessing the immense fires that are beyond my human understanding (though caused by human, and specifically colonial, actions) growing and changing every day. I have been trying to sit with the idea that there is no going 'back to normal'. That we are not okay, we are not okay, we are not okay. How is it possible to sit with these feelings without turning completely inwards with despair?


There have been moments in the last few months when I’ve felt shattered by these Listening Tables, and wondered whether I have the capacity to continue this work. You might think that the recent wildfires would have me turn my back on this kind of thing in favour of something more on the ground. It certainly feels strange to prioritise sitting in a quiet room, listening for what might arise between a group of strangers, while the world ends violently around us. But as it turns out, I believe in this work. I believe that, if nothing else, it reveals the underlying structures that hold us – the histories and ignorances that we would like to think belong in other bodies, somewhere out there. And it asks us to to sit with those feelings, knowing that we are not okay, together.

Trusting that the change will come wider and longer with this pause.



Wednesday, 10 July 2019

(Too many notes) on: armouring, smiling, wonder, killjoys, applause, racism, and reciprocity

This is pretty much a mash up of blog posts I’ve drafted and never finished over the last couple of years. Today, I decide they are all related. Today I publish this mix of thoughts, all joined up without the lines, differently dated and side by side. Find what calls to you. Make your own lines and alliances. Jump in and out. Or don’t. I share them for my own pleasure, and warmly invite you to be alongside me if it’s our moment.


smiling
[06/19]

I was watching back some video of myself the other day. This is not something I usually do. The video was of me describing something quite painful, an incident that was bound up in racism. I was watching it back – listening, in fact – in order to transcribe my own words to help me prepare for a talk I was about to give. I was transcribing my words in order to understand something of my own language around resistance, invisibility, voicelessness, and my own shadows. But what I noticed most of all as I transcribed this video is that I smile throughout. Not a small smile, but a broad all-teeth smile. The one people often compliment me on. When I look back at it, I see that smile as a grimace, and as armour. It says: here I am, all armour in position, ready to make myself vulnerable at your pleasure. It’s disturbing. Always smiling, always ready to be in agreement, always the one to find a solution, never wanting to disrupt too much. The smile, I realised, is a pre-emptive way of being in the world. It foresees rejection, fear, and difficulty, and is underlined by shame. It offers protection. It says: I am already smiling, so how can you harm me? But the harm is already done.  Smile!


applause
[12/17]

I’ve always found the applause of theatre audiences troubling. I dutifully applaude at the end of most shows, but somewhere in me I have always had a feeling that I was in trouble. What I mean by this is that when I have seen a really powerful show, and then it ends, I often don’t feel like applauding, so when I applaude I am following along with a convention that feels fundamentally wrong in that moment. I’m troubled by the idea of what that applause does, and what it stands for. My experience is always that applause comes thick and fast, often moments before a show has finished or a final echo of sound has finished resonating. It is as if audience members want to leave the experience behind as quickly as possible – closing the door on whatever has been opened during the performance, to return to a more familiar terrain. The applause is closely followed by questions about what we all feel about the show we’ve seen. Did you like it? What did you think of it? Did we have a good time?

A few months ago, I was lucky enough to be in the audience for Hannah Gadsby’s show Nanette.* The show was everything I have read about it – funny, devastating, painful, honest. And like many people, I would describe it as one of the best shows I have ever seen. But it also brought something into focus for me, about what it means to be in audience and how that is related to being alive in the world with other people. Because at the end of the show, after a standing ovation and two short bows, many of us in tears, Hannah Gadsby left the stage, and the house lights went up and everyone filed out of the theatre. And it kind of broke my heart that it felt possible for us to walk out of the theatre like that, to move back into sociality so easily, with a round of applause. Because the show had been difficult and confronting, and had opened up something so rare that I feel like it’s barely touched on in most shows I have seen.

And yes it was all the stuff before that led up to this moment, but I realised that this moment always breaks my heart a little. When we sit together and share something like that, something that is about what happens when we are in a theatre, and that is simultaneously about what happens when we look at each other in the world - how we make stories about ourselves and about others, how we cause violence to each other, how we are capable of so much more - when we see something like that, and then we are left sitting in a room together, I want to know that we are not capable of simply walking back out into our lives. I want to know that something like that changes us, that it allows us to relate to each other differently, that maybe we take a moment to see whether another person is okay. I want to know that we could sit together quietly before dispersing.

It told me so much about how we function as a society inside late capitalism [& the performance I saw was at the Sydney Opera House, fully resonant with a violent colonial present] that I had been sitting in a room with hundreds of people, and we had shared an incredibly moving experience, and many of us were weeping, and yet when the house lights went up most people went to the bar and made chat with the people they already knew, or travelled home. Transaction completed. There was no room for processing, no room for quietness or difficulty or awkwardness, no room for messiness, no room for being together across difference. It was almost as if the being together had never happened.

* I saw Nanette in the theatre, not in its later Netflix version, and I think these are fundamentally different experiences


wonder
[10/17]

A few weeks ago I began a Feminist Killjoys Reading Group on Darug land in Western Sydney. Each day we read a blog post from Sara Ahmed’s feministkilljoys.com and we talked about our own experiences in relation to the ideas in that blog post. On the second day, I introduced the blog post called ‘Feminist Wonder’. In it, Ahmed writes about wonder as something that is not necessarily outside history, or outside politics, but that brings historicity into view as something made. Something that has been made and can therefore be unmade. And then she writes about shattering:

“I am interested in how consciousness of gender (say, as a way of directing human traffic) can be a world consciousness that can leave us shattered. But shattering is also what enables us to become alive to possibility. Becoming feminist can inject life into a world by allowing you to recognise not only that things acquire shape over time, but that this shape is not necessary or inevitable; that possibilities are not always lost, even when we have given them up.”

This is what it felt like to me at the end of Hannah Gadsby’s show, like the world had been exposed as made, in a moment of both horror and wonder. The show left me feeling shattered. I think this is a good word for it. And the theatre, as I have known it, is one of the places where I can experience this shattering feeling without needing to put myself back together too soon. A world made and unmade. Constructed through wonder. In the company of others.

And I ask myself: what do you need in order to feel safe enough to become shattered?


racism
[07/18]

I recently published something that had at its centre my own experience of a racist incident. An incident that you might call ‘mildly racist’. But these are the ones that pull at my guts, and I have come to believe that while some racism can cause more immediate harm than other forms of racism, the idea that some racism might be ‘mild’ is misleading. The small things are perhaps the most poisonous. It is in the detail that the violence is rooted.

But you see the thing is that when I published this something, I knew the fallout would be too great, and I left it out. I left the word ‘racist’ out of the writing. Cowardly? Maybe. … because… it was minor / I did not want to deal with the consequences of calling this person out / my life has been filled with these minor incidents of eradication / they seem not worth telling. I am, finally, able to feel them deeply, but I have no idea what to do with them. They do not feel like they warrant attention from a wider audience. And yet, they have shaped me, held my body in place, and taught me to be very quiet for a very long time. And now I want to do something with all those moments, because they are gathering, and they are teaching me that it is not an indulgence but a responsibility to both feel them and share them with others.


feminist killjoys [12/18]

“If we think with and through orientation, we might allow the moments of disorientation to gather, almost as if they were bodies around a different table. We might, in the gathering, face a different way. Queer objects might take us to the very limits of social gathering, even when they still lead us to gather at the table. Indeed, to live out a politics of disorientation might be to sustain wonder about the very forms of social gathering.” – Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology

This is one of my favourite Sara Ahmed quotes. I come back to it again and again, finding myself differently in relation to it. I read it out loud at some of the first sessions of the Feminist Killjoys Reading Group. To set the scene. To say: you are welcome here. To say: we can do this differently. And to say: but it will take work – the work of sustaining wonder about the very forms of social gathering.

How attention is distributed is political. It is the most political thing.

Several years later, the Feminist Killjoys Reading Group continues. Now there is a core group of five who meet regularly and organise monthly events at which anyone is welcome. It is a growing community. And creating this community is one of the ways of saying: it takes work to be a killjoy, and we need each other in order to be able to continue doing this work. In order for this work to exist, part of the work needs to be the work of finding solidarity. And not parcelling each other up in the process.

The other day, I spent time with some of the killjoys reflecting on the work we have done so far. One of the reflections was: We have survived. We took this as celebration. Survival as celebration. We all knew what this meant. To have continued, to have survived, means we are doing the work.


reciprocity
[05/19]

I keep having this conversation with friends, peers, people I’m mentoring. I find it is particularly something that comes up around people who have been raised as girls and women, and that it is particularly heightened in racialised bodies. It is an inability to receive. A difficulty in finding oneself worthy of receiving a gift, a kindness, attention, gratitude, or praise. It is an inability to perceive worth in self. But the conversation I keep coming back to is about reciprocity. What it takes to create/allow flow in the world, to create/allow community and conversation and belonging. That it takes both give and receive. The ability to be generous and to take a stand in one’s own body and belong there. They are always linked. To be able to receive what is being offered, to be able to both see and be seen. This work is transformative, and hard, and necessary for survival.   reciprocity


Monday, 11 June 2018

choreography

I want it to stand on its own, and in relationship to your reading as much as anything. But also, I feel I should let you know, in case you want this, that the writing emerges following these two residencies that I have been lucky enough to spend time inside these past two months. It is also written in response to and alongside others, who are acknowledged at the end of this post.






*




Dear So,


                  Your letter* arrives and says to me:              what are you waiting for?



                   Your words begin to articulate my landscapes of


            - what? -


                                      well        many things, one of which is,


    really, a deep deep fail.



failure of imagination. inability to comprehend.

not magic, not beauty, not flow.




And my question: how to write about this in words without describing a kind of success?



**


 


My question, not yours. But perhaps in relation to your:



and




**



In response, I offer my own stories:
                                                                    of language, of forgetting how to dance, and of what makes us, for each other.




The language

an armour

but inside it

an arm.*



 

**



Saturday. I am seated with others around a bonfire. I am brimming with the knowledge that I must speak tonight. I clumsily stand in my power. In front of, say, thirty or forty people. Night time. Gunditjmara land. This, I say, matters. Sorry, I say, for my words will not be articulate. I am speaking, I say, as a woman of colour. Sorry, I say, for the trembling in my voice and the rage and sorrow coursing through my body. Because I have not been trained to speak this way. I have been trained to keep things quiet.

So it is that I speak.*







“There’s a lot more I could say.


        But I’m respecting.


Sorry … over-respecting.


I’m over-respecting.”]



 

and then

Someone else speaks.
A direct attack on my words.
A comment made with all the love and anger and pain of another life, preparing for a different battle.

- and lands
as intended
in my body

which is suddenly twenty years younger, and reeling.



Time, in this moment, does not serve to heal, but jumps backwards to protect.


My greatest protection has been to listen, and not to speak.




**




But this is just the setting / a prelude / to what I brought into the next room. The question.



The question relates to

or
is also

this question:

                             
                                  Is it possible to work with ‘choreography’ the ordering of bodies without making museums of ourselves?



The question lives alongside questions of ambition and voice and career and success. Which means it lives alongside the tantalising feeling of passing and moving smoothly through the world. Alongside the act of viewing and the act of listening. Alongside terms like ‘dialogical’ and ‘engaged’ and ‘interactive’ as segregators.






Alongside my desire to dance, to be danced, to be seen to be dancing.

                                                           Alongside my desire to speak.



**



 
or

To be read.

To read a body onstage.



In my earlier shows, I have faced this as a confrontation.
I have played out vulnerability until it was real. I was very good at this.


But this time, I wanted to see what would happen if I was my inheritance, my families, cultures, relationships, labour.
If I was my queerness and brownness.










I couldn’t. do it.
Not yet.







**




We could have been intimate. And sometimes we were.

We could have been kind. And sometimes we were.

We could have been dancing, and sometimes we were.




**


It was not the solidarity I had imagined. It was harder than that. But it was solidarity, and it was trust. Deepest trust, to continue to show up. To continue to show up in full doubt. To continue to show up in anger and (self) hatred. And to mark it through, in conversations and movements, even if dull, even if far, even if terrifyingly absent.







**




The idea,

       
we wrote,  

             
       is not to make a coherent piece of choreography, but to interrupt, challenge, and contest the assumptions embedded in terms like

 


  ‘choreography’ or

                 ‘innovation’ or

                                                              ‘experimental’.*



[It’s funny. I told a friend before we began the residency that I hoped we might give ourselves permission to make something that felt “abhorrent”. I had no idea that I was going to use that word until it happened. Now I feel my way into it differently. I feel my body trying to shudder away from its own skin. And I think:

The language an armour but inside it an arm.]






**







An interviewer asks Arundhati Roy,

“Do you worry at all about comparison being made between the two books, or are you fully prepared for that?”

Arundhati Roy replies that she does not worry.

The interviewer persists: “Okay let me ask that another way. Do you think this is a better book?”

Arundhati Roy replies

      “There’s no competition.”



She replies

              “It’s not about success.”



She replies

“It’s not about critics or bestseller lists. Because I know – I mean, sorry to say this but this is the truth – that when people read the book, and think they’re judging the book, Anjum and Tilo and the dogs and the vultures are also judging the reader … really truly, I mean … this is the truth.”*





And in that one moment, without agression, I hear an act of decolonisation.




It is not only about your way of reading, she is saying. It is a meeting place.


Do not

(she says to me)   

    make assumptions

    

                      about how meaning and value are constructed.





 
   There              are         always             so                 many           things             happening               at          once.









***


NOTES of various kinds

* image by Alex Tálamo and Rajni Shah

*Since it arrived as if a letter, in my inbox. Since I received it that way. And since it is written on a platform called tinyletter. I receive your words as letters.          - And to the reader of this blog post – know that its writing began as a response to these fine fine words.


*I can’t help thinking about Sara Ahmed, whose words embolden my life. She has written many excellent words about arms and willfulness and feminisms. See here.

* [thank you Andrea Zimmerman for what you said in 2015. I have never forgotten it. you expressed disappointment that I stood on stage and spoke from script after the bananas incident. you urged me to be braver in what I shared, not to be afraid of my own rage. you noticed that I was very good at providing the conditions for others to be vulnerable, but that I did not invite this of myself. and I have carried your words with me, now they are … (funny) … ripe.]

*Thank you is not enough. to Alex Tálamo and Victoria Hunt who were inside that process alongside me. the shell of which lies here: http://performancespace.com.au/2018-experimental-choreographic-residency

* https://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2017/jun/28/arundhati-roy-on-the-ministry-of-utmost-happiness-books-podcast