Thursday, 11 December 2014

Black British Feminisms: where and how does the work begin?

Just got back from this event at the Centre for Feminist Research (Goldsmiths). I felt so completely thrilled to be in that room, and of course failed to make any friends because of being too shy, but still, thrilled to be a part of that space in some small way for a moment. And wanted to share some brief immediate thoughts on what made that room so unusual and what this might reveal about how we 'usually' behave, what constraints we act within.

"White hegemonic knowledge stands between the people who really need to have the conversation." - Camel Gupta

I noticed that throughout the evening people were constantly acknowledging influences and inspirations: people in the room, and people not in the room. Creating connections, acknowledging histories and friendships, making visible those lines that are so frequently ignored or passed over within the artistic and academic contexts that I know. Most of these people were strangers to me, but how good it felt to be in a room where people were committed to making visible. An acknowledgement that we cannot work alone and that other people make things possible. And in acknowledging others, in being visible about that connectedness and the fact that only through connection can we be alive let alone make change, there was a banishment of the kind of territorial fear, the tight holding on to ideas and voice, that claims to be about empowerment and freedom, but really only renders us lonely. These voices were heard louder by not being alone.

And there was an impromptu song. And this reminded me of being at ROOTS. And I kind of wanted the whole room to start singing. And that didn't happen, but it did begin to happen, and this was thanks to a poet called Dorothea Smartt who didn't let the way things usually are stop the way things might be.

And I realise this sounds like I just went to some kind of festival - it was for the most part a panel discussion, and it was full of all kinds of smart ideas and people - but what I am saying is that the ideas didn't obliterate the people.

I found myself thinking this: "where and how does the work begin?"

And I found myself answering like this:

Where = in the roots, the systems that give rise to the ways in which we make and do and think and behave and treat each other.

How = by acknowledging each other, by finding ways to bring ourselves into the room, by not being afraid of care and honesty and embodiment, especially when that embodiment looks like something with which we don't yet know how to relate.

Black British Feminisms
Thursday 11 December 2014, 6-8pm
The Centre for Feminist Research (Goldsmiths) cohosts the Feminist Review annual panel discussion followed by reception & issue launch

Keynote: Prof. Ann Phoenix (Institute of Education, University of London)

Chair: Dr Suzanne Scafe (London South Bank University/Feminist Review editorial collective)

Panel: Ego Ahaiwe, Sita Balani, Lauren Craig, Camel Gupta, Nydia Swaby

Performance: Dorothea Smartt

Monday, 6 October 2014

There are moments that feel like life

I want to write this before it’s come into focus. It’s a strange sensation because, for me, writing is often a kind of getting-into-focus. So I am trying to do something while arresting and resisting the very thing that I am trying to do. I want to write it quickly before it comes into focus, and I want to write it slowly so that it never comes into focus. The water is turning to glass or the glass is turning to water. There are moments that feel life-changing. I don’t mean the big ones, the ones that announce themselves like a soap opera and break you down. I mean the quiet ones, the ones you might miss if you hadn’t been facing a certain direction at a certain moment, ears up to the wind. This is one of those. This was one of those. It’s a sequel, though. A sequel. A sequence maybe. A series of indeterminate moments of being. It has a relationship to other moments that have come in the years before. Heavy weeping moments. Clunky moments of understanding. Things clumsily falling into place without knowing why. Sheddings of fear. Sheddings of complacency. And I want to write about it in a way that teaches you nothing, that directs you nowhere. I’m not sure why I want to do this, why I want to do this with you and not only on my own. Maybe as a kind of intervention. As a kind intervention. A kindly disorientation. A pocket of lost-ness in your well-planned day. Maybe as a resistance to answering. This, this desire not to bring my thoughts to a waking state, this is why I am writing without paragraph breaks today. A lump, somewhere between states, not yet differentiated. That’s this blog post. Read it slowly without wilfulness. It resists arriving. It resists unpacking. It resists being yours or mine and it resists, also, being held back. It even resists having friends. Or maybe it just resists being tied down by friends, or maybe it resists being tied down by friendship as a suffocating niceness, maybe it resists all the things I’ve done only because they were to be done, and only for you, and only for you on a small scale, and maybe it resists those things because they are merely excuses, because I have been using our friendships as an excuse to be held in place when what I wanted was to be between in so very many ways. I could leave you behind. And you could leave me behind. And it would be kinder. It would be kind. And if at one moment several people stood in a room in a particular constellation and that happened to change the course of their lives, it wouldn’t have to be written about and it wouldn’t have to be monumental, it would only be the what-happens that is around every day, that is around us every day. And if one of us disappears, or one of us becomes famous, or one of us begins to live with other animals, well, that’s just how the landscape changes all the time. A kind of dreamscape, I think. A dreamscape that is more ours than we have allowed. And the title of this blog post is a mistake, they’re all mistakes, the things that sit alongside what might have happened otherwise. And maybe a mistake is like sleeping, or just like what is next to being awake.

(influences: a week spent in dialogue with Karen Christopher called We are capable of so much more:experiments in listening; and seeing Doing Dirt Time by
Suzi Gablik performed by Philip Ralph, Fern Smith and Jane Trowell)

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Lying Fallow: a new project

Lying Fallow is a project for Rajni Shah Projects, led by  Mary Paterson, Rajni Shah, Susan Sheddan, Tiffany Charrington, and Mark Trezona (facilitator). It will take place over seven months, over three meetings.

For more information and to take part (deadline for expressions of interest Sunday 14th September 2014 at nightfall), please visit this page:

Following is a personal statement on why the project matters to me.


My favourite way to describe Lying Fallow right now is this:

                     an invitation to experience the changing light together

It’s the simplest collection of words I can find to describe the project that doesn’t involve loads of backstory. It’s an invitation that doesn’t make assumptions about who will be there or what they will choose to bring with them. And in that invitation to experience lie a myriad possibilities of ‘how’ Lying Fallow might happen.

But there’s a whole lot of thinking behind that invitation. And maybe it’s useful to hear something about that too.

So, if you want it, here’s some backstory:

A few years ago, for a whole number of reasons, I decided that I needed to step away from directing performance and to see what else might emerge as a way of being in the world. Figuring out how to do this has been a long process. In fact, it continues to be a long process; years and years of a kind of waiting, a kind of widening of the gaze, slowly attuning to what might be next, loosening my grip on to the way things have been and even the way things are.

This decision has prompted a series of discussions within my company, currently called Rajni Shah Projects, about what that means for us, since for fifteen years the company has supported projects initiated and directed by me. In the past three years we held three company Away Days, sent out a questionnaire to all the different people we’ve worked with, formed a working group which met regularly for a year or so – in short, we’ve initiated a whole number of conversations about the future with all kinds of people. And yet ‘nothing’ emerged as a clear way forward for the company.

When I say nothing, of course I don’t mean nothing. In a way, this series of activities was its own project: a thinking process for a group of people who had gathered around a particular way of working. We collected beautiful texts and testaments, we feasted and walked together, and other projects and writings spun out from our time together. But I think I now understand that what was preventing ‘something’ from ‘happening’ (and that something always included the option of closing the company) was simply an attachment to the idea of ‘something happening’.

The term ‘lying fallow’ has come up several times during this long thinking process, and I’ve always been drawn to it. But I realise now that I associated its connotations of unproductiveness with the idea that it only held value in the context of what came next. And in the case of the company, this prevented me from seeing what was obvious: that we were already engaged in a kind of fallowing, but that in order for it to have any value, I simply needed to stop observing it through the lens of ‘what’s next’.

At the end of 2013, I invited Mary, Susan, and Tiffany to work alongside me for a year, in an attempt to find our way towards a more collaborative company structure. Lying Fallow is the project that we have created.

It is, above all, a way of providing a frame within which a group of people might work through some of these ideas together. It’s a simple premise but feels urgent and exciting to me, because it invites the possibility of great change without determining how that change might happen, where it might come from, or what it might be. It feels important to be clear that Lying Fallow isn’t about Rajni Shah Projects any more than it is about any one of the people who might attend. But I hope that this rather long backstory helps explain the context within which I have come to be a part of the project.

There’s one more thing I feel I should mention here. Whilst Lying Fallow is a collaborative project that is being led by all four of us, I’ll also be submitting it as part of a practice-based PhD I’m undertaking at Lancaster University. This doesn’t affect the project in any way, but it would feel strange not to mention it to you up front.

To close, I’d like to offer a few words that describe ‘lying fallow’ for me.

A clear space.

A state that is neither active nor passive.

A frame that can embrace the exhausted and the silent and the passionate and the engaged in an act of listening.

Maybe see you there.


Monday, 3 March 2014

Does it matter - an unfinished blog post

Funnily enough, I had just started composing this post when I read this blog post by Sara Ahmed on ‘Perception’ which feels closely related to some of the things I'd been thinking about. She begins:

“When you expose a problem you pose a problem.  I have been thinking more about the problem of how you become the problem because you notice a problem. When exposing a problem is to become a problem then the problem you expose is not revealed.”

It's something I've come up against before - the sense that, although I'm a fairly quiet person, and I definitely make a stand for quietness, I've always felt in danger of being labelled a trouble-maker. Particularly when it comes to pointing out the obvious. Particularly when it comes to issues such as diversity or access.I come to stand for the problem, rather than pointing towards it.

Ahmed's point is a good one (they generally are) and I love her encouragement to other Feminist Killjoys to "Stay maladjusted!" and not cave into this pressure to 'fit in' or become 'easier to digest'.

But in other words, if you are going to point something out that doesn’t fit with the dominant way of thinking, you’d better feel sure about what you’re saying…

And where this interests me is where it meets the notion of listening. Because listening allows for difference of opinion to be present. But it also allows me to shift in relation to what I’m hearing.

This is where I have a major stumble. Because this, what Ahmed points out, exposes a system where binaries rule, where politics is about sticking to your guns, and where in order to create change we need to stick to one argument and push it through until it sticks. Which is a definition of commitment, right? When we commit to something, we continue having faith in it, even when that thing disappoints us or we’re no longer sure about it.

But how does this relate to plurality, and to the notion that we’re always changing?

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Trampolining and PhD are related activities

Had a moment of conviction that I love trampolining and studying for a PhD in similar ways. The feeling hasn’t passed, so I’ll try and write something about it here, though as I begin this I’m not sure yet what it is that I’m trying to say, if anything.

Being good

Maybe it’s something to do with choosing not to be engaged with the idea of being ‘good’. Good, as in, already accomplished or demonstrating skill. Already knowing what success looks like. Because both activities I’ve undertaken recently in spite of the fact that I’m pretty unsure whether I will succeed in them – I’ve never demonstrated a particular aptitude for academic study, and definitely never excelled at sport.

Or maybe a better way of putting it is that I don’t feel a need to be ‘good’ at either activity, in the sense of succeeding, accomplishing, reaching somewhere. In both those spaces, I am learning and paying attention, and curious about what emerges. In both those spaces, I am attempting activities that feel impossible to me. I’m a beginner. I’ve begun something, not in order to reach somewhere that defines me according to an outside register of success*, but in order to engage with something that takes me beyond where I am right now – something that challenges and shifts the frame within which I entered those activities.

Not being good any more

I guess I’m particularly aware of this because it sits in contrast with many of the qualities that defined my previous practice as a ‘professional artist’ or ‘career artist’. Inevitably, as a professional artist, ‘good’ and ‘successful’ felt almost completely defined by outside sources:

an artist who makes a living

an artist who receives funding

an artist whose work people want to see


an artist who has integrity

an artist who is open to change

an artist who can be engaged in the activity of making art, and not just describing that making process, either through some form of publicity or documentation

I can’t help but notice that in past years, and especially professionally, I’ve been somewhat obsessed with the idea of  finding out what I am ‘good’ at and trying to prove this fact. And only now, having laid down the idea of having a career as a touring performance maker, can I maybe find out. Because not only was I trying to be ‘good’, I was constantly looking for evidence of success. Looking for evidence that other people thought I was good. And now that I take a little time to reflect on that, it’s quite a waste of a life to be investing so much energy on – basically - worrying about looking good!

Process, Practice

So, to come back to the (slightly tenuous, you say?) comparison between trampolining and doing a PhD. Both are opportunities to be in a mode of practising, in a way that feels not dissimilar to that of Vipassana meditation. Curious, observing what happens, but not expecting an outcome. In fact, whilst in both cases there are outcomes and evidence of progress, and whilst the PhD is very specifically about producing a piece of work, I’m wondering whether both activities have allowed me to have a new kind of focus in the present – and this comes about precisely because, without the advance skill/knowing/ without being sure I can do them, I can only succeed by paying absolute attention to the present – to what I need to do right now.


Which brings me back to one of my favourite topics – listening. The idea that maybe what I find in common between these very different activities is that they force me to be engaged in an act of deep listening, and each in a very different way.

When I’m trampolining (and bear in mind that I’m almost 40 and I’ve never trampolined before) it’s actually physically dangerous to get distracted by thoughts or concerns – I have to learn to trust a completely different kind of intelligence in my body, and to engage in physical acts that I can’t imagine doing before I’ve attempted them. I have to learn a new way of listening, and I have to suspend an old way of holding onto knowledge. And there’s a kind of certainty, a kind of trust inherent in the physical activity of literally jumping into the unknown. It’s a commitment. I have to commit to the act and then follow through each time I jump, without knowing anything about what will occur from that jump.

And in the process of the PhD, it’s also about not letting fear get in the way. I was going to say that it’s a different kind of fear, or a different kind of getting out of the way that I need to perform. But actually it’s almost the same thing: if I think too much about whether I’ll fit into the world of academia (in this case, bear in mind that I haven’t studied since my fairly un-encouraging experience of being an undergraduate many years ago) I am paralysed. If I think about how I am going to make this thing happen, I won’t be able to do it. In each act of writing, and each act of practice that forms part of the PhD project, I have to commit and follow through, trusting in a process of thought that doesn’t already hold the answers. I have to commit to a series of encounters that might leave me changed, and trust that I will emerge from those encounters able to reflect with a new and different kind of relationship to them.

* I realise this might seem a little strange in relation to the PhD thesis, but I’m claiming it as a space where one makes enquiry and reaches for new connections rather than something that needs to be passed. I have no goal beyond the PhD itself. I’m not doing it in order to teach or to gain status as a professional artist, for example.