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.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

1. On not having opinions

When I was young I used to ask myself frequently, “what will it be like when I am old enough to have opinions? Will I have any? How will I know what they are, what they should be?” This feeling comes back to me often. It sits in an interesting relationship with ethics, this idea of not knowing what my opinions might be. On the one hand, I blame sexism and capitalism and the many links between them for forming in me someone who might not be able to value her own thoughts and opinions, who has had to learn from others what it might mean to believe in something, and to trust that belief even when it flaunts the everyday reality that is being presented and underlined. On the other hand, I like that a part of me still doesn’t understand how to have an opinion. I think that holding on to this kind of wonder is a part of not falling into the patterns of the world. It is a part of not falling into what is given. It is, and of course I would say this, a part of what it means to be a listening creature in the world.

I recently read something written by a friend of mine who has a very clear relationship to their own opinions. This person is humble and generous and interesting, and also always seems sure of what they are saying, and their right to say it, in a way I feel I never could. And having read what they had written, I feel inspired and excited and I want to draw lines between what this person is saying and what I am saying. But at the same time I feel like slipping more into the shadows and drawing myself into cracks and negating myself. The wonder in not yet knowing how to understand, or how to respond, it’s a wonder that is hard to hold, it’s a place that is almost a negative place. It is, in many ways, the opposite of identity. It is the opposite of words. It is the opposite of making a mark, of being a part of ‘history’.

2. On niceness

The notes went

[Niceness being used to disguise:]

Reproducing structures of oppression

Reproducing structures of listening (who is heard, what is heard)

Reproducing the very shapes of conformity and obedience – in patterns of behaviour, patterns of speech, patterns of dress, and patterns of life-arc

as opposed to

[what is seen as] BEING TOO NICE = [labelled as] Of Lesser Value

I think these notes might actually already hold everything I want to say on the topic – which is why I held this blog post idea in draft for quite a while, making it shorter every time I come across it. The notes above lead to quite a diverse array of possible examples that I want to keep present in this conversation without noisily elucidating them all. But a few specific examples and reflections, in case they offer something, follow.

[--As is frequently the case, you can see that the a lot of my thinking is inspired by Sara Ahmed’s thinking – or at least that her excellent writing gives me the courage to take a leap of faith and explore out loud the way I perceive the structures that are holding things in place.--]

Reproducing structures
For some reason, and much against my instincts, I recently attended my twenty-year school reunion. It’s a private, all girls, Church of England school. We drank tea, and went on tours of the (almost all-new) buildings, had lunch in the refectory, and everyone commented on how no-one had changed at all over the years. And I don’t know why I was surprised by this, but I was struck by the performance of niceness that happened when we were reunited, and the way it felt utterly familiar, and that this was entirely linked to a performance of sameness. When I tried to express, for example, how much I had changed during the twenty years since I left school, this was met with a particular kind of non-response that entirely reminded me of the experience of being at school. People were unable to hear anything that differed from the model they were proposing. Under a veneer of niceness, of politeness perhaps, were hidden all the possibilities for difference and dissensus and queerness that make life, for me, bearable.

There is something important for me here about the ways in which we enact niceness, and reinforce structures where niceness is enacted. The place where I went to school feels far far removed from this life I have built for myself, as someone working in an experimental arts world. But I have seen this pattern of behaviour particularly when working in the arts world – a world that prides itself on the niceness of the people in it (we all do this because we love it! why else would we do it?) and yet people act in some of the least nice ways I can imagine towards each other and then never mention it again because “we are all nice people”.

Being too nice
On the other hand, I’ve often heard, and felt, the accusation that I am too nice or that my performance work is too nice to be taken seriously. It is the familiar opposition that is created between things that are ‘too nice and inclusive’ and things that are ‘rigorous and critical’, and it’s a problem I’ve articulated frequently. For me, those spaces that are both difficult and nice – by which I mean both genuinely inclusive in their invitation and able to hold open spaces that are not easily resolved and that do not aim to please all – are the most important, and perhaps the only important artistic spaces. But they have to be doing both those things: they have to be taking care as well as holding open.

I had a conversation recently with the wonderful artist Rosemary Lee about this – about how, if one is trying to make truly inclusive work, one will always be accused of being ‘too nice’ or maybe ‘not challenging enough’. And I realised that this very accusation, which sounds like the opposite of the enacting of niceness described above, is in fact exactly the same thing. The work is described as being too nice because it is inclusive. But this very accusation, of the work being 'too nice' is often levelled at an inclusivity that might mean voices or aesthetics are included that in fact are simply not conforming to the shapes or structures of the avant-garde; the structures of thinking, of language, of aesthetic, of life arc, that are valued within a certain artistic structure as ‘challenging’, ‘rigorous’, or ‘critical’.

3. To Not Act

I recently overheard a conversation between some activists who were complaining about how academics are never in action, always far away from where the works is really happening. It is something I have found myself saying in the past, that I wish academics could stop being cowards; that they should come down and campaign, or put their bodies in the place of ideas in order to understand those ideas better, more broadly, in their most complex versions. And yet, I suppose, in that conversation I overheard, there was a kind of black-white argument, and that argument believes that action is always better than contemplation, and that to be in action always means being in occupation, putting the body in a place as a form of protest; and that to be in contemplation always means being far away from the action, not having the body acting as a form of protest. And what I realised in this moment was that I am uninterested in a form of action that does not include the distance of contemplation. And I am uninterested in a form of contemplation that does not include the immediacy of being-in-place.

4. The conclusion

The pattern looks something like this: make a proposal, attempt to realise it, and then prove that it was realised. It’s not a flawed structure, but a flawed interpretation of a potentially very useful structure. Within the arts, as artists and perhaps also as academics, we’ve learnt to put a huge amount of emphasis on the ‘conclusion’ of a project: whether that’s the final argument of a book or the documentation or evaluation of a show. To the extent that it shapes the entire project – without this being a conscious structuring device.

It seems simple, but it takes great energy and discipline to move away from that cycle. It’s something I’ve come to greatly admire in François Matarasso’s recent work, and his decision to move away from a very successful career as an arts consultant and to invest his time primarily in creating experiments in collaboration with other artists.

It is easy to equate this kind of thinking with a ‘scientific model’. But it’s not the notion of a scientific or rational model that I’m having trouble with. It’s not the notion of having a hypothesis, conducting an experiment, and then drawing a conclusion, that is suspect. In fact, it’s a perfectly valid way of conducting research if the researcher/artist can remain open to the possibility of change, challenge and failure.

But our projects and our thinking as artists have become shaped to a great extent by what we believe to be models of success – so that we’re attempting to write the correct narrative about a project (the one, perhaps, that fits with the proposal we made in the first place) to such a great extent that we often fail to allow the project itself to drive us in our thinking and our discoveries.

Monday, 10 August 2015


image by Rajni Shah, originally created for Qasim Riza Shaheen
“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of those Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids--and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination--indeed, everything and anything except me.” – from the novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

I remember when I first came across this book. Before I had even read it I felt deeply moved by the title and the idea of it. It is funny to say that I felt a sense of recognition at the feeling of not being recognised, but that’s how it was. I felt recognised, I recognised myself, in the description of invisibility. I loved reading this book. I loved that it existed. The world of the novel is not at all a world in which I live, and the characters in the novel and their lives are factually far from the details of my life; and yet it felt in that moment like it was written for me; like it was written about me.

I recognise the feeling of being invisible.


Over the past few weeks
, I’ve been reading written reflections from people who took part in a project I co-organised called Lying Fallow. I’ve noticed that there is a thread that runs through them, a sense of

what it means to be recognised and what it means to be anonymous.


what it means to be accepted without the need to be recognised.


what it means to matter, to count, as someone in the room, even if your way of being someone is not the dominant way of being.


what it means to be counted as part of the conversation when your contribution is one of silence.


what it means to hear someone without already deciding who they are and what they bring.


what it means to hear someone without needing to be reflected in them.

Each piece of writing is bringing a different perspective and is written in a completely different style – but somehow the thing that keeps calling out to me in my reading of them is the sense that recognition without already-knowing is a rare and precious thing. That these spaces in which we can hold each other without needing to ‘know’ each other, where we can be counted without having to declare ourselves, are incredibly important and incredibly hard to find.


Right now, as you may know, I am living in a city that I do not call home. I have moved here. And part of what is happening, across every strand of my life, is that I am figuring out what it means to recognise when the land and the people are not familiar. I am trying not to simply impose structures of knowing and understanding that are from another place onto this place. [ – a very particular challenge in a place like Sydney, a city which in so many ways and for painful historical reasons superficially models much of itself and its thinking on 'England'. And of course, I am a part of this lineage now, of violence, of invasion, and of stolen lands.] But I am also experiencing what it feels like to not be recognised. To not be known. To be invisible.

It is interesting how quickly I feel the need for someone to know my history, to know the work I have done, to know and value who I am and what I have to offer. It is interesting how quickly I feel the fear of anonymity. It makes me realise how much I have been held by the listening of others, counting on them to know me or to want to know me. I have found that I've been spending time with friends in my dreams, as if to replace the day-world with the night-world, making the nights familiar and the days strange.

We are so quick to know.

And I awoke this morning thinking about the violence in what we call understanding, in the act of drawing an equivalence between ourselves and others when they do not necessarily ask for it. I realised that there are times when I might think that I am making someone feel welcome by agreeing with them, but by agreeing with them on my terms I am only making them into another version of myself … and that turns out not to be about them at all.

I understand the violence in the act of drawing an equivalance, or even what we might call 'understanding' - it is an act of taking away, of removing potential and possibility, it is in fact an act of colonisation.

I was thinking about how it is sometimes the most generous act to not already know someone; to care to hold what they have to say without needing to draw an equivalence with one's own life. To notice them. To not need them to be making themselves visible. And to not need to become visible through them.

(with special thanks to Ben Webb, Emma Adams, Michelle Outram & Stella Duffy for your reflections on Lying Fallow, which have been inspiring me)

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

But who is it for

First, there is another place that you should go

Right as I was drafting this, as I was drafting it very slowly and occasionally, as is my way, the wonderful Karen Christopher posted this blog on her site, and it says some of the things I might be stumbling towards here, and it says them very eloquently. You might read hers as a parallel to mine. Or, if you’ve only time for one, read hers – it will inspire you. Karen articulates very beautifully many of the things I felt when I was making performance, and her performances are exactly as she describes them -

"I’ve slowed down to look closely and I can do the same for you"

- and I am so glad she is making performance, and writing about performance, and teaching. There is a deep value in work that slows down, that doesn’t assume; and that same thing that is so valuable is what makes the work very difficult to ‘value’, difficult to catch hold of, difficult to write about and to blow into the shape of success. It takes a lot to hold this place, to hold it open. And Karen is doing that work. And in a different way, I hope I am also doing that work. And we are doing some of that work together.

This was a kind of preface. Now to my stumbling struggling words…

The Question

One of the ways in which I use this space of the blog is to work through things that I repeatedly encounter. Things that I have an instinct to be wary of, but I’m not sure why yet. This is a common feeling for me. It’s rare that someone says something and I immediately disagree or have a counter-argument. You could say it’s part of my commitment to listening, that I like to hear what a person has to say before figuring out whether I also have something to say about it. Or you could say something else… (!!*)

There’s a phrase that I’ve come up against several times recently in slightly different guises. Each time I hear it, I find myself putting a guard up, feeling a slight anger, but I can’t quite work out why. It’s the phrase,

“But who is it for?”

as in: but who are you making this work for, or who are you writing this for?

It’s a fair question, you might think. I think it’s fair question, which is why I can’t quite work out this feeling of being so vexed by it.

For example, it was asked of me in my PhD Upgrade exam, in response to a series of dialogues I’ve been conducting, called 'Experiments in Listening'.

“Who is the experiment for?” the examiner said.

I, of course, had no answer. I knew it was a good question, and a fair question in the context, one that was designed to open up conversation and thinking around the project, but I felt and still feel a very peculiar resistance to answering it. I felt it was important not to know the answer.

And then I heard it again at a conference recently, someone asking:

“We must ask: who are we making this work for?”

And as I examine my response, I know that there are many things that might be problematic or irksome about this type of question, and these are not the things that are bothering me. It contains the idea of duty, that one ought to know in advance the audience for whom one is writing or making, that the work will always (and not just sometimes) be better for this question. It taps into a world of marketing-speak and funding-speak where artists must pre-determine their work and their audiences in order to draw down funding, in order to fit within what many of us consider a flawed structure of evaluation and value within the arts. And yet I don’t think it’s (only) these things that are bothering me when I hear the phrase. I think it’s something about the relationship between selfishness and selflessness, and how these things are perceived.

How generosity is perceived

Maybe it will help to briefly explore another problem I have repeatedly encountered, with people who refuse generosity as a term on which work might be made. Because I’ve noticed that a lot of my peers will say that they only make work for themselves – ultimately, they make work for themselves, not for anyone else, and not in response to anything greater. Like it’s disingenuous to say that we might make work for something other than selfish reasons, when making art is such a luxury.

And it bothers me, because yes, I have made the work for myself in a way, but that can’t be the only reason I make work. And I suppose it comes down to a problem I keep revisiting about the ‘white male genius’ figure of the artist, who only makes work for himself, who follows his instinct and his vision, but everyone gathers around that work because it is brilliant. And I won’t deny it, I have had fantasies about working in this way, about forging a career path that is only about what I want, and keeping on in this path until I receive some kind of recognition for stubborn self-faith. But I have found that in practice I just can’t make work within this model, which assumes knowledge and genius is only held within a person, and that ‘success’ is dished out in accordance with merit. I don’t discover the work or the ideas in solitude. I discover things in the world, in dialogue, in company, in full recognition of all the people in the room. And so yes, I do make work for and with other people.** Often, what I am making is not so much a performance or a product but a structure within which we might encounter something – an excuse to gather around something in order to be in (often quiet, or non-verbal, subtle, complex) dialogues.

The need for answers

“So who is the work for?”

As is so often the case, my biggest problem with the question is that it’s a question that loudly demands an answer, and it demands an answer that clarifies.

And I don’t want to give an answer that clarifies.

I can’t tell you if it’s for you, and I’m not sure if I can tell you if it’s for me. Who is it for reveals itself in who comes, and how they come. And it’s a question that should remain alive in the room. It’s not one that should be set down with an answer. I don’t make the work for someone, and I don’t conduct the experiment for someone. It’s not that the question is irrelevant, maybe it’s a good question, but maybe it just needs to remain live.

And maybe this was embodied in Glorious, where the figure of the artist stood in the middle of a stage on a podium, with people gathering around, a temporary community, all of us listening. There is a lazy reading of this which goes: the artist is elevated and considers herself superior. In this reading, “who is it for?” is answered easily with, “it’s for the artist and for her success.” There is resolution in this position, it makes it easy to read, and it makes it easy to place the responsibility for the work in the realm of the artist. But it’s more complicated than that. There is a responsibility in watching, too. For a start, there is the responsibility for finding that image problematic and understanding why and how this problem is occuring.

Who is it for?

might also be

How are you watching?


How are you listening?


Where do you position your body in relation to this body?

Performing Glorious never stopped feeling difficult. That act of standing centre-stage, it never stopped feeling problematic. And that difficulty was important. Maybe because it was a difficult thing to read, to accept. Maybe because that very organisation of stage, of visuals, asks the question – “but who is it for?” – and leaves it unresolved. And maybe, whilst difficult, that is also generous. Maybe it's a difficulty that sits between us.

* I think there’s an easy slip here between being someone who listens and considers and doesn’t pre-judge or predetermine a conversation, and being someone who is not brave enough to speak when speaking needs to happen (even if that speaking might sound inarticulate). It is, maybe, the difference between silence that is an active listening, where one is present, and silence that is a being-silenced, a going-along-with, when really what is needed is some kind of articulation or a demand to be heard. I do both things, though I am slowly trying to weed out the less brave one!

** I'm fully aware that I've made work under my own name, in collaboration with other artists, for which I have largely been the one who is credited, because of my role as director. This is definitely problematic, but a problem for another discussion. I don't think it's as black and white as it seems.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Passing the PhD

I recently gave a talk at a conference called The Politics of Passing, and I opened the talk with the following description of my first PhD supervision:

On the first day of my PhD, my supervisor said to me,

‘There might come a time in this project when we’re faced with a decision between doing the PhD that you want to do, and doing the PhD that passes.

And my job will be to encourage you to do the PhD that passes.

That will be my job. And I need you to know that.

But that won’t necessarily be the right choice.’

I keep coming back to thinking about this. The fact that the role of a supervisor is to help a person ‘pass’. And how important it feels to think about this alongside other types of passing – racial passing, passing as able or disabled, passing as one gender or another. Passing and its relationship to success. Because to be successful in a PhD is to pass the PhD. And yet to pass the PhD often involves quoting the “right” names, showing that you are able to follow a particular trajectory, one that has been defined in advance. It is not necessarily about ‘original thinking’ since the trajectory of passing is by definition one that relates to what has gone before or already exists.

My experience of doing a PhD has not been about passing. But to a great extent this is because prior to embarking on the PhD I very consciously lay aside notions of ‘success’ and ‘career’ and I was very clear that in taking on this new project I was not prepared to simply adopt those notions again in another context.

Immediately after my talk (which was concerned with the act of holding open as opposed to the act of passing in relation to a variety of contexts) there was time for one quick question, and someone asked, “Did you pass the PhD?” I laughed, then I answered hurriedly that I hadn’t yet completed it.

But I’ve kept coming back to that question, as one that I didn’t answer seriously. I mean, it was kind of funny, the question, it kind of felt like a joke. ‘So… did you pass?’ I enjoyed it in that way. But I kept thinking about it later not as a joke but as a serious question.

Because this is the only question that remains at the end of a PhD.

And the choice not to do it solely in order to pass feels important and difficult. Difficult in the context of a society that values passing to such a great extent. My experience of life has been this one. If you can pass, if you can pull it off, if you can convince others that you are successful, or white, or educated, or straight, then you can proceed. I have operated quite successfully within this system. But it’s a troubling system.

This doesn’t feel like a particularly novel realisation, I’m sure I’m not the first to write about it. I suppose I just wanted to answer seriously a question (asked after my talk at the conference) that I didn’t answer seriously at the time. And to acknowledge that it was a serious question, and that it’s a serious topic. And to say that I wish there was more time at conferences to sit with a question, to hold it between us, to be in the room with what has been said, before the need for answers enters the space.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Not a tight community, but a community

wildflowers, blurry

A few days ago I was lucky enough to be on a panel with the wonderful artist Rosemary Lee, who has inspired me for many years. She said something that struck me. She said,

What I’m looking for is a community. Not a tight community, but a wider community.

There was something important about this for me. The idea of community so often gets presented as a tight-knit and overstated set of similarities, based on place or race or gender or age. It inevitably has outsiders and insiders. It sometimes has artists ‘coming in’ to ‘do projects’. These communities do exist, of course, and there is value in feeling like one is inside a tight-knit community sometimes. But in relation to arts practices, and in relation to my life and needs, I find that this notion of community as something solid and contained is always deeply problematic, and will primarily generate a feeling of outsiderness for me – something that will feel difficult to enter into.

A loose-knit community feels so much more like something I might aspire to both create and be within. It feels like something that has space to breathe, that might change, over time and space, that might welcome newness without drawing too much attention to it. And that one day might fall apart in a way that wasn’t alarming or threatening, just the course of things.

I’m interested in how we might allow those kind of spaces, and how we might hold those kinds of spaces. I’m interested in how to hold something just enough, not to constrain, and not to let go completely, but just to hold and commit for as long as it is there.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Letter for you from the future

In my new life I am learning to surf, and I am learning to love the sea

In my new life I am performing with a dance troupe in Taiwan

In my new life I am a popstar

In my new life I am making direct actions to help illegal immigrants

In my new life I am training to be a therapist in a prison setting

In my new life I care about my body and the land equally as I care about other people

In my new life I am always far away and not far away depending on how you choose to position yourself

In my new life I am spending a lot of time with inspiring older women

In my new life I am queer and glamorous and quiet and awkward and brimful of ease

In my new life I am writing

In my new life I am gathering impetus and throwing it off again in a repeated circular action

In my new life I meditate with people who care about being in action

Yes, it is possible to start over from this moment.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland

Some notes on The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland by Ridiculusmus. Which I've seen twice, and continue to find difficult to describe - and that's a great thing. These notes were written freeform and fast, about a year after I first saw the show. They haven't been edited.They're a bit clumsy.

20/02/15 2.30-2.50pm

This is a show that changes every time it is performed, and for which the playscript is not clarifying as the order of things is sometimes simultaneous, sometimes chronological. This is a show in which the audience is seated in two groups facing each other, except that they can’t see each other because there is a theatrical set between them. This is a show that uses repetition in an unusual way, by performing two different interlocking scenes involving the same actors on either side of the theatrical set, playing to half of the audience on one side and half on the other side and making ‘entrances’ and ‘exits’ via a door in the set that leads to the other half of the audience, and then reversing which act is performed on each side. This is a play that is influenced by a method of therapy called ‘Open Dialogue’ which is being used very successfully to treat schizophrenia and psychosis in Western Lapland. This is a play that challenges what we might understand as ‘narrative’. Underneath all of that, this is a play about holding space and time together, and recognising that we are all responsible for the relationships we have with each other, and sometimes those relationships fail, but that does not mean that we are failures. This is a show that is funny, and trying to be funny. This is a show that is funny, as in ‘weird’. Because it is funny, as in weird, this show does not allow language to become hierarchical, just weird. Language travels across the space between us, all of us, and we catch what we can. Sometimes several people are talking or making noise at once. They are having conversations that might just be related but that will only become related if we do the work of relating them in our heads. This is a show about the attempt of language, and the violence of uttering one word. This is a show where the actors listen very carefully to each other, and we listen very carefully to them, and we also sometimes give up, let go, of making sense of the narratives that they are speaking. This is a show where everyone in the room is trying to make sense of something. And that is all that is happening. But we are doing it in the same room.

Nothing gets resolved, nothing gets actioned, no-one gets saved. We can’t take it away with us, and neither can we pack it away after the applause. It continues as we leave the theatre, which is not to say that it intends to continue after we leave the theatre, but because nothing has been resolved, our lives as we leave that space are already related to the violent attempts at language we have witnessed. ‘The story’ doesn’t follow us home. ‘The characters’ don’t live on inside our heads. But just as we were in that room trying to make sense of language with a bunch of other people, so we continue to be in another room or on the street in the same event. It is all the same event, but within that one frame we gathered and we paid attention to it.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

How We Are Seen or The Bananas Incident

The thing about the bananas incident is that I could still feel it in my body for weeks after it happened. And it really wasn’t a huge deal. And it probably lasted less than half an hour in all. But it revealed so much to me about how we are seen and how this determines who we “are”. So:

The Bananas Incident

The bananas incident happened seven weeks ago. Since then, small moments have re-created the story for me. It's not an unusual story, but it's unusual that it would be mine. And in owning that story, in holding it as part of my past, it has changed me. But in telling it, in sharing it, in gathering ammunition against it and sympathy for my own view of it, I've left it behind. It has changed my views, but it hasn't changed me. And that's because I'm privileged. I have the privilege of leaving it behind.

The story goes like this.

I was in Mons, Belgium, preparing for a concert with two local musicians and my friend and collaborator Suzie Shrubb. We were there for a week to improvise together, with a concert on the Saturday evening. On Friday night, Suzie had become quite ill, and by Saturday afternoon she hadn’t emerged from her hotel room or texted me, so I headed back from the venue to the hotel, a little worried. Before I left, I grabbed a small packet of bananas that one of the tech team had bought for us – in case Suzie was feeling better enough to eat something.

On the way back to the hotel, I passed through the town centre, and popped into the mini Carrefour to buy a few more things: some crackers, and some chocolate, if I remember correctly. I probably looked a bit tired and worried, and it was really cold so I had my scarf wrapped around my (shaved, brown) head. When I got to the checkout and was putting things away in my backpack, the cashier asked to see what was in my bag. I showed him. He asked me if I had bought the small packet of bananas from the Carrefour and I said ‘no’; then he picked up the packet of bananas and asked another cashier if these bananas were from the Carrefour, and she said yes. At which point I tried to explain (in French) that I hadn’t bought them, and they might be from that shop, but I hadn’t stolen them. But it was too late.

What followed was, you might say, hilarious. At the time it almost destroyed me.
The cashier called another cashier over and told her I had stolen the bananas.
I said that I hadn’t stolen them, and tried to explain what had happened.
She said they would have to check the CCTV footage.
Someone behind me in the checkout line offered to pay for the bananas.
I thanked him but explained again that I hadn’t stolen them.
I offered to leave the incriminating bananas behind.
I offered to pay for the bananas.
I told them I was in a hurry and had to get back to the hotel to see someone who was quite ill, and asked what I could do to make them believe me.
I tried to leave the bananas behind and walk out of the shop.
The cashier came after me and hauled me back into the supermarket.
Finally, the other cashier said she had looked at the CCTV footage and realised I hadn’t stolen the bananas.
I was free to go – no apologies.

The thing is that none of this happened calmly. I felt so trapped in the conviction they all had that I was a thief, and that I had stolen a packet containing two bananas, that I got very worked up – by the end, I’m pretty sure I was swearing, and shouting. I was so hurt by the whole incident, and the reality that was playing out in front of me: that once people see you as a criminal everything you say sounds like a crime. And even more distressing: that if someone was so desperate that they had stolen two bananas from the supermarket, this was how they would be treated.

Most of all, I understood how it felt to be seen as a criminal. I’ve never really understood this before, but I know that it’s an everyday reality for many people. I could feel it in my body for weeks afterwards. And I understood that this kind of situation would only need to repeat itself a few times to completely change not only how I felt in public space, but how I acted. If the space you’re given in the world is to be seen as a criminal, then that’s the space you have to fill.

Me – I went back to my hotel, organised a taxi to take Suzie to the hospital, and then went back to the venue to make some music. I told the story to my friends, and they were shocked at what had happened. Eventually, this was enough to put it behind me.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Three short thoughts

I wanted to write a blog post about the bananas. I want to unsettle the way we hear things. I want to unsettle the way we see each other. I want to put into words some of the conversations I had with Andy that week, the dialogue, the thinking-through, the working something through within the medium of words. And are words only these things, the signs that we make with our pen-strokes? Are they just as valid when they are spoken and not written or recorded? Are they an extension of our bodies? Are they also these words that I type without leaning in?
The phrase ‘lean in’ has become quite popular I’ve noticed. Lean in, lean in, lean in, while I speak quietly and you must listen. Lean in and hear the news. Lean in and show you are part of the club. Lean in, put your weight on me, I will carry you. Lean in if you can bear to trust me with your weight. Lean in to show you are in the club of those who trust and are trusted. It’s a complicated phrase, just like all of them. I think that one of the reasons I like using a microphone when speaking is that I can speak in my quiet voice and other people can hear without needing to signal anything by leaning in. Some people tell me I’m wrong, that a microphone is a physical barrier between me and the audience, that it is more genuine, more friendly, more honest, to speak “naturally”. These people are usually people with loud, resonant voices. People who are used to being heard.
I have a feeling that everything about language has become a club. We trust words too much. I wish we had only just invented them and then we might treat them with a kind of wonder, a mistrust, a reluctance, a reticence. We might prod them and not know how they would respond, what kind of creatures they were. We might invent them at once more carefully and carelessly, playing with their form and their weight as they travel between us. We might not kill them with presumption and the expectation of fixity.

Next up: a blog post about the bananas