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.