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.