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.