September 2021

A copy of a recent letter I sent to my supervisors. Each envelope included prints of the two photos below. This digital copy of the letter has footnotes to support a wider readership. Please let me know if there are other ways your reading can be better supported.

Dear Efrosini, Robyn, Nic,

I think I took a holiday? I went to Estonia. I originally planned to go there – with some PhD friends at Roehampton – for about 10 days, but then decided to stay an extra week. I realised it was giving me something (the company of others, being in the countryside, distance from my home/studio) that I needed: relaxing something that had been held all year.

But, of course, it wasn’t really a holiday. I was reading, thinking, doing some embroidery, working on the solo, speaking with peers about their research, and starting a new process of therapy. The line between working and not working often isn’t clear. Lots of what I do is hard to justify as ‘working on the PhD’, or feels unlikely to leave an overt mark on whatever thesis I’ll end up submitting in three years time; but equally, feels totally essential to the process of getting in done. 

I’m curious about this not-work that makes the more formal work possible. I think of feminist critiques of labour1: of domestic work, care work, maintenance. In relation to the programmer or curator, I’d also think of the ‘bureaucratic’ processes demanded by the institution, and the more diffuse activity required to keep abreast of an art scene and maintain relations with a network of artists. (At a Sadler’s programming team meeting, when discussing a potential season of work 18 months in the future, I was surprised to hear someone mention an artist’s name and say that their new show would be finished around then. Whose schedules do they know, how do they know them, and what are the limits of this familiarity?) And then for the freelance artist-curator – how much of their activity to gain an understanding of the work of their peers is acknowledged and remunerated as part of their temporary role? How much can these guest-artist initiatives be read within a wider neoliberal trend to cut salaried and pensioned roles in favour of short-term freelance contracts – whittling down this more informal labour happens on company time?

*

It was pretty impossible not to think about the PhD while in Estonia. I was at Massia: a collectively-run centre for artistic, gardening, ecological, pedagogical practices, based in a former schoolhouse in the countryside, near the Latvian border.2 It can house about 20 people: you pay a small fee, and as long as there’s space you can stay as long as you like. It operates through a set of principles: ‘make things possible for others’, ’don’t leave traces’, ‘mind asymmetries’, etc. Recently they’ve started to ask people to do ‘one hour of work for Massia’ each day. 

Many parts of the building (toilets, laundry rooms, the kitchen) have signs giving information: explaining the idiosyncrasies of Estonian recycling, how the compost works, the process of selecting a bedroom and acquiring bedding, or a list of things around that building that need seeing to. Instead of formalising roles and obligations, the structure seeks to empower people to determine for themselves how they work within and contribute to the space. At one point, I described us as being simultaneously guests and hosts: I loved the feeling of panic in me when seeing someone new suddenly arrive; having no idea if they were going to be staying there or just stopping by; whether they knew the space well or if it was their first time. I’d drop what I was doing, and feel responsible for trying to welcome them to the space after a potentially long and confusing journey.

But these structures are complex. I’ve written to you before3 about attempts to enable new people to join the student organising; or how arts institutions might make information more available to stakeholders who don’t hold formal office. (I’d be curious about how this kind of information/transparency work might connect to the idea of ‘access’ within the social model of disability4). Not all information about the space can be comprehensively explained. Not all needs can be anticipated. There will always be a slippage between what is understood by individuals moving through Massia, and what they choose to record for future generations. For better or worse, some things will always be lost.

And so, naturally, people who are newer to the space lean on those with greater history and familiarity. And I think everyone there was pretty aware, and continually dealing with, the risk of this establishing a hierarchy: of how things ‘should’ work; of who feels the permission to do what in the building; of who has the right to certain decisions. Is this or that being done, because that’s how things should be done here at Massia? Or is that merely that person’s taste, and I’m free to act otherwise? These might be big things – to do with labour or money – but also as minor as where certain things belong in the kitchen. 

I spoke about this a lot with someone who has lived there on and off for the past four years. Their seniority was most evident when there were issues with the internet, or we needed to get the plumbers in for a problem in the basement – recurring issues, those demanding a good understanding of the legal agreements (insurance, etc.) of the organisation, or simply when we had to communicate with people who only spoke Estonian. I noticed how easy it was for me to continually turn to this person for information: on how to do a certain job, or where I could find certain materials, etc. But I wanted to avoid always putting them in the role of authority, and always demanding the labour of them to explain. (Some things were complicated enough to do that it would almost be as much effort for them to explain how to me how do it, as it would be to simply do it themselves. Once we needed to figure out if I would ever come back again, before it we could agree that it was worth the investment to train me.)

I really admired the sophisticated ways this person dealt with their potential authority. Some of them are more identifiable: they describe themselves as a ‘heavy-user’ of the space; and rather than simply telling people the ‘right way’ to do things, are very good at highlighting potential issues (“I just want to give some information that might be useful…”). But it was also way more intangible and hard to pinpoint – it was their sense of timing, their ability to hold their tongue, their patience, their excellent sense of humour. A tone of voice, a look, a pause, a hint, a shrug. As ever, I’m struck by how nuanced, elusive, un-documentable these hosting practices are.

Taking Mick Wilson’s definition, I’d say that Massia is (or at least, is striving to be) an institution: “a trans-generational project […] a kind of a contract that outlives the parties who make the contract”5. It aspires to operate in a way that can survive any  individual departing. And unlike most organisations, it’s trying to do that without formalised roles or legal constraints. It is a sophisticated, highly structured, and sustained experiment in self-determined participation.

Which is all cool to me. But I was so struck by how my experience really shifted about a week in. I had strained my back, and someone recommend I drink of some the tinctures that line the back wall of the kitchen – an amazing array of huge brown glass bottles that someone (or several people) at some point in the past had made from plants they have foraged or grown. 

Up until that point, I had considered myself a relatively confident user of the space. But I noticed my deep reluctance to draw from this resource. I don’t understand how the tinctures were made, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to replenish them (or at least, very unwilling to commit my time there to learning how). I had mostly been contributing by cleaning, cooking, or shopping: short term, non-specialist activities. Without consciously thinking it, I had intuited that these activities were ‘accounting’ for the ways I had been using the space. Taking from the tinctures would imbalance that. Which is ridiculous, right? Because actually there had been deep asymmetries in my dependancy and efforts all the time. So much of the infrastructure of the space (the electrics, the carpentry, the plumbing, the logistics and administration etc.), that I had been drawing from and relying on, was so profoundly outside of my skills, and didn’t match what I was giving back. 

To take from these tincture was (in my mind) to more consciously enter into a debt with the space – with the previous and future guest-hosts. I drank three small glasses. The next few days I kept wondering: what was ‘enough’ work? What was a valuable, sufficient, reasonable, adequate contribution? Given my skills, my taking, my capacity – what was right to give? I questioned whether there was something dodgy about my perception of cooking and cleaning as being not ‘enough’. Was my desire to make contribution as tangible and long-lasting as the tinctures just vanity? But: my work while there had mostly been to benefit me, and the other people staying there – how were future generations benefitting from any of this?

While this might sound a bit anxious, I appreciated the unresolvability of some of these questions. It was impossible to settle the score and fully pay your dues. While you are meant to clean up after yourself while there (“don’t leave traces”), it was also impossible. If, on departure, you were getting the early morning bus back to Tallinn, there wasn’t enough time to both wash and put them away. I was dependant on someone else taking them out of the machine, and hanging them up to dry after I’ve gone. And I think something of the irresolvable asymmetry of one’s participation in the space is useful. Few of us like to feel that we’re dependant. But we’re all leaning on each other, all the time.

Maybe this casts everything in a rosy glow of harmonious collectivity. Obviously, painful dynamics can emerge. One way of dealing with these questions was to over-work; or to contribute in ways motivated more by how that it seen, rather than doing things that are particularly needed or useful. I immediately felt my anxiety bloom when one day someone casually mentioned their distaste for ‘entitled people’. In navigating my day-to-day sense of responsibility, permission, indifference, how was I reading (and misreading) the space? What was I not seeing, and how could I begin to become aware of that? (To be honest, the accusation of ‘entitlement’ terrifies me. Often in this PhD I’m talking about entering and reimagining institutional spaces; of taking the initiative in shifting cultures of permission and inhibition. It’s tricky – and uncomfortable – to figure out how deeply this is shaped by my middle-class-ness, my whiteness, my cis-masculinity.)

It’s easy enough to imagine ways that these tensions or anxieties could be addressed (e.g. a weekly meeting to bring up any issues). But as I suggested with the ‘heavy-user’ of the space earlier, I think there are limits to the formal or identifiable ways of addressing the messinesses of people living and working together. The idiosyncrasies of each individual – their sensitivities, dispositions, blind-spots, humour, taste, skills, anxieties, shame – are an irreducible part of whatever’s happening; both how problems and questions emerge, but also how deep contradictions and tensions are navigated and sustained.

I think this is all very highlighted in a place like Massia – without formalised jobs, salaries, funding structures – but I think it’s also happening in more traditional, and seemingly impersonal, institutions. I still get stuck with that María Lugones definition of intimacy as “the interwoven social life among people who are not acting as representatives or officials.”6 I read this as pointing out the potential intimacy to be found in how people find ways of going beyond or in resistance to one’s delineated role. But I think there is an intimacy in how that individual meets, understands and practices that role; which is so embroiled in the complexities of why that person gets out of bed in the morning and how they move through the world. The ways that I comport and constrain myself in my role of office – and how I act from that position in relation to others – feels saturated in intimacy.

*

Alongside bumbling my way through all of the above, I was also reading a lot. I was astounded by how pertinant Daisy Lafarage’s new novel, Paul, is to some of the thinking I’ve been doing.7 It’s about a coercive relationship between a young woman and an older man with whom she is staying as part of a work-residence exchange; but really, it felt like a catalogue of different and imperfect kinds hosting: welcoming, inviting, exciting, transactional, chaotic, charming, coercive and violent.

I loved the book. I understand it to totally reject any neat ascription of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ hospitality. Instead, it considers a wide range of gestures – of inclusion, distance, boundaries, complicity – that are different wielded by different people in different situations. One of the most positively portrayed characters, Mireille – a woman with her own history of violence, who is warm and compassionate towards the main character – frequently behaves in ways that echoes the most abusive figures of the novel: she dictates to the main character what she should wear, temporarily locks up some of her belongings, and encourages her to violate the privacy of the hosts she is briefly staying with.

The only issue I had with the book was how it handled the paedophilia of the eponymous abusive character, Paul. I get why it’s there: the book is indirectly addressing the historical figure of the painter Paul Gauguin, whose colonialist engagement with Tahiti included him marrying and having sex with thirteen-year old girl.8 It’s not that I’m want to erase this history, or excuse child sexual abuse. But the sensationalism with which the character’s paedophilia is revealed – and the ways in which that is used to retrospectively delineate whose behaviours should be celebrated or condemned – seemed to eclipse what I had found most interesting about the rest of book. Paul’s violence towards the main character is evident; but situated within (and almost explained by) the heavy-handed frame of his paedophilia, risks making clear cut moral designations over a deeply complex terrain of intimacies. There were pleasures, frustrations, compromises and humiliation of all of the different characters’ hosting. It’s not always obvious when the intimacy that arises is positive, or negative, or both.9

Alongside reading, I finally had some time to return to embroidery. I made two more of those oozing wound works for friends as gifts: Dried Mugwort, for Odhran, and Calendula, for Clare. I don’t exactly know how this work fits in with the PhD – it’s something about peer ecologies; about a relationality that understands ourselves to be leaky and penetrable; and something of what the poet Omikemi discusses in their conversation with Rajni Shah, as part of the recently issue of Performance Philosophy that Rajni guest-edited:

“it's one of the many reasons why I'm grateful for, for having you in my life, because I feel like it really … you reorientate me. [laughs] There's something reorientating about it, too. You know, it’s like: Ah. Ah. Ah, this is home! Ah, home is this direction! You know? Because often I'm following that smoke. You know that smoke we talked about at the beginning, the incense, like that beckoning? Like often I'm fucking following smoke home, you know?”10

I’m interested in how these embroideries – and artistic practices more generally –  operate as gifts, friendship and belonging. How they arise from these intimate relations, operate through them, and sustain them. I’m reminded of last autumn, at the end of a self-organised digital ‘open studio’ that Rohanne and I hosted – a delirious giddy day with friends and peers Zoom-ing in from around the world – I wrote: “this is where the work is, and comes from, and where it goes.”11

As with my reading of Lafarage’s depicting of hosting, I’m interested in the pleasures, possibilities, limits and risks of all this. A co-resident at Massia told me of her ambivalence about the embroideries. To her they seemed excessive and strange, and that receiving one would probably provoke in her feelings of guilt, or an expectation to reciprocate. I thought – yes, exactly. They’re potent. I’m pretty careful about who I make them for; asking what that might do to the relationship; and what it means to represent these works publicly (either on my portfolio, or social media, or to include them in some future exhibition). I think their excessiveness and intensity makes them risky, but also so generative in doing all this research.

After that conversation I was reminded of the work of Tim Jeeves, whose PhD was about gifts and generosity12. And then I found out later that evening he had died. I only knew Tim a bit: I attended a great workshop of his soon after moving to London, and crossed paths a few times. He was always very encouraging and patient with me. I spent that evening thinking about his work, and how much I wanted to read his PhD. And this idea of transgenerationality came to my mind again: how we draw from the work of each other, and offer up our work for others in the future to make use of. And then this line from Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Diaries stuck out:

“I have found that battling despair […] means, for me, […] knowing that my work is part of a continuum of women’s work, of reclaiming this earth and our power, and knowing that this work did not begin with my birth, nor will it end with my death. And it means knowing that within this continuum, my life and my love and my work has particular power and meaning relative to others.”13

There’s a whole other kind of transgenerational continuum – beyond institutional structures, whether formalised or collectively-run – that we can situate ourselves in. 

Ok. It’s been another long letter. I really really really wanted to just send you guys a postcard. Which so needs to happen, right? But obviously there was just too much I wanted to write. I hope you’ve all had good summers, with some solid moments of down time. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

In debt,

Paul

2

Massia’s website.

3

My letter in March ’21.

4

The social model of disability proposes that rather than ‘disability’ being an inherent property of individuals, it is environments and architectures that disable people. For example; it’s not that someone uses a wheelchair that makes them disabled, but the fact that the building only being accessible by stairs. I don’t know very much about it. 

5

Mick Wilson (2015) Thinking Through Institutional Critique. Presented at: THINKING THROUGH INSTITUTIONS, The Para Institution, Galway

6

María Lugones (2010) Towards a Decolonial Feminism. Hypatia vol. 25, no. 4 (Fall, 2010) p.743

7

Lafarage, Daisy (2021) Paul. London: Granta.

8

Wikipedia entry for Paul Gauguin.

9

I’m talking about the book here, but I also know I’m thinking aloud about the situation I wrote about in my letter in July. I apologise to Daisy for the baggage I bring when reading, thinking about, discussing this book – it’s really fantastic, and I can’t recommend it enough.

10

Rajni Shah, Omikemi, & Fiji 周 Gibbons (2021) Episode Five: Omikemi. Performance Philosophy, 6(1), 27 April 2021. https://www.performancephilosophy.org/journal/article/view/342

11

From a post on my Instagram on 10th September 2020.

13

Audre Lorde (2020 [1980]) The Cancer Diaries. Penguin Random House: London. p.10

August 2021

A copy of a recent letter to my supervisors. I included a print of a photo – reproduced below – in each envelope, that was taken of me by the beautiful Hamish MacPherson. I’ve also added footnotes to this text to support a wider readership.

Dear Robyn, Efrosini, Nic,

I’ve been down in London. I took a holiday for two weeks and stayed at a friend’s place while she was away. I walked, read, slept about, and saw friends in the park. I was only back in Nottingham for about ten days before I came down again to work at Chisenhale1 for a week on a new solo.

It’s a text that I found myself writing. Rather than be read off a page, I thought it’d be more interesting to be spoken as a live performance. It’s a list of claims that shifts across the everyday, professional, pop-psychology, legal, medical, moral: jumping across all these different realms to form an exhaustive and self-contradictory image of a perfect ethical life: “I am uninhibited, and happy to relinquish control. I never drink to excess, but when I do, I maintain all proper social and sexual boundaries. I know how to express my desire. I always let people know how I really feel. I don’t bore others with endless detail…..”

I’ve been pretty interested this whole year in the kinds of ethical claims that get made about relational practices in academia. But more recently I’ve been looking at a lot of writing online about manipulation, abuse and grooming. I was really interested in descriptions of  ‘narcissistic personality disorder’: I’d say most of the symptoms and behaviours are common to most people, except they’re described here as being to an ‘unusual’ or ‘inappropriate’ extent. For example: the narcissist craves the praise and validation of others to an excessive degree. But we all yearn for and rely on the affirmation of others. I don’t know how they define what is a reasonable or appropriate.

I suspect the performance text was also influenced by a memoir I was reading by Tom Rastrelli2, an American former Catholic priest. I find priests really interesting. I sometimes think of them as working with a ‘promiscuous intimacy’, that cuts across normal divisions between public, private, and professional realms. The book is about his experience of the training and structures of priesthood; the informal cultures of friendship, sex, mentorship, control and bullying that emerge to adhere to or bypass these rules; and how this messy intimacy is kept hidden. It feels like the writer is constantly trying to figure out what he deems appropriate or not, and what is merely idiosyncratic to the peculiarities of priesthood or abusive; both by his shifting values and those of the church. I was so struck by how often he uses the terms ‘boundaries’ or ‘boundary violation’.

I feel like all this unavoidably resonates with this current post-#MeToo and BLM moment, and the kinds of scrutiny and public challenges being made to individuals who hold public office. Language slips between the professional, political, ethical and medical. I feel there is a heightened sense of moralism. What does it mean to say that organisations, behaviours, or even individuals are ‘toxic’? Or the occasional refrain that individuals need to ‘get therapy’; and its inverse, in the public statements of disgraced celebrities in which they promise to ‘seek help’? There are different ways we name and account for ethical transgression. I’m always suspicious about demonisation: the confining of irredeemable wrongness to certain individuals, as and alongside an insistence on moral purity of ourselves. As Rachel Cleaves writes: “Since monsters by definition are not real, the narrative hampers our ability to recognize that any seemingly ordinary person could be committing acts we deem to be monstrous.”3

What kinds of moral behaviours do we expect from those who hold institutional office? What can be challenged, and warrants address? What deserves immediate expulsion? And what is simply deemed a conflict of values, or a character trait, and must be accepted as part of their term of office? What is available for scrutiny? Power dynamics are endlessly slippery and subtle – and there is also a very real limit to our ability to understand and account for ourselves. Virginia Woolf in To The Lighthouse writes of “being oneself” as “a wedge-shaped core of darkness”4. Judith Butler argues that this limit forms the irreducibly uncertain and indeterminate nature of ‘ethics’5. If there is a clear answer, a verifiable right and wrong, then it’s not an ethical question.

*

By entering into an institution and taking up office, we are agreeing to a certain set structures and boundaries. These might be formally articulated in things like contracts or codes of conduct; or invested in individuals with the authority to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’; or exist as more diffuse cultures of permission and expectation. I’m curious about what this means in terms of ‘flirtation’ and ‘intimacy’ – which I understand to be the playing at or moving beyond boundaries. I’m thinking about moments of encounter, and the thrill of moving into shared complicity or confidence with another person. These letters are a good example, I think: to be writing and posting them to each of your homes seems to go a little beyond the normal boundaries of supervisor-student relationship – and I think this forms some of the pleasure and playfulness of our relationships.

At the end of July, Rohanne and I did some guest-hosting at Independent Dance, for the launch of the special issue of the Theatre Dance and Performance Training journal they had co-edited.6 There were presentations by writers who had contributed to the issue, as well as statements from Nikki and Heni, and the regular editors of the journal itself. Rohanne and I decided to contribute a strange black-tie gala-style hosting to the evening, which ended up being mostly directed to the digital attendees on Zoom. And as we were stumbling across the room as a DIY mobile broadcasting studio, and improvising between these different presentations, I was so struck by (what we had decided to be) our responsibility that evening as artist-guest-hosts: not only to bring this unwarranted red carpet glamour to the occasion, but within that stupidity and ridiculousness to go beyond certain boundaries and say things that couldn’t be said by anyone holding a more formal role. I ended my final speech of the evening with an appeal to go around the publishers online paywall: promising to send a PDF of the issue to anyone who got in touch.

And while there’s definitely stuff there to do with the figure of the ‘artist’, I think it’s also tied up with the figure of the ‘host’. The host establishes some shared ground and language, but then tries to seed ways that different parties can go deeper together and share in an intimacy. It makes me think of The Graham Norton Show: its success is when it goes beyond the already established and tired conversation – and whatever contractual obligations of his guest celebrities to promote their latest film or book or album – and to get to a more candid, intimate, outrageous situation. And I‘m interested in the skill of that: how do you get a feel for different people’s boundaries? How do you know which can be crossed and which can’t? What does it mean to negotiate this intimacy before an audience? I so strikingly remember one interview in which Norton totally gets it wrong with Sinead O’Connor7. It’s agonising to watch both guest and host try to fumble their way past his clumsy opening question. What do we do as hosts when we’ve put our foot in it, or overstepped the mark?

*

Rather than at theatres, I imagine I’ll present this short solo at poetry readings, gallery openings, conferences. The frame and sense of separation of the theatre is too strong: these ethical claims want a finer balance of casualness, proximity, non-performance. However, I do start the work by putting in a pair of black contact lenses. They were something Hamish MacPherson gave me to wear for a photoshoot I did with him earlier this summer (I included a print!)8. I’m interested in juxtaposing these claims of ethical perfection – and a body language that oozes ease, openness, trust – with this image of evil; and giving that frame to the weird menace that people have told me the text evokes. There’s the sense that despite these exhaustive claims, this figure might still be doing something untoward – that any structure or rhetorics is susceptible to abuse or manipulation. Or that this excessive degree of self-scrutiny and self-control is inhuman. This uncanny self-possession must be a demonic possession.9

To get to this choreography of alert ease, I spent a lot of the week at Chisenhale practicing Steve Paxton’s small dance (or at least, the version of it introduced to me by Emilyn Claid)10. It’s a simple score: of standing upright in parallel, relaxing, letting the spine be tall and the arms and back be heavy, seeing what you can release (the gut, the knees, the feet, the face…..), seeing how you can remain upright with minimal effort. And then beginning to notice all the instinctive and minor efforts the body makes to keep itself standing. What can I let go? What happens if I let that go? What do I need to do to stop myself falling over? What are the things we do – instinctively, without intention, without being able to stop ourselves – to keep verticality, keep upright, to keep it together, to maintain composure? 

While I was practicing the dance, I noticed myself connecting it to my experiences of hosting and facilitation. What is the very least I can do here, with this group of people? How much can I shut up and make space for people to speak together and get on with it – and when do I notice myself speaking up, explaining, offering, shaping, intervening? How do I hold space, hold it together – and how much of that is determined by my fear of it falling down, falling apart, falling into confusion? I remembered a time when I was working with a collective, and we were reflecting on how we were working together. One person, who had been gradually taken on an informal leadership role with the group, explained that their directives to others had simply come from wanting the group to work with a sense of professionalism. It instantly clarified the situation for me: this ‘professional conduct’ was the least organisation they could bear. Anything less gave rise to an intolerable sense of uncertainty; and prompted them – for better or worse – into this leadership role.

I’ve been joking recently that I’ve noticed a recurring style of my academic output of ‘having a breakdown’; which mostly seems to be written from an explicit position of exhaustion, conflict, grief, shame, desire or confusion.11 I sheepishly mentioned this to my friend one evening as we he was talking to me about these letters. He was a bit surprised, and said it was fine. I began to wonder where my embarrassment came from. He’s a performance artist and a musician. I suspect this is a more accepted strategy in the field of art, and particularly performance: of operating with or amplifying forms of instability, uncertainty, teetering, breakdown, heartbrokenness, hysteria. But it’s a bit more unusual in academia, I think, and maybe over the course of the year I’ve begun to feel the accumulated weight of raised eyebrows (imagined or real).

I’ve claimed on various forms that this PhD is addressing how a ‘choreographic’ perspective can shift our understandings of institutions and curation. And it’s a bit of a cliché, but maybe this is one of the ways it can do that: that dance and choreography can tell us something about how we are able to keep moving, keep sensitive, keep it together, even in a semi-continual process of falling over.

With love, but only to an appropriate degree,

Paul

1

Chisenhale Dance Space is a dance organisation in East London that supports freelance dance artists engaged in experimental practice. It’s great. It’s a total honour to work there.

2

Tom Rastrelli (2020) Confessions of a Gay Priest: A Memoir of Sex, Love, Abuse, and Scandal in the Catholic Seminary. University of Iowa Press: Iowa City

3

Rachel Hope Cleaves (2020) Unspeakable: A Life beyond Sexual Morality. The University of Chicago Press:London. p.10

4

Virginia Woolf (2019) To The Lighthouse. Penguin Classics: London. p.69.

5

Judith Butler (2005) Giving an Account of Oneself. Fordham University Press: New York.

6

Independent Dance is a small organisation that supports freelance dance artists, mostly through a regular programme of dance classes and research-y events (workshops, talks, etc.). It’s led by current co-directors Nikki Tomlinson and Henrietta Hale. Alongside the previous director Gitta Wigro, they guest edited the most recent issue of the academic journal Theatre, Dance and Performance Training. This is pretty unusual – editing is usually done by academics – but Independent Dance is often interested in straddling academic and professional realms. They held a public event to celebrate the launch of the journal on the 27th July, as part of their Festival of Learning. The whole thing was a bit odd – it’s not exactly clear what the launch of an academic journal should be – or what it means to have a public launch for a thing that is free to access for anyone with a position at a university, but extremely costly to the wider public. It was a pretty fun evening though.

7

A clip of the episode with Sinead O’Connor is on Youtube here.

8

Hamish MacPherson is an artist and choreographer based in London. Over the past couple of years he’s been developing an amazing portrait photography practice. You can look at his website here, but for he mostly posts his photos on his Instagram here. He’s always looking for more models to work with, particularly men. If you’re interested in doing a photoshoot with him (and I can recommend it!), do get in touch.

9

Demons have appeared in the research before. Rohanne and I made a series of linoprint demons last year – I wrote about them in a previous letter here, and you can get a glimpse at some of them on our website here.

10

Steve Paxton is an American choreographer and dancer, most famous for his work in the 70’s New York scene, particularly in his involvement with the Judson Church scene and in developing Contact Improvisation. You can read a transcript of him leading the small dance here. Emilyn Claid is choreographer, dancer, researcher and all-round badass based in London. She was part of the X6 collective, who were very influential in the development of experimental dance in the UK, and which was the seed of what is now Chisenhale Dance Space. Emilyn has just published a new book Falling Through Dance and Life, which I can’t wait to read.

11

For example, my recent essay ‘To suture a wound closed.’, in the journal Metaphor as Metamorphosis (put together by Keira Green and Marlo Mortimer, and full of very very smart queer vibrant writing from lots of awesome people).

July 2021

A copy of a recent letter to my supervisors. I included a monoprint – pictured below – in each envelope. I’ve also added footnotes to the letter here to support a wider readership. Please note: this writing contains references to child sexual abuse and suicide.

Dear Nic, Efrosini, Robyn,

The most important news first: I got to do some dancing! Sweaty, grinning, flirtatious dancing! It was pretty great. 

Secondly: Rohanne and I were working on the ‘In agreement with’ piece at Dance41, and got to perform it for a live audience!? Which felt like a pretty significant achievement for this first academic year. We think it went well, and afterwards people said some very complimentary things.2 We’re planning a couple more showings in the autumn, and it also now feels possible to imagine some next steps for the research more broadly.

So that’s the fun news. Otherwise, I’ve mostly been occupied with stuff that’s arisen with Chris Goode’s death.3 I’ve spoken about this a little bit with Nic and Efrosini already, but it’s a complex story, and it’s what I’ve been with, so I’m afraid this is going to be pretty long letter. 

*

Chris was a theatre-maker and director I worked with around 2015/16 on a project called Ponyboy Curtis. It was more or less my first gig: a ‘collective’ made up of 5-8 performers (mostly queer men in their early twenties) and run by Chris, who was much more established in his career. The work had a large degree of sexual content, and was mostly performed nude.

After working on two shows, I quit (pretty acrimoniously) in 2016. The work continued for another 12 months or so before fizzling out. Chris was busy with a number of commissions from major institutions, and had also managed to secure NPO funding4 for his company (‘Chris Goode & Company’). And around that time, one of the former Ponyboy performers wrote a blog post about sexual abuse they experienced in the work. This was in 2017, as #MeToo conversations were taking place across theatre and film in the UK. The organisations that were commissioning Chris demanded (and I think funded) an independent enquiry into his working practices. 

The report was pretty disappointing for many of us. It was isolating, didn’t clarify the situation, and seemed to have little understanding of the economies and processes of experimental/freelance practice. Chris Goode & Company wrote a letter to those who had been interviewed in the process: formally acknowledging the report, and agreeing to adopt its list of recommended safeguarding measures. I felt like they were just sweeping it under the rug. While many former collaborators remained evidently upset, the company was happy to move forward with making new work, under the banner of “creating hospitable spaces for radical encounters and revelatory conversations”.5 

To be clear: I wouldn’t condemn anyone for causing harm in their work – I’d be a hypocrite to do so – I’m more interested in how we act when it transpires that people have been hurt. The whole situation was murky. There had been no opportunity to hear from others (in the Ponyboy project, and beyond) about their experiences of working with Chris, and I was unsure even of my own. I remember at one point I was careful to describe my experience as ‘exploitation’ rather than ‘abuse’, but I’m not so sure about that any more (or indeed, the distinction between the two). Regardless, since that time I’ve heard some of the things that other people faced, which were unambiguously and inexcusably violent.

Over the following couple of years, I worked with others to seek more open dialogue, and to ensure the company honoured its promises. I stepped back from this around 2019. Things weren’t going anywhere: at that point, the few members of staff and the board at CG&C had resigned, until it was pretty much just Chris. I had long before given up on trying to speak with him directly about any of this – the conversation felt futile, stuck. Rather than relying on Chris’ personal ethics or sense of remorse, I was holding out for the company to enact structural processes of safeguarding and accountability. And until it was more than just one person, this wouldn’t be possible. 

*

Chris killed himself at the start of June. He dissolved the company in the weeks leading up to his death. The widespread feelings of hurt, confusion, frustration and silence from the years before lacked any resolution, and now fall outside of any individual organisation’s clear responsibility. It’s prompted some of us – who had worked with him, and had followed up on the investigative report – to come together again: to try figure out how we feel, and what might be the right thing to do.

One thing I realised almost immediately was how significant that period of work was for my life. I had just moved to London, and was trying to discover a world and way of living that could have space for (and nourish) my sexuality, my politics, my body and my artistic practice. Ponyboy Curtis was, by and large, my connection to queer art, queer sex, queer people and queer life. My personal investment in that work – and the sense of crisis that came with its betrayal and collapse – was massive. I think of Lauren Berlant: “I am interested in the ways people find sustenance and make survival happen in worlds that are not organized for them. […] Making worlds is very hard and losing them is devastating.”6 I felt humiliated have been seen by so many friends and peers to have gone along with that work, for my name and image to have been associated with it, and for defending it to many who raised their eyebrows. Soon after leaving the collective, I left London and moved to Nottingham, and made a similarly departure from theatre to visual arts and dance.

And this realisation – that I am so shaped by this experience, that I am still not over it – brings a new wave of shame. The work (and Chris) form an inextricable context and limit to my thinking – around a different kind of world, queer sexual ethics, challenges to the construction of publicness and privacy, destabilisations of authorship and individuation. Over the past couple of years I’ve had a greater understanding of my intense and complex feelings around mentorship from older gay men. But only when Chris died did I realise that he was that first figure for me; and the catastrophe of that relationship so powerfully lingers in my ongoing feelings of stuckness, desire, loneliness and fear. Where do I go from here? I think of José Esteban Muñoz: “To accept the way in which one is lost is to be also found and not found in a particularly queer fashion.”7 Maybe I need to understand the feelings I have of being adrift from queerness, as an adrift-in-queerness, or adrift-as-queerness. No one gets a formal induction. It’s all provisional; an unrealised promise.

*

Whether I like it or not, Chris haunts my thinking, my work, this PhD. So what do I want do with that?

More than simply demonstrating that things can “go wrong” (why do I still suspect that many people think of artists as especially-moral agents?), I think this whole situation points to how things can take place within institutional structures, yet remain outside of their processes of safeguarding and oversight. While it’s not an clear example of the ‘artist-curation-hosting’ this PhD is focussed on, it does get to the heart of the desirability and risks of artistic processes having a degree of independence and inscrutability. Of queer hospitality, inscrutable intimacies, and of holding space within an organisation that operates with incommensurable values. I think most programming and commissioning in UK contemporary dance (and beyond) relies on the relative mobility and un-burderend-ness of freelance artists, who move outside of and across different organisations. It makes it easy for those organisations to reap the rewards of successful works, and to cut ties if anything goes wrong.

Across this period, Chris was moving from ‘independent’ practice that operated between different fringe venues and with one-off pots of funding; to more sizeable works entirely commissioned and presented by singular organisations; to having his own company regularly funded as a National Portfolio Organisation, with all the structures of board and staff and formal governance that that demands. How could these safeguarding issues repeatedly arise, yet slip through the cracks of these different organisations? Different people knew different things; individuals came and went, and were no doubt told very different narratives about this messy past. The person who was chair of the board at the time of CG&C’s closure now insists that all the abuse that took place during work that fell outside of the company’s remit. It’s not true – but even if it was, it’s worth asking: ok, so what does that mean? What kind of change does that demand of the sector?

There are so many questions: How much of what we could understand as ‘abuse’ in Chris’ work is widely accepted as standard working practices across the industry? What kinds of harm are encouraged within these speculative and under-resourced collaborative processes, when working under the demand for ’risk-taking’, ‘boundary-pushing’ performance? What kinds of structures could prevent such kinds of abuse happening – both within and across major organisations, and the within the unregulated space of indie/experimental performance – without overburdening artistic process with institutional monitoring? And how are the concepts of ‘liability’ (as in legal liability, the ‘limited liability’ of individual staff8, how a company is defined as a legal entity in the eyes of the state) and ‘accountability’ (as an principle of ethical relation that goes beyond the litigious and carceral) being used, confused, and put into conflict across all this?9

And I think it’s not just the in-between-ness of artists, either. There’s something I keep trying to point out in this research: that while there’s something very elusive and utopic and risky about these semi-autonomous initiatives (e.g. artist-curators entering into organisations, and being able to host spaces and processes there that don’t fully reconcile themselves to the existing structures or staff), this is also something that so many of us are doing all the time in our respective institutional roles. So often I see people working in ways that resist and exceed and elude the values and processes that we’re nominally meant to be adhering too; and quietly and openly holding space for completely different forms of intimacy, making, thinking, and encounter.

And obviously: my work is totally embroiled in all of this. I’m operating in similar institutional-opacity both in my self-granted licence to be engaged in ‘practice’ before acquiring ethical approval from the university; and also in the Letters of Resignation project Rohanne and I are running at Siobhan Davies Studios10, in which we’re hosting 5 artist peers and 15 participants with relatively little organisational oversight. This letter isn’t the right time to go into it, but there have been intense moments of tension in the Letters project that have demanded us to very carefully think through these questions of responsibility, accountability, and liability in the face of conflict and harm

*

The other way I’ve been thinking about all this in relation to the PhD is through Chris’ writing. 

Rather than trying to undertake any kind of comprehensive economic analysis, I’ve always wanted this PhD to focus on the more subtle relational dynamics of curating peers. But I’d be pretty limited if I rely solely on my own reflections on my practice and collaborations. I am full of biases and insensitivities – all of which play out in and co-form the relations I am engaged in – all of which are, by definition, beyond my view. I get pretty suspicious when I hear researchers and practitioners over-stress the language of ‘care’ in their work. It’s easy to claim these rhetorics, and we have every reason to position ourselves morally good agents. But to what degree are these claims being scrutinised and challenged?

So I’ve been thinking about the idea of one chapter of my thesis to really engage with Chris’ writing as a pre-established discourse. His book, The Forest and the Field, and his long-running blog were both highly influential texts within the UK experimental theatre scene on the ethics of experimental practice. He wrote directly and extensively about the dynamics of collaboration –  particularly the director-actor relationship – through the language of invitation, vulnerability, generosity and commitment. Rather than build something from the ground up, it seems like a useful existing discourse to which I can examine, question, challenge, build, depart – and to delve into the question of when this complex terrain of intimacy transitions into violence, grooming and abuse.

But this is where it gets a bit trickier. About a month before Chris died, he was arrested for having a materials of child sexual abuse. He was released on bail, and killed himself the night before he was due to be charged.11

It’s really messy. Knowledge of Chris’ paedophilia – and his acting upon it, in acquiring and engaging with these materials – indelibly shapes whatever conversations we might have about him and his work. Until now in this letter, I’ve avoided mentioning it, because I think two things are at risk: that his abusive working practices (sexual assault of adults, cultures of bullying and coercion, etc.) become conflated with engaging with child sexual abuse; and that he gets viewed as an irredeemably monstrous figure, such that anyone else gets stripped of any responsibility, and that the persisting structural conditions (that enabled his abusive working practices) are left unchallenged. Paedophilia is so far outside of our everyday discussions of morality. It turns the contrast so high that we lose out on any gradation of ethical nuance. 

But while I’m keen to distinguish these things – his participation in the sexual abuse of minors, and his sexual abuse and bullying of adults in making performance – I’m not totally sure how possible it is to cleanly separate Chris’ paedophilia from his writing around ethics, queerness, and liberation. And it’s not just Chris. The art critic Paul Clinton has been thinking about how certain ideas on queer liberatory politics and sexual freedom – such as in the work of French writers like Tony Duvert and Alain Robbe-Grillet – are connected to arguments for sexual relations with children.12 It’s an ugly history that had never really been addressed. 

A few weeks ago, I was reaching for some existing theoretical texts I could make use of for this PhD’s to refer to this idea of temporary inscrutable moments in institutional structures. And the term ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’ came to mind, from the anarchist theorist Hakim Bey. And I flinched away from it. Bey has written openly in favour of adults having sexual relations with children. It’s repulsive. I don’t want to promote his ideas, or associate them with my work. But what if – instead of flinching away – I was to lean in to that: to look closely at these compromised and compromising discourses, to dig into Chris’ writing, and to see exactly how and where our thinking overlaps and diverges?

One could ask: why engage with Chris’ work at all? Just let it dwindle and be forgotten – and invest our energy instead into many other brilliant artists and thinkers who have not caused tremendous harm. Griffyn Gilligan, Chris’ husband, has written publicly about their view on Chris’ ‘legacy’ – and their choice to burn all of his unpublished materials13. I get that. But it doesn’t feel right to me for the stuff that’s already out there. These materials have significantly influenced so many people for years, including me. Chris has indelibly shaped the field of UK experimental performance. What’s suspect and what’s salvageable? How are particular ideas knotted up together? Even if it’s just for myself, I want to dive into this tangle, and try to sort some of it out. But also: I genuinely suspect that as a publicly funded researcher, this is one of the ways that this PhD could be of most use.

-

Ok. Sorry again for the length of the letter. I was gonna send you some recent work with it, one of the few material art things I’ve made over the past few weeks. But I suspect it’s a bit intense, and I didn’t hear back from any of you about whether you’d be ok with receiving it. So I’ve remade an old monoprint that I think you’ve all seen before. I think it speaks to some of these questions, and the sense of promise and risk.

With the mess of it all,

Paul

1

Dance4 is a dance organisation in Nottingham, near where I live, that supports a lot of experimental work in the UK.

2

You can read this pretty amazing response to the evening by artist Rachel Parry on her Instagram. I particularly love this excerpt: 

“The artists marathon of movements becomes ritualistic, animalistic at times, guttural and sexual thrusts & pulsing of the body. A queering of the space, reclaiming and marking it. As the music slows to a trance, I hear them trying to catch breath and watch them keep balance - quivering muscles holding the positions. Soft sweet musky aroma of sweat lingers in the air. It’s not horrible though, it’s more a beckoning of longing to belong in this ephemeral moment that after so many zooms only a live space with bodies can give us.”

3

It’s behind a paywall, but here’s an article in The Stage reporting his death from the 3rd June. 

4

Arts Council England – the body that distributes and manages state funding for the arts –mostly funds stuff through two different routes. There are one-off grants (‘Project Grants’ or the ‘Developing Your Creative Practice’ fund) for individual freelancers or organisations, and then National Portfolio Organisations, which have guaranteed funding that is reapplied for and renewed every four years. NPOs (I think there’s about 700 of them currently?) vary in size, from small theatre companies with two or three core staff to massive organisations like Sadler’s Wells Theatre.

5

Chris Goode & Company website, via the WayBackMachine.

6

Lauren Berlant and Dorothea Lasky (2014) I Don’t Understand the God Part. MAKE. 23 February. Available here.

I’m interested in how Berlant immediately follows this quote: “In the middle, one has to build confidence or just habits that allow rest and coasting amidst the labor of making. So much of what we do demands inattention (our current emphasis on mindfulness neglects the mind’s need for incoherence, to rest, coast, spread out, incohere).” How does this sit alongside what I wrote in March calling for institutional staff being more transparent and open in their thinking? This is the first moment in over a month and a half that I’ve not only had time, but the clarity, with which to write one of these letters in a way that feels generative and constructive. I don’t want to demand people be always be ready to speak. 

Here’s something similar I read recently in Julia Bell’s book ‘Radical Attention’ (2020, London: Peninsula Press, p.109): 

“What we lose in all this talk is the generative, creative space of not knowing, the place of possibility that Keats so well understood. When we are called, day after day, to have an opinion, we are denied the time and space and crucially the silence we need to think.”

7

José Esteban Muñoz (2009) Cruising Utopia. London: New York University Press. p.73

8

Quite embarrassingly, it’s only quite recently I’ve learned what ‘limited liability’ actually means. It was explained at a workshop led by Jack Tan, as part of Dance Art Foundation’s ‘Organising for Change’ season, curated by Amaara Raheem. I’d not met Jack before, but he’s engaged in some extraordinary work, including questions about alternative models of governance, and recent actions to challenge the current leadership at the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Art in Manchester.

9

I’m deeply grateful for and influenced by the leadership of Rajni Shah in this, in how they seed a future that is oriented toward healing and transformation. They wrote a short blog post for those connected to Chris here.

10

Letters of Resignation is a postal choreography course that Rohanne and I led from February to June 2021. The project is mostly finished now, and we’re just putting together some documentation so that we share some of the materials more widely soon.

11

Another paywalled article at The Stage, from 4th June. Griffyn has written a pretty detailed blogpost detailing some of the circumstances of this discovery, report and arrest.

12

I’m remembering this mostly from conversations with Paul; from what I understand this research is destined for a book that he’s still working on. I think it touches on it briefly (around 24minutes in) in this podcast in 2018 with Juliet Jaques.

13

Another blog post here.

May 2021

A copy of a letter to my supervisors. I included a print of the image below – of Rohanne Udall and I rehearsing at Dance4 – in each envelope. I’ve added footnotes at the bottom where context might be helpful, and for those who want to follow up references.

Dear Efrosini, Robyn, Nic,

I’m pretty tired.

The past few weeks have been turbulent. Me and some collaborators have been working through a period of stepping on each other’s toes. A discussion group is fracturing, and I’m not sure how much I’m up for trying to salvage it. There’s been some pretty intense upset expressed within a hosting project I’m doing, and I’ve been trying to honour my various (and I suspect conflicting) responsibilities to the participants, the artists, and the commissioning institution. And a pretty painful project from about five years ago has resurfaced; still without legal or emotional resolution; endlessly unfolding and haunting.

I found myself writing to you about an idea of collaboration in which each person can work with integrity. But I’m not sure that ‘integrity’ is the right word. So often with these kinds of projects we’re asking each other to go out on a limb, to work at and beyond the limits of our understanding – which implies instability, decoherence, unsovereign-ness. (I’m reminded of Leo Bersani’s “radical disintegration and humiliation of the self”1, and also Katherine Angel’s recent book on the limits of ‘consent’ in relation to the instabilities of desire2.) I’m not trying to glamorise conflict, or justify people behaving like dicks. But rather than imagining collaborative processes in which everyone is always comfortable, I’m curious about how we might work from an acknowledgment of the likelihood of collision, misunderstanding, not knowing, and disagreement. How do we hold a space in which we don’t know ourselves? I was entranced when reading Jeremy Atherton Lin describe nightclubs as “a site of loss – losing inhibitions, your friends, your possessions, yourself. It’s a place to find something through abandonment.”3

Rohanne4 and I have been mostly busy preparing In Agreement With – our evening performance, in which we temporarily repurpose the office desks of arts organisation as plinths for a dancing-monument. While there’s an angsty texture to this ‘intervention’ (I hate that word), we think of it as a pretty sincere attempt to tap into (and contribute to) some of the deep vibrational energy of these spaces – these ‘trans-generational projects’ (as Mick Wilson puts it5) that outlive any individual’s participation. It’s a question: what could a gesture of affirmation look like, from someone who doesn’t hold any formal office in that institution?

We’re commissioning some sound for this from our friend Gareth Cutter6. I keep coming across writing about how music itself can operate as its own kind of trans-generational connection between the present and absent, living and dead. Not just as an archive (Jeremy Atherton Lin: “The music was our time machine. We were conscious the discs he put on the turntable may have come from the collection of deceased gay men.”7), but that the activities of listening, playing and dancing to music can be a means to engage with the dead (Keith Hennessey: “The disco dance as an ancestor dance. And they can call in their own people, their own dance teachers and histories and stuff like that.”8; or Harmony Holiday: "the past is impossible to return to except through song”9)

(And this is a bit fast and loose, but…. I’m wondering how this expansive sense of archiving or institutionalising or commemoration – of naming, preserving, practicing, retaining – rubs up against notions of trauma and haunting: that which persists precisely because it hasn’t been named, resolved, dispelled. I love how Brontez Purnell’s 100 Boyfriends reads crowdedness into apparent solitude and intimacy: ”there have to be one hundred ghosts in this room already and that’s just the baggage I’m carrying. […] There are too many men here and it doesn’t feel like a sexy gang bang. No, this feels like something that’s a lot more fucking annoying.”10)

I’m increasingly convinced that the past is in the present11, not matter how elusive or opaque or suppressed or flattened. I’m floored by Jeremy Atherton Lin writing about Los Angeles in the nineties: “There was no particular way to describe what I was intuiting around me. Maybe there isn’t a term for a sense of loss when you don’t know what you’re missing.”12 How are institutional, cultural, personal legacies apprehended, felt, misread or overlooked; and by who? Or to put it more in the frame of ‘the PhD’ – how much can the unofficial stakeholders (e.g. freelance artists) or those holding very short-term office (e.g. the guest curator) know about the histories that constitute the institution? And how are their fleeting contributions, in turn, sedimented into the institution and apprehended by others?

I’m not interested in total preservation. Our institutionalising and memorialising can be discerning, and consign, truncate and bury as much as it preserves. I’m reminded of Larry Achiampong: “Hip-hop is the ultimate cultural symbol of what appropriation is and can do. As a vehicle for taking on nostalgia, taking on the past, taking on various time periods. The ability to take those things on, and to omit what you will and isolate what you want.”13 It makes me interested again in artistic practices that dispense with ideas of ‘originality’ or ‘creativity’, in favour of logics of ‘inheriting’,’maintaining’, ‘stewarding’, ‘archiving’ etc.

While Rohanne and I were working at Dance414, I was so curious about how much of our work we were making visible to the staff there. They have a nice policy of giving artists keys to the building, which grants some independence in just getting on with the work. But in a meeting with the programming team, I kept noticing how the conversation veered between the logistical (asking permissions, confirming safeguarding, and agreeing what needs to be done and by who) to more general questions about the work, its meaning, its purpose. I’m not complaining, but it points at something in this curious artist-curator-institution relation: How much do they need to know or be aware of? How much do I want or need them to be aware of? How much do I want them to be interested in the work? How much can I meaningfully participate in and contribute to this trans-generational institution project, without that needing to be sanctioned or made legible to the current members of staff who work there?

I think In Agreement With is trying to sit with all of this. It’s a dance as much for the staff and the community around the organisation, as it is for semi-fictional (& past/present/future) institution itself. A dance that tries to tap into histories we don’t know, and can’t know – and that anticipates and relaxes into its own disappearance and forgetting. 

Anyway. Mostly this bank holiday weekend I’ve been relaxing. Recovering from the intensities of trying to speak challenge (with care) at the Dance Research Matters event15. So it’s been mostly sun, gin & tonics, sex, and writing this letter: the PhD dream! I hope you’ve had your own deliciousness, intimacy and delight.

With heart!

Paul

1

Leo Bersani (2010) Is the Rectum a Grave? and Other Essays. London: The University of Chicago Press. p.24.

2

Katherine Angel (2021) Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent. London: Verso.

3

Jeremy Atherton Lin (2021) Gay Bar: Why We Went Out. London: Granta. p.185

4

My collaborator Rohanne Udall. Together we work as Chatting Tanum.

5

Mick Wilson (2015) Thinking Through Institutional Critique. Presented at: THINKING THROUGH INSTITUTIONS, The Para Institution, Galway.

6

Gareth Cutter, a friend and sometime collaborator. Gareth is a performer, musician, and writer. His work is rich, potent, queer – and has a promiscuous but deep engagement with material and form.

7

Jeremy Atherton Lin again. p. 179. See [2].

9

Harmony Holiday (2021) Malcolm X’s Black Orpheus. Black Music and Black Muses: . 19 May.

10

Brontez Purnell (2021) 100 Boyfriends. Cipher Press: London. p.129

11

I think this ‘increasing’-ness is partly due to the conversations I’ve been getting to have with the brilliant Clare Daly, a fellow PhD student at Roehampton. Clare is doing some pretty awesome work around how we access and accompany past works of performance art – all of which flips everything I thought I understood about archiving and the movement of time.

12

Shut up! I loved this book! p.52! See [7], see [2].

13

Larry Achiampong (2017) Interviewed by Paul Goodwin. 31 August.

14

Dance4 is an arts organisation close to where I live in Nottingham that’s a pretty significant supported of experimental dance and choreographic practice in the UK. Rohanne and I undertook a three-week residency there in April/May. 

15

Dance Research Matters was a day-long event hosted by the Centre for Dance Research at Coventry University on Thursday 27th May ’21. Billed as a policy/lobbying/advocacy day, it was actually a space full of vibrant and heart-felt thinking around the future of Dance research in universities. I have a short presentation at the end of the day as part of their postgraduate & early-career researchers panel. You can read or listen to it here.

April 2021

A copy of a recent letter to my supervisors. The image below is of some ink paintings I have been making; I included one in each envelope. As usual, I’ve added footnotes to this copy of the text to support a more public readership.

Dear Robyn, dear Nic, dear Efrosini,

I’ve been painting with inks. I have no idea how to use a brush: I feel clumsy, naïve, envious. I took it up around the same time I began working on the RDCom2 form1, which I hate. Its demand for such neat predictions and claims about the next few years (about what work I will make, what knowledge it will produce, and how my writing will relate to this imaginary work) feels like such an assault. I’m not against my work periodically being monitored and challenged – and I’m in no way rejecting institutional structures altogether2 – it’s just the design of this particular process feels so inappropriate and actively hostile to my research. 

I thought that starting each day by painting (totally unrelated to my stated topic of research) would be a good way of ‘protecting’ something about my work – a core of errancy, playfulness and flirtation – under threat here, and ensure that actual practice wouldn’t be entirely squeezed out from my days. (I’m thinking of Audre Lorde writing about insisting on ‘the erotic’ as “a kernel within myself […] that flows through and colours my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitises and strengthens all of my experience.”3) But I think it goes beyond this. I’ve written to you guys before about my faith in ‘unjustifiable practice’4, but it’s not a simple binary of (good) practice vs. (evil) institutional demands. It’s a more dynamic (dialectic?) relation – which feels increasingly important to my research. Because I’m not simply doing all the things I’m engaged with outside or alongside the formal institutional contexts in which I’m working (the university, Sadlers, wherever else); nor am I ignoring these institutional demands outright and focussing on a pre-defined practice. I’m evidently interested (in these letters, in how I speak about my work generally within the university) in flaunting the tension between these things; actively playing with that sense of errancy, veering, distance, in/appropriateness, in/decency, un/official-ness, ir/relevance; testing the permissions of what seems possible to situate within these contexts.

I think of the Andy Warhol quote: “Art is what you can get away with”5. I read it as a claim that one of the constituent factors of contemporary art – the things that makes art ‘art’ – is the fact that is has been ‘gotten away with’. That the meaning, value and ontology of the artwork is wrapped up in its critical, distant, or otherwise troubled relationship to its own conditions of production. (Works vary in terms of how much they foreground or make explicit these conditions. I’m curious here about who is ‘in the know’: who can recognize these structures, and read how they are being stretched or subverted?) This is sort of similar to what Walter Benjamin is arguing6 – except he castigates the individualism that imbues the Warhol quote, and calls for a dismantling of the specialist position of the artist or intellectual in favour of a wider political organising – but that’s for another time.

This promise (or demand) of the ‘critical’ (or ‘subversive’, ‘excessive’, ‘transformative’) function of art is wrapped up in the position of the artist as being outside or between formal institutional structures. Artists are trying to navigate their practice through various different institutions at the same time (e.g. me trying to make work that is relevant to both within the university as ‘artistic research’, and also various non-academic professional and grassroots contexts). Rohanne and I7 often simultaneously surround the same (or overlapping) bodies of work with different kinds of rhetoric, to satisfy different institutional demands, while also trying to keep orienting it to both ‘insider’ and ‘inexpert’ viewers. We’re trying to get the resources we need to keep making work that interests and excites us; trying to apprehend and stretch the structures we’re working within; trying to keep engaged with a growing community of peers. Trying to get away with it all.

So: I’m thinking about this continual work of interfacing, bridging and mediating to resolve the messiness of what’s actually happening with whatever institutional frameworks one is working within. And this is something that most of us have to do, and is in no way unique to art; but it does seem exacerbated by art’s promise of newness, and irresolvably turbulent relationship to purpose and value. The artist is continually interfacing between institution and their own emergent practice. The curator is interfacing between the artist and the wider organisation: it was a lightbulb moment to hear Robyn describing some forthcoming season of work to Sadlers staff outside of the programming team8.

And I’m thinking about the processes through which organisations seek to commission, invite in or hold space for that which is intended to exceed its current forms of scrutiny and value. There’s a contradiction here that I think is tightly bound up with the role of the guest-artist-curator. They’re not just doing the ‘usual’ work of the curator; there’s the expectation for this ‘outside’ figure will somehow stretch the institution’s existing capacities, and to cultivate space for practices and processes that otherwise sit outside of its reach. (For better or worse: I’m thinking of Rajni Shah referring to those people inviting in artists engaged in anti-racist and anti-neoliberal work – that is otherwise anathema to these institutions – as ‘the impossible bridge’9; and of Paul Sadot’s critique of Breakin’ Convention10). I wonder: to what degree can or should the activity hosted by the guest-artist-curator be made visible and accountable (to the wider institution, or the existing programming and curation team)? Is there permission for an unusual degree of opacity? How much can be ‘written off’ as messy, casual, private, informal, un-evaluable? And if so – how far can this messiness extend? How is it bordered, framed, contained? Rather than having to do all the usual mediating work of the curator and the artist to satisfy the institution’s demands, I’m wondering how much are they allowed to get away with?

So I’ve starting to name this interfacing-bridging-legitimising activity as a more explicit and central part of my research; not only making and presenting artworks, but the activity by which these unlikely materials are situated and justified within various institutional contexts. And I’m trying to figure out how much I’m interested in addressing that in context of the university. Over the past few decades, ‘practice-as-research’ has become established as a significant commissioner of experimental artistic practice – there is nowhere else I could expect to get this kind of fee for my work! It has its own idiosyncratic set of institutional demands: this RDCom2 form – an exercise in description, promise and prediction – is a perfect example of this. I am justifying a period of activity to a panel of academics, who will judge it in relation to the university’s criteria for legitimate research (themselves established to satisfy wider conventions set by the Bologna Process of what counts as doctoral research11). Returning to Warhol and Benjamin – how important is it that I acknowledge and challenge the university itself, and ‘artistic research’, as the apparatus through which my work is being produced? 

One of the main criteria of research is that it ‘produces knowledge’. I’m reminded of a joke Nic made last summer: what would it mean to propose a artistic research practice that generates no knowledge – an epistemological black-hole? I think this could be a way to intensify and gesture toward the (ridiculous, but intellectually rich, knowledge-generating) interfacing practice then necessary to legitimise and justify this work. And perversely, I think this would actually become a backwards way of resolving the ‘practice’ and ‘theory’ divide: despite the common claim in artistic research that the artistic materials and writing are interwoven parts of a holistic thesis, it’s also pretty evident that the written components (“a minimum 20,000 words” that must include “critical commentary on the creative materials”12) continue to be the determining factor of whether or not this artistic practice gets counted as ‘research’.13 In this black-hole strategy, the ‘artistic materials’ are whatever they want to be, and the written materials that surround the work becomes the practice itself.

Anyway. I really should get back to this RDCom2 form. I hope you enjoy this blob painting. Something messy, inchoate; an epistemological ink blot into which we might read (or write) whatever we fancy. I’ll leave you with a quote from Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia that came to my mind as I was writing this: 

“To deprive thought of the moment of spontaneity is to annul precisely its necessity.[…] a hierarchy of importance is creeping into theory-formation which gives preference to either particularly topical or particularly relevant themes, and discriminates against, or indulgently tolerates, anything non-essential […] While thought relates to facts and moves by criticising them, its movement depends no less on the maintenance of distance. It expresses exactly what is, precisely because what is is never quite as thought expresses it. Essential to it is an element of exaggeration, of over-shooting the object, of self-detachment from the weight of the factual, so that instead of merely reproducing being it can, at once rigorous and free, determine it. Thus every thought resembles play, with which Hegel no less than Nietzsche compared the work of the mind. The unbarbaric side of philosophy is its tacit awareness of the element of irresponsibility, of blitheness springing from the volatility of thought, which forever escapes what it judges. […] Distance is not a safety-zone but a field of tension.”14

In a field of tension,

Paul

1

The ‘RDCom2’ is the second major hurdle of the PhD process at the University of Roehampton (the first being the original application), due around 6 months after starting. It consists of a ~4000word form in which you lay out what your proposed research activity, the intellectual legacy it sits within, and its expected contribution to knowledge. It is a standardised form for PhD students across different schools – humanities, sciences, artistic research, etc.

2

This is what I was surprised to find myself arguing for last December at the On Transversality conference. I was writing from a granular lens of political or activist organising (via Jo Freeman, Dean Space, etc.), but I’m curious about Stefano Harvey’s work on ‘logistics’ and ‘infrastructure’.

3

Lorde, Audre. (2017 [1978]) The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, in Your Silence Will Not Protect You. UK: Silver Press, pp. 22-30. You can listen to her deliver a version of the full text here.

4

My letter in January.

5

I can’t find out where (or even if) Warhol actually said this. There are many variations on the quote; and I’ve also seen it attributed to the media theorist Marshall McLuhan.

6

Benjamin, Walter. (2005 [1934]) The Author as Producer. in Jennings, Eiland, Smith (eds.) Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 2, Part 2, 1931-1934. Translated by Livingstone, R. London: Harvard University Press, pp. 768-782. Available here.

7

Rohanne Udall is my long-term collaborator. We make work together as Chatting Tanum.

8

Robyn Cabaret is a producer working at Sadlers Wells Theatre – the official institutional partner of my research – and one of my supervisors. Over the past couple of months, I’ve been (remotely) attending some meetings there as a way to get some sense of the organisation’s current structure and interests. Alongside the weekly programming team meeting with Robyn and her colleagues, there’s been a couple of organisation-wide Q&As with the artistic director & chief executive Alistair Spalding and executive director Britannia Morton.

9

Rajni Shah is… amazing. They’re an artist, performer and writer, who undertook a PhD in ‘listening’ a couple of years ago. I find the listening they practice to be challenging, transformative, critical, joyful, potent, complex. The talk that I’m referring to in the letter took place last November at Attenborough Arts Centre, and was in dialogue with the scholar Royona Mitra. I don’t think it’s available online; but recently I got to attend another (brilliant) talk by Rajni, of which you can find a transcript here. And they’ve got a book coming out soon, which I’m very excited to read. I can’t recommend their work enough.

10

Last year the dramaturg and choreographer Paul Sadot published his PhD as a very beautiful website – which was here, but has since gone down. I can’t remember exact details of the text (and I’m pretty unfamiliar with the hip hop scene more generally) but bascially it was looking at how Breakin’ Convention – Sadler’s Wells’ huge and much-celebrated platform for ‘hip hop dance theatre’ – has very questionably shaped this emerging form to fit their own (and Arts Council England’s) interests. I think he described it as the ‘gentrification’ of hip-hop, an otherwise very grassroots and political dance form.

11

The Bologna Process was a European-wide initiative over the past 25-ish years to set common standards of university degrees at BA, MA and PhD level. These were developed in order to develop a meaningful and comparable across these different countries. I think most countries have a more particular set of criteria and legislation, but ultimately they each satisfy this international agreement. Click through for more info.

12

I wish I had a link to a formal university document that payed out this requirement, but frustratingly it’s only actually communicated through (pre-recorded and pretty dull) training sessions. This is part of my sense of frustration, I guess: that these forms themselves seem quite open, but once you scratch the surface, they reveal themselves to be full of very specific and unarticulated expectations and demands. 

13

No one seems particularly keen to admit it in a formally published text, but I think the sentiment is caught up in the following: “it is when this potent and somewhat unruly discipline is co-joined with research that creative practice-led research becomes truly emergent in its outcomes.” From Haseman, B. and Mafe, D. (2009) Acquiring Know-How: Research Training for Practice-Led Researchers, in Smith and Dean (eds.) Practice-Led Research, Research-Led Practice in the Creative Arts (Research Methods for the Arts and Humanities). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 211–28. 

14

Adorno, Theodor () Minima Moralia: Reflections from a Damaged Life. Translated by Jephcott, E. F. N. London: Verso. Minima Moralia has got to be one of my favourite books ever. I love it, I love it, I love it.

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