December 2020

A transcript of a recent letter. The images below are of some wreaths I had been making over the past few weeks. I included prints of these photos in each of the three envelopes. I’ve added footnotes to this transcript to give some contextual info that might be useful for readers other than the original recipients, and links to relevant materials.

Dear Robyn, dear Efrosini, dear Nic,[1]

I live near some nice parks, and I tend to go for a walk each day. I crave solitude; choosing quieter routes, or if I have to pass by groups of other walkers I’ll step off the path well in advance and curve around them. In spring and summer it was a bit easier, but now it means trudging through mud. And this happens mostly when I’m passing heterosexual couples or families, whose side-by-side stroll takes up a lot of space. But it’s not really their fault. Even if they tend to be pretty late in signalling intent to create room for me to pass by, I am the one pre-emptively stepping off the path.[2]

Recently I’ve been trying to interrupt this habit; keep my course, risk proximity, and leave it up to them to negotiate how they take up the remaining space. And every time this happens I think about Anna Pakes[3] asking me what I mean by ‘holding space’, the question of how I hold space for myself and / or others; the quiet ways in which all involved in weird power structures might be co-producing them; and the turbulent feeling in my gut when I try to go against them.

I have been busy with the student protest group[4]. During the last few weeks we’ve been working on some of the informal power dynamics that have emerged within the collective: centres and peripheries, voices and how decisions are made, how jobs are held or circulated. Some people held that these conversations were a waste of time and were obstructing us from taking meaningful action; some (including me) thought they were long overdue; others were simply surprised to hear there might be any problems at all. For better or worse, I became quite central to this process. Maybe it’s because I am relatively well-equipped with tools for collaboration – it felt clear to me that this was where I could be most useful to the collective – or maybe I was just particularly impatient or needy with my increasing frustration with the situation. 

I tried to hold space for us to listen to the scary and turbulent things that people felt needed to be said. Not seeking blame or accusation; we were all culpable in producing the situation that had developed. It was all pretty intense, vulnerable, personal, emotional and fraught. I wondered a few times if this would end the group. And as it was happening, I kept having to ask myself: who am I to call for and insist on this process, even as others expressed their doubts? 

Time was limited. People were tired, and were placing their trust in me to design and hold structures of conversation that were fair and supportive, and that could also get us to a point of collective clarity and resolution. But I am not a neutral agent, I was complicit in this dynamic, and am full of blindspots and biases. And I also had a bunch of things that I wanted to say! Maybe this is one of tricks of ‘holding space’: how to keep acknowledging and honouring your own desires and needs. (And so also maybe a clue about what ‘holding space’ might mean: something around the prioritisation or framing of one’s own needs and desires in relation to other peoples’?)

I think we got there. Or we got somewhere. From a position of suddenly overt difference and disagreement, we tentatively articulated a set of values and structures to work by in the new year. This process was wholly internal to the group. It will not lead directly to any actions; and I agree with the cynics that the time and energy it took probably led to us not being able to undertake certain urgent things. But still: it feels like some of the most significant, rich and transformative work I undertook this semester.

Alongside all this, I had been making wreaths. What started as a pleasurable distraction quickly became a way to think around institutions and organising. I spoke about this at the Transversality conference[5]; this curious sculptural form, where centrelessness is robustly held together by all its elements pushing outward and away. Branches, metal, cloth, paper, ivy, electrical wires, plastic, string: the practice also forced me to think through an ethics of foraging. Which again circles back to this question of holding or taking up space: in my daily walks, what could I (permit myself to) take? 

Some things were more simple: whatever had been discarded as waste; that which had been cut back and left to rot. But I did cut down some living things: weeds that were choking other growth; abundant wildflowers in a carpark; a dense thicket growing by the water. I could reason through this all, but I still felt strange, and hyper-conscious of whether or not (and how) I was seen. Who am I to take these public materials back to my home? But I also keep re-remembering that all these spaces are continually being changed, cleared, repurposed, in ways that I both approve of and object to, without me or anyone else being given a say. And that understanding quelled some of my anxieties, and revealed something of their solipsism. I am just one of the many different agents (official and unsanctioned) who are crossing, shaping, contributing to and drawing from these spaces.

There are other things I want to tell you guys – about closing things down for this semester (I wrote an evaluation![6]), about what feels urgent next term (singing! sex! more letters!) – but this is already pretty long, so I might leave it there. 

I hope your holidays have been as restful, joyous and delicious, 
Paul

[1] I seemed to have gained another supervisor since my last letter! Robyn works as a producer at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, the dance house with which my PhD is taking place alongside the University of Roehampton. My funder, Techne, calls this a ‘Collaborative Doctoral Award’. It’s expected that the student will undertake study within not only the university, but also directly with the institutional partner, and that the research will contribute to the professional field. I hadn’t sent a letter to Robyn before as we only had our first meeting together in mid-November. 

[2] For a very beautiful counterpoint to this queer/straight hierarchy of public space, I highly recommend this great story (from about 10:15 to 13:00) by comedian Joel Kim Booster about an interrupted threesome in a steam room in a gym (from RISK! Live Show on 16th November 2016).

[3] Anna Pakes is a philosopher at Roehampton’s Dance Department. She’s pretty amazing. Her work resists the trend for continental philosophy in dance and performance studies to instead work from an analytic tradition. Her recent book Choreography Invisible is on the ontology of dance works. I can’t wait to read it. 

[4] Roehampton Student Saving Arts and Humanities. The University of Roehampton University is enacting horrific cuts to its Arts and Humanities departments. Alongside others, students are working together protesting this.

[5] On Transversality, a Techne student-led conference, taking place online from the 9th to the 11th December 2020. All the conference presentations are available online until the 1st February here. There is a video and transcript of my presentation available on my website here

[6] Available on my website here.