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,
Dance4 is a dance organisation in Nottingham, near where I live, that supports a lot of experimental work in the UK.
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.”
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.
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.”
José Esteban Muñoz (2009) Cruising Utopia. London: New York University Press. p.73
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.
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.
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.