A copy of a recent letter to my supervisors. The image below is of a linocut print I made last month; I included one in each envelope. I’ve added footnotes to the text here that might be useful for a more public readership.
Dear Nic, dear Robyn, dear Efrosini,
I’ve been thinking about entrances and exits.
At the end of last year I wrote about wreaths as an institutional model that can outlast any individual’s departure1. And since January, Rohanne and I have busy with our ‘choreography course’ Letters of Resignation2, thinking about the exit more from the perspective of the person leaving.
It’s one thing to resign from a formal role in an organisation, but the idea of quitting gets more complicated with the ‘freelance’ or ‘independent’ artist. What does it mean to leave, when you’re already on the ‘outside’? What is being given up on here: an job, an organisation, a scene, a disciplinary frame, an ambition? I’m still interested in this idea (from Mick Wilson) of artists as being ‘stakeholders’ of an institution, through and beyond any short-term periods of direct engagement or work. And thinking through this idea of resignation I think might offer some clarity about the nature of this tethered, outside-inside, or distanced relation.
As the protest around the university cuts has quietened down, the student collective3 I’m involved with has been focussing on developing and re-thinking its structure. And this has been a good way for me to think about ‘entrances’: I’ve been busy with the question of how we enable new people to come forward and join in. This has been lots of things: ensuring there’s clarity around who is involved in what action (so it’s obvious who to get in touch with if you want to join in something), and asking for succinct updates at weekly meetings; tidying up our shared online documents; trying to succinctly summarise the complex (and ever-changing) situation so that we don’t get stuck having the same conversations over and over again; circulating core jobs and ensuring there’s clarity around expectations. I don’t think of it as supporting newcomers to contribute to a pre-defined set of commitments; it’s more about clarifying the structure so that they know how to enter with whatever energy, ideas, and curiosities they have; and take the lead in actions, and connect with whoever else might want to support. Dean Spade in his book Mutual Aid4 hones in on this difference, and what it means in terms of power relations, the longevity of a collective, and the risks of exploitation, resentment and exhaustion.
But this structural stuff is quite a lot of work, and can often feel like a frustrating distraction from the more outward-facing action that people usually turn up interested in doing. Processes of transparency, consensus and accountability can quickly start to feel laborious, excessively bureaucratic, and constraining. I think this tension is pretty core to my PhD: the friction between the necessity for organisational structures and process, and our impulses toward spontaneity, unruliness, pleasure, play, and the unjustifiable.
Over the past few years, many of the discussions around the ‘leadership’ of freelance artists within dance organisations5 have centered on the question of how this (consultancy-esque) work is remunerated. But I’m more interested in how this ‘outsider’-figure is being equipped with information. It takes time to learn the idiosyncrasies of an institution. And rather than parachuting individuals into short-term roles with impossible expectations to find solutions, I’m more drawn toward models by which an organisation can keep offering its wider freelance community a level of granular detail over the longer-term; from which they can then step forward in an ad-hoc basis and contribute in ways that are sensitive and relevant to the actual situation. (This question of information also feels pretty pertinent to the practice of the guest-artist-curator. How much does a guest-host need to know of the context, in order to be able to actually welcome in and support others?)
In a way, I think these letters – that I have been reproducing as a public, monthly research blog – are trying to model something around this. How can those (like me) in receipt of public funds, to be working with more transparency and accountability? What would it be like, for example, for organisational staff to write regular bulletins – of their current work, activities, values, thinking, questions – for the wider communities they serve?
I have some questions:
How much time would this take to produce? People are generally overworked: is this another exhausting structural demand?6 Who would be writing these? To be honest, I’m less interested in hearing from the heads of these organisations, or the staff who are the usual point of contact for artists (programming team, curators, etc.). I want to hear from the parts of the organisation that are usually more opaque: from the finance guy, the marketing intern, the operations team. What are they busy with, developing, learning, confused about? But how does my fantasy – of regular critical reflection and articulation of one’s thinking – match up with the ‘essential’ / ‘desirable’ skills of these roles? I don’t presume that the skills with which I am producing these letters are universally held or obvious.
How much time would this take to digest!? It would be impossible for many artists to keep track of the many different organisations they work with. However, I do feel that there are actually only a very small number of organisations that I am actually that invested in and care about, and of which I feel like I have developed a longer-term stake-holder-y relation. I think I’d be pretty happy to read a once-a-month bulletin by each. It would probably be as much or less time as I spend obsessing about whatever the hell it they’re actually doing behind their thick walls.
I don’t think ‘total’ transparency is a practical (or even ethical) demand. Individuals have a right to privacy, and there are things that are impossible to ‘fully’ report on or account for (for example: conflict without resolution, or the inevitability of some initiatives dwindling away). Rather than as something that can be ‘achieved’, I think of transparency more as a principle to work toward; a way of considering the things we are busy with are being concealed or articulated, and to who. The inevitable anxieties around confidentiality and sensitive information seem bound to the question of to whom these bulletins are being made available. Is the wider community of participants neatly defined (for example, Chisenhale Dance Space’s membership7, or a network of associate artists), or does it blur out in a way that cannot be distinguished from the general public?
What to include or exclude in these missives? What is the right degree of detail? I think of the artist Dan Daw recently saying8 that when he undertakes a residency, he wants to be given a hot-decking space, access to the printer, etc. And I was thinking: yeah, but… does this mean that on the first day of my two-week residency there will get completely eaten up with a lengthy induction that has to account for every possible desires, including how to work the printer? (For what it’s worth, I’m totally with Dan on this – I hate feeling consigned to the studio.) Whether it’s a standardised introduction to a residency space, or a bulletin reporting on institutional progress, whatever it is that is being communicated is designed for a distributed group of people with a very diverse set of interests, processes, needs and concerns. It’s not just a question of articulacy, but of relevance: the determination of what information needs to be conveyed, or left out. Any process of digestion, synthesis and summary is by necessity one of exclusion.
(And I’m all for exclusion! A couple of months ago, I attended an online talk by a PhD student whose work I encountered recently and really admire. I was so disappointed! She spent 40 minutes reeling off what sounded like a methodology chapter9: words that just felt in service of justifying her work to the institution. And I was thinking that yes, of course, we all have to do this hoop-jumping, but why choose to share that work in this context? That was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me. Many of us are doing this mediation all the time; satisfying the various institutional demands we are working under, but working to ensure that they don’t fully saturate or determine the language and thinking we share with others.)
Finally: I wonder what it would take for these bulletins to go beyond mere advertising? I find 95% of writing produced by arts institutions to be simply bland self-affirmation: utterly devoid of spirit or any actual thinking. Often when I probe for updates from these organisations – about some promising initiative that has since gone silent – they say that it is too early to be able to report on it. What would it take for those within organisations to actually open up about their work in process? To speak from genuine humility, vulnerability, doubt; from which the wider community can take leadership in offering support? I don’t want to hear about initiatives when they are complete, finished, fixed. I want to hear about them as they are still developing, such that I can step forward, contribute and help shape them!
Zooming in from the scale of organisational and collective structures to the scale of my body, the other way I’ve been thinking ‘entrances’ is through anal sex. Or, rather than the act of penetration itself (lockdown presents its limits….), I’ve been spending time with a very material practice of preparing myself for entrance by another: fibre pills, douches, butt plugs and lubricants, to vacate, clean, ease and stretch. And attending to all the practicalities, mess, discomfort and pleasures of that.
I don’t really know how sex folds into this PhD. Or why. (I mean, mostly I just want to spend lots of my time having it and thinking about it, so maybe it’s more a question of how to ‘get away’ with that10). But I do think there’s a link here, around how our desires and energy rub up against obligations and institutional structures. I keep coming back to María Lugones’ definition of intimacy as “the social relation between those not acting as a representative, or holding office”11. And to Audre Lorde’s concept of the erotic: “the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy”12. And Katherine Angel on how the notion of consent rubs up against the unstable and (to some degree) unknowable nature of desire13; and how Leo Bersani reaching for sex’s potential to dissolve the sovereign, “a radical disintegration and humiliation of the self”14. And Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore writing from her endless walking through Seattle, charting her tangled feelings of arousal, fear, exhilaration and exhaustion; reeling from endless disappointment, yet still keeping herself open to unexpected encounters with beauty and pleasure; and through all the compromise, trying to figure out how to build, participate in, commit to or untether herself from different relations and communities: “I’m worried that in order to have the kinds of relationships I want, I’ll be forced to have the kind of relationships I don’t believe in.”15
If I’m holding onto the concept of ‘hosting’, than I think this PhD will inevitably have to deal with notions of property. But I think that queer sexual institutions and practices – such as the cruising cultures across the porn theatres of New York in the 70s and 80s that Samuel Delany writes about16 – open up completely different ways of thinking about the traditional delineations of public and private. And those discussions around queerness and public-private exchange are all tied into a history of gentrification.Both Delaney and Sarah Schulman (in her book The Gentrification of the Mind) argue that the devastation and mass death of AIDS was deliberately harnessed by New York city in the service of real estate, and in attack of public space, queer life, and cross-racial and cross-class contact. A quote from Schulman’s has stuck with me for the past few years:
“They did not live long enough to be able to object to the professionalization of the arts, which might not have been so thorough had they lived. [...] When they died, their practice of creating new paradigms outside of institutional structures was removed from sight.”17
And I’ve not really used this term before in the research, but I’m wondering: what it would mean to say that the field of UK dance has been ‘gentrified’ over the past years?18 And – most tenuously – how close I am to claiming that there is some kind of faggot legacy (faggot methodology?) that I might have inherited, that might offer something in navigating these tensions, and in resistance to all this?
With spring flowers, spring excess, and lots of uncertainty,
A presentation I gave at the Transversality digital conference last December. You can watch it (and access a transcript) here.
The project is a postal course in which 15 participants will receive letters from 5 guest artists. It started in February and will run to June; after which Rohanne and I will find a way to make the materials publicly available online.
Dean Spade (2020) Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next). London: Verso.
I’m revelling in the irony of me invoking a practice of regular updates, after just having failed to send out a letter last month.
Chisenhale Dance Space is a dance organisation in East London: a bastion of UK experimental dance that was founded by the X6 collective in the 70s. Over the past year, it’s been questioning and clarifying what it means to be a ‘member-led’ organisation; the role of its membership (of 100+ artists, producers, teachers, practitioners) ,in relation to its board of trustees and 4 members of salaried staff. A key question of this process is how the organisation – with these different – can address its structural racism. Leadership is not just feeding in ideas and direction for the organisation. It’s also about taking responsibility. How might the expanded and (relatively) informally-constituted body of the membership take responsibility of its racism, and be held to account?
National Dance Network (with Dan Daw, Shivangee Agrawal and Jamaal O’Driscoll) (2021) ‘What Do Artist’s Need?’. 1st February. Available here. The point by Dan that I’m referring is a pretty minor moment within a much more complex discussion – that is too big for me to try fully account for in this already overly-long letter. But there’s a lot of overlap in that conversation, and my topic of research, so I will probably come back to this again.
Within the thesis submitted at the end of their study – and at many stages along the way – the PhD student has to account for the ‘methodology’ of their research. As far as I understand, t’s basically an account of how you are undertaking your research, and making the case for how this will produce the kinds of knowledge or understanding you are claiming it will contribute. It’s less about the actual research itself, and more about how the research process fits in with established forms: There like social science, or anthropological fieldwork, or laboratory research, or artistic research. I get confused about this a lot though, and often return to this blogpost by Simon Ellis.
I’m reminded of the Andy Warhol quote: “Art is anything you can get away with” (for which I can’t track a source). I wrote about ‘unjustifiable practice’ in my last letter to my supervisors in January.
María Lugones (2010) Toward a Decolonial Feminism, Hypatia, 25(4), pp. 742-759.
Audre Lorde (1978) The Uses of the Erotic, in (2017) Your Silence Will Not Protect You. UK: Silver Press.
Katherine Angel (2021) Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent. London: Verso.
Leo Bersani (2010) Is the Rectum a Grave? and Other Essays.London: The University of Chicago Press.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore(2020) The Freezer Door. California: Semiotext(e)
Samuel R. Delany (2019) Times Square Red Times Square Blue. New York: New York University Press.
Sarah Schulman (2013)The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination. London: The University of California Press.