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.
Leo Bersani (2010) Is the Rectum a Grave? and Other Essays. London: The University of Chicago Press. p.24.
Katherine Angel (2021) Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent. London: Verso.
Jeremy Atherton Lin (2021) Gay Bar: Why We Went Out. London: Granta. p.185
Mick Wilson (2015) Thinking Through Institutional Critique. Presented at: THINKING THROUGH INSTITUTIONS, The Para Institution, Galway.
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.
Jeremy Atherton Lin again. p. 179. See .
Keith Hennessy (2017) ‘Our Own AIDS Time: Keith Hennessy and Ishmael Houston-Jones in Conversation’, SFMOMA Open Space.
Brontez Purnell (2021) 100 Boyfriends. Cipher Press: London. p.129
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.
Shut up! I loved this book! p.52! See , see .
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.
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.