Problems, Obstacles, Saboteurs

In my previous post I ended on this note ‘But, more importantly, making space on the part of us people of colour, has to also simultaneously be about sabotaging processes by which (white) spaces are and have been historically produced, such that we can start ‘taking up space’ (Kwakye and Ogunbiyi; 2019) and upending power.’ In this post I want to specifically develop the idea of sabotage as a mode of dismantling whiteness (and other hegemonies) in contemporary dance. 

Last month my colleague Broderick Chow and I co-presented our The UCLA Letters: On Dismantling Whiteness in the Academy at a seminar for graduate students in University of California, LA’s Department of World Arts and Culture / Dance. Taking the form of six letters (three each) that we wrote to each other over a period of two months (September to November 2019), our dialogue navigated personal experiences, critical theories, and embodied realities as scholars of colour living and working in the UK to create a matrix of protest in and through which to approach dismantling the whiteness of our fields. During our presentation, we incorporated an additional performative gesture by reading out the letters we had received, as opposed to the letters we had written. There was something in that complex layering of my voice reading out Broderick’s letters, and Broderick reading out mine that punctuated the dialectical verve of our dialogue further, while allowing us to vocalise and process the other’s thoughts, experiences and interventions. We are planning to publish the piece for anyone interested in encountering the full exchange. But in this post I want to journey through the sections of our letters that got me to the point to advocate for antiracism in our fields as acts of sabotage to systems and performances of whiteness. 

Through our letters we dwelled on whether being a problem is indeed a problem, that is, ‘a bad thing’. Broderick began with problematising the pejorative associations with ‘being a problem’ and through the course of our letters, we journeyed to the conclusion with me advocating for sabotage to systems of whiteness.  I trace our thinking below through citing key points in our line of thinking:

Letter 2 from Royona to Broderick signalling how PoC are framed as problems within institutions:

‘[Sara] Ahmed has further noted that taking on institutions through complaints work and pointing out problems on the grounds of social justice invariably positions us undertaking this work as the problems.’.

Letter 3 from Broderick to Royona claiming back the word problem:

‘But is being a problem such a bad thing? Maybe it is, in terms of how decolonization has been smoothed over and gentrified in the academy. When universities use the term “decolonize” today, it is in service of a fantasy that we could ever really remove coloniality. Decolonizing sounds too much like de-scaling to me—you descale your shower every two weeks, but it keeps coming back. I wonder if decolonizing evacuates the political from coloniality, the political project of assertion of your self-hood and interests against those who want to deny you these, a political project that is fundamentally antagonistic. Perhaps this is why I prefer “anti-colonialism” as a term, because it still holds that the process is one of contestation. Is this anti-colonial work then? Not to point out problems, or what’s “problematic”, but to be a problem?’

‘At the start of this letter I used the term problem interchangeably with obstacle. But they are very different. An obstacle resists the volition of another. But a problem reshapes the world around it to accommodate its own desires, if only to make that transformation for herself.’

Letter 4 from Royona to Broderick on problems as blockages that stall systems:

‘So I hope that in our call for overcoming the stuckness that grips us scholars of colour through more movement, we can consider the resistive power in stillness. Could we also imagine stillnesses as proactive blockages that stop whiteness from functioning as a system? In this perhaps I want to invert Sara Ahmed’s evocation of social justice workers as plumbers who locate and ease blockages in systems. What if we are not plumbers but indeed the blockages themselves?’

‘To be still in this mode then might mean to stay put, to claim, to own, to create blocks, to become obstacles, to cause spanners, to take up space, to become the problem as you say.’

Letter 5 from Broderick to Royona on problematising / complicating ‘making space’ on white terms :

‘Making space, turned around: how is space made? Not just space, but what Henri Lefebvre called the production of space, the consideration of space in all its dialectical relations: ideological, architectural, lived and embodied. What forces, for example, lead the British university to decide there is only room for six things a year, and only three years? (I can hazard a guess). What forces produce our endless movement as academics—our international travel to places like UCLA, to Hawaii, our productivity, our disseminations of ideas across the world—while still limiting our potentiality?’

Letter 6 from Royona to Broderick on antiracism as sabotage to white systems:

‘Might […] sabotage include the mere presence of black people and people of colour, within the relational context of the white academy? Might we be able to extend recent Cambridge University graduates Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi’s provocation, that for black bodies to exist within white institutions is in itself an act of resistance, in order to reimagine black people and people of colour in the academy as saboteurs? To resist is to object to the operation of a system. But to sabotage is to disable it.’

‘In her article ‘Dramaturgy and Sabotage’ Arabella Stanger reminds us that dramaturgy is a set of relational acts and that ‘sabotage resides […] in acts that disrupt production or slow it down’.  She argues for dramaturgy as a potential act of sabotage that upends artistic power asymmetries by ‘transforming the relational capacity of those involved’. Following this line of thinking, I am pondering whether, within the relational nexus of the white academy, might you and I and scholars of colour carrying out antiracist and anticolonial work, function as saboteurs practising disruptive dramaturgies to dismantle the performance of whiteness?’

‘In refusing to move on the terms of coloniality, in rejecting smoothening over dialectics in favour of civility, in dwelling in tense stillnesses, and in ‘taking up space’,  I end then on the potentialities of antiracist and anticolonial thinking and doing as a dramaturgical sabotage to systems of whiteness.’

What then can sabotaging the whiteness of contemporary dance and dance studies look like? How might us artists and scholars of colour reimagine ourselves as saboteurs in these fields?

anti-racist contemporary dance: a conversation (Tuesday 3 December 2019)

With Alexandrina Hemsley, Rob Jones, Seeta Patel and Rajni Shah, facilitated by Royona Mitra. The panel will discuss the structural racisms and racist silencing that operate in the contemporary dance sector. By centring anti-racist and decolonial works by dance artists and programmers of colour, the discussion will reflect on coalitional strategies for moving against and beyond the forms of racial violence and erasure that shape our field.

Independent Dance, Tuesday 3 December 2019; 7pm to 8:30pm.

Siobhan Davies Studios
85 St. George’s Road
Elephant & Castle
London SE1 6ER

the tools of a racist patriarchy

‘What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable’… ‘For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own games, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.’

— Audrey Lorde 2007: 110–112: Comments at Second Sex Conference, New York, September 29, 1979. Cited in Mirza, H.S., 2018. Racism in Higher Education: ‘What Then, Can Be Done?’, in: Arday, J., Mirza, H.S. (Eds.), Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy. Palgrave MacMillan, London, pp. 3–23 (this quotation p.3)

white privilege and black deprivation

White privileges are the relative advantages racism affords to people identified as white, whether white people recognize them or deny them. To be white is to be afforded one’s individuality. Afforded the presumption of innocence. Afforded the assumption of intelligence. Afforded empathy when crying or raging. Afforded disproportionate amounts of policy-making power. Afforded opportunity from a white network.

The inverse of white privilege is black deprivation.

– Ibram X. Kendi

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/10/too-short-lives-black-men/600628/

skin in the game

This Thursday 28 November 2019 at Z-Arts in Manchester:

SKIN in the Game is a bringing together of a representative cohort of artists, journalists and researchers of colour from across the UK. It offers a platform to thinking and discussion around ghettoisation, radical constitutions, anti-racist work, representation and leadership both within Live Art and in culture. It is an open space for discursive honesty. 

http://www.liveartuk.org/blog/skin-in-the-game

Giving Up Space / Taking Up Space

Over the last few years I have spoken widely with colleagues and students about ‘making space’ for perspectives, peoples, epistemologies and practices that both academia and contemporary dance world have historically ignored. I have advocated for people in dominant positions to ‘make space’ for marginalised narratives and practices to actively decentre our disciplines. ‘Making space’, I have said, is about recognising that space is finite, that occupation of space is power and that the production of space is a political act. Working on this anti-racist contemporary dance project over the last six months, and through conversations with my colleague Broderick Chow at Brunel University London while writing our joint presentation for UCLA earlier this month (The UCLA Letters: On Dismantling Whiteness in the Academy), however has led me to think in more nuanced ways.

Making space relies, naively, on our white institutions, colleagues and peers to take on the task of producing space while we wait. In reality though they are likely to ignore, even blame, the finiteness of space itself by foregoing nothing (or very little) of their own, while squeezing in some cursory references to other knowledge-systems in trite and tick-box ways. Within university curricula, space-making manifests in optional modules for hitherto marginalised practices, while dominant narratives retain core slots. Within the dance industry the diversity agenda abounds as ways of making space, fraught with Orientalisms and power asymmetries. Nothing changes. We continue to wait.

Making space has no purpose and certainly no bite if nothing gives on the part of the status quo. Things have to go. Content has to be displaced. People have to be replaced. Perspectives have to be erased. Making space has to be fundamentally and necessarily about ‘giving up space’ on part of our white colleagues. But, more importantly, making space on the part of us people of colour, has to also simultaneously be about sabotaging processes by which (white) spaces are and have been historically produced, such that we can start ‘taking up space’ (Kwakye and Ogunbiyi; 2019) and upending power.

Anti-Racist work in dance studies and the contemporary dance field has to be about redistribution of this power from those who are in current possession of it. On our own terms.

from the classroom

This blog has been quiet for a few weeks. One of the reasons for our radio silence is the somehow-always-a-surprise lack of time ushered in by the intensity of the university teaching term.

There’s an upside to this intensity: the great pleasure of being in sustained, weekly dialogue about challenging ideas with undergraduate students, groups of people who are mostly in their late teens and early twenties, and who (in our case as dance and performance university lecturers) are making art, reading about art, talking about art and its place in the world. Being part of these dialogues is where the job of being an academic is its most challenging, invigorating, and world-shaking. It’s in these classroom discussions that I usually learn the most.

Over the past few months, one group of students and I have been having a kind of on again / off again conversation about all the ‘NOes’ in Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto (1965).

(Read the manifesto, in its 2008 revisited form, in an interview with Rainer here.)

In the context of a tangled conversation about the politics of saying ‘yes’ or saying ‘no’ to things as an artist, one of the students proposed the following neat idea: “you have to have already been awarded many ‘YESses’ in your life, for your ‘NOes’ to get listened to“. (Let me know if you’d like to cite this particular comment and I’ll ask the author/speaker in question for her permission and if she would like to share her name.) This student was inspired to formulate that thought especially by having read passages of Miguel Gutierrez’s brilliant article ‘Does Abstraction Belong to White People’ (2018). I’ll share a brief part of that article here, in partnership with the YEses/NOes insight, as a kind of a dispatch from the classroom:

Who has the right not to explain themselves? The people who don’t have to. The ones whose subjectivities have been naturalized. It enrages me. No, it confuses me. I’m all for being confused, for searching, for having to do a bit of work. But the absence of explanation is somehow … somehow … somehow what? 

— Gutierrez, Miguel. ‘Does Abstraction Belong to White People?’, Bomb Magazine. 2018. https://bombmagazine.org/articles/miguel-gutierrez-1

hopelessness-hope

I spent a long time yesterday reading and re-reading a text shared by choreographer and dancer Malik Nashad Sharpe on their webpage. They write about (their) dance as a practice that slides across the place where hope has been foreclosed but where possible futures still appear. That radical slide between hopelessness and possibility is at play also in Saidiya Hartman’s new book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019), a work about intimate acts of rebellion performed by young black women in U.S. cities at the turn of the twentieth century.

I wondered what it would be like to read back-and-forth between these two texts. Here…

dance is a belief system and choreography is space. these things do not make dreams come true but they are where dreams are made into material texture. performance is fodder for hope and the positing of something else. in defense of marginal and radial practices, choreography that is coy and dysfunctional, a moment where things are not always what they seem. dancing and making it mean something to me, asking something of it. asking it to give me a future if only fleetingly. (Malik Nashad Sharpe)

Wayward, related to the family of words: errant, fugitive, recalcitrant, anarchic, willful, reckless, troublesome, riotous, tumultuous, rebellious and wild. To inhabit the world in ways inimical to those deemed proper and respectable, to be deeply aware of the gulf between where you stayed and how you might live. (Saidiya Hartman, 227)

i’m favouring the complex, the tug and spiral, the working with what is known now and before hierarchies of importance were forged under the influence of others. working with being a faggot, not woman not man, unruly. ordered differently. against an unspoken genocide. working where things are built and fallen, trying to build and falling. giving rise to another possibility, again. (Malik Nashad Sharpe)

Waywardness is a practice of possibility at a time when all roads, except the ones created by smashing out, are foreclosed. It obeys no rules and abides no authorities. It is unrepentant. It traffics in occult visions of other worlds and dreams of a different kind of life. Waywardness is an ongoing exploration of what might be; it is an improvisation with the terms of social existence, when the terms have already been dictated, when there is little room to breathe, when you have been sentenced to a life of servitude, when the house of bondage looms in whatever direction you move. It is the untiring practice of trying to live when you were never meant to survive. (Saidiya Hartman, 228)

willing futurity, the body as a repository for memory. desire. the history lessons that refused to be learnt. Imagination. possibility. maintenance. relief. there is an assumption that those make us powerless and i don’t believe that. do you know what its like to not be made human? i will ensure subjectivity and remake it again and again. that is all. (Malik Nashad Sharpe)

Malik Nashad Sharpe (2019) http://maliknashadsharpe.com/about

Saidiya V. Hartman (2019) Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval

Dance must fall

Last month, our colleague and friend Sita Balani wrote about her experiences of attending Literature Must Fall, a literary festival held in Birmingham on 28 September 2019. Aimed not at celebrating literature but ‘challenging it head-on’, the festival as Balani describes it has me dreaming about similar gatherings in the field of contemporary dance.

Balani writes:

I took the train to Birmingham for Literature Must Fall, [small in scale] but conceptually ambitious, aiming to dismantle literature rather than hold it up for admiration. […] As co-founder Imandeep Kaur wryly explained, they just get on with doing things, like providing childcare and prayer space, that other people like to theorise about but rarely put into practice.

[…]

The festival itself was unlike any mainstream literary event I’ve ever encountered. There was little distinction between speaker and audience, and the majority of participants were women of colour. Looking at the programme, it seemed to be for people who were critical about the white publishing industry, but just as skeptical about the diversity initiatives that sought to include us. If the implicit rationale of most literature festival turns on the civilizing potential of art, Literature Must Fall asked how writing could help to bring down what passes for civilization. The conversations were expansive and ballsy. There was no grandstanding, no celebrity-worship. Some of the familiar tropes got an airing (the white gaze, exoticisation etc) but even these ideas were given new life in an atmosphere that allowed for genuine disagreement without rancor.

[…]

The day pushed back on the identity talk that characterises much of the diversity discourse, including its intersectional offshoots. Instead, people hunted for new paradigms and thought collectively about the limitations of postcolonial theory, confessional literature, folk stories, narrating our experiences, trauma, and the written word itself.

Sita Balani, ‘Gather’, 26 September 2019, https://medium.com/@balani.sita/gather-cf2c825ac022

Two questions are on my mind:

1. Where in our daily work as artists, producers, scholars, workers in the field of contemporary dance could we take more chances to dismantle dance rather than hold it up for admiration?

2. What kind of festival formats are necessary for swerving the moribund work of diversity initiatives but instead creating the conditions for people to reflect collectively on the limitations of dance as a mode of anti-racist action but also to ask: ‘how dance could help bring down what passes for civilisation’?

two places at once

Another extract from some writing (this time by Vron Ware and Les Back) disguised as a blog post:

Putting his finger directly on the erratic pulse of “white writing,” [Mike Hill] continues: “the presence of whiteness alas within our critical reach creates a certain inevitable awkwardness of distance. Whiteness becomes something we both claim (single out for critique) and avoid (in claiming whiteness for critique, what else can we be, if we happen to be identifiably white?).”

Hill suggests that this conflict, characterized by “the epistemological stickiness and ontological wiggling immanent in whiteness,” might be called a second wave of white critique. By this satisfyingly graphic formulation I think he is trying to represent the problem that many designated “white” writers confess to in their own work: their motivation stems partly from a recognition that their “whiteness” ties them historically into a system of race privilege from which it is hard to escape, but by providing a critique of whiteness, they begin to situate themselves outside that system. Does this mean that they are in two places at once?

— Vron Ware & Les Back, 2002. Out of Whiteness: Color, Politics, and Culture. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p.29