Dance, diaspora and the role of the Archive

A text I delivered at State of Emergency’s Archiving Black Dance conference at Bedford University on the 17th September 2016 in response to the title: Moving the past into the future…. Written the night before in a frenzy of feeling after weeks of casual thinking. Lots of things in this resonate with the work I am currently making – i ride in colour and soft focus, no longer anywhere:

Maybe I can begin at the beginning.

I have a fear of the archive, of capturing and being captured, of being remembered or misremembered, of commitment, of becoming establishment and in my very nature blocking change, of constant surveillance, of becoming a resource for systems of oppression I would hope never to condone, of not being able to stay in control of the contextualisation of my work thus losing what the work intended, losing control of my story.

I also have a fear of the archive because my father was a writer and publisher of political writings (from academic texts to biography to poetry) of people of the African diaspora. His project was towards visibility and change. He spent thirty years writing a book about Trinidadian activist Claudia Jones and then died before it was finished.

I have never wanted to spend all of my time looking back. I am afraid of my time running out, of the world ending…

I’ve been making performances for the past six/seven years and pretty early on my practice expanded to include public writing, co-running an online magazine, imagining, creating and curating performance events and making dance films. A lot of the these things were done in collaborations with other dance artists. The lack of visibility or cross-conversation between dance and other art forms with a longer history of written discourse and criticism, such as the Visual Arts and Literature, say, was very early on something that I/we felt it was really important to try to change. The knowledges that we had engaged with through the body felt palpable, urgent and ignored by the wider context.

The magazine was a very clear attempt at archiving all (or, more of) the dance work that was being presented in London but not getting attention in the mainstream press. We didn’t want it to disappear, and it felt relevant and important for the work not just to be living for one night on a stage, but to continue developing our thinking about dance, and dance making, through conversation, reflection and discourse.

After a few years, various events with large institutions and working as a group of eight people (notably all female), we all seemed to shift focus from the magazine. It had started to feel as though we were working for others, for The Scene, for the institutions and (for me, at least) I lost my self in there. I have a fear that this is the eventuality of attempting to document, record, capture, preserve for future generations and moments, a history as it is being made – that you might just stop seeing the future.

As a dancer I have a vested interest in the present moment, in presence, in these things as a container for memory, history, projections into the future, in invisible things, in slightly mystical things perhaps, in the ephemeral. I used to have this chat about my practice, and how it was about grounding myself in the present moment, and then I realised that what that means is actually to have a foot in the past and an eye to the future – anticipating; a state of animal readiness, you could talk about intuition, instinct, a knowledge of what came before, a sense of what is there now and a feeling of where that could and should and might go. A simultaneous occupation of multiple space-times.

It is no surprise that science fiction and Afrofuturism are big at the moment. That in this time of gender fluidity, precarious working conditions as standard and even desirable, standing on the precipice of history with our fingers stroking, coaxing out information with dynamic taptaptaps on smooth screens and our lives as both bodies of flesh and multiple avatars in various virtual realms all at once. We are nowhere and everywhere.

I try to think about how digital structures or concepts can be applied to the physical, how they are/can be embodied. How the idea of the archive has shifted/is shifting/must shift to hold also the new kinds of histories and conversations and bodies created by the virtual. The the idea of multiple stories/conversations existing at once, in one changing body, synchronous, contradictory and colliding.

I find it interesting that when I looked up the definition of archive I got “in technology, mac OS X: to either compress a file to reduce its size or to preserve your files and user settings when reinstalling system software”.

What happens to time when the past is immediately accessible with the tapping of a few keys, when distances that once took weeks to traverse are crossed in seconds? When we have access to the insane and inevitably biased archive that is the internet, the web? What happens to my/your/our body? I am asking myself how does narrative exist in this/my moment? As someone making performance I am constantly asking myself, what is the importance of live work today? I am interested in somehow tracing the impact of ephemeral legacies through the body.

My question for myself as a performer and choreographer at the moment is:

What kind of archive is this body, my body?

I think about an archive as a place where the past lives. If we are to ground ourselves in the present in order to propel ourselves into the future with any sense of agency and direction, we need to know about what came before. And since so much of the subjective identities of black people of my generation, second and third generation immigrants, living in the west today, have been, by necessity, fashioned out of our own erasure from history and its retelling, identities pieced together from the bits of information that can be gleaned from the micro archives that are literature, song, music, film, images… Appropriating and re-appropriating, deciding what we want to erase ourselves. When so much has been lost, what do we do with that gap? Maybe we create fictions. Maybe we try to read the stars. Maybe we practice dances of the tribe we think might be where our ancestors hailed from. I think it is about bringing our bodies into contact with something that conjures this erased history, that reminds us of this history.

If my body is an archive that holds everything and everyone I have every encountered, how do I access and read this archive? How do you access and read this archive? When other sources are absent, what is already here, in my body, in my blood, in my bones? And is seeking, searching and researching this space/place always going to be an act of creating a speculative fiction?

Bodies as holding spaces for information and histories.

You could say that if the body is archive then the environment is teacher. I am interested in how we might gain agency in this situation, how to grow ourselves (and others) into rich and specific archives. As such, I have been thinking again about pedagogy, about education, community, tradition, technique, repetition, exchange, conversation and their relationship to embodiment.

As I have been thinking about these things, it has happened that I have watched Rize, a film about the Krump movement in LA and its development and practice; a documentary about Footwork in Chicago, the dancing, the music, the collaborations and mentoring between the people in the scene; I’ve read a book called Bass Culture about the development of Jamaican music from the fifties to the nineties;

Aside: All these things just bring me back to watching Ornette: Made In America, a film about Ornette Coleman. There is a scene that stood out for me. Ornette has his twelve year old son playing in his band. There is a moment where they sit on some steps, and Ornette is asking his son about the way he plays the drums, he is trying to understand how he does it the way he does. He enquires about this on a practical and conceptual level, contextualising the playing of his son, with such respect and curiosity and desire to learn. Ornette looks to his son’s body, for knowledges that his son holds but cannot access through language yet. It’s a totally beautiful thing and it really captures this idea for me of working to develop and access the body as archive.

I could say more about what I read in these things, of the interesting – and very similar – that they are all (or have all been at points) social practices, processes of developing and progressing these movements/dances/musics through mentoring, location, conservation, and different relationships to specific technology…but I think I will have to leave it at this and move on… One thing worth nothing is that it is no accident that these cultures are all things started by black people. It is no accident that the main players are all male.

In order for something to enter an actual Archive, someone else needs to consider it important and have the means to document it somehow. The potential for this to happen then rests on what (and who) is already privileged within a certain context.

Allow me to run with this: In order for the things to enter the archive of the body, you just need to be present – of course deciphering or accessing the epic amounts of information me hold within ourselves in order to reflect and to pass on, is a whole other work…But I am interested in developing the body/our bodies as archive through increased conversation, exchange, negotiations, contact and using structures that enable these things in the process of (and around) making and presenting work.