Professional bodies

So this thing happened. Short version: Project O were programmed to perform a new short work at an event. The curator panicked after catching moments of (what was supposed to be) a private rehearsal, two days before the event and expressed concern pretty much amounting to the idea that our work would fail, so instead of a 20 minute show it should become an installation, so that audiences would not feel uncomfortable/bored/whatever. We withdrew from the event.

Long version:

We (Project O) agreed to performing as part of an LGBTQI+ event at an old house (museum) stuffed full of paintings of plump white bodies and dead animals, steeped in colonialism and Marie Antoinette wallpaper. 

The event is the fourth of its kind and is curated by an artist.

We were invited to be part of what you could call a multi-disciplinary programme for an evening spanning 3 hours, and spreading across the different spaces in the building.

We didn’t know the curator but had been invited based on recommendations and subsequent googling (still can’t believe this is an actual word). 

We were asked to present two twenty minute performances (a repeat) for 100 seated guests at a time. 

We agreed to go ahead with the understanding that our project at the time was to produce short, site-responsive work series – Native Instincts:Psychic Labours – and that we would make such a performance with the time and resources that they could offer us. This has been a research project for our 8-hour show Voodoo but also an attempt to not give more than we are paid for (whatever this means…) basically an attempt to help us not burn out, and to remind ourselves that our work always builds upon its own history, and that not every show needs a 3 month creation period. It as agreed that we make one such work for this event. 

We were offered a fee of £500, unfortunately so low due to the costs of hiring in the 100 chairs and a PA. But whatever, good cause we thought (er).

On our first scheduled rehearsal in the space, the curator and one of the events staff stayed with us for the duration. 

For our second rehearsal in the space, two days before the event, we requested privacy – after settling any business necessary for discussion with everyone.

Once the curator and events staff had left for the room next door, we began an exercise, moving slowly across the length of the room for a twenty minute duration. As a warm up. As a way of feeling out the time, the sound, the space, towards composing the performance or rather realising the structure we had imagined before coming into that space.

When the music ended the two came into the room. We were slightly taken aback. They had re-entered to express concern. To express concern about the whole piece potentially ‘being like that’. They had been peeking into the room and observing our bodies in what we had thought was private space, moments at a time. What followed was a series of insults to our professionalism, dancing and work:

Is it all going to be so slow? so conceptual?

Suggestions that the audience might feel uncomfortable and want to leave but feel trapped

Too much sustain, not enough rise and fall

More energy

Perhaps we could bill it as an installation instead, so the audience feel free to come and go as they please

Twenty minute might not be long for you but it is for audiences

This is not the White Cube

What we saw on the website was more, frantic

Insinuations were made that we had wanted to ‘hide’ the work from the curator (as no plans had been made for them to see it before the performance, neither had any requests for this to happen been made). We were encouraged to understand that this created a risky and nerve-wracking situation for the curator, although no action had been taken on their part to express these feelings/concerns prior to this moment of intrusion.

The possibility of us showing the full work prior to the show, holding it up for judgement and approval at the last minute, was discussed. 

Lots more was said, by us, by them – and by this point and ‘us’ and ‘them’ was so clearly established it was painful. We agreed that we would be doing our bodies and our work a disservice if we were to present something in this event.

Since then, we haven’t really known how to talk about what happened. The confusion that happens when your body is your work – it is both personal and professional and political – knowing when it is important to talk about its experiences in public can be difficult, awkward, seem like ‘Diva’ behaviour.

At the same time, there are a lot of problems with the curation of body-based work in spaces that are not theatres, around care of bodies and specifically the bodies of marginalised people and around what it means to support and ‘develop’ artists with experimental practices. In short, how institutions deal with things that are unknown or not experience by them.

In this case, the idea that our moving bodies could (and would) cause discomfort to many in the audience, who have consented to be sat on seats for the twenty minutes of the show but would not be able to cope with this, nor have enough agency to choose to leave should they experience this intense discomfort. What is the suggestion that our slow-moving bodies cause discomfort? What is the conflation of ‘slow’ with ‘conceptual’? What is the assumed (or desired) relationship between art and comfort? Why is discomfort something to be avoided, not just by the audience but by the curator on the audience’s behalf?

And that the solution to this ‘problem’ was that our twenty minute work be viewed as an installation. That this might erase the intentions behind our work (a work created to be viewed from beginning to end by a static audience) was not considered, that a performing body inside an installation in a museum/old house full of old art can easier become an art object, something sculptural rather than human, and what this kind of objectification of our brown, dissenting bodies in such a space might produce, was not considered.

It was not recognised that asking us to be ‘more frantic’ with our movement was not okay and kind of fucked up, in the same breath as saying they did not want to control us or direct the work. At no point (prior to this conversation) was the work described as a commission, so the claim of the curator over its content was nil once we had agreed on the terms of presentation.

The invasion of our privacy and the betrayal of trust that took place when we were literally spied on was out of line and I wonder why it was so difficult to just have asked to see what we were doing? I wonder why they felt ‘excluded’ and that we were being ‘secretive’ when we thought our request for rehearsals with no eyes on us was just common practice and common courtesy. And then, judging a show on stolen moments of an improvisation practice is misguided. How can we work towards a better understand of experimental body based performance work for art curators? Why do people still have such limited ideas of what dance is, can and should be? Why do people think that because we reveal our bodies and make them available to the eyes of other for our work, that people are then granted the right to observe those bodies at any time?

Oh. It was also presented as an option for us to go ahead with the twenty minute show as planned if we were to ‘contextualise’ the performance for the audience by having a talk to ‘introduce’ the work.

We sent an email to the curator and events staff expressing these things and explaining our withdrawal from the event. It was long and considered and diplomatic, we said we would like to continue the conversation even though it is difficult. We even recommended other artists who might replace us after having checked their availability, providing links and telephone numbers. The response we got was this:

Dear Jamila and Alexandrina

Thank you for explaining that and for letting me know.

Best wishes

How do we end this cycle of mining our traumas to better articulate – and articulate fairly – to people we feel have treated us unprofessionally/inappropriately/badly? How do we stop doing all the work, whilst not putting ourselves out of work?