The Aesthetics of Privilege and the Quality of Inclusion
From the seminar “Awareness, Responsibility & Power – Addressing dominant ideologies in artistic practise” at Subcase 2017
Two elephants walk into a bar; one called inclusion, one called privilege.
No-one sees them, because they’re the elephants in the room; but there is suddenly shame, awkwardness, guilt and anxiety.
So we stroke them without making eye contact, and hope they don’t ruin the party.
“Nice elephants…shhh now…shhh.”
Just for a moment imagine what it might be like to have a body, an expression, a way of moving that gives people anxiety or shame or guilt etc…Imagine having to drag those elephants with you everywhere. To have a body that is “other”, to be an “other” that needs to be included, elephants and all.
Who feels more uncomfortable? I guess it’s the one for whom feeling comfortable is the norm.
So I want to talk about the space we provide for comfort. To be comfortable enough to feel aesthetically valid – you know, right, just – just right – a space that could be described as fair.
And I’ll do this by looking at my own space, where I live and move, the circus school.
I want to talk about the quality of space we, the school can provide before we “invite” people in who should have been there from the start, sharing with us and defining with us what that space should have been, from the start.
And that’s to accept, uncomfortably, that we have been enjoying, just too much space.
We will need to get creative and we will need training to make this happen. We need it to be a practice: a practice of the difficult situation. We might need discomfort to be our default.
The quality of a space affects the movements you can perform in that space. If you limit someone’s space they will either get creative, fight back/act out or just stop moving so as to not get bruised by bumping into so many other things moving around with more possibility, more mobility. That’s a version of “fitting in”, not being clumsy.
The “bitch” is bruised by bumping up against the word “Bossy”, when she’s just doing her job. The queer might feel cramped from not being able to be flamboyant – and flamboyance might well be a result of having been refused space from the start. Hip hop is a reaction to the lack of freedom to move, to be mobile within the social.
It’s nice to think that art is the space for free expression of movement. But what if a “feminine”, “queer” or “coloured” movement was at odds with the space that graciously invited that body in? What if that movement bumped up against a dominant choreography expected by that space? The circus space for example. Or an invisible ideology? A circus ideology.
What if my student’s “feminine” movements “undid” or “re-wrote”the handstand as it is currently understood? Would that be accepted? Would she pass? If she does not, shame on us., we’re missing out on something that could make circus culture richer, more expansive, more inclusive.
Or, to put it another way: do I need to walk like a man first, to avoid rejection or abjection or violence, just to pass the entrance exam? Is that the price I should pay for entrance? To sacrifice a part of myself. I’m talking about walking on a street here. I’m talking about social space. And then, once I’m in to that privileged space of free expression, must I work against the choreography, the happiness script of that circus space, and its dominant ideals to finally bring more of my queerness into the world? Am I paying more than others, who invisibly slide into that ideal by virtue of biology, psychology, history or gender constructs? Not all of me is welcome to the party that is the circus. And when I bring it, I become the killjoy.
We say the space is neutral, even flat – without hierarchy. A meritocracy. It only appears neutral because there are naturalized ideals structuring it. And when something is naturalized it becomes invisible – an assumption, like walking upright on two legs, which I guess most of us don’t think about much, because it is the default way of moving in the world.
But no-one is neutral, and no space is neutral. No-one is just a human being. You are always a fe/male or not, a white or not, an able-bodied or not human being. There is no just human being. Not in this world. And the words “fair” and “fairness”, the “fairness” at the heart of Swedish lagom – everytone getting their fair share -now take on altogether more sinister meanings for me. There, deep in language, without us noticing, power. Paranoid? Yes. That’s what racism, misogeny, elitism, ableism and homophobia can do to a person.
“Just a human being” is a symptom of privilege. “Just a human being” means that perhaps you’ve never been marked – marked out, named, shamed or categorized. “Just a human being” is privilege defending its right for things to continue as normal. So don’t make a fuss. Don’t be oversensitive. Don’t be a killjoy. Stop being paranoid. Please stop being a bitch. And for goodness sake stop bumping into the furniture.
It was last year and I was climbing the rope.
Over there I overheard you talk while stretching. I wasn’t listening.
I didn’t hear what you were talking about, maybe boys, relationships. Whatever, it made me smile. I had not heard this tone of voice in this space before. This rhythm, this less percussive exchange.
Fast forward to my student who is exploring what she calls her “feminine body” that has been masculinized from years of training. A body she feels she has had to silence in order to fit in. She says to me “I miss a feminine space here.”
I remembered you girls. Inclusivity or diversity is not about numbers. A box-ticking that measures quantities or the “performance” of an institution. It is about the quality of a space. My student is right. There is very little feminine space in the place that I work. I miss it too.
I want you to know that I bring it up in meetings, that I call it out.
And this is privilege at its height. Me calling something out on behalf of someone else’s experience. Because I am a man, and I know , I expect to be listened to. Whatever else I had going on, class, sexuality, race, I was taught that my voice was allowed to claim the space. And I won’t be able to charged with being “emotional.”
So, girls, I’m calling it whenever I can, because perhaps you just want to fit it, don’t want to make trouble, or seem oversensitive. But it’s problematic. Is it mansplainy to be vocally uncomfortable on your behalf? Am I making trouble for you? Am I making trouble for you?
Girls, I miss the space you bring with you, which these days you seem to have left at home. I miss how my space has always overlapped with yours. I am sorry if we have made you……shy because I miss the aesthetics you would bring to this space if you felt more allowed.
So I asked you about the heaviness, the weakness, the pain, the clumsiness some of you experience, some of you, once a month. Because no-one else had. Because I wanted to bring the period to the party. You told me how some positions push the pins in further, the shaky hands when you have to balance for your life, the cramp mid-air, the drugs that we don’t have to take, the upside down that makes the tampon wanna pop out, how your world collects itself here, in your middle so you have to work harder just to keep focus on thngs like not falling on your head, or, God forbid his head and how you do not tell them and how they do not ask. Because this is yours. How you cannot do it the same today. This is yours. So keep it private. Yours.
Dear Circus School,
You may think I am creating a problem where there isn’t one.
But I think we have an issue with the privatization of inequality. If I think the inequality is structural, even systemic then I see the responsibility being on the individual who should try harder. The weight is not on the system; the system that actually has more than enough resources to try harder. Structural inequalities are deflected onto the individual as their responsibility.
This circus that we love is apparently a meritocracy of skill, but there is no such thing as a neutral space within which a skill can be judged. That’s a rhetoric that serves some more than others. Neutrality is the fantasy of an even playing field. In the Olympics, men and women are judged in separate categories. As an environment I think we are judging by only one criteria.
I’m going to stick my neck out here: the gold standard in Circus, is male. In our school there is only a woman in a position of authority. The rest are men, so this standard is yours.
Dear White Boys,
You are always taking your tops off the second a hint of sweat might stain your laundry-white T-shirt.
Boys keep your clothes on, it’s distracting me from my work. You’re asking for it. It’s a provocation. Slutty. But I guess I am a minority in your space as the only queer so I guess I should just not complain.
I mean what’s there to complain about really? You all look like topless superheroes, like the ones I used to see in the movies as a kid, all of them like you, beautiful, perfect, white. Not one of them, any other colour, but white. So you are all I ever wanted to be, because you were all I could see. As an aesthetic to aspire to. As an aesthetic to always fall short of. No wonder I desire you. You are what I have always lacked. You and your fair-skinned heroism.
I’m joking of course. You don’t distract me. I’m a grown-up for God’s sake. I’m saying this all for effect.
I’m joking. Your freedom to strip down is not a problem. The problem is that the girls do not have the same freedom. It doesn’t matter if it is a question of the physical benefits of a sports bra. If it were that, then boys, take off your underwear too. Let’s have a fair space. An even playing field.
“But why should that be an issue Professor?”
“You don’t see it as an issue?”
“No, because if I wanted to take my top off I would.”
“But you don’t take my top off.”
“Because I don’t want to.”
“Because I just don’t want to.”
I don’t want the girls to take their tops off. I want you boys to keep your clothes on.
I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been patted on the head, as a choreographer in a theatre production or opera where I have heard the circus artist referred to as “the warm props”. I am there to provide the sex, the thrill, the “big moment”, the “money shot” – the party scene, erotic dream sequence, the battle, the storm, the surreal, the deviant, the orgy, the hallucination, the ecstasy of the religious epiphany – I’m all about the body, the affect, the delirium of the blood, the extreme, hard-core, real, the anarchy of human desire. And the director is all about the sacred word, the order of the word, the holiness of the script; the actor. My job in this hierarchy of body and word is to provide the profanity, the obscene: the “underneath” of the words. That’s the space In was allowed to move in.
I can’t tell you how many times my name has been omitted from the programme notes. “Ooops” they say “we are so sorry, we don’t know how that could have happened.” and the director wins an award for innovation.
I can’t begin to list the names left out – excluded from those programme notes – from the historical transcript of an event. How many white recording artists have profited from the name of the black original being, not just omitted, but erased? White-washed music. Did I white-wash my circus? Because my colouredness had no place? No wonder that my circus work is so melancholic. Because I am grieving all the time. Grieving for things not allowed to live. So as not to make someone feel uncomfortable. That’s been my job. To limit myself in order to be the guardian of someone else’s comfort. To not be a killjoy.
Circus is indeed a limiting project – you are constrained by your object – the line, the circle, the spiral, the square. You shut yourself down into a space where movement is limited. Perhaps there is something about constraint that attracts you. That resonates with you. Circus is not about freedom. That’s the trick we play on you. It’s a containment. Of something that pushes at the limits of what you are allowed. And it puts that something to work in a space with little room to move. So you just have to work harder, to move…..at all…Circus makes you pay attention to the limited space you have. You have to get creative. You need to train. It becomes your practice. The difficult situation. Discomfort becomes your default.
Privilege could be described as being invisible –
To not stand out for what is most private about you.
To not stand out can mean life or death for some. I have the privilege of being able to pass, to hide. Others do not. It’s an ambivalent privilege. To pass, to walk on by without a word being said. Without the word being said. Without being marked. I keep essential parts of myself, locked up, at home. That takes training.
We don’t even know yet what kinds of aesthetics the other could enrich our lives with, if she or he were not in the constant process of coming out, fighting back, standing up, speaking out. If she or he were not always reacting to a domineering and violent ideology.
We know almost nothing about an aesthetics of action from “othered” peoples. We remain defined by reaction. And “inclusion” can be yet another process of othering.
Keep the cissy-boy private, if you know what’s good for you, that’s yours, that’s personal, don’t make it public, because you’ll make people uncomfortable, you might even offend. The public space, that’s for others to do; the publicity of your queerness is only for the dominant culture’s enjoyment in naming you, so it can find you offensive. No wonder why, we queers, love to be offensive. No wonder we dance big and sing loud so it hurts your ears, and burn the streets bright and take as much air as we can; when we get the chance.
That is a dominant gay aesthetic. And there could be so many more, that would make our culture richer if there had been a little more space for that cissy-boy to grow into, develop his movement, his aesthetic. How he wanted to move in the world.
I am 16, a mixed race, working class, gay boy in a white, upper class, hetero-normative private boarding school.
My rich white straight best friend is insulted when I say that he is less prepared for the real world than me.
“That’s not fair!” he says, “I’ve had it hard as well!” and, fair enough, he did chose to be my friend when no-on else did because he saw me as just a person.
I can see it in his face, a kind of shame –How dare I? As if I had just walked in on him in his privacy, without knocking on the door keeping private what he never saw was there.
But my privacy is public, it’s announced everyday: “Nigger lips.” “Faggot.” “Pleb.” “Peasant.”
You’ve no idea how many times I’d rehearsed “Whitey”, “Hettie”, “Posh” as insults but was never convinced enough to use them. I mean, in what world could those things be insults?
His privacy was the right to be successful before anything else was taken into consideration.
To always belong. He had never encountered the notion of not belonging in a space. Feeling right in that space. Just.
I was more prepared for the real world than him. The insults and mockery of my ambitions, its ordinary, everyday “You don’t matter.”
I knew the world did not give one shit about me. And he thought that it did.
That was 1986.
Today that would be described as “calling someone out on their privilege.”
Today, that is triggering anxiety.
And shame and guilt.
That is surely, a good thing. To share the discomfort.
Because sharing is good right?