Travelling: notes on space (1)

Space 1: Fondazione Prada, Milan
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. All around is the city of luxury brands and exclusive restaurants. It’s pouring down, today.
A bouncer stands by the elevator door; a young woman in pencil skirt and high heels notes my name down. Four floors up, I step into an elegant space, everything is minimal, immaculate. Concrete and glass, the rain taps on the windows. In no time, someone hands me the press kit and a plastic bag for my umbrella. A group has already gathered around the curator. He introduces the exhibition; the artist stands sheepishly next to him. The light points are cleverly though out, the pictures hang lower than usual – in the act of viewing, our entire body is involved. Waiters hand us blinis, glasses of prosecco, and cotton napkins. I’m out of place and strangely excited. How did I end up here? We walk around the exhibition and make small talk. How is the Milan exhibition different from the London one? Does it have to speak to Milan art world? Or to this space in particular? To this neighbourhood? I don’t belong to this city and I feel particularly foreign this area of central Milan – an amusement park for tourists and big spenders. Admission prices are relatively cheap, yet it feels like a site of extraordinary privilege. I am sharply aware that I am intruding.
Space 2: Parco Sempione public library, Milan.
A library that isn’t a library. I have issues with libraries with limited reading spaces. If you can’t sit down at a decently-lit table, then it is not a library. Yet, I love it. I love how this building – a glass pavilion designed by Ico Parisi in 1954. Glass and concrete, like the Galleria, yet it couldn’t feel more different. No bouncer or guest lists police entrance to this space; a silent motley crew inhabits it. Libraries are no longer spaces devoted uniquely to study. They are one of the very few public spaces in which you don’t need to be a consumer. You can come and go as you please, charge your phone, sit down somewhere warm and dry,  use a PC, have a nap, even read a book, if you feel that way inclined. Long live the public library!
Space 3: Macao, Milan.
An Art Deco building at the edges of the old wholesale market district. It laid abandoned for decades, a dispute over property prevented anyone from selling or refurbishing. In 2012 a group of freelance workers in the cultural sector occupied it. It has been a self-managed venue ever since. I’m here for the opening of an exhibition. No star curators here, no twinning with major European galleries. The young painter greets his visitors, there is finger food and local wine served in plastic cups. The building is in dire need of refurbishment. The occupiers do what they can: they cleaned most of it, repainted, checked the electricity grid, got a generator and have water delivered once a week. The structure seems to be solid. Visitors are at ease, many of them know each other, many are part of the collective. There is definitely a community here. They are designers, musicians, architects, painters, political activists, arts lovers. We sit in the terrace overlooking Viale Molise, talking, smoking, and drinking wine into the night. They are organising an antifascist and antiracist rally for 1st May. They tell me about the DJ sets and the political work, about their cryptocurrency, about care and struggle. It’s definitely spring in Milan. It’s a warm evening. You can feel a calm energy in the air. It transpires in spite of the waft of diesel.
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Notes on a strike 1: the day after

Dylan Thomas Exeter

I had the weirdest dream. I was in Streatham campus, you know the main gate on Prince of Wales Road? There. It was packed with people: I didn’t know them all but somehow I knew they all worked at the university. We were holding banners and talking. The atmosphere was quite jolly. There were dogs and children too. We had soup and cinnamon bagels. There were students writing poetry on the pavement, classicists holding placards with quotes from the Catiline Orations, a band called ‘The Attachment Issues’ singing protest songs. There were professors from Philosophy and Geography knitting a blanket. I’m not sure how, but I found myself embroidering ‘we are the university’ on some bunting.

And then the dream goes from weird to outlandish.

At some point, the Vice-Chancellor showed up but he was a Lego figurine. I talked to him and he actually listened to my concerns. We posed for a photo together and he told me I am an extraordinary academic. No idea what a psychoanalyst would make of this. Then Billy Bragg arrived (!) and we all sang The Internationale – can you imagine Exeter academics singing The Internationale?
Ah, I almost forgot: students were occupying Northcote House in protest, then they came out and we greeted them with party poppers and a booming, sonorous round of applause. Beaming smiles, song, energy, enthusiasm. It was magical!

We marched through town and eventually ended up in the drama studio at the Phoenix Arts Centre where we talked about the university of the future and, wait for it, we discussed electing the Vice-Chancellor (!), boycotting the TEF, and abolishing tuition fees (!!!!).

I mean… I don’t know. It was probably something I ate.

Wait a sec…why do I have a party popper in my coat pocket?

At the end of the writing drought – a personal, self-indulgent note

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First day of term. A late September evening. It’s still warm; daylight lingers over campus. I’m happy to be back in the classroom, yet, that evening I already feel a certain physical and mental fatigue. Tiredness shortens my attention span. I step out of the building on autopilot, only partially aware of my surroundings. A young woman looks at me for a few seconds and then asks ‘are you looking for art?’ I mutter something incoherent: ‘What? Well… no, I was just going home’. I need a few seconds to connect the dots; she is referring to the Art Society meeting. I smile, amused and flattered (I can still pass for a student!). I’m not a new member, but I wish I were.

I had a difficult few months, hence the radio silence. I spare you the details.
I was trying to keep things together; most of my physical and intellectual energies were going towards this. I was exhilarated and flustered, thrilled and fearful, hopeful yet bracing myself for the worst. Concerns I could barely articulate tainted my excitement for resuming department life; I did not anticipate their effects on my body and psyche. I had energy for nothing but getting to the end of the day, possibly of the week. Writing, thinking, creating were luxuries I could not afford. The only exception, maniacal bouts of journalling.

I’ve been quite tearful. For a long time it felt like every nerve was exposed, any contact would startle me, unimportant details would get under my skin. Restless, hungry for life and knowledge, I looked for solace in relentless activity. There have been sleepless nights and drunken nights, long conversations, tears, encounters, love and loss, bike rides, walks in the woods, almost-compulsive theatre-going. And anger, unexpected, overwhelming anger. Relentless activity kept disquietude at bay. I needed to be surrounded by people.

Six months later, I am in a cafeteria in the city centre. The urge to write rises like water, fills every crevice, every crack. It overflows. I am on the verge of tears, but this time the emotion brewing is not fear nor anger. It’s gratitude, I think, or something close enough to gratitude to warrant for the uneasy combination of calm and emotional turmoil.

Now, political activism is back in my life. A strike against shameless cuts to pensions and yet a strike about so much more. A bold strike. Fourteen days of industrial action. I will write about the strike. Let’s say that, on a very personal level, I rediscovered politics. For the first time in years, I am experiencing the affective side of politics, the very thing that ignited my passion when, as a teenager, I encountered political activism. Underneath the theory, the parties, the committees, there is affect, community, passion, care.

It’s the end of the writing drought. And, yes, I am looking for art.

‘Them’

Going back to Italy is never easy (I hardly ever say ‘home’ nowadays: after nearly ten years in the UK I’m not quite sure where ‘home’ is). Every time I come back I see things I find profoundly unsettling.
I see an impoverished country; I see anger, resentment, fear. I see scapegoating and increasing hostility towards migrants. I hear objectifying language on a daily basis: ‘it’s too many of them’; ‘they are not that desperate’; ‘we have to help them in their own country’. Them, the others, the foreigners, they who are not like us.  Speech groups individuals together into an amorphous and mysterious entity: faceless, devoid of passions and desires; beings without a story. I shudder to think where the objectification, the othering of the migrant might lead. It’s mounting slowly but steadily. It’s now normal, ordinary.
The violence of this language bewilders me. I bite my tongue, I try not to lose my temper but I find it increasingly difficult, especially when these words come from loved ones.
Yet, I don’t want to admit defeat: We need to talk about racism. We really do. I must engage in conversation but I don’t want to take the moral high ground; I don’t want to sound querulous or sanctimonious; I don’t want to be aggressive. If I alienate my interlocutor, I achieve nothing.
It’s a bomb. It’s ticking. I must do something to defuse it but I am yet to find the language to do it.
(Any advice is very welcome)

Siding with the underdogs

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In a recent blog post on The Stage, Lyn Gardner argued that community theatre might not be glamorous, but it changes lives. I’m reluctant to lump community theatre, theatre for young audiences, and amateur theatre together, as Lyn Gardner does, but I do see why she groups them together, and I recognise that she is tapping into a very delicate matter. I would even say that, as far as the performing arts are concerned, this is THE elephant in the room.
No matter how sophisticated our practice and aesthetic research, no matter how liberal and democratic our field is convinced to be, the bottom line is that there are practices that for no particular reasons do not enjoy the prestige and the status of others. Community theatre, theatre for young audiences, and amateur theatre (only to name a few) are hardly ever seen as aesthetic experiences in their own right.

Before I go any further with this, I should come out: as a performer, my first audiences were children; I learned the ropes of the profession with children and teenagers, and I loved every minute of working with them. Theatre for young audiences is a field very close to my heart. I often see mild condescension from those who are not aware of the research behind a good show for young audiences. And I have to bite my tongue every time I hear a practitioner contemplating putting on a “kids’ show” simply because there is funding available (this usually makes for boring shows at best, patronising at worst). While community theatre at least enjoys considerable scholarly attention, theatre for young audiences is still an under-researched area.

If theatre in any shape or form has ever changed the lives of participants or theatregoers, any practitioner worth her salt would know that theatre practice alone cannot turn a life around and that burdening theatre with this type of expectation is dangerous. But the thing that puzzles me the most is that when community theatre or theatre for children are finally considered, they have to justify their existence as an instrument of something else: of education, rehabilitation, social cohesion or, at the very least, as the training ground for future Olivier Award winners. I am not referring to the necessary and valuable dialogue with schools, prisons, and other institutions. There is a difference between mediation and defensive justifications.
No other art seem to be so obsessed with the need to justify its presence. I might be out of touch with debates in other fields, but I don’t hear visual artists fretting around their legitimacy or their impact on communities and individuals. We, theatre practitioners and scholars, seem to be compelled to jump head first into the efficacy trap: but how do you measure the affective and intellectual impact of watching and making theatre?

The truth is that community theatre, amateur theatre, and theatre for young audiences are underdogs for a reason: they are practices with an extraordinary subversive potential. They rock the boat. They deprive the sites of culture of their privilege; they close the gap between production and fruition. They demonstrate that inventiveness, creativity, play are not just for specialists and that communication goes beyond the purchase of a cultural product created elsewhere by someone else. They remind us that individuals who are not frequent theatregoers are still sophisticated audience members who engage with live performance in extraordinary and unexpected ways. If this does not unsettle the theatre industry, what does?

How do we make space for time?

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If there is no church in the wild, if there is study rather than knowledge production, if there is a way of being together in brokenness, if there is an undercommons, then we must all find our way to it. – Jack Halberstam
We invite you to join us in the break! For one night, we will occupy space, take possession of time, and think about what it means to ‘be with’ each other. Through a score of discussion and silence, activity and play, we will collectively make space for time and co-create a new institution*.
Is there something you wish you had more time for? Gazing at clouds, fly-fishing, cat stroking, laughing? Bring an object or idea to contribute to a playful potluck of unproductive activities and everyday expertise.

The Institute of Killing Time is a new (anti)-institute for the experimental study and exploration of time. This inaugural event is part of Antiuniversity Now 2017.

Do join us! Book your place on Eventbrite.

At the end of marking season

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I just finished marking an enormous amount of essays. Some good, some middle-of-the-road. Some were trying too hard to please the marker, and others were not even trying. Some had a true spark of insight. Some were a real pleasure to read. As I was typing my feedback, I remembered of one of Peter Elbow’s footnotes in Writing with Power:

Part of the reason why inexperienced writers benefit so little from the corrections of teachers on their essays is because the teacher is usually trying to correct flaws in an argument, while the student hasn’t yet learned simply to engage in sustained argument by himself on paper. The student experiences the feedback as a double-bind. “You ask me to engage in sustained, abstract, solitary reasoning – something that is difficult for me – and when I do you punish my behaviour” (p. 68).

Elbow does not offer a strategy to avoid the double-bind. Feedback is a delicate matter and deserves to be handled with care. It might even remain in the student’s memory for years. A friend of mine still remembers after 15 years the feedback he got after an assessed performance: “a wee bit wooden”, he was told. The teacher might not even remember the comment, but my friend most certainly does.

Assessment is required, but it can interrupt the pedagogic dialogue. Ultimately, critical thinking is the ability to sustain a conversation with the material, to interrogate it, to ask questions, to find connections. Unfortunately, assessment is so much part of our educational paradigm that a significant number of students when invited to engage critically with something, automatically look for flaws and inconsistencies. The assessment breaks two dialogues: the one between teacher and student and the one between student and material. It freezes the conversation in time and sticks a number on the output.

Teaching and learning are balancing acts. Beyond the marks and the feedback, there are people, there is thought, and there are subjectivities in flux (the learner’s and the teacher’s). I’m not sure if can can dodge the double-bind. At the time of typing up that feedback and sticking that number on the work, I need to squint and see past the anonymous essay, listen to the voice – no matter how faint -, appreciate the tussle with the material, and the labour that went into putting the essay together. Then the dialogue might, just might, not turn into uncomfortable silence.

Another Election

lie lie land

No, I did not see that coming. I am tad puzzled. Is it a ploy to get rid of Boris? Or to stop the Lords getting in the way? I don’t know if this upcoming election is the product of an internal fight within the Tory party or if is it a scheme to crush Labour at the time of its greatest vulnerability. Commentators can speculate all they like but one thing is certain: this is not a second EU referendum. The ship has sailed.

But the ‘relentless optimist’ in me think that this might be an opportunity for the British Left.
Exactly with what programme is Theresa May going to win the elections? Hard Brexit? Soft Brexit? Scrambled, poached, fried Brexit? I am being flippant, I know. When Brexit pops up I can’t help it. The main thing about May is that after many months at n.10 we no longer know what she stands for. Although I give her credit for her determination, she always strikes me as someone too eager to please. A typically feminine disease, I concur: I suffer from it myself. She campaigned for remain and then took it upon herself to clear the mess left behind by Johnson, Gove, and Farage (and indeed Cameron!). Again, very feminine: pesky, messy boys, get the hell out of here and leave the clearing up to me. At the moment she is very busy keeping the boat afloat, but this is not a compelling political programme. Looking for the mandate to negotiate an exit from the EU she never agreed with in the first place makes for woolly political thinking. Can the British Left outsmart May and beat her at her own game? And let’s be clear: by Left also I mean SNP, Green Party, and Plaid Cymru. Now the ball is on their side. They can either unite and play a smart, sleek, powerful counter-attack or they can drop it (oh, so many Labour MPs would love to throw their toys out of the pram and tear the Party to pieces just to get rid of Corbyn!)

I make no mystery of the fact that I am against Britain leaving the EU, but, as I said, the ship has sailed. All I wish for is a government willing to start real negotiations, a government that is not defensive, that does not threat or patronise the EU, a government capable of engaging in real dialogue with EU institutions. Enough of these passive-aggressive strategies already! Let’s all behave like adults, shall we?

Side note: Now that the damage is done, would the BBC please just stop dedicating a disproportionate amount of air time to UKIP? Can we please archive UKIP once and for all? The only positive aspect of Brexit is that UKIP MEPs will soon need to come back home and start job hunting…

Anyway, I’m just a Johnny Foreigner, what do I know?

Stories we dare to tell

relentless optimism

Easter meditation. I have been absent for a while. The winter of my discontent is over. Every year I tell myself ‘this time it won’t get me’. It always does. Short days, feeble winter light get the better of me. And I always come out at the other end. In the meantime, we have been plunged into a dystopian world that would put Ray Bradbury and George Orwell to shame. An inarticulate, narcissistic white supremacist is now the most powerful politician on the planet and he seems determined to pick a fight. A schoolyard bully with weapons of mass destruction at his disposal. Can I freak out now?
No, I can’t. We can’t. I don’t know what the future will bring, but we’d better stay lucid.
From my privileged spot, I can campaign, I can protest. What else? I am fortunate enough to be able to turn my job into a militant practice. I am fortunate enough to be working with students who (most of the time) demonstrate a remarkable generosity of spirit. I can build a militant classroom, to borrow Kim Solga’s words. But how? Teaching and research are hardly predictable activities: if you are looking for neat and ordered stuff you might as well change career. Dealing with living, breathing human beings requires a good degree of flexibility and responsiveness.
What then? How do you turn academic work into a militant practice? I’m not sure, but somehow I’ve always known that my practice (on and off stage, inside and outside the classroom) boils down to sharing stories. Forget the post-truths or the alternative facts. Beyond the news, we have stories to tell. Stories that reconnect us with our resilience, kindness, and generosity. Stories to counter the pestilent narratives of the past few months; stories to heal, stories to overcome fear, stories to make sense of the illogical and frightening stuff the world throws at us every day. And, by all means, stories to explore the monsters that inhabit the deepest cracks of our conscience; stories to face our biases and our prejudices. Teaching and research are conversations: we build images, we weave narratives, we propose visions of the world.  I’m starting here. Is it enough? Of course not!
Happy new season, everyone.

War Scars

I saw my grandfather crying once. Only once. He was telling a wartime story. In 1943, he was 17 and enlisted in the Italian navy. On 8th of September, the Allies signed the armistice with the Italian government. The civil war had started. Granddad was in Venice at the time. The Italian army had no orders from central government and northern Italy was occupied by Nazi forces. He had two choices: joining the fascist army in northern Italy or run away. Granddad and a group of fellow youngsters decided for the latter option. Maybe it was fear, maybe hope, maybe it was the recklessness only 17-year-olds can muster.
It was a dangerous journey. He was a deserter and the Nazi occupiers were not exactly a conciliatory bunch. After many adventures, he reached Civitavecchia where he hoped to board a ship back to Sardinia. I’m sure he must have known fear, but his tale was always upbeat. There was almost a hint of self-complacency. We asked what was Civitavecchia like. The town was still occupied by Germans and grandad had to hide. In the meantime, the British were bombing the area. And as his memory went back to the bombings, the sirens, the shelters, civilians dying, buildings reduced to rubble in a matter of seconds, something inside him broke. He started crying. He could bear going back to his escape from Venice, the perilous journey through occupied Italy, hiding in Civitavecchia, but the bombings were still an open wound. I don’t know why, but I can try to imagine. The explanation I have given myself is that somehow he had agency over his desertion and his journey but he had no power whatsoever over death falling upon you from the sky. A faceless enemy, constant fear, not knowing what you would find when you come out of the shelter.
Years later, I found out that Grandad took medications for anxiety all his life. He rejoined the navy after the war, but he quit in the early Sixties, probably because of his panic attacks. I have no way of knowing for sure, but I can’t help wondering to what extent the war had shaped him.
Family stories emerge as I watch the news coming from Aleppo, as I think about the displaced, the dead, the injured, the city in rubbles. Even if the war ended tomorrow, reconstruction would take decades and it would only fix the material damage. The memory of violence shapes individuals and communities. Aleppo will never be the same again. Scars will be visible, wounds will remain open, survivors will wake up in the middle of the night paralysed by fear, they will have panic attacks and burst into tears many decades from now. Just like my Grandad.
I would like to write about my extraordinary first term at Exeter, about my students, about teaching, research, about the exciting feminist theorists I’m studying, but everything seems redundant now. All I can do now is contemplate the senseless violence humankind is capable of. I think about the survivors, racking my brain for solutions, focusing on the minuscule acts of charity within my reach. All I can do is think about the living, hold my loved ones close. Time will come for philosophy, for art, for beauty. Not now. Not yet.