performance, pedagogy and the art thing: reflections from riga

getting to go different places, especially far away, is a privilege. it’s also educational. of course these two things – privilege and education – are intimately connected under capitalism. for a while I have been thinking about how you can remain accountable or act accountable to your own context when you are presented with an opportunity to go somewhere outside of it. in other words, if you are given the privilege to travel – whether to a workshop, conference, gig, whatever – is there a way that you can share the experience with others such that the process becomes extended to be closer to a collective process of learning rather than a function merely of individual privilege and learning? and yes, of course nothing will ever sufficiently substitute for actually going somewhere. educationally there is no substitute for physically going to a new place. but the closest I have come to that without going somewhere is through reading. so, while its not a substitute, the word can take us there and beyond.

beyond the above abstract preamble, let me get into what it frames. I recently went to riga, latvia to be a participant of the nomadic school, a part of the homo novus festival of contemporary theatre. I want to, in this piece, reflect – both for myself and anyone else who is interested – on some of what I learnt at the festival, in the school and most importantly, what I learnt in conversation outside of ‘class’ with the new friends I made – at the dinner table and over beers in the bar where we were able to think together and reflect on the programme.

homo novus on the whole I experienced as a really nice space with a lot of creative energy and interesting potential and people. I felt a lot of warmth from almost all the people who were involved in the organising of it, and met some really amazing people from all over and I’m really appreciative of that. black in latvia is quite an isolating experience so to be able to make and find community through the festival was a blessing.

one very special thing that captures some of the ethos of the festival is the retreat… on one day in the middle of the festival there are no performances or scheduled activities other than a trip to a house on the baltic coast for a day of (a lot of) food, drink, meeting, talking, relaxing, laughing and sauna’ing in an old converted boat-sauna. the retreat included all the artists and performers and organisers and everyone involved in the festival in some way (and, incidentally, is initially what convinced me to apply to attend the festival). I think the act of making and taking time out of the ‘real work’ of the festival – normally understood as the performances, the product(ion)s – to take it easy and meet other people who are part of it is a really cool attempt to make the festival about more than just the performances. the retreat, as a formal part of the programme, opens up the space for the potential building of relationships and space for real conversation and reflection between and amongst everyone there. and in so doing, it insists that these things – conversation, community, relaxation and relationships – are as important as the revenue-generating aspects of the programme – the perfomances. I think that’s pretty hip and, although it was never articulated as such to me, is embedded with an anti-capitalist ethics and orientation toward value.


while I didn’t get to all the performances I would have liked to, partly because I struggled to get around and partly because our days were so full of school activities, I did go to a few interesting shows that were exploring sound, movement/dance, tradition and political speeches. I’ve decided to write less on those and more about my experience and reflections on the school keeping in mind how homo novus envisions and articulates itself, as “a space for conversations, encounters and experiences impossible to discover elsewhere”, and how it imagines the work of the work it presents.

the participants in the nomadic school, about twelve all together, were an interesting (perhaps odd and dissonant but also potentially generatively diverse) mix of people, mostly people working in contemporary theatre – students, producers, writers, dancers, coreographers etc. – as well as a few of us activists and educationists. the group was made up of people from the nation-states of latvia, England, Lithuania, Mozambique and south africa. the two of us from southern africa were somehow there through links with pro-helvetia (swiss council for the arts). so there is an important underlying story about soft power and diplomacy and european agendas ‘supporting’ african artists here but that’s another kettle of fish.[1]

the nomadic school’s programme was pieced together by a number of (seemingly, vaguely, obliquely or tangentially dis/connected) workshops/seminars/sessions around violence, architecture, privileged forms of activism, automated and technologized pedagogy, ‘indigenous’ approaches to ecology, deep listening, colonisation and dis/comfort zones. toward the end of the school I expressed some frustration to my friend luke, who was also in the school, about what I saw as the lack of thread, theme and coherence in the school’s programme – in its curriculum if you will. luke said that he saw a theme in the disparate sessions and in the different sections. he said he saw it as some kind of showcase of various ways in which people are approaching, in their own practice, the intersection of art and activism. and I kind of see that as well but I guess I can’t see, or I refuse to see, all of the sessions and the people that ran them in the same corner because of the wild mix of conceptions of the world, what in the world they understand requires and constitutes ‘activism’ and what vision of societal change they are working toward.

as paulo freire insists in cultural action for freedom, every practice of education implies a vision of people and the world. with regards to the nomadic school it seemed to me that there was such a eclectic mix of implied visions of the world through the educational practices of these people that I struggled to see the similarities for the political dissonances. there was some really radical stuff interrogating the very foundations of modern democratic society – thinking about the legal system as a an instrument of violence, and critiquing euro-modernity’s ideas around the self and nature as separate and distinct entities. and there was some really exhausting liberal content concerned with what I would consider the antithesis of activism – teaching privileged people how to do things in their daily lives to make them feel more edgy – dressed up and performed as activism for real societal change.

perhaps the curation and showcasing of inherently contradictory things is a hallmark of the art scene?

perhaps it is the same liberal art tendency that the new world summit was able to exploit and leverage toward radical ends…? one of the people who facilitated a session at the school was Vincent van gerven oei, a really interesting cat who, amongst other things is a scholar of old Nubian and is part of the new world summit collective. as vincent explained it, the new world summit is held as a space for engagement and discussion between various groups who are excluded from democratic processes in the regions that they are based in – many of these groups are banned or illegal in the countries they come from. by holding these processes in different parts of the world they are able to curate otherwise-nationally-illicit conversations on revolutionary strategy and different conceptions of democracy. many of these groups’ flags and emblems are also illegal to display but by framing the summit as ‘art’ rather than ‘politics’, they are able to get together and have serious subversive conversations and also showcase the flags by organising them by colour because they appear as part of an exhibition where aesthetics rather than ideology take over as the primary concern. this is bizarre to me. how these supposedly subversive symbols, become somehow devoid of their politics because their collective aesthetics supposedly trumps what they represent.

having said this, apparently at one of their summits in india, the police came and confiscated certain flags including that of the tamil tigers (if I remember correctly) but flags of groups such as irish republican army, mnla (azawad) and polisario front (western sahara) were allowed to remain displayed. I guess tamil tigers were too close to home?

interestingly, despite being obviously further left, new world summit’s approach is perhaps in some ways similar to the ideological showcasing of the nomadic school. Vincent said that the criteria for invitation was ‘groups excluded from state democratic processes.’ this includes groups as far ideologically apart as Daesh (although they didn’t accept the invitation) and Rojava revolutionaries. however, while there is this possibility for an ideological cocktail, since the aim of the summit is to engage and debate and have conversation, there is a way in which liberal diversity (where people are happy to be so different and smile for a picture) has the potential to become a more radical practice of diversity (where people are open to critically engage and challenge the content of those differences and have difficult conversations). and I think crucial to this is that the people who come to the summit are engaged in struggle and are interested to share with and learn from people who are also in struggle, in the interests of taking those learnings back home to struggle better (praxis). in other words, there is an outside to which people will return, which is more important than the inside. or, probably closer, that the inside and outside exist in a dynamic dialectical relationship with each other. this seems or feels somewhat different to my experience of art exhibitions and maybe the art world at large which seems content, or perhaps intent, to exist only inside itself. inside its white walls, and incapable of changing the outside or being changed by the outside. in this way it seems totally invested in the binary.

speaking of the outside, one of the more interesting sessions in the school took place in gentle to less gentle rain in a forest in the city. second nature it was called. for those of us in the school, there were two parts to the evening, first we had a collective reading group on the floor on blankets in the forest with Daniel blanga gubbay and mirko nikolic. here we read a really interesting text that explained a concept of humans and society and ecology rooted in a maori cosmology. the text acted to critique western separations of the self and nature and put forward a more radical understanding of a mutual constitution of the self and society and nature, understanding the self as constituted by all of these things rather than being separate from them.

with regards to the self, my-self more specifically, getting around and navigating riga was difficult for me. there were a range of mechanisms reminding me and marilu (we being the two African people at the school and normally the only two Black people in sight), that we were not white and potentially not entirely welcome where we were. we attracted incessant stares and saw inaudible comments shared behind hands that led to not-too-well-hidden laughter in restaurants and buses. and there was that time when the bus driver refused to take marilu’s money when trying to buy a ticket…

aside from all of this, I had some mobility difficulties. about a week before travelling to latvia I tore my Achilles tendon on my left leg while playing soccer. so for the duration of my trip I was on crutches with a hip moonboot on my left foot. black on crutches was my latvia swerve. that’s how I brought it in the baltics. and it was really interesting how I was perceived and treated in public. beyond the wide white eyes, there was a number of occasions where people on buses were really kind to me and gave me their seats or helped me scan my ticket. but that didn’t stop the stares. I say this was ‘interesting’ rather than something more intense because I wasn’t as affected as I have been before when I have travelled and had similar experiences of being othered. my parallel experience in india wasn’t interesting so much as awful.

I insert this bit about my mobility here because I remember the wet forest, the setting of second nature, as a particularly tricky terrain to navigate on crutches. after the radical ecology reading group we moved down a small, slippery, damp hill into a makeshift forest cinema (a generator outtasight, a screen, projector and speakers) that had been set up for the event. in the forestcinema, first we were asked to get comfortable and imagine ourselves as giant ears to engage in a practice of deep listening to a soundscape piece of birds and some other sounds. I had a really nice rest and a deep (listening) sleep there. we’d had a long day of workshops since about 9.30am, it was, by this time, around 6pm.

after the sound piece when it was raining a bit more determinedly we watched two films, one quite abstract with visuals of huge ice glaciers and lakes and factories and people at a party/protest (?), after that we and the determined drizzle and the other forest beings watched a film called “night soil – nocturnal gardening” which was a really interesting representation of stories about four women who were practicing alternative relationships with nature.

the second nature programme continued into the next day where we had a session with Candice Hopkins who (after repeating the deep listening exercise in a different setting, an indoor room, and after we all introduced ourselves via what book we were reading or had recently read) read a piece she had written on colonisation in America and the Klondike gold rush. the piece was fairly interesting but I struggled to stay switched on just listening to someone read, I found that very unengaging and at this point I was thinking about writing a piece on the bankruptcy of pedagogy in the academic art world. my most persistent frustration with the way the school was organised, which is my frustration with most education spaces, was the lack of space to do collective thinking with the group. there was definitely some spaces for discussion and some debate in the school programme but, on the whole, the capacity for creative engagement, I felt, was undermined by the school’s various pedagogical formats and facilitation methods. in a few of the workshops we worked closely with text which, while I love that, is not the most inviting form for a lot of people and often silences and violences people.

speaking about form, this brings me to the form I enjoyed the least, the form that frustrated me the most. it was called: the thing, an automatic workshop in everyday disruption. there are so many levels on which ‘the thing’ can be critiqued but let me start by explaining the basic concept. the thing is a four part workshop, each part or session about 4-5 hours long. the overall intention is to take the participants through a process, at the end of which they should be able to design their own ‘thing’ – an individual act of daily disruption that you “could set in motion at any moment.” the workshops are ‘automated’ in that the participants follow instructions from a projected computer screen (which the class has pause/play/rewind buttons to control), sound or a page, or a combination of all of them. instructions include things like ‘someone read excerpt 5’, or ‘stop and discuss this quotation’, or, in one session, instructions on ipods on doing some kind of disruption in a café/restaurant.

in its automation the workshop is wholly inflexible. while there is space for discussion amongst the group and, obviously, in that sense the workshop takes its own form, the process at large is unchangeable and makes no space for adjustment based on who is in the room, what knowledges, experiences, anxieties and forms of identity they bring with them. for example, regardless of how session one goes – a session of reading texts and watching loosely-related videos of ‘disruptive’ public performances and some directed role-play amongst the group – and regardless of what participants feelings and reflections are at that point, the automated process for all the subsequent days remains the same; as programmed by the author-designer-hidden facilitator-artist-performer-teacher-authority figures, duo ant Hampton and Christophe meyerhans.

as someone (myself) who comes from a radical education background where facilitators agonise over, not only how to make everyone feel welcomed into a process, but also how to draw on everyone’s experience and knowledge as resources to form the basis, content and context of the education process, the idea of an automated facilitator seems blasphemous. the idea of an automatic facilitator seems to very substantially undermine the potential for a process to make space for everyone’s needs and knowledges. and in this sense it replicates the structure of the colonial classroom with its one-size-fits-all education approach and its ignorance of, and lack of interest in the individuals in the room and what they come to the classroom with – knowledge which can often challenge or critique, but also add to or substantiate that of the facilitator. there was very limited space for this in the thing.

in our feedback session with ant hampton (one of the authors of the process) I said to ant that I thought there was a fundamentally irreconcilable contradiction at the core of ‘the thing’ – between its form and its content. what does it mean for a process that purports to educate people in modes and methods of disruption to rely on and reproduce relations of hierarchy and subordination in the classroom (being instructed by a rigid, inflexible, invisible authority manifested in screen and sound)? ant’s response to this was quite defensive; that he didn’t think it was a contradiction, and that they tried to make the dynamic of the authors not being there but ‘being there’ humourous and they tried to play with it. and, he said, it’s also kind of a performance – implying that it is beyond these forms of critique that I was putting forward because, if you think of it as a performance, its performative elements are more important than its pedagogical elements. I thought that was a bit of a cop out. but anyway.

perhaps at this stage I should say that my opinions were not shared by all in the group, some people, probably the majority actually, enjoyed the process. co/incidentally it was those in the group who were involved in, or had been involved in some form of radical work – in anarchist activism, feminist organising, participatory theatre, radical education etc. – who were critical of the process along similar lines that I was (indeed my lines of critique were formulated largely in conversation with the radical bloc of the school and in that way it is not entirely my own). people who came more explicitly from a performance background – theatre, dance, acting etc. – enjoyed and were far more engaged in the process.

notwithstanding the fact that most people enjoyed it, I think that ‘the thing’ is either confused or dishonest about what it is and who it is for. when ant was asked who it was for he was vague and kind of said it was for anyone but also acknowledged that it’s not really for people who are unfamiliar with the setting (ie. half the participants of the school who came from other countries). or for people who have a background in activism and radical politics (ie. half the school).

from my own experience in and engagement with the thing, I would say that it is a workshop for privileged people to learn how to do small things in their everyday life (like walk around with their hands in the air or offer to carry people’s groceries) that make them feel good and more edgy and that they are contributing positively to societal change without needing to interrogate or change their position in society. and, in that sense, where it throws away most of its socially transformative potential is in its lack of diagnosis of what it is in society that needs to be challenged or disrupted, what the root causes of those things are, and whether or not, one’s planned disruption is capable of contributing to changing that societal issue.

while I really didn’t enjoy the thing, I think I got a lot out of the process of collectively reflecting on it. that process was very generative and helped me think through the relationships between performance and pedagogy in art spaces and what those spaces do to the potential for a socially transformative process.

I’m going to finish my reflections on riga with some theoretical/political considerations that my experience there helped me arrive at: in an art context, the collapsing together of disruption and activism with education process with performance becomes potentially problematic. while that is potentially a radical concoction for social action, by invoking the aesthetic or the peformative as abstract values in themselves, the collapse becomes the point of liberal opt out of what could be a radical process. this allows artists to escape critique with lines like ‘you’re thinking about it wrong, you are misunderstanding it, it’s performance art.’ and as far as I’m concerened, that’s some bullshit.

if we are of the opinion that art has a potentially transformative role to play in society then, in the interests of sharpening it as a weapon of struggle, we have to subject it to the same forms of critique that we would to any other social forms such as education or politics or the economy. of course art is not outside of any of these categories. but at strategic moments it tries to be, by pleading autonomy or aesthetics. I think there is radical potential if we refuse the separation of art and the world and insist on their mutual constitution – that they are continually involved in the process of making each other – this insistence highlights art’s politics. and I think that the insights and conceptual tools of critical pedagogy have a lot to offer us in thinking about how we can illuminate the ways in which power and ideology operate in and through art. and moving beyond critique, how we can imagine and practice creativity with a different ethics informed by with a radically different vision of the world.

[1] If interested, see Chimurenga, 2015 “New cartographies,” Chimurenga Chronic. Kalakuta Trust: Cape Town.


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