I wasn’t sure how to begin this dialogue (I’m struggling with starting a lot of things), but this afternoon I saw Katy Dye perform Baby Face and where else except where all humans begin? Admittedly Dye’s concern isn’t actual babies, or motherhood either, but the prolonged infantilisation of women, and how it affects our relationships – with men, with other women, with society. She is young herself, 24, but dressed in school uniform could easily pass for 15. What a horrible sentence that is. Seeing her in that outfit, shirt buttons almost popping over her flat chest, skirt hitched high over pale white legs, striking poses while the theme tune to Byker Grove twanged in the background, I felt faintly irritated by her: irritated, however unfairly, by her not telling me anything new. We know advertising for skin creams is damaging; we know the model industry, plucking teenagers off the street and making a fetish of their skinny frames and pale unwrinkled skin is murderous; we know it’s up to us not to be brainwashed by it, but still somehow we’re brainwashed by it, we know this. And perhaps her whiteness irritated me: you mean, you have only your womanhood to struggle against? What about class, colour, gender, sexuality?
But then, halfway through, she did something that I really wanted you to see, better still to see with you. She brought out a tiny plastic stool, the kind that a Disney princess might perch upon, and began to pull on an outfit several sizes too small. As in, literally cut for a six year old girl. The fuchsia leggings tore as she tugged them over her knees. The little pink T-shirt pulled at her shoulders so relentlessly that it forced her arms akimbo. She asked a man to feed her. She played the Marilyn Monroe song Daddy – a song I’ve always found hilarious, so gleefully kitsch, but here became… revolting. “My heart belongs to my daddy,” she trills: the man who protects me, carries me, guides me, teaches me. Fuck that!
Yesterday, at the Live Art Symposium, Jo Bannon talked about the phrase “how do we unfuck the world?”, and asked whether a better question might be: “How can we fuck the world more?” By we, she means women: women in control of their sexuality and their desire, grown women who understand their anatomy and its power, grown women who are penetrating, who penetrate the surface of this world until it cracks, revealing other possibilities beyond.
With Baby Face, Dye demonstrates, forcefully, powerfully, how cramped and debilitated women are by the cultural patriarchal infantilisation of female desire. How silenced we are. She sprays the stage with talcum powder, a toxic cloud that obscures her body, shrouds her in arc of whiteness, with all its connotations of innocence and purity. And she changes her clothes again, pulls off the six-year-old’s clothing and squeezes herself into a tiny baby’s vest. As though that weren’t disturbing enough, she pulls on a babygro: feet in first, then arms, folding her body backwards into an unnatural twisted curve. This is how cramped. This is how debilitated. She pulls it off again. Stands up straight. There is a dummy in her mouth. She pulls it out, stretches out her arm, stares straight into the audience, drops it to the floor. Silence no more. I shiver with excitement and come out to write to you.
And as I reach this final paragraph, it occurs to me that there’s an intriguing discrepancy between my interest here in Dye’s rejection of silence, and the embrace of it you’re planning as part of your Spike Island residency: the walks you intend to do through Bristol in silence. I wonder if you could tell me something of what you hope that silence will make possible, or open up.
I’ve been mulling over the idea of ‘fucking the world more.’ I am torn by it.
On one hand, it feels imperative to oppose. To oppose the infantalisation of women, and indeed its flipside – the dismissal of women once their faces reveal the dreaded contours of their real age. To oppose the pervasive racism of our culture, which makes people of colour both invisible and hyper visible all the time, and which has led our current government to pursue policies apparently based on the dictum, ‘blame the foreigners.’ To oppose the discrimination of disabled people, to oppose the violent gendering of children, particularly girls; to oppose the creeping privatisation of public space, public life and human rights like medicine and shelter …. I could go on. I mean, there’s just so much fucking opposition to do, right?
On the other hand, if we engage in the language of opposition, then we are also tacitly accepting the terms of the debate. Yesterday I was part of a panel in IBT called: ‘Cultural Island: How to Survive Brexit?’ It was a discussion aimed at an audience of arts professionals. Everyone in the room who had voted in last summer’s referendum, had voted to remain in the EU, and we all agreed that we were devastated by the result and its far-reaching implications: financially, practically, culturally. But there was something about the conversation that I found even more depressing: it felt like we were roaming over old ground. There were suggestions to keep making the economic case for the arts to funders, to keep working with international collaborators, to expand our partnerships far and wide. All these things are true, of course. But I remember having the same kinds of conversations in 2010 when the coalition government first came in, and the aims of most people who work in the arts diverged from the aims of most people who work in government, more radically than in the previous 13 years.
Then, as now, I wonder: Why must we communicate in terms of efficiency and impact? Why must we talk about money and reach? Why must we talk about survival and battles and conflict and penetration and fucking people up? Why can’t we talk about love and beauty and meaning? Why can’t we talk about the real reasons we are doing any of this? Why can’t we find the words?
At the talk, I gave a provocation that included an uncomfortable fact. We know the EU referendum revealed ruptures in the UK population along the lines of age, race, class and education. The uncomfortable fact is that the professional, publicly funded arts sector in the UK is ruptured along the same lines. I’m not saying these two divided systems are equivalents, or that they are divided for the same reasons. But it’s striking, isn’t it, that for all the arts sector’s belief in the principles of exchange, in the clarity of truth cutting through the fog of the day to day, in the radical power of art as a space for difference, there seems to be a limit to our ability to communicate.
In your description of Baby Face you describe a woman acting out: over-acting the stereotypes of feminine existence until they are ripped, literally, by the actual facts of Dye’s actual physical self. You ask me about silence, and the difference between Dye’s refusal to live under the silence imposed by a misogynistic world, and my decision to walk in silence with strangers through the streets of Bristol. In a way, they are both the same thing. They both amount to a search for a different language, or a different kind of language, or even just the holes in the languages that we already use. This search is driven by the need for new rivulets of meaning, streams of consciousness that force themselves through the ground and run into the sea. The hope, I think, is that different types of settlements will grow on the banks of the new rivers, and eventually the old ones will die out.
But this returns me to the possibility of a more violent approach: ransacking the old settlements, pillaging them for their wares and dominating them with their own weapons. And this returns me to Brexit.
One way of understanding the Brexit vote was as a rejection of the neoliberal consensus that has increased inequality and lowered living standards for most people in the west. But this, of course, is not the reason everyone in the arts is devastated. We are devastated because this rejection of economic conditions has gone hand in hand with a rejection of social liberalism – a rejection of tolerance, empathy, foreign aid, human rights. In fact, I would suggest that one of the functions of neoliberalism is to appropriate all the conversations that are happening around it, and turn them to its own ends. In the case of the Brexit debate, neoliberalism, with a kind of amoral genius, has appropriated the conversation about its own demise, and turned it into a conversation called ‘blame the foreigners.’ Yesterday, Judith Knight from Artsadmin quoted the former Tory MP and columnist for The Times, Matthew Paris, who says this rejection of social liberalism makes him ashamed of being British: this is not a matter of partisan politics. This is a matter of amoral economic imperalism, destroying everything in its path (including the movement for its own demise).
So do we stand up to this pervasive and divisive logic, face to face, fist to fist? Do we do the same back – re-appropriate the language of blame or the money of a racist government or the spreadsheets of NPO applications and turn them into something that will build our new walled paradise? Or do we lie down, put our heads in the soft, wet river bank, commit our bodies to an alternative, and wait to be drowned?
There is more to be said on all of this, but I am racing to the festival now for a busy day of viewing performances. One of the pleasures of a dialogue is to leave thoughts hanging in the air, like a conversation.