Blog

Date for Your Diaries. Seminar Talk on ‘Making Performance in Your Council Estate Home’

I am the speaker at the December seminar for the Institute of Historical Research ‘Studies of Home’ series.

2nd December 2015, 5.30pm, Senate House, London.

‘The Resident Artist: Making Performance in Your Council Estate Home’.

Put it in your diaries!

Check out the exciting seminar line-up for the rest of the year by clicking here.

Ruin Lust and the Council Estate

God's Property

Over the past couple of years I have attempted to develop my approach to performance research by thinking about the ways in which my personal experiences feed into my reading of plays, and my writing about them. For me this is a political act. Far too much performance scholarship still fails to explicitly acknowledge the subject position of the writer, or to think through ways in which our understanding of artworks is conditioned by our social, cultural and ethnic positions. In their excellent book Habitus of The Hood, Chris Richardson and Hans Skott-Myhre argue that our habitus – that is our classed, embodied learned behaviours – structure our interpretations. We will all read a play, novel, film or painting differently depending on our personal embodied experiences and the ways in which the artwork operates to evoke these.

In my latest publication ‘Ruin Lust and the Council Estate: Nostalgia and Ruin in Arinze Kene’s God’s Property’, I use the discourse of ruin to think through ways in which Kene’s play – set in Deptford in 1981 – evoked my experiences as white, South East London native. I discuss how the ‘dialectal landscape’ (Smithson) of the play produced a ‘paradoxical site’ where nostalgia and ruin intertwined to give way to critique of racism.

You can read my article in the special issue of Performance Research, On Ruins and Ruination, by clicking here.

In Defence of ‘Lazy’ British Universities

Embed from Getty Images

On Saturday, Dr Anthony Seldon, Master of the elite UK independent school Wellington College and newly appointed Vice Chancellor of Britain’s first independent university, the University of Buckingham, accused British Universities of laziness. ‘An ocean of complacency exists in the sector,’ he wrote in an article for The Times, complaining that the UK Higher Education system offers inadequate teaching, terrible student support, poor pastoral care and insufficient time and facilities for extra-curricular engagement. His article also included the baffling suggestion that this ‘complacency’ was borne of universities’ public-sector status. The performance of British universities is, he argued, ‘reminiscent of the nationalised industries before they were privatised in the 1980s.’ (Have you taken a train recently, Dr Seldon?) HE could learn a lot, he suggests, from private schools.

‘What is my experience of running universities?’ asked Seldon, rhetorically, before giving a succinct and telling answer: ‘Absolutely nothing.’

Although I have never run a university either, I have worked as an academic at British universities for the past seven years (and studied at them for five years before that), and I do not recognise the broken system that Dr Seldon describes.

The academics I have worked with care deeply about their students. They work hard to deliver engaging sessions and to offer guidance and support both in and outside of class. They have contact with their students through supervisions, emails, virtual learning environments and via personal tutoring systems – where each student is assigned an academic advisor who they can go to for pastoral care.

Despite consistent attacks from those outside the sector (including journalists, politicians and soon-to-be VC’s of private universities with an ideological bone to pick) about fairness, contact hours and narrowness of focus, students do not appear to be unhappy with the state of their higher education. Indeed, in 2014, a record 87% of undergraduate students reported that they were satisfied with the teaching on their degree programmes. Even the HEPI-HEA report that Dr Seldon cited to bolster his argument suggests that 77% of students are satisfied with their HE experience, and that 36% of those who were unsatisfied admit to not putting sufficient effort into their own learning.

There are questions to be asked about value-for-money, sure – but as the comments on Seldon’s article suggest, many people believe that since students are paying more for their education, they should receive an enhanced service. This standpoint fails to recognise that universities themselves aren’t receiving more money now – increased student fees were brought in to cover cuts in government subsidy.

It is ridiculous to suggest there is inadequate provision for the wellbeing of UK university students. The university sector takes student welfare incredibly seriously – with designated ‘student support’ Deans, senior administrative faculty overseeing that quality is maintained, and constant attempts to quantify satisfaction through institutional and national measures; including module and programme evaluation questionnaires and the National Student Survey. Almost all UK universities now require teaching staff to hold a PGCAP or a similar professional teaching qualification (unlike in private schools, Dr Seldon, where teachers are routinely employed without postgraduate teaching qualifications) – and the REF (despite its problems) ensures that academics must strive to produce rigorous, original, impactful research outputs, which in turn inform teaching. In the institutions I have worked at there are formal and informal lesson observations, peer-to-peer mentoring schemes, as well as in-house, university-wide training and development courses for staff and graduate students with teaching responsibilities.

And care for students doesn’t stop at teaching quality. Many British universities provide students in need with free or subsidized counselling, administered by qualified professionals, and dedicated disability services, which offer specialist support for students with diagnosed and suspected learning difficulties (significant numbers of students are not diagnosed until university level, as high-functioning dyslexic students are often missed within the school system). Although this structure of care differs significantly from the kinds of hands-on, personal support offered by teachers in loco-parentis at secondary school level, surely it is better that students with serious emotional and learning issues are supported by experienced specialists who can help them, than by academics who usually have no formal training in these areas – and who anyway are not primarily employed to give expert care tailored to each student’s complex needs? How much more ‘care’ might universities reasonably be expected to provide, when we consider they are first and foremost places of learning – not social, emotional and medical services?

As for extra-curricular opportunities, there are an array of societies, volunteering schemes and paid work experience placements on offer for students attending British universities. At the University of Leeds, for example, the volunteering programme enables students to search for placements that will allow them to practice and develop specific skills, which will enhance employability. And although Dr Seldon is correct when he points out that our system does not place the emphasis on sports that the US system does (and this is no bad thing, considering the corruption that dogs US college sports), there are excellent sporting provisions and world-class facilities in many UK universities. In most, there is an agreement with the student union that the university will not timetable sessions on Wednesday afternoons, which allows students to participate in national inter-university sporting competitions. In the 2012 Olympic Games, a number of students studying at British universities won medals. Bronze medalist Laura Unsworth claimed that the support offered to her at Loughborough as she undertook her Olympic training was a key factor in her sporting success. There is an active arts and theatre scene at many British Universities too – with the competitive annual National Student Drama Festival showcasing some of the most innovative work.

Of course, the transition to university can be – like any major life change – difficult. But universities have extensive welcome (or ‘freshers’) week programmes, with most also running specialist first year orientation modules and peer-support schemes to help students acclimatise to the university environment.

Dr Seldon misses the mark on many points, but, as an incoming VC, he ought to understand that universities are not schools. In many ways they are more like small towns – over 100 British universities have in excess of 10,000 students, and in several of the largest there are more than 30,000 students enrolled at any one time. The pastoral care model adopted by the school system would be completely unworkable in a university context. And there is nothing to suggest that privatising universities (because, let’s face it, that is what Seldon is getting at here) would do anything to improve students’ satisfaction, or, more importantly, their learning.

Of course, there are some universities where the infrastructure works better than it does at others. And of course we must continue to consult students, and to find ways to innovate in order to deliver an internationally competitive university education. There is much to improve, and there are ways in which best-practice might better be shared across institutions. But it does a disservice to the British Higher Education system (still widely regarded as one of the best in the world) to suggest there is widespread complacency. If anything, the complacency rests with those who insist, against all evidence to the contrary, that an expensive private university system will enhance the experience of UK students. We should be mindful that, in the US, there is increasing evidence that the private, and expensive state, university model – which creates huge, insurmountable debt for thousands of citizens – is forcing students into illegal and dangerous work, including drug dealing and prostitution, while administrators and senior university staff get rich. I can only hope that Dr Seldon’s position is motivated by ignorance, rather than greed.

Thoughts on War Memorial Desecration

Embed from Getty Images

I never wanted the post I recently wrote on the MP child abuse scandal to ignite a debate about the sanctity of war memorials. Child abuse is too important. There are rarely any ethically watertight, black and white issues on which we can all agree. Surely, I thought, if we can rally around anything we can rally around the idea that elected officials should not be allowed to get away with raping and (allegedly) murdering children, without serious public unrest. Being upset about defaced memorials while staying silent about members of our government committing sex crimes against children is like worrying about the colour of your bedspread when your house is on fire. And so I typed furiously, certain in the belief that people would agree.

But perhaps, in hindsight, I shouldn’t have used the defacing of a war memorial as a way into writing about the child abuse scandal. Some commenters have argued that the desecration of memorials can never be right, regardless of the circumstances. On the whole, people seem much more comfortable agreeing that vandalism against war memorials is wrong than they do speaking in any real way about the difficult and disturbing subject of child rape and what we are to do about it.

I don’t agree that it is always ‘wrong’ to vandalise a war memorial, although I understand why people hold that view. Memorials serve a symbolic role – they say something about the values of the society we live in, and how we treat them is a direct response to how we feel about the values they represent. There are, therefore, circumstances in which defacing a memorial is a necessary – or at least a justifiable – symbolic act, despite the fact it is also a disrespectful and most often illegal one.

Obviously it is disrespectful to deface a war memorial. That’s the point. But who are you disrespecting? That is where the issue gets interesting (if difficult), and where a simple narrative of ‘you are spitting on the graves of men and women who fought and died for you’ will not suffice. Almost everyone in this country (indeed, in the world) has someone in their recent ancestry, or even in their life, who has been affected by war. Those decrying the vandalism do not have a monopoly on conscripted grandparents. Thus we must understand that defacing a memorial is not always (ever?) about disrespecting people who have suffered and often died. Defacing a memorial is about disrespecting the state – because war memorials ALSO often serve symbolically to suggest that ‘those who fought did so because they were on the ‘right’ side, and we honour them and respect the values they fought for (which are almost always the values of the state that is in power now).’

Defacing a war memorial is usually (although not always) therefore a symbolic act against the state, which is justified and justifiable on these terms. At the Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia there is ongoing ‘vandalism’ as artists and activists paint over the memorial to express political allegiances, including support for the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014. I think this example illustrates the symbolic ambiguity of memorials – the tension between a memorial’s role as a site of respect for individuals akin to a headstone, and a memorial’s role in symbolically sanctioning the political actions of the state. It also demonstrates how memorial ‘desecration’ can actually serve as a kind of discussion between warring groups who are unable to find common ground in speech – if one ‘side’ has to clean paint off of a memorial they are forced to physically engage with the views of their opponent (even in the act of removing those views from sight), just as the opponent must physically engage with the symbolic value of the memorial in order to deface it.

A public condemnation of the desecration of a war memorial indicates that there is a general public support for the values of the state. The criticism of the ‘Tory Scum’ graffiti on the Monument to the Women of World War II suggests that the media (and a large proportion of the public) support the Conservative government (hardly a surprise given they have just won a majority vote in a general election), and the (neo)liberal values embodied by that monument. It is of course highly unlikely that the incendiary act of painting graffiti on a war memorial will do anything in the short-term other than shore up already existing political divisions. And as yet we have no idea exactly who painted the graffiti on Saturday, or what their motivations were (I have seen speculation online that it wasn’t painted by the protesters). But the fact remains that war memorials provide a visible and potent canvas for expressing frustrations with politics and the machinations of political power – they are visible sites where we can react and where we can provoke reaction. They are important, fertile and appropriate sites for political intervention. War memorials are the public face for our public values, and they provide a public face for us to change and challenge those values too.

*Image by Getty Images

We Need to Talk about Government Child Abuse

Embed from Getty Images

Over the weekend, protesters across London who had defaced a war memorial were widely (and predictably) condemned as moronic and evil by social media users and the newspaper press. They had written ‘Fuck Tory scum’, in a furious crimson scrawl, across The Monument to the Women of World War II, on Whitehall in London. Never mind that the paint could soon be washed off, this was an act so morally reprehensible as to command big screaming headlines in almost all of the national newspapers.

‘It doesn’t matter how angry you are’, said one widely quoted tweet, ‘graffiti on a war memorial is inexcusable and damn right rude.’

‘There is no excuse for violence and vandalism’, wrote another online commenter (ironically oblivious to that fact that memorials to WW2, on the whole, exist for the very purpose of justifying violence and vandalism, on a global scale).

Meanwhile, on my social media networks, a story from July 2014 was doing the rounds. Last summer, Michael Gove – our newly appointed Minister for Justice – had insisted, in an interview on the Andrew Marr show, that a public inquiry into the endemic sexual and physical abuse of children by members of parliament was unnecessary. Although he agreed that there had very likely been a wide-scale cover-up of child sex abuse, Gove didn’t like to apportion too much blame. “It was almost unconscious,” he said about the politicians who turned a blind eye when they knew that their colleagues were raping small children. “It was the thing that people did at that time.”

I don’t know about you, but reading those words makes me angry enough to want to deface a public monument. I’d merrily fling red paint over every war memorial from Ypres to Washington if it meant that the people we have elected into government might finally and properly acknowledge the horrific violence that was committed upon the most vulnerable children in our society, and mete out justice.

Of course, this weekend’s protests weren’t about child abuse per se. It’s an issue that seems to have been lost in a sea of other issues that might rightly be categorized under the heading ‘Tory Scum’ (see: bedroom tax, child poverty, disability benefit sanctions, tuition fees, trident, increasing the public debt despite austerity measures etc.).

I’m baying for violence and vandalism. Not because not because I don’t believe in the democratic process by which the Tories have been elected, not because I don’t respect the men and women who died during warfare – but because, according to allegations widely accepted by those in power to be true, some of the people we elected into government over a period of decades kidnapped, raped, assaulted and murdered children – or facilitated the cover-up of those who had. And our Minister for Justice thinks this is just a “thing that people did at that time.” I.e. in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, when I was a child, with big blue eyes and Findus Crispy Pancake dinners and an obsessive relationship with my Care Bear collection. Gove is suggesting that within living memory it was common practice to turn a blind eye if you knew children were being raped.

How can this possibly be an acceptable position for someone in government to hold? How can a man who has expressed this view be allowed to oversee the justice system in our country?

The public response to allegations of endemic child abuse has so far has been massively underwhelming. We are participating in a colossal under-reaction. Bubbles of outrage appear to have been burst by the launch of complicated, halting public and criminal inquiries that will take years to reach any satisfying climax. The complex nature of investigating historic sex abuse cases will ensure that almost all of the people who committed these terrible crimes will be dead before their victims see justice – if they aren’t dead already.

It was one terrible thing that decrepit, egoist television personalities were allowed to escape justice for decades. It is quite another thing when the very people we have entrusted to speak on our behalf are allowed to rape tiny children in plain sight and get away with it.

We should all be angry. We should all be taking to the streets, chucking washable paint over public memorials. Whatever side of the political divide we fall on we cannot let the endemic abuse of children go without a proper public outcry. There must be speedy justice and reform. We cannot allow this issue to fade away to nothing. We must show the people in power that we will not let their violence against our fellow citizens be forgotten. We must show the people in power that we will not stand for this happening ever again.

*Getty Images

This blog was first published at Huffington Post UK.

Council Estate Creativity: SPID Theatre Company

SPID 1

In these times of uncertainty, as rising rents and soaring house prices mean even Britain’s professional classes struggle to afford shelter, the phrase ‘council estate’ has become demonised. Estates are characterised by the right-wing press as hot beds of crime, poverty and immorality; as depressing ghettos where miserable people in tracksuits scam the benefits system and smoke crack. Meanwhile, left-leaning activists and social commenters point to the desperate need for subsidised housing provision and occupy crumbling Brutalist buildings to protest the social cleansing of our capital city.

Although debates about the state of the social housing sector are essential, as they happen, life on estates across Britain goes on. And the creativity and dynamism that exists on these estates is largely ignored, in favour of politically polarised discourse, which only makes life on estates more difficult. On the Kensal House estate in Ladbroke Grove, London, SPID Theatre Company attempts to counter the poor reputation of council estates by making and producing films and theatre projects that celebrate estate life and explore the complexity of living in socially marginalised conditions.

Based in the community rooms of Kensal House, SPID produces professional performances and runs a youth theatre programme, attended by estate residents and locals. SPID’s work includes the plays Sixteen, The Passerby and iAM, all performed in the community rooms themselves, and the films Happy Slap and Affected: Greed is Contagious, which won a Young People Now award and was selected for the LA Femme festival in Hollywood.

SPID’s latest performance Arthur’s World, took the council estate to the attic space of the Bush Theatre. It was staged in an ‘immersive’ environment, meaning the audience were invited inside the fictional world of the play; character Arthur’s council estate flat. As Shelley McDonald, a youth theatre member who provided a voice-over for the performance told me, ‘the audience are literally part of the action, sat on furniture inside Arthur’s home.’

The immersive staging usefully prevents the performance serving simply as estate ‘voyeurism’ – where the audience watch the action from the safe distance of their seats. Instead they are inside the estate-world of the play, so that it becomes difficult to separate audience from performer.

‘I wanted to show that people have more in common than it might first appear,’ said Helena Thompson, the author of Arthur’s World and Artistic Director of SPID.

The play centres on Arthur (Paul Greenwood), an elderly white man who hides inside his flat, frightened by ‘The Fights’ – a series of riots sparked by a notorious video game – happening outside. He is waiting for his missing son, Mikey who is black, to return home, but when he opens the door, he finds white Keno (Joseph Tremain), a teenager seeking refuge from The Fights. As the play unfolds and Michael (Enyi Okoronkwo) returns, we begin to question whether the events happening are ‘real’ or part of a video game.

SPID

The play was a particular hit with the under-26s. ‘The Fights’ clearly reference the 2011 riots, and sparked debate among the youthful audience. ‘The riots are still relevant,’ one told me, ‘if you’re from this area, then you’re familiar with the riots; the problems that started them still exist today.’ This kind of comment evidences the power theatre can have to provoke difficult discussions and enable reflection on important social issues.

Anuli Changa, another young audience member I spoke to, was impressed by the questions the play raised about race and class identity (she has written a review of the play, which you can read here). ‘I’m a person of colour but I’m very privileged’, she told me, ‘and the play made me think about the connections between race and class difference – about how people do judge you on what you look like first and foremost.’

That questions are being raised about social injustice, race and class difference – at a point when wealth inequality in London threatens to divide already marginalised communities further – is important. We must have platforms where issues that affect young and disenfranchised people are debated. SPID’s work demonstrates the role art can play in facilitating difficult discussions. But perhaps more importantly, SPID offers a positive example of the creativity that exists on council estates – we need to hear more about the positive aspects of estate life if there is any chance of council estate communities surviving the social cleansing happening in London.

This post was first published at Huffington Post.

Immersive Theatre: David Shearing’s THE WEATHER MACHINE

David Shearing

David Shearing’s new work, THE WEATHER MACHINE, premiers in Leeds this weekend. Shearing collaborates with musicians, writers and performers to craft immersive performances. His work is in the tradition of popular companies such as Punchdrunk, Shunt and You Me Bum Bum Train, who create performance landscapes that place audiences at the centre of the action. However, unlike Punchdrunk, whose latest offerings, The Drowned Man in London and Sleep No More in New York, comprised elaborate, highly detailed sets constructed throughout the sprawling expanse of disused buildings, Shearing is concerned with creating gentle, reflective immersive spaces. Spaces that work against what he has called the ’empty spectacle’; of huge scale realist design-scapes.

Shearing layers sound, text and image. His pieces have no live performers; instead the work is designed to encourage audience members to engage deeply with the scenographic elements. Set, lighting, sound and video projection combine to create a nuanced environment in a single studio, where spectators linger for the duration of the performance.

The atmospheric qualities of Shearing’s works are striking. His 2012 performance And it All Comes Down to This…, was developed using psychological models of mindfulness and catharsis. The journey through a landscape of glass jars, where sounds escaped from bird-boxes and haze curled up around deckchairs, on which the audience was placed to hear sections of text, was profoundly moving. It won the 2013 World Stage Design award for Installation Design.

anditall1

Shearing cites Adolphe Appia’s theories of stage design as especially important to his aesthetic approach. Appiah famously expressed frustration at the superficiality of the realistic set designs of the early twentieth century. Like Appiah, Shearing is not interested in recreating reality. Rather, he fuses forms to evoke sensory and emotional engagement – giving life to Appiah’s assertion that, “we shall no longer try to give the illusion of a forest, but the illusion of a man in the atmosphere of a forest”.

Weather machine 2

For THE WEATHER MACHINE, Shearing has collaborated with composer James Bulley and writer Kamal Kaan. The performance takes place on a terrain constructed from screens, wooden pallets and grass, in the main studio space of stage@leeds, the University of Leeds public licensed theatre. Shearing uses the weather conditions of the day on which the performance takes place to present a part-improvised work about the ways in which the chance incidents of nature shape human lives. Headphone technology is a recurring feature of Shearing’s work and he employs the technique here – shifting between intimate headphone delivery and external speaker delivery to highlight the separation between the individual and the community.

weather machine 1

You can catch THE WEATHER MACHINE this weekend (until 7th Feb) at stage@leeds. David Shearing will also be speaking at a panel on the ‘Scenographic City’, as part of Leeds Ludus Festival on Saturday 7th February. Along with Alan Lane, director of Leeds-based company Slung Low, and the performance collective Invisible Flock, he will discuss the ways that theatre can reimagine and recreate the city space.

You can find out more about these events and book tickets here.

*This post was first published at the Huffington Post.

‘Towards a Spatial Practice of the Postcolonial City’

Between 2010 and 2015 I have been involved in a research initiative exploring the ‘postcolonial city’. It began with an interdisciplinary reading group I attended at the University of Leeds as a postgraduate student; in 2012 I and a group of postgraduate researchers from English, Modern Languages and Communication Studies, organised the Postcolonial Studies Association’s annual conference, ‘Re-evaluating the Postcolonial City, Production, Reconstruction, Representation’, which brought together scholars from across the globe. As a result of this conference I and two of my colleagues proposed a special issue of the leading postcolonial studies journal Interventions, and we have spent the past two and half years curating and editing the journal, which is now available online. You can find the introduction, which I have co-authored, here, the first 50 clickers should find it’s open access.

Education and ‘Value’

dollar

Since, approximately, the beginning of time, politicians, journalists and, if Guardian comments threads are anything to go by, members of the public, have been debating the ‘value’ of Higher Education, and, indeed, education more generally. This debate has grown ever more intense as university fees have increased to £9,000 per year for the average undergraduate, and as more and more students enrol on both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.

Much of the discourse on education and its ‘value’ revolves around ‘employability’– universities are increasingly measured, in both league tables and the public eye – by how well they prepare students to enter the labour market, and how much more money graduates earn than those without degrees.

As graduate wages fail to vastly outstrip those of non-graduates and growing numbers of students graduate with ‘good’ (2:1 or above) degrees, politicians, journalists and social commentators speculate – in various ways – that the education system is failing its students. Implicit (and often explicit) in their arguments is the assumption that the rigour and worth of formal learning and academic qualifications declines as the numbers of people achieving qualifications rises. There are too many of us getting degrees and – just like the A grade at A’level – that means they’ve become worthless.

But, although it’s nice to get a cash return on your investment, as anybody who has studied for the love rather than for the money knows, education is not like a diamond or a precious metal. Its value doesn’t lie in its scarcity. Education is more like a child or a lover – it’s ‘value’, should you wish to discuss it in such crass terms (and you surely wouldn’t, if you knew anything about its value at all) is in the way it enriches your life, and the lives of those around you.

Undoubtedly, I agree that ‘education’ is about more than formal, institutionalised learning. Such formal learning, however, importantly offers the time, space, expertise and resources where a particular kind of intellectual creativity can occur, and where students can engage with (and with any hope come to challenge) the thinkers, thoughts and traditions that have created the foundations of the subject they love. The opportunity to engage in formal education is ‘valuable’ for all sorts of people, in all sorts of ways, and we should be thinking about how we can open, rather than reduce, access to it.

In my discipline – drama, theatre and performance studies – there are on-going discussions about how we might demonstrate the value of what we do. The urgency with which we feel we must justify our existence has no doubt been compounded by the Coalition’s denigration of arts subjects in compulsory education. In a desperate scramble to prove our worth in ‘their’ language we supplement our well-worn arguments about the intrinsic value of beauty, the social benefits of arts practices, the positive impact of theatre on the self-esteem of participants and audiences. We point out that arts graduates fair particularly well in terms of graduate ’employability’ due to the ‘transferable skills’ offered by arts degrees, and we remind ‘them’ that in economic-speak arts make up 0.4 percent of GDP, with just 0.1 percent of investment.

I feel profoundly uncomfortable about this.

We shouldn’t fall into the trap of talking numbers when it comes to education – whether in the arts, humanities or STEM subjects. Yes, how much we spend on education has to be considered in terms of wider concerns around public funding. But those of us working in the sector need to resist defining its worth in numerical or monetary terms. Education is too important. It is more than dollar signs. It needn’t be a scare resource to offer something valuable.