Radical Disruptions

How Intergenerational Exchange Builds Community

My name is Selina Thompson, and I am a performance artist based in the UK. I am a Black, working class, queer, fat woman, and I make work with those subjectivities in mind. I am part of a community here that sees its identities as powerful, political, and urgent places to create from.

I feel somewhat lost at present, and I think many folks do. Lost in this moment in history, in what art is for, and if it is the best use of anybody’s time. Lost in ableist and capitalist structures, and how we might work with and/or around that. Lost in the middle of moments of personal growth, or changes in direction; lost in new collaborations, or old ones coming to an end. Lost in the reality that the live art sector is garnering new attention, and that the ethics and politics of some of the establishments cropping up are unsettling and destabilizing. Lost in being on the periphery in a different way, in earning slightly more money, in building structures and flirting with working towards eventually becoming part of an institution myself and the responsibility that goes with that. Lost in the co-option of meaningful, radical concepts, which leaves us with slightly less armor than before.

a person sitting in a bathrobe eating breakfast cereal

The Missy Elliott Project by Selina Thompson.

I increasingly draw comfort from that fact that none of this is new. Every conversation being had in my sector has been had before: the cycles of boom and bust around diversity, the tensions around overwork and exhaustion, the quest to balance spirituality, creativity, and political activism. All of this has happened before. The alarm that needs to be sounded, however, is that it will happen again, unless as a sector, a community, and a society we can change our relationship with time and repetition. 

The following series of tweets (emphasis mine) reminds me of what makes a community a community rather than a clique:

I’m all for activist communities, queer communities etc, but communities are few and far between. what we have more of are scenes. Two signs that it’s a scene: it doesn’t have multiple generations (children, elders) and the members all have a suspiciously similar aesthetic. I think when a community or scene isn’t diverse enough — and by diverse I don’t just mean demographics, but also diverse walks of life, diverse ways of seeing the world, diverse levels of personal development — it becomes prone to a lot of problems. It’s too clumped up. A lot of the pathologies you see springing up in queer and activist scenes probably wouldn’t spring up if those scenes had more people who
-  are older
-  are further along in their personal development

                  @pangmeli, April 21, 2019

Reading this felt like a lightning bolt, a moment of clarity in the midst of so much sludge. It is when different perspectives coalesce, when intergenerational knowledge is transferred across a group, that we are truly a community. This thought opened up so much to me about the cycles that might be disrupted and the changes that might be made around what and how we remember—and how this can allow us to dream and manifest new futures.

screen shot of a tweet by @pangmeli that reads "I’m all for activist communities, queer communities etc, but communities are few and far between. what we have more of are scenes. Two signs that it’s a scene: it doesn’t have multiple generations (children, elders) and the members all have a suspiciously similar aesthetic."

I have always thought of theatre people as the community that sustains and nourishes me, through school and university, and now in my life outside of formal education. It has always been life sustaining for me. So, when asked to curate a series on UK artists in the live art scene, I took it as an opportunity to eavesdrop on the intergenerational dialogues I wanted to hear, and to share them with others.

It is when different perspectives coalesce, when intergenerational knowledge is transferred across a group, that we are truly a community.

I reached out to six artists I love and respect—Tobi Kyeremateng, Joon Lynn Goh, Matilda Ibini, Malik Nashad Sharpe, Ava Wong Davies, and Demi Nandhra—and asked them to engage in dialogue with a collaborator from a different generation. I gave them no steer other than to use the space for a conversation they had been needing to have, and to have it with somebody they wanted to talk to. As the transcripts came in, I thought of Akasha Gloria Hull’s book Soul Talk: The New Spirituality of African American Women, where Hull speaks of the connection between political activism, creativity, and spirituality—how the three are intertwined in a deep way. I can see how, in each of the dialogues in this series, all three are present to varying degrees.

The urgency of political activism comes to the fore in Tobi Kyeremateng’s conversation with Roger Robinson. At twenty-four, Kyeremateng is already an award-winning cultural producer working across form, thinking about the black experience at every position of the theatre and what the generation below her will emerge into. In her conversation with Robinson, a poet with twenty-five years of experience, Robinson describes a series of collectives that came together to build new approaches to making work and to getting it seen in the eighties and nineties, which is juxtaposed with Kyeremateng’s articulated need for support systems now.

This push for the collective is also present in Joon Lynn Goh’s dialogue with Janna Graham. Goh, a cultural organizer and producer, has always had a certain clarity and rigor in her thinking about politics and organizing. This integrity shows in her choice to be in dialogue with practice-based researcher Graham, whose work has touched on social housing, workers’ rights, and support for those living with AIDS. Their conversation moves back and forth across the Atlantic and spans several types of practice: academic, community organizing, performance, and visual arts. The artists call into question the future of the institution and bravely ask that we make a new culture. Reading it reminded me of words from writer adrienne maree brown: “We are in an imagination battle.” This conversation is fighting to reimagine our futures from places of rigor, power, and possibility.

We, the marginalized, in all our shapes and forms, are always in the archive somewhere, we just have to be found, and this requires some work on our part.

The next three exchanges focus on the challenges of creativity. Malik Nashad Sharpe and Liza Johnson’s conversation is rich in cross pollination, with Liza speaking from her perspective as a film and TV director and Malik reflecting from their place in choreography and dance. There is a liquid quality to the conversation, which is heightened further knowing that, at one point their relationship, Malik was a student of Liza’s. It could be argued that performance art has a shorter lineage than other forms, but the strengths of that are apparent here: we are often only a couple of connections away from those who originated the form. The energy this can provide is present in their conversation.

Then there’s Ava Wong Davies, Maddy Costa, and Alice Birch’s conversation, the only one between three people: two critics, in Ava and Maddy, but also two playwrights, in Ava and Alice. It’s a reflexive and questioning conversation, one that situates critical writing both in the archive and in the making process, and asks probing and difficult questions about care, responsibility, and seeing the humanity in those who might encounter their words. Their writing is some of the most exciting and politicized coming out of London right now, and it’s very exciting to have them represented here.

The third dialogue that speaks to the challenges of creativity is between Matilda Ibini and Oladipo Agboluaje, two playwrights of Nigerian heritage working in a British context. There’s staying power displayed in their conversation, one of honing craft regardless of institutional support and potential familial disapproval. Their pre-existing relationship seeps through the words as they look at what has to be in place to sustain creativity: financial knowhow and people who kick up a fuss, opening the door and making sure it never closes.

Finally, the conversation between Demi Nandhra and Rajni Shah turns towards the spirit: the artist as a human within all of this, trying to find balance, growth, and healing in their work. Their dialogue is an intimate one, reflecting everything from institutional disappointment to the need for community. It holds contradictions, moments of intense recognition, and pockets of hope and agency.

a person standing on a rocky shoreline

salt. by Selina Thompson.

A common rallying cry from people with marginalized identities is that they cannot find those that lived and looked like them in the archive; it is something I was very guilty of when I first began making work. I’m not without sympathy for this viewpoint: often artists from marginalized identities are not a part of the canon, so they require effort to find, and archives are not always easily accessible to us. But the canon is never the full story: we, the marginalized, in all our shapes and forms, are always in the archive somewhere, we just have to be found, and this requires some work on our part. It might be an uneasy experience, one in which we are challenged and held accountable in ways we didn’t foresee. Being in contact with our elders can force us to confront how our movements have failed, where people have been disappointed, or why someone who was the “hot sexy art person of the day” has left the arts and is isolated or in poverty.

My hope is that this series reminds us all that the knowledge we need and the tools we seek are often already within our reach. When we approach each other with curiosity and humility, with an awareness of what we have to offer and what we might receive, the “clumping up” that @pangmeli describes may be eased and the changes we desire may feel within our reach and capability. Each conversation in this series is a call to get to work—dedication and tenacity is something they all have in common—but that call is rich with joy and possibility. It is perhaps this, more than anything, that will keep us moving forward, toward whatever comes next.

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Thoughts from the curator

We are living through a time where the late Toni Morrison's call for a writer's movement that is "assertive, militant, pugnacious'" and, above all, heroic feels more urgent than ever. The contributions to this series focus on how artists build community with the generations that came before them and after them by exchanging experiences and perspectives, and how this exchange can enrich the spiritual, political, and creative aspects of our work. It is my hope that they will inspire and galvanize in times where we feel low and lost. The conversations in this series connect people across identity, practice, political leaning, and time, but are largely rooted in the Live Art and Theatre sectors of the United Kingdom.

Conversations Across Generations

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