The following article is a result of a roundtable discussion organised by Rajni Shah and Diana Damian about Beyond Glorious: the radical in socially engaged practices, a symposium that took place in June 2013 to mark the end of an ambitious trilogy of work. Symposium participants John Pinder, Chloe Dechery, Theron Schmidt, Louise Owen and Susan Sheddan were invited to take part in the roundtable aimed at re-considering the symposium, its mode of engagement with practice and its scope with the hindsight of time.
Somewhere between the fresh cool air following a summer storm and the soft colours of fast approaching night time, the subject of the conversation turned abruptly. Between the collective act of remembrance and the tentative nature of my own questions, the subject began to occupy the room, to materialize amongst everyone’s memories and reflections. And because I look back to that afternoon after the sudden, unexpected passage of time, I fall naturally into thinking about the value, traces and presence of an event like Beyond Glorious.
Towards the end of the soft summer that took over London this year, I met with artist and producer Rajni Shah, artist John Pinder, Lecturers Theron Schmidt (King’s College) and Louise Owen (Birkbeck), writer, producer and artist Chloe Dechery, and Early Years and Families Convenor (Tate Modern), Susan Sheddan, to collectively think about Beyond Glorious, a symposium that marked the end of Shah’s three year project, Glorious.
The symposium was a way to contextualize and reflect on the work that took place in the project- a large-scale collaborative musical that explored our relationship to place and community, the third in a trilogy of shows examining cultural identity through socially engaged practice, alongside Mr Quiver (2005) and Dinner with America (2008). Glorious was the most ambitious of the three; with each new location and place, Shah together with collaborators Lucille Acevedo-Jones, Karen Christopher, Sheila Ghelani, Mary Paterson and Suzie Shrubb, worked with a new set of musicians and local resihudents to reconstitute and re-invent the core material of the production. In the beautiful Dear Stranger, I love you , Shah, Paterson and Elizabeth Lynch consider the remit of the project within the politics of socially engaged practice from both a very human as well as theoretical remit, bringing together a collection of thoughts that tempt and prompt disagreements over the variables of such an ambitious project, the values of that process and its encounter, and the currencies under which they chose to speak.
Beyond Glorious emerged as a result of this project and process, positing to question the ways in which the radical can be understood in socially engaged practice. I found it a fascinating premise: considering the fragments, remains and ideas emerging out of such a complex performance project that placed participants at the core of a process of questioning and considering societal elements such as place and community. If socially engaged practice can be understood as artistic work that aims to engage in a multitude of ways with social repair and re-constitution, then how might one approach the construction of a temporary public space of debate? Infused with these aspects, the symposium seemed to be occupying that public space in its engagement with a subject at the meeting point between academic debate and artistic practice. And it seemed like the ethos of the publication very much fed into the curation of the event itself, which sought to expand these conversations outside of the specificity of a project, bringing together an incredibly diverse group of people – from artists, researchers, theorists to punters – to consider the relationship between such practices and the radical, be that as a form of social re-imagination or new formal ground.
The symposium took place over three days in early June, and was free to attend, subject to the participants agreeing to donate their time for the duration, whatever form that might take. Alongside discussions, workshops and screenings, there were communal meals at local restaurants in Bloomsbury, provocations and evening events. Panels looked at problems and potentials of the radical and its audiences, creative documentation, theatre and radical democracy, and were complemented by presentations around the influence of other disciplines in socially engaged work, facilitated walks, letter- writing and case studies.
As Mary Paterson states in Dear Stranger, I love you, “Glorious was different things to different people. And it achieved this difference by building a scaffold of the familiar – a mixture of aesthetic and social conventions that combined to make a ladder to the unknown” (53). In light of that, I wondered what the potential of such a symposium might be. What could it enact, consider and open up in light of the material on which it is inherently constructed, but also the ethos that led to its constitution?
Shannon Jackson considers the term socially engaged practice as combining “aesthetics and politics; as a term for events that are inter-relational, embodied and durational” (12). In her study Social Works, Jackson addresses the assumption that such models of politically engaged work should measure their radicality in light of their relationship to the institutional. Although debate over the remit, impact and effect of such works – though in blurred and contested delineations – always comes hand in hand with the wider political and artistic frameworks that constitute and make them visible, it’s possible to see Beyond Glorious itself as navigating those terrains between the artistic and the social, redrawing their connections through its multiplicity of modes of discourse. I was however a stranger to these discourses, excavating through collective remembrance. It wasn’t just a question of what remained or lingered, but also what languages might have enabled conversations, what structures might have fostered disagreement and what of knowledge and its production in light of the possibility within ideas of resistance. In other words, I wondered how can we make meaningful conversations now, in a political environment where knowledge is tied to economics and capital, when form is so visibly political?
“As an opening provocation, I have a request for each of you, and that is that you leave it behind. And by that I mean whatever is going on for you, right now, whatever patterns you would automatically adopt in this situation, whatever knowledge or assumptions you brought with you today- I’m requesting that you graciously lay them down.” Rajni Shah, Opening address, Beyond Glorious
Shah speaks of the barriers that can shadow our relationship with strangers, of the difficulty of being open about not knowing, and moving outside of adopted patterns that dictate our engagement with others. When I first read Rajni’s opening speech, I think of Hannah Arendt’s philosophical poetics. “Human plurality, the basic condition of both action and speech, has the twofold character of equality and distinction. […] Speech and action reveal this unique distinctness.[…] With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world […]. “ (128) It seems that her opening request is not only about an invitation to engage differently, but also about an openness towards different modes of engagement. Arendt’s thoughts on the nature of public appearance are echoed in this initial proposition: distinction and equality are valued in equal measure. Action becomes that which has the potential to emerge through language- and Beyond Glorious attempted to consider that in a more complex, diversified framework, from listening and sharing, to problematising and disagreeing.
When I ask Rajni about this address, she tells me that the aim was “to create a space of listening among a very diverse group, but also, and importantly, to make a space for renewal, which feels really urgent. Glorious was an attempt to do something that maybe felt impossibly ambitious, and we did it, but I am fully aware of the compromises we made. That’s not a sustainable way of working, so the symposium also became about how and why do we keep doing this.” So the choices that really made up the event themselves also became about place and conversation, but from a specific perspective. “It has to do with where you place yourself as an artist, about saying ‘we could also do this’. We made choices that were different from other events – choices like going to local restaurants and spending time in those places, really being there. It was an opportunity to share practice, what we’ve learnt, and to think about opening it out. But it was also about the desire to do things differently, and to share the fact that this is possible as an artist – that it’s possible to create spaces that are complex and rigorous but also kind and generous.”
Susan mentions that as someone who emerges out of an institutional and educational context, she is aware of particular issues around socially engaged practice. Working with such practices is “a complex and exciting process that necessitates the kind of responsive openness that I found in Rajni’s opening provocation, which to me framed a new space where something different could occur.” Susan reflects on a workshop that she participated in during the symposium that foregrounded a certain kind of resistance that was particular and incidental. Experiencing these feelings was fascinating, given that Rajni’s provocation meant participating in an uncomfortable and resistant state. “I am not used to being so uncomfortable. I found it incredibly rich, hearing about other people’s perspectives and being in the midst of a disagreement. For me it was about a space to express this resistance, and several of us did so clearly and openly. The situation demonstrated in practice how trust and generosity can actualise the rich potential in uncomfortable, unknown moments. As someone who produces participatory programmes I thought it valuable to experience this discomfort.“
Louise adds that she felt “part of a swirling mass of information- sounds, tastes, textures and ideas. Information was moving through, but it was more organic than directional, less about language and more about assumptions and their visibility. There was no sense of confusion, no moment of misunderstanding.” She speaks of a similar sense of openness, and a clarity in the different modes of exchange and discussion that meant a particular sharing of perspectives.
Theron remembers responding to Rajni’s prompt with the realisation of the need to let go of a sense of regret about “all the people who I hoped would be there, who I thought really should be.” There was also the mix of curiosity and apprehension about this new mix of people: “The experience of being a scholar means that you have a lot of shared reference points and you’re part of a formed community. I wondered whether we might end up treading familiar territory, or whether new discourses would form, and where the sense of urgency and dynamism would come from….” Theron speaks of a community of particular people at a particular time without the usual conventions of familiarity: a relationship of strangers who have that strangeness in common rather than any shared trait or history.
John ascribes a real social value to the symposium in delineating both an act of spectating and one of exchange. “In theatre, this is quite a radical thing. In some sense, Glorious employed a dramaturgical structure that worked really well in creating a delay, at least for me. The show arrived much later for me, and likewise the symposium became a confirmation of the meaning of this delay. It sharpened some feelings and questions I had in relation to theatre, and it was quite remarkable.” John speaks of the letter-writing that all participants were invited to do at the end; each wrote to a stranger and added their address to an envelope, thus being the addresser and addressee at the same time. “The letter I received back later, echoed that delay; it wasn’t about any nostalgia of form, but about a specific structure that really made something tangible to me.”
In contrast to this sense of satisfying delay, of an extended temporality, was also a different form of transaction which throughout our conversation I seem to pin down to knowledge exchange. Yet this very approach proves subverted within the clarity brought by the symposium’s structures, and the participants’ different positions on that. In thinking about what these structures might create, I realize the importance of fighting kinds of knowledge efficiency and consistencies of transfer. When discourse becomes less about accumulation, structures that govern our thinking become more present. If knowledge is to escape instrumentalization, then it must deliberately place itself in a different socio-political nexus. And in Beyond Glorious there seems to be a strong presence of something more valuable and meaningful- structures of discourse.
From Chloe’s perspective, there was a real sense of fluidity in the conversations that was very inviting. “The fact that we spent all this time together, ate together and talked in different conditions, was important. There was no hierarchy to these places and it became about connections rather than transfer, about allowing yourself to access a different way of speaking and thinking, very much embodied and connected to time and place.” Rajni adds that “we went to a place that was sometimes uncomfortable but not antagonistic. The idea of knowledge transfer that you describe is what we were trying to break away from. There were challenges around those moments of tension, but the lack of consensus didn’t lead to break-down in communications as it often does. What started off as being about knowledge became about sentiment. Conversations were able to move through this place.”
One of the things that Theron valued about Beyond Glorious was the way it presented multiple ways of structuring social organisation and exchange. Referring to the feminist manifesto “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”, he describes his suspicion of the idealisation of some universally accessible, non-hierarchical structure. “There is no such thing (and in fact the presumption of structurelessness can be dangerous), but what can be thoughtful and artful about how we shift those hierarchies and their presence and scope,” and in this way making those hierarchies visible. For Theron, Beyond Glorious seemed to claim an equivalency of value to different kinds of experiences and knowledges, which in itself is “a strong political claim.” He adds, one thing which the structure of the symposium made visible was the binary that says in order for a practice to be radical, it must be antagonistic, whereas practices that are kind or generous are somehow inherently conservative. In opposition to this binary, Theron found Beyond Glorious to be an occasion to explore “a broad spectrum of different modes of radicality that might form an ecology of radical practices.”
If the structure emerges out of the conversation with precision and clarity, with a powerful and potent sense of urgency and possibility, what remains clouded is the subject itself, escaped within the scaffolds of such memories. What remains? The emotion, the thinking and sharing processes; knowledge, as that which can be pinpointed and grasped, is secondary. As for the radical, throughout the conversation it emerges as something that navigates the poetic and the public without presumed antagonism. Glorious might have touched or at least interfered with people’s lived and communities; Beyond Glorious sought to extract something equally valuable by moving outside of the project, and attempting to think collectively- it is a gently radical event. There is something very candid about a symposium that in its structure and ambition, might be able to communicate symbolically. If it emerges as anything, Beyond Glorious seems to be a form of occupation.
This is in no way a panoramic gesture. And certainly both in writing this, and in participating in our collective reflection, the tension most present was that between forming a specific kind of chaos and removing the innate desire to order it, to construct modes of efficiency. Discourse and action are inherently tied together, just as form and politics are. I recall Arendt once more, who speaks of acting as taking an initiative, setting something in motion. “It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before.” Something new certainly emerged from Beyond Glorious, and it slipped its way into the public sphere in ways which could be seen to be a bit more unexpected, a bit more silent. I think here of aspects such as letter-writing, guided walks, dinner table conversations.
If socially engaged practices take on spectatorship in deliberately unexpected, perhaps nomadic ways, examining the politics of that encounter between performer and audience, author and amateur, insider and outsider, then it’s also possible to see Beyond Glorious as navigating and perhaps attempting to displace those same boundaries. If I return to the idea of the stranger, attempting to piece together with memories at her tool, then I think about how much that same space that was recalled was also enacted. Place is what defines the stranger; and throughout the conversation I began more and more to inhabit these memories- to own them as much as their authors had.
There is a great deal to be found in modes of constitution, and in re-considering what we might think of as public, and I say this as a critic as much as an observer to this process of recollection. If socially engaged practice, as a nomadic and disputed category, might shed light on the assumptions made on the position and role of art, then Beyond Glorious makes visible dominant structures of critique and debate that assert an outcome. As Gertrude Stein once said, “the only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything.”