Beyond Glorious: The radical in engaged practices was a symposium hosted by Rajni Shah Projects and the Birkbeck Centre for Contemporary Theatre in London at the end of May 2013. As its subtitle suggests, it addressed the range of ways in which ideas of the ‘radical’ might be brought together with practices that seek forms of ‘engagement’ that cross boundaries between art, pedagogy, social practice, and other forms of care. Various scholars and artists respond to the symposium in the Backpages section of Contemporary Theatre Review 24.2. As a companion to the written reflections collected in the print journal, this selection of videos reflects some of the artist projects and approaches that were presented at the symposium, briefly introduced by the artists or scholars involved. Though they are drawn from a wide range of contexts and approaches, taken collectively they reflect a shared interest in thinking about how events are framed and new forms of encounter that might give shape to critique, resistance, and hope.
– Theron Schmidt
Fugitive Images – Estate, a Reverie
Andrea Luka Zimmerman
I lived on the Haggerston estate most of my adult life. Together with my collaborators, I worked on the Haggerston estate for the past 6 years. The first project was I am here (large-scale photographs of the façade of the building of residents still occupying it), and a collection of essays in Estate: Art, Politics and Social Housing in Britain. Now we are completing the film we made during this period. Capturing a moment of imminent transition, the artist’s film Estate reflects on urgent matters of regeneration, gentrification and architecture; its reasons, possibilities and consequences. But more importantly, it is a film about time and place, dreams and wonder. During this moment, where one structure has broken down, and a new one is about to form, another space unfolds; a space of proposals, of uncertainty, and of absolute initiative. In this opening, how might we ask important questions of our ideas of home, of history, always in the making, and of our capacities of imagination; that which influences not only how we’re seen, but also how we see; how we dream…. With Estate, we wish to explore these disjunctions between public and private memory. We want to boldly challenge tabloid stereotypes of housing estates and their inhabitants as a threatening underclass, to celebrate the diversity and resilience of its residents.
Theron Schmidt in conversation with jamie lewis hadley
In preparation for the Beyond Glorious symposium, I conducted a range of video-recorded interviews with people who have multiple practices that, in some contexts, are recognised as ‘art’, and in others are not. For some of the people I talked to, these might be a set of practices which they think of as quite distinct from each other, but which nevertheless have an influence on each other, and for others there is more of a continuity between what is perceived as art and what is not. I was particularly interested in whether there might be a counter-narrative to the stereotypical way in which socially engaged art is presented, in which art is perceived to offer a radical and refreshing perspective to some context that is thought to be conservative or in need of renewal. Instead, I was interested in the ways in which the reverse might be the case, and in which, as artists, we might find all kinds of radical energies in the non-artistic things that we do. I was also interested in having quite open, exploratory dialogues, and I wanted the videos to retain this informal quality. The conversation selected for this collection is with the artist jamie lewis hadley. I approached hadley because I had seen his work in Live Art contexts, in both the 2011 and 2013 SPILL Festival of Performance, but I also knew that he trained as a professional wrestler. In our interview, hadley discusses his interest in the performance of pain and the use of blood as a material across various contexts. His project currently in development, Blood on the Streets, responds to the frustration he articulates in the interview with the limitations of playing to an ‘art audience’ by placing his work in 10 barbershops around the UK.
The Cleaners’ Voice
The Cleaners’ Voice is the video documentation of an activist, participatory performance project that uses a ‘complaints choir’ methodology to bring to public light a series of unanswered questions and concerns that cleaning staff from the University of East London (UEL) had about their working conditions in 2010-2011. Over a period or four weeks or so, a number of cleaners attended workshops that gave them the chance to voice and share some of their complaints against Ocean, the contractor that had been hired by UEL to clean its facilities. The project was commissioned by the UEL’s London Living Wage (LLW) Campaign Team, which was comprised of London Citizens; trade unions Unison and UCU; lecturers Timothy Hall, Ana Lopes, and others; students; and the cleaning staff themselves. This team campaigned for UEL to contract the cleaning staff directly rather than through a contractor, and for raising their salary from the minimum hourly wage (£6.32) to £7.85, the LLW at that time. The cleaners involved in the project were migrants from countries such as Venezuela, Dominican Republic, and Angola, to name a few. At that time, their English skills were limited and to a large extent, they felt as an ‘invisible’ and ‘unheard’ part of UEL’s community. The artistic director of the project Luis Sotelo-Castro – a native Colombian and Lecturer in Applied Performance at UEL – worked in collaboration with lecturer Ana Lopes as translator, and with musician and community song-writer Helen L. Reddington to turn the cleaners’ concerns into a song in English, which they then were meant to perform live for the entire university. Due to the difficulties for the cleaners in finding a spare shared time to rehearse regularly, the live performance never took place, yet this video clip documenting the process went viral. Interestingly, it was the public space of Youtube which achieved the radical effect that the live performance was intended to achieve. As more and more people saw it, the University Senior Management Team became the focus of increased pressure to address the concerns that the cleaners and the LLW team had been voicing for months. Without a doubt, The Cleaners’ Voice clip, which was made in collaboration with video artist Kypros Kyprianou , contributed a great deal in making the University change the contractor and implement the LLW for its cleaning staff from 2011 onwards.
Rajni Shah Projects, Glorious
Glorious was a project that began with meetings between strangers in public spaces – markets, cafes, libraries, shopping centres – and culminated, after several months, in a show: a kind of quiet musical written and performed by artists from Rajni Shah Projects as well as musicians and passers-by we’d met in the town or city where we were in residence. When the project drew to a close, we wanted to create a series of events that would function as a kind of catalyst for thinking around engaged practices. The symposium Beyond Glorious was a space which was structured around many of the questions we had encountered as a company in the making and touring of Glorious; perhaps, above all, the question of how to make a piece of work that is asking difficult, awkward questions whilst remaining unwaveringly kind and accessible. At the opening of the Beyond Glorious symposium, we screened two films that had been created, along with a series of critical and narrative writings, in response to the project (these films and writing are collected in the publication Dear Stranger, I love you). The film you see here is a music video set to one of the early Glorious songs, and was created by filmmaker Lucy Cash and some of the people we met during the Lancaster/Morecambe version of the show.
When you work on a project like Glorious – whether you’re part of the core team, or a participant for a particular edition of the show, there are many moments on the way to the performance night which become, in some invisible way, part of the fabric of that performance. These moments are about uncovering, or perhaps discovering, relationships: relationships between a particular group of people and the words they have to say; between a particular place and time; between the notes in the music and the voices that are singing it. It’s almost impossible to ‘capture’ these moments because they are often transitions – one thing or state, becoming another. But in making ‘Nine Actions’ we set out to see what it might be possible to discern of these relationships and to create little performances for the camera which in some way reflected this process of becoming, during the making of the show in Lancaster in December 2012.