I want to talk about small spaces. I want to zoom in to the subtle, the nuanced, the impossibly small and complicated. I want to touch how much volume there is in these present yet unavailable to the naked eye spaces.
I have performed O since 2012. I will perform it many more times this year and in years to come. O is the first time I have physically reclaimed the spaces and permissions that have been denied me since I first heard a racist comment.
There is a section in O where Jamila Johnson-Small and I stand in colourful bob wigs with the Primark tag left in, thongs which are either leopard print with a small diamante bow or pink with lace, and black boots. During this moment, we each ask 2-3 audience members to paint us black. As mixed race women, the ask is a risk for both audience and ourselves. Whenever we ask this of the audience, there is a palpable sense of asking, ‘what are we going to be responsible for creating together?’
The ask is understandably met with hesitancy, discomfort, care and obligation. Audiences vary in the amount of paint they apply and where the paint is applied.
On 9th December 2015 whilst performing this section, my breasts were groped, paint was flicked all over me, fingers ran beneath the curves of my flesh and my nipples were repeatedly poked. The touch was one of entitled menace and creative delight on the part of the audience member. This assault was carried out by a white man with white hair and a sing song voice.
At first I smiled. A perverse tool I use to disassociate from traumatic experiences and threats.
I got a grip on myself and re-entered my body and ran through exactly what was happening.
I grew very afraid for a moment and then I froze. Another tool I use to disassociate from traumatic experiences and threats.
I was not able to protect myself.
Thankfully Jamila stepped in.
I have dedicated 10 years to performing. The work I do is important. The personal political and global politics are great fuel for me. My relationship to dance has empowered and shifted my relationship to my body and to myself. Throughout family dramas, early sexual assault, broken hearts, betrayals, emotional manipulations, anger at hidden histories, dismay at systematic oppressions, and the exhaustion of hustling for a voice, a space, a sense of wellness that is always balanced with the odds stacked against the ‘othered’ – I have been able to find and shape a place for myself in dance. And where I haven’t yet found the space, I feel supported and driven enough to negotiate and experiment.
Importantly, this space has felt safe(ish) and it feels more or less like my own. I have built connections with many communities and been mindful of which situations to present my work in. I have learnt from exploitative situations and bent my path accordingly: using my voice, using my body, using my friendship.
Jamila and I have worked full-time on a collaboration that seeks to give us agency and a certain amount of compositional control both on stage in our various performances and off stage as we negotiate with partners or write applications. It is an agency and control that I do not have in my everyday, walking down the street, life. It is rare and I value it enormously and get a lot of confidence from these actions
On the night of 9th December, all this belief and work and experience was futile. All this was dust and I was a child. My breasts were putty playthings. I was less than a canvas, less than an art object. I was somebody’s frighteningly still and passive point of nothingness to fill with their own pleasure.
That night, the personal cost of my work felt too great.
Having a craft and practice as a choreographer and performer has felt like the one space I somehow enjoy being in. I enjoy the fight of it, the way I think in it, the challenges and the unpredictability of it. In that way, the boundary around this space is completely precious to me.
Zooming in from that space, the small spaces of contract and consent between audience and performer are also precious. I am watched. You watch and are also seen. You pay money and I am paid. Our relationship is a dynamic and live one. Certain permissions are given. At other times, provocations enter the space. My exposure invites your exposure, my discomfort meets your own.
I consented to be touched whilst naked. I opened a consensual space but within that space there is a small space which does not hold consent. A space that is surrounded by a precious boundary, one which on so many occasions is flexible, up for academic debate and negotiable. But I did not consent to this kind of passing of that intimate boundary.
Go unwanted into the small space beyond this boundary and everything blows apart and everything is damaged. I did not ask or agree to unwanted sexual contact.
And yet, in the days afterwards, my brain like the dumb culturally ingrained hunk of meat that it is, tempts me with the narrative of I was asking for it…I put myself there.
This space right here is an open letter to contemporary dance and live art performance to ask how and what next? Because when it comes down to it, I feel ruined and ashamed of my silence. I cannot utter a word. Performance, my only remaining boundary was completely violated in front of laughing (titilated or uncomfortable) people. All complicit.
Something is so very wrong with all of us.
My last shred of naivety has been painfully and shockingly stripped away. Now I feel like giving the whole thing up. I am very embarrassed and overwhelmed with sadness.
Since this my breasts haven’t felt like mine.
Since this I have tried hard to stay present in the loving touch of my boyfriend.
Since this I have wanted to book myself into surgery to have my breasts removed.
Since this I have wanted to cut my breasts off myself.
Since this I have been lost.
Since this, the magnitude of small spaces floors me.
Human being’s callousness and disregard for one another’s boundaries has been destroying me since longer than I care to detail, since all the needless wars, since migration, since Columbus, since the night of December 9th in a show I love.
People are animals. Rolling in shit. Don’t fucking touch me. At an industry party, in a show, in the street, on the tube. Don’t fucking touch me. In bed, via an email, in a club, at a festival.
The woman who was also painting me while the assault was happening, exclaimed at one point “Oh this is really fun”.
8th January 2016