God, guys! I’m actually going to try and write something and be serious and coherent the whole way through, and not just dick about. I hate doing that. But I need to.
I’m in Edinburgh at the moment, with two fold intention. The first is to perform my show, Chewing the Fat, and to do standard Edinburgh stuff – look at everybody elses work, talk with people about work, sort of suss out what the craic is, what the little microcosm of an industry I’m in is up to. And the second is to begin the gentle, complex thinking needed for my next show. It’s called As Wide And As Deep As The Sea. It’s about Black British Identity. It’s about how it’s shaped and formed, and about its decreasing visibility. It’s about my people, I guess.
“sometimes the beauty of my people is so thick and intricate. i spend days trying to undo my eyes so i can sleep.” ― Nayyirah Waheed.
As a part of that thinking, I went to see Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B, which is a part of the EIF this year. I want to write my experience, and my thoughts of going, and experiencing this piece of work. This is not a review – because reviews require some measure of composure, objectivity and fairness, which I have no interest in applying in this case. And I think it’s icky when artists review other artists work. But I’m reading a lot of shit (yeh, I swore. Not a review!) about this particular piece of work, and I’m sick of it. So here’s where I am.
1. Me and my producer read about Exhibit B. We are looking to see as much work on race as we can find at the Fringe between us. This work is fanfared. It is expensive. It has been made by a white man, with an all black cast. This disturbs me a little, if I am honest – BUT I don’t think this disturbance is coming from a place I want to indulge. I am desperate to find a way of opening dialogue, and I think this attitude closes it down. So I resolve to go. Coincidentally, Emma and I go on the same day.
2. AT EIF, Exhibit B takes place in the Playfair Library Hall. Edinburgh is full of stunningly beautiful buildings, and streets that make you want to sing songs from my fair lady – to an extent that you sort of block them out as white noise. Having to seek out and come to this building stops you blocking it out. It’s beautiful. Old Stone, Immaculately Kept Lawn, Pillars, Coats of Arms… it is wealth, and that sort of weird dignified pageantry that you get at old British universities. It’s beautiful. It is tradition. We all know what that tradition is steeped in. We line up, and are told that from the moment we enter, there will be silence. No talking. People ignore this instruction.
3. If you are interested, the ethnic breakdown of the audience on the day I go – me and one other black man, an asian family (mother, father, child) and everybody else is white. This is standard Edinburgh fare. Perhaps slightly more diverse than usual for an audience of about 20.
4. We enter a waiting space. There are chairs, which we sit in. The artist in me loves the theatricality of this bit actually (damn, I slipped into review..) BUT what is important here, is what you see. It’s that wealth and tradition again. We are surrounded by images, of old white men. Massive portraits, hung everywhere you look. We see their profiles. They are painted in oils. These men have chosen how they will be remembered, and they have been remembered as human beings. Powerful human beings, surrounded by books, clocks, scrolls – signifiers of intelligence, dignity. As we walk up the stairs, up the red carpet, that is who watches over us.
5. I sit closest to the door, so that if I need to get out, I can.
6. Brett Bailey has written a programme. It is an odd document. He presents his body of work – which has ‘always aimed to explode stereotypes of racial or cultural Otherness, not to reinforce them’ as being ‘antecedents’ of the zoos and exotic spectacles of days gone past. He talks of being ‘fascinated’ by museum plaster casts of ‘indigenous bushmen’ as a child. He outlines, very clearly his intention:
‘To scratch through conveniently forgotten archives of colonial history – forgotten by those who once held the colonies, that is – and to give iconic shape to some of the many ways in which Western Powers have dehumnaized those that they have sought to plunder, to control, to exploit and to exclude. To dramatize the violence of a system that has debased the people on both sides of the glass of the display cases that it has erected’
5. I enter the Exhibit. I am the last to go upstairs, which I am relieved about. To begin with, I am overwhelmed by the pain of it. You are initially confronted by two people – a man, a woman. They are presented as though they are in a museum. They stand beside skulls, wax works of animals. They are both topless, and they look vulnerable. The look exposed. It hurts my heart to see them presented like that. And for a while, I cannot look at them and meet their eyes. I am hurt by it, hurt so bad. And that pain continues. Little clusters of people are stood around certain exhibitions… and it makes my body fizz with rage to see the cool calm, specatorship of it. The ‘we are looking at art’ faces.
One man is sat down, sucking the end his glasses, looking at three disembodied heads singing a lament.
The asian man puts his arm around his daughter – she is upset, and they leave.
Dotted throughout the exhibition are wooden plinths, with gold plaques, and on top of them, white marble busts of the head and shoulders of white men. There are security guards. They are all white too.
I cannot see the black man who was in the audience. Maybe he left before I got into the space.
6. But the longer I walk around the Exhibit, the less ‘affected’ I am by it, and the more irritated and angered I am. What is this piece FOR? Seeing black people, seeing African people – presented as bodies, rather than people: this is nothing new. Seeing those Black Bodies suffering, presented in unbearable pain and terror, this is NOTHING NEW. Black women as sex objects waiting to be raped, as anatomical specimens to be examined, as Mammys, as animals, seeing black men disembodied or presented as violent and frightening, in cages, with their bodies maimed, or without bodies at all, as four disembodied heads sing at the bottom of the exhibition – a mournful lament, of course, so that the whole space reeks of pity and shame and grief – Seeing black history presented as though it began and will end with Colonialism – i.e. when white people come into the picture, is NOTHING NEW. It is not radical, it does not challenge me – actually, it doesn’t challenge anyone really, because it feeds into a cultural narrative that is all too common. One in which pain and persecution is the only way in which we can understand the experience of blackness, one in which we fetishize the black experience as abject, and I am so done. So done.
7. Having discovered how done I am, I begin to look at the models, in their eyes, dead on. Because I wish to know what this piece has for me. If I am not someone who can be made to feel guilty by this work, what does it have to say? Nothing. I find that the performers cannot meet my gaze. They look at me – and their gazes confront – and I look right back. Their eyes drop. Perhaps I am too angry, and my anger is accusatory. I don’t care. I move about the space angrily. I look at it all, I read it all. I am angry. It is lazy, it is indulgent – it reproduces without commentary, and nothing about it seems to stimulate discussion, or dialogue, epitomised by the fact that talking is banned, forbidden in the space. What about this work, is opening nosubhealth.com things up? What is it bringing to light, how is it getting us to talk, to make change, and make the world a better place?
8. Brett Bailey is in the space. It is the first day of the exhibition, so I guess this is fair. Most people there won’t recognise him, I suspect, because they do not stalk people on the internet as hard as I do. He lingers around the exhibition, and watches our reactions. He feels like a voyeur, in that space, his space, oddly. When I leave the exhibition, I glimpse him sat in the disabled toilet watching people’s faces as they leave. It occurs to me that a lot of this exhibition is about him, and his guilt. I feel like I ought to confront him. I don’t.
9. We go through two rooms before we leave. The first is filled with little plaques from each of the performers, explaining why they chose to be in the work. I hate it. It feels like the artistic equivalent of somebody saying they can’t be racist because they have a black friend. It also negates the fact that they are used simply as bodies within the work. They stand still. Say nothing. Their words and thoughts are excluded from the work, so that Brett Bailey can exorcise whatever demon it is that he is battling. In the final room, people are invited to write down how the work has made them feel. I am sickened by the premise of this – it feels like a giant group wank, everybody saying how powerful and important it is, and thanking Brett Bailey for making it. Eurgh. The rage is sort of clouding my eyes a bit, so I leave.
10. I call Emma, ask how she is. She tells me she feels full of grief and of guilt. We talk a little – me angry, she, still processing. Then she goes into her next show.
11. I talk with someone else about it. I tell them I think the work is shit. They tell me ‘I’m angry though, and that that is a response, a potent and important one’. I wonder what sort of wonderland this person lives in, where they think that a black person being angry about the atrocities that have been committed to their ancestors is a shiny new feeling at the age of 24.
12. I have a drunken (extremely) conversation with another artist – who I trust – about it that night. I can’t really remember what she says, but I feel a bit better afterwards. She questions whether other people – people who are not me, need to see that work, and need to feel guilty… she just ponders it, doesn’t say it’s an answer. I’m not sure. I don’t think those images need seeing in that way, and I don’t feel that presenting those images asks questions – the work feels like a blunt object, unseeing, concussing, with no nuance or subtlety. She signposts me to other works – Süßer Duft which I love (also by a white man).
13. Throughout my time in Edinburgh, I have been having conversations with an artist here who’s work touches on race (though it’s not really about that), which I struggled with. Literally ran from the space in tears at the end, and then woke up the next day, still in tears about it. He instigated a conversat”ion with me about how I felt about it. He was fair, and he listened. It is a work I would like to see again. It is a work, that still bounces around in my head – words from it, images from it. It hurt – but it challenged. It has changed my thinking, in some small, subtle way. I want to wrestle with the questions that piece asks, and come to peace with it. I am firm believer that conversations about race will always be painful in the world we live in. This is what makes them so urgent and so necessary.
14. There is a guardian piece about the work – we are told it is controversial (this word makes me want to spit), There is this:
“The only problem is that the young black performers, cast locally at every stop along the tour, aren’t quite getting it. “How do you know we are not entertaining people the same way the human zoos did?” asks one. “How can you be sure that it’s not just white people curious about seeing black people?” adds another. As the temperature in the room begins to rise, the group cries out in unison: “How is this different?””
The tone of this journalist infuritates me – ‘aren’t quite getting it?’ Get Out.
“Bailey seems to relish the entire spectrum of reaction: “I’m creating a journey that’s embracing and immersive, in which you can be delighted and disturbed, but I’d like you to be disturbed more than anything.””
“All the while, Bailey is an uneasy, almost abrasive presence, making unhelpful comments about the revealing nature of the costumes and spouting the n-word provocatively in his clipped South African intonation.”
Eurgh. It’s a repulsive article. http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/aug/11/-sp-exhibit-b-human-zoo-edinburgh-festivals-most-controversial You read it, you might find something in it that is useful.
I’m so exhausted by the whole thing – I’m going to stop writing now, which isn’t a particularly strong conclusion, or powerful way to finish. But fuck it, I don’t care, have my exhaustion, and my frustration, with work like this. With the way it is presented and the way people talk about it, and the relentlessness of it. I’m sick of it. I. AM. DONE.
And I’m going to be the change I want to see in the world and make something BETTER. Because this is bullshit.