IBT Provocation: How can Live Art Unfuck the World

Hello, my name is Selina Thompson, I am a performance artist, I live in Birmingham.

I think it’s probably important for me to begin with a disclaimer –

I forgot to do my presentation

I really hate doing provocations

I hate being asked a question like, how can live art unfuck the world.

But more than this

I hate my inability to answer a question like ‘how can live art unfuck the world’

We were asked two questions for this provocation – what does the world look like from where we are? What are our plans for the future?

So I tried to think about how the world looks from the various places where I live and exist, as a person, rather than as an artist.

When I am in my home
Imagine I’ve done my presentation. You are looking at a picture of a King Sized Bed with Red, unmade sheets from Wilkinsons.

It is my bed and I am in it reading Johanna Hedva’s Sick Woman Theory, which you can find online. Her theory “that most modes of political protest are internalized, lived, embodied, suffering, and no doubt invisible… that the body and mind are sensitive and reactive to regimes of oppression – particularly our current regime of neoliberal, white-supremacist, imperial-capitalist, cis-hetero-patriarchy. That it is that all of our bodies and minds carry the historical trauma of this, that it is the world itself that is making and keeping us sick.” Is something I read and cry about on a regular basis. The depression is not getting better, it refuses to be fixed. If anything, it is getting worse.

I think the work I do, makes it worst. I think it is killing me. It is also one of my strongest motivations to live. This paradox immobilises me totally.

I made a promise to myself, very recently, that I would not kill myself, whatever happened. Closing that option off to myself makes me feel a bit sick.

But In the future, I’ll stick to it. I will try.

When I am on whatsapp
You are looking at a screenshot of whatsapp on my laptop. Open, 9 conversations – all with women, all with… mental health things. Hedva’s sick women. We bear witness to days when we get out of bed and days when we don’t, to pulling the car over to cry, to the world falling apart on public transport etc. etc. Donald Trump elicits panic, so does an inability to pay the rent – there are the logistics of getting to a protest running next to breaking not one, not two, but tree hacksaws replacing a toilet seat. Someone’s heart is broken by a man, and they’re pulling out of gigs because of the Muslim Ban.

Personal and political, fluctuating in and out. I feel like one should have stopped.

I’m in a conversation with another artist about work she is developing. It’s about women and solitude, radical loneliness, the links between being a recluse and suicide. She says, that sometimes she thinks she would happily be a recluse, as long as there were people to bear witness to her doing so. I feel sometimes that that is what these whatsapp conversations are.

In the future, we will continue to have them, we will continue to keep each other alive, signalling from bed to bed. We will try.

When I open twitter/facebook/Instagram
So If I wasn’t so lazy, god knows what this slide would be. I imagine it would be a picture that was both very funny and on the edge of a particularly violent panic attack.

I have nothing clever to say about these platforms. Other than that I would not be the person I am without them, and the people that populate them signposting me to my education, or educating me themselves. I will be grateful to them till the day I die.

In the future, I will continue to pass along what I learn, and I will continue to believe that it can make a difference, and I will try to embody that. I will continue to do that for as long as it feels safe. It increasingly does not feel safe. I suppose that in the future I will have to learn how to make it safe. I will have to try.

When I look out of the window, go for a walk.
You’re looking at a picture of my street. I live in an area with a big Punjabi community, big Eritrean and Ethiopian communities, hardly any white people. I love it there. We are between a secondary and primary school, so there are kids everywhere, all the time, making all the noise, skiving school, and buying weed from Masood who camps out over the road in his car.

At the bottom of the street there is an advert for the territorial army. It shows six young white people in a desert somewhere, relaxing and laughing with the words ‘belong somewhere’ written all over it. It is jarring.

We are in the doctors.

Before an appointment we are sent a letter telling us how much money a missed appointment costs the NHS.

The doctor is paralysed by how little she can actually offer to someone who is suicidal

A hospital that used to serve its patients in an hour now keeps my mum waiting on a trolley in a corridor for 8 hours.

I don’t really complain though. I’m terrified that by the time I am my mum and dad’s age it will no longer exist.

In the future… god knows. God knows.

When I am at my mum and dads
If it wasn’t for the fact that my mum hates me taking pictures in their house, this would be a pic of my mum and dad’s flat and two short, slim, beatiful black people in their late 50s.

When I ask my mum how to unfuck the world, she panics. She associates questions like this with a breakdown. I tell her I’m not having a breakdown, I’m doing work. She says it’s the same thing. My dad says we can’t.

When I was little, we watched a film together, that began with the words ‘It’s after the end of the world, don’t you know that yet?” said over and over again. ‘It’s after the end of the world, don’t you know that yet?’ I hear this everywhere I go.

In the future, I will not refer to the apocalypse as something approaching, or accelerating. The end of the world is always happening somewhere, sometime, for someone. And We are always complicit in it, whether we feel it or not.

WHEN I TRY TO MAKE ART

I also feel like I might not be able to make art much longer. Maybe for a big political reason. Maybe for a small, personal reason. Maybe for a reason somewhere between the two.

When I was asked to do this provocation I said yes, because I love and care about this festival, and wanted to support it – and for all my flippancy and silliness – I did really, really try to write it in advance, but felt endlessly blocked by a something.

A something that didn’t want to talk about art! At all! Because how can live art unfuck the world when it replicates and reproduces so many of the systems and cultures and habits and patterns that have made the world fucked? I’m sick of live art. It can fuck off.

At the same time, in what universe would it be fair for me to stand in front of a room full of people who are genuinely doing their best, often near killing themselves to make stuff happen, and say that?

But it is where I find myself. If you want to fix and change something, you have to start with where you are complicit, where you are up close, personal and intimate with it… what is the relationship that live art and live artists have to the world? Is Live Art and Art in general – really, truly within the world in a tangible way or is it only there when it wants something – validation or funding or an audience or something else? Is the saviour complex that the arts often have a part of the problem? How can live art unfuck the world when it feels so far away from the things that make up my life – my body and health, the NHS, the community I live in, and the people I love? Do I want live art to unfuck the world, or do I want live art to fuck off?

Probably both. And neither. I am angry because so many artists feel… so very distant from my street, my local GPs, my mum and dad’s house, and even my friendship group. And if they feel that distant, how can they hope to have an impact there? How can I hope to have an impact there?

However

The last slide, if there were one, would be a picture of the top of a wooden table, to protect the people who this picture could be of. I have been going to meetings, because I want to try to ‘organise’ whatever the fuck that means, and because Birmingham is my home, deep within my bones. And this means that I feel

Responsible for it
Like I have agency, autonomy and power to make it a better place
I use to feel like this about live art.

And I believe I still could.

And maybe, just maybe, I am angry, because I still do.

The meetings are slow, frustrating – and I feel lost. But I will keep going, because… I think that feeling is probably the right one, if you are trying to make things happen in a way that is different, in a way without hierarchy.

In the future I will keep trying. In art. In all the places above. With focus and with purpose.

I will keep trying.