Good Nature (Joy Dances) Part 3
Lockdown, Motherhood and the Arts Industry
No where was our lack of local sustainable arts practice more evident then during our Pandemic Lockdowns.
Let’s think about this idea ‘sustainability’. To sustain something means you are connected to it. A plant sustains itself from drawing water from the soil, warmth from the sun. A child is sustained through regular nurturing contact with an adult with his/her best interests at heart and resources to hand. What is needed for a living thing to survive and thrive is a witness, and tools to hand to make things happen that are needed in the amorphous cloud of time.
The arts community is built for itself. It is sustained through its training mechanisms and it’s networks. It is not rooted in place, but in hierarchies and relationships to other hierarchies. Time is set by the rapid churn of funding applications (and those with the time economy and funding-language speak to apply for them in the first place) which are (largely) short terms as artists are challenged to come up with new ideas with every sheet of paper submitted. Also arts industry proponents need to evidence connections to certain ideologies which may not be relevant in terms of setting things in place. This factory model of arts development cannot address the actual needs of the people it purports to serve. I would argue there is no service within the remit at all. It is not based around ideas of nurture or growth - which are essential in the terms of sustainability but how the project is perceived, more often then not framed by social media. It is not based on physical reality but ideological drives.
It therefore should come as no surprise that there was a striking lack of action or bravery within our broader communities as the arts communities (existing as they do with one another only) are not planted in place but floating in their own clouds of preaching ideas and ideologies promulgated within their own green houses, not service in the places they live.
When lockdown first happened and I began to hear of the local suffering - of children self harming, of suicide ideation, of domestic violence…. and I thought this is not right, not right for us to be locked up like this. On an evolutionary basis we are doing something quite significant. In Barbara’s Ehrenreich book ‘Dancing in the Streets - a History of Collective Joy’ she outlines quite clearly the evolutionary benefit of shared dancing for it’s own sake, of community gathering en masse. We are social creatures. All of the very complex workings that take place on evolutionary and developmental levels when we gather are immense. To stop that is damaging beyond belief. We are now witness to that aftermath.
In the face of this awareness (of widespread isolation and suffering locally) I started to do costumed outdoor dancing. It was absurd, the dancing Christmas tree, Where’s Wally, The Disco Chicken, the Dancing Lemon…. bouncing around the streets in wild abandon. But it worked. People, locally, came to look forward to it. To ask for it. And even, off the back of it, to ask for other forms of dance for themselves and their friends.
At the time, as I boogied around and saw this sea change, the positive effect it was having- I thought ‘surely there will be more independent action from artists and arts organisations, grassroots, on the fly *happenings*’. But it was not to happen, and now I can see it couldn’t. Our industries are so far removed from the living of most people such action would have been tantamount to having a cactus thrive in a rainforest. The arts eco systems have become dispirit from the majority of society, preaching *at* them rather then developing from and within as part of communities.
Conversely I have been rooted here, creating mad free fun moments and integrated into this community of Pollokshields for nearly two decades. From the Pollokshields Faerie in 2007 right up to the Disco Lemon in 2022.
When everyone else retreated to their living rooms and sofas and screens, I was still talking to people out on the streets. I heard all the stories, all the secrets all the worries hopes fears - a bit of everything. I could see the direction of travel and what was needed, and within that context develop something with what I had to offer.
People needed joy. They still need joy. I think the arts world forgets that. How precious and special it is to be able to draw people together in storytelling and dance. To engage and lift, to give people a break. Inspiration comes from the latin ‘I breathe’, and we were all holding our breath in those months - to a certain extent I still think we are. To provide inspiration is to provide space for breath - life- hope.
I was at a conference at Scottish Ballet on Children, Mental Health and Dance in June 2022. They are my neighbours, though they have had no engagement with the local community in the time they have been based here. I had to laugh because despite being a breath away from lockdowns, they didn’t mention that, or poverty once. The only nod to this was their talks on the prison work they are doing. I had to laugh. Don’t you know, you have to be *that* poor to get Scottish Ballet’s attention.
One session I went to spoke of the rising mental health issues amongst dancers, and I thought - how can this be true have they so lost sight and connection to what got them there in the first place. It seems so. So caught up in the web of social justice ideology, they have forgotten just to dance, for the sake of it.
The following month my son went to a summer camp for Musical Theatre at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, my alma mater. He was lucky to get ones of the James McEvoy (who was there when I was)/Agnes Allan bursaries to cover his costs. I was excited having just gone to the Lion King with my son’s school paid for by my Christmas tree funds. I thought this is going to be brilliant. The fun of musical theatre, the drama, the dancing, the expression!! I was sorely disappointed. They were more interested in pronouns and promulgating a message of #bekind through the metaphor of tik tok then opening kids up to the marvellous, exciting and fun aspects of… musical theatre.
The arts world has forgotten it’s gift and it’s responsibility. We forget what got us, as artists, here in the first place. Any artist reading this, remember what caught you. For me it was the lavender leotard and silk scarf floating about on the streets of my Roxborough neighbourhood, it was the freedom of dance. We forget and our collective forgetfulnesses damages children.
Maybe it’s because I remember those early days of being a kid and needing to ‘find a way out and through’ the urban challenges I have always advocated for children’s creativity and expression.
Subsequently working with children the devastation wrought in this lockdown time, for the first time in history we stopped the dance. We traumatised kids. There were options but they were not enacted. ‘Mental health’ was bandied about like a currency- in a similar way to ‘inclusivity’. Without much tangible action. Activists picked up on other causes, they wore badges, they waved flags, they posted signs in their windows. And children suffered. In particular poor children.
I ran into a former tutor from the Royal Conservatoire recently. We talked about current students, graduates and ‘the industry’. We spoke about working and how not enough care or attention is given to the idea of ‘the hustle’. Maybe this is my early background, maybe this is my American side, but the drive ‘to make something happen’ is ingrained in me. Be in my backyard shows, or the times I have taken side jobs as a housecleaner or typist to earn pennies so could continue making work, but I could not allow myself to stop. By all metrics I should have stopped being an artist long ago, I am a solo Mum, low income, little to no connections or support from arts infrastructure as it is inaccessible to me…. and yet here I am…making.
My work has been enabled by an innate sense of ‘making do’ of seeing what is in front of me and creating. Of being present, in my community and my own life. And many who are also left behind by “THE Arts World” have benefitted.
I do think people wait for permission to act, be it in funding applications or the blessing of a venue or arts organisation. And artists are disempowered in this because this, in and of itself, involves a disconnect to the actual suffering of the world, and their communities.
In a (2012?) survey done by Creative Scotland they found the number one barrier to continuing in arts practice was motherhood.
Nothing grounds you like being a mother. And this should not be a bad thing, this should not be a debilitating thing but it is. Because our systems are not grounded and women have to be (and statistically are the ones who are doing the labour).
The family is seen as wallpaper. As long as we do not acknowledge the really important role families play in the sustaining of our societies there will be no inclusivity no matter what badge you wear. that is recognising the time commitment and structure that families (and mothers) operate in to keep their kids alive and to thrive and function and grow into decent adults.
And whilst conversations have shifted around this issue, the actions taken more often than not have not been radical enough to allow for women from different economic backgrounds to participate. Mostly because the approaches offered do not take into account the needs of children. Take my son. At nearly 10 he needs to be doing sport, and being active with his peers. He has a structure and stability in his life which needs to be maintained. He doesn’t need a creche and it would not benefit him to ‘hang out’ whilst I work. And more often then not what is offered only benefits the more financially well off. Families are not valued in our society in general, the arts world is no different.
In Marilyn Waring’s seminal book ‘If Women Counted’ she challenged the prevailing notion of ‘success’ as was counted via the GDP. In this model domestic labour was viewed as ‘non-productive’. She outlines quite coherently how this is flawed as ‘women’s work’ has and does prop up society. Through this insight she developed another metric of measuring success in societies via the lens of time.
For a me, and many mothers, in particular single ones, time is our most valuable commodity. My multi tasking of survival, including paying work, nurturing my child and managing a household leaves little room for else. As mentioned in previous post ‘Deeming Dreaming’ I liken this to having lots of balls. When one has limited resources one has to juggle all the balls, there is no room for anything else. When one has other people or resources to work with (financial or otherwise) the management of balls (can) become a pleasurable game.
I am reminded of Mother and Artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles whose iconic and service based arts work as ‘Artist in Residence for the New York Department of Sanitation’ (1979-present) makes the link between motherhood and the unrecognised labour society benefits from. When Mierle became a Mother decades ago the invisibility of what she terms ‘maintenance work’ hit home. She drew a parallel between her experience and all the unrecognised low and no paid labour in society that is not given it’s merit due.
43 years on and activism still ignores the mundane and everyday which keeps society flourishing. In the meantime these are necessities that must be done and some, in particular poor mothers, can do no more. How then do we serve a population that is not in the game but merely (and just barely) juggling?
What is Public Art?
In a review by Paul English of my ‘Four Corners’ project for Dance International 2019, he stated that I was ‘part of the civic architecture of Glasgow’. Shouldn’t that be the goal of more artists, to be so integrated into the spaces we embody people think of you as a living work of sculpture owned by the communities they embody?
In Scotland I have been called ‘Glasgow’s Morning Dancer’, ‘The Princess of the Clyde’, ‘The Broomielaw Dancing Queen’, ‘Our Dancing Lady’, ‘The Pollokshields Dancer’, and ‘Oor Kate’. I like to count myself as part of the Glasgow tradition of name and re-name public infrastructure. We also have the ‘Squiggly Bridge’, ‘The Squinty Bridge’ and ‘Boaty McBoatface’. There is an affection and an ownership that comes with these, that is not easily achieved or won. I do not take that for granted.
I bring us back to the concept of time. What has allowed these relationships and nicknames to manifest is the anchoring myself in place over a space of time. If we consider any of the ‘established’ dance forms this is ultimately how they were seeded.
When I studied Kahlbelia dance in Rajasthan and Odissi in Orissa, India as well as Flamenco in Andalusia, Spain I observe quite clearly that whilst they were dances with a long tradition they were also living dances in what happened ‘off stage’ reflecting the environment and people they engaged with. There was a powerful interface between formal and informal which kept the dance alive over a space of hundreds of years. What’s more because they were integrated into society engagement could be for minutes or hours. They became part of the everyday.
I can see a parallel in my own work as when I am established on the River front or street corner people can observe or dance for minutes or hours, in one day or over weeks or months. The dance is informed by the environment: the tarmac, the wind, the sky, as well as the passing cars and pedestrians.
What kind of dance is it? My dance. Will it be formalised? Who knows. Have people *just danced* forever? Cave paintings seems to suggest so.
Does the integration of this practice create dance in the community? 100%.
In November 2021 I received a week long residency to explore my practice at Jupiter Artland with Dance Base Nature Nurture Residency. Having grown up in the urban area of Philadelphia and established my public dance practice in the urban space of Glasgow. I was excited and keen to see how my process of working would interface with the semi-rural and landscaped setting over one week.
(note: In addition this was my longest time away from my son since his birth 9 years before (previously only 2 nights) and took an immense amount of planning and favour-asking to get him cared for properly which must be mentioned in the context of time/invisible labour and everything written about so far. It also was the most time I had to myself in nine years).
It felt perfectly luxurious to not be on the domestic train of meal planning and making, school pick up and general minutae.
Whilst the (Scottish) weather and sky was familiar settling into an unpopulated space was different. At home, I wear earphones whilst doing my public dancing- as one must have the innate sense to respect others space who might be passing in populated cities. At Jupiter Artland there was only ever ground crew, and birds. But, in the tradition of Mierle Laderman Ukeles, I quite liked that to. That the individuals who tend the landscape, unseen and under-appreciated in their contribution to the landscaped beauty, were the only witness my shenanigans. Over the week I settled into the space starting with what was familiar and allowing the sense of play and the familiar to come into the fore.
I started the week with headphones, and ended up just engaging with the sounds of the landscape and making my own noises. I was like a child in a state of play which I captured on my phone and edited into films (only using my phone). This fed into my existing practice. Work with what is possible and work efficiently as well as film what it felt like, not what it looked like. (as inspired by initial Nike advertisement filming).
I would show up at sunrise everyday, at a chosen location and allow the landscape, the art works and the weather to determine my movement and path. The sound of the wind through the reeds, the music of my feet over the different terrain and paths. And sometimes afterwards I would see surprises in the filming I gathered- like a large heart shaped cloud above my head, sun shining through the trees, and birds swooping at a particular point. Things which could not be planned or orchestrated.
In the end I made 5 films over 5 days, with one day of reflection in the middle.
A pal told me (on seeing the films) “They are good natured, so you”. To be good in nature, in one’s nature is the ultimate opportunity and gift. It gave me pause (a year long pause as evidenced by this three part bit of writing) to reflect on my own practice as an artist and to pull together the many creative, intellectual and personal meanderings that led me to that point.
And I thought that was the best compliment anyone could give me so renamed them such.
They exorcise all the beauty of my childhood, the play, the joy, the costumes matched with this local practice.
They are in fact: Good Natured.