Decamp/Recamp

DECAMP/ReCAMP is an active research and co-learning project on how to embed care activism and racial justice within arts institutions.

The project (taking place over a mix of ten un/facilitated sessions) aims to listen deeply and pay attention to the existing harms and exclusions experienced by artists/artworkers of colour present in current organizational practices, using CAMP as a case study. The project will engage CAMP artists of colour and current CAMP leadership who are committed to doing personal and care work to continually dismantle racism (unconscious or explicit) in the arts and cultural sector.

At its conclusion, the project will confer with Plymouth Culture to consider how to share what was learned with the arts and cultural sector in Devon and Cornwall.

Project Aims
Understand how CAMP (and other arts institutions) may be a less harmful and less exclusive space for the continued engagement of artists of colour. Strategies may be identified for de-exclusion but more importantly, we seek a continued, live conversation with a commitment to life-long work of dismantling racism in the arts.

Research Resources and Quoted Material
In the first meeting, participants got to be together in a space for the first time, and light facilitation was offered by Working Group members. We used a number of different short actions and strategies to learn about each other, to be clear about how we would work together. Together, we drafted working documents that described our Goals for the Project, and an Agreement including intentions regarding confidentiality and how we would behave toward and with each other.

The members of the Working Group also read aloud (in chorus) some short passages they had selected from resources texts that contributed to thinking and development of the project.

These were Jemma Desai’s ‘This Work Isn’t For Us’ 

Here is a selection of the pieces we read:

Chorus 1
From Desai:

So if we are starting with a diversity narrative which begins with a statistic of low presence in institutional settings, then announcing a scheme to increase such presence becomes a hopeful act of change in itself. In the naming of the issue (the low numbers), providing a pro-active, seemingly impactful solution becomes a positive thing. This assumption of doing ‘good’ then leaves little room for an alternative reading or a more critical appraisal.

In this sense such schemes also inhabit the world of what Ahmed has called the “non-performative” where something does not do the thing that it appears it does.

Diversity narratives make hypervisible narratives of progress and happiness in the administrative side of the sector. Whilst pain is explored in art works and programming, often such pain is detached from the lived realities of the populations it seeks to ‘represent’. What is steadfastly ignored and silenced are the experiences of those that are struggling, do not progress, or choose to leave the industries that they enter.

What evidence is there that anything can realistically be demanded of this harmful system beyond survival? What evidence is there that those who have benefitted from us being grateful whilst they are entitled, brazen and arrogant can now care for us?

Everywhere cracks are appearing, in the arts, the media, the state, the higher education sector. Everywhere, these cracks are being hastily plastered over.
As Black people and those who stand with them burn with rage at decades of injustice, decades of white supremacy, white institutions and leaders say they are ready to ‘do the work’.

What is the work?

Is it us, who have been excluded, setting about winning the hearts and minds of those who have indifferently excluded for decades? Writing and consulting, colluding and becoming complicit in our own subjugation?
Is it asking those who have for decades been unable to read, to hear or to see, to now understand, that how we withhold or enact our understandings of one another, how we reflect and grow in the face of our interactions with one another, must be connected to wider politics and entrenched societal behaviours?

Chorus 2
from Desai:

policy inscribes ideas that whiteness is ‘neutral’ and ‘other’ is ‘additional’ or ‘diverse’, I want to think through how the very tools presented to address inequity actually embed institutional whiteness.

Writer and researcher Nora Samaran describes gaslighting as that feeling when you “keep having the same conversation over and over…when someone undermines your trust in your own perceptions and you feel crazy because your instincts and intuition and sometimes plain old perceptions are telling you one thing, and words from someone you trust are telling you something else”. Samaran describes the reality of someone who has been “told every day for their entire lives that their perceptions cannot be trusted — when in fact our perceptions are often bang on” resulting in “a systemic, pervasive, deeply psychologically harmful phenomenon, insanity by a thousand cuts.”

“What is the personal cost of the mismatch between narrative and reality when the work that we do, or even just the fact of our employment means that we become complicit in forms of “‘doing diversity’ and ‘promoting equality’ [that become] complicit with racism?”
– Ahmed, Sara & Hunter, Shona & Kilic, Sevgi & Swan, Elaine & Turner, Lewis. (2006). Race, Diversity and Leadership in the Learning and Skills Sector.

In class last week Aditi pointed out Audre Lorde died of cancer. And I thought how both Naseem and Reena died of cancer too and that’s the day I sent the last email to BFI and resigned from British Council, because at times this year when speaking back to whiteness I have felt this pain in my bones and body. If you refuse to be a collaborator, refuse to be complicit in their contortions and choose instead to tell the truth but in the wrong places, where it is not received, but can only be funneled back into you, where else can it settle but in your bones, your body, the soft tissues of your hope?

The ‘somatic norm’

I wonder if we just have to participate in a lie to advance basically? If you refuse the lie then you also don’t get to participate. Basically you either self segregate yourself from this industry by telling the truth or you participate and segregate yourself from the truth, do you know what I mean? There’s no, I don’t think there’s a way to survive like exist in this industry as your full self and seeing the full picture of what’s going on.

This paper doesn’t advocate for reform, as I had originally thought, but rather documents the personal costs of individuals attempting institutional reform, unsupported and unrecognised in cultural institutions that replicate the indifferent harms of the state.

Chorus 3
From Tan:

Institutional critique is a form of self care and a loving activism. I don’t mean love in a romantic or even parental sense. I am talking about the way that people, things, things & people, people & people, things & things matter to each other. This mattering is more than emotional but also a literal matter-ing.

Things matter because they are different, not because they are the same.
Things become matter because they are different and not the same.

Holding difference is a form of care.

To be able to see the translating and translatability of what matters to its matter-ing is the first step in caring.

What matters then is our attention to this continual change or transformation, and to accept that this flux, this intra-action, is the status quo, rather than to desire a sense of fixedness. Institution tends to be associated with fixedness and durability and dependable immovability. But wouldn’t it be better to consider institutions the stewards of change and of the methodologies of change instead?

Understanding change, understanding what can change, what needs to change and what will change is a form of care.

In institutions, whether the things that matter materialises or not tells me if the institution cares or not about what matters. I think institutions are full of materialisations that don’t matter, and full of matterings that aren’t materialised. Asking why is institutional critique.

Paying attention to and asking what is, is critique.

Paying attention means that I care about what I am paying attention to, and am willing to see it for what it is, no rose-tinted glasses, warts and all, beauty and all.

To me critique is a family affair, an intra-action, an act of care and love, an investment into something that matters. Otherwise why bother?

—-

from Desai:

Diversity narratives in public documents often focus on the lacks, gaps and description of the marginalisation of the excluded rather than the behaviours and attitudes of those that are the beneficiaries of that exclusion – often those that do the excluding. Part of this research is to help workers (and myself) describe and articulate what they face, to confront a feeling we often share, of lack, or of failure within ourselves as we struggle to progress, or are marginalised and discriminated against. Through this process of description we ask ourselves where the perceived lack might actually be located.

In addition to such individual trauma, the hypervisibility (blogs, testimonials, photos of happy smiling trainees) required by such schemes make participants complicit in inadvertently exacerbating marginalisation. In playing into the ‘happy’ myth that these schemes create, participants end up playing a strategic role in what Stuart Hall describes as “incorporation”, a process by which an institution “responds to opposition, not by attempting to stamp it out, but by allowing it to exist within the places it assigns, by slowly allowing it to be recognized, but only within the terms of a process which deprives it of any real effective oppositional force.” (Hall 2016: 50)

Ahmed’s work on complaint (2016—) is a form of gathering “testimonies”, in keeping her research process open and unstructured, she wanted the “stories to come out, fall out, in whatever order they came out.” (Ahmed 2019). In my own unstructured conversations and through the circulation of my letter parts of my own story fell out too. As we started examining why we had spoken out (either through complaint or to each other thus refusing dissociation) we shared the journeys to speaking out. I shared stories about my family, about myself, that are also in fragments in this piece. Beyond the actual events that had harmed us, we talked about who that made us, how we connected better to who we actually were. Many people talked about legacy, about their parents, the foundation of political activism that they stood on that allowed them to understand what activism could do, why voices mattered. Such conversation allowed us to connect with a fuller, more specific part of ourselves and think about why it was important for us to to speak out, and to fully feel and express those feelings.

Chorus 4
from Desai:

The nexus of the global financial crises, government instigated austerity and the commercialisation of the spaces where we experience art has been largely accepted as the new normal by politically neutral common sense languages of funding applications and reporting mechanisms . As we saw in Chapter 1, such capitulation comes directly from government policy and language thereby tying it to wider economic policy and cultural and political shifts towards the arts. Such language and attitudes pervade social policy at every level and disproportionately exclude ‘diverse’ populations (the majority of Londoners who are not ‘metropolitan elite’ middle or upper class) from key public resources and institutions. (Snoussi & Mompelat 2019: 22). In the publicly funded arts sector the ubiquity of such language and policy flattens difference, even as it celebrates it. Nirmal Puwar describes how such language inscribes “social cloning in terms of social connection, theoretical persuasions and politics, as well as comportment and manner”. Underlying such language of inclusion is “an unspoken small print of assimilation a ‘drive for sameness’” which provides “administrative logic for regulating and managing ‘cultural difference’” thus resulting in a kind of “guarded tolerance” for difference (Puwar 20014:124)

“When we live outside ourselves, and by that I mean on external directives rather than from our internal knowledge and needs, when we live away from those erotic guides from within ourselves, then our lives are limited external and alien forms, and we conform to the needs of a structure that is not based on human need, let alone an individual’s…..As we begin to recognise our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like their only alternative in our society. ”
— Audre Lorde 1978 in Lorde 2007: 28

“The institutionalization of whiteness involves work: the institution comes to have a body as an effect of this work. It is important that we do not reify institutions, by presuming they are simply given and that they decide what we do. Rather, institutions become given, as an effect of the repetition of decisions made over time, which shapes the surface of institutional spaces. Institutions involve the accumulation of past decisions about how to allocate resources, as well as ‘who’ to recruit. Recruitment functions as a technology for the reproduction of whiteness.”
— Sara Ahmed 2007 A Phenomenology of Whiteness