– Why I’m Not In A Hurry –
This piece is available in written and recorded form. If, like me, you are sick of screens, text and the internet, I suggest listening to the audio files.
My name is Nisha Madhan, a live performance and theatre artist. I am from New Delhi, India and grew up in between there and Qatar in the Middle East. In 1995, I moved to New Zealand and became an artist. I am also the programmer of a small venue with very big ideas, Basement Theatre in the middle of Auckland City, New Zealand.
On Friday 20th March, I prepared with my team, to shut the doors of Basement to the public. I had roughly 50 artists that I needed to communicate with in different ways, because a blanket doesn’t cover everyone, and some people don’t even like blankets, while others need five. I wanted to make sure they had all the means to access some money, felt cared for, felt hope, and didn’t feel like they had to give up on their work.
My first instinct, like many, was to encourage them (and as a practising artist, me) to throw everything they (I) had online. Live stream, YouTube, Instagram it, start a Basement TikTok account (still a great idea tbh), set up a Zoom party – whatever it was, I needed to get it up as soon as possible and stay relevant. Theatre could not and would not just lie down and take this burn to its pride and fundamental makeup of being – a form that relies on human beings together in proximity. The artform was hemorrhaging and needed a bandaid.
I didn’t do any of those things. I completely failed to instantly provide a digital lifeline for artists. I found myself leaning away from the digital space as a bandaid. I leaned away because, as a third of the world found itself in lockdown, the internet felt like a problematic place to be. As the whole world suddenly plugged in and started posting their beautifully appropriated lock down yoga practices online through the homogenous frames of Instagram live, TikTok, and Facebook – the internet suddenly felt very crowded.
As a woman of colour, I started to feel less safe. The space for me to exist and express the complex relationship between race, gender, art, and a global pandemic, got smaller. Right now, I am physically cut off from the people I feel safe to talk to about these things, and the amount of xenophoic people and white feminists online have just tripled.
Global pandemic or not, the power structures that fail humans and artists on the regular in the physical world still exist in the digital space.
The digital world is fast, fun, and murky. Digital artist / thinker / philosopher James Bridle, in his address Other Intelligences (part of Spy on Me #2, the digital programme available through HAU Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin), puts forward the idea that computers were initially invented to predict things like the weather or the stock market, for example. Over time, our reliance on digital fortune tellers grew strong, so strong that we now quite willingly put our trust into digital maps to guide us as to where to turn next. It’s the kind of technology that lulls you into following blindly, while feeling as if you were making the choice to take that next right turn completely out of your own volition. His alarming use of Death by GPS as an example of this trust is a bleak and comic reminder that machines aren’t infallible.
In relation to art and privilege, I’m most interested in his idea that prediction is implicitly bound up with power and control. To predict the future is to exercise control and power over it, and I’m not yet willing to predict or exercise power and control over what this pandemic might mean for the future of live art and performance.
Bridle’s outlining of advertising and algorithms is particularly arresting. Knowing that things like auto-play on YouTube and click bait advertising are run by what the most controversial or sensational stories are, I’m worried that extremist views might now have an even more fertile ground within which to breed their insidious algorithms.
Even for the unintentional, digital hits of dopamine are extremely addictive. And having a screen to hide behind means that the risks you are willing to take in order to receive those hits can be greater. Scream louder, get more attention, receive more dopamine and continue. Find someone new to unintentionally have a crush on, without having to face them. Taking the time to think before you speak is not necessarily the game of the internet and social media. And privilege is certainly not the best at being able to stop and identify itself before taking up space.
I’m reminded every time I open social media, as Laboria Cubonks says in her Xenofeminist Manifesto, that “serious risks are built into these tools.” They are prone to imbalance, abuse and exploitation of the weak.” Anyone who has ever felt cyber bullied, I’m sure, can relate. Our connection to each other has quite suddenly been relegated to online spaces that have historically been pretty damaging for someone who swims against the tide.
So, is throwing our work online in a bid to save a fragile and ephemeral artform really the wisest option?
As much as I say the online space and digital world can be a scary space, I think that it can also be empowering. So much is to be said for the amount of freedom of self expression available to someone who doesn’t fit the mainstream. For a long while, people of colour and LGTBQI+ communities have used these spaces, not only to connect, but to innovate and further their artistic practices. You only need to look at the work of Pati Tyrell for an example of how trans people of colour are experts at it already. Unless I can come up with something like this, I’m not rushing myself or anyone else in figuring out how New Zealand theatre can rise to the challenge laid down by New Zealand’s trans artists of colour.
Of course, I absolutely understand that you have to start somewhere. I just wonder what the long term game plan is. Is it just to survive a few weeks? Or to take a moment to think about what might be possible that hasn’t already happened? Is this the moment, when physical access to live performance is cut off to the privileged, that we finally figure out how to open the arts up to everyone? And maybe it is a digital answer. Let’s see what happens.
Moving an entire arts practice online as soon as possible seemed like the obvious answer as my little independent theatre ship started sinking. But when it dawned on me with frightening speed, that the chances of even opening the doors to a theatre over the next three months were quickly fading, I realised this option was just as unsustainable as my entire artistic practice has been to date so far anyway. All I was doing was suggesting that we continue the same structures we have always worked under, just digitally. We’d still be fighting to be taken seriously, to pay our rent, and to prove that we’re just as fun as a rugby game.
Artists are hustlers and survivors. We will do whatever it takes and become whatever you need us to be to get our work out there. We believe that art is essential and no amount of you telling us it’s not, will stop us. We have been told that our businesses are not essential. To be clear. We have been told that our businesses are not essential. Art itself is booming. People are watching movies, watching television, crafting up a storm, ukuleles are abound in living rooms across the land, and even The Backstreet Boys are in on the act. Art has not been shut down. The structures that sell it to the public have been shut down.
Artists have a tough time, even at Basement where things are fairly cheap. It’s still up to them to drum up an audience and figure out clever ways to cut through the “noisy clutter of commodified cruft” and homogenous lands of social media. Our risk share structure is a response to a growing need for artists to share risk with venues rather than carry it all themselves. Somehow, I couldn’t face simply moving this structure out of the physical world and straight onto the digital world. It’s not the perfect solution to creating sustainable careers, it’s just the best of a bunch of neoliberal options available.
Obviously we’d love to be able to give artists everything for free and pay them to do their work, and be able to pay ourselves at the same time. Unfortunately, that’s not what the world has set up for us, and it’s no different online. In fact, the pressure to provide experiences online for free is even greater than in the physical world. It’s still an economically unstable space, and could lead to tricky forms of paid and unpaid labour. Besides, the one thing we had over other forms of art was the ability to provide a physical experience, a live encounter, you and me experiencing something in a room together.
Live performance has been dealt a severe blow that it will need time to recover from. Live performance, especially live art, relies on the “co-presence of living beings”, and this fundamental contract has just had its Force Majure clause triggered on a global scale. If live performance was a person with Coronavirus, I’d be telling it to go home, self isolate, and only come back out when it had some space and time to think, heal, and change.
But we live under a capitalist regime and capitalism is great at filling space and time and charging for it. It’s particularly great at doing it off the back of a worldwide event which is why I feel like this guy right now.
I watch as organisations and artists around the world try on this digital sweatshirt that seems a few sizes too big. It’s a struggle to make it fit, but at least it’s something and I love them for doing it. As the programmer of Basement, I know I should be responding with something cool and edgy and disruptive, and I will be the first to say…I don’t know what that is yet.
I have to stop and ask myself: Is this just guilt? Do I just want to win the lockdown? Is it that competitive edge that capitalism raised me with in order to get ahead? Even as I write this, I have this lump in my chest compelling me to type as fast as possible. Should I be listening to the lessons capitalism has taught me? Like throwing friends under the bus if that’s what is needed to win at whatever game I’m playing? And to teach said friends that it’s not personal, it’s professional, and that all is fair in love and war? Should I work quicker and faster than everyone else so that I can be the first?
Unfortunately for capitalism, I am a normal and sane person, which means that I am a feminist. And feminism raised me to believe that personal is political. Everything is personal and everything is political.
Right now I need to get a hold of my anxiety levels. I need to make sure I don’t start smoking again. I need to call my mother everyday. Everytime I try to seek solace on the web I find that it is full of people either policing one another, or bragging about how good they are at a lockdown. I am reminded of how I am failing at productising this whole situation.
Then again, I have always been a fan of failure as an anti-capitalist strategy. The neoliberal world is built to scare you into staying on the hamster wheel and to believe that it is your choice to do so. The most volatile action you can take is to stop and rest instead. In a world that is built to rush you into the arms of something you don’t fully trust, I’m leaning away. Because as we all know, quicker isn’t necessarily better and the loudest person isn’t necessarily the smartest.
I don’t feel like pressuring artists to be clever and come up with innovative solutions to this mess (they’ll probably do it anyway!). It feels like it could be as damaging as encouraging them to work for no money. Artists are empaths. They take everything to heart. Artists feel shit for not coming up with all the great ideas first. I feel sad that artists are wired to put this pressure on themselves. It’s not up to them to solve this. This isn’t the time for solutions. It is the time for messy conversations and to pay close attention to opportunities for long-lasting change.
I think it’s so fine to cope with this situation in whatever way you need (here’s some great ideas of how to), and if that means filling up your Instagram story, please continue, I’m watching and I salute you. I just can’t forget that Vriginia Frankovich has already clocked the Instagram story medium, and that maybe there is also space to rest, recover from global trauma, and time to develop something rich and gooey alongside the things that are quick and crunchy.
Right now, I’m traumatised by not only what’s just happened to the world but what’s happened to an artform that I deeply love. I think I need to take a moment to grieve for it. I wish I could bounce back and answer to this pervasive neoliberal rhythm, but with all the online galleries, live streamed theatre shows, bedroom concerts, virtual festivals, and social media challenges, every inch of the internet feels occupied. How can we create space rather than just add to the noise that’s already there?
So here is my disruptive action for now. Do nothing. Rest. Be gentle. Lean away. Right away. Observe what is happening. Lead quietly from behind. Allow time to do its work. And if you do have to do something. Do it in the physical world. Do it in the place that you know. For the people that you love. Do it for real. Not behind a screen. Leave that to the keyboard warriors of the world. Make a secret show. Hide something for someone else to find. Design a ritual. Just for you. And no one else.
The planet couldn’t get through day one of a lockdown without producing anything. In a world that is run on products, I challenge you not to add anything more to the production line.
*I am aware that in writing this, recording it and getting up on my website I have fully undone everything this piece sets out to say. Turns out, I have managed to find a little solace in producing something, behind a screen and putting it in my little corner of the internet. Failed again.
Other Intelligences – Jame Bridle
New Materialisms and Performance Studies – Rebecca Schnieder
The Xenofeminist Manifesto – Laboria Cuboniks
With many thanks to the following brains: Julia Croft, Kate Prior, Saraid De Silva, Tim Blake, Elise Sterback, Helen Sheehan and Basement Theatre.