Introduction: Staying and Learning
Oreet Ashery, 2009
Page 3 of 4
In the context of the sessions we spent together, I found this way of working with the women empowering for them, myself and everyone else present in the room at the time (assistants, Artangel and UKLGIG people). I use the word empowering here on the tentative brink between a creative sense of oneself and a way in which the creative outcomes can also be manifest in everyday life. Listening to the women and what they wanted and needed from this project, and thinking about my interest in the notion of the legal, long scripts of their lives they needed to somehow write, I decided to create a series of workshops that best addressed those conditions. The workshops were devised with the wish for a quality experience that operates on several levels, including bonding as friends and having food together (to that end we had great food prepared by one of the couples in the group). The sessions, or events, to use current art terminology, were designed as the artwork; the book would become something of a document that also works as an independent entity. The book, edited and designed, derives more or less directly from the sessions and as such contains 12 chapters, with each chapter belonging to a character developed by the participants. The material at large includes transcribed discussions, monologues, interviews, handwritten textual material and visual images, portraits, doodles, handwriting, research material from the internet and visual material brought in by the participants. As the character work was put into place as a devising and creative mode, there were many overlaps and grey areas between what we might experience as character and participant. For me, and in my own practice, this makes for the best and most interesting performative structure. In the context of the project it became clear early on and articulated out loud that participants felt comfortable in women’s company alone, so I took that preference to its fullest extent and as such all contributions to the workshops and the book are by women. There is of course a wink of respect here towards second-wave feminist strategies.
I structured some of the sessions to include the presence of inspiring lesbian artists, who I saw as role models, each visiting a different session. These artists showed their work in the session, each within their own creative medium, and the group responded with a series of related activities. Throughout the project we spent a great deal of time discussing, debating, arguing and reflecting on issues relating to the character work and the material brought in by the visiting artists. Lois Weaver started with a drama workshop and a performance of her alter ego, the American country and western lesbian singer Tammy WhyNot. During this workshop the women started to find in themselves a hinge into a possible character through physical and intuitive methods. The next meeting, a week later, was spent in a group circle developing the characters through an intense and intimate conversation about the relationships between the women and their characters. This was to my mind the most explosive and decisive meeting.
The characters were then honed down in relation to the autobiographical content that was discussed and revealed in the session. I was incredibly excited by the structure of some of the characters that came about. For example, House was a character in which each room contained a different aspect of that person’s life: childhood and child abuse, relationships with women and relationships with her mother. The House makes a rich image and a ‘set’ that contains endless possibilities for a performative development of narratives. This way of compartmentalising one’s stories into rooms, presents not only literary and artistic possibilities, but also makes the overwhelming recalling of real life stories more manageable. A pivotal point for me in this session was when one participant wanted to embody the character of a gay person inside a bin (with the gay person then becoming a metaphor for rubbish). I suggested that her character could be the bin itself as this would relieve her character from being a victim and instead would explore the bin as a social structure – much of what art making is centred on – by which I mean the exposure of social structures, not of rubbish. I felt the group and myself at this point could really see the creative and personal potential in using a character as a mobilising tool. Bin’s texts are some of the most theatrical texts in the book. Had the project been longer it would have been a great text to work with towards a performance or a film, as it is written like a script. Another participant, who described herself as a grey penetrable cloud, was assisted by the group to think about clouds and the sun instead. At the feedback session the participant told us how this image of the sun’s rays breaking through the cloud had actually helped her in her everyday struggles. CameraGunMan started as Gun. The participant described her violent childhood and how she used knives to protect herself and also to hurt others with. Throughout the project the character developed and the participant talked about how she would like to replace her ‘gun’ with a camera. Initially Gun evoked moral responses in relation to violence from some of the women, however it soon became clear that moral judgements were a hindrance to the development of the characters. The women who were not afraid to use their ‘darker’ sides arguably created more poignant characters and hence richer texts, and perhaps also learnt more about themselves. During this session I learnt about the updated term Stud (the American word for butch, mainly used by black lesbians). I also learnt about Soft Studs, a more fluid term for effeminate Studs. This became a great character later on in the project. One of the most painful character developments was that of Dream; the participant left the group shortly after that session due to changing life circumstances. Dream is about a recurring dream that the participant had in her earlier life, in which she is taken away in handcuffs like a criminal; she said that she never understood this dream as she is not a criminal by any means, but now that it had become a reality, she understood that the dream was a way of predicting her future. Making her character the Dream itself constitutes an act of witnessing – similar somehow to the principles of Buddhist meditation where one observes oneself from the outside, like watching a passing cloud. I don’t wish to attribute any life changing qualities to what took place, only to point out the multi-layered nature of the process that we all took part in. The main body of text that starts each chapter originated from those sessions; some of this text is transcribed, some written by the participants in their sketchbooks, and some a combination of both.