Making Staying

Introduction: Staying and Learning

By Oreet Ashery, 2009

I have learnt so much from this project.

When Artangel first approached me about the possibility of working with them, I had already learnt from Satoko Fujishiro at Artangel that within the complex area of immigration law there are also specific immigration laws and procedures that apply to lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people. The majority of LGBT individuals arriving in the UK who approach charities for help in filing their cases are gay men, and lesbians constitute a much smaller, and at times perhaps invisible, group of clients. The Staying project was set up to draw attention and awareness to lesbians who have undergone traumatising experiences in their respective countries due to their visible, or hidden, sexual orientation and who are seeking refuge in the UK in order to save themselves physically, mentally and emotionally.

From the start I realised that as someone who continuously deals with some of the complex, broad and shifting notions of immigration, and prides herself on this involvement, I actually knew nothing about immigration laws in relation to sexual orientation. Jill Power from the UK Lesbian & Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG) met with Satoko and I at the onset of the project and kindly described to us in detail the specific procedures that a LGBT person might expect on arrival in the UK. Court cases, appeals, repeated appeals, detention, deportation, uncertainty, poverty and depression are some of the things that characterise the years Jill’s clients spend when they first arrive. However, there are also a few victories and some clients do become legal refugees and are allowed to stay and work here. Jill also said that, finally, the Home Office had asked for officers to be trained specifically in LGBT cases. I think this is a big step forward in the right direction. LGBT immigration clients suffer a double bind of otherness: they are foreign and sexually different. As Home Office officials might learn more about the sensitivity and specificity of these cases, attitudes might change positively. I learnt a hell of a lot from that meeting and you can find more about this aspect of the project in Jill’s text in the back section of the book.

The thing that struck me the most, as an artist, about what Jill had told us, is that an individual who would like to claim asylum in the UK due to their sexual orientation has to prove their ‘gayness’ by writing a 20 page profile on their past life in their country of origin. In this document they have to ‘prove’ somehow that they are gay and that their life is in danger for that reason. In situations where court cases take place some time after the person has been in the UK, these people also have to ‘prove’ that they have developed a ‘gay lifestyle’ in the UK and that this is their newly found identity, one that they would not be able to carry on in their respective country of origin. ‘Proving’ that you are gay might involve presenting photographs and witnesses to strengthen the written text. It occurred to me how hard it might be for someone who has spent their life hiding their identity in their home country to then somehow ‘flaunt’ it in the UK; I also wondered, how can you begin to have a ‘western gay lifestyle’ with no money, security of any kind, and traumatising life events? Apart from this, having to prove your sexual orientation in court, when your life is dependent on it, might be humiliating, exposing and terrifying.

As an artist who deals extensively with the performance of identity and subjectivity, particularly in relation to markers of gender, race, religion, national status, ethnicity and economy, I was drawn to the writing-of-the-self, the writing of one’s ‘gay 20 page profile’ aspect of the immigration experience. The notion of writing, and hence performing one’s identity, in order to ‘prove’ who you are to the state and its legal ambassadors, struck me as a significant feature for those who have to engage with it.

I wanted to facilitate processes whereby the writing and performing of oneself and one’s experiences are freed from the need to ‘prove’ anything, to be true or accurate, to remember dates and details, to account for over and over again for gaps that might appear in memory and recalling, in which you are interrogated like a suspected criminal. I wanted the participants to be able to tell their stories, something they all seemed very keen to want to share, and perform their identity in a way that allows for gaps, slippages, repetitions and new structures of embodying and imagining the self. I did not want them to create, perform, speak or write fiction, I wanted them to express themselves and their authentic experiences in new-to-them and performative ways. To this end I decided on a structure that involved a series of group workshops in which text and images would become the by-product. Rather than create images for a show or a public intervention for example, I wanted to conclude the process with a published record of the workshops as it is small and contained enough for the participants to take with them wherever they go, and for others, the Home Office, lawyers, art organisations, journalists etc, to learn from.

I have been working with alter egos and fictional characters for many years. I mainly embody male characters; these have included an orthodox Jewish man, an Arab man, a black man, a fat farmer, a Norwegian postman, a comic book character of a failed artist-come-compromised super hero, and more. My characters are developed in relation to specific artistic and sociopolitical contexts. Over the years my particular interest has been researching the agency of fictional characters and alter egos in art as a mobilising of contested cultural and political backdrops. My graphic novel, The Novel of Nonel and Vovel, with artist Larissa Sansour (Charta, 2009) is a good example of how alter egos can be used successfully; in this case to explore the contested territory of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

It was natural for me to want to try and apply my way of working with alter egos and fictional characters to this project. It was the first time I had ‘workshoped’ my methodology in this way. My aim was to work with each woman and the group as a whole to help each participant to develop a character. The character would enable the participants to tell their stories and experience themselves in a different way. To my mind, working with alter egos and fictional characters is never about pure fiction or about hiding behind a mask; on the contrary, it is a way to push to the foreground an aspect of oneself and to exaggerate it.

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.

At the end of the interactive part of the project, I found the characters so appealing and archetypal and with such an artistic potential that I decided to create a series of 12 cards, one for each character. The cards can be used as topics for discussions, or as a starting point for an art piece. We dedicated a photography session to this end, where each participant chose an image from the internet related to their character and drew the projected image. Looking at internet images was a useful way to discuss artworks and other related topics, and also a good way to bring the characters into an external discourse that connects to the participants’ real lives. The internet images related to the characters raised lively discussions around subjects like: rubbish, care, the nature of rebelliousness and the subculture of Studs.

A second invited guest to the sessions was the black lesbian filmmaker Campbell X. Campbell showed us a film she made in which she goes back to Trinidad and talks to her parents about her sexual orientation and she also talks to gay men and lesbians about what it means to be gay in Trinidad. Campbell also talked about ways of making films about one’s own life with little to no budget, and the possibilities of distributing them on the internet. We looked at examples of such films. Following this session, the group conducted a series of short video interviews. The transcribed texts are in each character’s chapter.

The last visitor was the poet Cherry Smyth. Cherry performed a reading of her own and other poems and took the women through a series of poetry writing processes, which produced the poems you can read in the book. I love the explicitness of some of the poems and the diverse cultural references used.

The last and most unusual character is Super Lover. Super Lover is not a participant’s character, it is the group’s character, created by the group members through discussion, improvisation games and photography. Super Lover was developed in order to discuss sex, erotica and relationships, topics that seemed extremely urgent for the women to share with each other. We talked about what good lesbian porn might be like, and what the problems are with it as it stands. Super Lover is the perfect lover for everyone, and so she yelled the question: ‘What is the perfect lover for you?’ The group’s discussions around Super Lover were some of the most vivid and animated. People were extremely open and engaged, and I rejoiced in what seemed to be the nearest I am ever going to get to be part of those mythical feminist awareness-raising women’s groups of the 1970s, when women apparently shared information, their desires and their anatomy with one other. As you may read in the Super Lover chapter, the discussion explores sexual acts, power relationships in sex, daring to ask for the fulfillment of fantasies from a lover and the use of sex toys. This last topic unexpectedly seemed to be highly provocative. I felt in this session the political value of sharing experiences and opinions about sex in a group situation, especially when people’s cultural backgrounds are diverse, and that what seems obvious is still worth talking about because no knowledge can ever be taken for granted.

I learnt so much from that particular session; the one thing that stuck with me particularly is that if you want to ask your lover to take part in a sexual fantasy but feel too shy to ask them in person, leave a note on the fridge door. Right now I can’t think of a better idea for a script.