Safe(r) Space(s) or Simple Solutions for Messy Scenarios

Vishnu and xiri in the studio. Photo by Izabella Borzecka

Vishnu Vardhani RAJAN (FIN) and xiri tara noir (DK) are current PiRs – Publishers in Residence. We took the opportunity to ask about their (publishing) practices, and how they’re shaping their first collaboration in times of uncertainty. Vishnu and xiri arrived in Stockholm just before various measures to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus were introduced. Therefore, their residency, as well as this conversation, address questions of how one establishes safe working spaces, and a search for ‘simple solutions for messy scenarios’.



Tell us about yourselves in short!

Vishnu: My practice revolves around the ongoing investigation of sensory experiences. I am a Body-Philosopher. I am drawn to the politics of sleep, ethics of conflict and restorations, invested in the cultural architecture of institutions. I am inspired by nutrition and inquire about food habits and the accessibility of seeds. As a pessimist, I thrive on rest as an act of resistance. My acts of activism manifest in taking naps in public spaces, twerking, and reclaiming fermentation processes.

xiri: OMG, this is already such a difficult question to start with, as I believe that identity is always moving, so I’m always trying to avoid too many definitions, but let’s try… I’m active as a community activist, facilitator, researcher, and choreographer. As an activist choreographer, my roots are in the radical queer feminist and sex worker community. I’m also working as a facilitator of feminist self-defence classes, and I’m exploring radical care as a form of resistance. Yeah, I would say that in general, my practice lies in finding the capacity to make any movement generate potential… and the way for me to practice choreography is to take it outside of the ‘space where it belongs’… but if you ask me tomorrow I might give a different answer to this question…

When and where did you first meet? Since this is the first time you are collaborating on a project, how are you shaping and starting your collaboration?

Vishnu: Me and xiri first met in the Ponderosa residency space in Germany, at Jamiil Kosoko’s workshop ‘Transgressive Bodies’.

xiri: Yes, that was such a beautiful and magical space to meet in. In Jamiil’s workshop, we were exploring performative emergence in the form of resistance, survival and pleasure. Practices which both Vishnu and I are involved in. This was also when Toni Morrison died…

Vishnu: The next time after that, it was yet another workshop, at the Cifas Performing Arts Center in Brussels, with Mallika Taneja. This was when we first thought about collaborating.

xiri: During this workshop, Vishnu was staying at my home, so besides sharing the studio space, we were also sharing our living space and kitchen… and I somehow think our collaboration started in the kitchen… like you say, Vishnu, the revolution starts in the kitchen!

      Footbath and pickle recipe © xiri tara noir

Vishnu: Yes, I am so grateful for that generosity from xiri and their partner Inés. Voilà. Thank you for giving us this residency to explore that intention.

xiri: In our collaboration, we have used language – which I think is where our shared interest in performance and publication comes from – as the starting point. Language as unrecognizable, as foreign, as other, as exotic, as dangerous, as angry, as misunderstood and mistranslated. Vishnu had seen a subtitle in a movie saying ‘speaking softly in a foreign language’. In our practice, we are questioning who this language is foreign to? Who are the ones who have the right to translation, and who are the ones whose language is often foreign, othered, unrecognizable, not understood, and constantly having to be explained by the ones expressing themselves ‘differently’.

Vishnu: I came to understand that we all have work languages, just like love languages. There are ebbs and flows in the output. As xiri and I haven’t worked together before, it took me time to comprehend their ‘language of work’, which is very different from my own. I see now that this learning is valuable to me, and this is surely the case for any two people that come from different schools of thought, and adopt certain methodologies in their work.

I had the pleasure of introducing this activity I have been developing, about finding parallels between expressions of Respect, and expressions of Safety. Most of the time, how we render a space safer, and how we express respect is very similar. We collectively made a list for each other on how our common space could accommodate our moods, which are sometimes loud, and sometimes soft.

 

xiri: Yes, I really loved this practice a lot. It was interesting to see how we started from different perspectives, and how everything was interconnected in the end. In all collaborations and relationships in life, I believe that the practice of establishing safer spaces within shared spaces is crucial. What feels safe for me might not feel safe for you, but we will never know about this if we are not creating a space for these thoughts and feelings to be shared without prejudice. For me, this is what a safer space is about; being able to be yourself, but also having enough empathy and respect for the people you are sharing the space with to understand that ‘being yourself’ is not always safe for others, so it’s a constant conversation with, and adaption to the space(s)… which, for me, reminds me of dancing, writing, choreographing… That’s why it’s interesting to discover how interconnected the two words ‘safety’ and ‘respect’ are… and so you could connect a lot of words such as ‘empathy’ and ‘patience’, or ‘care’ and ‘abundance’, or ‘movement’ and ‘language’…

Vishnu: As our space was dynamic, we also established a safeword when we needed time to disengage after work hours. It helped, especially for me, as I am only now learning how to have boundaries. xiri said multiple times to me: ‘Never take things personally’. It was good advice, not easy for me. A good takeaway.

xiri: Yes, I’m still practising this, never taking things personally, but it’s not always easy. We often want things and situations to be about ourselves, and it can be difficult to separate. Maybe it’s also important to say, for the context, that just as we arrived at c.off, the coronavirus had also arrived, and for obvious reasons, our conversations revolved around the urgency of art-making in times of crisis. We also talked a lot about misinformation, misinterpretation, and misunderstandings… and most of all, about how to deal with crises in a pleasurable way. To propose simple and joyful recipes for messy situations, which is not something that is new to us.

       Practice a different perspective © xiri tara noir

Vishnu: Ironically, I am thankful for this corona-time coinciding with our collaboration-time, as I have managed to unlock something from the past. I have lived with a lockdown (or a curfew time) multiple times in my life, because of the RamJanmabhumi and Babri Masjid Conflict, (in Hyderabad, India). So the novelty of the COVID-19 lockdown was lost on me. Yet, witnessing how xiri attended to her needs in order to work efficiently clarified how a sense of safety, of self and of our loved ones is quintessential to a healthy working environment. This helped me to understand how my school grades developed, the constant exhaustion during curfew. I am also thankful to c.off for being so open to approving this new formation in which we are collaborating*.

 

*Because of the closing of European borders, xiri and Vishnu had to continue their collaboration at a distance. #ThankGodForTheInternet

© Vishnu Vardhani RAJAN

xiri: Uuhhmm, thank you for sharing these powerful memories and insights, Vishnu! What I think is also interesting about this new format for collaboration is that it is opening up alternative ways of understanding and working with accessibility. Both in our practice as artists, and in our presentation format, which is something we might not have taken into consideration if this situation had not occurred. It is interesting, and also a bit scary, to see how much this situation (the coronavirus confinement) literally highlights how the lack of accessibility is really the main cause of inequality, rather than capitalism. In this sense, I’m also very grateful for having support that enables me to continue this work at a distance, and I really hope for us, as a global community, that this can be a way of including accessibility into our ways of working, rather than it being an exception. I guess this is part of being a privileged person; that you don’t understand the importance of certain situations until they become relevant to you, so yeah, this is definitely an eye-opener on how we are often stuck in our ways, and how things can easily be adapted and done differently… which, in a way, takes us back to our starting point… othering, distancing, or not giving value to things or situations that seem foreign to us at first sight!



Vishnu: At this point, I have a question for you, Izabella; do you have safe-space guidelines with the people you collaborate with? How do you formulate these agreements without imposing on or overpowering your colleagues?



Izabella: Thanks for inviting me to join the conversation! As a micro-organization, we have some safe-space and work ethics guidelines (which could also be developed further), but I think that practical and attentive work is the main thing that enables safe spaces to exist. People need different things to feel safe, and that need can also change over time, which makes it more complex. Therefore, I have a set of methods and tools that I turn to in different situations (also in constant development). For me, care is a central word in my practice and work ethics. Listening, not taking things for granted, and being ready to act according to one’s principles are important caring tools for me. I also try to be as transparent as possible, and ‘work as a team’. During these times, when the coronavirus is spreading and kind of interrupting your residency, it becomes even more apparent to me how important it is to enable the existence of safe spaces, how that notion changes, is different for different people, and how one can’t plan for what will be needed in advance.

xiri: Yes, not assuming that you understand something can be a good way to engage in spaces. We are often so obsessed with finding answers, but I actually think that letting there be room for not knowing can open up for a lot of understanding. In order to create spaces of care, we need to practice multi-layered listening…

© xiri tara noir

Vishnu: I am also curious about the timeline of Reading edge, how did it start? When? Do you have any dreams for it? Transformations?

Izabella:

Reading Edge opened in August, 2018. The idea came to me maybe a year earlier. Actually, I think it was on a bus between Cordoba and Cadiz in Spain, where I was on a solo vacation. #Workaholic 



Before I started working at c.off, I was working within the visual arts field, and my background is in art history. Within that field, there is a Western history of artists’ books and art bookmaking which is considered an established art format. I found it intriguing that art publishing didn’t seem as common within the field of dance and choreography, that some even seemed to question that choreography can be presented in a book, or appear in different formats than live on stage. At the same time, c.off, as well as its sister organization ccap, were producing art books and discursive publications as part of our projects. However, we struggled to find a suitable place or distribution channel for these publications after their release. I had thought about organizing our art and theory books at c.off into a library/archive/reading room, which is not groundbreaking for an art institution. Somewhere during that bus ride in Spain, I realized that it would be more relevant if a library of ours would care and provide a space for self-published publications specifically, to fill that need for a place and a context for such publications, for them to co-exist and possibly inform and support one another. Now, I wish to bring more projects, events, gatherings, exhibitions, etc. to Reading Edge, and activate it more. That is my dream for the near future. We have been struggling with funding lately, maybe because our proposed activities sit between the traditional genre boxes. Anyhow, we were pleasantly surprised to be granted funding from the Nordic-Baltic Culture program for this ‘Publisher in Residence’ program, which is funding your residency, and which I see as part of Reading Edge’s activities.

 

Izabella: Speaking further about publishing practices. What is your relationship to publishing within choreography and performance? How are you working with publishing in an expanded field in your practices?

Vishnu: Journaling has always been my tool of expression, a process and a practice of daily self-care. I had the honor of being invited to be part of two works by Jeanne van Heeswijk – an artist who facilitates the creation of dynamic and diversified public spaces in order to radicalize the local. ‘Public Faculty N 13’ was about the simple questions of what you think of the future, care, commitment, and togetherness. A four-day intervention to stir up conversations, and sketch forms of collective action in public spaces. This collaboration enriched my personal practice of journaling. The second collaboration was ‘Maunula Staircase’. We occupied the staircase of Maunula House in Helsinki for a six-hour discussion on collaborative futures of the neighbourhood. The long discussion was edited into a four-page annex to the local newspaper.

In my personal practice, I have mainly projected texts during performances. I have experimented with setting up pop-up nap cafes, where people could write private journals, collective poems, a la cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse).

Also, I love making collages of words in the various languages I speak. I enjoy the performativity of writing, yet I prefer the performativity of reading even more. Seeing a person with a book in their hand in a public space continues to inspire me to take that aspect into performances, especially in the Anthropocene, and digital platforms.

Quoting Mohsen Namjoo – ‘being modern is to understand roots’ – as a starting point, and leaving digital platforms behind, I explored engravings on stone, palm-leaf manuscripts, recycled paper. As a progression, from writing to reading to making, I arrived at quilting when I was researching traditional book-binding practices. Quilt-making subverts the hierarchy of archiving, the handwriting in a stitch, the piece of cloth a person wore, colors, everything gestures towards privilege in the grand publication arena. Quilting to me is a process of changing publication imagery. With care, it de-canonizes the historical colonization of land, languages, and minds, undoing the hegemony of language. Sensibilization of recycling, and the source of paper… Gesturing towards eco-feminism. I am still researching the un-archival tendencies of a quilt, the uniqueness of the stories a quilt contains augments my practice as a Body-Philosopher. Quilts for me are a way to bring a collective together in connection/ritual, and to enable people, fantastically, to go beyond language. An image is worth a thousand words, a quilt a thousand stories, making space for the story to be re-told in any language.

An Anthology of (Mis)Organized Words © Vishnu Vardhani RAJAN


xiri:
In our society, we put a lot of power into language, especially the written word. As Vishnu is also emphasizing, language is so much more than just words… it is everywhere, graspable as well as ungraspable. And I think this is exactly what choreography is, the creation of language. As Erin Manning expresses it: ‘The minor gesture is an ally of language in the making.’ In this sense, words are at the core of my choreographic practice. Both during creation, in my performances, and as a workshop facilitator; writing and reading in an expanded sense becomes the catalyst for movement.

My last two works, ‘Listening by Speaking to Oneself’ and ‘The Trouble of Walking Straight’, both use this perspective as a starting point. In ‘Listening by Speaking to Oneself’, I intended to draw attention to the in-between moment in a conversation, and to investigate if it is possible to ‘extend’ or ‘amplify’ the ‘not yet created’ moment of encounter. I did this through transcribing conversations in one specific group of womxn, a group of sex workers in this case, and then asked another group of womxn, a group of artists, to perform a re-enactment of the transcription. My purpose with this work is where my choreographic practice intersects with my activist practice; in generating spaces that can initiate a feeling of collectivity across different communities. As we often tend to give less value to people or situations that we don’t understand at first, it was truly amazing to see what was happening with both groups of womxn in this process of opening up to something unknown.

‘The Trouble of Walking Straight’ is, in a way, a continuation of this same idea, but instead of it being a conversation or a meeting between two groups, it is a collective re-enactment of individual written stories from different walks of life, read and performed by the audience. With this work, I wanted to question the choreographic and political power of walking, through the sharing of personal writings on diverse perspectives on walking.

What I’m investigating in both of these studies is if both recognition and an affinity to the self in the other can occur, through the re-enactment of words and movements. And if they’re in this in-between space between words, can a space emerge for listening to what is often left unheard or invisible?

Beyond my choreographic work, I have, in recent years, been busy with turning my research into practice through facilitating labs and workshops for diverse intersectional groups of artists and activists. I see this work as part of my expanded writing and movement research. For me, it is an ongoing, collective learning and sharing process of de-constructing and reinventing languages, movements, and thought systems… and embodying this knowledge into proposing new ways of relating and being together in this world.

 

Thank you, Vishnu and xiri!

During their residency at c.off, Vishnu and xiri have been working on a publication entitled [krahy-seez] A Reader. The publication includes scores, recipes, text, drawings, and other resources for finding SIMPLE SOLUTIONS FOR MESSY SCENARIOS. A printed copy of the publication, as well as a digital print-on-demand version, will soon be released.

Vishnu with Our increasingly sophisticated stew. Photo by My Carnested
Colophon
Interview questions: Izabella Borzecka & Vishnu Vardhani RAJAN
First published at coff.se
Vishnu Vardhani RAJAN ‘s and xiri tara noir’s residency is supported by the Nordic-Baltic mobility programme – Culture.

 


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