Things we learnt from SICK! Lab 2016

Things we learnt from SICK! Lab 2016

What happens when you turn the concept of the post-show discussion on its head, and hold the conversations before the commissions instead? Last week’s SICK! Lab: On The Couch was a chance to explore questions of identity and trauma that will inform the development of SICK! Festival 2017. It was an opportunity for academics to flex knowledge, artists to share insights, and for SICK! itself to enrich what it describes as its role of “managed ignorance”. Here are 21 things we learned in the process.

1. The current British Sign Language for Donald Trump
“The sign will change depending on how the deaf community will feel about someone,” explained deaf actor Nadia Nadarajah. Have a guess. It’s perfect.

2. Identity should be a point of departure, not a position of defence
“England has always wanted to limit my identity to one category or another – so that I can be understood by other people, but that in no ways allows me to understand myself,” said poet Lemn Sissay, who counts himself variously a black man, a northerner, an Ethiopian, a Londoner, a Wiganer, a human being… “I see my identity as something I travel out from, rather than something I return to in order to set up my stall.”

3. Want to shake the labels? Make art about your dad
British Indian visual artist Hetain Patel developed “a second skin” in response to bullying at school – which he then spent his early twenties trying to shed through an “angry and cathartic” arts practice. It wasn’t until he made a film about his father that he felt the various labels subside. “People came up to me in the gallery and told me stories about their own dads or sons,” he said. “I realised, wow, for the first time they’re talking to me as a person.”

4. Those labels have a lot to do with economics
Poet Sissay didn’t know he was “an ethnic minority” until he started working in the arts. Now the label is BAME. Before that it was Afro-Caribbean. “You don’t go around Moss Side saying ‘I’m BAME,’” he said. “I realised these categories were determined by funders, attached to money and passed down through economics. The money comes with an expectation of what you will provide… which might have no bearing on what that community might want to say.”

5. Transgender issues raise fascinating questions about identity
Are there any identities that it is impossible to exit? pondered Professor of Philosophy Michael Brady. Professor of Social Ethics Gideon Calder thought immediately of the, “current enhanced sensibility about transgender issues”, saying they raised “deep ontological questions about who we are”. Earlier, Professor of Law Alex Sharpe, a trans woman, had observed: “Germaine Greer thinks I’m stealing ‘woman’. She has a proprietorial interest in that category. Theft suggests there’s something authentic to be stolen…”

6. The law in all this? Not strictly helpful
Prof Sharpe explained how law encourages us to buy into a solid sense of identity, in order to have rights conferred on us. But law sees some identities as more solid than others. “If you’re discriminated against for weight or class you have no rights. Law is willing to see sex and race as solid enough, so rights can be conferred. But sex isn’t, is it? Intersex people give the game away that sex isn’t binary. Law just pretends that it is.”

7. War is theatre
James Thompson, Professor of Applied and Social Theatre, has run and documented theatre programmes in areas of conflict from Rwanda to Democratic Republic of Congo. Now he’sobserving the theatricality of warzones themselves. This idea of war as a performance resonated powerfully with the experiences of Yasmine Nahlawi, a Syrian-born, American-raised advocate for Syrian refugees. She spoke about the construction and scripting of the Syrian refugee experience by Western media. “There are always two parts to a media interview: answering the question, and acting.”

8. Charity is theatre, too
“Humanitarian assistance is not inherently benign,” said Prof Anthony Redmond OBE, Professor of International Emergency Medicine. The result? A situation in Sri Lanka where NGOs went through with a huge orphanage-building programme following the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami – despite the fact they’d only been able to find six children who had survived. The group that really needed assistance, said Prof Redmond, was able-bodied young men. But that wouldn’t have played so well to western cameras.

9. The colour of body bags matters
There’s a move amongst humanitarian assistance to involve anthropologists, and here’s one reason why. In Liberia, white is the colour of mourning, so the provision of black body bags for Ebola victims was deeply offensive. “Nobody did anything wrong,” said Prof Redmond. “They just didn’t ask.”

10. Solidarity’s a biggie
Prof Redmond advocates “proper, professional, efficient” response to humanitarian emergencies. But when he asked the head of a warzone hospital about the most helpful thing his team had done, they replied: “You came”. American Syrian Nahlawi has also felt the power, in times of trauma, of simple solidarity – as when Americans joined together following the vandalising of mosques to say ‘not in our name’. She used to balk at requests that she publically denounce terrorism “just because I’m a Muslim. But now I will say ‘not in my name’, because I know that gesture could be appreciated by someone who doesn’t know you as well as you think they should know you”.

11. Our inner demons take many forms
According to Prof Brady, our inner demons might be an element of a desire set we wish to be rid of – such as alcohol. They may be the negative internalised voices of a parent or authority figure. They might be the manifest tension between our professional, social and private selves. Canon Dr David Holgate spoke about the Desert Fathers, early Christian ascetics who took themselves off to the Egyptian desert in the name of “flight, silence and unceasing prayer. But the self that reared up in their isolation was… weird”.

12. We’ve been getting God’s name wrong
In the Book of Exodus, Moses asks God’s name at the Burning Bush. Normally, said Canon Holgate, the answer is translated as: ‘I am who I am, and I will be who I will be’. But according to a recent Ferguson lectureby theologian Janet Martin Soskice, it should be: ‘I am with you now, and I will be with you in the future’. A small but significant shift which, as Canon Holgate observed, “sends a profound message about relationship”.

13. There’s a cultural context to our experience of loneliness
When Canon Holgate was ordained, in apartheid South Africa, the black priests from the overpopulated townships wondered how the white priests could survive in the rich suburbs: they were so quiet, so dead. Meanwhile Dasarts in Amsterdam had shared some interesting new research with SICK!: Finnish parents see it as normal for their children to fly the nest completely. Italian parents expect their grown-up children to visit home every week.

14. Thinking about others is the brain’s default position
Psychologist Dr Rebecca Harris is researching the health impact of loneliness, particularly on the long-term health of children. “Loneliness is intentionally difficult, like thirst,” she explained. It is an evolutionary tool that prompts us to reconnect when we need to. FMRI scans of the brain have recently revealed that, when we are in between tasks, we default to thinking about other people. Which might explain the modern tech-enabled phenomenon of “social snacking”.

15. Good old Rousseau had it right
Professor Bobbie Farsides, Professor in Clinical & Biomedical Ethics, said the day had sent her back to her early study in political philosophy – particularly Rousseau’s concepts of ‘amour de soi’ (love of self) and ‘amour-propre’ (self-love). This is what’s happening in the age of Facebook, she said: our sense of self worth increasingly depends on the opinion of others, on clicks of the ‘like’ button. How can we recreate a private space of non-judgement or ‘amour de soi’ for ourselves? Or, to put it a slightly different way: ‘Be the person your dog thinks you are’.

16. There’s a challenge for Sick! to stay connected to the real world
It’s all very well debating identity in the safe university context, said Professor of Social Ethics Gideon Calder. But academics are in danger of forgetting how “liberal, egalitarian, untypical, rarefied, and intimidating to many” universities are. What about the version of the debate about identity that’s happening in tower blocks and on the edges of council estates?

17. But universities aren’t as egalitarian as they seem
Dr Ruth Adams, Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Creative Industries, spoke about the challenges of integrating a student bodyat King’s College London that’s now 50-60% Chinese. “Happy-clappy multiculturalism,” she said, “has not been enough. We have real structural and attitudinal issues informed by strategies verging on racism”. You can’t, she concluded, wish other people’s issues away.

18. We shouldn’t forget the unconscious
Why is it that we find it so difficult to make the changes we want, not just in the wider world, but in our own private interactions? Professor of Cultural Studies Jackie Stacey spoke about personally feeling “pulled back into a place of negative repetition”, from social prejudices to dodgy relationships. Perhaps we need to think more about what our unconscious investments might be? Or, as SICK!’s Tim Harrison put it, how come we naturally assume that our true self is ‘valuable and good?’

19. We can be united in diversity
A former theatre director in the audience who now works for the European Parliament reckoned diversity can, in and of itself, be something that unites us. The EU was his example of this, which led some panelists to observe that this is a club that functions precisely by excluding whole chunks of the world. A less contentious example might be Act For Change, of which actor Nadarajah is a member. The organisation wants equality in theatre, and is open to everyone.

20. But we’ll never fully do away with ‘us and them’
“Even the most, progressive, universally minded people”, observed Prof Calder, “will still have a ‘them’ in mind: non-progressive, non-universally minded people”.

21. The role of art in all of this
For Prof Thompson, art is a place we can go to, when the media fails us, for a truer account of conflict. Which is why it’s so important to support artists to access the wider world – and to explore new forms, like the Syrian film festival shot entirely on mobile phones. Harrison has thought a lot about the role of SICK! in all of this. Art has its limitations, he admitted. Perhaps it can’t cure. “But it can bear witness.”

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