In December 2012, Belfast City Council banned the flying of the Union flag outside of City Hall except on designated holidays. The decision caused uproar among Protestant-unionists who saw this as yet another erosion of their identity. And so began the ‘flags dispute’, with protesters regularly blocking roads to draw attention to what they saw as a denial of their cultural rights. Most of the protesters were drawn from an urban Protestant working class who see themselves as the political and economic ‘losers’ in the peace process. Whether that ‘loser’ status is merited is hotly debated, but few can deny that the narrative is popular and truly believed by many of the protesters.
Given that the focal point of the dispute is the flag, the protests are inherently performative – if somewhat predictable (there are only so many ways that one can wave a flag). But an interesting development has arisen – a web-based group that is attempting to parody the flag protesters. Called ‘Loyalists Against Democracy’ (http://loyalistsagainstdemocracy.blogspot.co.uk/), the group is anonymous and seems to come from within the Protestant-unionist community. They have a wonderful collage of flag protesting images set to a Primal Scream soundtrack:
On one level it is a marvelous critique of the flags dispute, and is quite clear in its opinion of those who cause disruption and those who lead them. But there is also something a little insidious going on too. The video contains a lot of classist profiling. It is reminiscent of the way, a few years ago, that English popular culture re-popularised the notion of ‘the chav’. Originally a derogatory term for gypsies, the term ‘chav’ became a more general derogatory term applied to people deemed to be ‘cheap’, tasteless, or tacky. But there was something else located in the signaling associated with the term ‘chav’. It was also a descriptor of the poor – working class, underclass, cheaply attired or engaged in inexpensive and ‘uncultured’ social pursuits.
Watching the LAD video, it is clear that there has been a judicious splicing of the video shots to show the flag protesters as being ‘chavy’: dressed in sports-related clothes, speaking ungrammatically, drinking cheap lager in public, home-dyed hair, and police mugshots. That is not to say that none of these elements were present. It is, instead, to highlight that there is classism running through the LAD video. There is a danger that this parody strays into the territory of the safe middle classes looking down on economically less fortunate groups. The automaticity in which those of a ‘lower’ socio-economic group are deemed as illegitimate or less valuable to society is cause for concern.
Shortly after his postgraduate graduation this year, Lei Chuang started off his walking journey from Shanghai to Beijing for the petition to include Hepatitis B drugs into the national list of essential drugs and reduce the economic burden of HBV sufferers. The journey took 80 days and covered 1552 kilometers. On 13th September 2013, Lei arrived at Beijing and submitted his petition letter to the National Health and Family Planning Commission.
There are approximately 130 million Hepatitis B virus (HBV) carriers in China, one third of the world’s HBV carrier population. HBV sufferers face severe discrimination especially in employment and education. Lei himself is a HBV carrier. Before this walking journey, he is already well known for his creative activities to fight for equal rights for HBV carriers, for example, a letter a day to invite the Chinese Premiere for dinner (he’s going to send the 1000th letter later in December), and sending 10 kilograms of pears (yali, sounds like ‘pressure’ in Chinese) to a local human resource department to protest HBV checks in employment.
Regarding his latest action of walking to Beijing, Lei explains in one of his recent talks that the act of walking can create pure and friendly connections and, thus, also becomes a positive attempt to change the prevalent fear and mistrust among people in the Chinese society. Before and during the journey, Lei kept close communication with the outside world through Weibo (a popular social media in China), and made it accessible for others to join the journey in a range of ways. Over the 80 days, there were more than 40 volunteers from all over the country, including Lei’s father and a disable friend, who came to walk with Lei for different sections of the journey. Numerous people donated food and money, offered lifts (however, all lifts were kindly rejected), signed on the petition, or just chatted with them. In return, Lei and his companions tried to wave and smile to each passerby, and even shared food with the homeless on their way. However, not every smile attracted equal reaction. For several times, Lei felt threatened by drunkards and suspected robbers. Such dangers can be very common in the complicated situations during the long journey. Lei seems more willing to prove the pure relationship among people by his safe arrival and all the help he got during the process.
Lei intends to extend this interpersonal relationship to the government. He chose to travel in the most strenuous way of walking during the hottest days of the year. In his words, he wanted to ‘touch the hearts’ of the government through arduousness. Lei might be one of the thousands of petitioners (no official statistics) travelling to Beijing. For thousands of years, when Chinese people wanted to express grievance and seek justice, they tended to go directly to higher authorities. In today’s society, there are petition bureaus in different levels of governments. Travelling to Beijing to express grievance to the highest authority, rather than resort to normal legal procedures, is still a strong belief for many Chinese people. However, the petition system itself is a big problem. As the petitioner population has been rapidly increasing since 1990s, governments at various levels attempt different methods to block petitioners on their way to Beijing, including illegal detainment and imprisonment in ‘black jails’. In the desperately worsening situations, some petitioners resort to radical and violent means for expression. Many petitioners might also want to ‘touch the hearts’ of the officials with their grievances, anger and helplessness. However, Lei intended to spread a more positive energy. Arduousness has nothing to do with weakness or vulnerability. Instead, it is a process of accumulating power. Moreover, Lei and his companions often made fun of each other and appreciated the scenic views along the way. They turned the arduousness into a funny and happy journey. In Lei’s words, what he wanted to transmit is the power of happiness.
Although the idea sounds idealized, Lei is firm and tactful. He believes that rational and non-violent actions, no matter how small it is, can change the society and even the government, which is considered to be the most impersonal organization. In fact, the intertwinement of creative performance and tactful strategies to the government runs through his activities. Lei demonstrates the position as an equal interlocutor and collaborator. He always attempts gain a proactive position by tactically utilizing the existing regulations and laws and artistically leaving room for the officials to respond decently. Long before he set off for the walk, Lei posted the petitioning letter online and made it widespread. During the journey, he kept updating the official department he was going visit with detailed information, so that related officials could have sufficient time to prepare for the reception. Therefore, it might not be difficult to understand the positive results he had achieved: he and his father were formally received by related officials at their arrival and even asked for a group photo after the meeting. Two weeks after their petition, Lei was officially confirmed that the related departments was studying his petitioning letter and would investigate the possibilities of improving the system of essential drugs. It might be a specific case, but in Lei’s cases, such ‘specific’ cases were not uncommon.
Lei does not stop at this point. He continues to campaign for the HBV sufferers through running. Earlier this month, Lei and other volunteers participated in the Guangzhou marathon competition. All of them wore straw hats, which Lei and his companions wore during their walk to Beijing, to demonstrate their attitudes against the discrimination of HBV carriers. Besides, he still keeps watch on the government’s further reaction to his petition. He asserts if the government does not take proper measures to improve the HBV drug system, he will keep walking to Beijing to petition next year.
Lei Chuang’s blog: http://blog.sina.com.cn/leichuang1987
Lei Chuang’s Weibo: http://weibo.com/leichuang
Video: Lei Chuang’s talk: http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XNjIzNTI1NDY0.html
Co-authored by Lisa Woynarski (Central School of Speech & Drama) & Bronwyn Preece (University of Glasgow)
3 performance makers: one from the UK, one from Canada and one from the US. 1 eco-scenographer from Australia and a community-engagement coordinator based in Wales. 1 community allotment garden with 150 volunteers. 17 interviews with community gardeners. All of these elements coalesced to create the Trans-Plantable Living Room: a process and practice of ‘slow performance activism,’ in which seemingly domestic gesture(s) became full of activist potential.
1 part freshly harvested organic mint
1/4 part freshly picked organic sage
1/4 part freshly picked rosemary
In a pot, pour hot water over herbs, cover with a lid, and allow to steep for 20 minutes.
Serve and share with neighbours, friends and community members….sit, sip, reflect and discuss how an inherently local act such as gardening can serve as a global marker for climate change….
Based on a design first realised in Australia by eco-scenographer Tanja Beer, the project existed as part growing experiment, part performance and part tea party, staging 4 performances in Cardiff for World Stage Design, followed by two London performances and an installation. The space, in its first incarnation, was an outdoor, edible living room; and the second manifestation saw the growing living room set indoors. This trans-plantable living room was grown by Riverside Community Allotment in Cardiff, while the London performance featured plants sourced from a series of local urban community gardens, and was activated through performances inspired by interviews with growers, created by Plantable Performance Research Collective: a trans-national group made up of Bronwyn Preece in Canada, Lisa Woynarski in the UK and Meghan Moe Beitiks in the US.
Like the slow food movement, the project sought to foreground the connection between people, food, land and nature; wherein ‘nature’ is not viewed as ‘other’, but rather inextricably connected, the whole of everything that is Earth. We start from the premise that the effects of climate change are, in part, due to the perceived separation between humans and the natural world. Through performance, we were attempting to bridge the divide and highlight the interconnectedness of humans and our surrounding world by literally and symbolically brewing and planting cultural interventions. The Trans-Plantable Living Room project, by creating an immersive experience in a growing living room aimed to provide a phenomenological experience of gardening, place and community; merging and blurring the lines of outside/inside, the local and the global, gardening and performance, artist and gardener.
We entered this project with a collection of individual questions but with the shared goal of wishing to foster, what Heim calls “occasions for talking together, in public, about nature-human relations,” creating work which would “continue to have effect beyond the event, reverberating in the stories about it, passed along like a slow contagion” (Heim 2003: 184).
We were interested in the coherence and dissonance between an inherently local project, being devised by a team of globe-spanning performance practitioners, most of whom will have never ever set foot on this specific location of British soil until the week before the performance, and most of whom had not met the Wales-based gardeners interviewed for the performance material. Does geographer Doreen Massey’s thoughts “against localism, but for a politics of place” apply? Acknowledging that the effects of climate change are increasingly ignoring distinction between local and global, we struggled with what that meant for a trans-national approach and aim to highlight these tensions. How would the process of sharing tea (ironically a plant lovely consumed but not grown in the UK) facilitate the dialogic and diasporic process?
Gardening, particularly urban food growing, has been identified as a strategy for a gesture and site of ecological resilience; that being said, we also recognise gardens as having embedded ironies and contentions within the global context of ecological suitability and adaptability. As with tea, plants are often grown with no original connection to the local ecosystem (for example Russian kale in North America and potatoes in Ireland); unwittingly ‘imported’ plants may have invasive capabilities in new location, acknowledging that labels such native species and origin may contain problematic implications. These sites come with their own set of ecological and ethical imperatives, when one can now grow corn in Wales, or quinoa in Canada, and call it ‘growing local’. As Sally Mackey remarks, ‘historically, allotments are places that are deeply contested’ (2007:184).
To make, serve and drink it is an act of community. This simple gesture has the potential to engage with social, political, ethic and ecology dialogues within the frame of performance. In the Trans-Plantable Living Room, making tea functioned as a performative act, an ecological activist gesture, a form of conflict management and a social induction. Working with the gardeners of Riverside Community Allotments, we quickly realised the importance of the ritual of the tea break. Gardening here was 50% physical labour and 50% tea drinking. Tea, within the process and performance, also contained a number of ironies and tensions, making it a fruitful source of creative debate. We were equally exploring the tension of gardening as control over land while also possessing the ability to connect us to the act of growing and subsequently remind us of our ecological situatedness….to be housed in a series of mere 20-minute, interactive performances at World Stage Design and in London.
Trans-Plantable Living Room embodied a process of slow performance activism through the gesture of making tea – within an edible, growing space – steeping questions into a metaphorical and material tonic
More detailed accounts of The Trans-Plantable Living Room can be found at:
And watch here: ‘trans-planted tea sets’ – a trans-national planting of teapots and teacups, by members of Plantable from each of our separate global locations (made before we met in person in Wales), set to an audio reel of the Welsh Gardeners (whom we had yet to meet)….this video served both as process-building and was incorporated into the London incarnation of the performance.
The teapot that Bronwyn plants in Canada, subsequently made the trip to Cardiff and London: being incorporated into each performance, and returned back to Canada, completing the tea/gardening performance cycle.
Heim, W. (2003) ‘Slow activism: homelands, love and the lightbulb’ in Nature Performed: Environment, Culture and Performance, Szerszynski, B., Heim, W. and Waterton, C. (eds.). Oxford, Blackwell.
Mackey, S. (2007) ‘Performance, place and allotments: Feast or Famine?’. Contemporary Theatre Review, 17: 2, 181-191
Accompanying photos by Nigel Pugh @nspugh
I’d like to tell you how I ended up in a shark costume on Market Street the other weekend.
Around two years ago. I was watching the TV and I kept hearing about how my money – my taxes – had been used to bail out banks who’d gambled other people’s money – and lost. While cuts were being talked about – not one banker had been brought to task. I got cross.
Then I read on the Internet about huge multi-national companies getting round paying their fare share of tax and I got even more cross.
I heard about this group called UK Uncut who were going to go down to town and tell Vodaphone and Top Shop they were a bit cross too. So very very nervously, I’d never done another like this before, I went to the Arndale, and hung around half in, half out of the action. Some people probably thought I was an undercover police officer - as I was looking so shifty. What I found was a diverse group of individuals who were also cross and didn’t want to sit at home any more either.
It was all a bit scary so I didn’t do anything else for a while. Then I was working in London for a few weeks and Occupy London set themselves up. More people who were a bit cross about the financial system and the bankers.
After work one evening I nervously went down – and found another diverse group of people who had also decided that sitting at home wasn’t an option any more. There was a meeting area & learning tent, a library, a canteen. It was a happy, hopeful space where all were welcome.
When I came back home to Manchester I popped down to Occupy Manchester’s second camp and found another group of like-minded people. I struck up friendships and it is these people up here with me who gave me the courage to join in the next action, and the next, and the next – until - well last week and the shark costume.
We don’t all agree on everything. We have some heated debates – oh yes we do. But what we’ve found is common ground. As humans who want to make the world a better place.
I feel that our colourful and fun way create debate is positive. We dramatise the issue. Give people something to think about. Raise questions.
As an individual it is very empowering and uplifting and it’s FUN! You realise just how many people agree. They beep their horns, they clap as we parade past. Yes there are those that shout, get a job, though why they assume that because I’m standing round in a shark costume on a Saturday afternoon it means I don’t have a job I’m not sure. There are many more that come up and chat. And every now and then they will join in – and it’s the best feeling when they do.
Using performance to tell a story. To dramatise the situation breaks down barriers. It turns heads and draws people in. It’s non confrontational. People come up and speak to us. Young people ask why we’re dressed up. Little kids laugh. I hope everyone who sees us goes away thinking and discussing what they saw with friends. Raising awareness – and maybe next time they read or hear a news story they’ll question a little more.
There are what, 200 of us in here, there were about 20 of us the other week. We got the message across. Imagine how much fun we could have if everyone here turned up next time!
Be brave, come out on the streets , think of new ways to express yourselves. If you’re scared we’ve got lots of costumes and masks we can lend you !
Occupy Manchester will be present on 29th September [https://www.facebook.com/OccupyMCR]. You won’t be able to miss us. Please come over and join in. Whether you are dressed as a shark or not.
Last night my students from the Academy and and the College came together to perform short pieces of theatre for each other (with reference to The College & the Academy); an event containing processes that were filled with gestures of resistance and exchange.
A few days after the Academy’s hierarchies had approved our proposal to invite the cadets to our College, they realized that their visiting protocols did not permit cadets to ‘come into contact’ with foreign nationals. Although it was talked about as an archaic rule that no one understood any more, the fact that this rule was stated on paper caused some upheaval at the Academy. Were their cadets going to come into contact with non-Indian students; with the ‘Other’? Would these young men flirt with the young (non-Indian) women that they were going to meet, and God forbid, exchange email addresses and phone numbers? What if these ‘non-Indians’ would somehow tarnish the discipline of the Indian cadets?… Gestures of resistance abounded in the two weeks prior to last night’s show — gestures that while admittedly disingenuous to the people making them, had to be followed as a performance of protocol. These back and forth conversations of ‘maybe’ and ‘maybe not’ continued until two hours before the cadets actually arrived on campus; so up to the very last moment, we were not sure if our gesture of theatrical exchange would even happen.
But it happened. Somewhere in the Academy’s hierarchies, someone stepped in and ensured that this event took place. So, the cadets came to the College, they performed their piece (a brief overview might be found in the post Gestures of Auto-Ethnography), and students from the College performed a series of scenes/ monologues that they had been working on. The performances were followed by a discussion in which the cadets — who were extremely skeptical about the idea of performing monologues that talked about their lives — were met with positive and appreciative responses as to the honesty of the work. “Your monologues were so personal, so honest, thank you for sharing them”, students from the College said, and were met with amused and sheepish smiles from the cadets who did not believe that their thoughts/ opinions would elicit such a response. “We’ve never done or seen performances like this before”, the cadets responded, “we didn’t know that theatre could be like this.” The two groups of young people talked, walked, chatted — without exchanging email addresses or phone numbers, of course, under the watchful eyes of the Academy’s accompanying faculty — and came away (it seemed) with a sense of appreciation for each other. That although they came from different worlds, somehow, theatre became a gesture of exchange between them.
Whether the Academy will want to pursue this relationship, whether this ‘different’ theatre was something too ‘different’, whether there will be negative outcomes from the cadets’ interactions with students from the College, are all unknowns today. Today we rejoice in the success of this one small gesture of exchange. And tomorrow, well tomorrow we will wait for the gestures of resistance that are sure to return.
On 3rd April 1913 three suffragettes – Annie Briggs, Evelyn Manesta and Lillian Forrester- attacked a number of pictures in the Manchester Art Gallery as part of the militant campaign for votes for women. One hundred years later this pivotal moment provided the focus for a commemorative season of events aimed at promoting national awareness of the importance of Manchester as the birthplace of the suffragette movement. The first Wonder Women: Radical Manchester season (henceforth WWRM) consisted of around 40 events which took place at cultural venues across the city to acknowledge, celebrate and commemorate the sacrifices made by many radical women, both historical and contemporary, in the fight for equality.
The Radical Objects project was devised as a method for documenting the first WWRM season. When attending WWRM events, I would ask women to share an object which they were carrying in their handbag or on their person. I recorded the stories hidden within these ‘radical’ objects as a means of generating discussion about what it is to be a woman in Manchester in 2013. I took photographs of the objects and uploaded the images and associated personal stories to the WWRM project blog (http://wonderwomenmcr.blogspot.co.uk/). The objects included compasses, toothpaste tubes, 3-way adapter plugs and wine glasses. The associated stories were compelling and ranged from the sentimental to the hilarious.
The initial Radical Objects post sparked a dialogue on Twitter. I began to ask our followers to take their own photographs of the objects within their handbags and to upload them to Twitter so that they could be included on the blog. The result is a digital archive of objects and stories told by the women of Manchester. The objects shared by the ‘ordinary women’ of Manchester are re-appropriated in the Radical Objects project; those items we carry around every day take on new meaning by being associated with a personal history. Feminists have long examined the personal histories and experiences of ‘ordinary women’ as a means to democratise authority and knowledge, to deconstruct the male bias of the historical record, and to tell new stories about the past (Chidgey 2).
A key tenet of the suffragette movement was the notion of reconfiguring everyday objects: ‘The material culture of the movement [banners, badges etc.] was consciously developed and given an importance not usually applied to the ephemeral, or everyday’ (Kean 585). The Radical Objects project seeks to find meaning in the everyday objects in women’s handbags in order to encourage them to reflect upon their role in contemporary society, particularly within a commemorative and reflective season of events.
The WWRM project blog continues to serve as a platform for the exchange of ideas and a place to examine how the city might best commemorate the upcoming centenary of 1918 when women were first granted (partial) suffrage.
Chidgey, Red. “Reassess Your Weapons: the making of feminist memory in young women’s zines”. Women’s History Review. Published online: 15 Apr 2013. Accessed 20 May 2013.
Kean, Hilda. “Public History and Popular Memory: issues in the commemoration of the British militant suffrage campaign”. Women’s History Review, Volume 14, Numbers 3&4, 2005 pp.581-602. Print.
Performance is increasingly challenging the dictionary definition of activism as being solely “the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change” (OAD), upsetting the often-implied elements of confrontation exercised with the term. Performance is reminding us that ‘activism’ might not begin with igniting change, but rather, with celebrating ‘what is’: operating as a building block for cohesion, marking polyvocality, pluralism and diversity. Activism, in this sense, can equally be defined as widespread community engagement.
In this vein: on one small, 350 peopled, relatively remote, entirely off-the-grid island, off the west coast of Canada, such a performance project occurred. Performing the Ecology of Place: Embodying an Eco-Cultural ‘Living History’ on Lasqueti Island/Xwe’etay involved the creation of a one-time cross-generational, outdoor, community performance event that endeavored to allow for a deeper understanding of the local relationships to place and the eco-cultural web in existence on the unique island of Lasqueti/Xwe’etay (April 2013). The project hoped to elucidate Dr. David Abram’s visionary statement:
The singular magic of a place is evident from what happens there, from what befalls oneself or others when in its vicinity. To tell of such events is implicitly to tell of the particular power of that site, and indeed to participate in its expressive potency (Spell, 182[i]).
The multi-month project, which I facilitated, was not dubbed ‘activist’ or an act of ‘activism’ at any point during the process…but what transpired could be described as nothing else, in my mind. With participants and performers ranging in age from 3 to over 70, the performance unfolded as an exquisite honouring and reminder of the place and the people that are the very shape-shifting definers of this geographically-contained space.
The activism was the place-ing by a community: the myriad of voices (both past and present) forming a gestural pastiche, igniting reciprocity. Vignettes of perspectives were threaded together, forming a full two hours of saturated space…
which I try to capture here, in a performative poetic gesture activated by one community’s engagement in an active process:
and so she called
toted through ferry-madness
the names of a community
held together in space
for all the hear, for all the be here
present as the circle is opened
cast wide through expansive direction(s)
earth, air, fire, water
below and all around
eagle high a top
old growth tree and juniper-nestled
trickster raven recall
their inter-species ventriloquism
usher in students from the past
swinging on history’s branches in
maple grove –
this is I-T-E-U-Q-S-A-L
where invading pirates land
boats taking on water
emerging drunk from the row
forgetting their quest for rumored treasure
leaving poster of their 1913 leader
beneath wet floorboards
they set to pillage for women
about to make off with unsuspecting local
dame, is stopped mid-swoop, by his
sword-carrying, ransacking comrade:
‘wait, that’s my mum’
taunting tubas intervene, in a show-(down)
staging three generations of one family
through bolting brassica grace, the rogues
make off only with ‘jake’
pink-sparkle tailed feral lamb
saxophones, trombones and
trumpets secure the peace…
& quiet (as the camouflaged ‘plants’
nestled into bluff ‘give thanks’) through
lasquetia and little people walk through, as
bare-back the witnessing of an
ever-moving post office…
there must be rules to all of this,
sung and ‘rap’ped in
welcome to lasqueti
where’s the bar?
blue-in-the-face we wait for
gas til Monday
this is reason enough to declare a
armed with driftwood
and oyster shell
four year olds are employed to drive the first
headlamps are delivered by the three year old
power company official
everyone else is otherwise occupied
sipping local moonshine in the
noisy pirate grotto, while
three little lasqueti lambs
quest to find their mother
(now burnt beyond a recognizable
crisp, equally forgotten by
perhaps the wood-splitting wwoofer could
prepare something for the feast, stepping out from
bear/wolf/cougar…dog stalked plywood/log/cob
to be wrapped up in one community’s
knitted blanket of
that presents and that ‘speaks’ through
guitars, banjos, drumkits and
xylophone cannot coax the
xylem of the
back-to-the-landers’ voices to
flow any stronger
but through this ‘recipe’
“inserted into the middle
comes out muddy and
Eagle-Eye View of ‘Performing the Ecology of Place’
***A more detailed articulation of the philosophy, process, and substance of this community-wide event, I would gladly love to elaborate on…looping it back into the context of gestural local activism and animism!