When it comes to equality, diversity and inclusion, my students at the ArtEZ Academy of Theatre and Dance in the Netherlands often know more than we, their teachers, do. The debates about diversity and inclusion within ArtEZ are regularly started and driven by students. We, their teachers, sometimes find ourselves struggling to keep up. Students themselves are taking initiatives for working groups on diversity and actively ask for the decolonisation of their curriculum. They hold their teachers accountable when teaching material is problematically conservative or exclusive. Students keep us on our toes, challenging our ethics and cultural knowledge—not the other way around.
A fundamental change is happening—previously unexamined issues have entered our everyday vocabulary. Representation, privilege, cultural appropriation, tokenism, gender diversity, white saviorism, intersectionality, transphobia, fatphobia, and validism1 —issues that were completely unknown to most people until recently—are suddenly no longer terms limited to a specific niche. They are discussed publicly in daily newspapers and raised in our everyday work environments. As teachers and mentors of a new generation of artists and art educators, we were bound to experience some clumsiness and discomfort as we change and learn—and indeed we are. The discomfort is not only a psychological or emotional matter: the effort of decolonising—and depatriarchalising (a new term I’d like to hereby propose)—a curriculum takes time to research. And often, that is not something that we as teachers have. Many teachers report that they are certainly willing to ‘do diversity,’ but that they do not really know how and where to start.
There is a hunger for more access to the language of these discussions: for a shared vocabulary to be able to speak and think about inclusion and art together. In the context of the art school, we see a need for new examples of practices, artists and works, for new conceptual perspectives to appreciate and understand these works, as well as for concrete ideas for artistic strategies we can experiment with in our rehearsal rooms and studios.
New research is not necessarily our first need: research is already abundantly available at the intersection between the arts and gender and postcolonial studies (and as subfields: queer theory, disability theory, religion studies, etc.). However, the academic literature available is not easily accessible for B.A. students in the context of an art school like ArtEZ. And for students who are not being trained primarily for academic research, theory and the way it is shared in writing can be intimidating and, indeed…. exclusionary. In short, a translation is needed to allow access. Art schools need concrete and accessible starting points and instruments that give students who are not (yet) embedded in a theoretical field access to insights and knowledge in a way that accommodates our specific needs. This online series of essays hopes to offer precisely that.
Why Should Makers of Art Think?
Now that we’ve mentioned conceptual thinking and knowledge as an important component of developing artistic practices that engage with matters of equality, a matter I’d briefly like to problematise is: ‘Why should art makers think?’ I do not put the question like this (just) to be funny, and most certainly not to belittle us: of course, you are thinking all the time. But bear with me. Does a carpenter need to have a philosophy of carpeting? Does a theatre technician need a philosophy of technology? Does a visual artist need a philosophy of visual art? Does a dance maker absolutely need a philosophy of representation, performativity and the act of staging humans? They all need what we call ‘hands-on’ knowledge, but do they absolutely need to think about what they make, and how it is connected to larger issues and how it raises larger questions through theory and philosophy? What if we don’t feel like it? What if we are doing just fine without? Obscenely beautiful and impactful art has been made without the artist making any claim to ‘thinking.’ Isn’t making art more of a doing? And isn’t art more about feeling, being moved and intuition than about meaning, politics and discourse?
One more simple answer is: we can’t help but think, anyway. (Try it. Put down this introduction for a minute or two and see if you can not-think). And since we can’t help ourselves, we propose to do so in good company. Researchers in the arts and in gender and postcolonial studies tend to be good company, so we’ve approached them and asked them to put their ideas and knowledge down in a way that we hope inspires your thoughts in new directions.
Another answer to the question (more relevant to this publication and the way we have chosen to foreground concepts in it) is: the carpenter might not need a theory of carpets, but that is because the carpet itself has no philosophical nor cultural ambition.2 Your artwork does, however. Whether or not you believe you are thinking while making your work (an often-heard argument is ‘I’m really more interested in working from intuition!’), your work is certainly thinking. So, if you are not thinking with it, it might be doing all that while you are not paying attention. For all you know, it’s secretly thinking something that would horrify you. Philosophy, research and theories provide ways to learn the language that helps you understand what the thing you’ve made is actually doing, saying and whispering to others, and how it is meaningful in contexts larger than your own frame of mind.
This collection of essays is both a starting point for thinking and a starting point for doing. The approach to theoretical concepts that we propose is an active approach: one that asks the question, what does this concept do? Theoretical concepts work like instruments that help you think in specific ways: to observe new aspects of a work and see new connections that the concept at hand invites you to notice and consider. Our approach treats theoretical concepts like practical tools: tools that do something. Powertools. In doing so, we hope to contribute to a mentality that doesn’t consider theory as abstract and unpractical, but that looks at conceptual tools as action-oriented things that want you to do something.
This reframe of theory-as-practical also works in reverse in the way you could think of artistic practices as in and of themselves intelligent. So while, on one hand, we can ask of a concept: what does this concept do, we can now also look at artistic and practical work and ask, what is this artwork thinking?
Inclusion Is for the Brave
Inclusion sounds good. Warm, welcoming and intimate. But there is no such thing as inclusion without difficulty, awkwardness and pain. As long as, to loosely cite Aminata Cairo, it all stays ‘gezellig’ (a uniquely Dutch term for comfort in good company), we can be sure that we are merely window-dressing and that we won’t get much further in smashing cishetpatriarchy and institutionalised white supremacy any day soon.3 ‘Inclusion’ describes an effort after trauma. It is a project we embark on after the moment we acknowledge that we have structurally excluded, exploited, mistreated, humiliated and killed people on the basis of their gender, ethnicity, skin colour, sexual orientation, ability, bodyweight, class, religion, level of education and other grammars of difference. And after the moment, we decide to accept accountability and take on the challenge of changing what is and rethinking the current distribution of wealth, access to education, medical care and justice. It happens when we take on the work it takes to thoroughly reevaluate the value and respect attributed to different identities in the social arena, the aesthetic appreciation of bodies, and how we express ourselves culturally, and change what French philosopher Jacques Rancière famously calls ‘the sensible.’4
Imagine two lovers right after a violent fight. One of them just realises they have humiliated and hurt the other. The space may seem neutral, but the echo of shouting is still in the air. If they want to get back to OK, they can’t just flip a switch and pretend the fight never happened. They have to talk. Similarly, expecting immediate gratitude and enthusiasm in response to an institute or an art project’s decision to be ‘inclusive’ before we have listened long enough to get the full picture is simply impolite. Sometimes, all we can do is be alone and reflect on ourselves for a while before our partner is willing to talk again. Sometimes, we have to shut up, go make tea and listen. Usually after that tea, we have to change a thing or two before the invitation to be included is anywhere near appealing to those we have hurt.
The lovers I mentioned need language. The language of violence, defence, separation, stereotyping and pushing each other into fixed identities is still in the air. To get to a new reality, we need new language to start speaking and thinking and imagining it. This publication aspires to give art students and their teachers access to frameworks, vocabularies and examples that help you find the language and sources that are helpful to break the paralysis and get us back into motion and back towards connection.
With connection and motion as starting points, we can find ways to work towards equality and inclusion that effect more than a quick patch-up. Ways that are more meaningful than a merely symbolic, and therefore rather impolite, invitation to people who are black, indigenous, Latinx, Asian, to women, to people who are queer, trans, neurodiverse, crippled,5 etc.,6 to be accepted, or, as we often say in the Dutch context, ‘tolerated’ inside a norm that is harmful to them (to me, to us), by being included while in the same gesture they are stereotyped as ‘other’ to that norm. Instead of trying to quickly determine if what we do ‘is inclusive’ so that we can ‘check the box,’ if we are brave enough to acknowledge the trauma, the resulting paralysis, and other affective, emotional and subconscious reflexes and routines that result from a long complex history of exclusionary power-dynamics, then from there, from a place of respect for that reality, we can connect with our realities, with those of others, and move, and engage in an actual rethinking of the way we share spaces.
Art Students and the Art of Getting It Right
I’m in a classroom, and my students and I are looking at theatre and dance performances and talking about art and equality. We are looking at provocative work by artists like Milo Rau and Renzo Martens and asking: how are these works representing the category of ‘the human’? How is their dramaturgy addressing the audience and seducing it to take in a specific perspective? Who benefits from that perspective and who doesn’t? The students are enthusiastically thinking and discovering artistic possibilities and linking these to their own work. They are currently participating in a project where they make work with people with Down’s syndrome, so inclusion is a hot topic in their projects. But Milo Rau and Renzo Martens perform inclusion rather differently than they imagined.
Then, after a long silence, one student hesitantly asks: ‘But, as socially responsible artists, we can’t do something like this, right? We would have to be much more… well, you know… ethical and… you know, friendly, wouldn’t we?’ I appreciate the sense of responsibility I see in my students, but I also see how the excited energy leaks out of the room. My students care passionately, but in the context of my class that discusses the injustice and unsafety of our social and political reality, they also look at the room like those two lovers might look at each other after that fight: silent, ashamed and too frozen for fun.
Somehow, my students have caught the idea that inclusion and diversity asks art to make itself smaller, less exciting, less daring and grand and surprising and inexplicable. As if the latest woke-olympics have sucked the oxygen out of the studios and rehearsal rooms and left just enough for us to stay in survival mode and ask, ‘How do I Get It Right?’ The question is often asked to me literally by students in classes where I’m specifically asked to address diversity and inclusion: ‘I’m a white dude making art: how do I Get This Right?’ As if inclusion and diversity are labels one can attach to a work, or criteria we can measure in numbers, or a simple yes or no (‘yes, this one is diverse’). And as if being ethical and responsible excludes artistic modes that are wild and free and exuberantly daring.
This specific way of handling the term ‘inclusion’ is not a simple mistake in logic on the part of my students. Instead, I would suggest my students are also repeating a logic implied in the way we as institutions often make announcements concerning inclusion. The term ‘inclusion’ is often presented in well intended yet problematic claims, such as ‘Our art school is inclusive’ or ‘Our programme is inclusive,’ or ‘This conference is inclusive.’ Using the language of inclusion in this way suggests that inclusion is a quality found inside the object itself: a characteristic immanent to things like artworks and conferences, rather than the result of processes, relationships and events that the objects, practices and communities we create afford.
The bad news for such claims is that inclusion is relational. Since it is relational, it behaves like a moving target: an ideal constantly impacted by new forces and events in the worlds we live and work in, and by the history those events grow and feed upon. There is no recipe to follow or checklist to tick after which the label ‘inclusive’ can be attached to what you do. As long as the world is a place where people are excluded on the grounds of their bodies and identities, the project of inclusion is not finished. A Buddhist perspective on this is: nobody is enlightened until we are all enlightened. Inclusion is not a label—it is a value and a project. The good news is that (1) we have embarked on that project; (2) we are allowed to make mistakes; and (3) we are capable of being accountable for those mistakes and changing what we say and do and create. We can’t ‘be inclusive,’ but we can continue to take actions, every day and every step of the way, to afford inclusion.
A question one might ask from my position in that classroom, feeling responsible for my students’ artistic development, is: how can we not sacrifice artistic freedom for social responsibility? But a better question is perhaps: how do we not fall into the trap of thinking that artistic exploration and freedom are antagonistic to social and ethical care? Instead of accepting the lack of oxygen in the room as a fact of life in the aftermath of colonial capitalism and cishetpatriarchy, I believe that artistic answers to an unjust and unsafe world must also be able to include abundance, joy, dangerous play, darkness, artistic risk and works that do not explain themselves conceptually. At the same time, I also hesitate to rush over my students’ initial feeling that they all have to turn into tamed animals to Get It Right with gratuitous enthusiasm. After all, the shame and silence after a fight between lovers can be meaningful and productive.
Get It Wrong. Start Playing
If you’ve ever been in a violent fight with someone you are intimate with and you realise that the other person has been hurt and felt unsafe, perhaps you know the feeling. You’d like to make tea because what is needed now is care, but you feel too nervous to move towards the sink because somehow you are just too painfully visible. When you want to just do something kind and put on the kettle, but the silence makes every next move stand out, and it feels like you could get it horribly wrong and that would be the end of the world. My students asking how they can Get It Right are not wrong. They are sensitive to the fact that care is needed, but that you can’t know for sure if it is too soon for tea. I respect them for it.
My classroom anecdote and my parallel with lovers are not here for mere entertainment. They are here because I’d like to draw more attention to the affects involved in the project of inclusion and the ways we deal with them. Affects we easily ignore if we are taking these terms for granted as boxes to check or a hashtag for events and products (#diversityandinclusion). Looking from a pedagogical-didactical point-of-view, and from the point-of-view of care, the effects I often see in my students are silence, sadness, worry, a shyness to move around in a space that they now realise is so full of painful histories and experiences, and a slight sense of freezing up artistically. I want to say to them: let’s breathe out again.
And let’s not immediately assume that all playfulness and humour and risk will be lost to our loverships with people we, as we realise more and more, have not shared spaces with on equal terms. Because if we abandon risk, pleasure, exploration and uncertainty (in short, all the possibilities of getting it horribly wrong), would that not be a certain end to any love?
The approach I’d like to invite you to take as you browse through this publication and think about how to use parts of it for your practice is not to focus on right and wrong, nor on diversity and inclusion as labels or hashtags one could attach to artworks and practices as ethically OK practices. Your art is not broccoli, and it doesn’t require a fair-practice label the same way an organic vegetable does. Instead, you could focus on our curiosity and enjoyment of understanding HOW.
You could join us in a close reading of different works and wonder about what is happening in them and through them. You could wonder at the agency and potential of artistic practices to intervene in our social structures, our mindsets, our sense of self and identity, and our imagination about our planet and our relationship to ecologies we as organisms are part of. The answer to the question ‘How do I Get It Right?’ is, after all, not up to us, the editorial board that brings you this publication. We don’t know how to Get It Right, either. Instead, we suggest you risk getting it wrong, but start playing, intelligently and with sensitivity to the affects embodied by the parties you and your work are connecting.
Some Advice for Getting There
In order to strike a balance between accessibility and the focus on practical application on the one hand, and critical thinking and theoretical reflection on the other, every essay positions one theoretical concept at its centre. It then puts that concept to work in relation to an art piece or practice to think through and use as a source of inspiration. The essays are an invitation to consider these concepts as practical tools in a toolkit you can reach for to tackle practical artistic problems. So, we offer a line-up of concepts, situated in a larger theoretical field and connected to artistic strategies. You can use them to take in a new perspective on what you are doing and see what artistic decisions and thoughts might arise. They can be used alone, assembled, reverse engineered or turned upside down.
Some research questions we suggest if you are reading these texts on your own as a student and would like to think about your own practice are:
- What happens to what I see if I look through the lens of this concept? What do I notice that I didn’t notice before?
- The essay is describing practices that are positioned in specific contexts. How is my work situated within historically and culturally specific contexts?
- What is the agency of my artistic work within this culturally and historically specific context?
- How do the conceptual tools offered in this essay allow me to think about this agency differently?
If using them as a teacher in a classroom setting, a starting point for assignments and working forms is that you can always take an essay’s central concept to create two subtitles, respectively focussing more on critical reflection and on action and creation: (1) ‘Learning to think critically about…’ and (2) ‘Learning to work differently with…’ So, you could centre a class around ‘learning to think critically about representation,’ ‘learning to think critically about participation,’ ‘learning to think critically about emotion and affect,’ ‘learning to work differently with vulnerability,’ etc.
We very much hope that the perspectives offered in the essays here will open the vocabulary they offer up as tools to generate powers. We look forward to hearing your stories on if and how they do.
The Powertools series consists of the essays:
- ‘Introduction’, by Isis Freitas Vale Germano
- ‘Subversive Affirmation’, by Sigrid Merx / Liesbeth Groot Nibbelink
- ‘Vulnerable Looking’, by Jules Sturm
- ‘Representing the Self, Improperly’, by Milica Trakilović
- ‘Critical Tactics in Participatory Art’, by Fabiola Camuti
- ‘Is Crossing Boundaries Always Liberating? The contested politics of transgressive humour’, by Dick Zijp
- ‘Can Translation Do Justice?’, by Sruti Bala
- ‘Art, Design and Architectural Practices Beyond Precarious Working and Living Conditions: Proposals for Everyday Action’, by Bianca Elzenbaumer
- ‘Appreciate, Don’t Appropriate: Strategies to Avoid Cultural Appropriation’, by Renée Akitelek Mboya
- ‘How is Affect Related to the Social?: On Affect As a Tool’, by Eliza Steinbock
- ‘Communication as Radical Tool in Times of Societal Shift’, by Els Cornelis
Click on an article to read
Many of the terms I list here might be new to you. Most of them will be explained in the essays in this publication. They are not used here to intimidate you. The practice of intimidating others with an advanced knowledge of the language of equality and inclusion ironically has its own term: woke-olympics. ‘Woke’ stands for ‘awake’: aware of the reality of racism, sexism, and other ‘isms.’ Woke-olypmics can be helpful as a self-reflexive inside joke to put things in perspective and increase your feeling of safety whenever you feel stressed that you will be judged in conversations about diversity and inclusion. In any case, that is an impossible task because part of the process towards equality is questioning some of our language and finding new words when old ones turn out to be exclusionary or demeaning. This is not about winning a game, but rather about learning together. The term ‘woke’ is also increasingly used in debates and in journalism to criticise policies and movements that strive for equality as ‘trendy’ and ‘radical,’ a highly problematic and, at the same time, interesting phenomenon, but that is another topic for another essay.
Unless, of course, it does. I realise that for the sake of comic relief I am underestimating carpets and the way in which interior design is meaningful. Also, for the sake of a thought experiment, I am overstating the difference between craftsmanship and conceptual and philosophical work. We can very well argue that the carpet does think, in which case I will argue that it is now both a carpet and an aesthetic object determined to change your mindset. And yes, I am aware of the possibility to argue that, in fact, everything might always already be art and that, as Derrida reminds us, Il n'y a pas de hors-texte (‘There is nothing outside of text’), but I’d like to propose we leave that philosophical problem for another paper.
In a previous footnote, I mentioned the phenomenon of ‘woke-olympics.’ This introduction tries to steer clear of intimidating jargon, but I will occasionally indulge in a funky term like ‘cishetpatriarchy.’ Cishetpatriarchy is short for cisnormative and heteronormative patriarchy. The term expresses the view that patriarchy is not simply a historical event when men once ruled over women, but instead is a cultural frame supported by institutionalised power relations that still persist. This cultural frame not only aligns masculinity with authority and dominance and works to organise power relations between men and women; this dominance is deeply interwoven with the idea that heterosexuality is normal and good and therefore also organises power relations in a way that privileges heterosexuality and excludes and oppresses non-heteronormative way of bonding, expressing sexuality and forming families. In addition, the term emphasises how patriarchy is interwoven with the assumption that people are all either male of female and that this is defined by their biological sex. The ‘cis’ in ‘cishetpatriarchy’ refers to this last aspect, and the way patriarchical views and institutional structures exclude, oppress and pathologise trans people and trans experiences. ‘Cis’ is the opposite of ‘trans’: if your biological body is recognised by most people as female and you are OK with that because your gender is also female, you are not trans but cis. Personally, as a queer ciswoman, using the term ‘cishetpatriarchy,’ instead of just ‘heteronormative patriarchy,’ which would only focus the discussion on the forms of oppression that directly bother me, is a subtle form of taking responsibility for my privilege within patriarchy by making sure the consequences for trans experiences are made visible, even if they are not my experiences.
Jacques Rancière is a French Philosopher whose idea of the ‘distribution of the sensible’ has had a major impact on discussions of aesthetics, politics and ethics. The distribution of the sensible refers to what is visible and invisible to the senses in a community. The term helps to talk about what is present in our field of perception and what isn’t, and about the political implication of the distribution of this presence.
I do not mean to be offensive. Similar to how the derogatory term ‘queer’ has been appropriated by queer communities, the term ‘cripple’ has been appropriated in some circles to the extent of the rise in the humanities of ‘crip theory.’
Feel free to add identity categories manufactured by the white suprematist cishetpatriarchy to your liking.