In light of the recent open letter by Black artists and cultural workers in Switzerland, Brandy Butler, Yara Dulac Gisler, Deborah Joyce Holman, and Sarah Owens speak about and reflect on tokenization, the white gaze, access to cultural spaces, and already living in the future.
DJH: Let’s start this conversation by talking about tokenization. Because we want the things we have to say to be public—and we have a lot to say—but at the moment, considering the platforms we are offered, we almost always end up being tokenized. It’s always a weighing one against the other. And so, just because this conversation is going to be in this journal, or because this conversation is taking place here, it doesn’t mean that we’re completely happy with the conditions or happy with this institution, but it is urgent that this message gets out.
SO: One thing is how we privately deal with the issue of tokenization, and the other is how we act publicly, but both are connected, of course. I have sometimes responded to being invited that I feel I am being tokenized, and then the person who invited me answers “Aha,” and that’s it. It seems that as soon as I put a name on it, they think the issue has been discussed and that they no longer have to deal with it. This makes it seem like it’s only a personal issue—that I merely have to decide whether to feel tokenized or not—rather than a wider one.
BB: I think a lot of people just don’t know what it is or what it feels like. For myself in a position of feeling tokenized, there’s always this conflict of being between a rock and a hard place, and that is because so many jobs come from this place. I am originally a Black singer from America, and so I am intimately aware of the commodification of Blackness as a validation of what they do. So, of course, you do not want those jobs, but you also have to live. It’s always this moral fight with myself: what am I willing to do, how many times, and in what way, so I am still able to live off this thing that I do that is also of value—to me, but also for other people.
DJH: I agree with what you said about a lot of people not knowing what tokenization really is. It’s almost as if we’re being told to just be grateful to be included or offered any platform at all, so tokenization is impossible or irrelevant at least. There are all these subtle ways we are continually told that, “Actually, you are asking for too much.” That we should just be happy with anything we are offered at all, even if it’s the crumbs of the cake.
BB: I had a job a couple of years ago where I got asked to sing for a very famous Italian pop singer. I don’t speak Italian; they were specifically looking for Black backup singers. In the end I said, “No, I will not take this job simply because I’m Black. I don’t even speak Italian.” They were so outraged that I had said it. I think it was the first time in my career that I said it so openly. I was at this point where I was trying to figure out who I was as a solo performer and realized I had to stop taking these jobs. They push me into this identity that I don’t actually necessarily even identify with. It distorts the feeling that I have about myself every time I loan my body and artistic work to that image. In the end, the people who offered me the job were so outraged that I never got a job through that agency again.
YDG: Being in the experimental theater field gives you the space to react to this directly. For example, the theater I work with gets labeled as a migrant theater all the time, simply because there are no white performers in it. So, in reaction to that, in our last two productions, we decided to step out of our costumes and sit there as “us,” which was a total exposure. We would just talk about this issue. This was especially interesting in the case of the last production, which was about structural change in the asylum system. I was the only performer who had not experienced the asylum process on my own body. This was a super crazy conflict for me, because I was tokenized as someone who had physically gone through the process of migration as well. I was trying to negotiate with myself how important my experience is in this situation, and then I had the chance to discuss this directly with the audience as a part of the piece. So this is a possibility, but I realized it’s a double-edged sword because you serve them by being present, and then you try to revoke that or renegotiate that, but what you offered already is inside of their space, which leads to a lot of confusion, and they can still be ignorantly happy. So, it’s not the perfect solution, but it leaves more space.
SO: A group of students who are doing interviews with designers recently asked me about how they could ensure diversity and whether they should introduce a quota. I said, “No, because although I think it’s super important to showcase the work of underrepresented designers, a strict quota has the danger of making you think of diversity as a checklist, something that can be quickly and easily done. Which makes you forget that diversity is a change in mindset—you have to begin looking at design and designers differently, and that is not something you will achieve with a checklist.” I have the feeling that tokenization, this “checklist mentality,” and the argument that racial bias “is not a Swiss problem” interlock in a bad way that is difficult to entangle. The open letter by Black artists and cultural workers in Switzerland that was recently published asks some very important questions of local cultural institutions. Do you think that some institutions might interpret these questions as yet another checklist? And that some might think, “If we just answer the questions, then we’re okay” and that no further action follows?
DJH: This work is based on long-term investment, so it’s hard to say. Maybe it’s unfair to say at this point, since hopefully there will be more work that is being put in: but at the moment it feels like the addressed art spaces that answered did approach it as a checklist, as if the work is now done. Within those that answered, it was also mind-boggling that they managed to circumvent our actual questions: we asked about their engagement with and commitment to Black artists, cultural workers, and audiences in Switzerland. We didn’t get a lot of responses, but several out of those we received brought together Black and POC, so we actually still do not know how many Black people are in their institutions. Also, we asked that they answer the questions in terms of Black artists and cultural workers living or working in Switzerland and that in a second step, they should answer the questions in terms of international Black artists, cultural workers, and so on. I don’t think anyone made that differentiation. So, again we don’t actually have the transparency that we asked for about “what is your engagement with Black artists and cultural workers in Switzerland,” and once again the engagement with international Black artists and cultural workers is used as a plaster for a problem that is very much local, here in Switzerland, namely the marginalization and silencing of Black artists and cultural workers and the ignorance when it comes to structural racism.
YDG: We can actually dare to say that we didn’t even get an acknowledgement of the real problem because they are unable to understand it.
BB: Again, I come back to this place where I don’t think people know what it feels like, because if everywhere you go in the art world all you see are reflections of yourself, you of course never have to know outrage that you are not there. Anytime I see anything, if I see an all-white panel, if I see an all-white show, it’s immediately jarring, because I don’t think like this, ever. Anything that I’ve ever organized, there’s always diversity present, because it’s part of who I am. On the other side, it’s also because I grew up in the US at the time of affirmative action where it really was a program that people just had to get used to, so you started to think this way. My mom was a multicultural education specialist, not because she studied it, but because it was our life. The idea of incorporating diversity at all levels was already very implemented in our house from the books with all the different people; my mother was as a white person very thoughtful of this from my childhood forward, and that remained her specialty, always. It’s a practice in which you practice seeing difference. First, you have to see that it exists. And this is where I think the whole issue lies, because Switzerland is majority white, and none of them sees it as a problem because they’re still everywhere. Everywhere they go they’re always represented.
DJH: It’s a big unlearning, mostly. It’s letting go of the world as you perceive it: I don’t have any other words to describe it other than a white supremacist world. I come from a very different background than you, Brandy. I grew up in a village where most people were white. And I grew up with a white mother, who had her own issues and challenges around race. So, because of that, and because so often we’re taught to assimilate to whiteness especially when there are only very, very few of us, I grew up with a lot of internalized racism.
With that, I want to return to the question of tokenization for just a second. Often, I perceive it as an arrogance when I am invited to join a diversity consultation panel or if I am invited to speak on structural racism in the arts by institutions who are not doing the work to dismantle their own structural racial bias internally, because it’s almost a refusal to sit with the problem and actually start deconstructing how you yourself perpetuate white supremacy. This was work I had to do, too. This knowledge didn’t just appear out of the blue for me either—because I had and continue to have internalized racism. And I chose to let go of the world image I had and was brought up with. Because I had to. Because obviously I still continued experiencing racism, even when assimilating. But even had I not—deconstructing the world views we’re brought up with and those reinforced by society in every aspect of life constantly is work that starts with yourself and that you just have to do as a responsible adult.
SO: That makes me think of the white/dominant gaze and this assumption that cultural events have a mostly white and very homogenous audience, which implies that the way the work will be seen is the way in which this very specific audience views it. And when outreach and media coverage of events or exhibitions take the same perspective, they reinforce this dominant gaze. I find this very problematic, also for myself, because having grown up in a majority-white society, I notice the white/dominant gaze in my own way of looking. It sometimes is still my intuitive response because my normalcy was being surrounded by and seeing mainly whiteness. The internal fight then consists of resisting this response and trying to see differently. But many institutions seem to resist questioning their own perspective, which is why the argument that says, “Well, our audience is mainly white” has become a useful excuse.
BB: We can definitely say that most major art institutions, whether it’s visual art or theater or music, are on a feedback loop with themselves: “We are white people curating for white people giving feedback to ourselves, and we don’t make any real efforts.” Maybe they make the effort to put People of Color or Black people in as far as fulfilling and reinforcing the white audience’s views, but they don’t make any attempt at diversifying audiences at all, ever. That’s the number one issue for me: I want to produce works and also, I don’t want to constantly be restricted to the white gaze. Because it is uncomfortable. For that, I need this institution to take the responsibility to recognize me. They need to cultivate more diverse audiences, which means they urgently have to change their whole structure. Some slowly are—for example, some theaters are switching to “pay as you can” payment structures. This is one small step, but you also have to make programming for these people, you have to make them feel welcome in this space. Because I work in a theater and because I want more Black bodies in theater audiences, I started going to different theaters with Black friends and friends of color. More often than not, they’d say, “I just don’t feel comfortable here.” I understand of course—just like you said—I have the ability to turn off my uncomfortableness because I am also used to speaking in the language of whiteness and existing in the code of whiteness, so I know how to make myself pretend I am comfortable and to turn off the voice that says, “You don’t belong here.” This set a lot of thoughts in motion on how to even begin to make these spaces more welcoming or more mixed than they are now.
YDG: I totally agree. I was immediately questioning the reasons as to why audiences are very homogenous and white as soon as you said that.
BB: One of the things the choreographer and performer Jeremy Nedd, who I’ve been working with over the last years, taught me is that, “You don’t owe it to anyone to reproduce trauma or violence in order to tell your story.” I did not know this, actually. It never occurred to me that I could find another perspective to explain what happened to me or whatever it is that I want to talk about. Most of my work is very personal, related to my body, my Black body, my fat body. All of these are very important central themes in my performances. And I didn’t know initially how to do it otherwise. This is also because it’s not only a creative part, but also because aforementioned audiences expected it of me, and then I fell again into the feedback loop, doing what people want so that you can be seen at all.
DJH: Completely. It goes into all the different realms, like producing work and you feel like you have to include trauma or make your body relive trauma in order to make the work. Especially in theater and performance, you don’t just show something, you actually perform it, you make your body feel it again. This also goes for this whole discussion about racism in the arts: we are constantly asked, “Do you have any examples? Can you relive your trauma for us? Can you tell us about how painful this was?” But why should we have to?!… It’s painful! It’s not just an anecdote that is “oh so interesting.” Because it is something that we relive again and again and again.
BB: Returning to the question of how to make institutions more accessible and accommodating to diverse audiences, I wanted to speak about this project on wellness we did at Neumarkt in February 2020. The theater itself is a fairly white space, but wellness is a white, white, white space. From the beginning, the question for me was how do we get people of color, how do we get Black people in this space. I wanted Black people to have access to this wellness experience. Together with some of the other ensemble members, we could convince the institution to have one day that would be exclusively for audiences of color. Immediately, so many discussions erupted, “Why is it necessary? Who can be in this space? POCs could just come any other day.” Internally, I was so frustrated. if you can understand that women need their own sauna space, because they may not feel safe within a mixed sauna, then you can understand that POCs may also need their own space because they may not feel comfortable. I can see that it’s a socialization. That the dissonance comes because people are not practicing thinking this way. It’s like a light switch that has to get turned on in so many instances. In the end, it’s a realization that it’s a reality: you have to accept that there are many different groups of people that may not feel comfortable just because—it doesn’t even matter exactly why… just because—and then the individual work that goes into understanding how to get those people there regardless of the discomfort it may produce for the institution. But it will never be: “Okay, now we’ve made our prices cheaper, so now it will be a more diverse audience.” I think honestly that you will just have a more diverse white audience, you will have more students, people who are retired. It needs a complete reframing of the space. You have to make the space into a new place that is like, “We consciously are aware this space has this vibe, and so now we remake it, so we try to get rid of at least some of it, so that other groups of people can feel like they can be in it as well.”
DJH: It all goes back to this letting go of your own worldview, right? You have to let go of your own worldview to even understand that it is oppressive.
SO: Not understanding that a white space might be perceived as uncomfortable by Black people really connects to what we were saying earlier about this response of “You should be grateful for even being invited.” It’s really apparent in those incidents when you decline an invitation, and the response hints that the inviting person is thinking, “How can this even be? How can a Black person decline being in this space when we’ve tried to make it accessible to them?”
BB: That also means that it’s clear that it is necessary to hire Black people into these positions to even offer that space and to know what it means to make it comfortable for other Black people.
DJH: There are a million different examples coming into my head. But I want to note here that we’re talking in terms of comfortable-ness, when actually what we mean is feeling safe, I believe. Being safe from the awareness that, in any given moment, a situation can turn into a harmful, violent encounter when white people are in the space through subtle or explicitly racist remarks or actions.
YDG: My mind is buzzing…everything seems so banal and at the same time so complex. Banality starts at the point where we as women are used to being the only women in a room, and you realize it but still you know how to endure it. A Black person in an all-white space—especially in a white wellness space—we all are used to enduring it. But how crazy would it be if a white person were to be the only white person in a Black wellness space.
DJH: It’s always this story, isn’t it? “Oh my god, I went to… insert African country here… and I was the only white person on the plane! Can you believe it?” And you’re expected to mirror that shock in response.
YDG: And then you have to clarify that this a feeling we also get all the time.
BB: It was interesting to observe how different the wellness evening with a primarily white audience was to the one exclusively for POC. They were like day and night. One was about: “We do something parallel to each other, but we are very quiet so we actually don’t bother anybody else,” and on the POC wellness night, people were singing and there was therapy. All of this was initiated by the audience. It actually highlighted that you cannot do the same thing for everybody and expect that it’s going to fit and that everybody will feel welcome. You have to also give people the space to create within that. Really on this POC evening, the people that were there dictated what happened, and that’s why they also felt so free.
DJH: I’m thinking about, you know, the accusation about separatism and reverse racism that loves to creep into these spaces. It’s not about creating separate worlds or exclusion, it’s about recognizing difference, actually discarding this phenomenon of “color-blindness” that ignores difference in saying that “we all want and need the same thing.” There should be no problem with catering to different experiences.
SO: Something we mentioned earlier was that it seems what is usually picked out of the work of a Black artist are pieces about trauma. I think the white gaze becomes very evident in this. The white gaze seems to be directing that, “This is the work we want to see, we want to see Black pain, and this is the only thing we want to talk about.”
DJH: That resonates with me so much, it’s literally what I had to navigate when I was at Uni studying visual arts. At the beginning of the course, I was very interested in online space and social media and stuff like this, but then every time I presented my work, identity would come up. In several crits, it seemed that lecturers wanted to say, “Oh, but also let’s talk about that you’re Black in a very flat way,” all the while refusing to acknowledge the lens through which they’d view my work and the fact that they, too, inhabit an identity and a relational position in the world. I didn’t want to talk with these people about that. That wasn’t what I was interested in with my work. I shouldn’t even have to justify that. I realized that the main thing I learnt from art school, was how to navigate those expectations and how to demand my work to be treated with as much consideration and depth as we do with white artists... Towards the end of my course, Black students and those of color started to have more exchange around that experience, and we realized that in fact none of them were isolated issues. Most of us felt that our work was not given appropriate nurturing and care by lecturers in an educational institution that is supposed to facilitate our growth as artists. Most of us experienced crits as extremely violent and traumatizing. Together with Yara, I am thinking a lot how we all are tricksters in a way because we know that we live with all these expectations we have to navigate. We have to negotiate with ourselves how much we give, like: “Is it worth giving so much just to make sure we’re understood?” It connects back to this thing of giving trauma or appealing to humanity—and appealing to the humanity of white people surprisingly often doesn’t work. As Toni Morrison said, “The very serious function of racism is distraction. To keep us explaining over and over our right to existence.” Even in this conversation, we are navigating: when do we provide specific examples of the systematic issues we are speaking about, when do we not, how much do we give, how much do we keep hidden? And we have to do it all the time. But there also is something very powerful in there, in illegibility, in refusal, in silence.
YDG: I don’t know what happened to me while studying at university, or rather, what is still happening, actually. I realize now that I entered Uni and this specific course very naively, but that is a conversation for another day. Three years ago, several peers of mine told me, “Oh, it’s so interesting how you are only interested in Africa-related or Black topics.” And this is very crazy, because there had not been one single seminar about this. I don’t know where they got that from. And there is no list where people register their interests, so how would they even know my interests differ from theirs? We were all studying the same thing. Back then, it really worried me because I felt this white gaze all over me every time I wanted to say something in class. It could be a seminar about Japanese drawing, but the moment I would say something I felt the white gaze. But at the same time, I realized this is where the question comes in why I started this course, and it’s very art-related. I am not sure how much I did it for myself, or if I did it in order to be able to name things or in order to get out of there and be more sure of what I want because now I can name it. And then with art, somehow the same thing happens when they tell you, “Well, what’s the reason for art—suffering generates social change. So of course, you have to focus on this narrative over and over again, because this is the field in which you need to act.” It’s hard for me to differentiate, where am I? And then again comes the question, when do I act in line with what they expect me to do? But I also have to, because then I can call it what it is. And we can have a second conversation about it. But yes, I feel very hopeless about where the way out is.
BB: This constant questioning is a tool of racism—“Why are you being so Black?” It makes you feel like an Other, and immediately makes it bad, even in this case, when you say “I didn’t even make this a topic.” They have made it a topic for you, and they have let you know that it’s not okay. Meanwhile, the entire curriculum is just made up of white men.
YDG: Yes. And the ultimate question is as a woke Black person, where is your action field? I can trick, but at the end of the day I fear that they will live in this parallel, other world and will continue there. I can, of course, continue in my parallel world, too, and be happy.
BB: You can look at classical music as the long game, where you see what happens when a white institution feeds itself with white people, and over time what happens is that it makes itself irrelevant. It’s a warning that no matter how much money is pumped into classical music, nobody actually goes to listen to it. They have to subsidize it so much, because the people are not invested in it anymore. In Zurich, the city opera is subsidized with CHF 80 million per year only to pump money back into the white men who died hundreds of years ago… And because the world is changing, the stories that people want to see are changing, but they’re just holding onto this dying narrative. These institutions are playing themselves right now, they are just making themselves redundant. However, my perspective has changed in the last year. I used to be like, “You just have to navigate the system, and once you have worked my way from the bottom up…”—all these horrible tropes that you learn as a Black person, like: “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps” and “Just be the best.” But now I’m just: “Hold on, I’m on another game now, I just want to get on the top of the institution and then I’m gonna change things.” I want to fight that feeling of hopelessness, because I experience it sometimes, too, since I’m still not at that position. I’m in the middle of an institutional structure where if something happens, I want it to be addressed. This doesn’t seem as important to anybody who is not Black or a Person of Color at the institution, and those are the moments that make you totally feel hopeless. I just give myself a new path: Let’s just get to the top of this, and then go and change it. This is the only way that it feels feasible for me at the moment to want to continue in this space... It makes it something totally else when you are able to make your own frame of reference instead of fighting this other frame of reference. How is it for you, Deborah, because you work also as an associate director?
DJH: I have two answers to that. For the question about me being in a senior role in an artist-run organization that is majority white: there are many things I am negotiating within myself. For example, imposter syndrome and that voice in my head that tells me I can only keep this job if I tone down all my political views. That’s nothing to do with this particular organization, but it’s also not only to do with myself. These are based on previous experiences of voicing concerns or making complaints to art institutions, the stories we see unfold way too often, i.e., the system we have been socialized into. We’re told to tone it down, constantly. Only now am I realizing, “Well actually, they wanted to hire me. So, they’re going to get the full me. They actually approached me about the job, so why am I then imposing this thing of ‘keep it down, be quiet, let’s not address these things…’ on myself?” As mentioned, there are obvious reasons for that, and if this were not an organization that already has a tradition of self-reflecting, questioning the dominant systems and invested in getting better in all areas, it would clearly be a decision that brings the tangible risk of becoming the location of the problem in the eyes of the institution, as Sara Ahmed writes. It’s a lot of work to continuously put yourself out there and address things as they come up. I’m still figuring out how much labor I can dedicate to this, also outside of my work at this organization, because it’s always additional to my actual job. But I’m learning that change is triggered already when you fully show up. In terms of your question about the long game of things—I am similar to Yara: I’m very hopeless and actually very pessimistic. Depression is my normal state at this point. But I’m also a Scorpio, and I also have a great relationship with some of my ancestors. And I recently joined a Black abolitionist reading group facilitated by my friend Imani Robinson that has pulled me back to intentionality and created space within me to imagine otherwise again. Like, what would happen if there is no principle of reward and punishment, if it’s just about relational care? What if that community care were applied to our daily lives and to all our actions and not just the police state? We need to strive for the whole capitalist patriarchal racist system to fall. I attended a panel talk this week with Gail Lewis, Hortense Spillers, Miss Major, and Zoé Samudzi. The starting point was Audre Lorde’s “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Gail Lewis was speaking on what makes Black feminists Black feminists: she spoke of Black feminism as the transcending of time, and that we already live in the future just by living and acting and behaving in the way that we want the future to be and as if the world around us had already arrived in that future, too. That blew my mind. Honestly, I am moved to tears all the time just by the power of and how amazing Black women are. And especially Black queer women. Just thinking about how we literally transcend time. That just gave me a lot of hope. And that we are able to manifest right now, on a smaller scale, we can start nurturing the world that we want in the future reminds me of the value of intentionality, because all of this really doesn’t mean that we have to give everyone our time. It emphasizes the importance of intention and for us to be very selective in who we give our time and energy.
BB: That was a delicious statement there to enjoy. Yes—I think each one of us, we’ve all worked together, and in different ways we are all already in the future and being the thing that we want for ourselves, for our community, and for our work.
DJH: These are the spaces that make it possible to continue. I cringe at all these short terms like “Black joy is radical” and stuff like this, but it’s so true!
SO: I find it very moving to think about it in this way because the things that we’re up against are not contained within one sphere, but are in every sphere: When you step out on the street, at the workplace, even in your head. That makes it very hard, because how can one deal with all these expectations and adversities, all the time, everywhere? But to say, “Look at it in the long run, give yourself time, select what you want to do and who you want to spend time with”—this gives hope.
YDG: Of course, we spoke about the future, and that we have to live in the future very intensely as well, which brings me to think that this conversation is so futuristic. I also cringe when I read “Black joy is radical” or “Black rest is radical,” but to acknowledge this is also radical and important. So, this is my “acknowledge moment.”
BB: This is why I bought roller skates. Black people on roller skates is the most radical form of joy that I’ve seen lately, and I want this for myself, feeling untethered.
DJH: In terms of being futuristic, anyone Black, queer, gender-non-conforming, stepping out into the world and most likely looking fabulous doing so, that person is already living in the future, because actually in this world, that’s not possible—that’s what we’re taught day in, day out. The systems that are in place don’t allow that. I came to think about it because that’s my refuge and the way I try to navigate the world. However, in instances where the violence is so present that you cannot escape it, that’s what crushes me, because I’m reminded: “Shit, we are still in this world, we are still here.” People are really out here operating like they’re in the 19th century or 20th century, while we are already in 3020. We know this, every day, regardless, but damn… And that’s what frustrating about getting answers that are really mediocre to really simple questions or getting invited to panel talks or to be on a diversity and inclusion board by someone who acknowledges that they don’t know what to do, but yet feel justified in having the role that they have, as a director, as a head of an institution. In 2020, investment in anti-racist work should be part of every job description that is a senior role at this point, in the same way that climate consciousness—which, side note, urgently and without a question has to be rooted within anti-racism to be effective at all—should be part of any senior role in any institution: “You need to do anti-racist work.” The audacity that these people occupy these positions and yet feel justified just to include us only when it’s about those issues that we live through, and only as an appendix to the institution, not even inside the institution! And then you think, “I actually have the skills to do your job. But it will take me 50 times the work to ever be in your position.” That’s what gets me all the time. You know that meme of “What the world would look like if, for example, fathers would go to therapy?” I just always think, “What if Black people, especially Black trans and disabled folx were allowed into senior roles across the board?” I am just constantly baffled at the level of commitment to standing in the way of advancement. Because, as Brandy said before, really, you’re only making your institution become irrelevant within the next five, ten, twenty years.
BB: Remember I sent you guys a study about racial justice? This study came out of the US, and they had done research on how funding had been applied to Black people or in general situations surrounding racial justice? And one of the first things they had written in the report was, “We have found that you should listen to Black women.” That already is totally in the future. But I thought it is great that this study is actually very clear that it’s not possible to have the change that you want and dismantle the place that you are at if you are not changing the people who are in these positions to do it.
DJH: And that makes sense to us as well, right? Acknowledging that I am cis-gendered, that I am light-skinned, that I am able-bodied. It’s not about my personal advancement, it’s not about me in my position, it’s about realizing that I have privileges that I need to use for the advancement of others as well. Interesting that we covered so much in an hour, but they’re all connected and interwoven, when I think about where we started and where we are now.
YDG: And still, white people might say, “Wow, this is an emotional talk.” But emotions are facts. This is the lack of empathy and the lack of understanding these issues.
DJH: Also, emotions aren’t wrong, that’s part of the whole problem, that they are dismissed as irrelevant and our messages being discarded due to the tone or whatever. It’s part of it, obviously, because we live it every day.
SO: It’s striking that although we are all from different fields within the arts, the experiences and problems are so similar.
BB: I just read a little bit about “dark matter” and think it’s interesting that it doesn’t specifically refer to Black people, but to the underground that’s feeding the system and giving the creative impulse. And in all of these fields, whether it’s visual art or music or theater, a lot of these impulses are coming from the Black community. In the last 100 years of art, so much of it is coming from Blackness in its various forms. I refrain from using the word “dark matter” for it, but it also is dark matter, as source energy that is feeding the global creative impulse. It’s not surprising that these industries behave the same way that they do, because what’s happening is that they try to disconnect the place the impulse is coming from, from who is profiting from it. You can see this everywhere, in every institution.
DJH: And beyond institutions. We’ve centered our conversation around our professional work because that’s where we started the work with the open letter, but I am sure if we spoke beyond that about our lived experience, romantic relationships, friendships, or family relationships, I’m sure we also would have recognized the same thing, because it’s not a problem only of the arts, it’s not a problem only of design, it’s not only a problem of theater, it’s not only a problem of music, it’s white supremacy that trickles through it all and beyond.
YDG: What I love about this conversation and why I would like to have it printed like this, for me this is exactly what I want, I want these kinds of conversations printed, I want to have these conversations in the university, on that level. I don’t care if everyone understands or not. This is the futuristic conversation I want to have. But still I am anxious.
BB: Isn’t that interesting that despite us living in this futuristic world that you actually want to be a part of, it also comes constantly with the danger of being attacked. That there is always a possibility of violence. The fear of being attacked just for saying what we know to be true and also what we want for ourselves.
DJH: It’s again this issue of time. We are talking in a time that isn’t right now.
Brandy Butler is a soul singer, performer, and activist who has toured Europe, America, and Africa with bands such as Chamber Soul, Dee Day Dub, Brandy Butler & The Fonxionaires and King Kora, and has appeared in theater productions at Zürcher Schauspielhaus and the Münchner Kammerspiele. She is active in various contexts and in various collaborations, such as the format “Drag Queen Story Time” (Kosmos, Zurich / About Us-Festival) in 2019, the concert installation “Ode to the Patriarchy: an Evening of Misogynistic Song” (Kraftwerk) and the performance of the “Black Performance Lab” “We real cool.” Since the 2019/20 season, she has been a permanent member of the ensemble at Theater Neumarkt.
Deborah Joyce Holman is an artist and curator working as Associate Director at London-based arts organization Auto Italia and as Founder and Director of artist-run space 1.1, Basel, until its closure earlier this year. In her artistic practice, strategies of refusal and the destabilizing of boundaries between fiction, truth, and facts are recurring themes. Refusal and shape-shifting, especially with regard to visibility and instrumentalization have thus become focal points and tools in Holman's practice, as well as her navigation of the arts. Deborah Joyce Holman's work has recently been shown at Material Art Fair, Mexico City (duo booth, 2020); Les Urbaines, Lausanne (curation, 2018 and 2019); BBZ BLK BK: Alternative Graduate Show, London (curation, 2019) ; Fondation Entreprise Ricard, Paris (group exhibition 2019); Mikro, Zurich (solo exhibition, 2019); Auto Italia, London (reading, 2019); Live In Your Head, Geneva (group exhibition, 2018); Alienze, Lausanne (duo show, 2018); Topic, Geneva (duo show, 2017); Locale Due, Bologna (group exhibition, 2016), among others.
The work of Yara Dulac Gisler takes place in the field of experimental theater or in places where decolonial practices of listening can be discussed. In theater, she has worked with Thokozani Kapiri on the reinvention of Shakespeare or with Experi Theater around P. Vijayashanthan on Switzerland's concrete asylum policy. Her alias i-vye is a composition of the letters, made up of her father's daughters. They are in different contexts, but they share their colonized reality. Through i-vye, Gisler reflects on how power relations are contained in sound and communication and how they shape our listening and political entanglement / disentanglement.
Sarah Owens is Professor of Visual Communication and Visual Cultures at Zurich University of the Arts, where she chairs the subject area and directs the graduate program and research unit in Visual Communication. Her work focuses on social and anthropological aspects of the history, production, and circulation of visual artifacts. In particular, she is interested in marginalized and hidden epistemologies and practices, the process of unlearning and de-skilling, and the praxeological conditions for art and design as everyday action.