Vishnu Vardhani RAJAN (FIN) and xiri tara noir (DK) are c.off’s second PiR – Publishers in residence. PiR is a new residency program offered by c.off in 2020, and part of a long-term curatorial project aiming to explore and expand the notion of publishing within choreography and performance.
We took the opportunity to ask about their (publishing) practices and how they’re forming their first-time collaboration in times of uncertainty. Vishnu and Xiri arrived in Stockholm just before different measures to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus were applied. Therefore their residency, as well as this conversation, address questions of how one establishes safe working spaces, and a search for “simple solutions for messy scenarios”.
Tell us about yourselves in short!
Vishnu: My practice revolves around the ongoing investigation of sensory experiences. I am a Body-Philosopher. I am drawn to the politics of sleep, ethics of conflict and restorations, invested in the cultural architecture of institutions. I am inspired by nutrition and inquire about food habits and the accessibility of seeds. As a pessimist, I thrive on rest as an act of resistance. My acts of activism manifest in taking naps in public spaces, twerking, and reclaiming fermentation processes.
xiri: Omg this is already such a difficult question to start with, as I believe identity is always moving, so I’m always trying to avoid too many definitions, but let’s try… I’m active as a community activist, facilitator, researcher, and choreographer. As an activist-choreographer I have my roots in the radical queer feminist and sex worker community. I’m also working as a facilitator of feminist self-defense, and I’m exploring radical care as a form of resistance. Yeah, I would say that in general my practice lays in finding the capacity to make any movement generate potential… and the way for me to practice choreography is to take it outside of the ‘space where it belongs’… but if you ask me tomorrow I might answer something else to this question…
When and where did you first meet? Since this is the first time you are collaborating on a project, how are you forming and starting out your collaboration?
Vishnu: Me and xiri first met in the residency space Ponderosa in Germany at Jamiil Kosoko’s workshop ‘Transgressive Bodies’.
xiri: Yes, that was such a beautiful and magical space to meet in. In the workshop of Jamiil we were exploring performative emergence in the forms of resistance, survival and pleasure. Practices which both Vishnu and I are occupied with. This was also when Toni Morrison died…
Vishnu: The next time after that yet another workshop at the Performing Arts center Cifas in Brussels for a workshop with Mallika Taneja. This was when we thought about collaborating.
xiri: During this workshop Vishnu was staying at my home, so besides sharing the studio space we were also sharing our living space and kitchen… and I somehow think our collaboration started in the kitchen… like you say, the revolution starts in the kitchen!
Vishnu: Yes, I am so grateful for that generosity from xiri and their partner Inés. Violá. Thank you for giving us this residency to explore that intention.
xiri: In our collaboration we have been taking departure in the language which I think is where our shared interest in performance and publication is initiated from. Language as unrecognizable, as foreign, as other, as exotic, as dangerous, as angry, as misunderstood and mistranslated. Vishnu had seen a subtitle in a movie saying “speaking softly in a foreign language”. We are in our practice questioning who this language is foreign for? Who are the ones who have the right to translation, and who are the ones whose language is often foreign, othered, unrecognizable, not understood and constantly having to be explained by the ones expressing “differently”.
Vishnu: Just as the language of Love, I came to understand that we all have a language of Work. There are ebbs and flows in the output. As xiri and I haven’t worked together before, it took me time to comprehend their ‘language of work’, which is very different from my own. To me this learning is valuable I see now, and this is surely the case for any given 2 people that come from different schools of thought and adopt certain methodologies in their work.
I had the pleasure of sharing this activity I have previously been developing, on finding parallels between expressions of Respect, and expressions of Safety. Most times how we render a space safer and how we express respect is very similar. We collectively made a list for each other on how our common space could accommodate our moods that are sometimes loud and others soft.
xiri: Yes, I really loved this practice a lot. It was interesting to see how we started from different perspectives and how everything got interconnected in the end. In all collaborations and relations in life I believe that the practice of establishing safer spaces within shared spaces is crucial. What feels safe for me might not feel safe for you, but we will never know about this if we are not creating a space for these thoughts and feelings to be shared without prejudices. This is for me what a safer space is about; being able to be yourself, but also having enough empathy and respect for the persons you are sharing the space with to understand that “being yourself” is not always safe for others, so it’s a constant conversation and adaption to and with the space(s)… which for me reminds me of dancing, writing, choreographing… That’s why it’s interesting to discover how interconnected the two words “safety” and “respect” are… and so you could connect a lot of words such as “empathy” and “patience” or “care” and “abundance” or “movement” and “language”…
Vishnu: As our space was dynamic, we also established a safe-word when we needed time to disengage after work hours. It helped especially for me as I am only learning now on how to have boundaries. xiri said multiple times to me to ‘never take things personally’. It was good advice, not easy for me. A good take away.
xiri: Yes, I’m still practicing this, to never take things personally, but it’s not always easy. We often want things and situations to be about ourselves, and it can be difficult to separate. Maybe it’s also important to say for the context that just as we arrived at C.off, the coronavirus had also arrived, and for obvious reasons our conversations turned around the urgency of art-making in times of crisis. We also talked a lot about misinformation, misinterpretations and misunderstandings… and most of all, about how to deal with crises in a pleasurable way. To propose simple and joyful recipes for messy situations, which is not something that is new to us.
Vishnu: Ironically, I am thankful for this corona-time coinciding with our collaborative-time. As I have managed to unlock something from the past. I have lived a shut down (or a curfew time) multiple times in my life, because of the RamJanmabhumi and Babri Masjid Conflict, (in Hyderabad, India) therefore I missed the novelty of COVID-19 shut down. Yet, witnessing how xiri attended to her needs in order to work efficiently clarified how a sense of safety, of self and our loved ones is quintessential to a healthy working environment. This helped me to understand my charting grades in school, the constant exhaustion during the curfew-time. I am thankful also to C.off to be so open to qualify this new formation in which we are collaborating*.
*Because of the closing of European borders, xiri and Vishnu had to continue their collaboration at a distance. #ThankGodForTheInternet
xiri: Uuhhmm, thank you for sharing these powerful memories and insights Vishnu! What I think is also interesting about this new format of collaboration is that it is opening up for alternative ways of understanding and working with accessibility. Both in our practice as artists as well as in our presentation format, which is something we might not have taken into consideration if this situation had not occurred. It is interesting, and also a bit scary, to see how much this situation (the coronavirus confinement), literally highlights how the lack of accessibility is really the main cause of inequality, rather than capitalism. In this sense, I’m also very grateful to be supported in being able to continue this work at a distance, and I really hope for us, as a global community, that this can be a way of thinking of accessibility into our ways of working rather than it being an exception. I guess this is part of being a privileged person; that you don’t understand the importance of a certain situation before it becomes relevant for yourself, so yeah, this is definitely an eye-opener on how we are often stuck in our habits, and how things can easily be adopted and done differently… which in a way takes us back to our starting point… othering, distancing or not giving value to things or situations that at first sight seem foreign to us!
Vishnu: At this point I have a question for you Izabella, do you have safe-space guidelines with the people you collaborate with? How do you formulate these agreements without imposing or overpowering your colleagues?
Izabella: Thanks for inviting me to join the conversation! As a micro-organisation we have some safe-space and work ethics guidelines (which also could be developed), but I think practical and attentive work is foremost required in order to enable safe-spaces. People need different things to feel safe and that need can also change over time, which makes it more complex. Therefore I have a set of methods and tools that I turn to in different situations (also in constant development). For me care is a central word in my practice and work ethics. Listening, not taking things for granted and being ready to act according to one’s principles are important caring tools for me. I also try to be as transparent as possible, and “work as a team”. During these times when the Coronavirus is spreading and kind of interrupting with your residency, it becomes even more apparent to me how important it is to enable safe-spaces, how that notion changes, is different for different people and how one can’t plan for what will be needed in advance.
xiri: Yes, not assuming to understand something can be a good way to engage in spaces. We are often so obsessed with finding answers, but I actually think that letting there be room for not knowing can open up for a lot of understanding. In order to create spaces of care we need to practice multiple layers of listening…
Vishnu: I am also curious about the timeline of Reading edge, how did it start? When? Do you have any dreams for it? Transformations?
Izabella: Reading edge opened in august 2018, the idea to start it came to my mind maybe a year earlier. Actually, I think it was on a bus between Cordoba and Cadiz in Spain where I was on a solo vacation. #Workaholic
Before I started to work at c.off I was working within the visual arts field, and my background is in art history. Within that field there is a Western history of artists’ books and art bookmaking which is considered as an established art format. I found it intriguing that art publishing didn’t seem as usual within the field of dance and choreography, that some even seemed to question that choreography can be presented in a book, or appear in different formats than live on stage. At the same time, c.off was producing art books and discursive publications in our projects, as well as c.off’s sister organization ccap. However, we struggled to find a suitable place or distribution channel for these publications after their release. I had thought about organizing our art and theory books at c.off into some library/archive/reading room, which is not groundbreaking for an art institution. Somewhere during that bus ride in Spain, I realised that it would be more relevant if a library of ours would care for and provide a space for self-published publications in specific, to fill that need of a place and context for such publications, for them to co-exist and possibly inform and support one another. Now, I wish to bring more projects, events, gatherings, exhibitions, etc to Reading edge and activate it more. That is my dream for the near future. We have been struggling with funding lately, maybe because our proposed activities land between the traditional genre-boxes. Anyhow, to a pleasant surprise we were granted funding from the Nordic-Baltic Culture program for this “Publisher in residence” program, that is funding your residency, and that I see as part of Reading edge activities.
Izabella: Speaking further about publishing practices. What is your relation to publishing within choreography and performance? How are you working with publishing in an expanded field in your practices?
Vishnu: Journaling has always been my tool of expression, a process and a practice of daily act of self-care. I had the honor of being invited to be part of two works of Jeanne van Heeswijk – an artist who facilitates the creation of dynamic and diversified public spaces in order to radicalise the local. ‘Public faculty N 13’, was about the simple questions of what you think of the future, care, commitment, and togetherness? A 4-day intervention to stir up conversations and sketch forms of collective action in public space. This collaboration enriched my personal practice of journaling. The 2nd collaboration was ‘Maunula stair-case’. We occupied the staircase of Maunula House in Helsinki for a 6-hour discussion on collaborative futures of the neighborhood. The long discussion was edited into a 4-page annex of the local newspaper.
In my personal practice, I have mainly projected texts during performances. I have experimented with setting up Pop-up Nap cafes where people could write, a private journal, a collective poem, a la cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse).
Also I love making collages of words in various languages I speak. I enjoy the performativity of writing, yet I prefer the performativity of reading even more. A vision of a person with a book in their hand in a public space continues to inspire me to take that aspect into performances, especially in the times of Anthropocene and digital platforms.
Quoting Mohsen Namjoo – ‘being Modern is to understand roots’ as a point of departure and to leave digital platforms behind I explored engravings on stone, Palm-leaf manuscripts, recycled paper. As a progression, from writing to reading to making I have arrived at quilting, when I was researching traditional book-binding practice. Quilt-making subverts the hierarchy of archiving, the hand-writing in a stitch, the piece of cloth a person wore, colours, everything gestures towards privilege in the grand-publication arena. Quilting to me is a process of changing the publication imaginary. With care it is de-canonizing the historical colonisation of land, languages, and minds, undoing hegemony of language. Sensibilisation of re-cycling and the source of paper… Gesturing towards eco-feminism. I am still researching the un-archival tendencies of a quilt, the uniqueness of the stories a quilt contains augments my practice as a body-philosopher. Quilts for me are a way to bring a collective together in connection-ritual, and enable fantastically to go beyond language. An image is worth a thousand words, a quilt a thousand stories, making space for the story to be re-told in any language.
xiri: In our society we put a lot of power into language, and especially the written word. As Vishnu is also emphasizing, language is so much more than just words…it is everywhere, graspable as well as ungraspable. And I think this is exactly what choreography is, the creation of language. As Erin Manning expresses it “The minor gesture is an ally of language in the making”. In this sense words are at the core of my choreographic practice. Both during creation, in my performances and as a facilitator of workshops; writing and reading in an expanded sense becomes the catalyser for movement.
My two last works ‘Listening by Speaking to Oneself’ and ‘The Trouble of Walking Straight’, both depart from this perspective. In ‘Listening by Speaking to Oneself’ I intended to draw attention to the in-between moment in a conversation and to investigate if it is possible to ‘extend’ or ‘amplify’ ‘the-not-yet-become’ moment of encounter. I did this through making transcriptions of conversations between one specific group of womxn, in this case, a group of sex workers, and then made another group of womxn, a group of artists, perform a re-enactment of the transcription. My purpose with this work is where my choreographic practice intersects with my activist practice; in generating spaces that can initiate a feeling of collectivity across different communities. As we often tend to give less value to people or situations that we don’t understand at first, it was truly amazing to see what was happening with both groups of womxn in this process of opening up to something unknown.
‘The Trouble of Walking Straight’ is in a way a continuation of this same idea, but instead of it being a conversation or a meeting between two groups, it is a collective re-enactment of individual written stories from different walks of life, read and performed by the audience. I wanted with this work to question the choreographic and political power of walking, through the sharing of personal writings on diverse perspectives on walking.
What I’m investigating in both of these researches is if there can occur a recognition and an affinity of the self in the other, through the re-enactment of words and movements. And if they’re in this in-between space between the words, can a space emerge for listening to what is often left unheard or invisible.
Beyond my choreographic work, I have in recent years been occupied with turning my research into practice through facilitating labs and workshops for diverse intersectional groups of artists and activists. I see this work as part of my expanded writing and movement research. It is for me an ongoing collective learning and sharing process of de-constructing and reinventing languages, movements and thought systems… and embodying this knowledge into proposing new ways of relating and being together in this world.