Friday, July 18, 2014

Application to Speak at TEDx Victoria

This is for sure my third, if not my fourth, application to speak at TEDx Victoria.

I am prepared for further rejection but I can share my proposed talk on my blog (this includes writing from previous blog posts):

Einstein said: No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.

Audre Lorde said: The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.

But industrialized culture has us humans more stuck in old systems of domination and destruction than ever. A simple way to put this is: civilization is destroying civilization.

I believe the main reason behind this stuckness is that, because of deeply ingrained cultural and neurobiological tendencies, we have created a world where the body has no place in the body politic except to reinforce old strategies of safety.

Since 2006 I have been showing up in performance naked and unscripted. An irony of the project is that this simple statement provokes enough of an emotional reaction that, if anyone is patient enough to notice, it handily demonstrates that even the suggestion of placing the body back into the body politic affects consciousness rather strikingly.

I share and create a space for vulnerability by showing up as authentically and vulnerably as I am able to in the moment. Another of the project’s great ironies is that I need to create a performance to arrange such a situation.

Performances are voluntarily participatory and experiences vary. There are conversations and silences, tears and confusion. The gesture of showing up vulnerable and undefended allows many people to encounter a rare, non-dogma-related experience of a much deeper connection with humanity while in community with strangers.

My work can be seen as non-rhetorical cultural criticism/cultural realignment. One of my arguments/experiential offerings is that, at this time in human history, we must finally acknowledge that we are all intimately related.

So, yes, my work seriously disrupts notions of what is private and what is public. My work also echoes what many indigenous cultures already know and embody.

I believe that the only way forward for humanity lies in acknowledging and owning our shared vulnerability. We are at a place of urgency where, in my opinion, the privileged people of the world are called to expand beyond the concept of human rights into taking on human responsibilities.

In other words, my audience includes the TED audience and other privileged Westerners. We created the mess, we have the most power, and we have the most responsibility.

My project is called the Human Body Project and, while it intersects many disciplines and categories, can best be categorized as performance art and activism.

One key reason the work lies in the realm of art is because, although I am outspoken about many issues, my body and self as an artifact exist outside of ideology and political affiliation.

In January of 2012 I decided to push my work beyond performance venues. I committed to doing a Human Body Project Vulnerability Vigil at least once a month until I die.

For a Vulnerability Vigil I show up naked in the street for an hour at least once a month.

September 2014 Vulnerability Vigil in front of the VAG.
Because I understand that people on the street may be seriously affronted by public nudity, I always hold a large sign, which for many months was a really long word: VULNERABLE. Lately I’ve been holding a sign with the extinction symbol on it.

There are many reasons I decided to take the work out into the street:
  • As I said, the work intersects many disciplines and categories but, as you can imagine, there is almost no place for it. I can’t even begin to list the various rejections. Mostly it has existed in fringe theatre festivals, which are lottery-based. And, even if chosen in the lottery, it is expensive and difficult for me to get to any beyond Victoria and Vancouver
  • As an outlet for my own grief and rage
  • To stand in some solidarity with the world's most vulnerable
  • To continue to provoke a serious consideration of our own and our planet's vulnerability

So I also see the work on a continuum of non-violent direct action. We live in a democracy and, if nothing else, what I’m doing is peacefully disrupting status quo and practicing participatory democracy.

Doing what I do is WAY outside of the culture I was born into—privileged, upper middle class, female, white, Canadian born in the 1960s—and WAY outside my comfort zones.

So what's it like to do what I do?

I am a supersensitive person. Through years of dealing with my pain and shame, I have come to understand that I am like a conduit for the unfelt feelings of others. I am pretty much always dealing with resistance, disgust, pessimism, depression, rage, as well as physical symptoms. I feel stuck and complicit in a culture of mostly invisible brutality. I often struggle to breathe.
I especially relate to this piece by Mark Fisher, another activist, scholar and person who uses his grief in his work. He links depression to social conditions and says "Someone who moves out of the social sphere they are ‘supposed’ to occupy is always in danger of being overcome by feelings of vertigo, panic and horror… you have no right to be here, now, inhabiting this body… you are a nothing, and ‘nothing’ is quite literally what you feel you are about to become.”
My grotty house and stinker kids are also pertinent to the question. I am a 52-year-old mother of two precocious kids under 13. I am older than many of my youngest daughter's friends' grandmothers. Also, my kids are related to me. They are delightful and exhausting.

So doing the Human Body Project takes place, for me, in a context of complicated shame, anger, and fatigue. 

I mentioned earlier some of the background to this work. It's not about "thriving" or "joy." My work is often dismissed as a downer. Although I do often end up having fun and enjoying myself, which is a nice bonus.

Before a Vulnerability Vigil, I will often collapse, sometimes for days. I don't have a woman-cave in my house and I am challenged setting boundaries with my spirited children. I am also severely challenged by the attention-deficit-juggling modernity requires. And I'm also a pure and simple idiot at asking for what I need (partly because I'm not sure it even exists; I’m a none-of-us-has-made-it-until-all-of-us-has-made-it kind of a gal).

Collapsing is, I think, my being's way of recharging. It sucks though, because anything resembling normal functioning is very difficult.

Right before I show up to a Vulnerability Vigil, I feel like puking. 

I have done more than 30 vigils. My experience is they don't get easier.

I am afraid of conflict. Haha. I am always going against my training and epigenetic make-up that cause me to be compliant. I worry a little about arrest, but more about cops and what they represent. I don't want to be rude or disrespectful! I really don't. I am a born and trained conformist who can't find anything to conform to.

I worry about my children's friends' parents seeing me. I worry about my neighbors seeing me. I worry about meany-bums. I worry about people thinking I'm crazy. I feel crazy.

Then there's my body. Did I mention that I'm 52? I guess when I'm 60 I'll think I looked good. I started the Human Body Project eight years ago and that woman I was then, whom I thought was rather flabby and aged, now looks quite fetching. Let's just say the flab and agedness continue apace. Plus hairiness.

Then there's the whole being naked thing. I feel shame. Not because it makes any sense at all. It does not. Unless you count the millennia of training my people have sustained. So I do.

So, I show up at a place.

I find it difficult to speak to whomever I'm with until we get going. I am metaphorically evacuating my bowels and speech is difficult.

Getting undressed is tricky. I am conscious of not feeling sexy and my not perfectly sanitary underwear. I try to find a place to be discreet. I hate it when I forget a bag to put the clothes in. They get rained on a lot. 

It's always cold. But my armpits are always sweaty.

One winter vigil this year, for instance, was particularly nasty. The person who was with me and I were not able to last the full hour. During the time we were out there freezing, I started singing and dancing. I often do sing and dance a little bit but this time I was so cold I did it the whole time. I was jumping and squatting and full on doing my own version of a tribal dance. It felt good. 

I may not be naked positive but, like skinny dipping, being naked outside feels good on my skin. I like having air on my vulva. Even frigid air. We have affinities, of course, but I don't consider myself a nudist. I get where they're coming from though. Bare skin is freeing. 

We're undressed and trying to get in place and hold the sign in front of us awkwardly at first.

The sign is big and unwieldy, weirdly heavy. I have often used words that are eight or more letters. Honestly, I would just write FUCK every month because that would be easier and really sum it up for me, but I see how it might not be gentle. Holding the sign for an hour is difficult. My fingers get cramped and my arms and shoulders sag. 

I always think about the placement of the sign, where we will stand, how it will photograph or be seen. I am annoyed when it blows around or someone isn't holding it taut.

I am always annoyed, period, by the compromise of the sign. As an artist, I want people to be jarred out of complacency. But at the same time I don't like the idea of getting in people's faces. It feels unkind. The sign is there, as I mentioned, to shield my nudity because for many people public nudity is so affronting. It's a compromise and a gesture of gentleness and I keep making that decision because it feels right but it still annoys me.

Victoria cops are quite respectful. If cops come over and seem uncomfortable, I offer to put on my underpants. There is no cause for arrest if genitals are covered. 

They always say it's because kids might walk by (I'm behind a sign and in front of a hedge, but ok). I always feel bad for them. Mostly they don't look like they want to bother us.

I inadvertently scheduled a vigil at the Santa Claus parade launching area. We were there much earlier than the parade start time but, still, a paddy wagon, ghost car and several police dudes hung about the whole time. Unnerving to invite so much weaponry.

Vulnerability Vigils give me an opportunity, as a privileged person, to experience a broader understanding of my relationship citizen to state.

Some people think I'm brave and, by addressing and taking on my demons, I am. But I also find my demons so pathetic. So a cop takes my name. So my butt is flabby. So I feel embarrassment and shame. So what? Big deal.

But that's what I'm working with. It's such a not big deal and, I would argue, the nub of what's killing us.

In other words, those difficult emotions hold me back and, I would guess, hold many people back. But I am living at a time when my difficult emotions are hardly the point, especially when I have the opportunity to make a difference.

A Vulnerability Vigil is an experiential exercise in, among other things, containing paradox. To spell it out, my pain living in my culture leads me to actions outside of my culture that lead to different difficult feelings, including feelings of ostracism and futility. Challenging.

People ask me what my goal is.

“Being the change,” public education, inspiration… I suggest that my activism is a version of non-violent public ritual and action, a form of art.

Edward Burtynsky, the great photographer of landscapes transformed by industry, talks about how he positions his work: “If I say this a terrible thing we’re doing to the planet, then people will either agree or disagree. By not saying what you should see, that may allow them to see their world a little differently. It’s not a simple right or wrong. It needs a whole new way of thinking.”

I’m doing what I am able to create that new way.

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