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Diversity as "The promise of Happiness"

On the 20th of June 2024, I delivered a speech at the NHLP-EU concluding conference, covering my experience and observation from participating in this programme for the last 10 months. Inspired by Sara Ahmed's dedication to writing about cultural phenomena and inequalities, the title of this speech is a homage to her critique of the imperative to be, and appear to be, happy, as well as the word 'diversity' being used as a superficial promise by institutions without truly addressing systemic issues. I have also addressed several topics that we covered during the digital events and tied them together with events I encountered throughout these 10 months. This version is modified for publication.


Anne Mette, Hazel and Evelina at Ørkenfortet, November 2023



Hello, my name is Hazel. I live in Belgium. The mentor who was assigned to me for this leadership programme is Anne Mette Nørskov from Copenhagen, Denmark. Thank you Anne Mette for the nutritious incubation. I am an independent multidisciplinary artist creating my third full-length production using Magie Nouvelle, an inspiration from BETA circus, also the reason why I was in Riga 2 years ago. Aside from circus, I am reading philosophy in the domains of art and politics at the Institute of Philosophy, Leuven. For those who are curious, my research is on the French political philosopher Jacques Rancière and his expansive works on education and the arts, namely "The Ignorant Schoolmaster" and "The Emancipated Spectator." I am examining the possible extension of Rancière’s ideas, including democratising aesthetics, the equality of intelligence, and the distribution of the sensible, from these two avant-garde books to circus classrooms and performances. For the last 4 years I have been on the board of trustees of Jones the Dance in Wales, a company that creates performances that challenge who gets to experience and makes dance, as well as nurtures participants from both hearing and non-hearing backgrounds. Another initiative the company has, is to get dance to reach rurally isolated young people. For this discussion, I am speaking from my lived-experience and sphere of knowledge in the UK and in Belgium and the few weeks I was in Copenhagen.

 

For the preparation of the digital event Navigating Change, which I volunteered to facilitate, I spoke to a senior circus administrator on the topic. One of the first questions he asked was: what if the change we need is to get rid of the current leaders? Being humble as he was, what he did not explicitly say was that this organisation almost fell apart when he started working there. And soon the board fired the coordinator and he was left to pick the whole thing up and nominated another staff member who understood circus to assist him. The previous coordinator was the founder of the organisation. She was very good at initiating projects, getting funding and getting participants, basically, an achiever on paper. BUT She didn't give autonomy to her co-workers, not delegating work out and therefore was ill and away a lot and when she was present, she did not trust her team and ordered people around to do things. She was eventually made to go, and pass on the title and role she gave herself. 

 

In another conversation it was requested that the people and places be kept anonymous as it was a traumatic experience for everyone. I agreed but wondered, why is it still a taboo or shameful to talk about mistakes or changes in leadership and so tricky to be transparent about decision making. Or Maybe the scenario he told me was not the real reason why she was made to go, but the lack of transparency meant that nobody could learn from it.

 

To go back, how shall we address the phenomenon of incumbent leaders thinking that they are the best for that position and no-one else? Look at the leaders occupying the top jobs in our respective countries. 

 

But, my reply to the man was, I’d be sensible and l wouldn’t bring it up…. It doesn’t mean that this topic is not worth discussing and speculating. But because it raises a question about disposing of leaders in a leadership programme, and what does that mean for both aspiring and existing leaders? 

 

I decided to be cordial and went along with insidious terror of self-censorship and generic niceties. 

 

His question was not unfounded. We are increasingly finding ourselves in situations that we have not chosen. We, or those who identify themselves as Left leaning cultural workers, are becoming more and more economically and politically marginalised. Massive funding cuts from various governments that categorise the cultural sector as non-essential work and unproductive. There seems to be growing intolerance and determination from all sides of any debate. 

 

In November I was with Anne Mette in Copenhagen and I hopped over to a dance festival at Malmö’s Skåne dance theatre. There, I met the Iranian guest curator who programmed a festival that provides space for voices that are not usually heard and bodies that are usually not seen in Skåne. 

 

“It’s so safe to work in culture in Europe”, she said matter-of-factly. 

 

It’s so safe to make work for artists. To curate for programmers. To be a leader of an organisation or institution in the west. (Here I would be so-so on Hungry described as the West in her context, the West means countries with relatively robust liberal democratic governments and reliable and impartial jurisdiction.)  So safe… her words were ringing in my head and I knew the answer to her desired thrill and risk might not be circus. Why did I have the intuition that Contemporary circus is probably not the kind of risk or danger or thrill she wants to see. What did she mean then?

 

There are now checks and balances that ensure the comfort of people in the circus sector. But where are the dangerous works? Radical programming. And radical leadership. In reference to the conference 'Circus - a Safe(r) Place for Danger' held in Antwerp in April, perhaps it’s worth looking into the question of how to balance structural and practical safety yet keeping the dynamism and dissensual element of circus as an art form. However, just as Radical Freedom isn’t anarchy, Radical Leadership isn’t tyranny. The French existentialists would know it - it’s about responsibility. 

 

Prior to coming to Riga I was in Vienna. There I met some Ukrainian circus artists who are settling as displaced persons. One of them told me, he left the circus in St Petersburg because being Ukrainian, he felt like he had to go, and he ended up in Spain for a week where a friend let him stay and gave him food. He felt tremendously guilty being hosted for free and by chance he learned of a circus in Vienna, went to visit and fell in love with the city. He is now waiting for the official papers to be able to work, hopefully starting December. That means 6 months of no work. During this chance encounter I shared off-handedly that I thought of moving or changing my relationship with art as I wasn’t happy where I had been.  ‘Happiness?’ He looked at me silently but with the kindest eyes. His non-judgement plunged me into the deepest self-judgement. Here, I am exercising my rights to social and geographical mobility that he would never have, which I think ultimately comes down to luck and privilege. To talk about freedom, philosopher Hannah Arendt says regarding Jewish people under Nazi dehumanisation, one must first have political rights. This is also relevant to the Stalinist regime that she is critical of, seeing that we are here in Riga. Political rights are the prerequisites for freedom. This fundamental concept was absent in the digital event on Freedom. Maybe rights are a given in the speaker’s context. What can a leader in circus do with such a paradox, on one hand, when there is the agenda of including the underprivileged, and on the other, circus is itself a relatively unrecognised sector facing enormous challenges. One does not have an easy life as a circus artist or performer. Do we then invite them, after a life of political persecution and limited access to human rights, to live another life that is characterised by economic struggles? The ‘social’ role of circus allows people to have fun and forget about their troubles for the time that they’re in a circus hall. The ‘entertainment’ role of circus does similar. But what about contemporary circus that is now hoping to be pushed as a high art, that also claims to have potential for political agency? Could the crux of the problem be that mostly people from comfortable situations have the privilege to inhabit that role? The accessibility to circus in the social and entertainment sphere and accessibility to circus as an art form, I argue, highlights such a divide. In an interview with a company based in Toulouse, the lead artist revealed that during his time at the superior school Le Lido, even though there were a number of students from non-European backgrounds, they were mostly the children of well-off families in their respective home countries. One of our fellows also asked a relevant question during one of the digital events: why is it that children from a social circus school in Brussels never get into the ‘superior circus school’, which is only in the next commune? Of course, it is not the aim of a social circus school to throw their participants into higher education in circus. But what would be fascinating to look at is the comparative success of accessibility in social circus that only calls attention to the inaccessibility of professional circus schools that ultimately determines who is allowed to make art. From this sociological observation we must then ask, why is the gap between social circus and the ‘artistic’ circus remains largely incommensurable? Is such a divide arbitrary and a societal construct that perpetuates cultural and class divide?

 

In the Diversity podcast I expressed that equality is more than about representation, or any essentialist measurement that counts if there are enough female organs in a room. It’s about looking deep into system and structure, be it language or social code. You could put a woman or person of colour as the head or director of whatever, but if the discursive language and operating model remains paternalistic, not much would change… “Diversity is the emptiest word now”, writer and scholar Sara Ahmed articulated in an open lecture at Kunstenfestivaldesart in May in Brussels this year. “Diversity is a polished fable, a 'happy' fable; diversity is a way of appearing to do something when the inequality is not being addressed.” 

 

In the article I wrote for the Flemish Circusmagazine in 2022 and later republished in English by Initiative Feministicher Circus and distributed at the Circus and Dance Festival in Cologne, titled ‘Where are My Brave Sisters?’, I wrote: “contemporary circus is a discipline endowed with the inherent spirit of self-challenge. Wouldn’t then the domain itself be the perfect ground where old patterns are examined and renewed?” If circus artists take up the challenges daily, what does it mean for leaders in the circus sector? What can the decision makers do for them? The future of circus is not objectively optimistic. Even though the interest in circus is growing, the relative support needed is not guaranteed and hard to come by. So with diminishing top-down support, the best we can do to stay afloat is peer-support.

 

I conclude that my 10 month journey of discovering the role of leadership in circus is dissensus (firstly), (secondly) to entice the audience and participants who are hungry for what circus can give them, and last and most importantly to serve the artists who put themselves on the frontline of judgement and criticism in hope of renewing humanity.  

 

I will end my introduction and start our discussion by appreciating the positive aspects of European cross-national collaboration and the relatively peaceful time that this part of our continent has experienced in recent generations, a privilege that we must not forget. 

 

Thank you.


Please credit the author accordingly when quoting, reproducing and expanding the above lines and ideas.


References


Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness. Durham NC: Duke University Press Books, 2010.

Ahmed, Sara. The Feminist Killjoy Handbook: The Radical Potential of Getting in the Way. New York: Seal Press, 2023.




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