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QUEERING THE LEADERSHIP: Against the myth of a progressive circus

On 15th April 2024 I was invited as a keynote speaker for the international conference 'Circus- a safe(r) space for danger', the first conference on safety in the European circus sector in Antwerp (Belgium) during MAD Festival and MAD Convention. Organised by Circuscentrum, Circo D’ell Fuego e MAD Festival, the event gathered 146 visitors from 16 different countries, providing three panel discussions, and 12 workshops.

I contributed with a keynote speech about Leadership on why and how, from a personal and professional perspective, our White Western cultural policies keep fostering a profoundly unequal system despite their narratives on diversity and inclusion.

The myth of freedom, which still informs the majority of our circus practices, often forgets that our Western freedom was built on someone else’s lack of freedom and - taking it back to the topic of safety - that our White ‘safe spaces’ are built on the structural exclusion of people that are systemically unsafe. Who pays the costs of our art? And is this the game we want to be playing in circus? Here is the full script of the speech.


Good evening everyone,

Thanks to Circuscentrum, MAD Festival, Circo D’ell Fuego and in particular to Noemi De Clercq for inviting me here in the framework of the New Horizons Leadership Program. It is an honour and a great privilege to be opening this conference together with my colleague Franziska Trapp.


MANIFESTO. Me, myself and I

My name is Gaia Vimercati (she/her). I am an independent circus researcher currently living in Milan. Since 2018 I have been on the board of directors of Quattrox4, an organization that went from being a small youth circus school to a contemporary circus center funded by the Italian Ministry of Culture. I am originally from Italy, a country in the South of Europe but in the so-called “North of the World”, born to white lower-middle-class Italian parents, raised in a small provincial town outside of Milan with a Catholic background, lucky enough to access top-level higher education. As a circus professional and an independent researcher “my ambition is to break and overcome the binary theory/practice, research/activism, public/private, intellectual knowledge/corporeal experimentation.” (31).

I think you can see it quite well - I feel very emotional today, I am thrilled, agitated and humbled, with many contradictory feelings all at once. I feel uncomfortable and happy to be here. I know it sounds weird to speak about feelings on keynotes but I find it also very significant.


As queer-geographer Rachele Borghi says,


“Knowledge becomes political when we add emotions. Making your emotions explicit and arousing them in the people listening to you is not only an alternative way to produce scientific knowledge: it is an act of resistance to the Cartesian system, to the obligation of objectivity and distance that the Western Eurocentric world claims as the only way to produce knowledge. Speaking of emotions is a form of activism”. (28)


Today I am speaking from the position of a white, able, cis, lesbian woman, not a big fan of labels anyway. I am a transfeminist. I am a cultural worker and a cycling activist in Milan. I am not a circus artist but a great juggler of circus projects and circus people, carefully (un)balancing my energies between the cost of being a cultural worker in Italy and the effort that activism requires.

I need to state all these things because, as a person appointed to give a speech on leadership, I think it is very important to say from which perspective I am speaking today: my perspective is not neutral or objective but situated and subjective, embodied, here, now, in this space and with you.

Also, many of the things above are privileges that I do not want to take for granted: every time we occupy a public space, we must take accountability for our position in the wheel of privilege, especially when we speak from positions of power.

So, here we are, ready to talk of feminist decoloniality as a tool of deconstruction (as in the words of Rachele Borghi’s Decolonialità e Privilegio), and critical imagination as a tool for construction by Catalan philosopher Marina Garcés (as presented in her essay La imaginación critica).


ON LEADERSHIP

One year ago I got selected for a program on leadership in circus that wanted to “strengthen the position of the circus field in Europe by supporting future leaders to acquire and develop skills and competencies for strong leadership”.

What defines a ‘strong leader’? Why should leadership be ‘strong’? Why should we think of leaders only in singular countable terms and not of leadership as a collective uncountable process?

Etymologically, “leadership” derives from the verb “to lead”. The trope of the leader (the military conductor or tribal chief, which had several correspondences in Ancient cultures - Leiter in German cultures, dux in Roman Empire, the Greek anax) comes from the military field and it used to indicate the male person conducting the army to victory. Like many other images shaped by the metaphor of war, it has entered our language as a definition that we consider “neutral” but that carries strong connotations: conflict, war, violence, death, power, competition, singularity, masculinity, supremacy. The verb “to lead” was also originally associated with the idea of movement and linear progress, of going from one point to another, or, with a causative effect, bringing someone from point A to point B, generally in a successful way, accomplishing a military campaign or against an enemy.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines leadership as 'the office or position of a leader, the capacity to lead, and the act or instance of leading'. Cambridge Dictionary dissects it into 3 parts: 1. the set of characteristics that make a good leader: 2. the position or fact of being the leader: 3. the person or people in charge of an organization.

Even in the circus field, our notion of leadership stands out to be widely rooted in the neoliberal culture. Successful leadership is often measured in the quantitative terms of production or efficiency, often narrated in the late-capitalistic terms of merit, success and followers; it is regarded as a personal asset that is assigned at birth or that can be developed or validated by top ranking Universities in the First World. The narrative on ‘strong leadership’ for ‘future leaders’ in circus struck me a lot and made me wonder: is that a model that I wish for the circus of the future?


ON MARGINS

Circus, still nowadays, shows an ambivalent relation to marginality. On the one hand, there is a Romantic bias that sees circus as a ‘fantastic’ heterotopia that has nothing to do with the “real” world. On the other hand, the myth of marginality is “a fanciful idea that forgets the roots of nomadic circus in a mainstream capitalist system.” Like other things, contemporary circus in Europe is a cultural product of the White Western Modernity, not a state of exception from it, nor an ‘innocent unspoiled’ world. Thus, the neoliberal narrations affect us and - often unconsciously - keep reinforcing the idea of circus as an innocent art. But art, as we know, is never innocent.

I joined the circus in 2016 by pure chance, quite late for the average ‘circus career'. Coming from an MA degree in Comparative Literature and knowing nothing about circus, I still remember myself attending the first festivals in Italy, feeling completely out of place on the backstage. Disoriented, but eager to play the game. Curiosity, not ambition, opened me the way into circus. A monstrous, eager curiosity for what to me was not a nostalgic evocation of the past but a kaleidoscopic lens full of potentiality for the future(s). Through the Open Letters To The Circus by Bauke Lievens and Sebastian Kann, I started seeing myself as a circus maker because I “compose with circus, interact with circus, deal with circus, feel with circus and I am both immersed in it and speaking back to the world through it.”

Entering a ‘lower’ art (circus) from the ‘top’ of the epistemological system (academia), I have spent the early stages of my career strongly pushing circus toward institutional recognition. I did a lot of blind advocacy moved by the thought that bringing circus to the ‘top’, and pushing it toward the ‘centre’ of culture would have improved its health, increased artistic quality, given solidity and more legitimation among the performing arts - especially in a country where circus has a very recent circus history (the first preparatory school was founded in Turin 2002) and where public imagination still lingers on outdated Moira-Orfei stereotypes.

However, through the years I discovered that ‘centre’ and ‘margins’ are not ‘absolute’ values or disvalues themselves: they are geographical coordinates that are relative, transitory and not in dichotomic opposition. Most of all, we can choose how to inhabit the one or the other and we can move between the one and the other. So, at some point I started wondering: am I sure I wish for contemporary circus institutionalisation at all costs, if a great part of institutional discourse still unconsciously spreads colonial discourse, and thus oppression, underrepresentation, workers' exploitation in the name of Western freedom or neoliberal values such as “innovation” or “inclusion”?

Through my journey into circus, I re-discovered the potential of the margins and the false friend of “institutionalisation” that so many of us - especially in Italy - still appear as the American dream. Institutionalisation does not always mean worthy wages or recognition of circus as a cultural practice and a cultural practice as a full-time job. I am a seasoned professional in the Italian circus field, I have more than confirmed my value to the industry: still, today is the first time in my career that I am getting paid to talk. Until 2018 I was doing two jobs as I chose to stay in a country with no intermittence or minimum wage.

Even in my own organization, we still linger on the myth of the circus work environment as a non-work environment - “the circus family” that makes everything in the name of passion (internalized capitalism?). This is very often a common narrative that creates an expectation in the broader ecology of culture and normalisation of unpaid work. It is a thing that leads to private investments and emotional labour opening the way to chronic burnout, and stigmatisation of personal weakness instead of questioning collective unhealthy (or unsafe) work environments.

Who pays the price of our art? In Italy theatre and cultural institutions are starting to fill their rooms with remarkable pieces of international contemporary circus, but - for example in the case of Milano, the city where I live - in the very end my unpaid labour contributes to increasing the market value of a smart European city where the lower-middle-class cultural workers like me (those who have brought that piece of art there), can’t benefit from accessible living costs and on the long term are forced to leave the city or change career path.

Theatres and directors are proud of hosting good, innovative, high-level circus but, in the very end, who benefits from that innovation? As workers in the arts, we need to rethink circus in terms of collective labour and collective practices. What do we gain from romanticising passion in cultural work in opposition to good working conditions? What are the social, physical and mental health consequences for workers depending on a professional field with a free market logic, where freelancing is prioritized and extra hours normalized? And how much does the European circus field rely on that?

Speaking about privilege is not enough. Being naive about marginality is accountability. We should take direct action, politicize our practices, build alternatives, and decolonise circus. As Borghi says,


“Decoloniality is a critique of the current world system [...] advanced by intellectuals from the Global South, active within and outside social movements. But it is not limited to this. Decoloniality is also a proposal. A proposal to get out of coloniality in order not to continue reproducing a colonial world. And this can only call into question those who are part of the dominant system and enjoy its privileges, more or less consciously.” (22) Rachele Borghi


It’s time to change our position toward the way we produce art: undo our practices, decolonize our institutions, our thoughts, and our ways of producing knowledge, and intertwine them anew with a profound awareness that this state of things has no future.


As Borghi points out, To get out of colonialism, it is not enough to deconstruct, but to find ways to act to transform the world. This means not creating a new paradigm, but destroying existing paradigms. The Western academy must give up the privilege of producing the dominant discourse. Subaltern voices must not be heard but must occupy the same place as dominant voices. To subtract oneself from the oppressive role means continuing to blow up the ivory tower that has protected Western academics so far. It means stepping out of the comfort zone, taking risks and responsibility, learning discomfort, continuing to question, and not stopping to reflect on one's privilege. Becoming allies requires a radical change in the way knowledge is produced, disseminated and transmitted. Starting from one's own.” (106)


Without decoloniality, we won’t be able to turn the “marginality” of circus into a space of resistance or into a ground where alternative practices could blossom. Marginality will remain a faded and peripheral extension of the centre reproducing exactly the same paradigms, dynamics of power and oppression, failing to turn circus art into a visionary tool to rewrite and reimagine the world. As bell hooks says in Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics,


“There is a definite distinction between that marginality which is imposed by oppressive structures and that marginality one chooses as the site of resistance, as the location of radical openness and possibility.” (22)

bell hooks


If I look at myself now, it is quite ironic that most of my references today are Global North authors rather than racialized or Global South intellectuals. This is a thing. But at the same time, this is a point to pay attention to and build awareness on: I was born and raised in a country with colonial history. There is a part of me that still finds White things somehow more reassuring, easier to read and to identify with. I am unwilling to be uncomfortable and black queer marginalised writers make me feel uncomfortable.

Of course, this thing that I am saying shall not sound like an apology or a confession, but I would like it to resonate here as an invitation to act: in my case, for example, the first thing to work on is decolonising my reading habits. I thereby ask the organizers of the conference: how many Black indigenous people are in the room? How many of them are going to give public speeches or keynotes in the next few days?

Like many of you, I often have the best intentions but also I keep reproducing what makes me feel comfortable in my ivory tower. However, recognising it is the sparkle of awareness and the beginning of taking action. And if we acknowledge that, (we) can see alternatives to that and build greater spaces of agency and artistic freedom in our field.


ON CRITICAL IMAGINATION

In this perspective, seeing collectively things that do not exist is an act of critical imagination. As Catalan philosopher Marina Garces says in her essay Imaginación Crítica:


“Imagination is not an individual, spontaneous and empty faculty, but a way of elaborating our relationship with the limits of what we see, know, remember and project about the world in which we live. [...] Its activity moves in the "in-between" of temporalities, disciplines, subjects and dimensions of social and cultural life. It is not, therefore, an independent faculty, but an interdependent activity. Hence its condition as an ecosystem and, therefore, as an ecosystem that can be altered and damaged or enriched and cultivated”. (6)


Critical imagination reconnects our artistic practices to the world we inhabit. It is not an innate individual skillset, but a collective practice that can be learned, trained and shared to envision possible futures.

For the end of this keynote of course I do not have a set of ready-made solutions to offer, no one has lists that we can copy and paste. There are lots of decolonial practices we can be taught and for which to make room, that we can discuss and experiment and apply.

This is the best wish I have for the following days: that these workshops, talks, and exchanges become a living laboratory of the possible (and not of the impossible), a room for critical thinking and direct action toward radical change, a space for dismantling our accommodating positions toward a progressive circus; a moment for self-compromising with generosity, honesty and care.

Thank you.



References

1 All the quotes by Borghi have been translated by myself. They are all taken from Borghi, Rachele. Decolonialità e Privilegio, Meltemi Editore, 2020. Print. The number you see next to the quotes refers to the page number.

4 Translated from the original: “La imaginación no es, por tanto, una facultad individual, espontánea y vacía, sino un modo de elaborar nuestra relación con los límites de lo que vemos, sabemos, recordamos y proyectamos acerca del mundo en el que vivimos. Que esto se plasme en el arte, en la ciencia, en la política o en las decisiones cotidianas, no hace de ninguno de estos terrenos el monopolio ni el lugar propio de la imaginación. Su actividad se mueve en el «entre» de las temporalidades, las disciplinas, los sujetos y las dimensiones de la vida social y cultural. No es, por tanto, una facultad independiente, sino una actividad interdependiente. De ahí su condición de ecosistema y, por lo tanto, de ecosistema que puede ser alterado y dañado o enriquecido y cultivado.” in Garcés, Marina. 2022. «Imaginación crítica». En: Garcés, Marina (coord.). «Ecología de la imaginación». Artnodes, no. 29. UOC. [Fecha de consulta: 20/05/2024].


** Many thanks go to Majo Cazares, a fellow of the New Horizons Leadership Program, great friend and amazing human being, who helped me design this speech with a sharp eye and a warm heart.


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