«by Matthew D. Chin A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Social Work and ...»
Yet while Stewart’s work is constructive for providing the conceptual tools for thinking about safe space as the atmospheres from which feelings emerge, I want to move away from how she conceives of the way that these atmospheres or affects come into existence. She states, “how are such elements constituted as an atmosphere for living? How do they sometimes and for some people hang together to produce a felt or half felt, or barely felt sense of something happening?...This is not exactly intended or unintended, not the kind of pure agency we imagine marching forward, like a zombie doggedly after what it wants…and not ‘couch potato’ passive either, but a balling up and unraveling of states of attending to what might be happening” (2011, p. 449) In this schema, atmospheres are not the result of intentional action but rather the end product of attuning to what is currently transpiring. I pull away from Stewart’s understanding of how safe space come to be assembled because, the settings that facilitate the kind of art that Dee created in ILL NANA’s dance intensive do not simply occur “naturally” but are the product of intentional labor. Indeed, Shaunga and Meg put in a lot of work into trying to create an environment where we felt comfortable enough to share our pieces with each other, especially in the absence of ILL NANA who had been working with us closely for the past several weeks.
Later, in response to emails that she and Meg received from some of the participants expressing their fears about showing their pieces in front of others, Shaunga sent out another email trying to allay our worries about the process, attaching a document explaining how the process of showing our pieces would unfold and how it would be helpful to us, even though it was a scary prospect.
This theme of trying to make us feel comfortable enough to share our pieces with each other continued into the session itself when Shaunga and Meg, drawing from the document they sent out, assured us that our pieces didn't have to be finished and that we could share our work in whatever stage it was at. Reading from the document, they also gave us different options in
which we could share with each other:
dance/mark through your whole piece • show an excerpt of what you have / a section / a piece of choreography • show us a character or mood for the piece you’ve been working on (through walks, body • language, facial expressions, even low-key improvisation) mark/talk through your piece and your intentions/feelings/character for the piece • show different significant moments you want to come across through poses, facial • expression, body language etc.
share your ideas about your creative process, what has worked so far, what hasn’t • if you don’t feel safe to share anything, listen to others and offer your feedback where you • can Having attended the meeting when ILL NANA was trying to decide who would cover the intensive sessions during their absence, I was not altogether surprised at Shaunga and Meg's approach. ILL NANA spent quite some time trying to figure out who they would ask to facilitate as they wanted to make sure that the classes were carried out in a way that did not contradict how they had conducted the intensive in the previous weeks. In the three years that it has been running its programming, ILL NANA has spent countless hours coming up with facilitation strategies and techniques so that people who are typically excluded from mainstream dance can feel comfortable. For this particular session they did not want their hard work undone by a facilitator who was unfamiliar with how they typically conduct their classes.
An examination of their facilitation guide perhaps provides a clearer understanding of ILL NANA’s approach to dance education. A few months after the intensive, ILL NANA hosted a dance conference and invited other facilitators to teach a range of dance styles. They developed a short facilitation guide that they distributed to the facilitators and insisted on meeting with each of them to have a conversation about dance education and to discuss the guide. The guide states, "One of our goals for classes during this conference is to teach with an anti-oppressive framework that affirms and validates the experiences of LGBTTIQQ2S [lesbian, gay bisexual transgender, transsexual, intersex queer questioning 2-spirted] spectrum people.
We also want to create a space that is relaxed, friendly and participant-centred where participants can explore movement on their own terms and gain body awareness.
Facilitators should be prepared to tailor their class based on participant needs/wants while also sharing movement knowledge and experience."
Some of the (many) suggestions provided in the guide include
Ask participants what safety looks like for them •
• Give good examples by offering what safety looks like for me [facilitator] Create space to ask questions and check-in with participants: e.x. how are you feeling? Do • you want to repeat something?
Offer several different options for varying bodies, abilities and needs ( ex: providing quad • stretches that are sitting/lying down/ standing/ more or less knee intensive) Allow for participants to interpret movement in a way that fits how they want to move, for • example “ this is how I like to do this movement, or these are some options for how this movement can be done, do it the way that feels right for you, e.x. faster or slower” Intensive participants like Eshan were quick to point out the effectiveness of these practices in creating the settings necessary for them to be able to create movement pieces about their lived experiences. Taking part in the intensive provided me with an opportunity to reconnect with Eshan after several years of being in Michigan for graduate school. I first met Eshan in the summer of 2008 and was impressed that even in their early 20s they had enough experience to facilitate art-based programming for different client populations at various social service agencies in Toronto and that they had the gumption to pull together a visual arts project from their experience of returning "home" to Pakistan. In reflecting on their experience in the program, Eshan said that they were initially resistant to opening up and sharing with the group, "I was having feelings through the process but I wasn't sharing. I still had a container around myself. I didn't start letting go until I started working on my own [dance] piece…I was there and I was feeling stuff and trying to support people but I still wasn't trusting the space and sharing where I was at. I didn't think I could be vulnerable…But as it went on, I saw people bawling and then I was like, 'okay, people are here and I'm gonna be here too'". In part, they attribute the fact that they were able to let down their guard to the kind of setting that ILL NANA created: "I'm still so amazed that space created could hold us and it's because of ILL NANA and how they facilitate and who they are and how they create spaces. I think it's possible for all of us to be together under different circumstances and have shit happen. But here it felt really caring;
everybody was really sweet to each other and really supportive".
This is not to place excessive weight on intentionality or to assume that the stated aim of the practices that groups like ILL NANA undertake automatically succeed in accomplishing the goals set out beforehand, without failure or any other kinds of unforeseen consequences. Indeed, despite their inclusive aims, one intensive member decided to discontinue their participation in the program because they were uncomfortable with the pressure that they felt to talk about their feelings (a more extended discussion on the mechanisms of exclusion in nominally inclusive spaces will be fleshed out in chapter five). The central point is to acknowledge that, in this particular case, much of the work that goes into the creation of settings where QTPOC feel supported in making art about their lived experience is at least partially the result of conscious human action. In attempting to outline an agenda for Black queer studies through an analysis of a politics of deviance, Cathy Cohen (2004) looks specifically at the role of intention in her distinction between deviance, defiance and resistance. She states, “I hypothesize that most acts labeled deviant or even defiant of power are more often attempts to create greater autonomy over one’s life, to pursue desire, or to make the best of very limited life options…such acts cannot be read as resistance independent of some understanding of the intent and agency of the individual” (2004, p. 40). She contends that the significance of such an approach allows us to see “how deviant choices that are repeated by groups or sub groups of people can create a space where normative myths of how the society is naturally structured are challenged in practice…and in speech” (2004, p. 36) In order to better understand the constitution of safe space through human action, Nancy Munn’s (1986) monograph, The Fame of Gawa is particularly constructive. In this text, she looks at the transformative action through which a community seeks to create value that it perceives as essential to its viability. She argues that specific practices such as food giving and the trading of kula shells contribute to the creation of a time-space-person system among different Papua New Guinea islands. These practices do not simply go on through time and space but actively construct the space time through which they persist: actors concretely produce their own space times (and themselves) in the process. Munn contends that the value of any activity or practice can be understood in terms of its key possible outcomes. Any act thus embodies a particular potency which can be expressed in terms of a parameter. Ultimately Munn argues for an understanding of space-time as the relevant value parameter such that the value of any act may be characterized in terms of its potency to effect spatio-temporal transformation. Munn’s work is helpful in conceptualizing how QTPOC community arts organizers go about creating safe space.
Through specific actions such as asking participants how they feel and adjusting their classes accordingly, giving them different options for dance choreography or letting them interpret the prepared dance routine in a way that feels most comfortable for them, ILL NANA creates safe spaces or affective atmospheres in which feelings subjects emerge.
The limits of safe space: Affective boundaries between community and professional arts But the safe spaces created in QTPOC community arts initiatives are not for everyone.
There are those who want to focus more intensively on their artistic craft and find that they are not able to grow in the overly supportive environment of QTPOC initiatives. It would seem that while such unstinting support is helpful for those who are just beginning to engage with art production in order to tell stories about their often difficult lived experiences, different kinds of settings are needed for those who take a different approach in their artistic practice. For instance, while we were packing up to leave after the intensive session that Shaunga and Meg hosted, Eshan spoke about their frustration in trying to gain greater technical dance competency. They said that they had been taking drop-in classes with ILL NANA for two years but when they go to mainstream dance classes, even the beginner level ones, they often find it too difficult because the instructors do not take time to explain the exercises. Masti and Shaunga joked, "What do you mean? They don't stop and explain something to you for 25 minutes?" In making this joke, Masti and Shaunga refer to the way that ILL NANA spend a lot of time going over specific dance movements that they are trying to teach so that all of the participants can understand. While this approach is extremely helpful in making sure that no one is left fumbling through a dance class and in encouraging participants to ask questions when they are confused about something, it is not necessarily the most conducive to improving technical dance skills over an extended period of time. This is especially the case if class participants have different levels of dance training, which typically occurs in ILL NANA's drop in sessions.