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Risky Thinking: Form, Live Art and Young People by Thinker in Residence Hester Chillingworth

On 24th May, I was very pleased to be part of a Kids, Families, Gender and Live Art event at LADA. I spoke about where my research and thinking as Thinker in Residence has currently got me to, and I brought Shorty along to read a couple of poems out too. I was honoured to be part of an excellent line-up of artists, which included Felix (9) and Reggie Roberts (10). This is the text of what I said.

– Hester Chillingworth



As I reflect on my time so far as Thinker in Residence at LADA, in which I’m focusing on the intersections between Young People, Gender and Live Art, I’m aware that I’ve brought my own personal lens, my lens forged from my experience of the world, heavily to bear on my research. I have been (and continue to be) keen to dig into and articulate the ways in which Live Art might be a particularly relevant and potent space for gender-questioning young people to inhabit. This is, no doubt, because I was a gender-questioning child who at some points had few places to safely and truly inhabit, that would celebrate my gender-queerness, visibilise my blurry non-binary self, or even actually to see my gender at all. When I found Live Art as an adult, I found a space and discourse, a conversation, in which my blurs, my grey areas, my notness, my inbetweenness, my BOTH AND instead of EITHER OR, my plurality, my resistance to categorization, my constant moving of self, my gleefully innate never-ending state of transition, was not only seen, recognized, understood and permitted, but was also often given space by others, championed and valued, and to some extent defended and protected from those who might attack it. Live Art was, is, a safe space for me – but not safe because it deals in safety or constructs itself as safe, with walls to keep out the enemy or the questioner; safe because it is occupied fully by risk, it is bursting at the seams with risk, with risk takers, with risk taking, with risk talking, with risk making, with risk thinking. Safe because it is so resolutely unsafe and will not pander to the rhetoric of safety which is the thin end of the censorship wedge, but rather entrusts makers and audiences as individuals (not as crowds, as individuals) to make their own judgement calls on what they will make, how they will use their body, their mind, their anything as material, and what they will watch, be complicit with, be part of.

But my affinity with Live Art as an adult is not solely because I am and can be my best gender non-conforming queer self in and around the work – it is because Live Art is a strategy comprised entirely of radical positions, one which margin-dwellers are the very stuff of. It is a strategy which is inclusive in the most genuine use of the word I have come across. You can only self-exclude from Live Art, you cannot be excluded by limits of the form. That is not to say that people cannot be excluded from Live Art institutions, opportunities, buildings, conversations, publications – of course they can, and they are because we live in a racist, ableist, neurotypical-centric society, and it is a shame and a scar – but from Live Art as a strategy for creative work, nobody is excluded. Live Art depends on the artist bringing the youness of you to the work. Live Art is entirely about this body, this place, this action, this moment, this choice, this decision. Live Art is about the live, the right now, the happening. Not the entirety of the live event, but the series of live moments that make that event up. It is about what it means to be alive, to live, to survive a moment, to get through something, and therefore, because in everything there exists the trace of its opposite, Live Art is about what it is to fail, to fall apart, to break, to die.

So I find in my research into the intersections of Live Art, Young People and Gender, that my reasons for thinking that Live Art could be an incredible space for gender-questioning young people to inhabit, are in fact the reasons why it could be an incredible space for any young people to inhabit. The key part of gender-questioning is ‘questioning’. Live Art is a space, a strategy which encourages and thrives on questioning. It is about asking and challenging, never about telling or defining. It is about opening up, not closing down. And while all people whatever age can benefit hugely from such a landscape, it is perhaps true that it could be particularly important for young people – young people who are subject to a test-based education system and a consumerism- and advertising-based society, all of which will train them to delimit, narrow and reduce the ferocity and wildness, or even the gentle wandering scope, of their thinking.

Of course, Live Art’s proximity to the body as material and its inherent valuing of radical bodies, means that it might be an intrinsically apt performative language for young people who are gender-questioning – but all young people are transitioning, from baby to adult, growing and changing all the time (as are we all, over the hill and on the way back down). Gender-questioning young people are simply ahead of the game, understanding on an innate level that the things the world lazily tells them about ‘what people are’ are insufficient, are open for excavation, and alternatives can endlessly be proposed and lived. So again I find myself thinking now that in truth Live Art is no more urgent for gender-questioning young people than for any others. That is to say, I think it is equally urgent for all young people. I think it is very, very urgent.

I’m imagining a future (bear with me) where everyone is effectively gender-questioning because gender as a construct has been unpicked and wound up and is seen as a relic (think of gender like personality – how ridiculous we would think it if you could only choose between two options, or indeed if you were pressed to choose a label for your personality at all). To get there, we need Live Art and other strategies of subversion and protest. At its core, I think it is Live Art’s absolute dedication to the manipulation and challenging of form that makes it so vital, and such an important strategy to share with young people. Live Art knows that telling stories about things – content –  isn’t enough, and that it is how a piece holds and shares its content that can make things change in the real world. This is because it can change how a watcher understands how the world operates, and can illuminate the fact that not only do they themselves make the world operate, but that they have the power and the right to do that in whatever ways they want. If young people (all people) can be given access to the knowledge that the form of artistic work can be broken wide open and sewn up again however, reimagined, reshaped, then that, I believe, is how we can hope that more and more people realise that so too can the form of all things – gender, politics, capitalism, the school day, public space. Or, conversations, relationships, games, adventures, self.

During my time as Thinker in Residence at LADA, I’ve created a non-binary dragchild called Shorty. Shorty has their own show, and also pops up from time to time in unlikely places to do an unexpected turn. Shorty is undeniably a project about gender, about transness, about queerness. As a Live Art project, it is also a project about failure, liveness, doubling, negative affect, the abject, mess and play. It is a project about form, and it’s through the questioning of form that it manages, I hope, to ask some questions about gender. Experiment, push, twist – form first, always form first. That’s what Live Art has taught me – allowed me to teach myself – and I believe that that in itself is a political and radical act.

Young people, you who are naturally so brilliant at questioning the form of things and reinventing the world, we want to be like you, as brave as you, as wild as you, as clever as you, as powerfully unformed as you. We will get there, one day.

Banner image credit:

Reggie and Anthony Roberts, Liz Clarke and Felix, Hester Chillingworth (Thinker in Residence) and Finn Love at LADA May 2018

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