A Practice or Practices?

This blog was written by Emma Jayne Park, facilitator for the Scottish CROWD residency with artists Alex McCabe and Stefanie Schwimmbeck. Writing is inspired by conversations that came up as part of the lab but has been written subjectively, from their own perspective as a community dance artist and facilitator. The hope is for any blog content to further the conversations that were started during the residency instead of pretending to share any concrete outcomes. In hindsight Emma may not agree with what they have written – this is fine too!

Scottish Culture is steeped in class politics. Being connected with the United Kingdom, this is unavoidable. Social class dictates safety, wellbeing, and opportunity. There are streams of articles defining and redefining the various strata of society, there are endless think pieces about the lack of genuine working-class representation in the media and there are now programmes that specifically look to address class as a barrier to working in the arts.

The arts also have distinct class barriers – those rich enough can do what they like, take risks and have access to networks that support career advancement. Those growing up in working-class areas, until recently, have often been discussed more so as those communities that will be targeted by outreach opportunities than as artists in their own right.

But what does this mean on a daily basis and for the working-class artists who have chosen to pursue community dance? How does class impact our behaviours and the work we do?

Do we simply define class by those who are struggling with money, because this could be many artists – right?  And what language do we use to discuss the nuances of the impact of growing up in a working-class family when, by definition, being ‘an artist’ could lead to the argument that you are no longer part of the working class as it was originally defined by Labour movements.

I don’t agree with this definition of class – it feels too simple – but I do engage with this thinking from family and friends, and can understand why they feel this way. It has taken me years of hard work to unpick my own internalised guilt around being fortunate enough to be able to work in the arts.

I know that my folks think that being an artist makes me bougee – I don’t feel bougee often, but sometimes I do. Mostly when involved in ‘industry’ events where the drinks are free or when having to discuss ‘my practice’.

Alex, Stefanie and I spoke about the confidence it takes to state that you have a practice.
How it can feel too established, too confident, and too luxurious.

This can be wrapped up in many things for working-class artists.

  • Generations internalising the idea that to be confident or entitled to luxury (a job that feels luxurious) is not for me ‘Don’t get ahead of yourself.’ A statement shared regularly by the people I love who always have one eye on what happens if the shit hits the fan.
  • The ongoing fear of not being good enough and being disregarded by ‘the industry’. When you have spent years adjusting to social codes this feeling of not belonging has a large impact. By underselling yourself, you lessen the likelihood of missing the expectation and being ousted. This also drives pay gaps.
  • Being endlessly distracted by survival. Much of our work hinges on outcomes and having to commit to many things in case one thing falls through.  This can lead to juggling too much because the fear of not having enough work is huge. It’s scarcity in its simplest form but it is more than that – it is the productivity trap that maintains the status quo. We are only valued for what can be measured, and for those of us applying for funds to initiate our own projects, we must define this before we begin. There is no space for practice, evolution, and fallibility in neo-liberal structures.
  • Time spent defining your practice in wanky arts statements to be taken seriously and secure work – meaning that the practice somehow loses its meaning or is reduced beyond all nuance. I often wonder if this is heightened with a dance practice, our work is about closing the gap between words and actions so perhaps we have a lower tolerance for statements that feel like arty meaninglessness.
  • And lastly, the little time there is to focus or reflect on having a practice when often the work itself is so exhausting and fast paced, the true success is in getting through the day – because of course those who are precarious face additional barriers of living further from central areas where activity takes place, having to consider cheaper forms of transportation, having to prepare food for the day to save money.

And now almost every organisation in Scotland (and beyond) offers opportunities to ‘develop your practice’.
But what is meant by this?

For those who are distracted by survival it is the dream circumstance to be given this space but can also be seriously intimidating. If I spend four weeks developing a new way to describe working safely through your knees – will it be enough? What will I say in the industry sharing’s? Will the outcome of this process dictate the potential for new work?

Almost all these concerns are hypothetical. Yet they are very honestly based in a scarcity approach to creative work that is perpetuated by the structures that artists must navigate. And once that bubbling anxiety is felt in the body, it is difficult to ignore.

Alex, Stefanie and I agreed that often you write the application that you believe will get you in the room, then you deal with the practicalities of getting there and then – then what?

As we discussed the discomfort with the grand overarching idea of a practice – which sometimes feels detached from our reality and the way in which we would like to discuss our experiences – we found comfort in thinking about our practices.

Developing practices is simpler. Practices are small things, that can be refined, re-defined and evolved softly. They are not quite so grand but simply a thing that you do – possibly regularly that can add up to a way of being. It’s not about being epic or innovative but just doing stuff – curiously and with the intention of doing it better. It is easy to prove – I do this; therefore, this is a practice that I can talk about.

Alex and Stefanie spent some time creating a small catalogue of practices. We found that this is not simple as often we overlook the intuitive things we do and have come to rely upon. They often appear in conversation, or when planning together with others and we suddenly realise that some of our approaches are not obvious to everyone.

And, at times articulating these practices can devalue them – as if taking something bodily and putting it into words hollows out the nuance. So, we must question why we are articulating them. In an industry where the performance of doing things and eloquent description of doing them creates the kind of cultural capital that can ensure your survival – both economic and in terms of career longevity – it can be tricky for someone for whom the feeling of scarcity is fundamental to their entire life experience to believe what they are saying.

My experience of being working-class is having people call bullshit when you are exaggerating… is this felt sense of over articulation of our work the same as exaggerating? Are we dressing up the basics for the sake of looking special?  It can feel like it! And ultimately, this discomfort impacts the body and therefore impacts the work, so how we articulate the work and are asked to articulate the work needs to be addressed. Or, the time spent developing practices could be undone.

So, not only is there a question of who has the time to consider their practice but who has the ingrained confidence to refer to themselves in terms of ‘a practice’.

There is also the question of who is practicing and when they are practicing?
Where is the boundary of your life and work, and where does this blur? Alex and Stefanie both discussed wanting to draw a clear distinction between their life and their work where possible.  Of course, they carry values of inclusion into their life, for example, but they don’t wish to over focus on elements of their practice during everyday activities.  Whereas, as a facilitator, I consider myself to have a listening practice and so consider this often when with family, friends or even on the bus!

Therefore, as a facilitator I had to be cautious when considering offers for developing a practice.  If reading is developing the practice, it must take place in the space, not through taking a book home to a rest space. If conversation is the practice – when does it end?

We often worked into the night over dinner and resumed over breakfast – despite offers to eat alone or discuss other things. This is because we are all curious about the work, and each other, with conversations quickly looping back to questions we have remembered or sharing things we forgot to mention. Or, we were often joined by other artists and practitioners for meals – are these things work or are they not? It is blurry, but also clear.

This is work related to developing the practice – and so perhaps we all needed to be more active in seeking rest. However, it feels somewhat luxurious to be eating good meals with good people so, for someone who has been cultured to believe work should be hard, it can be tricky to establish these boundaries.  What are the edges of our practice(s)?

There is also the question of how our practice(s) are interpreted by others.

In my practice(s) as a facilitator, I thrive on arranging the space, washing the cups and making meals. These activities quieten my busy mind, help me think more clearly and offer me perspective by using my body in a different way. I am neurodivergent, I need the rhythm of these practicalities to feel grounded.

Yet, these practices are frequently questioned?
Is this my role?
What expectation am I setting for others?

Ultimately, I see my role to be creating the space for others to breathe, explore and feel safe being provoked. It is my opinion that safety cannot be explored without a full belly and an organised space! I don’t think this reflects on the practice(s) of anyone else but there is still a layer of – should you be doing this when people see me sweeping up. Or worse, a layer of guilt from those who are used to doing the sweeping!

It’s funny how practice(s) are measured. Often, I laugh to myself because I think part of my practice is critical thinking (which is exactly what I am doing whilst I do the seemingly mundane jobs listed above) but then I think ‘who do I think I am I, expecting to be paid to be some kind of philosopher?’.

And this brings me back to class and practice.
Critical thinking is a defined and eloquent practice.
Washing the dishes is one of the practices that I know I can do.

Washing the dished is more embodied, more tangible and, although it repeats regularly, it has a natural end point. Reducing the big thing to something smaller removes the judgment I have about using a language I did not grow up around. I do not feel equipped to measure and I am not interested in measuring my effectiveness as a critical thinker, but I can share some thoughts I had when I was washing the dishes and seek clearer thoughts the next time I’m washing up!

This approach is more than applicable to community dance practice(s). What is the simple thing we do that enables something more? How can we focus more on the simple when the bullshit alarm starts to ring or when the scale of things becomes overwhelming? And, how can it be articulated by those who run development programmes that this simple thing is more than enough, recognising that the luxury of having a ‘practice’ is not a language familiar or comfortable to all.

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