Alessandra Cianetti: Camille, I came across your work as the founder of The Collective Liberation Project when participating in the Embodied Social Change workshop you ran last April. Stemming from your personal experience of both political activism and the healing properties of dance, you devise shared and safe spaces for both – from your words – the People of the Global Majority (POGM) and white people in order to uproot racism and sexism as a radical way to implement social change. I am really curious to know more about the thinking behind The Collective Liberation Project and the workshops you ran.
Camille Barton: The Collective Liberation Project is an experiment to find effective ways to transform oppression at the root. My grandparents dedicated their working lives to anti-racism and managed to introduce multicultural education into the UK national curriculum. Learning from their experience and what I know of history, racism and sexism are culturally based historical systems that have changed with the times but ultimately remained intact for centuries. How do we uproot systems of oppression and stop them being reproduced for generations to come? As social constructs there must be a way to dismantle them! What agency do we have to transform our own behaviours and that of our communities? These questions are the driving force behind my work with CLP. In trying to answer these questions I am developing a methodology influenced by research in experiential learning theory, dance therapy, somatics, critical race theory, intersectional feminism, mindfulness and neuroscience.
In striving for collective liberation, I am seeking to co-create a world in which all beings are free from oppressive systems of power. All of us are free or none of us are. It is important that we heal the harms done to our ancestors and the legacies that affect us today so we do not pass on these cycles of violence and pain to the next generation. It is utopian to say the least but worth striving for.
When thinking about oppression and trauma, I always come back to the body. To understand this relationship more, I highly recommend The Body Keeps the Score, an incredible book by Bessel Van Der Kolk about the relationship between Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the body and the neuroscience of trauma. In Western culture, rational knowledge is valued over embodied ways of knowing. As a result, a lot of activism focuses on the mind and the belief that if we learn enough information about a form of discrimination, we will not reproduce it anymore. I think this approach is limited as it does not address the ways our bodies reproduce systems of power such as racism and sexism. Our physical behaviour, nonverbal communication and ways of moving through the world are important ways that systems of power and oppression are constructed in daily life.
For example, men taking up huge amounts of space on public transport, to the detriment of other women around them (aka manspreading), is a physical manifestation of male entitlement. Similarly, when I sit next to white people on public transport they often grab their bags, as if to protect them from me. This subconscious body based reaction represents their racialised reaction to me as a Black woman. I do not think these behaviours are intentional, however, the impact is damaging especially as these microaggressions take place multiple times a day.
In my workshops, I create a container to explore our subconscious body based relationship to privilege, power and oppression. Mindfulness and dance are powerful tools in this work because it allows us to reflect and become more aware of our embodied responses, emotions and defensiveness while using movement to work through these sensations and integrate them with the knowledge in our minds. It can be powerful to combine with other forms of activism. This new body of work is sometimes referred to as somatic social justice and I am deeply inspired by many researchers in North America such as Rae Johnson.
Alessandra Cianetti: As a movement artist your multi-disciplinary practice spans from dance, performance, video, clowning, and more. In a theoretical text you shared with me, you write that ‘bodies are deeply implicated in the reproduction of social power’ and power structures that replicate racist, sexist, homophobic, economic oppression. How does your performative practice navigate and cross the borders of those layers of power and oppression in order to create a different discourse within and outside the artistic realm?
Camille Barton: In performance I like to play with and navigate layers of power and oppression in different ways. Improvisation is a key part of my practise and this allows me to liberate myself from the confines of respectability politics and control that are often attached to my body as a Black woman living in the UK. Under Capitalism, we are constantly measured by our output, perfectionism and ability to stick to a plan. Using improvisation, I subvert these demands and surrender to the desires of my body, the story I am trying to tell and the flow of spirit. This also provides an access point to celebrate my Yoruba ancestry and the African diasporic people who have used to improvisation as a tool of celebration, connection and survival when facing oppression in a hostile environment.
Grotesque clowning and drag burlesque have been ways for me to subvert the hypersexual male gaze placed upon Black femme bodies in the West. I identify as a non binary Queer femme but I am often read as a straight woman. I use buffon style clowning to reject the conventional notions of femininity that are placed on me. I enjoy blacking out my teeth, exploring my shadow and the creepy discomfort that lives there. A historical element of racism is white folks’ simultaneous sexual fetishization and repulsion towards Blackness. By exploring these aspects of the grotesque and sexual, while feeling my agency in that space, I get to reclaim this and confront the audience with the dynamic. I don’t know if they are aware of what’s going on but it’s empowering and enjoyable for me.
I hope there begins to be more analysis of power and privilege within the dance world. The physical boundaries of dancers are often pushed to breaking point and a lack of care for the bodies of dancers is normalised by choreographers. The precarious economic nature of the industry means that most dancers do not rock the boat too much because that will mean losing work. This way of working centers the needs of the choreographer and the enjoyment of the audience over the needs of the performers. I am interested in performance that centers the healing, enjoyment or pleasure of the artists involved. I am happy to work hard and generously share that energy with an audience but there needs to be reciprocity and care in the process.
[As we’ve discussed earlier, I am fascinated by the embodiment of trauma and how that links to oppression. In my performance I like to explore themes within my own life that feels challenging and work that out on stage. This allows me to process what I otherwise privately wrestle with in isolation. I recently had the pleasure of performing a piece with The Cocoa Butter Club for the RAZE Collective take over at the South Bank Center. I did a clown – dance piece about my feelings of urgency about activism which has been exacerbated by the Trump presidency. It feels cathartic to share these feelings rather than let them stew alone.]
Alessandra Cianetti: In your video-work ‘Space is the Place’ screened at the Sheffield Doc/Fest this year, you present your own personal reading of Afrofuturism intertwining the stories of inhabitants of a distant future with your own persona’s memories representing their African diasporic ancestor. Spirituality, utopia, and social change are spaces for your artistic research and creation and I wonder if you can tell me more about your coming projects and visions for the future.
Camille Barton: Speaking of utopia, I recently curated and co-produced the SanQtuary, an intersectional Queer clubhouse that launched at Shambala festival on August bank holiday weekend. The SanQtuary is a space run by and for the LGBTQ+ community and our allies to showcase the creativity of the Queer community, explore empowerment, healing and visions of Queertopia: what it looks like to live in a world in which Queer folks thrive rather than simply survive. I would love to plan a little tour for next year- watch this space…
I have begun researching and developing an immersive dance piece exploring abortion and utopian approaches to life giving and taking. I feel we need the conversation to move beyond whether abortion should be legal and actually start talking about how to improve the current model in places where it is allowed but clearly failing the needs of womxn who generally feel traumatised, ashamed and disempowered by the process. Given my own experience last year, I am keen to work through this myself and turn the learnings into something powerful that can be shared.
In terms of ongoing projects, I will be continuing my somatic social justice research in the Embodied Movement for Social Change workshops. In light of the #Metoo movement, I am keen to create spaces for people identified as womxn to share and process their lived experience through somatic exercises, mindfulness and therapeutic, improvised dance to explore how these issues have affected our bodies, minds and ability to move through the world. I intend to run a series of these over the autumn. The next one will be taking place at the Black Sheroes event at Ugly Duck, Tanner Street on Sunday 7th October.
My film Space is the Place will also be showing at the Black Sheroes event that weekend from the 5th- 7th October. Follow the event for the exact timing.
Camille Barton is a movement artist who brings her passion for social change to life through a variety of art mediums, including dance, film and clowning. Her art practice fuses improvisation, ritual and Afrofuturism to weave new realities inspired by the creativity of the African Diaspora. Most recently Camille directed and danced in ‘Space is the Place’, a three-minute Afrofuturist sci-fi film produced by Channel 4 Random Acts. The film was selected to play at Sheffield Doc Fest 2018. In 2016, Camille co-produced The Sisterhood, Glastonbury festival’s first intersectional, women only venue. Most recently, Camille co-produced and curated the SanQtuary- an intersectional, Queer clubhouse that launched at Shambala festival in August 2018.
Camille is the founding director of the Collective Liberation Project (CLP). CLP designs educational experiences to help people understand oppression, and how it relates to their lived experience, so they can stop behaving in ways that reproduce oppression, such as racism and sexism. This work is inspired by Camille’s ongoing research into somatics and social justice: exploring how trauma from oppression is rooted in the body and how it can be healed with movement and mindfulness. CLP has worked with clients including Quakers in Britain, Release, Institute of Contemporary Arts, Sisters Uncut, The University of Sussex, SOAS, The Arts Marketing Association and Sunday Assembly London. www.camillebarton.co.uk
Featured image credits: Space is the Place, Camille Barton, 2018