performingborders (Alessandra Cianetti): Season, this year you presented the performance After Abendland in both London and Ormskirk as part of Lisa Alexander’s TO YOU TO YOU TO YOU Love letters to a Post(Europe). Lisa asked you to respond to her provocation (shared with performingborders in September) on new and old walls, austerity and love. Your 15-minute response addressed the representation of PoC in the European Parliament and what will happen to the composition of the EU Parliament when the UK MEPs will leave it. Can you tell us more about the thinking behind this piece and how you – a US artist living between Berlin and London – and your practice are affected by the current European socio-political instability and its increasingly intolerant climate?
Season Butler: A part of Lisa’s provocation for Love Letters reads: “Walls are being built again. Privilege is superficially fixed for the few.” This put me immediately in mind of Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s 2011 film Abendland. The filmmaker describes it as a “film poem,” a moniker which would gross me out, but it feels very apt here. A documentary without commentary, it is a kind of portrait of Europe at night. The title rests in a geographic dichotomy; if the Orient is the “land of the rising sun,” the Occident (the consensus translation for Abendland) is its opposite, a night space. Darkness descending. The light imagery here contrasts with the fairness (both related to skin colour and to the declared liberal democratic political mainstream) that often characterises our image of Europe. The place isn’t grounded in the beacon-like objectivity of our international courts or the sunny peace within our border or our permabright Enlightenment, but in something distinctly sinister. Among the midnight cremations and sweaty pleasure-seeking, Geyrhalter also shows us razor wire along Europe’s coastlines and repressive state violence inside them. I worried about the prospect of creating a love letter.
I want to push back slightly at the notion that the atmosphere in Europe is increasingly intolerant. I often hear people wondering when or how things got so bad in Europe, or in the world. And we’re certainly seeing a rise in the overt, avowed far right in mainstream politics and in emboldened street violence. It’s also worth considering that this is less the case of Europe becoming more intolerant, but rather that more people in positions of Privilege are becoming aware of problems which marginalised communities have long faced as a fact of life, and which they have long been resisting.
Europe is dark. A lot of people don’t know that.
Border violence is racialised and racialising, and people of colour are constantly reminded that their European-ness is contingent. When anxieties about African and Middle Eastern refugees started to intensify several years ago, European people of colour were reportedly forced off of trains where officials were seeking to exclude illegal immigrants; traveller communities face aggressive, often relentless civil rights violations from casual racism (even from liberal, arty types) to deportations and child separations. Commonwealth citizens associated with the Windrush generation have erroneously been recast as immigrants with many deported. Fortress Europe is ugly. The prospect of Fortress Britain doesn’t look any better to me.
So I thought about a Europe that isn’t fair. In a recent in-conversation in Berlin, performer and activist Rachael Moore, who also works in the EU parliament, and artist Isaiah Lopaz, asked: How do we survive spaces we were never meant to enter? Moore’s experiences were stark and familiar and I was grateful to hear them. I did more reading and found that only thirteen of the 751 MEPs are people of colour; this includes six from the UK. It is an ethnically and politically diverse cohort, and it could halve soon. In After Abendland, I wanted to consider notions of identity, representation and some of the darkness being unveiled in our contemporary moment, in ways that are viscous and ways that are heartening. Maybe even in revolutionary ways. I wanted to send love to Cécile Kyenge, to the Black Europe that no parliament will ever represent really, to Europe at night.
performingborders (Alessandra): Notes from a trembling community in a willful state of flux. A timely title for a collective exhibition that you presented in Berlin this year with the group of artists and researchers you are part of whose work is inspired by Édouard Glissant’s writing. The exhibition reflects on ‘movement and multiplicity of language, cultural identity, and the production of knowledge’ and among others it presents two of your works: the performance-to-camera Brown as a Nut (2017), and the installation Transcription (2018) described as a trace of a live action generated from the 7th September recitation of The Cosmic Manifesto. In these pieces you explore racial, economic, technological, societal and disciplinary borders. What role do you think the notion and lived experience of borders plays in your work? How do you navigate your different practices (performance, installation, text composition)? How does live art influence your writing process?
Season Butler: I’ve only been European for a short time; I did the naturalisation thing and got my British passport just over two years ago. (And, of course, for various reasons, I will never be European (place of birth, complexion, attitude toward cold pizza for breakfast (enthusiastic))). The experience of traveling into the Schengen Area with a UK passport for the first time conferred a totally new social Privilege on me. Passing through a border without having to give a reason, without having to give account of myself, felt like magic. In a way I feel lucky to have gained this Privilege at moment in my life when the idea of Privilege is more present in my awareness. I can recognise the relative ease with which I secured my place here. I’m from a majority-white, English-speaking country. These processes were made to give immigrants like me a relatively easy time. Awareness of Privilege and its opposite also helps me to recognise the unofficial borders that still pop up and demand to know where I’m (really) from, what I’m doing here, when I will go back. And the harsher interrogations meted out to people speaking languages that are not their country’s predominant one, or women exercising their right to religious expression, or two Native American teenagers removed from a university tour because a white woman thought they were too quiet and didn’t “belong” there. (Ironies like a stack of diner pancakes.) Subtle, unsanctioned but powerful borders interest me. Precarity and anxiety guide a lot of what I do, both thematically and in terribly material ways. In text composition, I feel more agentic about the whole thing, sometimes trying to reverse-engineer meaning by pushing texts too hard through inappropriate machinery, like grammar or a broken typewriter.
In terms of live art and writing, sometimes I include live writing elements into performance installations to give myself structured time to write for a particular purpose. An example of this was my performance More from Beyond than from Above, where I sat outside a house at the edge of an eroding cliff for eight hours, using my typewriter to describe the sea every hour on the hour and free-writing in between. The live element generated pages with their own visual aesthetic from the typewriter. And the much of the text went into my novel, Cygnet, which takes place by the sea in a house at the edge of an eroding cliff. Fun and efficient.
performingborders (Alessandra): Last year you were the recipient of the Live Art UK’s Diverse Actions Leadership Bursary, belated congratulations! You proposed to spend the year ‘exploring and generating new models of leadership, which recognise solidarity as a key element of durable change and sustainable progress, particularly among artists for whom survival is already a radical act.’ You also added that ‘diversity entails a collective and ongoing effort to destabilise and ultimately eliminate a subtle, cultural investment in white supremacy.’ Now that the bursary came to an end, what leadership models and allies you suggest the live art sector need in order to create ‘new aesthetic, emotional, political and intellectual priorities’ that move away from the dominance of white narratives? I also wonder how your coming book Cygnet (2019) – that I look forward to reading! – relates to this research. Finally, what does the future hold for you?
Season Butler: The research I carried out for the bursary showed me, among other things, how much personal decolonisation I still need to do. And, unfortunately, I encountered many well-meaning people who will not do the work, who hope that the world will change around them but not too much – not at all, really – because they are not willing to look at themselves honestly and hold themselves accountable. People who would rather continue being part of the problem, than consider that they could have ever been part of any problem. People who cling to a vision of their innocence, of their basic-ordinary-guy decency while somewhere knowing that this is exactly what they’re doing, and are okay with that. This is what we need to address.
The idea that racism exists and is deeply engrained in our society, and yet some people are impervious to its impact is just silly and can we please stop? Racism is not a binary concept, not a yes or no question. I would like us all to ask ourselves more often: How can I be more anti-racist? Plenty of artists, collectives, works and practices, as well as initiatives that embrace a wider range of disciplines, like the group involved in Notes from a trembling community… are doing the work. The reality of racism and our complicity in it is terrifying, but honest appraisal of our social subject positions can inspire more active, productive uses of our Privilege, collective action among people with shared experience of marginalisation and modes of solidarity with causes with parallel aims.
With Cygnet, I wanted to write about difference. The title alludes to The Ugly Duckling, a story whose protagonist is fundamentally and gravely different than everyone around her. My protagonist is a teenager, and she is stuck on an island where everyone is over sixty-five. They’re the Swans. When she’s older, she might be one too, but for now she’s just unwanted. So, yeah, wordplay. Anyway, her story unfolds in the context of climate change, where difference definitely matters. People on geographical and social margins suffer most and suffer first. While early climate change fiction often located the effects of climate instability at a geographical, temporal or affective distance, I wanted to show this phenomenon through the perspective of someone for whom the effects are proximal and immediate. With marginalised status at the intersection of race, gender, class and age, a psychic border seems to emerge between the protagonist and any hope for a meaningful life as the ground, emotionally and materially, falls out from under her.
In the future I’ll be writing something cheerful.
Season Butler is a writer, artist, dramaturg and activist. Her writing, research and performance practice centre around intersectionality and narratives of otherness, isolation and the end of the world. Lately she has been thinking about authorship, authority and version control, and how we gesture toward an unruly future in an age of failed predictions. Her recent work has appeared in the Baltic Centre for Contemporary for Contemporary Art, Latvian National Museum of Art, Barbican Centre, and her first novel will be published in the UK by Little, Brown and the US by Harper Collins later this year. seasonbutler.com
Feature image credits: Photo by Christa Holka