Conflict of Interests

Claire Cunningham

I am very conflicted at the moment about invitations to respond to the current situation. I am torn, wondering if perhaps I should say nothing at this time.  Part of me feels that artists are really not the important thing just now, that we should cede space to those who keep people alive and safe. That we should not continue to feel the pressure of putting things into the world to justify our existence…
I feel in one moment that I should not share anything, but then I start to write and then comes this enormous text…an outpouring. Because I don’t know which things to share. I don’t know what is important any more…

I could talk of how I see, I feel, I share the fear and anger of the disabled community – being closed down again, forced into hiding after decades in many countries of fighting for their right to exist in public, to be visible. Folks in wheelchairs and older people are being shouted at for being out in public- others policing their behaviour, their very presence – judging them as being dangerous perhaps? A disease carrier, simply because of a different body or way of being? Or being judged that they should not be in public – painted now by governments as „vulnerable“ -all the agency and empowerment we’ve fought for lost in that simple sweeping gesture-and inciting anger for the irresponsibleness of wanting to get fresh air or exercise, just as normative bodied or „young“ folks can. I feel the frustration at seeing all the strategies and methods many disabled folks have developed and honed as a means for operating within normative society – virtual presence, food delivery, the need to isolate, a renegotiated relationship to time and productivity – all suddenly become the norm.  When those techniques become appropriated by multitudes, those who relied on them are crushed to the bottom and cannot access the services properly anymore, cannot be heard in the vastness. Yet there is also celebration.  Celebration that finally normative society understands that wider access is possible.  Suddenly, magically almost all university courses become available without having to be in the room!  Suddenly you can contribute to a meeting or a conference without travelling, and the formalities that people believed depicted professionalism are seen to be false. It becomes more understood that some people live with immune system risk and some have to distance and isolate often in their lives. This might not be so hard to explain anymore…everything is full of contradictions.

I could talk of how most of the things essential to my way of being an artist – liveness with another human, intimacy, touch, song, trust -all seem inconceivable now. But pondering whether I can work, have work, and make work in the future seems inconsequential right now. The scale of loss, especially in the UK, is catastrophic, and the scale of ineptitude of the government is the same. At the start of the crisis, our government broadcasted that between 20-40,000 people would probably die here, thus setting themselves up as „successful“ if it is less than 40,000. Already planting seeds for the public here to expect that, to accept that. I am at a loss with such loss. Yet I exist within such a privileged position – someone for whom financially (for the moment) the crisis is not creating immediate hardship, for whom isolating is already a part of my reality – a necessity – a means of coping with the „normally“ social, public life of being a travelling performing artist, someone with support systems and a safe, very pleasant, home environment…what right do I have to comment?

I could talk of how I see a lot of talk on social media that asks „what about the artists“? „How to support artists?“ „Crisis funding for artists“…but what about all the freelance technical staff, the lighting, set, sound, costume designers, stage mangers etc? Where is the funding for them? My work does not exist without theirs, yet no one seems to be shouting, fighting for them…

I could talk of how I want to name also the conflict I feel at the unexpected pressure to make public my private space and being. There has been a tsunamI of shifting performative work online which I choose to resist with regard to my own previous performance work. This is live performance and the very essence of what makes it matter to me is lost through a screen.  I’ve had an influx of zoom and skype conversations – more meetings than I’ve had in 6 months happening now within the last few weeks. And an immediate jump by many folks- including performance makers and teachers – to just transfer to digital space. But my home is my space. It is my sanctuary. It is by necessity private.  As a disabled person- as someone who has a visibly non-normative body alongside the presence of my crutches – I have always been aware that the second I step out my door I am observed. I spent years of my childhood under the eyes and x-ray machines of medical institutions -being witnessed. examined. revealed.
My home is the one place no one – except a small circle of trusted folks – really get to see me.
Now there is an expectation that presentations will be given from home – webinars, public conversations, lessons, etc. There’s an expectation that everyone should open up their home to public, present themselves at home, because lots of people are doing it, even celebrities.
I am absolutely in solidarity with the disabled folks for whom broadcasting from home is an extraordinary and empowering liberatory act, I defend anyone’s right to it, and I love and respect the vital tool it has become for many folk. But I cannot compromise my own needs now that online presence suddenly becomes „normative“.  I need privacy. I need to be able to choose how and where I am seen – as I have done in my performance works.  Of course, this could change – my view on this could be different next week, month etc – I reserve the right to change my mind as I need. But right now I am choosing to resist this pressure to make my private space public, to open up my life to the internet. The state of my hair might be part of that, of course, but it goes a lot deeper. I’ll keep trying to work out what I can give, how I can contribute, how I can share what I have. But, not my home.  That’s a threshold for audiences that I’m not ready to let people across.
I’m not going out, and I’m sorry, you can’t come in.