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FutureBrownSpace1 is a research project by John-Paul Zaccarini, Professor of Performing Arts for Bodily and Vocal Practices at Stockholm University of the Arts (SHK).


Black aesthetics in white circus spaces

A text by John-Paul Zaccarini

The goal of FutureBrownSpace is to create research methods for establishing space for practitioners of color in predominantly white institutions and fields of practice without the pressure of the “white gaze.” One such field is contemporary circus education and production. Key to the methods is the nurturing of generativity that is often stunted by the unconscious affects that are brought into play by the presence of a black body speaking or moving in white space on its own terms. We prototype what that might look like, feel like, enunciate itself like within the brownness of separatist space. Because, indeed, we accept that we have no idea what that might look like. Black agency, unmoored from signification by whiteness, is itself a fantasy, one that seems only approachable via art; literature, film, circus. The process of experimenting with what might oxymoronically be called black freedom takes form through psychoanalytically informed creative writing practices that have marinated in both black study and the embodied experience of diasporic blackness in Sweden, Europe and The U.S. of over 300 practitioners from circus, dance, psychology, diversity consultation and the visual arts. It posits a fictitious black unconscious as an imaginative platform for producing artistic thinking in a separatist space to develop the stamina to re-enter mixed space and confront with tenderness the anxiety and awkwardness on both sides of the so-called colour-line, that interracial dialogue can summon. Discomfort, once the condition of the “other,” comes to be the default of us all. We are all “othered” and thus all have a stake in needing to grieve the obsoletism of race, following seven stages of black grief. The process will be published as a workbook by FutureBrownPress. In this paper I employ the memoir form to embed theory in the embodied experience of intersectionality. It describes the creation of a queer, afro-pessimist circus fantasy, where brown/blackness is performed by agents with active imaginations rather than by victims upon whom race is an interpellation by a normative whiteness prevalent in the field.

Watch the video of Brother - an intersectional revenge fantasy.2

Fantasy, in the psychoanalytic sense, is what we have to work with. Aesthetics has always been on our side – if the white consumer has always envied our rhythm but never wanted our blues, perhaps, riffing off Fred Moten, it is time for our blues to be activated affirmatively. The video “Brother” worked as a pedagogy of race, privilege, normative heterosexuality and artistic representation for white, male Circus BA students, who devised their contribution in collaboration with us for the University’s Seminars in Structural Racism.

It is the first work created within a FutureBrownSpace - an intersectional five-year research project for establishing space for practitioners of colour in predominantly white institutions without the pressure of the “white gaze.”

It is 2020 and the teachers at the Circus Department of Stockholm’s University of the Arts say it has no problems with racism. My response is that in my fifteen-year engagement with the international circus school there have been but two non-white students and two non-white teachers. I add that I am of mixed heritage, my mother is from the Cape Townships and therefore “coloured”. I grew up in the working class, multi-cultural London borough of Elephant and Castle. I’m not used to white being everywhere, and therefore invisible.3

But I am light enough to go unnoticed, painted with light-skinned privilege. When, in 2013, a project concerning the matter of blackness and racism arose no-one looked to me to share my experience. I was the only one to have experienced being that actual matter. I am these materials. I had not been noticed as coloured.

It was an innocent enough oversight in 2013, and my first lesson in the “innocence” of Swedish attitudes towards the complexities of race, which I noticed shared much with circus’ “innocent” blindness towards race within its optic field.

So, I “came out” as having experienced the material at hand. Awkwardness, like a black bull in a white China shop, entered the room. Delicate, white porcelain constructions inadvertently got broken. They no longer felt safe, at home, in their institutional positions. There was, after all, an abstract universal governing the moment, something that could be described as objective, neutral, something we might even call knowledge, which we would never admit is synonymous with white, like the white walls of a gallery that pretends it is empty until the art arrives but we all know is in fact crammed with colonial echoes and assumptions about “race”. That fantasy of the “universal” is what sustains the notion of “meritocracy” in the circus. The video “Brother” is its counter-fantasy.

The expert conversation about blackness happening between the white professors was easier ten minutes ago, when I was, like them, “neutral”, with no adjective (coloured artist, female athlete, disabled entrepreneur, queer journalist), as whiteness can think it is. It was smoother when I was not so explicitly attached to the underside of a colonial history.

I accepted the oversight, noted it as my first experience of the comedy of white awkwardness and stepped back into the closet. I went back below deck, so they could feel at home again.

I would, from now on, need to choose when and when not to be brown. The comfort of white people in the majority appears as one of my unwritten assignments; this is an example of double labour.

This is what racial agency may look like; race as a clay rather than set in stone by a white craftsman, sewing stones in my gut or stuffing them in my pockets. Race as a material of emancipatory poetics, not a material that binds me in place and makes me sink.

How did whiteness become, I shudder even to write this, safety— a lack of feeling, a lack of allegiances. It made space, or at least I thought it did, for me. For a me that had no history.4

Since then, whiteness has become, for me, a director calling the shots, invisible but for their voice coming from the darkness of the stalls with an interpretation of the script we are all reading from, some more consciously than others. Some of us are sight-reading, because our life’s training has demanded we learn that particular skill – we’ve been in these awkward scenes before. Others know the script by heart and can repeat it in their sleep, no longer aware of it. And some of us, having not only learned it, but studied and analyzed it have “actioned” it, a technique whereby the actor gives transitive verbs to every phrase they utter. “Actioning” the script means we take conscious decisions upon how to say our lines, about what our lines are doing, how to play with emphasis and rhythm, how to speak a word we all know in such a way that denaturalizes it, because perhaps we bring a different history to the word that illuminates whole geographies previously foreign to everyone else at the table. Even our work with language is double labour. To do this means being in several places at the same time and it is most certainly not, unlike the experience of the white professors, about being at home.

Double agency.

If an actor has to audition in order to pass within a given script, and the agent is the one more in control of writing their own script, is the double agent the one fluent in two scripts but at home in neither and thereby messing with the fiction of the single-narrative identity? Is this what makes the double agent uncanny, unheimlich- not at home? Would this account for the disorienting effects of “coming out” as coloured amidst an abstraction of white professors? Can a double agent turn subservient passing into an active playing-with?

Double agency is indebted to but not the same as double consciousness, as expressed by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk, and Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, or even triple consciousness whereby the influence of gender or sexuality into blackness complicates identity positions in relation to normative power.5 Rather it is the disinterested assumption and skilled conglomeration of two identities in order to exist, at home, in a third – this perhaps being a void waiting to be filled in the normative text, the nothing of metaphysics. The task perhaps, of double agents is to not be placed; to be a set of neithers, ands and boths. Multi-lingual, and with several passports, they can slip from one to the other with their actioned script intact – to disrupt and disorient the ideologically laden cultural biases their bodies are forced to bear from the white gaze.

The way to break the one story-gaze so these multiple bodies get released is for all the traffic lights at the intersection to turn green and to celebrate the ensuing carnage. What is worded in this experimental, metaphoric car-crash of identity is affect-full and sweaty, messy with contradictory, inappropriate propositions and positions.6 This is a pile-up at the intersection and the ensuing scattered body is what I collect and put into my carrier bag of fiction; a body dismembered by the collision of opening the intersection to all the traffic that has had to be put on hold to get through the day; forcing the body to remember what had to be foreclosed in order to function as a one-way street narrative – a one-story body that tried to make sense, tried to be legible within the dominant script but could only ever achieve this as a part-object, or fetish. This appropriate body that, in trying to toe the line, disabling itself in order to fall in line by splitting itself, potentially reverses the process of healthy psychic development. This is the body that needs to fall apart a little, if it is to find a new, more active and enabled way to move through the world.

Once a critical awareness of intersectionality multiplies the body’s potentialities and uncovers its divergent histories it might see itself as always having been in bits and pieces, unable to cohere and therefore take action. This carnage/understanding could be the beginning of the work to (re)construct a bodily aesthetic capable of expressing all those lines, voices, movements of history and movements of thought in a whole body that refuses easy classification in a system of political, juridical, social or cultural power.

This necessitates an acceptance that different affects arise depending on which identities are being called into play. I am working here with a notion of the phenomenology of identity, rather than its construction. In this text that is to say when and where race is brought to the stage and how it is required to perform in a field a blinding white. Wright, for example, evokes the “when and where” of Blackness and how it is being imagined, defined, and performed and in what locations, both figurative and literal. Blackness cannot be located on the body because of the diversity of bodies that claim Blackness as an identity. Blackness, then, is largely a matter of perception or- as performance studies theorist E. Patrick Johnson observes – made up of moments of performance in which the performers understand their bodies as Black.7

Brownness or Blackness, when called into play, may be sponsored by rage or grief, sexuality underwritten with shame, or gender generated by anxiety creating sweaty compound affects at their various intersections. I proposed in the making of this film that these compound affects required a safe container to be worked on and with so that we could be less symptomatically directed by them as actors in the social context and become more agential in using these affects as critical tools. These affects can otherwise burden us with the labour of self-surveillance, in the form of internalized racism, homophobia or misogyny – all forms of double consciousness. That we are kept busy doing the self-sabotage to keep ourselves at the bottom of the ladder is testament to the ingenuity of the various agencies of oppression and the vast, historically embedded epistemologies they employ to ensure that our “less than agentiality” be reinforced subliminally on a daily basis. The double-work of figuring out whether or not this or that was sexist, homophobic or racist keeps us busy in ways that can minimize our capacity to act compared to those who never have to ask those questions. To reinvent affect as a critical tool would mean to disidentify with shame and rage; to be both in it and distanced from it, in order to apply it to this internalized machinery and, perhaps more importantly project it back pedagogically to those in positions of comfort who made us feel that way in the first place.

So, there may be some breaking to be done, in order that we can leave behind the idea that being coherent or continuous is in any way valuable. We may even come to an understanding that what holds us together is oppression itself. Revenge, reparation, razing down and reconstitution may need to happen from within before we can look out, with a gaze devoid of interest and perhaps even compassion, toward the everyday micro aggression and unconscious racism/misogyny/homophobia many of us deal with. Agents act, they don’t act out. Multivalent and ambiguous aesthetic action, the value of the ruse and the labour of not becoming too passionately attached to any one identity, except that third, unmarked identity that rests in the interstice between State and Not-State, those, I propose, are some guidelines for double-agency. Aesthetics, which have always been on our side (you can dance and you can sing to entertain yourselves and us, but that’s the limit of your agency) is perhaps still our best lure. A drag queen of colour is more than a man disguised as woman become clown – she’s perhaps playing an updated version of the coon. We play in codes for a spectator who does not know what we are actually doing.

Suturing multiple, contradictory identity elements together constitutes a form of autonomy. It is an ability to reconfigure and redefine the body as a performative agent.8 It is the shift from the (white, male) Hero’s Journey to the (feminine, collective, multi-hued) Carrier Bag theory of fiction.9 My coonish, Queer Panther video fiction works better for me than the one sold me by whiteness; I do not want to live within that liberal white fantasy of what it means be black/brown.

I do not need it to define myself. I exist outside of it.

And this is, if we are to believe Lacanian psychoanalysis is the end of the apparently interminable process of analysis – to break through the fundamental fantasy that sustains our desire for recognition from the Other.


Conclusion: Ontology – a FutureBrownSpace.

Simply employing the word “white” needs to be recognized as the disorientating tactic it is in the Nordic context. It’s a magic trick – or actually, a counter-magic. “White” was always smoke and mirrors, mis-direction and illusionism. But now it can be seen as a theatre of disorientation – a comedy even, a slapstick of subjects floundering upon uncertain notions and even more uncertain histories that day to day are becoming denaturalized. The earth does not exactly quake, but it does wobble and reified concepts warp and whorl.

Dealing the “white” card is like the big reveal, showing you that this was all a set-up, a staging. Yes, we’ve all been set-up. The game was rigged. The wow moment however is not applause, although white fragility is incredibly theatrical, histrionic even. The revelation of the mechanism of the illusion does not produce the wonder at how clever the trick was. It produces, rather a kind of ontological moral panic.

We shouldn’t perhaps, as double agents, show our cards too readily.

So, this reactive work of fantasy, this divisive, reactionary revenge fantasy in the video has to be done first, before what I call the active work. I think this film has cleared the field, it’s made some space, de-cluttered –and what have I gotten rid of in this cleared space? What’s been cleared? It seems to be whiteness. The notion of whiteness, as something to respond to, react against, without the unconscious censorship that whiteness can bring into a space. It is a space cleared of white discomfort, shame, tears, fragility. It is not perverse, (slavery is perverse, its enactment of a radical split between subject and object is perverse) it is Utopic and momentary, a necessary enclosure for the kind of healing we need in order to feel more activated than reactive. The pain is collective, and we need to feel unreasonable at times in order to re-enter the world as reasonable subjects. The more I work within these fleeting spaces – around the table, in the studio, co-writing or collaborating, but not so often in public, because you might get too loud, your affect too generous, or you might get quite simply “extra” – the more I gather the little, everyday micro-aggressions that add up to full-scale exhaustion the more I recognise, we recognise the need for some relief.

FutureBrownSpace is a formal resource now within the University, a formal clearing, within institutional space; a bid for a momentarily, necessarily, separatist space which would represent one of many possible stages towards reconciliation. It is a transdisciplinary project incorporating the fields of performance, literature, psychology, pedagogy and race/gender studies to create transdisciplinary proposals for a post-racial future.

A space without whiteness would, therefore, be a space without the specific, disabling other, and presumably a space where a different kind of ethics frames our ideas of relationality and identification. It could be a space where whiteness is the scripted “other” and therefore not (momentarily, or for once, or forever) included in its process of generating future inclusive epistemologies.

1 In the beginning, the project was called FutureBlackSpace.
2 From The MixRace MixTape series by John-Paul Zaccarini and Peter Coyte.
3 Ahmed, Sara: Phenomenology of Whiteness. 2007. Sage. p. 10.
4 Gutierrez, Miguel: Does abstraction belong to white people? Published 7.11.2018 in BOMB Magazine. https://bombmagazine.org/articles/miguel-gutierrez-1/ (last accessed 24.2.2023).
5 Welang, Nahum: Triple Consciousness: The Reimagination of Black Female Identities in Contemporary American Culture. 2018. De Gruyter. Open Access: https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/culture-2018-0027/html (last accessed 24.2.2023).
6 Ahmed, Sara: Living a Feminist Life. 2017. Durham. Duke University Press. p. 12.
7 Wright, Michelle M.: Black Physics. The Epistemology of the Middle Passage. Minneapolis 2015. University of Minnesota Press. p. 3.
8 Willkie, Angélique in an oral Circus Dialogues Lecture. Smells like Dialogue: A Circus Symposium. Gent 2020.
9 Le Guin, Ursula K.: The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. UK 2020. Ignota Books. (The text first appeared in 1988 in the collection Women of Vision. Essays by women writing science fiction, ed. Denise Du Pont.)

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