Much of my self-experiment involved exploring agency by confronting its limits. Summer 2020, however, brought a mood change.
“That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way.”
(Doris Lessing, 1969, p. 97)
During the time of my self-experiment in social sculpture (from Sept 2019 - Sept 2020), I often wondered why I choose to say what I say – be it through writing, filmmaking, or in dialogue with other people. Considering my agency in terms of what I say indicates that out of all the things I see as part of my practice as an artist of society, communication bears special significance. Increasingly, I have found myself to be a people’s person, someone who is most likely to get their act together in relation to other humans and their needs, struggles, questions, and desires. If I feel being called upon, I deliver. If I am by myself, I have to work harder to achieve the same level of clarity and generosity I can so easily conjure up with others.
Just after the Corona lockdown measures were eased in June 2020, there was an explosion of social interactions in my Berlin queer community. Clubs and bars were still closed, so people started meeting outdoors. Also, everyone local was around, because travelling was not really an option yet. I realised that one of the things I’d been missing most was interacting with strangers. And suddenly, through friends of friends (working on my social network has been one of my priorities this year), I found myself at open air birthday parties, lake gatherings, mini-festivals in the woods, courtyard barbecues, and impromptu rugs-turned-living room on pavements, having in-depth conversations with people I’d never met before. I deliberately shaped conversations such that they created a space for others to talk about their desires and priorities, what had been shifting, what held them back, and what was calling to them. I listened, asked questions, gave feedback if people shared with me what they’d been up to, and generally asserted a mode of reflecting on life. In the high of the moment, induced by a combination of crazy post-Corona people energy, never-ending sunsets, and various substances, I started doing something that I’d largely abstained from since I left Oxford and my old life for Berlin and a new life in the summer of 2019. Life tutorials. (The tutorial reference comes from my time teaching Creative Strategies on the MA programmes in the School of Arts in Oxford, a practice-based module that focused on learning about one’s creative process as intimately connected with one’s life questions, desires, and interests.)
Something had changed. The mood of the Thinking Pieces I created from September 2019 onwards was different from this new sparkling sense of possibility and getting on with life. I had been feeling cautious, if not sceptical, about the great promise of social sculpture. I’d been in a place where I felt I needed to perform a reality check, face the dark side, and acknowledge the struggle and the mess that also very much determines the circumstances of everyday life. Coming out as transgender significantly increased my level of critical engagement with all the ways that society is stuck and unjust. Before, it was misogyny I experienced first-hand, but I’d grown to take it for granted. Now, I suddenly became more aware of the ways people assert categorical violence on others, punishing those that appear to be a threat to their order. Injustice became tangible in ways I’d never experienced before. As a result, I experienced grief, sadness, and anger, and I’ve been wondering how to respond.
How much patience and empathy do people deserve? I still believe that there are reasons why people are the way they are, and that you can’t know something if you haven’t had the opportunity to learn. And yet, I think one needs to take responsibility for wanting to learn. However, from what I have gathered engaging with people over the years, the will to learn seems to be negatively impacted by education and upbringing. What to do about that in everyday life? How to create opportunities for unlearning and new learning? As opposed to before coming out as trans, I now sometimes feel that a more confrontational approach is necessary to wake people up, but I do so with hesitation. I’m not sure if antagonism can ever be right, whether it can be creative and constructive. In my writing and filmmaking, I’ve been hovering around this critical perspective. I’ve been seeking to understand my own and others’ agency by looking for its limits. It wasn’t quite like giving up, but more like taking a step back, not assuming that I would be able to achieve anything significant or meaningful in this fucked up world.
It is hard to tell what made me shift from feeling like constantly walking against walls of preconceptions to, once again, looking for doors and being motivated to figure out how to open them. Like with all journeys, they evolve as a kind of matrix where different factors play into each other. Suddenly, a moment can create a window of opportunity for doing something differently. Kairos. I remember being at a birthday party on Tempelhofer Feld, the airport where supplies for a cut-off West-Berlin were dropped off after the end of World War II. Now, it is a big open space in the city, held by the community. If you want to see the sky, this is where you go. It was a hot summer day and we were sitting on carpets in a small wooded area. Apart from the person who brought me there, I didn’t know anyone. A number of mind-altering substances were generously passed around. Needless to say that the Berlin hedonists were happy to be back together. I was appreciating the beautiful fading of the evening light. For hours, the sky looked like a living Sistine Chapel. And then, I suddenly found myself in a conversation with a photographer, and I decided to do an impromptu tutorial with him. The world made it seem worth it.
It would be the first of a number of interactions of this kind taking place in the weeks to follow. Something in me had reawakened, the part that got activated when I was working as a teacher. It’s the part of me that gets excited about people’s potential, about potential in general, and that wants to figure out together with the other person what they can do to live up to it and what is hindering them from doing so. I noticed with some surprise that I could still do it, that it was still there, and that people were getting into it and asking for more. They would sometimes get back to me the next time we met, saying how our conversation had made them change how they were going about things. With some reluctance I wondered, had I become a teacher again?
When I think of myself as a teacher, I think of myself as a teacher of a particular kind. My specialisation, or at least what I seem to end up doing over and over again, is to seek ways of aligning action and desire. What is it that you are doing? What drives you? Do you believe in it? Do you care about it? And if not, could you do something different? Something that gives you energy, that activates your will, instead of perpetuating your struggle in unhelpful ways? Even though many of my Thinking Pieces have evolved around limitations to agency, they were still hovering around the question how life can be shaped in more meaningful and, perhaps, beautiful ways. I never gave up on my longing to work towards a more gratifying status quo. I just can’t.
This morning, my friend Anne wrote to me that I seem to have a particular talent for hopefulness. That was after I called them to tell them how all over the place I felt, and they told me about how all over the place they felt – but the articulation and sharing of our feelings enabled both of us to find some strength again to try and do what we want and need to do and know ourselves capable of. Turning frustration into motivation, we outwitted ourselves. We re-cognised our desires and decided to act upon them. Creative momentum ensued. This is a kind of social dynamic I keep on finding myself in. Perhaps it is my way of being an artist of society. Not only, but to a significant extent. I also see myself as an artist in the way I make decisions about food, consumption, travel, engagement with current political struggles, etc., but the meta-dynamic seems to be about aligning desire and action. A lens that can be applied in any set of circumstances. Maybe a transferable skill. And even if not all situations are equally easily sculpted, there always seems to be some margin for creative engagement.
If action is aligned with desire, it enhances the quality of engagement. With quality of engagement I mean the extent to which you are able to navigate and shape a situation creatively, with an open mind, with imagination, reflexive capacity, and response-ability. In other words: you are more likely to do a good job at something you want to do and you see the point of.
Lessing, D. (1969) The four-gated city. London: MacGibbon & Kee.