Sunday, July 20, 2008

"Reason enough for hope": a conversation with Rajni Shah

Bride in Parking Garage
Image by Rajni Shah, Manuel Vason and Lucille Acevedo-Jones

The first show never even happened, I remember that: though I don’t quite remember what it was called. Well, hang on, I'm pretty sure it was either called Twenty Minutes in Love or Get Out Of The Car, and all through the summer of 1998 it was all I could think about. I was living in a box room in Brixton, my third not-altogether-fixed abode since moving to London just a few months previously; and it was coming up on a year since I’d made any theatre, and this show was coming together in my head, and though I had no idea how we’d pay for it or where we’d do it, I had started casting it — in my head, but also for real. I auditioned actors in my kitchen, or in pubs, or, in one instance, on a platform at Kings Cross station. There would be seven performers: and although I found all seven in the end, I can only remember two or three of them now, and a couple of faces (and haircuts) that have become detached in my memory from the names they came with. One of the ones I remember was this dance performer from Cambridge called Rajni Shah. Radiant, enigmatic, weird, slightly scary, totally compelling Rajni, whom I vaguely knew, and wanted to know better, and wondered if I could ever actually know at all.

Eventually I had to write to all those actors and pull the plug on a project that I guess had never really existed: though it genuinely seemed at moments that maybe London could be made to behave like university did: that you could get a show on with just five hundred quid and an obsessive personality. And although in the end it took a fair bit more money than that, the show did eventually happen the following year, though by then it was called The Consolations: and Rajni was one of the six extraordinary actors who came together to make the piece with me. Look, here they all are.

Rajni atop Jeremy Hardingham...

...orbiting Stefan Warhaftig...

...waving hello...
L to R: Gemma Brockis, RS, Stefan Warhaftig, Tom Lyall, Theron U. Schmidt

...singing 'Que reste-t'il de nos amours?' on board a spaceship...

...and in the best possible company.
L to R: Stefan, Jeremy, Tom, Theron, Rajni and Gemma
The Consolations, dir. CG, at The Place, London, November 1999
all photographs [C] Sarah V. York

We made a couple more pieces together, Rajni and I, in subsequent years: a large mostly-improvised ensemble piece called The Big Room, which I suppose we had better chalk up as an interesting failure; and, in the spring of 2003, a really interesting, angry, unsettled, curiously rhapsodic piece called Past the Line, Between the Land, for which we covered the floor of Camden People’s Theatre with fresh turf and made ourselves a campfire under artificial stars. I still count that piece as one of the best and most important that I’ve made, though folks were largely mystified and slightly repelled by it — not necessarily excluding some of the actors, perhaps.

This backstory is simply because I was wondering how to try and introduce Rajni -- who she is, what she’s like to be around, for those who may not know her -- and I found myself wanting to tell a story about something that happened while we were making Past the Line...: just a small thing, but it speaks in the right way.

Down in the drab and claustrophobic basement of CPT, where the piece was being made, we spent one afternoon running an extended improvisation of the kind that I particularly love to initiate: complex, confusing, sometimes fluid, sometimes jittery... I don’t remember what the rules were, or what stimulus fed into it. I know that it was mostly about wanting to take hours to let something grow, whatever that might be.

In the midst of all this field of activity, there came a point where Rajni had been standing very still for quite some time, more or less unnoticed perhaps by the others, who were busy making their moves and crafting their interventions. And then slowly, so slowly as to seem almost to defy perception, she started to undress. And the moment that I’m trying to describe, I suddenly realise I’ll never be able to capture, but the facts of it were these: that one of the other actors in the room had started to hand round a packet of biscuits. (A gesture that later found its way into the very beginning of the show.) And he turned to offer one to Rajni, and she gently declined, and what I can’t describe is the exact moment, somewhere between the words “Would you like...” and “...a biscuit Rajni?”, when that actor suddenly realized that she was standing there naked. Just the tiniest catch in his voice, the slightest retrieval of his extrovert energy, a tenth of a second of the finest, sweetest, most generous and gentlemanly panic.

That moment, that feeling in that fleeting moment of utter disorientation, is exactly what it’s like to know Rajni, as an artist and (somewhat) as a person — though the first thing we should get rid of is that distinction. Disorientation is, I think, exactly the right word: without the slightest aggression or egotism, Rajni has this incredible talent to disorientate. I’ve been thinking of her a lot in the last few days as, in preparation for my upcoming piece Hey Mathew, I'm re-reading Sara Ahmed’s brilliant Queer Phenomenology, which considers the ways in which sexual and racial ‘orientations’ are constructed, and how disorientation helps us reimagine ourselves in relation to the vectors of straightness and the assumed default centrality of whiteness — and, for that matter, the fixity of the table I’m typing at. Ahmed’s conclusion seems to me a wonderful encapsulation of what Rajni’s practice as a live artist — and, if we can allow this formulation, as a life artist — is, to some extent, about:

"The point," she says, "is not whether we experience disorientation (for we will, and we do), but how such experiences can impact on the orientation of bodies and spaces, which is after all about how the things are 'directed' and how they are shaped by the lines they follow. The point is what we do with such moments of disorientation, as well as what such moments can do — whether they can offer us the hope of new directions, and whether new directions are reason enough for hope."

Way before our last work together in 2003, Rajni was already on a trajectory that would end up taking her away from the territories of theatre and dance, and towards a far less monolithic and more fluidly various practice as a live artist (in numerous formats), craftsperson, activist and curator, and two dozen other things for which we don’t yet have the words. Much of her work is now so fugitive — in official terms at least; I’ll bet there’s nothing marginal or transient to the impression it makes on those who encounter her interventions on the streets and in the unlikeliest of spaces — that one is immensely grateful for the assiduousness with which she documents her work, particularly at her excellent web site.

Our meeting for this interview, however, on April 4th this year, came shortly after the only London date so far (in a smallish studio at QMUL) for her current major project, Dinner With America: the second perfomance work in a trilogy that began with the acclaimed and widely-seen Mr Quiver. To describe Dinner With America in the detail it requires would be impossible (especially since I lost my notebook), and to precis it or limn its features seems insensitive to say the least: but for the little it’s worth...

We enter a room with a sort of maze mapped out on it in lines of mulch, and pick our way through and across these lines to take a position in relation to a hard-to-read form in the corner. This turns out to be a kind of cocoon or body-bag (these purposefully multiple readings are promoted throughout), from which Rajni emerges, looking, frankly, weird: like a cross between dead Marilyn, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, The Statue of Liberty and the Lady in the Radiator, or any one of a number of Lynchian muses, in a blonde wig and falsies.

Cycling through poses (from the heroic to the possibly pornographic) and presentational variants, this all-American — indeed, too American — icon starts to hum, and then to sing, Amazing Grace. Layered under, or over, all of this is a collage of real American voices, candidly discussing their feelings about their homeland and their present government, in a gradually accumulating sea of layered reflections.

For an hour, and then a second hour, this slow, exhausting scenario continues to reach itself iteratively onwards and outwards. It’s possible for spectators to leave and return — which I do, exiting for some respite at a point where some aspects of the work have started to get on my nerves one way or another, though many others choose to stay with it throughout. As I rejoin the room, a giant stars-and-stripes flag is being created on the floor using fluorescent tubes. From there on in, the ordering escapes me; recalling the piece exactly at this distance is like trying to recover a dream: but somehow, these things happen. Rajni slowly undresses, peeling off her wig (a peculiar shock), her false eyelashes and fake breasts, her Dolly Parton boots, until she is naked. A song, specially contributed by the Mountain Goats, is played on a tape deck that she holds. She withdraws; the fluorescent tubes are gathered in the centre (or somewhat off-centre) of the room, in a form that seems to resemble the land mass of United States. Film (an element arising in the piece through the collaboration of the brilliant Lucy Cash) is being projected onto the white tubes, with intertitles announcing “The feast is coming”, “It’s almost here”. The mulch, too, has been swept into an America-shaped pile, and is transferred onto the tube screen, clods of dirt being thrown down as though at a funeral. Finally, onto the heap of earth, plates of fruit and chocolate are placed, interspersed with little cards that bear simple questions — the same questions, presumably, that the interviewees on the soundtrack were being asked, about country, about home. Rajni has been back among us for some time, helping to carry the earth from pile to pile, casually dressed, and just one of us, no more, no less. And there we all are, guests at the feast, with our talking points, and a conversation unfolding, and the piece either finished or still ongoing, and if still ongoing then, then finishing when?

About the best thing I can say about Rajni’s work is that it doesn’t ever begin and it doesn’t ever end. And though my confused and pedestrian rendering of the content of the piece can barely begin to suggest the nature of the experience, I can attest to a whole swirl of emotional reactions within me that, I realize as I write, I can attest have also not yet ended.

give what you can, take what you need

What follows is a long post, excerpted from an even longer conversation: and even that didn’t — couldn’t — begin to touch on many of the projects and questions and issues that it might have located within the compass of Rajni’s concerns. Reading it back, and posting it now, I feel a bunch of things. I’m inspired by the adventurousness of Rajni’s practice and by its basic goodness: her smallscale interventions in particular, which don’t get the attention they deserve in this post (she’s since been doing a wonderful-sounding project in Fribourg), seem to be an astonishingly precise and exacting counterpart to the notion of “random acts of kindness” that everyone finds so attractive and no one ever gets round to achieving. I’m a little sad that she can’t find a home, and the support she needs, in theatre: I quite understand what she’s saying, but we could use her intelligence and honesty over here, that’s for sure. I wonder a little, and even fret, about the larger performance pieces at the centre of which she places herself: I guess I feel that her reluctance to make authorial statements except in relation to the connotative geographies of her own body can sometimes make these works so hospitable to generalizing or undiscriminating reception as to be nearly evasive. But finally I love her composure, her wit, her willingness to be direct (occasionally bordering on fierce), her willingness to be sweet sometimes, her willingness sometimes to not know, to not even voice the question, to just be where she is. I’m immensely fond of her handwriting and I could happily look at her with nothing on for hours. (Her, I mean, not me.)

And I like very much that she’s my friend, and I particularly like that, when I say that, I’m talking not least about what she does when she goes to work.

Anyway, it all started, as these things always do, with me not being able to work my voice recorder.

RS: Just make sure it’s not on hold. That’s the main thing.

CG: Looks fine.

RS: Yeah.

CG: It’s going round.

RS: ...No, it’s really not.

CG: [laughs]

RS: If it was going round, that would be great. But it would probably make the recording sound really weird.

CG: I suppose. ...I wonder where the actual mic is.

RS: There.

CG: Oh it’s there, yes. So it’s good that it’s pointing towards you.

RS: Yes.

CG: Because you’re a quiet-spoken person. ...Wow, you’ve done this before. A lot.

RS: A lot.

CG: Yeah.

RS: In America.

CG: Yeah. [laughs] Well, that’s a good route in.

RS: [laughs]

CG: At what point in the process did all the vox pops come?

RS: Woah, woah, woah, you just said vox pops.

CG: I... Yeah. Um. OK. Not vox pops?

RS: I don’t know what that means.

CG: Those interviews. The interviews you did for Dinner With America.

Dinner With America
(in-progress showing, Coastal Currents, Hastings, 2007)
Image: Manuel Vason

RS: What time did they come...?

CG: Were they part of the conception from the start?

RS: ...You might find it a bit frustrating, the way I answer these questions, but...

CG: Because there’s no such thing as “the conception”?

RS: Well, I’m not sure. I mean, I know that, for me, really a lot of what the show was coming from was having lived in Georgia.

CG: Yeah.

RS: And having met some amazing people. And then just thinking about it for quite a long time, about this idea of what the word ‘America’ means: what it means here and what it means there. So it always was a little bit about that, you know, that conversation, between people there and people here. So I suspect it was in there quite early on. But in actuality, I don’t know. Probably quite near the beginning of the actual rehearsal process, because I knew I going to go over there in the summer, and that was always part of it, that I would do these interviews, and then see how we wanted to use them. So we didn’t know how it would work.

CG: Right.

RS: But one thing that I was really clear about was that if I was making a show about the idea of America, I couldn’t speak live in it. So there had to be something... else.

CG: Right. Yeah. You couldn’t speak live in it because...?

RS: I’m not an actress.

CG: And you would have felt obliged to put an accent on or something...

RS: Yeah, I don’t know. It just never felt like... I suppose in Mr Quiver I speak — like, I embody versions of me, in a way. And I can do that: whereas in this show I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t really imagine a way in. It just... would have been weird. It would have then been like... I suppose it’s that instead of embodying something, I would have been commenting on something, and that wasn’t what I wanted, so...

CG: Yeah, that’s really interesting. That’s something I wanted to ask you about, actually, because that’s something that — not in exactly those terms, but in something like those terms — was one of the things that I found I was frustrated by: and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way, I just mean I think that’s part of what the piece is doing: but I’m interested in that choice. That it’s about a desire to embody and to encapsulate and not to comment and not to analyse particularly, and perhaps not to argue. Um... At the point immediately before I had my little break — where I went and had some water and some air for a few minutes — partly because it’s just a really intense piece — obviously, I mean for you too, not least!, but I think at that moment — I just began to feel a kind of ...grumpiness about being asked to sit with the problems of that embodiment and that encapsulation without...

RS: telling you...

CG: Yes. I mean I think for me the way that the piece then changes in its last stages really brilliantly helped me with that. So that’s part of what you’re doing, is about holding me in that problem, that set of problems?

RS: Yeah, and it’s interesting on a practical level as well, in that I think when you saw the piece, that was kind of the end of its making process: but really until this stage we’ve never been able to look at the piece and make decisions about things like...

With Mr Quiver, that’s a four-hour piece. Some people stay for four hours, but many people don’t: and people can just come for a part of it, and that’s fine, and even though there is definitely a progression it’s also made as a piece that you can come in and out of if you want. And this piece was always designed in a similar way, and yet it has a linear progression, which makes it very different, so that’s... It’s not something I’ve completely figured out yet. I was having a conversation with Lois [Keidan] the other day about that, and she was saying: I think it’s really important that you don’t tell people they can come whenever... It’s important that people don’t show up late, for example, because there is a real progression to the piece, and I think that’s really important. And I was saying, yes, maybe in the way that I advertise it I shouldn’t say you can come any time: but actually it’s really important to me that when people are viewing the work, they’re viewing it with the knowledge that they can leave at any point, and come back.

CG: Yeah, I can see that.

RS: One of the films on the DVD that Lucy [Cash] is making is called ‘Uncertain Landmarks’, and there’s kind of a thing for me where it’s like I’m coming from somewhere to the piece, and I’m making the piece and I’m using certain things and I’m drawing on certain instincts that reference a whole number of things — partly because I’m referencing those things, but also partly just because they just do.

CG: ...That’s what happens...

RS: Because anything does, because of that attention in the space. But then the other thing that’s happening is that the audience are coming and they’re bringing all of their reference points and pinning them onto the piece in different ways — so it’s kind of really complicated in that way, I think, in terms of trajectories.

CG: Mm. Yeah.

RS: But wait! Was that anything to do with what you were talking about?

CG: Sort of, yeah.

RS: So I suppose what I was saying to Lois the other day was that I think even if you choose to stay there for the whole piece you feel very differently if you know you can leave. It’s not like going to see a show where you go and you sit down and then you stay and then you leave. That’s not what I’m looking for from an audience.

CG: Yeah. Yeah.

RS: So actually your choice to leave at a certain point and come back is completely valid and I love that; and somebody else’s choice not to do that is also valid. I need for both of those things, or many of those things, to be present. I think that’s really important.

CG: It sounds like it’s a piece that’s quite different in different spaces and different environments, and, you know, with different audiences...

RS: Yeah. Well, the other thing was that when it’s in a proper space you can actually stand back from the piece as well. Which is very different.

CG: Yeah. And also there would be a thing about being able to move around more easily.

RS: Yeah.

CG: I mean that was something that kind of surprised me, was how actually quite quickly, at the performance I saw, you know, it felt like... — I even, at one point, I moved in a sort of, you know, demonstrative way, quite an exemplary way, to just go, I think this is ok if we do this...

RS: Yeah, I mean it’s interesting because it’s very different in a bigger space, I think. ...I’m saying that not actually having done it yet! — I mean we have done it in a bigger space but not in its final version. It was really interesting, I think, at Queen Mary, because that space is kind of half the size of the minimum space that we need to do the show.

CG: Wow. I didn’t realise it was that big a difference.

RS: It’s just designed to have at least a little bit of space around it. And we did it slightly smaller than we usually would. So I always knew that it was kind of like doing a show where you were asking people to come on to the stage.

CG: Yeah.

RS: So that was very particular. Which, you know, I loved in its own way. And I think there was kind of an awareness of that, in that you were very close, and if you moved then you were definitely affecting the space in a way that I think you can do a little bit more discreetly in a bigger space.

But that preview was really interesting for a number of reasons. Because of that; but also because a lot of the people knew each other, and a lot of the people were from a particular scene. And that made a lot of things quite different, I think. Including the feast, which I would say was... totally fine, but probably worked least well...

CG: That’s interesting.

RS: that that was the one time when it didn’t feel like this burst of energy, because I think people knew each other already and there was just this awareness of hierarchy which is kind of working against what that moment’s about.

CG: Sure, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, for me, the movement towards the feast — and I guess, you know, kind of knowing in advance that that was part of the shape of the piece — is really the clincher, it’s the moment where I’m... happy. [laughs] I suppose that’s what it’s for.

RS: Yeah...

CG: ...Partly. But in terms of a kind of alleviation of all of the anxieties I have about spectacle and embodiment in the way that you’re interested in. That movement through those closing stages I thought was really beautiful and again, as you say, I can imagine it being more powerful when those questions really are about making connections with people that you don’t know —

RS: Yeah. And people who don’t know me, as well. I think that made a big difference. Everybody there in some way knew me, and that made it very different. In the past when we’ve done it — and I’m really pleased about this because I didn’t know if it would work — there has been a real sense of... suddenly I’m just one of the people at the feast. And there might be a few people I’ll go and say hello to at the end, but actually it’s just that.

In Chichester, when we did it as a work in progress, it was a different show, but we set up the feast and in the darkness I had gone round and handed each person a note that said: We will be sitting at the feast waiting for you. And then we sat at the feast, and the lights came up, and — this was the first time we’d done the feast, so we didn’t really know if anybody would do it — and... Well, Lucy described it as a flock of birds. It was the most beautiful thing. Everybody just came over, sat down and all started talking — there’s some beautiful footage of it actually. There was this lovely feeling of, suddenly, this release: but also this real respect and a kind of ...equality I suppose, and a kind of opening of the space. And that is the one place where it’s been a big enough space. And that was also really interesting because I think people were very much outside of it and then they came in and that was totally fine, it was just suddenly like, oh, ok, we’re in a room.

CG: Yeah. Um... OK. I’ve got two questions in my head and I don’t know which to ask first.

RS: You could ask both.

CG: I wonder... [laughs] ...Um, I was just thinking about that thing about enacting the sense of the removal of division. Because it’s something that happens in a piece that I didn’t see...

RS: ...No idea.

CG: With the headphones. Er...

RS: Oh, one of my pieces?

CG: Yeah yeah yeah.

RS: As If Traveling Through Snow.

CG: That’s the one.

RS: Yes.

CG: And the sense of a divided group...

RS: Mm-hmm.

CG: A divided room. And the kind of immersion in the performative space of listening to headphones, and then those cues are taken out of the equation... I don’t know, I mean I didn’t see that piece — have I got the right kind of impression of it?

RS: Yes, you have, but what’s interesting about that is I think it’s really very different, actually.

In that piece we literally re-enact this coming-together of the space, in that the space is divided by clear sheeting, so you can see the whole space, but the audience is divided, the space is divided, the performers are divided, and they’re wearing headphones at the beginning. And then the audience are told to take their headphones off and then the sheeting comes down and we end it dancing together and it’s all very lovely. But what I think is interesting — and obviously I didn’t see the piece, because I was performing in it, but I think what’s interesting to me thinking about that piece — is that I think it’s a very problematic moment when you take your headphones off. Because actually there’s something amazing about being in your own experience of something. And then to take your headphones off and have to be with people but watching something — that’s really problematic in a really interesting way. But that’s very different. And then although in that piece we come together, the two performers, the audience doesn’t actually physically come together. So it’s kind of like a different stage in the process of examining that... But I always think that’s really interesting because one of the things I love about being at the theatre is not that you’re with other people. It’s that thing of somehow being with other people but being completely on your own.

CG: Yeah.

RS: And I hate applause because it’s just like this horrible...

CG: [laughs]

RS: ...fake balm that’s suddenly going, oh, here we all are, and we can just pretend that, you know, nothing’s happened. And it really bothers me because I’m like, no, I’ve just had this very personal experience, and I don’t want to just cut it off, but you all seem to want to. ...Anyway, that’s a little aside. But I think that show was interesting because in theory it was doing one thing but actually in practice I think it was doing something a lot more problematic. And you know, that show was quite a feelgood show, so it does in theory move towards this togetherness and happiness...

CG: ...but it doesn’t help people negotiate their way into that togetherness.

RS: No. Whereas with this show, I think it’s a very different thing, and as you say, the space is really held and it’s quite difficult for a long time. And that gets more and more intense and comes together more and more and then there’s this kind of release. Somehow that works. It’s like you suddenly... untie the string, or something. And it actually, I think genuinely, feels like a space where people come together.

But I think for me, having the conversation-starters is really important because what I don’t want to happen in that moment is for everybody to have to start talking about the show, about whether they liked the show. That would be hideous.

CG: Yeah. But that’s quite hard, that manoeuvre. Partly because of the... stillness, in a way... I wonder if I can express this at all. Um... I had an interesting moment of thinking about how concerned you are, how engaged you are, with things that are slippery and unstable and not fixed, and wanting to at least pressurize and in some ways I guess refuse the idea of stable categories and stable positions in a relationship and whatever. And yet the recent work of yours that I’ve seen and read about, the one kind of fixed point in it, very often, is you.

RS: Yeah.

CG: And there’s this kind of movement piece going on around you, which is a movement of readings and interpretations and identifications and projections... So to get from that position of allowing yourself to be read in these multiple, overdetermined ways, and then somehow to be able by the end of the piece to have turned the attention away from you as an embodiment into being just another participant... That must take some delicate management.

RS: Well, that was the challenge of the piece. That’s one of the first things that I said about the piece.

CG: That was part of the design from the start.

RS: Like, I don’t know how I’m going to do this, but I need to shift this space from a highly theatrical space and a highly focused space, to a space where we’re all in the room together talking. And I had no idea how we were going to do that. So it has been a bit trial and error. I mean we’ve done some terrible things along the way.

CG: [laughs] Well... it’s unbelievably delicate...

RS: Yeah.

CG: And apart from anything else it’s reassuring to know kind of how difficult that’s been. [laughs] Because it feels like something that lots of us are looking for, one way or another, being able to negotiate that, but one doesn’t often see it done that effectively.

RS: [throws a triumphant gesture]

CG: [laughs] So that was really exciting. Can I ask you a little thing? Which hadn’t occured to me, which is how loaded the word ‘feast’ is.

RS: OK... I don’t know, it always seemed really important that it was a feast. Because it feels like it references harvest; but also we wanted to kind of elevate it slightly. I guess it’s that, it’s elevating it slightly without making it fancy, somehow.

CG: Yeah.

RS: So that’s sort of behind that word. But I can’t remember when it started being “the feast”. It’s been the feast for a while now. But there’s something about how it’s also moving into a slightly playful space as well, you know.

CG: Yeah. I mean that’s interesting, I hadn’t really thought about that, and if you’d asked me I would have described quite a simple trajectory into a very unmatrixed kind of real space, and I hadn’t quite realised until now that, actually, the food is still performing. It’s like, at the end of the piece, you’re passing around this surrogacy that goes from you to the film and the light and then... you know, to the oranges.

RS: [laughs]

CG: That’s fascinating. So... damn you, Rajni Shah, I thought we’d actually got to the end of the turbulence of the performance space, but no! Um... In which light, something I wanted to ask you about which actually really feels very related to that, is the use of nakedness — which is something that, as you know, I’m really very fascinated by and trying to work quite hard with.

RS: Mm.

CG: I don’t know whether this is right, and I hope you’ll tell me whether it’s valid... It feels to me partly like what you’re looking for is, in a way, what I’m also looking for, which is a sense of not accepting the categories of nakedness or nudity but it just being about a body: for once, you’re just confronting a body. And in those terms, I’m really excited about that and grateful for that.

At the same time, you know, not least in terms of what we’ve just been saying about the food at the end, what you’re not arriving at is a point at which the performance is over and we’re just confronting a body. And I kind of wonder whether we can see at that stage just an unadorned body in its own physical presence and not be reading more than that, in a space that’s still seething with a kind of turbulence and complexity that are to do with what it means to perform that. ...Does that make sense?

RS: No.

CG: [laughs]

Stars and Stripes in English Pub
Image by Rajni Shah, Manuel Vason and Lucille Acevedo-Jones

RS: Like, I really understand what you’re saying about nudity and how I’m working with it, and that’s really important.

CG: Well, why don’t you tell me why it’s important to you without me trying to put words in your mouth?

RS: I just didn’t know which moment you were talking about when you talked about “the end” — ...I don’t know if you said “the end”.

CG: I should have tried not to say “the end”. [laughs]

RS: But were you saying: what would it be like if I was still naked at the feast?

CG: No.

RS: OK. Then I misunderstood that last bit.

CG: Though that’s interesting, that’s an interesting thought.

RS: That would be very different.

CG: You’d want a napkin at least.

RS: But, OK, so the thing for me... And this is partly why I’ve shaved my head, because actually if I hadn’t done that there’d still be references there. I mean, that came from Mr Quiver but it kind of makes sense for this as well. For me, this show is about very pure lines. They’re not all completely pure, but the concept is that there are these very pure lines in it, lines of progression: and one of them is just me undressing. I mean it’s not just me undressing —

CG: Yeah.

RS: — but that’s happening, and you get... I don’t know, it’s really complex isn’t it? But it’s also really, really simple, and I think that’s sort of what you were just saying. Can it be just a naked body? Was that what you were saying?

CG: Can it just be a body? I think what I’m really asking is, can we get rid of the idea of nudity, and for that matter nakedness, in a performance context like this where we’re still being asked to be thinking and reading quite acutely about the idea of performance? Can a body in that context stop being ‘nude’ in the sense of — “it’s ok to look at this because it’s art”? Can we get past the nudity to just seeing a body?

RS: I hope so: and you’re right, it’s kind of core to me that this might be possible. But part of the reason I think it is possible is because of this kind of idea of ...landmark, I keep wanting to say landmark, this...

In Mr Quiver I’m very much embodying two figures — people, figures — and then I’m the body that moves between those, and it’s that inbetween space that is hoping to be... — not neutral, but kind of interesting in a similar way. But in this piece, I’m never embodying a person. It’s kind of like a landmark, like becoming a landmark. That’s not completely satisfactory as a way to describe it. But there’s something about that which means that stripping it away is a bit like getting to the nakedness of a statue. There’s always been that standard argument of: why is it ok to have naked statues, but naked people are just frowned upon? But... — and I always have this problem, because I haven’t seen the show —

CG: Right, yeah.

RS: you can probably answer this better than I can: but my feeling is that you’ve been staring at me for so long that actually to suddenly stare at me in a different way would take kind of a will.

CG: Mm. Yeah.

RS: And it is possible, but it’s not ...a default, maybe.

CG: ...Yeah. ...Damn, it’s hard.

RS: Yeah.

CG: It’s tricky.

RS: ...But also I did want to say that part of the reason that I make shows that are like this is because I think you can just be quite delicate and complex in a way that, when you’re talking about things, you just can’t.

CG: Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah. Yeah.

RS: So it’s really difficult. Because I know after this conversation I’ll be like, oh, but there are all these other... You feel like you come at it like this, and then there’s all these other things that are unsaid.

CG: Well I think there’s something that’s really very alive in your work, that I try to be comfortable with in mine to a degree, but also I’m quite glad in a way that I’m as uncomfortable with it as I am, which is about that kind of radical uncertainty. Of, in a way, wanting that.

RS: Mm. Yeah.

CG: Preferring the uncertainty, in a way, to the idea that this process helps us to clarify a response to a situation.

RS: Yeah. Absolutely. And I think especially with this trilogy, it feels like that’s really at the heart of it, creating that space and exploring it. ...I really like your earring.

CG: Thank you. I really like this one as well. I think this is a keeper.

RS: Mm. Definitely.

CG: [laughs] Um... Let’s go back.

RS: OK, all right.

CG: And then start working forwards. So... Can we get at it in a slightly, um... — again there might be absolutely nothing useful you feel you can say about this, and I totally accept that, but I was really interested that in talking about the show earlier, you didn’t refer to it as theatre, but you did refer to it in terms of your experience of going to the theatre: you know, the sense of the individual versus the collective or the communal or whatever. So... Do you make theatre? [laughs] I mean I’m really interested in the fact that you are someone whose trajectory has taken you towards... I mean, like you said, the audience last weekend, that’s basically a live art audience, right? That’s probably how they would describe themselves. And I wonder whether you feel like something has propelled you in that direction specifically, and whether that was about an aversion to theatre?

RS: It’s about who welcomes you, really.

with La Pocha Nostra, New Barbarians, Arnolfini, November 2007
Image by Lillput

CG: Right.

RS: And I think what’s interesting about my work in terms of the live art sector is that a lot of the things I value are the things that are valued within the setting of theatre. That are often undervalued in a live art context. And that makes my work interesting within that context. Whereas in theatre the things that make it interesting are the things that kind of make it disappear off the edge of theatre.

CG: Right. Totally.

RS: But, yeah, it was a mystery to me. I thought I might end up in dance.

CG: Well, exactly.

RS: I was hoping! But the dance scene is... horrible. [laughs] And unwelcoming, and, you know, stuck in the Dark Ages. So there’s no option there. But till very recently I thought I wanted to keep in with the dance sector, actually, and it was only probably a number of months ago that I realised that there was no point. And that actually I am a bit of a one for wanting to be doing all these different things at once, and really not settling in one... Because, for one thing, the live art sector’s so small, it can feel kind of claustrophobic. But yeah, so I mean I would say I tend to fall into that sector because that’s where I’m finding work. Which is maybe a bit of a boring answer. [laughs]

CG: No, no...

RS: But it’s where I’m finding support, and it’s where I’m finding interesting discussion.

CG: It’s kind of interesting to me because this is something I fret about at a sort of ideological level — but it’s very easy for me. Not that I feel particularly welcome in theatre exactly, in those terms. But it’s very easy for me to construe these ideas about art forms and sectors as an argument about objectives and aesthetics and, to a degree, politics — without engaging with the practical squeezing of: this is your territory, this is not your territory...

RS: Yeah.

CG: So do you have the sense that the work that you make has been formed — or even squeezed — by the opportunities that you’ve had?

RS: Yes. Yes.

CG: As much as by the trajectory of your own artistic interests?

RS: Yeah. I’d love to say that I just have this really pure vision, and nothing affects it, but if I really look at that trajectory... — I mean I also think I could make work in any of those sectors, and if the theatre sector was, like, ‘Wow you’re so interesting’, I would love to make work that was, you know, sitting in a theatre and questioning those things. But... I do kind of feel like I’ve tried that and it’s just not been happening. I don’t feel like that won’t change, necessarily, but...

You know, I do think they’re really interesting questions, but they’re also just hilarious when you look at Europe and other countries and how different people are classed differently and, you know, how people define dance and theatre and live art, and whether they even have that category...

But that also relates to the question of the whole Decibel / ‘cultural diversity’ thing, which totally influenced where my work went. Because I felt I couldn’t not make a piece that addressed all of those issues that were being forced on to me. And Mr Quiver was kind of a response to that.

So not necessarily to the extent that I’ve made a piece in response to funding that was available. It’s slightly more nebulous than that. But definitely in terms of where I felt I could show the work. Because I think the work is... I’m really interested in the situation you find yourself in as audience and performer, and that’s different depending on whether you class yourself as dance, theatre or live art. And I’m really interested in all of those, actually, and in responding to them, but I’ll do it... I mean, The Awkward Position, for example.

CG: Yeah, absolutely.
Dimitris Papakyriazis and Yvonne Naughton in The Awkward Position (2003-04)
Image by Rajni Shah

RS: Completely responding to the dance sector, and being in Resolution with other companies, you know. But nobody in dance got that piece. Even people in live art, they were just like, well, it uses dance, you know, we can’t engage with it. That piece was particularly difficult, and I actually felt really pleased with it and I thought it was asking some really interesting questions, but it just had nowhere to go. So yeah, it’s definitely influenced me, where I’ve been able to show work or where I’ve got support.

But yeah, the live art sector’s quite weird too.

CG: Mm. [laughs]

RS: I think, you know, within that I’m really interested in the people that are working in venues. Most interesting I think are the people who are working in venues in kind of odd places, but just have this interest in experimental work. And then you get to show work there and you get to engage with unlikely people. And that’s what really interests me, that’s my way into that.

CG: It feels like it’s important, and I guess it’s not an entirely new model but it does feel like it’s emerging more, of the kind of artist-curator, or the artist/activist/curator, where there’s really no need to distinguish between those different practices — that they’re part of one larger impulse.

RS: Yeah. That’s nice, isn’t it?

CG: Yeah!

RS: [laughs] That has happened, and it’s surprising to me, because I always really struggled with that. Like, I do all of these things; how do I place that in the world? And I felt like it was something that I was trying to champion a bit. And then all of a sudden... You know, I’m part of this network with New Work Network called ‘Activators’, and that’s all about artists who curate and curators who make work and how we can support each other. But it also feels like, since joining that network, it’s fantastic but it doesn’t feel that unique, and I like that, that there’s more awareness, and, I think, a little bit more bravery.

CG: I do wonder whether curating gets undervalued as an act of authorship.

RS: Yeah.

CG: Um... Well that didn’t get us where it was supposed to get us, but never mind. Let’s broach the time tunnel. Briefly.


CG: I can never remember where I met you.

RS: Oh.

CG: There’s this kind of ...vagueness around the beginning of knowing you. Are you vague too? Or... Is this like a terrible thing where I’ve forgotten our first date and I’m a bad husband?

RS: No, no. There were several moments. I sat on a wall with you. I mean, against a wall with you. But you didn’t like me.

CG: Yeah?

RS: So that was the first time.

CG: See, I don’t remember not liking you. But I’m sure you’re right.

RS: Well it was like some kind of audition and I had to draw a picture of myself.

CG: Oh, that thing. I remember that audition, but I don’t remember you being there at all.

RS: You see. Yeah.

CG: Wow.

RS: Yeah, that was that.

CG: That’s really bad. Wow.

RS: But the basic thing that I think happened was that Theron left the country and we were both really sad.

CG: Yeah. That’s true. That’s true.

RS: And then I came and sat in your kitchen.

CG: But I had seen Incarnate before that. And that was pretty exciting.

RS: Yeah, it was. [laughs]

CG: I was just writing about Jeremy [Hardingham] on the blog the other day, because I just saw a new thing that he did...

RS: I heard.

CG: ...a couple of weeks ago, which was extraordinary. And it was making me think about how his influence still kind of vibrates in London — and in theatre-making in all sorts of different places really I suppose.

RS: Absolutely, yeah.

CG: Can you describe what that was like?

RS: Incarnate? Oh God! [laughs] Well, Incarnate was, I don’t know, it was a huge moment for me because it was the first moment when I met a whole bunch of interesting people and I hadn’t really had anything to do with any of them — I mean, including Theron. I went to the audition and didn’t think I had a chance in hell. And I had to do this thing where Jeremy just said, Can you read this bit of text?, and at one point the text said: ‘this person has a fit’.

CG: [laughs]

RS: So I just read this text and then had a fit on the floor. And then he asked me to do [the show]. And it was amazing. I suppose I’d already been doing some work that was kind of experimental, and I’d started exploring that space where I could express things in different ways. But, I don’t know, just suddenly being part of this group of twelve people who were all really interesting and really different and really difficult and some of whom I hated with a passion... But this incredible text: that was just so interesting because of the range of references in it.

CG: Yeah, yeah.

RS: And then, you know, there was this thing where it was like, well, every few days we’ll change the cast, every few days we’ll change the route, and... You know, it was up to us, but also Jeremy held it together in an amazing way, in that he definitely was always there for you, he was always there as the director — he made the decisions that he needed to make; but at the same time you just did your thing and you could make anything happen, and you were playing with the real world and the audience and the text... There were just so many things to play with, basically. And as a group we got to know each other and... You know, the sense of scale on that project was so interesting — in terms of doing [images of] crucifixions on bridges or whatever. You know, if you had an idea, you could just run ahead and do it: if you found a broken lamppost and it looked particularly good, you could just do something. I suppose, for me, on so many levels, I was just discovering.

And it was so exciting in terms of the audiences as well, because they ranged hugely. There was one night where we did it for just this couple who were someone’s parents or someone’s parents’ friends; they were older, and we knew that they were quite religious. And we had no idea how it would go down. But, you know, twelve of us did this whole show and took them around Edinburgh. Just for these two people. And it was amazing.

And I got lost once, and I was terrified, there was that as well. Because you were changing the route every day, and I’m not a really good sort of ‘oh yeah I know my way around the city’ person. And that was terrifying. [laughs] But also because of the people that you met: it wasn’t just the audiences, there were people on the streets... There was this one scene where I was supposed to have, like, a stomach ulcer or something, and I was writhing around this tunnel, and there was this drunk guy, and he just got really upset. And I had to stop and tell him I was OK. But every time I did it he just got really upset.

CG: [laughs]

RS: But, you know, it was just full of those experiences. Just the whole thing for me was kind of ...electric. And there was no real line... Every day you’d be rehearsing and then doing the piece. So it was... you know, exhausting.

CG: Yeah.

RS: I don’t know if I really described it.

CG: That’s fine. I think you did, actually. From what I remember. But also, you know, what really comes across strongly is the kind of boundarilessness of it, again.

RS: Absolutely, yeah.

CG: And the mix of control and... non-control.

RS: In everything. Yeah. And, I mean, Jeremy, you know, is a huge inspiration for that. The timing for that as well, I suppose, for me, was really crucial. It was suddenly like — OK, anything’s possible.

CG: Yeah, right. So when was Hold Each As We Fall? Was that...

RS: ’99. So that was after Incarnate. That was Incarnate-influenced.

CG: Yeah. Well, Gemma [Brockis] did it...

RS: Yeah.

CG: That was fun.

Promotional postcard for Hold Each As We Fall (1999)
Image by Rajni Shah and Allan Sanderson

RS: Yeah, I loved that show, and I love that we only ever did it once.

CG: Did you really only ever...?

RS: That was the whole..., that was one of the things about it, was that it would only ever be done once. We just wanted to do it for one night. Get everyone together and do this great piece.

CG: Wow, I’d forgotten that as well. That’s really nice.

RS: I loved it.

CG: And then post-that, and post-Consolations, there’s this bit of your growth as an artist that I don’t really know much about because you weren’t around, you were far away.

RS: Yeah. It was really interesting, working in Georgia. Because, again, I had to respond to audiences there. And people loved the work, because they were like: what is it? It’s not dance, it’s not theatre... They’d never seen anything like it.

The first piece I made there I was a collaboration with one other woman and that was really interesting — she’d decided quite recently not to be a ballet dancer. We made this piece together, and there was this pattern where I would go: And we could do this..., and she would go: The thing is... nobody’s going to look out of the window, so if you’re doing something in the carpark... You know, it was just really interesting to go, OK, who am I working with, and what are the patterns? And it was so different from London. But really quite incredible to make work for such different audiences.

But also while I was there I discovered this amazing strand of work that I’m still in awe of, by artist-activists, where there’s this incredible fusion of practice in community. Fusion is the wrong word. But that was amazing. I mean what an amazing thing, to have no idea why or how but to end up living in Georgia, in the US, and meeting people. And there were a lot of new spaces that sprung up right when we moved there, slightly underground, really interested in just fusing everything, having music and performance and anything. Just making work, making it happen. But I knew at some point that I wanted to come back, because I needed that hard London edge....

CG: [laughs]

RS: play with.

CG: But you had a sense that you were bringing something different back than you’d gone with, I guess?

RS: Yeah. I suppose it’s partly just confidence. Because I was able to go somewhere, you know, still relatively young, and say: Hello my name is Rajni Shah and I’m a performance artist — and that’s who I was. You know, I’d lived in other places, but I’d never done that as an adult, so that was a really great feeling.

CG: Yeah. So, I know there are loads of things we haven’t mentioned, but maybe we can just finish up by talking about what’s happening now and what happens next, and, you know, how we’re going to save the world, those sorts of things.

RS: That’ll be quick.

CG: Is Mr Quiver going to bed now?

RS: Ah, so, next week, on Theron’s birthday in fact, we do the last show. I’m really excited. We’re going to give everything away. We’ll keep the costumes, but then that’s it. And that’s going to be quite an amazing feeling.

CG: Wow.

RS: So, yeah. Mr Quiver goes to bed. Dinner with America carries on this year and next year, and then at some point I decide I want to make another show that will be the third of the trilogy. And then alongside all that there’s all these other pieces.

CG: Yeah, we should talk about those really, before we finish. But with the third in the trilogy, do you know roughly what space that’s inhabiting in terms of its territory?

RS: No, I don’t really work like that.

CG: But you know it’s a trilogy.

RS: I didn’t know it was a trilogy at the beginning of making Mr Quiver. At some point when I was making Mr Quiver I knew it was the first in a trilogy. At some point after making Mr Quiver I knew the second piece was going to be Dinner With America but I didn’t yet know what that was going to be.

CG: OK, so there’s this vacant lot...

RS: Yeah. I know there’s another piece there. But also, they feel like slices of time: that’s really important to those pieces. So Mr Quiver was very much right then and what was going on then, and Dinner With America already feels slightly out of date, in a great way. So... We’re not there yet. Maybe next year I’ll know. But, you know, it’s really important that they have enough time, because even Dinner With America is only just now starting to become Dinner With America.

CG: After how long? How long have you been working on it?

RS: I don’t know, I mean we’ve actually been physically working in a space since last spring, I suppose. So, a year. But obviously before that we were talking. And I was talking.

CG: [laughs]

RS: Yeah, so I don’t know. But there’ll be a third. I’ve had a few thoughts, but I always have thoughts. I never know until something happens.

CG: I’m sure that’s right. So maybe we should just talk a little bit about these sort of smaller ...interventions, I suppose, in different sorts of places, different contexts.

RS: Well, partly I had a bursary from the Live Art Development Agency, that I ended up using to look at this idea of gift, and conversation, and doing work in public spaces. So, I did a number of pieces that related to that; and that didn’t feel finished when I came to the end of that, and that fed very much into Dinner With America, because, you know, that’s a big part of it, this idea of conversation. Most of the things that I’m doing at the moment are kind of related to that theme but also feel like they’re somehow related to Dinner With America. So one of the pieces I’m doing, give what you can, take what you need, is about having a big meal in a public space and initiating conversations and people bringing stuff to the table and, you know, just looking at that aspect of the show, even though it’s a separate thing as well.

give what you can, take what you need
Futuresonic, Manchester (2008)
Image by Jan & Emily Dixon

...And then developing that gift idea in different places. So the piece in Fribourg will be looking at creating altars — working with people to write letters to strangers, and then creating altars in various public places with these letters that people can pick up and... I don’t quite know yet because I haven’t been yet...

CG: Oh, is that why you’re going twice? You’re going once to look and then once to do.

RS: Yeah.

CG: That’s nice.

RS: It is nice. That’s how the whole thing is constructed. It is nice. It’s just... I like meeting people, and the reason that I make the kind of work that I make is because I feel like it’s more accessible, not less accessible. And there’s this whole other conversation about... there’s this whole experimental bracket where people go, yeah, this is the stuff that’s more difficult, but actually — and this is partly why my work’s always very very visual — I think this kind of work offers a lot of different entry ways to people, and that’s really important to me. So doing pieces in public is great because you just get to meet people and hang out with them. But it also ties into the other work.

So I feel like that’s becoming partly how I identify myself as an artist, I suppose, that aspect of doing stuff in public spaces, or doing it in, you know, Hastings... Not just doing the big live art venues: I couldn’t do that, and I wouldn’t be interested in it. It’s really about taking the work to places where you actually have conversations with people from all over, and some people who don’t like it, you know — that’s fantastic, that’s really important to me. So it’s also about finding ways to do that.

CG: Cool.

RS: Lots of conversations.

CG: Yeah. ...Shall we stop having ours?

RS: Probably should.

give what you can, take what you need
Image by Jan & Emily Dixon

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, i so enjoyed this!