25 June 2014

Conference Report: Allied Media Conference 2014, Detroit

I went to Detroit. I first went to the city in 2001 and this was my fifth or sixth visit to the place. Detroit is changing. There is still a lot of poverty, there are still ruins, but a demolition programme, the shutting down of essential services, including water and sewage, is forcing social cleansing on a massive scale. There are now areas of gentrification that would have almost been unthinkable 13 years ago. Detroit, a city of working class black people, is becoming a magnet for gentrifiers who consider it a new frontier. The city's problems are both unique to Detroit and an indication of what is happening in neoliberal cities elsewhere. I was struck many times during my visit by the similarities between Detroit and where I live in East London. I love both places.

Here are some snapshots from my trip:

a) My friend Amanda Piasecki met up with my love and I and we hung out for the weekend. A fat guy passing by laughed openly at us squeezing out of the small car I had rented. "That's a tiny car!" he spluttered. "Yes it is!" we replied.

b) Amanda gave me this really big badge. The woman on it looks familiar to me, who is she? Someone from the early days of NAAFA? I like how plain and unglamorous she looks, like a fat hippy or a student. The badge says "Made in Hong Kong" in tiny letters on the side, which dates it, I think, to the late 1960s or early 1970s, when Hong Kong was exporting cheap manufactured goods to the US. I think it's amazing that this badge exists at all. Historic fat culture. What a gift! Thanks Amanda.

c) I got to see some Midwestern fat friends and to eat at the wonderful fat and queer-friendly Bona Sera café in Ypsilanti. I felt nourished by Bad Fairy's grits and the homemade gelato on the menu as well as the conversation and camaraderie. We talked about fat community, class, stupid stuff too. I often feel the burn of community, but this was not one of those times.

d) The Grand River Creative Corridor at Core City has some stunning street art, including this, which inspires a lot of feelings in me. I have no fondness at all for Captain America, so I'm always glad to see him as a satirical object. I get that he is representing a broken dream of America, he's painted on a wall in a run-down area bordering a more gentrified neighbourhood. Perhaps this painting heralds the start of more gentrification. His fatness here is complicated. It's a product of fast food consumption, I recognise a fatphobic and patronising view of Detroit as a food desert and am mindful of how this rhetoric is used to leverage the presence of gentrifying corporations (a Whole Foods – an upmarket supermarket – has recently opened not so far away). I read this fat as weak, bloated, abjected. It reeks of fat panic. I wonder who painted it, are they fat? What does it mean to see a depiction of fatness like this in such a fat city?

e) We went to see the fantastic band Speaker for the Dead at the Trumbullplex, an anarchist house and venue. One of the band's members is called Charlie V. Stern and they are a stand-up comic as well as an accordionist. They did a set and began with this line: "Your Mama... your Mama she's so fat that no one can look her in the eye because we live in a fucked up sizeist and ablest society". I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I was probably the fattest in the room, Stern is not particularly fat but maybe identifies as fat, I don't know. I was amazed that fat activist discourse could have filtered in to a right-on joke by a stand-up in an anarchist performance space. I thought: "Things are changing."

One of Beryl-Elise Hoffstein's illustrations.
f) I went to visit the Joseph A. Labadie Collection at the university of Michigan, which is open access, meaning that members of the public can go and look at things for free. The Labadie is a collection of radical left archival material, including papers, journals, magazines, ephemera, t-shirts, badges, all kinds of things. There is a lot of queer stuff in there. Their holdings on fat are not excessive, but they did have a beautifully preserved copy of the Proceedings of the First Feminist Fat Activists' Working Meeting, April 18-20 1980, New Haven CT. This was a report prepared by Judith Stein, and illustrated by Beryl-Elise Hoffstein. It was distributed by Fat Liberator Publications. I found this document very moving to read, so many of the concerns of 1980 are relevant today. It was also funny and full of spark, for example "Goals and Priorities for the Fat Liberation Movement" include: "build a feminist fat culture;" "burn Jean Neiditch (head of Weight Watchers) in effigy;" "have public demonstrations of fat people's strength and endurance;" "Defence squad against hassles (Fat Terrorist Society)" – sounds a bit like The Chubsters to me.

g) I went to Detroit to attend the Allied Media Conference (AMC). This is an annual affair dedicated to grassroots social justice media-based organising. Yes, that's a mouthful. It's a really big conference, with many workshops, practise spaces, panels, performances, delegates and things to blow your mind. Some of these things are convened under 'tracks,' special collections of sessions on a particular theme. I was interested in several of these tracks but the ones most relevant to this post are Research Justice and Abundant Bodies Media. You can read notes and Tweets from the sessions via the AMC website.

We drew a cartoon illustrating research injustice
and research justice
I attended the Research Justice Network Gathering, a mini-conference that took place before the main event. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been getting interested in decolonising obesity research and that I used RJ principles in the project No More Stitch-Ups! Developing Media Literacy Through Fat Activist Community Research. The Network Gathering was a powerful reminder of the political nature of research, and a call to action in creating more just and inclusive methodologies. I came away from the gathering with a firmer understanding of the harm that obesity research injustice causes, and a commitment to develop harm reduction strategies around that stuff. I found it very helpful to think of this work taking place within a wider agenda calling for accountability, it can be very alienating doing this work, it's good to know that those of us who do it are not alone.

Abundant Bodies Media is the first time there has been a dedicated fat track at the AMC. This is somewhat surprising to me since the conference has a strong healing Justice presence and there are many fat people in attendance. The eight sessions in the track focussed on creative practice, inclusive community-building, sexuality, intersectional bodily autonomy, anti-assimilationist and online fat activism. Not bad! It was exciting to participate as a panellist and a presenter, working with groups of younger fat activists, a mixture of those new to the movement and more seasoned players.

I understand that not everybody had as positive an experience of the track as me. There were problems with accessible seating throughout, and getting around the conference venues was not straightforward. Although the AMC is a radical and visionary space, fat politics remain marginal and unknown to many of its participants, some of whom tried to discredit the track and its participants. This echoes the ongoing problem of fatphobia in the left, a subject I've written about previously. I witnessed these interactions, for example: when I mentioned the track to someone in an interview they said that they hoped it would focus on healthy eating; another person did not understand the rationale for a session and lectured some of us on the causes of obesity, framing us as pathological in the process. The AMC is an overwhelming experience at the best of times and people were often absent, me included, trying to cram in as much as possible across all of the tracks. This meant that Abundant Bodies Media, and probably other tracks too, tended to feel fragmented and it was hard to build a solid activism base.

Despite the problems in putting together an inaugural track, I hope that Abundant Bodies Media will continue. It was well-curated and shows that there is clearly a hunger for a fat presence in this radical space. There are bound to be glitches as the track gets going, developing community takes time and hard work. Whether or not people have the energy to invest in this remains to be seen, but I want to leave this post now by quoting the Allied Media Projects Network Principles in full, because they are really powerful, full of hope, and might offer those involved some kind of comfort for the work that lies ahead.

Allied Media Projects Network Principles

"We are making an honest attempt to solve the most significant problems of our day.

We are building a network of people and organizations that are developing long-term solutions based on the immediate confrontation of our most pressing problems.

Wherever there is a problem, there are already people acting on the problem in some fashion. Understanding those actions is the starting point for developing effective strategies to resolve the problem, so we focus on the solutions, not the problems.

We emphasise our own power and legitimacy.

We presume our power, not our powerlessness.

We spend more time building than attacking.

We focus on strategies rather than issues.

The strongest solutions happen through the process, not in a moment at the end of the process.

The most effective strategies for us are the ones that work in situations of scarce resources and intersecting systems of oppression because those solutions tend to be the most holistic and sustainable.

Place is important. For the AMC, Detroit is important as a source of innovative, collaborative, low-resource solutions. Detroit gives the conference a sense of place, just as each of the conference participants bring their own sense of place with them to the conference.

We encourage people to engage with their whole selves, not just with one part of their identity.

We begin by listening."

12 June 2014

SWAGGA: opening night

This post is part of an on-going series about the experience of becoming a dancer who is also fat, old and becoming disabled. Project O is the umbrella organisation, owned by Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small, who are choreographing and directing us. SWAGGA is the name of the piece we are developing together. We gave a public performance of this piece at Rich Mix on 7 June in London, together with a piece by Alex and Jamila called Benz Punany. Kay Hyatt is my partner and co-dancer.

Two dancers, after.
The silly season has started, not that it ever goes away where fat is concerned. There are many things I could say about whether or not I think fat is a disability, today's subject for fatphobic hand-wringing, but I'll save that for another time. You could read my book (Fat and Proud: The Politics of Size, which goes into it somewhat), or this ancient article too, I still agree with a lot of what I wrote and thought 17 years ago.

What I really want to write about today is SWAGGA. We had our debut and I am still cruising on a high from that. It's a while since I've felt this sustained from doing something. Nearly a week has passed and the messages of congratulations are still coming in. Today DIVA magazine published this excellent review by Charlotte Richardson Andrews: Project O Goes Large: SWAGGA and Benz Punany. What I'm noticing is a sense of unreality when I remember the night, so maybe it would be fruitful to focus on the facts.

The performance sold out. This is unusual for a show with no marketing behind it, just word of mouth, my blogging and a bit of social networking. It wasn't just our friends in the audience either, people we didn't know came. This makes me suspect that audiences are hungry for work like SWAGGA and Benz Punany and will show up for it. The audience was diverse, there were lots of people there who don't usually go to see dance. Arts organisations, take notice of this and commission us for more!

When I think of the dancing I remember a busy day of practising, doing the tech rehearsal, waiting. We had a company warm up, which was really interesting. This was the first time in the whole process that Alex, Jamila, Kay and I had been on a stage together as fellow dancers. I generally feel warm in my body and ready to dance after jigging around and stretching a bit for a couple of songs. This is what I did. Jamila and Alex have much more experience with warming up for a performance and they are experts of the body, their bodies in particular. They went through a range of movements that took some time, it looked meticulous to me and so impressive, yet probably very workaday to them. I find it hard to imagine attending to my body with such focus in a way that isn't bound up with fatphobia, but I would like to be able to inhabit my body with a similar level of directness and concentration, at least from time to time.

The performance itself was a great experience. I loved waiting backstage for the lights to go down, our cue for taking our places on the stage. Even though I was nervous I knew that I was ready for what lay ahead. We did as well as we could, it wasn't a perfect run, it never is, but it was more than good enough. Sometimes people check out when they are performing but I was present on this occasion. There was a lot of applause, we took it shyly.

People were engaged. Afterwards I had conversations about identity politics; how brave I was (I'm not sure how I feel about that, I am brave, but maybe not in the way this person meant); how moved people were, people who cried; people thinking for the first time that dancing is something they might want to do too; how both pieces gave people ways of saying things, permission to say things, that had previously been too difficult to talk about. I saw a lot of delighted faces, there was a great feeling of excitement afterwards, people I don't know very well were hugging and kissing me! My friends brought me flowers. It was an incredible privilege to be a conduit for all of this stuff.

One of the overarching themes of these conversations was something like: "How can you even be there on stage, doing that?" people wanted to know our process, and also how we came to be on the stage, participating in a project like this. What I got from this was a feeling that dance is not for the likes of us, but disbelief that we had somehow managed to squeeze in. I don't think this was a malicious sentiment at all, though maybe it would be with other audiences. I think it is a product of how fat hatred (and racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, all of which are also part of SWAGGA and Benz Punany) makes people's lives small and diminishes prospects and possibilities for people. It is electrifying when people refuse that impoverished social positioning, it's as though it wakes others up from a trance. Of course we belonged there on that stage! Why wouldn't we?!

Another thing that people said to me was: "I bet you're really fit now." This ties in to the relationship between dance and weight loss culture. Fat people dance to lose weight, dance is sometimes framed as a means through which unruly bodies become 'disciplined.' I have no idea if I am fitter as a result of dancing. I feel exactly the same, ache and sweat the same, feel as asthmatic as I ever do. My clothes fit the same. The main difference that I have noticed is that I feel less fearful of my body and its ability to move than I did at the beginning.

There will be more SWAGGA but I can't say where or when just yet. We are just beginning. I am also beginning as a dancer. I need to find my people and the places where I can be. I looked at some dance classes this week and so many stipulate that "a reasonable level of fitness is required" without explaining what that means. I imagine it doesn't mean people like me. Their loss.

06 June 2014

SWAGGA: unassimilated fatness

This post is part of an on-going series about the experience of becoming a dancer who is also fat, old and becoming disabled. Project O is the umbrella organisation, owned by Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small, who are choreographing and directing us. SWAGGA is the name of the piece we are developing together. Kay Hyatt is my partner and co-dancer.

Last rehearsal, Alex took this picture
We perform tomorrow and every now and again I think of myself as a cartoon with a giant exclamation point in the thought bubble above my head. I am nervous and excited. I can't wait to show what we have to people. I feel really privileged to be opening the show for Benz Punany. To be part of the world of Project O is a dream come true.

On Monday we did a test run in front of three friends and the response was very positive. Alex videoed the session and we watched it yesterday. This is the first time I have seen myself dancing and it is quite hard to articulate what this means to me.

The fact that I can watch myself dancing strikes me as significant; I felt some panic rising, but I was able to talk myself down and I understand my ability to do this this as a product of years of work. Seeing myself was useful in terms of thinking of what I need to do in the piece, where the movement might need to go. Kay and I noticed that the feelings we had whilst dancing and watching were pretty aligned – what we see is how we experience the dance – and this feels encouraging.

A big part of watching was seeing that I am really very fat! There are others who are fatter, but I have plenty of fat of my own. I like how other fat people look and I know that I look like them, but I don't have much of a sense of how I actually look, even though I don't shy away from photos or mirrors. It's bizarre that being really very fat should be a revelation at this stage in my life, but there it is. I think of my fatness in the video and in the dance as unassimilated. The dance is not pretty and my fatness is not contained, respectable, veiled, hinted at, flattered, cordoned off or made nice, it is undeniably there. I'm often plodding, huffing, red-faced, sagging, stiff, awkward. When I look at my fatness I also see class, gender, disability, age, marginalisation. I am presenting my unassimilated fat body for an audience to look at and have whatever response they're going to have and I will probably learn something from this. It's a different kind of selfie.

What is a dancer supposed to be like?
My surprise at my own fatness touches an internalised self-hatred that is very deep, a basic part of my identity as a fat person which threads in and out of my life. It is this: how can anyone bear me? I am under no illusion about the extent to which fat people are profoundly hated in 21st century western cultures. I also know that I am a worthwhile person, a success in some spheres, I know that I am loved. Here I am, monstrously fat. How can anyone even look at me, let alone treat me as human, or as a dancer, as a person who deserves respect? I am forced to deal with a load of fatphobic shit daily, but I'm puzzled about why I don't get more of it.

Perhaps I'm protected in spite of being very fat because of the work that I and many others have done. We have started the difficult task of making a world for ourselves. That people don't run away when they see me could be down to their indifference about fat, maybe it doesn’t really matter, or people can cope with more than I think. My whiteness and education protects me from quite a bit of crap. Perhaps most people keep their fatphobic thoughts to themselves and it's only occasionally that it crosses over into action. Sadly/luckily I'm not a mind reader.

As I watched myself dancing on a screen I wasn't sure what I might do with this 'self-seeing'. We had a break afterwards and Kay and I went to the supermarket to get a snack. I tried to embody that monstrously fat self that I saw onscreen as an experiment in the supermarket, to see what people would do around me, and how I might feel. Nobody screamed or ran, nobody noticed, but inside I felt big, powerful, able to walk without feeling that I should be less of me. It was funny to notice this feeling. I was a monster buying a box of falafel. I thought about all the other monsters in the world, doing their thing.

Rehearsing at Rich Mix
One of the themes that has emerged through SWAGGA is about being appalling. I often appal people because I don't behave in the ways they have circumscribed for me; what they can imagine for me is not expansive. My sense of monstrousness is likely to stir up some of those feelings and responses in people. I feel ambivalent about this, I gotta be me but not everyone can handle that. I love being powerful, it's exciting to play with unassimilated monstrous fatness, and I'm also wondering about how I might use that power as I move through the world.

All this makes me feel even more certain that what we are doing with SWAGGA, and the Project O Goes Large double bill with Benz Punany, is very powerful. It is sophisticated and beautiful, it presents many intersections, multiple layers, with space for lots of different interpretations. The four of us are very daring in working with our differences and we have been so richly rewarded because of these leaps and because we are already strong in who we are. This convinces me even more that mixing things up is the way to go and that, where identity is concerned, I have little desire to pursue cultural work or activism that is rooted in purity, safe space, monoculture or fear.

Fat and dancing and life and everything
SWAGGA has begun
SWAGGA: fat dancing, bodies, watching and shame
SWAGGA opening night happened!