Below is an article I wrote on the subject of Live Art and Children, talking about my own practice and experience of making work with and around my kids.
Betty Glitter and Betty Bitter fire glitter cannons at each other and then have a massive roller disco skate-off! My son Felix (8) and I (41) excitedly plan the beginnings of our collaboration. We are making a piece of work together to explore gender fluidity, identity and sexuality from a child’s point of view. We are also reflecting on what it’s like to be the child of two artists, and how this affects Felix’s view of the world. In this article I present some discoveries I have made during my experience of occasionally making live art works with my children over the past eight years. It will reflect on how my parenting and live art making interact to create an all-encompassing, boundary-blurring, frustrating, magical and extraordinary experience of Art & Life intertwining.
My First Activism Toolkit: How working with Felix on I’m Bitter About Glitter gives him jurisdiction over his own body and body image.
I’m Bitter About Glitter is a research and development project funded by Arts Council England. For this project Felix and I will be making a piece of performance, commissioned by Beacons Icons & Dykons for their family edition. As part of this process I will be working with Felix’s primary school leading performance based sessions with young people; and investigating potential to hold a future symposium on the subject of making queer performance works with and for children. However, it’s the stuff in the rehearsal room that I want to talk about. Felix has some pretty good ideas about how he wants this show to look. There’s electric blue sparkly costumes, there’s glitter cannons, there is a leaf blower. There is conflict and tension in that Betty Bitter doesn’t like glitter and well, Betty Glitter does. All the ingredients for a live art show in the making, right? As Felix’s mother, I see him growing up so fast- that age-old cliché. I have already seen him cast off the pink tutu. Although still dancing, he wears the regulation black shoes now. For the first time he has gently disentangled my hand from his in the playground. He is still, very much so; in his words ‘performance-y’. I feel this time is ripe for the capturing. This moment in time, him and I; making glorious, temporary, hard to capture performance (-y) art. A tender and temporal offering. We are working with facilitator Lucy Cassidy of Schools Without Walls & The Egg and our plan for our first day all together is to make Felix’s ideas so far come to life. We’ll go from there. The piece will be guided by him, we will follow his lead. He’s seen enough performances and theatre that I trust he knows where to take it (In his critique of Forced Entertainment’s The Possible Impossible House, he casually informed me “It wasn’t really theatre though was it? it was more live art-y”.)
I am interested to observe his perception of my own work surface in our making together.
In making I’m Bitter About Glitter I hope to convey my hopes for his generation, the next generation, in terms of gender constructs and the way we communicate and think about them. Already, the need for the binary is dropping off. This is evident in how young people are identifying themselves so much more broadly (The custom menu for gender on facebook being one example). I want to be able to contribute to this shedding off, this re- claiming in any small way I can. For now I’m Bitter About Glitter is this small contribution. Felix will in essence be the director of this work and it will be contained as a space for him to test and flex activist muscles. What does he want to say? What does it mean to be a boy or a girl at this moment? What is equality? Why does this matter? I am really excited to be embarking on this journey with Felix.
To further explore the question of autonomy and ownership of the work I am interested in how it is documented. In an exploration of Felix having control of how his work is documented and broadcast we will be working with a photographer on creating images about the show, which give him full jurisdiction over his work and his images. We will work in a responsive way by using props as a stimulus. I have no ideas how these will turn out and this excites and terrifies me. Issues of trust and quality control and my own censoring are running wild. I am learning to chill out.
We will be sharing our journey with Felix’s peers in the form of workshops complementing Philosophy for Children at his school. This process will be a wider sharing of our practice and seeing how this translates in a wider setting. Some of our findings and observations will no doubt inform our finished piece. Sharing this work with Felix's peers seems important. They all have a lot to say and are brimming with feelings, thoughts and emotions. They are the future artists. They are The Future, full stop. I’m Bitter About Glitter is Felix’s first platform to investigate activism, and indeed his body as a political entity. The results, whatever they will be are sure to be filled with explosions, sparkles and roller disco dance offs.
Queer Family: Spaces for making queer work with and for children, and the risks and opportunities this represents
Partly through childcare constraints, partly by design, my children have been involved in the thinking, the planning and the making of my performance work since their arrival eight and four years ago. It’s been strange to say the least. Art spaces are not child friendly spaces; Child spaces are not art friendly. Add in queer friendly spaces and you get a heady mix of all sorts of conundrums. But this is the space I inhabit often, and this is a space I am really interested in nurturing. It is a space in which Felix is comfortable. He is happy chatting to one of my art making family as he digs the garden one day; and equally at home chatting to that friend in an art space dancing in turquoise spangled hotpants the next day. This is our world and one that I champion.
Social Muscle Club is an international organisation that promotes social support and connection through the medium of a simple giving and receiving game in a performance environment. The UK arm of this group is headed up by artists Chris Gylee & Richard Aslan (4) The idea is social exchange and giving and receiving, as a vehicle for social change. Richard and Chris asked Felix and I to host a table at one of their events. Felix had a hand in decorating the space and naming each of the tables in preparation for the evening (Lego, Glitter, Dinosaurs and Bouncy Balls) He had the job of applying the hosts’ make up; the outcome of which, as you can imagine was glorious. This was an adult space, a queer space, and a queer space that was being subtly intercepted, by invitation, by a child. Felix brought his naivety, innocence, clumsiness and wonder to the event. He got to stay up late and mingle with friendly clubbers on equal terms. He got to set off a glitter cannon over 20 peoples’ heads. He was safe and supported and respected. This is our space.
Another component of my art making family is Beacons Icons & Dykons . Felix, Ione and I were invited by artistic director, Tom Marshman to take part in a photo shoot for an event at Bristol Museum to accompany an exhibition of Hogarth’s life, times and works. This family event, called The Bad Taste of the Town featured queer performances, craft, song and a chance to view the exhibition.
We took inspiration from the themes of the work and sited the photo-shoot in the gallery amongst the pictures. We recreated in modern day terms some of the debauched, commonplace and lowbrow themes Hogarth expressed in his work. There were children, babies, vegetables and semi nudity. One or more of these factors caused complaints within the Council and I don’t think it was the vegetables. This attitude from an (often quite progressive) establishment saddened and angered me. For all the trappings of equality, we still have a long way to go.
I’m Bitter About Glitter was inspired directly by five days I spent in the company of artists on a Live Art Development Agency DIY16 (footnote about DIY programmes needed?) led by Rosanna Cade and Eilidh MacAskil, provocatively named Sex & Children. For a whole working week we had the luxury of debating issues around making queer work with and for children , including the whys and hows, the systemic obstacles, the crazy imbalances and injustices and the joys. We made short works and tested them out on real live children (to mixed reviews) We dreamed and imagined what this work could do for the future generations. It was here that the ideas for I’m Bitter About Glitter took shape, and it was here that my belief in the importance of hearing these voices and enabling new conversations was cemented.
My children consider themselves members of Residence; the collective I am part of (6) and are welcomed into that space whenever they arrive. They are planning a roller disco for children and adults this summer. It hasn’t always been glitter and roller-skates though; navigating the stony ground of artist parenting has at times been really tough. Back at the end of last year I was approached by a mother of two young children who had just finished an MA in performance and was embarking on her career. She had sought me out via an article I wrote for the LADA study room guide Live Art and the Maternal. She had sought me out to ask me how it was done, how did I manage, what wisdom could I impart? At the time I was knackered, broke, grieving, feeling ignored and done over by the art world. I felt old, and in general not particularly positive. My life plan at the time was to jack it all in and open a vegan burger van by the sea. However, I met her, struggled through our coffee being bright and positive, offering tips and contacts, extolling the virtues of this amazingly freeing way of life. I should have told the truth! Now I wish I’d been a bit more real with her. Yes, there are fabulous times when the sun shines and nobody cries. Yes, it’s a great for your children to recognise that we all contribute to the world in different ways, to lead by striding example that they can ACHIEVE WHATEVER THEY DAMN WELL PLEASE (or at least try) but some days, some days, Mum’s in her zebra onsie and isn’t leaving the house, some days it is just shit. So, instead of weeping into that coffee at Live Art’s new recruit, I’m saying it to you. I hope it’s helpful…
I Tattooed My Baby: The Rights of the Child and ‘Crossing the Line’.
When my daughter Ione was nine months old she and I made a piece of performance. I Tattooed My Baby took inspiration from a dream in which I had done just that. I was interested in the acceptable face of motherhood, how mother hood changes peoples’ perception of us and how we imprint our own values upon our children.
In I Tattooed My Baby I took the socially accepted practice of piercing a baby’s ears and transformed it into a fictionalised theatrical ritual in which the audience were complicit.
It’s ok for me to take my baby to Clare’s accessories and have a teen pierce her ears. She’s older now, more than three months, she’s getting on! There’d be no sense of ritual though, no passage, no ceremony.
Whereas here, in my church, the theatre; we have Occasion, we have ready made ritual, a congregation. A real occasion to cherish and remember.
I wanted to reflect upon how children and motherhood are commodified and packaged, and how our family in particular struggles with this. This work addressed objectification and exploitation, risk and responsibility, as well as the personhood of a small child. It attempted to create a space where she was non-commodified, where her presence was as full and valid as mine (or the audience’s), where she was not an accessory to the work, or myself as performer but the work’s heart & soul. Of optimum importance in this investigation however, was not doing this very thing I wanted to avoid, as a microcosm, on the stage. The performance was specifically designed around my daughter’s real-time needs. She fed, she played she gurgled and interrupted. She was, in essence, the director of the work. The space was friendly and well-lit and I had invited people to bring their children. There was, at one point a stage invasion of another small person. I had wanted to restage this piece every year with my daughter to see how the content and the context changed over time. She (now four) would hate the idea and well, there’s just been too much to do since then!
My plan for this article was to reflect upon the impact having children has on making performance, and how the two influence each other. How my making processes have changed- more late night epiphanies and writings, less dreamings and studio time. More openness, more softening. More focus and dedication, in much shorter bursts. Multitasking multi tasking multi tasking. How much longer everything takes, and learning patience. Learning acceptance, “This is how it is and that’s OK.” Militancy and deeper passion, wanting to equip my children with the belief in themselves so that they can change things, shape their world, make a difference. How terrifying this is, my own fears looming, especially about bringing a female into this world. I wanted to talk about the frustration, the lack of sleep, the claustrophobia, the drudgery, the time management and the ever-present maternal guilt. All this swirling, colliding with and bumping up against the joy, the sweetness and the things I learn from my children every day; the tiny things, the huge things; the non compartmentalising that leads to problem solving a staging issue with an eight year old, to glitter cannons infiltrating the school play. The way we live our lives is a massive stew of art making, parenting, learning, mistake making, creativity and love. Precarious and not always lucrative, but I wouldn’t change it. I hope that somehow all this has seeped in to this piece!