Monday, 28 March 2016

Makode Linde: an inverted fantasy-world at Kulturhuset

n.b. Photography was prohibited in the exhibition, and these photos which give you a flavour were taken in the foyer 

I recently saw Makode Linde's installation in the Kulturhuset complex, right in the centre of Stockholm. How to describe it? It's a nightmarish, exhilarating romp through a darkly witty and sparkling imagination. The visitor is sucked in through a cave entrance that is a giant mouth and takes a journey in the dark through Linde's multiple-room installation. It is at once a gloriously grotesque Afrocentric fantasy world, and a sarcastic commentary on the representation of Black people in the media. Blackness is everywhere and Africa dominates. The dark space is carefully lit with fluorescent paint daubed around; hundreds of black figures loom in the dark, grinning from their teeth and showing the whites of their eyes. There are objects everywhere, on all sides and hanging from the ceiling; and combined with the darkness and fluorescent glow, white teeth and the visitors shuffling around, it gives you the sensation of being in a nightclub.

There is more than a little of the carnivalesque, with Linde's signature expression of taking dolls, toys, and sculptures of all sizes and making them into golliwogs: painting them black (not shade of brown like people's skin tones, but a true black) and making grinning oversized mouths with thick red lips. It seesaws between reclaiming objects, making what's been white-skinned black; and forcing the viewer to confront racialised dogma. Linde's world puts black people everywhere, in a glorification of stereotype that makes its point very loudly, very clearly, but with a malevolent chuckle. It is this sense of being so over-the-top and theatrical in the staging, the maximalism of it all; yet making such a salient point, that Linde is so successful. The truth is ugly, and laughter here is multi-layered.

Not being a local, I was unaware of the controversy & excitement surrounding the exhibition which opened on 30 January, and runs through to 24 April. Makode Linde is a Swedish performance artist who's caused a lot of ruckus. He originally wanted to call the exhibition 'The Negro King's Return', which was forbidden by the state-run Kulturhuset (Cultural House/Centre) and triggered a huge debate on racism and censorship. The problem, as far as I can gather, was his choice of the word 'Negro'; I didn't listen to the debates (since they're in Swedish) so I don't know if the concept of reclaiming words was discussed. Whilst I personally find the original title pretty funny - and very appropriate given the installation itself - I'm not sure if there's a difference in Swedish between the words 'Negro' and 'Nigger' so it's a tricky question. The exhibition now is just called 'Makode Linde'. Linde's work has clearly always been loaded and controversial, teetering off the brink of good taste. His best known work was a performance called 'Painful Cake'; before you watch the video, know that this was staged at the Moderna Museet (Stockholm's museum of modern art) at the 75th anniversary meeting of the KRO (the Swedish artists' trade union) - and the first person that cut into the cake was the Swedish Minister of Culture.

I believe that many Swedes would view Linde's work as a direct commentary on racism in Sweden, but from my international point of view it's a more generalised response to the absence of people of colour (specifically Black people) from the pages, plates, photography, paintings, toys, and sculptures of nations. The brilliant thing about Linde's work is that it still manages to be funny, to trigger laughter, as well as unease. And in the debate that he instigated, he's succeeded in getting the issue of racism and (mis)representation talked about and on people's minds - which is brilliant. He's pretty extreme, but he's a performance artist. I urge you to go, and revel in this world.

Makode Linde at Kulturhuset runs until 24 April. Click here for more information.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

5 Reasons why doing an MA is worth it

My campus in Stockholm
This time last year I was frantically finishing up my application essays, thesis proposal and scholarship application – feeling excitement and nervousness. I’m now six months into my Masters degree in the History and Culture of Fashion at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London, and am currently doing an Erasmus study exchange programme with Stockholm University, which was both unexpected and unplanned.

Education is expensive, there’s no two ways about it. The fees are prohibitive, the loans restrictive, but what’s even harder is funding your own maintenance. I chose to study a Masters in my home city of London, and spent my first term working two jobs in order to support myself during full-time study. It was pretty exhausting. I have ended up moving back home to cosy suburbia for the last portion of my degree, as I couldn’t afford to pay market rents.  This is a serious barrier for many people dreaming of continuing, or re-entering education.

Saving money in London by biking a 14-mile round trip to uni
A contrast to cycling Lycra - Getting to uni in Stockholm in full snow gear!
It’s my personal opinion that nobody really needs a degree. I’ve always been a staunch advocate for vocational training and apprenticeship programmes, as my experience has been that formal education doesn’t prepare students well for the practical and social realities of the workplace. What it does do, however, is teach you how to think. It gets you questioning the world, how things work, and why they have come to be in a certain way. It exposes you to ideas and practitioners that you’d never have heard of or discovered on your own. And of course, it’s a gateway to the many positions that often don’t recognise qualifications outside of the UK university system.

But despite the stress of deadlines, the engulfing black hole of research, occasional feelings of frustration and even disappointment, I’m happier than I have been in years. A Masters degree is a luxury that most people don’t get to experience – but for me, it was worth saving for 4 years to do. Whilst you certainly don’t need a Masters level qualification for many jobs in the arts, if you were considering it, making some initial enquiries, or just on the fence, here are my reasons why I think it’s worth doing:

1. Shortcut to a career change. This one’s the most obvious: if you already have a bachelor’s degree, a Masters qualification offers the opportunity to specialise further, or do something completely different. And the more years of work- and life-experience you have before starting the Masters, the better it will inform and shape your studies.

Remi questioning the male barbie installation at London College of Fashion
2. Question the status quo. My favourite thing to do. University doesn’t necessarily teach you things, but it teaches you to think. Rather than being spoon-fed ideas, you are encouraged to do most of the learning yourself. Debate is encouraged, in an intelligent and considerate manner (not like that bloke down the pub). 

Intellectually considering Lucy Sparrow's felt sex shop installation in Soho, October 2015

3. Take time for reflection. Studying give you a passport to stand aside from your social and personal life, try on different hats, and work out your own stance on things. We don’t often get time to do this – or we don’t make time for it. With 20 hours or so a week of study, taking time out from your daily life is a requirement. 

One of my research sources - an advertisement from Vogue Paris 1951

4. Make new work. Whether it’s designing the collection you’d always thought about, making a series of sculptures, or (like me) combining postcolonial ‘speaking back’ and globalisation theory with the history of dress, this is a truly unique opportunity to make a contribution in your field. And as it’s a focussed amount of time (sometimes 24 months, but in my case 12 months), you have to stay focussed and keep moving forward.

Getting to see Dior's 1947 Bar suit in real life at the V&A Clothworkers archive.

5. Do new things, meet new people! Lastly, and importantly, university is an amazing networking hub! You will have the opportunity to meet people you would never have encountered, whether it’s one of your classmates, or the author of an inspiring book that may happen to give a guest lecture. You might not make new best friends or business partners, but you will encounter people outside of your normal social circles who will make you think in different ways. I unexpectedly became the first person on my course to do a study exchange abroad, which has fostered links both for me, and between the two institutions. Comparing the two education systems has been really insightful, and I’ve had the additional cultural experience of living in a country I’d never have considered living in before.

Embodying contradiction: looking/feeling extremely frazzled, but secretly loving it, during a stressful month of essay-writing in December.

Though it’s certainly not been all easy, my first 6 months of Masters study has already enriched my life in many ways. Whilst the future is still unclear, and the job market as terrible as ever, I feel more confident in my mind and my choices. I had to make compromises and some sacrifices to study a Masters, which will differ for everybody. I’ll disclose here that I was fortunate to get partial fees funding from scholarships (though I still had to pay several grand!!). But I’ve found that it’s definitely been worth it, and it could be great for you too.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Baby, Honey, Darling Idiot...When is a word an insult?

Continuing in my tradition of consecrating events only after they happen (viz), this week's post follows an online discussion I participated in on Facebook, on International Women's Day (8th March). The situation was this: Fleur McGerr, who does social media PR, updated a company's Twitter account and was chastised by a fellow Twitterer (twit?) for using the word 'babes'. I quote:
Genuine musing here, in honour of IWD. A woman has had a go at me on Twitter for using the word 'babes' as a collective noun to describe the women of Bar Chick (no comment on their use of Chick or their handle being 'HotBarChick') and said 'That's why IWD is important'. She assumed first off the Twitter account was run by a man, of course, but when I pointed out I was a fellow woman, said I was awful anyway. 
Now, I call people 'babes' all the time, men, women, my cat. I have used it to describe London on a particularly fine day, even...But in all seriousness, am I part of the problem? Do I need to go cold turkey on 'babes', not just on IWD but forever?
In a classic case of light humour gone sour, this is a great example of a situation that arises when language changes, and of how informal slang words can hold multiple meanings. The discussion on Fleur's Facebook profile discussion was both thoughtful and thought-provoking, with participants considering all sides of the story. One of the points raised was how 'babes' was intended to be a gender-neutral word. Another was that we interpret words due to our own experiences, so although on the whole the contributors (including myself) agreed that calling someone 'babes' isn't necessarily sexist, we shouldn't negate the original Twitterer's opinion as it seemed very likely that she had had negative experiences with the use of the word.

Whilst reading feminist and queer theory, particularly of the 1960s-1990s, one is struck by the overall conviction that changes in society must be reflected in changes in language. Spanning a selection of second-wave feminism to first-wave queer theory, you can read this in Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949); Luce Irigaray's Je, tu, nous (1992); Judith Butler's Gender Trouble (1990); and J. Halberstam's Female Masculinity (1998).* Many influential thinkers of the 20th Century were French, including those who influenced feminism and queer theory, i.e Simone de Beauvoir and Michel Foucault. Gender differentiation in Romantic languages is far more entrenched and prominent than in English. When grammar requires the feminine to be usurped by the masculine, it is obvious how the seeds of discontent were sown in the fabric of everyday life . Nonetheless, it can be difficult to remember the importance of language and everyday word choices, especially when dramatic protests and wild parties are so much more exciting than simply being reminded to change your speech habits. 

Most often, slang words are the first to change: quick to both enter and leave a language, and quick to change their meanings. An important facet of interpreting slang is understanding intention. In languages which aren't bound by intonation,  much meaning can be imparted from the delivery: you can go from complementary, to questioning, to sarcastic all through your inflection. The trouble lies in the fact that when the emotional delivery of a word takes over, people often forget the other meanings that the word used to bear. Playing on this can allow people to reclaim words that used to be insults (including queer); be humorous (wicked, sick to mean great); but also deeply problematic (gay to mean bad). 

That's where pet names come in: darling, sweetie, honey, baby. We use these familiar, diminutive words to address our children, pets, and lovers. When you work in the theatre, it's common practice - if not the industry standard - to use these words in lieu of people's actual names. But 
any diminutive word or pet name has the possibility of seeming derogatory as well as endearing, and indeed is frequently used in workplaces to patronise or otherwise talk down women who are acting assertive. Whilst these words are frequently associated with women and children, ultimately I believe they are genderless. However, if someone has only interacted with a word in negative contexts, it is easy to see how any use of that word would hit a nerve.

Whilst it is correct to consider the etymology of a word, at the end of the day, so much meaning is imparted through the social context, and the relations that speakers have with each other. In my opinion, Twitter is the worst place to have deep and meaningful conversations; it's far easier to just throw out one-liners and jibes. Certainly, these terms of endearment have been used as insults - but through continued positive usage, we can stop the negativity from winning out. By taking the sting out of a word, we take away its power, and negate the user's intention to cause us harm. We have the potential to reclaim language, and to talk back. This is not to overlook individual's bad experiences; but rather to come together to collectively move beyond and above insults. Indeed, with enough people, we can change the meaning of a word entirely - so let's ensure that we continue to develop our language to reflect positive attitudes to gender and sexuality. 

My conclusion? Yes: you can be a feminist, postfeminist, queer feminist, queer activist - and still be  a babe. In fact, it's recommended!


*This is hardly an exhaustive bibliography - and you can tell from this list that my past research has drawn more from queer than feminist theory. Please feel free to add suggested reading in the comments.    

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Authors I Wish I Could Steal From

World Book Day was last week, Thursday 3rd March. I have been in the thick of essay-writing this month, and so it completely passed me by. In the spirit of being late to the party, here's my tuppence on some of my favourite novel writers. In true writerly form, it's written with a cheap biro in a quiet café, hot coffee on refill drunk down to the dregs of a lipstick-smeared cup.



Authors I Wish I Could Steal From:

Charles Bukowski

Roald Dahl

Angela Carter

Margaret Atwood

These four combined would write lethal cocktails of fantasy and wit, humour so dark it stabs you; laughter that is cruel, and glimpses of morality only found through spying in keyholes.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Culture Shock: up close and personal with the Stockholm winter.

It's seven weeks since I came to Stockholm, and I'm starting to get to grips with my feelings about this place - so-called 'Capital of Scandinavia'. Coming from big, bustling, chaotic London, this serene and frozen city has unnerved me on more than one occasion. To us lefty, artsy Londoners, last year's tragic election results combined with long-running salary slumps in the creative sectors, hugely inflated cost of education, and seriously questionable healthcare service, Sweden has often seemed like some kind of Socialist utopia. But there are always tremors in paradise. For a long time, I couldn't put my finger on my feeling of unease. I longed to love the city, paced around with optimism despite sub-zero temperatures; looked with enthusiasm for anything I could get involved in. I wanted to feel happy; but something wasn't quite right. It took me a while to realise that I was suffering from culture shock.

The streets are wide, clean and functional. They aren't full of cracks or covered in litter. It snows, it freezes, and grit is applied liberally so no one slips. But where are all the people?

Cafés are bustling. Coffee is strong, black, and comes with free refills. The buildings are insulated well; no shivering indoors, and the heating's always switched on. But my friendly smalltalks, to strangers and servers, are met with complete rebuff.

Everything works, but where is the sense of gratitude? Everyone is beautiful - the people are healthy - but why aren't they happy?

The winter is long, and it's cold, and I am assured by so many people that things will change when the sun comes out. The best thing about Sweden is the quiet, the calm. The city is special for its close relationship with, and access to nature. I live by a forest, with lakes and sea. This, then, is how I spend my winter: wandering. Quietly.

Photos are snapshots taken on a few walks in the woods by my flat here in Stockholm.