Dialling into Channel B

I wrote this while participating in Sophia Kosmaoglou’s Art + Critique course. Due to Covid restrictions, I was unable join my peers in person when they visited Nine Nights: Channel B at the ICA in November 2021. The text describes my experience of the exhibition via my browser.

Dialling in remotely, my experience of Nine Nights: Channel B is mediated by others navigating the exhibition physically at the ICA. Their phones are like appendages, scanning and reconfiguring the view – mostly dark – with sound and image coming in and out of focus. My perception is fragmented, subject to the jolting choices of my guides. Like archaeologists examining a network of chambers, they advance inwards and describe what they meet. There is a mood of excitement as passages open up to new discoveries. They relay fragments of text, reminding me of clues or warnings encountered on a mission in a game.

I can’t get a clear overview and although restricting this is also generative, stirring my imagination to fill in and expand the gaps, like in a dream. From what I gather, the experience of being there is immersive, participatory and multi-sensory, eliciting physiological responses. I imagine rumbling bass permeating skins and accelerating heart rates; dilated pupils contracting as flashes of light and colour illuminate the faces of those exploring.

My initial associations are of a nightclub or adult fairground in a dystopian present or future, with different rooms offering different forms of entertainment: a wellness area with projected visuals, a gaming station where multiple players can interact in parallel spaces. This strikes me as superficial at first, a form of escapism maintaining the short-term ‘pursuit of desire-satisfaction’ Adriene Piper describes as feeding and fed by unrestrained free-market capitalism.1 But there is something more complex going on.

I catch a glimpse of an inverted sun radiating darkness. Inversion as a motif keeps recurring to me. The classic white cube gallery with its distancing qualities has been transformed into a dark space obscuring ordinary vision, inviting attention towards other ways of sensing and sharing space together. And there is a politically subversive dimension to the way Black-owned art, music, and creative initiative Nine Nights have repurposed the gallery and its structures to centre the experiences, narratives, and wellbeing of those usually marginalised and exploited by these structures.

I read on the ICA website that throughout its duration, the exhibition is hosting contributions by a network of Black performers, musicians and artists, rearranging its functions as cultural platform, activist campaign and site for celebration and visioning. Interrupting individualistic tendencies in art, Channel B is utilised as a medium for redistributing resources, redefining rules of ownership and reclaiming the terms for imagining, in service of uplifting Black culture and communities.

As a remote spectator, it feels pertinent for me as a person racialised as white, member of the dominant, centred group, to be perceiving this from the margins. Reading the Nine Nights manifesto I feel challenged to reflect on my own position and to be ‘be part of the change, not the problem’. Something is compelling about the participatory nature of the installations on view, and the ways in which bodily responses are elicited by Channel B. They conjure the implicatedness of all bodies as positioned within, not outside of the societal dynamics addressed by the exhibition. It invites me to think about my own choices and agency in how I distribute resources, the channels I choose to tune into and amplify, and what forms of world making and imagining this serves.

1 Piper, Adrian. (2008) Political Art and the Paradigm of Innovation, p. 9

Knowing my power, burning my wood

Last year I had a formative experience that deepened my understanding of the dynamics of racism and white supremacy through an interaction between myself, racialised as white, and a peer, racialised as a person of colour. Though painful in different ways for both of us, the incident supported me to notice and take responsibility for my impact, and grow in my awareness and capacity for action around racism. Writing about the experience has helped me to digest what happened. This account particularly addresses those racialised as white and offers an inner reflection practice I’ve found helpful for giving attention to the shame triggered in me when I have a fragile reaction and unconsciously centre myself and my whiteness.

Unconscious power

The experience happened in a study context, where a student was practicing facilitating a relationship process in front of a small group of students and two of our teachers. Myself who identifies as white and a fellow peer who identifies as a person of colour volunteered to be the ‘clients’ for the process, to explore our relationship. We began to speak about recently getting to know one another. I felt increasingly uncomfortable and finally expressed my sense of inadequacy around my peer who has a lot of personal and professional experience and awareness in understanding racism. I teared up and shared how I admired my peer and felt insecure around them. The person facilitating us, who also identifies as white, froze and had difficulty framing what was happening. The group around us started whispering and finally one of our teachers intervened, saying NO! to the continuation of a wider pattern repeating in the school, revolving around centring the experiences of white people when it comes to racism. The person I had addressed felt touched, noticing they had not yet experienced a teacher intervening in this way in this context when a racist dynamic was playing out.

I realised in the moment that I was othering my peer, relating to them based only on their race, rather than as a whole person. I was more concerned with my own awkwardness and insecurity, projecting the source of my discomfort onto them, than noticing the ways I was making myself the centre of the interaction, making them the problem and paying little attention to the power I held being part of a majority group that centres itself all the time. I didn’t consider what it might be like on the other side as someone who is impacted by racism on a daily basis to be drawn into an unsolicited conversation about race without consent, and in front of a majority white group.

Sitting with shame

The next day I had a strong impulse to address racism more deeply in myself and the student community, and to ensure this experience would lead to positive lasting change in the school. While I believe this impulse is important and I’m following it up in various ways, including speaking with my peer and addressing the impact of my behaviour in our relationship, I later realised I was jumping to action and ‘fixing’ without giving space to feeling and experiencing my shame. Spending the last couple of years starting to learn about whiteness and white supremacy and building my resilience in holding and staying in uncomfortable conversations around race, I’d been marginalising my feelings. In my aim to build resilience, I’d internalised a belief that said ‘don’t be fragile’, including in all-white peer-led contexts exploring how the racist culture we’ve been socialised in lives in us.

White fragility, a term popularised by sociologist, Robin DiAngelo, describes common behaviours and reactions expressed by white people when confronted with the discomfort of engaging with racism. This framework is useful for identifying patterns of behaviour often un/consciously weaponised by white people to maintain control of a situation. At the same time, I’m also reflecting on the need of giving space to the complex feelings that come up for those of us racialised as white when learning about our part in personally and collectively perpetuating a dominant system of violence and oppression. When we have never been taught about this previously, (when we’ve been lucky to be born white in a culture centring our experiences, often falsely taught that racism has nothing to do with us), it feels like a waking up process that requires care and attention for change to be sustainable. This is not to say those of us who are white should only identify with the need for care or ask to be made comfortable by those around us, especially people of colour. But in my experience, acknowledging and attending to our feelings and personal history, which will likely be triggered when challenged and faced with discomfort, plays an important part in building the capacity and compassion needed for addressing racism.

I believe marginalising my pain, grief and feelings of insecurity contributed to my white fragility taking over in the interaction with my peer. Not giving these feelings space in my own time led to them erupting unconsciously and becoming yet another racist burden for my peer to hold. Through this experience I’ve been learning that part of taking responsibility for my power – both where I identify with lacking and having it – requires tending to my historical wounds. Taking care of and consciously centring these parts of myself means I’ll be less likely to un/consciously expect to be taken care of and centred by others. This feels like a growing up process, cultivating an internal parent who can take care of an inner child. The intention is not to get rid of discomfort, as discomfort is an appropriate response. It supports me to stay awake to the reality of a collective system I am part of that inflicts ongoing discomfort and violence onto those who’ve been negatively racialised. Instead, through tending to my vulnerability consciously I can develop a muscle for holding difficulty and complexity, recognising I can be both vulnerable and responsible in how I hold and enact power.

Burning wood

Processwork has a term for this kind of work, ‘burning wood’. The term is a metaphor likening our emotional triggers and wounds to dry kindling. When this kindling builds up and remains untended it is more likely to catch fire when we become activated. The practice of burning wood is one of taking a deep interest in what affects and touches us, getting to know ourselves, the depths of our personal and collective histories and tending to our emotions when they are sparked. In such moments, slowing down and making space for the ‘fuel’ of our emotional undercurrents can support a process of expression and witnessing. Sometimes it’s helpful to be supported in this by someone who loves and cares for us, even if they are an imagined figure or entity accompanying the process. Taking a deep interest in ourselves in this way can support us to be more humane with ourselves, and by extension with others, and less susceptible to be swept up by our triggers when in interaction. Rather than disappearing our passions, this can actually support our access to personal power, freeing up energy which might otherwise be spent on containing or reacting to strong feelings. It makes sense to me that this power will also support me on my ongoing journey in understanding and owning my part in racism, and interrupting and transforming this in myself and wider society.

Exercise for Burning Wood around Shame:

  • What do you feel ashamed about?
  • Feel it, give space to the sensations, notice what they are like, where and how you experience them in your body. What is their quality? Get curious about them, let them move through you.
  • When did you feel this in the past? When were you shamed? Was there a time when you experienced lack of compassion, no-one to support you?
  • Invite the personal or collective story that made this experience so hurtful. Practice compassion for the part in you that was hurt. Let it communicate what it needs to express through words, images, movement, or however else it wants to emerge.
  • Consider how bearing witness to this part in you is an antidote to oppressive dynamics within and without.

No-one left behind – Cultivating resilience for difficult work

“Without love, our efforts to liberate ourselves and our world community from oppression and exploitation are doomed.”1

bell hooks

I recently participated in a weekend workshop organised to examine our part in societal dynamics of privilege and oppression, with an emphasis on race, and to explore working towards collective liberation. Although difficult, the workshop was a big learning experience for me and I feel compelled to write about it. This comes with challenges as I am new to writing about social justice issues and making this process public. What follows are reflections that include concepts from Processwork and thoughts expressed by other workshop participants, to whom I am indebted for developing my learning from this experience.

One could say that the workshop fell apart, with several people of colour and one white person leaving midway. The absence of those who had chosen to leave greatly impacted the rest of the group. Although the experiences of the remaining (and absent) participants were diverse, there was general consensus around a sense of sadness and frustration that so often when people come together to address issues of social injustice, particularly racism, the same patterns inherent to those issues are repeated. Yet again we had not managed to create a safe and inclusive enough environment while engaging in these difficult but necessary conversations.

Trauma in the field

Working on themes of power, privilege and oppression is difficult work, and triggers trauma in all of us, whatever the degree. Often in this kind of work, love and kindness become marginalised, both towards one another and ourselves. In Processwork terms, when doing this work the themes of external and internal oppression will be present within the shared ‘field’ and felt by those engaging with it.

As a person who identifies as white, with many privileges, and so much to still learn about social injustice issues, I felt strongly impacted by a self-critical voice influencing my interactions with other participants and what was happening between us. Following a Processwork understanding, this voice was not only internal but also a manifestation of the wider dynamic of oppression within the field, and likely experienced by others too. This critical voice inhibited me from connecting with my feelings, which reduced my ability to relate to myself and others.

No-one left behind

The fear of ostracisation from the group often prohibits open and honest interaction. The tendency in a group to evaluate one another and project judgements onto individuals repeats the dynamics of a competitive culture that isolates us from one another and sets us up for distrust and division. To project onto and scapegoat individuals can be shortsighted as this doesn’t acknowledge how we are in this together and that one person’s unconscious behaviour is symptomatic of a wider dynamic of which we are all a part.

This doesn’t mean our experiences and responsibilities are equal or the same. Working towards collective liberation means it is essential for those of us with more privileges to be held to account and develop tolerance for discomfort and self-questioning. One way of developing such tolerance is through practices of radical inner work, making time and space to connect with our experience, which can relieve others from having to take care of us. But it is also a myth that we can provide all the love and support we need for ourselves.

When someone in a privileged position behaves unconsciously, a commonly repeating pattern is that the onus of awareness raising or compassion falls onto those who are most affected by structural oppressions. To counteract this pattern, it can help when others sharing the privileged position take responsibility to intervene and hold one another to account. At the same time, it feels important that those with the privileged positionality don’t leave one another behind, practicing empathy and awareness of the possibility that any one of us could be the one to behave or have behaved unconsciously at another moment.2 A question that follows is how we can facilitate deeper relationship to do this work across our differences and social positions.

Building a container

What emerged from the disintegration of the workshop was a shared recognition that feeling more connected to one another is essential for doing this work. This takes time and is difficult to achieve in a weekend-long workshop. Nevertheless, it is useful to reflect on what kinds of practices support this work to be sustainable in the long-term, even when our opportunities to come together are limited.

To make a conscious effort to slow down, make space and cultivate a sense of togetherness helps to form a container for holding difficulty. Slowing down gives the opportunity to check in with our bodies and take care of our needs in the moment, which might include needing to step out and be alone. Interactions that mainly take place through conversation privilege the communication styles of those who find it easy to talk. Balancing these interactions with other shared activities – such as cooking, moving and visioning together – offers grounding and the chance to share and experience different aspects of ourselves.3

Cultivating a container for being together is not about flattening difference or engendering a harmonious status quo. It supports the expression and valuing of our diversity of gifts and experiences, so that they can enhance one another. It emphasises the importance of relationship for being able to hold and deepen this challenging work and facilitate more related interaction. I appreciate how the learning from this workshop reminded me of the value of creative processes in supporting this. Making space for creativity and relationship enriches our connection to our hearts, cultivating our capacity to go deep, be challenged and lay the ground for honest conversation and community healing.

1hooks, b. (2008) Love as the Practice of Freedom, Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations, New York: Routledge, p. 243

2Particular thanks to Cathy Rowsome for the conversation that developed this reflection.

3Particular thanks to Nish Doshi for the conversation that developed this reflection.