Selina Thompson kindly agreed to meet and talk with me in July 2017 in the run up to performances of Salt in Brighton, London and Edinburgh. When the transcript came back from the transcription company I was pleased to see that our ‘laughter’ had been noted – I have decided to keep those moments in.
Sarah Gorman: My first question is a question for people who might not be familiar with your work and I would like to ask, “how would you describe your work for those who have yet to see it?”
Selina Thompson: I make performance and installation, typically one-woman shows and they are engaging with identity politics and when I say, “identity politics”, I mean body politics, geopolitics, how the various identities that we wear form us into groups that can be oppressed, or groups that can oppress, groups that are able to do both. That’s what my work is always concerned with.
It tends to be quite spectacular and when I say, “spectacle” I mean usually there will be one idea, (like a giant ball of hair or a piñata full of rice pudding, taking a giant slab of rock and turning it into salt grains), that holds the show together around this one weird image. It tends to be quite intimate. It often has autobiography at its core. It is funny work and warm work quite a lot of the time, but also very angry work. Whether it will always be like that or whether that is the kind of work you expect to get from a 27 year old, I do not know.
Sarah: Thank you, that’s a great description. I would say that your work is located between the world of performance and theatre and/or live art. Are those terms you feel comfortable with and would you apply those terms to your work?
Selina: Yes, I think that the term that always feels most comfortable to me is “performance art”. I think it’s because when I say, “performance artists”, what comes to my head is, Karen Finley covered in shit; screaming at the top of her voice – in a loft somewhere in New York. If I have to align myself with any kind of work- that’s what I want to align myself with, whereas when I say, “live art”, what I imagine is a white room, with a concrete floor and a white man in the middle of it doing something that’s stressing me out.
Selina: When you say, “theatre”, lots of things come to mind. Theatre just feels like a billowing term for me, but what is accompanied by that billowing term is the sense of not really fitting. Also, theatre to me, not all theatre, but so much theatre is made to entertain. The one thing that I have to give live art and performance art is that its primary aim, even when it’s at its most lavish is not to just “entertain”. For example, there is a guy covered in glitter, throwing whispers into the audience while George Michael plays. Even while it’s at its most silly, fantastical, ludicrous, impenetrable, still at its core is an artist that is trying to tell you something urgent. Whilst I love Little Shop of Horrors, for example, I don’t think its necessarily trying to do that. For me, I do what I do because it’s the only thing that makes living bearable, it is the idea that maybe I will say or do something in front of an audience that will help to make other people’s lives more bearable.
Sarah: You’ve mentioned several influences there. I was wondering, who, in particular, would you say were your key influences?
Selina: Bobby Baker, [laughs] first and foremost. I adore her and always take Redeeming Features of Everyday Life into every room I ever go into and make work. Who else? Lorna Simpson, who is a visual artist – It feels very strange for me to say that, but I love the cleanness of her work. I love the fact that even though she’s a visual artist, so much of her work is about language. Missy Elliott is a very big influence at the moment.
Selina: Audre Lorde is a massive influence, Scottee and Bryony Kimmings, especially when I was young and starting out. I’m not a huge fan of her work but I quite like how Marina Abramović talks about her work. There is an American artist called, Keijaun Thomas, who has a beautiful body of work with The Poetics of Trespassing and that has been a big influence for me. Film, a lot. Music videos. I’m a bit of a pop culture magpie.
Music’s a big thing in my work, actually. Every show has a playlist of 300 songs long. One of the big methods that I do is to put together a playlist that usually speaks the emotional journey of the work and then I allow myself to zone out, essentially, and hallucinate and imagine things and shape the works on those visions. I think music is probably the biggest, most shaping influence of anything.
Sarah: I’m just thinking about a version of Dark and Lovely, which is very different from the version of the piece I saw at the Ovalhouse (South London). Did it have a different playlist from the final performance or is it part of the same journey?
Selina: I think for that show it had, Loving You, by Minnie Riperton in it, which by the time you get to the final show, it’s got eight different Minnie Riperton songs in it. What Minnie Riperton is doing with strings is replicated in the sound design that was made. Also, when we think of black women’s singing voices, quite a lot of the time they are low, bassy, maybe they’re mid-range. Still, high voices are the realm of white women with the exception of Minnie Riperton, whose voice is so high and whose aesthetic is so floral and of gardens and the sea and flowers. It’s a very particular type of femininity. She is very much associated with white women, as opposed to black.
Sarah: So will most shows be reworked differently as part of the creative process?
Selina: Yes – so reworked.
Selina: Salt is so different. Last year, I got off the ship on the 12th of April and the first show was the 12th of May.
Sarah: No way!
Selina: Everything, the writing, the design, the music, all had to come together in a month bearing in mind—
Sarah: Was Leeds the first show?
Selina: No, this was in Bristol. Then I had some time. I think I spent a week rewriting in Leeds, but in Leeds we had two performances, the afternoon and then the evening. We changed the show between the two.
Sarah: I came to see the afternoon one.
Selina: It’s changed since you last saw it and its been changed again. For me, our process is always, we make the show, then give me a year to ignore it and then we go back to the show because, I feel that when you’re making an autobiographical work, you’re excavating the wounds and actually you can say much more interesting things about a scar, than you can about a wound.
Sarah: Your website shows the work to be thematized into, An Edible Woman, As Deep and Wide as the Sea, and The Job Centre Project. Are you going to continue to make work under each heading or is one of the projects going to come to a close? Or these things all continue to be fed?
Selina: I don’t know. We’ll see. Thinking about work like that is really helpful for things like funding bids and it’s really helpful for people who are booking your work to think, “Will we really like this? Will it work in our space? Let’s get that.”
Sarah: Is that why you work in so many different media as well, in a way?
Selina: No, I work in all the different mediums because– again, part of the reason why I resisted theatre is that I feel what theatre says is, “I want to make a show. I want to make a theatre show about flowers,” whereas my theme would be, “I want to make a something about flowers. What is the best way to say what I want to say about flowers?” That’s not always a theatre show. That’s why you’re working the mediums. What normally happens is that there would be a central project that I know I want to make and then we’ll get loads of weird offshoots from it. So, Race Cards, for example, it’s just some weird little thing that happened by accident.
Sarah: That’s amazing.
Selina: [laughs] It is very scary to me. It’s things that couldn’t go in Salt. It’s things that wouldn’t fit in Dark and Lovely and they’ve grown and they’ve grown into their own thing. The Missy Elliott Project now looks to be a musical and a virtual reality project. It looks like both of those things are feeding into another bigger body of work about Afrofuturism.
Sarah: What about The Job Centre Project? Where did that come from?
Selina: That came from…, there was a time when all of my family except for me were unemployed, which meant that I was financially supporting, as much as I could, my mum and dad and sister. I worked in a shop. I worked at Lush twenty hours a week and I was doing art on the side. It was predictably horrible but also, it really emphasized for me how different my life was from a lot of other artists I was interacting with. Their families were bailing them out and I was trying to make £200 a week, behave like two grand a week. Also, the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds is opposite the Job Centre.
In Leeds, I think it was much more about wanting to occupy a job center and to draw attention to the opposite quality of these two buildings. In Birmingham it was, “Here is Faith Festival,” which happens in a really arty part of Birmingham that no one from Birmingham ever goes to. We’re now going to do a performance where you get on the bus and you come to the High Street where I grew up, and you get off the bus opposite the job center and you spend some time with me and my dad. I’m really aware that I was making this work in 2013, 2014. God knows what that system is like now and my mom and dad are still unemployed.
Selina: That project never feels like one that I want to return to. I think because my primary interests were always a bit more– I think race was present in Chewing the Fat actually, very quietly but it was there and I think that, I don’t know. Something about that project doesn’t call to me but then there are bits of Chewing the Fat work that I think is starting to re-call me. There’s a project next year that’s about democracy and voter apathy and I can imagine the things about unemployment will come out of that as well. There are all sorts of angles.
Sarah: Ah, thank you. I was intrigued about The Job Centre Project. In an interview, which is the one on YouTube about your being an alumni of Sheffield University, you described Dark and Lovely as more overtly political and said, ‘it’s because I’m more confident now’. I wondered if you could say something about your experience of touring Chewing the Fat and how its reception perhaps helped you gain confidence, whether that was part of it?
Selina: I was much more comfortable in Dark and Lovely in making people feel uncomfortable. I think it’s about me as a person growing up because I’m writing something at the moment about fat and how if we ask why people are fat, the next logical questions is, how can we stop them being fat? We need to stop asking that question and I think that my politics are more radical now.
Sarah: That’s interesting. One of the questions I have written down relates to something Lyn Gardner said about Chewing the Fat? She described you as, “almost edible”, saying that you’re so lovely [“personable”] you’re almost edible. Then, she talks about glimmers of anger in Dark and Lovely and to me they were more than glimmers. You’re saying at the beginning of the show, “It’s just hair, …” but when you open with that– That felt really quite unapologetic and it’s followed by a list of ways in which people trivialize and try to depoliticize what’s going on. I found this relationship between this very likable person on stage and the “glimmers” of anger interesting; I was very interested in that persona. Would you say you use a persona on stage, in the way that, say, Bobby Baker does?
Selina: It’s both. It is a persona but also, it’s me. I know Bobby really well and you know how they say, “Never meet your heroes?” well that doesn’t apply to Bobby. She is Bobby Baker. She is who she is on stage, also more and also less but still essentially her.
With regards to my “persona” – I told you I used to work at Lush? I remember that I had been working there for about a year. My boss, Wendy, said to me, “When we first hired you, we thought that you were so calm and you had this power and you were so smiley and happy all the time.” They said, “Then about six months later, we realized that actually, you had this core of anger. You’re really fucking angry and it’s awesome.”
Sarah: But not when you were selling things to the customers?
Selina: Exactly. That was in the staffroom. In the staffroom I couldn’t wait and be– to me. Both of those things (anger and smiley-ness) are just part of each other and also there’s lots of gendered stuff happening there, right?
Selina: … about who is and isn’t allowed to be angry and when and how. In The Missy Elliott Project I am speaking a lot about perceptions of angry black women and I did a workshop with nine black women, which was extraordinary. It was amazing but all of us were speaking about this perception of us as ‘angry’ and it was a room full of people who were shy, softly spoken, or with Tigger-like energy, very playful, gentle, different people, but all of them being told they were angry and responding to that in different ways. I think my coping mechanism with the stereotype of the “angry black woman” that is placed onto me, is to be quite effervescent and bubbly. Actually, the older I get and the more confident I get, the less I bother with that because the more I’m kind of like, “you’re going to think I’m angry anyway”. I might as well just—
Sarah: That’s really interesting because one of my questions was about whether, in the earlier work, you felt had to ‘buy’ yourself some time to be angry. I wondered if you felt that you have spend say, three-quarters of the show being lovely and effervescent and charming and funny, in order to buy yourself fifteen minutes of “angry time” or something like that?
Selina: Yes, I’m kind of like, “fuck that”. I see it in a lot of work from women but there was one show in particular, I won’t name the artist but I remember– It makes my heart ache a bit to think about it because they do this show, which is so fun, it’s such a laugh and it’s got loads of language, loads of talking, very ‘banter, banter, banter, banter’. For the bit when they are angry, they turn the music up really loud and just move really fast and I’m only thinking, “Oh my God. She was so angry. There is so much anger here.”
It reminds me of the moment in Dark and Lovely where I drown myself out with the hair dryers. What is that thing where our anger is just profane and we just censor ourselves endlessly? I’m so sick of it. I think it’s a lifelong project of trying to peel that anger back and think about how we want it to manifest and how it’s safe for you to manifest it, as well, because there’s that fear that if I let all the anger out it just won’t stop.
Sarah: I do like the idea of you doing a Karen Finley-style performance, and the idea of seeing someone working up to a ‘Karen Finley’ level of anger because I remember being deeply attracted to that work as a very angry young feminist. It’s as if she’s doing it on behalf of everyone else in a way, a shamanistic channeling of all this anger.
Selina: That piece, I can never remember the title of that piece (The Constant State of Desire), where she keeps saying over and over again and nothing happens. So she’s kind of like – She’s, “I bought a burger and nothing happened. I got fucked and nothing happened. I killed my father and nothing happened.” I hear it in my head all the time, like the Kill Bill sirens, because I think she– I’ve read this article once that I think it was in the New Inquiry and it argued that the perfect response to capitalism is to open your mouth and scream and refuse to stop. I feel like Karen Finley taps into that, is able to look into the core of that anger and fear and emptiness and just…
Sarah: …enjoy the journey of getting there?
Selina: I hope so.
Sarah: I was reading a bit of the Audre Lorde and I was really struck by a particular term. She talked about, “excavating honesty” and I just thought that felt really relevant to your work because it seems to me as if you’re– It’s almost as if it’s quite a painful process, you’re going deep inside and bringing this malevolence out.
Selina: “Excavating” is such a beautiful word because it refers to a delicate process. So many of our ways of speaking about honesty makes it sound like this pure thing that’s at the center of everything, when actually it’s…
Sarah: … brushing away at it?
Selina: Yes, I think Audre Lorde writes incredibly about anger in general. Speaking about anger is a source of information, I think, it’s an incredible way of thinking about why women’s anger is suppressed to the extent that it is. Why it is that women seem to re-emerge when the world is going to shit, that seems to be when we’re kind of like, “we’re going to make loads of art now”, “we’re going to form groups now”, we’re going to march about this—“sorry”.
Sarah: I have a question about vulnerability; I think that your work could be seen to make you personally vulnerable. It seems that you’re using that vulnerability as a radical force and it is also about not presuming to speak for anyone else and say, “This is all I can do, speak for myself, but here we are”?
Selina: Absolutely. Especially very, very early on. So Chewing the Fat came from loads of girls in my year at university having eating disorders and it being really messed up. There had been lots of conversations about other people’s eating disorders but no one complained about their own and me feeling very angry about it. I’m frustrated. Why can’t we talk about this properly? What’s going on?
I wanted to open up the space for conversation but I felt the only way I could do that was if all the risk lay in my body, with my story. It still seems to be at the core of everything that I do. This idea that I will put myself through something, I will excavate something in the hope that seeing yourself in it or hearing the truth of it, opens space for you. That’s always the aim.
Sarah: It sounds psychologically grueling and earlier you talked to me about wounds and scars. Do you think you need to limit yourself to how many shows you do per year or ever?
Selina: I do. I’m aware that there is something almost perverse in me and I’m attracted, as an artist, to sharing the pain, rejection and the things people aren’t saying.
Sarah: One of the critics in the Yorkshire Post called you, “brave”. How do you feel about that? That does sound brave to me but I can see how it might sound pejorative in some contexts?
Selina: It’s not. I pulled a face then but I shouldn’t have pulled a face because it’s not pejorative. What’s going on inside my head? It’s the old, ‘yes, it is brave’ and (at the same time) it’s fun but you can’t say that about yourself!
Selina: It’s absolutely brave. I think I only really started owning that after Salt because I came back from doing that voyage and I was, “Wow. OK. So I’m clearly serious about this.”
Sarah: Some of that was in the show, yes. [laughter]
Selina: Salt made me incredibly brave, I didn’t think of it as brave at the time because I was so compelled to do it. I actually think the only thing that ever reveals to me how much risk I’m taking, is what happens to other people who are also invested in that risk with me. For example, taking a filmmaker with me and her having a terrible time, it made me realize that there’s a part of me that is resilient. Not ‘resilient’ because it makes it sound like she wasn’t and that’s not right or fair. This is like me saying, “Even if I don’t like her work, I like the way Marina Abramović talks about her work,” because she talks about the artist as warrior. She is making work that puts her body through something.
I don’t know why but that’s what I’m doing, that’s what I’m here for. For me, describing it as, “brave”, it feels weird because to me to be brave you have to go, “I’m really scared of this but I’m going to do it anyway.” Often with that stuff that’s at the core, being scared almost feels beside the point. Like I’m flicking my hand away, because it’s just, “I’m doing this thing. It needs doing.”
Sarah: There’s an intuition? “This feels like it needs to happen, it needs to be excavated?”
Selina: Yes, It’s the reason why I work in theatre. I always say, “It’s a joke, but not really.” It’s because other than working in Lush there’s nothing I will get out of bed for. Do you know what I mean? I really like sleeping, feeding my mouth, looking after the plants, seeing my mum and dad. If I’m not doing those things that I love doing and that bring a lot of contentment and joy, it has to be so important. It has to really matter to me. Theatre and Lush and Sisters Uncut are the only things that I have that energy for me.
Sarah: You find the energy.
Selina: Yes. Also, it’s a great feeling, right? To be really writing and to be in it, to be really directing to be in it or performing and it’s the best feeling in the world. It’s the only thing that gets me out of all the depression and anxiety that’s doing my head in.
Sarah: There’s a positive outlook. It’s also stressful but ultimately it’s super positive?
Selina: And also super idiosyncratic. I’ve been really aware whilst I have been working on The Missy Elliott Project, that this “excavating the idea”, that it’s really difficult for other people and I need to figure out a way of working that is true to who I am, that isn’t asking other people to undertake more risk than they want to. It is something which I don’t have a solution to but I’m aware of it, buzzing around in the back of my head at the moment as a thought, what is an iteration of my practice, which doesn’t ask other people to also put themselves in danger, in harm, at risk in a way that I enthusiastically do?
Sarah: Is it about people not being ready to ask certain questions of themselves or society?
Selina: Yes and not anticipating asking them or not seeing asking them as part of practice because I think there’s something about autobiographical work where it’s going to go one of three ways. Either you’re going to get bored with this now, you’re not going to make autobiographical work anymore. I say Greg Wohead’s a really good example of that. He made some of the best autobiographical pieces. Then, he went, “I’m going to fuck everybody up and make The Ted Bundy Project.” That was the last result of that. Or you can end up making work that’s really fucking twee. Or you end going deeper and deeper and deeper and the work gets more and more risky and more and more—Bryony Kimmings’ work is a really good example of spectrum. You go from Sex Idiot which is risky but also really, really funny. Also, she negates the risks by being, “I’ve got an STD and you just cut your pubes off with some dirty scissors, so fuck you.” Then, you have 7 Day Drunk where you’re kind of getting toward a deeper part of her but no so much, I think. Then, you have Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model where you’re starting to get to the core of her desire to have children, of her desire to change the world. You’re seeing parts of her that are wide-eyed and innocent. This really pure love is in front of you. Then, on Fake It ‘Til You Make It where it’s their relationship on stage. They expose so much of themselves in that.
Sarah: Then, the National Theatre piece – A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer – she made that autobiographical as well.
Selina: Yes, It gets deeper and deeper. I think instinctively your stakes get higher and higher and higher. Also, you get used to bringing the whole of yourself to your work. It’s compartmentalizing less and less. I feel that whether that’s good or bad is the wrong question. I think it just is. I think it’s how I grow and I also think that neoliberalism encourages the traumatized subject to tell their story.
Sarah: I was wondering – do you have a fantasy about the work you could produce if you were completely free of all obligations if there were no strings attached? What would you do if you were just given a massive wad of money and they said, “Do with it what you want”?
Selina: Essentially, that’s happened to me in that the Michael Grandage Company gave us five grand and said, “What do you want to do with it?” My immediate instinct was, “If some rich old white man has given us five grand, I’m going disperse it amongst as many black women as I can.” That’s where that workshop week where the nine of us came from.
A utopian way of making work would be a way of making work that is longer because it’s all made so quickly. I think we’re quite clever about creating space for time but we know it’s never long enough. Whenever I apply for money for organization development we never get it. What I always want to try and do is figure out how Theaster Gates did what he did in Chicago.
Sarah: What was that?
Selina: He managed to create an art project that was also a housing project (Rebuild Foundation). He found a way of regenerating the area of Chicago where he grew up without gentrifying it. I think this is extraordinary work and I want to understand how he did it. I want to understand how to model like that with working, because what I want from my work, most deeply, is to — just now when we were working on Salt we were talking about how I felt like there were two halves of me. There is a body that works and that was educated in white institutions and there’s a body that feels and was nurtured in black homes. I feel like, when I leave Art Spaces and I go home to Erdington High Street. I go to a High Street where, for every shop that’s open there’s two boarded up; this area has got the 21st highest rate of child poverty in the country and it’s a place where something like 38% population are on benefits. It’s a place where people who are visibly struggling with addiction and struggling with mental health, are everywhere. Everything I do in that space of art feels like a waste of time.
I think for me an ethical way of making work would be a way of making work that was also grounded and ensured that people have the basics of what they needed. You can’t do a show with a load of people on benefits if you can’t also make sure that they are in good housing. That for the whole time that we’re working with them, you can care for them properly and make sure they can eat. You can’t do that thing, which the Arts Council encourages which is, if you fund work on a project by project basis, you will lots of artists dropping in and then pulling back out. This is really problematic. I think that in about seven years time, maybe shorter, we’re going to have a fuck ton of communities who are saying, ‘actually fuck off we don’t want to work with you’. It’s about longevity and everything about the way things are set up at the moment is the opposite of that. It’s very ‘boom and bust’. It’s part of my issue with diversity funding is that it’s very piecemeal.
You could argue that diversity is at the forefront [of ACE policy] this year although of the theatre companies that got funded this year –only four of those are led by artists of colour. When you’re talking about a diversity push, what are you really talking about? When there were diversity workshops in Yorkshire to get you ready to apply for NPO, of the four companies that got it, only one of them was led by an artist of colour.
Again, for me, diversity does this weird thing where it empowers people but empowerment is about– I think it’s a term that suggests a transferal of power but the fact that I transfer you some of my power doesn’t mean that I give up any of mine, and that’s a problem for funders in general, but in the Arts Council, with their diversity pots, it’s particularly apparent. I’m aware that I’m speaking as someone who’s been funded by the Arts Council for five years.
We’ve been very blessed from them, we’ve been very successful with it, and more and more artists are starting to get there and I really want that. However, I feel like diversity in the industry creates two tiers of work. What’s the phrase? “Separate is never equal.” It always makes it hard to know whether your work is there because people want it there or whether it’s there because you’re black and they need you … As Jamila Johnson-Small puts it, “they need this year’s interesting negro” That’s a really difficult psychological space to occupy.
Sarah: I bet. I can imagine. Thank you.
I have a practical question about Race Cards. I’m very interested in the fact that it’s taken a number of different forms. It’s now a one-to-one performance, an installation and a durational performance, I wonder if you would describe the different versions?
Selina: Yes. The first version was made for Camden People’s Theatre. It was an end on theatre show. It was–
Selina: Yes. End of 2014, very, very raw. I think it was — Eric Garner. They had decided that he was murdered by the police. The performance was on Friday and on the Wednesday there was a protest at Westfield. Loads of people got arrested. It was very raw. The first half of the performance was questions and answers from the cast, then the second half was telling a story, using the cards as starting points.
Sarah: You had already written the cards?
Selina: Yes. Actually, I’ve done it before then. I’d done it in Plymouth in September. I’ve done a version where it was a hundred cards of questions and a hundred cards of answers. Someone read out the questions and I would pick an answer. It was quite non-sensical. Then I did the version at Buzzcut in Glasgow. That was probably April, 2015. I put myself in a room, with some cards and some and Sharpie pens, I think there was some milk and some blackberries in there as well, and I was going to try and write a thousand cards. I think I got to 756 in 12 hours.
Sarah: Oh my God.
Selina: I was very sick.
Sarah: [laughs] Every hour Every Nigger is a Star by Boris Gardner would play to help me keep track of the time. In Edinburgh I really wanted to get to a thousand, but I didn’t want to be sick. I said, “We’ll chop this up.” I did seven hours a day for 3 days.
Sarah: Could people come in and watch you do it?
Selina: One at a time. In Glasgow anyone could come in, it was a free for all. For me, that was horrible, because I felt– I remember one person, whose name I won’t mention, just standing looking at me with like a gallows face like I was an object and I thought—
Sarah: Looking at you like that?
Selina: Yes, I thought I’m going to go over there and jab your eyes out,-
Selina: -“Who are you looking at?” Also you’ve got people who have really difficult responses to those questions, and when they’re in a room with lots of other people also having difficult responses to that question, it becomes really fucked up and really performative. What happens is rather than having an experience with the questions, people perform what their response should be. That’s not what this work is about. I don’t want to– I knew that work was always going to be in white spaces, like liberal arts, festivals of all is all white. But I’m not interested in watching white people perform their liberal piety.
Sarah: I’m interested in the question of absence or presence because even when you’re not physically there you’re so present in that space, it’s like you are there in the room but this is a conversation about whether you are actually physically in the room or not? It’s really fascinating.
Selina: I loved the version in Edinburgh. It was Buzzcut and Forest Fringe which were perfect places to hold that work, because they are not institutions in the same way. It was like Nic (Green) and Rosana (Cade) papering this wall and them being, “Do you need a fan? I’ll get you a fan”. Very shambolic and lovely. People would come in one at a time but the problem is, as we learn, people come in and they would stay for hours. So no one was getting to see it.
Sarah: People felt that they needed to try to read all thousand cards?
Selina: It was a bit of a mess. Then we did a version in– It still made me really sick (the nausea) still came out in Edinburgh…. There’s something so physical about that work. I don’t know what it is but it’s like those questions leave my body, and when I say sick, I mean vomiting and a fever. It’s a proper physical– I was, “I’m not doing that again. I’m not doing it again.” We did a version in Birmingham. The room was too small; it wasn’t looked after very well. I was very upset. Then, we sat down with a different designer, came up with a better version, clearer instructions, said, “This has to be treated as a gallery”. Then, it went to Artsadmin for two weeks, I think-
Sarah: Yes. I saw it there. It was beautiful.
Selina: -and it was at Leeds library for a month. Both of those, I was delighted with. The library was great, because it’s a public building but not that busy. So it meant that when the people came in, there were maybe two or three people at a time, but people would come back on their lunch break. Rather than it being, “I’ve got to read a thousand questions,” it would be, “I’m going to read 200 and know it’s here later in the month.” I loved that. I never saw it physically, but I loved the photos from that segment. I thought it was so beautiful.
Sarah: It did look absolutely beautiful. I think people spent ever such a long amount of time in there.
Selina: We got loads of complaints.
Sarah: Did you?
Selina: Yes. We’re still trying to figure out what works. In Bristol with the Arnolfini when we did it this year, they were coming three or four at a time.
Sarah: I did that as well and then I felt a bit, “Hmmm, I want my own space.” I think it’s about honoring the work in a way and honoring this purging that we talked about. It’s so raw, and the cards deserve space and time and respect. I think that’s what people are responding to.
Selina: Again, this is where I’m– It’s difficult because there is the capitalist desire of the festival and also, the artistic desire, right?
If you make something look good and you’re proud of it then you want as many as many people as possible to see it. I mean, I always say that my dream version of Race Cards is that it would be up for like a year and you would book to go. You could book maybe, I would say, you could book a two-hour slot. You don’t have to stay for the whole two hours that two hours slot is yours and then you can go on your own, or five of you could book to go in at the same time.
Sarah: Brilliant idea.
Selina: Finding someone who could have it up to that length in time would be hard. Actually, maybe in many ways, that is a model of having it up that would maybe make more money? I would also hate it if people had to pay to experience that work. I like that Race Cards is free. Anyway, the next version that we did this year was for Theatre Delicatessen. That was me, re-writing the questions and reading them out for four hours.
Sarah: People would choose a question and take it away and then they also write an answer to the question. What kind of answers did you get?
Selina: I don’t read them anymore.
Selina: At some point I will, but they’re really difficult because –
Sarah: Have you “cured racism”, have you managed to eradicate it?
Selina: Ah, you got me there. It’s that people, sometimes people are sharing really painful stories, sometimes they are saying some really racist shit.
Selina: Yes, of course they are. No one likes to have their privilege called out. If you’re a white person who watches really violent interracial porn, and somebody asks you a question about that, you’re going to have a bit of a difficulty responding to it, aren’t you? It’s going to create hostility.
Sarah: I suppose. I thought the only response could be, “What’s the cause? This is messed up”.
Selina: I’m always really interested in the answers we get to the sex ones, because they’re so defensive and they’re so angry. I’m, “Good, good”. It all depends on how provoked you feel by them. I remember that there was a review from Total Theatre that was, “Oof, you didn’t like this experience at all, did you?”
Sarah: I’ll have to read that.
Selina: There’s a question in there, which is, “Who’s worse? Famous racist Nigel Farage or the liberal journalist politely asking him questions? She was so offended that I asked that. I mean, the whole point of liberalism is so anyone can ask any question they want. Why are you annoyed that I asked that question? Nigel Farage, who has never won a parliamentary election, blowing up my TV for the past six years?
Sarah: I would have thought that people would respond in a much more respectful way. I think that out of all those questions there are some that just grab you more than others. I think mine was, “Did you enjoy The Help?” I was like, “yes. I did enjoy that film….?” I hadn’t really stopped to think about the politics of it and I suppose that is what really grabbed me. For all the multiples of questions there must be one that really grabs each individual.
Selina: I really love that work. I’m really proud of it, and I love the space it opens up. It’s just very hard, even rewriting them for Theatre Delicatessen in two weeks (and comparatively that’s loads of time). I can feel a gentle wave of nausea now, just thinking about it.
Sarah: Do you rewrite them to feel timely, or–?
Selina: I hadn’t, but I had to this year, because when I wrote them, you know Trump? You know Brexit? The world is very, very different, and in some ways how they’re out of time is interesting and compelling. In other ways, it’s just bad work.
Sarah: One more question. This question is about ‘failing’ and ‘performance’. Julie Taymor, the theatre director, said that, “When women fail, they don’t get another chance as easily.” I’m interested in the fact that failure has provided a popular trope in recent examples of experimental theatre. However the experiments in question rarely acknowledge that women experience a different relationship to failure, and also that people of different ethnicities, class background, economic backgrounds, status and ability also experience different relationship to failure. I just wondered whether you think it’s fair to say your work deals in these tropes of “failure” or whether that doesn’t feel relevant?
Selina: When you say failure I think of the work of Forced Entertainment. That work is about failing, but it’s not failing. Not really, because they’re cleverer then that.
Sarah: Sara Jane Bailes writes that they ‘fail very well’?
Selina: Yes. Tim [Etchells] is this amazing writer and a really great thinker. Do you ever really fail when you’ve come to peace with failure like that?
Sarah: That’s interesting.
Selina: How do I feel about failure in my world? I think the big failure in all my work [laughs] is that you would hope, wouldn’t you, that you would go through this excavating and then at the end you would come out the other side sparkly and new-
Selina: -happy for yourself., as if: “I’ve got the key, I’ve got the secret!” That never happens. Do you know what I mean? At the end of Chewing the Fat, I’m…, “still fat though”-
Selina: …still fat. Still ambivalent about being fat. Still with an eating disorder, nothing has changed.” Dark and Lovely, “Here’s all this theory, here’s all these stories. I still sometimes use fake hair.” Salt is, “Here’s all this stuff I went through for how fucked up the world is. The world is still fucked up.”
Selina: I guess if you jump right back to the beginning of the interview and me being, “I make work because it’s the only way I can live. It’s the only way I can bear. How awful everything is and how powerless I feel about that a lot of the time.” I think that if you already know that, then you already know that you failed. What I keep thinking about when you speak about failure and about people of colour especially, is my friends, Demi and Tony, and how sometimes when we’re were feeling overwhelmed with work we would be, “Yes, but remember, it’s all about black mediocrity in 2017.”
We talk about how lots and lots of white people, especially men, especially middle class white men, make very mediocre work. And it’s okay, it’s all right. And we talk about how I actually don’t want to make exceptional work anymore. I want to make mediocre work, and it be okay. To resist that call to ‘excel’ all the time. Then at the same time, there’s that desire to put myself through something so horrible…. I don’t know.
Sarah: Do you feel like the evaluation of success or excellence is completely subjective as well? It is brought up with the aura of who you are perceived to be?
Selina: I think that what was “failing” in 2012 is not what is “failing” in 2017, and it’s about being able to look back on your work and go– so looking back at Chewing the Fat and go, “that is problematic.” But also saying, ” But I respect who I was at 22 years old, and I respect what I wanted to say.”
Selina: What’s the opposite of failure, success? Perfection?
Sarah:. Virtuosity and perfection?
Selina: I feel like Live Art has already said, ‘balls’ to virtuosity.
Sarah: Yes, I think it’s fundamental to it.
Selina: Because it’s all singers that can’t sing, actors that can’t act. Do you know what I mean?
Sarah: They’re just real people on stage, with thoughts and all, you know?
Selina: I think a lot about how when I was a teenager, I’m 16, listening to The Libertines, going through my pretentious stage. I had this really clear sense of wanting to be an artist, but I didn’t have any skill. I felt I hadn’t really moved on very far forward.
Selina: That’s still where I’m at.
Selina: Also, what it means is that that ‘failure’ in live art opens space. That potentially, for people from marginalized communities, that is where the failure of live art is an absolute success. Because what potentially might make your default male turn his nose up, might mean that Sally on the estate is much more confident-feeling. I don’t know. [laughs]
Sarah: Thank you so much. It’s been amazing talking to you.