We are living through extraordinary times. Covid 19 is systematically shutting down life as we know it and replacing it with a new reality framed by fear, social distancing, lock downs and isolation. Absolutely no one is unaffected.
My recent experience of Camel Meat and Tapes happened mid March, just before Corvid 19’s relentless tide demanded our behaviours change. This is a project born out of the lived experience of distancing, adaptation, connectivity, embodied knowledge, longing and culture. On Thursday 12th March I came to a sharing or work in progress by Fozia Ismail and collaborators in the Dark Studio, Arnolfini. I only just managed to get there as my children were demanding my attention just as I was leaving the house. When I arrived at the Dark Studio I needed to find my way through the brightly patterned East African dresses enclosing a central space full of people sitting in the round; Ayan Cilmi was just finishing her introduction to the project. I took one of the last empty chairs circling a large square hessian mat. On the mat was a domestic wooden stool with a 1980’s cassette player on it. In one corner of the room, behind the swathes of fabric, was a buffet of delicious smelling food which some people had started to tuck into. Our close proximity to each other in the Dark Studio is a memory I know I will hold onto over the coming months; it is the last group gathering I attended before the Covid 19 crisis rapidly took hold.
Soon after I sat down, the tape player was started - the sound filled the space not solely from the tape player but amplified as a 360-degree soundscape. Due to arriving late, I had little context to what I was about to hear. I knew the project was an intergenerational project involving Somali woman in Bristol and was connected to Fozia’s experiences of listening to cassette tapes exchanged between families in the early 80s.
Everyone was silent as the sound of the women filled the Dark Studio; their voices were loud, confident and clear, talking rhythmically with musicality and no instruments apart from their bodies. The surround sound intensified their voices and presence. I watched some faces in the room beam and nod in recognition as they listened to the recordings. Stacey Olika’s drawings of the women who had contributed to the tapes were projected onto a screen and printed on flyers laid each seat. The sound and images combined with the audience’s spontaneous reactions drew me to thinking about the women in my maternal family who I no longer have contact with. I thought about my late Great Auntie Sis who lived in a tower block in St Judes and cousin Jean from ‘up Kingswood’, my grandmother who I never met alongside my mum who is currently in a specialist care dementia home. I imagined us making a tape together, setting the world to rights with their Bristolian accents ringing out across the Dark Studio. I wanted them to be there with me.
Now, one week later, this longing to connect with the impossibly distant takes on unfathomable poignancy. Our hostile borders are not civil-war or the inevitable distance created by the passing of generations, but a non-discriminatory virus that is deadly to some. Like the Somali Diaspora that Fozia’s project amplifies, we are all now fervently engaging in technological exchanges that traverse the boundaries our current reality demands we build between us. In 2020 it is online platforms not cassette tapes that are enabling us to connect with each other from the intimacy and relative safety of our own homes.
After the tape played, Fozia discussed the project processes including; some specific characteristics of Somali oral history traditions (including ‘dragging’ which I understand as a loving form of teasing), the problems of archiving oral traditions, the dialectical and dialogical nature of co-production, the decision not to translate the tapes into English, paying the women who contributed to the recording and the politics and ethics of positioning this work in an arts institution. Fozia and her collaborators Asmaa and Ayan asked the audience for their responses to the work; there was further discussion from the perspectives of audience members who identified as having East and West African heritage and those who did not. Asmaa Jama also offered some spoken word poetry combining English with Somali, which was utterly beautiful, potent and direct.
Not offering the audience a translation of the tapes emphasised the oral history tradition the work centres around, as an episteme or a way of knowing.
‘…we learn and transmit knowledge through embodied action, through cultural agency, and by making choices. Performance for me functions as an episteme, a way of knowing, not simply an object of analysis.’
‘Embodied memory, because it is live exceeds the archive’s ability to capture it. But that does not mean that performance – as ritualized, formalized, or reiterative behaviour – disappears….Multiple forms of embodied acts always present through a constant state of againness. They reconstitute themselves, transmitting communal memories, histories and values from one group/generation to the next. Embodied and performed acts generate, record and transmit knowledge.’
Positioning the women’s voices in an arts institution is a political act. The institution (as opposed to specific staff) was referred to frequently throughout the evening and became a protagonist in its own right. I will interrogate the complexities of this and the relationships between arts institutions, communities, culture and co-production in later posts.
Camel Meat and Tapes ended with everyone helping themselves to the buffet of curry, salad, rice and bread. Mixing together, catching up with old friends and meeting new people. Although I was late and knew only two or three people in the room I felt warmly welcomed. I left early as I find social gatherings awkward and struggle sometimes to find the right words to say or to know who to approach. The audience and collaborators spilled out from the Dark Studio to the corridor and stair well. It also felt wonderful to pass through them and leave a party in full flow with all the chatter and laughter rippling through the air.
As Covid 19 passes through us we must find new ways of living. The strength and pace of this contagious virus mirrors our online response to it. We can’t touch; our digital connection is the closest we can get to being together but doesn’t replace human contact either. The virtual world is a very poor approximation of human contact. We are apart and it is disorientating and alienating which in turn creates unimaginable practical challenges and ever increasing waves of emotion which for the moment I am just about containing. My friends, work contacts and family are adapting and appropriating familiar online platforms, in order to seek out and share new ways of bridging the distancing we must all now practice. Now, more than ever, we must connect and come together.