by Mia Harrison
“It’s only when they can consume it… that’s why the tahini can migrate here and stay but why thousands of people can’t. Performance is our bodies, it’s invisible. They consumed our energy and experiences.” – The Organism on (in)VISIBLE
Last month, Berlin’s Akademie der Autodidakten at Ballhaus Naunynstraße, put on (in)VISIBLE – “a dance project with young Black, PoC and (post)migrant people from the LGBTQI* community who [came] together to exchange ideas and experiment with strategies of resistance.” On paper, this concept seems perfect, almost utopic. (in)VISIBLE brought together six queer POC performers, The Organism, to not only activate a stage, but create a peripheral place – a space where they could confront and exist outside of the daily oppressions they face in life, and especially, Germany.
This falls into the ongoing tradition of theater and performance as sites of liberation for Black and POC communities. Think Augusto Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed” or the use of plays in the “New World” as a means for African slaves to maintain heritage through, storytelling, rituals, and other performance. Unfortunately, as all Brown folks know, the “good intentions” of an institution don’t always align with the actual execution leaving the players feeling played, the institution being praised as an epicenter of cultural conversation and me, the viewer, seeking an honest truth beyond stage lights and nude-colored curtains. The actual lives of performers often get overlooked as the performance itself becomes the focal point. But in this care, the show was about rendering their realities visible, which made me think that the success of it lies in the show’s aftermath, not the nightly productions. I decided to take this opportunity to investigate what happened to the Organism post (in)VISIBLE.
The audience applauds at the end of a show but the real work begins seconds after closing night. The euphoric high of a three-day program results in an aggressive comedown – managing the daily realities of paying bills, rent, and securing a resident status become the new performance art piece. After spending months in rehearsal with no financial support, the dancers returned to their lives where deportation, discrimination, and dysfunctional immigration systems took center-stage.
Entering into the process, the organism knew that they would receive monetary payment which was justified by the program presenting the work of dancers who are not “professional”. Instead, they were promised the usual suspects: exposure, professional development, and a boost to their resumé that would consequently lead to more jobs and money. Haven’t we heard this too many times before? Black and brown labor has historically been underpaid. Institutions ask us to participate because of what our cultural currency brings to the environment and fail to pay us for our time, work and all the labor that goes into making their event memorable.
The work for exposure cycle echoes the extractionist mentality of all colonial practices: locate a specific community that holds its own archive of knowledge – in this case people with queer POC post-migrant backgrounds, deem their personal experience (that has monetary and expertise) as less “refined” aka “amateurs” for not being technically trained or for not performing in an accredited space. Fundamentally, the theater gets to profit culturally and financially from the “trending migratory marginalized trope” as the Organism puts it. They traded basic ethics of care for false cultural literacy.
The article, “Please Stop Asking Dance Artists to Perform “in Exchange for Exposure”” speaks to this same phenomenon. Dancer and editor of the Dance Magazine College Guide, Jennifer Roit quickly debunks the myth. “Doing anything for exposure is a lie, because if it’s truly good exposure, it generally means there is a budget, and it won’t be done for free,” says Roit. She continues that Beyoncé’s dancers get the most exposure yet “Beyoncé pays them because landlords don’t take exposure checks.”
“Moving together, inspiring each other and creating a culture of care is the purpose of (in)VISIBLE,” claims the statement of the show. Care (self, communal) – the current buzzword in the arts sector – only exists in theory and not in practice when it comes to this type of production. Doing a call-out for Queer POCs without understanding the necessary treatment was far easier to claim than to put in the work that is required: discussing anti-blackness, providing nourishing meals for the cast since they each had limited finances and actively taking strides to create structural changes. Even after presenting questions that make the audience interrogate their own identity:
How does the body react to being misgendered?
Where does queerness/trans-ness/non-binariness show or hide in our bodies?
The performers were consistently misgendered to the point where a clapping game was initiated each time it occurred.
After discovering this, I asked why they decided to stay, especially without pay, since they could leave at any moment. It came down to the promise of change. “One day it wasn’t so bad, there were some nice moments,” said a member of the Organism. To many, everything was “fine” in rehearsals until they moved to the main stage – where aggressiveness began to rear its face. The dejá vú of staying in an abusive relationship because of the fear of the unknown outweighs the horrors that they already know.
After reaching out to the team at the Ballhaus Naunynstrasse multiple times, I did not receive a response to the organism’s and my own questions.
The words at the beginning of the show continue to ring true as the Organism makes a point to receive the credit they deserve:
“My heart is mine in a house of hearts”. / “My mouth is mine to speak and my legs to run”. / “My heart belongs to me in the house of the heart, my heart belongs to me”.