Month: July 2020

Bhavisha Panchia & Leyya Mona Tawil (Lime Rickey International)

Bhavisha Panchia & Leyya Mona Tawil
‘Noise and Nation’


A Blue Skies Conversation

Through a series of conversations between Johannesburg, South Africa and Detroit, United States, Bhavisha & Leyya exchange of ideas around the potentials of sonic disruption and noise as response to nationhood and displacement, and migration. 

Leyya Mona Tawil is a creative force whose work includes choreography, composition, sonic scoring, performance, and dance. Over two weeks I spoke to Leyya about her work as an artist, dancer, performer, organizer and as Lime Rickey International, her superconsciousness who forges connections between fiction, performance and sound that attend to the resonance of diaspora, displacement and homeland. Working through different registers, from dance, movement, and noise, Leyya and Lime slip between codes and signifiers to traverse and distort how we read and listen to signals, both visual and auditory. Lime takes noise as a compositional material and an emancipatory gesture to exceed prescribed limits, boundaries and borders. Her lamentations for a lost homeland resonate from a temporal plane outside of the one we occupy. Below is an edited script of our exchanges over Zoom that was infused with intermittent laughter and wild hand gestures.

Bhavisha Panchia: Sounds propagate, they occupy space and defy borders and boundaries, which is one of the reasons I wanted to speak with you about your work. We met briefly in Helsinki, though I had unfortunately missed Lime Rickey International’s performance, which sucks, seeing that I’m not sure when I will be able to travel again.

Leyya: Coming from a music performance stance, I think of sound as an energy field, so when I talk of sound, I think about it spatially. Sound is borderless but can take up space simultaneously. The first Lime Rickey International dance/music performance started in August 2016. Leading up to that there was a different angle to my work that was oriented around dance, music, and performance. I was schooled in choreography at Mills College, which has a strong musical tradition with composers like Pauline Oliveros. My technical training in dance shifted into more conceptual-based performance using dance and conceptual scores.

Land and limits

Leyya: Structures were delivered to us. Here is a system you can play. What we’re going to offer you is a game to play. All the rules are ours and all the structures are ours. And all the tokens are ours. But you can play it.

Bhavisha: I think the term decolonization has proliferated in so many adjectival ways that it has been stripped of its core meaning and is now performatively/flippantly thrown around.

Leyya: You know Eve Tuck twisted everyone’s brain with her text ‘Decolonization is not a Metaphor’, where she really deconstructs the term decolonization in such a way that took it to its technical core. So, if we are actually going to decolonize then we actually have to give the land back to undo colonization not just in a metaphoric way. The whole article argued for not using the word as a metaphor. So, if you’re actually working towards decolonization, you’re talking about land reparation. We need more words really; we need more language so that these now trendy catch phrases don’t become catchalls for complex ideas.

I’ve also heard this interview where they discussed decolonization practices and offered the perspective of taking back the land as having a basic capitalist response to a capitalist system, that in fact decolonization is actually a recolonizing approach. The idea proposed is that we belong to the land instead of ‘the land is yours and we want it back’ – it’s actually that the land belongs to itself and we want to be able to belong to it.

So instead of it being a land transfer it’s actually power seeping down into the land itself. It’s a little tricky when you think about it in relation to Palestine because we need our land protected and I think there needs to be some language of ownership to conquer the apartheid that’s happening. And then you have a nation that doesn’t require a landmass, where that nation is carried with you; that nation is borderless. One could argue that ‘I am the land and hopefully the land owns me’, which offers a much more symbiotic relationship to the earth.

Bhavisha: In your biography you identify as Syrian Palestinian American.

Leyya: Not hyphenated – like not a Palestinian version of an American or an American version of a Syrian. I’m Syrian. Palestinian. American (I have to acknowledge the country and culture that I was raised in).

Far flung

Bhavisha: Lime Rickey International came into being around 2016 and 2015, which was around the time there was a mass migration from West Africa, North Africa, and Syria to Europe. Did these diasporic events influence the emergence of Lime Rickey International? I also think back to an exhibition/record I curated what is left of what has left that was oriented around the African diaspora. Researching that project led me to musical, and fictional responses to the historical migrations of the Atlantic slave trade and recent ones, as refugees and migrants fled to Europe. Drexciya from Detroit, where you’re sheltering in place now, conceptualised the ‘Drexciyan race’ of underwater descendants from enslaved pregnant women who were thrown overboard during the Atlantic slave trade. They considered their music as a ‘dimensional jump hole’ between Africa and the United States. The floating temporality of Lime Rickey as sitting outside of time as you described makes me think of her occupying a space of liminality, but also reminds me of this ‘dimensional jump hole’ that Drexciya imagined.

Leyya: I don’t want to say it was a direct response but a felt response to global migration in the birth of Lime Rickey. So, I didn’t have a singing practice or a song writing practice until Lime Rickey, and the first song that came out of me was just singing the words ‘go home’ over and over again. That was the first line of a Lime Rickey song. And Lime Rickey’s whole narrative, mythology, genesis, or where she came from was kind of born in this moment where all I could do, over and over again, was sing ‘go home.’ And I kind of just cried in the studio… ‘Go home’ resonates here as two different things: I want to go home, and all these people really want to go home. And then also being told, ‘go home’…So the meaning shifts. Singing ‘go home’ was also a way of crying. Singing is a way of screaming or moaning, a mantra or prayer…all of that just unfolded. During this period all these thoughts in my head and in my subconscious reading and experiencing, and living the world as it was, came through me as a song or sonic experience of crying and singing. Lime Rickey International is stuck in a time continuum. She’s shipwrecked in the present from a future or unknown space. She doesn’t exist in the same time plane that we talk about her in. She appears in the present from a shipwrecked place in time, not a different space. She exists in a time-swirl or time warp.

And I knew it wasn’t Leyya who was going to sing that song. I knew it had to be from someone from a place I didn’t know yet. That’s when the mythology of Lime started to take shape. Leyya doesn’t sing. Leyya doesn’t know how to sing, but Lime can do whatever she wants. You could say there’s a masking involved, because what I talk about through Lime is so exposed, in that it’s a very personal politics that I’m dealing with as Lime, which I deal with differently as Leyya. As Leyya I deal with that in a deep political and cultural sense as a curator, as a programmer, in my activist work, in my choreographies and compositions, and in how I treat the world. So, there’s masking done in order for Lime to go as deep as she does.

Bhavisha: This also raises the question of vulnerability, of being present, and open. I would describe the ethos or attitude of Lime, from the video documentation I’ve watched online, as disarming.

Leyya: Lime is laid bare and she uses her voice. The voice is more than dance for me, more than body movement. The movement of your voice exposes your insides. Movement is read through this (Leyya gestures to her arms), but your voice gives you the landscape of all the parts inside, and I find it more terrifying than moving your body around. So, Lime is not only dancing these future folk dances but also using her voice to try and communicate.

There is rhythmic repetition in Lime’s dabke, and I also refer to tarab because it has that transcendental portal implied in it, but also more on a technical, elemental level, there’s repetition with micro-variation, both lyrically and rhythmically, and I feel these are the realms that Lime is operating in. In a lot of her songs there are just one or two lines that are repeated over and over again. Each time they repeatedly change, and they change meaning too…so there is a lot of repetition that opens up into a new landscape, which is sonically immersive and enveloping. You kind of get pulled in, but then lost and disoriented at the same time.

Bhavisha: I’m curious about the relationship between improvisation and choreography in your work, and how they feed into each other.

Leyya: Sonically there’s nothing pre-programmed, so I’m building the score gradually. The score is totally composed, but I have to build it from scratch during the performance. There are no pre-sets, or samples or anything. I’m doing everything live, there’s nothing sort of dialled in beforehand. So that demands some improvisational mind, because when I’m performing live, any number of things are not in my control, like the PA in the room, the resonance of the floor – every room you’re in has a different resonance and acoustics. Any number of technical things can go wrong. So even though I have a completely mapped out intention, within that intention the composition demands so much room for change, and room for response and responsiveness. And in that same way, that’s how I approach the choreography.


Bhavisha: I recently watched Atlas which you performed with musician Mike Khoury.

Leyya: Literally the score for Atlas is that I roll across the floor…It was created in the wake of the massacres in Gaza at the end of 2014 and beginning of 2015. I’m rolling on the ground, until I can’t roll anymore, which can last from anywhere between 12 minutes to 17 minutes.

Bhavisha: Watching you roll repeatedly led me to think about exhaustion, and the physical and psychological impact of this action, which also reminds me of a Sisyphean act of repetition.

Leyya: That’s the score: roll until your body stops, until you can’t anymore. I don’t cognitively stop myself; my body just stops rolling. After which I stand up and begin a dance that’s choreographed from A to Z, but because I’ve been rolling for 12 or 15 minutes, I have very compromised control over my nervous system at that point, and in attempting that choreography, different choreography happens. Lime attempts choreography but allows all the other information in the room to change that choreography in a wilful way.

Queering sound

Leyya: You used a good word to describe Lime, disarming. She’s talking about massacre, she’s talking about displacement, she’s talking about mass migration, forced migration, violence. She’s dealing with loss and grief, and she’s crying all the time, she spiritually cries while she’s screaming, but she’s wearing green sequins and she has a green wig on. She’s a club girl, has a bit of a ravey vibe. So, in that way it gives an entrée to those who don’t want to deal with the deeper layers of it. She sings about Babylon and Haqq Al Awda, the right of return, and then all of a sudden, she’s doing these protest dances, so I feel that there’s a bit of bait and switch.

Bhavisha: Following on that, I also think there are certain signifiers that come to represent particular histories and events of war and migration. The sound, imagery and representation of these events are presented in media and contemporary art in particular aesthetic registers, whereas Lime with all her sound and visual signifiers dislocates that. For me it raises the question of what or how should things sound and look like. I think Lime confronts the significations we are offered and subverts that. This extends to the sounds that we associate with people, culture and traditions. I was reading this tome, ‘Sound as a Medium of Art,’ and read this short note by Edgard Varese: ‘Noise is a rebellion against representation.’ It makes me think of the potential for noise to abstract and make opaque.

Leyya: That’s a huge part of what I’m trying to do with Lime, is about queering what loss is supposed to look like or what migration is supposed to look like or what culture is supposed to look like. And I love saying, “This is an active Arab futurism. This is work that speaks to the loss of Syria,” which leaves some people very confused. I think because I have such queer intentions about what she’s all about.

Bhavisha: The text ‘All Sound is Queer’ that you shared with me reminded me that sound and noise can’t necessarily be categorised, dissected or be a fixed signifier of identity. Here Drew Daniel writes, “Sound –not music but sound –can let us hear what is not yet locatable on the available maps of identity.”

Leyya: It’s the un-nameable, and later in the text they refer to sound, which I translate to noise as an indifference. I think indifference is an interesting word, and I would go as far as to say impervious. Noise demands space, it demands its own territory, or in a way it pervades and there’s aggression in it, but there’s also imperviousness…I’m going to sound anyway I want, whether you name it or not. And with relation to Lime, “I’m going to look and sound this way, whether you get it, agree with it, or don’t.”

Crossing thresholds

Bhavisha: How do you read the relationship of noise and violence in relation to that? Or the ungovernability of sound that propels against a system or body?

Leyya: We can also talk about the noise as low frequency sounds where it’s not even audible, but it’s physical. So, you actually feel like a physical barrier is being crossed through the noise, and it can happen on a high frequency sound, which feels actually more violent. But there is a sort of trespassing that happens with noise that is physical that goes beyond our ear holes. I don’t mind using the word violent. I don’t mind my work being felt as violent or acts of noise being felt as violent. I’m a ‘need to raise arms’ kind of girl. That’s my weapon of choice.

Bhavisha: I read the vibration of low frequency and bass as a way for sound to create space of linking, that connects bodies through these vibratory forces. So, in that sense it becomes a kind of connecting device. So sound is a maker of space that has the capacity to forge affinities…But it also requires space to exert those freedoms…

Leyya: Yea, if we’re all being rocked by the same throb.

Bhavisha: That’s why clubs are such important spaces where publics congregate.

Leyya: I feel like that one of the biggest threats we are facing during this pandemic right now, is the breakdown of the club, and the breakdown of the community that can be experienced through sound and sweat.


Bhavisha: Can you feel the energy of the audience while you’re performing, and how does the audience figure in your performances?

Leyya: For Lime, she isn’t there for them. Lime just happens to be there, she just appears in the present. She never addresses the audience or tries to pull them into the performance, which invokes a natural voyeurism. You’re voyeuristically watching Lime unless you fall into her world, unless you go into the tarab, then we’re all in it together. When that happens, I feel people in the audience, whereas in other shows it’s more voyeuristic. Lime needs to create her own room. For the performance in Kaiku as part of Today is Our Tomorrow, the floor was awesome, the sound system was insane and that the audience didn’t have a prescribed boundary. I could very much feel that the room came with me. In those situations, I can take people into the portal with me.


Leyya: Zoom, the app we’re on now, if you don’t uncheck a bunch of options, it will basically normalise noise, compress and cancel it. Don’t cancel ambient noise. The default is very anti-noise. So, if you go to Audio Settings on the bottom and click the arrow on the right. Even under Microphone, where it says ‘Automatically Adjust Microphone Volume,’ you can click or unclick that. So, unclick that. And go to Advanced Settings. Under Advanced it says ‘Suppress Persistent Background Noise’, and you can disable that, or make it moderate or aggressive. 

Bhavisha Panchia is a curator and researcher of visual and audio culture, currently based in Johannesburg. Her work engages with artistic and cultural practices under shifting global conditions, focusing on anti/postcolonial discourses, imperial histories and networks of production and circulation of (digital) media. A significant part of her practice centres on auditory media’s relationship to geopolitical paradigms, particularly with respect to the social and ideological significance of sound and music in contemporary culture.

Lime Rickey International is the superconsciousness of Leyya Mona Tawil, an artist working with dance, sound and performance practices. Tawil is Syrian Palestinian American, engaged in the world as such. She has a 23-year record of performance scores that have been presented throughout the US, Europe and the Arab world. Tawil was named the ISSUE Project Room Suzanne Fiol Curatorial Fellow for 2020 for her project “Nomadic Signals”. She was also a 2018 Saari Fellow (Finland).

Lime Rickey International’s Future Faith, commissioned by Abrons Arts Center and the KONE Foundation, was nominated for a 2019 Bessie Award in Music, and also acclaimed in Artforum International’s Performance Review of 2019. Tawil has received commissions from Target Margin Theater’s LAB 2019, Pieter Performance Space Residency 2020, Gibney Dance-in-Process 2020 and Kenneth Rainin Foundation NEW Program. She is the founder and director of Arab.AMP, a platform for experimental work and ideas from the SWANA diaspora. She also directs TAC: Temescal Art Center in Oakland-CA.

The Blue Skies Conversation Series is produced by International Curators Forum and made possible with support from Art Fund

Alex & Rory

Mosaic tile of a women holding a bird

Alex & Rory – ‘The Gig Economy’ – A Blue Skies Conversation

Mosaic tile of a women holding a bird

‘We Are’ was the highlight of a very fulfilling artistic project with the user-led group ‘Community Action’
Download the transcript of the poem here.

Recorded during July 2020, The Gig Economy is a conversation between Rory and Alex – whose names have been changed to protect their anonymity. They have shared their lived experiences and perspectives of the creative industries and social sciences sector that they both work within in the North East region of England. Their spirited and insightful exchange takes into account how they and other independent contractors who are disabled, neurodivergent, and chronically ill manage work, daily-life, financial (in)security and self-care in a pre and post-pandemic landscape. This text is approximately a 40 minute read.

Rory: How long have you been doing freelancer work for?

Alex: For the last 7 years. I arrived in England about 8 years ago, for studies initially. I never finished my degree, and then I decided to get creative within the network of people from the University and community centres in North East. This network expanded over the years and one thing led to another. It hasn’t been easy to find commissioned work all the time because of the situation with the labour market in cultural organisations and because of my mental health journey. So there were some gaps in-between over this period of 7 years. I have some organisations, locally in Gateshaead or in Durham. I work also with collectives of artists and I do work with user-led groups, informal groups, thematic ones. For instance, one led by people that are hearing voices. That came out of a digital storytelling project. What a beautiful outcome! Big story made short, I’m at the periphery of many organizations and I receive commissions on a project basis level.

Rory: I realize that we have at least something in common. I love words and writing and storytelling and then I would laugh at my silly fantasies on the one hour commute back to work. Could I ever be an artist myself? This is the first time I ask myself this question. And then, you did mention your condition as a neuro-diverse person? I know this may be difficult to open up so quickly…

Alex: Oh, no. This is fine. I want to let it out because it played a role in my life so far and it is part of my being. Neurodiverse mind a form of disability. Mental health is a form of disability if we look within the framework of the UN Charter on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It’s this impairment that creates inequalities between the person and the access to a full life in society.

In a way, through emotions. I interact, I react to incidents more intense than others- I can take some emotions, I can feel some emotions very intensely in the way that I consume news from the external world, from the media. I try to regulate my exposure to that. In the way that I hear stories and I replicate them and I take a disproportionate burden and I feel bad because of that even though I know that this is fiction when it comes to movies, for instance. In the way that I have a fluid mood. I can feel very high and very low on the same day not for a reason that I can rationalise.

Rory: Thank you for sharing. I can feel you these days. Media and social media totally associated with negativity, hatred and vitriolic commentary. You know that about a decade ago, I needed something a little wild and bigger in my life. So I moved as a volunteer to Texas instead of finishing my degree (Bachelor). For seven months, I lived the American Dream, I cut down giant trees in the state park. I’ve worked in an animal shelter and housing department, start-ups. I had a whole other life before coming to academia.

Alex: You haven’t told me this, before. It sounds like another Rory!

Rory: I know, I keep these stories for my memoirs. At the moment, I work 9-5 in an office – and please know that I thank my lucky stars for that. How about you? If you were to describe a “typical”, a recent week in which you had work to do, how would you describe it?

Alex: Pre-covid, or during Covid?

Rory: Pre-covid? And then we could maybe go to Covid and see if there are differences.

Alex: So week-days and weekends don’t apply to my schedule. I do translation I recently took an assignment to translate a poetry book. It’s a struggle, it’s a pain because I’ve been working with the words for the last 6 months. I’m sleeping with the book, literally. I have it, I’m thinking of it. It can be… there are some periods of the year when I do nothing, literally nothing. I’m not in the mood, I do not have, you know, this appetite to do things. There are other times when I work 12 hours a day and I like it, obviously, because I do it with passion. Pre-covid, at times I was very much into that translation work. Now, I am very excited about a postal project. There is a nursing home with older people where I live, and there is a local charity that delivers them some packages of food and protective kits. I decided, with a small micro-grant to include in these packages envelopes with poetry and songs. We provide them with paid replies to facilitate the communication. This keeps me busy these days because twice a week we have this little communication by post. Everything cannot go digital, but we can also imagine initiatives off-line. This is what I’m doing now. Sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon – even though I’m an early bird, I wake up quite early and I go to bed early. I function in the bed early in the morning.

Rory: I’m an early bird too. And the pandemic took me off the rails. Work assignments, caring duties, home schooling… it was overwhelming. You know my partner is a nurse and he’s been in the frontline of the struggle against this awful virus. So the stress levels were up all the time. Let me ask you if you usually work at home?

A sketch of a front door with a welcome matt and plants

Alex: Yes.

Rory: Even before Covid?

Alex: Yes.

Rory: So, you’re the master of yourself (laughs) If you were to think about Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and so on, how would you say you organise your work and activities afterwards? I think I can learn from you…

Alex: If there are deadlines, I try to set some priorities. Otherwise, it doesn’t make any difference if it’s a Monday, Thursday or if it is a Saturday. From time to time, I take a day off to care about my plants, to do a little bit of gardening or to do some hiking in the beautiful coasts of Northumberland with friends. Otherwise, I like to start my day with a cup of day and go on the computer, desktop, or on paper.

Rory: Do you set limits and how on the hours do you work before the screen or sitting in the desk?

Alex: There’s no standard for that. At times, I am also drafting a plan for a youth work event at the community centre. Rory, there is no recipe or at least, I don’t have a recipe noted down – I’m a typical last minute guy. So I was working 10 hours per day, even more, and there was this kind of stress to be as much prepared as possible. But that was the exception. If it’s a project I really like and I’m passionate about, I could not pay attention to.. I don’t count the hours I work on.

Rory: As a freelancer, how do you find work? Are clients approaching you? Or do you apply for grants to undertake particular projects?

Alex: This is a full time job on its own right (laughs). I have a Twitter account and I follow certain accounts that offer commissions regularly. I apply for grants, I apply for the National Lottery Fund. I try to be present and follow the activities of organizations that I know that they’re going to open funds throughout the year. I try to attend conferences and do some networking. I try to make myself useful, to fill in surveys, to be active in unions in the North East, now in the freelancers’ taskforce, or in charities related to disability or faith and to get to know many more people. It’s times when I’m very shy, and times when I’m very active and I seek out to get out of my bubble, to get out the ‘North East’ bubble which is safe and comfortable and obviously fills my heart with warmth most of the time. But I want also to push myself, to go down to London – it’s good for opportunities. I receive newsletters but I cannot afford or I don’t get the chance to get invites to events that would undoubtedly boost my professional development.

All that in pre-Covid times, because now I see that new opportunities arise. There is Zoom, first and foremost. Despite all the challenges in connecting through Zoom, many more events are accessible and there are ways to ensure greater accessibility by adding subtitles, by hiring one interpreter in Sign Language for those that may need this service. In places where I live in the last 3 or 4 years, the main issues were political ones – Brexit, and secondly affordability and connectivity through infrastructure. It is a scandal, what is happening to infrastructure in the North East – costly, unreliable and inaccessible.

Rory: I get you. Similar experiences and grievances. I love the self-discipline and passion in you. It constantly requires you to answer why am I doing this? Both my parents are entrepreneurs, they’re business owners, my father is a dentist, my mom manages the practices and just growing up in a house where some of my earliest memories are just my mom and my dad at the kitchen table with a bunch of papers laid out in front of them and them just trying to figure out how, what’s tomorrow going to look like, what’s next year going to look like? You know? Where is this all going? And it was often stressful. That I could see that they were worried, I mean they were building the bridge while they were dashing across it. And I saw that, but they didn’t stop. You know? I mean I just remember so many nights where they would just sit there and think, we can’t go on. I mean how are we going to keep it all afloat. But they did, year after year. These experiences kept me away from entrepreneurship (laughs) and I sought another path. But I totally understand your craving for autonomy over the fluctuations of work, right? When you sign a contract, are you able to negotiate reasonable adjustments?

Alex: I’ve done it many times in the past. This is something that before I accept the contract, I discuss in the terms of agreement that there is this X factor that I’m aware that this might prompt or not. This is a clause that I try to discuss and to include it: what would happen if I cannot deliver the agreed output by this date. Except once I think that it didn’t work out, but that was not because of the time, but because there was a misunderstanding about expectations. They expected something more from me that I was not able to deliver. I’m quite happy that the organizations I’ve partnered with are quite understanding, are quite accommodating. Nowadays, in Covid period, and in the post-Covid world, I think this is a lesson learned for organisations and individuals – to prioritise self-care. This is why I reacted how I reacted to your postponement mail. If you feel that this is too much for you today, let’s postpone it, I don’t have any problem. This is what I would do if I were you. You know? If this is something that I cannot manage, my stress levels are high, I’m in a zone of discomfort and if I have the chance, I prefer to reschedule it because I see as priority my self-care. This is something that I discuss openly.

Rory: I appreciated it.

Alex: I demand the same for others in meetings, in conferences. I grew up in an environment that was very demanding, very competitive, especially if I go back to the school years. I’ll give you an example that illustrates what I say. I’m left-handed.

Rory: Me too!

Alex: The smart minority (laughs). Remember that in an average public school in the ’90s, the chairs were designed for right-handed people. Some teachers were quite superstitious and I have a memory from my early days in the first year of primary school, pushing me to write with the right hand. In fact, it’s something that every time I get stressed I see that as a nightmare. I thought, back at the time that I was a misfit, that I had to make an effort to fit into the box. It took me 30 years to realize that “no, I’m not a misfit”, that I should demand others to design differently so the box fits me, and not the other way around. This is a level of awareness that you acquire through pain, through experiences, negative experiences, but this is a lesson that shaped me. I see that now things have changed for everyone.

Rory: Totally! And today’s claim for access is greater than ever. Giving anyone the chance to fit in. and feel special without being lost in a sea of privilege. I talk first-hand experience because my mom sent me to a private board school and the place was so disconnected from everything I understood as reality. I couldn’t control it was never built for someone like me, but felt like a failure. I got depressed. Very depressed. And I blamed myself for years. It was only when I went on my gap year in Texas that I met some of my best friends in the small town, indigenous people, people struggling with addiction, met some of the best writers I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Professors reminded me of my self worth, started to appreciate the beauty of lakes and drinking beer from a can.

A children's finger toy with eyes

(pause for a moment)

Rory: I have another question for you while searching for commissioned work. Have you come across any projects that you were interested in doing, but then when you read the requirements you realised that they did not fit with what you wanted to do and the way you wanted to work? Have you come across work that didn’t fit with your working arrangements and because of that you didn’t apply?

Alex: Many times. My life is full of unsuccessful applications or hesitant applications. There are some red flags when I go through the terms of reference that somehow, you know, ring a bell: “do not apply, do not apply”. When I see for instance artistic organisations that sell themselves or require the applicants to be overselling themselves. I don’t want to, you know, to be into that game of celebrity. I don’t want to work in an organisation that is too competitive. I know it’s part of the game but it’s not for my stomach, I know that. And of course I don’t want to work for organisations, not necessarily for profit, but this growth ad infinitum “we want to go global, we want to expand”, I prefer to work locally, I prefer to work with my neighbours. Is it because of the complexity? Probably. My competences, my personality does not work with too complicated systems, too complicated environments? Probably. I try not to manage large budgets because this is a responsibility that I’m not willing to assume. And I like to have this flexibility between being responsible for myself and being a soldier in a team – to know what are my duties, my responsibilities, what is the vision to follow and to make it happen.

Rory: I can imagine the frustration in exposing yourself, showing vulnerability and talent and waiting the outcome… have you ever had situations where you were not paid on time and if so, what did you do to get the organisations to pay you in the end?

Alex: Patience. Once it happened that we delivered the commissioned work and then the organisation didn’t get the grant from Arts Council England so we had to revise our artistic fee and pay and earn one third of the promised fee from the organisation. It happens. If you work with people that you know and that are your friends you have a good relationship of trust, you negotiate, and you find a way to come to terms over what you want. And with this European project, the waiting time was about 3 months but we were aware of this.

Rory: For such unpleasant, yet to some extent understandable situations, do you have an ally to lean on for support? Is it a trade union for freelancers? What is your relationship with the trade union?

Alex: That’s a good question. I recently joined collective efforts to unionize our sector, I’m following the work done in remote or physical meetings. I receive their newsletters. In times like this I’ve submitted an application for hardship fund. I think it is important to be unionised, to be aware of your rights and to have a safety net. I’m an expat, I’m a neurodiverse person, I think this gives me a safeguard. This is something that is among my priorities. This, along with social security, healthcare, it is very important.

Rory: Do you think trade unions are doing enough to support gig economy workers in the UK?

Alex: In general or in my sector?

Rory: In general and in your sector as well if you have examples.

Alex: They have an active presence in grassroots. They do what they can but I think that the struggle is bigger. Resources are scarce and the challenges are enormous, especially in times of social distancing, the challenges are enormous. The gaps that people are falling through everyday are very real. And there is much violence, financial violence, and marginalisation. I know that the unions are on our side but I also feel that much more must be done. So yes and no. And I have to say that for all those that for x, y, z reasons are not members of unions, this crisis saw the emergence of dozens of benevolent funds that are financed by people like you and me, financed by private funds and this is very important. There is one phrase that this boils in my mind: “I’ll be always dependent on the kindness of strangers”. There is this violence going on, ravaging lives, but there is also a counterforce, the kindness of people.

Rory: Ah, my experience with trade unions … when you do try to move the needle, a culture of defensiveness can get in the way. When I joined faculty in my University, I developed the strategy of asking a lot of questions to get around it, eventually. I also believe a culture of individualism pervades journalism. Individual personalities, individual egos, individual work-flows all complicate the work. Most of the time, that’s fine, except when it’s not. Do you think trade unions could do more for self-employed people or gig economy workers?

Alex: Definitely! To begin with, unions must constantly listen to their constituencies. Increase the diversity in the top leadership. Think strategically because now the game has changed, the rules of the game changed. Now we’re now going fully digital – yes, but what about people who are not familiar with the new medium or cannot afford a stable connection? This comes at a cost; we all need to educate ourselves – how to use Zoom. We all need a steady connection to access it. I think we have to get a bit more radical in what we demand. I know that there is a long debate about Universal Basic Income. I think we should ask not only for that but for Universal Basic Resources: access to healthcare, access to social rights, access to internet, all of these at once. Trade unions can voice all of this to the top: to the political class, to the economic class, to the (I don’t like the word) “to the elites”, to the top, to the decision makers.

Rory: You sound passionate about and I love it! And I am a huge advocate of accountability myself. The more of an individual, the less accountable you are to your constituents and to your peers. Life shows examples of some long careers ending up rewarding egos, bad habits and confirmation bias. You see? Checks and balances in top are necessary because power corrupts.

Alex: Rory, there are other campaigning groups I am member of and they are very helpful in advancing the causes that are dear to my heart. Faith groups – they have a sit on the table of policy planning. Disability groups the same. User-led group that are locally routed and affect peoples’ lives directly. These are my communities. These are my people I work with and co-create creative activities. To be realistic, the system is multi-stakeholder. There is a way for an organisation to influence the conversation. Trade unions are just part of the picture but it’s not the only constituency for one to have a say to get their voices heard in the public debate.

Rory: Do you think these organisations are using all the leverage they have to influence debate around disability or neuro-diversity? Or could they do anything better, do you think?

Alex: They do to some extent, to a satisfactory extent because they have a code of conduct and standards that can be replicated by other organisations. They raise concerns, they are very good at fighting back when a proposal is conservative, is old-fashioned, is not along the line of inclusivity, of accessibility. These are ways of organising ourselves and these are some of the responses we can give. Another thing is to launch a petition to raise the issue, to inform the public, to try to build alliances with the wider community in the wider society, to mobilise communities around disabilities, around pressing issues for us.

Rory: I agree. Personally, I want to go to my grave knowing I did my part. I believe in justice and fairness deeply. I’ll fight for them in my work for as long as I can. I’ll do it for my 5year old twin boys because I want them to grow up in a world where academia does its part to make everything better. They’ll get to grow up seeing someone who looks like them, living by principles of equity and fairness. Let me ask you something else. During the Covid lockdown have you been eligible for any state support?

Alex: Yes, for Universal Credit I submitted an application and the Arts Council in England. Some of them were successful, some others not. Life goes on. But if I may say this: working as a freelancer, the income is not fixed but the expenses are fixed and I can, now, after 7 years, I can keep them low. There is also this safeguard of the savings account. So if the income is not fixed, the expenses can be fixed.

Rory: I know that you were born outside of the U.K. For the sake of the conversation, I’d like to ask what experiences have you had of the social security system in this country? Our experiences may differ – I am a single mother and get child support but I’d be interested to hear yours.

Alex: Well, Rory. I’d say complicated, too much paperwork. It was a shock for me to go through this labyrinth and to do all of this digitally. I was not capable of doing that. It took me an awful lot of time to understand which unit, which department to turn my question to. I tried to keep an eye on the changes, there’s been lots of changes over the last 7 to 8 years. This is I think one of the reasons that prevent me from starting a business: this would give me a headache, and I try to avoid that.

Rory: Have you ever had to attend a work capability assessment?

Alex: Yes, with the NHS more than once.

Rory: How did the discussion go? How did they behave?

Alex: There was no follow-up. The experience on the day of the assessment was positive, was encouraging, was spirit lifting but then there was no follow-up. These events are offered twice, thrice a year – last year, this year, maybe next year. But there’s no follow-up. 18 months later they sent me a self-evaluation survey. And I responded “Not another survey please, I’ve had enough of surveys” and I think this logic of self-assessment has its flaws, has its limitations. It doesn’t work with me, it doesn’t take me further, it doesn’t advance my knowledge because it depends on my mood that day, it depends on… I am a bit biased by the input I receive from them and I enter the answer in the boxes in the way they expect me to fill them in. Now I know it; the first time I was fascinated – “oh, that’s fantastic, oh that’s..” You know? We discovered the Moon. But this is not a comprehensive plan. You do the first step and then they leave you all alone to do the next steps. Sometimes you can go forward, some others you are just stuck and you return to the same point again and again, and you repeat the same tasks, the same tests, the same assessment tests. This is my experience.

Rory: How long did it take them to give you the results of the assessment? Because usually my understanding is that they have to give a verdict on whether or not you can do work, and how much.

Alex: I don’t remember. A couple of weeks?

Rory: Did you have to attend weekly meetings?

(pause to think)

Alex: Twice a month, I think. With hindsight I can say that somehow the discussions couldn’t evolve. The discussion remained at a very introductory level. I couldn’t see the progress on myself or on my professional development. Either, they were things I knew, I was aware of, or the advice was too generic – I couldn’t use it in a meaningful way, in a personal way. Ok, “there is this opportunity and that opportunity on that website. You can apply for this and for that”, but yeah – I can find it myself on the net. You need the extra, the plus, otherwise tomorrow, or today with google search or tomorrow with a robot, it’s a waste of time.

Rory: Did you have to apply for jobs that they recommended, that you didn’t necessarily want to apply for?

Alex: No, there was an option but I didn’t apply.

Rory: Did that result in benefit sanctions, or did they understand your condition?

Alex: I think I explained that but no, there was no sanction in the benefits, because I was very careful with what I applied for as a benefit. There was also reluctance from my side to apply for benefits because I knew my position as an expat. I didn’t want to be seen as someone who was abusing the system. I had that in the back of my mind and I made it clear that this is something that I could potentially be entitled to, but let’s see.. Let’s have it as an option. Back at the time it was a transition time at the University; I was employed at the [international festival] that I recommend you next year to attend. So I was, I had alternatives. I was exploring many options and I said “yes, I’ll do this for the experience to get to know how the system works”.

Box filled with leaves, sticks, twigs and acorns

Rory: Ok, I see. I’m just conscious that we’ve gone past half-way through our conversation. I was wondering whether you’d like a break?

Alex: It’s fine.

Rory: Same here, so we could continue then.

Rory: Another point I noted down for asking is about resting. You know we live in times where there’s also a culture of urgency. It’s difficult to take time to relax and enjoy ourselves, to come together with family and friends or to think beyond money in this sort of culture. I personally escape through books and play. In other news, I also really like dinosaurs, Yorkshire puddings and gravy, dungarees, books and board games.

Alex: Ah, lovely. We kicked off this part of the conversation with positivity in the air. I am spending time with my plants, spending time gardening, going out for a walk, calling friends, swimming when I can. In many ways, I just take the time for myself. I’m a proud daydreamer. Lying down in a bed is also a form of resting. This is something I don’t share with strangers…

Rory: I know… Why shouldn’t it be a thing for society to say loud I like sleep or did nothing on the weekend. Working hours went crazy lately and I see the negative impact on colleagues and friends. Their motivation is running low. Their philosophy appears to be one of subsistence, doing the minimal on a day to day basis. But you know that this tradeoff is like a band aid in times of emergency. When everything becomes about the work or the daily grind, it’s easier to go on autopilot than think creative, diplomatically or inclusively and change everything. This kind of attitude leads to shortcuts.

Alex: In previous professional life, I experienced the work office. I experienced it in internships. Before landing in England, I spent 6 months in Brussels as an intern in a big corporation. I faced that way of life and I now realise that I’m perfectly fine with the trade-off of flexibility and income fluctuation but a greater sense of liberty, greater sense of freedom over my time, over the things I enjoy. It’s a conscious choice. It’s because what I am doing is creative and it has to do with passion and healing. This is not a job, it’s a passion. You don’t think of it as a job and it’s also to do with obsessions in life. I don’t know, I can’t describe it in any other way.

Rory: I get you and I find it admirable. And it seems to me that it works in many ways. The other day, some politicians say on the telly that in order to reduce the unemployment gap and the disability employment gap, disabled, neurodiverse and chronically ill workers should embrace the gig economy. Would you agree with that? It is recommended for this group of workers to delve into the gig economy?

Alex: I’m going to repeat the metaphor of the box: are we asking people to fit into the box or to design the box tailor made so it can fit the individual? I think that in the 21st Century in liberal democracies, this is not a dilemma. This is not one way forward. We make, we design, we renew the box so it can fit everyone. This is it; this is non-negotiable: it’s one of the things that are non-negotiable. It shouldn’t be formulated as a dilemma. I think we are in a time where the rules of the game change altogether and we need to imagine the day after – the society we want to live in. At this time, we should organise (and this is for the trade unions but not exclusively) gatherings, panels, citizens panels to draft our own manifesto: what is the kind of society we want to live in? If, for instance, we abolish work, we abolish taxes, and we find a way of distributing wealth – in a way that is generated, in a way that respects the environment, that respects all the species (human beings and non-nature, fauna and flora), in a way that upholds humanity and the planet. We need to uphold humanity on a planetary level.

Rory: That is quite a suggestion worth exploring! If we were to write such a manifesto, what kind of structures could we draw on?

Alex: My intention is to speak to everyone, include human and non- human species. To begin with something universal, faith groups can lay the ground for the protocols in the making. Faith is important, it speaks to people. The most universal thing is also the most personal: “God spoke to me” Moses says on Mountain Sinai; and this is replicated thousands of year later. God speaks to everyone, to all those who believe. The most universal is the most personal. Charities and social organisations, movements, civic movements. Transnationally, these manifestoes, these gatherings of people can take place and operate on Zoom and we can find a way to collaborate and think differently. I can only deplore when I see the debate in the English-speaking world – and I also have access to Greek, German and French and I see the debate there is also very poor. We add a “post-” in every single phenomenon and we think this is the new thing, the new normal. And I see how life is in other countries that eased the restrictions of the lockdown. It’s a return to old habits. People pretend that nothing happens, there is a push to revive the economy. So you see that the new normal is a return to the old days. We carry on business as usual. Either the pandemic is not as historic as we think it is (I don’t know, I don’t have the answer) or we are intellectually lazy to imagine (first) and then to design properly for the new world that is rising. As an artist, this is very intriguing. As an individual, as a citizen, I’m worried, I’m disappointed, I’m angry to some extent. And Rory, we have to be self- critical. Fresh thinking is not coming out of academia either.

Rory: I absolutely agree. I understand for many people who found some comfort in the uncertain world of academia, this is a hard thing to do. But it’s ignoring the inevitable. We’ll have to confront this eventually. If you’re not ready, find the allies, those in your life who you feel safe with. I’ll be the first person to volunteer to work on a problem with you because I know how lonely it can be to navigate this yourself. Where do you think we? get to and how can we move forward? Where do you see did arts and culture get to?

Alex: It’s carnage. I cannot hide my pessimism. It’s carnage for the creative sector. Many people will go on benefits. Many will keep up and force themselves to take a job they don’t like, but it’s 9-to-5 with a fixed income at the end of the month. This is my realistic version. I am afraid we’re going to go back to business as usual. We’re going to pretend that that was a parenthesis “ok back to work”. I see a surge of nationalism that I don’t like, new borders, restrictions on mobility. For us, it’s.. you know? We won’t be able to take opportunities elsewhere in Europe because the government decided to burn bridges with Europe – that means also no access to subsidies, no access to exchanges, no access to European networks, and of course with this rivalry between the West and China, it’s going to be harder to work with Chinese colleagues any more, work and see the world through their lenses, getting to understand their traditions, practice, culture or humbly support them in their struggle against an authoritarian regime.

Rory: Money, money, money. It is an old tune, isn’t it? And the fetish like concept of productivity. For a creative mind like you, what does the idea of being a productive member of society mean to you?

Alex: Oh. The first thing coming to my mind … a judgement – someone is judging me; someone puts a list and I have to tick the boxes. You know, I think care is the opposite of production; we care about the individual, we care about ourselves. Production is a factory, a modern factory. I don’t like this. I put lots of question marks. If we were, for instance.. I’d ask you to define what you mean by productive, what definition you would give. Am I productive? In the past I was asking such a question and I realised I had a very low self-esteem. I don’t ask such questions and I do not like? others to ask questions about myself. Now I know this is the wrong question. There is no such a thing. It’s all about hierarchy, it’s all about power – someone is evaluating you, is making a judgement of you, whether you are used to it or not. There’s something about self-isolation: “go to your home, wash your hands”. The underlying message is that you’re not useful; your productivity is lower and the threat you pose to society. You must stop transmitting diseases. You’re not productive anymore, we don’t want your productivity, go back to your home. And now the tragedy (to connect to what we said earlier is) is the state is telling some “stay at your home, we don’t need you. You are not productive any longer. Stay at home”. This will trigger civil wars because if a large segment of society has no work, no income, no way of feeding themselves, this is a bomb that is going to explode in society.

Rory: How can we replace this awful notion that is so dominant in our lives? On what basis should we value people in society?

Alex: On ethics – new code of ethics. Are you a good citizen? Are you an ethical citizen? Are you ethical as a person, do you embrace a set of values around which our society is formed? What kind of citizenry.. How do you contribute to the wellbeing of your community? To accept other forms of contribution, to acknowledge how people make a difference, add value in the community. To acknowledge everyone in any position: paid, unpaid, based on their abilities. There is one term I like and I want to mention this because it’s quite new and it’s based on research at Gothenburg University: “person-centred care” – an individual in crisis, an individual with bio-socio-psychological issues, challenges – an individual in crisis is not treated as a patient, is treated as a person, is treated as a person full of capabilities, and the healthcare workers work on an equal footing. They enter into a relationship, they draft together a healthcare plan where the individual has a say, is not treated as a patient, is not treated as a minor, as a child and you have a say in your condition. You have a say on how to do it. I think this person-centred care should replace the whole thing about productivity.

Rory: Really inspiring thoughts, Alex.

Alex: And so that’s what happens when I drink too much coffee on a Sunday morning, and but it is also critically important to me, because I love where I live.


Rory: You know that I recently came to an executive position. And every day I see evidence that the foundational conversations that we need to have about what is not working and what has gotten us to whatever point of crisis that we are typically at when women are called in to lead, I would need to see that you’re not asking me to come in and fix the mess, you’ve actually done a bunch of work to help this office heal, to help build stronger relationships with the community, so that we are not given the sense that we are being set up to fail and that this is a glass cliff situation – sorry, the grievance of my life for the last couple of years..

Alex: What did you do about it? I mean, concrete steps in your sphere of influence…

Rory: I got to build a team of people, and watch them work together, watch them start to enjoy their little — started to enjoy their collaborations with each other, getting to learn from them. And being able to just ask big questions of my colleagues, of my coworkers, and see the solutions that they come up with, the ideas that they bring to the table and then being able to say, yeah, I think we can make that happen. That was very rewarding.

Alex: … the Shiny Theory: If I shine, you shine back. Sometimes it works (laughs). Working with arts and people, especially younger groups are the joy of my life. I tear up because I’m so grateful that there are positive, creative and optimistic folks I get to work with every day, but also with every little piece of power that I have, and it’s very tiny, that somehow the universe allowed me to lift up other people. I just everyday am wondering am I using it as best I can and in what other ways can I expand the world that we exist in and the people who exist in this world with you, because there are brilliant people who are not sitting at same table and I need them at the table with us, because I’m tired.

Rory: Totally! If money was no object, how would you spend your time/ what would you do in terms of work or other activities?

Alex: … maybe travelling more, getting to know more people, more cultures. I’m incurably curious, I’m incurably willing to get to know more people. One thing of being an expat is that you realise that elsewhere people do think differently and this makes me even more curious to get to know other ways of seeing the world, other forms of living, and to experiment, to try new things, to connect to people. And to take out an enormous joy – like a baby fascinated all the time with new things.

Rory: It sounds like a dream. The journey, not the destination, is that it matters most. Would you take me with you?

Alex: You know the answer already. I can’t find the heart emoji here on zoom … (laughs)

Rory: Wow what a conversation – We’ve talked about rest, resistance, work – in light of this, what would your message be to the universe?

Alex: I’d like to send a love letter, and I’d include a quote attributed to Goethe. “ If you treat someone as they are, they will remain the same person. If you treat them as they ought to be, they will make effort to become what they ought to be.”

Rory: That is beautiful.

Alex: Your message?

Rory: Seek self-help, avoid burnout, and keep some positivity. That’s very important – positivity and to offer positive vision for the future. Yes, there are many challenges, but we are altogether. We’re going to make it …

A post it note saying thank you

Alex: Sorry to interrupt you … please remember if the box doesn’t fit you, throw it. Don’t try the second time, the third time – just throw it. If it’s not for you, it’s not worth the effort. Throughout the journey you’re going to come across wonderful people. Just keep your eyes, your ears and your heart open, to see them, to listen to them, connect with them. And a big smile.

Rory: Brilliant!

Alex: Thank you for your time, Rory. I enjoyed the conversation. Until the next time we meet in person, take care and kiss the little ones for me.

Rory: Thanks, Alex, I can’t wait to see you again playing with my twins – they are restless in playing. Stay safe yourself, stay creative as ever. Love, laughter and health! 

Alex & Rory have generously provided a list of resources for further reading on some of the important points raised during the conversation. 

The Blue Skies Conversation Series is produced by International Curators Forum and made possible with support from Art Fund