Artist Rebekah Ubuntu (pictured), commissioned performance at Tate Britain, image courtesy of Tate London. Image Description: Artist Rebekah Ubuntu is performing in a white gallery space at Tate Britain.They are using Ableton software and a laptop. Behind them, people are on benches and a classical portrait painting is visible on the wall.

HOLDING SPACE ACROSS CRIP TIME: Rebekah Ubuntu

HOLDING SPACE ACROSS CRIP TIME is a series of interviews between Leah Clements and other artists, curators and art workers, for whom navigating disability and intersectional struggles within an art context is an integral part of our practice. These conversations explore each person’s work, alongside a common thread of holding space for one another across ‘crip time.’. Asking the question, ‘How do we hold space for one another through crip time?’ involves enacting relationships within a flexible and responsive timeframe.

This three-part series features conversations with Rebekah Ubuntu, Taraneh Fazeli and K MacBride, and Kyla Harris.

Here, artist Rebekah Ubuntu speaks with Leah Clements about creating and maintaining personal boundaries, taking control of their own narrative, and the themes of hope and reclaiming QTBIPOC histories that run through their work. This conversation took place across Spring 2021.

Leah Clements

We’ve been in touch for a few years, but are only just now finding time to have this moment of generative contact. For me, this ability to work on slow time, or crip time, giving one another space to rest and do what we need to do at any given moment in time to survive, whilst knowing that a conversation is there to be had at the right time (or times) feels really important. Is this something you’ve thought about too? Do you make a point of practising this kind of slow/crip time with other people, and/or within your work?

Rebekah Ubuntu

The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that the rituals I implement to care for myself, my chosen family and my collaborators have evolved over time with research, introspection and dialogue. I’ve found explicit agreements essential for integrated care practices to thrive. My success as an artist is dependent on the success of my collaborators – we’re part of an ecosystem fortified and sustained by compassion, generosity (including financial) and mutual support. Our industry’s reliance on scarcity, disposability and competition for meagre remuneration is the main threat to this paradigm. Does that make sense?

Leah Clements

Yes definitely. Things like deadlines, and even just needing to make money can sometimes really get in the way of building these practices. I’m still working on creating and maintaining boundaries. But sometimes you end up talking about it whilst not doing it. So that definitely makes a lot of sense to me.

Rebekah Ubuntu

You talk about boundaries. An access document is a type of boundary right? Because you’re saying ‘This is what doesn’t work for me, and this is what does.’ This brings to mind your project providing access doc templates for artists. What are your thoughts on that?

Leah Clements

It’s best for everyone involved if an artist’s boundaries are honoured, because it doesn’t benefit the institution or whoever you’re working with if they can’t support you – if you can’t fulfill the project, if you have to pull out, or it doesn’t get done properly, or you come away with a negative experience. So it makes sense to support an artist with their access needs. Johanna Hedva says that her access mantra is ‘Think Diva!’. Rock stars can have riders where they ask for things like only green m&ms, so if these more fanciful things can be asked for when we’re only asking for our basic needs to be met, why should that feel so hard? I think it’s changed a bit, but maybe that’s just because for me at this point, nobody can get in touch to work with me without knowing my position on this. So maybe that’s a boundary as well, to be vocal about it, and talk about it.

Which makes me think of something that you were saying in ‘An Inquiry Into Disability + Intersectional Identities’, the self-interview that you did for Shades of Noir, about coming out. I’d be interested to hear more about your thoughts in general on this idea of ‘coming out’ in a queer, disabled, and other marginalised identity sense, but I’m also curious about the complexities of self protecting that you speak about. In the article, you say: ‘I’ve learnt that it’s better to mask my background and how my disabilities want to express themselves’, and you contrast that with ‘the pressure to come out – bare all or risk elimination’. I’m thinking about how that can be co-opted as tokenism in the art world. If you end up ticking somebody’s boxes who doesn’t actually support you, it can be a bit of a mess can’t it, that kind of disclosure?

Artwork Despair, Hope and Healing: Three Movements for Climate Justice by multidisciplinary artist Rebekah Ubuntu as part of augmented reality exhibition Unfolding Shrines. Courtesy of the Artist in collaboration with Hot Knife Digital Media. Image Description: This still from artist Rebekah Ubuntu’s augmented reality exhibition shows a virtual environment in which a black billboard with Rebekah Ubuntu’s name on it in silver sits in the middle of a forest. There are trees in the background but some blue sky visible. Blades of grass emerge from the earth in the foreground.

Rebekah Ubuntu

That’s especially true when the work I’m making is about my identity. In those instances, I make a point of clarifying my personal and professional boundaries to avoid exactly that kind of mess. Disclosure, like visibility, can be double-edged. In terms of coming out, there are nuances and complexities around when and for whom it’s safe to ‘come out’ and around changing your mind. There are no guaranteed protections. There is, however, ample implicit and explicit messaging obligating folx ‘to come out’, ‘to own your identity’, ‘to be true to yourself’, particularly on social media and in mainstream culture, which pressurises and suggests that folx who are unable or who choose not to come out – online or otherwise – are somehow repressed or not ‘good’ queer / trans / disabled people. I wish there was a viable option to opt out, or to do your own private coming out ceremony with yourself – or with your closest friends or your partner – so you could define what it means for you. It’s OK to do these things in private and to critique coming out, because it’s not the only way of claiming yourself for yourself, or saying ‘I am who I am for me.’ That’s essentially what the message is, right? Coming into yourself for yourself.

Leah Clements

Maybe there’s something about being able to control your own narrative, and to be able to keep changing it if needed, which some people may be able to do. In terms of what you’re saying about coming out on social media or talking about your identity there or elsewhere, some people are really good at that. But part from the risks you mentioned, some people don’t necessarily have the particular skills. Some people are really talented at articulating themselves, or presenting something in a particular way that not everyone is able to do.

Rebekah Ubuntu

Writing and editing my artist bio is going to take me at least six months before I feel comfortable sharing it publicly. No-one tells you that though; I’ve learnt that over time. I work with an access assistant to analyse and apply the formulas behind artist bios and work descriptions because I don’t immediately get it. I wish our industry’s culture was more honest about the reality of what it takes to create, edit, refine, and all that work to get your reflections into ‘industry compliant’ formats, which are often not accessible to everyone.

Leah Clements

Yes, definitely. I want to ask a question about how you balance making and protecting time for rest, recuperation, rejuvenation with making your work and advocating for others. But I also feel there’s a current context for questions like these that’s essentially based on a neoliberal desire towards self-improvement and maintaining productivity, and I don’t want to mine you for anyone’s efficiency goals. Do you know what I mean? Where someone is asked how they manage to find rest or self-care time, but only to give us advice on how to continue working and outputting in systems that grind us down? Do you have any thoughts on this?

Rebekah Ubuntu

This is a great question. What immediately comes to mind is Brené Brown’s ‘Dare to Lead’ podcast, specifically the episode entitled ‘Armored versus Daring Leadership (Part 1 of 2)‘ which aired on 5 April 2021, in which Brené says the following:

The slogan is easy: bring your whole self to work. The support and the systems that you have to put in place in order to allow people to do that, and the stuff that you have to interrogate in your culture, from racism and sexism and all kinds of systems in place that privilege some people over others, to attaching people’s self-worth to what they produce, you have to really have an introspective culture and leaders that model what they want to see … In teams and organisations … where vulnerability is a liability … we start to reward perfectionism, emotional stoicism, false compartmentalizing … knowing over learning and being curious.

I think about a conversation I had with my partner in 2018, where they asked me what I wanted my day-to-day and week-to-week to look like. I delayed answering for ages because I was scared what my answer might mean for my ambitions. In January 2020, I finally sat down with my partner, with a large notepad, lots of colouring pens and we drew a mind-map to give me a baseline idea of how to address that question. One of the most significant decisions I made as a result was to come off social media. Letting it go and realising I didn’t miss it was a lesson in tuning in and listening to instinct and intuition. My profiles are still up, and I log in via my desktop once a month / fortnight to get back to messages, but I have serious boundaries now. I feel it’s made space for me to focus more on maintaining healthy relationships with chosen family, friends and colleagues, which for me requires intentional presence that I’m not as able to tap into while engaged with social-media platforms.

That said, I don’t think it’s possible to divorce ourselves completely from dominant socio-cultural and economic structures because they form the basis of our enculturation. I spent over a decade in formal education institutions that weren’t designed with a disabled neurodivergent/emergent person like me in mind. These systems create hierarchies among us by distinguishing the ‘deserving’ from the ‘undeserving’, those whose efforts are rewarded and those whose efforts are ignored/criticised for not being ‘good enough’. Cultivating ethical work practices with the collaborators I commission – artists, writers and teams – has been one of the more effective antidotes to this toxic enculturation.

Leah Clements

Do you feel that having a somewhat ephemeral practice, in terms of working largely in performance, places any particular kinds of labour on you that wouldn’t otherwise be the case in a more traditional object-production, exhibition-making practice? There’s a different workflow on the body, and maybe you have to do more ‘gigs’ when there’s a non-permanence?

Rebekah Ubuntu

Firstly, I want to take a moment to acknowledge the labour-intensiveness of the performing body, especially within a white supremacist, capitalist, ableist, patriarchal system founded and maintained upon the labour of subjugated performing bodies, many of whom are BIPOC, disabled and trans.

Secondly, the performance commissions where I’ve been most supported were produced and curated by fellow performance artists, who understood the strain placed on the performing body and ensured I wasn’t burdened by responsibilities that weren’t mine.

These factors influenced my decision in December 2019 to step away from the stage after my last performance of Despair, Hope and Healing: Three Movements for Climate Justice following what felt like back-to-back commissions. I’ve learnt throughout my career that wearing a producer’s hat ensures a smooth logistical process during the booking phase of my commissions (e.g. riders, access assistance, management, etc.). But despite my efforts in this regard, preventable issues still occur due to a lack of resources, care and sometimes, competence. This wouldn’t be so stressful if my work was non-performance based. Preparing myself for each performance is similar to athletic training and involves rigorous cardiovascular workouts, as well as vocal training with a professional coach. As someone committed to radical care at work, I’d rather have more control of the production process, hence my current exploration of other media where a performance, as ephemeral as it is, might have other lives beyond just the one.

Leah Clements

Since you’re usually in your own artwork as a visible, present body, there’s potentially a particular kind of pressure that comes with that. I wanted to ask if you could talk about that. I imagine there’s a big joy in performing – you definitely look like you’re enjoying your performances when you’re doing them, and there’s a lot of power in your presence.

Rebekah Ubuntu

I do love performing, but that’s changed over time too because of my experiences with different institutional structures and now with COVID. These successive lockdowns have obliged me to develop my practice in other ways, like making my first augmented-reality work and by centring my sonic body within my speculative-fiction, moving-image and mixed-reality works. I love this quote by composer, sound artist and academic Cathy Lane from ‘Sounds Like Her: Gender, Sound Art and Sonic Cultures’ because it speaks to where I am right now:

When an artist uses her own voice and language in her own way, it is a radical act that subverts commonly held historic and sociocultural prejudices against the existence of [womxn’s] voices in public spaces. It seems that sound art has provided a space where the recorded speaking voice is decoupled from the physical body and becomes ‘liberated’, allowing [womxn] sound artists to explore their own voices, both sonically and metaphorically, to both critique existing political and cultural realities, to construct new sonic identities and to create visions of new sonic utopias.

Artwork Despair, Hope and Healing: Three Movements for Climate Justice by multidisciplinary artist Rebekah Ubuntu as part of augmented reality exhibition Unfolding Shrines. Courtesy of the Artist in collaboration with Hot Knife Digital Media. Image Description: This still from artist Rebekah Ubuntu’s augmented reality exhibition shows a virtual environment populated by active volcanic structures. Lava is flowing down the side and steam is emerging out of the top. Rebekah Ubuntu’s name appears in the background in bright orange surrounded by an orange rectangle.

Leah Clements

Your performance Despair, Hope and Healing: The Movements for Climate Justice consists of a projection that you stand in front of and sing into a mic. I wanted to talk a bit about the aesthetics of this work. The projected film work is a fast-paced compilation of archival analogue footage of space-related and underwater images, and you’re positioned in front of it wearing a shiny space-age outfit. I find myself really drawn to these two places in my work at the moment – space and the ocean. What is it about them that called to you, and was it just for this particular piece?

Rebekah Ubuntu

When my mother died in my teens, I had no compass for how to hold the grief in my body; I felt like I was drowning. A friend shared that they’d gone to the sea to scream their grief into the waves and offered this process to me as a potential healing modality. I took my grieving body to the sea at night and wailed into an endless horizon of starry sky and ocean. I came to feel over time that I belonged to the water, to our galaxy and to my maternal ancestors whose presence I felt most deeply at the shore.

This transformative experience fed into my collaboration with my creative partner Jaime Peschiera – whose contributions have been integral to this work’s iterative process since it was first conceived in 2017 – and allowed us to develop an intuitive practice of call and response: what is calling me and how can I respond to it? We applied this to the sonic and visual aesthetic of the work, prioritising intuition and instinct over critique and analysis, which would come later.

Journeying was also a big thematic thread: journeying through space, journeying through the deep sea, journeying towards connection, belonging and healing. My space suit/silver drag costumes are in direct reference and homage to Black womxn astronauts whom I was never taught about, and if I did have any notion of who an astronaut was/could be, it certainly wasn’t an image of me, my mum or my grandma. I first learned of Dr Mae Carol Jemsion in 2017 during the first iteration of and research for Movement 2: Hope (Are You There?) when Jaime and I were combing through archival footage of space and deep-sea exploration. The awe I felt and still feel about her has illuminated possibilities that I had no prior conception of. These legacies give me permission to situate myself, my matrilineal ancestors and future Black womxn within a trajectory of unquestioned belonging, despite forced migration, displacement and gendered racial trauma.

Leah Clements

You also locate this work within an Afrofuturist context. Can you speak more about that?

Rebekah Ubuntu

To answer this question, I must acknowledge the myriad of terms that my ancestors and contemporaries from African and Indigenous diaspora(s) have coined, and shine gratitude on this constellation of folx for their contribution to the canons of Black and Indigenous speculative/visionary fiction that I situate myself within as a Black, disabled, queer, trans artist. For example, Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction continues to reinforce my sound practice and my connection to Sonic Black Magic, and Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness (ed. Reynaldo Anderson and Charles E. Jones) provides rich, deep analysis of and creates language for the ephemeral and seemingly unnamable.

For me, Afrofuturism is a universalising and accessible way to convey the profound influence this broad spectrum of Black visionaries has had, and continues to have, on my speculative fiction practices. These words by Walidah Imarisha in the introduction of the anthology Octavia’s Brood gets to the heart of where I’m coming from:

Visionary fiction encompasses all of the fantastic, with the arc always bending toward justice … this space is vital for any process of decolonization, because the decolonization of the imagination is the most dangerous and subversive form there is: for it is where all other forms of decolonization are born. Once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless.

Leah Clements

The background projection looks like archival footage, and I’m wondering whether there’s a sense of reclaiming in this for you? I’m thinking of the work of artists like Renée Akitelek Mboya, who’s been working on a piece called ‘A Glossary of Words My Mother Never Taught Me’, in which she’s revising and reflecting on footage of various African countries that were originally shot and produced with a colonialist gaze, or Onyeka Igwe’s ‘Specialised Technique’ (2018), which ‘attempts to transform this material [footage shot by the Colonial Film Unit] from studied spectacle to livingness’. The imagery behind you in the performance isn’t necessarily the result of a directly colonial gaze, as in those works, but your positioning of the work as a reassertion of climate change as a racist issue, and as an homage to the astronaut Mae Carol Jemison, who was the first Black woman to travel to space, could perhaps place it within that vein. You seem to challenge the sometimes conquering nature of the lens by placing this imagery of sea creatures, historic sites like Easter Island, a zoomed-out shot of planet Earth in the context of racial justice, re-politicising the conversation around this subject, stripping away the claims that people sometimes make around science as an objective and non-political field.

Rebekah Ubuntu

The imagery behind me in the performance may not appear to come directly from a colonial gaze, but in fact, from beginning to end, the modes of production and distribution of that imagery, as well as the ideologies they seek to reinforce, are colonial. For example, many of the black and white and colour images in Movement 2: Hope (Are You There?) come from so-called ‘Nature documentaries’, where there’s an imposed colonial narrative that pretends to be ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’. The soundtracks to these documentaries alone, which we removed, leave no doubt about this. The reclaiming, repurposing, re-editing and combining of these publicly available archives in different formats, resolutions, frame rates and aspect ratios is an attempt to unmoor them from their colonial foundations and subvert them. In the scene you mention, where we see sped-up 16 mm images from Rapa Nui (named Easter Island by Dutch colonisers), Egypt and Peru, I say the words: ‘Underneath there is something deeper buried. Help me find it’, underscored by a conceptual soundscape. The intention here is to recontextualise these images within a narrative that serves a visionary Black-futurist gaze, the culmination of which is a full-screen image of Jemison in her astronaut suit travelling through deep space. She’s the sole human protagonist in the film, and her climactic voyage to imaginary CGI planets and galaxies consciously mirrors the ending of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, subverting its white supremacist vision of the future. As Alisha B. Wormsley says, ‘There Are Black People In The Future‘.

So I would say that although the images in Despair, Hope and Healing may not immediately call to mind the archival images in the films of Renée Akitelek Mboya or Onyeka Igwe, whose work I greatly admire, I do see myself as part of a lineage with them and other artists, like Ain Bailey, Shenece Oretha, Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, Martine Syms and Arthur Jafa, who explore and reimagine archives and auto/biographies.

Leah Clements

Do you know the term ‘The Overview Effect’? I discovered this recently when doing research into space travel – it’s this shift in perspective that many astronauts and cosmonauts have reported feeling during spaceflight, often while looking back at Earth, where they suddenly perceive Earth as tiny and fragile, and it often comes with a sense that national boundaries are irrelevant, and a strong desire for a united humanity. An image of Earth that zooms out until our planet is tiny appears in this performance at a dramatic moment where your singing voice lands on a strong note then echoes and fades, and you begin to speak, saying ‘Underneath, there is something deeper buried.’ I was wondering whether there was a reference to or a sense of that Overview Effect in that moment for you?

Rebekah Ubuntu

Absolutely. I came across the Overview Effect in the first season of the documentary series One Strange Rock, which is narrated by Will Smith. It stars Jemison, Nicole Stott and Peggy Whitson, all of whom have travelled to outer space. In recounting their journeys they all describe seeing our tiny ‘Spaceship Earth’ surrounded by the vastness of space as a transformative moment that generated a sense of ‘obligation’ to share their experience of how fragile our planet truly is. I think Jemison described it really well in an interview when she said:

What I took away when I went up there is my connectedness with the Earth and the rest of the universe. I think one of the things that sometimes happens as human beings is we think of ourselves as separate from the rest of the universe. We’re not … we’re Earthlings that have to take care of this planet because it might not always support our life form if we don’t do a better job.

I like this quote and I feel it speaks to Martine Syms’ provocation in ‘The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto’ (2015): ‘Earth is all we have. What will we do with it?’

Leah Clements

Your AR work Despair, Hope and Healing extends this performance into the platform of the ‘Unfolding Shrines’ app – made with Shape Arts and Hot Knife Digital Media on the occasion of the 2020 Adam Reynolds Awards Programme. When I viewed this work in my bedroom, there were three successive environments transposed into my personal space. First, there was a superimposed volcano on my bed and lava pouring over my cat, a circling whirlwind of detritus over my lightshade, and steam rising up from my plants. Then, there was an airy, grassy landscape with butterflies fluttering overhead, ending with my room being flooded with water while a whale and turtle swam above me. There’s a screen in the corner of the AR room that displays short films that correspond with each environment. The first is composed of clips of tornadoes, tinted red, with a subtitled soundtrack taken from a speech given by Cheryl Johnson, the president and CEO of People for Community Recovery, an organisation founded by her mother in 1979, whose mission is to enhance the quality of life of residents in communities affected by environmental pollution. Her speech is about the right to breathe clean air. It’s a very moving speech. It feels relevant to our current moment in a number of immediate ways. In the next film, in the forest space, a computer voice recites the song you perform in the live work, speaking of connecting to ancestors to rejuvenate hope. The final film takes a speech given in 2018 at the UN General Assembly by clean water advocate and water protector Autumn Peltier, an Anishinaabe-kwe member of the Wikwemikong First Nation, who was 13 years old at the time. This speech is animated with graphic, moving lines. These each reiterate the themes of the original performance of BIPOC people contributing to climate change the least but being impacted by it the most. There’s also something about this work existing in a personal space that feels kind of imposing, in the best way. You can turn the app off, so of course the viewer is using it consensually, but I found something insistent and bold in the intrusion of this environment into my bedroom. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Rebekah Ubuntu

Jaime and I definitely thought about issues of consent and the intrusion of our work into another’s personal space. The user’s ability to turn the app on and off at will is essential, but the biggest challenge for us has been how to move people out of their comfort zones with work that engages environmental justice without traumatising those most impacted by it. That’s one of the reasons why we chose a stylised, low-poly aesthetic with an exaggerated sense of scale to create a metaphorical space rather than a hyperrealistic one. The issue of trauma is further complicated and compounded by the fact that the conjunction of COVID and climate collapse has provoked a burgeoning mental-health crisis, especially among BIPOC and dis/differently abled communities, at a time when our health services are under unprecedented attack by neoliberal establishments. We were also aware that the app would be inaccessible to certain people for a variety of reasons, including financial, hence the creation of alternative online exhibition spaces, including an audiobook and audio-description, BSL and captioned versions of the exhibition. Ultimately, our goal was to amplify the voices of three Black womxn: Cheryl Johnson, Autumn Peltier and myself, and to create three AR environments, three worlds, where our words would resonate powerfully. After the hellish dystopia of ‘Despair’ we wanted ‘Hope’ and ‘Healing’ to feel like an oasis where you experience relief and wonder at Nature and our symbiotic relationship with it. Ultimately, we’re being invited to honour our home: planet Earth, the only home we’ve got.

Leah Clements

The tornado footage in this work and how it’s edited reminded me of the beginning of The Wizard of Oz, when the twister arrives. There’s a horror mixed with a magical potential in both of these – obviously we know where Dorothy ends up after the twister, and in your work I’m thinking particularly of a moment where Cheryl Johnson says: ‘This is the greatest opportunity we ever had in our life.’ I think your work Despair, Hope and Healing in all its manifestations harnesses this horror of despair as a kind of intensity that can be released into the next phase, of hope, and then of course healing. Does that ring true?

Rebekah Ubuntu

The Wizard of Oz reference is brilliant and although that wasn’t our specific intention, that is absolutely the effect we were going for. The black and white images of spinning weather vanes, televised storm warnings and a family rushing into a storm shelter are meant to create a subtle para-fiction around a handful of individuals before segueing into red-tinted newsreel footage and viral videos of tornadoes overtaking societies everywhere. Thinking about it, the switch from black and white to red in Movement 1: Despair also mirrors the switch from black and white to colour in The Wizard of Oz. What this transition from the individual to the wider community represents for me is the relationship between the personal and the collective as it relates to the trauma of environmental injustice and the transformative potential for radical change. As Johnson says in Movement 1: Despair, ‘Justice for us is justice for everybody … climate justice is here right now. We gotta take it!’

Leah Clements

In this work we’re placed in an inferno, with this speech about clean air, then we’re carried through to grassland and forest, and finally, through to the ocean. There’s a grounding in Earth, Air, Fire, Water. There’s something very powerful about taking the fundamental elements and holding them in these spaces when talking about the subjects the work refers to. Was that a conscious intention, or was it something you were drawn to before you knew why?

Rebekah Ubuntu

It wasn’t a conscious intention, but rather an organic one. For me, creating the soundscapes, sound design and music always comes first. Jaime and I are always collecting archival footage so that once I’ve created new sonic work, we can jump into experimenting.I’m very intuitive and usually know right away what’s a yes and what’s a no. I’m either drawn to images right away or not. Movement 2: Hope (Are You There?) (2019) was the first of the three works to be completed. I’d already performed this work several times when Tate Modern commissioned me to create a piece speaking to environmental justice. During our research, we listened to dozens of speeches by climate activists, but when we heard Johnson’s voice speaking about clean air, that was it. The same thing happened with Autumn Peltier and her speech to the UN about protecting our waters. So in a way their voices decided for us; ‘Despair’ and ‘Healing’ completed the triptych. Then, while developing the AR project we realised that each scenario corresponded to a particular colour and element: ‘Despair’ was red and fire, ‘Hope’ was green and earth and ‘Healing’ was blue and water. It was like Johnson and Peltier aligned the stars for this work to exist.

Can I move on to a question I have for you, Leah? I’m interested in your journey integrating sickness/cripness/disability into your practice. The word ‘integration’ has and continues to support my language within the contexts of intersectional disability justice (socio-cultural and personal) and, ultimately, for my own sense of self-connection, self-belonging and self-compassion. So, ‘crip’ as a term: why do you use it?

Leah Clements

I’m processing some thoughts around my usage of it at the moment. The term itself, I understand as being originally used colloquially as a reclaiming of the derogatory ‘cripple’, around the 1960s and 70s, and then moving into academic disability studies, where some seminal books were written on Crip Theory like Alison Kafer’s Feminist, Queer, Crip. I started using it because a lot of the people around me whom I really admired were using it – it felt like a collective term and I wanted (and still want to) identify with that collectivity. Partly, it was a way of finding other people, and it’s also a way of identifying my position on disability as necessarily political. Because you might identify as disabled but not be particularly interested in what that means politically, but it’s important to me that the term comes from within the community itself. It also comes out of queer theory, and has that queer sense of flow to it that I feel comfortable with: morphing, changing identities.

Rebekah Ubuntu

You said that it comes from a particular political position – could you elaborate on that?

Leah Clements

I guess I just mean politically engaged, anti-ableist and intersectional; questioning and pushing against the oppressive structures that contain us. I’m generally subscribing here to the social model of disability, although I do have my issues with that in terms of it not necessarily including chronic illness, and other stuff where impairment becomes taboo. But it is of course a really important model to start from.

I I do know other people who identify as crip but find it harder to identify as disabled, maybe because we have a particular idea of what disabled means. And maybe that’s the thing that’s wrong, but still, it might be easier for some people to identify as crip, because it’s potentially a more inclusive term, and there’s intersectionality written into it.

Rebekah Ubuntu

That’s so interesting. I’m still locating myself within long-established movements, so I’m reluctant to claim something before I do my research. I’ve been tuning into my intuition to find what resonates. Right now, Disability Justice is calling to me as a radical, global, intersectional movement.

Leah Clements

I feel like that’s a really bold thing to do – to take time and not give your hot take on the spot – although it shouldn’t be, because the context shouldn’t make it so. To take time, to just pause and think things through: I imagine you have to fight to be able to do that, to be able to create that space for yourself?

Rebekah Ubuntu

Yes. Understanding that I need substantial time and space to reflect is a new discovery. Being off social media has helped me reorient my compass back to myself. When I was younger, I put more of myself online than I was comfortable with because I was more susceptible to social pressure. But I found that I couldn’t tap into myself while being tapped into multiple voices at the same time. I’m feeling more comfortable with the fact that heightened visibility online doesn’t work for me. Does that resonate with you?

Leah Clements

Yes, definitely, because I think some people are really good at just knowing where they stand on stuff very quickly, and utilising things like social media to talk about it. But I feel like I’ve drifted in and out of that realm. To think of cripness/sickness/disability, I organised a residency at Wysing Arts Centre where we were speaking with loads of other people. Johanna Hedva came and stayed with us for four days, and we had video calls with people like Carolyn Lazard, Abi Palmer. Lou Coleman came over, stayed and then led a Feldenkrais workshop, and we just absorbed everything. At the end, we then made Access Docs for Artists, the online resource, as the output of what we’d learnt. But while we were having those conversations and thinking things through, that was private. That wasn’t online anywhere, and wasn’t public. Only the fact that we were there was online – on Wysing’s website under their residencies programme. But that felt really important to have that time together; even just things like cooking together felt important. One of the other people who was there, Alice Hattrick, has ME, which is the same chronic illness that I have. And I’ve never been around somebody else who has it for a long period of time. And it was so interesting just to see things like how she’d have a midnight rush or a 10pm rush like I have, where you just have a sudden boost of energy before bedtime. And I was like ‘Oh! You have that too! It’s not just me! Maybe that’s something that happens when you have ME!’ Just little discoveries like that on a kind of basic level felt really important. But I don’t want to translate those things into any form of currency beyond what that means to me.

Rebekah Ubuntu

Yes, absolutely. The intimacy shared between the two of you is meaningful as it is. I also want to thank you for your work co-creating ‘Access Docs for Artists’. I’ve felt supported and more confident to advocate for myself behind the scenes and in public because there’s work I can call on that’s co-signed by powerful cultural institutions. I want to thank you for that, officially.

Leah Clements

You’re welcome! You’re officially welcome!

Rebekah Ubuntu

It’s so helpful.

Leah Clements

Good, I’m so glad to hear that. We do still get people discovering the resource and getting in touch, and it’s just wonderful to know that it helps, because it’s all the stuff that we wanted to know, and we discovered. We had a little bit of reservation about the section on the website with the institutions and the organisations, for a few reasons. One of them was, ‘Oh, fuck, what if we encourage people to put themselves out there in this way and then they get rejected by institutions who don’t want to accommodate them?’ I mean, there are going to be complicated politics in any place, but the ones we’ve spoken to, at least their name is there, you know? Visible. I think it’s complex when you go through any working process anywhere, but I do think I have seen a change. They have a long way to go, but I’m tentatively hopeful.

Rebekah Ubuntu

Yes. I’ve seen a change too. I think that’s also because I’m advocating for myself differently. And these tools empower me.

Leah Clements

Yes, I wonder about that. I feel like maybe I’ve got a warped idea of what it’s like because, like I said before, there’s no way you can get in touch with me without knowing where I stand on these things. You’ll know I co-created ‘Access Docs for Artists’, so I’ll be using an access doc and you’ll have to support that. Maybe you have a similar thing?

Rebekah Ubuntu

Yes I do. I’m slowly discovering how to present myself online with regards to disability and access. My Disability Justice research is helping. A strategy I’ve developed for commission enquiries is email templates stating that I have certain access requirements that need to be agreed to before I consider the commission. This eliminates any long back-and-forths, and lets the person on the other end know that I’m aware of and will advocate for my rights, even at a preliminary stage. I find there’s a culture of not disclosing access provisions and budgets immediately, even in publicly funded organisations. You’d expect them to be more transparent.

Leah Clements

Yes, and it can end up coming out of your budget if you want to push for it sometimes, which it shouldn’t – that should be separate. I was just thinking when you were talking then about email templates – I’ve got a few myself that are saved as drafts that I can send if I’m too sick to properly get back. They just say something along the lines of ‘Leah’s not well enough to respond right now.’ My email signature at the bottom of my emails says ‘I have a chronic illness, which means I’m sometimes slow to reply. Please feel free to send me a follow-up email if I haven’t replied.’ I’ve formed it by borrowing bits from different people, and other people have borrowed it from me. I love that feeling of everyone exchanging these things. It’s really important that I’ve had all these people around me, and I try to be there for other people as well who need it. That feeling of anti-competition seems really vital, which I think has been more and more the case in parts of the art world more generally, like the Turner Prize a couple of years ago when said: ‘Can you just give it to us all please? We’re on the same team!’

Rebekah Ubuntu

Yes, exactly.

Leah Clements

And once we start talking to each other, then we can connect the dots under the surface. For example, I did something for an organisation that somebody else I knew had done something similar for, and that person shared with me how much they were paid, and what it was for. Stuff like that, when it gets parcelled out individually, almost by default then that becomes private and secret, but if we’re all talking to each other …

Rebekah Ubuntu

Clearly there is an intrinsic desire for transparency and for us all to win. Unfortunately, that desire can get trampled when scarcity, or at least the illusion of scarcity, becomes the dominant ideology, implicitly or explicitly. When there’s an opportunity that so many artists would be perfect for but only one person gets chosen for, it can feel quite demoralising, like there isn’t enough room or resources for us all.

Leah Clements

Yes. It also makes me think of disability activist David Ruebain, who talks about the Equality Act, which makes it illegal for disabled people not to have ‘equal access’ in the workplace and other spaces, but he points out that it’s equal access to competition, not equal access to resources. So if you’re going through a job interview process for example, you’re getting equal access to compete, and that’s apparently the ideal position.

Rebekah Ubuntu

I think competition like that is antithetical to the relationship-building fundamental to artists’ ecosystems and survival. If we view each other as adversaries, we’re less likely to share ourselves and our resources with each other, which is a shame because it deprives us of crucial connection.

Leah Clements

Yes, definitely. It’s been so wonderful speaking to you Rebekah, and so much food for thought.

This interview was carried out by video call between Rebekah Ubuntu and Leah Clements, and via questions written in text by Leah Clements with written responses by Rebekah Ubuntu in collaboration with Jaime Peschiera.

References

Online

Brown, Brené, ‘Brené Brown on Armored Versus Daring Leadership (Part 1 of 2)’, https://brenebrown.com/transcript/brene-on-armored-versus-daring-leadership-part-1-of 2/

Clements, Leah, Alice Hattrick and Lizzy Rose, ‘Access Docs for Artists’, https://www.accessdocsforartists.com/homepage

Igwe, Onyeka, ‘Specialised Technique’, https://filmlondon.org.uk/film-library/specialised-technique

Mboya, Renée Akitelek, ‘A Glossary of Words my Mother Never Taught Me’, https://savvy-contemporary.com/en/events/2020/a-glossary-of-words/

Nutopia, ‘One Strange Rock’, https://www.nutopia.com/projects/one-strange-rock

Syms, Martine, ‘The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto’, https://rhizome.org/editorial/2013/dec/17/mundane-afrofuturist-manifesto/

Ubuntu, Rebekah, ‘An Inquiry Into Disability + Intersectional Identities’, Shades of Noir, https://shadesofnoir.org.uk/journals/content/an-inquiry-into-disability-intersectional-identities

Wormsley, Alisha B., ‘There Are Black People in the Future’, https://alishabwormsley.com/#/there-are-black-people-in-the-future/

 

Books

Anderson, Reynaldo and Charles E. Jones (ed.) Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015).

Eshun, Kodwo, More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction (London: Quartet Books, 1999).

Eyene, Christine, Cathy Lane and Salomé Voegelin, Sounds Like Her: Gender, Sound Art and Sonic Cultures (Nottingham: Beam Editions, 2019).

Imarisha, Walidah, and Adrienne M. Brown (ed.), Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2015).

Kafer, Alison, Feminist, Queer Crip (Indiana University Press, 2015).

Archive

Discover 50 years of the Serpentine

From the architecture pavilion and digital commissions to the ideas marathon and the General Ecology programme, explore 50 years of artists, projects and exhibitions.

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