New pathways to new knowledge? A conversation with Rajni Shah

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It’s no secret that artistic research takes place at the Academy of Theatre and Dance, but what does it actually involve? In this second episode in a series of interviews, we take a peek behind the scenes, in conversation with artist, writer and associate researcher at DAS Research Rajni Shah.

Part 2: The work of listening

It’s 11 February, and there’s a new moon. Today’s the day of the launch of Rajni Shah’s podcast ‘how to think’, a series of slow-paced conversations with people who centre the work of listening, healing, justice and love. It’s being produced by DAS Graduate School in collaboration with the Centre for Performance Philosophy at the University of Surrey in the UK.

For 15 years Rajni Shah made performances, artistic projects and public interventions, until 2012, when they left the stage and took the path into artistic research at Lancaster University in the UK, and later the Acts of Listening Lab in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal, Canada. Along the way, the act of listening took on an increasingly important role in their work. Their research into the relationship between listening and structural inequality led in 2019 to the Listening Tables, a series of meetings that attempted to bring about a shift in who gets to be heard, and to connect through listening, across all the boundaries of difference.

My conversation with Rajni begins at nine in the morning, the snow outside my window reflecting bright sunlight. We’re using Zoom to ‘meet’ – Rajni is on unceded Gadigal lands in so-called Australia, where it’s the height of summer, and seven in the evening. By the time our session ends an hour later, Rajni is in darkness.

Rajni Shah: We live in a society that prioritises what we say, see and do. But what happens if we take listening as our departure point? What happens if we create the space to slow down, so that people who tend to be quiet can maybe find a voice, and people who tend to talk can get used to quietness. What kind of conversation arises if what’s said emerges from the act of listening? I’m searching for the point where ‘listening in’ and ‘listening out’ meet. It’s about listening as an encounter between what we feel and how we are seen and heard by ‘the other’.

Three years ago, Laura Cull Ó Maoilearca invited me to develop a symposium as part of her research project around performance philosophy and radical equality. The intention was for a special journal issue, in the form of a podcast series, to arise out of that project. But in the end the symposium, which was planned for May 2020, couldn’t happen because of the pandemic. We decided that the podcast series would go ahead anyway. What’s great about a podcast is that it offers the opportunity to explore a terrain of knowledge and knowledge transfer in a different way. I invite people to really disengage from cognitive knowledge, and explore embodied knowledge. If you take listening and not-knowing as your starting point, another kind of knowledge emerges.

When I was listening to your conversation with Royona Mitra, which is completely made up of ‘voice notes’*, I couldn’t help thinking that form is content, because the form you use to conduct this conversation opens up a totally different kind of space. The time you both take to really hear each other between recordings brings a whole new level of meaning to the conversation.

Yes, that’s important to me. I get frustrated by projects or works of art that are ‘about something’ but still don’t incorporate the politics of the work in the form. When that happens it’s like the work is trapped in an old structure.

Is that the reason you stopped making performances?

There were lots of reasons, but that was certainly one of them. In 2012 I really thought I was stepping out of art for good. At that moment, I believed I wanted to stop completely. Now I know that I was only stopping being a ‘career artist’. Everything I had to do for my career was in such complete conflict with my own value system – the values I expressed in my work, like my public interventions small gifts, give what you can, take what you need and Write a Letter to a Stranger.

In the end you took the path into artistic research. As I understand it, the series includes conversations with four people: writer, poet and artist Khairani Barokka; artist and healer Ria Righteous; writer and healing arts practitioner Omikemi; and Julietta Singh, Professor of English and of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. Why did you choose to talk with these people in particular?

When Laura and I started on this collaboration, we navigated through the whole landscape, raising questions. Who should be leading the symposium? Which voices should be heard? What type of thinking should be prioritised? For me it was clear that the decentring of whiteness should be part of the work, and that the symposium should be led by queer people of colour. It’s important to realise that this is all about a structural reorientation; the conversations in this podcast are so much wider and wiser than the narrow constructs of race and racism. But we still live within worlds that very much uphold white supremacist values, so this podcast centres the voices of people of colour. We invited Ria Righteous and Julietta Singh to join us in developing the symposium, and we got Omikemi and Okka [Khairani Barokka] involved as guest speakers. These are the four people I speak with in the podcast series

How did you go about making the podcasts?

I talked to everyone separately on Zoom. Ria, Omikemi and Okka were in England, Julietta lives in the US, and I live in Australia. We met the same way that you and I are meeting now, with it being morning for one us and evening for the other. I sent everyone a little written note in advance as an invitation, in which I proposed avoiding the use of any direct questions, and valuing silence and talking equally, so we could be in silence and that could be part of our conversation. It was an invitation to allow the conversation to take place between us, rather than to talk about things we already knew. I did write down a few open questions that I was interested in exploring, and the others were able to add to them. There was no requirement for us to refer to the questions in our conversations. It was more that I like the idea of having a kind of shared landscape.

Was there anything you were surprised by?

Everything. I didn’t have any specific expectations. The conversations were so different from one another. For me it was constantly about learning to trust in the process. All sorts of things happened that could easily have been seen as setbacks. We lost an entire recording, for example, so we had to meet again and have a second conversation. That was really complex, but ultimately beautiful too. It ended up as an interesting episode about loss, and about not trying to make things perfect. I was also planning to work with the same sound artist, Roslyn Oades, for the entire project, but just before editing was set to start, it turned out she wouldn’t be able to do it. I simply couldn’t imagine that anyone else would be able to replace her as it is such deeply personal and delicate material, and such an experimental process. It was only when I had really grieved for the loss of our collaboration, and really let the idea of working with Roslyn go, that half an hour later I remembered Fili 周 Gibbons, who I realised would be wonderful! I called up Fili, and it turned out they’d been dreaming of doing a project like this with me.

The process of making this project was really wonderful – we tried to really live the values we were talking about, so everything centred on caring and well-being. Just before my first online meeting with Julietta, their dog died, and for me it was part of the process to prioritise care for them, and give space for their grief rather than push ahead with the meeting. I used to get stressed out if something was going on in somebody else’s life, a part of me would be thinking ‘This is getting in the way of the work!’ But then I had to really get that this wasn’t the way I wanted to work. I want to respect and honour the experiences of the person I’m engaging with, so it is about changing the form of the work so it can encompass that. It might sound simple to be caring for each other and giving space to everyone’s well-being, but it makes projects bigger and longer – and more expensive [laughs]. Really caring about people takes time. Paying people properly for the actual time it takes to make this work is important. In the arts especially, but at universities too, everything’s got to be done within a specified timeframe, and gets compressed into a schedule. When that happens, you’re not able to follow our own processes or tune them into the rhythms of our own body – and I firmly believe that the work benefits if we do exactly those things.

What you say makes me think of Laura and that her father died in the period she was appointed head of DAS Graduate School.

That’s right. I was working with her on the how to think symposium at the time, and I felt that the death of her father became part of the project. How do you give someone the right ‘holding’ and space? I wanted to show her that the work that most needed doing was the grieving process, and that she could trust in that, and that the project would benefit much more from allowing the grieving into the process than frantically trying to block it out.

The conversations in that podcast were very personal, and that brought real vulnerability to the work. It was a delicate thing to bring into the world, but I trusted in there being something enriching about listening to something that’s fragile. I see it as being a bit like eavesdropping; like sitting at a café terrace and listening in on the conversation between people at the next table.

Is your work part of an existing tradition around listening, or perhaps part of a contemporary field conducting research in this area?

Yes – although there aren’t that many people doing research into listening as it relates to performance. Look, the work we’re doing feels radical for the society we’re living in, but it’s pretty basic if you compare it with the knowledge you’ll find in most Indigenous traditions. I’m very much aware that what we’re dealing with here is ancient knowledge. It’s not the case that I’m drawing on that ancient knowledge, because I didn’t grow up surrounded by it, but I am curious about it – though it would probably take a lifetime to absorb. So I’m conscious that I’m not exploring new territory – it’s more like clearing the ground so we can return to ancient wisdoms.

Except that the indigenous traditions don’t have that link with performance.

Ritual and performance are close cousins of course. In those traditions, there’s no need to talk about ‘performance’, because ritualistic and creative aspects are all integrated in life itself – unlike in our society where everything is fragmented and compartmentalised.

Have you had contact with people from Indigenous communities?

Yes, I know people of Indigenous heritage here. For the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to live uninvited on the land of Indigenous peoples in Australia. Of course it’s taken time to properly settle down here; it’s been one big listening process for me. I’d like to deepen the conversation with these lands, but only if that’s possible – if I’m invited.


Interview by Hester van Hasselt

*Building the impossible bridge: voice notes on anti-racism and/in institutions. Royona Mitra is Associate Dean / Reader Dance and Performance Cultures at Brunel University London.

For the podcast series ‘how to think’ and other work by Rajni Shah, see