Story-share transcript: Feminism and creativity – Deb Cleland

This is a transcript from our November event in partnership with Ainslie and Gorman Arts Centres, where we explored feminism and creativity with three feminist artists. Below is a transcript of Deb Cleland’s talk. Deb is an acrobat, and academic researcher. She is a performer with Canberra-based women’s acrobatic troupe, Solco Acro.


In our recent aerial and contemporary dance piece Wiggle Room, I adapted some lines from the Indigenous poet Ellen van Neerven. She reflects on how rooms breathe easier when Indigenous people are acknowledged – that poem “Berries” is in her recent collection ‘Comfort Food‘. Wiggle Room was all about making room to breathe and creating space, primarily for ourselves but then hopefully using that spare breath, the breath created, to speak up, to let people who haven’t had a chance to speak also use their voices and their bodies to collectively create a better world. I think at its core that is what feminist work in the arts tries to do.

To try to illuminate this and other aspects of feminism in the arts, I’ll talk first a little bit about my personal journey, which is obviously the aspect I’m most comfortable and familiar with, and then I’ll move onto some questions I have about next steps, for my art and for feminism in art more broadly.

When Feminartsy asked me to reflect on when I first identified with feminism, it resurfaced memories about my initial forays into artistic work, which were all in high school media making short films. At the beginning of year 12, we made a five-minute film callled ‘Warning Cape Does Not Enable You to Fly’. This little short didn’t have any undertones of feminism at all, it was a very unprocessed and direct response to the grief of my best friend when she lost her brother when we were 14.

But it did well, for whatever reason, right combination of drama and naivety probably, and so it won a few local youth filmmaking awards. Then the boys’ club that is tertiary film studies apparently got a bit upset because we were only in high school and they had degrees or something, or least most of a degree. And that was probably the first time I noticed someone saying ‘hey, you don’t belong here’. But at the time it didn’t bother me so much, possibly because I had the trophies and they didn’t (honesty button on). The gendered nature of it also felt incidental, rather than pivotal.

However, for the following awards season (such as it is in the youth filmmaking industry in Canberra) we had made a film written by my girlfriend about the masks that women are taught to wear to be physically and socially acceptable in our society, and how the constant emphasis on appearance can result in toxic obsessions. It’s interesting looking back, because it foreshadowed something about the age of the selfie in a way, as the storyline centred around a photography student and her desire to recreate herself in the image of a classmate.

The film had nothing sexual about it at all but it somehow got billed as some kind of five-minute lesbian thriller. This would have been fine, if that had been the intention, but actually it was just another really early window into how female protagonists are pigeon-holed, and their sexuality deemed somehow inevitably relevant – or that maybe women are only interesting if they are being sexual. And we had such a rough time getting the program manager to change the description, and again I look back and have this really visceral embodied memory flood through that makes me shrink up inside – like someone stole my script and I had no power or voice to bring it back.

That brings me to the main reason that I have recently started – or restarted – making art, and defining myself as an artist, now not as a youth, but rather as a pretty world weary adult. And it is in reversing that loss of script – finding a reason, finding a power, in your voice as a woman, as part of a collective of women, that think that the way our society is structured is wrong and must change. And also finding a power in a collective of women that celebrates the beauty and the compelling nature of emotive storytelling, of embodied argument, and of passionate rhetoric, and all that which is non-linear and non-binary. And with this the importance of the voices of all individual bodies but also the strength and power of the body collective – in solidarity, and in co-creation.

It is precisely because I have spent the last decade or so trying and mostly failing to finish a PhD, and casually working as a fringe dweller in the higher education and research system that I have come back to embrace these as only a lost soul looking for community can.

I can’t even begin to guess the number of meetings I have sat through, seminars I have endured and men only panels – that now go by the delightful moniker ‘manels’ – wherein mostly old, white men (but not exclusively) have interrupted, disrespected and derailed speakers of all genders, shapes, ages and colour.

During this time my internal sense of unease grew and grew. If you can imagine a red globe on a dimmer switch being gradually turned up until smoke is pouring out of the light fitting and the red of the light is the deep crimson of artery strength rage.  Something like that.

You look around and there are all these spaces where women should be and they’re not. Or if they are, they are being squashed, being told to make themselves smaller.  Not so long ago, I went to a cycling film night – showing films about riding bikes – and realised that an alien cinephile would have come out thinking you were more likely to see a tree on a two-wheeler than an adult woman.

But over this time it also struck me. It takes an exceptionally brave or mentally unwell person to interrupt a performer. Women often weren’t there, up on the stage, but when they were, they held the floor!  And as my mind felt like it was unravelling, a consequence of divorce, family illness, and the constant feeling of stupidity and inadequacy because of my undone thesis, and who knows what neuro-chemical interactions, I turned to my body. My glorious, shapely, strong body and thought, hey, body. You’re still here for me, right?

So here I was with an overtrained mind and an undertrained body, and an intense desire to take up space, to create space, and to transform space, not only for myself but for others. It’s a need to unify voice, body and mind – to show through the body what the voice cannot say, what the mind cannot grasp, what our world or our society cannot yet handle, or celebrate.

When I look around to the feminist storytellers, painters, producers, gamemakers, and physical theatre creators, they are all performing this difficult, imperfect ‘bodywork’ – which is bringing the physical, the emotional, the tactile and the collective into the cerebral and individual, within a culture that largely rejects those intersections and complexities. And it’s exactly that which I’ve been trying to bring to my performances, which aim to be ensemble work – in the sense of deeply connected and collaboratively created work, where to talk of individual ownership is not only impossible but ridiculous and outrageous.

The final thing I want to say about my own feminist arts practice touches on that idea of co-creation as a feminist value. And co-creation to me does not only speak to your current collaborators, but also of the past work and lineages you evoke in the work you make. It was my dear friend, painter Matilda Michell who first alerted me to this in her essay ‘on originality in art’.  She talks of the joys and the rewards of tapping into and paying homage to, the artists who made your art possible. But she too, warned of the danger of a narrow lineage – how what people have seen shapes what they expect to see, resulting in her glorious ‘Self-portrait disguised as a proper artist’, a potbellied moustached middle-aged man. And this becomes a challenge for feminist artists: seeking out diversity and inclusivity, in the broadest possible sense, in both your influences and in the people you work with.

I would also encourage the nerdier among you to read Sara Ahmed’s essay on citational practices – where citation is how you acknowledge your lineage. As she forcefully points out, the way you do this is an important statement of politics and values. And so, as a feminist, this is about acknowledging selectively, mindfully – perhaps excluding in some areas and widening and broadening in others.

This is where I’d like to start wrapping up, and leave you with a few questions that I’ve been exploring, and I definitely don’t feel like I have the answers to – and that is:

  • how to consistently and authentically include other voices without ceding hard won space back to a status quo;
  • how to speak without squashing; and
  • how to explore and exercise freedom as freedom from domination, not freedom to dominate.

I write this, somewhat self-consciously, as an able bodied, middle class and tertiary educated white girl – in many views my voice as a representative of those categories is already overheard.  So I also want to find authentic, sensitive and helpful ways to acknowledge in my art that which I have not included, am unable to speak to, the stories that are not mine to tell – signal the silences, gaps and ongoing injustices that are part and parcel of being part of settler white Australia. And I’ve got big question marks here and much to learn. But if there is one last feminist art value I’d like to point to, it is that of a willingness to learn, of an openness to learning and to failing, and to trying again.

Thank you.

Image: Emi Romero

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