In Alby, the southern suburbs of Stockholm, in a repurposed warehouse, there´s an annual meeting point for anyone with an interest in the agency of women in circus. Cirkus Cirkör is Sweden´s largest circus company, besides creating and touring shows they also offer a high school education in circus and do extensive work with social circus in the local communities.
In Cirkör´s circus hall, a space acting as both a residency space and training hall for local circus professionals, the Women In Circus Consortium is hosted. Every year a selection of workshops, discussions, lectures and networking activities take place under the direction of Marie-Andree Robitaille (Artistic director of DOCH and feminist force of nature) and are produced by CirkusPerspektiv. This year, roughly 30 individuals from wildly different facets of the circus/performance field gathered to workshop, network, learn and drink coffee.
This edition’s program featured a diverse set of activities both practical and theoretical, starting with a workshop led by Liv Elf Karlen, called “Queering the circus”, exploring the gender stereotypes we create (consciously or not) in our movements and physicality. The group explored how quickly a gender identity is assumed based on more or less clichéd expressions of power, taking space, demureness, passivity or absence, and then how quickly these can be reversed by very small physical actions. By, for example, simply looking to the floor or avoiding direct eye contact with the other participant the image became, like a classical painting, a subservient woman next to her male counterpart. When the gaze was then turned to audience the performer then claimed the attention and space and the image shifted and the roles were reversed. It became very apparent how much of what we, as an audience, saw was based on other cultural media. Women and men portrayed in classical paintings, TV-shows, novels or theatre quickly spring to mind and, consciously or not, colour what we´re seeing on stage. The lesson to be learned is that it is impossible to make a performance un-gendered, because every other media around us is so loaded with gender specific material that even if what we put on stage is done in a gender neutral manner, the actions we see have been performed millions of times for us in different contexts, to the point where the associations have become reflex. Because the expression of gender is an active dialogue between the performer and the spectator, influenced by their and our personal experiences and expectations, we can never take into account all the individual factors. We can only be as aware as possible about the actions we take and the connotations they carry with them.
The program continued with Chloé de Buyl-Pisco talking about unconscious gender-bias, about the patriarchal biases in media and about the monumental studies that had to be undertaken in order to expose them. I´d encourage anyone and everyone to have a look at Film Dialogue by Hannah Anderson and Matt Daniels, which broke down and analysed roughly 2000 screenplays in terms of how much time and text male and female roles get on screen–it’s quite revelatory.
The bummer with norm-criticism is that the more aware you become, the more work you have to do
–Liv Elf Karlen
The presentation given was a clear reminder that what we might experience as ´equal´ might not be equal at all, but rather an extension of what is considered normal in media. As makers of art and culture it´s imperative that we are aware of this unconscious bias, in order to break the cycle of endless repetition, since we´re not only responsible for ourselves but also responsible for shaping the minds of our audiences.
A very straightforward demonstration of statistics in stark contrast to the very personal testimonials that were the topic of the discussion about the #metoo movement started within the circus field, called #theshowisover. In Sweden, the #metoo movement quickly garnered a lot of support and momentum, and all kinds of professions (lawyers, actors, journalists, musicians and more) created their own versions, to collect statements and expose the sexual violence in the respective fields. #Theshowisover was started by Rebecca Tiger and Linda Beijer to collect and form the #metoo movement for the circus. The talk gave an introduction to the topic, about the circus-specific call to action with 900 signatures and testimonials, about the demands that were subsequently formulated and sent to the government (amongst them; zero tolerance to violence in education, mandatory education in violence prevention for staff at art academies and education about power structures and sexual harassment for students and teachers at higher educations in circus). After the introduction, the talk moved on to a discussion about the personal responsibilities of everyone to change the scene from the inside based on sharing personal experiences, and what men in particular can do. Bottom line: Don´t always occupy space just because you can.
I was there not only for my own personal interest in the subject, but also to contribute to the program. My thesis, “Strength in Numbers, a statistical pilot study in the equality of the circus field”, is not by any means an uplifting read, as it presents a rather dramatic discrepancy in the amount of women represented in circus festivals around Europe (and Canada) but not why we see this discrepancy. The Women in Circus Consortium provided an ideal place to share this research, since the statistics I´ve gathered need a context to be compared to in order to have any use or meaning. Soon we will also publish these statistics on Circus Talk to invite an even larger audience to make use of them, in hope that they can empower the circus field both practically and academically.
The last item on the agenda was the first Nordic Women in Circus meeting. This network is a newly founded initiative to further women´s agency in circus, based in the Nordic countries but inclusive to anyone from anywhere in the world (they currently have members from 23 different countries). The meeting was an open, friendly talk about the strategies and aims of the network, such as creating, supporting and promoting circus work that is made by women, encouraging norm-creativity and dialogues on gender in circus, and transferring knowledge from other feminist practices and researches. The ideas ranged from very academical (creating think tanks for feminist circus practices) to straightforward guerilla activism (printing posters with the gender imbalance of certain festivals and posting them at the festivals), the common denominator being enthusiasm for the topic, and for furthering the equality of circus.
After the official program was concluded the un-official, but very important, excessive coffee drinking and spontaneous networking broke out. Even though the consortium has a very serious topic, it is still an event that is defined by the people who organise and attend it, and a more motivated, positive and supportive group of individuals is hard to find. As a parting gift Marie-Andree Robitaille armed us all with the book “How to Make Yourself a Feminist Design Power Tool”, by Hélène Frichot, and with this in our hands and a fire in our hearts we parted ways, for now.