ADHAM FARAMAWY & JOSEPH FUNNELLIN CONVERSATION
Adham Faramawy: I first met Joseph Funnell through choreographer Holly Blakey at a party, after watching her show 'Cowpuncher.' We clicked, we talked and laughed and danced, and I kept up with their performance work until there was an opportunity for us to work together. We’ve now worked together on three videos, which have been seen in screenings at Tate Britain and Vdrome in conjunction with Serpentine Gallery, and installed as part of sculptural installations at Science Gallery and Somerset House, and I’m hoping we’ll make some performance work together for Art Night this summer too. I can’t imagine my most recent work without Joseph’s generosity of movement and choreographic ideas.
AF: How did you find your way to performance? Was performing always the plan?
JF: No doubt I’ve always had the desire to perform (I’m a Leo?) but I had very little exposure to art growing up and probably even less to dance and performance, so it wasn’t until much later that I even understood the possibility of doing these things in a visual arts context. Having the resources to manifest your desires is a privilege and having a plan necessitates self-assurance. You need a sense that things are possible for you, that the world was made to support your ambitions. You need to see yourself reflected in something and that was never really my experience.
We’ve spoken a bit before about what it means to grow up in small, almost exclusively white, towns in the UK. Performing is a hard thing to negotiate when you are already framed as hyper-visible and invisible at the same time, more so when you are indoctrinated with a whole lot of queer shame on top of that. It’s taken me a long time to flip this and utilize it after making some choices that didn’t serve me. First I studied Art History at Oxford because I was desperate for some kind of intellectual validation and I was drawn to the prestige. At the time I didn’t have the critical tools to question the foundations of that prestige.
JF: Then I did an MA in curating because it brought me a bit closer to the art and I got a scholarship so it was free. After that, my deepest shame… desperation in a depleted post-recession job market led me to work at one of the art industry’s most morally bereft fraternities of Beelzebub - the contemporary art department at a big global auction house.
I can laugh now, but lorrrrd that was a trip. Several hundreds of hours of therapy later I can now appreciate it was a useful experience to affirm what I really believe and to understand the absurd systems of value in which art is, often willingly, held hostage. But like the art, like the vast majority of people living through our slow neoliberal apocalypse, we creative workers often end up with Stockholm syndrome and it takes a lot of work to honestly ask, “why am I doing this to myself ?” It’s a question we need to keep asking ourselves.
Only in hindsight can I fully appreciate the toll that this succession of hyper-conservative (read: elitist, nepotistic, white supremacist, hyper-capitalist) institutions took on my mental and spiritual health. When you’re in it you’re too busy just trying to survive. Nonetheless, at some point I knew I needed to get out of my head and back into my body. I guess building a practice in yoga became a significant gateway to (re)doing that and learning to value and listen to the body, leading me to other movement practices and dance.*
JF: Equally I should give a shout out to clubbing with respects to the latter. While I was still working in purgatory, I also met Alex Baczynski-Jenkins who was looking for a performer at the time. We were both late for a performance at Chisenhale Gallery and they wouldn’t let us in so we got talking about how I wanted to get back into performance. He invited me to be part of the second iteration of a work that we presented at the Whitechapel Gallery and have shown for several years since.
When I finally left the auction house and New York – where I had somehow wangled a transfer to – I began working more closely with Alex and even moved to Warsaw for a bit where the curatorial collective, Kem, were doing great things at the time. Over the next few years, I performed for / collaborated with more and more artists and after a while I began to make solo work.
*Of course, like the art industry, the yoga industry has completely commodified a societal good with all the tried and tested force of settler colonial logics. As such, I try not to engage with it too much but I like to share my practice with friends and collaborators on a small scale.
- Rubby Sucky Forge, The Place, Eve Stainton with Joseph Funnell and Gaby Agis, 2020 | Photo credit © Anne Tetzlaf
JF: I like collaboration because it begins to dispel the myth of the singular (namely white, bourgeois, cis-male…) artist genius that has been the cornerstone of the canon for centuries, and moves towards a model of collectivity and communality. Especially in dance, it’s no secret that branding a performance with one choreographer or artist’s name often misrepresents the division of creative labor involved but we are still so wedded to this paradigm.
I think collaboration is also really important amongst queers and people of colour because institutions actively pit us against each other to fill those token diversity spots. We need to resist the counterproductive narratives of exceptionalism that underpin diversity initiatives, especially given their new prevalence after last year when institutions remembered that the movement for black lives is still going on… I guess we’ll see if they remember to keep remembering but in any case, throwing one person of colour half a bone every quarter so an institution can bolster its own image is just kind of insulting to me.
Nothing really compares to a process that accumulates traces of each participant's corporeal and conceptual offerings, where you collectively birth something you didn't know could exist prior. Even if there is tension or disagreement this is where we learn and grow, and it has been imperative for me given my indirect route to performance.
Nothing really compares to a process that accumulates traces of each participant's corporeal and conceptual offerings, where you collectively birth something you didn't know could exist prior.
JF: Working in group pieces with Alex, or with Pan Daijing at Tate for example, I’ve been blessed to collaborate with and learn from performers with hugely different interests and backgrounds. Eve’s piece Rubby Sucky Forge, that we managed to squeeze in between lockdowns at The Place, was really special in this respect. It was manifested by Eve, myself and the incredible Gaby Agis.
In many ways, at least as performers, the three of us are wildly different but we found a way to create a space that supported our idiosyncrasies, our individual relations to metal and the environment Eve created, whilst expressing something shared. Eve proposed a score and a framework of various choreographic encounters and naturally some of the intentions and the navigations of these shifted over time. We took a lot of time to share, discuss and witness. The process was one of care and permission. I think for most people it was the first live thing they had seen in six months so there was also this incredible sense of support from the audience and it became really apparent how everyone in the room had a part in holding the space.
JF: The project Hurakan Caress with Atabey was first developed during lockdown so it was interesting to create something together for months whilst spending the majority of time in separate spaces. We had to find rhythms of gathering material separately, sharing and discussing digitally, and then finding moments to move, film and edit together as the circumstances changed later in the year. The intentions and outcomes were consciously not performative however.
We wanted to create a resource for communal healing and empowerment of queer and POC communities through somatic practices based around self-intimacy and feeling sexy for yourself. We first did online workshops for Metro charity and then later for Cell Project Space, specifically for the Caribbean diaspora for the latter. For Cell, we also created an accompanying pedagogical resource of video experiments that acted as prompts to consider aspects of embodiment in relation to the proposal of what it might mean to try and decolonize the camera. We used body cams similar to those used by the police in order to explore this. The workshops are really the heart of this project though, so Atabey and I are not just collaborating with each other as artists, but as facilitators we collaborate with the participants. As micro-communities we all end up contributing to the refinement of a practice that we will continue to share to empower the wider community.
- brown paintings for renaissance masters, Steakhouse Live – Slow Sunday, 2020 | Photo credit © Greg Goodale
AF: The ways you research really resonate with me, especially when I see you try to deal with the representation, fetishisation and policing of black, brown and queer bodies in your movement practice. How do you approach your solo practice? What would you say your concerns are and have you kept up with writing?
JF: It’s an interesting question to try and answer right now as I’m thinking a lot about the limitations of addressing concerns that appear largely reactionary. Having inhabited many different kinds of spaces in the art ‘world’/ industry, I’ve been privy to a myriad of insidious ways whereby blackness and queerness are so brazenly commodified and extracted from bodies that remain fully marginalized in order to produce cultural, social and financial capital for a set of privileged gatekeeping vampires.
Of course, you don’t need to work at a blue chip gallery to see this everywhere. It’s an entrenched feature of western consumer society, which is itself clearly a logical continuation of the colonial impulse. But along with fashion, the art industry is a particularly visible arena where black and, perhaps more recently, queer bodies become a coveted yet structurally (and symbolically) disempowered fetish.
JF: In many ways the art ‘world’/industry is the ultimate mutation of the imperial-capitalist fantasy. I’m fascinated by its absurd relationship to the production of value, which is at once so detached from reality but is also fully grounded in this long history of exclusion and oppression, whilst still claiming to be progressive. Liberals love to think they can absolve their sins through art and discourse, whilst billionaires use it as a playground to hoard an obscene amount of wealth.
I’ve always wanted to be an artist but it seemed impossible for me to make work within this context without addressing all of this. Even though the transience of dance and movement provides some inherent resistance to commodification, the body I am inhabiting is still disproportionately objectified. How to operate in this body without feeding the system and having all your blood drained is a huge question.
I think it’s important to be generative, not just critical, and I’m having to make distinctions between creating work to uplift our communities and work that’s purpose is to challenge the oppressive gaze that is embedded in our practices of cultural consumption. My solo work has focused mainly on this second mode of address - how do you make an audience aware of their active participation in these historic processes?
JF: In a durational work Brown Paintings for Renaissance Masters for example, I use mirrors and props to build tableaus around viewers that recall British Baroque portraits where black ‘attendants’ (slaves) were depicted alongside their masters and various other wealth signifying objects to flaunt worldliness and power. Here I’m thinking about how we can actively use dance and somatic practices to play with subject/ object positionalities. But also, it’s just a bit of a crude comment on how I’ve felt my image can be used – being put on display like an accessory by artists or institutions because I’m black mixed-race with cute hair – and ultimately how these racialised tropes and tendencies don’t die but mutate.
In this work and others, I am keen to consider blackness outside of the dominant frame which often equates blackness solely with the African American experience. I look to histories of the black subject in Britain and the lands it colonized, picking out smaller details that carry some weight. For a site specific work at Ashton Court in Bristol as part of In Between Time’s Creative Exchange Lab, I found that the former proprietors (the Smyth family) had built much of the estate through wealth generated on the Spring Plantation in Jamaica, where enslaved people and livestock were given the same names.
JF: As a descendent of people who were enslaved on such plantations in Jamaica, it felt powerful to draw from ballroom culture and perform a little catwalk ritual in this grand banquet hall, but I’m also ultra wary of the idea that taking up space is not enough. We need to be educating (I had research handouts), we need to be building community and building resources long term. Afro-futurism has taught me about the potential of fantasy for imagining beyond structural conditions in the interim, although at times I end up veering into Afro-pessimism as well.
For a short piece Sancho’s Big Day out I was thinking about the origin of the zombie in Haitian folklore and how the threat of zombification was used on plantations as a deterrent against suicide. This inspired me to create a little future myth about a mixed-race progeny of a slave owner who is reanimated through a mixture of bio-genetic engineering and voodoo in the 31st century, to be kept as a museum exhibit for a niche group of historians obsessed with some potentially queer love poems attributed to them.
The historic research that underpins the work is undeniably intense, but with the form I’m actively trying to resist sensationalising and reproducing images of disempowered bodies, or black and queer pain. If it seems unavoidable, I’m adding absurdity, melodrama, duration and repetition to reframe that.
I’m having to make distinctions between creating work to uplift our communities and work that’s purpose is to challenge the oppressive gaze that is embedded in our practices of cultural consumption.
JF: Crucially, I’m interested in employing somatic research and explorations of sensuality, presence, the transformative possibilities of affect, and the radical potential of embodiment through movement. I’m considering whether it is still possible for me as a performer to find agency amongst all of this.
To this point I’m really intrigued by a proposition made by Malik Gaines in their assessment of icon, mother, goddess, visionary and indelible inspiration Nina Simone: the idea that she is performing agency whilst acknowledging that the structural conditions negate that as a true possibility. I think I’m beginning to move away from this but a big preoccupation of mine has been whether there is emancipatory potential in this model.
AF: So much of what we talk about could be reductively termed as identity politics. We’ve talked privately about my feelings about the idea of representation being an end in its own right, but I just don’t see the point of representation unless it contributes to changes in political policy, unless it starts to change the rules and the conditions we live under.
For me identity politics was always a project about the redistribution of wealth. To that end, I want to talk a bit about the idea of having parts of a practice that aren’t necessarily visible to an audience, for example community building and activist work. I know this goes counter to what you just said but I wondered if you’d be ok to talk a bit about the volunteering you do? It feels important to share both the cause and the experience, and do you see volunteering, teaching and performance as separate?
JF: Absolutely, representation has value – as I said earlier, we need to see empowered models of ourselves – but it is wholly a means rather than an end. Of course, representation has been jumped on by institutions, brands, and even many ‘marginalised’ artists themselves, as the primary means of doing the work because it’s easy. But ultimately it just becomes a way of furthering their own image/money/power, and it ends up short-circuiting real systemic change in the process. Representation is the tip of the iceberg. At best it’s lazy, at worst, it’s violent.
JF: From the perspective of the marginalized body who is implicated, it’s always precarious because you are still inhabiting an image you don’t fully own. Images, representation - it is a shared language. There are real limits to an individual’s efficacy within this. Identity is important but the identity politics we now know are largely a neoliberal substitute for culture, community and collective action.
It’s the influencer industrial complex, based on clout and relentless individualism where identity is commodified and otherwise weaponized to breed division amongst marginalized groups as part of a wider culture war. We just need to look at Tory MPs like Kemi Badenoch or Priti Patel to see that there will always be minorities or people of colour who are so deeply in denial that they willingly replicate oppressive violence against people who look like them, and often to the most extreme degree.
Hurt people hurt people and I try to practice compassion. It’s just depressing that as a society we are so inept in our discussions around race that it's legitimate for these individuals to be used as human shields to deter criticism from what is ultimately a deeply racist political party, currently led by one of its most racist members.
JF: For the past few years, I’ve been increasingly devoting my energy to migrants rights activism with LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants) and direct support and advocacy work with Southwark Day Center for Asylum Seekers. As you begin to learn about the depth and scale of sheer cruelty, injustice and hypocrisy that this government actively encodes into policy as part of the hostile environment, it’s hard not to be drawn into doing more.
I see this work as quite separate to my artistic practice, and tbh ultimately more important, but they are both grounded in the same ethic and stem from a conscious awareness of the historic conditions that produce circumstances of prejudice and material inequality. Namely, a history of theft and the hoarding of resources by the UK, and the creation of borders to preclude equitable or reparatory access to those resources by people from previously colonized lands.
JF: A big part of this requires an acknowledgment that whilst I am black, whilst I am queer, whilst I am gender non-conforming, whilst I may not own property or have generational wealth, I am actually still very much the beneficiary of this system by virtue of where I was born in the world and the passport I own. I still hold a huge amount of privilege because of my access to education, where I was educated, the social and professional networks I have access to, because I have access to health care (big up the NHS <3) because I am able bodied.
This is my issue with identity politics as they are employed by many artists - this stacking up of certain marginalizations and wearing them like badges that supposedly read the same anywhere you are in the world, whilst we conveniently forget the intersections of things like class and education. There is this terrible inability to look beyond your own struggle and utilize whatever privilege you have to support others as part of a communal struggle.
If we leave activism and advocacy to those who hold optimal power and privilege then nothing will ever happen.
JF: If we leave activism and advocacy to those who hold optimal power and privilege then nothing will ever happen. Like surely that is the fundamental problem no? To remain within the ivory tower espousing rhetoric whilst doing nothing tangible to support other oppressed groups is just not an option for me. If my liberation still sits amongst inequality and the oppression of others it is not liberation, it is just another form of oppression. Migrants and asylum seekers have become one of the demonized groups in society, especially in the UK.
A disproportionately right wing press pander to this nation’s deeply rooted xenophobia whilst the government have spent 10 years pandering to this xenophobia and racism for their own political gain. Recently with LGSM we’ve been focusing on campaigning to close the Napier and Penally Barracks - these are filthy, disused, pre-demolition ex-army accommodation blocks which have been out of action for up to 15 years and have been used to forcibly house (essentially detain) asylum seekers who just risked their lives crossing the English Channel after fleeing war and persecution.
At the height of the pandemic, residents have been forced to sleep in communal blocks alongside strangers, with no opportunity to social distance or self-isolate, and no access to adequate healthcare. Napier barracks in Kent experienced a Covid-19 outbreak, with almost 200 people testing positive. Appalling conditions including sustained electricity and heating outages, a lack of drinking water, blocked toilets, broken plumbing, one shower between 34 people etc. all led to protests, suicide attempts, and a serious fire. Priti Patel has the nerve to blame the COVID outbreak on the residents and claim it’s an insult to the taxpayer and ‘our brave soldiers’ to suggest the accommodation is inadequate.
Meanwhile, leaked documents show that the Home Office purposely chose this scenario so that they wouldn’t look soft on immigration. This is just a snapshot of what is going on. It’s getting worse and will continue to do so. As the climate crisis worsens, what has been termed the present ‘migrant crisis’ will look minor in comparison. Get clued up and get involved if you can! My experience doing direct support work hasn’t always been totally easy, but it puts your life into perspective and working with others in a community of care is a privilege to be cherished.
AF: Ok, as this conversation is for QUEERCIRCLE and it's a word I've wrestled with, let's talk about the word 'queer;' how do you deal with it and what does it mean to you?
JF: I've said a lot so I will try and keep this short. For me there is a lot of appeal to a term that evades definition. In its purest form, I see 'queer' as open and expansive rather than limiting and definitive. A base acknowledgement that identity is an unfinished conversation, as Stuart Hall says in one of my fav definitions. I use queer because it can cover a lot of things about my identity that I'm still processing and that ultimately I don't feel like I really owe anyone an explanation of. It is kind of a catch all term that acknowledges the infinite subtleties and complexities of personhood that are beyond the scope of language.
JF: That language is itself a limit. I don't think we have sufficient language to name all expressions of gender and sexuality, but more importantly I don't think we necessarily need to. It's not so important to me at least. Gay was actually always a hard word to identify with as the pejorative associations were so strong from growing up - gay was the go to word for anything bad - and it still feels it carries the sadness of acceptance and tolerance rather than the irreverent celebration embodied in queer.
Also I think the main context I use the word is to distinguish between a party that is gay (white, male, homonormative, basic, judgmental, muscle queens) and queer (open, diverse in all genders and body types and desires, fun, cute looks). That being said, as with everything I can already see it being coopted and - I got some spam from Depop selling me 'queer' fashion the other day - and it's already verging on being overused/ mis-used but sadly I feel like that's inevitable. That's the problem when you create something good through counter culture, affluent straight white people want to come and steal it…
- Skin Flick, (production stills) video, 13 minutes 30 seconds, Adham Faramawy, performers: Peter Babbage, Joseph Funnell and Luke Hornsby, 2019
AF: Knowing that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, what are you working on now and what ideas are getting you through?
JF: So, at the end of last year I was preparing to adapt my piece Brown Paintings for Les Urbaines in Lausanne but sadly the festival was cancelled. I was really disappointed but also it made me think about what it is I am doing through this solo work and I became a bit turned off – by the narcissism, by treating it as low-key therapy, by having to sell identity within a framework of institutional critique when black institutional critique will never work because Audre Lorde tells us we will never dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.
Since then, the main thing I’ve been doing is actually utilizing this lull in activity to actually take time to genuinely focus on healing, on looking inwards and rewiring neurological pathways with meditation, self-study, journaling and yoga. I got a lot of inspiration on how to navigate this from an amazing online residency I took part in led by Raju Rage on intimacy in December/January. Last year, I was developing this self-intimacy practice with Atabey but I feel like it’s only in the past couple of months that I have really been able to fully tap into self-intimacy and take the pandemic as an opportunity to integrate it into my life.
JF: The effects have been kind of life changing tbh, and ironically, I’ve been generating a lot of new ideas naturally whilst sitting in this space of consciously not trying to produce or make my time productive externally. I’ve learnt to better provide for my needs and become a great friend to myself rather than an enemy. What I’m looking towards now is creating and facilitating spaces of black joy and communal healing for QTIPOC. The shape of this I’m still mapping out but hopefully it can begin soon after we are finally allowed to physically gather again. I have some tools and practices I want to share and I have a few incredible artists / facilitators in mind who I want to collaborate with.
In terms of solo work, I think I’m stepping away from putting my body out there all vulnerable and alone. For a lot of my previous work I have created / mixed my own tracks with found and recorded sounds, and this was actually an enriching process so I want to explore making some stand-alone sound pieces. It will give me a chance to re engage with my writing / spoken word practice and also to return to some embodied sound experiments I was doing as part of research for Hurakan Caress last year.
I need to skill up in terms of production but the idea is to mix tracks layered with sounds created purely by the body. Finally, I have another fantasy project in mind which is more out of my comfort zone. It involves putting together a band (lol), which I have a very specific vision for, and making some music videos but I won’t give away much more than that.
Joseph Funnell is an interdisciplinary artist, performer and activist based in London. They work with the intention to build spaces and resources to support migrant, diasporic and LGBTQIA+ communities in the context of the anti-colonial, anti-racist struggle. They are interested in creating ways to resist the commodification of identity, instead employing queerness and blackness as critical positions from which to interrogate structures that reproduce value. Their research-based movement practice considers the emancipatory potential of performing agency within contexts of historic marginalization and negation. In collaboration with Carlos Maria Romero they facilitate movement workshops to empower queer people of colour, built around somatic enquiries into the transformative nature of embodiment.
They have presented solo work at Steakhouse Live (London), Slap Festival (York), The Albany (London), CLAY (Leeds) and Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej Zamek Ujazdowski (Warsaw), and have performed internationally with collaborators at institutions including Tate Modern (London), Palais de Tokyo (Paris), Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam), the Swiss Institute (New York), and the Whitechapel Gallery (London). Outside of their artistic practice they organise as a member of the grassroots activist group LGSMigrants in the form of campaigning, fund raising and direct action, whilst they carry out direct support work and advocacy with Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers.
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