Monday, 31 October 2011

Dispatches from ASAP/3 number 2 (for yesterday)

Okay so I fell asleep last nite before I had a chance to blog, and altho I needed the sleep I also had some stuff to day about the conference. So, we'll say that this blog post is for yesterday and then I'll do another one later for today - I'm flying back to Toronto tonite so maybe it'll be when I'm home in Canada safe n sound :)

We gave our presentations yesterday in the conference, and they went well... although there were three of us on the panel and only three in the audience, which equals the previously worst conference audience which was from MELUS (Multi-ethnic literatures of the US) conference in Texas back in 2004. Actually, in some ways this is a good comparison - those of us on the 'Pacific' themed panel at MELUS had mistakenly assumed that people who were already interested in 'Multi-ethnic' things would be interested in the Pacific, but it turns out they didn't really know what do do with us. They were very excited about their consciousness around the 'five basic foodgroups' as one of my friends used to say (White, Black, Latin@, Asian, American Indian) and the Pacific? Well, the Pacific was invisible.

At this conference, the biggest problem was women.

Now, I'm not only saying this because our panel was all women (although I think it's a factor) and I actually really enjoyed our panel and feel that we had a great conversation... and our three audience members as well as our other panellists loved the whole thing...

I'm saying this because it was something that ran through the whole conference. Gender politics and sexism are things we keep thinking should have been dealt with by now... I mean, the 70s were a long time ago now and surely we won't need to keep on pointing out all the obvious things all the time, like when women are invisible or silent or relegated only to certain positions?

And yet, at this conference the featured panels (roundtables) tended to be all men, two of the three keynotes were men (and one of them managed to speak fluently and interestingly for an hour and a half and only mention any women about 3 times, including musical influences, critical influences, people who matter, etc - thanks DK Spooky! spooky alright), the organisers are almost all men, there were many more men than women participants, and in several sessions the only people who asked questions were men.

Like, seriously? Like, it's 2011 and this crap still goes on?

Well of course it does - sexism is alive and well in 2011. It was enlightening but also sobering to sit with my co-panellists Lesley and Linda after our session and have a couple of drinks and hear about their experiences as women in academia over the years... And really, things haven't changed. I can see it in my home institution, I can see it in the media, I can see it in politics, I can see it in business, I can see it everywhere... After all of these years and all of these struggles, the thing that surprises me is that I can't write the previous comments with the word "we"... Clearly I can't assume that "we can see it" because "we" apparently can't... maybe you, the read of this blog, can, but for so many people the basic questions posed by feminism about structures (explicit and covert) that privilege men and marginalise women are missing from their analysis of their world.

I want to be clear (in case there was any doubt at all) that I love and adore men. I just also happen to think women are deserving of as much love and adoration, and I think we all miss out when sexism suppresses the contributions women can make to any context. Women miss out the most, but so do men.

Several of the men at the conference were surprised when I commented that this was a very men-centred conference, which i admit I found interesting because this conference is called ASAP because it's the Assoc for the Study of Arts of the Present. The whole point of the association is to study the 'contemporary'... and because this is only their third conference, it's early days and they haven't had to inherit old structures or had time to get set in their ways. And yet, the stuctures that underpin the association (and by this I mean the things they take for granted, the ways they operate by default, the things they don't notice because they don't have to) are very old-fashioned. (And not only about gender, I must add: the only other panel which was as poorly attended as our one was the panel I went to on Black film, most of the participants where white, and I don't believe there were papers that engaged with sexuality either. Oh, and despite the theme of the conference being 'Arts of the Planet,' the topics engaged at the conference were very very American.)

This is the thing about sexism: it's not just about the presence or participation or visibility of women, but it's also about the things that are taken for granted and then questions that are not asked so noone can notice whether women are involved or not. Sexism can be blatant, but it can also (and in some ways this is harder to fight) be subtle. I don't believe I heard any specifically sexist comments (women can't write, women artists are inferior, etc) at the conerence, but the people at the *centre* of the conversations (both having them and being the subjects of them) were men.   

What does this mean? How does a brand new organisation manage to copy the same sexism that we might expect of something from 'back then' rather than start with everyone at a level playing field?

We have to name sexism (and racism and homophobia etc etc) when we see it - that's what I'm doing now and that's what other women did this weekend too - and we need to shift the structures that underpin it. At the same time, because sexism (and racism and colonialism etc etc) are everywhere, some days it gets a little tiring just to think about how much work needs to be done. It doesn't help, either, that so many people live in a fantasy world where they think that sexism is 'over' and so people who talk about sexism are paranoid, neurotic or obsessed that it gets even more tiring...

So for me, I won't be back to ASAP. We have to pick our battles and I'm not picking this one. I believe in the arts of the present and I believe in studying the contemporary... but this is just not how I roll.

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