Jak: Welcome to the Guide Gods Digital Collection, I’m Jak Soroka in conversation with Claire Cunningham. You’re listening to a series of podcasts created from the interview material collected as part of Claire’s show, Guide Gods.
Jak: Claire I wonder if you could say a small summary about the show for people that might be listening and haven’t seen the work?
Claire: Yeah, um, yeah. So Guide Gods was a show that I created in 2014, it’s a performance piece which is kind of a solo by me but I am accompanied onstage by Derek Nisbet who’s the musician who plays live and created all the sound score, and Louisa Mcdaid who’s the live captioning the piece all the way through as well.
In essence it’s a piece that tries to look at the relationship between religion and disability, or I guess the perspectives of different faiths towards disability.
I often work from a dance perspective but this piece has actually got a lot of text in it, a lot of language, more than my other works. It’s maybe a bit more like a drama piece, and is made up primarily of the audio recordings of the people that I interviewed interspersed with sort of my, my talking to the audience about the process and the journey of talking to these people.
Jak: Thank you. And I guess that’s where this digital archive idea then came from is that actually in the show of course there’s no way you could fit everybody’s /story in, and so the idea of these podcasts is to give a bit more of a window into some of the voices that are in the show and open up some of the questions and debates that the work brings up.
Claire: / [laughs] No.
[Excerpt from show]
Claire: Welcome, and thank you, [pause] for coming to be here with me tonight, and to share in the joyful discovery that I have made. For I am here to tell you that I have found the means to world peace. [pause]
Okay, that might be a little bit of an overstatement but, I think I’ve found something that brings all faiths together. Religion is often talked about as a cause of great division in the world, conflict even. But I, single-handedly, have found something that brings all faiths together, one unifying ritual in which they all partake. A ritual of welcome, of connection, of communication and generosity. The cup of tea. [Audience laughs]
Claire: I was interested in inviting you as another artist and as an artist with your own practice, to come and sort of, yeah have a relationship with this material and yeah to see how you would react to it and see what you are drawn to by it. And… Because yeah, I, you know… I’ve been on my own with all these interviews three years ago and they, you know, many of them, you know, stay with me, in different ways and have influenced me absolutely these meetings with people.
And so yeah, it’s also I think important that I didn’t ask an academic to come and curate these podcasts or a theologian, or somebody who is from a faith either specifically. I was interested in asking another artist and I’m, yeah I’m curious from your side, what your perspective is on approaching this, maybe as an artist, and what your practice, what you kind of maybe view your practice as and how it relates to this?
Jak: I think, well I guess to say a bit about the kind of work I usually make, it’s, I suppose you could put it in the realm of performance art, live art, and I like to work with time, which can mean durationally, but also really short pieces or really long pieces, and always working something out in the moment. So that even if I perform the same piece a number of times, I’ll be different after that performance. So I guess quite explicitly thinking about transformation and sometimes that’s quite obvious in that I’ll transform visually in some way, yeah and sometimes that’s a journey that’s just for me. And I, I guess I try to run away from it, but I always end up [laughs], gender always gets in there some how, gender politics or identity politics as you could call it. And always working from an autobiographical place but also that is directly related to being politicised around that.
And so I think the way this work speaks to me around conversations on responsibility of representation, that’s something I’m really interested in. Whose voice is out there and how is it out there?
And I think it also, the content challenges me because I’m not, I was brought up in a secular Jewish family. And so I probably had quite a cynical view of religion and quite a critical view of the way that it can perpetuate ideas of shame and these kinds of things, around disability but also around queerness, and transness.
But after, I guess I, I almost had a little advert into the material by transcribing the Manchester Jewish section, from a very practical point of view but actually it was so, they were such amazing interviews that I sort of, even before you asked me I knew I was interested in what the rest of the material was because I found those conversations to be so powerful. Even when people were speaking from standpoints that I don’t, don’t align with my politics I was interested in the ways those conversations still really touched me.
And also, debunking the myth that maybe is just in my own head around, spirituality, I think I built up a thing in my head that meant you couldn’t be spiritual and politicised, or that having a belief some- in a God or in a higher being somehow meant you weren’t as political, which I think actually that’s been one of the biggest things I’ll take from listening to everyone is that um, that’s just not true. So yeah, I think that’s all the ways it speaks to me.
What was really profound about a lot of the interviews is that, it was often about people’s self-acceptance and coming to terms in some way with their own identity and the way that that might be at odds with how the world or society sees it. And I think that that’s a big part of my own practice as an artist but also just as a person, yeah, self-acceptance, self-love, self care is always a theme that’s sort of running through my practice even if it doesn’t make it explicitly into the work, yeah and I think that’s another aspect that really interested me and drew me to wanting to work with the raw interviews.
Jak: I did have a question about why Guide Gods? I wondered about the title?
Claire: [Laughs] Um, I think it came from, I can’t quite remember the moment of deciding on it, but I know that it felt like, it definitely felt that there was something about journeying, was kind of quite, there was definitely a notion of journeying in this piece, of following some sort, not a path that was pre-laid, but sort of exploring, [laughs] through some sort of wilderness, so the idea of that.
But at the same time being aware that I was kind of being guided by each person, like being led to somebody. I felt like I was going to, I was starting with one person who would then lead me to the next person, and then that person would lead me to the next person/ I guess I did feel like a sense of me being guided that kind of came from. And then, because the piece was about disability I was kind of interested in making something that referenced disability, and so there was a whole thing of oh there’s guide dogs, guide dogs are these extraordinary sort of tools that guide visually impaired people around the world and it was like well actually no these are, this is about Gods.
And so it was kind of a, for me it’s a play on the term guide dogs, you know very blatantly, but it does– But yeah, it’s, I hadn’t quite foreseen the amount of people that get it wrong particularly on twitter. [Laughs] they tweet about how much maybe they’ve enjoyed the show but they get the name of the show wrong. But I also quite like the fact that it kind of messed people’s heads up a little bit because they would realise that they’d said guide dogs.
Jak: So let’s have a listen now to some audience responses to the show.
[Post-show audience clips]
Audience 1: What surprised me… was the possibility of the cacophony of views about disability and that it’s still possible to find a human, modest, real, response despite all the conflict, that’s what surprised me. It wasn’t about pitting difference against difference, it was a, it was, what surprised was that I felt emotional. That’s what surprised me.
Audience 2: It was very interesting the topic and, it was, um, I mean it opened up a window in a sense that I haven’t really made a connection before between the two issues, the inclusivity and faith. I actually, I’ve never, I think I’ve never thought about them together in this way.
This atmosphere of playfulness and the care, the care in every detail, the delicate, the quality was very delicate, like the, it’s a very powerful show and it’s a very powerful issue, like very complicated but it’s told in a way that is very delicate.
Audience 1: Religion as a topic could be so heinously difficult right, to navigate and negotiate and she brings a quality of care, that’s what I was talking to her about, a quality of care that makes me feel that she’s said more and impacted on me as a person more by making me feel the questions that she’s asking of everybody else and it was beautiful.
Well now I’m looking at it I love the arch of crutches, that’s brilliant.
Jak: Hopefully what this digital archive will achieve, even though it, it doesn’t cover all the same things as the show, I think that there’s the same duty of care applied in terms of the care around who’s voice is represented and in what way, and also that hopefully this makes that material accessible to people of faith but also to non-religious /people because I, yeah I certainly started listening as a, and would’ve considered myself a non-religious person, then was hooked in, so yeah that feels important to say.
Claire: /Yeah, absolutely.
Claire: I think the reality is that, in terms of where I found people and where I looked for people in my research I didn’t go to the places where maybe the people that had more extreme encounters and more extreme beliefs. I maybe didn’t go to those places and maybe I should have, you know, maybe that’s also a critique of the work is that it doesn’t go and talk to the people who are maybe causing the problems actually, and maybe that was my responsibility.
But partly I think I had to work with who came to me, who responded to my invitations to talk and who I had access to. But also I think retrospect there was a degree of self-preservation going on on my part, of going I’m not sure I’m equipped to be in a conversation with somebody that genuinely I feel might hurt me or upset, upset me about who I am, and really, I’m not sure I was ready for that at that stage and I’m not sure I’m interested in going there personally either, still.
Jak: That’s fair.
Claire: You know. I think I felt like my, I eventually sort of came to a point of going what I want to make is something that just provokes a conversation.
Jak: Thanks for listening to this introduction to the Guide Gods Digital Collection. This is just the beginning of a whole series of podcasts, where we cover more of the themes within the show. If we’ve made you curious, please join us for more conversations, where we discuss topics such as healing, inclusion and the nuance of disabled identity. You can listen to the rest of the series right here on the website.