Echo @ Dundee Contemporary Arts

For every exhibition at Dundee Contemporary Arts, the public is invited to create its own responses to the work, in an ongoing project called Echo. Your response can take any form, and they’re exhibited, performed and so on at a special event. Recently, DCA hosted the first major European exhibition of the work of American artist Eve Fowler, and Jenny and I produced the response you see here. Below is our statement supporting it, which was read on the night.

We – a husband and wife team – wanted to reflect and further develop some of the ideas in Eve’s work, using the same vernacular in order to draw a close parallel between the original work and our response.

We both identify as feminists, something that acquired new dimensions when we had our first child, a daughter, three years ago. Watching her and listening to her talk, as she works out the world and bumps up against its limitations, and as we anticipate restrictions and opportunity throughout her life, is emotional.

In this response, we take things our daughter, Ada, says, and have Chris, her dad, transcribe and typeset them verbatim in a series of posters. The act of her voice being mediated through a literally paternalistic figure is key to the response; men have a crucial role to play in advancing the cause of feminism and equality, but in acting as the point of amplification, and even by being in control of choosing what gets amplified, we’re commenting on how deeply ingrained patriarchalism is in our society – and how even if well-meaning, it centralises power and sets tone and content.

The posters are Ada-scale and mounted at her eye level, a comment on how easy it is to overlook children and what they say, however significant. They use shiny, sparkly textures to set up a dialogue about how women’s spoken pitch and vocal fry often leads to their contributions being dismissed in cultural conversations.

The concept is Jenny’s, but after that spark of genesis her role gets deliberately sidelined; the response quotes Ada and is created by Chris. There is comment here too not just on the invisibility of women – “behind every great man…” – but also specifically on the erasing of mothers from society and its discourse.

Below are some photos of the work in situ, taken by DCA’s Helen Macdonald.

Tell your story

It took me until my early thirties properly to be exposed to a really simple idea: everyone around you, indeed, everyone all over the world, has a story that brought them to today, to this minute, this second, that is as rich and internally consistent as yours.

It’s so easy to think “Oh, Derek is an asshole,” or “Jill is going to kick up such a shitstorm about this” or even just to think that the part of someone you see every day in the office or down the pub or on the pitch is the whole and total of who they are. But inside their head, there is a whole multi-faceted narrative that lead them to now, and everything they do makes sense to them – just like how everything you do makes sense to you, or at least, can be rationalised or explained or at worst excused away. See also Hannah Gadsby’s wonderful recent polemic on how good men continue to redraw the line to put the bad men on the other side, or the much more academic, though still highly readable Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me).

This is an important lesson to internalise (and god knows I forget it so often) because it engenders empathy. Derek is not an asshole, he’s living and dealing with, oh, any number of things that are making him do assholish things. Things he might not even realise are things. Emotional literacy and self-reflection are hard.

But it took me to my late thirties to realise something else. As well as it being incumbent on me to afford others some leeway and empathy as I interact with them, recognising that their stories are more lavish and nuanced inside their heads than is apparent outside, I think we should also allow that richness to spill out of ourselves! Despite Brexit, despite Trump, despite the repugnant attacks that accompany historically marginalised groups reasserting their control over their identities and their destinies, I’m currently – today – feeling hopeful. Because around me, in the friends I have in cyber- and meatspace, and the media I chose to be exposed to, I see people much more willing to be emotionally vulnerable and honest. To allow people, in other words, to read that story inside each of us, and not to be afraid to show the world that we’re not the 2D cardboard cut-out people we usually feel we have to present as.

Much is made of social media’s tendency to let us – to tacitly encourage us – to present the best version of ourselves, and this is increasingly being called out for being unhealthy. And for sure, it basically is, although even there there is nuance; selfies, derided as vain and vacuous, can be a way of empowering people whose image was traditionally mediated through prescriptive gatekeepers, for example, and I’ve certainly shared posts on Instagram which look like the worst kind of Instagramminess, but which record and mark little personal triumphs of happiness for me.

But in my world, I’m seeing people using social media to articulate and own their issues, their problems and their insecurities – their stories. They’re prepared to show the workings-out of how you become a good and kind and whole person, rather than persisting in the fiction that they’re already complete, autonomous adults. And that’s marvellous, I think; I have become closer to friends who have embraced their chaos and their fuckups, and I believe people have been drawn closer to me when I’ve purposefully dismantled the façade I so carefully built from my teens on.

We are Pan narrans, the storytelling chimp, and telling the story of ourselves to those around us will help them understand and love us more completely. And if we listen carefully to that story as we tell it, we might just love ourselves more completely too.

An open letter about the open letter about homophobia

A currently running government and police campaign aims to address hate crime, and it’s getting lots of praise in my cosy liberal-progressive echo chamber. (I must add more soft furnishings!) And for good reason; it’s optimistic, inclusive, and has a message of love and tolerance.

There’s one line that rankles in one of the posters, though, and it’s a trope that is often used by GSRM people.

It’s “…because of who they love”. I know, and have been subjected to abuse by, homophobic people, and ‘love’ never enters into it. Their intolerance and fear and revulsion is not because of who we love but because of who we fuck. Picture it: a man stands up in a pub with his partner and declares “I love this man!” In a progressive city, he’s met either with polite indifference, or support. In a conservative city, awkwardness or hostility.

“I fuck this man!”? Very different. Even if it’s just because they know they risk vilification from progressives, conservatives and bigots tend not to fight about ‘love’, but they’ll fight about sex.

And I fear that GSRM people are being disingenuous, being all wide-eyed innocent, when we claim we’re discriminated against because of who we love. That may indeed be why we are, or it may at least be what it feels like for us, but I don’t think that’s why people feel licence to abuse us.

Love is noble and pure and good. Or at least, it’s complicated and disorientating and hard to define, which might actually just be what ‘noble and pure and good’ looks like from behind.

Sex is simpler. It’s not literally more visceral unless you’re into a kink I’m pleased to say up until this point it hadn’t occurred to me to imagine, but it’s certainly more animal. (That one we know about, by the way.) Our buttons are more easily pushed when it comes to sex, although most people counsel a little foreplay first.

GSRM people shouldn’t just be demanding respect from the cishet majority because we think they can just about stand non-heterosexual love being shoved down their throats.

Look, I’m getting silly, but there’s something here that seems important to me. Too often, society of all genders and sexual preferences use ‘love’ as a euphemism for ‘love and fucking’ because we think we can swing ‘love’ while hoping everyone else forget genitals will likely be involved. And that’s generally neither here nor there, but it bugs me a bit when GSRM people do it then feign outrage when cishet people crack their cunning code. How dare they? How dare they judge me for who I love?

I’m not saying they should be able to judge you for who you fuck either, to be clear, but this coyness, even deliberate dissembling about sex does nobody any favours.

If I’m going to be judged, let it be for the whole me, not some sanitised, saintly, de-sexed subset of me.

In praise of the three-door family car

The news of impending parenthood is shortly followed by the swift emptying of your bank account as you prepare the house to welcome junior. There is a temptation to upgrade your car, if not to a full people-carrier or Chelsea tractor, then at least to something roomy. Indeed, the three-door VW Polo we had was surrendered by its original owners as they upgraded to a Tiguan when they were expecting.

We didn’t replace our car, not because we knew better or we’re taking a principled stand, but because we couldn’t afford to. And yet, three years later, we’re really happy that purely thanks to luck and weak spending power, we are still driving that hatchback Polo, and I’d like to encourage prospective parents to stick with or even choose a three-door car.

First, hatchback boots are roomy, and having height as well as depth (something saloon cars lack) for luggage has saved us several times.

More importantly, though, is that because in three door cars the front seats fold forward and slide away from the rear, you can really get access to your baby or toddler in the back seat when loading them up or getting them out. This is probably less of an issue, at least pre-toddler, with ‘travel systems’ in which you put the baby in a self-contained seat that you separate from a fixed base and lift wholesale out of the car, but we chose not to afford this either, instead getting a non-removable seat into which we placed our baby, and in which she now sits as a toddler.

And flicking the front seat away, and having room to perch on it comfortably while facing the baby seat and carefully getting the kid secure and happy is wonderful. We didn’t even realise how how wonderful until we tried to settle our kid into a car seat in a five-door car, which involved an awkward sideways delivery, with less visibility of straps and buckles, and with a greater chance of knocking the kid on bits of the car as you manoeuvre them in. (Sorry, Ada.)

Had we had more money, we may have bought a bigger car, and bought a travel system. Had we done that, though, we’d probably have had a worse experience.

I love you, now and always

You’ve never felt your heart break quite like when your kid tells you that you don’t love them.

It’s not quite as dramatic as it sounds; at a simple level my daughter is just getting to grips with what love is, a question that has stumped even Foreigner.

She tells me I “don’t love her all the time”, and I believe that what she means is that, say, when I’m being firm with her, or roughhousing with her, or lose my temper I’m not being loving, and I think that for her, now, that single facet of love dominates any other meaning.

And okay then, fine; I just have to both help her grow the richness of her definition of love, and constantly demonstrate through word and deed that I love her more than anything else in the world. Job done.

I do, though, have some unresolved anxieties around those of my behaviours that she seems to interpret as me not loving her. She usually squeals with delight when I pick her up and snuggle her, and seems to genuinely love getting tickled, for example, but these are, I think, things that would fall into this category, and there’s a sense in there somewhere that she’s not wrong. Issues about consent and agency, and her body being hers alone – issues that would be true for a boy too but have particularly dark resonances when the power dynamic is between a male in a position of authority and a younger female in a more junior context – swirl in the mix, and need to be considered and reflected upon. This all, as her life stretches ahead of her for decades, isn’t simple.

But for now, tomorrow, I take the least complicated, purest step. “I love you, Ada. Now and always.”

Hiut Denim Co., can they fix it? (Yes, they can.)

I’ve been fortunate to be in a position in the past to buy two pairs of Hiut jeans. I like them because they fit well and look good, because I like the company’s schtick and its championing of local crafts-based skills and communities, and, of course, because all that resonates with the image I have of myself.

But I also like them because they offer a free repair service, in-keeping with their, and, increasingly, our, mission to redress the balance away from disposability. Jeans get ripped? Chuck ’em.

Not with Hiut. My original 2012 pair have already been back once to have the crotch repaired, and when my newer pair started to go too, as well as early parenthood having ripped the left knee of the first, they both went back at once.

And look at the results below. They’re beautiful. It’s neither trying to make the jeans look good as new, nor is it kintsugi, the Japanese tradition of explicitly highlighting repairs. They have developed their own robustly unique character and identity, organically, and if you’ll indulge me, it’s one of the quiet dignity that comes from having worked hard and still had care and attention lavished on them. I love that in repairing the knee – which was an gaping inches-long gash in the fabric – they’ve even colour-matched the thread to the worn patch on the knee. (New, the jeans are a dark indigo, and they fade and scuff and soften slowly with use.) They even tidied up the fraying hems, though I hadn’t asked them to.

Hiut has a customer for life in me. I can’t justify another pair just now, but though I was tempted to cheat with another label in the weeks during which these two were off being repaired, I knew they wouldn’t please me anything like as much as they do.

Repaired Hiut Denim jeans
Repaired Hiut Denim jeans
Repaired Hiut Denim jeans
Hiut Denim jeans label

Trick-or-treating in another guise

Every year, I see and hear stories about the American import of trick-or-treating at Hallowe’en. The ones I’m thinking of roll their eyes and almost audibly tut at this, another example of good, wholesome Brits swallowing another vulgar American import.

I have decided that this year I shall allow myself to get annoyed at this, and it’s for two reasons. The first is: and so what? It’s fun, exciting, and gives a focus for activities as the weather worsens, and it may even prompt some interesting discussions about spirits and evil and death that could help kids process the world around them. Don’t be such a wet blanket; buy some fun size Mars bars, make the effort to be more neighbourly for one night, and get over yourself.

More prosaically, though, I think it’s a shame that these reports – which usually emanate from a media machine which ostensibly serves the UK yet is persistently England-centric – demonstrate how little the prevailing cultural narrative makes an effort to understand and include the whole country.

Scotland and Ireland have long had a Hallowe’en tradition of guising, going door to door in the neighbourhood in fancy dress; it’s a little different from trick-or-treating in that kids usually do a turn – tell a joke, sing a song, do a trick – before getting sweets or pennies, and the familiar pumpkin lantern is instead a hollowed-out turnip. And I know the turnip bit especially sounds quite funny – the kind of “what is like a pumpkin but more drab and dour?” fiction you’d write in translating a real-world American tradition to your novel which features a population that if not explicitly modelled on the Scots are definitely a bit Scot-ish – but there are records of guising from long before America existed.

I know too that I sound humourless and chippy, and this is hardly a pressing issue, but at a time when so many forces seem intent on dividing us, it’s sad both that the UK can still be snobbish about arriviste American traditions, and that neighbours who don’t even have the excuse of an ocean separating them can still know each other so little.

Zig-zag butterfly

I finally realised a while back why parents’ anecdotes about things their kids say and do struck me as so banal before I became one myself: it’s because you have no calibration for what’s remarkable.

Anyway, tonight as I read my two year-old daughter The Cat in the Hat at bedtime, when we got to the line “And look! With my tail! / I can hold a red fan!” she said, with some effort, “Daddy, the fan is like a butterfly! A zig-zag butterfly! Like [the butterfly in the garden she named] Dotty!” And I am undone.

An illustration from The Cat in the Hat; the cat is holding a red fan in its tail which has a white zig-zag pattern on it

Driving each other crazy

If two cars reach an impasse in Britain, and one flashes its headlights to the other, it means “come on; I cede”. In France, it means “stay there; I’m going to push through”. Imagine the scene where a Brit in France or someone French in the UK gives or sees a flash and interprets it the wrong way, judged against the dominant convention in that place. There’s a crash, and both aggrieved parties leap out of their car, each thinking they’re in the right as they talk at each other, not only in a foreign language but from a completely different context.

Neither is right, neither is wrong; but both think both that they are right and the other is wrong, by sheer force of cultural conditioning. It’s not merely a question of perspectives, but of failing to realise that the lessons and values of your culture have been so subtly but fundamentally and perniciously codified into your worldview that you don’t think to ask if there could even be another perspective. What is this wanker doing? He flashed his lights for me to come on so I drove forward but then so did he and now there’s car on the ground and we’re both shouting at each other.

I think about this often.

‘Safe’

I went to bed last night as Twitter was just starting to twitch with news of something happening around London Bridge, assuming that when I woke it would either have been jumbled mis-reporting or the latest in the capital’s history of terror attacks.

This morning, as we read and listened and reflected, my daughter was playing on some foam climbing blocks when she slightly overreached her balance and toppled slowly off, crying – mostly from surprise – when she hit the floor.

It is a trite point, but, curiously, a legitimate and profound one too, that ‘being safe’ doesn’t – rather, shouldn’t – mean that one must never come to physical or emotional harm; it means an environment wherein you are confident in exploring and playing and expressing yourself, knowing that if you overreach and come to harm, there is kindness, support and comfort.

‘Never coming to harm’ is a dangerous fiction, one that legitimises and excuses authoritarian behaviour and policies that actively damage those for whose lives you are responsible.