In this introductory episode, Rajni Shah, Ria Righteous, and Julietta Singh reflect on their time working together towards what was planned as a symposium, but has now been translated into this podcast. They touch on themes of home, grief, disaporic identities, listening, trust, and preparing for a pandemic world.
Upcoming episodes feature a series of long-format conversations with Ria Righteous, Julietta Singh, Khairani Barokka, and Omikemi.
Read more about the how to think symposium at www.performingradicalequality.com/how-to-think
This podcast was made on Indigenous lands, including the lands of the Bidjigal, Gadigal, Woi Wurrung, and Boonwurrung peoples in so-called Australia, and the lands of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation on Turtle Island. We pay respects to the custodians of the lands on which we have created and edited these recordings, and we acknowledge that sovereignty was never ceded.
how to think is being co-led by artist Rajni Shah and Laura Cull Ó Maoilearca, the new head of DAS Graduate School, as part of the AHRC project Performance Philosophy & Animals, in partnership with the Centre for Performance Philosophy at the University of Surrey, UK.
Project conceived and delivered by Rajni Shah
Editing, mixing, and sound design by Fili 周 Gibbons and Studio Apothicaire
Recording and technical support by Roslyn Oades
Contributors: Ria Righteous, Julietta Singh, Khairani Barokka, and Omikemi
Special thanks to Theron Schmidt, Leo Burtin, Nadia Chana, Astrid Korporaal, Sheila Ghelani, and the Acts of Listening Lab
Before these conversations were recorded, podcast host Rajni Shah posted a small zine to each of their fellow listeners, in which they outlined the invitation for the conversation. You can download a copy of the zine for reference here.
[sounds of cello plucking and bowing a feisty little tune weaving in and out of the following words that begin each episode]
how to think is a series of slow conversations between humans who recentre the work of listening, healing, justice, and love. Created with recording and technical support from Roslyn Oades, and with editing, mixing, and sound design by Fili and Studio Apothicaire.
This is a DAS podcast, presented in partnership with the Centre for Performance Philosophy at the University of Surrey in the UK, and is part of the AHRC project Performance Philosophy & Animals led by Laura Cull Ó Maoilearca, Head of DAS Graduate School in Amsterdam.
For transcripts, full credits, and acknowledgments, including land and water acknowledgments, please visit the Performance Philosophy website which is linked in the show notes.
Thank you for listening.
Hello dear listeners, and welcome to the very first episode of this tiny podcast series called how to think. My name is Rajni Shah and I’m so excited to introduce this series of conversations to you. They’re slow, and intimate, and mostly quite long, so they definitely have a particular flavour to them. And I really want to encourage you to listen to them in a way and at a time that works for you and your body and your rhythms, whatever they are.
This introductory episode is kind of like a long, slow teaser for the rest of the series, in a way. Even though each episode very much has its own texture and shape, this one will give your ears a good ‘taste’ of the kinds of conversations that are to come. So in this first episode, I’ll hop in and out a few times to narrate what’s going on. But most of what you’ll hear are extracts from a reflective conversation I had in August 2020 with the wonderful Ria Righteous and Julietta Singh, both of whom also feature in their own episodes, which I’ll tell you more about at the end.
Now I’m going to share with you the opening of my conversation with Ria and Julietta, which begins with an extract from a meditation that Ria led to help us arrive in our bodies – followed by each of us in turn speaking about where we are situated, and what’s present for us.
Ria [extract from guided meditation]:
Okay, so… As a way in to land in the body and to come together, I'd like us to start by just closing our eyes and just making sure that we're in a comfortable position that we can stay in for around 10 minutes. And [breathes out] we’re just going to let go a little bit now. So just… allowing the breath to come in through the mouth and just letting go.
[sounds of breath]
And you can just feel on the inbreath any tension around the shoulders or the neck or the arms. On the outbreath, you’re just gonna let it all go… And just sinking down down into the body.
And we're gonna practise a breath called ‘coherent breathing’ which will be done through the nose. And it's a very simple shape of breath where we'll count to four breaths in through the nose. And then we'll breathe five breaths out. Then we'll breathe four breaths in through the nose. And then we’ll breathe six breaths out. And this is still through the nose. And we'll continue this until we get to ten breaths and then we'll go into a new rhythm. And I'm gonna count with you.
So when you're ready, we're going to breathe in one, two, three, four. Breathe out, two, three, four, five. Breathing in two, three, four. Breathing out two, three, four, five, six. Breathing in two, three, four. Breathing out two, three, four, five, six, seven. [sound of guided meditation slowly fades out]
So I am on Powhatan lands in what is now known as Richmond, Virginia. In a country that has always been unbelievable, and has become even more unbelievable. I'm in quarantine - self isolation - like the rest of you. It's very rainy here. You can probably hear the birds singing in the background. It's morning time, it’s just after 7:00 in the morning. And I think the meditation that Ria opened us with was so beautiful and important to me, especially now, in this time, in bringing me into my body. Because I am in a moment, a kind of… a recurring moment of trying to run from it very hard because of a chronic condition in my spine that keeps me coming back and forth into a kind of crisis. So I've been trying to stave off crisis for months. And I'm feeling very grounded in my body for the first time in quite a while. So I'm very, very, very grateful to be here with you both, and for Ria's guidance through that beautiful process of making the body a space of welcome and generative desire rather than something to flee.
[soft sounds of chimes, and ghostly cello playing]
I'm at home in the city of Salford in England. United Kingdom, Great Britain, the Empire. Colonial lands. On the border, actually, between two big industrial cities: Salford and Manchester. I live by a water called the river Irwell, which is the river responsible for the industrial revolution in this country. It took a lot of pollution and neglect. And it's recovered and there's now life back in that river. I see this land partly as my home and also I feel that my body is my home more than this land. And right now my body is housing life that is very active and excited to hear your voices. Well, actually, no, they can't hear your voice, but I feel like they can… they've been moving a lot since we started this call and they've been quiet all morning.
And yeah, so this is where I am in my body. And how it connects to the land right now is a question actually. A very personal choice I'm making about my body right now is: when I birth my child Justice I have decided to plant a tree for them with my placenta as the nourishment for the tree - to honour the body and the organ that has nourished my child, but also to anchor us in the land with a new beginning and another life, a life of the planet. To grow with Justice and know that wherever we may go, we have begun a new life and a new legacy that we hope will rewrite or change the history of this place in some way.
[soft sounds of chimes]
I'm in an office, in a university, on a campus that's closed, at almost 10pm. On the unceded lands of the Bedegal people. I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. And yeah, I'm very aware of being… I’m never on my lands when I'm here, but also of not being on home land. And so I've kind of set up camp in this little office, but it's quite surreal. I have a slight fear that somebody’s gonna come and knock on the door and ask what I’m doing here! [laughs] And it's such a strange time to be on a campus.
I so often struggle to come into the present moment. It takes a lot. And we have this strange setup with, you know: I've got all the tech - I've got two different kinds of headphones on; and then I've got this little altar here with some crystals and stones and… [laughs]. Um. Yeah, so I'm feeling all of those things. But I've also just been so excited to spend a bit of time with you both. And as a continuation of the conversations that we've had that have just been so beautiful and nourishing and permissive. I feel like, you know, they've emerged at the rhythm that they needed to for each of us. And that's been so beautiful… to be inside that without any pressure, but also with the invitation that at any moment, if it felt right, I could speak to you both or send something.
And a few people have asked me, you know, what's the podcast about? [laughs] And it's such an odd question to answer. Because I know - I feel like I have such clarity in a way, in my body - but it it doesn't translate that easily into words. It's also late in the day, which for me is usually a time when I'd be asleep. I think there's something really beautiful about that. I really would love to be a late night kind of person. … And so, yeah… that’s a little bit of where I’m at.
[soft sounds of chimes]
I keep thinking about the question of home. In so far as you, Rajni, being away from home, and Ria, discovering a kind of home in the body. And thinking about how so much of what I… so much, I think, of what I'm unconsciously aspiring toward, or maybe not even aspiring toward, but wrestling with, is: I don't think I have ever felt the feeling of home. I think in part because of being a diasporic person that comes from diasporic people. Also from… also due to race and racism. But I feel that I've moved in so many directions across so much time and space, but I don't have that feeling of home. So something about the beginning of this time with you both and the conversation that's unfolded even just in its beginning so far is really reminding me of the politics of home and the feeling, or lack of feeling, or tensions, or discovery of home.
[soft sounds of chimes and gentle cello]
During this next part of the episode, Ria, Julietta and I reflect a little bit on how we met – and how the modes of thinking and feeling around this project contrast with what we’re used to.
A couple of things that might be helpful to know before you listen to this section. We were of course recording this in the context of COVID19, and part of what we reflect on here is the fact that we first met nine months prior to this conversation to work towards hosting a symposium that never happened. However, as we discuss, the ways in which we chose to gather and to work together meant that this was not just a working relationship but a kinship and a friendship that was constantly undoing the dividing lines between those categories.
It might also be helpful to know that in the set up for this conversation, and the conversations that follow in later episodes, I explicitly invited us to value silence (or quietness) as much as speaking, to avoid direct questions, and to embrace inarticulacy, so that the conversation that needed to emerge could emerge through listening.
I’ll be back at the end to tell you a little bit about the upcoming episodes, and when they’re being released. Now, here’s Julietta:
I keep thinking about the strange way that we have come together, which arrived for me as an invitation that felt like an academic invitation, like any other academic invitation, where I was invited to give a talk at the ICA in London. And I wondered, should I do it? Should I not do it? And it sounded interesting. And I said yes. And then some time passed and I wasn't sure what was happening with it. And then I think, Rajni, you reached out, and at some point we decided we were gonna get on a Zoom call.
And I saw you both, and we had a very slow patient introduction in which we did no planning for the event! [laughs] And I came out of the conversation about the event knowing nothing more about the event than I knew when I entered in [laughs]… but somehow in the course of that conversation, had made a kind of commitment to you both that the three of us would become intimate over time and see through this kind of intimacy with strangers what might unfold and what we might do in the spring at the ICA in London - which of course never happened because of COVID.
But it's been… You know, along the way we were sending little voicelets to each other from very different places and times. All of our bodies in motion or relocating. Me between, mostly between Richmond, Virginia and New York City. And at some point, Ria was in Manchester, but then Ria was in Puerto Rico, and then back again. And Rajni, you’ve been in Montreal, and Australia, and we've all been sort of floating through space and in, I think, strange states of motion even before… before COVID. And somehow I keep thinking about … when I would describe what I was doing with you two, I would say: I'm basically just becoming intimate with strangers. [laughs] I've committed to becoming intimate with strangers. But, like, brown strangers that I love already. You know? There was already... like, you could be my siblings. But my siblings with no negative baggage. [laughs]
So there's been something so interesting. I remember in December going through a very hard time and having not communicated for a little while and just telling you: I'm going through a really hard time. And it's so exceptional, you know, that I would confide in you both, whom I know and don't know, with such confidence. And in some way, I think retrospectively - although we never could have known it - it feels like a perfect practice for a pandemic world, to realise that we could have done this thing, which is to become deeply bonded across time and space without ever having made contact. And yet still feel the kind of power of a… of a kinship and a sociality in the making.
Mm, yeah. I feel like we trusted each other!
But something happened in that first meeting that… I actually think the work started before the first meeting because… you… lost your… I feel like it was a dog?
Is it me you're talking to?
It is, yeah.
Yeah. I lost my dog.
It was right around when we were going to meet for the first time, I think, that that was happening. So we had this little dialogue on email about that. And you were saying, I think I can still make it work. And Ria and I were both like, No, don't make it work! Do what you need to do! This is important! This is part of the practise - that we don't just make each other show up to meetings because we’ve put a meeting in the diary. It's about something that's bigger than that.
And I always felt like that… that was the beginning somehow.
Yeah, I really remember that moment now. But also, I remember the emotion. I felt a huge amount of empathy and concern for your experience of that loss, Julietta. And wanting you to know that you had all the time you needed to... That this work … or, this was the work… and nothing comes before the needs of a grief process or, you know, wherever life takes us. I’ve felt strongly about that for some time now. And I sometimes forget that we live in a... we've been living in a world that makes us feel like we have to prioritise our, I guess, time and labour over our experiences of being in the world.
And this was the first work I've been invited into, to work with Rajni in what we might call the ‘the arts’ and/or ‘academia’ or ‘research’ that allowed me to be fully in that truth unapologetically. I have found no other space that would allow me to be in this full truth of: being comes before doing; the truth of the experience comes before the cognitive hierarchical expectations of output. And I really grew in myself and as a practitioner in that invitation…in a way that… I love how you explained it, Julietta, of coming out of a meeting and not knowing any more information than when you came in. [laughter] I celebrate that so much! But then there is a knowing as well. There's a different type of knowing that isn't so cognitive and that doesn't look like a spreadsheet - although secretly Rajni has those things [laughter] on a computer because they’re very organised -
I can love a spreadsheet, it's true, in the right moment! [more laughter]
Yeah, there was such hope and wonder in this project, in coming together in this way. And yeah, this spark of creativity ignited in me that I hadn't felt for a while. And it was like a freedom, a sense of freedom. And reclaiming the understanding of what art and research can be, and not what I've been taught to understand it as being. And it felt like a very very old knowledge coming back through that has wanted to be able to live for a long time, but there'd been too much noise for it to speak fully, to speak itself fully into existence.
I feel like… the practices… you talked about them as feeling something very old. And I do feel like, you know, in some ways it's so simple. It's very simple what we're doing. In some ways. It's… it's care, it's compassion, it's being present and honest and kind. And allowing intelligence to come through that way. And I guess, yeah, I don't know, while you were speaking, I was thinking it's… you know, it's not complicated. But somehow... I think the thing that feels complicated is that way of being in relation to the systems that we're used to working within. And when all of that has to become some kind of resistance, I think it becomes complicated, because then you have to explain it in all of these terms that don't belong to it.
It's interesting to hear you both talk about the kind of institutional or extra-institutional modes of feeling and thinking and being that you have experienced around the whole project. Because I think for me - maybe it's because I'm so institutionalised already [laughs] - but I kept… I think my focus was always, or my attention was always on … I almost wasn't thinking institutionally at all. I was thinking about what it means to commit to a friendship that has no foundation. You know?
I think it's like - in a way it felt extremely childish in the most beautiful, capacious way. Because we carry so much with us as we get older. When you're kids, you just meet someone and they're like: okay, we're friends! You know? And we do that much less as adults. We have so many more filters and screens and shields. And I think there was something extraordinary for me about just saying: okay we're friends! I have no idea who you are. [laughs] But we're going to make a little community. Um, yeah. I think my experience across the whole arc of what has become ‘us’ is really about a kind of return, that is also a rejuvenation of something that is so easily lost, quite lost, when we… when we move through our lives, lose certain access points and certain kinds of openness and vulnerability toward other adult bodies.
It's interesting, when you were saying that we don't do that as adults because… I think I do! And I think that's also why I’ve found so much so hard! Because most people don't. And I really have made friendships and thought they were friendships and they weren't always for other people. And so, yeah, I mean, I agree about: this work and these relationships feel very different to me. They feel very different to me, like I can bring myself in a way that I can’t in other relationships. But also, I feel differently about what can be received. And I… yeah, I don't want to let go of that openness and trust.
I once had this experience in London. This might sound a bit bizarre but… I got on a train, like an overground train or the… I can't remember, like some London train. And I was in this carriage - it was the London overground - with some people. And we travelled like... two or three stops, maybe five stops at the most. And somehow during that time, I remember feeling like… I'd become very attached to these people, and I was sad to say goodbye! And we hadn't… I don't even think we had talked. And that just came to mind when you said that.
I don't think I've ever talked to anybody about this before, but I spent so much of my youth riding the buses in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in Canada, where I was born, inventing relationships with strangers and really, like, developing them. [laughs] Maybe they didn't even look at me or maybe they looked at me and then I would create something. But, um… there's something so interesting about moving - movement with other bodies, and the sort of creation of a kind of collective movement with them into the future. I had a lot of very developed relationships with strangers on the bus in my childhood!
That's so interesting. I did the same thing on trains. Because my parents separated - I was born in Manchester, and when my parents separated, I think I must have been about eleven or twelve when my mum would put me on one end of the train and my dad would pick me up the other. But then as I got older, I used to make my way to the train station, and I got really clear about the different routes and possibilities. And when I was 13 - they now have these barriers at all the stations in the UK, but back then they didn't, so if you didn't have to have money to travel, you just had to hide from the ticket master! [laughs] - and er… I went on an adventure often, alone, without telling anyone. And I would just sit for hours on trains and go to places I'd never been to before in the country and make friends with strangers and… trust.
I'd learn so much about people and places. And I could never figure out why – and I carried on doing that right up until I was about 16 or 17 – and I was trying to understand it again, as an art project, back in 2011, and I lived on a train for two weeks solid. And I travelled, and I wondered if it was a metaphor for being diasporic. For the comfort of constantly being in motion and constantly being in and out of relationship to people, to others from different places, and seeking. Seeking and searching for some kind of connection to place or people.
But I also discovered in that time that my grandparents had spent their entire lives post migration from Jamaica to the UK working for British Rail, when it was a national system before was privatised. And so their labour and their energy and their lives were spent building and creating these networks and being in service to them. And so I also realised it was a way to be close, perhaps, to their… there was a kind of inheritance, of – these lines belong to me… that these networks are, you know, are my ancestors. Mm.
[sound of gentle chimes and distant cello]
I wonder if we might think a little bit about futures… in any way that resonates really. I think I had written [in the letter I sent before our chat] something about: what futures can you touch? But also, what seeds?
I'm really… I’m really into seeds in terms of rethinking ‘work’ and how, like, for example, if you have a roomfull of people and you're leading a workshop, rather than thinking about what has to happen within the workshop, just thinking about it as seeding feels so much… well, feels so much more accurate actually in terms of what a workshop is about. But also, there's something about thinking - like actually really thinking in the moment - about seeding rather than product that changes a lot for me.
One of the things that I keep thinking about is… You know, I think many of us who are deeply, maybe inextricably embedded in advanced capitalism and neo-colonialism against our own politics and our own desires, have been incredibly future-oriented. Which is to say… committed to a kind of amassment or a next stage or a next platform or a next achievement. And I think one of the interesting things about being with you both here and now in the … in the midst of a global anticolonial decolonial movement in the aftermath of George Floyd's death and so many other Black deaths, and all of the politics of the monuments that are happening here and in the U.K. and elsewhere… there's something interesting about the future actually becoming now.
And COVID has been so important to that too. Which is to say, there’s no more waiting in anticipation of what's to come because what's to come is already happening and also unknowable. And, you know, on an entirely micro level, this already is our future because our event that we were working toward has already passed and never happened. And there's something about time and temporality that gets entirely blurred. And I think, you know, because of this nexus of forces, both ecological, environmental, political, in a sense, there is no more future… or there's only future, and we are in it, and it is now.
Everything you said, Julietta, really resonated in that, you know, the future is now. We've been brought into this present moment collectively, and that is really, really what has happened to us. And there's so much possibility and opportunity in that, in the seeding of that moment, of this moment, of this present.
And yet I'm here on this land, in this place, in this society that from just two weeks ago maybe, has just flipped [clicks fingers] straight back into business as usual. And we're just going to pretend that we're not seeing the masks that everyone's wearing and the little signs on the floor - that are so discreet and normalised - that we stand two metres apart. Because besides those things, nothing has changed. And it's as if… nothing ever really happened. And there was just a pause somewhere in March and now we're somewhere in August and everything is how it was before.
Every single business that is a franchise or a, you know, a huge capitalist business is open, and there are queues that go all across the car parks. And I just sort of felt very distressed by it all. And how it made me feel like we are… holding on to something that was never good for us. And holding onto a way of doing things and being in the world that does not serve us, you know, just does not serve us. And I wonder how we bring more people into the dream state. Because… taking away fast food restaurants is a good thing, but if I see a huge queue outside of them when they reopen, it tells me something about what people's relationship is to that. And I think we can dream something different for us to look forward to reopening or opening. Something better for us. Something better for our bodies, something better for our minds, something better for our communities.
I like the question: how can we bring more people into the dreaming? I like that question a lot as a kind of place to close that feels like also a beginning of a conversation and thinking-through and feeling together.
[soft chimes and ghostly cello sounds fade in]
So good to be with you both. Always.
Thank you so much for joining us for this first episode of how to think. I hope you’ve enjoyed the listening, and that you might join us for the next four episodes, each of which features a slow and often intimate and vulnerable conversation between myself and another person. The next two episodes, which will be released on the upcoming full and new moons, feature Ria and Julietta, who you heard today. Then after a short break we’ll publish two more conversations featuring two of the people who would have been guests at the how to think symposium had it happened: the wonderful writer, poet, and artist Khairani Barokka, and the wonderful writer, healer, mentor and artist Omikemi.
As we close, I want to reflect briefly on how my own involvement with this project began, and how that relates to what you’re hearing today. In 2018 artist and academic Laura Cull Ó Maoilearca invited me to be part of a research project on performance philosophy and radical equality. It was very clear to me in that moment that if I was going to be involved then my part in the project would need to be led by queer people of colour. And while the conversations in this podcast are so much wider and wiser than the narrow constructs of race and racism, we still live within worlds that very much uphold White Supremacist values. So this podcast centers the voices of people of colour, as a way of reorienting the worlds in which we live and listen. In practical terms, this has often meant that Laura’s role, as somebody who identifies as ‘white,’ has been to step back, to listen, and to trust me while supporting the project financially and logistically. This normally behind-the-scenes part of the project felt important to speak out loud as part of this introductory episode.
So I’ll end there. Thank you so much for your listening. Join us next time for a deep dive into the work of healing and dearmouring with Ria Righteous. Bye for now.
[end of Episode One]
Performance Philosophy & Animals: Towards a Radical Equality. 2021. 'how to think' [symposium]. Accessed 6 February 2021. https://www.performingradicalequality.com/how-to-think
Fili 周 Gibbons (we/them/us) are a musician and recording engineer working across a range of community and professional contexts to support plural voices, expressions, and sonic experiences. As well as leading community workshops they frequently work with other sound and video artists, drawing on listening, memory and intuition as guiding forces in collaborative making practices. Their work interfaces with plural cultural histories and experiences, intangible arts traditions, and community-oriented sound practice.
Julietta Singh is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Richmond, where she teaches courses on decolonial literature, the ecological humanities, and queer studies. She is the author of three books: No Archive Will Restore You (Punctum Books, 2018), Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements (Duke UP, 2018), and her forthcoming work of epistolary nonfiction, The Breaks (Coffee House Press and Daunt Books Originals, 2021).
Rajni Shah (they/them) is an artist whose practice is focused on listening and gathering as creative and political acts. Key projects—always created alongside and in collaboration with others—include hold each as we fall (1999), The Awkward Position (2003-2004), Mr Quiver (2005-2008), small gifts (2006-2008), Dinner with America (2007-2009), Glorious (2010-2012), Experiments in Listening (2014-2015), Lying Fallow (2014-2015), Song (2016), I don’t know how (to decolonize myself) (2018), Feminist Killjoys Reading Group (2016-2020) and Listening Tables (2019-2020). In 2021, Rajni will publish a monograph and series of zines as part of the Performance Philosophy Series, entitled Experiments in Listening.
Ria Righteous is an artist and healer. Their practice overall is a contextual life enquiry, which responds to generations of systemic violence & oppression and is concerned with the decolonisation, healing, reclamation and transformation of psyche & soma. Extensive auto-ethnographic research, tacit knowledge and esoteric practices heavily inform their work. Healing and integration is both their praxis & political action.
© 2021 Rajni Shah, Ria Righteous, Julietta Singh, Fili 周 Gibbons
Except where otherwise noted, this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.