OMG SPACE. Proper classroom space!

*Note: scroll to the bottom of this post for a 30-page preview of my new book, Theory for Theatre Studies: Space!

Every winter term, the faculty teaching at my university get a message from the people at WALS, the office in charge of Western’s Active Learning Spaces. The message invites us to apply to hold our next year’s class(es) in one of the several WALS rooms on campus.

Every winter term, I ignore this message. There’s a simple reason: I assume these rooms are Not Meant For Me. They are big; they hold a good number of students. My classes are small; they are arts-based and niche. Of course, I reason, working in one of these rooms would be absolutely ideal for the way I teach; but no way, I caution myself, would WALS give me one of these rooms. Why allocate precious classroom space that could hold 60 to a class with only 18 students in it? No chance, I tell myself. DELETE.

This winter term, though, I did something differently. I stopped myself from indulging in the defeatist, scarcity-driven reasoning in the paragraph above. I asked myself: what actually governs who gets WALS spaces? Perhaps I should find out?

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Students in a third-year class, Environmental Change, work in a WALS space at Western in 2014. Photo courtesy of the WALS Flickr gallery.

I emailed the person behind the message, a terrific, energetic, pedagogy-forward graduate student called Cortney. She told me – and reader, my jaw did drop – that the WALS rooms are assigned FIRST COME, FIRST SERVED. For reals. She then offered to take me on a tour of the brand-new WALS space in my newly renovated building, Western’s historic University College.

Cortney and I met up a couple of weeks later. I was astonished by the capacity of the room she showed me! It features seven pods, which is WALS short-hand for seven tables equipped with 6-8 chairs, their own projector, a white board that doubles as a screen AND an e-board, plus extra mobile white boards for playing around. There are connection hubs on the tables for all manner of devices, and a USB port for saving whiteboard work. Each pod also comes equipped with the capacity to run Solstice, the third-party software that allows students to beam the screens of their devices (phones/tablets/laptops) to their pod’s projector via an app to share with their groups.

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A glamour shot of my new space in Western’s University College. The natural light is especially welcome!

The room is also big, open, circular in flow, and clean. It is, in other words, the uncanny opposite of every other classroom space I have ever been assigned, at Western or anyplace else.

My first reaction to my WALS tour was:

HOLY SHIT. This classroom is unbelievable!

My second reaction was:

WHY ARE MORE CLASSROOMS NOT LIKE THIS???

I’m not going to delve deeply into the latter question today; the reasons are, I’m sure, more complex than I assume – though maybe not.

(I assume: because retrofitting space is expensive, and upgrading tech is expensive; because universities in my province, let alone everywhere else, are currently being squeezed YET AGAIN by another myopic provincial government; and because frankly, at the end of the day, teaching labour remains undervalued by most of the folks who control the money. Meanwhile, students and teachers, who know experientially the value of good, flexible space to the practice of effective pedagogy, have remarkably little say in how their work is organized physically. ARGH.)

Instead, I’m going to tell you what happened after I caught my breath. I immediately applied to have all of my 2019-20 classes held in the WALS space in my building (spoiler alert: IT WORKED!). Then, I asked Cortney if I could move my current undergraduate class – the history of performance theory class I was teaching in a tatty, furniture-stuffed, under-cleaned and under-resourced room in a nearby building – into my building’s new WALS space right away.

And she said yes.

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My ideal classroom – for all subjects! A light-filled, open-plan studio.

Right after reading week, my intrepid gang of performance theorists and I moved over to our new home. And what a transformation we experienced!

Right away we noticed a difference in our engagement and interaction during class time.

First of all, sitting around pod tables means students are easily organized to see each other, talk to one another (and not just to/at me!), and work together without any excess labour. In our old space, we spent easily 5 minutes at the top of each class trying to move the tables in the room into a seminar configurations, shifting excess tables and chairs as well out of the way as we could. It was annoying and often frustrating; the room showed us that it was not actually meant to be tinkered with, not that much anyway. As the term advanced and our energy levels declined, this work just began to seem onerous. The result? We started simply putting up with badly-arranged tables, spreading ourselves around the room in any way that seemed physically easiest. Conducive to group learning this was not.

In the WALS space, all that extra work was simply removed: now, we just walk in, watch the light come up, plop our stuff at our preferred pods, fire up Solstice on our phones and laptops, and get ready to talk, think, experiment, and learn.

Meanwhile, I noticed a huge difference thanks to the efficiencies the room afforded me as instructor. The instructor’s console is at the centre of the room, but it’s not intrusive; it’s also not organized for me to stand behind, the way a podium is. The console is where I decide what I should show on the screens around the room, when I’m managing the screens, and it’s a place for me to put my stuff. Other than that, it discourages lingering; there’s no way you could “lecture” from such a place. I’ve noticed myself toggling to information or prompts on our class website and then hurrying away from the console, because when I’m at it my back is to the students. (If the room were at capacity, my back would be to half the students, and I’d only be facing about 1/3 of them.)

Where do I position myself, then? I had to work this out over our first few classes. The 15 students in this class are positioned at the three pods “behind” the console control centre (in the left-hand area of the image above); at first I stood between the pods to talk. But then that started to seem weird: I was up and they were seated comfortably. I felt conspicuous.

In a traditional classroom space I would feel more at ease with a standing-sitting dynamic, because the architecture of such a space drives down toward the professor’s centre-front positioning and marks it as a focal point. With that spatial cue, prof standing and students sitting makes architectural “sense”. In this flex space, though, it just feels odd – because the “centre” of the room is not, in fact, the central console, but is divested among each pod. The students are at the spiritual, as well as the architectural, “centre” of the space, and they are seated. So, I realized, I need to be seated, too.

Now, when I prepare to talk to the whole room, I sit down, sometimes backwards on my chair (so I can lean on something!), and then I roll over to the space between the three occupied pods. (Wheels on chairs! Woo hoo!) I regularly reorient my chair physically depending on who is talking, and where they are seated. I move the chair around depending on whether or not a specific pod is reporting back on work. This way, I use my body in the space, and the affordances of the space, to demonstrate to the students their centrality to the space, in particular when their work is on display for the rest of us. I respond to their work, and they to my feedback and prompting, physically and affectively as well as intellectually.

And speaking of that work: we are all IN LOVE with the fabulous electronic white boards! The students have the capacity at their pods to toggle among white board mode, console-screen mode, and Solstice mode, and whenever we are doing group-based learning, I encourage them to shift to the white board and play around with their ideas. Erasing and starting over is easy, and we can share boards among pods, too (although we’ve not yet tried that pro move).

I haven’t yet taken a formal survey to get clear data about how the new space is working for the students, but my anecdotal sense is that they are as keen as I am on it. We are still discovering new tech and new possibilities, and I’ve also created a custom question for their course evaluations about the tech in the room. I’m jazzed for their feedback as I prep for next year. (About which… did I mention I’m excited?!!)

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Student Katie Flannery poses with her pod’s whiteboard learning about Bertolt Brecht.

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Student Ray Reid is feeling less dramatic, perhaps, about his pod’s white board work.

I think a lot about space as a theatre and performance researcher: about how space acts on us to organize our social interactions, and about how our social stratifications and raced, classed, and gendered affiliations dictate – often invisibly – who is “welcome” in certain spaces, and who is manifestly not. I find it remarkable, looking back from the comfort, ease, and adaptability of the WALS space, to think about how disaffecting, how unwelcoming in both a social and a political sense, many of our university classrooms remain. It’s as though they are “not” for learning at all.

This is bonkers! We want our students to discover their potential, to develop creative critical acumen, and to learn from one another as well as from our shared histories and contemporary conundrums. And yet we place them – or rather, we, as students and teachers, are placed – in rooms that often feel more like storage closets (at worst) or sterile meeting rooms (at best) than maker-spaces, zones of discovery.

As far as I’m concerned, all classrooms should be studios: built for the “ah-hah!”, kitted out to the highest possible standard, and arranged in a way that encourages the development of a healthy, supportive, group dynamic, so that we can all take safe risks together as we learn. It’s amazing how important the right space is for the doing of that kind of essential work.

Now, herewith: to celebrate the gift WALS has given me, I offer in return a bit of my new book Theory for Theatre Studies: Space. The “preview” link below will offer you the full introduction, as well as the first part of the book’s first section; the “buy now” link will take you to Bloomsbury’s online shop, where the paperback is on sale for just $11, and the e-book for $13.

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Preview | Buy Now

 

Enjoy!

Kim

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In praise of resting

(NB: A version of this post originally appeared this morning on Fit is a Feminist Issue, the terrific fitness and wellness blog for humans of all genders curated by my colleagues Tracy Isaacs [Western University] and Samantha Brennan [University of Guelph]. Thanks to them both for the ongoing opportunity to reflect on the ways different aspects of my life interrelate! I’m reposting this here because, well, rest is both a feminist issue AND an academic issue…)

I’ve been finished my teaching for the winter term for about a month now. Finals are over and marked; my campus office (which is moving this summer back across the lawn to my faculty’s newly – and beautifully – restored heritage building) is packed up. The book I was writing all autumn and winter is done, dusted, and in production.

So why am I still so tired all the time?

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(Peppermint Pattie, head on desk and looking glum, says: SO TIRED.)

I’m not one to give myself a break – I’m a high-functioning type-A kind of woman, and I am as productive and successful as I am professionally because of this.

But life isn’t work. And I am also 43 years old. I can’t pull all-nighters anymore. And TBH most evenings I am ready for bed by 10:30 (no more clubbing for me).

Now, sleep I get quite a lot of – and FFI is a blog that supports good, effective sleep as part of our human wellness. (Sam has written before about being a champion sleeper. I envy her ability to conk out on airplanes!)

But REST is more than only sleep. And for me rest is another matter.

I was at my friend Nat’s house for supper two weeks ago and we talked about parenting and sleep deprivation. Nat’s kids are still quite young and the 3am wake-ups are still happening. She feels insanely sleep-deprived right now, as does her partner.

We all talked about the idea that, if it’s a matter of choosing between exercise and sleeping, the sleep-deprived should hit snooze rather than clamber out of bed early to run 5 miles. (Read more here about the interrelationship of sleep and exercise.)

Similarly, I once had a cycling coach who reminded me that resting is as important as training – resting is a key part of training, in fact. And resting means resting: it doesn’t mean digging up the garden, staining the deck, cleaning all the windows upstairs, or even walking the dog for two hours in the forest.

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(Emma the Dog on a path in Cootes Paradise, Hamilton, Ontario. “Whaddaya mean rest doesn’t include walkies??”)

Rest actually means sitting or lying comfortably and allowing your body to replenish itself. It means sleeping if sleep is what is required. It means eating good, healthy food in good proportions, and/or eating specific foods required for your body’s replenishment before another day of training hard. These might include proteins, or carbs, or a variety of things.

Ice cream or cake too, if you’re looking for a cheery treat! I always go for the milkshake, personally.

I have realized over the last month of being on my summer schedule that I’m not resting enough. I’m exhausted all the time because my brain convinces me that I need always to be working – if not tapping on my computer then digging up the garden or cleaning the windows or walking the dog. I also train a lot – riding and rowing 2-3 times a week each, with one rest day somewhere in there – and the impetus to get in the boat, or on the bike for at least 90 minutes at a shot (and usually more like 3 hours at a shot) also often feels like “work” pressure for me.

So no wonder I’m tired. I’m running on empty a lot of the time!

I woke up yesterday morning realizing that, in fact, the world would not end if I did practically nothing that day. My boyfriend was visiting; we could spend the day together being pretty chill (including lying in bed far longer than usual) and hanging out and the internet would not explode. My email (as usual) could wait. So could the other 450 urgent things that do not, ever never never, constitute an academic emergency.

(My therapist once helpfully reminded me: there is no such thing as an academic emergency.)

But when I looked at the clock and realized it was 10am I also felt a surge of guilt.

And here’s the rub. Yes, I need to recalibrate my relationship to rest, but it’s not just a matter of me making a series of individual choices – this isn’t all about me and it is not all about my free will.

It’s also related to the way our culture moralizes movement and rest – in the same way it moralizes food, something we talk about on FFI a lot. (See here, for example, a post by Tracy Isaacs about food being beyond “good” and “evil”.)

In the so-called “West” or “Global North” many of us live in cultures that believe rising late is “lazy,” while getting up early to head off to toil at our jobs is a virtue. School is a terrible one for this: is starts so very goddamn early!

But why?

Research suggests this belief in early-to-rise is not by any means universally supportable: teenagers, for example, actually need up to 10 hours of sleep per night, and their shifting body rhythms are at odds with the wake-up-early-rush-to-school pace our cultures usually enforce. No wonder they are all yawning in 8:30am Bio! (See here for more on teenage sleep needs.)

My own body clock, I’ve discovered thanks to the flexibility of my job, works like this: I want to go to bed between 10 and 11:30pm (it can vary depending on when I had my last cup of coffee in the day), and I want to wake up around 9am. 8:30am is also fine. But if my alarm is set for, say, 7am, I’m usually woken in the middle of a dream (REM sleep), and I’m instantly fuzzy. The day doesn’t improve from there.

I like to sleep late. I really do. This used to drive my mother CRAZY; it seemed, well, “bad” and “lazy”. (I remember her waking me up by spraying me with water from the plant mister. No, really. Waking up as punishment! Sounds about right…)

And yet: I’m still a high-functioning professional. I was an A student. And I’m a good cyclist. And a good friend and partner and teacher and writer and daughter and doggie guardian… and human being.

So let’s all try, together, to work on our relationship to the concept of rest. It’s something we lack in our academic jobs as much as in our daily lives, and the lack of it is enforced by a series of cultural norms (aka, the good old neoliberal university…) that also value capitalism, individualism, and (dare I say it) covert or overt forms of Protestantism – that value progress over process, over taking one’s time for discovery, and over the pace shifts required to nurture proper creativity.

I’ll write more about time and space later in the summer (after I’ve enjoyed more of it, and thought more about it, along with colleagues working on my new research project). For now, though: on your own rest days, remember to put your feet up, grab a book or the Netflix, and don’t forget the milkshake. Not because you “deserve it” – but because you are simply human.

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(A photo with two milkshakes in the foreground. On the left is a brown/chocolate one, with whipped cream and a cherry on top. On the right is a mint-coloured one with whipped cream and a mint leaf on top. In soft focus behind them and staggered to one side are two stainless steel mixing containers. I’d like the chocolate one, please!)

Be well-rested!

Kim

Cold? Warm up here

Post-sabbatical re-entry is a #*%$&%$. There’s no other way to say it. The office is dusty; the plant is very, very unhappy. Your colleagues only barely remember you. None of the students looks familiar: what they look is cold, tired, and not quite ready for January.

But neither are you, so it’s a wash. UGH.

After a week of this, I was officially exhausted: the mental and emotional energy required to sustain a class that has little to give back is a lot even in the warmest, brightest months; in the cold months with lots of snow, strong wind chills, early darkness, and DID I MENTION THE COLD??? – it’s enough to make you think this:

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So while I was prepping for week two, I remembered a recent Tomorrow’s Professor post I’d read about different ways to warm a class up before getting started with the day’s proper labour. And I thought to myself:

Yup, I could use a nice warm-up, alright.

So I programmed a couple in. Here’s what happened.

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I use warm-ups in studio classes all the time, but in seminars they are not conventional. In lecture classes they are DOWNRIGHT WEIRD.

But I live for weird, man.

In my first class on Thursday (students = 12), I had only an hour, so a full-body check-in was not on the cards; you need at least 10 precious minutes for that. Instead, I took a page from the post and did a seated, basic, mental-state warm-up.

First, I asked everyone to say their names. (It’s week 2; do you know each other’s names yet? I didn’t think so. And neither do I!)

Then, we all had to complete this sentence: today, I am feeling XXX.

I started: I’m Kim, I’m the prof, and today I am feeling engulfed by chaos.

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(I googled “engulfed by chaos”, and this image of David Davis was THE FIRST thing that appeared. I am not making this up.)

As we went around the tables, we got some compelling answers: I’m feeling like a million bucks! (OMG, hooray!). I’m feeling extremely embarrassed. I’m feeling excited for the weekend. I’m feeling … busy.

Yup.

The Serious Professor part of my brain always tries to tell the rest of the brain, when I get tempted to warm stuff up, that it’s a waste of time. After all, we have so much Important Stuff to cover!

But here’s the truth of the thing: we had so much better a class after five minutes of sharing our feelings-in-the-moment than we had had on the previous three days, I could not help but assume a corollary. This tiny task, after all, not only humanizes us all (profs included); it bonds us.

We become a community.

In my second class, we had two hours – of Aristotle FOR CHRIST’S SAKE – and in a windowless room to boot. (I find it painful to recall that on my “to do different” list for 2018 in this particular class, top of the list was “find a room with windows!”. I mean, What The Holy Fuck, people! How can there be classrooms with no windows that have not yet been decimated? What year is this? What planet am I on?)

Which means: we really needed to warm up.

This second group is twice the size of the first one (students = 21), and god knows their names are not yet in my brain. So I seized this chance to play a name game, one I gleaned from a talk the phenomenal deaf artist Jenny Sealey gave at Queen Mary University of London this past June.

First, we gathered in a circle in the middle of the windowless, airless room. We all closed our eyes. The brief: imagine your sign-language name, the gesture that says: YOU. Then, make it.

Next, we went around the circle and said our names and made our signs. We repeated each others’ signs for good measure. So far, so manageable.

The third step, though, was the charm: starting to my left, each student had to say the name and make the sign of the person(s) before them, and then their own. The unlucky folks on my right had to do this for almost everybody – and then I paid the piper by doing every single student’s name and sign.

In fact, to be totally fair, we all made each other’s signs along the way, supporting each new student/victim in the queue; in this way, I made Taylor’s diving gesture, and Thomas’s bright flower, and Kylie’s heart, a whole bunch of times. By the time we were at my turn (big, crazy jazz hands, if you must know), it was easy – and everyone was laughing and clapping.

And, once more, we had a way, WAY more energized and interesting class than any of the three preceding ones.

Warm-ups don’t always work: the novelty wears off, the movement gets fatiguing by the time everyone is tired in the middle of term. But at their best they are ways to re-energize a listless group, or a listless teacher, and a great, fun way to make a class into a bonded community, even if only temporarily. Better learning is not guaranteed, but it’s definitely a possibility.

On that basis alone, warm-ups make for terrific pedagogy.

Stay cool!

Kim

 

Just coping (an imperfect how-to guide)

God, what a miserable few weeks it has been! Post-holiday doldrums followed hard by start of term, and then…

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I’d offer a trigger warning – but what’s the point?

Well, we know what then. Anyone who cares about progressive, inclusive education, human rights and social justice, LGBT+ rights, the United Nations, environmental protection and food security, and myriad other things that many of us in the Anglosphere have been taking for granted for some time now has, I wager, been feeling rather down since Friday, 20 January. Things have been bumpy, to say the least.

My Facebook feed has been filled with friends and colleagues talking about the many things we can all do right now to help support those left especially vulnerable in the wake of Trump et al. (Marching is good; please also send your money.) I’ve taken much inspiration from them. But I also know that I’ve struggled to keep my own head above water these last few weeks. Not because I am anything like as vulnerable as those most affected by the chaotic death spiral of “executive orders” and gross cabinet appointees swirling steadily toward armageddon in Washington, but because, well… It’s the middle of term and the middle of winter and things kind of already sucked, without the Trump-ocalypse turning up to further fuck my S.A.D. vibe.

This time last year I was in real trouble. I was buried under a heavy administrative load as I, along with one of my colleagues in Theatre Studies, juggled multiple new recruitment initiatives and the planning of a splashy program launch party alongside our teaching labour and research projects. I was finishing an edited book, which meant intellectual work plus the palaver of wrangling colleagues/friends whose contributions were behind schedule, while also fending off my increasingly anxious publisher. And I had made the mistake of jumping head-first into a relationship with someone who looked mighty great on paper, but who turned out, in the fullness of time, to be utterly unsuited to me.

Imagine if I’d known then that Donald Trump was going to win the damn election!

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Thanks to my dear friends and my outstanding department chair I made it through February and March 2016, realised I needed a better work-life balance plan, decided to cut out work emails on weekends and over holiday periods, and generally set about paying better attention to my life. I feel a lot better now; in fact, I feel well enough that in the weeks since Mr Trump Went To Washington I’ve been doing a number of things designed, simply, to help me cope with the pool of heavy affect that has settled over my heart.

As it turns out, these are also things that, in normal times, could help those of us who teach and support young people for a living to care for our own emotional wellbeing and sustain our forward momentum.

So I thought I’d share them.

Take a friend out for lunch. My office neighbour, Kate, is a wonderful human being and sometimes I see her when we are both on campus for teaching. But we are busy and she lives in Toronto and we are busy and did I mention how busy we are? So a couple of weeks ago, when I was planning a day of work in the city, I emailed her and asked her if we could have lunch together while I was there. She was totally game – but then her book deadline got in the way. So I said: fear not! I will come to you and I will bring the lunch! We ended up having burgers and deep friend pickles (OMG SO GOOD!!!) and milkshakes and sharing our news in the sunny front window of Rudy’s on College. What bliss.

Have a drink over Skype with someone you love. Most of my friends aren’t in the town where I work; they are in London, England or Toronto or Berlin or San Diego or Brisbane or Halifax or… you get the picture. Academics live a nomadic life, leaving waves of loved ones behind at each career turn. I don’t see enough of my folks, so at the suggestion of my dear pal Jen Harvie I’ve started to make Skype/Facetime dates with friends abroad. Recently I’ve had two, both with chums in Toronto when I couldn’t make it to the city. Sure, we might talk a bit about work, but mostly we gossip about boys (at my instigation; I’m single, straight, and on the internet…). A drink in hand makes it all the more fun.

Go for a long walk, maybe with an animal. My dog Emma provides a built in excuse for long walks; she’s portable, so sometimes I throw her in the car with me and we travel to friends and their trails elsewhere. We had a fantastic, nourishing time walking on the glorious Niagara Escarpment with our friends Susan (human) and Shelby (canine) a couple of weeks ago; you can read more about that adventure here.

Have some sex. Oh yes, I’m quite serious! It’s a gesture of care for your body, a reminder of your beautiful, flawed, awkward, delightful humanity, and a chance to be held, supported by, and connected to another human being for a moment, just when that kind of holding, support and connection are lacking in the wider world. It also totally counts as exercise.

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Emma the dog. You didn’t think I’d share a photo of the sex, did you?

Make a beautiful dinner for yourself, and for someone you love. We are busy professionals and too busy to cook a lot of the time, I know. But cooking a proper meal, as my horrendously failed relationship from last winter reminded me, is the best gift we can give to ourselves and to one another. So book off some time (mark it on your calendar!) and go for it. Make the thing you most love in the world, and share it with somebody. Open wine, if that’s your thing, or open whatever your thing might be.

And then raise your glass to the struggles ahead. Remember that if you embrace the other humans around you, and fortify yourself, you can be ready for anything.

Kim

On the freedom to move, and the freedom to be, part 2

It’s a two-hour drive to Detroit from where I live. It’s as easy as getting to Toronto, really; sure, there’s an international border, but the queues aren’t huge (and Toronto traffic is worse by far). So I go more and more often that way – usually to the airport in Wayne County, but increasingly to the city, where incredible new creative worlds are blooming amid the ruin porn.

Detroit offers an amazing case study for thinking about spatial privilege and its lack: it’s today a largely African-American city, with an incredible history that spans both Indigenous cultivation and Fordist exploitation, as well as black and mixed race experiences of all kinds. Post-Fordism, Detroit famously went bankrupt: huge swaths of the old industrial city fell to decay and the hulks and shells of former factories make the skyline seem apocalyptic to me as I shoot across the I94, through its scarred belly. It’s both harsh and beautiful.

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But Detroit isn’t a ruin any more; today it’s a blossom. Artists have flocked from Brooklyn. Urban farms are popping up all over. Middle-class people are returning to the core. I know this thanks to smart writers like Rebecca Solnit, whose “Detroit Arcadia” (published in Harper’s in 2007; read it here) investigates the city’s history as well as its potential through an eco-critical lens. I first felt it watching Jim Jarmusch’s glorious Only Lovers Left Alive (watch for the sequence in which Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton [as vampires!] drive through the night-washed city). And then I got to feel it again, most powerfully, when I took my graduate seminar, 10 students studying performance and the global city, to Detroit for a day of cultural encounters on 4 November 2016 (three days before the US Presidential election. Yup).

We went to Culture Source, a new networking organisation that links a variety of arts groups across Detroit and its adjacent counties (and that is run by smart, arts-forward women with business experience. Good combo that). We went to MOCAD, and played with stunning metal creatures built by Juan Martinez and Gizmo for Dave Eggers’s The Spirit of the Animal is in the Wheels – an exhibit that offered young people an opportunity to think about urban transportation as fun, creative, and kid-friendly.

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And we went to the Lightbox.

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Lightbox is located in the part of Detroit, north of the I94 and the Piquette corridor, that still lies in part in ruin. Corey Gearhart and Stefanie Cohen bought the building from the Baptist church that had converted it from the bank it used to be. Its main space is a wide-open room with a lovely new sprung floor; there are chairs, toilets, and living space on site for Steph and Corey, and others as needed. It’s an artist-run community space now: that means that it’s available for those in the local community as well as those in the artistic community to use as a place to come together, try out new ways of being together, explore shared interests, and share imaginings about a stronger and more inclusive future.

I learned about Lightbox from my colleague Petra Kuppers, a disability artist, scholar and activist from the University of Michigan. I contacted Stef and Corey and they welcomed the class on our field trip day with the warmth of longtime neighbours. We settled on the floor in the main space, on cushions as desired, drank tea and learned about the evolution of the room, as well as the vision Stef and Corey hold for it. Unlike so many of the spaces we’d been studying – or had visited during our day in Detroit – Lightbox read as entirely up-for-grabs: a space where individual or group stakeholders might determine, day to day, week to week, or month to month, what it could be. And it could be multiple things.

Basically, Lightbox is the spirit of Detroit in bloom. Detroit as space-in-the-making.

Stef and Corey inspired the hell out of us; students’ reflection papers demonstrated how completely they had encouraged us to recognise, and believe in, alternative models to the “creative city” – urban theorist Richard Florida’s popular, neoliberal paradigm for hipster-driven new city-worlds. So when I got an email from Lightbox a few weeks on, telling of a workshop in early December on “the politics of space” with noted dance artist Barak adé Soleil, I shared it with the whole class and offered space in my car to all comers.

Two students (and one partner) jumped on the chance, and off we went on 3 December. The event started at 6pm and was potluck, so we all brought some food to share (yummy salad; tortilla crisps with cinnamon; fruit; celebration bread: we did not share this information at the border, OF COURSE). Things started gently: Barak was our host, but we didn’t start talking until everyone had eaten. (All good hosts need to learn this trick!) All we needed to do to prepare for the “workshop” portion of the event was to write a different thing on three pieces of card stock: how we saw ourselves in terms of “race”, in terms of “queerness”, and in terms of “disability”. We also had to make dinner conversation with our neighbours. The prompt: how did we get here tonight?

The slow start made me skeptical. As a teacher, my first urge is always to over-program EVERYTHING. That way everyone knows I’m prepared, right? But Barak’s a trickster and his plan was cunning. He knew that if he honoured our slow opening up, let our pieces of paper do the talking, we’d get there. We’d get someplace nobody expected.

After the food, and a bit more food, and a bit of talking, we moved dinner things out of the way and left just a small table in the middle of the space. Participants were sat in a huge circle around the room; Barak was at the central table. He then shifted the mood of the space and the tenor of the conversation by getting a table cloth out of his bag, moving his bits and pieces out of the way, heaving himself out of his wheelchair and onto the table, and arranging it just so. This was the first time I saw the extent of his disability – and I’m going to say here (even though I am ashamed of this) – that I was glad to bear witness to it. He is so entirely able in his body that I had perceived him as not really disabled (not disabled “enough”?…) up to this point. I wonder how many of us do this every day when we encounter those who live in differently abled bodies.

What Barak did next was remarkable. He put on a scarf that covered his entire face, heavy black gloves, and rendered himself essentially lumpen, not-quite-human. He gently, with grace and control, fell to the floor. Then he began to move around our circle, pushing and pulling and rolling his body from chair to chair, person to person. He groaned and gasped as needed. He laboured his body. He touched almost everyone.

This performance of struggling mobility, of limited access in a world of “ability”, changed everything about the night. After Barak returned to his chair, took off the hood and gloves, and resumed his place as host, our conversation could begin, really begin. We explored everyone’s writing. We talked about the many ways that “race” signifies for each of us in the room, how it shapes our daily encounters, interactions, and even basic imaginings about what and who we are. We talked about who (and how) we imagine ourselves to be, over and against how others perceive us to be – and about how that changes what we say, how we move, what we assume about each other, each day. We talked about the assumptions we had made about each other before the performance, and about how the performance, and our listening to our pieces of paper afterward, revealed complexities we couldn’t on our own imagine about who was in the room.

(These images are from Barak’s blog, linked above. I do not have photos of his stunning performance, alas.)

We talked about how many of us feared identifying as “just white”. We talked about how hard it is for so many of us to see ourselves reflected in normative sexual labels. We talked about how many, varied, experiences of colour, desire, and ability adhered in our bodies in the room. We recognised how complex identity in the body is, in practice, day-to-day.

In all these ways this evening of powerful, strange encounters coalesced into a politics of space. It marked my first trip to the US since the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the elevation of Donald Trump, and it reminded me that all movement in space, always, is political – that is to say, it is always about relations of power among bodies moving together.

We have been thinking in terms of embodied hierarchies an awful lot recently: you’re either in or out (Brexit); you’re either with us or against us (Bush, Isis, Trump, Syria…); you’re either in the “right” body, possess the “right” sexuality, live in the “right” sexual body… or you risk losing access to marriage rights, abortion rights, the freedom to travel. Barak’s black, queer, disabled body operated as a crucible of all of these stakes in our shared space. Coming into the workshop I thought his disability principally would shape our conversation: what barriers to physical and mental access do humans face, in Detroit and beyond? But we ventured far afield, and I realised by night’s end that “disability” is a term we need to embrace as powerful as we plan our activism in the face of current exclusions.

What if we recognized disability as a basic human condition, not an exceptional one? As something that affects far more human beings than we at first glance might recognise? That is not lodged necessarily in body or brain, but also in community, in identification, in nation? What if disability – the challenge of mobility, of safety and security of person both in place and in movement – could be understood as a condition we all share, to varying degrees, and therefore all must take seriously for everybody?

The two students who came with me to Lightbox were in the process of preparing their final project for my class; they were planning a festival of creative women for our city that would be driven by an interest in inclusion and accessibility. At one point in the evening Barak noted that, as strong and genuine as many peoples’ intentions toward accessibility are these days, “accessibility” meets reality when he turns up at a space and can, or cannot, actually get into it, actually participate in the thing on offer. Accessibility is about his body, forcefully, in a space, asking questions about who that space is for. It can be planned for… but it also needs to be understood as an ongoing conversation.

Mobility is moment to moment; access is context-dependent. Some days the US border guards really want me to explain what I do for a living, ask a lot of probing questions, and some days they don’t care and wave me through. Some days Barak finds himself in a welcoming space with no physical and few other barriers to discovery, and other days there’s a step nobody noticed. That’s frustrating. But it’s also when things get interesting.

This might sound a bit utopic, but I think I learned at Lightbox that contingent access and precarious mobility are actually conditions full of potential – if we harness them fairly and honestly. Because it means we can all do stuff, little things, all the time, to support each other’s mobility, strengthen our rootedness in place, and that can just be normal. It might be as hard as crossing an international border, or as simple as writing a few words on a piece of paper. But either way, it’s actually totally doable.

That’s what I learned, three weeks after the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, from the once ruined, now blossoming, city of Detroit.

Kim