Difficult Reading

Ahead of the premiere of her Unlimited Commission ‘We Are Fucked’ at Arnolfini, Bristol, this month, Jo Bannon gives us a glimpse into the research process behind the performance.

Trigger warning. Some of the subjects touched upon include: Incels, rape, anxiety, sex and hate speech.

“I want to spend some time thinking about trauma. I say I want to, I very much don’t want to. And yet for the last year I’ve been spending a lot of my time thinking, reading, living, making and writing around the subject.

The title of this new show, ‘We Are Fucked’, began gnawing away at me over 2 years ago at a time in my life when that phrase seemed the closest thing I had to a truthful reality. I had ended a long-term relationship, I didn’t know where I was going to live, I was finding it hard to care about art or work, I had crippling anxiety and depression, we were leaving the EU and Donald Trump was heading towards the Oval office. And I’d started dating and having sex with heterosexual men again after 8 years of being in a monogamous relationship. The planes on which I felt penetrated were multiple, complex and deeply personal.

It got me thinking about this idea of penetration; about close, bodily penetrations like an anxiety attack or unwanted or untoward sexual behavior, and about large, looming, structural penetrations like waking up after an election or a referendum and not recognising a country or a society that you feel deeply invested in but equally alien to, cut adrift. About the penetration of a relentless Facebook feed of articles, petitions, break ups, breaking news, harassment, disclosure, pain and exhaustion.

It made me think about relentlessness. Or perhaps more accurately, it made me feel relentlessness.

And so, with a raised eyebrow from my therapist, I began a deep dive into all kinds of sprawling research around penetration, political systems, sexual politics, neoliberal economics, feminism, trauma and disability, most of it deeply painful. My mind felt flooded with dangerous ideas, hateful ideology and fearfully robust structures designed to continue inequality and harm.

And then there were the things that happened in my body, which are a little harder to quantify and write about, but that feel most pressing to try to discuss here. Because I’m not talking here about ideas, or thoughts, as though they are made of words and references and live in your brain. I’m talking about the ick, the shame, the darkness, the brooding which comes over me after a long day trawling through ‘Men’s Rights Activists’ websites and reading Ivanka Trump’s bestseller ‘Women Who Work.’

There are the memories that arrive in your body as burning heat. They are evoked as you naively peruse a disabled artist’s website who brilliantly coins the term ‘forced intimacy’ and you fall down a rabbit hole as you simultaneously relive all the times in your life as a woman with albinism that someone has crossed the boundary of stranger and touched you, remarked on you, stared at you or shouted at you. It is a form of penetration you have always known about, you just didn’t have a word for it before.

There are the hangovers, the comedowns, the bad moods, which follow a morning spent reading Men Go Their Own Way’s ‘best rape jokes.’ Here’s a ‘favourite’:

What do you call the excess flesh around a vagina?


For me it triggers the same remorse and self-questioning of ‘why am I doing this to myself…?’ which might follow a particularly heavy night out. There are questions to myself about why I would surround myself in such hate speech and why I would willingly allow the resulting pain. As I think about this I read the wonderful James Baldwin say:

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once the hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

And I start thinking about the intricate relationship I’m discovering around hate and pain and change. I have a question circling my mind about ‘what is the role of pain in social change?’ and if we accept there may be pain, whose pain? And who pays the price?

It’s Greer talking about how it’s not ‘rape’ rape.

It’s Trump saying he can do whatever he wants.

It’s the person at the ticket office who won’t give you your train ticket until you look at them so they can see the colour of your eyes.

And truthfully I don’t know what to do with all of this. And I don’t know if what I’m doing is doing anything at all.

And yet I continue. And along the way I also read ‘Living a Feminist Life’ by Sara Ahmed:

“… at times, it can be tempting to think: it would be less difficult if I could just stop noticing sexism and racism. It would be easier to screen things out. Personally I don’t think that is an easy option. And I don’t think that it is always available as an option: because having let the world in, screening it out, would also require giving up on the subject you have become.”

And I fall in love with the frankness of this manifesto by Freyja Haraldsdóttir and I read it to my new boyfriend and we have a really difficult and really tender conversation about his subconscious cultural ableism.

And, even though I find Taylor Swift pretty problematic, I admit to dancing to this song loud on more than one occasion. I really love it when the trumpets come in.

And I learn some tricks to take care of myself such as this ‘Self Care Checklist for dealing with Trauma Triggers in your News Feed’ and I start refusing the binary of either being willfully harmful to myself or being a snowflake.

And then there is the work in the studio, which demands that these things be made manifest in the body, worked through in the body.

And truthfully I don’t know if what I’m doing is doing anything at all.

But in my studio, in my body, it arrives as shaking.

The kind of shaking with rage which is often on the brink of laughter

The kind of moving back and forward on the spot completely stuck with immovable anxiety, waiting for the panic to subside.

The kind of vibrating your whole body makes as the music drops into it’s beat and you’re only sound.

The kind of muscular shivering you get just before you come.

The kind of shaking which feels good. And bad.

The kind of shaking that can move tectonic plates, shuffle the organs in the body, break glass, topple patriarchy.

‘We Are Fucked’ premieres at Arnolfini Bristol on 31 August – 1 September 2018 and is then presented as part of Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival on 7-8 September 2018.