You initiated ›Whistle While You Work‹ in 2017 as an online platform for reporting sexual harassment and discrimination in dance and performance. Could you tell us a bit about the process and your decision to establish WWYW?
Frances Chiaverini: The idea of having a public register of testimonies came about after hearing one too many stories from friends who were experiencing some kind slight at work because of their gender. But of course its more than that. Like many people, I’ve had to deal with cat-calling and inappropriate comments on the street or out in public. When I was a teenager, I would get really angry and yell back at people or shut them down but after doing that for a while I got pegged as being the "angry girl" that didn't play along. That made me more angry of course which lead to a certain kind of social isolation that I eventually got tired of so I just sort of accepted it as a normal reality. When I moved to Germany, it all came out again because I started experiencing that same kind of blatant sexualizing and objectification but this time it was at work in the studio. I was bothered how it was actually utilized as a device and how many people saw no issue with that. I won't say it was exactly encouraged, but it wasn't discouraged and in fact I was criticized for having what was a considered a relatively conservative opinion of it. The whole thing added a layer of complication, a sense of distilled disempowerment in what’s supposed to be an open and creative environment, that distracted me from my work as a dancer and made me question my technical worth. People don’t take this concern seriously unless its described by mentioning each little infraction and objectified glance and bodily comment unrelated to the choreography. People have doubts unless they hear the story themselves, unless they have proof. The register acts as a megaphone to tell what happened so that it doesn't disappear into the history of "things that may have never happened". Its meant to bring to light incidents that are actually not OK. Its meant to validate people and their stories in situations where most people are doubting them.
How does it work if I want to report an incident?
Frances Chiaverini and Robyn Doty: We recommend to write down as much information as possible about the incident. Making note of the time, location, what happened, who else was nearby, what words were used, what physical movements occurred, how it made them feel, how it impacted the work environment, etc. Once they have their incident written down, they can send it to us to post it anonymously online or they can send it to us to keep in our private archive, not posted online. We want to be the witness for people who are uncertain of what to do by holding onto their account in case there comes a time when they do want to take action.
Depending on what the person wants, we can provide them with the labor and harassment laws in their country and provide them with local resources they can use for emotional, physical, and legal support.
Because of the ever increasing numbers of dancers adopting the freelance lifestyle and career and because so many performance arts and dance-centered organizations lack a department that receives and processes complaints, we wanted WWYW to function as a place to turn to when there isn’t anyone else available, even if the job was short and long-over. Many dancers won’t say anything because they know the gig will end soon and they can just be out of the situation. Thats often perceived as the easiest and most painless solution. Whats dangerous about that -besides the perpetuation will likely find other subjects and continue to do messed up things- is that the trauma of it stays in the mind and the body of the person who experienced it. The damage has been done and sometimes it takes work to recover from that. We keep a private and public record of incidents for artists as an initial step in dealing with that trauma.
In the future we want to develop something like glassdoor or ratemyprofessor.com that allows dancers and artists to publicly rate the work environment and work experience with choreographers, dance companies, and institutions. Basically, give artists a platform to discuss their experiences, both good and bad. Already many cities in the U.S. are graded on how LGBT-friendly they are, and it would be something like that, but intersectionally and for the arts workplace.
How will you react, if a certain institution or person is named? Do you get in contact with the institution?
Frances Chiaverini and Robyn Doty: Incidents like sexual harassment or racism or homophobia are often kept silent, and we want to encourage and empower artists to enter their experiences into the growing dialogue of discrimination in dance. It’s intimidating and economically dangerous to come forward about discrimination and harassment in the performative arts, and we want to create as empowering an environment as possible during these emotionally and physically stressful situations.
If they want to publicly name a person or an institution, we support them. If they want us to help them contact the police, the press, or the institution directly, we will. If they want us to keep a private record of their incident (for future reference), we do that too.
WWYW does not only happen online. You’re also hosting workshops, lectures and projects in the context of dance related events. What do these look like?
Frances Chiaverini and Robyn Doty: We had our first open forum in Los Angeles and another one in Frankfurt, Germany. In the open forums we want to subvert the typical top-down power structure and instead hold these participatory conversations for artists to come and discuss their experiences, their ideas, and their solutions to such complicated questions as: what does structural change look like, how can artists create an empowering workplace from a detrimental one? Basically if you are in a shitty work environment, how can it be turned around?
We want to empower artists and give them a space to engage in a speaking practice they might not otherwise engage in. Dancers and artists are the foundation of dance and art and we want them to acknowledge, utilize, and grow their personal power.
Our workshops are similar in that we give dancers and artists an opportunity to practice self-governing while understanding personal and professional boundaries within the context of improvisational dance, movement, and organization. We offer a movement practice that emboldens and enables dancers and artists to recognize their agency and implement autonomy in their workplaces.
At the Dance Platform 2018 we’re premiering a performative debate that is collaboration with HOOD. In the future we’re planning to make works that empower artists, basically modifying Thoreau: we want to make the works we want to see in the world.
We also made an informational zine that provides artists with country-specific resources, but also includes phrases artists can use and questions for further dialogues in their own communities. We’re working on another zine that speaks from the dancer’s perspective exclusively.
What is your contribution to the Dance Platform?
Frances Chiaverini and Robyn Doty: We will be presenting a Free Book Store with over 40 titles related to intersectional feminism, performance, and art-making. This includes print resources and USBs loaded with digital materials.
We made an informational ZINE to give out that includes the labor laws and harassment laws in Germany, France, the UK, Italy, and the US. It also includes information that supports and empowers dancers and artists that face harassment and discrimination, as well as phrases artists can use to stand up for themselves and questions they can ask in their own communities.
There’s the performative debate with HOOD and we're hosting a round-table discussion with the Dance Platform crowds to get a sense of experiences in German dance.
Sexual harassment, abuse and gender discrimination have also been at the core of the #MeToo debate, which had already changed the cultural landscape. But the focus has been mainly on celebrities and while the discussion mainly revolves around these cases, we see that certain structures, that encourage gender inequality and harassment remain in place. Do you think that sharing individual cases can lead to larger systemic action?
Frances Chiaverini: I do think revealing individual cases can lead to change. If we look at what is happening in Florida regarding the latest school shooting, those students are using their social media prowess and economic and class priviledge to announce their distaste with current gun laws and regulations. Although school and mass shootings have been happening in America for a long time, this particular incident seems to be the straw the broke the camel's back and many students and citizens are starting to take action that can no longer be ignored. I can see a parallel situation happening in any industry or market, even in dance. We may be in the early stages of it all and we may face much opposition and doubt, but the more thats said, the more we talk about it, the more we announce our distaste with the situation the more likely it is that there will be a straw that breaks the camel's back.
Robyn Doty: Everything happens gradually, unfortunately or fortunately. Sharing individual cases, in the sense of #metoo, doesn’t change legislation, but it does bring awareness to the fact that an incredibly large percentage of people have faced sexual harassment and discrimination. Already countries have laws that prohibit discriminatory, degrading, and hostile behavior, but, yet, it still exists.
Frances Chiaverini and Robyn Doty: When artists and dancers recognize that the discrimination and harassment that happens to them isn’t happening in isolation, and that they can do something about it, then true systematic action occurs. Dancers and artists have to actively demand the workspaces and treatment they deserve as humans and as artists. Companies, choreographers, and institutions have to take responsibility and make changes when dancers and artists come forward. It isn’t possible to have systematic change and perpetuate the working environments happening now.
What needs to happen in the dance world to enable a systemic / structural change?
Frances Chiaverini: This is exactly the questions we ask each other in the forums. This is the time to pool our collective creativity, intelligence, positions and connections to make the best steps possible towards eventual change.
Robyn Doty: Honestly dance is only a reflection of the larger world. What needs to happen in dance is what needs to happen in workplaces everywhere:
Women, people of color, people of all religions, queer people etc need to be taken as seriously as white men. For too long white (heterosexual) male voices and bodies have taken the position of power and now that power needs to be for everyone.
Promoting dance choreographed and danced by women, by people of color, by queer people, etc is ideal. We can’t see the power that people have, if companies and institutions aren’t giving access to it. Even today only a few companies are organized, directed, choreographed, and danced by people of color, women, queer people, etc. This needs to change. White (heterosexual) men are not the only people who can choreograph and run companies, there is so much untapped power and creativity that is being pushed out of the dance scene.
Within the workspaces themselves keeping a professional space that doesn’t allow for racism, sexism, homophobia, etc is incredibly important. So much discrimination goes on without any comment or change by the choreographers or directors (and often it’s the choreographer or director who is the one being discriminatory), these people need to be replaced.