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Inflight from home: migration, ethics and aerialists


Student in rehearsal. by Marcus Hessenberg

Leo Kay explores the intersection between art and the migrant crisis for an upcoming performance at Wac Arts on 23 July.

Leo Kay, Co-Founder and artistic Director of Unfinished Business. Photo by Marcus Hessenberg

Late last year I started to become frustrated with my own lack of action in response to the international forced migration situation we were witnessing on our screens and in our papers. As a European and a child of immigrants, I felt a personal responsibility to do something. Right wing rhetoric was twisting the political landscape out of recognition with words like ‘swarms' used to describe people desperately fleeing war and persecution. Manipulative descriptions seemed to be whipping the general public up into a xenophobic sandstorm.

I began to devise ideas for a work engaging with some of these issues incorporating voices of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. I wanted to inspire audiences to associate their own biographical journeys with those of people seeking refuge within Europe. At that time WAC Arts were inviting proposals for artistic direction of a show working with aerial students under the tutorship of two aerial companies: Scarabeus and Upswing.

Over the past 40 years WAC Arts have been a trailblazer in creating disciplined creative opportunity for young people from all walks of life, all cultures and all areas of London. I trained there as a youth and am deeply indebted to them for the creative and ethical grounding that five years of weekly classes gave me.

I decided to apply and pitched a promenade performance, which would use aerial skills learnt by participants of the training course: Inflight (comprised of emerging performers from culturally diverse backgrounds). The exploration of these spectacular skills would be integrated with our company Unfinished Business’s signature performance style of stripped back interactive autobiographical performance. The proposed project would explore themes of home, migration and rituals of belonging.

On 24 June I began writing this blog post with a heart full of grief, frustration and anger. It was the day we supposedly ‘decided’ to leave Europe and despite what we were being told, it felt like the drawbridge was being raised. The outcome seemed to legitimise the wave of fear-based xenophobia, which not so long ago seemed completely absurd. The extent of divisions in our communities, exacerbated by austerity and ever growing inequality and stoked by a dramatic and divisive right wing media, have been thrust into the fore, initiating yet more confusion, anger and separation. Once my anger and dread began to subside, I started to look at what had to be done.

Students rehearsing. Photo by Marcus Hessenberg

I believe in the power of protest, of art, of action to galvanize the people – to give the individual mental and physical strength, strength to search out alternative ways of living and being together, which are more congruous and less damaging to us and our environment. Maybe political/creative acts are attempts to make a crack in the ice that seems so solid above the lake – an articulation of human consciousness, a gift of strength and energy to help break the ice and let water come rushing out.

This referendum result has intensified the need for this performance to demonstrate alternative ways of interacting, communicating and considering the plight of others. This piece explores radically different ways of being together, inviting both audience and performer to be open and to share with each other.

Throughout the process I’ve walked a line of ethical consideration surrounding autobiographical material. Working with specific personal detail can profoundly illuminate universal reflections and in my work documentary is constantly moving toward the fictional and vice versa. I knew that I wanted to include voices, thoughts and reflections from recent migrants within the soundtrack, but accessing these voices posed an ethical challenge. Back in March myself and company co-founder Anna Smith went to the Calais refugee camp to work for a week. We had naively imagined that we might be able to gain interviews with refugees, but it immediately became clear that this short lived process would be exploitative. It was too raw and we didn’t have time to commit to any depth of relation, so we didn’t attempt an interview process. Instead we spent the week helping to cook 2,500 meals a day with the amazing ‘refugee community kitchen’ and I left conflicted, with many more questions than answers surrounding aid, empowerment, responsibility and colonialism.

Earlier in the year we had devised an outreach project ‘Our Journeys’, drawing on techniques from our performance project ‘Only Wolves And Lions’, to work with the alchemy of cooking and talking together to engage with creativity as a tool for healing and empathy. We recruited a small and diverse group of migrants in London and began a process of sharing food and developing creative expression. The experience was enriching; to speak with and learn from people forced into this state of limbo and exchange in stories over food was an important weekly activity. The project evolved into a visual art process, where each member of the group went through a structured process of creating individual table-top installations exploring the theme of home. These artworks will be exhibited within the final performance at WAC on 23 July.

Students rehearsing. Photo by Marcus Hessenberg

These integrated art and temporary community-building processes, running concurrently to the devising of the performance, have been amongst my most rewarding experiences of recent times and through them the process of gaining interviews gradually emerged. We also interviewed all the aerialists taking part in the project and it’s this mix of voices which are currently being woven into the sonic collage created in collaboration with sound artist La Leif. Voices and thoughts give a context and meaning to the often subtly contextualized or abstracted performance experience.

Within the structure there are implicit metaphors that suggest a call to action. Asking one to stand up. Say something. Do something to make the world a more humane environment. Our devising process searches out new ways of servicing people’s expressive needs, of integrating creative output and documentary material and honouring lived experience without exploitation for sensationalised narrative-driven drama.

The outcome will be an uplifting, impactful and thoughtful performance where audience share with humans, watch humans doing amazing things and consider their connections and our shared humanity.

Leo Kay is Co-Founder and artistic Director of Unfinished Business.

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