The old, white man rang my mobile about ten minutes before my PhD exit seminar began. Unbeknownst to the caller, I had removed all men, including him, from my panel many years before, in an obscure form-ridden process that appeared to require no approval from either individuals or institution. He, former advisor, tells me that he cannot make it to my seminar anymore. Something has come up he says. There is an important man here from Tasmania, and we (other men and me?) are going to have lunch together. I do not want to miss out, he says. Sorry about that.
I have left my laptop with my powerpoint presentation in the car. It has been parked some distance away from the seminar room, after I had unpacked my 6 metre climbing rope, aerial net, 2.5m high A-frame stainless steel rig, three crash mats, and a laboratory coat, so I am not really in the mood to listen to him. I murmur some platitudes while I race back to greet my grandfather, who is just arriving. It is somewhat ironic that this, somewhat older (91), white man, who is almost blind and deaf, will capture as much of my seminar as the absentee. Family, though, at least has to show up.
As it turns out, there is standing room only, and latecomers have to huddle at the back. My seminar begins in a darkened room. I switch on my LED-light poi, adapted from the Maori’s decorative reed balls on strings. Accompanying my recorded voiceover, I swing the poi in circles as I walk through the two sets of chairs. The voiceover intones:
At night the blackness is punctuated by oscillating lights that flare into brilliance every couple of minutes, and then fade again into the background. It is now that the ‘real’ fishers go out to prowl the inky depths, luring their prey with torchlight and prayers. Earlier, at dusk, families scavenging for protein lined the shores, women and children collecting miniscule shellfish, and dipping hand-held nets into the shallow waters. They, naturally, are ignored when we think about whom to invite to workshops to explore ways of leaving behind fishing as livelihood. It’s men, only men, who really fish.
My seminar continues. Using spoken word, audiovisuals, poi, partner and aerial acrobatics and physical theatre, I explain my doctoral journey in the only authentic way I know how. Without any of these elements, I would not be really capturing ‘what I did and what I found out’, my university’s surprisingly laconic description of what a thesis is, and what an exit seminar must communicate.
It was partially a response to a decade’s worth of attending seminars, and having men of that description interrupt, disrespect and derail speakers of all genders, ages and colours. As Rebecca Solnit explains in her groundbreaking essay ‘Men explain things to me’, it is #notallmen who do it, it just tends to be men who do. White ones. Older ones.
But in that time I had also been an avid consumer of Art, a fumbling spear-holder, sure, but there, watching. And not once had Art been interrupted, rudely questioned or dismissed in the moment of being viewed by these recurring suspects. After, perhaps. But what the ears do not hear, the heart does not feel.
So I would make Art, and I would take my work, my sad work, my precious work, my unfinished work, out of the academic arena where the gladiators fight with bitter words and the presumption of superiority.
I completed my seminar to a standing ovation. I write this proudly, without hesitation or even a drop of humility.
And I say to myself: yes, old white man. This space was not for you.
Update: Nothing would have been possible without the creative and physical support of Zsuzsi Soboslay and Zoe Konovalov. Special thanks also to Lorrae, Val B, Val B and Cobi Smith, all of whom have their own stories about OWM, some of which are complementary, others complimentary. Reading Sarah Ahmed’s essay Wiggle Room was also a catalyst for occupying this space.