Tania Cañas: The Sector Must Challenge the Terms of Enunciation

Tania Cañas is a Melbourne-based arts professional with experience in performance, cultural development, events, communication and research. She is also the arts director of RISE Refugees, the first organisation established in Australia by refugees for refugees. She joined us at Queen’s University Belfast for a lunchtime talk with Andrea Montgomery, Artistic Director of Terra Nova on ‘Understanding Culture in a Global Context’. The event was supported jointly through Theatre Forum. We asked her to reflect on the focus of our network:

Tania C

Where the field of representation and interpretation are systematically unequal, language is an existentially violent site of struggle. This struggle is between that of existence and non-existence, subject and author, causes and consequences. For me, it was the difference between attributing to the personal, as opposed to attributing to the systemic and structural.  It was the difference between the label of ‘refugee’ and that of contextual refugeeness. The difference between storyteller and story-maker, participant and artist,

In my theatre practice, people had very specific ideas of what my writing and performance should look like. Often, I would be asked to do a ‘traditional’ performance or the ‘refugee’ play. I often get mistaken for other WOC artists which tells you something about how disposable our voices become. In research I find that my objectivity is often questioned. I am using lived experience in my research and that is the strength of it– it is another form of knowledge. But I am asked to quote white women leaders of the field in order to supposably support an auto-ethnographic lived experience. Thus, if we are talking about how we sit and create within the matrix of socio-political power, we must also talk about privilege- and how these inevitably inform the terms of enunciation, or the conversational frames. This is not about for/against arguments but the manner in which we engage in conversational frames.

These conversational frames determine how identities are described, assigned and prescribed within dominant discourse. Thus we are not talking about invisibility, hyper-visibility but rather constructed visibilities. Such constructions giving the impression that our presence, is self-determined and autonomous.

Where the field of representation and interpretation are systematically unequal, exchange cannot be equal. We often conceptualise exchange in creative practice as being an equal, neutral encounter, however if we take the site as a microcosm of the socio-political world the encounter is inherently unequal and thus the exchange cannot be equal- it must be calibrated. This does not necessarily mean a negation of dialogue but rather a creation of a pedagogical site of engagement whilst maintaining critical consciousness. Linda Alcoff in her article, “The Problem with Speaking for Others” talks about it as three points to take into consideration when talking about voice in activist and arts practice:

  • Power (dynamics, organisational, structure, roles)
  • Locality (socio-positionality so we look at how we sit on social construction) and
  • Discourse (where does it sit in knowledge systems, representations, what are the terms? according to what histories?)

Exchange does not happen in isolation, thus what are the conditions of exchange? What are the sites? I recently read about the idea of racial capitalism, which is a process of deriving social and economic value from someone’s racial identity. We are looking at a systemic phenomenon and a value placed on race, but only in terms of how that is defined by whiteness. So I would say: beware of superficial aesthetic-only diversity, as it creates disposable voices of us.

Thus, where the field of representation and interpretation are systematically unequal, as a sector, we must challenge the terms of enunciation. When we challenge the terms of enunciation, we propose a plurality of engagement terms and thus a possibilities of ethical encounters.

If you missed Tania’s talk, you can listen here.





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