the radical act of existence

November 03, 2017

Performed as part of the second UK/ID Festival, a week-long series of cultural and educational events spearheaded by the British Council in Indonesia, Emma Frankland's "Rituals for Change" made its Asian debut. Frankland and collaborators' online and live performances explore gender identity and the politics of transition.


words by: Fajar Zakhri

"The radical act is to exist. The radical act is to be seen - to choose to allow others to see these radical bodies. To allow ourselves to heal is the radical act..."

So opens the monologue in Emma Frankland's intimate yet confrontational performance of "Rituals for Change." a meditation on identity and its fickle, ever-evolving nature. Said rituals spring from an axe and a giant block of wood, as Emma hammers nails into the wood with the axe and wraps her fingers around them using a string. Defiantly, she looks into the crowd, motions to her thumb and plays around with the idea of cutting it off. A sense of dread begins to creep up among audience members. Is she going to do it? 

There's a simultaneous sense of importance and inconsequentiality in Emma's performance: she carves a symbol in the soil at her feet, wiping it all away again in an instant. She piles salt into two equal mounds on either side of a scaffolding tower, and then scoops it up and it's gone. She builds a tower in the centre of the space, piece of scaffolding by piece of scaffolding, before climbing it level by level and standing at the top, shouting some kind of battle cry: "We who are changing. We who invite trouble. We who waiver. We who leave this place different than when we arrived..."

Then Emma delivers musings on the nature of change, concluding that humans are essentially made of water ("Bags of water dragging ourselves around. Collections of water encased in tight, attractive sacks. Sacks with hair in interesting places. Faces that are nice to look at."), before confronting the newfound attention received as a result of her changing identity ("I got my first wolf whistle from some builders, and I think, "Really?". Maybe it was because I'm wearing a skirt or maybe it was ironic - a 'fuck you', rather than a 'fuck? you?'. A body that emits permission to look or to touch because it is female, because it is different, because it changed...").

Life-affirming seems an adjective too hastily thrown around to describe a work of art, but "Rituals for Change" warrants it, especially within the context that laid its foundation. "I began to develop this show in November 2014. It started beside the sea with a trip to Margate to visit the Edmund de Waal ceramics exhibition, because I had an idea of using clay and perhaps learning to throw pots as part of the process," says Emma in a press statement.

"This trip coincided with my first prescription of estrogen and I enjoyed the synchronicity of these things: the beginning of a new phase of transition and simultaneously the beginning of a new show. I had a terrible cold and didn't want to take the pills when I was separated from my senses and perhaps wouldn't feel the first sensations in my body. I wanted to be open to it all," she recalls. 

This sense of being open to things seems to be what informs "Rituals for Change," with its unrestricted access to the audience (Emma instructed audience members to sit wherever they saw fit instead of being confined to the predetermined seating plan). She moved freely between the ground and the tower, jumping up and down, tilting her body in different points of the structure. She stripped to her undergarments, forming a set of breasts using clay before smearing it all over her hair. All these seemingly disjointed acts lead up to its very conclusion: the radical act is indeed to simply exist.

Performed as part of the second UK/ID Festival, a week-long series of cultural and educational events spearheaded by British Council in Indonesia, "Rituals for Change" is also the fourth piece conceived by None of Us is Yet a Robot, a collaboration between Emma and Abby Butcher exploring a series of online and live performances related to gender identity and the politics of transition. It's been shown at a host of events across the United Kingdom and Scotland, including Trans Pride and Forest Fringe, but the UK/ID performance marked Emma's first ever performance in Asia. A clay workshop alongside a number of local transwomen took place a few days prior. The objects made during this session were displayed during Emma's performance.

Peek into the rituals below:

For more on Emma Frankland and None of Us is Yet a Robot, check out their website, Instagram and Podbean.