Dirty Work: It’s Not You, It’s Them.

The Theatre Commissioner, clad in New Balances, asks to meet you in a gen­tri­fied cof­fee shop in Deptford and says the word di­ver­sity.

The Gallery Curator for live events, who has come bare­foot to your meet­ing to show that they are re­lat­able, is about to say the word in­spir­ing.

The Artistic di­rec­tor of a per­for­mance build­ing, who has mis­taken you for the other Black queer artist they com­mis­sioned last year, ex­claims the word trans­for­ma­tive.

For a long time in my emerg­ing prac­tice, be­fore putting on the show I al­ways wanted to, these were the words I’d hear most of­ten from the per­for­mance world about the kind of thing they were now look­ing for. The last five years have seen more main­stream in­sti­tu­tions sud­denly de­cid­ing that pro­gram­ming diverse” work brings in a diverse” au­di­ence and there­fore di­ver­si­fies their in­come stream. To them, it is a busi­ness choice. We, the artists, have brought them money and rel­e­vance, fi­nan­cial and so­cial cap­i­tal. On the sur­face, we should be cel­e­brat­ing that, in the the last five years, the UK per­for­mance world has seen an in­crease in work made by artists who are not straight/​cis­gen­der/​white. Queer takeovers of mu­se­ums, tour­ing works of Black reimag­in­ings of British clas­sics — al­though this work has al­ways ex­isted –there’s no deny­ing there has been a cer­tain boom around our sub-cul­tures. Yet I won­der if un­der the sur­face of what seems like a chang­ing land­scape or shift­ing in power, the same struc­tures are still in place un­der­neath. I started to won­der: un­der what con­di­tions are they happy for us to ex­ist, and, if I change the way my work is pre­sented, will the gallery cu­ra­tor of live events still want to have a bare­foot meet­ing with me? If the work be­came less about my iden­tity, my prob­lems, my over­com­ing, my per­sonal growth — but in­stead about theirs, I found that the work then be­came tainted, harder to touch, a bit dirty.

Dirty work asks the artist to turn the gaze back on the es­tab­lish­ment. Dirty work does not re­quire me to change but rather for you to. Dirty work does not fo­cus on my per­sonal over­com­ing of ob­sta­cles, but rather your need to shift struc­tures. Dirty work makes racism not my in­di­vid­ual ex­pe­ri­ence, but rather your col­lec­tive ac­tion. Dirty work does not re­quire my trauma but could in fact be briefly trau­matic for you. Dirty work pushes you but maybe does not push me as much. Dirty work does not re­quire me to be like­able for it to be seen. Dirty work is less about how I learned to love my­self, and more about when you learned how to hate me. Dirty work does not care about whether I love my­self or not. Dirty work does not fo­cus on whether I am ok with be­ing trans, but fo­cuses on how you came to not be ok with it. Dirty work may cause you more dis­com­fort than it does me. Dirty work may leave you more ex­hausted than me. Dirty work sees you as the other char­ac­ter in the room, not just me. Dirty work is not just fo­cussed on the I; it has every­thing to do with you.

Burgerz re­cently fin­ished a UK and European tour, and would have been on an in­ter­na­tional tour right now. At the last show in London, a sold-out show­ing at Southbank cen­tre, sit­ting in the third row were three artis­tic di­rec­tors of three build­ings who re­jected the show in 2017. One had said the work was too uncertain for them right now”, the other had said the script felt iso­lat­ing” and the other men­tioned I felt it could po­larise the au­di­ence”. All of this could be valid feed­back. All of this also could be a fear of what hap­pens when I be­gin to make dirty work: Work with­out clear cuts, work that is not al­ways right, work that has the risk not just placed on me. What I mean to say is that of­ten they are com­fort­able when the work can be chal­leng­ing, trans­for­ma­tive, and thought pro­vok­ing — but only if the chal­lenges and trans­for­ma­tion and thought is sub­jected to the artist. The spot­light must re­main solely fixed where they can see it, never on them­selves.

I want to make more work they con­sider dirty. I am guilty of sani­tis­ing more things than just my hands. It is so easy to fall into the pres­sures of de­mand and sup­ply. Yet I have to try and re­mem­ber that of­ten when things are seen as dirty it is be­cause they hold a pow­er­ful truth. I need to re­mem­ber: if it feels dirty to them, it may be the clean­est thing I could have pos­si­bly pro­duced.


Travis Alabanza is a per­former, writer and the­atre maker based in the UK. In 2019 they per­formed their smash-hit solo show, Burgerz, at London’s Southbank Centre.