Speakers: Lydia Ö. Diakité & Mmabatho Thobejane
What, for you, is the difference between feedback and critique?
Lydia Ö. Diakité 00:21
I think the differentiation is that feedback is relaying what you have observed. It’s not so much about what is good or bad and maybe not so much about taking responsibility. Critique comes closer to the heart. It comes closer to your values. If we talk about it within a context and amongst people, when you make something or you’re part of a workgroup, for example, different hierarchies somehow form. If there isn’t established conversation within those structures of hierarchies, if it’s just feedback, it does not necessarily interrupt those hierarchies. Critique is where you can have a space for reflection over how you behave or over something you have created. And in that context, it opens the space where one can change patterns of behaviour. Looking at it in art, I think critique becomes about social commentary and taking responsibility over actions that have occurred.
Mmabatho Thobejane 02:29
Yes. Thinking about contemporary art at large, including dance, then critique, in a way, makes commentary on whether the ambitions of the work were successful or not. It dives into the relationship between the work’s description, how the artist describes it and hopes to communicate it, and what actually happens on stage and in the work. Why do we need critique?
Lydia Ö. Diakité 03:24
Well, perhaps not everyone thinks we need it but I really believe that critique is part of a feminist and decolonial practice and a practice of standing up against structures that are oppressing you. I identify with black feminist and decolonial practices and an essential part of these is daring to critique your kin, not as a way of separating, but as a way of building even more empathy and understanding for behaviours. That’s where the act of love comes in, where we’re able recast critique as something that comes from a place of wanting you to be better for you, and not from a place of trying to break you down. I think many see critique as something threatening, instead of as a huge space for evolution.
Mmabatho Thobejane 05:17
Can you talk more about the relation between love and critique?
Lydia Ö. Diakité 05:20
I think that it’s very essential that the person who is receiving critique, and the person who gives it, can connect it to, and see it as, an act of love. You lose so much when you believe that someone is threatening you by giving you critique or by introducing another perspective or interpretation of your behaviour or how you work and create work. Seeing and practicing critique as threatening rules out possibility of reaching new levels in, for example, creating rooms of inclusion, or creating art that isn’t discriminating or working environments where people feel cared for.
Critique allows for a moving forward and a pushing of boundaries. I don’t divorce critique from the societal and structures. Art critique sometimes doesn’t come with that perspective and practices critique solely in the realm of review. Critique for me has more to do with questions of how we practice and what happens and happened while we practise. Within creating structures there is room for critique if we are interested in evolving. Critique is difficult to give and take and many people find it scary. If it’s coming from love, it opens room for vulnerability, which is necessary.
Mmabatho Thobejane 08:51
One of the things I’m hearing is that for you, viewing love as critique is a form of world making. There are particular structures, particular worlds and societies we want to exist in and the way to achieve them includes practicing critique as love. Where do you see critique as love enacted? Do you see this in mainstream media do? Where do you find this practice of critique?
Lydia Ö. Diakité 09:22
No, I wouldn’t see it there. Where I see it a lot is within my work, in the places and with people I create work. I see it in other places. In partnerships, in living collectively, for example. If I try to go through my mental library of where I have encountered it in popular culture then I think of being a child of the 90s and growing up with slogans like “Girl power” and girl groups like Spice Girls and Destiny’s Child. When these groups broke apart and you’re wondering what happened and there all these tabloid speculations, often along the lines of ‘this person hates that person’. I think from there I had this thought that it’s so epic to build relationships and for them to have longevity and to be sustainable you need to establish critique.
I am also a child of the internet and social media where you can have access to feminism in a totally different way. And somehow learning, through these platforms, the practice of saying no and speaking up. I think that is also part of some form of popular culture trends, even if formed and informed by various capitalist notions, but the possibility for understanding and analysing and evolving thoughts was possible through these platforms and a practice of critique informed this.
Mmabatho Thobejane 12:36
When applied to dance, does it exist?
Lydia Ö. Diakité 12:39
Of course, but maybe not from love.
Mmabatho Thobejane 12:47
What do you feel informs the forms of the critique that does exist in? And why is it what it is?
Lydia Ö. Diakité 13:00
There are different groups of dance so I can’t say a definite answer but if I reflect on the rooms I’ve been in the word feedback applies better to it. There is attention to what happens on stage or studio but less on the ways of working, which are still very much informed by hierarchies. Critique is there but then it relies on that someone dares to say something, it rests on the personal. It’s not a structure or tool you learn from elders, or from the institution. I definitely need to think a little bit more on this, though.
Mmabatho Thobejane 14:30
Can you talk through your own experiences with critique a bit more. When have you gotten it and appreciated it and when have you felt it was lacking? We can talk both on a personal level but also institutionally.
Lydia Ö. Diakité 14:55
I have experienced highs and lows. I’ve experienced the after-effects of giving critique, the backlash by hierarchies that we know exist. I’ve experienced the ugly sides of all of it, like white fragility, sexism, misogynoir especially. The backlash I’ve experienced with giving critique is often underlined by people getting scared and not being able to take responsibility. There is the inability of looking at the events that have happened, giving time to backtrack, and then, again, taking responsibility. These are some of the steps of being accountable and showing respect to the person who gives critique that I have often found are absent or not observed.
Sara Ahmed writes about being a killjoy. To be in a room where everybody is laughing at the same joke and then you’re like, “This is not funny”. You’re pointing it out and by doing that, you’re breaking the status quo. By breaking the status quo, you are showing that the group identity isn’t a group identity anymore and to do that is a direct threat. This happens even in a room of woke white people who see themselves as better than the rest. In general, there is much that needs to be challenged, like class oppression, ageism, ableism, queerphobia, all of the things that are part of our society that we absorb and subsequently play out, even if in different ways for different group identities.
And often, difference that is close in proximity to different group identities, creates tension and becomes more fractured. For example, in my experiences within Swedish and Danish contexts, I have seen that when blackness is involved very hard frictions arise because all these oversights that haven’t been dealt with or revealed before surface. The responses this often elicits are just old scripts such as, “I’m not this, I’m not that,”, instead of curiosity, intentions to be accountable and separating who you are, from what you do, like we teach kids to do. And I think this is what I can see, needs to be a muscle that people in power, who want to be part of social change and processes of social justice.
I have also received critique addressed to me. In the moment you have all these physical reactions, Should I cry? Should I scream? Should I sweat? Your body is in this state of figuring out how to take it in. It’s so easy to be like, if you’re critiquing me once then I’m just going to let go of everything but it’s great to move from this to figuring out where this should land and how to move on. I’ve realised how great it is to receive critique and I’ve come to a place of wanting more and more of it. One fights so much to be better, to do right, to be nice, to be all of these things and learning to take critique helps with this. And I think that’s what’s epic with critique, especially when I know it comes from love. Framed like this, we can talk about how we have harmful patterns of behaviour and honesty is possible, because I think that’s one of the goals that we want to achieve, we want to be more directly honest with each other, in the work environment, in institutional environments, in partnerships and so on.
Mmabatho Thobejane 20:28
Earlier you spoke about responsibility. With responsibility, I think, are also ideas around accountability and, essentially, being in relation. I have often found myself in scenarios where I’m like, “I’m not going to give this critique because it’s not my place, and this person isn’t accountable to me or I’m not accountable to them.” Essentially the relation is vague and undefined. Can you speak a bit more about accountability and responsibility in relation to critique? The idea of diverse critique feels resonant with a black feminist tradition. The idea that we are very much accountable to each other, in quite a wide sense, and that we are accountable to each other to begin with because we are in relation.
Lydia Ö. Diakité 22:19
We are also accountable to each other because we are oppressed by the same mechanisms. And then within that the ability or inability to criticise each other, to be honest with and respect each other determines if and how we separate ourselves. And that’s a part of accountability and informs questions around where one believes their accountability begins and ends.
Intersectional feminism is quite instructive in this regard. I think intersectional feminism and accountability go very much hand in hand to help us navigate through because it’s not about white saviorism and it’s not about dogmatic ways of being. It’s very much about starting from the humanity in us, trying to be as clear-sighted as possible and also clear about where and with whom you want to stand and be in solidarity. For me, a feminist critique is most valuable. A critique that takes into account and is geared towards revealing and undoing structural oppressions.
Mmabatho Thobejane 23:28
What does a feminist critique mean for the definitions of love we work with in relation to critique, if we are to think love as critique and critique as love?
Lydia Ö. Diakité 25:21
I navigate with definitions that are underlined by loving your kin. At the end of the day, it’s societal structures that separate us. Of course, we can have different personalities, and behaviours, and all of this, but structures play a big part. I work with definitions of love as intentional, love as respect, love as revolutionary. In spite of hegemonic and popular definitions of love, which may undermine this quality, I maintain that love is absolutely revolutionary. There is also something about daring to love and taking up complex definitions of love as we do. Starting to break down the relationship between love and critique, applied to the societal, means that we have to demand more of critique and more of love and of ourselves.
Mmabatho Thobejane 27:41
I do love how you bring structures into the picture. Your clarity around the different definitions of love we find in our society and work with, the idea that there are definitions of it that maybe don’t push us so far in the revolutionary sense but there are definitions that might and do. However, then it all kind of rests on structures, including the ability or inability to practise love. I think that is a really valuable contribution.
Lydia Ö. Diakité 28:16
The question of where constitutions of love exist arises. That love has been constitutionalized, that there are popular definitions of it, is part of this analysis. It’s important that the definitions we take up as we work together accept that we don’t have to be best friends, but that there’s mutual love and respect that builds an honest way of being together.
Mmabatho Thobejane 28:59
Speaking of structures and how that relates to love, where are the institutionally supported spaces of critique in dance?
Lydia Ö. Diakité 29:16
There are none. Honestly, it’s kind of sad. The institutions where critique exists, or where you could come closer to it is maybe in educational settings. However, what I have experienced is that the focus in these spaces isn’t a production of critique, it is, rather, a production of learning and an initiation into existing canons. And when critique is brought forward, it takes some time for change to happen.
Mmabatho Thobejane 30:44
And what is the cost of there being so few institutional spaces for critique?
Lydia Ö. Diakité 30:54
I think difference and multiplicity. New ideas that break the status quo, the possibility for people to be different, to create differently, the possibility of imagining a future where there isn’t a hierarchy.
At the panel discussion we talked about the lack of institutionalised critique for dance and choreography and in the room were mostly people who are educated or fluent in the language of dance and of how we create stuff. I think if there were more who could see dance or talk about it differently, if there were more voices, more intersectional inclusion, the more language we would have for a diversity of experiences and the more we could meet each other in our similarities. One cost of a lack of spaces of critique is the impossibility of room and spaces to enact some sort of change. Critique does not only occur on paper, but it’s in rooms where you can sit and talk and have organised conversations.
These conversations occur, rather, more in passing and can take the form of gossiping. A lot of the critique happens in rooms of gossiping, which is a historical thing. One cost then is that because gossiping is seen as a bad thing the critique is seen as even more of a threat but, of course, it doesn’t have to be. Often it’s just that some friction has occurred and you don’t dare to confront the person. So maybe this one of the costs of it, rooms of critique are foregone, where critique could be established.
Mmabatho Thobejane 36:34
Coming back to the question of responsibility and accountability and just thinking about Sweden’s current political climate in relation to this idea of love as critique. I feel sometimes there’s a cognitive dissonance between these. Maybe you can say more about what you think about these in relation to each other? How does the current political climate reconfigure the relation between love and critique? And what does it mean for the urgency of critique?
Lydia Ö. Diakité 37:29
So much. Hearing this question, I get this image of hearing friends talk about the hate crimes that they experience in public space, such as violence or slurs. Fascism and the project of building a national identity, that is underlined by oppressing other people, it is so necessary to have clarity around the fact that we’re all being told lies and that we’re all oppressed by this society, in both small and big ways. Tracing this in small ways, in ways tied to our daily lives is part of critique and part of working against creating proxy freedoms that are are ultimately short lived.
Here in Sweden we have a right wing government now. ANd you learn that Nazis have their commonness, fascists have their commonness and that is to oppress. Identifying as left wing, it becomes clear that we have to find commonalities, which at the very least is the desire for freedom. We can often fall into forgetting that we want freedom and get caught up in narratives that replicate some of the hierarchies we are trying to liberate ourselves from. In this case critique can become about the personal and likeability.
While I believe at the root of things is to practise safety, we have to start somewhere with finding more patience, and acceptance of others so we can all have another reality to navigate. It sounds like I have all the answers but I really don’t. But there are many who ask ourselves these questions wondering, what can we do? How do we move forward from where we are towards more freedom? Perhaps then it is to start with love and critique in small ways. In your friend groups, in your close relationships, at your workplace, where it doesn’t have to be seen as a revolution, just very concrete practical things. Having a nice work environment. Having a nice partnership. Just small acts that begin to make the world we want to live in.
Mmabatho Thobejane 41:30
I totally agree. I think it also comes back to putting love and critique and critiquing within the same room as black feminist traditions where this is exactly what you do. You organise in your daily life. Building coalitions, through friendship or through practicality, but always finding that common ground.
Lydia Ö. Diakité 42:10
And that’s why separatism is needed very often but perhaps practising love as critique means that we also have to combine this with the flexibility of always having the door open. We also talk here as two Black femmes. That’s also a thing that is a connection in the conversation and that also needs to be acknowledged. This is what our ancestors have done before and what we are echoing. We stand on their shoulders and we have to value that and acknowledge and know what they have done for us and begin to understand what then becomes our next step and what our duties are in building on the foundations already laid. Here in the context of Sweden, maybe it’s just repeating what has been done in other contexts, so that the next generation here can open the next step.
This text has been produced as part of BRIDGES, a project designed to strengthen sustainable and long-term Nordic collaboration in the realms of antiracist and intersectionally feminist practices. The project is funded by Nordic Culture Point and produced by UrbanApa arts platform based in Helsinki.