Artist Jo Bannon on why ‘We Are Fucked’

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We Are Fucked is a new performance work by artist Jo Bannon which explores desire, sexuality and neoliberalism. Its focus is on the modern feminist experience of personal, psychological and political penetration, as she tells Paul F Cockburn.

A young woman with white hair declaims, mouth open, posing against a brick wall

Unlimited: We are F*cked. Image © Paul Samuel White

It’s the obvious question to ask, and yet it is often the least respected: where does an artist get their ideas from? For Jo Bannon, her latest work – supported by the Unlimited programme – started with the title.

“In a way the title, ‘We Are Fucked’, came before the idea, which is pretty unusual for me; normally I make a work and then never know what to title it. A friend was telling me that he was watching a documentary about punk and that the Sex Pistols were characterised as saying ‘Fuck It’, or ‘Fuck’ and then Joy Division came around a bit later and their response was ‘We’re fucked’ or ‘We are Fucked’. That phrase just stuck in my mind.

“I suppose one origin of the project came from what it means to be a heterosexual woman in a patriarchal society, on a really personal and intimate level in terms of your consensual relationships and your body’s relations. But it was also happening at the same as lots of changes: a new Tory government; Brexit; this kind of unrelenting waking up on the morning after an election and feeling like, once again, ‘We Are Fucked.’ Living in a female body, and looking at the changes to reproduction rights that are happening in America and lots of other places, they’re regressing. People are actually coming after our rights and our bodies. When I say ‘our’, I suppose I’m talking from a female perspective, but in all kinds of ways people’s rights are being argued about.

“Slowly the project became about this idea of relentless penetration; on a physical, sexual level, but also on a personal level and on a wider political level. Are we equally penetrated by our Facebook feed as we are by a dubious sexual encounter? We’re living in an age of being so permeable and so receptive to our exterior context and environment that it’s like a relentless onslaught into our personal identities. So it kind of moved into a bigger question of what penetrates us socially, personally and politically.”

Having first begun working on the project last summer, its development has coincided with the #metoo movement.

“I think it’s really interesting to watch what has happened because of that, what that woman’s story – and the cascade of Harvey Weinstein stories that followed. On a personal level, while of course I find it shocking, there’s aspects of it which don’t shock me: I know these infringements of power and harassment, they’re part of my lived experience. Maybe it’s more a shock that it’s being taken seriously, or that something might actually happen or change or shift.”

Does she think that disabled people need their own equivalent #metoo movement?

“When I talk about this work, I can’t talk about this idea of penetration without also thinking of my experiences as a disabled person, because that is the lens through which I look. I sometimes find it difficult to know, when I’m on the tube and something gets said about me, whether it’s sexual harassment or I’m being harassed through a disabled sense. When people point out my colouring or my eyes, it’s a similar sort of sticky line to tread between having autonomy around your own identity, and not welcoming or inviting comment or critique.

“It really is something that I experience a lot where someone will ask me a really intimate question, and it opens up this personal space that is not consensual. I think that is, in some ways a very particular experience for me as being disabled. It’s like you’re getting it on two levels, and you can’t tell: am I being hit with a stick or a metal bar? I can’t tell! It’s one of these two things, and neither is OK.”

Jo accepts that the title of the work is intentionally provocative, but does she worry that some listings magazines might opt to call it “We Are F*cked”?

“I think that this is a reality that I’ll probably face as we start going to print in different brochures and all that kind of thing. I mean, I find it funny in a way; on a personal level, I was brought up in an Irish family and swearing is part of the vocabulary. Really, it’s a mode of expression and sometimes the word ‘fuck’ is the only appropriate word to use to describe something.

“I suppose I do use that term deliberately, because we have a squeamishness around the use of words like that, but we’re not squeamish about more worrying things. We should be worried that we are fucked, not the use of the word ‘fucked’. You see that in American politics all the time; there’s a worry about sex education in schools, and the Christian Right’s reaction to the idea of even talking about sex, and yet the consequences of not talking about sex to young people in school is that people make bad decisions about their future lives based on that lack of information. So I suppose there is a provocation in using the term.

“I’m also a quite hopeful person; I think that we can be in a moment of feeling we’re fucked, but it also raises a ‘…’ – is fucking, or being fucked, such a bad thing? If you apply it to sex, a lot of people like that sensation. So as long as we use that as a weapon to fuck back? There may be ways to use that state of “fuckedness” to do something differently!

“I also think it’s usefully provocative in disability, to use language that’s applied to us for being ‘wrong’, being ‘ill’, and uses those negative terms as a really forceful, reaction. So I think of using the word ‘fucked’ in a similar way; what if we take ownership of that idea? To some people, because of my disability, I am in some way ‘fucked’; but that’s not really my opinion, so I’ll take that idea and really work with it and push it back.”

We Are Fucked will be performed at the Southbank Centre as part of the Unlimited showcase on 7 – 8 September 2018
Tickets: £18. Approximate run time: 60 mins