a different kind of biography

I was really struck by Tamson Pietsch’s blog post on rethinking and rewriting an academic biography.[1]

Tamson writes, “my academic bio says very little about me. Although it obliquely speaks to some episodes in my life that were hugely important to me”. And then:

The problem is, I’m just not sure that apparently objective and disembodied expertise is what our world needs any more (if it ever did), and not least because there is no such thing as objective and disembodied knowledge free from social and economic relations in the first place.

Following Tamson – who was following Bruno Latour – I thought I’d have a go at writing a biography that reflects my hopes, my past and my curiosity:

Simon Ellis is an artist working with practices of choreography, filmmaking and dance. He was born in the Wairarapa in Aotearoa/New Zealand, but now lives in London. He is a Pākehā  –  a white person of European descent – and his experiences growing up in a politicised family environment nourished his curiosity about inequality, consumerism and digital technologies. These, in turn, underpin much of what his practice is about, and how it is conducted. He also thinks a lot about the ways humans might value things that are not easily commodified, and likes to imagine a world filled with people who are sensitive to their own bodies, and the bodies of others.[2]

[1]: I found Tamson’s post when it was reposted on the Research Whisperer.

[2]: Here’s a more conventional one from earlier this autumn:

Simon Ellis is a dance artist. He is from New Zealand but now lives in London, and is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Dance Research (C-DaRE), Coventry University. His recent choreographies are ‘Between Faces’ (2018), ‘Full Responsibility’ (2019), and ‘5.2 (self) Portraits’ (2019). Simon has worked with Colin Poole as “Colin, Simon and I”, and together their work explores privilege, racism and friendship. He is also interested in the value and limits of research for artists working in and outside of the academy, and in the ways in which screens are changing dance and choreographic practices, ideas and understandings. www.skellis.info


On 18 June this year the remarkable dancer, teacher and choreographer Shona Dunlop MacTavish died in her hometown of Dunedin in New Zealand. She was 99.

Shona had an extraordinary life, as uplifting and beautiful as it was tragic.

Shona in Cane and Abel by Gertrud Bodenwieser (1940)

In 1988, I was a 19 year old Physical Education student in Dunedin wanting to become a dancer. Shona was about 68 at the time. I’d heard about her Saturday morning classes (who hadn’t?) and I remember the feeling of trepidation when I joined the class for the first time. We improvised a lot, and did rather punishing jumps from deep squats like Russian Cossacks. It was hard on our knees and spines — so much extension in the back — and she was unrelenting in her desire to challenge our bodies and minds. Years later I vaguely remember a hilarious improvisation where I ended up either as Lady Godiva or the horse.

Those classes — and the few years I spent with Shona and the Dunedin Dance Theatre — were far more than training my body in the expressive movements of the Ausdruckstanz that Shona had learned from Gertrud Bodenwieser. They were about how we live our lives as human beings, how we take care, how we inspire and are inspired. Shona’s extraordinary joy for life and for being with others was profoundly moving for me. She seemed to be able to tap into our heartbeats with her own breath, to spark the dancing of our lives with action and will.

This world of ours doesn’t feel the same without Shona’s voice and breath: inspiring, nourishing and challenging.

Rest easily dear Shona; I’ll be dancing with you until my days are done.

Image: Shona in Cane and Abel by Gertrud Bodenwieser (1940)

privacy and eff

I’ve written a little bit previously about privacy – here, here and here –and it’s safe to say a lot of my fun reading and learning seems to centre around issues of internet privacy and security.

Edward Snowden said that, “When you say I don’t care about the right to privacy because I have nothing to hide, that is no different than saying I don’t care about freedom of speech because I have nothing to say or freedom of the press because I have nothing to write.”[1]

The advocacy and education work of the Electronic Frontier Foundation – “the leading nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world”[2] – is vital. Although its focus is the US, the materials, ideas, news, and software it provides are important around the world.


attention and Weil and posts involving attention

I read an article some time ago about a documentary called An Encounter with Simone Weil by Julia Haslett. In the article Haslett mentions two quotes by Weil, the first well known, the second not so well known:

Attention is the highest and purest form of generosity.

When you have to decide to do something, always do what will cost you the most.

I’ve also just remembered that I posted a quote from Rebecca Solnit about paying attention, and then realised that this blog is filled with posts that mention ideas to do with attention:

feeding research

A bit more than a year ago I participated in a Research Salon at the Faculty of Creative Arts and Industries at Auckland University. Each of the people involved were asked to introduce their work by responding to five questions. I started with a very brief introduction and then had a go at the questions.


I wondered about starting a list of things that I have next to no understanding of but would like to understand or know better. That word know is disruptive and probably inappropriate to the epistemological possibilities of practice-as-research.

It seems important to not start at a place of knowing, even in a small meeting like this. To come clean. To not present any (false) idea that I know what’s going on. To make myself small, to shrink. To be clear that it’s all rather vague or murky; the visibility is poor. To make no claims. To be comfortable in getting and being lost. To find the means to recognise – and value – the gaps; the places in which we might fall. To consider the limitations of the methods we employ. To understand when to stop, and when to start. To recover. To breathe. To write and tumble into the abyss. To be adrift. To leave the terrain unmarked. To mix my metaphors.

Here’s the list. Each item might be prefaced by the words “I have next to no understanding of the nature of …”:

  • innocence and naivety
  • desire
  • transformation
  • listening
  • ethics: anonymity, withdraw (something to do with privacy and opting out)
  • value: axiology (philosophical study of value (ethics and aesthetics))
  • experience of time underwater: at once achingly slow and terrifyingly fast
  • fear and panic
  • transparency
  • ideologies of and in research. What are our agendas (hidden or otherwise)?


How are you defining research for yourself through your current projects?

I really like this idea of defining research for myself, but I am sceptical about how that privilege might be understood by people outside of this room (and perhaps some of us inside it).

I understand research to be about change and difference. That, in some way, things are altered as a consequence of research processes. That the world – however local or translocal that might be – will be different. And as a researcher my work is to find ways to not only make change or difference possible, but to recognise it when it happens as well.

What are you currently (February 2016) preoccupied with?

Two things:

  1. How dance and performance is consumed and the possibilities (and limitations) of its consumption. I like this word consumption because of its link to “death by” (as in tuberculosis). Being eaten alive by TB. In particular I am interested in the ways practice-as-research might be useful in recognising the ways in which screens are enveloping, closing, opening, expanding, limiting the nature of our perceptual and attentive experiences of performance (making and consuming).
  2. Working closely with Colin Poole in London: Our White Friend. Part of “What Remains” exploring influence, with brief to choose an artist to respond to, or be in relation with. Colin and I chose a man called Tim Wise, who is not an artist. Here’s blurb:

Tim Wise is an American authority on white racism. Through public lectures and books he educates white audiences to recognise and be responsible for their race-based privileges. We are interested in Wise’s craft in public speaking, his authority on race, and what might happen if we were to imagine that he is an artist. How might this proposition enable us to test the limits of Wise’s practice as public speaker and white ambassador? Whose voices count in this debate, and whose faces are acceptable?

I’m fascinated – as someone who ticks a lot of privilege boxes (I’m not sure there are any unticked) – by the complexity of a scenario in which the more I understand, the more important it might be to listen and not speak (which is different from being inert or passive). As an afterthought, I see also that there’s an iOS app for splitting a bill based on privilege. It’s called equipay (US only)

Are there any particular questions you are asking?

Kind of covered more specific ones already. But I remain worried that in practice-as-research we have stopped considering the epistemological nature of the work we do; or that we have settled into a kind of limbo where we vaguely hope that how we understand what we understand that we understand is all sewn up. It seems a long time ago that people like Anna Pakes and Steven Scrivener were trying to deal with this problem. My sense is that it remains the critical unknown (or mis-understood) aspect of the work we do as artist researchers, and that without getting to the heart of the epistemological matter it will be hard to have the work we do become part of broader conversations about human understanding and research. In a sense I think this might have to do with understanding the value, potential and role of practice-as-research.

Are there any interesting links between practice and theory that you are making?

No, probably not.

How do you feed the ‘animal’ that is your research?

I need to know what kind of animal research is. Is it an aloof cat that keeps to itself, and ignores all of your advances or efforts to stroke it. Or a needy dog, willing to do anything for some attention? I think I’ll go for a Cormorant. These great fishing birds. They are kind of pre-historic looking, and are often seen drying their wings (outstretched). But there’s something about the way they paddle around on the surface, looking, noticing, searching. But the moment of direction, the point at which a cormorant dives to fish is beautifully directed and streamlined (and surrounded by bubbles). I like this potential for paradox: of waiting patiently noticing, and then total commitment. Perhaps describe seeing one.

But none of this has anything to do with how I feed myself and my research. I think I’ve become more patient, at allowing ideas, images, texts and practices to circulate, collide and to be placed in situations that are not so obvious. To be able to wait and watch and listen. To luxuriate in the not-knowing. To consciously not delimit my reading, writing, dancing to regular sources or environments. To actively find ways for cheapness, frivolous ideas, words and images, and crudeness to be included. To do more than feed this animal a regular diet of continental philosophy and performance studies writing. To imagine the digestive possibilities of a unstaple diet. I think I’m learning about being less precious. And as an add on, I’m less sceptical about newness these days

on leaving facebook

There are, as you can imagine, a number of posts that list reasons to leave Facebook: there’s the Men’s Journal reasons, the New Year’s resolution list, and Douglas Rushkoff’s reasons:

Facebook does not exist to help us make friends, but to turn our network of connections, brand preferences and activities over time – our “social graphs” – into money for others.

… remember that Facebook is not the Internet. It’s just one website, and it comes with a price.

I’d been wavering for some time – to do with issues of privacy, and echo-chambers, and clicktivism, and also the sense that I was involved in a false game of how we want our lives to be represented – and had started to only use the site on the weekend as a kind of pastime.

The final straw was when I read some writing by Dmytri Kleiner in a book called Ours to Hack and Own:

It’s tempting to look at sites like Facebook and YouTube and conclude that they earn their profits by exploiting their own users, who generate all the content that makes the sites popular. However, this is not the case, because the media is not sold and therefore makes no profit and captures no value.

What is sold is advertisement, thus the paying customers are the advertisers, and what is being sold are the users themselves, not their content. This means that the source of value that becomes Facebook’s profits is the work done by the workers in the global fields and factories, who are producing the commodities being advertised to Facebook’s audience.

The profits of the media monopolies are formed after surplus value has already been extracted. Their users are not exploited, but subjected, captured as audience, and instrumentalized to extract surplus profits from other sectors of the ownership class.

– Dmytri Kleiner 2016. “Counterantidisintermediation.” In Ours to Hack and Own.

I’m not a luddite: I love computers, and code, and the web, and what they make possible. I want to participate and be involved. But I also want to do that (to the best of my ability and understanding) on terms that I feel comfortable with. And so I deleted my Facebook account, waited the necessary two weeks, and then it was all gone.

It feels good. I’ve had no sense of FOMO.

The other thing that happened is that I didn’t say goodbye to my Facebook friends (the ones I knew, the ones I didn’t know) and I feel a bit bad about that. Perhaps if any of you happen to be reading this you can post it as a way of letting people know.

Or not.

showing not telling

I’m deep into Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography Born to Run. I like Springsteen’s music (yes, since that video with Courtney Cox in 1984), and have been particularly drawn to his quieter solo albums like Nebraska, and The Ghost of Tom Joad. I’ve never been quite enough of a fan to go and see him perform, although his concerts are legendary (check out the 12 minute half-time performance at The Super Bowl in 2009 for a sample).

The autobiography is captivating: epic, vulnerable, loud, and full of heart. It’s like reading a dream – a very big dream – and it’s astonishing to get some insight into his ambition, his fragility, and his love.

Here are two brief quotes that have stayed with me.

On respecting audiences:

When you came to work with me, I had to be assured you’d bring your heart. Heart sealed the deal. That’s why the E Street Band plays steamroller strong and undiminished, forty years in, night after night. We are more than an idea, an aesthetic. We are a philosophy, a collective, with a professional code of honor. It is based on the principle that we bring our best, everything we have, on this night, to remind you of everything you have, your best. That it’s a privilege to exchange smiles, soul and heart directly with the people in front of you. That it’s an honor and great fun to join in concert with those whom you’ve invested so much of yourself in and they in you, your fans, the stars above, this moment, and apply your trade humbly (or not so!) as a piece of a long, spirited chain you’re thankful to be a small link in.

On playing and shutting up:

I know how it works. I’ve done it. Play and shut up. My business is SHOW business and that is the business of SHOWING . . . not TELLING. You don’t TELL people anything, you SHOW them, and let them decide. That’s how I got here, by SHOWING people. You try to tell people what to think and you end up a little Madison Avenue mind fascist.

It’s SHOWtime. We go on. The audience seems reticent, the room feels uneasy. That’s my responsibility. You’ve got to let the audience feel that they’re coolly within your hands. That’s how you help them feel safe and free enough to let themselves go, to find whatever they’ve come looking for and be whoever they’ve come here to be.

On the Shore, mecca to the bar- and show-band elite, rabid disciples of the James Browns, the Sam Moores, the hard-core soul showmen who brought it every time they hit the stage, we come from where “professionalism” is not a dirty word. One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . Motherfucker! That’s the time for action, for living, for manifesting life, for BRINGING IT! . . . NOT for dipping into the black recesses to pick the lint out of your belly button.