Interview: Luca and Jemima – You Heard Us

    Amplifying South London women’s voices and experiences, Luca Rutherford presents an impassioned project combining theatre and public art. You Heard Us is a huge public photography installation that creates a platform for women to take up space and be listened to. Luca has invited 10 Deptford women to work with local photographer Jemima Yong to plaster their portraits on a large scale on buildings around Deptford from 28th February – 26thMarch. With this, Luca invites the participants to become their own canvas and their own medium for expression.

    The art installation is complemented by You Heard Me, a powerful one-woman play about refusing to be silent, a true story that celebrates a single moment of noise that allowed Luca to escape an attack. It will be performed at The Albany Theatre from 16 – 18 March. You Heard Me is for anyone who has been underestimated, told to shut up or been afraid to walk home.

    Ahead of their run we’ve spoken with Luca and Jemima about the project, and about using theatre and art to empower South London women.

    For those who may not be familiar with your previous work, please could you introduce yourself?
    Hello! My name is Jemima Yong. I am a photographer, performance maker and cultural worker based in South East London.

    I work exclusively in collaboration with others; I’m not into creating work that I can imagine on my own. Conversation, improvisation and play are very important parts of my making process and I tend to use a variety of forms (including photography, film, publishing and puppetry) to make work that centres the present moment, performativity and the audience’s imagination. 

    Some previous projects that I feel are good examples of the kind of thing I am involved in making are: ROOM (made with ROOM collective) which is a live and improvised performance for one blindfolded audience member at a time, existing only in their imagination; Field, a series of photographs documenting my local neighbourhood green and the performativity of being outdoors during the Covid-19 lockdown; and Marathon (made with JAMS) which is a performance where four people try to remember something they may (or may not) have experienced together.

    Running in parallel to my art-making practice is my communications practice. I am currently working part-time as communications manager at iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts). 

    Hello, I’m Luca. I am a Newcastle/UK based artist, making new work that sparks conversations inside and outside of theatre spaces. I make socially-activist theatre. I write it and perform it. I create my own work and I collaborate with other people on theirs. I am a writer, performer and dramaturg.

    My work is rooted in the autobiographical, expanding out of specificity into the universal, without being indulgent, exclusive or boring. Humour is vital to my process and performance. I have expanded my mediums of work to short film, and sound art/audio. I am an associate artist of ARCStockton and CambridgeJunction, and a Third Angel mentee. I have a collaborative history with Chris Thorpe on Learning How to Die, Paula Varjack on #TheBabyQuestion, and Unfolding Theatre and Selina Thompson on Hold On Let Go, and Lizzie Klotz on a really small dance.

    My artistic vision is to create work that is softly fierce and fiercely soft. I believe in radical softness. In process and final design, my practice revolves around the creation of community, holding conversations and staying curious.

    My first show was about death, my second about politics and my third is about sexual violence. But I’m not interested in making work that exhausts, flattens or depresses an audience. I’m interested in the places we can have a laugh alongside big, contemplative, serious thinking.  

    My work is for anyone that has that curiosity. It is for anyone who believes in exploration and who feels invited into the space. My work is for people looking for a safe space to explore difficult topics and are open to challenges. It is for the adventurous, and also the shy.

    How did the idea for You Heard Us initially come about?
    A mutual friend, the brilliant photographer Camilla Greenwell, put Luca and I in touch with each other. You Heard Us is a public art project that iterates each time the performance You Heard Me tours to a different location.

    You Heard Us is set up to be responsive to the local community and created in collaboration with a local photographer. In Deptford, that was me!

    Luca and I worked with a community of local elders and also used a nominations process to meet the women I made the portraits with.

    You Heard Us is a large-scale photography project all about celebrating women, listening to women, and women defiantly taking up public spaces. I wanted to take the intimacy of a photograph and plaster it on a large scale to be loud without shouting. I have came up with the idea for You Heard Us because with portraits in public spaces you can make a lot of noise in a very quiet way. I often find that we listen to the people who shout the loudest, but I wanted this project to make space for anyone who feels quiet as well as loud.

    With the core of You Heard Us rooted in intersectional feminism, representation within the photographs is key. The project is about listening to women: when the team say women, they mean anyone who identifies in any way with the notion of womanhood, some or all of the time.

    What can audiences expect to see throughout the project?
    There are 16 large scale photographic portraits currently in exhibition in Deptford as part of You Heard Us, these are spread out between The Albany and Deptford Lounge. 16 portraits of women in their power! 

    You Heard Us is happening in Deptford as well as Bradford, Stockton and Cambridge so across the UK audiences can expect to see big beautiful images of incredible women being blown up across these localities, taking up space. We are capturing each installation process and final installations online, on my website and the team’s instagrams. You Heard Us is outdoor (on online) public art so it is free. The images will be up for at least a month in each locality and will remain online forever.

    You Heard Me happens inside theatre spaces and with this audiences can expect to see a show with a lot of intricate sound and hugely visually stimulating lights and me on stage. The show explores the messiness of connecting to your power. It starts with unapologetic joy and fun and then moves into a deep look at how a personal experience of being attacked led me to understand what it means to take up space, refuse to be silenced and not apologise.

    How did you decide to combine the play with photography installation?
    You Heard Us came about because I wanted to do something about the things I talk about in the theatre show You Heard MeYou Heard Me is about the relationship between the power of your own voice and the power of people listening to this. You Heard Me is rooted in a personal story specific to me. I wanted to expand out from my own story and my own voice. This is where the idea for You Heard Us came from. I wanted to create a platform for other women and their voices. Essentially You Heard Us does the politics that I talk about in You Heard Me.

    It’s so frustrating to see the glass ceiling still resting over so many female heads, but more and more women are thankfully speaking up and challenging the “limitations” set upon them.

    Why do you think it is so important for art and theatre project like You Heard Us to work to empower women?
    We live in a broken society built on exploitation and inequality. One of the beliefs that emerges from this is that we need to be empowered. This kind of work is important because it challenges that notion. Women have power and this work records, reflects back and celebrates that.

    I think there are two things here. One is talking about the arts industry and specifically about contemporary performance. We live in a patriarchy, yes, and in this there have always existed counter-cultures. It is through theatre, contemporary performance and collaboration that I have learnt how to create networks, support each other and build resilience. The people I have worked with have opened up my world to the work of countering set social norms and structures. I have learnt how to insight, evolve and join creative collaborations and conversations outside of neoliberal outputs, where slower processes exist, and processes that are rooted in care and nurture. I have learnt this from fellow artists who span across the gender spectrum. On the flip side, the patriarchy; even saying this word is divisive and/or inaccessible. It is important to make work like You Heard Us that advocates for women taking up space. That normalises women taking up space and celebrates this in the process of making the work as well as the final output of the work.

    What message would you give to an aspiring female-associating writer or photographer looking to find their feet in a daunting industry?
    You do not exist in a vacuum.

    Learn who your people are, take care of your community, and let yourself being taken care of in return.

    There is a beautiful poster artwork by Paula Varjack called Manifesto for Artists in a Crumbling Arts Economy which has lots of inspiring wisdom in it.  

    Paula made the piece for artists she was mentoring at the time, and the text is based on the advice of 44 people she had interviewed while making her performance Show Me The Money… I have the poster on the wall by my desk and gift it to others whenever I can!

    Yes I second what Jemima has said. It’s only been this year really that I have understood what community really means, what collectivism means and the power of collaboration. Collaboration doesn’t just need to mean working on a project, but how you collaborate with your contemporary artists outside of a projects; how you exchange ideas, talk about the tricky bits and share the space to be held.

    What messages do you hope audiences take away from this project?
    Look closer.

    Are you listening?/How are you listening?

    You Heard Us is touring till April 2022. For more information click here.

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