It’s early August and around me harvest is in full swing.
The fields have been yellow for about a month. Hurrying tractors and large farm machinery have been speeding outside my window late into the night.
Harvest is very beautiful to watch and this year, due to the pandemic, I have been home since the middle of March walking an average seven kilometres a day across the landscape around me. I have noticed the fields, what is seeded, what grows, areas left to their own devices, many farm workers busy late into the nights. You could say I have noticed the seasons but I think it would be more appropriate if I say, I have noticed the weather and how it is affecting the land.
Yesterday, 3rd August 2020, was a weird day with a kind of quiet nervous rumble. Nothing much happened. I went swimming in the reservoir with my friend Rachel, had a wee squabble with my partner about nothing and fell asleep during the 10 o’clock news.
Yesterday, 3rd August 2020, a weird day was plentiful. I went swimming with my friend Rachel, had an impassioned conversation about capacity and expectations with my partner, weeded around the leek seedlings, later on watered the beans, carrots, courgettes, the beetroot and what is left of the cauliflower seedlings. I wrote three emails seeking labour engagement. I seeded food and labour.
Yesterday, 3rd August 2020, marked twenty-one years of life in the UK, life as a migrant, life as an immigrant, life as a person of no place, life as a foreigner in the land of my birth and in the country of my residence. A foreigner in both languages. I am reminded of my impermanence, of my fragile state — not just as an artist during this time — but a fragile state of non-belonging desperately trying to make new acquaintances while looking for validation.
Harvest is all around me. Reaping the little seeds sown and those that just self-seeded. A cultivated crop and a crop that simply bursts. It is so easy to focus on cultivating a crop, on creating the conditions to reap what you have sowed. It feels harder to notice what has seeded itself. What has developed without much cultivation. What keeps recurring even when you pull it out. This tension between control and chaos.
Twenty-one years in the UK feels like a lifelong daily negotiation between swaying in the wind and trying to root. In the past four years I have come closer to finding a place to root. I have also been swaying lots:- between feeling like I’ve got this and coming close to giving up altogether.
I suppose I will never arrive anywhere. Or I suppose I am arriving all the time. I suppose I will be forever travelling. I am forever travelling, forever learning, forever listening and forever wondering. Being a migrant just exacerbates this search for belonging, for loading to belong.
The harvest is all around me, in early August, it is in full swing.
I haven’t written in more than three months. Prior to lockdown I was too busy with design works and company work and since lockdown, drawing has been my way of processing these times. But in the past seven days, there has been much to acknowledge and I am choosing to write a little about it here.
Last Saturday, about midday, our foster dog Jess left us to go to her forever home. Jess has been our lockdown rock and I think I will always remember the lovely moments (plenty of difficult days to remember too) during lockdown in the shape and feel of Jess. She really is a gorgeous animal with so much love to give and receive. We started fostering dogs almost exactly a year ago. We love dogs. And whenever we have a spell at home like a couple of weeks or so we look after dogs who are waiting to be adopted.
On Sunday night as I was reading in bed The Debatable Land and then I checked my phone. The news announcing the passing of one of my role models stared right at me. I must have been about 5 years old when I saw a poster of the Surrounded Islands in the one room flat of our family friends Dima and Joro. I distinctly remember thinking how did they do that, who did that? Then, in my early teenage years I looked for ways to align my story to his. I was also looking for some kind of freedom. Then I was about twenty one when I first stood in front of seven of Christo’s drawings in some west end London gallery, somewhere up some stairs in an old apartment with a cool receptionist who looked at me, scanned me up and down and I could read her thought:- a romantic nobody looking at a genius. Yeah, she was right. It’s completely insane to wish or imagine there is a tiny piece of Christo in me, but it’s sort of how it feels to me, so I am gonna stay with the impossibility and claim it as mine. After all, what are role models if not claiming a bit of their genius as close to me. It must be the common land and history and peoples we share that makes it feel like, he is a little bit mine too.
On Tuesday, I blacked out my social media profile in solidarity with the numerous black lives lost. It is an insignificant gesture really, there is a lot more to do than that, but we all need to do our collective imperfect best. I understand that I will never understand but I stand next to my friends of colour and I count myself lucky to think I have a few. If you can donate, please do support Black Lives Matter UK.
Tuesday was also nine years since the rebirth of my little sister Damyana who we nearly lost when she was just four. Each year we mark her birthday twice, the day of her actual birth and the day her soul came back to us after a near death accident. For those of you who have seen Near Gone, you may know a little of what that might have felt like. I celebrate her every day, she is my purpose.
Wednesday marked a long day of making some decisions. Or trying to make some decisions. We received over 150 submissions for FIELD and choosing was very hard. It was a kind of slow heartbreak that we can not do more at this time. But also a kind of commitment to do more, everyday, in whatever way we can. I then listened to Bernardine Evaristo.
On Thursday I mainly cried. I hadn’t slept well for a few nights. I joined a zoom and spoke to our dear friends Rich, Jyothi, Ivan and Helene and I spoke of hardship. They were simply amazing, as they always are. Later in the afternoon I joined another zoom about care and I cried some more, I managed to do that off camera this time. We sent over one hundred and forty disappointing emails and that felt so difficult, I felt, I feel so guilty and so not enough and so like I carry so much responsibility. Later that night I cried some more.
On Friday we set off to do our first bit of creative work, the first time I had left home to do some socially distanced work since March. We drove a little and not just to check our eyesight but also to film a little BSL video of A Journey of a Home which we are releasing on 11th June. We drove to Hadrian’s Wall. A place of history. Journey is a bit, a big bit, of my history too. A piece about migration and travel, about crossing borders and of learning. So, if you fancy a 20 minute walk with us, check it out here from 7:30pm on 11th June.
It’s Saturday again, today, and it’s about midday and I am about to join Sonia Hughes and Jo Fong’s The Sun has Come Out. I watched them write earlier in the week and I loved it, so I am going back for more. Thank you Sonia and Jo.
As the decade comes to an end, I look back mainly to this year but also to what I have achieved in the past 10. The past 10 years were cracking- mega tough and mega brilliant. I left London, I left my ex husband, I embraced the unknown and the unknown finally lead me north and I have been enjoying north since I made the big move three years ago. I have been with the same darling for ten years and that feels really special. I have been so fortunate to work with some top theatre and dance babes and I love what that brings with each project. I have made some real friends and I have been so saddened by losing some of those I thought were my friends when I left London. After years of trying to fit in, I decided that will never happen so I began to embrace not fitting in and especially foregrounding my culture and language.
I started the decade completely broke, having little to eat, crying every day and while I carry some of that with me every day, I have more to eat and I am very happy to be sharing what I have with family and friends.
2019 has been a very busy year for me, the busiest I have ever had spanning all three of my favourite things- Two Destination Language, designing with / for brilliant artists and showing my visual art work. So, here is my year in numbers!
I designed 5 shows with collaborators/artists other than Two Destination Language.
My designs reached audiences in Ireland (with 2 different shows), China, Japan, Canada, Germany, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
In royalties I received £510 for one show and £0 for another despite it being written into my contract and it touring the world. (Don’t think about saying- Why not chase it? I will tell you why- chasing money is easy for some and rather hard for me, again, wouldn’t it be great if I didn’t have to chase those royalties!)
The work I have designed reached 8855 live audience members.
My design fees for the 5 shows total £7900.
That is £0.89 of my work for each of those 8855 audience members.
My designs for Declining Solo are in a group exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and this year alone, live audience members are around 18,000. I have spent £734 of my own money towards this exhibition and it’s damn worth it.
I designed 2 Two Destination Language shows, both premiering in 2020, so watch this space! More about that below…
I had 1 solo exhibition featuring 101 drawings, prints, paintings and objects.
The exhibition reached more than 3,600 live audience members.
I received a £5,000 artist fee for the exhibition
The exhibition costs were £1,475
I sold 3 works during the exhibition and another 3 at other points in the year
Total sales for the year are £1354.50
I performed Fallen Fruit 29 times this year, my performance fees total £5,000.
I performed Manpower once totalling £250
I performed Lone Wolves as work in progress 4 times, totalling £750.
I saw 51 shows this year- dance, theatre, live art and I went to 1 gig. Yes, I saved up to see Bjork! I paid for 43 of those shows totalling £620. I too don’t have the go and see budget which so often programmers tell me is the thing that stops them seeing (more) work.
I shadowed 2 large scale productions with my design hat on. Both shows were interesting projects. One made me feel like despite my humble working class, unprivileged and unconnected migrant background I could make it, the other one was an absolute disaster in that respect, an affirmation that I will never make it because of my background and lack of London-based power-agent bullshit-bonanza.
I spent £1,620 on travel to meet programmers, directors, i.e people who may give me/us jobs/gigs. I can’t calculate how much of that time and expense may come off- maybe sometime in the future a project will come to live to cover that.
My total fundraising towards personal projects is £13,560 from which I paid 7 artists.
Participants in the 3 workshops I ran this year total 35 young artists, my workshop fees total £800.
So, there we have it – my total live audiences in 2019 are 30,455. THIRTY THOUSAND FOUR HUNDRED and FIFTY FIVE THOUSAND. My earnings will be about £24k that is before my expenses and of course pre tax! It may seem like little to you but for me 2019 has been a phenomenal year in my calendar!
As I tidy my desk, my working table in my studio, I keep finding bits of old card. Card for model making. Or, as I like to think of these seemingly old and discarded bits of card- the leftovers of ideas. I am confronted by my own leftover ideas which have in the past year more or less resembled evolving ways of situating spectators on the same field.
In the past year I have mainly been creating spaces around tables. Tables for eating and tables for discourse making. In some instances tables that will facilitate both – discourse making for the soul and feeding of the body. Tables have been taking centre stage. Sometimes cheap trestle tables, other times custom build tables. But broadly speaking a flat surface on four legs around which people could gather.
All of these projects have essentially been looking at ways to structure, enable and carve space. Space for conversation and space for meeting one another. Space for difference and space for communality. Space for growth and space for debate. Space for anger and space for delight. A safe space. Space without discrimination, where listening takes place, where what is said lands in solidarity.
A meeting place. A place where a meeting will happen. Time will pass. Ideas will forge, ideas will break, change, evolve and transform.
Conversation is how I make anything happen. Yes, I often close the door to my studio so that I can draw uninterrupted but then, I open the door and ask of those around me – what do you see? More and more I wonder how much of theatre making is really given time for a genuine critical conversation to take place around any given live work.
So, what happens when the live work is the conversation?
What happens when we stop “entertaining” you, and instead ask of you to be present and participate? What happens when there is a demand you listen?
Back to tables! In the past year, most of the projects I have designed have been about facilitating conversations. Often conversations between strangers. When an invitation is presented, to share a small space and to investigate a common ground, often I find that people arrive prepared to do just that- find a common ground, listen and contribute, even though their contribution maybe appear to be small and quiet, they are there for a reason. That reason could be simply to listen. Listening as contribution.
This has really altered how I think about designing space. I think of them now as listening places. A place to allow that space to actively listen, because when you do actively listen it allows you to hear another voice, a voice different from yours. So, when we talk about diversity in the arts, for me that means- voices I know little of, voices I may not understand, voices I hardly hear, voices I barely see. It is though enabling listening that I hope I enable change. Change to enable and foreground exchange!
The next Selina Thompson project I am working on as a designer and creative collaborator is SORTITION! Continuing on from the brilliant Missy Elliot Project working with Black British teenage girls in Manchester, London and Leeds, SORTITION is asking you, the young people across the UK to think about ‘our’ political system. So, if you are 18-30 year old, GET INVOLVED!
It’s Friday night. I am not hungry. I am not drinking. I didn’t slept last night. I have had a good day talking with three fellow artists and thinkers. But I have spent the day putting a brave face and keeping going despite.
I sit in front of the telly, with my laptop, trying to write a clever shout of anger into the faceworld. It has a good dose of self pity, aren’t I broke, what if you reapplied for your jobs every six weeks or three months, this is fucked, touring doesn’t work, most venues offer obscenely shit fees, a commission does not mean a grand, the power imbalance in the arts and particularly when it comes to funding is obscenely of kilter, why do programmers think its ok to simply ignore communication for months on end,,,, …. I write it and it definitely says- This is mega fucked up and I am angry in case you didn’t get that. I close my computer, watch some shit telly about cross-breed dogs. I cry! I cry because the dogs are too cute and I need one. I NEED a dog. NOW!
I open my computer, I delete the the post on facebook. I go to bed. I don’t sleep, again.
It’s Saturday morning. I get up not having slept. My thoughts are full of anxiety. Nothing different so far, this has been going on for months, since last day of our Autumn tour which finished in mid November 2017.
I begin to feel angry with myself for not posting the facebook post. What angers me is the fact that actually talking about failure or my difficulty is shameful. I feel ashamed for not having got the funding I set out to get. I already feel ashamed knowing I will have to go to the board to tell them this. I feel ashamed at failing to get the money. I feel ashamed at not knowing how to play the system because playing the system is what every damn successful bugger is doing. I feel ashamed at being too honest, i.e not playing the game, not fitting, not ticking the boxes that I think are set out to privilege one group over another. Why the hell can’t be about making good work? This is all my fault. I am not successful. It pains me to write this, it pains me to say it.
Aware of all that, I am recognising that my privilege to moan about failure is a very capitalist trait and as a young commie I am thinking I must be able to cross that boundary and move on. But that is not how it works.
Shame and failure are very connected. They are for me ,anyway.
I came to this country on a full scholarship in 1999. My first solo exhibition sold out entirely, every single drawing. That was when I was 16. I got a first class honors degree in London for which I paid myself ( It took me five years rather than three to complete, I worked my little ass off. At points I had three part time jobs as I was doing my degree. I deferred my degree twice to work, so I can save the fees, then £8000 a year because as a non European, or overseas student I was not allowed a loan, thank f**k for that!) My first performance piece was called Defferal to celebrate the fact that I made it against all odds.
In 2014 I found myself performing our* award winning Near Gone in Ukraine to be told by a high level diplomat that I was a Failed Strategic Import!
Failed- lack of success, non-success, non-fulfilment, abortion, miscarriage, defeat, frustration, collapse, foundering, misfiring, coming to nothing, falling through
Strategic- planned, calculated, deliberate;
Import- bring (goods or services) into a country from abroad for sale. “supermarkets may no longer import cheap jeans from Bulgaria” **
At that point, I was rather reminded that my success (whatever the hell that means) was somewhere long ago, when I was young, because people are obsessed with youth anyway, we fetishise youth, far away, before it got tricky, when I was living in the capital, before I put on weight, when I could sleep, when I wasn’t really aware of capitalism and the rat race, maybe about ten years ago.
Ten year ago I would have been 26. I look at the 26 years olds around me and I recognise just how far ahead of me they are and how many light years ahead they are of my then 26 year old self. But then again, I didn’t have the privilege of having English as my mother tongue, neither did I have mum and dad cover the bills when I couldn’t. I was an immigrant. I remain an immigrant, only older.
Of late I have been thinking and looking back at where I went wrong.
I didn’t take a full time job being a picture framer
I didn’t take a full time job in a posh furniture shop, even though Marco Pierre White himself basically dragged me to his friend’s shop on the Chelsea road where I spent years selling obscenely expensive pieces (pieces of frickin furniture)
I was once late to a press night at the Gate Theatre
I left London
I said no to designing a feature film (because it was six months of unpaid work)
I designed a lot of shows for shit money, or no money for years, to build my portfolio
I told people what I genuinely thought of their work, when they asked
I didn’t get a British passport
I never shagged anyone to further my career
All the above decisions were based on my idea that I could make it. I could make it against all odds. The romantic notion of coming from humble background and working my ass off was going to overcome my socio-economic background, my Balkan heritage of enslavement and definitely overcome being an immigrant expected to clean toilets.
I began to occupy the space of the other. I arrived at that space slowly and consistently. But never did I think that occupying that space will have such an effect on my mental health and on my sustainability. Ten years ago, there was no facebook or twitter, there was email and phone calls and meeting people in person. That is how I got the work.
Back to shame. My lack of success makes me feel very ashamed. I feel ashamed to talk about failure. My failure.
I know what you are thinking- who cares anyway. Well, the only person that cares is me. I care. Which is why I am ashamed.
I feel ashamed to ask for fees that I know I frickin well deserve.
I feel ashamed to ask for royalties on design jobs because that is seen as greedy.
I feel ashamed to be bought tea, I must offer first.
I feel ashamed when fellow compatriots, i.e. Bulgarians happen to serve me in a cafe.
I feel ashamed to tell my work colleague I haven’t got us a gig here, or here, or here.
I feel ashamed when I start the sentence We didn’t get…
I feel ashamed when talking about my failure to my colleague
I feel ashamed when talking about my failure to my partner
I live in capitalism and I know that success is everything in this capitalist world. I particularly love my socialist liberal friends with hefty salaries “fighting it”. We are conditioned to compete, with each other, all the time. I was reminded of this the other day when talking to a fellow artist. She began to refer to me as her competitor. That made me feel extremely uncomfortable. What an idiot I was thinking I was talking to a friend. I guess I make that mistake all the bloody time.
Shame! My shame! To say- I am not ok! I am not OK, this is not ok, because I feel like a failure. I feel like a failure because as an independent artist is a really hard to build sustainability, and it is very easy to fall between the cracks. The cracks between the priorities of someone else.
A failure to keep going, going, going, gone. A failure to hold my nerve.
A failure for admitting I am failing. I am failing and I am fast falling.
Because failure is sooooo unsexy, so uncool. So, that is me for the rest of eternity- un freekin shaggable (not literally!)
*our – Two Destination Language
** The bit about the cheap Bulgarian jeans genuinely came up online when I googled the meaning of import
Earlier this year I crossed the midpoint. A midpoint for me.
I am 35 and I am from Bulgaria. I am Bulgarian (an ethnos of South Slavs,Thracian,Turks or locally known as Pomacks and Roma) holding a Bulgarian passport. A European Bulgarian passport. It’s red and it has a chip in it so I can go through those fancy automated gates at immigration desks on arrival at various European cities.
I was born in Plovdiv, with its beautiful old name of Philippopolis, a future European capital of culture in 2019. I am, I must say, very proud of that. It’s a small city of extreme beauty famous for its culture, a melting pot of visual arts, theatre and folklore; a large open air Roman theatre which is very well preserved; and the stunning architecture of the old city. It is also known for the problems around segregation of the Roma ethnos community, the dramatic closure of all of the old Turkish baths, and a glorious mosque bang in the centre of town — literally built on top of what used to be the entrance of the Roman Stadium. Plovdiv is probably the most diverse city in Bulgaria!
Stop with the bragging! I am currently sat on a plane, mid-air, flying, flying to Bulgaria. A thing I have been doing for the last eighteen years. And since 2008, I have had the privilege to travel all over Europe freely, without a visa, whenever I need or want.
I say a privilege because it is exactly that!
Born in 1982 — the year Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Kate Bush’s Dreaming came out and in Bulgaria the big cinema hit Band with No Name came out — I was raised under an authoritarian regime of the Communist Party. The Prime Minister at that time had been in power since 1954, a year before my dad was born and eight years before my mum was born. So I and my parents were born under the same political regime, under the same political party and under the same Prime Minister of the Republic and General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.
I was about two when my mum and dad went on holiday to Germany — East Germany, to Dresden via Yugoslavia (now Serbia), then Czechoslovakia ( now the Czech Republic and Slovakia) and Poland. It was just before Christmas and they brought me back brown corduroy dungarees and Polish leather boots. On the way back, they stopped by the Corecom and brought back Toblerone. This not simply a journey or a trip but an experience of a lifetime.
In those days, back in the 80’s we, I, the common Bulgarian, couldn’t travel easily beyond the Borders of our country. If you were high up within the Party membership you could visit other communist states but travel outside the Soviet Union was almost entirely unimaginable. It was impossible.
Then ‘89 came. I was 7. Travel was still unimaginable, impossible, but no longer because of the borders. Lots of the middle class and wealthy Bulgarian families emigrated: to Germany, Australia, New Zealand, the United States to name a few. They were ready, prepared; the wall came down and they fled. My family, whilst having the foresight, didn’t have the finance. So, many years went by, the country was struggling with inflation, corruption (still very much a problem, more on a governmental level, then the common police bribery) and poverty.
We lived through that. In the 90s I was a teenager and more things felt possible. The first time I traveled abroad was visiting Istanbul with my parents, I must have been 14. The second time I traveled abroad was when, in 1999, I went with my class from the High School for Fine Arts, to Prague in the new Czech Republic. It was extremely exciting. The first time I visited the Prague Quadrennial I was 17 and I didn’t really know I would become, amongst other things, a set and costume designer.
My parents began to travel a little more, to Turkey, to Greece, to Serbia, to Croatia; on rare occasions to northern Italy or to Germany, the western parts. It was a time of possibilities. As cultural workers, my parents were part of many cultural peer exchanges, cross border programmes between artists unions in the old Soviet Block.
In 1998, I came to England, for the first time. I remember my English teacher queueing outside the British Embassy in the bright spring sun for our visitors visas. I don’t have a copy of my first visa to the UK but I so wished I did. Then in 1999, I came to England to study for a year. One thing lead to another and I stayed behind. Ambition got the better of me. Or capitalism. Or both!
I went to Wimbledon School of Art, then an independent institution, now a part of the University of the Arts London. I paid what overseas students paid! I had no loan, I worked every weekend from the second week I arrived in London in my first year. I made friends, I fell in love, I kept working: both the paid work which meant I could live, and the artistic work which kept me going.
I spent many years, during all seasons, traveling back and forth, and many hours queueing at the British Embassy in Sofia. My identity, my motifs, my moves, my jobs, my work was all scrutinised. I remember clearly one of those times: a while after my wedding, Bulgaria still outside the EU, I was applying for a spouse visa. A grilling interview in which every word I said had to be proved. Having to show photos of my wedding, legalised documents, proofs, character references by people I worked with back in London. Quizzed by my choice of church where the ceremony was held and best of all, how many times had my then husband visited, did he understand my culture, what did he think of the food? Although he was sat outside the interview room, he was not allowed to join me. Frankly, I had no freaking clue if he liked the food, to me it seemed a strange question I did not know the correct answer to. Then I waited a few days. My life in the hands of others.
Then in December 2007, I travelled to Bulgaria, to stand on the central square in Sofia to countdown the seconds which welcomed Bulgaria at the European Union. Boom: 2008! In the same square, I remember marching in the freezing cold, nineteen years earlier, next to my mum and dad in celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the dictatorship my family and I were all born under.
Since 2008, I have travelled within Europe quite a lot. I have loved and cherished rail trips, overnight Eurolines coach journeys, flights. I started to approach the immigration booths with a little more confidence and a little less fear. I smiled, wished the people at immigration a nice day.
Now, it feels like a right. A human right to be able to move freely. A privilege I have become used to, a privilege which sees me now going to Venice, Brussels, Edinburgh, London and Sofia in the space of just three weeks. I have favourite airports, favourite cafes in those airports and a speedy way of negotiating manoeuvring at various ports.
I have also grown to love the in between, the between places and counties, between cultures and languages. I have grown to love the act of travel.
Earlier this year, on my way to Dublin to lead a DIY project On Otherness and Othering I was asked if I needed a visa to flight to Dublin. I replied sharply that, as a European citizen, I didn’t! But perhaps, soon, again, I will need a visa to visit the place I live and work and the people I call my friends and the one I love.
I am 35. In my lifetime so far I have seen dictatorship, post communism, failed capitalism, neoliberalism, populism and Brexit-ism. My life continues to be its own journey of negotiating and manoeuvring between the power of borders, barriers and in-betweens.
My life in the hands of others, your life in the hands of others. Our lives in our voting hands!
PS — Mentioning voting reminds me it was Theresa May who, as Home Secretary, abolished the UK Border Agency in 2012 and introduced Border Force. What do those words mean as we wait to approach the desk?
Two Destination Language has began work on a new show about celebrating difference. For the designs of this show I am using lots and lots of curtains! Curtains for the costume and the set! More to follow in 2018! Boom!
Supported by Live Art Development Agency and Create Ireland, I ran a workshop exploring identity, otherness and difference in Dublin in September. Working with a bunch of brilliant artists we had a roaring time exploring, pushing, and instigating change. Boom!