Inviting Consent into the Space
A conversation on the erotic practice of liberation with Sarah Toshie Cargill
I meant to arrive early enough to catch the curator’s talk before the show, but I’ve missed most of it. I grab a seat amongst the couple dozen chairs arranged in several rows, forming a half circle at the center of the gallery. The curator, Sarah Toshie Cargill, is already speaking. Behind her are two empty wooden looms. She poses the question, “What does it feel like to play in a space that is equity-based, not holding hierarchical power systems?” and I begin taking frantic notes on my phone. I am in the Bay Gallery at SOMArts Cultural Center to watch Submission in Five Acts, a performance in a larger festival, But Tell Me What It Feels Like: The Erotic Practice of Liberation, curated by Sarah, SOMArts’ first ever performance art curatorial resident. When the curator’s talk ends, I await the performance with a kind of hunger.
• • •
Weeks later, over coffee at Cafe La Flore in the Sunset, Sarah tells me the performance began with a conversation with conductor Melissa Panlasigui, whom she met when they were both students in UC Berkeley’s Department of Music. They were reunited last summer through UC Berkeley’s annual Summer Symphony, and got to talking. “One of the main things that we connected on was our trauma as classical musicians. I was like, ‘Let’s talk about trauma!’”
Hertz Hall, she says, was a space where she did a lot of growing as a flutist, but also experienced a lot of trauma. “Toni Morrison talks a lot about water, right, and how water remembers. There was this loop that was going around in my head like, ‘Water remembers, water remembers...’” she says, gesturing with her hands. In Morrison’s essay “The Site of Memory,” she compares the collective memory of bodies of water to a human body’s “emotional memory— what the nerves and the skin remember.” Sarah, feeling “all this old shit coming up,” got to wondering: “What kind of traumas are we actually storing in our bodies?”
This question permeates the performance. When it finally begins, Melissa, the conductor, stands before the looms. The last movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony ascends all around us. Melissa’s movements are sharp, expert—and tense. Over the course of the performance, Brahms’s music will grow more and more distorted, reworked into a new piece of music by composer Amadeus Regucera. “He’s very much about building tension. His compositional work is like tension tension tension tension, and in talking to him about his own process and relationship to composing, it’s very much fraught with tension too.”
This tension is partially due to the historical appropriation by European composers of “exotic” sounds they encountered while traveling through colonized countries, which they would then infuse into their own “original” compositions. Amadeus’s distortions eventually render the piece unrecognizable, the music becoming fresh, raw material, as well as a means of reclaiming agency. As Amadeus says in the talkback after the show, he is “taking their music and fucking with it, tearing it apart.”
While Amadeus plays the role of tensionbuilder, it is another performer, Indira Allegra, who arrives to release and transform the tension, embodying the ancient archetype of The Weaver. She slowly enters, graceful and sensual in her movements as she observes Melissa, circling barefoot, before finally closing the space between them, in a consensual embrace. Softened by Indira’s touch, Melissa’s sharpness dissipates, and together they collapse to the floor. Synchronously they then make their way to the looms, threading their bodies through, swinging by their arms, tension now reconstituted by The Weaver’s tools, into something joyful, into art.
Sarah tells me that it was in rehearsing this particular moment that the piece really came together: “When we first rehearsed this, and when we first realized, Oh my god, we’re on to something here, Amadeus and I were watching this whole unfolding happening. Melissa’s conducting, and then when Indira takes Melissa, and allows Melissa to actually just release as if to say, You don’t have to pull all these strings anymore, girl, you can just give it over to me...when we first witnessed that, Amadeus and I were balling.”
This dynamic of tension and release, particularly the erotic as a means of release, is rooted in Audre Lorde’s essay “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic As Power.” In the essay, Lorde describes the erotic as “sharing deeply any pursuit with another person,” writing that the erotic allows “the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy.” It was revisiting this essay that caused Sarah to begin asking “what it would feel like for us to play together in a way that honors the erotic in the process and gives space for it? And what would it feel like to experience freedom and liberation within the context of an orchestra?”
The orchestra, she explains, is “a microcosm of larger societal hierarchies,” from the power of the conductor (who is “often a cis white older man”) over the musicians, to the seating arrangement (the chair a player sits in is imbued with meaning; a first chair player is the leader within their instrument section, and plays most of the solos). This stratification is the very structure on which the functioning of the orchestra relies. And like any human organization, the orchestra also replicates the same oppressive prejudices found beyond the walls of the symphony hall.
“Being a Black queer body in a space that is so much about making the musicians look ‘neutral,’ so that ‘the music itself’ can be expressed and experienced in its ‘purest form’ is impossible for someone like me whose body is inherently charged with meaning and history. In the same way that I can’t separate my own experiences from my identity, how I process my experiences, and how that gets projected in the music that I play is very much shaped by the skin that I’m in.”
Unable and unwilling to blend in, Sarah decided to take up space instead. She says, “It started with me actually taking down my hair, and taking up a lot of space with my hair. And I remember the clarinetist behind me making some kind of comment about it, and me just being like, ‘Well, you’re actually gonna have to fuckin’ deal with it ‘cause this is literally my hair, this is where I’m sitting, so, boo.’”
She insists, however, that the intention of this performance “isn’t to take away from the beauty that is playing in an orchestra. There’s truly nothing like it, I wanted to become an orchestral musician all these years for a reason,” she says. “It’s a very special experience to be in sync with eighty to a hundred people, creating one tapestry together, recognizing the creative and emotional labor it takes to relate and connect to people in real time, even when we can’t see or speak to each other.” This, she says, embodies the experience of unity and solidarity she would like to experience in the world. “So I’m not necessarily proposing that we do away with orchestras altogether, what I am proposing though is that we do this power exchange in a consensual way.”
Consent, she says, is the key word here. Another key word is language. She uses the example of a Dom/sub relationship in BDSM: “There is a lot of talking and a lot of checking for consent that’s involved, and the person who has the most power in that dynamic is the sub. The sub gets to call the shots, but is consenting to being told what to do in a certain way.”
There were times when the physical pain of playing the flute grew prohibitive for Sarah. “I developed tendonitis, and I do have chronic pain in my neck and my shoulders—really, I was just plain tired.” Choosing to listen to her body, she took a step back from damaging practice habits. In the end, though, she found that the source of her pain is also a source of healing. She describes being at the Gardarev Center artist residency in Maine where she “got to explore this idea of using daily flute practices as an actual meditative practice.” She calls this “the seed to this larger festival” because it helped her to realize that her “flute can actually be a tool to undo a lot of the knots that exist in my own body, to give my body a chance to release whatever traumas I’ve been storing in those areas of tension and pain.”
Growing up as the only child, she says, “Flute gave me an opportunity to explore my own internal landscape, the ability to declare, ‘This is what I want and here it is,’ and then to manifest that. There’s something really delightful about being able to do that.” Much like Lorde’s definition of the erotic as a practice of joy, for Sarah, “flute was this tool that I could use to be in conversation with my internal self. So there’s always that element of joy that comes through when I play.”
And it is this joy she wants to emphasize in her work, and wanted to emphasize in this performance. Redesigning with a consent-based framework, she says, “We can experience liberation right now. And it’s really important that we do, because how else is our body going to recognize what it feels like to be free? This is what it feels like.”—Tara Marsden