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The power and politics of words: Run Riot talks to revamped arts venue Free Word about their all-new season "This is Private"

Run Riot caught up with Zain Dada, one of two new Season Producers with Clare Callan at Free Word, brought on board to bring new writers, artists and thinkers to the space and programme and produce bold new cross-art form themed 'seasons' which will run twice a year in Autumn and Spring.

Free Word aims to champion the next generation of artists alongside today’s most exciting voices and taking on urgent topics of our time through unique formats. They will be commissioning a short film and installation each season, alongside a host of live events and new digital content.

The first of these seasons, This is Private, will explore our public lives and private fears - how we need personal space to be individual, yet we must share our space to be part of a community. The season opens next week with a Launch Party on 15th October where the new installation by visual artist Soofiya will be unveiled and new short film featuring poet Zia Ahmed will be screened for the first time and runs though until early December.

Zain previously worked at the Bush Theatre and has a degree in Politics and History from SOAS. He is also Co-Founder of Khidr Collective: a multi-disciplinary arts group which platforms the work of young Muslim artists, producing a bi-annual publication of essays, fiction, poetry, comics and illustrations.

Photo credit: Zain Dada by David Ryder-Prangley

RR: Free Word has always been a hub for literature and free expression and you are now programming with the focussed approach of "exploring the power and politics of words". Can you tell us a bit more about this?

Zain Dada: We live in a world where words can be immeasurably powerful. There is clearly a hierarchy and structure to who has the privilege of shaping public opinion and who doesn’t. We are told a 'marketplace of ideas' exists but who holds the keys to this marketplace? And on what terms can it be accessed? Can migrant women say #MeToo or will they fear deportation? How easy is it for a working class person to appear on Question Time? Who defines the terms of public debates?

These are some of the things we've been thinking about at Free Word and we hope to interrogate them in more depth through our programme. There are artists, journalists and thinkers whose voices from the so-called 'margins' are redefining mainstream discourse.

RR: You joined the team at Free Word this year to programme and produce new themed "seasons" - what can we expect from these?

Zain: The key for us is to explore urgent contemporary themes through playful and dynamic formats. We'll be showcasing a diversity of perspectives through art forms including performance, film screenings, debates, installations and film – always keeping a focus on the power of words used brilliantly. It’s important to us that everyone feels safe to explore topics in depth from the perspectives that affect them. We hope that our audiences feel free to join in the conversation and that we’ll learn as much from them as they do from the writers, artists and speakers they come to see. We also hope that there will be laughter and tears – that people have meaningful, moving experiences here.  

Image from UK Drill and Grime: What's the Problem? A recent pre-season event at Free Word. Credit: Sana Badri

RR: Why a season on "privacy" to kick things off?

Zain: We want our seasons to tackle important issues in surprising, accessible ways. Privacy is one of the most significant issues of our time, but it doesn’t necessarily feel that way to us. It is a basic right for a good reason, but strangely we rarely think about what privacy allows us to do, feel and be, or who is most affected when privacy is lost. We wanted to ask how and why we all need privacy, and what happens to individuals and societies when they lose it.

We might think about a lack of privacy as a worry for people living under autocratic regimes in other parts of the world, but in fact it's an urgent issue in our own back yard too. The UK passed laws in 2016 which mean that our surveillance laws have become infinitely more draconian and we’ve seen, for example through stories of Cambridge Analytica, how technology has started to invade our personal space as well.

Our assumptions around privacy often miss out other narratives though; invasions of physical space (such as the Stop and Search policy) to national shame kept private in the British colonial archives, to the communities who face the brunt of mass surveillance laws in Britain (such as the PREVENT programme).

Privacy is a big subject and we also wanted to explore the personal and playful sides of our private lives through the lens of online histories, relationships and identities.

 

This Is Private: Teaser Trailer from Free Word on Vimeo.

 

RR: What are some of the highlights of the programme?

Zain: Some of the highlights for me include Our Bodies Will Not Be Policed  curated by Young People's Poet Laureate, Momtaza Mehri in collaboration with Spread the Word. It will examine the different ways women experience harassment in digital and physical spaces.  Alongside Momtaza, we have two incredible poets, Eleanor Penny and Amaal Said.

I'm incredibly excited about the debate on Britain's Private Shame​ in collaboration with the Runnymede Trust. It will be an uncensored look at Britain’s colonial past, particularly interesting given the post-Brexit moment we are currently living in, featuring rapper and activist Lowkey, journalist Remi Adekoya, Policy Advisor David Goodhart, and academic Dr Gurminder Bhamrathe.

We've got a specially commissioned installation by visual artist, Soofiya, whose  work has featured everywhere from gal-dem to The Guardian and Tate. Soof In Private ​is their biggest installation yet and asks questions about our private online lives via a sharing of the artist's Instagram, iMessages and search history. Expect something emotional, open, funny, powerful and tongue in cheek. 

Another highlight is a short film commissioned by Free Word for the privacy season, The Moon Is A Meme. Written by former Channel 4 Playwright in Residence's Zia Ahmed, produced by Film Pill who made Lowkey's Ghosts of Grenfell and directed by me, the film ​looks at reflections and refractions of the British high street for a young Asian man. We are also proud to be hosting workshops with gal-dem, CryptoParty LDN and Apples and Snakes.

Image from 5 to 12, a past event with Caleb Femi and the SXWKS collective. Credit: Rowan Spray

RR: Tell us a bit more about some of the artists you are working with on the season and Free Word's approach to working with artists?

Zain: We have such a wonderful array of artists and thinkers across the season. ​Farzana Khan is a writer and thinker whose work with Stuart Hall Foundation and Voices That Shake! is interrogating the question of who exactly gets to speak in society. Kareem Parkins-Brown is a poet with bags of talent and priceless wit to match and I'm really looking forward to Dangerous Data - an event with Kareem in partnership with Liberty which asks how we navigate a world where our personal data can be misused by the state and how  this invasion of our privacy impacts vulnerable communities in particular.

Our approach to artist and collectives is intertwined with how we think about words and who has to amplify their voice. We want to create a venue that programmes great work which is also a hub for artists where they are given time, space and resources to make work about what feels important to them.

In a city of shrinking affordable art (and living) space, we're trying to think about what we can do to redistribute our resource and our civic duty in general.

The discourse in the mainstream. These are the artists we want to work with.

Image from 5 to 12, a past event with Caleb Femi and the SXWKS collective. Credit: Rowan Spray

RR: Free Word has an incredible host of resident and associate organisations - are they involved in the season?

Zain: One of the great things about being at Free Word​​ is having a range of amazing organisations under the same roof and we're collaborating with many of them on the season.  We'll explore the topic of “taboos” in the work of female writers with English PEN and the Columbian author, Margarita Garcia Robayo.

We've also partnered with a range of other residents including Apples and Snakes, The Literary Consultancy, and The Reading Agency, who have produced exciting and unique takes on the theme.

RR: What changes can we expect from FW as a venue?

Zain: Free Word is at an exciting moment. We have a bold new website and the venue itself is also changing. The front of the building has had a complete re-brand and we have radical new installations inside and exciting plans for the rest of the building.

Most of all though, a place is shaped by the people who use it and speak in it. We’re at the beginning of an exciting new era – and the energy of a host of radical, inspiring, brave and empathetic writers and artists is about to carry us into a whole new territory.

RR: What next?

Zain: It's just the very beginning of a new Free Word, led by the vision of our Director Roma Backhouse.

There isn’t anywhere quite like it in London – where you can regularly hear the next generation of brilliant, creative voices speaking on important issues.  

My fellow Season Producer Clare Callan is already working on our Spring Season with a host of incredible artists… watch this space for an announcement in the winter!

This is Private
Mon 15 Oct - Thu 06 Dec
Free Word
https://freeword.org | Facebook | @FreeWordCentre

 

Image from 5 to 12, a past event with Caleb Femi and the SXWKS collective. Credit: Rowan Spray