Cultural Thinker and Researcher Suzanne Alleyne talks about ‘Can we talk about Power’, a series of online conversations produced in partnership with Suzanne, The Barbican and Banff Centre for arts and creativity
Power forms a significant part of our lives on both an individual and collective level, a fascinating entity shaping our daily interactions with one another. Born in 2016, after reading a piece in which the topic of power appeared to form the full stop of a larger conversation, cultural thinker and researcher Suzanne Alleyne was inspired to draw on this phenomenon further. Her ongoing research project The Neurology of Power, focusing on the neuroscience behind power. Feeding into this research project, Suzanne, alongside the Barbican Theatre present talk series Can we talk about Power?, a series comprising of various discussions with a distinguished panel of neuroscientists and creatives. Ahead of the event, Suzanne tells us more about what to expect.
Can we talk about Power? forms part of an ongoing research project by yourself titled The Neurology of Power started in 2018. The aim to examine inequality and power in the context of culture, arts and leadership. Can you tell us what the project has involved and what you have learned from research gained so far?
So as you’ve rightly said, this has fed out of the Neurology of Power, which I started in my bedroom in 2016, rather than 2018, but really saw its first public outing in 2018. I suppose in order to answer what the project has involved, and what I’ve learned, it’s probably useful to know why I started it. I’m 56, I was born in Croydon so I’m a South Londoner. I’m black, and from a single parent family. My mum, like many other black parents was all about education. And I didn’t enjoy it, I had quite a trauma filled childhood and actually lost big parts of my memory. Skip forward, I didn’t go to University. I’ve had some real highs in my career and some lows, but skip forward to 50, and I’ve spent by that point 15-20 years working in the publicly funded arts sector. I’d worked for global brands, I travelled so I had a fairly broad but nuanced outlook of the world. I decided to do an Arts and Cultural Management Masters, I was the only black British person in a cohort of 90 at Kings doing Arts and Cultural Management. So that happened which was mind blowing.
I also discovered that I was dyslexic, I read widely outside and I came across this piece by the then Chair of Arts Council Sir Peter Bazalgette. He was talking about why all the current equality and diversity and inclusion programmes had largely failed, and he’s like, you know, it could be about power. I remember leaning in, and I didn’t even know that I’d lent until I lent back out. Then he was like, and that was the full stop, I thought that was the start of the conversation. Then a few other things happened, like really random things, unless you’re dyslexic. And I just started to go, what is power? Where is it? Does it reside in the brain? I centre who I am in my work. But my genius is, it’s never just about me, or just about my community, whatever I have ever done benefits everyone. So I started to go, how? How could society benefit if we thought about power? If we understood what power was, and if we understood where it resided in our brains and bodies. If we thought about a more outward approach, rather than just how our family or how our community or how organisation or how our country or how our culture thinks about power.
What would happen if we thought about how other groups outside of us think about it? So that’s how it came up. I was a fledging academic. I want to do stuff that not just reaches people, It’s very important that it’s a two-way thing, I share what I know, and other people inform and share what they know with me. I spent a good little minute trying to work out what my own practice was. And trying to work out how to work with my dyslexia and PTSD, and what I felt was the strength or peculiar way I worked, I realised that I just always want to be in conversation with audiences and that is how Can we talk about Power? came into being.
I met Louise Jeffreys who was the then Artistic Director of the Barbican and she was so supportive, I really owe credit to her! She signposted me towards her incubator programme and it’s been two and a half years in the making. In terms of what Can we talk about Power? has involved, it’s been a lot of back and forth, and conversation. Then of course we were impacted by the pandemic, and all of a sudden, people were like, this is kinda interesting! So it’s really gathered momentum.
I speak to neuroscientists, business people – I’ve been speaking to Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett, who is one of the top 1% neuroscientists for neuroscience about the brain and how we work and our emotions. I realised that power by itself is neutral, it doesn’t actually do anything by itself. What I’ve learned from the research specific to Can we talk about Power? and the amazing line up of people that we’re talking to, is that there are some themes that sit across everyone’s conversation, regardless of your political beliefs, regardless of gender and age, regardless of your expertise, regardless of whether you’re an artist, a scientist, a poet.
The big themes are that one – power is neutral. Two, it’s about how you personally engage with power, what power you think you have. The third thing, I think is around empathy and kindness. I had to pre-record Margaret Atwood because she’s travelling and not available, and I thank her for making that time. Hers is a slightly more esoteric conversation, but what came out of that is interconnectedness, everything is interconnected, and we should know that because of Covid. That’s what I’ve gained, and this ability to have so many different types of voices, that’s the major thing.
Developed in collaboration with the Barbican’s public programming team and Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity based in Canada, the event will host five online conversations on this topic. How have you worked together to realise the programme?
I think we’ve covered a bit of that, but Banff are also involved and they’re really important to me. I met their then vice president of arts and cultural leadership Howard Jang in 2018. I had gone on a research trip to an ISCA conference in Guadalajara and you know what, I don’t like talking to people that I don’t know. I’m not that good at it when I’m on my own. So I set myself the task of saying hello to ten people I didn’t know, and he was like the tenth person.
Long story short, I ended up going to Banff. They’re all about arts, creativity and cultural leadership, but they’re on indigenous land, and they are given that land on the basis that they share this around indigenous leadership and wisdom. The thing I love about them is that they have these big glass buildings on the side of the mountains. And so I feel like, because of how they’re situated, they can meet other organisations head on.
They know indigenous knowledge and wisdom, like many other cultures and communities, including Yoruba about Buntu communities actually describe power very differently. We in the West, and especially the global North – have quite a single-ist approach to power. So it’s pretty much, you’re born, and power is about who you have power over. Whereas for other groups and communities and cultures, power is collectivist, it’s about the impact on those around you. So that’s why for me, Banff were really important.
It’s been tricky, because of the pandemic, and time differences. Really we’ve developed it by having conversations, and some of those initial conversations whilst not long, that basic understanding of how indigenous belief systems work around power have been really formative in underpinning the work. That’s how we’ve worked together, and actually, take away the titles of the organisations and it’s been about the team. The long tail nature has allowed us to establish those relationships that can weather the difficuilt conversations about the curation, about who has power, about contracting.
Can we talk about Power? will encourage people to think about how power shapes their everyday interactions. It will explore what is happening in our brains and bodies when we acquire or lose power, and why that matters. What inspired this exploration further?
The person I’m kicking off with is Roger Robinson, the poet who won a TS Eliot Award for his book A Portable Paradise. Roger is the reason that I got into the arts, so it feels very emotional and full circle for him to be opening this with me. Even talking to you, it brings tears to my eyes because I love data, but I love serendipity if that makes sense?
When I met Roger, I was in my late twenties, I met him at a party, eventually you go, “What do you do?”, we were in rough neck jeans, hoodies, trainers. I spent ten years working in snowboarding and surfing and travelling around the world, which was great, but very white and I didn’t feel like I ever saw anyone like me. And he was like, “I’m a poet!”, and I literally did that thing where I was like “I didn’t know black folk were poets! I didn’t even know poets were alive!” Long story short, we started working together, we stayed friends, we’re firm friends and I think him, and everyone that I work with are my inspiration for what I do.
If I didn’t work with creatives, I would never have thought to come from the producing side behind the camera so to speak, to take up space in front of the camera. Roger did a workshop with me, an unexpected workshop. We were chatting on the phone, and he was asking me this question, “Why are you doing this? You can’t do this work unless you’re ruthlessly honest.” And I was like, “It’s about equality, I like to answer the big questions.” He was like, “This is like a writing workshop Suzanne, you should be writing a book. You can’t do anything unless you get to the bottom of why you’re doing this.” And I was like “What are you talking about?” Eventually I was like, “I didn’t feel like I had any power growing up.” And I think part of this is about understanding me, I’m always going to share that experience, and how this helps someone else understand themselves.
The other thing is, for me, I’m from Croydon, my family are not in the arts, and so this has to be regular for me. This has to be in a way, I suppose that’s my gift, that it could talk to, Paul Polman – he used to be at Unilever and is now at Imagine, it could talk to the director of Shell, but it has to also appeal to regular people. I’m doing a conversation on Wednesday with the amazing Swazi Mekali, and we were prepping and talking about it, and she was like, “Oh my goodness, it takes you back, what were the power dynamics like in the playground? What are the power dynamics between you and your friends?” When you think about, how much we talk about the other great things – love, relationships, power is in every second of those. Why don’t we talk about it?
I’m so stunned, and just don’t understand and so my single mission is to find out, but it only works if I find out bringing people along the way and making it interesting and fun. This is not like a lecture series, the thing about me is, I ask all the seemingly stupid questions that everyone else wants to ask and that’s why it works.
A notebook, designed by graphic agency Chill Create+ has been commissioned in addition to the event, featuring an interview between yourself and leading neuroscientist Professor Sukhvinder Obhi. What have you taken away from the interview?
Professor Sukhvinder Obhi is a don! He was born here and lives in Canada. He is a social neuroscientist, which means that he’s into the social aspect, he’s into the cultural aspect of what happens in your brain. His thing is power, I’ve been speaking to him for four years and he doesn’t really give interviews, but for a lot of reasons he agreed and it’s mindblowing.
What I took away from the interview is that his work talks a lot around empathy. One of the things he said is that quite often, not all of the time, the more power you acquire, the less empathy you may have. And there’s also how you define power, there’s lots of definitions. I’ll give you mine – you have power to influence how other people think and behave, often, regardless of the impact on them or their desire to do what you want, Professor Sukhvinder’s is a bit more technical.
Ultimately everyone who has read it is mind blown by the beautiful simplicity of it. He takes a really complex topic, and he just makes it relevant for us. He talks about why is power important. Because if you have power, and you can influence people, and you may not have as much empathy, then what happens with the power that you have? And in who’s interest are you going to use it? He draws the dots from one to five, in a way that all of us understand and in a way that, whether you are a global leader, or someone with care responsibilities, you suddenly sit down and you really consider your own power, what you have and what you don’t have and how you use it. And just realise that everyone has power at some point over someone or something, you realise the importance of it, it suddenly becomes a great theme in your life.
The notebook is just beautiful and the tickets are really well priced. They’re £10 to access all five talks, but if you pay £15 you get this beautiful notebook. I should also add, we’ve just commissioned a collaborator of mine, Ahmed Akasher who is part of the music collective Amplified to create a playlist. Oh my god! If you want to know why everyone should be talking about power, just listen to the playlist, because the music for me is an introduction to the topic. When you listen to these tracks, but you have power in your mind, they just sound… you just hear something different.
Can we talk about Power?, a series of online conversations exploring the power of power will take place from the 27th to 30th September. How are you feeling ahead of the event?
I’m feeling excited and overwhelmed, practically there’s just a lot of things to do! We’re doing press, it’s great! I run a company, as well as being a conversationalist and artist, so juggling that is interesting, there’s a lot of learning. I’m mad excited because in a way this isn’t my research, it belongs to everybody and it’s about sharing. I’m not nervous about what people will think of my research, because it’s kind of an iterative process, so that’s the one weird thing, I’m not nervous. For me as a black woman, with mental health, going through menopause, I’m in my 50s, I consider myself working class, I hit so many marginalised intersections. What I want, more than anything, is for anyone that looks at this, anywhere, and says that’s not for me, if that’s your first thought, then this is for you my friend, this is for you. And if there’s anyone out there who reads this, and doesn’t have the £10 to buy a ticket, email me, I will sort something out.
What can viewers expect from the event?
You know when you’re at a party, and you’re in the kitchen and then you get to overhear a conversation and you’re like, rah! And then you get to be apart of the discussion, that’s what I think. I think that’s going to be the surprise. It’s not stoosh, it’s not inaccessible, it’s not full of long words, I just want people to go away and be like, wow, why didn’t I think about power? And also, I want people to have something that connects them to themselves.
Interview by Lucy Basaba.
Can we talk about Power will take place from Monday 27th until Thursday 30th September 2021 online via The Barbican. To find out more about the event, visit here…