“What’s that on your forehead?”

"don't tell me what to be"

“don’t tell me what to be”

I wanted to spend a little more time reflecting on my last post. Inspired by Adrian Piper’s “Everything” piece, Simon Wilkes and I decided to do something similar. Similar, not quite the same, as we had made our own alterations to it. Instead of replicating Piper’s “Calling Card”, we decided to write something short and to the point, and then wear it on our foreheads. I chose to write “don’t tell me what to be” in reverse with a paint marker. Henna would have been ideal, as in Piper’s “Everything” participants who would engage in writing the phrase “Everything Will Be Taken Away” would write it on their heads with henna so that it becomes a part of them whilst each day it fades away. The kind of henna we were able to find didn’t really work, so a paint marker (a wonderful invention I didn’t even know existed till this project) was our next best choice. I would rewrite the phrase when it began to disappear or wash out. I am choosing (-ing as I am still in the middle of this project) to wear this for about a week. This has been quite interesting as within a week I’ve had classes, meetings, performances to attend, and even had to go into the city.

Initially I felt a little nervous, wondering how people would react or what they would say or what I would say in response. After the first day, it became something I wasn’t conscious about. Till of course, someone I did not know would take a momentary pause when they saw me, perhaps contemplating the ‘should I ask or not ask’ question. It’s fascinating how self conscious people becomes of themselves. My responses to “what do you have on your forehead?” or “why do you have that?” were often:

“I don’t know. What do I have on my forehead?”
“Why are we here in this moment? Why has the universe brought us together?”
“Theatre stuff”
“I’m a theatre major. We’re weird. We should all be weird.”
“We’re looking at this artists called Adrian Piper in class who…. (explanation)”

I think my responses differed according to who I talked to or what I was feeling at that moment. If I was tired or really busy, “theatre stuff” would be my response. Generally I tried to give the explanation though, and other times I humored the situation with the first two responses. At times it felt almost like a game, where people (or should I say, the ‘spectator’?) would try to read what I had. Oddly enough they would start out fine by reversing the letters/word, but then would turn some words upside down (for some reason, ‘tell’ became ‘fall’). When they got lost f the words right, some would assume the sentence to end with ‘do’, not ‘be’. I also was keen on writing it in lowercase letters, so that it would seem more conversational than confrontational, and I also didn’t want the letters to be perfectly capitalized. I wanted it to be imperfect in some way.

The only time I felt uncomfortable was when a man I did not know was staring at me from a little distance away. Being a female hybrid kid growing up in Sri Lanka, I’m used to ‘the stare’ so this was reminiscent of that moment. It took me a while before I recalled that I have words on my head and he was clearly trying to decipher them.

This was quite a timely experiment to do. It has been a busy week. I feel like the meaning of “don’t tell me what to be” changed over time. Initially I had wanted it to be in response to how people would judge me based on the color of my skin or gender, assumer certain things because of these qualities, or would tell me not to pursue the arts. Other phrases I contemplated were “don’t tell me what to do” and “don’t tell me who to be”. Simon suggested ‘what’ over ‘who’, which I preferred because of that sense of being objectified. Now the phrase is in some way really in response to colleagues telling me to get some sleep. In fact, if I were to do a calling card now it would probably look something like this:

calling card


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