Episode 3: The Big Society

Medium Rotation presents conversations and sonic experiences that probe the conditions (and counter the received ideas) of our time, among other times. Each season of the podcast is animated by the concerns of an issue of the magazine, which are addressed by artists, writers, and scholars. The first season, Omniaudience, asks how we understand ourselves and others through listening—and what the obstacles to listening reveal about our society.

Medium Rotation is hosted by Alexander Provan, Triple Canopy’s editor, and Nikita Gale, an artist and longtime collaborator. In the third episode, they’re joined by the writer and researcher Derica Shields. She speaks about her book-length oral history of Black experiences of the welfare state, “A Heavy Nonpresence,” and the value of listening to Black peoples’ accounts and analyses of their own lives. Shields reflects on her effort to share the stories of Black people who are mistreated and monitored by the state, while also being made to feel that they should be grateful for receiving the assistance to which they’re entitled. Her work shows how, in Britain, liberal nostalgia for the so-called care of the state is premised on not listening to those who receive benefits—and how politicians and journalists enable Black people to be shamed for doing so by upholding the age-old distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor (as if colonialism never happened).

Shields, Gale, and Provan listen to and discuss excerpts from “A Heavy Nonpresence,” which includes accounts of seven Londoners whose lives are entwined with the welfare system and was recently published by Triple Canopy. Shields advocates for oral history as a way of enabling marginalized people to be heard—and to hear each other—as well as to mitigate shame and circulate survival strategies. She notes that government assistance for Black people tends to be thought of as contingent on “good behavior,” but observes a recent shift in public opinion and political discourse, due to a reckoning with Britain’s history of colonialism and racism. Rather than act thankful for the rewards of navigating an inhumane bureaucracy, more and more people are saying: “We are here, and the same rights accrue to us.”

With Gale and Provan, Shields speaks about Beverly Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe, The Heart of the Race (Virago Press, 1985); Johnnie Tillmon, “Welfare Is a Women’s Issue,” Ms., spring 1972; a video of the Labour MP David Lammy lambasting the British government for deporting immigrants on April 16, 2018; and a newsreel of West Indian workers, including the famed calypso musician Lord Kitchener, arriving in London aboard the SS Empire Windrush in 1948.

Derica Shields is a writer, researcher, and cultural worker living in London. She is the author of the forthcoming book Bad Practice (Book Works, 2021). Her work has been published by Frieze, Flash Art, Cell Project Space, and the New Inquiry, and presented by the Institute for Contemporary Arts (London) and Spectacle Theater (Brooklyn), among other publications and institutions.

Medium Rotation is produced by Alexander Provan with Andrew Leland, and edited by Provan with Matt Frassica. Tashi Wada composed the theme music. Matt Mehlan acted as the audio engineer and contributed additional music.

Medium Rotation is made possible through generous contributions from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and Nicholas Harteau. This season of Medium Rotation is part of Triple Canopy’s twenty-sixth issue, Two Ears and One Mouth, which receives support from the Stolbun Collection, the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, Agnes Gund, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.