Month: September 2020

Jaša Mrevlje-Pollak & Gorazd V. Mrevlje

JAŠA Mrevlje-Pollak & Gorazd V. Mrevlje
‘In Conversation with my Father’


A Blue Skies Conversation


Image 1: Bela, Photography (2016)

“From the experience of my family (that would be us) I know that, if a change happens, it does so because people in their dialogues express their inner needs better than they could with a mass uprising. I simply do not know what kind of political regime comes out of these inner needs. But I do know that the regime, which offers no deeper reason for people to be interested in one another, cannot maintain its legitimacy for a long time.”
          – Gorazd V. Mrevlje “Dilemmas of Contemporary Life”

That was when my father called me from the hospital.
“Whatever you do, do not publish any of what you just sent me.”
“What?” I was confused as I had no intention of publishing anything, yet. It was just an email with some of my thoughts on the current, unfortunate political situation here in Slovenia. Some talking points we might consider for a planned recorded dialogue. “What happened?” I asked.

What followed was a string of surreal moments, actions, talks and consequential decisions.
A situation that pushed us to reconsider what we’d planned: that we should go public with a dialogue based on a sketch I’d sent in the form of an email. Sure, we all know, in theory, that hackers can read our emails, look at what we are looking at as we leave our fingerprints all over the internet. But usually this results in some unwanted ads and such offered mainly by algorithms. Rarely does this turn into something that could seem like a real threat, a situation that feels more like some dystopian noir-style thriller than real life. Then again, it sure feels like we’re living a movie right now to many of us. I realized that I was being surveyed, most likely by our government.

It was a surreal turn of events, but not entirely surprising. I’ve been on the radar as a troublemaker since I was one of the hundreds of protestors meeting throughout the Corona crisis to speak out against a government that was behaving in a manner that is unfortunately in keeping with far rightist, quasi-fascist global trends. I’d instinctually hopped a police barrier when I saw a fellow protester being manhandled, and then got badly manhandled myself—a photo of which wound up on the cover of the leading liberal news magazine. Since then, when I walk through Ljubljana, I see that police recognize me and take note. I’m on that sort of list. Me, an artist without the slightest political motivation. Hardly the type to scare a government. But apparently I do.

So much for the idea of a recorded dialogue on this subject with my father, Gorazd V. Mrevlje. He is famous around these parts, a psychiatrist, long retired. He’s confronted many dramatic incidents and is seen as a national father figure, given his warm and multi-layered public persona, a man highly respected and loved for his professionalism and charm. He is also an incredible father. He taught me how to be a good (hu)man.

Throughout the years of growing up and through my work and adult life, my father has been my number one guide. When my travels became more frequent, often life did not allow us to talk when we needed to, so I learned to have an ongoing imagined conversation whenever I would feel lost, lonely, abandoned or hurt.

What follows is one such imagined conversation.

Video: In Conversation with My Father, text and voice by JAŠA, sound recorder and edited by KALU, image and edit with Rosa Lux (2020)

“How? Why? Can I or should I be right? Can I be wrong? Can I be both? Can I scream out loud my most hidden desires without hurting anyone? Why were you and Mom such an incredibly beautiful couple, a walking dream, a pretext for the setting sun to rest upon your skin. After needless periods of never ending arguments, many years later I was happy to see you separate and find somebody new. How can that happen? Why did I feel honored, thrilled and so fucking incredibly special when you said that you knew, since my early days, given my restless and deeply problematic character, that I would either end up being a brilliant criminal or perhaps end up doing something incredible and unique? Why did I steal your socks and wear them to school in order to gain points with classmates, even though you found out and were furious? I only stopped when I saw how it hurt you. Why did it make me feel whole when I saw you cry? Why did it make me feel so scared and audacious when I upset you? When we would scream our lungs out, or you would mostly, as I would withdraw into my tears, but we would both then end up laughing at our own stupidity? Why did I feel ashamed when I would see you both naked in the morning? Why would I secretly observe your member and think of mine growing up? Was it a simple comparison of the strangest tools of function and pleasure? And we could talk about it, as I shared my worries or perplexities about my own appearances or that of my rather smaller fellow, especially in your own company. It took me ten or more years to beat you in a game of tennis, even though I thought my youth and strength should have been the sole reason to triumph. When I did, your reaction was the most dignified thing I have ever seen. Dignity, charm, honesty. Why did I start communicating with poems in high school, only to find my harshest critic, only to realize my words were made of stones and hard dark edges? Why did I fly when we got drunk together, discovering this wide world of music, colors, taste, smell and passion? Why, every time we hug, even though it now feels that we might be reversing roles, does our hug feel like a universe becoming whole?

“Why is the silent presence the most reassuring and most beautiful presence I learned to miss and love, that of a parent swimming in his own thoughts and dreams in the same room with you? Why will one of my most beautiful moments forever more remain the memory of both of you on a Sunday morning in your bed and me jumping in between you, sharing my dreams with you and simply believing everything? You taught me how to dream my own dreams and then turn them into reality made of palpable material. You taught me how to cherish my loneliness and simply tune in to the buzzing of my zig-zagging thoughts. You taught me how to cope with all the different shapes of my own mind, of all the dark pockets, of me hearing voices and turning that into something constructive and positive. You taught me how to persist, resist and use my own head when going through walls. You taught me how to get my ass up and open the door to the other, how to let them in and talk. You, above all, taught how to believe that all differences and conflicts can and should be talked out, no matter how long it takes or how hard it gets. You showed me that through talks, through everything we have been through, since the very beginning, since I could not learn how to read, or sit still or listen or follow written rules. You taught me how to question and how to make those questions, as unpleasant as they might have been, as risky as they might be, as stressful as they might feel. You taught me to act upon my most hidden desires in order not to regret things when they pass. As hard as this may feel right now, I still know that somehow we will get things right. Eventually. You taught me that. That we need to get it right. If we let fear take over and we might consequently stop talking or simply comply, we will not sleep soundly at night. We will not wake up and shake the colors out of our sleeves, just to paint another day for you and me.”

02_JAŠA_the both of them

    Image 2: Them both, Photography (1980s)

The above images conclude the story from my perspective, along with the video, which I hope you like. In tune with the sound (which we have retouched a bit), I was looking for a perfect fit in terms of an image. I tried other, more figurative images, especially one with two empty chairs, but the more Rosa and I worked on it, the more I realized that I was looking for a mental image. It all went back to an image I have never used before (image 1). It was towards the end of the summer in 2016 when Bela was nine years old. I dreamt of an underwater image, of something I used to do as a kid when diving. I would go as deep as I could, holding my breath, then I’d turn my chest up and letting the air in my lungs slowly pull me up. I used a compact analogue underwater camera, one of the types you can find in local summer joint for a few bucks. One image out of twenty-seven came out perfectly, freezing that moment of Bella growing up. We never knew what happened with this photo, but I knew that, one day, I would think of it, and it happened yesterday when I started thinking of colors that would fit the sound recording.
For the sound for the video, I went to Kalu’s place. He just moved his legendary music studio to his home, his living room. It was located in a studio in the heart of Ljubljana’s legendary squat, Metelkova, where we recorded and mixed out an album called White Rooms back in 2014 with Leftfinger. It was home to some incredible music. Due to the many consequences of COVID 19’s new realities, he had to cut down on his expenses and settle for working at home. He opened the door in his Japanese gown and sunglasses and walked me into his sunbathing apartment. I was exhausted and completely devoid of any real inspiration, nevertheless a fitting idea of how to shoot the sound arrived. He was working on a new tune that right away gave me that familiar buzz, the one that only making music does. “I love the text, bro,” he said with his chilled Beck-like groove. “This is what we will do.” He went into his bedroom and came out with an old-school flat Sony tape recorder (ever heard of cassettes? We from the nineties are still suckers for this bygone piece of technology) and looked at me. “No mic for you today. We go old school. You press play and have one go at it and that’s it.” The adrenalin did the trick so I pushed play and went for it. Once I was back from the corner shop with a beer or two, he transferred the recording directly into the computer while recording it again in the room with him adding his magic, and that was it.  
Once I found the underwater image, it brought me to an image I have observed on a wall during the lockdown, one of flickering lights coming through the window. Something went wrong with the recording, which gave me the opportunity to bring it closer to the image I had in mind. It is a tricky process, but then it clicks, and you usually do not know exactly why that’s the moment to lift your hands.
I took this photo (image 2) with me when I left home back in 1999 after my parents separated. It happened somewhere in the 80s and it captures both of them and some of the closest friends in one of their best moments, of which they had plenty in my childhood in the Yugoslavia of the 80s. It’s an image I grew up with, learned to mimic and keep close.
Text edited by Noah Charney

The Blue Skies Conversation Series is presented by International Curators Forum and made possible with support from Art Fund.

Giorgia Ohanesian Nardin & Jamila Johnson-Small

Jamila Johnson-Small & Giorgia Ohanesian Nardin

‘Some kind of magnetism’


A Blue Skies Conversation

Giorgia and Jamila (SERAFINE1369) started a conversation in 2018, about the embodied emotional and psychic impact of conservatoire dance training and their wider research into marginalised forms of knowledge production and strategies for holding space without violence and cringe. They often find themselves talking about language – observing, and thinking about how to untangle its frictions, inaccuracies and power in shaping bodies, relationships and ways of being in the world.

“I think how we are being with words has a lot to do with moving through hostile architectures (language is one of them) and I wonder, with you, if again we are busy with the thing (untangling language) that brings us away from “the point.” I also wonder what point we are talking about, and maybe there are many points and sometimes we are far from them, sometimes we hit them randomly or maybe we’re so in the point that we think we’re not?”

There is an intention to wonder and wander about the things that are considered ground. Wondering how we arrive at these things, how we arrive at things that make us think about things, and when these things are words, what happens when the words that arrive don’t feel aligned with us?

Something around movement|intention|future as architectural words and methodology as something that is found rather than previously designed. We have no maps for this.

G: What are the strategies for not holding everything that are not compartmentalisation?

I want to be in conversation with you about holding. I have so many questions about this word, it sits with me like a load (a load, an inher-ited position, an architecture, …) and I wonder how you feel about it. I’ve said to you before that things changed for me when I realized that holding space didn’t necessarily mean holding people, and I want to know what it’s like for you, what you think about that.

J: These questions are all so BIG. Okay.

When I think about holding, I think about it as being really physical – the gesture of holding and also the internal holding of tensions, of thoughts, feelings, energies, memories, traumas, in our minds yes, but my first thought is about bodies (not to be going on about the cartesian split right but I don’t have good language here, maybe the intellectual mind? The so-cial mind? The front brain? What are the names of the different brains? I am gonna look this up…) So it’s both about supporting and suppressing? Does holding include withholding or am I putting that there?? Maybe, because I haven’t understood how or had language to express, articulate, or even sense, around the accumulation of energies from others that is so much part of my experience and has become a major site/pattern of holding for me, and when I speak about holding space or holding people, it’s a lot about this, on this energetic level. And there’s been a lot of confusion there for me. Maybe this is already evident in the thing you say of having conflated holding space and holding people.

J: I want to know what holding space is for you now?

G: I recently learned a word in Armenian that is used to name people who practice divination, nayogh, which literally means “the ones who are looking”. For me it really relates to holding space (divination is, amongst other things, about holding space), how ultimately it’s about allowing the possibility for looking, at/through/with, with an intention to question and move away from structures of looking that are rooted in pain, violence, sameness, in contexts that are hostile etc. And I guess looking requires some form of facilita-tion, or I’m interested in facilitating looking, so I guess that’s how I hold space.

I also think about agitation in this sense, as holding space. I guess this is where I prefer to call myself an agitator and not an activist, this word I also find hard when related to myself or what I do, cause it immediately frames words/positions and practices in a way that doesn’t fit with me, also it gives me Impostor Syndrome if someone else calls me an activist and I really don’t claim this role for myself. Anyhow, small tangent.

Agitation for me is a state of possibility, it requires and brings movement, literal movement, definitely vibration. I am interested in this friction. Holding friction, allowing its specific vibration to manifest and I think there is where I feel a space can be generative, and often times I have found myself in spaces where this was not allowed or definitely avoided, which felt stagnant, like stagnantly resolved, like sitting on things that have been hidden (lol so many images of this come up in my head right now!).

So I guess I’m saying that for me holding space is about allowing the possibility for agitation to manifest, to be a collective experience, to be a genera-tive collective experience.

J: I think about being held or holding and seeing, recognising, the soothing of a moment or experience of distinction or alienation. Like where you can feel your own edges and invite a meeting still. A meeting that is not neces-sarily about sameness but about intimate witnessing and receiving…

G: It also makes me think about dancing. I feel like in dance training I’ve been taught to present myself (to be presentable actually) and, having looked at how harmful that was for me, maybe now if I think of dancing as holding space for possibility, holding space for agitation, for agitation as possibility, for the manifestation of frictions and not for the presentation of all these things, and then maybe I can like dancing. I mean I like dancing (I know you’re laughing!!). I just don’t know what to do about being looked at while dancing. Because that is loaded in ways that don’t allow for me, right now, in the contexts in which I have been/am looked at while dancing, they don’t allow for me to be present with my dancing, with holding the space for my presence, for the all of me that wants to be experienced in the dancing to be there.

G: Also, what are we holding, now?

How are we holding, now?

The word diaspora comes up (another one that gives me many feel-ings) and I think about how in diaspora holding and proximity are maybe not immediately recognizable as related to each other but they are, I guess in a way they orientate around each other and I think there’s something there that shapes the way I hold, how I relate to holding. What do you think about this? How is it for you?

J: Now I am thinking about holding as containing, not in an enforced way (or maybe in an enforced way!?) but as a given, as inheritance. And also as legacy, as something offered. And what is the difference between ‘I hold’ and ‘I am’? I want to ask you about this, in relation to the word or position of being part of a diaspora? I guess we take form through the things we hold. Whether it’s this thing we were speaking about the other day, about the specific ways in which the experience of certain traumas can affect gait by impacting our relationships to the ground (for example), or it’s about my hand taking the form of a cup I hold so that I can drink from it. Systems form bodies, architectures form bodies, experiences form bodies, feelings form bodies…are these things all held? Do they have to be? Do they each have their own timelines? Is this where form is also content?

When I was a kid and discovered that if you kept a terrapin in a larger space, it would grow bigger, my mind was blown – was bigger better? Were the smaller terrapins not fully formed, forever held back? Would everything get bigger if it got more space? What were the impacts of unrealised or suppressed potential??? What was cruelty?

Anyway…a tangent…

Holding and proximity. Diaspora confounds proximity as the only way we have contact and connection right? I think. I was born in London, in England, this has been my environment for my whole life (so far) but the things that shape me are not only this place, are so many things I have not seen or encountered or known through my present senses. And this knowing is not only through attempts to call in, to find, what has been lost and erased through the violences of the colonial project. We don’t emerge out of a void, a vacuum. Okay, my eyes are rolling already but I think I am gonna go there: nature. The misunderstanding of this as something definite, fixed, total – because historical – like only the future can be engaged with change…but if that’s the case then the present and past must also be. Whatever, this was a potentially problematic diversion… Just to say we don’t arrive here with nothing, nor do I think we even arrive, I think we emerge. I think we emerge with many proximities and that these are carried in our bodies throughout life, unshakeable, but that our relation to them in terms of distance (in space, time, emotional connection/ perceived relevance), can be shifting continually.

This suggests a vast and incidental kind of holding to me.

I have always known that I hold other people and this brings proximity to many deaths, means that I hold many deaths, am shaped by many deaths. I feel tired to follow this thought any further right now.

J: How do you understand the relationship between intimacy and proximity?

G: The difference between I hold and I am. <3. If I try to answer this in rela-tionship to the word diaspora, or to my relationship to this word, what comes up are stories of trauma, internalized and passed on, that make holding and being so liminal to each other that they become almost the same. There is brutality in this, when being means holding, there is something that relates it to service, to holding as service, being of service.

There are so many things to say about this that I’m finding it hard to gather my thoughts. Ok.

My experience of intimacy is not necessarily tied to proximity, I have learned/grew up in a context where being displaced (there is surely a better word for this but this one comes up right now) was how things were, and so the work of holding each other was the work of holding this distance, and the specific intimacy that it generated.

I guess that can be where intimacy and proximity meet, but intimacy is not about proximity and vice versa, maybe it’s also because of this that we of-ten talk about ghosts to one another?

J: Do you think it’s possible that we (me and you) are so busy trying to articulate around the violence of existing conditions and histories, trying to untangle language(/s), that we might be missing the point? How do we listen without direction and not only to gather evidence? How do we move away from mapping?

How do we/you (I guess here I am asking about future strategies and current ones!) remain present with the functional reality of language as something useful for fast communication – via processes of trans-lating and reducing complex experience – and the limitations there are on time (ie always moving towards death)? When is it possible to be casual with language? When is being casual being careless, and when is it not? Why do you think you/we are so concerned with/drawn to working with/on words and language as a site for unsettling oppres-sive systems? This is also interesting to me because we both spent time in intense physical dance training…

G: Okkkk another huge question – but as you say they are all huge!

Mmmmmm I think I feel an obsession with words (I think I can use this word here) because I am scared of being enclosed by them, maybe if I ded-icate so much time and energy and myself in trying to unpack what is being said/how to say something, or the words that are being used, then I can make space for myself, then there is a possibility to not be devastated by language. Because I feel language is, can be, also devastating.

I don’t know if it’s about gathering evidence, there was a moment where it was also this for me, like looking for myself in words, in other people’s words (which sometimes is like waking up and sometimes is being defined by, which is when I move away) and then there is my intense desire for specificity and complexity to be able to be present at once, and I guess words can do that, or how we (you+I) use words does that for me.

J: When I write gathering evidence, I’m more thinking about the tracking and analysing of systems, collecting proof of their existence, noting their impacts…

G: I think how we are being with words has a lot to do with moving through hostile architectures (language is one of them) and I wonder, with you, if again we are busy with the thing (untangling language) that brings us away from “the point”. I also wonder what point we are talking about, and maybe there are many points and sometimes we are far from them, sometimes we hit them randomly or maybe we’re so in the point that we think we’re not?

Yeah I think dance training also comes into this – how (at least in my experi-ence) training in dance implied something like “not being good with” words. As if body and words could not coexist. And this always made me burn, there is so much assumption and so much is taken away in this approach, both from movement and from language. So maybe teenage me is still trying to prove my teachers wrong (Scorpio sun never lets go of anything right?) or maybe I want/need for body and words to be a part of each other, because ultimately my words are so connected to my body, ultimately all I talk/write/think about is my body, or/and all the things I want to talk about have access to me through my body, or I experience through my body.

Also, I feel for me there’s a lot of erasing that happens in witnessing my body so I guess words become context to body? Can I talk my body out? I have also overthinked my body to the point of immobility.

So I guess I don’t know when or how being casual with language is possible, or when it happens for me. I think I have an internalized understanding of casual as accessible, but I don’t feel like the opposite of casual language is necessarily accessible. I guess the even bigger questions would be what is casual language and what is accessible language. Aaaaaaaaa!

I don’t think I’ve answered all your questions lol

J: Can we talk about leaders? What do you think about leading? What/who are/have been your guides?

G: Thinking about guides has always been something that frictions with me (I guess we are talking about words as friction here also so it’s a very welcome friction, here) because I often have felt like many people around me had clarity about this, like there

is something reassuring about recognizing oneself as a follower or recogniz-ing/relating to a person as someone who can carry. Because I guess ultimately talking about leadership can also mean talking about care, or maybe here I am already trying to move away from (which is obviously also a failed attempt) capitalist/imperialist notions around leadership. I used to say that my guides have been my friends, I think I still feel this, although I feel it might also be a big responsibility to put that on someone who you love and who loves you. But I guess love can also be responsibility and that can be ok?

J: Yes. I want to affirm this. Even though it’s complicated…

G: Maybe we need to untangle what responsibility means too, another complicated word to add to the list.

The first things that come up when I think about leading are hierarchies, the problematic potential positionments that this word holds, I think about sit-ting through many symposiums/talks/round table discussions (omg this im-age!) about “feminist leadership” and always feeling in the wrong place (lol what’s new) and like care was being mistaken for softness/or like softness could erase (or attempt to erase) the messyness that comes with leader-ship, like there can be a chance for safety there (another word that is like !!! what is safety). Omg thoughts go so fast I am missing myself in trying to write!

My friend A. gifted me a book about tarots that I’ve been reading, and your question makes me think of the third Arcana, the Empress, and how in the book they talk about them as the “one who is misunderstood”. I’m sitting with this right now, the possibility for leadership to be a misunderstanding (also, what isn’t?), and how that might be a generative position to look at it from. I think of the Empress as a card that offers more than shows, how their energy is not gifted nor held, but nonetheless here. I think about how I hardly ever draw the Empress when I read tarot for myself, and now I’m wondering what this means. Lol am I saying that cards are my leaders?! I’m not sure, but I guess that in the suggestion of a direction, of an intention, an orientation, I guess they’re there.

G: I want to talk about destruction as methodology. Is destruction a methodology? You and I often speak about destruction as methodolo-gy and I wanted to ask you what being destructive means to you. Does it create space?

J: I guess it’s a word that’s been put on me by others – that I challenge, confront, destroy things…and when there’s repeated feedback that doesn’t match with what you understand to be your intentions, you have to check with yourself to see what’s bringing the disjunct right? So I started thinking, looking for what I might be destroying in actions or words that came from me with the intention to do something else. A basic thing – if I talk about my feelings or experiences and I am told that I am destroying things, how can both these things be true, be happening at once? Because I can’t deny one reality in favour of the other. And I guess I’ve learned about the ways in which the cultures that I move through/live within function on homogeneity, sameness, agreement, and if this is what I risk destroying when I speak my truths then I can get with that. Because if I believe that we all should have the right to be seen, to be loved, to be heard, to be well, to survive, then I have to include myself within this and push for my space to access those things. Yes, I think destruction can create or open space.

G: If so, do you have words for that space and what can manifest there?

J: So much of my work is concerned with strategies and technologies for opening this space but I never know what will emerge and maybe emerge is a very different word to manifest anyhow…I think I tell myself that I don’t know? But actually maybe it’s more like I do know – other things become visible, assert their presence – difficulty, discomfort, other kinds of ease, release, the impacts of overwhelm, shifting proximities, collapse, the failure of language, the failure of communication, dysfunction, the desire to be held, alienation, emotion, trembling, grief, pain, lightness, contradictory paradoxical and conflicting realities…quite a brew. I mean, the things that are always there, often being ‘held down’. I don’t know what happens after we give attention to these things. I don’t know how to attend to these things. This is not a safe space. But I guess the patterns of violence are not so clearly en-trenched t/here let’s say, are not foretold. So what can manifest? Possibility, I hope, the destruction of illusions, false prophets, aspiration, systems of oppression…space for new imaginaries, movements…

G: If destruction is a methodology, what are hierarchies?

J: Hmm, this makes me think of a question I’ve been struggling to put into words for you.. I’ll just put it here:

What is it to hold the fact of our own multiplicities and the multiplicities of others? I’ve been thinking about how I have to get better at holding paradox, in my body – so not panicking, not existing only in tension and adrenaline spikes – but also in actions/ practice/conceptually….and if more than one thing is true at any given movement, what do we base our decisions about moving on, without constantly seeking to create hierarchies and go with the things at the top? Be-cause this kind of thinking creates violence in many ways…and I am not necessarily looking to do the easiest or most comfortable thing, because I am wanting shifts not stagnation, not stuckness…

Are hierarchies the same as priorities? When does power become about implicit importance (Authority) and dominance rather than facilitation, sup-porting, enabling? If there is nothing to be powered then power is just en-ergy looking for connection, lost, wandering…so, if all parts are necessary for there to be a system of operation and there are many simultaneous systems, can we think differently about the fixity of hierarchies?

How do we make a space/group that is non-hierarchical? If there is no hierarchy then how do we know our place? How do we ensure there is no abuse of power? I hear this coming up a lot, especially at the moment, and it’s im-portant but it’s also long…like haven’t we been here before?

There is a tension between a desire for agency and equity, and fear and mistrust of others not to continue to call on systems of dominance. I wonder when calls for toppling hierarchies are actually calls to be the new boss and when the trauma of systematic oppression – of being continually crushed, continually told your reality is not a thing – can establish within us a modality that is always functioning to counter the other, further entrenching us in our positions and perpetuating the system that we rage against. Do you know what I mean?

Systems give us our identities. Will we be able to recognise ourselves when these things fall or dissolve? Change always involves loss or sacrifice of some kind, and this can be terrifying, even when what we are losing has never offered any nourishment or support.

Having said all this, destruction is maybe not the word – ha! Maybe I am mis-naming this thing and actually what I want to talk about is dissolution. Destruction brings harm right? It’s emotional, it suggests the things being destroyed is sentient – and even if systems resonate in our sentient bodies, they themselves are not sentient, so maybe destruction is too suggestive here? Okay so I am in a word tangle (as ever)… I was in a conversation the other day where we were speaking about whether the use of terms associ-ated with the law can be useful (or not) in disentangling demands for jus-tice/the recognition of systemic violence from the dismissive gaslighting response that can often come, that people being critical are being emotional or angry or that the situation is ‘personal’; can the language of the law which enacts and supports this violence really be used to make it visible? Dissolu-tion is a legal term no? Hmm…

Or is the word ruin? I want to ruin things! But again, there is a life given with this word, as a certain relationship to inevitable processes of time and degradation…

Can we think hierarchies as structures that grant temporary and specific (as opposed to total) authority to guide collective performance/offering towards a particular action? Hierarchy not as identity but as functional technology applied towards the creation or enacting of specific intentions?

G: If we recognize that destruction can be an act of killjoy but we don’t want it to necessarily be (only) that, then what can we propose?

J: So we talk about this killjoy thing a lot no? After you made me read Sara Ahmed (lol) and I wrote all my critical notes and read them to you on the phone and we laughed and I had to also admit feeling seen by that text, and that it has lent us more language to move in our conversations…

Who wants to be ‘only’ anything? Who/what is ‘only’ anything? And also we know that we are not only killing joy just by the fact of the joy we find in each other so…what are we really talking about here? How we navigate and are received by the world? How we navigate and are received in our places and offerings of work? The feeling that this can often relate (or be related to) the role of the killjoy?

G: Is this imagining future landscapes?

J: Is this taking on new roles? Is this self-definition? Is this shifting focus? Is this re- orientation? Why are we imagining and not doing? Is imagining a kind of doing in the way that it opens (and perhaps is also limited by) possibility, and if kept open, will act as a draw towards the recognition of that possibility in the material world? Some kind of magnetism.

Download the conversation transcript

Giorgia Ohanesian Nardin is an artist, independent researcher and queer agitator of Armenian descent.
Trained in dance, their work exists is the shape of movement/video/text/ choreography/sound/gatherings and deals with narratives of hostility, rest, friction, sensuality, healing.

SERAFINE1369 (previously Last Yearz Interesting Negro) is the London based artist and dancer Jamila Johnson-Small. SERAFINE1369 works with dancing as a philosophical undertaking, a political project with ethical psycho-spiritual ramifications for being-in-the-world; dancing as intimate technology.

The Blue Skies Conversation Series is presented by International Curators Forum and made possible with support from Art Fund

Rujunko Pugh & Marie-Therese Png

Rujunko Pugh & Marie-Therese Png
‘Afro Asian Diasporas’


A Blue Skies Conversation

Rujunko Pugh & Marie-Therese Png hold a conversation between their respective locations in Sydney, Australia and Oxford, UK about Afro-Asian perspectives, reflecting on this historic period of COVID-19 and BLM. They open with a discussion of their family histories as Afro-Asian diaspora and proceed to reflect on structural and institutional failings brought to global consciousness by COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd, and growing calls for Black-Asian solidarity – as well as historic legacies of solidarity. In this conversation, Rujunko and Marie-Therese recount their personal and geopolitical orientations regarding militarism, colonialism, and imperialism, and discuss together how they process confluences of political histories through practice – Rujunko through her critical artistic practice, and Marie-Therese through her work in technology policy/research/organising. Theories of multiplicity, and the Rujunko’s creation of an Afro-Asian code then shape how the discussants imagine futures informed by Afro-Asian identity, closing with a reflection on a collective question of what our intergenerational inheritance is.

Chapter 1

Afro-Asian Diaspora and Identity
00:00 Introduction and land acknowledgement
01:27 How we met
06:47 Rujunko self-introduction with personal photos
14:01 Marie Therese self-introduction with personal photos
27:06 Afro Asian connection and commonalities

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Chapter 2

Structural and Institutional Failings Revealed by Covid-19 and George Floyd
00:00 Structural and institutional racism in the US
04:02 Structural and institutional racism in the UK
16:41 Anti-Asian Xenophobia and anti-Blackness in Australia
23:47 Racial capitalism in the US and UK

Processing Through Practice Part I
27:28 Processing through Afro Asian Artistic practice
34:16 Late 19th century Institutionalised Anti-Asian discrimination in USA and Australia
43:19 Erasure of Black history Mary Seacole/Florence Nightingale

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Chapter 3

Militarism Colonialism Imperialism: Personal and Geopolitical
00:00 Rujunko’s personal relationship with militarism
01:06 White supremacy and racial capitalism in the US military
04:42 US military base in Okinawa and COVID-19
07:03 Japanese American veterans and post-1945 Modernism in Hawaii

Afro Asians Reflections on Calls for Black Asian Solidarity in Covid-19/BLM Times
10:12 Calls for Black Asian solidarity in COVID-19/BLM Times
11:36 Black/Asian police brutality
13:47 K-pop & Trump rally
16:35 Singapore race discussion
21:11 Black-China history/Afro-Asian geopolitics
23:18 Black/Asian civic movements under US imperialism
28:06 Anti-blackness in Asian community
30:58 Immigration Act of 1965 East Asian immigrants in US

Read chapter 3 conversation transcript
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Chapter 4

What Can Our Experience Offer Catalytic Change within the Pandemic and BLM Movement?
00:00 Catalytic change through experience & decentring whiteness
01:37 Border-free paradox

Theories of Multiplicity
04:53 Theories of multiplicity
14:36 Mineral Constructs artwork – Rujunko

Processing Through Practice Part II
24:12 Processing through practice – Marie Therese
29:20 Politicisation of technology & scholar activism – Marie Therese

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Chapter 5

Afro Asian Code
02:30 Afro Asian Alphabet
04:59 Drawing from Stuart Hall’s model of encoding and coding
07:18 Racist dog whistling and US presidential campaigns
18:00 Afro Asian Alphabet – Mechanism of encoding/decoding

Imagining Futures Informed by Afro Asian Identity
21:22 Marie Therese
25:38 Rujunko

What is Our Intergenerational Inheritance?
36:16 Rujunko
37:37 Marie Therese
42:32 Thank you ICF!

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Rujunko Pugh was born in Japan in 1970 to a Japanese mother and African-American father. Raised in California and North Carolina, Rujunko has lived around the world in places including Hawaii, Washington D.C. and Sydney, Australia. Her practice is based on Gadigal land (Sydney, Australia). She initially studied molecular bioscience and bioengineering. Now, she works across various media including printmaking, installation, street art and murals. Her art draws on Japanese, African and African-American found imagery to explore themes such as identity, history, culture and race as well as global movements of people, ideas and technologies. She also investigates methods to dismantle generalized notions of race and identity, and to initiate discourse about oppressive stereotypes within dominant power structures. She has completed a Master of Fine Art from the University of Sydney, Sydney College of the Arts and has exhibited in Australia, the United States, Italy, New Zealand, Kenya and Spain.

Marie-Therese Png was born in London to a St Lucian mother and Chinese Singaporean father. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute, researching AI governance and coloniality. She was previously Technology Advisor to the UN Secretary General’s Digital Cooperation Initiative, and co-authored Decolonial Theory as Socio-technical Foresight in Artificial Intelligence Research with DeepMind. Marie-Therese works in community organising with Radical AI, Black in AI, and is a co-organiser of the 2020 iteration of the Rhodes Must Fall Oxford movement. She completed an undergraduate in Human Sciences at Oxford and Masters in the cognition of racial prejudice at Harvard.

The Blue Skies Conversation Series is produced by International Curators Forum and made possible with support from Art Fund

Naima Hassan & Anisa Daud

‘A Conversation on workers, wellbeing and care infrastructures in Nairobi and Oxford’

Reflecting on historical memory, author Arundhati Roy famously described pandemics as portals that have always invited breaks or ruptures with the past. This conversation explores care infrastructures and wellbeing practises during Covid-19 in the places that Naima Hassan and Anisa Daud live. The series aims to open parameters for what constitutes ‘essential’ work during a crisis and how care infrastructures operate within local, and transnational systems. It includes an initial dialogue between the authors and six conversations with workers in Nairobi and Oxford. The two cities that frame this conversation series also provide insights into how asymmetries in global health outcomes have shaped responses to the pandemic in the Global North and Global South.

Download the Nairobi interviews here

Download the Oxford interviews here

Naima Hassan: Can you tell me about yourself and work?

Anisa Daud: My name is Anisa, I am based in Nairobi and I work for an international NGO, we analyse the political and conflict situation in the Horn of Africa and provide policy advice to international bodies such as the United Nations, European Union and African Union. Can you introduce yourself and explain your decision to convene this conversation?

Naima Hassan: Hello, my name is Naima and I am currently an anthropology postgraduate based in Oxford. Before the pandemic, my teaching was based at the university museum [University of Oxford, Pitt Rivers Museum]. I am also a remote research attaché for a Nairobi headquartered humanities and social science research organisation. The opportunity was circulated by the Oxford African Studies centre, the centre has acted as an anchor during my time here. Like you, I am a remote worker.

There are a few factors that influenced my decision to convene this conversation with you. Perhaps it would be useful to summarise them, to you and our audience. As an anthropologist, I use multi-sited research, that is research that happens in two or more places, to explore how the local is always linked to a broader set of globalised relations. As my sister, who is currently based in Nairobi, I wanted to invite you to have this conversation with me in your locality, a place that our family lives, that I am dislocated but connected to. The neighbourhoods we live in, within Oxford and Nairobi are also similar. In many ways, they are more similar than the working class area we grew up in Leicester [United Kingdom]. I have lived in the Jericho suburb of central Oxford for a year now, it is a middle class and residential hamlet that hosts commercial and local businesses, various university colleges [University of Oxford] and an ancient meadow used for animal grazing and recreation. The land is known to have not been ploughed for around 4,000 years.

You live in the Karen suburb of Nairobi, which borders the Ngong Forest and is well known for its large European population and mid to high-income residents. Karen is also associated with the Danish author, Karen Blixen, known for her book Out of Africa. In her colonial memoir, Blixen reflects on her life in colonial British East Africa and her coffee plantation. Blixen wrote from a position of colonial authority and the Karen neighbourhood is unofficially named after her. When I think about the institutions in Oxford that are named after colonialists, the Rhodes House named after Cecil Rhodes instantly comes to mind. I recently discovered that the Alice in Wonderland novel by English author Lewis Carroll was inspired by the author’s time in the ancient Oxford meadow I have grown to love, that is on my doorstep. I reference these well known works of literature to make the point that Karen and Jericho are imbricated through colonial history. I want to connect our personal experiences in these neighbourhoods with the experiences of workers that support infrastructures across our cities.

The opportunity to explore these themes with an art organisation that invites a certain kind of thinking with the world, I hope, will contribute to the broadening rather than the narrowing of ways to think about the current pandemic and our mandatory isolation. Convening this conversation is an act of recognising hidden labour, workers in “essential” services and those supporting self-organized infrastructures of care.

This is my first artist commission. I got to know more about the ICF [International Curators Forum] because of the work that they are doing to explore diaspora art and internationalism. Their recent Global Plantations series [with artists and researchers Shiraz Bayjoo, Jasmine Togo-Brisby, Sancintya Mohini Simpson and Anna-Arabindan-Kesson] contemplates the global contours of the plantation outside of the Euro-American context. The artists involved are from places like Mauritius and Australia, places whose indentured and enslaved histories are largely invisible to the world. For our conversation, I want to move away from the idea that Africa cannot be a vantage point to examining life in the global North. I intend for this conversation series to express values which emerge from African humanism, and from African traditions. Anthropologists like Jean and John Comaroff and the scholar, Achille Mbembe are exploring this theoretically. In his work, Achille Mbembe is critical of colonial and developmentalist frameworks used to present Africa as a crisis prone entity. For Mbembe, this has long placed Africa in the position of being a laboratory to gauge the limits of Western imagination and epistemology. At work, I am supporting a conference on African research during the pandemic, resilience and indigenous responses to epidemics.

Returning to the point I made earlier about the ICF’s Global Plantations Series and the practise of exploring histories that are invisible or rendered invisible. As a resident of Oxford for almost a year now, I have felt deeply connected to migrant and African diaspora communities. When I first got here, I did not know Oxford was as diverse as it was. As I settled into the city and explored areas like Cowley, I picked up on the various arrival stories of refugees and migrants here. As a student at Oxford University, I wanted to break from the tradition of centering the institution itself, there are many worlds that coalesce here. As I prepare to leave Oxford, I am leaving with an understanding of the histories of class dissent, protest and refusal that shape local people’s relationship with the university. This legacy is still felt. The Oxford Rhodes Must Fall group is leading this critical work and call for the dismantling of the colonial iconography that decorates the city. Returning to your question, having a conversation that is framed in the Nairobi sense and Oxford sense might also invite readers to explore their own ontological and epistemic traditions. I like this idea because I am already becoming aware of my own assumptions.

Anisa Daud: Thank you for explaining this. I welcome the opportunity to be involved to work on this project with you and to explore lived experiences, here in Nairobi. How are you framing wellbeing practises and why this is important to our conversation series? For me, wellbeing is a set of collective and individual practises. Living in the continent [Africa] has challenged my own understanding of wellbeing, and has removed me from the commercialised, western notions of wellbeing quite dramatically. African wellbeing practises focus on collectivism and on the metaphor of the village. During the pandemic, or corona times, as people say, we are all supporting our villages and creating connections with other villages that need help at this time. Perhaps such networks speak to what you describe as a care infrastructure.

Naima Hassan: This is an important question. Wellbeing to me, means a set of anchoring devices, strategies, practises and rituals carried out by an individual or group. Wellbeing is always a symbiotic process between the self and others. As far as etymology goes, the English word is derived from the Italian word, Benessere. The term can be traced to a 16-century calque or loan translation. I also think about wellbeing in conjunction with healing and ritual practises. Notions of healing and ritual are central to many forms of wellbeing, whether this relates to metaphorical transformations [of the spirit] or physical transformation. Our conversation thinks about wellbeing in relation to workers and care infrastructures during the pandemic. I like the way you described the metaphor of the village. Village or communitarian practises have developed extensively in the UK [United Kingdom] during the pandemic because of the demand for mutual aid. I want to begin our exploration with a simple question. How have you adapted to working during the pandemic in Kenya?

Anisa Daud: The restrictions meant that I had to change the way I work, instead of working from an office I work from home and have meetings online. It’s strange to find myself here, staring at a computer with no physical interactions during the day. I have attempted to break up the remote work day by walking and speaking to local people. This creates a feeling of normality. How have you adapted to work and life in Oxford during the pandemic?

Naima Hassan: Before the pandemic, my activities as a student involved attending workshops, symposiums and external lectures both inside and outside of the academy. My current job as a research assistant is remote-based, engaging with the digital research landscape as a student during the initial period of the lockdown helped my transition to remote work. To support this change and break up my remote work day, I try to go for walks or listen to wellness talks. I attended meditation classes at the beginning of the pandemic, where the collective need to reflect on what this moment meant was perhaps the most urgent. Returning to your question, greenspaces have provided me with the most sustaining outlet for adapting to the pandemic. I live a short walk from a meadow and have spent a lot of time there. The city of Oxford itself is almost an extended University campus and the university community occupies central North Oxford in particular. At the start of the pandemic, the university requested students to return home and many did. The central city became a ghost town. This also meant there was wider access to the many green spaces in the city. I would often take walks or sit in wide and open fields alone, or with one or a few other people. The World Health Organization calls green space a fundamental component of any urban ecosystem. Others would say that access and proximity to green space is a fundamental human right. I wanted to know if the social impact of the pandemic changed the way you look after other people or yourself?

Anisa Daud: Yes, our immediate family is in the UK so being here in Nairobi without you has definitely impacted me, I make sure that we are always in touch, my phone activity has increased because I call you, mum, and our sister to check in. Because of the curfew in Kenya, my social life is restricted so I utilise virtual spaces to stay in touch and connect with others. I only live with my dad so this period has given me a lot of time to focus on my health. Karen is on the outskirts of Nairobi so it’s a great place to go out and walk. This pandemic has allowed me to reconnect with myself and nature, prior to this period, I went to the gym for physical exercise but there is something about going for long hikes and being around nature that is freeing, I loved discovering this. Also, sometimes my dad joins me in my walks and this has become a bonding exercise because when we are out walking we have no distractions from phones or computers so it provides us with an opportunity to talk and learn new things about each other. This pandemic has been a process of discovering new things about others and myself. Going outside for an hour every day and walking is liberating because the time I get to reflect on things that matter to me outside of work. This is something I would have never done before the pandemic, it was always go go go, this extra time has allowed me to stop and think. To return your question, how has the social impact of the pandemic changed the way you look after yourself or others?

Naima Hassan: I also operated on the idea of go, go, go. The social impact of the pandemic initially devastated me as I found it difficult to be in Oxford. It was still very new and alien to me, the pandemic has certainly facilitated intimacy with the city in ways that I did not anticipate. Prior to the lockdown I would visit London quite frequently and decided to live close to the Oxford train station. This was definitely a strategic decision. The social impact of the pandemic changed the way I looked after myself as I had to creatively adapt to support my wellbeing. The digital helped during this period as it has allowed me to stay connected via scheduled calls. I have also developed care practises with an intimate group of Oxford friends. This has involved meditation, nature walks and doing things like potlucks and watching films.

The absence of physical gatherings and mobility during the lockdown has led me to consider new ways that I can look after others and myself. I would like to believe that I have used this time to support others and myself. A practise I can think of includes starting a film club with close friends who were in different physical locations. I think this helped with our mental health as it provided a weekly platform for doing something without necessarily speaking or presenting ourselves in the virtual space. Virtual fatigue exists outside of work and between loved ones too. Are there any other wellbeing practises you engage with?

Anisa Daud: Apart from going on hikes and walks. I have also used baking as a wellbeing practise. Spending more time at home allows you the space to experiment and cook new things. I’ve never been interested in cooking or baking so it is great to gain a new hobby. For example, I’ve learned how to make bread and this is something I never thought I’d say, but because of this we don’t go out and buy bread anymore. I don’t think this would have been possible without the pandemic.

Naima Hassan: I have also enjoyed baking during this period and have discovered that I am somewhat of a natural. Perhaps we can do a bake off in Nairobi. How have these practices enhanced your awareness or mindfulness?

Anisa Daud: When I go out for walks, I know it will greatly improve my mood and ability to feel mindful, it’s not only been an escape for me but that time to reflect allows you to see that the small things are insignificant and how precious time is. Is this different or the same for you?

Naima Hassan: We have both lived in places like London and know the effect that busy, metropolitan life has on awareness. I have tried to meditate throughout the pandemic. My meditative sessions and days are often facilitated by the practise of incense burning. In a recent discussion with a friend, I told her that social isolation is challenging because I feel like I am meeting myself for the very first time. The parts that I have jettisoned or hidden. It is difficult to sit with yourself once the usual [social] distractions of life stop. Returning to our earlier discussion of wellbeing, I wanted to explore how culture frames our understanding of wellbeing. What does our culture tell you about wellbeing?

Anisa Daud: There is a somewhat of a disconnect between our culture and wellbeing. We are often told to be strong or that God is the answer. Mental health is not a priority, as you are expected to be stoic as an individual and to not express excessive emotion. I don’t think that our culture understands this aspect of wellbeing. Do you agree with this, or does this differ for you?

Naima Hassan: In part, I agree, we do however experience different forms of Somali culture and traditions now that you live in Kenya. As I am largely dislocated from the Somali community because I live in Oxford, the lockdown has provided me a new understanding of Somali culture. I have also gained an understanding of Somali wellbeing because I started to really engage with Somali culture and rituals outside of the family home for the first time during the lockdown. As you know, I love Somali music, so I remedy some emotions by listening to old Somali songs. The slow melodies of the Somali band, Iftin have been important anchors during this period. I agree with the suggestion that there is a disconnection with our culture and wellbeing, but I also want to consider wellbeing in our community beyond a western or eastern framework. Once we consider traditional Somali practises, our oral and storytelling traditions in particular, a new language for understanding Somali wellbeing practises opens up.

For me, Somali frameworks for wellbeing relate to collectivism and shared practises. I am also thinking about how war and displacement can impact diaspora communities from conflict states and the residual impact this has on wellbeing and mental health more broadly. Perhaps there is a strong emphasis on God and embodying strength because of loss and trauma? On one hand, this affirms the importance of collective practises but it also suggests that individual practises can be neglected. Before we close our interview, my final question focuses on outdoor spaces and wellbeing. Are there spaces around your area or in Nairobi which help your wellbeing?

Anisa Daud: I’m very lucky to live in Karen where most of the homes have one or half an acre of outdoor space, this space has been incredibly useful for escaping the indoors and for sitting or reading outside in the sun. It is a privilege that many don’t get here in Nairobi or in the wider continent as outdoor spaces are limited and vulnerable to land grabbing. Many families here go to Uhuru Park in the central business district and they travel far to access this park as it is free. In Nairobi, there is also a national park where you can drive through and spot animals. Once you are in the park, you do not feel like you are in Nairobi or in the outskirts of a capital city. So many Kenyans have started using recreational spaces and access to them has become somewhat easier, this is a positive consequence of the pandemic. There is still a great deal of work to do where access to green space is concerned. Returning to your earlier point, this access is absolutely a human right.

Naima Hassan: Thank you for having this first conversation with me. I look forward to seeing what emerges from the conversations we have with workers in Oxford and Nairobi. I also look forward to exploring the generative possibilities of pandemic research. In this moment, researchers are being called to move outside of their institutional towers, to really be in touch with the world. Perhaps our conversation series can speak to this. When I refer to being in the world, I want to point to the work of Caribbean philosopher, Édourd Glissant. In One World In Relation, Glissant suggests that because quick thinking leads to definitive and fixed conclusions, we understand the world better if we simply tremble with it. This is what the world does, it trembles organically and geologically. Glissant’s notion of trembling also speaks to the insurrection of the virus itself. We were forced to tremble with its destructive faculties on our bodies, our ways of living, our economies and the global system itself. I hope our conversation series will invite readers to tremble with the world and others more.


Video: Conversation series excerpt with Simphiwe Stewart. Film by Naima Hassan (2020)

Naima Hassan is an anthropologist and artist who lives in the United Kingdom. She is currently a research attaché for the BIEA, a Nairobi headquartered Eastern Africa research organisation. Hassan utilises her training as an anthropologist to explore the itinerant contours of memory, repair and dislocation through socially engaged practise. She approaches art research collaboratively and works across various mediums. The Blue Skies conversation series acts as a departure point and mapping exercise for her upcoming project. Learn more by contacting Hassan on 

Anisa Daud is a Nairobi based researcher trained in Human Geography, International Law and Human Rights. She works for an International NGO and is currently working on the 2020/21 Somalia elections providing analysis. She also provides conflict resolution in the Horn of Africa and policy advice for international bodies such as the United Nations, European Union and African Union.

This conversation also received editing support by James Jordan Johnson and Florenza Incirli.