Walking Upon Bodies is a conversational album by Sive that brings together anecdotes from lived experiences of artist-curator Vidisha Fadescha and actor, activist and writer Jyotsna Siddharth. Created during the pandemic, they speak of individual preoccupations, precarities and vulnerabilities, while drawing attention to the macro systems that govern the individual and other aspects of human beings. These conversations raise an alarm on the unaccounted, targeted lives of people especially, marginalised by caste, race and gender. They are packed in the form of an album with instructions to listen as a pivot from linearity of thoughts, opinions and feelings to new forms of learning and listening. Each track has themes that help us share better and self learn what it means to care, have a family, notions around death, the impact of borders, how digitiality is shaping our lives, the expanded ideas of race and such. We hope you find moments of hope, resilience and calmness in this apocalyptic world.
Instructions for listening – The order is suspended
We suggest you pick and listen to a combination, (at least two or more) tracks at a time. The selection of a single track can be made once or multiple times. Every unique selection of tracks will allow fresh perspectives and discussion to emerge.
Jyotsna Siddharth (She/They) is an actor, intersectional queer artist, activist and writer. They have worked with several non-profits, bilateral organizations and are currently India Lead for Gender At Work.
Jyotsna’s praxis spreads across intersections of social, art, activism, theatre, acting, development, caste-gender, feminist and queer spaces. Their interests are multidisciplinary, experimental and fluid from storytelling, embodied practice, acting, writing and building community dialogue to supporting systems for making multiple medium work collaborative, intersectional and inclusive. Jyotsna embodies and wishes to push boundaries of comfort, build nuances, criticality, compassion and resilience. They have been on several panels and actively involved with protests and social movements in India. Jyotsna’s work has featured in Times of India, The Hindu, Roundtable India, Savari, Feminism in India, Smashboard, Ashoka Literature Festival, Mid-Day, The Rights Collective UK, The Citizen, India Culture Lab, Khirkee Voice and many more. They are a co-founder of Sive (2017), founder of Project Anti Caste Love (2018), Dalit Feminism Archive (2019), Purple Library (2020), co- organized the first Indian adaptation of ‘A Rapist in Your Way’- the Chilean feminist collective Las Tesis in 2019, Delhi.
Jyotsna has Masters in Development Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and Social Anthropology from School of Oriental and African Studies, London and a Chevening Scholar (2014)
Vidisha Fadescha (They/Them) is an artist-curator working across arts and cultural disciplines. They focus on collaborations, collectives and experiences as a norm-critical pedagogy to Queer hegemonies. Reflecting upon intimacies on the dancefloor and how body movements are an archive of histories, violence and desire, in 2020, Fadescha exhibited “Burn All The Books That Call You The Unknown” in NSW supported by Parramatta Artists Studios and Australian Council for the Arts. They also installed a video at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi, titled “Qworkoholic Anonymous” that looks at queer labour and fatigue. Along with their collaborator Shaunak Mahbubani, they released “some dance to remember, some dance to forget” a performance video which illustrates trans intimacies and the role of law in affirming dignified lives for trans persons.
Vidisha opened an art & social space in New Delhi as “Party Office” in Jan 2020. As gatherings were suspended during the pandemic, they anchored their transfeminist and anti-caste interests through digital curatorial collaborations with Acud Macht Neu (Berlin), Nottingham Arts Mela (UK), Abr (India), @southasia.art and female:pressure (Berlin). Vidisha co-curated “Queer Futures Archive” (2020) and “Queer Futures Potluck Party” (2019) with Shaunak Mahbubani as After Party Collective. They also work closely with Jyotsna Siddharth building dialogues around caste and gender as Sive, a social-art lab and a transdisciplinary collective.
Fadescha is also a sound artist, DJ and an event host at clubs and other informal gatherings. They are a founding member of collectives in India that counter cis-het male dominant music industry and were an artist at “The Nightlife Residency” by iprojectspace and The Neighbourhood in Beijing (2019) and invited artist for “Today Is Our Tomorrow” by Publics and Museum of Impossible Forms in Helsinki (2019).
Cover Image Arun Vijai Mathavan from the series “Millenia of Oppression”, 2016.
Prelude for the tracks made with the field recording “Essential Services” by Redrum (Vidisha Fadescha), 2020.
Rubiane Maia & Tom Nobrega
‘My Battery is Low and It’s Getting Late’
A Blue Skies Conversation
As the Sars-Covid 19 pandemic escalated, Rubiane Maia was in Folkestone, England, and Tom Nobrega in Tarapoto, in the Peruvian Amazon. They were both surprised by the sudden need to cancel their planned travels to Brazil, their homeland. Though they were used to being foreigners, since Rubiane is currently based in the UK, and Tom has been living a nomadic life for more than eight years, the closed borders brought insolite situations and an unfamiliar feeling of exile. As the news coming from Brazil reaches them over distance like stones breaking their computer screens, blurring the lines between what is personal and what is collective, the pair of friends share their perplexity and try to find some resonance amidst the overwhelming amount of information floating through the virtual space.
Rubiane Maia and Tom Nobrega met in 2010, and throughout ten years of friendship and collaboration they have often witnessed deep changes in each other’s ways of living, thinking and creating, which often came to be through complex processes of rupture, relocation and reinvention. Though they would rarely be able to be present at the same place and the same time, they have always found ways to communicate over distance.
Rubiane Maia is a Brazilian visual artist based between Folkestone, UK and Vitória, Brazil. She completed a degree in Visual Arts and a Master degree in Institutional Psychology at Federal University of Espírito Santo, Brazil. Her artwork is a hybrid practice across performance, video, installation and text, occasionally flirting with drawing and collage. She is attracted by states of synergy, encompassing the invisible relationships of affect and flux, and investigates the body in order to amplify the possibilities of perception beyond the habitual. By doing so, she is constantly re-elaborating her personal notion of existential territories (spatial, temporal, cognitive, social and political). More recently, she has been researching the concept of memory and its relationship with language and channeling, often making use of personal narratives as a device for action and resilience. Since 2018 she has been working on the creation of a ‘Book-Performance’, a series of actions in response to specific autobiographical texts particularly influenced by experiences of racism and misogyny.
Tom Nobrega speaks with an accent even when he speaks his own tongue. He uses a pair of hearing aids, wears contact lenses, has seven titanium nails in his ankle, three artificial teeth and takes hormone injections every ten weeks. Born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, he doesn’t have a fixed home, doesn’t use cell phones and is never exactly sure where in the world he is going to be in the next few months. He does a lot of not so useful things such as making strange utterances in languages that do not exist, writing poems, making repetitive gestures and losing objects along his path.
Simina Neagu, Valentina Bin & Dr. Andrea Phillips
‘On and around AfterHours’
A Blue Skies Conversation
Simina Neagu & Valentina Bin are London-based writers and cultural workers who spoke with Dr. Andrea Phillips, BALTIC Professor and Director of BxNU Research Institute in Northumbria, about methodologies and practices for self-organisation in the UK arts sector, the future of art education, devaluation, de-professionalisation and rethinking art institutions as community centres.
… after changing platforms, struggling with signal and giving up on video-calling from the garden, the conversation moved indoors and started…
Andrea: So who’s at Gothenburg?
Simina: Me, I signed up to a course at HDK-Valand Academy, and then two weeks ago I started CuratorLab in Stockholm with Joanna Warsza and Maria Lind. It’s a really good course and also, it’s free for EU nationals.
Andrea: I was teaching at Gothenburg when we set up PARSE. I then left to go to Northumbria University to take up the BALTIC Professorship. I think it’s great that the Swedish system enables not only free university tuition but also free public adult education; it’s one of the very few places where that’s still enabled by the government. This is utopia in comparison with the capitalized Anglo-Saxon HEI situation (although I know it’s not without its problems). There used to be free university and adult education in Britain. It’s now been financialised. I’d been fighting at Northumbria to try and bring some of that back, but it’s very difficult in the UK, where all of the universities are now completely marketized and budgets come before ideological commitments. We fight via the unions but we have very little impact.
Simina: Also in lots of post-socialist countries, free education is still quite common. I didn’t have to pay for my education.
Valentina: We didn’t have to pay much in Italy compared to the UK either. You can save up for your university fee by working in the summer.
Andrea: It’s much more feasible. I know, I despair at the UK. The Anglo Saxon model sees universities as businesses. But to begin a less depressing conversation, (!) I wondered if you could tell me a little bit about yourselves: I did a bit of searching and found out that we have many interests and people in common, but I wondered when did you start working as a kind of curatorial partnership? Do you see yourselves as such?
Valentina: When people ask us how we met we always say collecting rubbish in a car-park in Peckham, after a private view. We had recently arrived in London and were volunteering for Bold Tendencies at the time. We just organically started commiserating about our experiences, the internships in which we weren’t learning that much and the difficulties ‘fitting in’. We were both interested in the arts, really keen on getting a job in the field and struggling to find our way in, and we became friends out of that. And then we just got involved in different things, while moving in together and keeping our collaboration going, which often is informed by our shared experiences and the resulting critical reflections.
Andrea: Can you tell me a little bit about your backgrounds?
Valentina: I studied something that resembles history of art in Venice, which wasn’t history of art as is intended in the UK, it was a very broad course, and no contemporary art apart from the topic of my dissertation. Then I moved to the UK with the idea of learning English once and for all, and I got a scholarship to a Museum Studies course while I was working as an au pair and doing some internships. My first proper job in the arts was as a studio assistant for the artist group Troika, and then I went on to manage Gallery S O, which focuses on contemporary crafts at the intersection with fine art. I did curate some projects there with Simina as well. In the last year or so I’ve been freelancing. I’m currently working as an Italian sub-editor, and keeping my projects in the arts open.
Andrea: I learned how to sub-edit on an internship at the ICA in London for the publications department. I became very integrated into what was an incredibly brilliant set of people and discussions at the time. I learned a lot. It’s interesting that subediting was both our ways in…
Valentina: Well, for me it’s the way out. [laughter]
Andrea: Back in that day, because we’re talking about around ’92, it was a paid internship.
Valentina: There was no such thing for us.
Andrea: I think this relates to Simina, because I know that you’re working for Iniva. One of the first books I sub-edited was the catalogue and the reader that we published at the ICA for a show called ‘Mirage: Enigmas of Race Difference and Desire’ which was the first exhibition that Iniva mounted when they set up. I had this amazing opportunity, I really didn’t realise how amazing it was at the time. I was working with Kobena Mercer and David A. Bailey because they were curating the show. They are both still a kind of heroes. It was also the first time Steve McQueen had been shown, and Sonia Boyce has become a friend. Also in the reader, I was sub-editing Homi K.Bhabha, Françoise Vergès, Paul Gilroy… the greats of the political Black arts community at the time, so I was just learning and learning and learning, while I was saying: “I’m sorry Paul you spelt that word wrong.” All that activity – including the formation of Iniva – came out of the BLK Arts Group. There was lots of dissent about the setting up on Iniva at the time amongst the Black arts community. So Simina, what’s your story? How did you end up in London?
Simina: Well, I got my first proper job at an art centre called Pavilion Unicredit while I was studying in Bucharest, which also organises Bucharest Biennale, and after two years I was given the chance to curate something, which was huge. Out of conversations with the artists’ community I noticed there were a lot of tensions around public and private funding. So I thought, naively, stupidly, I mean, I was 21-22, to do a show about it, and about the infrastructure. I thought “let’s be critical”, and that basically blew up in my face. There were some really interesting works that came out of that, but the opening ended up with me crying under my desk… it was a whole mess. And I lost my job, obviously. And I thought, okay, I need to do a masters degree. But if I’m going into this field, if I’m trying to be critical, I need some more training, because I studied art history in Romania, which stopped at the beginning of 20th century, and also there was very little mention of the regional and historical context. Talking to artists, they were mentioning artists unions, organising, but this history didn’t exist in the university and I thought, again naively, “Oh, I’m going to London to the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, cause Radical Philosophy sounds cool and I’m going to find all the answers to my questions, I’m going to acquire a critical apparatus, get all my theory sorted, be able to fill the gaps in my education.” I got a scholarship to study there and obviously the system was far from perfect. And even though there’s a lot of great work being done, I think it’s very much rooted in a kind of Western Marxist tradition, quite male dominated. I think things have changed since my masters, maybe. Then again, I still wanted to work in this field. Also because my parents think it’s not a real thing. So I had to prove to them that, hey, you can have a job and pay your bills with this. I think it’s similar for you, Vale. In Romania doing art history used to be kind of reserved for children of high party officials, the people who could travel. So it was a weird thing to study for me.
Andrea: That’s very interesting. I know very little about the artistic infrastructure of Romania, but I was involved in the 2019 Timisoara Biennial, writing for the publication and doing a talk at the opening. I have to say, to start with, I thought Timisoara was a very beautiful city and it was very lovely to spend time there, but the other side of my experience – and I’ve worked with Maria Lind a great deal many times and know that she has a very specific set of demands and values – is that Maria asked my partner Justin O’Shaughnessy to come in and produce the Biennial because she was having trouble, partly translational. Not verbal translation, I mean cultural translation issues. Biennial curators often come to places without really understanding the kind of cultural intricacies of different methodologies and different ways of doing things. Justin’s role was to get really underneath the structures of power and wishes of artists and work out how to produce stuff. Justin was travelling between London and Timisoara, and coming back so frustrated. He was meeting really interesting and extraordinary people and artists, of course, but unable to translate between these two zones. There was the kind of professional biennial – it must look perfect, it must open on time, I want you to completely transform that beautiful old building into a white cube gallery in order to show Forensic Architecture – and Justin’s going: “but… Forensic Architecture wouldn’t mind if we didn’t”!
Valentina: [Laughter] They would probably prefer it.
Andrea: I have this double experience of Timisoara, but it was interesting. Most of my learning came through Justin’s experience. And it was at that point that I wrote the essay that I sent you, “Critical Production or the Intelligence of Collective Technicity”, which was trying to move towards a different way of thinking about training, exhibiting, co-producing, equalising the voices and the experiences, and the pay of the cleaners, the technicians, the artists, the curators. Changing the model completely. This is something that Justin and I are working on together, actually, and I think we’re going to try and produce an alternative kind of pedagogical format for it. With his experience in production, and my experience in curating, writing and supposedly knowing all about the European tradition of philosophy that you got from my colleagues in Kingston. I agree with you when you say that it’s male dominated, because even though on that course there are amazing women philosophers now, it is dominated by a very masculine history.
Simina: Yeah, Valentina and I had a party playlist called ‘Marxist boys’. And since then it’s become a tag-line.
Andrea: But it’s very interesting that your perspective from Romania is different. I’m talking out of my field of knowledge now but from my understanding, there’s a history of Marxism in Romania [Laughter]. It’s interesting that this identification between your knowledge of the history of Romania, and all those things like artists unions – which is a really interesting history, even though it’s kind of falling apart, as far as I know – and that the guys are not really weaving different histories together and understanding them as a kind of transversal Communism (more like C-Punk), a much broader understanding of the application of Marxism in this sense.
Simina: It would be unfair to say that it’s a particular case. Maybe it’s a broader lack in Western Marxist circles, that fail to acknowledge the fact that there are plenty of people with lived experience of “really-existing socialism” and these mental divides, somehow, are still there. Lived experience is a catalyst for what we do as well. What I really liked, when you mention Justin’s experience in formulating this concept of critical production, was this idea of recognition of intelligences. We were trying to deal with something similar in AfterHours, which also came out of an experience of ours.
Valentina: The whole thing started because we’ve been insecure all of our lives and London didn’t help. In my first couple of years I was struggling with the language. People would ask me, can you pick up the tape, and I didn’t know what the tape was and didn’t have a smartphone to google it, so that was a problem, continually pretending to know what the tape was, and often coming up with the wrong item and doing the wrong thing. I think we kept that insecurity with us, and at a certain point we felt that, which is problematic as well, maybe if we had more skills in this or that, or knew more people, it would be easier. We were looking at these alternative courses, not maybe even alternative, but kind of adjacent to the institution, like the one at Grand Union for curators. They looked interesting but we realised that we could read essays, and we could discuss within our own group of peers, we already have these people around us. And the skills we needed were quite practical, because most of what we learned we learned by doing, and kind of desperately googling it last-minute. Realistic vocational training is lacking in universities as it is in the workplace, and without this training you end up feeling very anxious about being a fraud. So we wondered, why don’t we do something that is not just for curators, in the sense it’s not just for theory, but it’s about workers. And we basically involved some friends and some people we know that have different skills in the industry. For example a friend who’s a fundraiser at Chisenhale and…
Andrea: Ioanna Nitsou? I love Ioanna.
Valentina: Yeah, everyone loves Ioanna… and then we involved a friend who worked in accessibility within the arts for a long time, and a Senior Technician at Tate and so on… basically we involved people in our network to organise a workshop, and attendees paid a fee which went to the workshop leaders. It was a simple thing. And we didn’t need money for that, because we got out all that knowledge that we would otherwise have had to pay 500 quid for, in a course where someone gives you a reading list. This was the beginning of AfterHours, kind of tailored to our needs. Raven Row gave us a space, it was a brief pilot project. Like with most of these idealistic pilot projects, we realised it was in fact quite demanding in terms of our time. You would think you would get a lot of people interested in very, very cheap workshops when there are universities charging all of this money. But of course, the marketing side of things always requires a lot of time and a lot of Valentina emailing hundreds of people personally saying “you’ve got to come and you’ve got to bring your people and your students” and stuff. But it was a great experience. And we ended up with all of these fantastic, very generous materials that the workshop leaders put together, and we asked ourselves what we were going to do with them. Shall we maybe make a publication? So that’s how we got a little bit of funding for a publication proposal, so we can share these tools with other people, because I was thinking that I would have really valued, as a 23-year old coming to London, having a real handbook made by people working in the arts, not made by people who think about what it means to work, but made by real fundraisers, by people working with logistics in a gallery – which is really esoteric… like, how does a shipment work?
Andrea: How do you do condition reporting?
Valentina: What even is a condition report? How do customs work? It’s difficult to land your first job if nobody ever explained that to you. But then the reason also for this conversation is that, of course, things kind of changed. I like to dabble in the arts, but my main income doesn’t come from it anymore, and then the pandemic started, and all these redundancies… it was hard before and now it feels kind of weird to be encouraging people to even get involved in it, especially when we have all of this institutional talk about equality and inclusiveness. And it’s just ridiculous considering the requirements of job applications in the field, person specifications are often completely unrealistic and the pay unbalanced. We got in a bit of an existential crisis with the whole project. So we reached an impasse, like, we should talk with someone, and then Simina remembered your talk at the Biennial.
Andrea: Sounds fantastic. I think we’re basically on the same page here. The inside of institutions, both private and public, that constitute what we know as the art world, which would also include the biennial as an institution, they’re all predicated on a 20th century understanding and division of labour, and it’s essentially a Fordist conceptualization. So it’s already privatised, it’s already exploitative. It’s those conditions that need to change, but not at the level of virtue-signaling. The current scramble to ‘decolonise’ institutions that are built directly and indirectly on the profits of slavery and ecological exploitation is meaningless until those institutions reformulate the ways in which equality is distributed within them. I guess that’s exactly what you’re saying, AfterHours is a brilliant project, it seems to me that what you were trying to do and did do is redistribute knowledge and place people on a level of equality. So your head technician and your theorist and your artists are all valued in the same way, and paid in the same way. That’s a start. So the question is, how does that expand into something that is a viable at scale? That could be operationalised? I think you’ve raised so many interesting things. Although I’ve written quite critically about the alternative art school, whether it be Syllabus or Open School East.
Simina: Just to give you a little bit of background, maybe touching on these points of distributing knowledge and also thinking about how you spoke about this concept of critical production, coming out of discussions with Justin and his experience. Another important backstory into AfterHours was the bookclub we and a group of friends started four years ago. This is a private activity, not public. We make a point of it not being part of our practice but rather informing it. The bookclub was intended as a space for women and non-binary people which, of course, it’s a separatist idea, but we felt it was necessary. I think we learned a lot about collective learning, or building a collective voice through that space. We understood that there’s no difference between you as a fundraiser, that person as having a bar job, that person as a curator, that person as an academic, that person working at the climbing wall. It was very important in understanding that we should have a different system of valuing labour.
Valentina: And even in education, we only talk about art school as where you learn how to become an artist, and you have the curating school where you learn how to become a curator, and then nobody becomes an artist and nobody becomes a curator. It was just really nice to have these kind of great debates in our living rooms, in a very convivial space. And we wanted to take the atmosphere and bring that convivial element also to AfterHours, and that really horizontal structure to learning and having the opportunity to ask a question without the feeling of being inferior. And that worked really well. I have to say that there were quite a lot of people that joined from different backgrounds. We didn’t have that many students, funnily enough, I think they were too busy being students to get involved with this.
Andrea: Trying to find bar jobs to support their income or far too privileged to push?
Valentina: I don’t know. Maybe we didn’t get to them, even if we did everything we could to… I pestered everyone I could pester, we had connections at Goldsmiths but didn’t see that many students, which was surprising.
Andrea: When I was running the MFA at Goldsmiths in curating there were several things that were really weird. I co-ran it with Andrew Renton, who was an art advisor. He was much more ingrained in the commercial art world. The one good thing that came out of that partnership for me was that through him I learned how the commercial art world worked, and that’s been essential for my knowledge. He was the mainstream guy and I was the critical woman on the side, it was quite an interesting dialectic, but then it began to break. And so I went on to create the PhD programme, which was equally problematic. One thing I remember when we ran that was that Andrew found an opportunity for the students to curate a privately sponsored painting show that was taking place in the Truman’s brewery at the top of Brick Lane. And I remember going along to the install, partly because, like you, I was going: “Oh, God, I’ve got to learn about how to install”. There were four professional installers and the students were just asking for their business cards, instead of asking if they could teach them, and I just realised that actually, even in so-called radical Goldsmiths, this was a very mainstream uncritical approach, despite the rhetoric. Goldsmiths’ art department has lots of really interesting people teaching in it; there are some brilliant people teaching part time on the curating programme – I’m thinking about Helena Reckitt and that amazing reading group that she runs, The Feminist Duration Reading Group, which I’m a huge admirer of. But even though there are all these people that have got amazing ideas that are trying to move things away, to bring in more concepts that have come from Black studies (for example), the main condition of the department is to function as a place where you go to become individually unique, whether you’re a curator or whether you’re an artist. There are many little departures – and I was one of those little departures, Helena is another – and you either try to participate and get frustrated or end up leaving or getting sacked, which, of course, is happening at the moment, or you just become sucked into the empire, and you carry on, and you swallow the pill, and start doing studio crits where you say: “Oh, yeah, I think you should talk to this gallerist about your work, because I think they might be really interested”.
Simina: With that example that you gave of the curators hanging around, I remember having conversations with people who either were on a curating programme or had just graduated, and they would be like “So now I need to get a job, do you have any tips on that?” and I was like, “Well, I heard that there are these artists who need an assistant,” and the reaction would be “Well, but I studied curating, I’m gonna apply for that curatorial assistant job.” There are 20 positions in the whole country and 400 people applying for one job.
Valentina: 20? More like 10.
Simina: And let’s say there’re 50 institutional curator jobs in the whole country. Of course, some people get it. But also, if you want to be a curator, don’t you want to see how artists actually work? It became clear that what the system was feeding was exactly as you’re saying, this story of a singular, unique curator. You were sold this absolute fiction, that didn’t make a lot of sense with the profession, as you would probably learn a lot more by being in an artist studio, packing artworks and doing consignments, than being an intern somewhere where you might make coffee for six months.
Andrea: I think working as an artist assistant on the floor is really important. I’m quite interested in concepts of degrowth. I’ve talked about devaluation in various publications. I’ve actually found the architectural fraternity more open to my ideas than the art community. Even more than architecture, urban planning. My PhD crossed over into that field anyway, so I’m a bit familiar with it. I was inspired by a book by Athena Athanasiou and Judith Butler, it’s a discussion between them, called Dispossession: The Performative in the Political. (1) In the book they have a conversation about two ways of understanding dispossession. The first way is as a real hard loss, having your house dispossessed, having your values, material goods dispossessed, not being able to feed your children because of the devaluation of the euro, etc. This is a western conceptualisation of value and is seen as – and is – very negative. Then they also turn dispossession in another way, which is about dispossession of the subject and the autonomous idea of the subject. They pitch these two ideas of dispossession together and they’re trying to posit an alternative idea. I’m summarising a bit schematically here, but, if we all learn to be a bit more dispossessive, then the world might swing on a slightly more equal angle. It came very much out of the politics of Syriza, and the ways in which it was trying to propose an alternative. Varoufakīs has come out of this as the economist who’s now famous, but there were a lot of other people working there as well. iLiana Fokianaki, who runs State (of) Concept in Athens is very interesting, as is her partner, Jonas Staal, who I work with quite a lot, in relation to the way he produces large projects about parliamentary alternatives. I took this idea of dispossession as it was swung on this axis by Athanasiou and Butler and I tried to apply it to the concept of value in the arts. I talked a lot about devaluation as a positive thing and, of course, this is highly conceptual and very utopian, but…
Valentina: It is really in line with the fact that now, like it or not, we need to take degrowth seriously, as a survival thing.
Andrea: I did this talk at The Showroom in London, somebody who’s now very involved in Extinction Rebellion immediately said, “Oh, what you’re talking about is parallel to degrowth”. Exactly. We usually associate degrowth with environmental ecological crises, that actually we can…
Valentina: …apply that, yeah, because these systems of labour are not sustainable long term.
Simina: And also, this idea of the autonomous creative subject, this is an Enlightenment concept, which is completely connected to ecological disaster. They’re interdependent. This is not a parallel phenomenon. This is what we’re living in.
Andrea: That’s exactly the case. Creative Time have taken the kind of TED Talk model and they used to run these summits, where they would invite people to do 10 minute slots. I hate with a hatred that is so big, I can hardly express how much I hate TED Talks, all the bile in my body rises to the top, but as soon as Nato Thompson from Creative Time asked me to participate I tried this concept out. [laughter] It was a summit in Stockholm. There were 1000 people in the audience and it was being live-streamed. Tania Bruguera was the star, and I was below Tania in the pecking order, of course. I remember trying to talk about devaluation and asked how much every institution in the room paid their cleaners. You only have 10 minutes, you have to be quite direct and provocative. Afterwards we had a big dinner, and everyone kept coming up to me and say: “Oh, Andrea, it’s so wonderful. You’re so intelligent. Lalalalala.” And I would say to them, “But how much do you pay your cleaners?” And they would say: “Yes, yes, we’ll find out.”
Valentina: They don’t know because it’s all outsourced.
Andrea: For a long time I’ve really admired Susan Kelly’s work in the Precarious Workers Brigade (2) and that’s been going on for a long time, and then the cleaners unions that have emerged have been really interesting, and actually, The Showroom support of them. I think the person there was Louise Shelley, who moved from The Showroom to Cubitt. And was involved in that educational project at Grand Union. But yeah, I think she’s got her head screwed on right.
Valentina: Now, I think what I find interesting about this degrowth, devaluation, is the fact that we’ve been thinking a lot about de-professionalisation. You are not defined by what you do. You do not have to be in the art world to be involved in the arts or to be creative. This kind of hyper-professionalisation sometimes doesn’t really belong with the actual making of art, and all these ideals that we have. And also in terms of how to articulate that within the book we’re making. There is a problematic element there, because we started the whole project with a reading group on the Precarious Workers Brigade publication, which is critical of the kind of stuff we do, this sort of placing the pressure of learning, of upskilling yourself on the worker, rather than to the employer. We should be lobbying for galleries to offer paid and useful internships, to offer paid work opportunities to people from unprivileged backgrounds, rather than putting ourselves in a room with biscuits and coffee and try to improve ourselves. But of course, whatever you do is never going to be wholly unproblematic. And the moment you kind of get your hands dirty a little bit, these questions are going to come up. How can we be honest about the conditions of work and the fact that the book will be very focused on skills, and finding and sharing this knowledge. Because the question you were asking, which we both really liked: “How do we make curating and pedagogy not just about meritocracy and privilege, but about cultural and political access?” That was the question that we were asking ourselves in different terms, and how do we integrate that with these really exciting ideas that you’re exploring about degrowth, devaluation, and de-professionalization in a way that is not simply cynical. Because sometimes the way I speak about this project with Simina is just me complaining. How can these ideas actually be positive and future oriented?
Andrea: The thing about de-professionalization, de-valorization, de-valuation and de-growth is that the overarching question is, how much privilege do you have to have to be able to understand the drop? Yeah, it presumes you’re somewhere to give something up. The real overarching problem with the cultural world is that it doesn’t include people that have got nowhere else to go. I began as a teenager getting involved in community theatre, and theatre and education. Just as a participant, not as an organiser. And then I went to Dartington College of Arts to study art in a social context with a particular focus on theatre. I worked with all these amazing theatre companies that were just, wild and uncontrolled. I was really lucky because it was a four-year BA. And the third year was a placement. And it was all free at this time, because I’m old. [laughter]
I was like the last generation who got free education. That’s really sad, actually. So the third year was in Rotherhithe, which, at the time, was being transformed by the London Dockland Development Corporation. The docks, which at the time were working class communities, were transformed into the kind of gentrified flats and loft living that they are now. There was a huge local protest against this gentrification process, because lots and lots of working class communities were moved out. Their Victorian terrace houses were being compulsorily purchased. A community artist called Lorraine Leeson was doing a big project with a group of women who were the wives of the ex-dock workers, and the community was pretty heteronormatively organised. And I have to say, also fairly racist, in my experience. But Lorraine, who now runs an MA Art and Social Practice at Middlesex University, was doing a project with the local women, basically an anti-gentrification poster project. And I was learning, I was pasting them up, and through the pasting of it, learning about the law, why you’re not allowed, why you might get arrested if you do that kind of thing. You know, a nice middle class girl from Leamington Spa. So this was an amazing experience for me. And then through that, I kind of became very attached to community art and community practice, which used to be funded by the Arts Council. Now it’s been re-franchised as a social engagement by art institutions. The reason I’m telling you the history of this project is that I’m working on at the moment trying to raise funding to do a massive project, focused in the North-East, around community practice.
Valentina: One of the few things I remember from my own master’s degree was this quote from Griselda Pollock, where she says something along the lines of “the whole education department and the curatorial have to work together.” (3) If they don’t do that, it’s just meaningless. You see that at Tate Exchange. What happens at Tate Exchange is not Tate.
Andrea: Tate Exchange is a poisonous political fiction in terms of the way it suggests to the majority of the audience that are not necessarily involved in thinking through the detailed politics of institutions that they are doing some good for the community. But it’s a fictional community. And the curators at Tate deny the Tate Exchange.
Valentina: But although one might want to resist this dichotomy, there’s something about having the word curator on your CV that makes it more valuable. Because I tried applying for these jobs. And the problem with access to jobs in the arts is that if you don’t have a linear path it’s very hard. And I see friends and other people who have a wealth of incredible experience, from commercial, institutional experience to community experience to music, dance management and so on, but if you don’t have that clear, linear path, if you don’t have the fancy university, the fancy internship, the fancy curatorial assistant job in an institution… And there’s no crossover between private and commercial, unless you’re at senior level, then you can do whatever you want. But at our level, you need to have that progression, you become an assistant curator, and then become a curator, and if you don’t have that, that’s it. If you don’t have that curator word you’re going to earn the same amount of money forever. And then at a certain point you’re going to get tired of your salary and get a job outside of the art world. The profession in itself is always the same, we know what it is about, it’s about emails and spreadsheets, this is what we do.
Andrea: Have you read David Graber’s Bullshit Jobs? I understand there might be moments where, psychologically, it might not be appropriate to read it. But I guarantee that everybody who reads it might identify with it. I read it, I have professor friends that have read it. I have an artistic director friend who read it. We all identify.
Valentina & Simina: Okay, well, that’s what we need.
Andrea: I mean, maybe Maria Balshaw doesn’t identify as having a bullshit job? I don’t know. But tell me a bit more about the book that you’re working on?
Valentina: The problem is that we got stuck. The material we got from the workshop facilitators is amazing, really practical. But in terms of the framework around it, and the politics of it, we are a bit stuck. It should be a sort of real handbook from workers to workers and people who aspire to become workers in the arts. But it’s also an ecosystem that is not sustainable, and it’s kind of collapsing, and people are losing their jobs. And I myself got out of the arts as my main source of income in the meantime. I think this is why we started thinking about de-professionalization. How do we articulate this in a book that is also about professionalizing yourself?
Simina: Or how to bring this tension together? Because it can’t be a guide of enthusiastically staying in the art world, nor a guide of exiting the art world, but maybe both. Or leaving the reader with that choice. Also staying kind of close to this tension. Valentina being more like we are exiting this toxic world, me being a bit more utopian, let’s pretend it’s the ’60s sort of thing.
Valentina: That’s why we’re very excited about your upcoming essay on devaluation.
Andrea: I’ll send it to you. And I’ll also send you an essay that’s just about to be published on community art centres, as I think there is a solution. I think it’s about reorganising institutions along the lines of the ’60s, coming out of that hippie tradition, but maybe there were some interesting ideas there, actually. This community arts project I’m doing with a colleague of mine, who’s a brilliant artist called Jason E. Bowman, who will work with me on the project if we get the money. Rethinking the art institution as a community centre. I’m actually quite interested in the physicality of the institution. So for instance, if one takes Tate Modern, and thinks about, the crisis that we’ve just been through or, more importantly, I think, the crisis of homelessness, and the lack of affordable housing in London. Actually Tate is a very good facility for developing both housing and community. It has technical equipment, it has technicians that know how to work it. In my imagination, the technicians suddenly become very useful in a political sense as well, rather than the kind of nobodies that they are usually treated as. It has a bunch of kitchens, it has hot water, it has heating, it has lighting, all the basics of a really brilliant community centre. We just need to throw out the curators. [laughter] And re-purpose the learning teams into something else, or if they don’t want to do it, because they actually really want to be curators, they can go as well. So actually, that’s the vision that I’ve spent quite a lot of time fantasising over the past couple of years, looking at the history of community centres in the UK. Although actually they’re very much like the Romanian culture house movement. I have a PhD student, Irina Botea Bucan, who’s researching that history. There was a really interesting network of community art centres in the UK, and some of them still exist. I’ve written quite a lot about the Albany Empire, which is in Deptford, a fully functioning community centre. The community centres were really interesting, because they were completely functional, mixed-use organisations, pretty ragged. Not much money, play schemes in the summer for the kids whose mums had to go to work, reggae sound systems in the evenings. They’re also interesting, architecturally, and this is something that I’ve always wanted to do, but I’ve never quite got round to, is to find an architect to work with to do a comparative study. Because a lot of those community centres were made in the 1990s when the Heritage Lottery Fund was developed, before the global, fighting-for-survival, arts organisations that we now have. So Camden Art Centre used to be a bog standard community centre. Arnolfini was a standard community centre.
Valentina: So it’s back to the roots basically.
Andrea: Exactly. And of course, all of that stuff that happened in the ’00s, which was maybe before your time in the UK, when famous architects suddenly all got commissioned to either build new or extend old arts organisations. Often Herzog & de Meuron or Terry Farrell would come along and repurpose an old community centre into a shiny new arts organisation that had a new raft of curators because of course, in community centres, you don’t have curators. Currently I’m really excited about a recent Third Text issue on Amateurism. (4) So I’m moving towards amateurism, but not as an ethnographic fetishisation, but as a realistic kind of understanding of culture. To come back to your book, it seems to me that the dialectic you are proposing is that, on the one hand, you’ve got the material for a viable handbook for cultural workers, but on the other hand, you’re concerned about encouraging cultural work at this particular time, is that right?
Simina: Kind of, yes. And how to capture a framework, I guess, that was also present in the beginning of the project, with the reading group, and this idea of creating convivial, friendly spaces of sharing and also politicising, and how to capture that without being corny. But staying true to the conditions that we are living in, that are extremely difficult.
Valentina: We want to talk about various aspects of working in the arts. For example, we had an amazing workshop (led by Lulu Nunn) about accessibility in the arts. Everyone is interested in this subject on Facebook but in real life few people showed up. And for them it was amazing, it was great. Also, one of the chapters is going to probably be about fundraising, focusing on individual giving, the most popular workshop we had, which I haven’t had to do any marketing for. And so we are also going to talk about all these things in the book. Because even if you make the community centre, where is the money coming from? But at the same time, we still have to be critical because it kind of hit us in our personal and work life.
Andrea: I can see that it’s a problem. And it goes really to the heart of fundamental questions that we’re all asking or trying to get to, which is whether we should abandon these ideas? Suhail Malik is writing a book about exiting art at the moment, On the Necessity of Art’s Exit from Contemporary Art (forthcoming). And also Suzanne Lacy wrote this book, Leaving Art. (5) But of course, she didn’t leave art, she became even more famous. I mean, the ethics of leaving art in terms of her early engagement as a community practitioner makes sense. But of course, she’s been fetishised and adopted and put in the Tate Tanks. I think we have to examine really, all of us individually, and I include myself in this because I haven’t really ever done it, why are we really interested in this stuff? What is it? Do I really believe that encountering an artwork can be a transformative experience? And I think my response to that is, I don’t really believe that.
However, I do believe that making art and being involved in a creative process of doing something is a transformative experience. I’m even slightly lying to myself about that, because I think about certain artworks I’ve seen in the past that have been, fuck, that’s amazing. But I can’t work out how much of that is my conditioning?
Valentina: For me it’s slightly different. On a personal level, coming from a background where art wasn’t a thing, I didn’t know what that was at all. But going to an exhibition once, by chance, when I was 14, and being in a white cube and seeing an artwork and getting glimpses of that intellectual discourse around it, it was a transformative experience. It did change my life, and I think for Simina it was probably the same. And that’s probably why we are into living artists, rather than dead ones, there’s that element of excitement. But I’m always in two minds about everything.
Andrea: We can form the two minds club? I think I sent you the essay on Santiniketan. But I have to say, I’ve been to Santiniketan three times now and the longest I’ve spent there is a month, and I don’t speak Hindi. I’m constantly at the behest of a very good friend of mine who teaches there, who is my translator. But I was really impressed by Santiniketan as an art school that was really embedded in the local production, as well as classical studies looking at the importance of the mural tradition in Bengal as a radical tradition. This is a very living institution. The idea of the ‘tapovan’, of learning under the trees, which is not romantic, is just the way that you do it. That was a kind of very transformative experience for me actually. So I think there is something interesting there about the future of education, of what Gayatri Spivak would call “aesthetic education”, which isn’t just the arts but as a kind of mind experience, living experience, ethical experience, as well as an aesthetic experience. Obviously, it comes from a tradition and a culture and a geography that enables that in a way. It’s also now part of a state university system and its chancellor is Modi. So how long is it going to survive? I’ve been very, very lucky to encounter some extraordinary things. And actually, it was The Otolith Group that introduced me to Santiniketan and Grant Watson when he was at Iniva back in the day.
Anyway, let’s have a socially distanced irl meeting when I’m going to be in London next and carry on the conversation.
Valentina: We’ll bring loads of cake and make it convivial, thank you!
- Athena Athanasiou, Judith Butler. Dispossession: The Performative in the Political, Polity Press: Cambridge, 2013.
- Precarious Workers Brigade. Training for Exploitation? Politicising Employability and Reclaiming Education, Journal of Aesthetics & Protest Press: London Leipzig, Los Angeles, 2017. 96 pages.
- Griselda Pollock. Encounters in the virtual feminist museum: time, space and the archive. Routledge: London, 2007.
- Volume 34, Issue 1, Number 162: January 2020.
- Suzanne Lacy. Leaving Art: Writings on Performance, Politics, and Publics,1974–2007. Duke University Press, 2010.
Simina Neagu and Valentina Bin have been collaborating since 2012. Their practice stems from critical observations on the ways art is shown, written about and taught, and encompasses experimenting with exhibition formats, art writing and alternative art education. Their goal is to provide imaginative, convivial and accessible experiences. Previous projects include: AfterHours, Raven Row, London (2019) / East Ends, Art Night 2017 Associate Programme, London / Philomène Hoël: Keep It Longer, Gallery S O, London (2017) / Unstill Objects & Lost Materials, Gallery S O, London (2016) / Slow Glass by John Smith, VITRARIA museum, Venice (2015).
Simina Neagu is currently Programme & Operations Coordinator at Iniva and has previously worked with various arts organisations, including Chisenhale Gallery, Bucharest Biennale, Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Gothenburg Museum of Art, Project Biennial of Contemporary Art D-0 ARK Underground, as well as an assistant for artists such as Céline Condorelli, Aleksandra Mir and Rana Begum. Her writing was published in springerin, Revista ARTA, and Kajet Journal, amongst others. She holds an MA in Aesthetics and Art Theory from Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Kingston University London and is part of the CuratorLab 2020/2021 programme at Konstfack University, Stockholm.
Valentina Bin studied Art History in Venice and graduated with an MA in Museum Studies at UCL (distinction). After managing Gallery S O’s artistic programme in London, she is currently working as a freelance writer, translator and sub-editor, and running Pelican Gravitas, an art and writing newsletter. Previously, she has been working closely with the artists group Troika and organisations such as The Art Newspaper, Made in China UK and Parasol Unit. Her writing has been published on ArtReview, Current Obsessions and the Museum and Curating Studies Review, among others.
Dr Andrea Phillips is BALTIC Professor and Director of BxNU Research Institute, Northumbria University & BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. Andrea lectures and writes about the economic and social construction of public value within contemporary art, the manipulation of forms of participation and the potential of forms of political, architectural and social reorganization within artistic and curatorial culture. Her current research project, conducted with artist Jason E Bowman, involves a social and aesthetic re-reading of the British community arts movement from the mid-1970s to the present.
Phillips’ publications can be seen here. Her forthcoming book Contemporary Art and the Production of Inequality will bring together discussions on the politics of public administration and management with recent analyses of arts institutions, alongside debates on value (public and private) informed by research into the political functions of the art market and personal experience of organizing, lobbying, and governing contemporary arts institutions, arts education institutions, and working directly with artists.
Season Butler & Françoise Vergès
‘The Slow Death of Prometheus’
A Blue Skies Conversation
On a hot, sunny day – 25 August 2020 – artist-author Season Butler met political scientist and philosopher Françoise Vergès on a patchy Skype call between Berlin and Paris.
So, I’m Season Butler and I do a lot of different kinds of jobs. And I think that’s similar to a lot of people my age and a lot of people who are in my position creatively. I generally say that I’m a writer (so as not to make a super long list that sounds like a conference bio); and I wrote my doctoral dissertation on intersectionality and how the intersectional matrix can inform creative writing practice as well as literary analysis.
And…let’s see…at the moment I’m in Berlin with some fairytale puffy clouds I can see out of my window and the red roof tops that I really associate with Germany.
And I feel like I’m hustling a lot creatively and professionally – like I’m doing lots of different kinds of jobs and trying to satisfy lots of different kinds of demands and desires more than having a single project or even a single creative field right now.
And I have a troubled relationship with academia. So I guess that’s normal.
Well, how can I introduce myself?
The thing that keeps me alive is the fight – the fight against injustice and inequality. That fight is what has guided me and continues to guide me.
Nowadays, I am a public educator, an activist, a writer and a member of the collective Decolonize the Arts. I grew up in Réunion Island and this has remained my archive, this “small island” where the French State imposed slavery, colonialism and is still dominating the island. When I arrived in France in the 1970s, I did many jobs before becoming a journalist and an editor in a feminist publishing house. I left France in 1983, went to the USA, worked in small jobs before going to the university and getting a Ph.D. I was an academic for a while, but did also other jobs. What else can I say? I love to cook. I’m very interested in cooking, which means that I’m interested in what people cook and how. When I travel I always go to markets. I’m also very interested in weaving and textiles, in their beauty, in the ability of humans to create something with colour and texture. I love to dance and to party.
Like you, I’m more interested in doing than in being in an institution. I want to remain a very curious person and academia often kills curiosity. I want to remain a curious person in every aspect of my life, always asking questions. I want to be disturbed. I want to be questioned.
How wonderful to meet you. I brought a couple of poems to our conversation and I wanted to read one to you by Danez Smith for starters. This is a piece of a poem called ‘summer, somewhere’ and it just feels so resonate with the boiling intensity of racial confrontation, which seems very visible in the summer from Martin Luther King’s reference to ‘the summer of our discontent’, and a lot of Langston Hughes’s imagery…sorry for the rambling analysis. I should just read it:
somewhere, a sun. below, boys brown
as rye play the dozens & ball, jump
in the air & stay there. boys become new
moons, gum-dark on all sides, beg bruise
-blue water to fly, at least tide, at least
spit back a father or two. I won’t get started.
history is what it is. it knows what it did.
bad dog. bad blood. bad day to be a boy
color of a July well spent. but here, not earth
not heaven, boys can’t recall their white shirt
turned a ruby gown. here, there is no language
for officer or law, no color to call white.
if snow fell, it’d fall black. please, don’t call
us dead, call us alive someplace better.
we say our own names when we pray.
we go out for sweets & come back.
You’re very welcome.
So, I have to read one now?
If you’d like to. I would like it if you would.
OK. This one is from Aimé Césaire –
I was hoping you would choose one from Aimé Césaire
I think we’ve been deprived of kindness so much and for so long, and especially now with all that is happening in the world we need kindness.
So let me read and excerpt from New Kindness by Aimé Césaire:
to deliver the world to the assassins of dawn is out of the question
those who slap dusk in the face
roads hang from their flayer necks
like shoes too new
we’re not dealing with a rout
only the traps have been whisked away during the night
as for the rest
horses that have left nothing more in the ground
than their furious hoofprints
muzzles aimed with lapped-up blood
the unsheathing of the knives of justice
and of the inspired horns
of vampire birds their entire beaks lit up
but also breasts nursing rivers
and sweet calabashes in the hollows of offering hands
a new kindness is ceaselessly growing on the horizon.
Thank you so much.
I sent through some questions that I’m just interested in hashing through with you; were there any you were particularly drawn to?
Accepting your question is part of the art of conversation.
Yeah, for sure for sure.
I’m very interested in your idea of the Promethean way of life [‘the idea that “Man” can invent a mechanical, technical solution to triumph over any problem’]
and the potential of a post-Promethean way of life.
It just seems to me to be such a productive and emancipated shift from simplistic dualities. And so, it would be a real treat for me to be able to hear how you think about this distinction, and maybe how we might think about a post-Promethean recovery? From not just Covid-19, but also a very carceral white supremacy…the whole picture.
Well, European ‘conquest of the world’ is a story of murder, genocide and destruction in the name of “discovery,” science, progress and white supremacy. Promethean thinking drove European colonization and imperialism and is driving techno-racial capitalism, it’s motto is “extract everything from earth, air, seas, humans, accept no limits to expansion, do not mind about destruction and devastation, expand, expand, expand, dominate and exploit” and do it in the name of ‘civilization’. If we don’t overcome this thinking, I don’t think we will survive. I mean something will survive, some form of life, but – you know – it will not be human life.
The Promethean world is a world conceived as limitless, of endless extraction until the land is barren, the soil exhausted and people are famished, a world that trusts, embraces technological progress and science to resolve social, cultural and political problems created by this very logic, a world in which the engineer feels “he” does not need poetry or the art of weaving, a world where the economy of speed is king, where there is no place for the vulnerable, for the precarious, for the unexpected.
As Ruth Wilson Gilmore has said, and I find this very enlightening, racial capitalism is the fabrication of a differentiated vulnerability to premature death. Who died during the first part of the pandemic (and this is not finished): Black, indigenous and brown people, poor people. Why? Not only because they don’t have access to public health, but also because they have bad housing, bad jobs and high rates of co-morbidity – diabetes, heart problems, obesity –which are the result of racism but they had to work and were thus exposed to the virus. Their bodies were exposed, knowingly, to premature death.
The white body extracts his/her comfort from the exhausted black body, and when I say “black” here, I connect it to the logic of anti-Blackness. The white bourgeois body has access to good health, good food, good housing – jog in the morning, yoga class, avocado toast, send the kids to the swimming pool, do tennis, have access to good transportation, bike to work, go to a sex worker, go home and enjoy your family in a big safe home, not because of some better talent or expertise but because of the long history of plundering and extracting care. Millions of Black and brown bodies make this world possible.
The environmental crisis is not just about extracting wealth from the soil and forest, it’s also about extracting life-energy from the Black and brown body. Racism is the extraction of the life energy of black and brown people who have been denied full humanity. This is the Promethean world, of endless extraction and exploitation, made possible by racial capitalism. It leads to utter destruction, it is anti-human.
It looks like a science fiction movie where a few are sucking the blood and the flesh of million others.
What do we need as human beings?
We need clean air. We need to breathe. And this remark inevitably leads us to ‘I can’t breathe’ and Black Lives Matter. It takes us to police violence, to palliative care, to what I call the “economy” of exhaustion of Black and brown bodies, women and men, who are made to work until they are exhausted, sick, dying.
We need clean water. A human being cannot survive without water for more than a couple of days, and water has been privatised and polluted. There is practically no place in the global South today where you don’t need a plastic bottle if you want to drink clean water.
So, why and how are the basic needs for human life have been privatised and their production militarised? If not to increase vulnerability to premature death.
And the third thing we need is love – to be loved and to love, to be together.
The role of the artist-activist is to show what power is most afraid of, the power of imagination. It’s not enough to deprive people of water and air. The racist, sexist, capitalist system also seeks to deprive them of the power of imagination, of the possibility of imagining a peaceful world.
The right to imagine that there is an alternative.
So, though I cannot say exactly what the post-Promethean world will look like because that will inevitably construct a totalitarian vision, I will say that we have to imagine it, that we have to put all the power of our imagination into that. And that alternative forms and practices are imagined everyday.
The post-Promethean world belongs to the work of imagination what it would be to be human in the world with all our complexities and differences. Life, a fruitful life, is one that is not based on domination and exploitation.
The scattergun nature of the way that restrictions are imposed and lifted keep exposing the problems within the existing modes of entanglement and exploitation. About a month ago the shelter-in-place orders were lifted to the extent that people were now allowed to have domestic help come and go into their homes, but they were still advising keeping older people isolated. And so middle-class people could now have their cleaners come and go, but they weren’t allowed to visit their parents for example, and so whatever danger of exposure they might have posed to their parents in their 70s or 80s was sanctioned against, but the person coming in to clean (who is probably female and with caring responsibilities, who may or may not be documented, who is probably from Southern or Eastern Europe or from the global South, who may or may not have pre-existing conditions and may be in an age bracket of that makes her more vulnerable) – it’s fine to expose her.
And it was very interesting to see some of the public responses to this by white, middle-class professional women, who were trying to justify in feminist terms why it was important to have their cleaners come into their homes.
These inequalities were explained through the vocabulary of health and protection, but good health and protection for whom?
During the pandemic, the State forbade people to visit their elderly parents in the name of protection, but at the same time, it exposed black and brown women and men to the virus by asking them to go to work, to go clean individual homes and public spaces so the white bourgeois family would be living and circulating in spaces devoid of the virus. And then, the State put the responsibility of protection onto the individuals; if they don’t have protection, it was their own fault. It was the old colonial racist coding “these people have no hygiene, they don’t clean themselves; they live in dirty places,” as if dirtiness is not produced by race and class, let us just look at the neighbourhoods that are cleaned by public services and those that are not, those with green spaces, clean air, nice housing and those without. Some people deserve to be protected and others do not, they do not have the right to protection.
I’ve been working on a book which will be published this November on the need for an antiracist politics of protection. I look at how white bourgeois feminism has been giving to the state, to the police, to the tribunal and to the prison the role of protecting women from men’s violence, which is then explained in personal terms (“man is violent”). The politics of protection has been high jacked, captured, colonised by the militaristic racist state, by the police, by the industry of surveillance and control.
Women need to be protected from violence, from rape, they have the right to walk in the street at 3am. Okay, but this is not applicable to the migrants, to Black and brown people, to trans people, to sex workers. The city is not open to everyone, it has been built for the white bourgeois males and now white women want access to his space, fine, but do not call this freedom to be in the city, call it an extension of privilege.
So I asked myself: what will be anti-racist politics of protection? Because we do need protection – children, elderly people, sick, vulnerable people, people with disabilities—but as I said, protection has been thought for the white and the bourgeoisie, and white feminism has played a very important role in giving the militaristic racist and sexist state the mission to protect. Antiracist politics of protection means collective thinking, community self-defence, reparative justice, the abolition of prisons, the end of systemic violence.
There is no capitalism without constant daily violence, insidious, cunning or open, cracking the head, suffocating, killing or slowly destroying the body and the psyche.
If you look at the history of violence, violence that stole land, deprived people of their language, their culture, their way of life…Its promise is “if you can kill, you can survive. Show your ability to murder without hesitation, to see life as cheap and you will survive.” Under colonialism, violence was saturating life, under neoliberalism, violence saturates life. Violence saturates every aspect of our life, capitalist needs to expand and consume. Places, forests, seas, rivers, mountains, bodies, ideas, art must be colonised and consumed.
There is this form of violence that drives me crazy when kids who go to school will hear, day after day, you are stupid, the story of your ancestors does not exist, who see their mother coming home exhausted, their father being humiliated, commodities everywhere to which they do not have access but which are shown as the measure of existence, if you have them, you will “exist,” if you don’t have them, you don’t. That violence is incommensurable.
To be human in the world means getting rid of a world that does not care for life, real life.
I have a bit of an agenda, something I want to reach for in my practice, this question about art work and raising expectations. It’s so essential that we reject the capitalist realism of ‘there is no alternative.’ So I think about that in relation to the conventions of fiction writing
that I’ve been acculturated to and that are quite naturalised for me, conventions that focus on conflict, triumph and the individual. And so I’m trying to negotiate an ambition to write fiction that makes the reader feel that the world is transformable and that it is possible to take back agency.
Yet I’m struggling to do that elegantly. I have some hope that continuing my personal decolonisation and emancipation as a human and as a worker, and I wondered if you have and thoughts or tips for me in this endeavour.
Agency is the capacity of the writer to say this is possible…to make us dream.
The world is transformable. Decolonisation is not just about a world outside there, a world outside but also about myself. It’s not just about teaching people to be decolonised. It’s a commitment to co-educate myself with people, to decolonise ourselves together, to away from the psycho-narcissistic tone of self-help literature.
With being an agent comes the reality that sometimes we fail, but that’s okay. Acknowledging the difficulty is part of the possibility.
For instance, I’ve been reading a book by a woman born in Sri Lanka who had lost her parents, her companion, two young children during the 2004 tsunami.
Wave [by Sonali Deraniyagala]?
Yes. The way she describes loss. Over two years she cannot sleep because she’s afraid that when she wakes up, she will remember [the 2004 Tsunami].
Its reading was very important because it reminded me that loss, death and mourning can be sometimes impossible to process, some form of madness is acceptable. There is no need to avoid it. You know you have to go through the darkness. The Promethean will seek mastery, will seek technological fixes or undergo a week of meditation somewhere and overcome this. I disagree.
The long process is very important. We must be able to say, yeah, it takes time.
The element of time seems essential. Over the years, I’ve watched the ascendancy of certain right-wing factions through multiple failures in the UK. They try and fail, and they’re a joke and they’re ridiculed in the mainstream press, and they try and fail and then make a little gain and then try and fail and then they make a little bit more gain. People I saw being ridiculed daily when I first moved to the UK twenty years ago are now commanding the political agenda.
I was having a conversation recently with some comrades who wanted to have a meeting about utopias, questioning whether, in the current context, maybe we shouldn’t even talk about utopia. I felt that during crises we have to keep our expectations high. If you don’t want to use the word ‘utopia,’ fine, but now is not the time to back down and say that will accept less.
While we’re debating whether we dare ask for a four-day work week, does Donald Trump ever think, ‘do I dare to abolish the Postal Service?’ Is it possible to go around the country and just remove mailboxes?’ He doesn’t ask what’s possible. He just acts audaciously to consolidate the power of himself and his class.
Yeah. He does.
The politics of respectability are a trap, it tells us that if we are gracious, nice and polite, right-wing and racist/sexist people will listen to us. No. The more polite we are the more likely they will continue to beat us. Every time we speak loudly, we are said to be negative or to embody the angry Black woman or the angry Muslim and that may keep us from raising our voices. Maybe the oppressors are not raising their voices but they are killing people. So we have to raise our voice, we have to be impolite and to also be indifferent to the seductive part of power, because indifference to their love of power drives them crazy. Drives them crazy. We have to be impolite, “kill joy feminists” as Sara Ahmed said, we have to be in their face. We have to be utopian.
The women and men who fought from the first day of their capture on the road to enslavement, from the first day of enslavement, in the barracks, in the slave ships, in the plantations, never said: “oh, this struggle is too difficult, we cannot go on.” Never! Their thinking was utopian. At a time when slavery was natural as day and night, supported by the Church, the law, the culture, and the economy, they dared to say “No!,” they dared to see beyond slavery, to hold freedom as a possibility. “Some day, we will be free! Some day! We will never stop fighting.” They said no, slavery is not normal or natural. There is no justification. They were so audacious! Utopian thinking is like this, to say: yes, freedom will come, even when everything says otherwise.
I hadn’t thought about indifference, and I think that’s so important.
I’d like to read you one more poem and hear one more from you. Okay?
This morning he told me I sleep with my mouth open and my hands in my hair. I say, What, like screaming? He says, No, like abandon.
This is by a poet named Rachel Long from her collection My Darling from the Lions.
This poem is by a young South African poet, Koleka Putuma. She talks about water and, you know, I come from an island, so water is very important. How water has been portrayed as something that is not there, within post-colonial discourse that focuses so much on land. Water is what brought slave ships and armies…
Every time our skin goes under
The reeds remember that they were once chains
And the water, restless, wishes it could spew all of the slaves and ships onto shore
Whole as they had boarded, sailed and sunk
Their tears are what have turned the ocean salty
This is why our irises burn every time we go under
Every December sixteenth, December 24th and December 31st
Our skin traumatises the sea
They mock us
For not being able to throw ourselves into something that was instrumental in trying to execute our extinction
For you, the ocean is for surf boards, boats and tans
And all the cool stuff you do under there in your suits and goggles
But we, we come to be baptised here
We have come to stir the other world here
We have come to cleanse ourselves here
We have come to connect our living to the dead here
Our respect for water is what you have termed fear
The audacity to trade and murder us over water
Then mock us for being scared of it
The audacity to arrive by water and invade us
If the land was really yours then resurrect the bones of the colonisers and use them as a compass
Then quit using black bodies as tour guides or the site for your authentic African experience
Are we not tired of dancing for you?
Gyrating and singing on cue
Are we not tired of gathering as a mass of blackness to atone for just being here
To beg God to save us from a war we never started
To March for a cause caused by the intolerance for our existence
Raise our hands so we don’t get shot
Raise our hands in church to pray for protection
And we still get shot there too
With our hands raised
Invasion comes naturally for your people
So you have come to rob us of our places of worship too
Come to murder us in prisons too
That is not new either
Thank you. And thank you for the conversation. You have given so much to think about.
Good day, and I hope one day we will meet.
I hope so, too.
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.”
Image 2: Them both, Photography (1980s)
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
What is Our Intergenerational Inheritance?
37:37 Marie Therese
42:32 Thank you ICF!
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.
‘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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
Aidan Moesby & Claire Doherty
A Blue Skies Conversation
‘Affecting Change’ is a conversation between artist, curator and writer Aidan Moesby and artistic director and producer Claire Doherty. Speaking between Newcastle and Bristol, they discuss leadership, change and the significance of context in curating and producing.
For reference: This conversation was held one month after the statue of Edward Colston was pulled from its plinth and the day after the announcement of a £1.57 Billion funding package for the arts.
Aidan Moesby is a curator, artist and writer who explores civic and personal wellbeing through a body of work that is at once playful, intimate, questioning and deeply human. His practice is a socially engaged one, rooted in research and response – in conversation of many kinds. He works extensively in the spaces where art, technology and wellbeing intersect. A resident at Pervasive Media Studio, Watershed, Bristol he increasingly makes large scale, tourable works. Moesby is currently Associate Curator at MIMA in partnership with DASH Arts within a programme to increase the representation of disabled curators within the arts ecology. He works across mainstream and disability contexts to promote diversity and equality within the visual arts; regularly facilitating and participating in discussions and events. Exploring the relationships between the outer physical weather and internal psycho-emotional weather underpins his work investigating the dual crises of Climate Change and Mental Health within a curatorial milieu.
Claire Doherty is an artistic director and producer with a particular focus on developing more relevant and responsive arts organisations and programmes. Known for her artistic direction and thought leadership in public art producing as well as ambitious multi-artform cultural programming, Claire was the Founder Director of Situations from 2002 – 2017. Through projects such as Theaster Gates’ Sanctum and Katie Paterson’s 100-year Future Library, Situations became known as one of the UK’s foremost producing companies in the public realm. As an Artistic Director and advisor to heritage organisations and cities internationally, Claire has been committed to rewriting the rulebook for where, how and by whom the arts are produced and experienced. She was the Director responsible for the stabilisation and rethinking behind Arnolfini’s recovery in 2017-2019. Most recently she has co-led the Culture Reset programme with David Micklem, a programme over eight weeks for 200 producers to reimagine the future of arts and culture.
Images courtesy the conversation participants.