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Nothing Personal stands in solidarity with Palestine.

We are signatories to the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) and pledge to boycott all institutions and funders complicit in the Israeli occupation and genocide.

We recognise that recent events are rooted in the 75-year occupation of Palestinian territories by the Israeli state and in British colonialism, and that what is happening in Gaza is not a conflict but a siege, not self defence but collective punishment.

We call for an immediate ceasefire and the liberation of the Palestinian people and their land.

We urge our readers to join us in signing the PACBI and supporting the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, in putting pressure on the British government who are complicit through their support of zionism and their sales of arms to Israel, and to learn more about Scottish cultural institutions’ links to the Israeli state through funding and investments with companies such as Baillie Gifford.


Esther Draycott, Kiah Endelman Music, Maria Howard, Calum Sutherland
Co-editors of Nothing Personal


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Our cover image for this issue is Hannah Wilson’s The Folder (2022). The work depicts a man, shoulders hunched and bent forward, his balding crown exposed and his gaze directed downwards. His head casts a long shadow over his left shoulder as it bows over his chest. The paint here is particularly dense, the contrast is dramatic, the darkness flat. The man’s shoulders become a kind of horizon, improbably high, broken only by a few lines of fine hair. The background, a pale grey-blue, evokes the sterile walls of a warehouse or an office, some unforgiving workplace rendered the shade of a cartoon sky – giving a half-hearted impression of escape.

Wilson works primarily from film stills, carefully selecting, cropping, and redrawing until they have found a composition. Face obscured, setting unclear, The Folder draws attention to the details it excludes as much as those it contains. The subject wears a cobalt, crumpled worker’s jacket, once a uniform of manual labour, now more familiar as the affectation of a middle-class creative. There is a sense of resignation, but from what it’s not clear.

A similar feeling threads its way through several of the essays in this issue. In Top Floor Tales, Hayley Jane Dawson recounts a journey home from an exhibition opening in Glasgow, unearthing the layers of personal history woven into a well-trodden route through the Southside. It outlines two worlds: the working-class city on one hand, and the middle-class art scene on the other, drawing out some of the tensions and pressures around keeping a foot in the door of each. That movement continues with a piece in our Metacritical series by Lisette May Monroe, about the long drives she sometimes goes on with a friend. Recounting one particular detour to a museum of chewing gum in Arizona, Monroe speculates on the function or lack thereof these journeys perform, about the idle car-games and conversations that contain real issues at heart, about the universal need to ‘divert’ one’s time and the privilege of having that recognised as art. Framed by a looping image of an artist donning and discarding his Deliveroo uniform, knotty relationships between class, time and creativity also run through Kate Morgan’s review of Teddy Coste’s The Junction at Lunchtime and Gregor Horne’s New Work Scotland at Celine.

Ruby Kuye-Kline, RED HOLE, 2022, painting previous to being blacked out in ink, oil paint on canvas, 180 x 120 cm.

Elsewhere, Kiah Endelman Music speaks to artist and filmmaker Michelle Williams Gamaker. Touching on projects including the Women of Colour Index, her Dissolution film trilogy, and the institutional collective A Particular Reality, Gamaker discusses the role language has played in her work: drawing together real and fictional activism, creating the possibility of critical affection and enacting an interrogation, immersion or escape.

In The Sharp Wheel That Loves You, Georgia Horgan dissects the appearance of Japanese anime in Mexican culture since a series of international trade agreements beginning in the 1980s. She registers anime’s contemporary influence in the work of millennial artists Mauricio Orozco and Luis Campos as an emotional symptom of a distinctly neoliberal condition. For The Limits Of … column, Rachel Grant unpicks the links between the oil industry and culture in Aberdeen, outlining the insidious effects it has had on the city’s art scene and asking where and how forms of fossil fuel divestment might take place.

Aya Bseiso’s Impossible Terrains meditates on the intimacy held in contested landscapes, the memories that course through the watery border between Palestine and Jordan, and asks ‘How to Return?’ Kandace Siobhan Walker’s SEINE was first presented at Chapter Gallery in Cardiff, alongside a film, photographs and a delicate net suspended from the ceiling and made by the artist herself. In the poems, the net ‘WEARS THE DEAD LIKE JEWELLERY’, and pulls in the stories of her childhood.

In our reviews section, Maria Sledmere responds to Elvia Wilk’s recent book of essays, Death by Landscape, plotting the points where a first person ‘I’ transforms from a glyph to a stalk that wraps itself around essays on the climate, fandom and the weird. Rodrigo Vaiapraia reviews Holy Bodies by Clay AD in light of Raphael’s painting The Ecstasy of Saint Cecilia, considering the book’s queer interweaving of the spiritual and bodily. In their review of Suds McKenna’s exhibition, A familiar plough into the knot of a tie, Romy Danielewicz describes the queer communality the works depict, a hedonistic imaginary of lives lived in a ‘mutability of presentation’. Andy Grace Hayes reviews Scott Caruth and Alex Hetherington’s exhibition Seen and Not Seen at CCA, Glasgow, disentangling the ‘migrating sounds’ of the two artists’ work and asking if they are in conversation or competition. In A Letter from Newcastle and Gateshead, Caitlin Merrett King recounts a weekend of openings and music in New Narrative style.

In her review of Agitated Air: Poems After Ibn Arabi, Nasim Luczaj notes how the movements of Yasmine Seale and Robin Moger’s retranslation perform love as a site of renegotiation and recapture. Reviewing Camara Taylor’s show at Collective, Maria Howard draws links between memory and water in the context of the artist’s research on Scotland’s links to the slave trade. Finally, Hussein Mitha reviews Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s installation at The Common Guild ‘May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth’ reflecting on the show’s treatment of the 2011 Arab Revolutions in ‘strangely melancholic images, charged with unfulfilled potential and lost hopes’. A negative image is not necessarily a symbol of defeat, they argue: rather a way of rendering their subject with vividness.

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Now for the Doubters and the Sceptics and Those Who Like to Think of Space as Somewhere New to Go, I Am Going to Blindfold Myself.

Jessica Higgins

Forty eight minutes and seven seconds. The slide reads: Question 2. Gap. Process 1. Next line. Where are your feelings? Next line. Locate them. And the next. Do not analyse. Locate. Line break. Are they in your heart, your stomach – next line – your lungs? Line break. Do not analyse – dot dot dot – locate. Short pause. Question 2. Process 1. Disappears. Short pause. Don’t analyse… locate flashes ten, or maybe eleven times.

A few years ago scientists plotted a route. It begins in our orb-like guts and the bacteria which reside there, fizzing in last night’s juices. A system of coordinates trails up through the intestines, climbs the spine, reaching all the way to the brain before heading back out again through the body’s intricate and seeping sections. The headline reads: Gut Bacteria Can Influence Your Mood, Thoughts and Brain. L tells us this at work one day as she places down the coffees. We gulp. We gasp. Makes sense. The discovery hangs in the air for a moment. I counter, recalling my new favourite fact. This one goes: sleep has not always, ordinarily, been a singular event. Rather, a night’s rest came with intermissions. Breaks. Pauses. Intervals. Sometimes, there was singing. It was the arrival of industrialisation, and with it the extractive power of the shift pattern which compressed the night into one neatly marked unit.

In Jane Arden’s 1979 film Anti-Clock our protagonist Joseph Sapha is not a shift worker, but a thought reader and professional gambler. He steps up for his performance. The room is full of your thoughts, ladies and gentlemen. And not just your thoughts. Last night’s thoughts. Last week’s thoughts. Endless thoughts. Thoughts hang around for a very long time, ladies and gentlemen. The crowd is silent. Tenter-hooked. Sapha is starkly lit, neon tubes flashing in a gentle rhythm behind him. A guitar melody rolls, reverberating and slightly modulated. Like a graze on the edge of a container. He wraps a slick black blindfold around his head. Ties it. The neons rise and fall in their holding pattern. A slow and measured pulse. He takes the microphone from the stand. We hear it clink and clank. It picks itself up.

Thoughts hang around for a very long time, ladies and gentlemen. To be precise, forever. The music dims and in its absence, the film’s never-quite-quiet intensifies. He continues: tonight, ladies and gentlemen, it is my very great privilege to read your thoughts. Before he does so, Sapha tells us about the Akashic Records. The eternal reality of all thoughts. That is, time’s circle back. Everything happening now, again, and before, it seems. He doesn’t say much more. He just lets us know it’s there, hanging around.

Another year. Another plot. Another day at work. P tells us about time sickness. That is, the notion that sensing time’s lack, its loss, its slip, its speed, can make you unwell. The mention was fleeting. I search for detail. What is this that afflicts us? Time-of-Day-Cue-Conflicts Directly Affect Health. Abstract reads: A daily rhythm that is not in synchrony with the environmental light-dark cycle (as in jet lag and shift work) is known to affect mood and health through an as yet unresolved mechanism. Its symptoms, I learn, are not not like motion sickness. I think of my exhausted gut bacteria and remember Flaubert’s definition of nightmares as things that come from the stomach, whereas dreams are any great ideas one does not understand. Locate the feeling. Is it in your stomach?

Twelve minutes and eight seconds. A stop frame motion. Sapha pays a bill. Thanks a lot sir. Thank you. The screen glitches. Its juddering feels like a lifetime. His hand reaches for his glass. Orchestration seeps and swells. Marching voices sing out their vague devotion. He, voice in a web, stuck on a refrain – one event – one event – one event – a phone rings. A hand. A reaching. A phrase. A voice from elsewhere speaks in his ear. The clock is the key object of your habit, goals keep you mobile, your relationship with money operates on the primary level and interlocks with time. The voice echoes. Its pronouncements make a scenery, their disintegrative repetition grafting interference patterns into the action. The phone rings again.

This was Jane’s final film before her suicide in 1982. Its unerring soundtrack is a temporal hash of voices, addressing and broadcasting. A performed record of one way conversations and indiscernible discourse. Meanwhile, a synthetic wheezing makes knots in the fuzz. Like tuning in, or the language I imagine wires might speak. Here, time is giving its testimony in noise. As the opening sequence unfolds, Jane’s voice braces the static. Each phrase lasts a breath, poised between the future and the past while the present sleepwalks by. As the song continues, her voice grows stronger. There, at the chorus, is the throat’s push forward. Its insistence is a thrust of air and will. Locate the feeling. Is it in your lungs?

this is what I really want / this is who I really love / this is what I think I really need.

The music fades and the clamour in Sapha’s ear grows. A montage of television broadcasts heralds a history. Some hungover atmosphere of war, ceremony and imperialism’s ornamentation flickers. This informational decor, a musical pattern for the inner ear, is an infrastructural tissue between the body and networks of power.

this is what I really want / this is who I really love / this is what I think I really need.

Anti-Clock’s companion piece, the book You Don’t Know What You Want, Do You? describes the film’s namesake radio station ANTICLOCK as a countersignal or notch on the tuning dial which, if you listen hard enough, might break through the thrift of the ‘control tower.’ A structure, as Arden writes, governed by the RAT-IONAL MIND / The manager of Affairs / The Weights and Measurer / The Divide and Ruler. As we watch him through closed circuit television screens walking down streets, turning corners, climbing stairs, entering corridors and rooms, Sapha tells us that ANTICLOCK is potentiality, responsibility and motion. Its frequencies ooze into the circular rhythms of time’s framing membrane. I like to think of ANTICLOCK’s signal threading itself through clock-time’s experiential measures, making cleaves in the architecture of past and future as it transmits its sonorous testimony of the present.

Through poems, games, and tracts against the institutions of the family, the school, the prison and the hospital, Jane’s book sustains a refusal to let the body fold into the past, or get its leg stuck in the locative motions which implicate the future’s course. Early commands punctuate clock training and start Rat running toward the future. The future is a very real place for Rat where he constantly hopes that with more effort he might arrive. Sounds familiar. I too spend days embalmed in tasks, carefully constructing them, fulfilling them, failing at them and grasping at them, as though they’re footholds for that something-to-come which, for what it’s worth, is unlikely to arrive in one piece. Reading Jane, I remember a line from Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, which stuck to me like glue in the back of my parents’ car. We, thick in the strange trouble of grief’s imminent arrival. It often happens that we count our days, as if the act of measurement made us some kind of promise.

Though, this film is not so much about time’s passing slow, thick, fast, or thin. Rather, the clock finds itself in the crosshairs as regulator general. It follows, since nearly the entire catalogue of capitalism’s technological tools for conformism are preceded by the shift from sidereal time to clock-time, as that which patterns our daily rhythms. One of the first great pronouncers, the bell, rang out so that strangers and others within the sound of the bell on winter nights ‘might be informed of the time of night, and receive some guidance into their right way’. Not only that, but its chime would fill the air so as to remind men of their passing, and of resurrection and judgment. The bell is spoken as punctuation, scrawled in the ambient landscape of the corridor or street, where the hour is always on the horizon of our hearing.

Another clock. Another radio. In Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, her protagonist Macabéa learns everything she knows by listening to Radio Clock, a station which tells accurate time with a ping on the turn of every minute. Between each ping, the broadcasters serve a series of facts and advertisements. No music. Just the timbre of time’s turn and its attendant information. In her listening, Macabéa learns about animals and emperors in each drop for every minute that passed, which she draws from like a well. Sometimes, to impress men. Other times, to dwell in earthly knowledge. And imagine that! Enough facts to fill the whole of time.

Thirty minutes and thirteen seconds. It began with a paradox. A distant radio warbles. A shuffling song, drenched in transmission fumes. Sapha climbs a flight of stairs. Each step seems to mark an intent, careful and measured. Here is a light wave coming toward you. A potted plant in the corner. His form cuts across the frame. Exit stage left. A suited man runs up behind him, turns. Exit stage right. Suppose we can never tell if we are in motion or at rest. Camera cuts. A close up. Sapha, again. Feel the tempo of his movement in relation to the runner. The image fractures. A split screen, closed circuit. Two views. Sapha climbs a flight of stairs. There, and there again. Left hand image halts. Right continues to pan. Cut to a woman. Hair pinned. She’s watching something. She turns to face us. A voice says if a clock moves past you it goes slower.

As clock-time advanced through industrialising society, the development of the pendulum took the technology of time-telling from the public square – the bell ringing – and into the home through the increased ownership of clocks. The first pendulum was Galileo’s, who would synchronise his device with a patient’s heartbeat in order to understand what afflicted them. The pendulum would indicate its diagnosis from a number of descriptions such as ‘feverish’ and ‘sluggish.’ For Jane, the clock itself is the pendulum, swinging between two poles. That is, of time and money. RAT-TIME is always either a flood or a drought, too much or not enough, where RAT-MONEY is exchange and measure. Meanwhile, the clock oscillates back and forth, a gravitational transistor.

– interlocks with time – interlocks with time – interlocks with time – interlocks with time –

Another week. Another while. Feeling bored and thinking about being bored, like thinking about it would change anything, I read a 2010 study of civil servants who were asked to report their experiences of boredom at work. If a clock moves past you it goes slower. The study finds that those who declared that they did indeed feel bored on shift, were 2.5 times more likely to die of cardiovascular disease. Locate the feeling. Is it in your heart?

I turn again to our book, our guide, our companion. Here, Jane drafts an exercise for Sapha in order that he can better dissolve the Puzzle-Picture which keeps him reaching toward the past, while dragging the future along behind him. If the game goes wrong, she warns, the whole Rat-Nexus could collapse, leaving you desolate if the inner space is completely filled with event-fantasies. Event-Fantasies, she explains, are sustained by TALKING-MACHINE TAPES. Orchestras of information fed through the ear from Rat’s early years, greasing the mechanics of the Rat tower as it erects its scaffolds. A vibrational pulse of information which affects the body at the molecular level, leaving its imprints and its impressions.

During the final pages of The Hour of the Star Macabéa visits a fortune teller, who tells her that upon leaving the reading she will meet the love of her life. He will be called Hans, a rich man, and he will buy her a fur coat. To which Macabéa replies I don’t need a fur coat in this climate. Throughout their time together, the plot slows, becoming punctuated by a series of bangs (bang) for every new detail that furnishes Macabéa’s event horizon. (bang) Macabéa’s heart thumped furiously at the thought of seeing her hair grow. She leaves their meeting, elated, she kisses Madame Carlota (bang), remembers kissing the wall as a child (bang) and crosses the street in a daze. And then (bang) a yellow Mercedes knocks her over. Macabéa’s final words: As for the future.

The bang, it seems, was a foregone conclusion, the event, calamitously there. I hear Jane in one ear, most of us are absent from the present unless shocked into it, by, for example, being bitten by a dog (bang!), falling in love (bang!), falling downstairs (bang!) And in the other, the professor, an operatic voice in the distance, events are merely collisions. Occasions in the stratosphere. But the unfolding of that event leads back to the source. Are you reading my thoughts? Cut. Two glasses. A cigarette.

Fifty nine minutes and forty eight seconds. Neon shapes. Sapha, starkly lit. Now, for the doubters and the sceptics, and those who like to think of space as somewhere new to go, I am going to blindfold myself. He positions it. Neatens it. Picks up the microphone. It clinks and it clanks. Picks itself up. This way, I’ll be unable to decode any clues trapped in your facial expressions. A siren sounds somewhere in the background. He pauses. Listens. Right. I’m picking up something. It’s not difficult to hear. Just hard to find the right station. Cut. He sits across from a woman. She has the same haircut. A floral curtain rests behind their conversation. She asks: what’s the time? He replies. I don’t know, my watch has stopped. She smiles and says: you haven’t got a watch.

Our neighbour is learning to play the guitar. I hear it through the walls. Every Tuesday, Wednesday, and some Thursday mornings. I’m on the clock. The melody lulls, up and down, around and around. A fret lower. Picked up. Stopped short. It never goes anywhere but back to the beginning, an insistent return. A graze on the edge of a container. Listen, it’s 11am again, time for the staff meeting, and there is the song. Listen, it’s time to put the potatoes in the soup, and there is the song. Time to do some paperwork, and there is the song. My body depresses. A strung clock. Boring. Bore. A hole. I read Eileen Myles’ new book in bed before giving it to E for his birthday. Safe from the beginner’s melody, I hear Myles speak about how writing is a privilege which allows them to roll around in the shit of time. And I wonder whether the minute or so it takes for the guitarist’s hands to fumble, slip, trip and break their rhythm is some perfectly scaled down evidence of time’s circle and return, and maybe, I should just try rolling around in the shit of it. Over and over again. Thoughts hang around a very long time.


Unless listed below all quotes are taken from Jane Arden’s Anti-Clock. Full title: A Time stop in the life of Joseph Sapha. Co-directed and produced by Jack Bond, starring Sebastian Saville, the film was originally released in 1979 and restored by the BFI in 2009. The record label Low Company released Anti-Clock’s soundtrack in January 2021 which features original music by Jane Arden and Mihai Dragutescu. Accompanying quotes come from the book You Don’t Know What You Want, Do You? originally published by Polyantric Press in 1982 and long out of print, a reading copy can be found in the National Library of Scotland.

Flaubert’s definitions of nightmares and dreams are from Dictionary of Accepted Ideas translated by Jacques Barzun and published by New Directions in 1954.

It often happens that we count our days, as if the act of measurement made us some kind of promise. Maggie Nelson, Bluets (Seattle: Wave Books, 2009), p.37.

References to Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star are from the edition translated by Giovanni Pontiero and published by Carcanet Press in 1986.

strangers and others within the sound of the bell on winter nights ‘might be informed of the time of night, and receive some guidance into their right way’ … remind men of their passing, and of resurrection and judgement. E.P. Thompson, ‘Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism’, Past & Present, Volume 38, Issue 1, 1967, p. 63-64.

such as ‘feverish’ and ‘sluggish’. G.J. Whitrow, The Nature of Time, (London: Penguin Books, 1976), p.63.

Back to Issue Two

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Do You Ever Remember Books You
Haven’t Read?

Brent Garbowski

In 2015, my friend Betty was working at Anton Kern Gallery.

One day I get a call from her. ‘Are you free right now? I need someone to drive to Pennsylvania to pick up 5,000 books for a Jim Lambie show.’

I’m a yes person, so a few short hours later I’m in Queens renting a truck and then on the road to the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania. The drive is like seven hours out and seven hours back, and I’m supposed to have the books to the gallery that night. You know, very urgent art stuff.

I didn’t really ask a lot of questions. The rate is good enough, and I have an address. I imagine that I’m driving to a massive warehouse, or some kind of facility that houses surplus books. Piles of textbooks filled with Dixieland garbage, or pulp novels sticky enough that even the charity shops rejected them. So I’m slightly surprised when I arrive at a small ranch-style house just at the end of main street. I’m greeted by a man in his mid-fifties, and his son who looks to be about fourteen. They explain to me that I should bring the box truck around and back up to the garage.

When they open the garage there are banana boxes filled with books packed to the ceiling. The man explains to me that each box has roughly 40 books, which means that we will be loading up 125 boxes. The three of us start putting the boxes on to the truck. Both the father and son are warm, but not chatty. It seems like an affectation that has been passed down for generations, a subtle form of kindness. Their manner is uncommon, but for both of them it feels natural. Each box is carefully labelled by genre and alphabetised by author.

After a few boxes are on the truck the father points out one box to me, explaining that it’s a really good one, filled with fantasy books for teens. He pulls out a book from the box. On the cover, a young heroine is surrounded by flames and portals. He comments on how the complete series is there and replaces the book carefully back in line with the others.

I start asking them questions and come to learn that the father used to own the local bookshop, Book World, which had been run out of business by Amazon a few years back. The contents of the shop had been saved in the hopes that he would be able to use eBay until he found a new location to open. But as years turned into the better part of a decade it became clear that the shop was not going to reopen. He explains the grief of losing his business, a story shockingly similar to my own family’s history. Unashamed to be vulnerable in front of his son, his eyes well up.

At this point I realise no one has explained to him what the books will be used for. In his mind, he had assumed that these were going to be sold in a book shop, that the books would be enjoyed by families and children. Or at the very least, that the books were being sold to be books.

I can’t explain to him that the books are to be used as the image of books in sculptures. That the assembling of this collection, his contribution to his community for decades before Amazon, the books that had fed his family and the mythical American Dream under which his son had been reared… were all to be art.

Globalisation had littered the garages of Middle America with tomes. And now I step in, collecting the raw waste material so that it might be reconstituted, removed of its bookness and pushed down the gaping maw of collectors who will ultimately deliver these books to climate-controlled storage units in Upper Manhattan. Their proper place, a new order, not alphabetised anymore. Just boxes in a garage (again).

We load the 125th box. Sitting in the back of the garage, there are roughly 30 boxes remaining. The sun has set, and we are standing in the light cast by the open garage door. Then, the man asks me if I could buy the remaining boxes from him.

In his voice I can hear the need to be done with this. That it was not about the money, but his need to get the ghosts out. I call Betty and explain the situation to her. I can hear Anton’s voice in the background as she relays my message. He does not agree to buy the extra books. The artist had asked for 5,000 and that was all.

I explain to the father that purchasing these final books is not my decision. I can see in the man’s eyes a hurried calculation. The particularly good box of teen books flashes before his eyes and I can tell that had he realised we would not take all of the books he would have been more judicious in selecting the remainder.

I can see an eternity of tedious eBaying laid out for this man in the dusty corner of his garage. Each unwanted novel trapped here until purchased. The son’s reaction is different. In his eyes I can see a decade of promises unravel. The father is beholden to these last few boxes and neither of them would be free of this dark god until every last remnant of hope had been cleared from the garage through a commercial transaction.

The son has a soccer game the next day. I wish him luck and drive away crying.

Morwenna Kearsley, Province (from the series Notch Code), 2021, gelatin silver contact print, 12.7 x 17.8 cm.

A couple weeks later I go to the opening of the show. I had taken to going to openings at Anton Kern. Betty and I would sit in the back room drinking tequila and making our snarky little jokes.

This particular evening Betty and I are flipping through one of the older Jim Lambie books in the office and find four grams of cocaine stuffed between the pages. Being rational art world people we are neither surprised nor impressed. When the opening is in full swing, I hear an explosion of anger, yelling from a group of gallery people in the back. The office is cleared and book after book is being thrown open. Eventually they find whatever they’re looking for.

Of the books I had picked up from the garage, not even a third had been used. Those that had were now spray painted. There is a little train hanging in the viewing room that blows smoke, an excellent metaphor for the show. Choo choo. All of the work has a shine to it that only halogen lights can give.

I go up to Jim Lambie at the after party. We are all drinking cocktails at some west village bar. I offer him some cocaine and tell him that I had picked up the books. I tell him about the father and son. I ask him for his email, and he gives it to me. Later that week I write to him explaining in greater detail about the family and the books. Jim never replies.

At the time I remember thinking that he owed this family some kind of conceptual resolution. That the remaining books should be purchased and used in some way to give this family closure. For a while I was obsessed with the idea of using the remaining books to build a bonfire on which we could spit roast lamb. Serving an easter feast to the local community. Giving that father and son one final meal out of their business.

Now I’m not so sure.

Back to Issue Two

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An Interview with Sky Goodden

Sky Goodden is the founding publisher and editor of Momus, an online art publication based in Canada. Since its founding in 2014 Momus has consistently supported nuanced and insightful writing on contemporary art, in the form of essays, reviews and interviews. Goodden also runs the Momus Emerging Critics Residencies and co-produces and co-hosts Momus: The Podcast. We wanted to speak to Goodden about her priorities in publishing, Momus’ origins and editorial approaches to the current political moment. In this interview, she offers a counterstatement to the continual talk of the crisis in criticism. We also touch on the collapse of Canadian Art, Toni Morrison, and International Art English.

CALUM SUTHERLAND: I’ve been reading Momus: A Return to Art Criticism Vol. 1, 2014-17. It’s great! The book compiles some of the best pieces that have appeared online for Momus over that period. It was published just after Trump was elected – one of the events seen as ushering in our current state of crisis. Did you feel a pressure to acknowledge that in the anthology? You touch on it in the editorial (‘toxic poles of elitism and populism’) and tackle it head on in your piece ‘Grieving in L.A.’, which comes at the end of the book. I just started reading Art Writing in Crisis, edited by Brad Haylock and Megan Patty, which places structural crises in art writing (lack of opportunity, systemic racism, the plight of print, and ‘fake news’) alongside the various aspects of the general crisis (climate, terror, xenophobia). I want to phrase this lightly as there is some melodrama to it, but is crisis necessary to undertake the task of writing, editing, publishing?

SKY GOODDEN: My mind runs to the people who wrote their way through a crisis, like Walter Benjamin or James Baldwin, and you think about how necessary it was for those writers to contextualise what was deadly obvious to them – the powers infringing on their ability to create or to live freely. Perhaps in the moment it can seem tremendously self-serving and redundant to extoll your crisis! [laughs] But you require those receipts as readers. So as a publisher and editor, I think we have a responsibility to mark the extremity of this historical moment. We should have some record of the shock. I read a quote by Toni Morrison recently (that is probably very well known, but was new to me), around insisting on the right to be shocked. (‘I insist on being shocked. I am never going to become immune. I think that’s a kind of failure to see so much of it that you die inside. I want to be surprised and shocked every time.’ – interview with Jana Wendt, 1998.) I think we should continue to insist on our own right to be shocked by these circumstances, in order to best respond.

None of this quite connects up with the ‘crisis in art criticism’, which has been rehearsed and performed by the best-paid among us for far too long. Art Writing in Crisis, which is waiting for me at a local bookstore – I’ve read some reviews – seems to shift the focus from a ‘no one’s looking at us’ crisis in art criticism, to the ‘crisis of circumstances we’re writing against and despite’. Not as some barometer of our relevance or impact on the art world but as backdrop. That’s an important shift, even if I wish we could reach for new language than ‘crisis’, at this point.

Just to tie this into our landscape here in Canada for a minute, there’s this iconic, long-running magazine, Canadian Art, that’s just folded here. It had – seemingly – tons of funding, a foundation, an education program; it had been around in some form or another for more than a century. There’s been a bitter conversation since it closed. People will claim that they didn’t read it and they won’t miss it, or that it was for ‘other people’. But at the same time, without a publisher doing that act of witnessing – and committing that witnessing to cultural memory – there is this shadow that falls. It’s one that could potentially stretch over a generation of artists. Nothing to say ‘we were here’ beyond the press releases, right? That’s where the real bitterness lies. There’s work to do, to fill the gaps. You know I read a great piece of Lucy Lippard’s recently, that says ‘art that has no one to communicate with has no place to go.’ (‘Hot Potatoes: Art and Politics in 1980’, published in Re-Visions: New Perspectives of Art Criticism, 1991). I would like to attend to these more local gaps; to perhaps get back into foregrounding that more regional ‘service criticism’ – everything I came to resent [laughs] – but make it better. I do believe you can reach for something everlasting in the briefest forms.

CS:  Tiny paragraphs. 50 words.

SG: Yeah, exactly. [laughs] Shotgun-review style. People love those! Maybe it’s all about what concision forces out, critically speaking.

Oliver Pitt, wad thin brim, stiffen sand sac, 2020, ink on paper, 15 x 11 cm. 

CS:  Does Canadian Art’s collapse also spark a thought about how you would start an institution like that again? Once gone, how does anything on that scale return?

SG: Absolutely, though I don’t know that’s the direction we need to be going in with art publishing right now. We probably shouldn’t be trying to recreate institutions on that scale. Why do we associate size with stability? I’ve only seen it go the other way, honestly. And those are the losses we’ve seen in the last couple years – major art magazines that got away from themselves. When an institution takes on an administrative bloat, where there are more people being paid to apparently sustain the thing than there are people making the thing, I worry that the ‘editorial content’ becomes a critical decal. It’s just the shiny thing on the hood that pulls money in a bit closer. Most successful art publishing in the past five years is happening on a small scale. Smaller and leaner and online. I think there’s a tipping point – I don’t know exactly where it lies, but I fear it – where now you’re fundraising to fundraise. Shudder!

CS: And at that point the writing becomes directionless and inconsistent. There is a line in N+1’s ‘Hindsight Issue’ (40) about book reviews that draws out some other pressures on criticism. ‘The main problem is that the contemporary American book review is first and foremost an audition – for another job, another opportunity, another day in the content mine, hopefully with better lighting and tools, but at the very least with better pay.’ What gets commissioned? What do people want to review and why?

When you read a few of those pieces, eventually you find yourself fairly unhappy. [laughs] You get frozen in crisis talk. Following his passing, I read a couple of interviews with Sylvère Lotringer and some of the conversation was similarly negative, really despairing about the age we live in.

SG: I had a similar thought about Dave Hickey, who recently passed away. He was meaningful to me. I interviewed him a few times when I was starting out, and then we would just get on the phone together. Early on, a lot of those conversations that I was bringing to him and that he was engaging with were around crisis. But I noticed when revisiting some of his work that he almost buttered his bread by grousing about it. He’d say, what’s the point of writing the ‘con’ review for Artforum if they’re going to commission somebody else to do the ‘pro’? Or, I was really trying to model a way of doing art criticism and obviously it failed because no one took after me. And I thought, well, that’s not true. They just didn’t do it as successfully as you, but your singular ability should not then be considered a failing, right? You were unmatchable!

The fact that we haven’t had a lot of anthologising around art criticism itself – the health of it, the relevance of it – since James Elkins and Raphael Rubenstein and company were throwing up their hands in, like, 2003, shows we have some inventory-taking to do. A lot has changed since then, and while the crises may simply have shifted rather than dematerialised, the language that we continue to use has a waving-your-hands-when-nobody’s-coming-for-you quality. This constant complaining about industry neglect as though we’re dealing with a bunch of bad students who won’t sit down and fold their hands in their laps – that is not going to reignite a larger audience’s interest! [laughs] We have to bring quality to the matter of reflecting on contemporary art in order to inspire readers to spend time with us.

There was a piece a couple years ago by Rubenstein (‘Where is the Audience for Art Criticism Now?’ Art in America, October, 2019) and he was just banging the same old pot. Nobody reads, and these kids today… I do these MFA visits and oh boy, are we in bad shape, if that’s the future… I don’t think people like Raphael are aware of just how much activity there is online – how many of these small publishers are taking up space and happily reaching audiences there. The space that used to be inhabited by, say, Artforum is now ARTS.BLACK or Burnaway or Spike or The White Pube, and so it should be.

Do you remember this moment in 2012 where David Levine and Alix Rule published ‘International Art English’? And that was like a lightning rod for the entire discourse. You had the October school coming out in defence of theory-driven art writing that required specialised knowledge to read. And then a bunch of artists and writers lining up to support the IAE argument, saying, there’s an impermeability to what we’re doing that excludes even us. Those camps were forming at that moment – and that’s 10 years ago! We’ve come a long way since then. At the time I just thought, what about the third option, which is just make better writing! [laughs] You can introduce complicated thinking if you pay more attention to execution, pacing and voice. That is the work of producing good writing, and it sounds dead simple, and of course it isn’t – but somehow it became secondary for art writing to be good writing along the way. And I think online readerships especially are shifting us out of that now. They don’t stick around for that which doesn’t compel them. As online publishers you can’t ignore what’s working – or what misses – and in my experience it has to do with how well the writing swings. And that doesn’t mean it’s light or easy, what the subject is. But it means you go with fourth, fifth, or seventh drafts. You make it good.

CS: Do you follow November? It’s an online publishing project edited by a crowd that has splintered from Artforum. Their writing and interviews touch on some of those legacies in art writing – poststructuralism, Georges Bataille, Hal Foster, Howardena Pindell, Hito Steyerl. It was interesting to read Joseph Henry’s essay in the Momus anthology, ‘The Suffering Body of 1993: Whatever Happened to the “Abject”’ which traces some of the same legacies, too.

SG: I hadn’t! But wow. That’s interesting. We’re still turning over the compost heap of the last generation. All this re-soiling. I was just rereading Arthur C. Danto’s book After the End of Art – talk about accessible writing introducing complex thinking, he’s one of the best for that – and he’s writing about how contemporary art had its own expiry date baked into it. And that, since then, artists have just been sort of floating away from any known gravitational centre…I could recognise that art criticism is very much doing the same thing. A lot of turning over and trying to deduce meaning from that which was metabolised too quickly in the first instance.

CS:  Maybe it is a good moment to ask, how did you begin doing all this? Did these arguments figure in that decision? Or perhaps a better question is, how did Momus start? You were working at Blouin Artinfo before.

SG: Do any of us start in a noble way? [laughs] Blouin Artinfo was a lucky gig in a way because I was so young and somebody was giving me a salary – not a very good one – but I could focus on being an editor full-time, and a critic. I had a budget, basically, to produce a lot of art writing for their Canadian site and work with a cast of writers. I was personally putting up between 3-6 pieces a week and editing/publishing about 5. Just going for it. I did three years of publishing there at a moment when Canada was feeling stale, and where online art publishing hadn’t been explored at all yet. I just thought, okay, let’s attend to this. And people like Joseph Henry, I mean, I was 27 when I started at Blouin and, crucially, Joseph was six years younger, or whatever – meaning he was connected to generational shifts that even I wasn’t. He wrote brilliantly about Cory Arcangel as the ‘depressive art bro,’ a new category within a late generation of Net Art. It was fun to be commissioning pieces like that – to work with new insight, bravery about naming the new.

The experience taught me several first principles, some hard-won because of Blouin being such a disaster. Like, pay your writers on time, for fuck’s sake. But also: work with emerging talent, and have some critical stakes.

CS: The relative stability but also the pace of the job allowed a little bit of risk-taking, experimentation?

SG: Yeah. It’s crucial when I’m talking about how I started Momus to pay some deference to that situation because it meant that I was able to test my own voice and my ability as a publisher-editor and know there was some mettle there. The years I spent there were enough for me to know that there was an audience for this. We were seeing huge readerships arrive to the Canadian site from elsewhere. I think that was a really important thing to know in launching Momus because I knew the conversation we had been resigning ourselves to, before then, was overly provincial and falsely fuelled by this notion that we mustn’t criticise, we must only celebrate. When Blouin fell apart, Momus emerged about six months later.

CS: To end, it would be nice to touch on the Momus Emerging Critics Residencies. How have those been?

SG: It’s been brilliant. I really feel amazed by the demand for it, and the impact in such a short time. I’ve been running these since 2019 and we’re about to host our fifth. I went through a Master’s programme in criticism where, by the end of it, I was like, ‘I still don’t know how to pitch an editor!’ [laughs] So mentoring emerging critics and editors on the practical aspects of entering the field, and bringing in some of the leading critics and art writers to discuss how to assert yourself, negotiate for what you want and need – especially if you’re a person of colour, which is increasingly the conversation we need to be having – it’s just overdue, and people are really into it. We’re also keen on offering this through mentorship, and not an MFA you know? We cover everyone’s tuition, and meet virtually so you can be joining us from wherever. Our Residency next week takes place across several time zones, centring Indigenous leaders and residents. We’re seeing results and it all stems from asking, like, how does one enter into art criticism? Asking that question out loud ultimately changes who enters.

CS: It’s important that it’s grounded.

SG: Yes. And, having said that, you’re never only talking about the practical bits – it’s constantly swelling into larger conversations around the health of the discourse, its potential and risks. I can’t tell you how much of a fire it’s lit under us in terms of what we’re doing this for. I really want to see us replant the forest. We shouldn’t only be talking about crisis. We should be talking about what is possible in this space that’s sparking with new energy, so that art has more people to communicate with.

Oliver Pitt, smith waft fan, insist card bend, 2020, ink on paper. 15 x 11 cm.

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In our interview for this issue, Momus editor Sky Goodden begins a discussion on the idea of ‘crisis’ with a quote from Toni Morrison: ‘I insist on being shocked. I am never going to become immune. I think that’s a kind of failure to see so much of it that you die inside. I want to be surprised and shocked every time.’ Similar sentiments appear to thread their way through this issue. In many of the pieces there is a sense of working against inertia, against prevailing attitudes and their hardening in moments of crisis. Often, that effort produces a certain unease, which manifests in unsteady movement – the writing cuts, splices, pivots, shifts tense. The images chosen to accompany the writing reflect this, seeming to turn in on themselves, with scenes and objects that feel difficult to pin down. Together, they register a need to return again and again to the task of marking extremity in the everyday.

For many of the contributors, time is of particular concern. In Tillie Olsen and Time’s Coal: Some Verses on the Limits of Practice and Discipline, Laura Haynes navigates the constraints of late capitalist time on the woman writer. Questioning a societal demand for the day’s optimisation, Haynes asks instead, where is the good-enough setting? In our Hybrid column, Jessica Higgins’ Now, for the doubters and the sceptics moves through the syncopated rhythms of office hours, clock-time and domestic boredom, cutting between Jane Arden’s film Anti-Clock and Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star. In Do You Ever Remember Books You Haven’t Read, Brent Garbowski recounts a trip across Pennsylvania, tasked to pick up thousands of books for a Jim Lambie show in noughties New York. For our Writing Through column Rebecca O’Dwyer considers Rosemarie Trockel’s Manu’s Spleen 1, reflecting on its graveyard scene from the perspective of post-lockdown Hamburg, noting a world picking up where it left off. Aïcha Mehrez’s essay Ethically Surfacing Museum Connections with Empire and Slavery addresses the ongoing harm caused by Tate’s decision to frame its colonial history in neutral terms, and its refusal to acknowledge the institution’s power to shape national narratives.

Similar themes are outlined in exhibition reviews by Natasha Ruwona and Maria Howard. Ruwona looks at how Drink in the Beauty at GoMA falls short of its aims to address ‘current debates on climate justice and legacies of the British Empire’. At Tramway, Howard reflects on Amartey Golding’s Bring Me to Heal, its meditation on the generational trauma of colonialism and the iterative rituals that become a form of processing and resistance. Elsewhere, Ruth Gilbert reviews Life Support: Forms of Care in Art and Activism, last year’s major show at Glasgow Women’s Library. She looks at the ways care has been taken up by various women artists not only as a necessary tool for survival, but an ‘articulation of hope’. In a review of Thriving in Disturbed Ground at 16 Nicholson Street, Gwen Dupré questions the curatorial assertion that female empowerment can be achieved through reclamations of vulnerability and spirituality. Calum Sutherland writes on the assimilation of artisan materials into tasteful contemporary art via Tonico Lemos Auad’s Unknown to the world. In light of their shared experience of growing up in Belfast, Neil Clements considers Cathy Wilkes’ installation at The Modern Institute. Paul Barndt’s book review takes us through David Hoon Kim’s Paris Is a Party, Paris Is a Ghost, touching on language and translation, love and wasted time.

Frances Stanfield, Yellow Bull, 2020, monotype on Somerset Paper, 70 x 50 cm.

Our cover image, Poppy Jones’ Soul & Body (2021) depicts a tan jacket with one button fastened and one undone. Painted on suede, the work repeats itself, the art object and its subject indistinguishable. Cropped sharply and framed in aluminium, it focuses all attention on its detail, avoiding any definitive narrative suggestion. Jones builds the image through lithographic printing and washes of oil and watercolour in what becomes a palimpsest of process and routine. The nap of the suede bears traces of a hand passing, evoking both the immediacy of painterly gesture and the intimacy of dressing. 

After a glimpse of how things could be done differently, it is frustrating to witness a return to normal. Towards the end of the interview with Goodden, a question arises of what to do with the unease of this moment. She suggests the tension, if not defined in terms of crisis, can be generative, a well of energy for new conversations and practices. In Soul & Body, as with the rest of this issue, something hopeful emerges from the refusal to stop looking, despite the pressures of time and exhaustion. The past is unsettled in service of the present, and inertia is held at bay. 

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Shona Macnaughton, Here to Deliver

Across Glasgow, 2020

Hussein Mitha

Shona Macnaughton’s durational performance work Here to Deliver took the form of over a hundred recorded virtual taxi rides between art venues in Glasgow throughout October and November 2020. Participants booked rides on Eventbrite at particular slots within Shona’s ‘shift pattern’, turning an event-booking service familiar to the art world into a makeshift Uber-esque platform – the first of many conversions of an art world lexicon into a language of contemporary labour conditions involved in the work. Once booked, the artist would call at the allotted time and drive between then-closed Glasgow venues, starting up a conversation with the passenger over the phone with the line ‘Hello, I’m the proletarian of art, am I speaking to…?’, inviting them to engage in a ‘speculative journey through a cancelled festival.’

The work was originally conceived to be a real taxi service around Glasgow International 2020, in which passengers would get a free ride between venues in return for the payment of their filmed performance, to be used towards a moving image work, conceptually figured as a kind of currency. But GI 2020 was of course cancelled in the first covid lockdown, and this revised work took place several months later than planned. This enacted a kind of double displacement and unsyncing from the art festival it was initially seeking to critically relate to, from within the channels the festival would have created in the city: a displaced activity performing a displaced critique.

This de-linking from what we now recognise as the doxa of the old normal only made the revised concept and performance more powerful than it is possible to imagine the original concept having been. And through distanciation, it seems to exert an even more exacting critique of the art festival which now, in 2021, resumes in a totally amnesiac fashion, its work largely unreflective of the social rupture which has taken place in the interim.

As Glasgow International’s director Richard Parry wrote in a statement introducing the 2021 programme: ‘we have sought to present the festival originally planned for a year ago as faithfully as possible, but also allowing space for re-appraisal.’ But how is it possible for both of Parry’s purported intentions – to be as faithful as possible to the original work, while also acknowledging the necessity for reappraisal – to be accomplished? The only way would be through a tacit acceptance of the status quo prevailing against an epochal change, an overriding desire for a return to normal and for art to be the vehicle for this return to normal. This conservative impulse reflects class domination over the production and display of art in capitalist societies, and the ultimate function of art within such societies: to preserve and expand bourgeois domination, while constantly sidelining all other kinds of subjectivities and engagements from coming to the fore.

Parry’s statement contains a series of universalisms and generalities about experiences of the pandemic and experiences of art, which under closer inspection relate only to middle-class experiences. For Parry ‘the festival is a special moment in the creative rhythm of the city – and this year its way of enabling people to collectively share in this resonates like nothing in living memory.’

In reality, the disconnect between GI and the city was felt even more acutely this year than in previous years; for me, the exclusivity of the art festival was accentuated by the context of the increased desire for and contestation of common public spaces in the city that we have experienced in Glasgow over the last year. An arcane website was compounded by GI venue posters and signs which contained no real information about the works, other than artists’ names, nor that entry to shows was free, and acted as gnomic code for people who already knew about GI. Venues in culturally diverse areas in Glasgow’s Southside attracted overwhelmingly middle-class white crowds. France-Lise McGurn’s installation, Aloud, exhibited as part of GI’s Commissioned Programme at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, was, again, described by the press-release in universal generalisations, ‘launching the viewer into a three dimensional world of the intimate and relatable’. In reality, the bodies depicted in McGurn’s derivative style are all bourgeois, white and skinny. That they are also described in the exhibition text as ‘archetypal women and men’ just goes to demonstrate the ways in which bourgeois art by default always describes itself as universal and relatable, while effectively excluding and effacing bodies which do not fit into McGurn’s world, or class, or indeed, those of us who do not identify as men or women.

Instead of believing Parry that GI is part of the creative rhythm of the city, what if we were to see GI as an unwanted incursion? An exclusion? In light of Parry’s own admission that the programme was not strictly speaking ‘contemporary’, we might ask what is meant when we speak of the ‘contemporary’ in contemporary art, when the artwork is even framed by the festival’s director as at least partly dislocated from any critical relation to the now? In this context, Here to Deliver now stands as a testament to that period of time in a city under lockdown which the empty, homogeneous temporality of GI, in its resumption a year later than planned, seeks to gloss over and erase.

The displacement from in-person to the virtual in Here to Deliver, mirroring a shift in social relations, was also a source of rich critical effectiveness. The experience of the work was more real through its absorption of the virtual; it was conceptually ingrained in the reality of familiar online life processes – from booking on Eventbrite, to leaving a review, to seeing each ride documented as a rated review, posted on Instagram – while also imaginary and interrogatory of the fabric of reality, normality and the everyday. For the artist/performer, each ride did take place within the real time and space of her car. For the audience, it happened only virtually. This again stands in contrast to the ‘hybrid’ compromise of GI between online and physical programming, a haphazard attempt to square profoundly altered social relations without an acknowledgement of the sources of tension and changes of meaning involved in such a ‘hybrid’ programme. In Here to Deliver, the rift between artist and passenger, or driver and audience, was powerfully figured in the surreal image of a cardboard cutout of a sketchy pencil drawing of a naked figure. Vulnerable and expressionistic, seatbelted in the passenger seat of each ride, the figure acted as a proxy for the passenger, existing within a different aesthetic plane to the ‘reality’ evoked. This disturbance between speculation, imagination and virtuality on the one hand, and physical reality on the other, was also heightened through the performance’s evocation (through the script of the spectral presence) of an already existing socialist heritage at the heart of everyday urban reality, somehow subsisting through a more familiarly portrayed capitalist realism. If the contemporary art festival, the biennial, shuts out space for proletarian subjectivity, socialist history, and collective, connective experience, then Shona’s work, through a series of performances, reminds us of its stubborn, inalienable presence.

Through a loose improvised script, journeys wove together a number of disjointed generic textures – improvised descriptions of the city, quotes about ‘social realism,’ academic writing on Marxism and art, as well as standard gig platform promotional copy and general chat. There was a certain antique grandeur in the effect of this, at once alien and familiar, Shona’s voice perhaps evoking one of the ‘stout-hearted heroes’ – at one point the working title of the performance – mentioned in the script. These heroes are at once constructing the passenger’s experience and disjointed from it, more real than it, and more integral. The Italian ‘workerist’ theorist Mario Tronti theorised a conception of the struggle between workers and capital which runs counter to a more usual conception. In Tronti, it is the workers, not the capitalists who have the a priori power and the critical initiative in the class struggle by virtue of the fact that the workers contain the source of profit – labour – which the capitalists need to dominate and exploit. Here To Deliver gestures towards a recognition of this power as the other side of the art festival. This work foregrounds a joyful proletarian subjectivity operating across the city more powerful, confident, and rooted in history than many passengers might have anticipated.

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An Interview with Hardeep Pandhal

Confessions of a Thug: Pakiveli closed at Tramway on 22 March 2020, just one day before the first UK lockdown was finally implemented. Given restricted access to social spaces (pubs, openings, etc.), a critical conversation around the show could not unfold at the time in the places it naturally would. This interview with Hardeep Pandhal offers a reflection on the show over a year on from its closing, hopefully providing space to underline and elaborate on the work. We also talk about his practice, being an artist in Glasgow, Orientalism, Weird Punjabi Gothic and rap.

CALUM SUTHERLAND: In simple terms, I guess what I’ve been thinking about since I saw the Tramway show is what you put into that space, which is to say the motifs present in the work: cricket, rap music, the bedroom, masturbation, Tupac, all of which we can discuss. But I’ve also been thinking about your approach to exhibition making and in particular your use of Tramway’s main exhibition space. In Uncaged Cipher: Confessions of Confessions of a Thug (2020), an explorative talk about the exhibition, you mention wanting ‘to redress or disturb some of the trends I see in promotional material accompanying exhibitions these days.’ Could you talk a little more about this impulse? And how it manifested itself in the show?

HARDEEP PANDHAL: I’ve been present in a lot of my previous work, perhaps most explicitly in video works where you see me talking about my work to camera. Usually, this sort of footage is shaky, hand-held and shot in one-take. I hope these unpolished recordings are read as being more generous than the content that appears in authorised gallery interpretations, to convey ideas that are more inexplicable, honest and unrehearsed.

For example, in the film Happy Thuggish Paki (2020) I talk quite candidly about the animation software and hardware that I use, or rather my limited understanding of it. I wanted to tease out more layers and associations, such as the hardware’s drawing pen and the adjustable gap between the cursor and the stylus in my hand, which is called the ‘parallax’ within the software. A parallax is a displacement or difference in the apparent position of an object when viewed along two different lines of sight. It denotes a perceptual effect whereby objects under consideration take on a different character or appearance when viewed from two separate perspectives. I find the idea of the parallax useful when thinking about practices of interpretation, or how disparate interpretations may coexist in an interdependent way. The idea of being able to shift one’s viewpoint, or being sympathetic to multiple viewpoints has been integral to my development as a person.

Moments like this are subtle and thus not likely to be read by viewers the first time around. In this example the moment consists of a deliberate misspelling of the word ‘cursor’, which can cause confusion in itself, and only appears on screen for a couple of seconds. The show is full of ‘easter eggs’ like this. An easter egg is typically an undocumented, bonus feature in a piece of computer software. Sort of like an in-joke. When you discover an easter egg in a video game or in a rap song you feel rewarded for exploration that is deep and repetitive – and, dare I say, punishing. Play is work. For me, the act of experiencing art should be a form of play

In large part, my impulse to redress and disturb these trends that I see in promotional material accompanying exhibitions comes from personal experiences of having no editorial control in these forms of publicity, such as video interviews. It stems from being made to feel like a puppet regurgitating popular rhetorical stances fed by institutions. I think it happens to me because I am conscious of trying to address multiple audiences, like an objective participant. I want to engage fans of the subject matter and participants of the cultures I am invoking as well as a more nebulous, critically minded contemporary art audience. I don’t want to succumb to cultural dysphoria in a non-constructive way.

The way interpretation is conveyed, in promotional material for example, is important to me and I need a lot of time and reassurance from professional institutions before feeling up for participating in things like video interviews. This issue has clearly shaped the work I make, perhaps even to the point of me deliberately making impoverished and gratuitously sardonic things, as part of a critically deflective strategy. I’ve been through too many instances of discomfort in video interview scenarios. I think it’s from a fear of losing my soul, or having to take on and assuage the burdens of institutional guilt. Reluctance is important to me. I’m not a basic sycophant.

CS: I felt you arrived at a modest, focused presentation, which was also uncomfortable in that it did not affirm the scale of the space. There are certain institutional pressures at play when making work in Glasgow, and indeed certain spaces and awards incentivise particular modes of working and exhibition making. Is this something you feel you have to always be conscious of, or work against? For me, Confessions of a Thug: Pakiveli contrasted with the blockbuster presentations of artists who had previously exhibited at Tramway like Nick Cave, Mark Leckey, and Amanda Ross-Ho. Did you have any of these shows in mind when considering the installation? Was this part of the ‘redress’ or was your focus elsewhere?

HP: Too often artists can feel like they’re being expected to fill a space, to realise a preconceived curatorial premise or an institutional agenda. I have arrived at a point in my practice where I know how to identify what’s right for me. My hope is to simultaneously exceed and question what is perceived to be expected of me.

The exhibition was essentially built around the rap lyrics, and these were made available to peruse in a single, cheap A4 bound booklet. This would have taken some time to read. So, in simple terms, I valued time over scale and quantity in my overall production process.

CS: Yeah, for me that brought to mind the slightly casual or disrespectful presentation of Arthur Jafa’s APEX (2013) at MoMA in 2019, which was accompanied by Untitled Notebook (1990-2007). This work consists simply of normal office folders with plastic sleeves filled with images and ephemera Jafa had collected. It has this kind of everyday research vernacular which questions the purity and expectations of the institution…

HP: Also, for the Tramway show it helped to have a longer period of notice in comparison to other projects of a similar scale and visibility I had done. For example, in GI 2018, the last big thing I did in Glasgow, I was given only six months’ notice and I felt like I was being pressured into making specific types of works to fill the space at Kelvin Hall and compliment the broader festival programme. I think I had my cake in the end though, as I showed unfinished student work about the 2010 UK-wide student protests, in addition to making the expected defacing gesture to the space. This gesture culminated in a giant wall drawing of a sepoy (a British-Indian colonial soldier) cutting down a tree with a chainsaw. The tree had money growing on it and the composition made the chainsaw look like a massive penis. I also scrawled on the wall the following:

Fluids leaking fluidly
Over funding policies
ith the best of intentions we look forward to establishing contact with other civilised societies in the universe. We look forward to working together with you to build a better life in…

So, you get the sense as an artist that you are fulfilling a mechanical role within a larger system of cultural and nationalistic authorisation. I don’t think it’s simply a bad situation. I try to treat the situation more as a catalyst to take risks and be more playful. But it can feel like a waste of a happy, normal life at times. In hindsight, I was naively happy to go along with the flow at GI 2018. When it came to the Tramway show, I made the decision to set new precedents to help guide the nature of future invitations and studio visits, so that I could reach people who can assist me in developing projects aligned more closely with my deeper interests.

Making what you want and fundamentally believe in is important, and a way of investing in yourself. It filters out the noise and ensures you are engaging with people who genuinely edify your conscience, even at the expense of short-term career boosts and popularity. I wouldn’t exactly say my work is unpopular but I knew that by foregrounding longer, denser and inexplicable lyrics alongside crude animations and small drawings at Tramway I would reward those willing and patient. This, in turn, makes the work more impactful and memorable. So, I went with that. The work resists becoming a glorified soundbite. Like rap music, it demands to be listened to on repeat. It was about deciding what I wanted to do in the future (write, record and draw more) and set the right precedent going forward.

Coming back to your question, I think seeing the Cathy Wilkes show in 2014 had the biggest impact on me, in terms of approaching the space with sparsity. I feel too often British-Asian artists are expected to fill galleries with decorative ethnic bullshit. Don’t get me wrong, I love all of that when I go to visit my mom’s house. It just feels weird when it’s deployed in a contemporary art gallery setting non-reflexively, especially in Scotland where most curators and gallery goers are not South Asian.

Your question also reminded me of the India Street Bazaar exhibition at Tramway in 2016, which struck me as being remarkably apolitical, particularly for the way it hubristically side-stepped the deeper issues arising from its messy and potentially daring premise in favour of filling the space with conceptual diaspora-merch. Really bizarre stuff. In addition to this consideration, while making the show, I also had in the back of my mind Tramway’s proximity to the local South Asian communities that have been living there for years, and the sense of disconnect most UK art spaces have from South Asian communities.

I wanted to focus more on my own work and less on institutional work, as a personal experiment, to better understand how I want to be institutionalised, because being institutionalised is an inevitability unless I simply stop participating.

Hardeep Pandhal, Self-loathing Flashmob, 2018, Installation detail.

CS: The title is from Confessions of a Thug by Philip Meadows Taylor (1839). Why did this text become such a productive motif in the work?

I didn’t know until quite recently that thugs were a construct of the British imagination, although this is contested among historians.

Initially, I was thinking about the history of the word thug very subjectively, and about the potential of reinterpreting 2pac’s idea of ‘Thug Life’ in a fandom sort of way. Perhaps I was thinking in a more imaginative and conspiratorial mode, trying to make poetic connections that link otherwise seemingly disparate contexts, for example the linking of black rap music with the British Raj, and more specifically, ideas of racial profiling across time and place.

Thugs originated in British India to name a so-called cult of religious murderers. Many believe that thugs were politically sensationalised by the British to appear innately criminal. Taylor’s book Confessions of a Thug was exemplary of such sensationalism. For further information, I suggest reading about the colonial governor William Henry Sleeman, who has a village named after him in India: Sleemanabad. He needed to establish a legacy for himself, and set out to eradicate the practice of thugee, despite being heavily involved in constructing thugee discourse himself. He did this by developing some of the earliest forms of predictive policing, which have since become more embedded in quotidian life, where patterns of crime, among other things, are determined algorithmically with opaque technologies.

Taylor’s Confessions of a Thug was adapted from British criminal records and written in the textual form of a deposition of a supposed thug. So, its claim to veracity is built on dubious foundations. To me, it expresses the domestic fantasies of the author and readers of that time rather than providing an accurate or balanced record of history. I hoped the idea of titling my show after the book would function as a provocative reclamation of those fantasies. Then the actual show itself would take you on a completely unexpected ride, drawing out a multitude of connections and associations with forms of cultural regulation or forms of proscription.

CS: The central video, Happy Thuggish Paki, really took me back through the nightmarish aspect of the last 20 years, from 9/11 onward… Afghanistan, Iraq, terrorism, the way Islamophobia has and does dominate the news cycle. This is threaded through with historical allusions to colonialism and the way Orientalist writing in the nineteenth century used caste to target a specific group of people. How did researching such ‘racialised’ and ‘gendered’ histories and their erasures help develop the show?

The show probed historical ideas, fantasies of race, difference and darkness, and explored how fiction converges with reality to influence policies of oppression. I experimented with fictioning practices to summon new subjectivities and unsettle dominant ones.

Part of the process involves coming to terms with unpleasant stories and incidents. The process will remind oneself of truths that are depressing and traumatic. Research of this variety may appear quite self-torturing or masochistic in some basic sense, especially if trauma narratives are zealously sought and recuperated by institutions unquestioningly or unscrupulously.

Specifically, I was talking more about Sikh sepoys. When I started drawing them in 2010 I didn’t want them to be easily read as white guilt currency. So, I thought I’d make them less appealing and less institutionally recuperative by simply drawing them as cartoons. They deliberately invoked the Danish cartoons of Mohammed which circulated a few years before. I was thinking about the way in which Sikhs were mistaken for Arabs following 9/11 and I wanted to mock how limited white perceptions of brown people were. This also got me thinking about inter-religious relations in India pre-partition, which seemed more harmonious by some elders’ accounts.

Unlike real war monuments, the soldiers in my drawings wield guns that are flaccid and their beards mask clear facial expressions that would betray either their disaffection or loyalty as sepoys. But they look generally adept as fighters. The drawings are simultaneously satirical and celebratory. I hoped to shed my perceived claims to innocence and be up front about my conflicted relationship to my Sikh heritage, and the various interpretations and codes of honour related to it. I am not a practising Sikh in the strictest sense but I believe I should translate what I know and respect about Sikhism, both from a spiritual and political-historical perspective, as the two seem somewhat at odds.

As Priya Atwal observes, in her recent revisionary account of the Sikh Empire, Royals and Rebels (2020), commenting on the role its first leading figure Maharaja Ranjit Singh played:

British commentators from the Sikh Empire period were extensively influenced by Orientalist understandings of India: they may well have viewed Indian people, culture and society as being of scholarly, political or even romantic interest, but many nevertheless saw ‘Indian civilisation’ as inherently inferior and ‘backward’ compared to Europe and the West. Company officers of this mindset only valorised those Indians perceived to be most like them, and so it is unsurprising that they championed Ranjit Singh, the ‘Lion of Punjab’, for his strong rulership and active embrace of a military alliance with the British, while largely deriding his heirs for their supposed weaknesses. In the language of Orientalism, the first Maharajah had the merit of having overcome the traits ‘typical’ of Asian men – decadence and effeminacy, key tropes in the opposition set up between ‘rational’ Western civilisation and the ‘sensual’ civilisation of ‘Eastern’ peoples.

Atwal continues in a later passage:

Despite the strictures of the Sikh faith about men and women being societal equals, such ideas had not sufficiently penetrated into the political sphere to enable Sikh queens to rule as independent sovereigns.

I was thinking about acculturation, and specifically about the effects of the power struggles that took place across the Punjab during the reign of Ranjit Singh. Namely, how enamoured the Sikhs became with images of masculine warrior archetypes, refined and remodelled after Western-European warrior mythologies, and the way this affected the core egalitarian outlook of Sikhism as a result. Having travelled around Punjab just a few months prior to the show at Tramway, I was struck by how visible the figure of Ranjit Singh had become. Statues of the one-eyed sovereign proudly saddled on his cantering horse abound in Amritsar.

These statues were referenced in a motif of a headless Sikh horseman, which recurred in the film Happy Thuggish Paki as well as in the drawings shown alongside. The motif was a conflation of Ranjit Singh and Baba Deep Singh, whose decapitated body, legend has it, continued to fight the Afghan army during the 1757 Battle of Amritsar. I envisaged my figure as a prototypical fantasy character, who I hope will one day find home in a dark, Sikh inspired Sword and Sorcery universe created by me and some friends. Images of auto-decapitation and supernaturally displaced heads are open to multiple interpretations. I like to think of these motifs as conveying emasculation, ejaculation (speech-oral/orgasmic-sexual), but also an openness to inexplicable or beheaded forms of consciousness. Essentially, it’s about losing one’s head(s), becoming headless and more egalitarian in spirit.

I think my approach to these subjects elicits the appropriate sense of unease I am interested in exploring but it requires a lot of curatorial risk and care to make possible. Perhaps my references are seen as too specific?

On a more subjective level, pursuing a career as an artist can be seen culturally as a betrayal of the inherited patriarchal codes I mentioned above. Especially within lower class South Asian families, those like my own, where the concept of honour, or Izzat, can be very binding, impactful. This was what initiated my collaborative practice with my mom, to dispense with the all-too pervasive sense of fatalism often encountered in old-school Punjabi households.

CS: The work draws out a kind of constellation of prejudice, consumption and race, punning between elements across time from Pacman to 2Pac from Thugees to Thug Life. There is an obvious interest in language and etymology running through the piece and the connections it can provide. Are language and associative research important elements of your practice?

Video games, rap music, masturbation. It’s all connected to simulation and positive ways of coping with varying forms of alienation that don’t appeal to conservative politics, or things that continue to be regarded as having a bad influence on people.

I think my affinity for working with associative or elliptical text and voice in my work has arisen from a lack of direct verbal and textual communication I am able to have with my mother. Our relationship has surfaced a lot in my work to date and I suspect it will continue to as she refuses to learn English and I am slow at learning Punjabi properly, if there is such a thing as proper Punjabi! I am also doubtful whether a more shared linguistic grasp will bridge the wider cultural gap between us. I have faith in associative thinking practices. My method assists me in identifying more confidently who my allies are – those willing to engage with me humanely. The first step is to ask thoughtful questions, to be an active receiver of my work, to risk filling in the gaps.

I wanted to focus on the activity of writing lyrics and then build the exhibition around that, sort of like a gaming module for others to draw inspiration from, or make further connections with. David Steans’ text Brittany’s Final Assignment (2020), which featured as a take-away pamphlet in the show, did precisely that, albeit obliquely. Written from the perspective of a fictive student in the mode of a school assignment, the text begins as a critical appraisal of my exhibition but ends up cerebrally consuming the student in a horrific way. Afterall, the thuggish cults were similarly caught in cycles of construction and consumption through the imbrication of horrific fictions and traumatic policies.

From a broader, tonal perspective I was thinking about the idea of a South Asian or Punjabi Gothic, or even a Weird Punjabi Gothic, since the classic literary tropes of familial or inherited trauma in western Gothic texts also permeate actual South Asian family settings. It already exists in my opinion, there’s just no catch-all name to describe it as a genre or sub-genre yet. For me, Weird Punjabi Gothic would revolve around the miasmic forces of ‘unsettlement’ caused by acculturation. You could say my nascent Weird Punjabi Gothic cosmos comprises illiterate mothers, repressed fathers, decapitated bodies, haunting colonial subjects such as sepoys and sentient, stomping Dr. Martens boots. I was also thinking about the controversial play Behzti (Shame) (2004) by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, which takes place in a fictional UK Gurdwara where holy and ‘unholy’ things ensue. In my most recent statement I announce that my work ‘exhibits syncretic strains of post-brown weirdness’. I suppose what I am striving for is a real reclamation of the sources of the horror that permeate the classic works of supernatural, weird horror and dark fantasy, since it is often simply Orientalist.

CS: There is a real sense of disillusionment and self-questioning that hits home in the section where we move out of the animation and you are filmed attempting to name your classmates from secondary school. It seems like a kind of innocence is gone. Were you conscious of drawing out an interconnection between your personal experience and the past twenty or thirty years as a historical moment? Or of providing a kind of testimony?

I think the effect is achieved in that section by the way the footage contrasts with the polished nature of typical artist video interviews. There are a few lyrics spoken just before that footage that reflect on growing up in a state funded boys’ school; a hyper masculine, homophobic and misogynistic environment:

Take me back to year 7.
In classes full of BAME children.
Ignorant about the fact.
That 2pac had abused women.

Delivered sardonically, these lyrics are about unlearning certain behaviours without losing a sense of your soul, keeping a sense of class consciousness and racial pride, and being prepared for the costs.

I was thinking about social reproduction and about specific structural factors that shape a person, and what sorts of barriers I had towards pursuing an art career because quite frankly I often don’t feel like I was supposed to be an artist. It might seem a bit boring and self-indulgent, but that’s on my mind a lot, especially when I visit my mom in Birmingham. I am reminded of it where I live now,  in Glasgow’s Southside, but not in the same way yet. I’m working to expand the South Asian rude boy trope as much as possible. Examples of this trope can be found in the ‘rasmalai’ comedy sketch in the 90s BBC TV show Goodness Gracious Me and more recently Nikesh Shukla’s teen fiction Coconut Unlimited (2010). But my reality was a bit darker and more violent than what’s presented in these examples. The work is motivated by it but I try to not let it restrict what I can do. Playing around with expectations is a big part of it.

CS: How does it feel to think about this show now for you? Do you feel like your practice is in a new place?

I am continuing to explore the constitution of darkness in epic Western fantasy, channelling the tantric flows of India’s kali worshipping thuggee cults while getting my head around the transcultural influence of Tolkien in gaming, fiction and beyond.

For example, in a body of recent work I tell the story of a racist attack through the guise of a typical fantasy quest, in drawings, writing and music. It is thematically focused on ideas of transformative headless-ness, imaginative play and collective worldbuilding. The work tells the story of a brown man who set out on a collective quest to see a black metal gig. The adventure culminates in a battle between his party and a group of racist black metal fans, and reaches its climax when the main character is subjected to ‘tentative stomps to the head’.

The incident upon which this fantasy is based catalysed many things for me personally and artistically, which I am now beginning to appreciate and embrace. For example, I believe the incident fuelled a wave of recurring ciphers in my work, such as cartoon sepoys referencing the post 9/11 cases of mistaken identity of Sikhs and Arabs in the US, as well as Dr. Marten boots; an erotically charged anti-fascist iconography.

By making fantasy fiction I hope to simultaneously draw attention to and displace the fantasy-logic underpinning much of the empty institutional rhetoric that has and continues to distract me from making genuinely edifying work; to resist being recuperated unscrupulously.

CS: To end, I was wondering if we could discuss your musical influences, and the influence of music on your practice generally?

Lil B has had a huge impact on the way I approach being a creative person. I saw him play live at Nice ‘n’ Sleazy in 2012 for £5.50 and it was probably the best live gig I’ve ever been to. I am deeply interested in his ‘Based’ philosophy because I want to remain independent and freethinking as much as possible. For me, this means questioning the big institutional models and disturbing their expectations. For people unfamiliar with Lil B, I think it’s worth quoting his bio on Apple Music:

Equally inspired by Prince and 2Pac, Lil B (Brandon McCartney) is an eccentric, ambitious rapper who utilized social media to its fullest and became an Internet age celebrity, cultivating a fiercely loyal following and inspiring a generation of rappers and hipsters without ever signing to a major label. Lil B is known for his optimistic outlook, which he refers to as his ‘Based’ philosophy, and preaches positivity and tolerance through his music. He also uses the term ‘Based’ to signify his brand of freestyle rapping, and while much of his vast body of work sounds off-the-cuff, his more considered efforts take on serious subjects, particularly related to society and the age of information. While the majority of his output is overwhelmingly positive and encouraging, his dark side has emerged through releases like Thugged Out Pissed Off, as well as his occasional feuds with fellow rappers or basketball players. He has branched far outside the realm of hip-hop with the release of spoken word and new age material, and has dabbled with indie rock, claiming an affinity for the genre. Likewise, he has become a favorite of indie rock and experimental music types, and has received much coverage from Pitchfork and The Wire.

Back to Issue One

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She’d Been Good, It Hadn’t Worked

Esther Draycott

Blackhill: an area of Glasgow erected on a golf course in the mid-1930s to abate the city’s ongoing housing crisis. Unlike neighbouring Riddrie, the ‘intermediate’ scheme built to house higher-income working-class families a decade before, Blackhill was designated as ‘rehousing’: the cheapest, most rudimentary kind of development made for those displaced from the poorest areas of the city. Discrepancies between the quality of the buildings in Riddrie and Blackhill – the former mainly composed of ‘cottage-style’ houses, bordered by front and back gardens, the latter, multi-apartment tenement buildings of reconstituted stone – were clear, but equally as dramatic was the level of surveillance imposed on Blackhill tenants in comparison to those in better-off areas of council housing.1 Fearful of allowing the perceived squalor, illicit behaviour and overcrowding of the city’s slums to ‘transfer’ into its new schemes, these measures were designed to engender a new set of values among former slum dwellers. As those deemed responsible for the proper upkeep of a home, and the proper raising of children, women were their primary target.

In 1957, a nine-year-old Meg Henderson and her family were relocated from Blackhill to a new flat in Drumchapel; another, much larger estate built as part of later slum clearance programmes in the city. The process of switching council houses was long, with transfers decided through a points-based system of recommendation. Gaining sufficient points to be considered for a new home required a positive reference from a factor, who would send a housing visitor on their behalf to inspect the general appearance of the family and furniture. After that, there would be an inspection by a Glasgow Corporation health visitor, who could arrive at any time to examine the cleanliness of the flat. Blackhill’s poor reputation meant credit histories and other financial records were checked particularly assiduously. ‘Looking back, it’s hard to imagine why we put up with such indignities,’ writes Henderson in her memoir Finding Peggy: A Glasgow Childhood.2

Inspection was a fact of life in the ‘rehousing’ category. Often carried out under the auspices of Glasgow Corporation’s Public Health Department, constant visits or patrols by the authorities were justified by late-Victorian principles of social care, in which bad hygiene was equated with loose morals – two parts of the same undoing. Under the purview of burgeoning middle-class concern about the spread of the so-called ‘disreputable poor’ in slums, roles such as Health Inspector, Public Health Nurse, and Sanitary Inspector were created alongside Blackhill’s construction, many with the power to gain entry to and inspect new council homes, and their tenants, at any time. Factors – responsible for soliciting rent from tenants and maintaining the general ‘peace’ of estates – would maintain a personal presence on every scheme in Glasgow, patrolling back courts and stairwells to discourage ‘gossiping’, untidiness and loud behaviour. Records of residents’ activities would be maintained and exchanged among local authorities, including schools, employers or banks: if a family failed a sanitary inspection, or built up bad credit, a mark would go in their rent book, meaning they would be unable to apply for housing elsewhere. Children would be inspected by the school nurse for impetigo, ringworm and other conditions associated with the poor – nurses exercised the right to shave students’ heads if they were thought to have something contagious. Public health nurses, women wearing the same long, regulation green coats as health visitors, would usually attend Blackhill women’s home births: if they lacked sheets, clean towels, or the right underwear, a note would be made.3

In many cases, these records make up the few that exist of women living in Glasgow’s poorest housing schemes between the Wars. The question arises, then, of how to remember a set of people for whom official record is only made for the express purposes of control, moralisation, and degradation. It is one addressed by feminist thinkers, in particular those working at other intersections of marginality, through the idea of ‘refusal’. Definitions vary, however, and contexts are often unaligned, rendering one form of patriarchal resistance seemingly unrelated to another. In her book Landscape for a Good Woman, Carolyn Steedman places refusal specifically in the context of what it meant to resist working-class womanhood in mid-20th century Britain: a society strained by war, intent on mobilising that identity to cater for specific state demands around domestic servitude and reproduction.4 To Steedman, refusal meant transgressing the gendered, moralising practices of social investigation replete in Britain at that time, which disciplined working-class women according to Puritan dogma around ‘good’ mothering, or ‘good’ housekeeping, allying more official forms of surveillance with the force of social judgement. The issue, Steedman argues, is that stories of women’s transgression of these standards were made ‘marginal and secret’ by the very conditions of their existence – confined, at best, to personal memory, family histories or the occasional memoir, else a black mark in a rent book with no further context. For the most part, they remained secrets, mired in shame and silence: the prospect of their uncovering like reopening a wound.

An anecdote: Steedman is a small child, watching her mother stare, barefoot, out of the curtainless bedroom window of their council house in the 1950s. They have just had a visit from a health inspector to assess the suitability of the ‘living environment’ for Steedman’s newborn sister. The inspector casts a glance at the carry-cot on the floor before remarking, casually, ‘this house isn’t fit for a baby’, and leaving. A four-year-old Steedman looks up to see her mother is crying. ‘She’d been good,’ she writes, ‘it hadn’t worked.’  ‘And I?’, Steedman reflects, ‘I will do everything and anything until the end of my days to stop anyone ever talking to me like that woman talked to my mother.’5

Histories may emerge, then, from impulses passed from one generation to the next to flout expectation, heal pain, and work against the world into which one was born. In an oral history of an interwar housing estate in Glasgow, Anne McGuckin writes about the ways in which encounters with authorities were often identified among female residents as singular, character-forming moments of their childhood, times when their identity was laid out in front of them as a badge of shame.6 These incidents – queueing at the parish for regulation school uniform, branded in red to prevent theft, the small ‘x’ drawn by a sanitary inspector on a dirty stairwell – remained in the minds of interviewees for decades afterwards, entering into a kind of family mythology as something to work against to prove oneself as passable, unremarkable, ‘good’. Space itself structured these subjectivities – Steedman’s ‘bare, curtainless place’ a stand-in for all those rooms and houses built to remind women both of their social inferiority and their need to live up to certain, externally imposed standards. In the case of Blackhill, those requirements were integrated into the very design of the buildings themselves. The ‘rehousing’ category of council housing schemes were the only developments to be assembled in short, straight rows, so their exteriors could be patrolled at ease. The view from your window matters, writes Steedman, especially as a child. It shapes the way you understand the ‘first loss, the first exclusion’ of your life as personal or structural, transient or permanent – organising a narrative that is almost impossible, then, to shake off.

Esther Gamsu, Dancing in the Dark, 2018, wool.

How might we summon the sense of ‘secret and shameful defiance’, which acts as a driver for Steedman, to uncover stories like her own? How might we use degrading records to re-assemble the complex individual stories to which they partially refer? How could a failed (or passed) inspection be reimagined as a critical history of Glasgow’s housing? Thinking through these questions, it feels necessary to move beyond the contingencies of working-class women’s experience in Britain to think about their interrelation with other spaces of marginality. In an essay on Hamiltonhill, another ‘rehousing’ scheme built in Glasgow around the same time as Blackhill, Seán Damer called slum clearance programmes in the city ‘carceral systems’, maintained through an expansive regime of ‘social control’.7 How have other communities responded similarly to reconceive of what it is to resist? The answers lie within Black feminist thought, as a form of feminism always engaged in re-orienting notions of social and spatial politics, and so often starting with the question of home. ‘For us,’ write Saidiya Hartman and Tina Campt in an article for Women and Performance, ‘practicing refusal’ names the urgency of rethinking the time, space, and fundamental vocabulary of what constitutes politics, activism and theory, as well as what it means to refuse the terms given to us to name these struggles’.8

One shared tenet between Campt and Hartman’s conception of refusal with that of Steedman is the political resonance of intimate space. In the case of Black feminist thought, that association draws partly from bell hooks’ concept of a ‘homeplace’: the often fragile and tenuous domestic landscapes, deriving from the free house in the wake of slavery, which have since been guarded zealously by generations of Black women to allow themselves and their communities to ‘freely construct the issue of humanisation’ away from the order of white supremacy. These spaces, hooks argues, have become resistant through the dissonant meanings attributed to them by Black women on the one hand, and authoritative powers on the other. Devoting time and attention to the home allows sites of state surveillance and neglect to become shelters for subterranean cultures and alternative values, unreachable by authorities even as their boundaries are frequently transgressed. Describing the journey to her grandmother’s house as a child, hooks points out that houses felt, then, like spaces that ‘belonged to women, were their special domain, not as property, but as places where all that mattered in life truly took place’. Listening, intrigued, to her grandmother’s stories about how they had ‘lived and survived as black people’, hooks came to understand homeplace as a space inscribed with a sense of ‘shared history, of common anguish,’ of her community, articulated by the women who raised her.9

In her essay Beauty is a Method, Christina Sharpe details the efforts of her mother to create spaces of style and elegance in her childhood home in Pennsylvania. Beauty is mobilised to provide a language where official record falters.  Precarity and stigma stalked the family in the form of ‘holes in ceilings, walls and floors from water damage that we could not afford to repair; the fears and reality of electricity and other utilities being cut due to nonpayment’, an overwhelming police presence in their community, and the constant vigilance of the wealthy white neighbours across the street. In a hostile environment, Sharpe’s mother’s routine acts of care – arranging peonies and zinnias under a collapsing ceiling, crafting Christmas ornaments by hand while she lay dying – were strategies that filled their domestic space with symbols of agency and personhood recognised only by those who mattered. Attending to their home in ways of no immediate use or translatability to the state was a disruption of the relationship between homes and social status which had seen their community systemically violated, criminalised and dehumanised. Shelves lined with books, the garden, vegetables and flowers, this was a space in which Sharpe was able to flout her position in the dominant social order and ‘feel precious – as in vulnerable, as in cherished.’10

But in the work of Black feminist thought, neither refusal, nor beauty, necessarily begins with a demonstration of care. Instead it is a ‘rejection of the status quo as liveable’, as Campt and Hartman explain.11 hooks describes practices of care within the home being an expression of womanhood many Black women in post-slavery society were ‘too weary, too beaten down’ to make.12 As Campt points out, drawing that distinction instils dignity, interiority and politicism in women’s actions which might first appear to be passive: redescribing ‘giving up’ as refusing to go on.

In her autobiographical essay Dear Green Place, Liz Heron recalls visiting her grandmother in a one-room flat in Parkhead in the 1950s as one of the formative experiences of her childhood. Despite being 80 and bow-legged from rickets as a child, the flat would always be sparkling clean, and she, despite the grinding poverty she had endured throughout her life, would always be cheerful. Heron contrasts those vivid memories of her father’s mother with hazy recollections of the squalid home kept by her maternal grandmother, also in Glasgow’s East End. ‘Layers of dust coated the jumble of furniture and holy pictures and pious bric-a-brac,’ she recalls, the kitchen ‘filmed with grease’. Where the silhouette of her paternal grandmother remained vivid in her mind, Heron struggled to recall the face of this other woman: she only ever appeared to Heron ‘like a ghost’, failing, even at the time, to fully materialise.13

Among Glasgow’s working-class women, particularly those hailing from slums, cheerfully and assiduously embracing the standards imposed on them from elsewhere was a form of what sociologist Beverley Skeggs calls ‘distinction’ – allowing women who built on and excelled within those constraints to feel ‘superior’ to others who did not.14 Like her grandmother, it is the former, writes Heron, who were able to better escape the scrutiny of social policy to find a positive place in a certain narrative of the city.

There must have been many women like her, all over Glasgow; that there were then in the early 1900s when she was marrying and becoming a mother, that there were later. Many women whose courage has to be admired. Working-class women who endured hardship and self-sacrifice and survived with something of themselves intact.15

But what did it mean, instead, to refuse superiority? To refuse the scant terms on which ‘distinction’ was offered to women of a certain status? These were, Heron writes, ‘women whose courage failed them. Women who did not have the heart or the will to live up to what the social order said they should be, but who lived by it nonetheless.’16

Here, dirt, grime, and a woman’s slumped body enact a criticism of the system which decrees the working-class home should be a space of cleanliness, order, and compliance. When, in Finding Peggy, Meg Henderson’s mother is finally granted a transfer from Blackhill to a new flat in Drumchapel, she is delighted – she sees moving to a high rise flat in a new area as a rare chance at gaining a better life, sees tower blocks themselves as places of innate cleanliness and modernity. Henderson, however, is suspicious of her mother’s optimistic view of Drumchapel, saddened by the threat to her families’ social bonds, and her own sense of rootedness, posed by her frequent relocation.17 Later in the book, in their Drumchapel flat, Henderson’s mother, Nan, begins to exhibit signs of a breakdown. Howling and sobbing at night, obsessively pacing and cleaning surfaces, she moves between frantic conversation and prolonged periods of detached silence. Her condition is accepted almost without hesitation by her family – it is seen as a natural response to living conditions which act as a strain to so many women who had lived as she had.

But the true source of Nan’s erratic behaviour is later revealed when her sister Peggy, still living in Blackhill, dies from haemorrhaging during a home birth. Peggy had endured both medical discrimination and neglect throughout her pregnancy, dying a protracted, painful death in labour from a known, preventable and elsewhere easily treatable condition. Lacking the voice to articulate her sense of foreboding, and the deep injustice suffered by working-class women at the hands of local authorities, Henderson’s mother subsequently plunges into a decades-long silence. She appears for the rest of the text almost as a ghost – unable to leave the house, unable, or no longer willing, to perform the duties of care expected of her. They move, listlessly, to another estate.

Slum clearance aligned good housing with an idealised version of womanhood, and by extension, the women who embodied the slum as less-than women, agents of contagion, to be defined by certain spatial limits. Steedman interpreted refusal as a statement of ambivalence toward the social order imposed on British working-class women – a refusal to acknowledge the moment of exclusion so many suffered in childhood as a harbinger of some deeper truth about their identity. While that goes some way to gauge the meaning of political resistance among women who ended up in Blackhill, it is the complete upending of the terms by which resistance or compliance are defined within Black feminist thought that feels vital here. In these tenements, the home was a space inscribed with violence and exclusion, but the stories of these injustices were written and embodied by women as the ‘owners’, as bell hooks describes them, of the house. Plumes of dust, sheets soaked in blood, the arrangement of flowers, frantic hands: all of these things map lives which exceeded the record of the sanitary inspector. They are the beginnings of a womanhood imagined otherwise, of failed or denied attempts at womanhood, and the remembrance of others who did the same.

Truth, Dare or Promise: Girls Growing Up in the Fifties, the anthology in which Dear Green Place is published, is a collection of writing by British women whose commentaries on their childhoods trace the seeds of a movement that would latterly be known as feminism. ‘Women of my generation were the first to refuse debts that just couldn’t be borne,’ Heron writes, by way of introduction. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and refusal comes in many forms.

  1. Seán Damer, ‘Engineers of the Human Machine: The Social Practice of Council Housing Management in Glasgow, 1895 1939’, Urban Studies, 37.11 (2000), pp.2007-2026. ↩︎
  2. Meg Henderson, Finding Peggy: A Glasgow Childhood (London: Corgi, 1994), p.87. ↩︎
  3. Anne McGuckin, ‘Moving Stories: Working-class Women’, in Out of Bounds: Women in Scottish Society 1800-1945 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1992), pp.174-197. ↩︎
  4. Carolyn Steedman, Landscape for a Good Woman (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1987). ↩︎
  5. Steedman, p.2. ↩︎
  6. McGuckin, pp.174-197. ↩︎
  7. Damer, pp.2007-2026. ↩︎
  8. Tina Campt and Saidiya Hartman, ‘Black visuality and practices of refusal’, Women and Performance, 29.1 (2019). ↩︎
  9. bell hooks, Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), p.383. ↩︎
  10. Christina Sharpe, ‘Beauty is a Method’, E-flux, 105 (2019) < method/>. ↩︎
  11. Campt and Hartman, ‘Black Visuality’, p.1. ↩︎
  12. hooks, p.382. ↩︎
  13. Liz Heron, ‘Dear Green Place’, in Truth, Dare or Promise: Girls Growing up in the Fifties, ed. by Liz Heron (London: Virago, 1984), pp.153-171. ↩︎
  14. Beverley Skeggs, Formations of Class and Gender: Becoming Respectable (London: Sage, 1997), p.8. ↩︎
  15. Heron, p.159. ↩︎
  16. Heron, p.168. ↩︎
  17. Henderson, p.87 ↩︎

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In Margaret Salmon’s film Icarus (after Amelia) (2021), Glasgow is shot from above through the window of a light aircraft. The Clyde trails like a ribbon across a city which looks hazy and expansive. Hitchcock-esque, the camera gradually zooms in on The Pearce Institute in Govan where the film was on show as part of the exhibition Home Economics, and then proceeds to capture the lives of women in the neighbourhood – their work, gestures, daily routine. Salmon deftly enacts a shift from the macro to the micro. This move feels particular to the derangement of scale felt over the past eighteen months. It captured the manner in which our lives are caught up in larger institutions, systems and civic networks, without diminishing the agency and dignity of the individuals involved. 

The way artists navigate institutional expectations and the entanglements of personal relationships is a thread that runs through Issue I. Our cover image is provided by Andrew Black, winner of this year’s Margaret Tait Award. Justin Bieber (2019) is a nude, depicted in nature, ‘the prince of pop’ turned away from us, mid-ascent. At points the paparazzi grain of the image is underscored, at others smoothed away. There is a real sense of intimacy and personal connection, belying the artifice and intrusion of the original photograph. Desire seeps into the long lens shot, and Bieber’s celebrity is backgrounded by Black’s treatment of the subject – attentive, individuated, sensual.

The Margaret Tait Award demonstrates how a confluence of scales, or the small masquerading as the big, can feel claustrophobic. It is rare that peer review becomes a literal reality, but in Glasgow your friends are often also your collaborators, colleagues and gatekeepers. This year the prize fell into this collapsed universe. Some of the shortlisted nominees had themselves nominated others on the shortlist and the panel itself was comprised, at least in part, of their friends and associates – a diverse but close-knit milieu. In a competitive scene this closeness is a double-edged sword. 

Jessie Whiteley, The Outlaw, 2021, egg tempera on board, 30x36cm.

Winning an award like the Margaret Tait, or even being shortlisted, is a gateway to bigger and better things. It is a key checkpoint in the Glasgow art pipeline, sitting somewhere between an Intermedia show, a couple of years on the Transmission or Market Gallery committee, a Cove Park Residency and, at the pinnacle, representing Scotland at the Venice Biennale. The question of how to negotiate this slim set of opportunities lies at the heart of Calum Sutherland’s interview with Hardeep Pandhal, starting with a critical discussion around the artist’s exhibition Confessions of a Thug: Pakiveli (2020) at another key pipeline location, Tramway. 

In our pilot issue, Neil Clements observed of the art scene’s relationship to Glasgow International, ‘if the city is to function in service of its local practitioners, we must pay closer attention to its internal rhythms’. Once again, the ninth edition, postponed from 2020, solidified a competitive cycle and general fight for visibility beyond the city limits. The majority of press coverage (from The Guardian, The Art Newspaper, and Art Monthly) devoted column inches to the Commissioned Programme and simply centred the festival moment. This kind of writing, conceived over the course of a long weekend, takes something already so concentrated and makes it even smaller and more digestible, first in the festivalisation of the city’s art scene and then in its abridged reviewing. Hussein Mitha’s piece for this issue aligns with some of Clements’ analysis, providing an expansive consideration of agency and class within GI through the lens of Shona Macnaughton’s performance Here To Deliver (2020). 

Elsewhere in our GI reviews, Esther Draycott writes about You’re Never Done at Springburn Museum and Kiah Endelman Music considers Martine Syms’ SHE MAD S1:E4 at Tramway. In an effort to balance the attention lumped on the festival, our reviews section also covers exhibitions which fall outside its bounds. Calum Sutherland looks at figurative painting across three shows in the city, and Gwen Dupré reviews Emma Talbot’s Ghost Calls at Dundee Contemporary Arts. On a lighter note, Maria Howard considers the merits of an annual competition of children’s art. Mike Sunda and Caspar Heinemann inaugurate our book reviews. Reviewing Jackie Ess’ Darryl, Heinemann tracks a life lived in desiring, exhausted negotiation with masculinity. Sunda meditates on language learning, cultural immersion and noughties Japan through Polly Barton’s Fifty Sounds.

The issue also includes essays, poetry and experimental writing. Esther Draycott’s She’d been good, it hadn’t worked delves into twentieth century Glaswegian women’s memoir, redressing the surveillance and state controls enacted on the lives of those in council housing. In the lead up to COP26, Maria Howard looks at the limits of the heroic narratives that pervade nature writing in her essay Vigilant Care. In Can I We really be all this !!!!, the poet Olivia Douglass uses family photographs to ask how language, memory and image can exceed themselves. Yuki Okumura writes our first REWORK. His The Depersonalization of Artist treats text sculpturally, manipulating each word of a version of Lucy Lippard and John Chandler’s The Dematerialization of Art in a disassembling of conceptual art’s origins and virtues. K Patrick & Adrien Howard’s Silence continues our Writing Through column, drawing on their relationship to transgender experience to reimagine scenes from thirteenth century French romance, Le Roman de Silence. Writing from ‘a place of friendship’, the pair represent one of the advantages of a close-knit community which makes it easy for artists and writers to come together and collaborate. 

In Home Economics, Salmon’s film was accompanied by a series of objects and photographs, entitled Surplus (2021). Across two tables the play of scale continued – little battleships sunk into a melted candle, postcards piled up, broken coil springs nestled on a set of scales – and everyday items mixed with literary ones. A child’s chair sat between the tables. On top a pile of billiard balls, underneath a globe. 

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