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Shona Macnaughton, Across Glasgow

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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Interview with Hardeep Pandhal

‘Confessions of a Thug: Pakiveli’ closed on March 22 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

With 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.

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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. 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.’

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. 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’. 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’.

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.

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.¹

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.’¹

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.

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Editorial I

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. 

Back to Issue I