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Centre for Contemporary Arts Glasgow, 2022

Andy Grace Hayes

The air in the exhibition is dark, filled with innumerable voices and lit with moving images. Alexander Hetherington and Scott Caruth share the first space (CCA III); Hetherington’s two CRT monitors on the floor and Caruth’s photographic prints on the wall. There’s a triptych of blue bathroom doors, their surfaces scarred and inked with men’s phone numbers. The prints are illuminated from below with outtakes from a video practice. The first space may as well be a lobby; a DHL employee is looking for the reception. The two remaining rooms are two seemingly separate exhibitions shown under one name, Seen and Not Seen.

Hetherington occupies the largest space (CCA II) with two projections, another monitor and two coloured Carnegie Hall spotlights. His videos, four of which are projected, are shot on 16mm film and feature queer, poetic, trans-fronted ecological images. Idle Work (2021-2022) plays. Trapped in the liminal space between understanding and huh?, the videos are a layered exposure of references. There’s a feather, a wasp, a hexagonal structure, a globe, droning, piano strings and a wet voice. All overexposed. The work gives everything at once. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Yet, I couldn’t lose myself in the daydream of Hetherington’s work. The sound from one projection migrates into the other and, in the final room (CCA I), Scott Caruth’s AAAAAs bleed from behind a black curtain.

Hetherington’s many layered sounds and unruly references rub up against something far more succinct: Caruth’s video, BOB (2016-2020). Projected on a freestanding wall, the video is of blended multi-chromatic light interrupted only by the flash of leader markings on 16mm film. Red, blue, green, blue. Red light under blood vessels. Blue light under the jacuzzi. I was entranced by the film. Composed without a camera, 88 Caruth exposed the reel to the light, steam, hot and sweat of Pipeworks – Glasgow’s gay sauna. The dominant sound throughout it, the AAAAAs, is a recording of the artist in conversation with Bob, a blind gay man he worked with over several years. Bob asks the men he meets to perform the sound. The quality of the pleasure it brings him is left uncertain, the tone is both camp and erotic. Caruth carries the note, with Bob’s counsel, and it vibrates like Meryl Streep’s ‘Flaaaaacid!’ in Death Becomes Her (1992). Or like finding a free cabin and jeans around your ankles at the sauna. Unseen pleasures float through this invisible bathhouse; be those Bob’s, the artist’s or the Pipework’s clients’.

The exhibition text supposes Hetherington and Caruth are each other’s double. The artists’ formal and conceptual similarities – 16mm film and queer subjects – ground the press release. Yet, if measured, the space between the artists’ work is vast. The tension between the respective amorphousness and conciseness in their works feels competitive; or at the very least primed for comparison. The exhibition has a degree-show quality. The bleeding sound is not ‘two works in conversation’, but careless curation. The marrying of sounds from disparate artworks, in their manners of expression, forces a combative reading that is undeserving of either.

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Nasim Luczaj

Agitated Air: Poems After Ibn Arabi by Yasmine Seale and Robin Moger. Tenement Press, 2022. 149 pages.

Agitated Air: Poems After Ibn Arabi is the fruit of a back and forth exchange between two Arabic-English translators, Yasmine Seale and Robin Moger, who are distinguished by their initials, YS and RM, both in the text and this review. The project grew organically: the authors sent each other a few of their own translations from Tarjuman al-Ashwaq (The Interpreter of Desires or The Translator of Desires), a 13th century 61-poem cycle by the Sufi philosopher Ibn Arabi, and then replied to each poem with a new ‘response’ translation. This process was repeated a few times for each piece, pushing the translators to convey the poems in new ways not only in relation to one another, but to their own previous attempts. Agitated Air is a compilation of fifteen exchanges, providing the reader with the original text and up to seven translations with alternating authors. The book, then, is not a translation of the text per se. In a frolic of splinters, the poems reincarnate from email to email, refracting as they hit another shore. We, readers, float with. Like a sea, the opportunity to reiterate allows us to let go. 

None of the poems have titles. Each sequence is introduced and tracked with a glyph, often eyelike, seeming to look up, down, or sideways off the page, perhaps flirtatiously. For these poems are, each in their way, love poems – poems of longing, addressal, traipsing on, singing out. Arabi wrote in the form of the nasīb, traditionally the opening section of a pre-Islamic Arabian ode that recalled past moments in life, especially those related to a long lost love. Allegedly inspired by his encounter with a young woman named Nizam, his contemporaries criticised him for writing such a sensuous sequence, claiming this did not behove a scholar. In response, Arabi republished the sequence with a commentary that would tie the sensual aspects of the work to his philosophical thought and to mystical concepts.

The text that gave rise to Agitated Air seems to have always been a site of renegotiation, a text fit for recapturing and reinvention. The speaker’s wails are all the more vibrant, all the more pleading, for their many iterations – as if reading were squeezing into the cave of a mind, where emotions reverberate and their release is rehearsed. Will it be ‘All / My heart a stall set out for nothing but her’ (RM), ‘nothing to my craft but edging close to her’ (YS), or ‘My eyes wide struck in the dark breathing / Her, in & out’ (RM)? The bouncing off between versions reads intimately. I mean the intimacy you get when very close up, lying so near that your beloved might melt into abstraction. Every fraction you shift changes the landscape completely, to patches of wildly different colour. Arabi zooms out and in, for example here, in a passage that captures the attitudes and ideas displayed throughout the text:

Her pastureland the zone from collarbone to gut.
Thrill of a garden ringed with flames.
My heart has learned to take
on every shape. To be grass for gazelles and shelter
for prayer. Home for those who worship
many gods and one. In this book or that. No faith
have I but love. Wherever it turns its feet is my
code and horizon. (YS)

The one, the many, the two. ‘The eye holds us as one: / this is my slightness and your light’ (RM). The speaker – a mystic, metaphysician, a lover, a human – watches and is watched, moves between all, nothing, a reflection of another. When a woman remarks on noticing a man among roses, the speaker urges her to ‘see the display for what / it is /a mirror casting back you’ (YS). How apt for the poet to be cast by a multitude of two. And what a luxury to keep watching your beloved turn, or for a poem to be reiterated – to ‘bend the old words / to her shape’ (YS), morphing to strike you from a different angle. Succumbing to this luxury, even as a reader, makes you wonder why we don’t indulge more often. Perhaps we are accustomed to too rigid a notion of faithfulness.

Sometimes, as translations are exchanged, they begin to ‘loosen’ and, if there is an ‘original meaning’, the stone you might throw in water, then each next translation is a wider circle drawn around it. As readers, we can imagine the skimmed stone by the rings its translators leave. Since what comes to stand for each poem is a sequence as a whole, the translators need not tense too much into trying to convey everything in one go. The act of retranslation lets them go back again and again, changing the lens for each attempt. On page 118, YS uses this as an opportunity to pour her all into a particular aspect of the poem and emphasise it freely. In this 23-line poem, every line ends on an adverb – arguably the most shunned class of word, its use discouraged in writing workshops. Not only does every word end in ‘-ly’, producing a sly rhyme scheme and unique tilt in tone, but it does so ‘superdeliciously’ (YS) – in profoundly moving and non-arbitrary ways, at first lulling, then racing to convey the lostness of a speaker giddily led by the moon:

Her eyes hold knives & smiling gouge out yours remotely.
Friends, let us stop here. The shelter in Hajir. (Pleadingly)
Stop. Let me ask where they turned, for I went maplessly
Through wastes, my camel chafing at roads unrelentingly
Bare, her frame concave, hump gone, my haste hungrily
Sapping her speed all the way to Hajir. There, malelessly,
Camels shadowed a dire moon. I folded my ribs uneasily
About it even as, all bared, it circled me, & I specularly
It. I looked for the traces it wiped as it went, fruitlessly.

The translators themselves seem committed to walking the text on loose eyes, tracing each other’s footsteps in a moonlit sand. Such an open approach enables the text not only to be built up again, but to be found and moulded within what’s already out there. One of YS’ translations lies within a poem by John Donne, Arabi’s yearnings backlit by The Flea. Agitated Air is rich in experiments with shape and register, and the mutual influence plays out intricately on the page. Most importantly, the book succeeds both as a text to dissect and to skim. You can watch each poem play out like a badminton game. You will hear the shuttlecock pass through the air; you won’t have to stare into the sun to enjoy its movements.

Absorbing each take, phrases consolidate and bend into some vague stem – a reader’s felt sense of what could, but has no pressure to be, the original yearning or connection. I like to imagine the poet prodded and tickled with this flower, rolling in his grave like a tongue. Each gust of an iteration might be the one to break with what was there before, and this very possibility is what makes it such a thrill. Just smell the pollen, a ‘sweetness in agitated air’ (YS).

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Top Floor Tales

Hayley Jane Dawson

I’ve spent the evening at an opening and there I tell someone I often contemplate giving all this art shite up. How sometimes I wish I was just a wee Glesga wummin, cleaning my close with a brush and soapy water, knowing all my neighbours’ business and keeping my house clean so folk can’t say it’s a cowp.1 I’m walking back through the Friday night rush to catch the train home, and as I pass into the belly of the Central Station bridge, there is a big crowd. It turns out it’s a queue for free food and toiletries, a street ambulance providing for those in need. People wait for potatoes and rolls in the middle of the city, whilst other folk pass by on the way to dinner or the pub with pals.

I’m feeling guilty tonight, as I stroll home from the exhibition of a friend, a fellow working-class person trying to navigate the (mostly) upper-class art scene. The shame of class hangs over me, ever present. Who do I think I am, complaining about my part-time job and lamenting about representation within the arts, when my parents and grandparents never got to choose what they wanted to do with their life. They had children to support and did whatever was necessary to make ends meet. I so desperately want to be an artist; always have done, since my granda taught me to stay within the lines of my colouring in books. But now I struggle with reconciling my roots with the pan loafie2 art world I also have one foot in. I wince when I think about how earlier in the evening someone had turned their back on me as I was mid-sentence, finding someone more important to talk to in the toilet queue at the gallery. I waited my turn in line then left immediately afterwards, rejecting the players of the Glasgow art scene right back for not deeming me worthy enough of a conversation.

As I see the lassies tottering around in the Central I wish, for a second, that I was just another weekend warrior, working all week and spending my wages on a Friday and Saturday, high heels and the dancin’ then hame with a hangover. But I always wanted to be different, not like everyone I went to school with who kept to their ain,3 who saw that Glasgow as a dangerous place full of other folk who had made it out of parochial living alive. I longed for the bustle of a cosmopolitan city, like New York or London. Glasgow, where you weren’t seen as posh because your grannie didn’t let you out to go up the park drinking and smoking, would do.

I decide on a whim to go to the pub because the train will be another 40 minutes and it’s too cold to sit on the hard metal seats. It’s the pub in the central, you’ll know it because I think it’s the only one.4 ‘That’s Entertainment’ by the Jam comes on and I remember it’s referenced in the book The Melancholia of Class by Cynthia Cruz. She describes Paul Weller as an archetypal working-class subject, talking about how his performances and lyrics forced a society who would rather workingclass lives remained undetected to confront them in visceral detail. I remember when I was wee I went to the pub that was above what is now Marksies and Boots the Chemist in Central Station. Me and dad had some lunch, or maybe it was me and mum. I used to come into town on the school holidays with my mum and go to her work along the Broomielaw, a few minutes’ walk west along Argyle Street. I’d wander round the office and my pockets would be filled with ten-pound notes and fivers from various folk. Then we’d go with her two work colleagues to a pub called the Montrose, where I’d always get Chilli Con Carne.

It’s all wasteland there now, the Monty long demolished.

Daniel Cottier, Stained glass window, c. 1877–80, leaded glass, 119.4 × 48.3 × 3.8 cm.

I don’t usually go into pubs alone, still paranoid from all those years ago underage drinking in town. I always worry I will get ID’d. But there’s no bouncers here, so I get my gin and tonic and I’m looking for a seat, all confident. It’s nice to be among other folk just waiting; solitary drinkers, groups of loddies. Glaswegian voices bounce around through the music and I think about how I don’t often hear my own voice reflected back to me in daily life. Meanwhile I hear Weller:

feeding ducks in the park and wishing you were far away

At the bar a man says he could go a large sausage supper. A few days earlier I have to explain the concept of a notion, as in I’ve got a real notion for a fish supper to a friend who looks at me with confusion.5 No one seems to know what I’m talking about anymore. My references and turns of phrase feel like a lost tongue, to be deciphered by historians in a hundred years’ time when this particular branch of Scots language is gone for good.6 I feel increasingly like a stranger in my own existence. The city and its art scene seems mostly devoid of Glaswegians, and working-class folk even more so.

I watch a drip hang off the end of a man’s nose and it’s hard not to wipe it as a reflex. Are there regulars here? I see the barman mouth aye it’s quiet to the drippy nose man and assume there must be. It’s easy to forget people still live in the streets around Central Station, what was once the town of Grahamston. Easy to forget my granda’s years of working on Hope Street and having to collect his colleagues from the pub after they had a few too many on their assigned drink break.

He told me how he used to wait for the early train to come in from London with the papers to be distributed, his first job in the trade as he calls it. He worked as a stereotyper, a job which retired with the introduction of modern technology, as did he. He worked near constant night shifts for 28 years, turning night into day, driving home to Victoria Road on a scooter. Once, he was wearing two budgies in a box around his neck for his children. He was stopped at a set of lights and says a policeman standing on the pavement was eyeing him with suspicion as he waited, tweets emanating from his chest.

His father was the ‘gaffer’ and granda went out to work for the Evening News on the Monday after leaving school on the Friday. He was only It’s just the way it was back then. You followed the family line I suppose, one Govanhill boy to the next, two generations meeting at The Allison Arms every week for a drink, on the same day, in the same seat I can imagine. All this until my great grandad went to Leverndale7 and my dad wanted to be a punk, not a printer, and that was the end of it all.

I was born in the town, so to speak.8 Rottenrow9 Hospital was to the north of the city centre, so named after the rough wood fronted dwellings once located there10 or after a row of shabby cottages infested with rats,11 depending on what you choose to believe. All that remains now is a sculpture of a giant metal safety pin; a monument to the Glasgow Royal Maternity Hospital, often referred to as The Rottenrow by locals, and a few walls of the original building’s footprint. A few years back I walked up there with a pal and got my photo taken underneath the entrance archway, arms raised gleefully towards the medieval brickwork. Another link to my past reduced to rubble.

I sometimes imagine my tongue being enlarged and turning to stone in my mouth, concrete pouring into my lungs until I can no longer speak. This gallery opening had offered me some comfort, however, set in a former clay pipe factory. The artworks explored the experiences and expectations of growing up as a young man in the West of Scotland. I don’t imagine most of the people there tonight knew of its former life.

I spend the 12-minute train journey home looking through photos on the internet of the Rottenrow in its heyday, beaming nurses with newborns swaddled and ready for the world. December is a well-known time for old Scottish traditions; pipers play out the old year, a tall, dark and handsome man should appear at your door carrying a lump of coal shortly after midnight to be the first guest after the bells ring at Hogmanay.12 I hadn’t wanted to come out. I was late – in there knitting my mum says. My parents lived in the top floor flat at 22 Clarkston Road at this time and I imagine we might have taken a taxi home from the hospital, but also my parents were pretty skint back then so it’s more likely we would have taken the bus. I should ask my mum about this. She told me that the hormones didn’t kick in right away and when I was handed to her immediately after I was born, she thought:

all that for this?

As I walk down Vicky road (Victoria Road is one of the main arteries into the south side of Glasgow), I see Kebabish; it used to be a shop called Babyland, which sold baby clothes, prams and toys. Dad told me that his first job was taking their shutters down in the morning and putting them back up again in the evening. He got the job through my gran who worked next door at what was the Army and Navy Stores. Locavore, a swish wholefoods shop, used to be the Pandora Pub, and the Transylvania Café was a shoe shop, but Campbell’s hasn’t changed in all the years since dad got his school uniform there. He went to Cuthbertson Primary School and I used to look over on to it from the flat of an old lover on Kingarth Street. Memories of these places move through me like the feeling you get when you shudder inexplicably and it’s said that someone has just walked over your grave.

I pass 388 Victoria Road, my dad’s childhood home. The flat my granda tells me they took my dad home to, with my great aunt holding him up to take a look at it out of the bus window. Granda also tells me how he would clean the windows of the flat, attached by a rope around his waist whilst my gran held on to the other end of the rope inside.

Like this, I exist within two different worlds – the Glasgow of conceptual art, openings, residencies, failed applications, networking, rejections and quaffing free bevy at any opportunity; and the Glasgow of my fiercely working-class Scottish family. I want to inhabit both places simultaneously, but as Cruz discusses in her book, this is not often possible. I have to either abandon my working-class roots and assimilate into the middle-class, or as is usually the case, exist as a working-class person in a middle-class world and be invisible, ignored and used as a trope by middle-class artists looking to further their own careers.

Yer like an old wumman cut down

my grannie used to say. Sometimes she called me ‘grannie much’ too. As in are ye a grannie, much? My mum always says to me that my grannie isn’t dead as long as I’m alive because I love curtain twitching and my nose is always bothering me about what my neighbours are up to.

As a wean I was around places steeped in family history as both my parents never moved far from their birthplaces.13 I spent a lot of time in my grannies’ house, surrounded by her collections of plates, thimbles and ornaments. Surrounded also by memories and superstitions: a horseshoe (the right way up of course) at the front door.14 Nickname the ‘housewives’ art gallery’, ornaments and other precious items were revered in the traditional working-class Scots household. These pieces would be kept on shelves or in special display cabinets, elevating massproduced objects to the status of artworks. My grannie’s own range of trinkets instilled an early love of sculptural objects – of the potency and physicality of the stuff of the everyday.

Did your granny not call you fanny as a term of affection? Well, I think it was in affection, maybe I am just a fanny

Wee fanny and big fanny

I alight at Cathcart and walk past the close door of my parents’ first home. When I turn the key to my own flat, I step inside and touch the horseshoe. I move towards the couch and adjust the photo frame on the table which contains an image of my gran in all the messy glory of a Christmas day sometime in the early 2000s. These things remind me of my upbringing, of the working-classes’ long history in the city and the importance of our representation both within the arts and elsewhere. They offer me solace.

  1. Cowp (plural cowps) – Scots slang for a filthy and disgusting place. ↩︎
  2. In Scotland pan loaves were traditionally bought by posher folk as opposed to the cheaper, plain loaves bought by poorer folk. ↩︎
  3. Provincial country meeces, my auntie always used to say meeces as a joke plural for a mouse. ↩︎
  4. The Beer House, if you’re ever waiting for a train. ↩︎
  5. A notion is Scots slang for a fancy for something or a craving. ↩︎
  6. Unless we are also all gone for good. ↩︎
  7. Leverndale is a mental health facility in Crookston, Glasgow, that opened as an asylum in 1895. ↩︎
  8. On the 13th of December 1987, at seven minutes past five in the evening. ↩︎
  9. Scots: Rattonraw. ↩︎
  10. Rattin. ↩︎
  11. Raton. ↩︎
  12. Known as first footing. ↩︎
  13. Well, mum did live and work in London for a few years, but she stayed in Surbiton and when we went one time, she said she hated how busy central London was. ↩︎
  14. A horseshoe should always face up the way in an upright ‘U’ shape for good luck. ↩︎

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Georgia Horgan

An untitled series of digital drawings by Mexican artist Mauricio Orozco (b.1988, Léon, Guanajuato) depicts Mayan glyphs pasted onto twisted, deconstructed images of characters from Japanese animated sex comedy Golden Boy. The show, which follows the adventures and misdemeanours of horny odd-jobbing student Kintaro Oe, uses his clumsy encounters with various beautiful and powerful women as the premise for the action.

Orozco’s drawings are created through a combination of artificial intelligence and human intervention, producing a masticated pastiche that feels libidinal, digital – almost out of body – yet very much grounded in material culture. His process consists of feeding the female figures from Golden Boy to an algorithm; they’re analysed, reconfigured, chewed up, and spat out. Graphic Mayan glyphs are then collaged onto their ethereal surface by the artist.

This uncomfortable pairing comes from Orozco’s interest in the tension between spiritual and sensual worlds, ruminated on through Eastern and Pre-Hispanic mysticism. In another series of digital drawings, slick, oiled-up hentai1 girls join Mayan deities under the title La rueda filosa que destruye al enemigo (The sharp wheel that destroys the enemy). These works are inspired by, among other things, a 9th century Buddhist text called The Wheel of Sharp Weapons, a poetic discourse on discipline and acquiescence.

Orozco’s interest in these intermediate states – between the sensual and spiritual, the kitsch and philosophical, machine and human, facile humour and ancient wisdom – is tied to his use of Japanese animation, or anime. The erotic dimension of these images, for him, marks a liminal sexual space between childhood and maturity, which concurrently traverses androgyny and a sexed-up binary. Alongside the references to pre-Hispanic cultures, they build a network of familiar symbols to create a bridge between the (assumed to be Mexican) viewer and Orozco’s inner world, in spite of their largely impersonal AI origin.

Mauricio Orozco, Untitled, 2022, digital drawing, dimensions variable.

This network of easily recognisable symbols is, by its nature, not idiosyncratic to Orozco’s work. The ubiquity of anime imagery among a generation of Mexican artists is striking, another example being Luis Campos’ (b. 1989, Mexico City). In his drawings and paintings, barbed wire forms, body parts, candy-pop death metal text, floating scalps and cut-up cartoon eyes are spliced together to create a kind of jagged psychedelia. In a cell from the comic O3ZVM II, published by the Oaxacan artist-run Yope Project Space, a skeletal grin with too many teeth emerges from a curtain of rusty red hair.

The source material for these body parts is unmistakable. This hood of red hair once belonged to Asuka Langley Soryu, a character from hit anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion. First aired in Latin America in 1999,2 the show had a remarkable cultural impact across the region. With its stylish combination of apocalyptic futurism and Christian symbolism, the series follows three teenagers who pilot giant humanoid robots to battle mysterious demonic forces known as ‘Angels’ to avert the end of the world.

But it isn’t only Evangelion that appears abstracted in Campos’ drawings. Other cameos include the cut-and-pasted hair of Goku, the protagonistof Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Mars, from the iconic franchise Sailor Moon, who appears clutching her ears and grimacing. Meanwhile, other more ambiguous characters emerge out of a sort of primordial slime, at once pained and ecstatic.

Like Orozco’s girls, most of Campos’ output is computer generated. This is motivated by his interest in the development of visual culture at large, which feeds other references in his work like suits of armour, botanical diagrams, smooth digital gradients, and an overall course tension between representation and abstraction. In an interview, he speculated that AI is the future of image making; soon we will have little involvement in how visual culture is produced.

However, these digital dreams are never neutral. As with any artificial intelligence, it learns from the information provided to it, which in this case, is Campos’ own perception of the visual culture in his immediate surroundings. In this environment anime looms large; in almost every Sunday morning tianguis3 there are stalls pushing otaku4 clothing and paraphernalia. In the historic centre of the capital stands Friki Plaza, a three-storey indoor market dedicated to cosplay, bootleg anime DVDs, statuettes, and other memorabilia.

Once again we’re caught in a liminal space: the area between Campos’ memory and the computer’s desire lines, protracted adolescence and accelerated death drive, all situated somewhere between the future and the past. In the work of Campos and Orozco, and the many others using this imagery – for instance, the recent presentation by Danika Escudero Vanderlinden at art-cum-design showroom Momo Room, or Yope Project Space member Gibran Mendoza – the question of where this infatuation began hangs heavy in the air.

Luis Campos, page from O3ZVM II, 2022, digital drawing, dimensions variable.

Japanese animation has been broadcast in Mexico since the 1970s. Early animated shows including Kimba: The White Lion, Tetsujin 28-Go and a little later, Astroboy, all became family favourites. It was also during this decade that economic and industrial ties between the two countries were strengthened. After the discovery of new oil fields in Mexico in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, Japanese industrial interests moved in with greater zeal.

However, it was not until the 1990s that anime truly exploded into the Mexican mainstream. This was, according to scholar Edgar Santiago Peláez Mazariego, due to three main factors: the liberalisation of Mexican television media in preparation for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); the arrival of toy manufacturer Bandai’s LATAM operation; and a global boom in Japanese cultural clout, which created the ideal conditions for a burgeoning fandom in the country.5

Throughout the 1980s, the Mexican economy was transformed, culminating in 1994 with the signing of NAFTA. This process began with the 1983 debt crisis, fuelled by high interest rates, fluctuating oil prices and an economy that (in the International Monetary Fund’s opinion) was too dependent on the state. These conditions caused a run on the peso that led to three-digit inflation. In order to receive international assistance, the United States stipulated that the Partido Revolucionario Institucional or PRI (say pree) follow the IMF’s recommendations and liberalise the Mexican economy.

Between 1982 and 1991, 882 state-owned enterprises were privatised or liquidated; and so the libido of neoliberalism was unleashed. The telecommunications industry wasn’t exempt from the market’s thirst; the president at the time, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, believed Mexican cultural identity was too strong to be overwhelmed by international influences. The networks were liberalised, and having previously held a monopoly over the national broadcasting market, the major public station Televisa had a new competitor, TV Azteca.

Ahead of the opening up of the economy, Japanese toy manufacturer Bandai chose Mexico as its base for a new factory to serve the LATAM region. The emergence of TV Azteca resonated perfectly with their marketing plan: to drive toy sales with broadcast media. Alongside anime studio Toei Animation, they offered TV Azteca discounted rights to the series Saint Seiya: Knights of the Zodiac.

The deal proved to be a huge success for Bandai. The company’s annual invoicing doubled from the previous year, accounting for 80% of the total industry market. In 1996, the partnership attempted to repeat the formula with the airing of Sailor Moon, and as ratings continued to ride high, they made more space in their schedule for Japanese productions. In a bid to compete, Televisa aired Dragon Ball, Dragon Ball Z and Ranma ½, among others, to an equally warm reception.

Anime hype in Mexico reached fever pitch at the end of the 1990s, in line with a global crescendo in the ‘Cool Japan’ phenomenon, as it was later dubbed by journalist Douglas McGray.6 Although the shows began to disappear from public television in the mid-00s – some conservative commentators took issue with some of the more adult themes7 – the demand for anime was well and truly cemented. Fans could continue to access Japanese-made content on cable channels such as Locomotion and Canal 22. Meanwhile, Friki Plaza opened its doors in 2003, brimming with bootlegged and imported goods alike.

This flow of goods was further massaged by the signing of Mexico and Japan’s Economic Association Agreement (Acuerdo de Asociación Económica) in 2005. This brought an even more constant flow of Japanese investment, which was already growing steadily throughout the 90s, thanks to Mexico’s prime position as a source of cheap, youthful labour in the NAFTA economic area. Already raised on a diet of Dragon Ball and Saint Seiya, this labour force, with an average age of 24, was primed for the factory floor.

The intensity with which Japanese visual culture has infiltrated Mexico, from its markets to its contemporary art galleries, is remarkable. It is integrated into the urban landscape so intimately, yet remains so distinctive, so at home in its otherness. Perhaps, as Japanese sociologist Koichi Iwabuchi puts it, ‘cultural otherness sells in the age of globalisation’.8

Between 2003 and 2013 Japanese foreign direct investment flows to Mexico grew at an annual average growth rate of over 20%. Broadcast media and toys actually accounted for a fairly minor portion of this investment; what took the lion’s share was car manufacturing. Over 70% of Japanese investment was concentrated in the automotive industry, for whom Mexico’s strategic position and demographic was particularly attractive.9

The first Japanese automotive manufacturer to invest in operations in Mexico was Nissan, when the firm opened its first plant outside of Japan in Cuernavaca, Morelos, in 1961. The Nissan Tsuru became – and remains – Mexico’s best-selling car and the vehicle of choice for Mexico City’s taxi cab drivers. Nissan’s presence in Mexico crescendoed in 1991, ahead of the signing of NAFTA, with the opening of their A1 Aguascalientes facility. Meanwhile, other brands entered the Mexican market in the wake of the Japanese/Mexican economic accord, including Honda, Mazda, and Toyota, with operations mostly in the Bajío region, Guanajuato, approximately 40km north of Léon.

I work as an English teacher for students at a Japanese sogo shosha10 serving automotive manufacturers in Bajío. English is the language of choice for communication with HQ in Tokyo, as teaching Japanese or Spanish either way is perceived to be too challenging or less useful in regard to broader career development. In one class, a student of mine recounted his experiences working at the newly opened Honda factory in Celaya, Guanajuato, in the 2000s when he too was in his mid-20s. He told me the conditions were awful. Beatings on the production lines, from managers drafted in from Japan, were routine.

This account jarred with the affection with which Japanese culture is generally regarded. Once, a friend showed me a picture of him with a lifesize model of Asuka; he joked that the Japanese-German animated fighter pilot was his girlfriend. Anyway, when I asked him about his love of anime and manga, he said that he suspected the national enthusiasm for the media was about ‘anxiety and agency’. He said unlike American culture (or indeed Spanish, harking back to colonisation), it didn’t feel so compulsory, not so forced down your throat. I wondered if my student would agree.

This ambivalence, or strained romance, is reflected in the work of Orozco and Campos. In the drawings produced by the AI-powered meat grinder is a digital realm where there is a distinct nostalgia for the future, caught somewhere between love and violence, adolescence and cynicism, spiritualism and frivolity. In these twisted animated images there is a desire unfulfilled, yet still pawed at longingly.

Nostalgia for the future feels like a distinctly millennial condition: throughout the 90s and early 00s Mexican television stations beamed humanoid robots, martial arts masters, time-travelling androids and menacing aliens across the nation. Meanwhile, the liberalisation of the economy promised new prosperity, a new era; in the 90s maybe society still believed in the future. And now what?

In the wake of NAFTA, now re-hashed as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), inflation in Mexico continues to rise. The currency is more or less stable, but at $20 MXN to the dollar, it’s nothing compared to the $3 MXN to the dollar enjoyed by Boomers and Gen X at the signing of the NAFTA treaty. What happened to the future? The promise of prosperity?

This condition reminded me of ‘NAFTAlgia’, a term coined by Arte y Trabajo BWEPS, a research group organised by artist-run space Biquini Wax EPS. In their essay of that title, published ahead of the ratification of USMCA in 2017, they reflect on the NAFTA years through a ‘magical realist collective autobiography’. Constructed around a failed relationship with an insensitive gringo boyfriend, the essay describes the intimate experience of this vast macroeconomic exercise.

In their account, the 1994 trilateral agreement with the United States and Canada would not be ‘a vulgar colonial plunder… but a sweet, lubricated honeymoon’. It ultimately ends in a string of broken promises, unfulfilled expectations, and hard fucking work. One of the collective recounts their mother’s attitude to their artistic labour in the NAFTA landscape:

Bourdieu did not reach deep Mexico. Only Honda, Mazda, Nissan and Volkswagen reach into the country’s lawless subsoil, sucking a shitload of water free of charge. For my mother, the work had to be direct, from the body.

I can’t help but notice the honourable mentions for three Japanese manufacturers (and one German, just like Asuka).

Not a month ahead of the beginning of renegotiation, the Office of the US Trade Representative hurriedly published its objectives. A Bloomberg analyst called it, ‘a unilateral announcement after a unilateral list of demands.’11 A key demand was that 40% or more of auto parts are required to be manufactured by workers who are paid at least $16 USD per hour to avoid tariffs.12 This was intended to attract automotive manufacturing back to the United States.

So much for said lubricated honeymoon, it seems. But the Japanese brands aren’t going anywhere, and good thing too, if the gospel of trickle down economics is to be believed. According to reports from an industry newsletter, the cost of moving the plants is just too much. They’d rather pay the duties or just raise workers’ wages. Besides, they’re exploring automating much of the factory floor to mitigate rising labour costs.13

Unlike the States, Mexico and Japan’s honeymoon will be syrupy sweet and glide in nicely. The labour force will be fully automated with metallic roots stretching deep into Guanajuato’s scorched soil. In line with Campos’ vision of the future of image production, this factory floor will do away with the human hand and accept the android’s cold embrace, like Orozco’s tantric surrender. It will feel like the future, have all its trappings, although perhaps not as we had hoped. Love hurts, it seems, these artists’ wet digital visions.

Reflecting once again on the AI-raptured, nostalgic-but-bleak futurity of these works, I’m reminded of the questions that introduce Arte y Trabajo’s state of NAFTAlgia:

Can the millennial lumpen speak?
Do black sheep dream of cholo androids?

Mauricio Orozco, El corazón del enemigo, part of La rueda filosa que destruye al enemigo, 2021, digital print on aluminium with PVC layer, 33 x 24 cm.

Thanks to the artists, Cheryl Santos and Frankie Ventura for sharing their thoughts and experiences. Special thanks to Lisander Martínez, Professor at the Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Tsukuba, Japan, for her insight and guidance.

  1. Hentai is Japanese animated pornography. ↩︎
  2. View the 1999 trailer for Neon Genesis Evangelion broadcast on cable channel Locomotion: ↩︎
  3. An outdoor market, usually shaded from the sun with tarpaulins. ↩︎
  4. Otaku is a Japanese word that describes people with consuming interests, particularly in comics, video games, or computers. In Mexico, it’s applied specifically to anime and manga fans. ↩︎
  5. What follows here is an abridged explanation of Edgar’s analysis of how anime took hold in the Mexican market. His 2019 paper ‘The Global “Craze” for Japanese Pop Culture during the 1980s and 1990s: The Influence of Anime and Manga in Mexico’, is published by Iberoamericana and freely available online:áezMazariegos. ↩︎
  6. Douglas McGray’s article ‘Japan’s Gross National Cool’ was published in Foreign Policy magazine in 2009: ↩︎
  7. One particularly vocal critic was Lolita de la Vega, who according to Richard Villegas in his article ‘The Influence of Anime on the Mexican Underground,’ described anime as ‘satanic’: ↩︎
  8. Read the full discussion in his essay, ‘Complicit Exoticism: Japan and its other’: ↩︎
  9. María Guadalupe Lugo Sánchez’s 2021 paper ‘Spatial Clustering of Foreign Direct Investment: The Case of Japanese Automotive Suppliers in Mexico’ outlines this tendency in detail: ↩︎
  10. Sogo shosha are Japanese corporations that engage in logistics, plant development and international resource exploration. ↩︎
  11. Get the full article, from 2017, here: ↩︎
  12. ‘United States–Mexico–Canada Trade Fact Sheet Rebalancing Trade to Support Manufacturing’ published by the United States Trade Representative: ↩︎
  13. ‘Japanese automakers prefer staying in Mexico’, an article published by investment advocacy groups Mexico Now. Other affiliated organisations include Border Now and HorsePower: ↩︎
  14. ‘NAFTAlgia’ is available is available in Spanish via the online magazine Campo de Relampagos: ↩︎

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Michelle Williams Gamaker is a moving image artist and lecturer based in London. Her films trouble the colonial, imperialist narratives of 20th Century British and Hollywood cinema, recasting marginalised characters as central figures – ‘fictional activists’ who both vocalise the injustices they have experienced and act out new alternatives. Across her practice, Williams Gamaker confronts and disturbs the sedimented institutional languages that fail to account for the ways that race, class, gender and queerness variously shape experience. In this interview, we talk to Williams Gamaker about the joys of escapism and interrogation, fictions that bleed into reality, and the languages that permeate her practice, the words that return.

KIAH ENDELMAN MUSIC: I recently watched the 2020 a-n Artists Council ‘Artists Make Change’ conversation between you and Jade Montserrat, where you talk through your friendship and collaboration, and the shared impulses that guide your work and working relationships. I was struck by the way you spoke about language, the idea that it has a ‘lived emotional resonance’ built on the ‘pain… and longing… and… speculation’ carried with it through its histories, across its lives. You also spoke about the freeing effect a lack of formal training has had upon your work with language as an artist, and I wondered about this tension between language as material and experience. I thought this could be a jumping off point, to ask you to speak through your relationship to language and about its role in your work?

MICHELLE WILLIAMS GAMAKER: Working with language as a material is something that I have grown into. I should note that if I speak or write with confidence now, it wasn’t always this way. Utilising the materiality of language counters the passivity that can occur when words are used without thought. An example comes from teaching, where words and their application are essential to understand and support the progress of students’ work. The language of one student (their specific vocabulary) inevitably differs greatly from other students – and I try to meet each individual halfway, to share in their linguistic register. This is, of course, totally subjective, but in this way, I think I have been accumulating language and the way people speak actively since I started to teach in 2006. During a tutorial, there is space to play with language, to find modes of expression that build trust and allow for feelings to be shared. I often find something unexpected emerges in the construction of a sentence, and in moments like these I ask my students to hold onto what they have just said – because it is often very revealing about what they need the work to become and what drives them to make it.

The conversation with Jade is also an example of a shared language that we explore, built on the trust within our friendship. The pain, longing and speculation that I intimated sits within language is something I think we both explore in our practices, for Jade through drawing and spoken word and for me through scriptwriting. I think once we acknowledge that language is a repository of experiences, it cannot be separated from one’s own history and a wider cultural inheritance that ultimately impacts how we think. I know that I speak in a ‘coloniser’s tongue’ and it sits uncomfortably in my mouth. I try to not wield words as a weapon, but to understand the scope of their violent power – this sometimes involves writing from the imagined position of those who have and wield power. I find the language I speak to be a soup of what was taught, what had to be rejected because in effect it was rote learning, and what was imbibed from others (especially an affinity with the world of fiction and its characters). This constant play with the words I speak creates a space to subvert and explore the ‘lived emotional resonance’ of language. Acknowledging this has helped me to relax when I use words as I feel they more and more reflect my desire to speak and be heard.

KEM: I wanted to ask about the role of scriptwriting in your work as an approach to both language and the visual. Perhaps there are two queries here: firstly, how do you start? Does image or text come first? And, secondly, how does the script act as both a formal structure and critical tool?

MWG: Images often come first. Usually a trapped image from the past, for example a film still or a scene that haunts me. I often fixate over the problems of an image and usually the only way to dislodge it is to revisit it and reimagine it through filmmaking. As a student, Chris Marker’s 1962 film La Jetée left a strong impression on me. The premise is that a time traveller is sent back to the past because of his capacity to remember an image from his childhood – I loved the possibility that an image from the past could find a solution for the present. A lot of my films reimagine scenarios proposing alternative conditions for characters.

The script is a tried and trusted tool to indicate dialogue and action, and I really enjoy the formal qualities of how a script can share visual motifs and concepts with such economy and beauty. I am indebted to my partner Elan, who is a screenwriter, and who gave me the basics of scriptwriting, but I have always been a reader of screenplays for their accessibility. I tend to follow my scripts quite closely when I work on set. It’s important that my actors don’t detour greatly from the text and my role is to try to transform the words I have written into the specific image I have in mind. In this way, the script is a formal blueprint for the crew, but as a document, it has a critical function, because I often write from a space engaged in the politics of the source material the images derive from. I have started to think that the script has become the only way I start to make – which long term might feel limiting or possibly too controlling – but at present it feels expansive. It allows me to set out my vision for the work I want to make and enables precision in the form. I have to carefully work out how to bring the politics to the fore without being too didactic. A script that has been laboured over through several drafts and read by my collaborators is something that I ultimately want to share through the final film and the text, where all my intentions are laid bare. They will always differ, but I love how the script marks this journey.

Michelle Williams Gamaker, Dissolution, 2017-19, and Kanchi’s Alphabet (Krishna Istha), 2020 , installation view I Multiply Each Day, Gus Fisher Gallery, Auckland.

KEM: A project I wanted to ask about was the June 2020 statement you wrote together with Jade Montserrat and Cecelia Wee, ‘We need collectivity against structural and institutional racism in the cultural sector’. Not a script, but certainly another kind of directive writing, the clear language and content of this statement felt so crucial in face of the stream of public declarations of anti-racism and ‘statements of commitment’ that were typically left at that – as statements, unenacted. How does this piece feel two years on?

MWG: This text felt so urgent at the time, as I recall we had just witnessed the distressing and needless death of George Floyd, which resulted in a resurgence in Black Lives Matter activism (or rather a resurgence in press attention for BLM, as the activism never went away). We felt compelled to write the text because of the evident institutional performativity within the cultural sector that, as you mentioned, appeared to stop short of action. Our statement enabled us to vent using a precise knowledge of our combined lived experience within the arts and academia. I remember that we returned to the text over and over again, and there were many allies (including Tae Ateh) who read the text and questioned our words. What resulted felt like a rigorous spewing of bile and toxins after working under untenable conditions. It felt long overdue.

After publication, Cecilia, Jade and I were inundated with emails by wellmeaning organisations and individuals asking if they could help or if they could host our work. Ultimately, we just didn’t have the capacity to respond to it all, nor did we feel the institutions that reached out to us knew what they wanted of us. When we wrote the text, we were not proposing to find a solution or solutions to the problem, and I think what Cecilia raised in the Harsh Light talk was that we are time and again asked to ‘fix’ things that the institution is lacking – either within their programming or to temporarily improve the optics of their staffing team. Two years on, I think there have been significant improvements across institutions. I can only speak for myself, but I am beginning to slowly shrug off the gnawing feeling of tokenism that followed most invitations. I can’t say if this says something about where I am in my career, or that things have genuinely changed, but I would like to hope it’s the latter.

KEM: You have described the focus of your work as Fictional Activism, an approach to art and filmmaking that performs ‘potent acts of fictional treachery’. This construction reminded me of a conversation between Saidiya Hartman and Arthur Jafa, where Jafa suggests – or provocates – that ‘nonfiction needs fiction, but fiction doesn’t need non-fiction.’ Hartman responds: ‘the difference between fiction and non-fiction has everything to do with…who has the power and authority to advance truth claims.’ This careful negotiation of the terms by which we define experience felt significant to your work. I wanted to ask – what counts, for you, as fictional and what as ‘real’ activism?

MWG: Firstly, thank you for sharing this negotiation by Hartman and Jafa – I love what they bring to light here – the space of fact and fiction is a very slippery terrain. I do agree with Hartman that power and authority play a key part in storytelling, be it a perceived ‘fiction’ or presented as ‘truth’. I suppose the ‘fictional’ and the ‘activism’ that I speak of is being applied with a specific lens in mind: Western cinema’s Hollywood and British Studio films adopted a very powerful hold over global audiences in the 20th century, and to a certain extent their ideological distribution of images still dominates popular culture, despite other cinemas and voices having more accessible platforms to share their work.

Fiction is almost impossible to separate from ‘truth’ and I try to incorporate the docufictional into my writing – so that something I know, or the experiences of the performers I work with can sit inside the fiction. When I apply the word ‘activism’ I am aware that my engagement with the term is conceptual. I do not wish to belittle the essential work of activists who engage in supporting others where it quite literally could mean the difference between life and death.

However, the theoretical application of activism I am working with seeks a narrative reparation for former fictional injustices, which supported a legacy of misrepresentation that I feel impacted many people’s self-worth, either in not being able to find decent screen representations of themselves in their formative years, or in the participation in the racist legacies of cinema, which contributed harmful stereotypes over more truthful representations of individuals or communities.

KEM: Perhaps this is a related, if slightly tangential, question. You’ve spoken about your first, childhood experiences of cinema, watching films at home on your TV, as a kind of escapism. How do escapism and engagement, the joys of both falling into and interrogating something, play out in your practice?

MWG: Well, I think I have a natural predilection to escapism – partly because I love to daydream and find it a useful tool for thinking about the work I want to make. I absolutely needed films as a child and teenager; to escape into their lavish and epic worlds. And I found deep comfort in televised cinema; its featurelength duration, its folly, its drama and artistry as a means to temporarily shake off more routine or banal parts of my life. Today, I want to share this escapist dimension with others. For example in my film The Bang Straws (2021) I genuinely wanted to recreate a scene in which Austrian-German-American actress Luise Rainer is covered head to toe in straw during a storm sequence in Sidney Franklin’s 1937 film The Good Earth. The recreation of this sequence for me was about questioning who gets to perform in films (an ongoing concern in my work) and subsequently who gets to make films? It is more than likely that Rainer’s body was swapped out for a stuntman, bringing the question of gender to the fore too.

I love how you have phrased this question, because there is something joyful about immersing yourself in something, but that moment of revisiting can’t simply be about repeating. I think a great deal of historical films failed to interrogate what they were representing and as a result are structurally lazy. By interrogating the thing you love, there is the possibility of critical affection that enables me to deconstruct and scrutinise something in multiple ways. This has been the case with my ongoing fascination with British directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. This began with their 1947 film Black Narcissus, which is the source film of my Dissolution trilogy (2017-19) and continues with my latest production Thieves, which revisits two films from 1924 and 1940 of the same name: The Thief of Bagdad. This will be my first film in Fictional Revenge, and here I will seek a fictional bloodletting for the racist practice of so-called brown/black face, which meant many actors of colour were denied roles in favour of white actors’ poor substitute characterisations of indigenous communities. The script also broadly confronts labour rights for workers and considers the historic (possibly present-day) class structures of film sets. One example utilises the Indian protest model of the gherao, which I learnt about from interviewing Dr Adrishya Kumar in Kolkata, whereby my actors will confront the director Michael Powell and screenwriter Lotta Woods by encircling them until their demands for screen justice are met.

KEM: Your recent work with UAL for the Decolonising Archives project, ‘“Knees and Breasts are Mountains”; the art school reimagined’, speaks to this negotiation between the real and the fictional, the institutionally scripted and the creatively produced, the imagined otherwise. Could you speak about what it was like to work with Chelsea College of Arts and the Henry Moore Archive? I was particularly interested, when reading your script, in your decision to assume the role of ‘External Examiner’ – how did the relationship between the supposed ‘objectivity’ required of this position and the steeply subjective space of the archive play out?

MWG: I applied for the Decolonising Archives project because I saw an opportunity to bring the script into the space of the art school. This is something I had tested in a script called Parting Gestures, a loose play proposing a conversation between me and the graduating students of the 2017, which appeared in the Goldsmiths degree show catalogue. I had also in 2018 turned a co-curated exhibition with Nick Norton and Catriona McCara into a script for a programme titled Library Interventions: Moving Knowledge at Leeds Arts University, so there was a precedent for wanting to construct a scenario within an institutional context. I wondered if an archive, often understood as a static repository of factual content, could have some subjective interventions around it, without skimping on criticality.

Through my work with Women of Colour Index (WOCI) Reading Group between 2016-2019, together with co-founders Samia Malik and Rehana Zaman, we worked with WOCI’s collection of slides and exhibition ephemera collated by artist Rita Keegan, who indexed Women of Colour artists working in the UK during the 1980s and 1990s. This invaluable archive evidences the precarious nature of practice for marginalised identities and the hardwon position of these individuals who fought for their work to be exhibited and received with parity in an evidently more racist and resistant landscape for artists of colour within the arts. So while I don’t take archiving lightly, I wanted to write myself into one that had little or no trace of artists like myself with diasporic, migrant histories.

I chose to work with two archives from Chelsea College of Arts, as it was the one part of UAL that I had the least connection with. With this in mind, I developed the role of a self-appointed time travelling External Examiner, partly as a tongue-in-cheek response to my marginality within institutions, first as a student, and then as a Senior Lecturer, but also, because of that marginality, as a way to justify my reinstated presence in Chelsea School of Art’s (as it was then called) ostensibly white teaching and student body.

In the Henry Moore Archive, there was a fascinating picture of the artist as his sculpture, Two Piece Reclining Nude, was installed in 1964 outside the art school’s Manressa Road campus. I wanted to use the holes, commonly found in Moore’s work, as a device to look through and beyond to the histories of overlooked artists of colour within art schools. I had some fun photoshopping an image of myself, posing with a clipboard in hand as the External Examiner.

The relationship between the supposed ‘objectivity’ required of this position and the steeply subjective space of the archive played out through a series of conversations, firstly with artist Keith Piper, who was part of the first Black artists only show, The Devils Feast, in 1987. I also corresponded with Gavin Jaantje’s Chelsea’s first Black Senior Lecturer, and Chila Kumari Burman, who also appeared in The Devils Feast. In the last instalment of the script, I travel to 2020, to speak with Sarah David, Maryam Hina Hasnain, Nisa Khan, Zichen Wang and Chuni Wu, all graduating Fine Art MA students whose studies were deeply affected by the impact of the pandemic. It felt important to mark the art school in the 60s, see the political landscape shift in the critical decade through the work of the Black Arts Movement and to return to be in dialogue with recent graduates about how they experience the college today.

KEM: I also wanted to ask about your experience with A Particular Reality. What has it been like to work within this collective? To develop an alternate arts education that formal institutions have continually failed to provide, for both you and for your students?

MWG: The ever evolving inter-institutional collective A Particular Reality (APR) is moving at such a pace that we have had to use some of our time this year to map what we have achieved and also to work on funding to deliver a sustainable programme for the coming academic year. What began as a collaboration between Kingston School of Art and Goldsmiths in 2018, has grown to include Manchester Metropolitan and Middlesex Universities. To give a brief overview, APR is open to all students, but our focus is centred on supporting BIPOC students to express their creativity and to explore their cultural identity through their work, if this feels relevant. We are developing a responsive extracurriculum that feels self-generating and is reaping positive learning experiences for our participants. We are working with students to improve their experience of art school, with anti-racist teaching practice as part of this endeavour. We also hope that APR enables more connections for students from intersectional backgrounds, who commonly share their experiences of disconnection and isolation on their fine art course. We are driven by the need to co-investigate and collaborate with our students, and where possible invite them to lead in the delivery of events. This was the case with our focus on artist filmmaker Sutapa Biswas this year, where we took students to see her retrospective at Kettle’s Yard and then later in the year our students prepared questions alongside Abhaya Rajani for an intimate roundtable session with Sutapa at Autograph ABP to discuss her latest film, Lumen (2021).

The cross-pollination of staff and students across Goldsmiths, Kingston, Manchester Metropolitan and Middlesex is so galvanising because we are sharing resources and skills and somehow bypassing the restrictions of each institution. I love this under the radar, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney ‘Fugitive’ approach, as the entity of APR is polymorphous as a strategy of resistance from the current model of Higher Education that we are working within.

KEM: To end, I thought we could return to the start, to the conversation between you and Jade. Together, you spoke of the movement of language, of the harm it can cause but also of how, as you say of Jade’s words, another’s language can act as a kind of balm. I wondered if you could talk a little more about the intimacy and weight of another’s words shaping your own, shifting your experience?

MWG: Thank you for bringing me back to this interview – I do need to watch it again, because it was one of those many Zoom conversations in a difficult year, but it felt warm and familial to be talking with Jade. Wren, my youngest was very small at the time, so this was a blurry moment of survival within the pandemic and as a parent of a young baby! The possibility of another’s words shaping my experience, is something that I feel makes one think about empathy and reciprocity. If I read Jade’s words, or look at them on my wall at home, I cannot fully know the nuanced detail of her experience, but I can feel an echo of it, its sting or softness, depending on the tone. I have been working with my performers to incorporate their experiences into my scripts, and this docufictional aspect is very important to me as I want those who perform in my work to be more than vessels for content I want to share. I love the possibility that their history, the ‘intimacy and weight’ as you describe it, mingles with the work and something new with a pulse results in the exchange. I think with Jade’s words, I was referring to her commision for the London Underground. I carried her text ‘Dear Friend, I know that you and you alone possess peace’ and I have often been moved by Jade’s capacity to write a sentence or stanza that holds simultaneous doses of love and rage.

Michelle Williams Gamaker, still from The Bang Straws, 2021.

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Rachel Grant

The title of this essay is borrowed from a local press article written in 2017,1 one year after oil prices plummeted to $27 a barrel, down from $100 in 2014. The latest bust led to falling house prices, thousands of job losses and, more recently, redundant workers being forced to visit food banks. In 2019, Aberdeen was named as the city with the highest concentration of 1% earners and has maintained higher than average earnings when compared to the rest of Scotland.2 At the same time, it has always experienced intense social and economic inequality, with several parts of the city classified as among the 20% most deprived in Scotland.3 Meanwhile, reaching net zero emissions has become the focal point of government efforts to halt climate change and environmental degradation. This, coupled with ageing oil fields, has put a sharp focus on the necessity to diversify the economy in the region,4 with efforts driven by public and private partnerships, including a Green Freeport bid – a special economic zone where a number of levies and tax incentives are available to attract investment and create jobs.5 Aberdeen is attempting to move from the ‘Oil Capital’ to the ‘Energy Capital’ of Europe.

The headline triggers discomfort in me. Its proposal of art as a replacement for an industry associated with ecological devastation and colonial resource theft is at best absurd and at worst dangerous. In addition, while the state continues to cut funding for the cultural sector, it also continues to subsidise fossil fuels. The idea of artists as free market workers who are ready and waiting to take on the task of ‘saving’ the city disregards the realities of our precarious work conditions – the demands of fluid working hours, unquestioned flexibility and hyper communication, poorly paid or short-term roles mean having secondary jobs is also generally necessary. More broadly, and owing at least in part to oil’s dominance, the arts sector in the city has been historically underdeveloped and under financed, and the city’s economic circumstances have often meant that art workers cannot afford to stay – rental prices in the city were at one time on par with London. Having lived in the city for the majority of my working life, I know that the close proximity of art and oil highlighted in the headline is an uncomfortable truth.

Natalie Pullen, Be/Hold, 2021, oil bar and watercolour on linen, 170 x 130 cm.

Despite the emergence of greener branding for the city, the impacts of fossil fuel extraction remain deeply embedded here in cultural identities, production, and the tools of cultural development and funding. Approaches to development are based not on needs and values but an economic profile, seen in festivals such as Spectra Festival of Light and Nuart Aberdeen. Visions and identities for the city oscillate between the perpetuation of nostalgic, parochial translations of cultural heritage and new visions, led by cultural and educational institutions around the future of the city and region. For example, the Robert Gordon University’s ‘Creating a New North’ report was published in 2016 as the university’s new cultural vision for the region, or Culture Aberdeen’s cultural manifesto ‘Vote For Culture’ launched in 2022 for the local elections. Culture Aberdeen is a partnership of the city’s cultural organisations, and the document sets out their collective vision and goals for a future of arts and culture where its importance in the economy and immediate regeneration of Aberdeen is centralised. The impacts of these top down visions are hard to trace in the everyday realities of art workers in the city, and those workers outside of organisations are often not included in the development process. Despite having two universities, there have been no long-term arts and humanities projects in Aberdeen that have located the effects of petroculture – the ‘social imaginaries constituted by knowledge, practices and discourses resulting from the consumption of and subsequent dependence on oil.’6 The projects that take critical positions on oil, whether contemporary art or visual culture more broadly, are few and far between.7

The close proximity between art and oil is evident in BP’s sponsorship of the Aberdeen Art Gallery redevelopment in 2019 which, ‘at £1 million totalled 1/30th of the overall budget.’8 As visitors enter onto the top floor of the building, they encounter the BP special exhibition galleries, featuring a wall sign which reads ‘supported by BP’ in the logo’s traditional green and yellow and one which reads ‘Welcome to the BP Galleries’, this time in copper, to blend in with the building’s colour scheme. The BP Portrait Award also returned to the gallery in 2020. Included on the top floor are lists of major funders, supporters and founder patrons where traces of further oil sponsorship can be found – CNOON International, Suncor Energy UK Limited and the Petroleum Women’s Club of Scotland. At the time media reports quoted gallery management as saying that, while there had been consideration of the sponsorship’s ethical issues, the ‘moral quandary is very different for a city like Aberdeen.’9 Instead, the beneficial impact of oil on the city, tied to a long standing partnership with BP and a consideration that, ‘as one of the largest employers in the city, many of our visitors will be BP employees’ were the deciding factors.10

There is, for me, an urgent distinction to be made between the individual economic necessity of working in the oil industry and the role of institutions in perpetuating its harms. Energy systems are closely related to systems of power – who controls it, who produces it, who has access, and who benefits.11 Oil workers are predominantly from working-class communities. The employment dynamics of the industry are complex, as many earn extremely high wages but are on short term, precarious contracts, conditions which have been cultivated by periodic mass redundancies in the industry. Others are employed on staff payroll and haven’t seen a pay rise in many years, and across staff on precarious temporary or low-paid permanent contracts the costs to retrain in, for instance, the renewable energy sector is high. This year oil companies have reported record profits, while the UK is in the midst of an energy crisis – the brunt of which will be felt by working-class communities. Aberdeen Art Gallery’s acceptance of BP’s money was, at minimum, a missed opportunity. Rather than a focus on the potential loss or upset of particular visitors, refusing the sponsorship could have acted as a form of allyship for BP workers, and many others in the industry who face blacklisting, precarious work conditions and a lack of support in transitioning to the renewable energy sector.

In sharp contrast to the eruptions of art activism seen in the work of Liberate Tate and BP or not BP, there was no public discussion, critique and certainly no form of protest that accompanied the sponsorship. The influence of petroculture is felt more acutely by those cultural workers sustaining a practice here. Many working in the arts have personal connections to those working in the industry or see too much risk in public agitation in a place where opportunities remain limited. For example, Derrick Gunt’s text ‘The Nu Oil’12 is a much-needed, comprehensive enquiry that makes the interplays between forms of cultural production and oil visible through examining Nuart Aberdeen – an annual street art festival imported to the city. However, an online search for the author comes back empty and the name is perhaps a pseudonym employed to mitigate the risk – real or perceived – attached to explicit critique.

In addition, the effects of oil sponsorship in institutions can make the reception of more radical work harder to locate. Calls in artworks or exhibitions for more ethical ways of living and change in society feel empty when placed in institutions that take oil sponsorship and ultimately perpetuate its social licence to operate. The recent Aberdeen edition of the British Art Show 9 (BAS9), a touring exhibition organised every five years by Hayward Gallery Touring, played out this dynamic. This edition is curated by Irene Aristizábal and Hammad Nasar and responds to the different contexts of its host cities; Aberdeen, Wolverhampton, Manchester and Plymouth. Each iteration produces a different thematic lens and combination of artists. The Aberdeen edition ( July-October 2021) focused on efforts to develop alternative systems for ethical cohabitation and proposed to ‘put care at the heart of our relationship with nature, resist injustices of extractivism… moving away from hierarchical interaction that puts humans first.’13 The reality is that, collectively, the city has not yet come to terms with the effects of oil and extractivism, that these relationships remain ongoing and influential, leaving this focus – even as a proposition – impossible. What’s more, the arts are also guilty of enacting forms of hierarchy and extractivism, which was reflected in the BAS9 exhibition design. Despite a history of more collaborative approaches – for example in Plymouth during the BAS7,14 where multiple local organisations hosted the exhibition – this was not the chosen format for Aberdeen. Apart from Abigail Reynold’s Elliptical Reading (2021), hosted in the Central Library, the exhibition was exclusively showcased in the Aberdeen Art Gallery. While resources are funnelled into the newly developed gallery, vital arts organisations in the city remain precarious.

This friction was also found in particular works, like Kathrin Böhm’s When Decisions Become Art (2019-ongoing), a series of collages and tape drawings that explore the systems that produce the values of arts practice. An A4 text points to the potential impact of oil in the city, and reads ‘I’m not local and I don’t know enough about art and oil in Aberdeen, but I know that we all rely on the economies around us, and that we as a human kind can change them if we want to.’ It was notable that the text failed to mention current oil sponsorship of the gallery. Perhaps this is the crux of it; an artwork that calls for change without situating a primary example (within a search engine’s reach) of the interplays between art and oil in Aberdeen. To speak to this absence is not to focus on the responsibilities of one artist’s work to call out or make visible the inequities and problems inherent in petroculture but to acknowledge that such work plays a role in the antagonisms that develop when art and activism practices are presented in institutions where oil sponsorship is highly visible. These responsibilities are structural and the question of where and how these systems of responsibility operate, to what extent all participants knew of the gallery’s oil sponsorship and what, if any, reconciliation took place in considering curatorial calls to resist the injustices of extractivism, are questions that remain unanswered. The infrastructure of the BAS9 show became for me an extractive form, attempting to benefit from and keep relevant the format of a large-scale show by forefronting responses to a local context without the necessary time or care needed to unpick these relationships.

Aberdeen does not currently have any artist-led spaces, despite a history of such activity.15 Instead there are diverse approaches operated online, from flats, in pubs or hosted temporarily by existing organisations.16 Much of this activity, however, relies on workers having second jobs and on individuals’ capacities in the longer term to sustain under-supported work. There continues to be an annual exodus of graduating students from Gray’s School of Art moving elsewhere, very often to cities such as Glasgow. The pull is in the perception of better opportunities for further education, entry level jobs, contributions to artist-led spaces and a sense of belonging. In the interim, conversations with freelance practitioners both emerging and established in Aberdeen cite issues of diversity, responsibility, and agency (or a lack thereof) within the ecology of the arts scene. ‘Aberdeen is in danger of becoming a giant Etsy market’ was the thought of one practitioner, frustrated both with the lack of opportunities for work beyond selling models and, perhaps more importantly, a lack of belonging within the community itself. The structural conditions that oil produces are beyond a single street art festival, art work, exhibition, organisation or sponsorship – these relationships are interdependent and their effects plural.

What I am trying to ask in this context is – if aspects of the arts ecology and border cultural identity are shaped by oil – what else can there be? What other art world(s) become possible and meaningful here? An increase in funding is essential to the development of a sustainable arts ecology in Aberdeen, however the question of how to support conditions for cultural workers to see themselves belonging here – while interrelated – calls for more than temporary financial support.

In response to any critique it is natural to ask – what’s your alternative? But coming to terms with the interdependent relationships of art and oil is a task in itself, still in its early stages and requiring further collective work. If the structural conditions produced by the close proximity of art and oil in the city can be defined as high budget, short term and extractive, there is a need then to develop ways of thinking beyond these conditions. As Aberdeen attempts to diversify from oil into renewable energy, there is a need for further interdisciplinary discussion around, and visibility of, the economic and energy related aspects of cultural production in the city – the ongoing energy crisis provides a particularly urgent context for this thinking. Beyond Aberdeen, projects such as Sunlight Doesn’t Need A Pipeline (SDNAP),17 led by curator and researcher Dani Admiss, have been exploring what a just transition mightlook like for art workers. With a history in labour unions and environmental justice groups,18 just transition has come to be understood as a vision-led and place based set of principles, processes and practices to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative one. Over the last year SDNAP has supported a variety of collaborations, commissions, workshops and an open source decarbonisation plan for art workers which will be presented at a community festival and teach-in at the Stanley Picker Gallery, Kingston University, London in 2022. Asking what a just transition could look like for art workers in Aberdeen can open up a space of possibility, where alliances may be made beyond the arts sector and into activist and environmental campaign groups. To engage in a just transition is to not only think about future systems and worlds – it must involve an understanding of and disentanglement from the ongoing impacts of energy regimes on the arts sector. Reframing and remaking of those impacts, I would suggest, is where critically specific, political and practical forms of action might emerge.

  1. Rachael Cloughton, ‘After the Oil Boom and Bust, Could Art Save Aberdeen?’, The List (2017) <>. ↩︎
  2. Aberdeen City Council, Aberdeen Economic Policy Panel Report (2021), p. 8. ↩︎
  3. The Scottish Government, Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (2020) <>. ↩︎
  4. This includes a focus on renewable energy, life sciences, food and drink, the digital economy and tourism. ↩︎
  5. The difference between Freeports and the Green Freeport approach is that bidders would have commitments to net-zero targets and fair work. Despite this, the special administrative status of Freeports makes them a tax avoidance and money laundering risk and there is very little solid evidence that they actually create significant numbers of jobs. ↩︎
  6. Karina Baptista, ‘Petrocultures’, Global South Studies: A Collective Publication with The Global South (2017) . ↩︎
  7. These few include: The VOP (Very Ordinary People’s) Tent (2008) by Merlyn Riggs, which responded to the BP awards tent on site at Gray’s School of Art during their sponsorship of the undergraduate degree show; Invisible Oil (2008), an exhibition by Ernst Logar at Peacock Visual Arts; Oil Dorado by Ashanti Harris, The Visitor by Alison Scott and DREEPIN by Shane Strachan, commissioned as part of CRUDE (2021). ↩︎
  8. Chris Garrard, ‘Opinion: BP’s Aberdeen Gallery Donation Can’t Hide Its Big Oil Investments’, DeSmog (2019) <>. ↩︎
  9. David Styles, ‘Ethics, economics and the environment: the arts sector remains split on BP funding’, Museums + Heritage (2019) . ↩︎
  10. Styles, ‘Ethics, economics and the environment’. ↩︎
  11. KIASualberta, Sheena Wilson: Feminist. Energy. Just Futures, youtube (2017) <>. ↩︎
  12. Derrick Gunt, ‘The Nu Oil’, Leopard Arts (2019) <>. ↩︎
  13. Irene Aristizábal and Hammad Nasar, ‘Imagining New Communities | Inventing New Futures’, in British Art Show 9 (London: Hayward Gallery Publishing: 2021), pp. 115-125, (p. 116). ↩︎
  14. The BAS9 exhibition in Plymouth will continue this collaborative form with multiple arts organisations across the city hosting the exhibition. (September – October 2022). ↩︎
  15. This includes artist-led spaces such as Limousine Bull and Project Slogan. ↩︎
  16. An incomplete list of arts/organisational activity would include; Tendancy Towards, Hysteria Collective, Haar(bour), Miasma, Nomad, Use of Experiential Space, Tactics for Togetherness, We Are Here Scotland, Creative-me-podcast, Mood of Collapse blog, This Is Not By Chance Collective, Hysteria Collective. ↩︎
  17. See ↩︎
  18. Samantha Smith, Just Transition: A Report for the OECD (Belgium: Just Transition Centre: 2017), p. 3. ↩︎

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Lunchtime & Celine, 2022

Kate Morgan

As though here to hand one of us a takeaway, in his Deliveroo workwear Teddy Coste locks his bike and enters the gallery. Pierrot-like, a kind of 1950s-crooner gleam in his eyes, he begins to speak. He describes what feel like pristine moments of cycling-cum-philosophy: ways the cyclic has interrupted his life, and his desire to live against ‘the vertical’. He quit his Deliveroo job today, and will quit Glasgow within weeks of this performance. So, it’s a swan song to his time here as both artist and gigworker. The Junction has three parts: a monologue inside Lunchtime Gallery, a karaoke performance on the street, and a finale where Coste changes outfit, opting to become a painter.

Coste is sincere, enthused. ‘Staying at the same place would mean routine. Which is some kind of repetition. I don’t like repetition. It sounds like labour.’ I bumped into him in the park a few days before The Junction, out rehearsing his lines. Crafting a performance requires repetition; in the same way gig work is borne of it. And repetitive labour forms a pattern, a groove. The work asks: how to form a meaningful practice despite such grooves, or from them?

The following afternoon, at Celine for Gregor Horne’s exhibition New Work Scotland, I see a connection to Coste. Different formations of labour, often seemingly binary, unfold in concert to consider the varying agencies that a body might have in relation to objects. Three groups of photos form a series: The Boring Side (2022). There are three of a potato chipper, its pressing arm engaged and disengaged. Four of a tenement window from outside, its shutters going from open to closed. And, between these, a single image of an e-bike. All these items are close to the body, its activity and expense. Horne describes how such e-bikes ‘enable riders to work for longer without tiring’, and are often bought on credit and then paid off by delivering takeaways. They bring the rider into a loop of debt, much as, across the room, three empty portfolios (all Untitled, 2022) signify a similar loop within art education. Flat to the wall, they hold both the hopeful naivety of going to art school, and a downswing: slid under beds, left at a parent’s house, sold on for lack of use.

Paid-work and art-work being largely nonsimultaneous for ‘emerging’ artists, most operate precariously on freelance and gig work. Horne and Coste both ask: how possible is it to be an artist here in Glasgow? How to make critical work while operating within and against the foibles of exposure, aspiration and failure?

The New Work Scotland Programme (2000-2012), referenced in Horne’s title, supported the ‘accelerated development’ of recent graduates. Borne of a capital relationship to artists, this kind of loaded framing produces the place we’re in now: where some artists are supported, opportunity breeding opportunity, and it’s all very often arbitrary. Friends give friends shows, define tighter loops: the ‘scene’ seems smaller than it is. Horne’s exhibition title, then, is wry: at once critiquing and self-canonising.

We follow Coste out to The Junction, where three roads meet. We gather plain-clothed, around him, in his Deliveroo-issued uniform. He discards his rucksack and jacket, turquoise, iridescent, changing into the selfdescribed uniform of the artist. We all begin to look more similar.

At work on Sunday, washing the basket of the fat fryer, scrubbing at eachfamiliar void of its grid, I remember one of Coste’s lines: ‘Before you know it, you’ve been looped against your will.’

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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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