ICA - IN FORMATION III - 3 talks for the price of 1
For this week’s review of In Formation, I want to talk across the wider program through three events I went to last week - a zoom out n focus. 1) Embodied Knowledge: Ecology & Performance, 2) Rojava Women’s Revolution 3) What’s Love Got to Do With it? They were all talks of some kind, from the more formal and ~in conversation~ to the roundtable pitch-in, and i feel like perhaps that’s going to be a challenge to write about in some way? Maybe this is too overly dependent on what I’ve taken away from it all, and what I see as the commonality or the friction? Or maybe I am in a radical position to cast a wide-eye across? WHO KNOWS, LET’S SEE…
I went to the first talk on Wednesday; Embodied knowledge: Ecology & Performance. On the panel were 3 friends of TWP (disclaimer): Angela from worm.art.ecology, Suzanne Dhaliwal, and Farah Ahmed. N i gotta say, it was v good. Earlier this year, i remember being in Nando’s with a friend, Allison Chan, n she said: “climate justice is also racial justice”,,,, n it has been one of those phrases that has stuck with me bc it makes such a whole and complete sense. As a thought it is so round and fat and full that it has j been rolling around my mind since I heard it. N my takeaway from this panel has been along those lines;;; framed by this complexity. I just found it so wild that I was sat in the lower gallery of the ICA watching 3 people of colour talk about the language of liberation being co-opted continually, about the visible whiteness of activism, activism as an aesthetic that’s as much informed by cultural considerations as the rest of aesthetics, about the importance of taking care of the indigenous people that will ultimately be affected by violent resistance, of listening and learning from them rather than trying to ‘~save~’ them. I think it was Angela who mentioned as well: that the science of climate change is a kind of science fiction, it hasn’t happened yet (at least here in the global North) so how do we talk about it as a present and also potential speculative disaster? and the conversation drifted on to talk about the anthropocene (which honestly goes way over my head) but as a theory connects war, fascism, resource scarcity, geopolitics, all as way more interconnected with global planetary shifts than we think. N honestly that is where my head fell through into realisation (this talk was just like,,, totally about realising things *upspeak complete*) that this is where art becomes radical, right? in its ability to facilitate conversations cross-discipline. we are, as artists or curators, about n able to open 2 windows and create a cross-wind through buildings. where expertise is great and intense focused discussion and study is useful in understanding a subject so completely, art is useful in zooming us all the way out so you can see all the objects on the table, see how they connect, and how they affect each other. This talk felt like that. Bc (and i think Suzanne said this far more eloquently than i thought it) this is where art becomes useful to other practical concerns, and where it can also absorb the best bits of other fields of study. Suzanne specifically said: where activism can learn or take from art; e.g.: how to imagine the experience of an action;;; and where art can learn from activism (art as typically devoid of context or able to become an act of service).,,,,, This talk was a radical flattening of the terrain, and I could kinda see across it really clearly. across art and activism, which are often so SO intertwined they can feel almost inextricable, esp in ppl’s identities as both artist and activist. This talk offered a rly helpful outcome: that we don’t have to build our communities just in reference to whiteness, that artists need other people (as do activists), we all need each other to learn from so we can make our conversations and fields of study more accessible.
The second talk on Thursday was the Rojava Women’s Revolution. There were literally a million (more like 6) people on the panel so i’ll sweep across; Rahila Gupta (a journalist & writer), Evin Swed (the spokeswoman of Kongra Star), Asmin Roni (member of the YPJ, and Commander of YPJ foreign fighters), Hevidar Abdullah (manager at the women’s communal cooperative in Rojava), Rohash Shexo (a kurdish journalist now working in London as a representative of Kongra Star), and Alda Terracciano (an artist). Half of the panel was in literal Syria talking to us via a voice-only Skype call. Now this panel was a LOT, and it started from a point where it assumed we all knew what the YPJ/YPG was, or what’s going on w the Kurds in Syria/Turkey atm. N I kinda do? But then I also kinda don’t. I don’t wana try and explain it bc i’m afraid I’ll explain it wrong, but I can try n j sweep over it n if i’ve got something wrong pls j politely correct me on twitter n i’ll edit this: Rojava is a de facto autonomous region in Northern Syria that emerged after 2012 n the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. It’s politically led by a Kurdish-led coalition that in 2016 established the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. Supporters of the DFNS would argue that the events constitute a social revolution. Kongra Star function in Rojava, and they’re basically a confederation of Women’s Organisations in this autonomous region of Rojava. the YPG is the ‘People’s Protection Unit’, a mainly Kurdish militia that was formed in 2004 as the armed wing of the Kurdish Leftist Democratic Union Party. They expanded rapidly in the Syrian Civil War and along with their sister organisation the YPJ (the women’s protection unit: the same as the YPG but comprised entirely of women fighters) have been fighting ISIL and other Syrian rebel groups in their allegiance to the DFNS. Turkey has designated the YPG/YPJ as a terrorist organisation, but I think that’s a pretty loaded designation considering Turkey’s ongoing struggle with the PKK & Kurdish separatists in its South-Eastern regions. Fuck. Like this was,,, a LOT. Basically, the conversation kind of unpacked what was going on across Rojava, this social revolution of basically a women’s uprising. There was mention of a women’s village in Rojava, that it was the YPJ not the YPG that led the unit that liberated Raqqa from ISIL, why in the West are we so obsessed with the fall of ISIS, yet we didn’t really hear this? Was it bc it was the women’s units that were run in this deeply anti-capitalist, radically communal way that functions as the complete anti-thesis of what the West is? This conversation had no bearing on art, it made art kind of small fluff next to it in comparison. So I was really surprised and kinda disgruntled to hear this constant insertion of art into the conversation. At the beginning, when Alda Terracciano introduced herself, she said she first applied the term ~cross-dialectical or something, i forget … n across the talk she described what was happening as an artwork of sorts, as the first in a series of interactions, as performance, or engineered environmental interventions of community or whatever. N it just felt cheesy, or maybe bad taste? Jarring. I feel like this conversation was best had outside of the earshot of art and artists? No, this was activism that art should be listening to and learning from, not trying to ~reframe~ and ~recentre~ bc that re-centring is inevitably one that falls in this nice milky neutral middle of western, european art-speak and theoretical history, and yet again the radical activism of women of colour is recentred to include or talk about/talk to whiteness. That’s not rly what was happening in Rojava, or not the value of what was happening there. This talk felt like an off-kilter friction, where the activism that was happening was way ahead of the art that was trying to cling on to it; and in this way, the art pulled us all down with it. I feel like maybe there should have been a better centre to this all, or a better pairing between the artists and the activists invited. This was not the right art and so the entire panel was lopsided.
The last talk was on Saturday afternoon, and i stomped into the ICA wearing the clothes I was going out in that evening. What’s Love Got to Do With it? was roundtable discussion (with no table btw?) between several ~independent’’’ art spaces from across europe. And across the participants there was the shared underpinning of either not being paid enough to do this, or they weren’t paid enough to do this for a long time,, so that’s kind of what Love’s Got to Do With It, if it weren’t for the love they’d have all packed it in a long time ago (not that anyone should turn themselves into a self-sacrificing DIY martyr ofc). And there was discussion of what it means to do this work, running an independent art space; there was mutual agreement that being outside of the tent (so to speak) there was the ability to work better, to take care from a practical concern and turn it into an infrastructural given. But idk man, like this model of live-in domestic setting art spaces are all well and great, but is it actually healthy? or is it super-demanding for those involved? I guess there’s no clear answer bc some ppl have a good balance, but it sounds like others don’t necessarily, n that worries me. It’s this weird line I think we’re trying to traverse n navigate at the moment, how fulfilling is it to say you’ve poured all of yourself into an art thing? is it sustainable? Does the sustainability matter? (of course it does) Is love enough? Is love worthwhile? Is love a driving force towards stability or expansion (which can often be the same thing, but let’s separate them bc they don’t have to be), or institutionalising or professionalism? This whole conversation reminded me of my friend Amrita Dhallu, bc she always says she looks to enact her curatorial duty of care; n it threw me back to Suzanne on wednesday, talking about care in activist communities. But this felt different - this felt like care was a buzzword or an object of attention rather than something to instrumentalise or materialise. There was a bit of talk of enacting care, ways to do it though you yourself are unpaid, but that came from only one member of the panel. This kinda left me feeling kinda despondent; like this care is so personal-political. So often I feel like good-institutions are just good-people; that the personality of an institution changes when the person moves on. And some part of that is inevitable, and some part of that is a good thing! but is that also the problem? like we need something more than the love and care of good-people and this toxic system we live under of capitalism n white hetero-patriarchy;;; BUT WHAT IS IT? (i think it is policy tbh but that is neither here nor there in this discussion) (or maybe it is, but it wasn’t rly mentioned).
At some point i rly did feel like this conversation was navel-gazing to some extent. A looking inwards in a specific curatorial language that I don’t rly understand completely (though i probably should) n that i have to stretch quite hard to translate. I couldn’t tell if that was productive (everyone else seemed to get it and be expanding on things) or not. I couldn’t tell if it was public-thinking with outcome or if this conversation was a list of rinsed out talking-points that had been on the table before and were being recycled for the audience’s benefit. It might sound cynical, but We at TWP are as guilty of it as anyone else here: are these lil indy arts labourers, are we paid more for talking about what we do, than for doing what we do? I can say that we probably are, we’re heading towards being paid to do what we do, but it’s hard! What does that do?! does that make it well-funded introspection? Valuable! Or does it make it kinda performative and kinda tbh unsustainable, that production is propped up or reliant on demand for something else? In my notes for this I’ve written: ‘Why does that feel like both a problem and a solution?’ n i guess bc it is both; there’s no binary here. For us it is very much a solution or a way to fuel our work, but for others it could be very different. N i think that brings me back to the personal-political, and good-institutions being good-people. The only way we can make that goodness sustainable, or attempt to, is through infrastructure and policy. This was v much j me thinking alongside the panel, u can all have these thoughts for free.
But i did also think there was a silence on this and also on how independent spaces can use their precarity to break a radical inclusion. an inclusion of audiences (openness and locality, public practice as a rubric for institutional philosophy, engaging those typically excluded from the white cube by virtue of indy spaces’ informality/etc), of artists (not showing white men, indy spaces are in a better position to be nimble, as across the board they are less accountable and more able to be flexible or responsive, or tbh implement policy that is extremity), or of curatorial practices that are also precarious in a formal way (like curatorial practices that never meet exhibition, invisible practices, etc etc!). But i guess this begs the question, what is each independent space independent from? is it just about who’s getting/not getting money from formal funding structures? or is this also about internal politics of our institutions/spaces, amongst other things. It does make me think that this is all very ~austerity~ this actual conversation. If funding were more available or abundant, this question of ‘how do we work with precarity?’ would be less concerning or less pressingly urgent. It feels like the right question, but I don’t think this talk threw up the right answer. I was j mostly struck by the thought of how many artist-led/independent spaces are actually run by or for people of colour? How many of them actually have a space of their own? How many of them are actively included in these conversations, seen as figureheads in their field; and by that right, how many of them are afforded the chance to be funded better to talk about what they do, than to do what they do? (very few). people of colour are definitely speaking more likely to be operating within this precarity than their white counterparts; so why was this panel almost entirely white except for one speaker? Majority of the DIY projects that have popped up post-austerity, in this neoliberal hellscape where no one is allowed a full-time job w a pension, majority of these are run by people of colour (specifically women of colour, black women most notably!) where are they in these conversations about Heavy Art? Is it bc their cultural output is not seen as Heavy Art? Is it bc their audience is not white (n therefore not likely to be the ppl putting together these lil think panels)? A member of the audience asked the question: ‘do some people appropriate the idea of precarity?’ i inhaled sharply. This was a Good Question™ but i don’t think there’d be a Good Answer™. For so many Artist-led spaces, or independent projects, precarity is a choice, or an opt-in. Often the precarity/independence is used as a substitute for actual Good-politics, or worse, it’s instrumentalised as a substitute for real alterity, and then the precarious/independent space can claim some Good-politics points just by nature of opting into this wild DIY life without actually doing anything fundamentally different to the big white institutions! Precarity is definitely romanticised by some people! People who have chosen it willingly as a position for the sake of an assumed or manufactured radicality! The whiteness of this panel felt pointed bc the entire thing felt centred around funding/navigating voids of funding/rejecting the funding structures that exist rather than an introspection on the nature of precarity and independence itself. Rather than dissecting the nature of that position, it went assumed, and for a good 45 minutes I thought I was stupid n it just went over my head, but it wasn’t that (i hope). This was some art that could use activism.
I have now written too long and too much and god bless you if you’ve reached this far. Carey, if you’re reading this, i have truly enjoyed writing every word, thank u. To end, i think this friction or this pass-play between art & activism, this has felt like the over-arching theme or the binding logic of In Formation III. This has actually been a fucking good palate cleanse, i cannot imagine this relationship being an easy one to navigate, and i’m glad someone took the risk of making something unstable or unknown n did it. And it’s sO broad, but I feel genuinely fulfilled by the focus and the zoom-in of every talk I’ve been to, whether I was satisfied by the answers they gave me or not. I wish every institution did this. I wish every institution was willing to hold like an open forum in this way. It feels productive, it feels valuable and it feels LIKE MOVEMENT. I know i feel this bc i am genuinely interested in finding an answer to all the questions i’ve written above; I am actively interested in the text i’ve written this week! i feel like it’s sincere in its thinking and honest in its enquiry. I don’t think it could’ve been that if the programme wasn’t also the same. I guess we should all watch closely over the next bit; bc all this talk is great, but it’s whether the ICA takes these questions on, whether they use them to inform policy n programme, or keep burrowing into these questions w their regularly scheduled programming, or if they return to them in the next iteration of In Formation. I will be 👀 watching;;; but on the whole, this programme has felt like it’s been asking the right questions, and I can’t rly lambast them for not giving me the right answers first time around; that’s so unreasonable. I am glad for this palate cleanse. Everyone should try it.
we've been commissioned to write about n review events in this In formation III series at the ICA, by invitation of curator Carey Robinson. we are also using the texts to engage the ICA's Social Creative Network, and all payment amounts are on our accounts page as ever if u are interested. also important: we r totally allowed to write what we want, otherwise we wouldn't do it.