This talk was part of Revision, a research and events programme 16 November 2022 - 1 February 2023 at PEER Gallery in Hoxton, that explores repair, collaboration and evaluation in the spirit of organisational learning and accountability.

For more information please click here.

Presentation transcript:

Before I begin, if there’s anything throughout the presentation that resonates with an experience that you’ve had, or you have an impression or sensation, I invite you to take note and hold onto it until the end for when we have drinks…

And rather than having an ‘intellectual’ Q&A, I’d like to open the space for anyone who would like to share an insight and allow that to shape a wider or smaller discussion.

1. Intro

I’m going to share a bit about my evolving practice that includes art, research and poetry, over the last few years. However a lot of the knowledge that appears in these practices has been generated over the last 15 years. A lot of the projects I’ll share are in progress, and they include fragments of writing, visual material and notes. I’m also going to try to practise speaking a bit more slowly, to allow room for pause, space and reflection.

This moment of sharing is, in a way, the first time I’ve actually talked about my own work as someone not affiliated with an institution, or with playing a role within one, such as that of a curator, a fellow or a student. I’ve also tried to reflect on the kind of work that I’ve been doing through the premise of the Revision program, which is to consider the infrastructures within which we work, more critically. For the better part of my professional life, I’ve worked as a curator. And after a rather difficult and disillusioning break from that role, I became much more alert to and aware of the power that hierarchical workplace infrastructures have on a couple of things,

One, diminishing our self-worth and two, in being able to use the language of equity to create an image of equity.

2. Appearance vs Experience

I came to a more lived rather than theoretical realisation that there is a distance between the experience and appearance of an organisation. And how we can often identify and try and treat the symptoms of problems rather than the causes of them. So much is contained in this distance between experiences and appearances that is rendered irrelevant and invisible that, I think, requires the attention and care of artistic thinking.

Most importantly there are bodies that live and work within this distance. Especially within the last few years, I’ve entered into a sense of uncertainty and in-betweenness. Particularly around rethinking how I’d like to exist within the art sector, let alone survive sustainably in it. I’m trying, in at least one part of my life to be an artist, or research artist, artist researcher or whatever combination of words I eventually land on. And this to some extent feels exposing because it’s the most uncertain kind of role I have ever known.

I’ve really only ever worked within organisational settings and workplaces. And the workplace is an environment that both overtly and subtly shapes you and it can shape our identity and sense of purpose. It’s where we can spend much of our life time, for one. And especially in the art sector, there is this underlying assumption that you have a passion for what you do, or at least that what you do, aligns with some sort of conviction or special interest that you have. In some cases that conviction or special interest may have been shaped by the infrastructure you end up in or at least want to end up in, like a museum, university, or gallery for instance. For a long time my sense of self has been tied to the aura of an institution’s self image and the uncomfortable, yet comfortable safety of an office workplace and a job title.

3. Workplace muscle memory

As a result, it may seem obvious to say that I hold a great deal of workplace muscle memory, and this often activates like a conditioned reflex in these types of institutional environments. It can make it difficult to see these spaces with a degree of objective or emotional distance because it’s easy for the everyday violence of institutions to recede into the background. This muscle memory is something I began to take note of more closely during a fellowship at Tate last year, that I’ll get into later. 

So, some of the work I do as a researcher and artist can often feel like deep, investigative, emotional labour and some of the practices involved in this labour include very fragile and felt activities such as listening, writing, walking, drawing, and listing and through these practices, finding ways of disentangling my own intuitive knowledge from institutional knowledge. The body can be a really important tool of navigation in this case. And observing the state of institutions through the body and what the body comes up against, can help map and name what happens in a way that begins with sensational knowledge.

4. ‘Sensing Wrongs’

When I use the word sensational, I mean it in the way that feminist scholar Sara Ahmed refers to it as part of living feminism through the body and how a body is our nearest and earliest tool for sensing wrongs - wrongs we may not have the words for yet. Or even admit we have.

These senses can emerge and retreat constantly and confusingly when we are trained not to notice or trust them. And for me poetry is a way to invoke the body through language because it can more confidently and quickly, toy with the expectations we have around language. In particular, how we can often want language to be informative in particular ways. I can’t remember the quote exactly but I recall the poet Will Harris saying in an interview once something like
‘don’t forget a poem even though it is composed of the language of information
it is not used in the language game of giving information’ (I think he’s also quoting this from someone else). So just to slowly ease into some of the research I did last year I’ll share a short listical poem, which is composed of bits I didn’t use in another poem, that I won’t share today, and the words themselves are drawn from a Tate contract.

(I put the contract in a word frequency calculator to generate a list of words that were contained in the contract.)

5. Self-care routine

Self care routine
Self terms
Self damage
Self assurances
Self bribe
Self annex
Self insurance
Self promises
Self discretion
Self patent
Self whatever
Self research
Quasi Self
Public Self
Applicable Self
Self majeure
Self comply
Self charge
Self model
Model self


This is another, a haiku:

Concerned safe bodies
Grant diversity code
Licence self damage

Without saying too much, I just want to add that I became quite interested in the ways in which we discipline ourselves. And in this case and others I wanted to experiment with the potential of using binding contractual, legal language to say other things that are also internal, binding and private.

7. ‘It is difficult to say what is difficult’

Now I’m just gonna backtrack, for a moment, to consider the series of encounters that shifted my vantage point in the first place. A shift that made it particularly hard for me to re-enter a workplace in the same way. And by ‘in the same way’ I mean as an overly compliant and amiable worker.

I went from being a curator more or less at home inside the walls of an organisation, to finding myself on the other side of the walls, feeling discardable, disoriented and eventually more interested in the walls themselves.

I’m testing out a way of talking about this really difficult, draining period more abstractly through an artwork by conceptual artist, Walid Raad, that I find curiously resonates with my experience.

It’s called Yet more letters to the reader and it’s from an ongoing series that, in part, observes the way the proliferation of art institutions in the Arab Gulf and beyond are codifying the history of modern Art in the Arab world.

Since I still struggle to talk about the past directly, I’ve opted to do this in a dissociative way.

8. ‘Hello, Sherry Salam’

So, In the spirit of dissociation, I’ll talk about a curator named Sherry. She is an imaginary person playing a fictionalised role. Or something like that. One day, during Sherry’s final year working as a curator for a well known private art collection based in the Arab Gulf, she received an instant message from a colleague that contained an image of this installation.

9. Sherry Salam

The installation consists of enlarged reproductions of artworks from the collection that Sherry worked for, painted on empty crates. She recognised the artists, Inji Efflatoun, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Marwan, and other names now more enveloped in the category of Arab modernism. She had met several scholars in this particular field of research — many American — over the years and organised dozens of exhibitions with the original versions of these reproductions.

Sherry generally had a mental map of their locations globally. At the time, she stood behind the idea that raising the profile of artists through exhibitions of the collection across the world, namely the Global North, was part of an effort to de-center art historical canons to include marginalised artists.

10. A feeling she couldn’t quite place

When she saw this installation for the first time, it felt a bit like looking into a funhouse mirror. Those mirrors in carnivals where a person’s reflection gets elongated to become wonky and out of whack. That said, she doesn’t remember the last time she’s seen one in real life. There was a feeling she couldn’t quite place.
Little did Sherry know she would revisit this particular image a few years later after a lot of therapy.

11. Blank stares

This work became a stand-in of sorts when she realised she could no longer bring herself to look at images of the original artworks anymore. They reminded her of blank stares and business as usual, and the walls people make when stakes change.

Sherry eventually saw herself in this work. In a way, though it didn’t make sense, she was a curator without a body in the same way the paintings were transmuted into empty containers. She felt inside out and outside in. In the meridian between the collection and this work she was made into a fiction.

12. A collection staring back at her

She could see her labour around this collection staring back at her as a co-conspirator in exaggeration. In the invisible space between the high profiles of a collector and a conceptual artist, she was waving her hand at herself. It seemed to me, and most certainly to Sherry, that one way of reading the artwork is as a commentary on what gets lost or emptied out in the frenetic codification of modern art of the Arab world.

13. Disembodied

And if she was part of anything, it was part of an already established, well oiled machine sending works to Western institutions for validation. This was further compounded by the fact that the notoriety of a single collection can warp the ways in which a wider history of a region is framed and that it’s beholden to not only Western validation but also the power play of personalities. And she had to ask herself what her role was in this disembodied discombobulation that felt so real?

I’m just going to leave it there… (for now)

14. Mouthful

Now I’ll talk a bit about some of the research I did last year while I was a fellow at Tate’s Research and Interpretation department. And I’ll share some images and words in the background while I talk. I was there, initially, to intervene in research related to how Tate’s collection interpretation manifests attitudes and instances of racism, colonialism and white supremacy. And this was a description that in and of itself felt like a mouthful to say let alone to consider as an undertaking. I often found myself needing to explain the premise of my presence in various social situations using this string of words, often very awkwardly.  (racism, colonialism and white supremacy).

And this awkwardness, along with peoples’ mixed reactions which ranged from awe to confusion, also fed into a kind of self-consciousness I had around the insurmountability and perhaps absurdity of my role. Circling back to something I mentioned earlier regarding workplace muscle memory, this was something that I was reckoning with being in a very typical office workplace especially as someone who in a way didn’t need to be there.

15. Relax in Tate font

It’s a bit like being in a simulated reality where you are trying to integrate but also distance yourself. You’re caught in the interplay of your body absorbing and pushing away the institutional environment. It was very clear from the beginning that I wouldn’t be able to take this on as a purely intellectual exercise, as in looking at language and pointing at problems, but rather as an access point through which to observe the living workplace that surrounds such a premise. To observe in real time, the ways in which inclusion and exclusion play out in workplace situations, such as meetings, spaces and correspondences.

A workplace that is predominantly white, or white-led, within a corporate, protective, and hierarchical infrastructure. One of the key challenges with interpretation is that it sits at the intersection of so many different kinds of forces and systems.

16. Environmental conditions

Some of these may include the curatorial, the art historical, the museum guideline, the public, the attitudes of different levels of governance and patronage, and the aura of an institution. Given this set of parameters and scope of the research question, there were obvious limits to what would and would not be possible.

It actually seemed more compelling to, rather than look at interpretation, or the archive or the collection, to focus on these governing forces. The power dynamics that play out in the mundane day-to-day. These less tangible aspects of the institution that are not necessarily considered part of the official, prized resources of the institution –such as the collection or the archive – can thus easily recede into the background. However, it is these environmental conditions that indicate the degree of anti-racist consciousness an organisation actually has. There is also, always a risk, being a temporary person of colour brought into any institution in any role, that this appears as evidence that an institution is transforming.

17. Peculiar habits of white heteropatriarchy

I refer briefly here to an excerpt from feminist scholar Sara Ahmed’s living a life feminist life, where she references the role women of colour often inadvertently have within predominantly white spaces and in this case the word ‘university’ could be interchangeable with museum or another kind of organisation.

“I would claim that women of colour are already ethnographers of universities; we are participating, yes, but we are also observing often because we are assumed not to belong or reside in the places we end up … sharing observations about “the natives” within universities - the rather peculiar habits of white heteropatriarchy”  

18. See in Tate font

The only thing I really could offer honestly was my presence as a witness and as an interlocutor to listen, process and reflect back the difficult situations and experiences that were generously shared and entrusted to me. The experiences we have within the workplace are deeply personal and there is an entangled relationship between the institutional and the personal.

Some of the people I interacted with held some role or relation to an activity considered anti-racist and much of the time this was not necessarily part of their official job description. And what is considered an anti-racist practice differs from person to person, particularly depending on their actual lived experience with racism.

19. Dream and Listen in Tate font

Sometimes anti-racism could mean holding a discussion group in tandem with a busy production schedule, to read material by anti-racist scholars but then feeling the pressure as the person of colour in the room to have the answers. It could mean a person acknowledging their white privilege.It could mean being apologetic or sympathetic and using the language of sympathy, mixed with using the word empathy, as a way to preface conversations.

20. Rare moments of feeling seen

It could mean a conviction to confront a colonial past, but then in practice, this conviction amounts to putting a few vague words, or a series of awkwardly abrupt ones on a label.

Or my favourite, it could be locking eyes with a colleague in a meeting to acknowledge the absurdity of what someone said and finding rare moments of feeling seen. Overall there are preconditioned structures and attitudes that surround these different acts, and these preconditions reflect a lack of depth or lived understanding of what it means to feel an anti-racist consciousness in the body.

21. “Simply put, how equality is done reproduces inequalities”

This absence of feeling lies in the shadow of intellectual understanding. It’s the absence that, when push comes to shove in a meeting, privilege and keeping a particular form of bureaucratic peace, prevails. ‘We can become a problem when we describe a problem’ (Living a Feminist Life, 39).

The absence is inevitably a deeply felt understanding that is required to recognise, in a living, ongoing, never ending way, how to observe and act from an anti-racist consciousness. A lot of the time an anti-racist attitude can be reduced to language. There is a time and a place and a form that language can take.

22. White Fragility / White Allyship

This lived consciousness, for me, is a bit beyond just white allyship. It’s a subject position that is not generated out of the fear of getting it wrong. An allyship that is not guarded, performative or switches on and off. There is a deeply felt difference between an intellectual versus lived understanding of racism, along with other injustices, and having the fluency and currency of posturing an intellectual understanding of anti-racism can often impersonate a lived one. And underlying everything is the precariousness of working, being underpaid and the excess of energy that is required to just do the job description.

A job description that is rarely just the job description. Anti-racist learning, for the most part, is extra, it’s added on, or it’s in a constant state of deferral and referral rather than integration.

23. Time Sensitive / Sensitive Time

For example the frequency and prolific nature of meetings and the time taken up by them can also perpetuate a culture of cyclical conversations about the need for anti-racist reform. This leaves little room for the reflection, practical translation and the actioning of ideas and ultimately little room for the emotional integration that pervades all of this. The overlap between everything being time sensitive and having time for sensitivity can ultimately leave no time at all.

It needs to be deeply felt to click into a kind of cognisance. A cognisance that isn’t about arriving at a mythical anti racist destination, like an action plan, or a policy in writing or the right string of words in a seminar.

24. Teleology

I’ll just refer briefly to this brilliant report by artist Jack Ky Tan, which if you haven’t looked at you should, and it traces both, poetically and analytically, the different forces that shape the development of anti racist organisational cultures in London’s arts sector. The observations are drawn from a series of knowledge exchange workshops.

One of these identified forces is Teleology. ‘The belief that things can (and often should) be explained and justified by their ends or ultimate purpose or goal’ This is difficult to apply to developing an anti-racist consciousness because there is truly

“no moment at which an institution can say 'job done'… there is no utopia of anti-racism where "at the end of [a project or training] we’re suddenly not a racist organisation anymore.”

So if there is no fixed goal, the point is for changes to be shaped by an ongoingness and willingness and ultimately, sacrifices and concessions of power and structure.
This is obviously easier said than done when a pyramid is the kind of structure you’re working with and within and where production schedules are fixed and frequent and expected and demanded at so many levels.

Funding often hinges on the constant perpetuation of doing. It hinges on productivity and developing an anti-racist consciousness requires a level of counter-productivity.

It puts pressure on the way time is organised.

25. Counter-productivity

Anti racism as counter-productive. Or something like that. And one of the main issues with anti-racist rhetoric in any sector, let alone the art sector, is intellectual bypassing. This is because language can also be an exit sign. A way out of doing “the work.” For instance, there’s a difficulty in expecting change in an institution when there is a big gap between the theorisation and wording of the change and what the structure actually permits. It’s really hard to hold something like an anti-racist policy or diversity policy as an institutionally developed thing while still believing in the infrastructure of an institution. This is also limited by our own institutionalised minds to envision possibilities.

26. ‘A version of myself’

This lack of integration not only creates tension and disillusionment, but also the necessity to have safe spaces where people of colour can escape white supremacy culture. One interlocutor had mentioned that white spaces can often elicit a sense that you witness playing yourself as a role rather than being yourself.

I would notice this viscerally. Oftentimes I would have an indescribable sigh of relief that I would feel in a group with other POCs where I would realise, to some extent, I wasn’t playing a version of myself. Though there are so many moments and observations that shape the collective intuition of this research into institutions it takes time to sit and bring them into any kind of form.

Sometimes that form is just a sigh.

27. Sigh

One of the things that I did quite a bit at the beginning was keep a private journal of the different kinds of encounters, discussions and situations that arose. But over time I started to pay more attention to what certain situations felt like and that also meant forming relationships that could just be about sharing, solidarity and trust building - about feeling rather than writing. At some points, writing reflections and prose began to feel too heavy for the delicate moments that don’t necessarily have long explanations.

28. Institutional Life Glossary

This slide shows some of the ways in which I began to log the types of situations I and others would experience, by making words. Here I have some words that refer to specific institutional situations and environments. This exercise in word making isn't necessarily about coining terms to define in any definitive, or textbook kind of way but to create pointers that could resonate without further explanation.

It’s a way of referring to things, but not too specifically, and keeping things open ended. There is something about seeing them in a list without the burden of saying things in a long-form explanatory way. Listing also allows us to see and compare things that are close together that may not otherwise be together, to see patterns and instances.

29. Confusion, Care, and Violence

Other times, I would identify words that felt commonly occurring for me like language, confusion, care and violence. In order to make them more proximate to the experiences that were either shared with me or that I felt first hand, I began to pair these words with different situational qualities. Another reason why I started making words was to also find a way of logging particular moments that might otherwise fade from my field of view. So much can get lost on the cutting room floor, so to speak, when you don’t quite know yet what something means or how a moment has affected you.

As much as language can be an exit sign, the practice of making new language that is generated out of a kind of commoning or sharing to name problems that may otherwise fade from view, can be a lot like planting seeds, which is something that I also like to do outside of this work. I have a whole other practice that is just about watching and drawing things that grow which has not yet found a way into my professional life.

So I was thinking of concluding the seminar by taking some time for us to read these words, or ones that resonate or perhaps imagine other ones that relate to considerations and observations that you may have.