Alex Schady, Programme Director of Fine Arts at Central Saint Martins, discloses the world of art for those outside of it. Each session, he gathers a few students and discusses various themes. We listen in, observe and enjoy the new places the conversations take us.
In this first episode, we hear about email kisses, the ethnic corner, serious humour and ignorant audience responses.
AS: Hi all and thank you for coming. We are meeting today because I was asked what themes were coming through from the students that were graduating this year.
First thing - can you introduce yourselves?
GD: I am Gabrielle De La Puente, from 2D Fine Art
MG: I am Molly Eliza Gough, from 2D Fine Art
ZM: I am Zarina Muhammad, from 2D Fine Art
SM: My name is Seema Mattu, from 2D Fine Art
EA: I am Eliot Allison, from XD Fine Art
JT: I am Joshua Tabti, from XD Fine Art
SZ: And I'm Sergei Zinchuk, from 3D Fine Art
AS: The first conversation I want to have is around Art & Politics.
Lots of students have always worked with Art & Politics; it always feels very current, but there is something I started to see coming through - particularly in this last degree show - that I would like to mention, as I feel it relates to all of your practices here today. There is a very particular agenda around a quite specific set of politics: sexuality, race and gender. From what I have seen, it was often dealt with very humorously. But, perhaps in terms of the political agenda, it was discussed not in general but within the art world, within the institution. This agenda seems to be very directed; it has been around for a while, but I think it has become really visible in a very relevant way. Art, politics and humour have started to link more. How do you see it within your own practices?
GD: I think that is what CSM wants of us, CSM has realised it asks us to fight them. For a very long time you hear that, "Think about the fact that you are in an institution!", "What does it means for us to be tutors and for you to be students, to be in King's Cross and to be paying £9000 a year?" All of this - then in third year I felt I had done my ‘muscles training’, so now I am going to fight. So that is almost why it is so art specific. The politics is the process and the subject is us against art.
AS: How would you describe 'art'? ‘Because art could be 'art at CSM' or 'art in the commercial gallery world' or in the broadest sense...? What is art for you in that context?
ZM: Art seems like a dislocated kind of institution - I don't know; I have been thinking about it as an abstract...but it is not! It is like clusters of people, it is a located institution, it does happen in specific places, doesn't it? You can't really think of it as ethereal because it is grounded.
GD: Going across the degree shows as well recently - I think Slade's idea of art is very different to ours: they make very 'exhibitionable art', that looks very professional and well executed. Whereas CSM might do something a little more insidious and again, political.
ZM: The Slade degree show felt... aware. Like, the art that they made was aware of the fact that I was looking at it. Whereas, I feel we are more like, “we make things and then we put them up” - which I like! I guess different art schools have different preconceptions of what art is. Of course, when you are taught by a specific tutor with specific politics, that reflects on you.
AS: Let's be very specific. For someone who does not know your work (Zarina and Gabrielle form the duo The White Pube), in terms of the politics, what are we angry about? What's at stake? What are the specific political issues we want to engage with?
ZM: I am angry about white people. I am an ethnic minority, I know that. But sometimes it feels like Seema and I are the only two brown people at Central Saint Martins. I hate that feeling of being the only brown person in the room; My work being looked at and then I am looked at. I hate that feeling that my work is specifically for a brown audience - there is nothing wrong with speaking exclusively, sometimes my work is not for white people... but that does not mean that you should not engage with it. The fact that my 'brownness' shouldn't be used as part of my work to just say, “Oh it's not speaking to me therefore I shouldn't attempt to understand it.”
AS: Work by a brown person for another brown person. It's a way of limiting something if it's used oppressively in that way by the majority.
ZM: And something I am particularly angry about is the way sometimes meaning is politicised in a racial sense. I feel you come to art school and you don't really know what you are making work about. You might do something that is, say, about brownness and cinema. And you show it to people and they don't really know how to interact with it except by saying, “Oh it's about brownness” and you kinda go like, “Ok so... maybe then it is not about the cinema, maybe it's just about that” so you make work that is just about that and it becomes simplified. The way people understand it becomes your own understanding of it. The possibilities or complexities of the work might get chopped down and you end up making work that is simplistic.
SM: I was gonna add on to that. In turn, you feel like you are forced to make work for the type of audience that feel that they relate to it or a part of it - which I think it's just really ignorant. We realised in crits people latch onto certain words. And all they say is, “Oh internet!” when they see a video or, “Bollywood” when they look at us two (The White Pube) and it is aggravating.
AS: I can see that, that kind of expectation that your work would deal with certain issues, because of your ethnicity or sexuality. It becomes deeply problematic - you might want to deal with those issues at a certain point, but you might not at other points. And that is for the artist to decide, not for the audience.
EA: But do you think it's a question of simplification or a question of 'categorisation'? I feel each category is actually very deep in terms of where you can go when you actually are in that conversation. But it's [if] the work can't transcend those categories as a result of the way that is looked that - if that make sense? It's like, if it could be simple at least it could be discussed on a general plain. Does that make sense?
ZM: Vaguely. I am not sure if I agree. I don't think it is about fitting a particular thing into a category. I think it's the assumption that you can't speak universally, even if you wanted to. It's a type of illiteracy. And I feel it's particularly difficult for us because we are in our work too [...] The idea that you are intrinsically attached to your artwork for your identity; as a person of colour you are 'othered' by that and therefore, you are unable to speak to an audience that has a 'default' identity because you are affected.
AS: 'Othering' is a very important term. It would be - through your use of language, your expectations - to position the other person as 'other to the norm'. It's often used as a way of marginalising people in quite subtle ways. "I am second generation immigrant" - there would be a way of labelling someone and suddenly find that person placed as 'other'. And that's the problem with 'othering', that it marginalises people. Would you agree with that?
GD: I agree. And I also think there are degrees and levels to this notion of 'othering'. For example, within an institution, when it comes to exhibiting work, I find states of a minority somehow harder to embed into the space. We call it the ‘Ethnic Corner', because ethnic people are just shoved in the ethnic corner. Whereas sexuality can be a bit more fluid. So it's really difficult when you deal with multiple things in your work.
AS: Describe your work. So what is the urgency in it?
SM: I am not angry about white people. I just don't care that much. OK, let's set the scene. Degree Show One, a brown man (a fully-grown brown man) was saying to his partner (who wasn't brown), “Oh look! Look at this Bollywood piece." And I turned up and told them it's not a Bollywood piece. Those are the people that I feel my work targets. It's the people within the community that enforce these very kind of 'othered ideas', that I feel are untrue about the community. My work is very much about addressing minorities within minorities and those are real, yet overlooked issues. So that's what I am concerned with and what I am angry about.
AS: In a way it's not surprising that man said 'Bollywood' because your work did a sort of double take. When you first hear the music your mind immediately imagined that you were hearing a particular type of music and they made assumptions of the video before they even got there. For those who haven't seen Seema's work: it was a tent, decorated inside with flowers, rugs and cushions. There was a table with some food and Indian sweets. And in the middle there is a video of what appears to be an arranged marriage. But it takes a few seconds to realise that every character in that video is in fact you [Seema]. What is nice about it is that it actually uses humour to catch-out the viewers and make them realise they brought with them a load of assumptions. So it's not you telling the viewer what to think, but rather you proving to the viewer that he has assumptions by the time they have engaged with the work. As a strategy for politicising the audience I thought that was more powerful and quite interesting.
SM: Yeah. When you envision the work, make it and install it, you don't expect that it's gonna end up usually how it does. So, looking in retrospect, I think in the future my work will be informed by this. It's more about the tone. You don't actually have to be angry to show that you are angry about something. [...] It's a kind of dark humour.
GD: Which is why I think it's not just like she used humour. It was not like, “Oh it's funny lalala”, it was darker.
ZM: For me, I've struggled with the forms polemicism, didacticism, complete singularity of meaning. I don't want to tell people what to think. But with Seema it became a nice different form, something unstable.
GD: Yeah, unstable. It had moments where there was this type of subversion, like when you [Seema] play the DJ, that is just fun. But others were a lot slower, so I think there was more time there to ruminate around the idea of identity in the work that you were trying to offer - and that's definitely more of a serious humour.
SM: A lot of people did not watch the video to the very end. They came in for the spectacle and the kind of exoticism. One white lady was like, “Oh it's such an honour! You never know what goes on behind people's doors! This feels like I am in a brown room!" and I was kind of like, “…Yeah…” Then she was looking around - I was very strategic with what was [placed] there. There were Bend It Like Beckham and Dalit books and she said, “Wait, you can't be an untouchable... you are really, really pretty!” At that point I couldn't speak to her anymore and had to leave. But it's really interesting, because she did not stop to watch the end, where there is real life footage of child marriages. So I was struck by the perspective it gives when they don't stay till the end - because that's when it's literally real; it’s the cut-off point where it goes from essentially humorous to not-so-humorous.
AS: Let's carry on around the room. Molly, what is it that gives your work its urgency? There is a real politics about it.
MG: I don't think I am angry, I just find the art world fascinating. How everyone behaves and networks. Especially being a female it's a different journey. Because you are a female in the art world there is a different behaviour that is put on you. I guess that's like in every industry. Like the other day, I had a meeting with someone that emailed me after the degree show and we are sitting there having coffee. It's this straight 30-year-old guy and I am sitting there thinking like, “it looks like we are on a date and this is going to be my life now!” [...] And he emailed me afterwards and he put a kiss at the end of the email - I don't know, it's a different voice that you get..
AS: He wouldn't have kissed me, I mean, that's telling!
EA: Isn't the 'x' just a reflex? And you go into a bit of date comparison even if you start a new friendship with someone. It's slightly awkward, I wonder if you are reading too much into it.
GD: Nooo, that's horrible and that's ignorant! If it's a business meeting... 'The Curator sent you dick-pics?'
ZM: It's definitely a gender reflect. He might just have put the 'x' there, but it's automatically gendered.
AS: Hang on. There is something here that has come through a number of conversations - where people in the art world, or people who come to the show - with all the best will in the world.. they reveal themselves. They think that they are doing something different, trying to engage with the work and its politics. Yet, when they start talking, it becomes apparent that perhaps there are some underlying problems with their politics. What do we - as artists - do in that situation? How do we handle that?
SM: I feel Molly's work in a way is tailored in the same way as mine - there is a dark humour to it. But it's interesting because with gender politics it is seen as almost more light-hearted. Race and sexuality are very touchy, but with gender you play on, “Haha this and that happened to me”... but did really anybody talk to you about what the work was playing with?
MG: Not really. I think humour is essential with politics, no one likes politics. Especially British humour, dark humour. It's so popular in work because you have to pad it, sugar-coat it with humour to hit people.
AS: Let's take our discussion to one last question for this first session. It's one that I feel is relevant for everyone, including the students who might have later joined our panel. I think everyone understands that there is a politics to making work. I would argue that there are politics in calling yourself an artist. So my question is: why choose art as a space in which to explore the political - and why not other territories, like the street, the crowd, the political organisations, etc... those that would seem much more direct ways of engaging with political issues?
SM: I think in a way I can speak for both myself and Zarina... We thought about our upbringing as brown kids and this expectation in terms of where you are supposed to go with your education. So for me to be in an art school, to have an education of art... it's a kind of protest within itself. It's something that is not encouraged and frankly it's been really tough. To have people like family and friends accept that this was the way I wanted and take it seriously. That I wanted to tackle political issues. Doing art in the first place is the protest.
ZM: But as well as that - taking it to the streets is all well and good. But when you are there as an activist, women of colour are frequently spoken over. It happens. White male voices are always the voices you hear first. When it's art, it's your own practice, it's the space where you have agency. And you need to have the agency to deliver your message in your own terms.
AS: That's a very exciting concept. It's not so much that you can't be political in a variety of contexts, but doing so within art gives those voices that might not be heard in a more conventional, political arena, a stronger voice.
The Cross+ng: Can I jump in here and ask the layman question from the man in the street? We've got Barack Obama president of the United States, a new major in London [Sadiq Khan] from a Muslim background, a woman running for American President... what do you think of that?
GD: Yesterday we were at the Carl Andre protest for Ana Mendieta. It's all well and good if there's about to be a woman President, but that means nothing within the art world. The art world is its own insula; own system of class, breeds, gender and sexuality. And it's almost five steps behind politics itself. It's ludicrous.
ZM: There is one painting by a black woman in the Tate Archive.
AS: But there are two things here. One is doing politics through art as a way of making yourself heard as you might not be heard elsewhere. And the other one, which is very important, is the art world's inherent misogyny and homophobia as something that needs to be tackled as well.
SM: Not sure if everybody else agrees with this, but I feel it also has to do with safety. For instance, with sexuality. Talking about sexuality within the confines of the art institutional world makes it a safer place to experiment with what you want to tackle. It's a lot more fluid and open minded towards the social commentary you might put out there. Even if you are overlooked, at least there is the possibility of having a voice. On the streets... there is no voice, no options.
SZ: I think I agree with the agency bit. I saw a transition in a friend of mine, from a failure as an actor into being a musician and that suddenly gave him that agency that you are talking about. It's no longer about applying your work to someone else's agenda, it's you and you immediately do it for yourself. I am recording in my studio. Whereas, in the streets you would probably need to join an existing movement and deal with their set agenda and objectives. I feel art in that way is probably quite unique, in that you are something of your own, immediately.
AS: Great. We'll continue this conversation in the next session. That's it for now, thank you everyone!