2019 May: Acknowledgement and Rejection

Tom Cardew and I are awarded the Golden Aesop Grand Prix in Contemporary Art at the Gabrovo Biennial of Humor and Satire, Gabrovo. 2019.

Ah, I feel giddy. Today I wanted to throw myself back into work, after coming home from Wales, and anticipating going to Bulgaria next week. But I feel too hyperactive, as if overwhelmed by the things I could do…

Things have been happening to me lately… emotional turmoil connected to global events. To be honest, before I had an iPhone, I was somewhat cut off from news and political information. But over the last few months, since I first got my first smartphone, it’s as if I’ve discovered a new, terrifying world. I have emerged from under the proverbial rock, I suppose. And it is not pretty out there.

The rise in far right sentiments and nationalism across the world, as well as climate breakdown, are my biggest fears, and I think about them at night. They make me question whether I’d ever want to bring a child into such a world, and I feel unsafe and disconcerted by the daily wealth I squander, from long car journeys and several flights a year, to ordering new clothes to wear to the award ceremony over Amazon and throwing away plastic packaging on a pack of six tomatoes from Sainsbury’s. Sometimes M tells me that it’s a prime time to be an artist, and to react to such developments through art. I go to bed thinking about all the recent trends that worry me, and whether I could do anything about it in my way.

First of all, on a psychological note, art can be something I use to simply cope. Lately I’ve been thinking that humanity is such a frail institution, at times it feels that our end is inevitable and that we will eventually be forgotten as if we were never here. Whenever I think about ultimate extinguishing forces, such as the cooling of the universe or the death of our sun, I feel comforted by art that can express the human condition as if to defy extinction. No one can feel or say these fears like a human.

Secondly, if I make something that presses on the issues, however subtly, and presses hard enough to stir me, it might stir others too.

I look at the pink stickies in front of me on my wall. My main concerns at the moment are 3 pretty large projects: Anomaline, the PhD research, and the one-woman play. What they have in common is a concern for the person: its distinguishing features, its origins and limits. I want, I suppose, to reimagine, free of the burden of commonplace assumptions, what a person is. One of the things I am experimenting with doing away with for some time now is the notion of essence in a person (or a nation, for that matter). The belief in the authentic, genuine, true person, versus its tainted counterpart, has proven to be dangerous.

I think the novel needs to be finished soon, so I can be free from it and try something new. When I look at my pink sticky notes, I think that is the one that I need to focus on the most. The PhD book is pretty interesting, the idea about the memoirs of the fictional character, and I feel excited when I think about it, which is a good sign. I expect it will be much easier for me to play around with that as much as I can before the start of the PhD, so I do want to get somewhere with that too before September.

Then of course, there’s my first solo show to plan, at Tension Fine Art.

This week then, before Bulgaria, just focus on going straight into the novel without having to do all this thinking first. Allow yourself to be a bit reckless, you’re on Git now, so nothing is too precious. Hurry up.

Straight into the novel, between Sublime Text, Github Desktop & Online.

Creative Writing Practice

I have turned my attention to one project alone, and that is my novel. Sometimes I get asked whether I’ve ‘given up’ art and ‘become’ a writer, and it is a question I am weary of, because it imposes a dichotomy that for me simply never existed. For me there never was a profound distinction between writing and visual art, both of which I have been doing interchangeably since early childhood. Anomaline is simply the project I am most drawn to at the moment. It is thoroughly flawed, uncomfortably plotless and threatens irresolution, but in it I’ve woven myself a space in which to make images which could not be fashioned anywhere other than in text. I have found that text can be an incredibly visual medium, and that has perhaps even become one of the themes in the novel – the things we see and hear and touch in text, the convincing materiality of the experiences it conjures for a reader that commits to the fictive contract, suspends their disbelief and permits themselves to become immersed.

I’ve been writing in a way that is painfully slow, each chapter seems to soak up all the impressions made on me in the course of a whole month or two, leaving me with little else to say until the next month. It sometimes feels as though I need to read 3 novels to gather the imagery and speculation required to produce one chapter. Yes, novels have, understandably, become my primary source of inspiration. Most recently I read the book Book by Robert Grudin, which was a mystery about a disappeared literary academic and novelist. It had an underlying criticism running all the way through it that condemned literary theory, academic pedantry and poststructuralist abstractions which I found to be unfair misreadings of theorists like Derrida, and which in turn elected an annoying Hollywood narrative style and caricatured literary theorists as pernicious scoundrels and those who ‘read purely to experience and appreciate’ as prevailing heroes that save the day. Although this book irritated me on all intellectual levels as well as some artistic ones, I enjoyed reading it. It gives me something to grapple with, and possibly parry with, with my own pen strokes. I might try to review the book in an effort to expound all the ways in which it irritated me. Recently a professor anonymously recommended me to enrich my view of ‘personhood’ (the theme of my PhD) by reading another book I found intellectually self-limiting: The Second Body by Daisy Hildyard, to which (despite the catchy name and fun contents page which drew me to buy it in the first place) I must dedicate another critical essay.

I read good books and bad, it almost doesn’t seem to matter – I am grateful nonetheless for the opportunity to occupy the private space of the author-reader, for being welcomed into a quiet time of focus and hypothetical situations which I play out against the backdrop of my own moral constitution. I am grateful for the opportunity to see my own humanity play out in response to the beckonings of the text.

When I write an imaginary scene, and I speak for myself and not other authors of course, I feel I have very little authority over the substantialisation of the idea. As an author I’m like someone who blows out smoke and then watches the unique forms crystallise into a sharper fractal as the smoke settles into the circumstance of the surrounding air. The smoker may intentionally ‘author’ the smoke, but then reads the resulting pattern – becomes a reader – to allow herself to decide how she feels about the pattern. So, I come to the writing scenario, that is, I come to a keyboard or empty page, to blow a series of apparitions that crystallise only when they leave my intent and become separate entities on a page. I then read over what I have written in the role of a reader, and use my faculties of preference and decision-making to either approve of the – now clear – vision exposed before me, or try again by editing what I now see clearly. Of course, all I mean by clarity here, is the support of printed words upon which my eyes can rest, an impression of clarity, of a telling voice, of deliberate thought; and not that the imaginary images become universally readable in one fixed manner, which is impossible. Throughout my years in study, I’ve heard many of my peers say that they detest having to fix their living practices in what they perceive to be the constricting medium of words. They believe too readily in the stability, and indeed, authority of text, and fail to recognise that it grabs every soul and shakes them by their subjectivity in an irresolute and inconsistent manner as much as the next medium of expression.

In my writing I have tried to thematise this instability, tried to make the butterfly words that flutter all over the page and refuse to listen to me, part of what I am trying to talk about. It is a space into which I have had the opportunity to pack a lot of visualisations of the ontology of text, in which medium it is of course also written. I suppose that makes the book I am writing very metafictional, I hope in a way that is not gimmicky but insightful and which brings awareness to the reader’s reading activity.

Creatures of Habit at Tension Fine Art

I proposed to K an exhibition of my work that probably, in reality, merely showcases some of my existing videos under the auspices of a nice new title for them, Creatures of Habit. To avoid overcomplicating things, I plan to present the videos in a simple way similar to degree show, so that it is possible to see them all at once, but also immerse yourself in each. As an accompaniment to this, I do want to make an edition of little books, with a unique drawing on the front of each copy. The composition of this book will be something new. I don’t know whether to make it a test pilot of my Memoirs of a Character, or a publication of fragments of my novel, or something else, something entirely new that is a creative and philosophical response to the video work.

I like the idea of something entirely new: Maybe it is a memoir-type of voice, maybe it is an autobiographical account of the everywoman that morphs into these different ‘creatures’ in the videos. I particularly like calling them creatures because they are in fact portrayals of civilised women, mostly urban, educated, culturally constituted. The title of the book would be different to the title of the exhibition, but echo it.

Let’s start thinking about which videos, though.

Internal and External Recognition

Stranded in Streatham Library without WiFi or any juice on my phone, I have been forced out of my reluctance to reflect on this month and those that went unaccounted before it.

As it happens, I won an award together with my partner, for a comedy film we made. I suppose you can maybe tell by this unceremonious introduction, that I am uneasy talking about it. Of course, the news was very gratifying, and dizzyingly unexpected – the way it all happened is simply that my partner sent off the film to an open call through a quick online form, and neither of us gave it a second thought until we received an email with the subject title ‘good news’. This month was the month that we flew out to the Biennial of Humour and Satire in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, to accept the award during a ceremony complete with speeches, flashing cameras, flowing booze and all. For two days we were treated like special guests, although I found the whole experience a little strange and complicated, and not purely pleasant.

First of all, I found myself rather inept at the art of mingling in the simultaneously formal and informal atmosphere of an opening night. The biennial exhibition showcased a selection of contemporary artworks and cartoons that incorporated humour or satire in some way. Needless to say, the current global political climate left a depressing mark on many of the ‘jokes’ in the works. But I will not go into the details of the exhibition, or review it in any way, because this is after all a journal about being an artist and maintaining a practice, sanity and engagement in the public sphere.

What I found challenging was how to relate to the various other people involved, those that selected our work, those that organised the event, and the multitudes of people whom I did not know and who did not know me. It is not something that comes naturally to me. I am much more at ease in a seminar, where the expectations about the relations between people is more clear, where we are gathered with a common purpose and where I find my words flow easily and I am allowed to listen intently and with interest. The opening night of an exhibition is for me more like something I need to overcome and survive, with grace, if possible! In the end, I do not think I was visibly awkward, but I felt constantly uncomfortable. It is a healthy discomfort I am sure, because sooner or later I must learn how to attend ‘casual’ events; they seem to be as or more important than formal ones in terms of establishing a professional network.

But the main thing I was confused about was winning an award for a work that was not art per se, but a comedy sketch, and which therefore was at the periphery of what represents me in terms of artistic identity and practice. I think that acknowledgement from outside contributes to the formation of an identity, yet I feel a considerable mismatch between the film and what I hope to make of my own identity as an artist. Of course, who cares? I won a prize. I suppose I care because at the same time, I was labouring hard to win funding for a PhD project which I care a great deal more about, which is at the centre of what I am interested in, and for which I suffered multiple drawn-out rejections over the course of two years. Of course, by now I have become quite practiced in receiving rejections, but the AHRC funding was something I felt particularly good about, and for which I allowed myself to get my hopes up. As a result, I am glad for the recognition, but somewhat confused about it.


Week 1

  • Submitted my work to loads of open calls, like New Flesh, as well as a literary agent (who hasn’t responded to me yet…) I’m good for open calls for a while now
  • Helped T open his show, didn’t get much of my own work done

Week 2

  • Began inserting some attempts at chapters into the novel, thinking about the organisation of the narrative.
  • Read Book by Robert Grudin. Felt quite pissed off at the statements it makes but also entertained by the literature. The Postscript 2 killed me…
  • Proposed Creatures of Habit to K for Tension Fine Art
  • Wrote some of ‘Disconcerted Chapter’

Week 3

  • Went with T to Bulgaria to accept Grand Prix prize for Humour & Satire in Contemporary Art with Art to Artillery, at Gabrovo Museum of Humour and Satire.

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