A copy of a recent letter I sent to my supervisors. Each envelope included prints of the two photos below. This digital copy of the letter has footnotes to support a wider readership. Please let me know if there are other ways your reading can be better supported.
Dear Efrosini, Robyn, Nic,
I think I took a holiday? I went to Estonia. I originally planned to go there – with some PhD friends at Roehampton – for about 10 days, but then decided to stay an extra week. I realised it was giving me something (the company of others, being in the countryside, distance from my home/studio) that I needed: relaxing something that had been held all year.
But, of course, it wasn’t really a holiday. I was reading, thinking, doing some embroidery, working on the solo, speaking with peers about their research, and starting a new process of therapy. The line between working and not working often isn’t clear. Lots of what I do is hard to justify as ‘working on the PhD’, or feels unlikely to leave an overt mark on whatever thesis I’ll end up submitting in three years time; but equally, feels totally essential to the process of getting in done.
I’m curious about this not-work that makes the more formal work possible. I think of feminist critiques of labour1: of domestic work, care work, maintenance. In relation to the programmer or curator, I’d also think of the ‘bureaucratic’ processes demanded by the institution, and the more diffuse activity required to keep abreast of an art scene and maintain relations with a network of artists. (At a Sadler’s programming team meeting, when discussing a potential season of work 18 months in the future, I was surprised to hear someone mention an artist’s name and say that their new show would be finished around then. Whose schedules do they know, how do they know them, and what are the limits of this familiarity?) And then for the freelance artist-curator – how much of their activity to gain an understanding of the work of their peers is acknowledged and remunerated as part of their temporary role? How much can these guest-artist initiatives be read within a wider neoliberal trend to cut salaried and pensioned roles in favour of short-term freelance contracts – whittling down this more informal labour happens on company time?
It was pretty impossible not to think about the PhD while in Estonia. I was at Massia: a collectively-run centre for artistic, gardening, ecological, pedagogical practices, based in a former schoolhouse in the countryside, near the Latvian border.2 It can house about 20 people: you pay a small fee, and as long as there’s space you can stay as long as you like. It operates through a set of principles: ‘make things possible for others’, ’don’t leave traces’, ‘mind asymmetries’, etc. Recently they’ve started to ask people to do ‘one hour of work for Massia’ each day.
Many parts of the building (toilets, laundry rooms, the kitchen) have signs giving information: explaining the idiosyncrasies of Estonian recycling, how the compost works, the process of selecting a bedroom and acquiring bedding, or a list of things around that building that need seeing to. Instead of formalising roles and obligations, the structure seeks to empower people to determine for themselves how they work within and contribute to the space. At one point, I described us as being simultaneously guests and hosts: I loved the feeling of panic in me when seeing someone new suddenly arrive; having no idea if they were going to be staying there or just stopping by; whether they knew the space well or if it was their first time. I’d drop what I was doing, and feel responsible for trying to welcome them to the space after a potentially long and confusing journey.
But these structures are complex. I’ve written to you before3 about attempts to enable new people to join the student organising; or how arts institutions might make information more available to stakeholders who don’t hold formal office. (I’d be curious about how this kind of information/transparency work might connect to the idea of ‘access’ within the social model of disability4). Not all information about the space can be comprehensively explained. Not all needs can be anticipated. There will always be a slippage between what is understood by individuals moving through Massia, and what they choose to record for future generations. For better or worse, some things will always be lost.
And so, naturally, people who are newer to the space lean on those with greater history and familiarity. And I think everyone there was pretty aware, and continually dealing with, the risk of this establishing a hierarchy: of how things ‘should’ work; of who feels the permission to do what in the building; of who has the right to certain decisions. Is this or that being done, because that’s how things should be done here at Massia? Or is that merely that person’s taste, and I’m free to act otherwise? These might be big things – to do with labour or money – but also as minor as where certain things belong in the kitchen.
I spoke about this a lot with someone who has lived there on and off for the past four years. Their seniority was most evident when there were issues with the internet, or we needed to get the plumbers in for a problem in the basement – recurring issues, those demanding a good understanding of the legal agreements (insurance, etc.) of the organisation, or simply when we had to communicate with people who only spoke Estonian. I noticed how easy it was for me to continually turn to this person for information: on how to do a certain job, or where I could find certain materials, etc. But I wanted to avoid always putting them in the role of authority, and always demanding the labour of them to explain. (Some things were complicated enough to do that it would almost be as much effort for them to explain how to me how do it, as it would be to simply do it themselves. Once we needed to figure out if I would ever come back again, before it we could agree that it was worth the investment to train me.)
I really admired the sophisticated ways this person dealt with their potential authority. Some of them are more identifiable: they describe themselves as a ‘heavy-user’ of the space; and rather than simply telling people the ‘right way’ to do things, are very good at highlighting potential issues (“I just want to give some information that might be useful…”). But it was also way more intangible and hard to pinpoint – it was their sense of timing, their ability to hold their tongue, their patience, their excellent sense of humour. A tone of voice, a look, a pause, a hint, a shrug. As ever, I’m struck by how nuanced, elusive, un-documentable these hosting practices are.
Taking Mick Wilson’s definition, I’d say that Massia is (or at least, is striving to be) an institution: “a trans-generational project […] a kind of a contract that outlives the parties who make the contract”5. It aspires to operate in a way that can survive any individual departing. And unlike most organisations, it’s trying to do that without formalised roles or legal constraints. It is a sophisticated, highly structured, and sustained experiment in self-determined participation.
Which is all cool to me. But I was so struck by how my experience really shifted about a week in. I had strained my back, and someone recommend I drink of some the tinctures that line the back wall of the kitchen – an amazing array of huge brown glass bottles that someone (or several people) at some point in the past had made from plants they have foraged or grown.
Up until that point, I had considered myself a relatively confident user of the space. But I noticed my deep reluctance to draw from this resource. I don’t understand how the tinctures were made, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to replenish them (or at least, very unwilling to commit my time there to learning how). I had mostly been contributing by cleaning, cooking, or shopping: short term, non-specialist activities. Without consciously thinking it, I had intuited that these activities were ‘accounting’ for the ways I had been using the space. Taking from the tinctures would imbalance that. Which is ridiculous, right? Because actually there had been deep asymmetries in my dependancy and efforts all the time. So much of the infrastructure of the space (the electrics, the carpentry, the plumbing, the logistics and administration etc.), that I had been drawing from and relying on, was so profoundly outside of my skills, and didn’t match what I was giving back.
To take from these tincture was (in my mind) to more consciously enter into a debt with the space – with the previous and future guest-hosts. I drank three small glasses. The next few days I kept wondering: what was ‘enough’ work? What was a valuable, sufficient, reasonable, adequate contribution? Given my skills, my taking, my capacity – what was right to give? I questioned whether there was something dodgy about my perception of cooking and cleaning as being not ‘enough’. Was my desire to make contribution as tangible and long-lasting as the tinctures just vanity? But: my work while there had mostly been to benefit me, and the other people staying there – how were future generations benefitting from any of this?
While this might sound a bit anxious, I appreciated the unresolvability of some of these questions. It was impossible to settle the score and fully pay your dues. While you are meant to clean up after yourself while there (“don’t leave traces”), it was also impossible. If, on departure, you were getting the early morning bus back to Tallinn, there wasn’t enough time to both wash and put them away. I was dependant on someone else taking them out of the machine, and hanging them up to dry after I’ve gone. And I think something of the irresolvable asymmetry of one’s participation in the space is useful. Few of us like to feel that we’re dependant. But we’re all leaning on each other, all the time.
Maybe this casts everything in a rosy glow of harmonious collectivity. Obviously, painful dynamics can emerge. One way of dealing with these questions was to over-work; or to contribute in ways motivated more by how that it seen, rather than doing things that are particularly needed or useful. I immediately felt my anxiety bloom when one day someone casually mentioned their distaste for ‘entitled people’. In navigating my day-to-day sense of responsibility, permission, indifference, how was I reading (and misreading) the space? What was I not seeing, and how could I begin to become aware of that? (To be honest, the accusation of ‘entitlement’ terrifies me. Often in this PhD I’m talking about entering and reimagining institutional spaces; of taking the initiative in shifting cultures of permission and inhibition. It’s tricky – and uncomfortable – to figure out how deeply this is shaped by my middle-class-ness, my whiteness, my cis-masculinity.)
It’s easy enough to imagine ways that these tensions or anxieties could be addressed (e.g. a weekly meeting to bring up any issues). But as I suggested with the ‘heavy-user’ of the space earlier, I think there are limits to the formal or identifiable ways of addressing the messinesses of people living and working together. The idiosyncrasies of each individual – their sensitivities, dispositions, blind-spots, humour, taste, skills, anxieties, shame – are an irreducible part of whatever’s happening; both how problems and questions emerge, but also how deep contradictions and tensions are navigated and sustained.
I think this is all very highlighted in a place like Massia – without formalised jobs, salaries, funding structures – but I think it’s also happening in more traditional, and seemingly impersonal, institutions. I still get stuck with that María Lugones definition of intimacy as “the interwoven social life among people who are not acting as representatives or officials.”6 I read this as pointing out the potential intimacy to be found in how people find ways of going beyond or in resistance to one’s delineated role. But I think there is an intimacy in how that individual meets, understands and practices that role; which is so embroiled in the complexities of why that person gets out of bed in the morning and how they move through the world. The ways that I comport and constrain myself in my role of office – and how I act from that position in relation to others – feels saturated in intimacy.
Alongside bumbling my way through all of the above, I was also reading a lot. I was astounded by how pertinant Daisy Lafarage’s new novel, Paul, is to some of the thinking I’ve been doing.7 It’s about a coercive relationship between a young woman and an older man with whom she is staying as part of a work-residence exchange; but really, it felt like a catalogue of different and imperfect kinds hosting: welcoming, inviting, exciting, transactional, chaotic, charming, coercive and violent.
I loved the book. I understand it to totally reject any neat ascription of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ hospitality. Instead, it considers a wide range of gestures – of inclusion, distance, boundaries, complicity – that are different wielded by different people in different situations. One of the most positively portrayed characters, Mireille – a woman with her own history of violence, who is warm and compassionate towards the main character – frequently behaves in ways that echoes the most abusive figures of the novel: she dictates to the main character what she should wear, temporarily locks up some of her belongings, and encourages her to violate the privacy of the hosts she is briefly staying with.
The only issue I had with the book was how it handled the paedophilia of the eponymous abusive character, Paul. I get why it’s there: the book is indirectly addressing the historical figure of the painter Paul Gauguin, whose colonialist engagement with Tahiti included him marrying and having sex with thirteen-year old girl.8 It’s not that I’m want to erase this history, or excuse child sexual abuse. But the sensationalism with which the character’s paedophilia is revealed – and the ways in which that is used to retrospectively delineate whose behaviours should be celebrated or condemned – seemed to eclipse what I had found most interesting about the rest of book. Paul’s violence towards the main character is evident; but situated within (and almost explained by) the heavy-handed frame of his paedophilia, risks making clear cut moral designations over a deeply complex terrain of intimacies. There were pleasures, frustrations, compromises and humiliation of all of the different characters’ hosting. It’s not always obvious when the intimacy that arises is positive, or negative, or both.9
Alongside reading, I finally had some time to return to embroidery. I made two more of those oozing wound works for friends as gifts: Dried Mugwort, for Odhran, and Calendula, for Clare. I don’t exactly know how this work fits in with the PhD – it’s something about peer ecologies; about a relationality that understands ourselves to be leaky and penetrable; and something of what the poet Omikemi discusses in their conversation with Rajni Shah, as part of the recently issue of Performance Philosophy that Rajni guest-edited:
“it's one of the many reasons why I'm grateful for, for having you in my life, because I feel like it really … you reorientate me. [laughs] There's something reorientating about it, too. You know, it’s like: Ah. Ah. Ah, this is home! Ah, home is this direction! You know? Because often I'm following that smoke. You know that smoke we talked about at the beginning, the incense, like that beckoning? Like often I'm fucking following smoke home, you know?”10
I’m interested in how these embroideries – and artistic practices more generally – operate as gifts, friendship and belonging. How they arise from these intimate relations, operate through them, and sustain them. I’m reminded of last autumn, at the end of a self-organised digital ‘open studio’ that Rohanne and I hosted – a delirious giddy day with friends and peers Zoom-ing in from around the world – I wrote: “this is where the work is, and comes from, and where it goes.”11)
As with my reading of Lafarage’s depicting of hosting, I’m interested in the pleasures, possibilities, limits and risks of all this. A co-resident at Massia told me of her ambivalence about the embroideries. To her they seemed excessive and strange, and that receiving one would probably provoke in her feelings of guilt, or an expectation to reciprocate. I thought – yes, exactly. They’re potent. I’m pretty careful about who I make them for; asking what that might do to the relationship; and what it means to represent these works publicly (either on my portfolio, or social media, or to include them in some future exhibition). I think their excessiveness and intensity makes them risky, but also so generative in doing all this research.
After that conversation I was reminded of the work of Tim Jeeves, whose PhD was about gifts and generosity12. And then I found out later that evening he had died. I only knew Tim a bit: I attended a great workshop of his soon after moving to London, and crossed paths a few times. He was always very encouraging and patient with me. I spent that evening thinking about his work, and how much I wanted to read his PhD. And this idea of transgenerationality came to my mind again: how we draw from the work of each other, and offer up our work for others in the future to make use of. And then this line from Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Diaries stuck out:
“I have found that battling despair […] means, for me, […] knowing that my work is part of a continuum of women’s work, of reclaiming this earth and our power, and knowing that this work did not begin with my birth, nor will it end with my death. And it means knowing that within this continuum, my life and my love and my work has particular power and meaning relative to others.”13
There’s a whole other kind of transgenerational continuum – beyond institutional structures, whether formalised or collectively-run – that we can situate ourselves in.
Ok. It’s been another long letter. I really really really wanted to just send you guys a postcard. Which so needs to happen, right? But obviously there was just too much I wanted to write. I hope you’ve all had good summers, with some solid moments of down time. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
E.g. Silvia Federici (1975) Wages Against Housework. https://caringlabor.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/federici-wages-against-housework.pdf
The social model of disability proposes that rather than ‘disability’ being an inherent property of individuals, it is environments and architectures that disable people. For example; it’s not that someone uses a wheelchair that makes them disabled, but the fact that the building only being accessible by stairs. I don’t know very much about it.
Mick Wilson (2015) Thinking Through Institutional Critique. Presented at: THINKING THROUGH INSTITUTIONS, The Para Institution, Galway
María Lugones (2010) Towards a Decolonial Feminism. Hypatia vol. 25, no. 4 (Fall, 2010) p.743
Lafarage, Daisy (2021) Paul. London: Granta.
I’m talking about the book here, but I also know I’m thinking aloud about the situation I wrote about in my letter in July. I apologise to Daisy for the baggage I bring when reading, thinking about, discussing this book – it’s really fantastic, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Rajni Shah, Omikemi, & Fiji 周 Gibbons (2021) Episode Five: Omikemi. Performance Philosophy, 6(1), 27 April 2021. https://www.performancephilosophy.org/journal/article/view/342
Tim Jeeves (2017) Towards 'Economies of Generosity' in contemporary live art practice. Lancaster University. https://www.research.lancs.ac.uk/portal/en/publications/towards-economies-of-generosity-in-contemporary-live-art-practice(80437ef5-04ac-4eef-88af-a6826059a667).html
Audre Lorde (2020 ) The Cancer Diaries. Penguin Random House: London. p.10