November 2020

A transcript of a pair of recent letters. The image below is of a set of linocut prints by Chatum Tanning, a selection of which I included in each envelope. I’ve added footnotes to this transcript to give some contextual info for readers other than the original recipients, and references on texts in case you’d like to follow them up.

Dear Nic, dear Efrosini,

I have been mobilising (google’s definition: “to make something movable or capable of movement”): writing, speaking, listening, rallying; creating signposts of information, and making myself visible and contactable; following, leading, learning from and leaning on others; studying and challenging institutional rhetoric; forming and maintaining communication channels; and clarifying, encouraging, soothing, inviting, and averting.[1]

For better or worse, over the past month I come to think of this activity as ‘the practice’[2]. I think of Jesse Darling: “the practice is what you can’t stop doing”.[3] The practice is whatever insists, overrides, crowds out everything else. My experience of this year (lockdown, economic crisis, social distancing) has sharpened this sense of commitment, limits, and compromise. How I carefully place boundaries around my time, energy and intentions, and how these can be completely overleaped or trampled over by crises and appeals from others. Who or what can we not turn away? I remember T.J. Clark writing about the French revolution of 1848.[4] The budget for a bold new democratic programme of state-commissioned artworks was slowly chipped away when all the previously-funded artists wrote in to complain of their dire financial situations, and their continued need for work.

Anyway. So some kind of organising has (for now) become ‘the practice’. And issues of documentation and evaluation aside[5], it’s epistemologically rich: I’m learning a lot. And while there are differences between single-issue campaigning and longer-term ongoing representation, I do think ‘collective organising’ is one answer to the complex relation between ‘independent’ artists and institutions: to unionise as a class of exploited workers, capable of electing representatives, stating shared demands, and undertaking mass action. Albeit if, as Judith Butler questions, unions can adapt (or be completely reinvented) to address the rapid spread of precarious labour conditions.[6]

But I don’t think I want the PhD to exclusively focus on this ‘answer’. I think of the lino-print demons Rohanne and I have been working on. They appear in a grid, but vigorously resist conformity and organisation. En masse, they present infighting, riotousness, impropriety, dis-unification; they contradict one another’s rules of geometry, colour, line, perspective, figuration. They are pleading, disdainful, furious, in anguish, murderous, cynical, mute, distant, victim and aggressor. I suspect most would betray each other as readily as whatever viewer or institution they appear before. They cannot speak as one, or for one another, or even in some cases for themselves. What does it mean to work from this position? And how would you try to negotiate with or appease this dispersed and self-contradictory crowd?

Demons are fickle. Even if you summon them, and get them to work for you, they will probably still try to devour you if they get the chance. To learn a demon’s true name is to know its true nature and to have power over it: to be able to bind it to your service. I’m reminded of the importance of names in Derrida’s writing about ‘hospitality’.[7] The guest with a name is a ‘foreigner’; the guest with no name is ‘barbarian’; to have a name is to answerable to the law. Every myth I know about name-play is of a guest playing a trick on their host (Odysseus and Polyphemus, the tortoise in Achebe’s ‘Things Falls Apart’[8], and Parliament / Funkadelic[9]). Rohanne and I change our collaboration’s name each year – we find it funny when we see the institutional websites that list us by a name that is two or three years old.[10]

I put all this fickleness and instability (of, artists, demons, barbarians, whatever) in contrast with the enduring nature of the institution-host (Mick Wilson: institutions are “trans-generational projects”[11]). Beyond all this name-play of the guest, I wonder: what would it mean to be a host with a unstable name? What kinds of relationality, commitments, actions, obligations, ethics, understandings and economies would that obstruct, or make possible?

Amidst everything, I hope you’re enjoying the cold morning sun,
Paul

[1] The University of Roehampton – at which I am undertaking my PhD and my supervisors Nic and Efrosini work – is pushing for mass cuts of academic staff across the schools of Arts and Humanities. You can find more information on what’s going on, and how to support the protest of these cuts, here.

[2] Mine is a ‘practice-as-research’ PhD. Alongside the traditional forms of scholarship (reading, writing, interviewing, fieldwork, conferencing, etc.) it is understood I will be undertaking artistic practice, and that some of the materials I will submit for examination at the end of the process will include artworks or performances.

[3] The artist Jesse Darling tweeted this sentence a couple of years ago and it seared itself into my brain. I can’t link to the tweet itself as they deleted that account, but they have since set up a new one here.

[4] T. J. Clark (1973) The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France 1848-1851. London: Thames & Hudson. It’s a good book about a brief political moment: what went wrong in the revolutionary government’s programs of arts commissioning; and the different circumstances under which (what Clark considers to be) the really exciting and politically-nuanced art of the time was made.

[5] I wrote about this a little in the last letter of this blog here.

[6] Angela Davis and Judith Butler (2017) On Inequality. Presented at: Oakland City Hall. Available here (Accessed: 7 November 2020). Butler’s question around the future of trade unions is a minor point within the wider discussion. If for nothing else, I recommend watching for the first few minutes, in which the moderator, Butler and Davis are challenged by disabled audience members over the lack of accessibility of the event.

[7] Jacques Derrida (2000) Of hospitality / Anne Dufourmantelle invites Jacques Derrida to respond (Trans. Bowlby, R.) Stanford University Press: California. Derrida draws from ideas of hospitality and the law in Ancient Greece to address contemporary questions of digital privacy.

[8] Chinua Achebe (1958) Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann. The story of the tortoise is told by the character of Ekwefi to her daughter. All the birds were invited to a great feast in the sky. Hungry Tortoise begged each bird for a single feather so he could construct wings for himself and join in. While suspicious, they obliged him; he had a reputation of being a trickster, but he was a very persuasive speaker. And as they all flew together to the feast, they even decided that his eloquence would make him a good spokesperson for the group. Tortoise graciously accepted, and told them that it was expected to adopt new names for such a special occasion, and that his name for the day would be ‘All of you’. When they arrived, all the guests were met with a glorious feast. Before they sat down, Tortoise gave an beautiful speech; but ended by asking the hosts: “For whom have you prepared this feast?” They replied: “why, it’s for all of you!”. And so: Tortoise began to gorge himself on the food, as all the birds looked on forlornly. As he was so magnificently decorated in a variety of feathers, the hosts assumed he was the birds’ king, and it was their custom to let him eat first. However, Tortoise devoured all the food, and the birds left in disgust; but before each departed they took back their feathers. Tortoise was left unable to fly back. He begged Parrot to pass a message to his wife: to lay out all the soft things they own in a big pile in front of their home so he can jump down and fall on them. Parrot agreed to pass on the message, but played their own trick. They told Tortoise’s wife to lay out all of their hard things. Tortoise didn’t realise and leapt down, falling and falling until he crashed into the pile and broke his shell. His wife helped glue back his shell together; which is why – as Ekwefi tells her daughter – tortoise shells look like they do today.

[9] ‘Parliament’ and ‘Funkadelic’ were two names for a ‘70s American funk band. Paul Gilroy describes this fluid naming as deliberate subversion by black musicians of the exploitative and white-owned record label industry, which was making huge profits selling black music to white audiences: “To the further delight of black audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, the band […] signified their political contempt for the music business in which they were forced to operate by signing to competing record conglomerates under a variety of different names.” (p.242, Paul Gilroy (1987) There Ain't No Black In The Union Jack: The Cultural Politics Of Race And Nation. London: Routledge.)

[10] We have been working together for seven years, and currently operate under the name ‘Chatum Tanning’. We change each Spring.

[11] Mick Wilson (2015) Thinking Through Institutional Critique. Presented at: Thinking Through Institutions, The Para Institution, Galway. Available here (Accessed: 7 November 2020). I’m quite struck by Wilson’s definition, and write a bit about it in chapter 7 (‘Circles’) of Ghosting.zip, a recent digital publication by Chatum Tanning. You can download a copy for free at Unbound.