I’m writing this from the renowned arts centre of Cove Park. I am here with Raju Rage, Jemma Desai and Shama Khanna. We are on a ‘writing retreat’, whatever that means.
We have been transparent with each other on our ambivalence towards identifying as artists, activists or writers. Regardless of what we discuss amongst ourselves in our private pod at Cove Park, I know that to the outside world we could be viewed as serious writers or artists. And in a way we are, but not in the usual sense. Let me unpack this.
So, yes we are discussing our professional practices. Yes, we are spending much of the day deep in thought, critiquing each other against a backdrop of bookshelves. Yes, we are in a community of other established artists. But, we are brown. Now that changes things quite radically.
Our retreat was not funded by Cove Park. I myself, was invited by Shama Khanna on behalf of flatness.eu. From the get-go I explained that I would only be able to take on paid or funded work for the foreseeable future. To be quite clear, this article I’m writing for flatness.eu is funding my residency and it’s surrounding costs. I have no qualms with expressing that publicly, I am enjoying the process of the retreat and am happy to use this article commission as a way to reflect on my time here.
As per having less funding and therefore less time our group has been working more intensively than other residents here. I am not saying that to suggest the other residents are less committed or grateful for their time here. I’m saying that I would also be drinking more wine and having more cigs if I was here for longer. But there simply isn’t time for that and I am aware that my life here is moving at a much faster rhythm than usual.
We had no real schedule planned prior to the residency. Shama called me up and voiced her concern on this matter and I told her that honestly, I didn’t care and would prefer a more free flowing retreat. And I imagined she and the other writers would also prefer that. We just know that planning is something you just DO when inviting others to work with you, so that you look professional or legitimate or something. But I told Shama that seeing an email with her South Asian name regarding a contemporary arts project was enough for me to know that we would be on the same page. Little prior planning was needed. We had plenty to discuss from that phone call to being on site at Cove and probably long after we leave the site.
I joked about her knowing [insert random brown artist name] and [insert random brown queer post-internet artist name] simply because they were also a browno in the art world. And yeah, of course she did know those names. We brownos clock each other in these situations. As minorities we are so aware of our otherness and are both startled and comforted at the sight of others like us. A heads up to all the black/brown folk in the ‘art scene’ that I see you and probably know your name and/or your work even if I haven’t approached you and expressed that directly. I’m sure some of you feel similar, I see the brown to brown nods and more so I see the brown queer to brown queer nods. I really see you. I’m so happy that you exist and that we have an unspoken connection.
Our writing group have been taking things seriously, yes. We have been taking rest and emotions more seriously. More so than our artistic outcomes. Day one of travelling to Cove was paired with feelings of anxiety regarding what was to come. Unpacking years of shared trauma was going to be exhausting. We are taking the creation of written works here seriously, we are eager to congregate unspoken histories and emotions, but we are fully aware that it is a tough process. We are not writing about abstract distant art theories, we are archiving and deconstructing ingrained histories that have very closely impacted our own lives.
‘Theory’. That’s a weird word isn’t it? It sounds so removed from reality. In THEORY the world is like this, THEORETICALLY my life is like that. The serious ‘theory’ we are writing here has very little to do with this far off imaginary potential realm. It is honed in, it is immediate. So maybe it isn’t really theory at all.
Much of the discussion here has been around my work-in-progress book Go Away, Come Closer, which I have temporarily coined a work of ‘baby theory’. ~Theory~ in the embryonic stage, not quite self-sufficient or truly alive or recognised but … somewhat adjacent to its fully formed self. Also because I’m the youngest here and don’t mind that much. I’m admittedly naive right now, I’m ready to make mistakes and grow from them. I don’t mind being the “cute” kid in her twenties. In my opinion, learning journeys should be shared as well more finalised, mature conclusions.
I so so want to appropriate the tropes of academic writing. The form has a very corrupt sense of hierarchy, that I totally acknowledge is fucked up. But I also admit that seeing myself or bodies like mine written into the ‘Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Forward, Suggested Reading….’ etc form of such high worth gives me a little bit of comfort and pride. So, I am going to borrow those forms and use them somewhat satirically. I don’t want it to be such a laughable shambles that I create an additional form of shame for the QTIPOC+ community. I want it to be able to camouflage enough into academic settings that I can get that respect, funding and space for my community. But yeah, just enough to do that and not so much more.
‘Baby theory’’s ‘canonical texts’ and ‘reliable resources’ are the oral histories of my ancestors and friends. The hard hitting ‘facts’ are my lived experiences, not some heavily edited Guardian article interviewing queer and trans youth or British Asian young professionals or etcetcetc. So yes, again I will be borrowing that theoretical form which assigns worth to certain kinds of resources, but my personal archive of intergenerational ‘canons’ and trusted ‘reliable’ friends or family will replace those of a pale, male and stale academia.
I’ve had some invaluable feedback during my time here. A lot of that has been life advice on surviving the art world and inherited trauma. The feedback has been less so on grammar and getting published or what one might expect of a visit to a venue renowned for hosting successful art professionals. I actually don’t really have any ‘finished’ work to share. Even this article is pretty messy. I am fine with that. The whole group is. The stories we have shared that correlate aspects of our individual lives together into an oral archive of South Asian brits are not yet recorded in an all-encompassing manner. They might never be. It’s been a lesson on the value of word of mouth versus its perceived illegitimacy. Just because something has been written down does not mean it was ever true; ever-changing stories from person to person within the diaspora re-contextualise histories to suit ever-changing societies.There is so much more I could say but I think I will save some of it for further thought and perhaps inclusion in that ‘baby theory’ book I’m working on.