I am a cowboy in the art world and I don't know what to write about
21/04/19 - ZM
Last weekend I had my first crit since art school! It was good, I think, just to have the formality of focused conversation and opinion. To have the stability of knowing what you want or are likely to get out of an interaction, (and also, for others, to know what they are expected to give). Structure! Not rigid, only a guiding hand in the small of your back. With that crit at the front of my mind, I am unable to really write about anything until I’ve processed it out. So this week’s text is just going to be me solidifying these smol thoughts; I have often said that I don’t know what I really think until I’ve written it, and that’s what this is. I am nailing my thoughts to the front door.
For those just dropping in: the character development here since then, (since my last crit before this one) has been huge. In 2016 it still felt like a massive joke that I had even been at art school in the first place, let alone about to leave it; with no plan or vague understanding of the waters I was jumping in to, I was j kinda winging it tbh. Trying my best & my hardest, but still fundamentally flying by the seat of my pants. Now, big big 2019, I have been like 7 different people since then, I do not know her. It feels less like lying when I walk into a room and introduce myself as a writer when people ask. I am becoming more and more comfortable in this identity. Perhaps this is illustrative, maybe this shaped me a bit, but I remember very distinctly, in 2016 I had an email conversation (read: argument) with a (lowkey highkey famous) diaspora & diversity personality who wanted me to do some creative-y work for him for free. After I’d (POLITELY!) told him that he hadn’t acted in literal star wars for free (so idk why he was asking me to do stuff for free), and told him to fuck off;; he took the liberty of replying to tell me I was “aggressive” and “I know you think you know everything but here's some genuine advice. You're starting out in the creative industries and it's all about how you build or burn bridges, and honestly speaking I would love to see you succeed out here, but talking to people like they are shitheads is not good karma… You need to learn to be grateful.”
I think this shaped me bc at the white pube, we have made it something of a point to burn almost every bridge extended by an institution or their representative. Fuck, we’ll try anything once, don’t get me wrong. But fuck gratitude, fuck this weird system of social debts and social climbing tbh! In a way, I am thankful to this absolute twat and his awful condescension veiled as ‘advice’, bc every time I lose myself within it all, I’ve used these words as something to orient myself against - - - it’s been a reminder of what I don’t want to be. I like saying what I want, playing fast & loose, shooting from the hip n tha. None of this means we are tactless; I think we are sensitive to a fault, intent and determined to centre a human body within this weird art jargon that gets swept up in its own structural abstraction (be that within the space of theory, the money, the mindless aesthetic flexxxx of it all). I think I am going a long way to say: I love the position I am in now. I wouldn’t trade it in for anything in the world. My god, I spent my teenage years feeling trapped, starving just so I could feel the power and control afforded by brutal refusal. I am finally free: a cowboy in a desert of my own.
It might be good to add, that this isn’t the typical white pube text. It might not feel perfectly readable, especially if this is your FIRST ever read of the white pube - this is a point in time, a stopgap, weird soft panic. We’re collecting ourselves a little bit before we carry on. As happy as I may be, I have felt a slow friction. Mounting burning heat. And that is what my crit was about. I guess I wanted to write this text bc I feel like we’ve always benefitted from these moments where we just. s.t.o.p. //// breathe. Let the dust settle around us, even if only for a second. Stand on even ground and take the temperature of the body we’re fighting with. I think the last time we did that was when Gab wrote ‘Why I don’t read the press release’, but I think we haven’t done it in a while. Self-reflection is valuable, and although I don’t think I’ll be offering up any concrete kind of reflections here, it’s important to have a wild stab at it.
I’ve been feeling a growing concern about writing the same text in different ways every time I review a show. I’m beginning to feel a kind of weird deja vu about it all; or maybe it’s comfortability(?) Maybe I’ve just grown into my taste as a viewer of art, and I’ve decided what kind of art I like, I’ve figured out why I like it, and I’ve developed a consistent vocabulary with which to describe both the art and my feelings around it. Maybe it feels reasonable to worry that writing through my subjectivities is producing opaque texts that are illegible unless you’ve spoken to me/are willing to project ur own interpretation onto and translate parallel to your own vocabulary; but that latter option is definitely the one we prefer (and imo intend)! So, strangely enough, I don’t ever end up too worried about that bit, it’s the feeling that the reviews have stopped being opaque and are now repetitive. I think this worry breaks down: it’s partly this idea of the attention economy, the visibility our texts can have within that. The idea of writing with that in mind feels problematic so I tend not to do it, but it doesn’t stop me from feeling a type of way about the way I categorise and think about texts after we’ve published them. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about you, readers, being bored by the reviews in their iterative stability. That feels weird to admit! That I am aware and concerned with the gaze of our audience; feels weird calling you audience too tbh! But I think, more urgently and importantly (to me at least), is this idea of my own feeling of stasis or comfort in the way I have settled in to a given language.
When I voiced these anxieties in the crit, the response was: of course! Of course I feel this way, we are publishing a text every single Sunday without fail (except in December). For 11 months of the year we write flat out, and it is a pace that many writers never really reach for. Perhaps staff writers, yes, but I was informed that they are rarely ever writing with the intensity of feeling that we do, or with the emphasis on something internal and analytical (in that bodily way we emphasise). So then this is a strange worry for me to carry, I am unable to find any anchors or reference points to use as guide rope within this. I think I was worried about this when we first started; I was writing like words were new to me, I was surprised by the solidity of my own thoughts as they emerged. And as I wrote in this exploratory way, I think I worried that these words were finite. That one day I’d go to pull from the well and it would be empty & dried up. I have written so fast and so many times I have either developed a sTyLe, or I’ve written up against myself, chased my tail and bumped into my own back. Either that or I’ve become sure of myself and I long for the instability of not knowing what exactly it is that we’re doing (and the weird chaotic autonomy that comes from that). Maybe the metaphor of me being a cowboy here is really actually quite apt because we’re writing on the frontier of our own experience, and we’ve just gotta go it alone together - ride till we can’t no more.
I’m not writing this despairingly! This is not a bad thing, only an interesting one. I think I have to shed the worry about You, Your Attention, and whether I’m boring you. I wrote before [here] that I don’t want to care whether you’re bored when I tell you about my dreams and my sticky anxieties. And as I tell you about my anxieties now, I think I am worried about that, but I have to work past it? Bc even if you are bored, they are important things to write about anyway. Even if you’ve stopped reading, I have written them for my own sake. But for my own sake too, I wonder what I can do to take reviews into a more unstable, less certain place. I could start writing about art I hate? Quietly quietly for the past year n a bit, I’ve been almost only writing reviews of work/shows by artists of colour. I don’t want to give that up, I think that is still definitely where I want to be dedicating my critical attention, that is where I want to deliver feedback and critical support for artist, curator, viewer & myself. But maybe it’s time to shake up my position and begin writing more critically about stuff I dislike within that remit? Where before I’d only go to shows I think I’d like, maybe I go to ALL THE SHOWS, even the ones I hate & write about them all the same? Maybe I introduce more variables? Write reviews as fiction, reviews as a whatsapp conversation between me and my mum, reviews written in the 3rd person after talking to the person invigilating about what they think of it all. I don’t want it to slip into gimmick tho, I am also wary of the Buzzfeed model of writing where you just lean into the sensationalist or the obscure as click-bait. Maybe I slow it alllll the fuck down. I start focusing on texts I know I will feel more fulfilled writing: our art thoughts about structure & institutions. This bit feels difficult bc they always take more time than the reviews, but I also hold them to my chest more:: after they’re published they linger for longer.
I think I just need to shift the weight onto another foot for a while. I think while this text above might sound like panicking, it’s categorically not. I know that the smallest incremental change would probably do. In the same way, I felt a shift towards easing this when we started recording the Soundcloud audio versions of texts. It was a comparatively small addition that felt like it did and changed so much, both for us, and probably for you experiencing reading our weekly texts. I think I can’t really give you a concrete: here is my problem/here is my solution. I am too close to this, and I’m not entirely sure it actually is a problem in a concrete sense. Maybe it’s just a feeling. Maybe it will pass. Maybe it will take more time than I am allowing myself rn. I am glad to have been transparent with it though. Imo, I am glad to have a cute vulnerable moment to pierce the film on this idea that we are authoritative ideologues with a solid polemic line, all the answers, and a rigid intention for our output. I am glad to have entered into this identity as a writer & critic, even if it was only ever accidental. I am free, free, on my horse in this wild wild west; arms spread, chest open to the burning orange sun, solitary in the sky.