A conversation between Gargi Bhattacharyya and Cecilia Wee
Cecilia Wee, Flowers in my mother’s garden that she planted when my father passed away (2022). Image: Courtesy the Artist.
Greetings Art Workers!
Our final interview before we launch is a considered and critically hopeful CONVERSATION between researcher and maker GARGI BHATTACHARYYA and independent curator, educator and agitator CECILIA WEE.
Under the theme of ‘livability’, and as part of Wee’s project, Our Community Inheritance, Bhattacharyya and Wee discuss how the conditions needed for a decent life for all inhabitants of urban and non-metropolitan regions is shaped by histories of race and capital. Colonialism, in tandem with the systematic dehumanisation of people of colour and indigenous peoples as part of racial capitalism (Bhattacharyya 2018), helped facilitate extractivism over the centuries and allowed for the continued destruction of the environment. Just as former colonial powers still reap the fiscal and intangible rewards of having exploited the resources and people of other regions, those that were colonised still suffer the economic consequences, meaning for many the accumulation of wealth, and the security and social status that comes with it, is just not possible. In this CONVERSATION, livability is framed as part of a wider discussion that links to climate and justice. Wee and Bhattacharyya talk about where their practices intertwine and fold back onto both, a discussion of the UK’s cultural industry and operational modes of repair in a just transition.
We are announcing the line-up for our upcoming community festival and teach-in on 01 September, in the meantime enjoy the discussion below!
Until next time,
LIVABILITY: Conversation between Gargi Bhattacharyya and Cecilia Wee
Cecilia: I wanted to start by thinking about how we characterise what we do and our practices: for example, culture is an important method and realm for me. Perhaps you could talk about why you do research/ teach/ activism, what do these modes of being offer you?
Gargi: The framing of the question about practice really indicates the difference between artists and creatives and other people who do different versions of making. I'm a maker, but I'm a writing and performing maker, as a kind of teacher.
I think that trying to understand how the world works is part of changing it. And I'm interested in learning different ways of thinking about what an analysis of the world is, which can span across activist, professional and creative spaces. So, rather than having a practice, I think I have an attitude, which is that becoming free demands that we are curious about how unfreedom occurs. This curiousness is very important, because acting like you know how it's happened already can be part of how we stay stuck.
Cecilia: 1997 was the first general election that I could vote in. The day after Tony Blair won, when you walked down the street people would be winking at each other. Even though we hated all the Cool Britannia stuff, being a student at that time you could see how culture had a place in changing a narrative and creating new visions for people to believe in. Moreover, it was about creating belief in the culture industry as an industry and as an economic force.
We also need culture in order to talk about and to understand our lives, to understand what is going on in a way that is probably, most of the time, non textual. That tactile, or aesthetic experience allows us to process and figure out what's going on in society.
Gargi: In the early Blair era, there was a very concerted attempt to frame, and almost invent the term ‘cultural industries’ for Britain in order to say, cultural practice is this infrastructural activity, and it impacts on many people’s everyday lives. This was tightly tied, rightly I think, to projects around both regeneration, but also around urban and non-metropolitan livability. We forget that lots of the things that happened to British cities outside of London could not have happened without that particular set of politics, about the role of culture in a very, very broad sense.
At that point, we didn’t talk so much about sustainability, but really what was being talked about was the livability of spaces that were still ravaged by the wilful de-industrialisation of Thatcherism and very difficult forms of economic restructuring that were remaking workforces and spaces of living. We're still living through this in the geography of the British economy. Culture was one of the ways in which places could not only re-narrate themselves, but also about how you make a space inclusive and responsive to those who live there. The cultural industries were absolutely central to that.
Cecilia: Shall we talk about climate justice?
Gargi: There is a language of climate justice globally, in terms of who is pushed away from their home because their home is no longer livable and what it means to be a climate refugee. The most immediately deadly impacts of climate emergency are being borne by some of the world's poorest people.
I think we haven't had much yet about ‘How do we think about livability within Britain through a climate justice lens?’ What might that mean? There's also something about trying to think about climate justice for us in Britain, as really just justice. Climate justice is a way of thinking about how we arrange ourselves to use the world's resources, in collaboration and collectively in a way that sustains all our lives.
Cecilia: The call for climate justice is needed, particularly within the UK context, because of the responsibility of the legacy of the British empire.
Gargi: Absolutely. Since I wrote the book Rethinking Racial Capitalism (2018) it's become a much more mainstream conversation that climate justice must also be reparative justice, acknowledging the histories of violent dispossession that have linked the world, largely with the North harming the South, but also looking at those relationships of violence as still creating and shaping the terrain that is leading us all into early death. You cannot understand why we are all rushing into the furnace unless you understand how these histories of violence have positioned us, our access or non access to shared resources, the use to which those resources are put and what we might conceivably do together to address those impacts.
It's very hard to mobilise around languages of repair, which seem like one party must make repair for the other. So more and more, when we speak of the politics of repair, I wonder if we need to find ways of talking to people in all the places they are, which is to say, ‘this is also about repairing your life. Your life might be differently unbearable or differently unlivable, but it is being made unlivable’. Instead of repair being a compensation from one party to another, repair is a different kind of collective practice, which is perhaps the opposite of extraction or the opposite of destruction.
Cecilia: I'm thinking about local geographies and this question of livability within places in the UK is really, really important. Where did this wealth come from in those places historically? How do we take a geographical and historical approach so that they're intertwined?
That history and geography leads us to experiences of people who are there in those places today. What surpluses were produced historically and until now? How were they created? And what benefits have been created there for people, for families or for institutions? I’m interested in uncovering or putting together a different type of history, a different type of archiving or in economic terms, a different type of accounting of what wealth looks like.
Gargi: Although those languages of what wealth is reveal how performative the idea of wealth is, they're really tactically invaluable. I guess your question is that once we adapt the language, what does that do to our possibilities of thinking of a politics of repair?
Cecilia: As practitioners, the approaches that we both share is making analyses - in various forms - as well as describing visions and stories of the past and what could happen in the future. I was thinking how these analyses and visions are like tools for imagination through the apocalypse that we're living in right now. What types of analyses or stories are needed, and how might that relate to repair and healing?
Gargi: Absolutely. The institutional spaces that we operate in tend to divide analysis and storytelling. And actually, I think movements tend to divide analysis and storytelling as if understanding and hope happen in two different registers. A lot of the ways in which people have looked at histories of empire and histories of enslavement, end up making it seem less possible that we will remake the world differently, because there's something total and closed about those systems.
Now clearly for us, the point is to escape the legacy. Yes, you want to understand it, but I'm not in the business of remaking the legacy of racialised dispossession for all eternity. I think it is important for us to devise and explore ways of saying that analysis and creation are not in two different camps, but somehow intertwined or on a continuum, then to think about how that can be translated into spaces that are not completely institutionalised.
If there's going to be an intellectual life towards our shared survival, then both analysis and creative practice have to happen, and not happen in a segmented way. Alongside that, there has to be a way of saying to comrades in all different places that it is worth us knowing things in complicated and as yet undecided ways, and that those skills and insights and uncertainties are part of movement building. I think we need to learn to do that in ways that bypass institutional landscapes, because the institutional landscape is not interested in democratising knowledge, it is interested in credentialising knowledge.
Cecilia: And obviously those institutions continue to be shaped by colonialism and whiteness and ableism and class. If you don't fit into the mould, then you face the strictures of that history. For instance, being part of a diaspora and experiencing that movement and mobility across the globe, our families had to shift and figure out how to move between different states and systems.
Gargi: People live their lives moving through spaces, which are made of misreadings. That’s not revolution, it’s survival in the interim. And there's something interesting about how people do and have survived in the interim. Things both confirm and disrupt in the same moment.
People have managed to live their lives, at least partly, on their own terms and in extremely hostile contexts, using a variety of tactics of passing or strategically positioning themselves to be misread as modes of survival. I don't mean that that should be our political objective for everyone but it is a reality and an important intergenerational knowledge. Knowing it doesn't tell what you should do, but we have to understand something about what has been done to survive in this context, and that helps us articulate what needs to be done.
These are all tactics of the desperate but they're not captured by desperation. So there needs to be something about, what do people do with the resources they have? We all understand that this is not where we want to be, but we learn from understanding those trajectories of being.
We need to remember that the powerful are there enacting their power through means that we can't always see, but these means are always institutional and we should be sceptical and cautious. And yet lives are lived and loves are had, and pleasures are taken. The machinery doesn't belong only to the owner of the machine, both those things are in play.
Cecilia: Absolutely. I think what's really exciting about getting outside of institutional spaces is taking that metaphor of power not just being the domain of the person who owns the machines. Power is also available to the person who goes to the scrapyard and creates new machines and gets their mates to contribute to, to help them fix, find and hack. So we get to hacking practices, which are a different type of repair, maybe.
Gargi: mm-hmm absolutely. And that's also interesting in terms of a different metaphor for how analysis and creativity come together, because you can't make the machine differently without both the analytic and creative elements. But also, it relates to the other thing we are talking about about how survival in the interim requires using the debris around us. Both those things are and must be part of our collective project. The alternative is dehumanisation and death.
Cecilia: And given the history of where we've got to now, in this awful place of peak extraction then it is not derogatory to pick up the debris. There's so much richness in there that has not been recognised and is still to be used.
Gargi: Maybe, in terms of urban climate justice and the global North, there’s something about what it means to build and create sustainable communities from the bottom up, amongst the debris and amongst the ruins. And it brings together the things that we've been talking about: you have to understand how the machine has got here. You have to understand the operations of the machine, because that's how you see what can be made livable and what cannot. But it has to build on a whole range of popular creative practices because livability requires those things. And until we find whatever the ultimate revolutionary switch is for our generation (which might not be an ultimate revolutionary switch) that is what respectful survival might be, for all of us.
Cecilia: There's so many different framings of what the future can be and how we can move beyond what's happening right now and how we can move beyond racial capitalism. Through my project, Our Community Inheritance I am working with local communities to narrate intersectional and intergenerational understandings of wealth (in the broadest terms, spiritual, social capital and monetary wealth) and create new visions and resources to support what our communities want and need right now. Maybe we can plant an idea that lands with somebody that makes them think about or recognise what the experience, reality, and story of racial capitalism is, for example. Those are the little glimpses of light.
Professor Gargi Bhattacharyya (they/them) has written about racisms, politics, state practices and racial capitalism. Their books include: Dangerous Brown Men (Zed, 2008); Crisis, Austerity and Everyday Life (Palgrave, 2015); Rethinking Racial Capitalism (Rowman and Littlefield, 2018) and the collaboratively authored Empire’s Endgame (Pluto, 2021).
Dr Cecilia Wee fRSA (she / they) is an independent curator, educator and agitator who grew up in Thatcher's London. Cecilia’s work focuses on building inclusive infrastructures for social change with people from marginalised and underrepresented communities and identities. Cecilia has edited books, curated exhibitions and events, led research and artist professional development projects with organisations in UK and Europe. Cecilia wrote her PhD on the documentation of Live Art, is Associate Lecturer in Visual Communication at the Royal College of Art, Consultant Producer (Fair & Equitable programme) with Contemporary Visual Arts Network England and founder of tdwm studio. Their latest project ‘Our Community Inheritance’ launches at Sunlight Doesn’t Need a Pipeline festival, bringing together decolonial practices of cultural production, community organising, radical, community-centric approaches to fundraising and liberatory understandings of economics as ‘making home’.
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