art
organizing

Institutional Obscuration with Zarina Muhammad of the White Pube

SA
Hi Zarina! Thanks for making time to speak today – how are you doing?


Z
I’m doing well. It’s been a good week and I’ve just transitioned into doing White Pube full time so I’m juggling a bit but mostly well.

SA
How did that full time transition happen?


Z
Oh, I think it happened a few weeks ago. I normally have a day job, pre pandemic I was working 3 days a week 9-5. And then the pandemic hit and my hours were cut in half so I started doing a day and a half a week. Now I’m doing a half day a week because my job is in the travel industry and that doesn’t exist anymore.

SA
Oh wow, that’s a big shift. How have you and Gabriella been managing the White Pube as you continue to do other work?

Z
It’s always been just the two of us and I think we’ve always been overworked than we have the time for. Rather than using the word busy, I hate the term ‘busy,’ it feels non descriptive at this point. But we’ve always stretched ourselves more than we can accommodate and we’ve always been in a kind of frenzied state in that way. So to be honest, being full time has been nice so I can catch up with stuff.

SA
Can you speak a little more about stretching yourself a bit thin? Did you ever expect that there will ever be a ‘pay off’ for the work that you do? 

Z
It wasn’t immediately that we became stretched too thin. We started the White Pube in 2015 and we were students back then. We didn’t really take it seriously until maybe 6 or 8 months in and even then it was quite manageable. It got a bit mental in 2018, we had a bit of a year that year. The summer was a bit mental. We were included in the Dazed 100 list and we started a Patreon a few months before that and all of a sudden the number of Patreons we had just kind of skyrocketed. All of a sudden we realized we had an audience beyond London and Liverpool’s insular art scene. That’s when we felt a bit of responsibility attached to what we do. Things just started ramping up a bit. Whereas before we were writing a bit and we took it seriously, at times, but it was never more than just thinking. Now it’s become a thing where we’re writing and we have a clear purpose. We’re writing and we have things that we want to materialize or happen or push for and there’s this urgency in at least the UK’s art scene.

I don’t think we started with any hope that it would pay off, because we did start as a joke. It sounds kind of facetious because we did never think that it would pay off. I don’t know why we decided to publish every Sunday, it didn’t make sense now looking back at it, but I don’t think we would have made it this far if we didn’t have that deadline. It’s been a pace that’s kept us going, that once a week deadline. There’s something between Gab and I, this immigrant mentality and oldest daughter syndrome. I don’t think we went into this with the idea that there was going to be a pay off. In our mind it’s more of a colossal laugh. 

SA
What were you and Gab studying when you started? And what were your conversations like when you decided you were going to start The White Pube, however serious or not serious that was?

Z
We met at University. We both went to Central Saint Martins and were studying a BA in Fine Art. We were both in 2D as well which is quite funny because I don’t know if I made a single two dimensional work when I was there. And Gab used to paint in the first year and stopped in the second. But we were in the same tutor groups and so by the time October 2015 came around, we had this relationship that was quite established. There was always a group of people in the studio who just sat around and spoke about things. Saint Martins had this particular studio culture at the time where people would just go in and have a chat about work and life, it was quite conversational. I don’t know what happens in other art schools, but we got quite caught in the institutions of art. This was something that was reinforced in the teachings. 

Saint Martin is in Kings Cross which is North Central London, and it used to be quite a run down area in the sense that it wasn’t highly gentrified and developed. While we were there they just went through this process of gradual upscaling, The Guardian was there and all of a sudden Google moved in and then there were ‘nice’ coffee shops and a &otherstories and fancy clothing stores like NIKE and Cahartt and this was happening over the three years that we were there. All of a sudden now, the area around kings cross is this weird public/private space and the tutors were aware of that. They came from a more radical art school education from the 80s and 90s where you could just have these radical conversations on building an institutional life or living a life of autonomy from institutions and they tried to teach us in a way that made us question the role of institutions in our lives. Gab always says it was like learning how to tell the time, she didn’t know what they were on about until one day it clicked and she was like “I’m in an institution”. And the same for me, I was never that conscious of it and all of a sudden I was hyper conscious. We were in an institution paying something like nine grand a year, borrowing nine grand a year and more on top of that to live that we were never going to pay back through this arts education in an educational establishment that was slowly turning into a ‘University.’ In the 80s and 90s it was this radical art school and now they were teaching us how to do ‘professional development’ and impressing upon us the importance of health and safety and skilling us up to make this a vocational experience, but for what? So, I think the art school itself trained us to fight it. 

That was kind of the general setting so it made sense that in 2015, Gab and I had this experience of knowing each other’s practices. She recommended I go to this show in Chalk Farm which is a short bus ride over from the art school so I went to the show with her review in mind. On the way back I had a copy of the Evening Standard which is this free daily newspaper and there was a review of that show in the newspaper. So all of it in my head at once just clicked. The show, Gabs review, the newspapers review. I kind of realized that art writing as it currently stood didn’t really make sense with the rest of my life. Or the way I interacted with art and the other end of art was theory and this dense impenetrable shit that would never of course make any kind of bearing unless you bothered to interpret it in relation to the show which was also quite dense so you can’t. So there’s no inbetween or middle ground in that. But Gabs review was word of mouth, friend to friend and that made sense. So I came into class with a copy of the Evening Standard and we’d have a conversation about how art writing was bullshit and we should just do it ourselves. Everything clicked. 

SA
It’s so interesting how that happens. I look at my own education in an art school and it’s only when I got into the institution that I became aware of my participation within this system that says it’s doing one thing and is actually doing another. What you’re saying with Gabs review is speaking to the accessibility of understanding so much of this language. So much of this language is made inaccessible to an audience that isn’t an institution. This hyper awareness, in a sense, makes us lucky because we got that in an institution. But what happens when you’re an artist and you’re making work but you’re not exposed to these radical conversations? What happens to artists that need to sell their work and be signed to a gallery? Is this mission behind the White Pube to make these ideas more accessible for these groups of people?

Z
Early White Pube might have said that our main goal was to democratize access to these dodgy art world entities. I think now we’ve kind of moved past that because I don’t know how vigorous that academic understanding of the art world is in comparison to life and the institutions themselves. I think this year we’ve seen that academic institutions can lag behind popular discourse. At the moment, I’m not really sure where our criticism stands in terms of the stodgy monolith of the public because the public is this spectre in relation to art and institutions and artists themselves. We can’t just conjure the public out of nowhere. Often institutions will imagine or create their public which is equally fabricated or non existent. So I’m not really sure where we stand in relation to that. At the moment we are just writing for ourselves to just feel through the ways that institutions rub up against artists specifically and wider as kind of a top layer of an arts ecology that has many levels and stratas and ways of being. Institutions don’t really make much sense to you if you’re a new artist and you’ve never had a show and you’ve just been making work in your bedroom and you live in London so you also have to pay rent and somehow make a living in a 0 hours job, so how are you going to fit art making into that. How does your studio practice work? Institutions don’t come into it, just the fact that you’ve made art is a miracle in itself – that you’ve had space to think. So part of it wants to create a way to write about art and feel through the critical whatevers about art. Ways of thinking about art away from institutions because they clearly lack behind. At the moment, the ways that labor practices are tearing through the art world and the way workers rights are being stripped away wholesale, not just in the arts in the UK but across the world in some parallelled way. It’s not institutions and their language that’s leading the front of the bulge, it’s the people within them that are often exploited by them. That’s a tense question right now.

SA
I feel you. Coming back to this idea of feeling out how you’re rubbing up against these institutions, what does it mean to you as an artist, as a writer who is constantly thinking about your own exploitation, how do you look after yourself and stay grounded? And what advice can you give to artists who are becoming more hyper aware of their conditions in this institution.

Z
Both Gab and myself sit in quite a weird place in that we’ve been incredibly lucky and it’s quite a mystery to us how we’ve done as well as we have, whether that’s well at all, but, as well as we have. The idea that we got this far is entirely a mystery to me. I think it’s a great amount of luck and that luck boils down to our willingness to do this kind of thankless work, week in week out, with no conception of pay off. But also this social literacy when it comes to Instagram and Twitter. We’re quite young and we have this ability to accumulate social capital. So I don’t know how to advise people that sit outside of that or who don’t have access to these very specific things that I have access to. I’m not entirely sure how it’s worked for us.

In terms of my general keeping yourself sane advice, I have not gotten the best track record on that. Over the past five years, it was just this year that I stopped letting this all kind of drive me around the bend and said, alright fuck it I’m going to therapy. And god bless the NHS to be honest, I think it’s completely changed my life. I know there are various critiques of CBT and I know I can’t change the world around me but I can change attitudes towards myself and for some reason that just holds a lot of power right now to me at this moment. 

And maybe in a few years it will stop making sense but I’m going to ride this wave for as long as I can. That seems like the only coherent logic at the moment. I can’t control the Tate or the South Bank or the Barbican, I can’t control any of these institutional players, I can just change myself and the ways that I interact with them. Because of all these little bits of social capital that we’ve accumulated, that’s quite significant. It’s not nothing. I think a really important part of keeping myself sane was recognizing that there are two ways of thinking about things: Things that fall into your sphere of think points and then your sphere of control. Where those overlap, that’s where you need to direct your attention. I can’t do anything about coups in Bolivia so it kind of feels pointless about me worrying about it beyond, ‘oh, that’s quite bad.’Tate workers were on strike and they are facing redundancy and the institution is not giving them the full terms of their redundancy, they’re trying to find loopholes. So what can I do: I can go and speak at the protests, I can badger 60K people on Instagram about it and get them to donate to a strike fund, I can do all these things that I think whenever I feel like I’m going mad, it’s probably because it feels like it’s all a bit out of my control. But I can make tangible contributions to these things that I care about and focusing on the good shit that you can do, no matter how small.

SA
Do you think understanding the institution has helped you understand yourself?

Z
If anything, it’s made myself more illegible. Before this all started I was young, Gab and I were 21, we were fresh and baby faced with no wrinkles or grey hairs. I didn’t know much about myself or the world. By doing The White Pube, we had all these incredible experiences and interactions. It’s not all bad interactions with the institutions by any means. We’ve had these incredible opportunities and have met incredible people, and have these wonderful moments where I’m like, ‘Oh my god I’m so thankful that I do this job, god I’m so blessed.’ Not to sound like a Kardashian, but it’s not all bad. There’s been moments of character development through that, and I think the moments with the institution have obscured any kind of sense of self that I might have accumulated. Because the role of institutions isn’t to be transparent or provide you with information, they’re meant to be opaque, they’re meant to obscure all these things and work you into a higher system of categorization or work in a register slightly above your own so that you’re obscured within it. Whether you work for them or write about them. My life without them would be infinitely more satisfied and fulfilled because then I could just write about the art directly and I wouldn’t have to come up against the institution and registered charity numbers and arts council funding. All of these things get between me and the work and I often feel like my writing about institutions is a diversion or a distraction kind of. I feel like I’d be a much better critic if it weren’t of institutions. I could write about the work in a true interface. Those are the moments that I feel like I’m doing a very good job, or that I’m developing as a critic. The last review that we published was this Sunday, it was an R.I.P Germain show at Dead Yard at the Cubitt and I think any questions I had about the institution evaporated through curation. It was the curators, Languid Hands who are just good, capital G good at what they do. I feel like that was the best thing that I had written in a good few months, maybe this year. It might not be groundbreaking to anyone else but I feel like I broke new ground beneath myself, that had been rumbling away for a few years and that was when the institutions just evaporated away.

SA
How do you find satisfaction and pleasure if you are doing this type of work full time. What’s your go to to help you not feel obscured? When do you feel the most yourself?

Z
That’s a really good question, it’s so fucking philosophical in such an abstract way. Me and Gab wouldn’t be able to do this without each other. I think such a key part of how this all operates is that we are mates, fundamentally, at the base level we have this wholesome friendship. One thing I noticed during the lockdown, without travel, is that I really missed just like going out for dinner in a random European B city. We spent the last year travelling so much, we went to Norway four times and Sweden for no good reason. All these stupid little odd jobs that would pay us tiny bits of money, and we’d get our flights paid and hotel paid. We probably end up spending more on being tourists than what we made, but that felt like a moment where everything was in balance and I could deflate the pressure. Me and Gab would be plodding around Bergen, seeing the sites, going to look at a mountain, having warm apple cider next to a roaring fire in a small cafe. I really missed that this year. I think friendship grounds you, it’s nice to have another person to guide you with a hand on your back. We’re not alone in this experience and any time I do feel slightly obscured or thrown a bit to the wind, it’s always nice to have Gab next to me where I’ll go, “was that a bit weird?” and she’ll respond, “oh yeah that was weird, right?” We can be in cahoots together rather than conspiratorial solitary. Understanding you’re not alone.

SA
I love that because it’s also speaking to I guess the purity of the work that you’re doing because it comes from such nourishing, virtuous and wholesome place. What is your dynamic like working together? How have you established boundaries and transparency being two friends who now have this enormous responsibility and do you think about the ways that you interact with each other as a way that you want to see a lot of these institutions shifting? 

Z
I don’t think we think about the dynamics of our relationship too hard. It just works and we’ve never really questioned it. We were born seven days apart, we’re both Cancers, we have such cosmic alignment. Gab’s a Capricorn moon and is an Aquarius rising and I’m a Sag moon and an Aries rising. For some reason, there’s just this nice dynamic where if I feel like I lack, she has the ability to spur me and push me further. She can take ground on that lack for me. We complement each other quite well. What I’m not good at or battle, she finds easy. She’s very hard working and organized and pushes me. I’m good at procrastinating. Sometimes the admin overlaps in my mind, I’m not very good at that. She’s just like, “no, get it done,” so I’ll be like “ok fine!” Because we have this relationship of deep respect and admiration for each other. Someone recently asked us what the biggest thing we disagreed about is and honestly, we had one argument and it was because I found she did not use the conditioner. I was really baffled. That’s the only time we had an argument and it was so silly. I hope I’m not tempting fate now. We both admire and respect each other’s opinions and craft and interests. Even if we disagree with each other about an artist or artwork, it’s never that deep. We have this balance of always being in conversation and going at the same speed. 

SA
There’s like this element of camaraderie with your work that brings up this idea of incorporating a non serious working environment which is antithetical to an arts institution. It sounds more sustainable and I really appreciate knowing that that’s how you two mesh together. Can you speak to your daily routine, things that have kept you going and grounded?

Z
There are obviously things, but for me the most important one was, I started therapy last year towards Autumn and it wasn’t full CBT because the NHS won’t refer you to full CBT. So I did mini CBT and then started full CBT in the second week of the lockdown, it felt really crazy. My therapist kept saying “Don’t be too hard on yourself if this takes longer, because this is mental for me too!” It just lasted a bit longer than it had to, but it was really good, it was the right time and spaced out in the right way. The perfect time for me to work on me, specifically. Even now as we are going back into lockdown, I feel like a more healthier person because of that. 

I am a creature of routine. So I’ll wake up at 7 am every single day, no idea why. I won’t even lie in on a weekend. Part of this isn’t really true, sometimes I’ll oversleep on a Saturday and it’s fine. But when I oversleep I’ll wake up and feel hideous in the face. So I wake up early, have breakfast and make two cups of coffee. And then I’ll sit down, faff around, do a bit of work – one week is a writing week and one is an admin week. If I’m writing, I’ll only really start at about 11:30 am, will probably only get an hour in before lunch and then probably only get an hour in before it’s time to stop in the evening. If I’m doing admin, it’ll be fine, I’ll do little bits

Lockdown was hard because I couldn’t go to the gym. I don’t really have the motivation to workout in the living room or go for a run in the great outdoors, I need to go to a place and have the only reason I’m at the place to be to exercise. So that was a bit of a mental one for my routine. Every single night at half six, I have to stop working because I’m going to the gym. I’ll spend an hour at the gym and then it feels weird going back to work. Before I was sending emails till like 11 pm, no etiquette. And I was quite overworked. So now I have an end of a day and that’s more important. In the grand structure of the day, I think it’s important to have a solid beginning and a solid ending. You do the job you have to do in the amount of time that you give yourself. 

I really miss being on public transport and just the mundane everyday bits and pieces I was doing before. So the small bits of normality are helping me through.