Mandy Merzaban

“Do Let Us, Destroy The Pyramid is a commissioned response to the series of events that includes the launch of Jack Tan’s AREVA report, in which Mandy invites us to share her experience in a poetic format.

Hear Mandy discussing her practice, thinking and the commission for the network with Jo Townshend, CVAN London Chair.

Mandy, please tell us about your arts practice?

I think I often find this question mystifying, but for reasons that resonate with the ways I am coming to accept the integrated and situational nature of my practice as theory-making, truth-making and relation-making as part of institutional critique that much of the time feels invisible.

I am right now thinking of my practice as engaged in probing forms of epistemic injustice within the arts and culture sector, which is a foundational kind of violence that creates and fortifies dominant knowledge systems by hermeneutically excluding and repressing the existence and resistance of others. In particular, the injustices that I intersect with in this sector, as a colonised subject groomed by the imperial core and its neoliberal tentacles in the SWANA region it calls the “Middle East.”

My practice involves deep and constant contemplation on registers of violence in communication through anti-racist, feminist, decolonial thinking; I listen to people who share their institutional experiences with me in the arts sector and hold networks of trust and solidarity by doing so.

This process has taken form in poetry, performance, drawing, printmaking, photography and sometimes just ephemeral interactions I have with people on the kinds of violences that we often find hard to name in the workplace and interpersonal interactions. I wake up and go to sleep doing this constantly. I’m interested in making art that responds more directly to experiences and power dynamics within the sector; behind the walls of exhibition not for exhibition walls, necessarily, which is a tricky place I’m still fleshing out. The dead serious absurdity of our experiences within and with institutions too have also more recently led me to looking at the potential connections between observational humour and institutional critique.

What initially compelled you to respond to the AREVA (anti-racist and equitable visual arts) report by Jack Tan?

I initially encountered Jack’s AREVA knowledge exchange workshop in 2022 through a recommendation via Delfina Foundation. The questions, probes and reflexive qualities of this project resonated with some of the thinking I was bringing to a fellowship in Tate’s Research and Interpretation department around white supremacy, colonialism and racism in Tate’s collection. What immediately clicked with listening and participating in Jack’s workshop around what does an anti-racist institution look like? was his level of coherence and ability to hold a buoyant and reflexive space for anti-racist thinking and self-reflection that felt like a fluttering of possibilities.

He draws attention to institutional doublespeak with such ethical clarity and in particular, the kind of cognitive dissonance we feel, in what feminist scholar Sara Ahmed calls the ‘phenomenology of institutions’ and the ‘appearance’ versus ‘experience’ of them. These appearances and experiences are, of course, contradictory. I am always drawn to artistic approaches where processes are about listening to and being accountable to interlocutors and collaborators in an open ended way.

I think what drew me to respond was this openness and perhaps invitation for action and responsiveness. On some level I read the line in Jack’s report “manifestations of new relationships, emergent states and collective will” as an invitation for collectivity and bringing out emergent states within my own thinking, a bit like continuing a cadavre exquis drawing. I am also acting on another note Jack makes about slowness and focusing on outcomes that emerge from processes rather than fixed outcomes, and I think a report such as this is about reflecting, rehearsing and acting on new learnings.

Can you talk about the way you responded to the work?

I responded through a score of three scenes with varied points of entry and vantage points which echo the cadences and form of Jack’s report. The first is poetry about the resonant and elusive ‘itness’ of what we all experience working with and in arts organisations that do not respect our boundaries and foreclose our agency, then there’s a pause; the second scene is a reflection on the contents of Jack’s presence and report, then a pause; the third is a scene from Jack’s sharing and performance during a panel discussion of the poetry contained in the AREVA report and how it related in me, as an audience member, to the context of the UCL East campus room and the typical theatre of conventional panel discussions. In particular how Jack punctuates this panel discussion form and how this inadvertently resonated for me, with the technical glitch of the lights in the room consistently turning off. These two ruptures of form brought unexpected attention to the conventions and conditioned behaviour of panel discussions and how form dictates how and what we share.

Your practice as 'participant-observer' surfaces insights on the inter-intra-relations of the visual arts ecology, can you share how this position brings to light new understandings?

Being a kind of participant observer sometimes feels too anthropological, though I currently use this term as a placeholder until another one arrives.

I’m a highly sensitive person and feel things perhaps too deeply, and I use being able to notice and feel things that happen, ‘sensing wrongs’ in Sara Ahmed’s sense, as a light toward anti-racist, anti-oppression thinking with thinkers who came before. I do believe that ‘sensing wrongs’ as an entry point is vital to defining what has been epistemically denied. How knowledge is denied is felt before it is articulated.

I often find myself being part of holding reflective spaces on an interpersonal level, defining and offering language to name the institutional situations, such as office power dynamics, inexplicable moments of confusion, panic and grief we experience in the arts sector that do not have words or expressions. And these incidents and situations do not have words or expressions because it keeps us away and deterred from resistance and agency. Most recently, my research has been culminating into a project provisionally called the ‘institutional life glossary,’ which begins to name some of these situations we encounter with bureaucracy and hierarchical arts institutions.

I think being a highly sensitive person that is curious about how people feel in and about the work they do in the arts sector (and outside of it) is often an unusual kind of curiosity. There’s usually an outcome/market driven purpose for reflective spaces within institutions. It’s a kind of curiosity that is counterproductive, as in against production, to the more extractive forms of curiosity we are used to in the sector.

What we are used to is what I like to call ‘curatorial prospecting’ a kind of extractive curatorial intent that uses the rhetoric of the decolonial, of diversity, or duty of care to collect mineral rich radical ideas to sublimate into exhibition making rather than living and enacting them.

This kind of prospecting is also something I would myself engage years ago as a collections curator unwittingly. You’re often trying to mine subjects, topics, histories and people to satisfy an arbitrary pipeline of curatorial projects that serve a very flawed, colonial form of canon-making, valuation and legitimacy-making.

So, I am familiar with how complicity can lead, if you’re willing, to a genuine discontent and a disavowal of being charmed by the arts sector and the illusion of what it offers up as success, legitimacy and cleverness. It’s entering into this world with eyes wide open and knowing it’s designed to fool you. It also means that my main interest can be more counter-institutional, and a small part of that is finding ways to use this discontent to imagine new networks of trust, faith and value within our relationships in the arts that resist actively denied or neglected.

What are you currently working through in the multiple presents you are positioned within, and what are you anticipating?

I identify with this idea of multiple presents. A continual recognition of the present is very important to me in how I think, relate, write and make work that considers epistemic violence. As an artist and arts worker of colour, my own consciousness and position is rapidly sharpening and clarifying at the moment in terms of anti-racist ethics, especially in relation to actively advocating for the liberation of occupied Palestine, the global anti-imperialist solidarity movements it connects with and how this is surfacing fraught dimensions of coloniality, racism and orientalism in art sector infrastructure on an unprecedented scale. This is a moment of profound collective rage, refusal and social organising.

 

As a brown person, I am registering, reading and embodying the effects of these often unspeakable, painful dissonances on multiple registers of experience and coming to more viscerally reckon with orientalism as a more hidden and justified racism. Listening to artists, arts workers and museum staff these past months and going forward, has drawn out very important, actively suppressed dimensions of anti-racism, and anti-oppression ethics. I think it’s impossible not to hold the anti-colonial solidarity movements, collective rage and disillusionment with Western imperialism in how we work through institutional violence and accountability in our sector. It would be disingenuous not to and yet it happens so easily because of how epistemically secure it is to separate activism from sublimated art about activism.

This is the present I am in right now, and questioning how to reckon with this because any other way would be to disassociate and compartmentalise reality. This moment has really exposed the normalised, dissociative tendencies of those who use the ‘decolonial’ as curatorial rhetoric rather than life practice and how ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ is purely corporate, representational, conditional and careerist.

The present for me is grounded in questioning what activism, mutual aid, collectivity and the anti-colonial really requires of us as human beings let alone the arts sector; an arts sector with infrastructure that often pretends not to be enmeshed in funding, politics and belief systems that actively serve and embody white patriarchy and coloniality both materially and epistemically.

Maria Merzeban Portrait Photograph: Woman with Tighty curly brown hair, brown eyes, full lips, green checked shirt