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‘The Work Before The Work’: Redrafting Institutional Writing Practices, October 2022

10 October 2022 @ 12:00 pm - 5:00 pm

collaged image of texts and image of seascape with blue sky and white clouds

This event is one in a series of 15 BAN supported seminars for 2022.

Organised by Maria Fusco, University of Dundee and Adam Benmakhlouf

‘The Work Before The Work’: Redrafting Institutional Writing Practices is an online event about what happens when art institutions advertise their output as progressive and radical, whilst upholding the material circumstances that undermine the politics they performatively champion. ‘The Work Before The Work’ is itself quoted from the title of a beautiful and sharply critical text by historian, anthropologist and curator Yayra Sumah. In this essay, she brings attention to the harmful persistence of whiteness and patriarchy within art institutional programming ostensibly formed around progressive leftist politics.

Writer, researcher and programmer Jemma Desai’s film work What do we want from each other after we have told our stories? opens the afternoon of events. The desktop documentary reflects on and extends Desai’s longer-term project This Work Isn’t For Us, which has so far taken the form of an open source publication by Desai distributed as a Google Doc and a series of events. In This Work Isn’t For Us, Desai initiates a deep reappraisal of historical and recent diversity initiatives within the arts, and offers an account of ‘her experiences of dissonance and alienation as a brown person working in predominantly white and supposedly liberal arts organisations’. Throughout this film work and her broader practice, Desai brings in her own voice and experience whilst communing with an ever-widening circle of artists, poets, thinkers, friends and family. Speaking of the direct quotation from Audre Lorde’s poetry in the title, Desai says, ‘Using her voice and not my interpretation of her voice is also a reminder to me that it’s not just about me. The personal is only political if it’s collective, and it’s a collective concern.’ Desai will join the event after the screening to take part in a follow-up discussion.

In the afternoon, artist Jack Ky Tan will facilitate a workshop that applies literary methods of textual analysis, and creative writing strategies to deconstruct the formal legal documents that constitute art institutions. Jack will invite participants collectively to read the real-life examples of familiar documents that frame collaboration, commissioning and the employment of staff and freelancers, but with an exceptional sensitivity to the associations of the phrases and terms that are used. What do the words mean that are used in contracts? When is the language self-defeating, e.g. is an honorarium an honour, or is it a diss? In the second part of the workshop, groups will rewrite the texts they are provided into radically different forms. This will be an expansive creative writing exercise in which participants will draft new words and expressions that can – line by line – nurture decolonial, feminist and queer praxis.

This event is open to all. Due to the workshop element, the organisers have limited the number of participants to 20. Booking is essential and spaces will be allocated on a first come first served basis.


Invited Contributors’ Bio’s

Jemma Desai is based in London. Her practice engages with film programming through research, writing, performance, as well as informally organised settings for deep study. She is currently a practice-based PhD candidate at Central School of Speech and Drama thinking through the liberatory possibilities in cultural production through ideas of abolitionist praxis.

Jack Ky Tan makes work that explores the connection between the social, the legal and art. Using social relations and cultural norms as material, he creates works of visual, performance and participatory art that highlight the rules — customs, rituals, habits and theories — that guide human behaviour. Jack’s social practice also blurs the boundaries between art, governance and consultancy in order to help organisations reform and revision themselves using artistic thinking. Jack trained as a lawyer and worked in civil rights NGOs before becoming an artist. As an artist-curator, Jack has curated exhibitions for the ICA London, Wiltshire Creative, the Salisbury International Arts Festival, Royal College of Art, arebyte gallery (London) and Lewisham Arthouse. He has also taught sculpture at the Royal College of Art and University of Brighton, and politics at Goldsmiths.

Organisers’ Bios

Adam Benmakhlouf is an artist, writer and SGSAH-funded PhD student. Adam is currently developing performance writing on the interpersonal pleasure and strain of queer and decolonial working practices within the art institution. Their research is hosted collaboratively by Dundee Contemporary Arts and Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design.

Maria Fusco is a Belfast-born working class writer whose fiction, criticism and theoretical writing is published internationally. Maria’s latest work, History of the Present is a major new commission by Royal Opera House about Belfast peacelines, working class voice and socio-political form.


Image: Jemma Desai, What do we want from each other after we have told our stories?, 2020, still


10 October 2022
12:00 pm - 5:00 pm