by Jessie Florence Jones
"We’re just very aware that outside of that formal publication structure there’s very little support for writers. And the pandemic has made that really really obvious"
Remember when interviews used to start with that lengthy rumination on the hairstyle, beverage choice and clothing of the interviewee? They would be fashionably late, smooth and cool, carrying a coffee from somewhere else, immediately deposited for another. Or they would be frantic, crashing into the restaurant like a miniature hurricane with gentler features.
Well, there'll be none of that here. Beyond just the fact that it's annoyingly familiar, it is something that has gradually, begun to border on extinction. At least right now in the p***demic, in an increasingly digital landscape especially, the idea of travelling to meet someone in person feels like something rare to the point of vintage.
Though convenient for everyone involved, it still would have been a delight to meet Zarina Muhammad in person. One half of the guerrilla critic duo The White Pube, Zarina defines the project as: “an art criticism platform. Kind of our collaborative identity but, we write about art, games, and sometimes food and it takes place on the website, Instagram, and Twitter”.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Zarina about the art world, its inequalities, and The White Pube's billboards and writer’s grant. Gabrielle De La Puente, Zarina's partner and best friend, was unable to attend the interview unfortunately, but her presence was certainly felt in the answers that Zarina gave. 'We' overwhelmed 'I' when talking about everything The White Pube do. It is definitely their “collective identity”. This is truly a partnership and a non-hierarchical effort; something that, as our conversation reveals, can be hard to find in the creative industry.
Gabrielle and Zarina met in art school in Central Saint Martins in London. I asked whether the girls still had their own practices. This was met with a longer pause than I would have anticipated, Zarina pondering the question before landing on: “it’s a sticky one!”
For her and Gabrielle, The White Pube is a part time enterprise alongside other projects and part time jobs. Zarina tells me that she doesn’t “work in the art world at all. I just have a boring office job”, before brightening as she talks about Gabrielle. It’s moments like these where the depth of that partnership, and the equality with which The White Pube works, really shines through. She tells me that Gabrielle, “between those two things, writing criticism and being an actual curator [at Output Gallery in Liverpool], she’s quite creatively fulfilled without actually having to make art.”
This leads to something broader that’s encouraging and refreshing about these two women writing criticism: they’re totally comfortable doing exactly what they’re doing. I was inspired talking to her, realising that these were women content to discuss the work of others, and highlight the behind-the-scenes red flags that perhaps lead to that glory, that award, that huge financial success.
In a lot of ways this reflects something about the left generally: we are often tasked with the burden of solving the problems we illuminate. We’re often asked to prove on the spot, when challenged, how we could possibly do things better than the neoliberal consumer capitalist model we’ve been provided with. But sometimes it’s enough to just point out the issues; it’s our job, like Zarina and Gabrielle, to just say “this isn’t right.”
However, The White Pube does not solely task itself with pointing out the bad in the art world. It also celebrates the wonderful artwork out there. Part of the reason Zarina says she doesn’t make films anymore, (beyond asking: “who’s got the fucking time for that?!”) is her humble, simple admittance that she is “just really aware that there’s some really good work in the world”.
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We got into exactly what it was that her and Gabrielle were trying to do. Increasingly, as The White Pube has grown, it has become more concerned with illuminating behind-the-scenes inequalities. The darker corners of the art world as industry, of art as commodity, that the average cultural consumer just doesn’t get to see: at least not as readily as the art itself.
If art itself, as a consumable experience, is persistently classed and blocked off to those of lower economic backgrounds, then the structures behind it are even more opaque.
Zarina highlighted what we can sometimes forget: “art, and it sounds trite, but [...] the art object is a commodity that is to be bought, and sold, at inflated prices on a market. And people have talked about, I guess the critical and theoretical implications of that: art as cryptocurrency right?” This was made abundantly clear in the midst of the pandemic when Tate workers were losing their jobs in droves and institutions chose the pieces of art, the commodities and their cultural capital, over their liquid worth that could have saved countless workers their jobs. The precariousness of gallery staff has been, more than once, a direct consequence of a refusal to sell works. Hoarding artworks becomes hoarding wealth when put in such stark terms. And this is something that Zarina and Gabrielle have consistently tackled in their criticism, especially with their new billboards around London and Liverpool.