Smash the Workhouse, Free the Dreamers
Mohammed Z. Rahman is one of artists in residence in the Apocalypse Reading Room over the summer. On Thursday 26 August, join us for an intimate live event in our cafe with Mohammed and Apocalypse Reading Room curator Ama Josephine Budge in conversation.
The artists in residence are doing blogs and Instagram takeovers, and this is a blog from Mohammed.
The new adage blossoms a million times over on lefty timelines, the memes are corny and validating to different degrees. It rang in my head when I got this residency. Nudging taboo aside, I’ll admit how being paid to just vibe in a space has been a learning curve. I can underestimate the work that goes into accepting myself, feeling like I’m doing enough.
I came into the Apocalypse Reading Room from the clutches of a pandemic that ripped through my community and ground the bones of my loved ones working at tills, in the NHS and care sector. The offensive government response was lime juice on the wound, a 1% pay rise, inquiries into evidenced corruption with no obvious consequence. A la David Graeber’s argument in Bullshit Jobs, how essential one’s labour is sadly has no bearing on how it’s appreciated by society, with obscure bureaucratic jobs generally being paid the most and what we call ‘essential’ workers being paid the least.
Now we’re experiencing an equally insulting drive to go back to business as usual despite the ongoing pandemic, with little meaningful credence from outside of affected communities of working-class, QTIBIPOC, refugees, disabled, neurodiverse and those living with physical and mental health issues. This is a social response indicative of what Audre Lorde calls an anti-erotic society, one which lacks feeling, is obsessed by power and profit. In some ways this is nothing new when we look towards the independence struggles of former colonies and the UK’s unwillingness to reckon with its centuries-long hand in eugenics. In other ways it’s fairly current when we look to last summer with the toppling of the Colston statue and then the Sewell report as shoddy gaslighting.
I look on my timeline at the myriad of fundraisers and mutual aid run for and by affected communities for things the government should really fund, like basic income and life affirming surgeries and I feel bittersweet about it. *Sigh* There’s always work to be done. I try to fight the constant peeking at the timeline and stoking the flames of despair, never feeling like I’m doing enough; it’s kilometres of tightrope walking, it’s treading custard, it’s tiring.
As an artist I’m weary of being called in by an institution to rest. So often spaces to rest and dream are veiled and entangled with productivity, money and labour, think networking lunches or those hammocks at start-up offices that keep workers in the space for longer. One thing that really got me was the expectation, self-imposed and otherwise, for creatives to use lockdown to make masterpieces at our own pace. I know I spent lockdown barely getting by on basic diet, sleep and hygiene, let alone highfaluting life work. This in mind, the no-strings attached nature of the Apocalypse Reading Room and its offering of reading, rest, healing and preparation for the apocalypse- AKA the here and now- has been a new and confusing pleasure.
As much as I’d like to think otherwise, in the current state of things, dreamers are workers. Their ideas a colony of termites, clawing through the labyrinths of global information, chewing norms and unknowns to dust and bringing back pulp to furnish an ever-growing maze of thought. In their highest concentrations, they swarm out of schools, labs and universities. My time at the Reading Room has been as a scout cut adrift from the pheromone trails, it is still a kind of work, but I’m not forced to report to anyone, am just chewing for chewing’s sake in respite from the hive.
Thinking of dreaming as work poses problems for me personally as I have a tricky relationship with work itself. It brings me to the amount of times I lied in school to fit in, knowing my parents were living on benefits; telling people my dad worked at Dixy Chicken, that we went abroad every holiday. I’d see bus adverts on how to catch benefit cheats, hear the abuse hurled at my relatives working in restaurants and perhaps most trippy of all the “your parents are just lazy” from the lips of my brown Tory relatives. On another hand, whenever I see a textile tag saying “Made in Bangladesh”, I think of all the ways capitalism has made bodies like mine the source of cheap labour, how it’s punished the thought of rest right out of us and how in some ways I benefit from it daily.
Thinking about the end of the world comes the juicy prospect of watching the things we hate burn. In thinking of a new world, I want dreaming to be less like work. I can’t imagine what that looks like right now having internalised capitalism so damn much, but I know we need more installations like the Apocalypse Reading Room to chew things over, more movements like the Nap Ministry, more collectives like Bare Minimum to secure that vision.
“We hate work — the drudgery of wage labour, the grind, the side hustle, the neoliberal requirement for self-improvement… We want the world to be organised in a different way. We recognise that ending capitalism would not be a disappearing act (Lewis); work would still exist but not in the way we know it now. We strive for that which has not yet been realised, an Art for Art’s Sake in a world where none of us are subjected to premature death. We want space for pleasure. We want the abolition of everything but care, mutual aid and community.”– From the Bare Minimum Collective manifesto
Something as basic as not having to fret about making rent this month has made all the difference to how I could show up at the reading room and to life in general. I felt a dial turn up the connection, joy, openness and trust in my life. To be without feelings of obligation or the feeling of being extracted from is a tragically rare and precious thing.
I’ve also been very touched at how I’ve been received so warmly and intentionally by Ama, Lateisha and the folks at Artsadmin. We’ve shared knowledge at a leisurely pace and let it sink in; what goes into a fluffy vegan banana brownie, how to cultivate lemon plants from seed, what podcasts to wind down to (special shoutout to Lateisha for recommending For the Wild and Ama for Levar Burton Reads). Through the Apocalypse Reading Room I am not looking for anything new, if I chance onto it great, but now is a time for me to lay into my seat and look back at the canon, chitchat and receive.
As my fellow resident artist Lateisha Davine Lovelace-Hanson said at the opening, they and their ancestors have experienced apocalypse after apocalypse- the apocalypse is nothing new. It really resonated with me, made me tear up when it was my turn to speak. I thought of visiting Bangladesh in the 2000s and being cautioned not to dip my hand in the floodwater, how the ancient rhythms magicking fields into lakes had been disrupted, and the ecosystem had been disrupted by factories for generations. It also made me think of the Windrush scandal and how our histories and struggles have converged on this island, the heart of empire. It made me think of my niece and reading James Baldwin’s Letter from a Region in my Mind to his nephew, what do we tell them, the kids?
Let’s make a world which properly honours those who stitched the carpets and scrubbed the floors. Let’s turn ugly finance high-rises into community gardens. Let’s make a law that lets all the children of migrants who have waged wars against HR since they could type retire at 30 with full pensions. Let’s make Babylon a city of libraries.
When I applied, I suggested Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power by Audre Lorde as my apocalypse survival guide as it reliably pulls me back from despair by reminding me how feeling and sensitivity are forces in the world. As the reading room has a copy of Sister Outsider, I’ve been able to delve into Audre Lorde’s other essays, and on the theme of dreaming, I’ve been particularly drawn towards Poetry is Not a Luxury which says what I’m trying to say a lot better so I’ll just drop it here:
“Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action…
…Our poems formulate the implications of ourselves, what we feel within and dare make real (or bring action into accordance with), our fears, our hopes, our most cherished terrors….
…For within structures defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanization, our feelings were not meant to survive. Kept around as unavoidable adjuncts or pleasant pastimes, feelings were meant to kneel to thought as we were meant to kneel to men. But women have survived. As poets. And there are no new pains. We have felt them all already. We have hidden that fact in the same place where we have hidden our power. They lie in our dreams, and it is our dreams that point the way to freedom. They are made realizable through our poems that give us the strength and courage to see, to feel, to speak, and to dare.”From Sister Outsider, Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde