It is a very important question. It encapsulates everything I find important in what I do. In fact the answer to this question carries the whole sense of my existence. My faith in art is in stake here! So my faith in myself!
While spending time with my beautiful Lebanese Gambian family I met Gary. Gary was a British Expat from deep corners of London’s East End. Gary was working for my Gambian sister – sorting out plumbing in the newly added to her house first floor. And so Gary was around for every lunch and dinner (because in Fajara we all dine at a big table totally covered with food). I haven’t paid much attention to Gary and Gary kept ignoring me, just a polite: “Good Afternoon Gary!” and “How are you Gary!” whenever I happen to bumped into him.
I have noticed that while in the presence of other people Gary talked a lot. With the heavy thick cockney accent he was going through the enormous length to explain his clever solutions for plumbing jobs on the first floor in a country where the water pressure was an issue. No one could understand him, firstly because of his strong accent, secondly because plumbing hasn’t happen to be a hobby of a first choice for anyone (that I know of course). Unless something goes terribly wrong in your bathroom that is. Then we usually try to blame our neighbours anyway.
One day we were sitting after a lunch around a table enjoying a little coffee and the conversation went around the computers and technology. Gary apparently have had a problem with his PC and a boyfriend of one of my adopted nieces was supposed to help him to install the newest Windows 8 OS. Gary feared that his PC was too old. I butted in (naturally – computers! tech! finally someone talking my world here!) asking when did he buy it? Gary looked at me blinking unconsciously and mumbled something. Naively I pursued with questions about more detailed specifications. Again Gary looked at me blinking with disbelieve and continue talking to my nieces boyfriend. Something has shifted in me. I realised that Gary didn’t consider me as a worthy partner to talk tech because….well….because I was a woman. In his 60 year old world from East End and now here in Africa women are not a tech experts just like they are not plumbing experts. So I happily launched on the tirade about various OS systems, praising Ubuntu and asking everyone present why they haven’t consider that for their needs? Then I went on pros of Open Source, various specs and secrets of apps for tablets.
There was a silence when I was going on and on about it. So I continued: “You know – you need to now learn what is under the surface of the computer interface – it is like reading and writing skills. Otherwise you will be a modern analphabet – easy to control and deprived of information”. Gary indeed was looking at me now very carefully. Others were looking at their phones, smoking cigarettes or looking away. I could see that Gary couldn’t understand 95% of what I was saying. Neither the rest of present people.
So after exclaiming: “Future is in Ubuntu!” with a happy feeling of fulfilled duty towards the Open Source community and agenda, I left for a beach. And when I got there, under the hot sun and facing the clear horizon I suddenly realised: “OMG! I WAS A PLUMBER! I WAS A PLUMBER WITH A THICK FOREIGN ACCENT TALKING ABOUT SHIT THAT NO ONE COULD UNDERSTAND!”
Except that bit about illiteracy apparently. Because it turned out that Gary could not read and write. I wanted to go to the mangroves and spend the rest of my time covered in mud waiting to be eaten by a crocodile. The word “embarrassment” doesn’t reflect how stupid I felt.
But all of that was a very useful lesson. Not the lesson to provide answers but a short class in questioning. As an artist / designer / a person who works on intersection of fields and tries very hard to tell untold stories and be deeply understood – whom I want to address? Do I want to talk to middle class conceptual artists and art theories who just talk, they blab, the same philosophical stuff over and over again – so empty, so self-referential, so over-intellectual with inflated fake self-importance, so looking down at others who can’t understand it (because for example those others found Lacan extremely boring and full of crap – am not saying that I did, that is a different matter for another discussion). Or do I want to talk to a plumber, a fisherman, a waiter, a fruit-lady, a taxi – driver – about values which are emerging based on a deep research made by those boring, middle class academics with inflated sense of self-importance, which suddenly seems might be very varied in some areas? Or I want to take those two worlds and interconnect them better – as both seems to be detached one from another?
In other words: Do I want to get into soul of a plumber because: a) I want to understand plumbing deeply and translate it to others? b) I want to learn Plumber’s language so that I can translate to him values of others? c) I would like plumbing to be well understood all over the world – as pipes and waterways interconnect things and we shall not ignore it…
So – how do we make stuff which we make RELEVANT? RELEVANT not only to here and now, to this narrow group of people and this tiny virtual community made out of bytes and digits but RELEVANT to tangible real vibrant cells, microbes, sand, drowning islands, people of all sorts who are connected more that we are on the network…I want all of us to find out.