In conversation with Nicole Suzuki

Solo exhibition: Selected Writings (2-4) by Nicole Suzuki
curated by Sushila Mesquita

22.11. (Vernissage, 6-10pm), 24.11., 25.11., 27.11., 29.11. (3-6pm), 30.11. (Finissage 6-10pm)

Paper is light and a powerful tool of knowledge production and disappearance, power reproduction and consolidation. Drawing on Japanese paper and thread production techniques, “Selected Writings (2-4)” puts into view different forms of writing, reading, coding and concealing. The exhibition is an invitation to move away from the assumption of the empty page as a neutral space and brings forth the possibilities of a material and disobedient reading-writing.

Nicole Suzuki works in different media on questions of knowledge production with a focus on the possibilities, violent histories and limitations of the book as a medium. Her work is in dialogue with postcolonial and queer of color critiques. She runs the queer-feminist publishing house Zaglossus and is a political scientist and a teacher.

In conversation with Nicole Suzuki
Sunanda Mesquita for WE DEY

How would you introduce yourself to someone who doesn’t know you or your art works yet?

I work as an interdisciplinary artist and independent publisher and my work in both these fields is strongly influenced by me identifying as a queer person of color (no pronouns or she/her).

Several years ago I founded a queer-feminist publishing house in order to make room and create a space for voices and positions that are outside the norm – to amplify and build links by publishing marginalized writing/thought.

However, I have also made the observation that these marginalized positions run the risk of being tokenized or merely integrated into existing power structures in the service of an anti-democratic diversity.

I came to realize that established conceptions of how writing and reading should work themselves are based on powerful norms, which, if unchallenged, serve to reproduce epistemic violence at the expense of positions that are outside the norm, especially with regard to race, gender and sexuality.

So next to my work as a publisher, challenging these dominant paradigms of knowledge production and hopefully finding ways to counter epistemic violence is the central motivation for my artistic practice.

How would you position yourself in the art world? Do you feel any connection to current or past people or movements (also outside the art world)?

A big inspiration for me are artists such as Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and M. NourbeSe Philip, who have explored concepts around language, history and memory from a postcolonial perspective and have worked with text and fragmented words.

There is also a connection to artists working with conceptual writing, i. e. transforming texts that already exist into different works. However, in doing so it is of key importance to take into account subjectivity, context and historicity. Therefore, I want to especially focus on models that have the potential to (re-)politicize our engagement with text/language.

Of course, I am also highly inspired by the work of other (queer) publishers of color such as “Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press”, who have been working to make visible the writing, culture, and history of women* of color and especially lesbians of color.

Concerning my focus on un/learning, i.e. on an approach directed at challenging the established and questioning the accepted, I take a lot of inspiration from postcolonial thinkers such as especially Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. What I have learnt from them is the importance of continuously and actively interrogating given power relations from the perspective of or at least in solidarity with knowledges that are excluded or oppressed, and that unlearning is not about simply disavowing histories of violence, but rather about naming these histories of violence, as well as the resistance against them, as a way to seek social transformation.

Tell us a bit more about your works!

I know from my experience as a publisher that we need to actively interrogate the given dominant power relations and forms of knowledge and understand how these are already inscribed in our habits and actions.

So my artistic work is aimed at the question of how un/learning in this regard can be aided by working with text and language visually and by using strategies from the field of conceptual art, particularly displacing and appropriating social materials as a method of social critique.

I have been experimenting with conceptual writing, i.e. a form of writing that usually does not focus on the craft of the writer in the conventional sense, but rather uses stringent concepts or constraints to employ already existing text. What makes conceptual writing interesting for me is that it offers possibilities for testing the necessity of an authorial point of view in the creation of meaning and for exploring ways to not simply confront readers of a text with a prearranged meaning but to have them participate in the creation of meaning.

In addition, it has become more and more clear to me that also more radical and imaginative techniques are necessary. This is why in my most recent works I explore asemic writing and conceptually work with paper and thread (as described below).

This is not only an attempt to subvert the very (material) basis of the logic that generated these epistemic regimes in the first place, but importantly also an attempt to make space for alternative (anti-)narratives.

arbeit3bWhat does your creative process look like?

I see my artistic practice as a way of doing research. It especially helps me to deal with questions when I seem to not get any further with more conventional research tools (I am actually a political scientist by training).

So far, my art work has centered around questions that have repeatedly come up in my work as a publisher: How can we conceive of knowledge not as a single body of sorted ideas, but rather as consisting in fragments and patchworks? How can we leave room for hybridization and for untranslatabilities?

What I like about arts-based approaches is that art can open up spaces in which disunity and disagreement can be cultivated and in which not everything has to be fixed and certain, but can remain precarious.

So in my view, art has the potential to help us comprehend and question our thinking and our actions, and art works can be useful tools for (self-)reflection.

Can you tell us more about the works you are going to exhibit at WE DEY x space?

The works focus on two main aspects: an exploration of asemic writing to challenge common notions of reading, writing, and the potential of written language, and conceptual work with paper and thread in order to break down the material basis of text and to activate it anew.

Asemic writing is a wordless open semantic form of writing, which often kind of looks like conventional writing because there are shapes which have resemblance to how letters look. But if at all, it would only be writing for its own sake, instead of writing that relies on actual letters, on an actual alphabet. So it can be seen as a postliterate style of writing and asemic writing is interesting to me because its open nature potentially allows for an asemic text to be “read” regardless of the respective languages people actually can speak and read.

My asemic writing is especially inspired by the Japanese writing system because I only have a very vague recollection of this writing system – so getting into asemic writing here was much easier for me than if I had set out from the Latin alphabet – and also because knowledge about “Asian” alphabets is often projected onto me.

Furthermore, when I did some reading about alphabets and writing systems, I discovered how ethnocentric much research on writing systems and literacy is. For example, Eric A. Havelock, a former professor of classics at Yale University and one of the most frequently cited theorists in the field, took the position that for the Japanese, their script imposed limitations on analytic thought and reflection. In a book that was published in 1982 he wrote that “the free production of novel statement in (their) own script will remain difficult”. Of course, if anything, this statement shows how misguided (to put it nicely) Havelock’s preconceptions were, and showing that there is plenty of evidence that undermines this view has been the background for some of my works.

In addition, many of my works in this exhibition are inspired by “shifu”, the Japanese art of making paper thread in order to produce textiles.

The legend goes that a messenger, who was supposed to deliver a secret message through enemy territory, spun the paper on which the message had been written into thread and made a coat from it. Wearing this coat he could cross the enemy territory and finally unroll the message again.

While I was trying to learn this traditional Japanese technique, I was also reminded of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s metaphor of unlearning as an endless process of weaving invisible threads into an existing texture. Spivak writes: “The text is text-ile. To suture here is to weave, as in invisible mending.”

So, my works in this regard explore how we can conceive of knowledge in a way that does not assume one single red thread but that sees knowledge rather as consisting in fragments and patchworks and where loose ends and unauthorized connections are made a matter of principle.

The motivation is to find ways to negotiate diverse knowledge approaches and bring them together even when they are seemingly in conflict. I also wanted to show that a specific knowledge approach is always already engrained in the very material, i.e. in paper and books, that we write on and print texts in.

arbeit3bWhat interests you in showing your works in the specific context of WE DEY x SPACE in Vienna?

I cannot express how excited and grateful I am that I get to have my first solo exhibition at WE DEY x space!

As a self-organized art space where BPoC artists are able to show their works in a self-determined way, to my knowledge, WE DEY x space is the only one of its kind in Vienna and also well beyond this city.

When WE DEY x space was founded I felt that for the first time I could actually imagine what a space of un/learning could look like. The importance of spaces like WE DEY x space cannot be underestimated given the power relations of cultural supremacy and dominance inherent in institutional infrastructures and also in the practices of art discourses.

Also, I am convinced that being explicit about centering the work of Black and People of Color artists and about particularly directing WE DEY x space’s program towards Queer/Trans*/Inter/Black People/People of Color is an approach that does not limit the audience, but in fact expands it.

Over the last few years, there has been a somewhat growing audience for the work of Black and People of Color artists within the general contemporary art scene. I don’t think that being explicit about the focus of WE DEY x space’s program decreases this general audience, but it hopefully is a way to ensure attention from Black People and People of Color. I am really grateful for all the work WE DEY x space is doing in this regard.

Can you tell us more about other projects you are currently working on?

I enjoy doing conceptual work based on already published texts, particularly from the field of postcolonial, queer-feminist critique, as a way of searching for new possibilities to work with texts.

There are so many beautiful and important books out there but it’s difficult to achieve a wider and lasting reception for them. My suspicion is that maybe this has also to do with our conventional conception of reading, so I work with these texts from a visual perspective and especially using strategies from the field of conceptual art in order to do homage to these texts and to find ways to open these texts for a different way of reading.

For example, one of my recent projects (titled “IS ID ALL”) consisted in a reworking of “This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color” an anthology edited by Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga, which was originally released in 1981 and centers the experiences of women* of color.

Another project is on the question of how to deal with the fact that also publishing practices and the medium of the book itself are entangled in epistemic violence. How can I break down the medium of the book and activate it in a way that accounts for that violence and try to redress it?

The aim is to eventually make books that bring together aspects and results of my artistic research described above. How to create books that don’t purport to offer a fully self-contained discourse operating between their covers but offer room for disagreement, misunderstanding, comments and annotations as part of the process of inquiry?

Thank you so much for your interview ❤