As the lockdown eases and shops open again, we enter a somewhat new normal… Take a moment. Did that happen? It’s surreal, a little absurd and even — at times — horrific, so how are we going to wrap our heads around this? How much of that change are you feeling? What will you do, what will you be? Where will you go? This April, we at Assemblage hope you can let yourself look around you. Take a deep breath. Enjoy what you can, in the present. Today and tomorrow will be different.
With a background in biosciences and currently studying an MA in Art and Science at the University of Arts London, Himarni is part of the Assemblage Collective writing group and active in creative projects. Her personal work spans weaving, acrylic painting, photography and collage poetry.
We worked together on the first issue of the Assemblage Collective zine, where she had the great idea of collaborating by circulating a set of images and text to each project member in turn, to ensure everyone had their input.
Loosely based around a Q&A, we discussed her projects in representing science, how she’s been keeping busy and what she’s looking forward to in the coming months – both within the Collective and in her free time.
Her current work:
At the moment, Himarni is developing a ‘cellular architectures’ project which arose partly in response to an interdisciplinary science workshop development project she participated in with London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to make research into the Shigella bacteria more accessible. It is a water-borne bacteria responsible for ‘travellers diarrhea’ but can be fatal in children under 5 living in parts of Africa and Asia. Cases have also been detected in Flint, Michigan.
The theory is relatively new and still uncertain around one particular way that the immune system detects and battles this bacteria, but current ideas based on microscopy suggests that a sparse web of nanometre scale septin filaments (part of the cell’s ‘skeleton’ and can be imagined as short protein threads) surrounds the bacteria – caging and sequestering them, preventing them moving around within or between cells to cause further harm.
To fulfil this role, these filaments are believed to somehow detect the shapes in their environment such as the characteristic physical features of this dangerous bacteria.
When representing its form, she wanted to think outside of the box – while others also represented septin filaments with thread, she wanted to consider the subsequent steps by which these features can sense shape, by thinking of how it intersects the bacterial form and exploring what can be deduced from these tangents. She modelled this using a variety of simple shapes intersecting an observation tool made of a string net representation of a ‘septin cage’.
One of the symbols was of a classical pillar which, due to its symmetry, is a fairly ‘predictable’ shape compared to the helical shapes common to proteins which make up the biological architecture.
This response was part of a board game making workshop her group designed for children to make a Shigella using materials found in the household, and she used string and a tissue box, which she said pushed her to think more creatively in how to represent science.
Art as engagement:
During the Zoom workshop with the children those of younger ages were able to understand the basics of an immune response to the bacteria, and children developed maze-like games modelling the gut environment, or catapult games where the immune system takes aim at its adversaries. She said that the game format is a good way of modelling a biological environment, which is ‘like a multiplayer game’ with bacteria and various other types of cell.
Whereas microscope images and film of cells are more predetermined because they take place over a certain time frame, a game introduces chance and various circumstances, a bit like the Game of Life which models cell survival in different environments.
The lab scientists they interviewed discussed Shigella ‘sociology’ and how different strains of the bacteria interact, as they don’t seem to recognise that they are ‘the same’: ‘they’ll avoid each other and try to kill each other if they can’.
The research aims to make understanding of immunology accessible to secondary school aged children through interactivity.
How do you feel that art intersects with science in research like this?
Commenting on how her degree topic spans both disciplines, Himarni said that the choice of Masters programme was a ‘bridging’ subject, since she wouldn’t have been able to study an MA In Fine Art immediately after a biosciences degree, but ‘why not find your own niche’.
She also mentioned that art and science used to be far more closely linked, for instance in the Vedic scriptures, ancient Hindu texts, science (physics, medicine, and architecture among others) and spirituality were intertwined.
The ‘fragmentation’ of the two subjects was due to a ‘Western colonial way of categorising thought’.
How do you find working at home digitally is affecting your creativity and the way you work?
She described the ‘moment of realisation’ that the ‘transition to peach-coloured Golden Hour’ inspired creativity and energy, and the links between getting Vitamin D and motivation, especially as someone of colour.
For two or three years she had struggled with working digitally and using social media, instead sourcing opportunities and exhibitions through her university, but noted that she felt she was missing out on ‘resources that are networked within communities’.
She mentioned Nearest Neighbour theory, which I hadn’t heard of before, which is the basis of an algorithm such as Spotify making predictions based on proximity of ‘taste’ – i.e. suggesting the music that people with the most similar music preferences to you are listening to even if they are on the other side of the world.
No longer having to commute, she has regained many hours and is channeling them into creative projects. She has also benefited from having more time to absorb the learning from her degree, and created an Instagram account during the first lockdown. She has found that following her community is a more ‘cohesive’ way of understanding information – by interest rather than motivated by the commercial projects at university.
Do you feel that your work has changed over lockdown?
She noted the importance of the working environment on her creativity and the link to aesthetics. Being from Sri Lanka, time spent there would feel very close to the climate, birds, trees and provided a well of inspiration. However, during lockdown, being away from London and gentrified public space designed from within capitalist and patriarchal hierarchy, and within the ‘feminine’ domestic space where she can select her influences and environment, has allowed her to be much more focussed on her true interests and priorities, away from loud distractions and directives.
What kind of work do you hope to make over the next few months, and into the summer? Do you have any particular plans or projects?
Himarni’s interest in architecture extends from cells to the city – and she mentions that she has recently become more interested in the social role of architects.
When thinking about potentially returning to an office environment, she reflects that many buildings she has worked in have been badly designed – basements with no natural light, and that post-pandemic, workers will have to be ‘seduced’ back into a workplace (quoting Michele Ogundehin, who presents our shared guilty pleasure TV show, Interior Design Masters).
It may be that we start to see what Himarni calls ‘diverse microenvironments’ – sections within a shared space for example with seating pods, which can assist those who desire more privacy in a communal space.
Her research proposal for her dissertation will centre around how architecture can draw upon cell biology – from structure and specialised functions of cells to the circulatory systems they provide the structure for.
How do you feel about spring, does it inspire you?
Living in suburban Epsom, Himarni has been influenced by nature from growing up close to green spaces which is ‘part of [her] style’.
Her local area is closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelites who emphasized the importance of working in nature to capture hyper-detailed realist imagery. On her way to school she would pass Hogsmill River, where John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (1851-2) was painted – though the exact section which appears in the painting is near Tolworth, so slightly further away.
We can see from her work that nature during Spring and Summer is an inspiration:
In this collage for an Assemblage collaboration with Anita and Tascha, she was inspired by the contrast between the suburbs and the city – where life is more ‘mediated’, meaning more impacted by the role of the media.
Having attended a lecture from MST Futurism, an Indigenous group of three tribes (Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish Nation) currently living on land occupied by Vancouver, they have used traditional craft methods for activism to protest the city being settled and the increased pollution.
They use a ‘blanketing’ approach to set the stage for discussion, by spreading woven blankets across the floor to gather upon as a process of establishing a safe, sacred community space, and highlighting the traditional role of scientific and cultural practices in weaving.
The group also ‘wallpapered’ over buildings (in a way that reflects the values of the blanketing tradition) in the city as an intervention to protect sacred and cultural space.
In Himarni’s work, she also draws upon tradition such as in this appliqué using her grandmother’s fabric, and in loom weaving.
Some of last year’s work include acrylic painting from her home and garden, when she thought of people alone with houseplants: ‘the only living being you see is a houseplant’.
This collage of photos from Sri Lanka is inspired by the book Brixton Beach, by Roma Tearne. The author is Singhalese and Tamil and grew up in the UK. Himarni recognised some of the settings from a beach on the West coast of Sri Lanka familiar to both the author and her, and wanted to replicate some of the ideas from Roma’s other work, as a fine artist.
Centering around semi-autobiographical themes of being from a diaspora community, Himarni described the process of the novel’s character Alice collecting washed up items from a beach and using the driftwood to make a box. Inside the box she housed a shell, but the box could not be opened – as an expression of a part of herself that she cannot access after migrating.
And finally, how has being in a collective impacted on your work? What are you most looking forward to working on next?
She particularly admires Charlotte’s work, which is ‘embedded in nature’, but is grateful to Tascha for founding the collective as a safe space, valuing her inclusive attitude and adding that she’s a ‘good energy person’.
Further, the opportunity to learn about herself and explore new ideas has been good for her creatively, such as the dreams project for the Reconnection zine where her group explores the politics of dreams and how some dreams can be an intense emotional experience.
She doesn’t get a lot of opportunity to do group work on her course, because for academic study people have often been working on and researching themes for years, so areas of interest don’t always cross over.
We look forward to working on the exhibition together, and perhaps incorporating some more nature-based practice and workshops to the Collective’s projects!
I heard a rumour that April was the cruelest month
Perhaps we mistake its love for dust
And its hugs for must
That envelops my skin
Cluttering what I think
As spring makes an early promise
I step out each day
Towards my present
Particles of dust
Participants along my walk
Help me with a study of the past
My eyes itch
But early bloom lets me see a future
Filled with see you soons
The path to creation always begins with an absence. A gap in the world appears, or is finally noticed, and it demands to be filled. In 2020, these blank spaces became even more apparent and even harder to ignore. With schedules wiped clean and the always longed for free time now painfully abundant, rifts in time could open freely. Once you have done every task you kept putting off, cleaned everything you always forget to clean and watched every show you have been meaning to watch, the beast of boredom finds a home in the newly torn hole in your carefully planned timetable. Soon your eyes, and your mind, wander. But being stuck within a finite space, no matter how roomy, means your creativity can only wander so far. Soon your view is all you have and you start to observe it at every opportunity like a comforting and well-watched film. In a way, it is simply to pass the time, to swallow half an hour or so.
This “mere pastime” of “creating”, whatever it may be, however, soon mutates into more. Once you open the door to creation, you begin to see the possibilities everywhere. The possibility of connection, of display, of being able to travel far beyond your government allotted space. You begin to realise that if you took even half an hour away from your schedule of binge-watching shows you have already seen and doom-scrolling, and instead put it towards creation, you might even build something – even if it is just a more varied day. The glimmering idea that you could even create something lasting, something to look back on one day and smile, is almost intoxicating in the current climate of total impermanence and uncertainty. The idea of being in total control of just one small thing in your day with no expectation or pressure is sort of thrilling. Suddenly the closed world you are trapped in abounds with possibility. The people you are stuck indoors with are now possible collaborators and the four walls you stared at every inch of tirelessly become your stage for creation.
Soon, however, like with many things in life, the act overtakes you. The tide begins to turn from happy distraction to all-consuming creation. You stand on the precipice between simply trying to fill your newly found extra hours to searching for further hours in the day to do your project justice. Creation becomes less of a simple salve for your boredom and begins to grow into something you almost, horror of horrors, take seriously. You feel you must justify the hours spent by making it “good” and through “committing” to it. Of course, this idea of having to justify hours spent in play is a hanger-on from the time before, the time when you had little time to play. When every hour and its progress had to be accounted for and had to have a quantifiable result. The barrage of banana bread, clay pots, photography projects and stunning landscapes that scroll past your eyes with increasing speed each day seem to be sending you a message- you must have a result- no matter how fleeting. Creation borne of boredom, however, does not always fit this rigid mould and the pressure of committing to your pastime can become overwhelming. You can see the edges of this not being fun anymore and, worst of all, it begins to feel almost like work.
It is then that the doubt begins. You look at what you have created, what you have spent your once valuable time upon and wonder if it was worth it. You allowed creation to gobble up time quickly and efficiently here and there in order to bypass the blankness. But now you worry you have been foolish, that it was reckless somehow to even try. As if you will emerge at the end of the year all wrong, all misaligned and out of sync somehow. You worry that that little half an hour here and there you were so eager to dispose of was secretly some vital element of your year you cannot quite fathom at present. Your eyes wander from your own work to the “achievements” of others – the online courses and unending zines and the quantifiable. Your work was just for you, it had no easily measured effect on the world outside your window. It is difficult now to see the true value in that when so many have worked so hard to keep the world afloat.
Finally, your creation finds its balance and begins to punctuate the seemingly featureless landscape of time rather than dominate it. You find the right mix of boredom, absorption, and sense of achievement without slipping into the bog of undue pressure. It becomes a good use of your time, a good way to pass the time, a method of self-soothing, an achievement of a difficult year, a testament to that thing you always used to wish you had time to do. The act of creation settles into a special role in your life and achieves that rare perfection of being whatever you need it to be.
The first clear memory I have of reading a poem is more of a sensation. Reading Spike Milligan’s The Squirdle when about eight years old instigated an erupted giggle, coupled with a feeling of confusion. I hadn’t realised that something publishable could be silly and nonsensical, that a work sold for profit could have lines that existed in both phonetic and visual imaginaries, ‘I think I thunk I thought/I saw a Squirdle by my door’. From the moment I read this poem, I felt like writing could be as silly as the strings of thoughts in my head.
Then I started secondary school. And all the promises of silliness were tested out of me with mark schemes, exam boards, criteria, and carefully curated syllabi with poems that varied in style but replicated the same enormous emotions that were beyond my years. To read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 ‘But thy eternal summer shall not fade’ made me feel small. How could I capture such intense feelings of love or sorrow, when my crushes still came in the form of that week’s blockbuster leading man? Our time in class was spent more acutely analysing the forms of the poems rather than searching for these feelings in ourselves.
I still loved these classes, within the perimeters of love that we could have for the allocated slots given to each poem. Yet, the love was put away, other than the occasional scribble, as I waited for the pressure of key stages to ease.
And now, well, since the beginning of pandemic-induced isolation, I have noticed myself seeing poetry in everyday things, seeing haikus in three-minute conversations. It wasn’t so much that I had picked up something left behind, but rather I had started something entirely different, characterised by the person I was now, and the unfolding experiences of the last year. I no longer saw poetry as only presented in the form of marked and dramatised verses, or the nonsensically fluid rhythms of childhood beats. Instead, I felt poetry could be the smallest truth, a minute detail of a day expanded into a feeling, a thought left behind longing for company.
As poet Carl Sandburg gently puts, ‘Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance’. Writing a poem can be grasping at the discarded details of a day full of things that seem to matter. It can be shouting but realising what matters might be what wasn’t said. It can be elevating stories that are pushed aside in favour of popular discourse.
And in lockdown, I had more time to think about these feelings and memories, these pulsations that otherwise would have been taken over by deadlines. So, I started a poetry journal. Well, I found a very tiny notebook, and started scribbling random thoughts that came to mind. The beauty of it was that no one would see these thoughts unless I wanted to share them. The thoughts could be pulled out as inconsistently and messily as I wanted them to be, as raw and heavy or as light and disingenuous as I needed, in order to eventually construct something that I was pleased with. I realised a poem could just be spilling a secret to yourself, sharing a detail you noticed between strangers. Or it could be a mixture of imaginaries, reality blended into what may have been. As I was released from the strain of what a poem was meant to be, I started furiously writing, knowing that if these poems ended up nowhere but in a messy pile in the corner of my room, I would be okay with that.
The benefits to my mental health were transformative. I felt freed of thoughts that I wanted to share but didn’t know how to. I felt a catharsis from unburdening feelings that I couldn’t explain but could write. I felt a relief from writing what I saw, things that didn’t need to be said but could fit very comfortably on a page.
Poetry became a way of emptying my frustrated mind of its contents, giving it some space to breath. Reading people’s poems filled me with glee, to know that others shared feelings I had, or in contrast could describe things I never thought to, was exhilarating. It made up for some of the experiences and feelings I was missing in such an insulated time. As gushy as it sounds, I became okay with being gooey, sharing notes with a party of one was the gateway to sharing them with others.
So, with that in mind, here is one of my scribbles. Reading it back now, I can see it is infused subliminally with some of the daftness of Milligan’s creations. These thoughts below represent a mixture of feelings, a squabble between a clear-minded youth and a frazzled present-day mind.
When I think of my youth
I think of the inside of my shoe
Frenzied laces tied late
And I think of milk and milky way dreams
rice milk water bottle warm
and thoughts that sit comfortably in a treehouse in my head
now the walls crumble
and the roof of my mouth stores unsaid words
I wander into smiles drawn outside of lines, deafening dreams in silent streets twinkling with peace
my youth is stencilled, traced, straight lines but with smudges that mark
when I think of youth I think of morning haze
now chilled by a blue bruise heart and days devoid of sugar as morning fades into day
muddy tracks and fairy tale crumbs covered in gunge
glow in the dark stars turned glow screens
when I think of youth I think of thoughts thought through
The moment just before I fade into sleep is when I tend to have my best ideas. In the small window of opportunity between getting into bed and my mind running to catch up with the dream of the night, I am jolted awake by an idea for a sentence, title, pitch, and frantically stumble around for my phone to make a note.
This has happened much more frequently over periods of lockdown, where my mind has wandered into spaces of unproductivity. Whilst I do the actual work in busy cafes or libraries, the initial ideas arrive in moments of absentmindedness, when I drift into the subconscious. This is perhaps because ideas are not the part of the creative process grounded in material reality, but are the initial steps that exist in imaginary space, eventually becoming concrete.
A resolution on the other hand is a conscious, confident decision to do something. A resolution is a firm commitment, a determination to complete a task or take up something new, with the inevitable juxtaposition of a failed task, a broken self-promise.
I definitely understand the desire to see off this awful year and hope for better things in the near future. Goals in themselves can be extremely helpful, setting targets for yourself can be a useful motivational tool, and can help you narrow down what is important to you. However, using January as an arbitrary measure for instantaneous change- especially now when time is framed by a discourse of indecisiveness in public policy- carves out an artificial goal that will likely be unfilled in the coming months. And so, this year I (ironically) resolve to move away from resolutions, and let things be a little all over the place for a while.
The first lockdown was full of so much reflection, of bettering ourselves, and in itself this emphasis on looking inwards whilst sometimes helpful, was quietly exhausting. So, for Christmas this year I asked for books not that I thought I should read, but ones I really wanted to. Instead of trudging through the murky narratives of books by famous authors that made me feel like I was trekking through gum, I chose books that I couldn’t turn away from.
Periods of retreat into restricted spaces create locations for ‘rediscovery’. As we are limited to repeated surroundings, people, and objects, we try to try again, to re-discover things that already exist. A quick google search results in an overwhelming number of ‘rediscover’ themed articles, showing how we have tried to imagine our relationships to creativity differently, have re-learned a love for walking. Focusing on things previously thought of as discarded certainly brings attention to hobbies and activities eclipsed by frantic work schedules and busy commutes.
However, since we have engaged in so much reflective and re-discover discourse, I would now like to just exist as we enter this new year, to mould to the things that ease this difficult period. I want to move away from the idea of renewing what is lost: trying that meal plan that never worked again, hoping that that same form of exercise will suddenly excite me, wishing that if I just plug my ears and centre my eyes that the book with the woody style will suddenly inspire me. Katie da Cunha Lewin argues that ‘forgotten’ female artists have been relegated to the space of ‘rediscovery’ in the present day, through marketing techniques that situate the figure of the neglected woman artist as contemporarily empowering. As she states, ‘the language in which rediscovery is couched is often about reorienting the individual artist, assimilating her into the canon of greatness, rather than actually dismantling the structures of power’. In a similar mode, the posturing of certain activities as forgotten, neglected, and ultimately ‘re-discovered’, such as baking, playing music, being in nature, or reading, positions them as idyllic, and ultimately implies a kind of anthropocentric dominion over these projects.
I don’t want to engage in new year’s resolutions that are framed by these narratives of loss, because it is hard and hopeless work. Eloise Hendy discusses the trend of burnout fiction, that encourages readers to bemoan modern labour, but ultimately ‘replicate the sensations of apathy, exhaustion and futility they seek to describe’. These books tend to situate focusing on things you don’t like as an accepted state of the contemporary human condition. Through this lens, resolutions that focus on doing things that are hard and uncomfortable can feel like jobs that you fail at. For me, February tends to produce the familiar feeling of defeat when I realise again that I truly dislike going for runs, and I should just pick a sport or activity I like.
The online world is awash with new year ‘challenges’ that challenge you to work on yourself. To get rid of things from your home, to leave negativity in the past, to be less this and less that, essentially to be less than. Especially in a time like now, I think it is okay to just exist in spaces of confusion and vulnerability, and maybe in this way ideas may be born out of rest.
So, I suppose I’m not really doing away with resolutions, but I’m trying not to feel the yearly pressure placed on us to lose certain characteristics, or to gain new skills, or to ‘re-discover’ old pastimes. Instead, I want to allow myself to just ‘be’ in the new year.
Born in Taiwan in 1950, Hsieh is best known for the one-year performances he undertook while living in New York from the 1970s onwards. One of these performances, Time Clock Piece (One Year Performance 1980–1981) 1980–1981, involved punching a time clock every hour for a year.
Focusing on notions of productivity and unproductivity,
Hsieh, writes Ash Dilks, ‘has taken art to the limits of what is feasible and possible’ through his attempts to collapse the boundaries between what Hsieh calls ‘art time’ and ‘life time’ in his mentally and physically demanding one-year performances
Another significant theme that the artist took up is time. Hsieh outlined the premise which forms the basis of each of his one-year performances: that a fundamental ‘precondition’ of all life is the passing of time, or that ‘life is a life sentence’.
For me during lockdown, I felt this pull of unproductive/productive questioning what the time I was spending at home was doing/saying/expressing – was there a pattern to my day? Was there something I wasn’t seeing as time wasnt as easily documented. How would I come to remember this day from that, or this whole period?
I started with polaroid photos (one everyday for the first month of lockdown so I have around 70 of those but I wanted to examine my time further than one snap a day – I wanted to see hour by hour. So, I migrated to 72 hours of waking life documented on digital camera which is the response you see below.
Guided by the ideas:
In my own house, how was I still performing and what was I performing? How did observation of the hours turn them from unproductive to productive?
I modelled this hourly approach on Tehching’s, he was very much the inspiration. However mine was very much waking hours!
By Tara Griffin