A conversation with artist-in-residence Kameelah J. Rasheed

all velvet sentences as manifesto, Like a lesson against smooth language or an invitation to be feral hypertext by Kameelah Rasheed
Kameelah Rasheed

// Past Show

Our digital marketing coordinator Maddie Browning sat down with our spring 2024 artist-in-residence Kameelah J. Rasheed to discuss her exhibition “all velvet sentences as manifesto, Like a lesson against smooth language or an invitation to be feral hypertext,” the inspiration behind her work, and her findings from studying writing and language. 

EC: Could you give me an overview of the inspiration behind the exhibition?

Rasheed: When Leonie [Bradbury] invited me, I was in the middle of several other projects that were thinking about language and the body and had just finished a show in Berlin and in Chicago. I wanted to use this exhibition as an opportunity to keep crafting towards those ideas. I’ve been reading this poem by Lucille Clifton [“i was born with twelve fingers”], where she talks about having these extra fingers and how that provided her with this other source of knowledge from elsewhere, and I was really interested in sort of bilateral relationship between the body and knowledge production, the body in the creation of writing systems. 

I’m not a video artist loudly, in the sense of, I make video work, but I wouldn’t say that’s my primary thing. But this show pushed me in the direction of being like, “No, I actually think about this as a primary role.” 

I think one of the questions [I was thinking about] was literally around how does a sentence work? How does a word work? And if we were to imagine words as bodies and sentences as bodies, what does that mean about our relationship to language?

EC: Tell me a little bit about the title of the exhibition: “all velvet sentences as manifesto, Like a lesson against smooth language or an invitation to be feral hypertext.”

Rasheed: The exhibition [title] is something that’s part of my practice in terms of taking residue from our prior show, and then incorporating it in the next show. So the title of the show actually comes from a piece of text that was on the banister at the show in Berlin, and it was a hidden piece of text. 

There are some other gestures that show up here that weren’t as prominent in the show in Berlin. I was really interested in thinking about how language shifts from one site to another, how that changes our relationship to the language itself. 

As I go back and look at the title, I think a lot about this notion of smooth language being something that doesn’t have friction, that slides without interrogation or interest or focus, and my interest in things being rough or having texture, having friction, as a way to help us slow down and process things. 

If you’re thinking about this idea of velvet sentences, or a lesson against smooth language, I think there’s a pool for nuance. So instead of having smooth language that is easily digestible, that we move through, thinking about language that has more texture, that has more roughness, that has sort of a sense of vitality as an opportunity to think about being feral. 

I specifically use the language of feral and hypertext because it implies a movement of the body, so being feral in the context of not having boundaries around how you engage in the way that a sentence might not have boundaries around its syntax or what other sentences it’s in relationship with. And there’s also hypertext, which thinks a lot about Octavia Butler’s work, particularly in the ways that she talks about primitive hypertext, so people moving from one place to another and that one location, that one word, being a suggestion or a pointer to another piece of work.

EC: What initially drew you to studying writing and language?

Rasheed: I had a not pleasant experience as a high schooler with writing. I had a lot of difficulty because I was writing in a way where I was trying to connect many dots for many places. I would often get this feedback like, “That’s not the assignment,” or I remember one piece of feedback was, “If you were going on a one week trip, you’ve packed your paragraphs as if you’re going on a month long journey.” That stayed with me for 20 years because I took great offense to it, because I was like, “But this is how my brain is functioning. This is how I’m processing the world. And where you don’t see a connection, I do see a connection.”

I shied away from writing. I did a little bit of writing after college in terms of some journalistic work interviewing artists. But it wasn’t until maybe four years ago that I began to take the practice of writing creatively more seriously, and I think that a lot of that had to do with just trusting myself a little bit more. I had lost trust in my own voice because I was thinking a lot about trying to constrain or discipline the way that I was writing. 

I came across a lot of writing where there was this language of waywardness or this language of going on your own pathway in writing. Now I’m deeply interested in the processes that people take to write [such as] spirit writing or people using constrained writing techniques or writing from dreams.

EC: During your writing workshop, what kind of practices are you going to be discussing?

Rasheed: I’m very excited because I do not identify as a writer and then I looked at like my list of engagements for this year, and they’re all writing workshops. I’m slowly moving myself into a context of, “You are actually a writer and that is actually okay.” 

For the workshop what’s going to be happening is basically a short introduction around what it actually means to write with games and to think about writing, not as a moment where you have a sudden moment of inspiration, but actually drawing from the world around you as a point of inspiration. When you think about games that pull from the illegal movement of these French folks who were combining math games, and writing games, we’ll also be pulling a lot from the Fluxus movement and the ways that they created these writing scores. And then I’ll be showing folks a lot of the scores I have created for writing activities, and they’ll have an opportunity to respond or write from these scores and then also develop scores that other people can take with them. 

All of my writing workshops are really organized around supporting people and developing their own methodology around how they approach writing and to have more fun with it because writing never clarifies and the way that we want. So since it’s always going to fail us, we may as well have fun with it. So actually looking at the failure of a sentence or a word to do what we want, not as a moment of mourning, but an opportunity to actually play with language in a different way.

EC: What does wayward writing mean to you? 

Rasheed: I used to think about it a lot in terms of choosing to write about things that other people don’t want to write about, but in a lot of ways, I’m thinking about it more spatially now in terms of wayward writing being a process of writing where you’re not constrained to a sheet of paper or word processor as your interface for writing. So thinking about wayward writing as an opportunity to write on walls, write on fabric, write on other substrates, but also to collaborate. 

There’s newer work that I’m working on now where I’m working with the affordances of different photo developing chemicals to write with chemicals in the sense of writing being the ways that chemicals and the substrate talk to each other. And so then they’re writing. I also am really interested in sort of interspecies writing practices. Benjamin Patterson, who was part of the Fluxus movement, had a project called “Ants” where he dropped a pile of ants on a white sheet of paper and took a photo every 30 seconds and then used that to create a music score. 

I’m really interested in taking inspiration from other organisms like writing a poem in the shape of a bird murmuration, looking at a slime trail from a snail and using that as the shape of a sentence, but thinking about these natural, organic shapes that show up.

EC: What have you learned about the limitations and opportunities of language as you’ve been exploring?

Rasheed: As a person who was like monolingual in that I speak English and have really bad Arabic spots of understanding, what I’m coming to recognize is that writing can’t fulfill all of our desires without clarification or communication. I’m really thinking about writing as one aspect of a larger, more interdisciplinary, collaborative practice. To tell the story of my life as a person growing up in northern California, I would have to tell the story of my city being a former farming utopia, which is why I had a well in my house and a tank house across the street from me and farms or having to tell that story through geology and making sense of growing up near salt marshes. 

Writing is one part of the storytelling process, and there’s movement that plays a role. There’s the utterance of the speaking that plays a role. I think there’s also something about the general loss. You’re not going to carry everything over from an embodied experience to the page, and I think that loss can be really important and generative, too.

EC: In the description of your book launch, you said that your new book Scratch Disk Full explores “the excess, the dirty data, the spillage, the noise, the leftover and the unfulfilled.” What does that mean to you?

Rasheed: So Scratch Disk Full as a project comes from my frustration whenever I’m in Photoshop working on something, and either my computer’s run out of memory or it’s run out of space, and I can’t proceed to the next task because the scratch disk is full. There’s no more space, you cannot proceed. You must stop. 

Scratch Disk Full is really a space to think about all the things that are not easily assimilated into a project or an exhibition, but still need to be out in the world in some capacity. So when I say dirty data, I’m literally thinking about dirty data and computational science. This stuff that people have given over that can’t be easily categorized. Excess being anything that’s cut off the edge as the editing process goes, but I still feel it needs to be in the world. 

I think there’s really a space for folks who are thinking broadly, and their connections are more unexpected than people think, and there’s a question around legibility. One of my interests with this project is not trashing or holding back the things that are not legible at the moment, but to say that over time these things will become legible if they just exist in the world in some capacity. 

Interview has been edited and condensed.