• Ljubljana / London
Miha Colner

“Contemporary Art is an Economy Based on Irony”: Interview with Hamja Ahsan

“Contemporary Art is an Economy Based on Irony”: Interview with Hamja Ahsan

“Contemporary Art is an Economy Based on Irony”: Interview with Hamja Ahsan

The interview with Hamja Ahsan was initially published in the Art Words [Likovne besede] magazine, 119/2021 in Slovenian language.

Hamja Ahsan (1981) is an artist whose practice indefinitely stretches across number of fields and disciplines. He graduated at the Central Saint Martins art academy (2008) and completed masters programme in critical writing and curatorial practices at Chelsea College of Arts (2009) in London. He is collector and creator of zines, organiser of cultural and art events, writer of essays, manifestos and books, activist for the rights of introverted and socially deprivileged, curator of exhibitions, editor of publications and much more. He initially came to Ljubljana as an invited artist of the 33rd Biennial of Graphic Arts: Crack Up, Crack Down in 2019 where he showcased spatial and relational variation of his process-based work Shy Radicals at MGLC. At the biennale in Ljubljana, he held a referendum about the independence of fictitious state of Aspegistan which is supposed to become a paradise for introverts and departure from the current social order in which people live under the dictatorship of extroverts. For this communicative work with which many can identify he was awarded a Grand Prize at the Biennial of Graphic Arts in Ljubljana that secured him a solo show in frames of 34th Biennial of Graphic Arts in 2021. The exhibition entitled I Don’t Belong Here, curated by Yasmin Martin Vodopivec, that took place at ZVKDS Gallery in Ljubljana presented this ongoing work on several levels as well as it unfolded the reasons and processes of creating Shy Radicals which can be experienced in diverse formats such as book, film, exhibition or lecture. In this conversation, we touched upon the Shy Radicals project, the exhibitions in Ljubljana, Ahsan’s relationship with Ljubljana and its art scene, his attitude towards contemporary art, his exceptionally interdisciplinary work, mental health issues, position of the introverts in the today’s extroverted society and many more.

Portrait of Hamja Ahsan. Photo: Urska Boljkovac, MGLC archive

Your artistic practice is very prolific. You are not only an artist in traditional sense, making exhibitions, but you also work as a curator, writer, activist, collector and cultural worker. How do you integrate all these roles in a practice?

I know exact time when I became a born-again artist. It was 6 June 2019 at 7pm when I received a Grand Prix at the Biennial of Graphic Arts in Ljubljana. So, it is true, my approach to art is that I take full spectrum of things, from interviews, public talks to photographs, as part of the work. For a very long time I haven’t done an autonomous art work. For me, it is more important to be fluid between different roles, being an activist, writer, curator and artist. So the interview we are doing now is also part of my art practice.

Currently, there is your solo exhibition entitled I Don’t Belong Here on display at ZVKDS Gallery in Ljubljana and it showcases your work in a slightly wider sense than solely the Shy Radicals piece. What is the general idea behind the show?

I guess it is a prologue to Shy Radicals. In the centre of the work there is a prison cell which simultaneously deals with my brother’s incarceration in solitary confinement but on the other hand it also looks like a teenage bedroom. There were posters of classic 1990s films and my zine collection, which I have been collecting since the age of thirteen. It is a meeting point of teenage angst, psychiatric hospitalisation and war on terror. But also, it was also a quiet place to sit. However, it is not only prologue of the piece but it also connects fiction and fact. There is a world map that deals with the fictional locations from the book and there are places where things really happened – picture of the university where my book first came to an Ivy League University curriculum (real) and Aspergistan pavilion at the Venice Biennial (fiction). I think that opens up imaginative possibilities. I also made a playlist of songs on Spotify1 which contextualised the music that I refer to in the book.

The show is also about different way of thinking about authorship because almost everything that is presented in there is a result of a collaborative process, from interior design to the film, from costumes to the book itself. I guess I am trying to redefine the authorship of the piece by saying I am the heart of the piece and I would like to put it in a symbolic centre, but not so much in a traditional sense of authorship which more relates to property.

You are also obsessed with underground zine culture which is a starting point for many of your works. What do zines mean to you?

Zines are life beyond ambition. In a way, I failed with a lot of grandiose dreams I had as an undergraduate. I wanted to be the curator Okwui Enwenzor of Documenta 11 in the 2nd year of university. In a younger age I had a different perception of art and I thought a lot of grandiose painters like Francis Bacon. Zines were like a failure because they are not meant for massive success, they are the other form of success. For instance, zinsters are complete opposite of a literary festival class of writers who have big publishers and they end up being their own content. Zines are very diverse field. I often use them in a curatorial sense. For instance, in my festival DIY Cultures2 I did a panel about unemployment and creativity where I invited bunch of unemployed people, or former psychiatric patients, because their experiences are extremely interesting, which eventually ended up being a zine. There is a certain value in informality, non-official and non-sanctioned knowledges in that.

Recently, I published a letter as an art work. It is a love letter to the unemployed person. I spent a lot of my late teens and twenties at disability welfare as had many long-time unemployment periods as well. And if you think of it, the unemployed are one of the most hated groups of people in the society but I can also say that these are the people that probably helped me the most with mental health crises. Unlike the professionals, unemployed people have that sense of an open schedule and an extended ability to relate. I am very proud of it as a piece of writing.

Zine is very open form with wide creative possibilities. Your zines are like that as well, they are very open and diverse, and they do not seem to have predetermined form and content.

There are certain formulas for zines as a format and certain themes that often reoccur. For instance, there was a zine called Quaranzine, produced in Lockdown, maybe the last one that I was involved in, and there were many zines with that topic. It is like an epiphany, lots of people having similar ideas simultaneously.

What are the formulas that appear within zine culture?

Zine scenes can be very orthodox, focusing on a very particular issues like anarchism, punk or alternative economies. I think that DIY culture is a completely different geography where many different subgroups can coexist. But also zines can adopt certain formulas. But beside that there are lots of interesting developments. In the UK there is a zine called Khidr3 which is published by a Muslim creative collective who have done thorough investigation on the issue of Grenfell tower (the tragedy in London when several people burned alive in a fire), social housing and the war on terror. There are many interesting offshoots that come out of the creative zine culture.

Hamja Ahsan: I Don’t Belong Here, exhibition view at the ZVKDS Gallery, Ljubljana, in frames of the 34th Biennial of Graphic Arts, 2021. Photo: Klemen Ilovar, MGLC archive.

But zines are also becoming increasingly popular, or at least, they were at some point. Does that fact manage to change and make this culture more generic?

There are many NGOs that have taken on a zine format, and there are also commercial ventures. There were zine publishers that partnered with companies like Doc Martins that created a zine space. But also Nike partnered with Muslim sisterhood zine and provided them with a space. The Vans corporate skate wear company has a House of Vans social space where they conduct pay-for zine workshops. Many fashion brands and shoe companies are actually doing that. You can easily point to that trend but, despite the trend of corporate appropriation, there is huge difference between these phenomena and genuine zine culture. The corporations can not buy out the whole culture but maybe they can provide some money support for it. However, I have never taken any money of that
kind, for me it has always been a DIY process. Zines were simply the space that I inhabited.

Audience in Ljubljana got to know you with your most renown work Shy Radicals where you created an imaginary state of introverts. Is that your personal utopia?

I often felt bullied, alienated and discriminated in my childhood, just for being quiet and introverted. But beside my past experience, there was something about my first residency in Ljubljana. I was invited by MGLC to Švicarija which is a special place that became some kind of an introvert utopia. When I woke up in the morning I could hear a bird chorus and that was magical. And also, I felt hurt when occasionally the space was invaded with noisy, trendy parties and club nights. For me Švicarija is like a bird dwelling space and I am glad the house is used for artistic purposes.

When I was doing a research for the biennial in Ljubljana, it was still left open what I was going to do. At the beginning I had an idea to work on a project called Radical Invigilators Collective (I think the term in Slovenian is different, something like a security guard) where I had an idea to unite of all of them. But in the end I did the referendum about the independent state of introverts – Aspergistan – in frames of the Shy Radicals project.

Important thing with the development of the piece was also visiting Plečnik’s house in Ljubljana and realising what kind of personality he was. He almost protected his introversion. You can see that in the contours of his house and his biographical relationship to it. But there was also his public architecture. The bridges on the main square would never get too crowded, there is no place to get into a traffic jam. There is no place like Time Square (New York) or Leicester Square (London) that are overtly buzzy. It was something about Plečnik’s overall architectural vision that influenced me to develop that work. Another influence was a ballot box that was used in the Slovenia referendum
for independence in Museum of Contemporary History which gave the idea additional potency.

Hamja Ahsan: Shy Radicals, exhibition view at MGLC, Ljubljana, in frames of 33rd Biennial of Graphic Arts, 2019. Photo: Jaka Babnik, MGLC archive.

The book Shy Radicals was released two years earlier which means you adapted the piece and gave it another form for the Ljubljana show. It is a project in ongoing development?

Yes, the project keeps changing and developing. I do not know how many dozens works were inspired by the book by the artists from around the world. As the work circulates, artists get concepts from the book and based on that different collectives are being formed, simply because this is such a topical issue. The Turkish artist Ipek Burçak who did an artist book called Autistic Turn uses the vocabulary from my book. There is a PhD collective Academics Against Networking that was directly inspired by the book. There was a dance and sound piece by Japanese dance collective that made gestures from the Shy Radicals book into the choreography. There are many examples of how the idea of the work is freely spreading, beyond my activities.

All of these things were done autonomously and often I was not even aware of them. I did not commission things, as I sometimes do, but instead I just went to never ending tour and as I toured the book generated new works that I did not have any control over. The weirdest event I have been invited to was in British Colombia in Canada where I conducted a talk for nurses union at their annual conference.

Hamja Ahsan: I Don’t Belong Here, exhibition view at the ZVKDS Gallery, Ljubljana, in frames of 34th Biennial of Graphic Arts, 2021. Photo: Jaka Babnik, MGLC archive.

Why do you think the book Shy Radicals is it so relevant nowadays? Do we really live under the reign of extroverts?

I did not really envision that geography of relatability of the book will be so broad but, I guess, many people can relate to the subject. The referendum I did in frames of the exhibition in Ljubljana in 2019 was won in favour of Aspergistan, which was repeated in Warsaw where Biennial of Graphic Arts: Crack Up – Crack Down was shown later. But despite the fact that the book got into five editions and the film has been successful I frequently feel a sense of defeat and despair as I am so often made aware of the world we live in. In the last year and a half I was at the residency at Van Eyck Academy in Maastricht where, for instance, I would have a screening of the film and round table on neurodiversity and art institutions in the lecture theatre. There we would have serious discussions about how to make institutions more equal and accessible, but at the moment I stepped out of the violent repetitive clubbing beat from the sound system would engulf me. Sometimes such cognition would push me to the state of depression and suicidal despair, and would make me feel that this world is just not built for me.

It is clear then that your piece Shy Radicals is autobiographical.

I experienced lots some of the downsides of this world in the past. I was unemployed and people rejected me from working in art institutions which I wanted to do for all my life. I could not be visitor service assistant because I am not being outgoing enough. I think it is a fallacy in way of accessibility of public institutions and what their customer services are; they assume only one type of person could work there. Therefore, I just wanted to be honest in the book by adopting several characters in order to communicate how I experience the world and in the end I found thousands of others who could relate to my experience. The characteristic of activism that I value the most is sincerity that is almost impossible in contemporary art which is an economy based on irony.

There are so many different versions of Shy Radicals: documentary, book, exhibition. Which of them do you think is the most efficient to address people and have wide outreach?

I think the book is the most widespread because it is a format that is all about intimate act of reading one-on-one. There are also people who watched the film which circulated around festivals and exhibitions, but also people who maybe only read interviews I gave. I gave an interview for the Delo newspaper in Ljubljana and consequently the Facebook group called Introverts Slovenia appeared. I am always looking for different spaces for a discourse and that leads to different directions.

The book was quite a success, also for my publisher, because it travels also outside of the art world. When I was writing it there was a point when I wanted to leave the art world and I eventually did not leave it because I won the Grand Prix at Ljubljana biennial. It is strange because I wanted to be an artist since I was three years old but after I graduated at Central Saint Martins in London in 2008, and after I did curatorial course at Chelsea in 2009, I was left in complete despair and disillusionment. The big fine art economy, like Frieze art fair, causes despair. What I concluded from there was that the money is a dysfunctional thing, which may be a nihilistic stance, but success in arts is not based on quality or value.

It is weird because I don’t feel cynicism towards art in Slovenia; maybe the scene and society is more egalitarian. In Slovenia, it seems that everybody, no matter how big they get, is accessible and I could easily meet successful artists, whereas in London, for instance, there are be classes and divisions between people. Maybe that is why I feel as a part of the fabric of a very specific Slovenian art world that would be possible in any other capital city. Sometimes you feel the need for things to be smaller because in that case your presence would actually count.

What is your view and the position at the London art scene? You are a Londoner after all.

There are several different scenes in London. But there is, again, something about the size of the city. In Ljubljana, everything is within ten minutes walking distance but in London I sometimes spend two hours travelling to visit my friend who lives on the other side of the city. So I can not even meet people so much. At some point I just felt revived in Ljubljana and Rotterdam, and these are two key cities for me. I mention that in the aforementioned letter, that everybody should have time for each other. After being in New York, for instance, I could understand the meaning of the film Taxi Driver. You can not imagine that Taxi Driver could ever happen in Ljubljana.

My time spent in Ljubljana caused an interest in Slovenian art history and I became very interested in the people who moved to Slovenia, from Iraq or Sudan, in the period of Non-alignment movement in Yugoslavia. London institutions like Stuart Hall library and Iniva library have a lot of books about the history of diasporas, and that enabled me to map the histories of Arab minorities in Slovenia. You can see how important was internationalism in Yugoslavia in the 1950s and 1960s, and also how important was Biennial of Graphic Arts in Ljubljana in its early periods. When I went to the archives of Documenta, I realised that internationalism of Documenta happened very late, only in the 1990s, and that the first festivals were curated by former members of a Nazi party. It is very interesting to compare very Eurocentric Documenta in Kassel and very internationalist Biennial of Graphic Arts in Ljubljana that were both formed in the same year of 1955.

Since you are mentioning Documenta; you were invited to take part at the Documenta XV in 2022. What are you planning to do or show there?

I had four ideas but the one that I am most likely to go with is a project about Halal Fried Chicken. That is definitely an important thing in London, almost a subculture that comes out from the demographics that identify with Muslim culture. So I am working on that utopia of the Halal Fried Chicken chain, which also builds on the idea of Shy Radicals. I want to create a grandiose utopia where the line between fact and fiction, between reality and fantasy, is slightly blurred. I would never do that kind of work in Slovenia, but in Germany Islamic minority is quite seizable and there is an ongoing national debate about integration of these communities in the German nation. I often focus on Muslim experience which is often connected to discrimination, and it seems that things are increasingly getting worse with the advent of populism and Trumpism. I guess, the new piece is originating in the idea of Shy Radicals which means it is about power and about disempowered.

Hamja Ahsan: I Don’t Belong Here, exhibition view at ZVKDS Gallery, Ljubljana, in frames of 34th Biennial of Graphic Arts, 2021. Photo: Klemen Ilovar, MGLC archive.

You mentioned the war on terror that you and your family experienced in a very direct and intimate way. Your brother was detained on terrorist charges which also impacted you and many of your works. What is the story behind that?

My brother was taken from our family home in London in July of 2006 because there was an extradition request from the US. Visitors to the exhibition in Slovenia, drew connection with what is now happening to Julian Assange exhibition. My brother was marginally associated with obsolete websites about the conflicts in Bosnia, Chechnya predominant and Afghanistan. He was detained for six and a half years without ever being charged, having a trial or prima face evidence. In the end, he could he took plea bargain deal as is customary and he returned home in 2014. This experience still plays a big part in how I think about the state, the law and minorities power.

In a prison cell at the exhibition you can see my brother’s prison poetry which also inspired me how I see Aspergistan. In a way, my artistic career was on a halt during that period because the only thing I cared about was saving my brother from extradition. I think there is an overreach in the US territorial stakes. There is whole campaign archive available online for the ones who want to explore further. Part of the exhibition is also the film that touches upon my brother’s issue but we did not want it to be too dominant part of the story, which was quite a challenge. On the other hand, one can enjoy and relate to the book without having to know about that part of my history.

My next piece of writing will be called The Library to Come and it is a long memoir about failed curatorial projects. For instance, I had this idea about the library of books read by political prisoners which was inspired by my brother’s readings in prison. This was actually one of the possibilities for Documenta but I will probably not be able to do such a project in a fairly short time. But I guess that will be the future – writing about failed curatorial projects that I wanted to do when I was in my twenties and I was not able to. Nowdays I understand there is not possible to implement them because the economic infrastructure behind a simple exhibition prevents people to accommodate many great ideas. But I am still fascinated by the failed projects.

When you were in Ljubljana you were also very interested in so called 27 Club, people and artist who died aged 27. Why did they become your obsession?

I was primarily interested in Kurt Cobain’s death. In a secular framework the 27 Club became sort of big event. Every time there is an anniversary of Amy Winehouse death in the UK it almost resembles a massive religion ceremony. But reflecting on Kurt Cobain’s death, I now see that it has a lot do with the business model of record labels which does not allow for rest of recovery. I realised that there is an economic infrastructure behind many of these deaths.

When I was in Ljubljana I lived five minutes walk from Hala Tivoli where Kurt Cobain did his ultimate concert. I actually walked around it on the 27th anniversary of his death. I was also planning to do a soundtrack, together with a cellist Lucija Gregov, where we would reflect on the fall of Yugoslavia and Kurt Cobain’s death at the same time. I am also part of an international 27 Book Club which which I meet regularly on Zoom and discuss on that issue. What is clear is that this is a common denominator of global culture. We do not have common religious points of view with which we could discuss the profound questions of the abyss, despair and spiritual questions. So the 27 Club thus becomes an international language where many things can be discussed, from the excess of hedonism to more profound existential issues.

I think this project will eventually resurface because there is something universal and profound about it. Also the Shy Radicals piece was conceived at Gwangju Biennial’s curatorial course in 2010 but the book came out only in 2017. So maybe like lots of other things these ideas just incubate and ferment inside me and I am sure that time will come to get back to them.

Hamja Ahsan: Shy Radicals. Photo: Urška Boljkovac, MGLC archive.


Shy Radicals’ Instagram account: @shyradicals


Miha Colner, September 2021