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AN INTERVIEW WITH HARDEEP PANDHAL

‘Confessions of a Thug: Pakiveli’ closed on March 22 2020, just one day before the first UK lockdown was finally implemented. Given restricted access to social spaces (pubs, openings, etc.), a critical conversation around the show could not unfold at the time in the places it naturally would. This interview with Hardeep Pandhal offers a reflection on the show over a year on from its closing, hopefully providing space to underline and elaborate on the work. We also talk about his practice, being an artist in Glasgow, Orientalism, Weird Punjabi Gothic and rap.

CALUM SUTHERLAND: In simple terms, I guess what I’ve been thinking about since I saw the Tramway show is what you put into that space, which is to say the motifs present in the work: cricket, rap music, the bedroom, masturbation, Tupac, all of which we can discuss. But I’ve also been thinking about your approach to exhibition making and in particular your use of Tramway’s main exhibition space. In Uncaged Cipher: Confessions of Confessions of a Thug (2020), an explorative talk about the exhibition, you mention wanting ‘to redress or disturb some of the trends I see in promotional material accompanying exhibitions these days.’ Could you talk a little more about this impulse? And how it manifested itself in the show?

HARDEEP PANDHAL: I’ve been present in a lot of my previous work, perhaps most explicitly in video works where you see me talking about my work to camera. Usually, this sort of footage is shaky, hand-held and shot in one-take. I hope these unpolished recordings are read as being more generous than the content that appears in authorised gallery interpretations, to convey ideas that are more inexplicable, honest and unrehearsed.

 

For example, in the film Happy Thuggish Paki (2020) I talk quite candidly about the animation software and hardware that I use, or rather my limited understanding of it. I wanted to tease out more layers and associations, such as the hardware’s drawing pen and the adjustable gap between the cursor and the stylus in my hand, which is called the ‘parallax’ within the software. A parallax is a displacement or difference in the apparent position of an object when viewed along two different lines of sight. It denotes a perceptual effect whereby objects under consideration take on a different character or appearance when viewed from two separate perspectives. I find the idea of the parallax useful when thinking about practices of interpretation, or how disparate interpretations may coexist in an interdependent way. The idea of being able to shift one’s viewpoint, or being sympathetic to multiple viewpoints has been integral to my development as a person.

Moments like this are subtle and thus not likely to be read by viewers the first time around. In this example the moment consists of a deliberate misspelling of the word ‘cursor’, which can cause confusion in itself, and only appears on screen for a couple of seconds. The show is full of ‘easter eggs’ like this. An easter egg is typically an undocumented, bonus feature in a piece of computer software. Sort of like an in-joke. When you discover an easter egg in a video game or in a rap song you feel rewarded for exploration that is deep and repetitive – and, dare I say, punishing. Play is work. For me, the act of experiencing art should be a form of play.

 

In large part, my impulse to redress and disturb these trends that I see in promotional material accompanying exhibitions comes from personal experiences of having no editorial control in these forms of publicity, such as video interviews. It stems from being made to feel like a puppet regurgitating popular rhetorical stances fed by institutions. I think it happens to me because I am conscious of trying to address multiple audiences, like an objective participant. I want to engage fans of the subject matter and participants of the cultures I am invoking as well as a more nebulous, critically minded contemporary art audience. I don’t want to succumb to cultural dysphoria in a non-constructive way.

The way interpretation is conveyed, in promotional material for example, is important to me and I need a lot of time and reassurance from professional institutions before feeling up for participating in things like video interviews. This issue has clearly shaped the work I make, perhaps even to the point of me deliberately making impoverished and gratuitously sardonic things, as part of a critically deflective strategy. I’ve been through too many instances of discomfort in video interview scenarios. I think it’s from a fear of losing my soul, or having to take on and assuage the burdens of institutional guilt. Reluctance is important to me. I’m not a basic sycophant.

CS: I felt you arrived at a modest, focused presentation, which was also uncomfortable in that it did not affirm the scale of the space. There are certain institutional pressures at play when making work in Glasgow, and indeed certain spaces and awards incentivise particular modes of working and exhibition making. Is this something you feel you have to always be conscious of, or work against? For me, Confessions of a Thug: Pakiveli contrasted with the blockbuster presentations of artists who had previously exhibited at Tramway like Nick Cave, Mark Leckey, and Amanda Ross-Ho. Did you have any of these shows in mind when considering the installation? Was this part of the ‘redress’ or was your focus elsewhere?

HP: Too often artists can feel like they’re being expected to fill a space, to realise a preconceived curatorial premise or an institutional agenda. I have arrived at a point in my practice where I know how to identify what’s right for me. My hope is to simultaneously exceed and question what is perceived to be expected of me.

 

The exhibition was essentially built around the rap lyrics, and these were made available to peruse in a single, cheap A4 bound booklet. This would have taken some time to read. So, in simple terms, I valued time over scale and quantity in my overall production process.

CS: Yeah, for me that brought to mind the slightly casual or disrespectful presentation of Arthur Jafa’s APEX (2013) at MoMA in 2019, which was accompanied by Untitled Notebook (1990-2007). This work consists simply of normal office folders with plastic sleeves filled with images and ephemera Jafa had collected. It has this kind of everyday research vernacular which questions the purity and expectations of the institution…

HP: Also, for the Tramway show it helped to have a longer period of notice in comparison to other projects of a similar scale and visibility I had done. For example, in GI 2018, the last big thing I did in Glasgow, I was given only six months’ notice and I felt like I was being pressured into making specific types of works to fill the space at Kelvin Hall and compliment the broader festival programme. I think I had my cake in the end though, as I showed unfinished student work about the 2010 UK-wide student protests, in addition to making the expected defacing gesture to the space. This gesture culminated in a giant wall drawing of a sepoy (a British-Indian colonial soldier) cutting down a tree with a chainsaw. The tree had money growing on it and the composition made the chainsaw look like a massive penis. I also scrawled on the wall the following:

Fluids leaking fluidly
Over funding policies

With the best of intentions we look forward to establishing contact with other civilised societies in the universe. We look forward to working together with you to build a better life in…

So, you get the sense as an artist that you are fulfilling a mechanical role within a larger system of cultural and nationalistic authorisation. I don’t think it’s simply a bad situation. I try to treat the situation more as a catalyst to take risks and be more playful. But it can feel like a waste of a happy, normal life at times. In hindsight, I was naively happy to go along with the flow at GI 2018. When it came to the Tramway show, I made the decision to set new precedents to help guide the nature of future invitations and studio visits, so that I could reach people who can assist me in developing projects aligned more closely with my deeper interests.

Making what you want and fundamentally believe in is important, and a way of investing in yourself. It filters out the noise and ensures you are engaging with people who genuinely edify your conscience, even at the expense of short-term career boosts and popularity. I wouldn’t exactly say my work is unpopular but I knew that by foregrounding longer, denser and inexplicable lyrics alongside crude animations and small drawings at Tramway I would reward those willing and patient. This, in turn, makes the work more impactful and memorable. So, I went with that. The work resists becoming a glorified soundbite. Like rap music, it demands to be listened to on repeat. It was about deciding what I wanted to do in the future (write, record and draw more) and set the right precedent going forward.

Coming back to your question, I think seeing the Cathy Wilkes show in 2014 had the biggest impact on me, in terms of approaching the space with sparsity. I feel too often British-Asian artists are expected to fill galleries with decorative ethnic bullshit. Don’t get me wrong, I love all of that when I go to visit my mom’s house. It just feels weird when it’s deployed in a contemporary art gallery setting non-reflexively, especially in Scotland where most curators and gallery goers are not South Asian.

Your question also reminded me of the India Street Bazaar exhibition at Tramway in 2016, which struck me as being remarkably apolitical, particularly for the way it hubristically side-stepped the deeper issues arising from its messy and potentially daring premise in favour of filling the space with conceptual diaspora-merch. Really bizarre stuff. In addition to this consideration, while making the show, I also had in the back of my mind Tramway’s proximity to the local South Asian communities that have been living there for years, and the sense of disconnect most UK art spaces have from South Asian communities.

I wanted to focus more on my own work and less on institutional work, as a personal experiment, to better understand how I want to be institutionalised, because being institutionalised is an inevitability unless I simply stop participating.

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Hardeep Pandhal, Self-loathing Flashmob, 2018, Installation detail.

CS: The title is from Confessions of a Thug by Philip Meadows Taylor (1839). Why did this text become such a productive motif in the work?

I didn’t know until quite recently that thugs were a construct of the British imagination, although this is contested among historians.

Initially, I was thinking about the history of the word thug very subjectively, and about the potential of reinterpreting 2pac’s idea of ‘Thug Life’ in a fandom sort of way. Perhaps I was thinking in a more imaginative and conspiratorial mode, trying to make poetic connections that link otherwise seemingly disparate contexts, for example the linking of black rap music with the British Raj, and more specifically, ideas of racial profiling across time and place.

Thugs originated in British India to name a so-called cult of religious murderers. Many believe that thugs were politically sensationalised by the British to appear innately criminal. Taylor’s book Confessions of a Thug was exemplary of such sensationalism. For further information, I suggest reading about the colonial governor William Henry Sleeman, who has a village named after him in India: Sleemanabad. He needed to establish a legacy for himself, and set out to eradicate the practice of thugee, despite being heavily involved in constructing thugee discourse himself. He did this by developing some of the earliest forms of predictive policing, which have since become more embedded in quotidian life, where patterns of crime, among other things, are determined algorithmically with opaque technologies.

Taylor’s Confessions of a Thug was adapted from British criminal records and written in the textual form of a deposition of a supposed thug. So, its claim to veracity is built on dubious foundations. To me, it expresses the domestic fantasies of the author and readers of that time rather than providing an accurate or balanced record of history. I hoped the idea of titling my show after the book would function as a provocative reclamation of those fantasies. Then the actual show itself would take you on a completely unexpected ride, drawing out a multitude of connections and associations with forms of cultural regulation or forms of proscription.

CS: The central video, Happy Thuggish Paki, really took me back through the nightmarish aspect of the last 20 years, from 9/11 onward… Afghanistan, Iraq, terrorism, the way Islamophobia has and does dominate the news cycle. This is threaded through with historical allusions to colonialism and the way Orientalist writing in the nineteenth century used caste to target a specific group of people. How did researching such ‘racialised’ and ‘gendered’ histories and their erasures help develop the show?

The show probed historical ideas, fantasies of race, difference and darkness, and explored how fiction converges with reality to influence policies of oppression. I experimented with fictioning practices to summon new subjectivities and unsettle dominant ones.

Part of the process involves coming to terms with unpleasant stories and incidents. The process will remind oneself of truths that are depressing and traumatic. Research of this variety may appear quite self-torturing or masochistic in some basic sense, especially if trauma narratives are zealously sought and recuperated by institutions unquestioningly or unscrupulously.

Specifically, I was talking more about Sikh sepoys. When I started drawing them in 2010 I didn’t want them to be easily read as white guilt currency. So, I thought I’d make them less appealing and less institutionally recuperative by simply drawing them as cartoons. They deliberately invoked the Danish cartoons of Mohammed which circulated a few years before. I was thinking about the way in which Sikhs were mistaken for Arabs following 9/11 and I wanted to mock how limited white perceptions of brown people were. This also got me thinking about inter-religious relations in India pre-partition, which seemed more harmonious by some elders’ accounts.

Unlike real war monuments, the soldiers in my drawings wield guns that are flaccid and their beards mask clear facial expressions that would betray either their disaffection or loyalty as sepoys. But they look generally adept as fighters. The drawings are simultaneously satirical and celebratory. I hoped to shed my perceived claims to innocence and be up front about my conflicted relationship to my Sikh heritage, and the various interpretations and codes of honour related to it. I am not a practising Sikh in the strictest sense but I believe I should translate what I know and respect about Sikhism, both from a spiritual and political-historical perspective, as the two seem somewhat at odds.

As Priya Atwal observes, in her recent revisionary account of the Sikh Empire, Royals and Rebels (2020), commenting on the role its first leading figure Maharaja Ranjit Singh played:

British commentators from the Sikh Empire period were extensively influenced by Orientalist understandings of India: they may well have viewed Indian people, culture and society as being of scholarly, political or even romantic interest, but many nevertheless saw ‘Indian civilisation’ as inherently inferior and ‘backward’ compared to Europe and the West. Company officers of this mindset only valorised those Indians perceived to be most like them, and so it is unsurprising that they championed Ranjit Singh, the ‘Lion of Punjab’, for his strong rulership and active embrace of a military alliance with the British, while largely deriding his heirs for their supposed weaknesses. In the language of Orientalism, the first Maharajah had the merit of having overcome the traits ‘typical’ of Asian men – decadence and effeminacy, key tropes in the opposition set up between ‘rational’ Western civilisation and the ‘sensual’ civilisation of ‘Eastern’ peoples.

Atwal continues in a later passage:

Despite the strictures of the Sikh faith about men and women being societal equals, such ideas had not sufficiently penetrated into the political sphere to enable Sikh queens to rule as independent sovereigns.

I was thinking about acculturation, and specifically about the effects of the power struggles that took place across the Punjab during the reign of Ranjit Singh. Namely, how enamoured the Sikhs became with images of masculine warrior archetypes, refined and remodelled after Western-European warrior mythologies, and the way this affected the core egalitarian outlook of Sikhism as a result. Having travelled around Punjab just a few months prior to the show at Tramway, I was struck by how visible the figure of Ranjit Singh had become. Statues of the one-eyed sovereign proudly saddled on his cantering horse abound in Amritsar.

These statues were referenced in a motif of a headless Sikh horseman, which recurred in the film Happy Thuggish Paki as well as in the drawings shown alongside. The motif was a conflation of Ranjit Singh and Baba Deep Singh, whose decapitated body, legend has it, continued to fight the Afghan army during the 1757 Battle of Amritsar. I envisaged my figure as a prototypical fantasy character, who I hope will one day find home in a dark, Sikh inspired Sword and Sorcery universe created by me and some friends. Images of auto-decapitation and supernaturally displaced heads are open to multiple interpretations. I like to think of these motifs as conveying emasculation, ejaculation (speech-oral/orgasmic-sexual), but also an openness to inexplicable or beheaded forms of consciousness. Essentially, it’s about losing one’s head(s), becoming headless and more egalitarian in spirit.

I think my approach to these subjects elicits the appropriate sense of unease I am interested in exploring but it requires a lot of curatorial risk and care to make possible. Perhaps my references are seen as too specific?

On a more subjective level, pursuing a career as an artist can be seen culturally as a betrayal of the inherited patriarchal codes I mentioned above. Especially within lower class South Asian families, those like my own, where the concept of honour, or Izzat, can be very binding, impactful. This was what initiated my collaborative practice with my mom, to dispense with the all-too pervasive sense of fatalism often encountered in old-school Punjabi households.

CS: The work draws out a kind of constellation of prejudice, consumption and race, punning between elements across time from Pacman to 2Pac from Thugees to Thug Life. There is an obvious interest in language and etymology running through the piece and the connections it can provide. Are language and associative research important elements of your practice?

Video games, rap music, masturbation. It’s all connected to simulation and positive ways of coping with varying forms of alienation that don’t appeal to conservative politics, or things that continue to be regarded as having a bad influence on people.

I think my affinity for working with associative or elliptical text and voice in my work has arisen from a lack of direct verbal and textual communication I am able to have with my mother. Our relationship has surfaced a lot in my work to date and I suspect it will continue to as she refuses to learn English and I am slow at learning Punjabi properly, if there is such a thing as proper Punjabi! I am also doubtful whether a more shared linguistic grasp will bridge the wider cultural gap between us. I have faith in associative thinking practices. My method assists me in identifying more confidently who my allies are – those willing to engage with me humanely. The first step is to ask thoughtful questions, to be an active receiver of my work, to risk filling in the gaps.

I wanted to focus on the activity of writing lyrics and then build the exhibition around that, sort of like a gaming module for others to draw inspiration from, or make further connections with. David Steans’ text Brittany’s Final Assignment (2020), which featured as a take-away pamphlet in the show, did precisely that, albeit obliquely. Written from the perspective of a fictive student in the mode of a school assignment, the text begins as a critical appraisal of my exhibition but ends up cerebrally consuming the student in a horrific way. Afterall, the thuggish cults were similarly caught in cycles of construction and consumption through the imbrication of horrific fictions and traumatic policies.

From a broader, tonal perspective I was thinking about the idea of a South Asian or Punjabi Gothic, or even a Weird Punjabi Gothic, since the classic literary tropes of familial or inherited trauma in western Gothic texts also permeate actual South Asian family settings. It already exists in my opinion, there’s just no catch-all name to describe it as a genre or sub-genre yet. For me, Weird Punjabi Gothic would revolve around the miasmic forces of ‘unsettlement’ caused by acculturation. You could say my nascent Weird Punjabi Gothic cosmos comprises illiterate mothers, repressed fathers, decapitated bodies, haunting colonial subjects such as sepoys and sentient, stomping Dr. Martens boots. I was also thinking about the controversial play Behzti (Shame) (2004) by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, which takes place in a fictional UK Gurdwara where holy and ‘unholy’ things ensue. In my most recent statement I announce that my work ‘exhibits syncretic strains of post-brown weirdness’. I suppose what I am striving for is a real reclamation of the sources of the horror that permeate the classic works of supernatural, weird horror and dark fantasy, since it is often simply Orientalist.

CS: There is a real sense of disillusionment and self-questioning that hits home in the section where we move out of the animation and you are filmed attempting to name your classmates from secondary school. It seems like a kind of innocence is gone. Were you conscious of drawing out an interconnection between your personal experience and the past twenty or thirty years as a historical moment? Or of providing a kind of testimony?

I think the effect is achieved in that section by the way the footage contrasts with the polished nature of typical artist video interviews. There are a few lyrics spoken just before that footage that reflect on growing up in a state funded boys’ school; a hyper masculine, homophobic and misogynistic environment:

Take me back to year 7.
In classes full of BAME children.
Ignorant about the fact.
That 2pac had abused women.

Delivered sardonically, these lyrics are about unlearning certain behaviours without losing a sense of your soul, keeping a sense of class consciousness and racial pride, and being prepared for the costs.

I was thinking about social reproduction and about specific structural factors that shape a person, and what sorts of barriers I had towards pursuing an art career because quite frankly I often don’t feel like I was supposed to be an artist. It might seem a bit boring and self-indulgent, but that’s on my mind a lot, especially when I visit my mom in Birmingham. I am reminded of it where I live now,  in Glasgow’s Southside, but not in the same way yet. I’m working to expand the South Asian rude boy trope as much as possible. Examples of this trope can be found in the ‘rasmalai’ comedy sketch in the 90s BBC TV show Goodness Gracious Me and more recently Nikesh Shukla’s teen fiction Coconut Unlimited (2010). But my reality was a bit darker and more violent than what’s presented in these examples. The work is motivated by it but I try to not let it restrict what I can do. Playing around with expectations is a big part of it.

CS: How does it feel to think about this show now for you? Do you feel like your practice is in a new place?

I am continuing to explore the constitution of darkness in epic Western fantasy, channelling the tantric flows of India’s kali worshipping thuggee cults while getting my head around the transcultural influence of Tolkien in gaming, fiction and beyond.

For example, in a body of recent work I tell the story of a racist attack through the guise of a typical fantasy quest, in drawings, writing and music. It is thematically focused on ideas of transformative headless-ness, imaginative play and collective worldbuilding. The work tells the story of a brown man who set out on a collective quest to see a black metal gig. The adventure culminates in a battle between his party and a group of racist black metal fans, and reaches its climax when the main character is subjected to ‘tentative stomps to the head’.

The incident upon which this fantasy is based catalysed many things for me personally and artistically, which I am now beginning to appreciate and embrace. For example, I believe the incident fuelled a wave of recurring ciphers in my work, such as cartoon sepoys referencing the post 9/11 cases of mistaken identity of Sikhs and Arabs in the US, as well as Dr. Marten boots; an erotically charged anti-fascist iconography.

By making fantasy fiction I hope to simultaneously draw attention to and displace the fantasy-logic underpinning much of the empty institutional rhetoric that has and continues to distract me from making genuinely edifying work; to resist being recuperated unscrupulously.

CS: To end, I was wondering if we could discuss your musical influences, and the influence of music on your practice generally?

Lil B has had a huge impact on the way I approach being a creative person. I saw him play live at Nice ‘n’ Sleazy in 2012 for £5.50 and it was probably the best live gig I’ve ever been to. I am deeply interested in his ‘Based’ philosophy because I want to remain independent and freethinking as much as possible. For me, this means questioning the big institutional models and disturbing their expectations. For people unfamiliar with Lil B, I think it’s worth quoting his bio on Apple Music:

Equally inspired by Prince and 2Pac, Lil B (Brandon McCartney) is an eccentric, ambitious rapper who utilized social media to its fullest and became an Internet age celebrity, cultivating a fiercely loyal following and inspiring a generation of rappers and hipsters without ever signing to a major label. Lil B is known for his optimistic outlook, which he refers to as his ‘Based’ philosophy, and preaches positivity and tolerance through his music. He also uses the term ‘Based’ to signify his brand of freestyle rapping, and while much of his vast body of work sounds off-the-cuff, his more considered efforts take on serious subjects, particularly related to society and the age of information. While the majority of his output is overwhelmingly positive and encouraging, his dark side has emerged through releases like Thugged Out Pissed Off, as well as his occasional feuds with fellow rappers or basketball players. He has branched far outside the realm of hip-hop with the release of spoken word and new age material, and has dabbled with indie rock, claiming an affinity for the genre. Likewise, he has become a favorite of indie rock and experimental music types, and has received much coverage from Pitchfork and The Wire.

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