The White Pube, 'ideas for a new art world', 2021, part of the project Your Space or Mine (Jack Arts & BUILDHOLLYWOOD), photo Kevin Lake

'It's just who we are' - The White Pube's somatic art criticism

Issue no5
Oct - Nov 2023

How can art criticism keep up with the media developments of the times? In this second contribution of a series on new forms of art criticism, Emily Palmer and Hannah Vollam engage with Zarina Muhammad of critical platform The White Pube, which reviews video games, TV series and meals alongside museums, exhibitions and artworks. Will this 'embodied criticism' foster a new understanding of culture?

The White Pube (TWP) is the joint identity of UK-based art criticism duo Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad. The duo launched their website in 2015 and have been publishing a weekly piece on art and culture in the broadest sense ever since. The name is a quip to the infamous White Cube (both the gallery and the concept) and represents exactly the kind of art criticism the duo delivers: thoughtful and intelligent, ad-rem and moving, and always with a twist. Hannah Vollam and Emily Palmer talk to one half of the British duo, Zarina Muhammad, about the collaboration between them, embodied criticism and the steady decolonisation of the art world.

—Hannah Vollam How would you describe your approach to art criticism in three words?

—Zarina Muhammad 'I'm enjoying the forced brevity. If you can't communicate it in three words, do you really know what it is? I’d say embodied, sincere, and open. I'll leave it up to you what “open’’ means in this context, but I feel like it gives me enough wiggle room to make it mean what I want it to mean at any given time. “Open” is flexible, right? It contains everything.’

—Hannah Vollam You started out writing about art and exhibitions, but more recently have expanded into video games, food, and an occasional Love Island review. How do you feel these things intersect?

—Zarina Muhammad ‘The way we write is less about the art itself and more about the way we approach it. It's less that we're not looking for a specific thing from an artwork, we've not got critical interests. I’m dead into paintings, but I'm not that interested in writing exclusively about twentieth century female painters. Instead I'm looking to throw myself into an interaction with a piece of culture and see how my body reacts to it. Gab has written a review of a friend's wedding, she's reviewed dinner by Heston Blumenthal. I've reviewed the park around the corner from my mum's house. I feel these things sit quite nicely side by side within that embodied critical framework. Video games and exhibitions and wider thinking about the arts industry. It levels the playing field out and I think it will grow with us as we age.’

'I’m jaded because all I've seen is institutions not changing'

The White Pube (Gabrielle de la Puenta (left) and Zarina Muhammad), photo Ollie Adegboye

—Hannah Vollam The phrase ‘embodied criticism’ is thrown around a lot in relation to your work. Where does it come from?

—Zarina Muhammad ‘We’d not even been writing for a year when Jesse Darling tweeted in response to Gab’s review of their show at Arcadia Missa in 2016. It’s a tweet we can both still recite word for word. They wrote: “not facetious or ironic, this might be the harshest, most true review because The White Pube channels somatic currents, not just fucking with discourse." It was a turning point in the way we thought about what the actual end affect of criticism was. The somatic bit of that feedback, the idea of our writing being subjective and bodily – it made sense. Then we were doing a lecture in 2018 or 2019 and a student stuck their hand up and said, “umm okay, so what you've got is embodied criticism”. We immediately latched onto the idea of embodied criticism. You know when someone says something and it just clicks, everything feels like it slots into place. We'd used the word “subjective” before, but never “embodied”.’

—Emily Palmer Your output is huge. You’ve always shared content on your website, Instagram, and Twitter, but there’s now also Patreon and Discord. How do you handle that pressure?

—Zarina Muhammad ‘In 2015 when we first started writing we were like, "okay we publish a text every Sunday", and it was the law. We did not miss a single week. Now we take the month of December off and we get a week off for our birthdays. Other than that, it's every single Sunday. I think that consistency has been really good for us. It's momentum. We don't want to break the streak. We're both the eldest daughters of immigrant families and I think that explains a lot about our mentality. It's just who we both are. When we added the Patreon in 2017, people started paying us for content and we then really wanted to make sure people get their money's worth. At the moment it's the majority of our wage. TWP is our only job. Thinking about it as work, and less like a hobby, has helped us avoid burnout, because then we're entitled to holiday and sick leave and shit like that. It's more healthy.’

'There is value for people in these casual, fleeting interactions, but we've both kind of reached an endpoint with the memes. There is still value in long-form criticism’

The White Pube, 'ideas for a new art world', 2021, part of the project Your Space or Mine (Jack Arts & BUILDHOLLYWOOD), photo Kevin Lake

The White Pube (Gabrielle de la Puenta (left) and Zarina Muhammad), photo Ollie Adegboye

—Emily Palmer You've described yourself as soulmates and said that your relationship is the crux of TWP. Is there a healthy sense of disagreement?

—Zarina Muhammad ‘We don't agree all the time. Our opinions diverge and differ, but we've only ever had one argument, and it was about whether you should use conditioner or not. I really respect Gab as a person, not just as a critic. I value her opinion more than anyone else's in the world really. I think she's so sick! Collaboration is really hard, infrastructurally. The cultural industry isn't set up for hosting collaboration and capitalism isn't very good at hosting it because when you collaborate, you're harder to exploit. But there is real value in working this way.’

—Emily Palmer We imagine that many of your fans have never read a full-length post, and just know you from the socials. How do you feel about this kind of engagement?

—Zarina Muhammad ‘I think it's really weird! I went on a date last year and he was like “I follow you on Instagram, you run a meme page!” He’d followed TWP since 2018 and just never clicked on the link in bio. Incredible. There probably is value for people in these casual, fleeting interactions, but we've both kind of reached an endpoint with the memes. Sometimes an idea can best be pushed out into the world as a meme, but I just feel a type of way about pushing them out on a weekly basis. There is still value in long-form criticism as well.’

—Hannah Vollam Throughout the years, you’ve made a conscious effort to write about artists of colour. What’s your opinion on the much-heard idea (at least in my world) that only Black writers can write about Black art and artists?

—Zarina Muhammad ‘There's one text I'm really unhappy with - a review of a show by Ima Abasi Okon, who makes work about the Black experience, at Chisenhale Gallery. It's still on the internet. I could take it down and I want to, but I think it's important for me to not be precious about these things. It was a failure on my end, a subjective failure. I didn't have access to that experience, so it ended up being a bad review. Not because I shouldn't have written about it, but because I just never could have. It's not that I shouldn't, it's that I can't. And I should be better at realising that. So maybe it's not about what we should and shouldn't write about regarding the Black experience, but what we can and can't write about.’

—Hannah Vollam I think a lot of people know you for calling out British art institutions, the most high profile being Tate. Have you ever had any hope that doing so might contribute to real change?

—Zarina Muhammad ‘Nah, and I don't think anyone expected it to. Racism is embedded in the way they do things, it's just inherent. There’s no potential for them to do any good work in undoing or unpicking that structural racism with nice Black Lives Matter statements. That's bollocks. They’re chatting shit because the actual shape of them is fucked. That sounds bleak and pessimistic, but I think I've started thinking about it a different way. For so long I was writing with my head bashed against the wall. The institution was never going to respond. It's not in their interest to. But meanwhile, the rest of our audience were listening and I get feedback about texts that I thought achieved absolutely nothing, years down the line. So this is the worth of writing about how shit Tate is. Nothing of the scale of the institution changed, but now the people that work at Tate think it's shit too. They're just beholden to its shitness, they can't do anything, but they know it's shit.’

'Artists are great. It's an industry full of people who are critically engaged, incredibly interesting, doing things in a way that's unstable, countercultural, and counterintuitive'

The White Pube, 'ideas for a new art world', 2021, part of the project Your Space or Mine (Jack Arts & BUILDHOLLYWOOD), photo Kevin Lake

—Emily Palmer So you really hate Tate?

—Zarina Muhammad‘Try as I might to hate the Tate, it's still a public institution and it's still funded by taxpayer money. It might be 75% privately funded now, but that 25% belongs to me. I still see the value in it and I think I still will be there. The public collection still belongs to the British public.’

—Hannah Vollam Do you think there can be such a thing as a ‘decolonised’ art institution?

—Zarina Muhammad‘I’m jaded and my answers are really biased because all I've seen is institutions not changing. I'm sure there are people within institutions doing good work. I don't know if I believe that one individual person can overthrow the weight of an entire system, though. Those Elgin Marbles [images from the Parthenon’s friezes, red.] still need to go back. That's how you decolonise a museum. But it's never gonna happen. The British Museum would be empty. A decolonised version of the British Museum doesn't exist. Decolonising the museum can only really happen if you decolonise the rest of the world. You can't have these perfect buildings and perfect rooms where you enter a “decolonial paradise|. That's why decolonial practices have to happen in the way they do. It’s all about making little changes, like “let's do this little public program”, because reckoning with it in its entirety is fucking fundamentally harrowing. Just trying to comprehend the sheer scale of it all. You'd lose your mind.’

—Hannah Vollam In the pamphlet for your billboard campaign Ideas for a new art world, you write that if the art world doesn't become better, healthier, fairer, and more accessible, you'll need to leave. I think we both feel the same way. There’s lots to be cynical about, so where do you find hope?

—Zarina Muhammad ‘It's such a shame that artists are treated like shit. They're forced to become the most precarious part of this entire workforce. Critics and curators have salaries, pensions, sick pay. Directors of museums most definitely have salaries. There's no such thing as an artist on payroll. I wish there was, but they’re forced to become the most precarious and seem to be the least valued part of the whole arts ecology. When the pandemic hit I carried on writing about art, for no reason. Even though I couldn’t go to a museum or a gallery, I just sat there and wrote about art, because at the end of the day, I do love it. I think art is great. Artists are great. It's an industry full of people who are critically engaged, incredibly interesting, doing things in a way that's unstable, countercultural, and counterintuitive. I bumble around London and every day I run into someone who's way more clever and interesting than I am. And I'm thrilled by that. I want to spend my time chatting to them. That's where I find real hope and energy.’

—Emily Palmer We feel obliged to ask you about the ChatGPT hype. Do you have any thoughts about AI's potential impact on art writing?

—Zarina Muhammad ‘There's some writing that takes up my time that I don't want to be doing. AI could write Instagram captions and silly stuff like emails, but I don't know if it will overtake art criticism. AI, I mean isn’t that the way critics at Time Out and The Guardian write? These critics have got most of the review written before they even see the show, it’s formulaic, really clinical. I think Adrian Searle’s job is in real jeopardy. Jonathan Jones is on the ropes. I also think the main audience for TWP is me and Gab. We don't write for the curators or the critics or the audience. I'm sure there are people who really love our writing. None of them love it as much as we do, and that's the way it should be.’

Hannah Vollam & Emily Palmer
jointly wrote this article. Vollam is a writer and curator. She works as assistant curator at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, UK, and is inclusion editor at Metropolis M. Palmer is a curator in Berlin and is currently working on projects in Manchester and Toronto

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2023