A Mad Little Industry: The White Pube’s Ideas For A New Art World

After taking over billboards across the country during lockdown, Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad – aka The White Pube – are now publishing their plan to change the art industry via Rough Trade Books. They talk to Nicole-Ann Lobo about changing the world, one canvas at a time

Photo by Kevin Lake

From January through March of this year, billboards across the UK were covered in monochrome aphorisms, bold – yet achievable – suggestions that could make the art world a better place: “people across the creative industries need to declare if they have rich parents who helped them get where they are today”; “if I were the Tate, I would simply remove my racist paintings x”.

The installations were the brainchild of The White Pube, a critical outlet made up of Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad, who began collaborating out of their shared agreement that the world needed art writing that offered something more than “just bad chat by middle class white men.” With an ethos centred on disruption, each week the duo publishes writing opining about the contemporary art world, politics, and generally the state of life in our capitalist dystopia. The White Pube also runs a podcast, hosts a homepage residency on their website, offers a grant for working class writers, and maintains a library of successful funding applications with examples for residencies, specific projects, travel, and education.

The aesthetic imagination of the boards was derived from their work with designer Amad Ilyas in 2020, who helped create a new identity for the publication including a new logo and palette of colours. In distribution and scale, the boards were a collaboration with Jack Arts and BUILDHOLLYWOOD – no money changed hands between the entities, de la Puente notes, but the six statements they chose synthesised over half a decade of the duo’s writing.

The project took its name from an essay published on the site in April 2020, indicting the state of the art world’s depoliticisation and co-option by a hostile state, which, Muhammad wrote, “also functions as a way for the art world’s upper class to continually sustain itself with funding &. Self-serving activity.” But true to the spirit of renewal which undergirds The White Pube, the essay eschewed doomerism. With the art world on the brink of collapse, deeply reliant on systems that have proved unsustainable over the past eighteen months, the chance for radical change seems not just urgent, but imminent: “We have got the capacity to make a mad little industry that’s sustainable, accessible, genuinely diverse, fundamentally joyful, and I think we should do that. Right now.”

Who was the intended audience with the boards?

Gabrielle de la Puente: I think each poster is directed at a different target. The Tate directors, and various museum heads and trustees are in the firing line for two of them. One is aimed at rich creatives who obfuscate their wealth and background. Another is aimed at the boring Curators and Heads of Programme across the country who just funnel their own taste and nobody else’s into all public output. 005 is a shout into the art world void, hoping that if we are able to rip this industry up and start again, we don’t just replicate the same power structures that keep us all powerless. And then we make a general call for Universal Basic Income which can only really be demanded from our terrible government.

In your essay ‘ideas for a new art world,’ you write that it’s “it’s not enough to just ‘stop contributing to social inequalities’,” as that is “a fundamentally liberal position that the arts already occupy.” Where do you situate The White Pube in this push for change. What does real action look like for you on an individual level?

Zarina Muhammad: Oh no, this is a difficult question. Because, candidly, I think it is much easier to gauge other peoples position, than it is to gauge your own. I don’t know where we stand, or what role we play in the wider landscape, because honestly in my heart of hearts, I don’t truly believe anyone listens or cares about what we say lmao. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but it’s just something I feel like I have to believe whether it’s true or not. Maybe a limp answer, but ultimately honest.

Photo by Ollie Adegboye

As for action on an individual level, part of me wants to say ‘this change has to be structural, individuals don’t match the scale of overhaul’. But another part of me thinks individuals DO matter, and can make a difference. I think those things can both be true at once. It can be as simple as little fixes, thinking about practicalities, and (if something seems like it’s broken) asking yourself whether it has to be that way? Could that thing be done in a fairer, less complicated, more user-friendly or sincerely inviting way? Why don’t museums and galleries ask their audiences what they want to see? Why don’t galleries take unsolicited exhibition proposals? Why aren’t there more public consultations about what ppl think about public artworks, whether they’re ~contested~ with calls for their removal or not? There are so many ways to go about making art an important part of civic life, and by embedding art in that public-facing, open space, I think that’s already running counter to liberal fundamentals of ‘some democracy, but not like total democracy, because then they’d vote against capitalism’s interests’. Just more cultural democracy imo, more ceding power over to people through horizontal/collective structures, and that’s something individuals can push and lobby for, in and outside of institutions.

You critique notions of utility and public value when it comes to judging art as grand philosophical schemes, writing that instead, we should focus on approaches to making and doing. Do you think that this need to re-envision the way our society talks about utility and public value has shaped the work of The White Pube?

ZM: I don’t think artists particularly need to bear in mind the ~public value~ of their work, I think that’s something for everyone else to worry about: institutions and the curators that set up the terms of display.

but like,,, also. I just think that maybe pushing too hard to engineer public value is maybe the wrong side to approach the problem (of the art world’s isolation & exclusivity) from. I think if the art world itself changed; paid fair living wages so artists and cultural workers could make a decent n stable living, abolished directors and the idea of singular leadership, implemented horizontal structures so hierarchies within institutions dissolved and everyone (from cleaning staff to front of house) had a stake in what was on display, open up decision-making processes n making them more democratic so publics felt their stake in the game was more meaningful. If the art world itself changed, so it valued the people within it more, it would just automatically become more valuable to the public too, as a side-effect.

I think those are all relatively simple things for people to start doing n thinking about; honestly think about how you can treat the people you work with better, how you can extend a hand and show the public that come through your gallery that they’re valued.

I don’t think that made sense, or answered the question, but you know what I mean.

In ideas for a new art world, you quote from Morgan Quaintance’s essay ‘Teleology and the Turner Prize’: “rhetoric of use values has been deployed to close down the same expansive, inclusive and progressive nature of contemporary art.” This is reminiscent of how capitalism has a social tendency to homogenize our desires, both creatively and personally, which can have a depoliticizing effect. Moving forward, how do you envision striking a balance between art that is at once truly inclusive and universal without resorting to cheesy liberal individualism? Or also without resorting to farce?

ZM: I think Morgan articulates the way a balance could or should work really really well, both in that essay on Teleology, and also in his essay on New Conservatism. Because the way use value is deployed to shut down expansive and inclusive potential, is, it’s implemented by professionalised institutions that suck up public funding and public space, laundering cultural budgets through the middle classes, n all of a sudden, arts organisations are doing welfare work to fill the gap left by the shrinking state; this is a trajectory that ultimately serves state interests (at this point in time, those state interests are just like.. neoliberalism on turbo mode). Like, that kinda set-up can never really be inclusive or universal because it is just an apparatus through which the state and business interests coalesce to deliver art to a constructed public that plays no real meaningful part in the apparatus itself. But I think in New Conservatism, Morgan sets out an image of what that expansive inclusive progressive art that comes from the actual public has looked like in the past, before Thatcher and the advent of neoliberalism. He writes about the trajectories of community arts organisations, community theatres and a level of arts activity that held a community at its centre; it was by them, for them, because of them. So there was no real balance to be struck, it just was inclusive and good and sincere, but also networked through this collective logic. I don’t know if seeing universalism/inclusion & (neo)liberal individualism on either side of a sliding scale is quite It™️, imo its more complex and knotty, and maybe it is just simpler to think about who feels ownership over the things being produced, who is being involved in processes and making, and who’s fundamentally calling the shots about where the money comes from and goes.

Photo by Kevin Lake

Have you received feedback from the boards? What do you hope will come of it? Are there any plans for future initiatives along these lines?

Some people loved them, and I think they really made people think about what could make the art world better, what their new ideas would be if they could add ideas onto the list – that was really good, because I think we felt this energy from the format too. Like this was a really productive, forward moving container for our thoughts; instead of thinking about the problems, we were providing solutions without mentioning the problems themselves, n having them drag us down. Other people thought we were the woke-brigade, PC gone mad, the barmy left. Which was a bit funny, because in our minds, these aren’t even the most out-there radical opinions, they’re super practical and doable. But I think that speaks more to an ideological split in the country, n the way media machines work more than anything.

In terms of future initiatives!

We have recently just put out a pamphlet with Rough Trade Books, called ideas for a new art world. It’s only small, but in the style of political pamphlets from way back when, we have taken the time to expand on those initial 6 ideas that went up on the billboards. Not to explain ourselves, or justify them, because imo they’re good ideas that don’t really need the hard sell. But just to maybe inject a bit more nuance back in, that was lost by writing in that short and direct way. Like, at the end of the day, we’re writers and we love telling the story. We love giving you the context, the background, and painting a picture so you can see where this idea comes from and what it sits within, so it’s not just this ludicrous-sounding floating hot-take. None of them actually are hot-takes, but without background, maybe they can feel like they are, to an ungenerous audience. SO, we wrote the pamphlet! It’s out now, with Rough Trade Books, it’s £7.99 and its a lovely lil colourful object as well as a thoughtful text. And we’re really proud of it! And we hope it acts as a kind of energy boost for people, or maybe that it acts as a boost for people to think in this constructive, optimistic way about how we can practically build a better art world with lil baby steps together.

The White Pube, Ideas for a New Art World, is published by Rough Trade Books

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