Gender and identity are at the centre of Naarm (Melbourne) based creative, Jo Pugh's, work.
As a non-binary artist of colour the nuances of these themes pertain closely to their day-to-day experience, and they have explored that throughout their career using various mediums that include writing and public speaking.
This year they took their first venture into visual art, resulting in the creation of a mixed media work called Content Warning, which interrogates the everyday use of words that can function to harm. On display in a group show called Word Art, at Brunswick Street Gallery, until the 15th of July.
For Art Workr #1 we discussed the motivations behind Content Warning in detail, and it's relationship to their creative work thus far.
CW: mental health, abuse, rape, ableism, misgendering, racism, erasure
Sabina—Hey Jo, tell me a bit about what you do?
Jo—I am a writer and editor based in Naarm, where I study Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT.
I usually write narrative nonfiction, but over the past few years I begun to write fiction as well. My writing draws heavily from my experience as a queer brown non-binary person, in the context of my upbringing in a very white and heteronormative part of regional Victoria - prior to having independence from my conservative family.
A few months ago I was experiencing a debilitating relationship with writing and my capabilities, with what felt like minimal support. My poor confidence combined with the invisibility of writing meant that I became pretty jaded.
I had never explored writing in visual forms or mediums and a friend passed on details of a submissions callout for a text-based show to be called Word Art, that was curated by Brunswick Street Gallery in Fitzroy. I thought about it and I decided I would submit something. I had no idea how to make anything; print anything for visual forms of art; get anything framed, and it feels weird and strange to have this piece in the show, but I’m grateful for the support from my friends, and for my pursuit of the project.
Sabina—I’m grateful for it too, it’s a great piece of work. Can you tell me what Content Warning is about?
Jo—Yeah so Content Warning responds to the use of everyday language and phrasing, and also the censorship thereof. The group show is running from June 29 until July 15.
Sabina—So I’ve seen the piece, but for those who haven’t can you please describe it?
Jo—Of course, language determines a large part of the way the world is perceived - through the lens in which it is represented. Conceptually, Content Warning was conceived very quickly. I’m constantly interrogating the language I use daily and over the past few years I have become far more inclusive and aware of how some language ingrained in us is derogatory - Content Warning is an extension of this.
The language in the piece is the stuff that is so normalised; that is most difficult to break from. It requires effort, awareness and self-criticism. Content Warning can be seen as having two parts: the front, which acts as a cover or a curtain, and the inner that makes it interactive for the viewer. The cover of the work, which also includes the title - Content Warning - reflects my belief in the use of content warnings, whereby, the content or words are potential triggers for negative emotional responses, which exist as a result of trauma.
With a content warning people only engage with the piece if they wish to, if in that moment they don’t the words will not trigger; viewers can be passive or active at their discretion. Due the Perspex material used they can literally see themselves reflected in the work, which can transcend to their relationship to the words included. Censoring takes power and autonomy away from the viewer by forcing them not to engage.
The piece takes the form of editorial notes to an author, on a kind of manuscript under assessment. The editor’s words are the printed ones - presented in font that suggests authority, power and an institutionalised voice, which I have then corrected using copy editing markup - presented in red.
The discourse represented by the words varies in significance. Some of the words are not actually incorrect, rather they erase a full and complex identity through the word acting as the label. With the copy editing corrections, Content Warning acts in protest to censoring of language and to common phrasing that is reductive, assumptive, erasing and ostracising or that softens and makes experiences more palatable for those who are not a minority. The interventions are a workshopping of mainstream values. By combining authoritarian copy editing markup and the use of graffiti pen, I am acting both in vandalism and in assessment, creating new words in protest that are validating, non-derogatory and inclusive.
Sabina—I found that aspect of vandal vs. assessor in the work so powerful, because of the way ‘vandal’ associated with the red ink, it assumes that something inflammatory has occurred; people often perceive the interaction of being called out as inflammatory. It serves as a really important example of the ways in which aggressions can inadvertently (or blatantly) occur because of problematic language. Is there a time you can remember this kind of thing affecting you the most and how you responded to it?
Jo—Some of the words that are included in Content Warning are not necessarily words that I have a personal connection to - they are words that mainstream and institutionalised voices use - so inherently I reject them. I have attempted to be as inclusive as possible, however I acknowledge that Content Warning is a non-exhaustive list. Having an intersectional mindset, I am always thinking about people who experience ostracism and judgment due to being a minority group. My personal experiences as a person of colour who has experienced sexual trauma, and as a non-binary person link me directly to the words representing these experiences. Because of my experiences my body and mind are political - I am forced to be. A good example is the way in sexual violence is referred to. The media often refers to ‘sexual assault’ with terms like ‘sexual abuse’ when really the appropriate term is ‘rape’.
What constitutes rape is controlled by institutions and is not easily inclusive of experiences of rape that are outside of the definitions of that defined by cisgendered males and females, so the experiences of rape and other sexual violence to queer and non-binary people, or those that occur in a non-heteronormative context are reduced.
Another example of one that comes up very regularly is the use of gendered pronouns. My preferred pronouns are they/them, but it is difficult to enforce these due to the ignorant nature of historical and institutionalised vocabulary - which excludes the experiences of queer people and those who exists outside of cisgender paradigms. For Content Warning I presented in the authoritarian text (in red): ‘her/him’ - which is not incorrect, but is loaded with assumption - with the intervention: ‘them’ which has no assumptions. When applied in everyday discourse and interaction ‘them’ can be corrected if necessary by or on behalf of the person in question depending on their preference, without harm.
It is my belief and practice that we should not assume anyone’s gender and I do this myself by always using non-gendered pronouns. When I hear someone misgendering another person whose preferred pronouns I am aware of, I will always interject with the correct pronoun and the conversation continues as it was before. Sometimes I lack the confidence to correct people when I am misgendered and it can be really difficult to navigate, because it renders my relationship with my own gender invalid.
Sabina—Yeah I agree that everyone should use ‘they’ and never assume. Do you think it is important for it to be called out, both via our creative mediums - like your artwork - but also just generally in everyday interactions?
Jo—I think the idea of ‘calling out’ is triggering for some people and has negative connotations because of the way it can occur. Sometimes it’s very public and aggressive and other times it is subtle and private - I think both have their purpose.
On a very basic level, calling out is just showing someone another perspective in the hope that it encourages empathy. It is for self-reflection, for growth - both personal and on a larger scale - and for accountability. These are very big and vague ideas but for me, but they are the broad principles. One can call themselves out too and discuss with friends - I do this a lot. We could all do with being a bit more inclusive and sensitive with our our language.
Jo Pugh is a Fijian-Indian writer, public speaker and visual artist working in text-based mediums and based in Naarm (Melbourne). They are currently undertaking RMIT's Professional Writing and Editing course, they have been published in Visible Ink and spoke with at the Where Are You From? storyboard launch and exhibition, held at Blak Dot Gallery in March this year. They are a featured artist in the Word Art exhibition at Brunswick Street Gallery - which runs until July 15 - and recipient of Seventh Gallery’s 2018 Emerging Writer’s Program.