Fieldwork in London
SHARANYA THIRU (BA ’17)
I am not sure if it is the miracle of youth, academia, arts, community or sheer curiosity that had me leave London this July having entirely shifted the course of my original summer project – my undergraduate honours thesis – my conceptions of my community, and my vision for my role in it; but to whomever or whatever I can credit it to, I am grateful for such a circumstance as being scores more excited than when I began about what I had encountered, experienced and would continue to engage with post-return to North Carolina. With the financial support of the Curriculum in Global Studies, I was able to support myself for four weeks in the English capital, speaking, eating, dancing, laughing, crying, painting, working, and certainly building rapport and camaraderie with fifteen or so Black (so as to mean Afro-diasporic) British artists living in the city, who dabbled in all manner of media. With numerous cautionary tales in hand, I had gone into the field with a solid expectation that things would not work out as I anticipated. While these words of guidance proved true, little did I expect that I would end up interfacing with three times as many people, and making connections with a good number more.
In my approach to the summer and the actual conversations I eventually had, I intended for the interactions to address questions of the expanse of Black British political subjectivity, the factors behind the realisation of such differential selfhoods (should they exist), and the consequent visions of and aspirations for citizenship within the community – I was attempting to “unpack Black British imaginations of the territory and borders of Britishness and Englishness, and their consequent circumscription, or lack thereof, of Black British citizenship”. Although my personal, intellectual and moral fascinations with these questions were neither quelled nor invalidated, my node of inquiry shifted from conceptual or even anecdotal articulations of these imaginations to their spatial and communal manifestations within artistic communities. Instead of asking and exploring what led many of my participants to define their selfhood as they did, I started conversing and participating in the creation of subaltern spaces of citizenship by way of artists’ imaginations of these aforementioned concepts. I went from enquiring about the plausibility of the creation of a Black English(wo)man, to the plausibility of the creative reinscription of a Black British polity. And as a result, I ended up spending a lot more time in artists’ workshops and studios, visiting their formal and informal sites of communion and collaboration, and being a part of the spaces they created around their art that ended up serving as alternative loci for the formation of both artists’ and viewers’ political subjectivity. This also meant that I begun to be introduced to a variety of different actors in these “underground” communities, and could start appreciating the scope and gravity of their impact on Black London, as a regional, national and global polity. The consequence of these detours could be thought of as one massive developmental epiphany, but for the sake of clarity, I will instead represent it as threefold.
The first of these was a reconstitution of my intellectual objectives. Having had the chance to spend four weeks living out at least some part of what I had envisioned as my potential career modus operandi, as well as experiencing the general application of my learnt and conceived ideas and theorisations to a real world setting, I was able to at least momentarily conclude that there was a lot more that I wanted to explore at the level of how theorising and intellectual engagement can play a role in social change beyond the confines of the academe. This is certainly not to say that I returned to North Carolina unconvinced by academia, research, or even schooling, but rather that I found several different gaps to dip into in the communities and collectives that I was associating with that I thought would merit more of my understanding and involvement, including the role of research (outside the bounds of educational institutions) within art and community organising.
Secondly, a personal understanding of how I wanted the profits of my education to feature in my life post-graduation. Over time, my recordings of interviews became much more fragmented, the settings and subjects of the discussions grew to be more varied, and the observations that I was making in my notes started drawing from observations and experiences well beyond the times and spaces I had allotted for doing so – I think that speaks to something. And whether that is an eventual insight into new methods of research and investigation, a call for a new approach to the gathering of such intelligence, or a suggestion that there is a good deal of work to be done that is not fulfilled by present conceptions of the players needed, I walked away from my summer with the realisation that I wanted to be taking on that work and trying out the different ways in which it might bear fruit that did not fit into my educational or career plans before. In fact, towards the end of my four weeks, as I helped put up canvases and photographs at one of my research participants’ exhibitions, and helped another one decompress before a panel she would be on at a fashion design symposium, I began collaborating with several of the artists on the temporary and permanent, virtual and real, community spaces they were trying to establish. Saying yes to these opportunities for embarking on various little projects, meant starting back at school with a little more on my plate but a lot more fire in my heart. The result of this was then also a changeover in my scholastic goals for my final semester of college. For one thing, I made the decision to put my engagement with academia on hold and to withdraw from writing an honours thesis, a difficult decision that I am confident I will not regret. It has also solidified my aims for this last semester as keeping my scholastic commitments simple and actively pursuing the few projects that I have started on as a direct follow up to my undergraduate education.
As I might have demonstrated in my reflections, I can scarcely fathom, let alone cogently express the depth of the impact this summer had on me, and the richness of my time in a city that I thought I had already known so well. However, as I continue to grapple with the entirety of the realisations made and doors opened, I only grow in my appreciation for the opportunity to have revisited and rediscovered the not just the place I call home, but the world that it held within and outside of it.