Fillip — Online

A Conversation on Gaslight
Grace Ndiritu and Kathleen Ritter

On the occasion of the anniversary of the installation of Kathleen Ritter’s public commission, Gaslight, Fillip invited Ritter to sit down with artist Grace Ndiritu to discuss the intervening years between the conceptualization of the project in early 2016, to its realization in 2020, to the damaged socio-political moment we currently find ourselves in.

Kathleen Ritter – We’re sitting in Grace’s studio in Brussels right now. It’s the 22nd of June, 2021, the day after the solstice.

Grace Ndiritu – Yes, and we both haven’t slept. So talking about politics might be quite difficult.

Kathleen – This conversation will be edited.

(Both laugh)

Grace – Maybe I can start by asking you about your Gaslight sculpture. I mean, how it came about, how it was achieved, what were the complications in getting it made and installed?

KathleenGaslight is a neon sign based on the title card for the 1940 British film directed by Thorold Dickinson, starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard. The plot describes a man who tries to manipulate his wife into thinking she is going mad. The title of the film, Gaslight, appears at the beginning in glowing block letters surrounded by a flickering gas flame. It is a beautiful title card, and the rest of the film is filled with evocative images of light and shadow as a metaphor for truth and concealment.

I immediately thought that this title card would translate well into neon, first as a pun on the nature of neon, which is literally light made from gas. But it was more interesting than that; I came to the film because I had been seeing the term appear in political commentary and I wanted to understand the genealogy of “gaslighting.” As my research grew, I imagined a neon sign produced on a large scale and situated in public space, flickering over the city.

I had the idea for the artwork in 2016 and it was installed in 2020, so the whole process took four years. But what’s significant is the way that the term “gaslighting” changed over that period of time. My first thoughts about the sign were in the context of the relationship between gaslighting and gender. In 2016, we were in the wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. There was also the inflammatory US presidential campaign between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and the gender politics were very toxic and acerbic. And so the project came about in the context of these conflictual relations of gender, but also the way that we were seeing information manipulated. Since then I’ve had a lot more reflections on the way that the term “gaslighting” has evolved.

Grace – What were the complications getting it made? Why did it take four years?

Kathleen – Any public art project has administrative complications and in this case none of them were impossible to overcome, they just took time. We had to secure a location for it, find the fabricator, and get the permits. The last phase was particularly hard because COVID hit us and then everything got delayed. At a certain point, we needed more funding—the City of Vancouver was very generous, and they doubled the funding for the project because they strongly supported it and wanted to see it on a big scale. This was important because we wanted the artwork to act as a kind of beacon.

Grace – Especially in that downtown area. Can you describe the history of the area and the building?

Kathleen – It’s in downtown Vancouver, close to Gastown. Vancouver itself has a long history of neon signs from the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, where at one point it was considered to be the neon capital of North America. You still see these old neon signs scattered around the city. On this particular building, the Del Mar Inn, there’s already another public artwork from 1991 by Kathryn Walter that says “Unlimited Growth Increases the Divide.” The building is owned by the Riste family and they have always made space for low-income housing, and on the ground floor of the building, cultural activities. So the building remains a pillar against the accelerated development of Vancouver. It also happens to be in a corner of the downtown area where there are few other illuminated signs, so it stands out. It is quite high on the building, and the building itself is on an incline. When the Gaslight sign first went up, Mike Riste, the building owner, told me that it could be seen from the North Shore.

Grace – I remember when I went to visit the building, which, historically, was where the Or Gallery was located. It’s like a little gem—those buildings are so much smaller and you feel like they’re quite delicately still able to exist with these other monolithic corporate buildings around them. Did that play into your thoughts, these ideas about your work’s relation to the surrounding corporate context?

Kathleen – Yes, perhaps not consciously, but I was really committed to having the work on this building. I think it’s because I see the building as a kind of quiet statement of resistance. I feel very aligned with that in terms of my work and in terms of the ethics of my work.

Grace – A quiet statement of resistance. I really like that. Can I ask a question? Why did you ask me to write “The Healing of America,” the essay that was commissioned by Fillip to accompany your sculpture Gaslight?

Kathleen – Jeff Khonsary from Fillip suggested a number of names, but yours in particular, and I looked up your work and started reading all of the essays you’ve written. And what I really fell in love with was this explosive voice that you have in your writing. For me, it’s a voice I admire, but one I can never inhabit. So, I really wanted to hear what you might say in response to my artwork. I didn’t necessarily want an expository text about Gaslight because I could already imagine what it would say. I thought it would be exciting to see how Grace Ndiritu would respond to it. For me, a work of art is only interesting in so much as the tangents and inspirations that come out of it, not necessarily our direct interpretation.

Grace – One of the things we share in our practices is an interest in the history of protests and political resistance.

Kathleen – This was the other thing that I saw in your work. We have both used similar source materials in our work, from research into the history of protests and the history of resistance. We’ve even collected similar images. In your work, there are images of women’s strikes and protests–those are ones that I have in my archive. I’m wondering to what extent we might share a thinking in our respective practices as a form of resistance. That is to say, practices that are questioning, challenging, that don’t sit well within existing structures of power. This is a question that I ask myself often, too. Maybe you could talk a bit about your performance Women’s Strike: Healing the Museum and how that relates to your essay, “The Healing of America,” and Gaslight.

Grace – For me, it’s interesting to think about my own practice as an artist, and how healing can work, either by working with groups or individuals, and especially with groups of people who don’t normally meet. In the shamanic performance series, The Healing Museum, I’ve worked with refugees, I’ve worked with migrants, I’ve worked with staff members of agencies like the United Nations and NATO, and I’ve brought them together to kind of try to think differently about shared problems. We use non-rational methodologies like meditation or shamanism to find the answers.

Most recently at the Musée d’art Moderne in Paris, I was invited to do a new performance called Women’s Strike: Healing the Museum, where we used wordplay and letter writing, as well as meditation in a group. This performance took place on a huge carpet with an image of a women’s strike from the ’70s. Everyone sits around it and thinks about these subjects. It is important to me that the performative work is becoming sculptural. So I think healing is important to me because it has this ongoing learning facility. The performance is an embodied action or reaction and it’s a way of deconstructing what I was writing. The essay “The Healing of America” is one form of art. The way I write essays is to basically channel them down; I write them in one go. Before that I spend time researching, listening, and reflecting.

In the context of “The Healing of America,” I was listening to the election of Biden and Trump last year. You and I had already had our first conversation back in 2016 in Paris. We talked about the Gaslight project and you showed me your other, wider work. I kept those notes. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time doing what I call “radical experiments” or “pedagogical experiments” with groups and individuals in museums. I’ve come up with different strategies. For example, one of my strategies is to get people to write love letters to strangers. It’s really difficult when you ask a person on the left to write a love letter to someone on the right. How can you try to find things in common with someone who is diametrically opposed to you? In my work there’s always a kind of thinking about what we have in common. Even in the essay, I talk about this interest in the Commons as a political movement and about how the polarization of red and blue states against each other in the US—largely perpetuated by Trump in his presidency—can be overcome. I’m trying to use both the essays and the performance to overcome the same issues.

Kathleen – I think one of the aspects of your practice that I relate to is how carefully you consider the people you’re engaging with, the different kinds of publics. You target them specifically; you bring together groups of people that are often not meant to be in the same room together, in order to engage in this process of healing, to have a conversation, or to share a meal together. I see this as being a political decision in an artist’s work to not just default to the usual publics who frequent museums. Could you talk about your decision to consciously engage different forms of publics in your practice?

Grace – I think that comes from my childhood. My family is from Kenya, I grew up in Kenya, and also working class Birmingham, England. My mother was a single parent. She was also an activist, and she and her friends had a group called Women in the Third World where they would do film screenings and go to protests. Later she retrained, first as a nurse, then in Truth and Reconciliation studies. So I grew up in a very political household, very anti-Apartheid and pro-multicultural. As a teenager, I remember becoming a bit cynical about these things. And then I ended up going to art school, but when I was in art school, I kind of always felt guilty about being in this bourgeois place when there were people dying, and I felt like I needed to do something real. I spent many years really conflicted being an artist. It wasn’t really until I started doing my esoteric practices, and I went back to India and I went to see the Dalai Lama give teaching and he talked about this thing called “socially benefiting activities” and a light bulb went off in my head. This aligned with having a mother who always thought that you could change the world for the better. So, the two things kind of came together. I would always think, how can contemporary art with all its bourgeois and fancy elitism be a “socially benefiting activity” and still be art, and fun and interesting and intelligent, you know? How can you have both? After that, I spent many years trying to find my way to do it. And then eventually, I did, and out of it came things like Healing the Museum. Having a huge, wide interest in many different subjects helped, and knowing many different types of people—not just culturally, but demographically. So it means that if I go on my phone, I know that I can find a baker and I can also find the woman who works in the terrorist office in the parliament. I have lots of weird contacts with people. Over the years, it builds up.

Kathleen – It makes sense, the way you answered the question by talking about your background and your childhood. My interest in public art also comes from my background. I grew up in a small working-class town that manufactured cars. Our high school had an auto shop, and not much of an art programme. My access to museums was limited. I mostly learned about art through books. It wasn’t until I found myself in art school that I actually started to see art. I found going into museums very intimidating. I considered this threshold—the doors to the museum—as a barrier between those who felt entitled to be in there and those who did not. So for me, creating artworks in public space is a deliberate move away from the intimidating process of entering a museum in order to see art. I also like not necessarily having to identify with something as art in order for it to be interesting. My family is always asking me, “This thing that you’re making, why is it art?” And I say, “That question isn’t interesting. It’s better to ask, ‘what does it mean?’ rather than, ‘why is it art?’” By taking art out of the museum, suddenly this is not the foremost question. It’s still there, but it’s not the first thing you ask. It’s maybe the third, fourth, or fifth question.

Grace – I also didn’t grow up going to museums. But I always had this weird, naive ownership of museums because they’re democratically paid institutions. They belong to the people, and they belong to me, so perhaps that’s why I have an obsession with healing them. Whereas, I did not feel comfortable going to commercial gallery spaces, but that’s got to do with issues of elitism, the market, and codes of conduct. Unless you grew up in a certain class group, there’s no way you can understand those, so it took years to have confidence about that. This makes me connect to this idea about “gaslighting,” because this phenomenon of not being sure of yourself, you could say, we have both experienced it in the art world; trying to find our voices, questioning ourselves, thinking, “Are we right? Are we not right? Is it because we’re young? Or is it because we’re women?” Me asking, “Is it because I’m Black? Am I missing some information?” And then finally finding out, “Oh, no, actually, I was right. I should trust myself.” This phenomenon of gaslighting is very painful.

Kathleen – My initial interest in the term “gaslighting” came from the representation of gender that is embodied in the concept. In the original play and film, the man tries to manipulate his wife, through various kinds of psychological, low-level forms of torture, into thinking she is losing her mind. Often he tells her that something she’s seeing plainly before her eyes is not actually happening. And over a long period of time, she gradually starts to believe him and starts to doubt her own judgement, her own perception. In the end, her internal strength and intelligence prevail, and she unveils his deception. But throughout the film, you sympathize with her struggle. After this film was made, the term “gaslighting” became adopted into clinical psychology where it is used as a verb—to “gaslight” someone is to manipulate them into not believing their reality. And we often assume, although not necessarily so, that it’s a man manipulating a woman. So my interest in this term was from the very gendered nature of it.

The timing was also interesting: this term comes out of a geopolitical moment at the onset of World War II, already in the wake of World War I, where there has been a huge disruption not just in terms of the political organization of Europe, but also the relationships with gender, and the roles that women played in the workforce and in domestic life. The original play, which was called Angel Street, was written by a British dramatist, Patrick Hamilton, in 1938, and Dickinson’s film adaptation was made in 1940. So the play and film were conceived at a moment when there is a larger reflection on the anxiety of these shifting power relations, specifically between men and women, but also ones happening throughout Europe.

I have been thinking about the ways, too, that this term has evolved. Today we see it turn up often in political commentary and in the media to talk about the way that not just an individual is manipulated, but a whole society is manipulated through the use or misuse of information. And so I’m wondering to what extent we see this kind of legacy of gender still play out in the term “gaslighting” today.

Grace – I mean, I guess I see gaslighting as gendered since most of the victims of gaslighting—if we take it as a form of domestic abuse—are women. And as we saw in the last pandemic…

Kathleen – You mean the pandemic we’re currently living through?

Grace – Yeah, the never-ending pandemic. The global rise in domestic abuse that happened, especially in the first four months of the pandemic, made me think about this term. At the same time, we were being gaslit by Trump. So we had two abusers—you could have an abuser at home, you had an abuser on the television and an abuser on the news—so you were constantly surrounded by this abuse. What is interesting about the original film is that the man tries to control everything in her life—what she eats, what she wears, who she talks to, when she can go outside for a walk. And that’s really funny, because that’s actually also what happened during quarantine.

Kathleen – That’s an interesting observation. During the first quarantine I noticed the activities of a group of women in my neighbourhood in Paris, in the 13th arrondissement, that call themselves les colleuses. On separate sheets of A4 paper, with letters painted black in all-caps, they post statements and statistics about violence against women. The one that was directly across the street from my window counted the number of women that died in France due to domestic violence during the pandemic. Every day, I would see this number rise. This was a striking reminder of the ways in which women were specifically affected during the pandemic. But also, for me, it was a larger sign of the way in which many different marginalized groups were disproportionately affected by the pandemic, because it threw everything up in the air. It is not the case that suddenly the people who are in power lose their power and everybody becomes equal. On the contrary, inequalities become more extreme.

Grace – Exactly. It appears that we’re all the same, are in it together, as Boris Johnson liked to say, but clearly we weren’t all in it together because some people could get to hospitals easier. Some people had their vaccine on the first of January. But it’s also interesting if we think about Trump and fake news and his use of denial in that moment, and how this created more instability. His manipulation of facts led to economic instability because he also didn’t fulfil the promises that he had made to get people out of debt, increase jobs, cut taxes, etc. These things are all connected: the medical crisis, the political crisis and the economic crisis. These different social bodies, you could say, are all connected, and for once, there was no escape from it.

I made a work a few years ago called A Week In The News and the subtitle is Seven Places We Think We Know, Seven News Stories We Think We Understand. It shows an image of news footage of a place and then it has a ticker tape at the bottom, just like CNN. And so, some of the countries listed at the bottom are South Africa, Afghanistan, Darfur, Tibet, Australia, New Orleans—places that we have stereotypes about crises that have happened. For example, New Orleans: Hurricane Katrina; Darfur: the Wall; South Africa: HIV crisis. I made this film in 2010 and actually, it’s all about fake news. The South African episode is all about how pharmaceutical companies are stopping supplying drugs needed during the HIV pandemic. And now, we have the same thing with the US, British, and French governments and the dispute over the COVID vaccine patents. They believe that the intellectual property from the vaccines shouldn’t be shared. It’s a commercial item. Their solution instead is to make extra vaccines and give them as charity to countries that need them. It’s just so patronizing and horrific. In India there are factories that are perfectly ready and capable of producing their own vaccines, they just need the patents, the software, whatever—they just need the help with that. It drives me nuts, this inability of politicians to just let go and just be generous.

Kathleen – Absolutely. What is interesting about your work is the links between specific historical moments and our conditions today. This is another thing we share in our work, the use of historical and archival material in our practice. Why go back to the past, what are we looking for when we go back to the past, and what insights does it lend to our present? We don’t have the future as a lens through which to look at the present, at least not with the way our brains function in the current moment, but we do have the lens of the past through which we can better understand the present. For me, I think that’s why going back to these particular points in history—whether it’s cultural material, whether it’s political decisions that are being made, historical actions that are taken—they are the legacy that we have to grapple with today.

Grace – Yeah, you would hope so, wouldn’t you? (Laughs) I feel that we are re-traumatizing ourselves, somehow unnecessarily, because we never learn anything. We progress in terms of technology and medicine and we can cure more diseases than we could before. But somehow emotional maturity collectively doesn’t seem to be understood. The reason why Black Lives Matter is so important, for example, is because there are still wounds that have not been healed from the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s, but really going back to the Civil War, the ghosts of the Civil War are still around. Most Black Americans whose families were either born in America or are descendants of slaves who were brought to America, they still have this consciousness of trauma within them. But it makes sense because when you go to a psychiatrist, and if you have been abused—let’s say you have been gaslit—one of the things is to understand how you’ve been traumatized and having a safe space to be listened to. And so I think this is the point that we’re going through. This is why I talk about healing on a global political scale in the essay “The Healing of America.” Incidentally, Joe Biden also talks about healing in his acceptance speech in January when he became the president. And in the art world, everyone is suddenly obsessed with healing and spirituality and ecology. In the essay I quote Silvia Federici about the fact that we still do not have “wages for housework,” so working class women and women of colour still can’t move out of this cycle of poverty. If you think about how this cycle of poverty increases mental health instability, increases anxiety and depression, and really, the only solution is to restructure society through something like communing.

Kathleen – The idea that history repeats itself, unless there are interruptions, is critical to our work. We both approach this in different ways, and these differences are interesting. You approach it from this position of trauma and healing. For me, it is about becoming aware of how something was constructed in a particular moment. Understanding the historical circumstances in which an ideology was formed gives us the tools for understanding how we can deconstruct it, how we can dismantle it, how we can disempower it. But I think this is very parallel to the idea of healing as well. They are both processes of becoming vigilant around our shared histories, so that we’re not resigned to repeat them.

There is a quote from André Gide who says, “Everything has been said already, but since no one was listening, it must be said again.” (Toutes choses sont dites déjà; mais comme personne n’écoute, il faut toujours recommencer.) To me, this is a call to action. Like you, I had been researching these historical moments of rupture of protest and of resistance. I’ve been collecting phrases and quotes from protests in 1968, and again in 1989, and again in 2010.… We are saying the same words over and over again and the pattern is not breaking. I feel that this is somehow our task as artists.

For me it is like the outline of the flame in the Gaslight sign. When we were constructing the sign, it was important that the word “gaslight” remains in static neon, but the outline of the flame actually flickers like a gaslight. This is extremely difficult to do in neon because neon gas is either on or off. We had to create a custom animator to turn the neon on and off in different intervals that would imitate flickering. This flickering, in my mind, is a kind of metaphor for staying conscious. It was similar to the feeling of being in the middle of this pandemic and most of your life is normal. You go grocery shopping, you cook a meal, you get dressed in the morning. And then suddenly, you remember you’re in a crisis. But you can’t maintain that level of awareness all the time, because it’s exhausting. But we need constant reminders. So the flickering is a reminder that while we continue to be gaslit, we continue to receive information that’s not true, we must somehow stay alert. It also imitates the kind of flickering of the screens through which most of the information that we receive is illuminated.

Grace – I was thinking, when you were talking about light: what kinds of subjects do you think need to be brought to light in today’s society? And how are you working on that? I mean, maybe that connects to your own life as a teacher. We have both taught in art schools, me occasionally, but you more regularly. How has your influence and your desire, or your need, to do educational work—how has that been connected to your art practice?

Kathleen – For the first time I feel a generational gap between me and my students. They way they think is very different and I find this exciting. They’re smart, they’re worldly, they’re active politically, and they challenge me constantly. It is a cliché to say that the teacher learns more from the students, but there is a transference that is not one-sided. I think teaching is a practice of passing down knowledge that you have, and seeing the way it is transformed in the hands and in the minds of your students. And specifically, this is a generation that is thinking through the screen. We can be cynical about this fact, but it’s very real. For my students, the screen is an entire universe. For me, I have some distance because I remember a life that wasn’t connected to a screen. But for them, the screen is part of their bodies.

Grace – Yes. What’s so interesting is I have the complete opposite feeling about this generation: I have the feeling that they’re the first generation who understand me. I felt so much more understood by the students I teach because they have the same concerns about the environment, about land, about politics and society, and about spirituality…

Kathleen – That part I totally agree with. I share their politics.

Grace – I feel like they actually get me in ways where I don’t have to explain everything. I mean, where we differentiate is obviously technology. They have not just a love of technology, they’re dependent on it. When teaching, I try to remind them to switch off their phones. This is why I love to teach meditation to people, because it’s a good reminder of how important silence is and contemplation and all those things that you need to make great art or write a great book. You really need time. That’s the kind of thing that I think needs to be brought to light: time and silence and healing. These are the key things that we need to work on as humans.

Kathleen – I agree. One of the things we’ve learned over the last year is that we’ve become accustomed to receiving all of our information through screens, of thinking of the virtual as something that’s not entirely real. And what the pandemic has done has made everything real in the last year.

Grace – Or unreal, because it’s hyperreal. It’s too real.

Kathleen – The pandemic has made everything concrete. It’s made the inequalities in our society tangible because the most vulnerable, marginalized people in society are the ones who are dying disproportionately. The pandemic has made societal stratification visible in a way that seemed more abstract before.

Grace – It has definitely made that real. But it’s made another part of life totally unreal: the way that we deal with time, socializing with each other, our bodies, our minds, our thoughts; it’s made that really expanded but also contracted.

Kathleen – The thing that has been the most illuminating, if I can use that word, over the last year is seeing the complete failure of the nation-state. I think we’ve seen this across the board in the way that the pandemic has been dealt with. By contrast, where we see hope is in collective action, in grassroots organization, in the efforts of medical communities and hospital personnel. We’ve seen amazing work from people on the ground, mobilization of protests in terms of Black Lives and Indigenous Lives Matter. This is where I see the possibilities for the future. But in terms of the established structures of power that we’ve inherited, I think those have failed us.

Grace – Well, it’s failed us, but it hasn’t failed.

Kathleen – Exactly.

Grace – It means the machine continues, that actually more money has been made during the pandemic, than before the pandemic. And they’re now talking about a post-pandemic economic boom. So the machine of capitalism, neoliberalism, of consuming—it doesn’t stop, it can’t stop, won’t stop.

Kathleen – We can’t end on that note.

Grace – No, that’s too dark. (Laughs) I try to be positive and talk about time and healing!

Kathleen – I know, and then I brought it down.

Grace – I guess to quote my own first essay that I wrote when Trump was elected—the title was “A Call To White America.” Yes, I guess I still necessarily call to white America to wake up and to do something about it.

Kathleen – That’s a better note to end on. Thank you.

Grace – Thank you.

About the Authors

Grace Ndiritu is a British-Kenyan artist whose artworks are concerned with the transformation of our contemporary world. Ndiritu has been featured in​ ​TIME magazine, Phaidon’s The 21st Century Art Book, Art Monthly, Apollo Magazine’s “40 under 40” list and Elephant magazine. Her ​​work is housed in museum collections such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the British Council, the Modern Art Museum (Warsaw). Her writing has been published in Whitechapel Gallery’s Documents of Contemporary Art anthology series, The Paris Review, Le Journal Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, Animal Shelter Journal (Semiotext(e) & MIT Press), and Metropolis M. Her debut non-fiction book, Dissent Without Modification, is scheduled to be published in 2021 by Bergen Kunsthall, Norway.

Kathleen Ritter is a Canadian artist based in Paris. Her works takes an investigative approach to specific histories, institutions, and constructs of power, gender, language, and technology. By recontextualizing archival images, recorded media, and text, she draws connections between disparate fields, uncovering material from the past as a potential cipher for the present. Ritter was a resident at La Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris, in 2014. Recent exhibitions have taken place at Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal; Open Studio and G Gallery, Toronto; and Battat Contemporary, Montréal. Her writing on contemporary art has appeared in ESSE, Prefix Photo, Fillip and The Brooklyn Rail as well as in numerous catalogues.

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