Interviews

Hamja Ahsan

Flag of the Shy People’s Republic of Aspergistan. Photo: Hamja Ahsan.

Last month, journalist Ciara O’Connor took to social media to point out the disparity between the language of “agency” and “accountability” used in Tate Modern’s exhibition “Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life” and the show itself, which was partially blocked to her as a wheelchair user. O’Connor’s account highlights how the art world’s advocacy for intersectionality rarely expands beyond social, sexual, or political ties to cover physical or neurological forms of difference as well. While the “eccentric genius” trope persists, today’s artists are expected to deliver service with a smile as they navigate the wilds of private views, art-fair dinners, and curated Instagram feeds—places inherently inhospitable to introverts and those on the Autism spectrum.

The London-based artist Hamja Ahsan makes the case for a world more inclusive of neurodiversity in Shy Radicals: The Antisystemic Politics of the Militant Introvert (Book Works), originally published in 2017 and now in its third edition. This year, artist collective Slavs and Tatars approached Ahsan to adapt the book into a project for “Crack Up – Crack Down,” their exhibition for the Thirty-Third Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts. Ahsan orchestrated a real referendum with ballots modeled after Brexit, offering visitors a chance to vote for Ljubljana to secede from Slovenia and join the federation of the Shy People’s Republic of Aspergistan, which would serve as a haven for introverts in a world dominated by “extrovert supremacy.” (Its national anthem is the sound of a seashell, its official motto “The World is Our Corner.”) While the results of the referendum will only be tallied at the close of the exhibition on September 29, Ahsan’s project has already taken top honors as the winner of the biennial’s Grand Prize.

ASPERGISTAN IS A HOMELAND or utopic horizon for the liberation struggle of shy, quiet, introverted, or awkward people, and people on the autism spectrum. Its territory is still open and undefined. It’s an identity that transcends nations and generations.

I guess the idea all started during that period of being bullied in high school, or secondary school. Maybe primary school, too. If you’re bullied for the mere reason of being quiet, then there really isn’t a collective identity or icon or liberation movement that you can turn to. No Malcolm X, or suffragettes, or trade unions. I do a lot of lectures now—after the book, it’s been like I’m on a never-ending global tour to overthrow extrovert supremacy—and I often refer to the 2007 murder of Sophie Lancaster, who was a goth in Britain. She was murdered for being a goth, but the law can’t recognize hate crimes against goths. And I see a similarity with alienation and bullying over being quiet. The mechanisms to claim discrimination just aren’t there. But extrovert supremacy is everywhere. When you go to job interviews, they want outgoing personalities. Recently I interviewed for a visitor services position as an invigilator at the National Portrait Gallery, which would involve basically sitting and saying nothing in front of the paintings, but in the job interview process, they wanted me to sit in a circle and do a corporate training exercise in which I had to imagine that I was stranded on the moon, and then I had to watch The Devil Wears Prada, and they assess my outgoingness. It’s all about assertiveness skills, but it’s a one-way system. It’s not like people ever learn solemnness skills. And then you have private views, which I just don’t understand. Private views are the worst way to see art, right? At the New York Art Book Fair, which I spoke at last year, at MoMA PS1, they have this big party, with DJs and stuff. I mean, what’s the worst way to appreciate a book? And that was meant to be a radical space! For a radical book fair to have an after-show party, when maybe you want to wind down and, like, read your book . . . ? Now if you go to the Autism Arts Festival, which is a new two-day event put on by the University of Kent in Canterbury, they have these chill-out zones to combat overstimulation, and they give you this packet at the door with earplugs and a fidget spinner and different-colored badges you can wear. The red one means “I don’t want anyone to talk to me”; yellow means “I only talk to people I know”; and the green one is like, “You can talk to me, but you have to immediately get into a conversation.” A lot of my friends who aren’t autistic, or at least don’t identify that way, found this refreshing. If we generally had an autism liberation movement, I believe it would liberate others in the process.

After all, it’s not just about the workplace and school. I wrote the book before Trump became president, but I regard the Trump presidency as the epitome of extrovert supremacy. I sincerely believe that teen movie metaphors still structure global power. President Trump is like the high-school-corridor bully. And then in Britain, you have Ed Miliband, the ex-leader of the Labour Party who lost the election. He was the nerd. I watch a lot of teen movies to define the language of Aspergistan. The book was heavily influenced by ’60s- and ’70s-era writers like H. Rap Brown and George Jackson, with elements of Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto thrown in. Linguistically, it borrows from a mishmash of constitutions—Kurdish, Cuban, American—but I mix that language with the language of Mean Girls and Heathers, of Winona Ryder and Lisa Simpson.

Greta Thunberg is like a character straight out of Shy Radicals. Her rise is an absolute breath of fresh air. It’s so wonderful to see her redefine the mainstream. I’ve also been tracing the genealogy of introvert revolutionaries within history. You have Patrick Pearse, the Irish anticolonial leader of the 1916 Easter Rising. He was a shy, awkward introvert, yet he gave these militant speeches that changed the course of global history. Or, in Britain, Clement Attlee, who was this quiet little guy sitting in the corner writing poems in the age of Mussolini at the pulpit, and yet he was also winning elections against Winston Churchill. We have him to thank for our wonderful NHS, our wonderful welfare state. It’s said Attlee replaced the cult of personality with the cult of anonymity.

In preparation for the biennial, I had a period of residency where I was allowed to wander Ljubljana at my own will. I started to notice several economies. One was the official museums and the galleries, but then I began to become aware of the stuff you won’t find in the tourist brochure, the graffiti and the stickers in the toilets and stuff like that. And then there are other things, other rhythms. Every five minutes, I would pass a set of flags, with the national flag always next to the EU flag. Meanwhile, at home, we were dealing with the Brexit referendum, so seeing such proud EU flags everywhere really struck me. And that’s when I thought of how to interrupt that pattern, which is why I chose to make the flag of Aspergistan to mark the sites where you could vote in the referendum. It’s standard-sized, black, with the national motto, “The World is Our Corner,” followed by three dots, which usually signify silence or waiting.

I was actually a bit nervous about staging this kind of project in a biennial so rooted in the graphic medium. I wondered if I was doing the right thing. But in the end, I saw it like any other contemporary art biennial, post-medium and multidisciplinary. When I got the award, I went on stage, and then I stepped off and the opening ceremony was like any other extrovert-normative party. So it was like, “Oh, have I really changed anything at all?” But there was a picture of me doing the Shy Power salute in a big feature in Delo, which is the largest left-leaning newspaper in Slovenia. I consider this circulation of ideas part of the work’s identity. I want the language to travel, to extend beyond just its relationship to me. The word boycott comes out of the Irish struggle against British colonialism, but we don’t think of it as an Irish word. I want terms like “extrovert supremacy” to circulate, to have people identifying “extrovert supremacists” in their own communities and in their own nations, in their own history. I come to these events and these exhibitions, and while Shy Radicals is obviously an imaginative speculative fiction that’s supposed to make people laugh, every single discussion that occurs afterward is always deadly serious.

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