This Is Private at the Free Word Centre
A timely season of art and discussion is now underway at Clerkenwell’s Free Word Centre. This Is Private runs from October 26 to December 6, and examines the values and contradictions of privacy in an age of rising authoritarian populism and marketable metadata. The season looks at all forms of privacy – cherished, forced, and invaded – spanning performance, film, poetry, visual art, debate, discussion, workshops, and more.
Like all Free Word Centre’s endeavours, the series aims to give a voice to marginalised individuals, and the launch exhibition featured the work of two British-Asian Muslims. The interaction between privacy, surveillance and Islam is a chronically hot topic on university campuses, with promises to resist the government’s student-snooping Prevent program a keystone of many SU candidates’ election campaigns.
Soofiya’s Soof In Private was like something out of most people’s nightmares, plastering the artist’s search history, private messages, and social media posts over the walls of the main exhibition hall for hundreds of strangers to see. “My aim was to get the phrase “vaginal discharge” on as many walls as possible” they joked in their address to the audience. Soofiya urged us to reflect on whether we would be comfortable to do what they have done, and why.
Beyond the profound considerations of how appearances differ in private and public contexts, it was a humanising and frequently hilarious work, a partial insight into the obstacles a non-binary British Muslim faces, but more so a reminder of how similar everyone really is when you peel away our carefully-curated public images. For the vast majority of Soof In Private, the sting from seeing this private information out there in public comes precisely from it being embarrassingly familiar – whether that’s procrastinatory googling or having to cancel on a friend because you’ve lost your travelcard.
The second showcased work was The Moon is a Meme, a short film by Zia Ahmed that set his spoken-word poetry to evocative music. The poet and playwright’s new work is, characteristically, an exploration of all that is awkward about how Muslim identities tessellate with British society not only after 7/7 and 9/11 but also after decades of Western superciliousness towards the East. He cleverly takes “IC4”, his ethnic classification in the Met police’s system, and reframes it as “I see…”, using this wordplay as a springboard to take us on a tour through Muslim London both descriptively and with the film’s visuals. In this way Ahmed instantly takes us behind his border of privacy, showing us his view of the world rather than the world’s view of him. The irony is that the government only make this same effort to see the world through a young Muslim’s eyes through CCTV and GCHQ.
The season promises plenty more thought-provoking work, with scheduled exhibitions offering reflections on whom society silences and gives voices to, how women are encouraged to censor their bodies’ natural forms, digital security, data, dystopia, and the British Empire. Familiar material perhaps, but if the work of Soofiya and Zia Ahmed is any augury, you can be assured it will be considered with ingenuity and precision.