The Pause at the Bottom of Breath: An Interview with J F K Randhawa – curated by Wendy Chen

Jhani/JFK Randhawa is a queer* Kenyan-Punjabi/Anglo-American maker living as a visitor in unceded Kumeyaay territory in southern California. Exploring disruption, hybridities, imperialism, dreams, and human entanglements with the nonhuman, J’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Soap EarFigure 1O BODDoubleBlind MagazinePRISM internationalbaest journalTAGVVERK, and LA VAGUE, and in venues such as The Mortuary, Thymele Arts, El Cid, and the Woolen Mill Gallery. J is the recipient of a Yasmin Fellowship from the Millay Colony for the Arts and is a recent finalist for the 2021 PEN Emerging Voices Fellowship. With Teo Rivera-Dundas, J is co-founder and co-editor of rivulet.

Wendy Chen: I’m a great admirer of rivulet, a gorgeously hybrid online journal that is described as “exploring the interstitial.” What was the impetus for starting this journal? 

J F K Randhawa: The impetus was really a process. rivulet is a metatextual project—it itself is a rivulet, a runnel tendriling out from an earlier digital, hybrid journal project, killing fields journal, started in 2015. Coming into being at the end of the Obama administration (and its nearly a decade of increased incarceration and U.S.-sanctioned neoliberal imperialist violence, among other tragedies) this earlier project was interested in work and makers that both warded off and directly addressed violence—imperialist and colonial violence, gendered and racialized violence, xenonationalist violence, linguistic erasure, and the harm unleashed against the environment, among other textures—through a critical lens. Over the course of this short-lived project, my co-editor Teo Rivera Dundas and I worked with amazing artists and community activists, such as Raquel Salas Rivera, Sophia Terazawa, and Joey De Jesus; however, after several crucial dialogues about the project’s title and its direct invocation of the Cambodian killing fields, we recognized that our goal of opening space to process traumas was also reanimating the historical (and ongoing) violence we had hoped to counteract, and performing undue harm. We chose to step back from this path, and to heed calls to cultivate and embody life-affirming spaces, while maintaining space for very important work in pessimism and the politics of the dead. rivulet emerged from this humbling experiment and learning space.

WC: What does “the interstitial” mean to you?

J F K: rivulet bloomed from the subtleties among diasporic, queer* identities (my own and my co-editor’s included); between political interests and encounters in ethics; in the process of suspension and process itself. The early seeds of rivulet’s explorations of the interstitial through art-making-in-process were planted by Homi Bhabha, specifically in his lecture “Translation as Displacement,” delivered at the CUNY Graduate Center in early 2016. What stood out to us hearing Bhabha speak on ideology and homonationalism, was that the interstices offer a space for difference to be, not only negotiated and performed, but celebrated. In this ethos, rivulet’s explorations remain open, unwinding, in flux, receding, trickling forth, and deepened by contributors’ work. The interstitial, to me, is/is like the pause at the bottom of breath, or the freefall between steps when walking. It is the liminal and what gathers there: the stuff that connects or passes or slips between or within beings as social memory (and memory-making), storytelling, disidentifications, material conditions. It is emergent, connected to being-in-process, amorphous, queer*, radical, awake.

WC: Thank you also for sharing with us the journey that ended up leading to the creation of rivulet. The question of whether one’s work is unintentionally replicating structures of violence is one I often wonder about in my own arts practice—and a relevant anxiety for many others I’m sure as well. The journey, too, highlights for me the importance and necessity of constant dialogue. Are there particular dialogues you think we should be having more of within arts communities currently? 

J F K:These are urgent and potent questions, Wendy, and I feel I won’t be able to meet them in the ways they deserve to be met. You shared these questions before Robert Aaron Long murdered multiple people at two massage parlors in Georgia, including eight Asian women, who, because they were women and because they were Asian, were specifically, generally, targeted. Before Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd. Before Daunte Wright was murdered, before four members of the Sikh community—my community—were murdered in Indianapolis. I and many of my fellow AAPI and MENASA community members are still reeling from and processing this event and its historical valences. When you raise the importance and necessity of constant dialogue, I agree and would add my interest in the method of that constancy. Sometimes, I feel that constant dialogue itself is violent when it reproduces reactionary language and a reactionary social climate (in which it is very difficult to maintain a dialogue). Sometimes I wonder if stepping away to engage with the subtleties of grief and its karmic traces is a valid enough move in a community ecosystem. I want it to be. I want to practice making space, making room, more.

WC: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this difficult question and also your thoughts on complicating dialogue. Often, I feel that many of the dialogues in our current climate make no room for silence, reflection, or—as you say—the space of grief. With that in mind, where do you see the current dialogues shifting toward?

J F K: I’m glad to see a shift in dialogue (or maybe, a returning dialogue) about how to challenge the scarcity and hierarchy models in personal relationships, in institutions. I’m interested in deepening the dialogues that already exist about how a scarcity and labor hierarchy model has been internalized in the working practices of many fellow artists of color. It’s a feedback loop that reifies a competitive market force built on the bodies, labors, and ultimately deaths of indigenous and people of color across the world. This replication of class violence as a means of combating one’s own socioeconomic precarity (a precarity which is  exacerbated by these same institutions one seeks support from) is deeply damaging. I hope this internalization can be challenged and unlearned.

While I feel ever out of the current tides of conversation/dialogue in almost any community I’m a part of, I am resonating with a shift toward intergenerational dialogue that is reckoning with land, labor, and archival reparations, especially among queer*, BIPOC artist-activist communities. I’m thinking specifically of amazing artists like Rafa Esparza, Edgar Fabian Frias, Tourmaline, Yunuen Rhi.

WC: Your words on “precarity” bring to mind anthropologist Anna Tsing’s definition of “precarity” as the “condition of our time” rather than the concept of continuous progress. In The Mushroom at the End of the World, Tsing argues that “[t]hinking through precarity changes social analysis.” I often think about her emphasis on acts of noticing, listening, and reflecting as an alternative to (re)action. Tsing is also very much engaged in using the lens of collaboration and assemblages as a way to radically reimagine the world.

When did you first become interested in collaborative work? What drives your interest in collaborative work? 

J F K: I think I’ve always been interested in collaborative work—it’s full of play, world-building and reconstructing, transliterating, alchemy. Horizontal collaboration is my queer* utopia!! So many things feel like collaborative works—from friendships, to letter exchanges, to dancing at the club...or our bedrooms with strangers on zoom, to just walking down the block and chatting with folks you encounter—that it is hard to choose. Collaborative work feels, paraphrasing Fred Moten paraphrasing the Combahee River Collective, like a method of sharing better. It’s an antidote to scarcity.

WC: What is your favorite piece of collaborative work?

J F K:What is resonating for me in this moment is Karla Canseco and Christal Perez’s collaborative, durational piece, “lucha libre,” performed at Human Resources in Los Angeles in 2019 as part of the group show “tell no lies / claim no easy victories.” Karla and Christal, outfitted in warm-toned leotards and lucha libre masks wrestled each other, no holds barred, while repeating a multilingual shared refrain oscillating between english and spanish, not stopping for nearly fifteen minutes. Projected on the wall behind them was a tracing, a wander, using google maps aerial and street-views, of the area around and towns nestled within Puebla and southeastern Mexico. By the end, they’ve simultaneously beaten the shit out of each other and found a collaborative limit, keeping each other safe. Both are bruised, sweaty, disheveled, breathing heavily; neither is the victor and neither can speak; they take a shot of alcohol together, and leave the “ring” together by walking out through the encircling audience.

WC: The physicality of that collaboration—the grappling of bodies and language—is utterly captivating. I’d love to also hear more about your plans for rivulet press. How do you see it engaging with rivulet?

J F K:We’re in the final steps of being granted 501c3 non-profit status for rivulet press—it’s a little terrifying to be honest, but we’ve been dreaming of moving from digital play to physical play for years. Through rivulet press we’ll be a multimodal organization, publishing works in book, pamphlet, zine, and other experimental forms, as well as coming together with other artists and organizations to nurture conversation and community around experimental and non-classifiable works and processes, whether virtually, in-person, or between these realms. We’re in early planning stages with several rivulet artists to develop their book projects, which is very exciting. I’d love to anthologize text and visual pieces that have appeared in rivulet, augmented by a rivulet mix-tape. the digital journal will continue to exist, publishing gorgeously weird, urgent work; and we’ll get to have fun making gorgeously weird, limited-run printed matter <3

WC: That array of future projects sound incredible, and I am very much looking forward to seeing what rivulet press produces in the future! 

J F K: Aw, that’s really kind! We’ll see what happens haha! We can’t wait to dive in and continue shaping something urgent and beautiful.