19th February 2020
Proust, Marcel. (translated by Lydia Davis)
Letters to the Lady Upstairs
A premise and content note: Details from this entry were extracted from a WhatsApp video conversation that took place in the ether on Thursday the 30th of January 2020. The participants involved were Zeenat Nagre, who was preparing to vacate her Byculla flat in Bombay at the time. The author of this account was in Auckland at the time, tucked around the smoking section of Wine Cellar; was also in the midst of moving from his Grey Lynn flat.
Zeenat and Areez both began their conversation by stating the mutual desire of sharing a cigarette; with him in Auckland and her in Mumbai, this would have to be a virtual participation of mirroring gestures that would have to account for this mutually shared habit. It was daylight for them both, as they decided to ensue a conversation around three key factors which have played into a project around dispersion and displacement. Areez lit his cigarette and sipped on some kombucha because it was only midday; he is a cheap drunk and he had not yet eaten a meal that day; Zeenat had a Campari by her side but no lighter, so she got up and switched on her stove, with which she would light her cigarette. Their conversation addressed several aspects of daily occurrences in both their adoptive home countries; how the movements between India–France–Canada have shaped her state of mind and how his movements between India–Greece–New Zealand have shaped his. They briefly spent some time in the same place, while both were in Mumbai, over September– October 2019. This is when they had made a promise to keep in touch through direct messages, emails and occasional video calls; all modes of communication that have been employed [in the more recent past], for relationships between artist and curator, or artist and essayist, to maintain swift and perfunctory modes of communicating ideas.
Direct messages are brief and contain anecdotal matter, whether a response to something instantaneous that might have occurred to either participant, or around the nature of plan-making. Areez struggles with the latter.
Emails often contain attached files, clips, poetry fragments and a wider set of instructions around the work at hand; referential matter, fragments of research, expansions on anecdotal details and the sharing of protocol around how one executes administrative tasks that go into exhibition-making and planning.
A video call [often accompanied by beverages and cigarettes] is the closest either participant gets, to having live conversations; voices are heard and faces are seen with their expressions communicated via pixelated cells on a screen. Scent is not shared, nor are taste or touch.
The purpose of this particular video call, however, was to discuss a fourth, altogether different mode of communication.
. . .
Contemporary definitions of what one deems to fall within the ‘epistolary’ mode of communicating and presenting ideas, could very well include those three aforementioned lines of communication, which have been employed at large by most artists, curators, writers, students and teachers; between Zeenat and Areez; these modes all fit, in fact often more rationally, into the mode of writing modern/contemporary letters.
This however has led to one very intriguing debate regarding how and when one must communicate issues that sit closer to all sensations that dissipate fragmentary traces for the other’s memory to carouse with; sensations that linger, that rest upon one’s breast at night. This is where timing [Areez suggests] becomes a key component for essayists. Areez feels as though he cannot adequately contain his measures of communication in, quote-unquote, real time; dedicating his content to only one specific mode, say via Instagram or Facebook messenger services. Zeenat half-agrees and sees the result of his statement: being the recipient of several lengthy, perhaps evocative, yet immediately emotionally driven messages and emails. The video call was also an engaging component; both in the same timeline, skewed by their positions on our planet; compensating nonetheless, with that 8.5-hour time lapse in world time, through some ethereal technology that seems forgiving when one is in the midst of the call, however never ceases to disorient the reader [participant] each upon the termination of every session.
Where am I again?
What time is it?
What time is it?
This is where we are now, together: sure?
But in physical form, I am not there, I am here.
Hence a new mode was discussed.
It took root from a much older medium; one which has developed from certain seeds of communication that were irrigated by the Greeks: we have thus arrived at the ancient and almost forgotten form of composing a personal account that may be addressed to one individual; of dating, signing, addressing, contemplating.
ἐπιστολή –––––– epistolē ––––––– letters
A form that has been discussed as a mode of communication by the likes of Brian Dillon [Essayism, p.11, 2017] as he defends a format that has been likened to the personal essay in literary criticism. In his readings of Adorno’s Essay as a Form , and examples that look at verdant letter writing practices exemplified by the likes of Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf, we see how but also as a mode, the epistolary may be used to communicate depth rather than breadth; contextual layers that may be built in nonfiction sit, perhaps compressed within syntactic linear potency, in this modified, confrontational and more direct cousin of the essay; the letter is a gift, it is an offering; there is a clear direction in which the letter may go. It doesn’t amble like the essay; it doesn’t contemplate or meander in the manner of personal journals; it wants to be received, it yearns to be read. And furthermore, the letter wishes for a counter-response; that moment of pleasure, of gratification and verification when sender becomes the recipient.
Zeenat and Areez aim to practice this very methodology over the year 2020 before his exhibition [currently untitled] opens at TARQ Gallery in Mumbai. In lieu of this dual participatory project, Zeenat brings forth her copy of ‘Letters to the Lady Upstairs’ by Marcel Proust [translated by Lydia Davis].
Areez purchases a copy the following month. He has read it and agrees with Zeenat; various letters have been shared over this period of time, while Zeenat has been moving between Paris and Montreal and Areez between Auckland and Wellington. Neither in the same place, neither in India, a nation that they once called home.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Areez Katki is an artist & writer who draws from historic and social research to address the value of craft, employing textiles as an anchoring device for the migratory condition. Katki’s work has been exhibited across Aotearoa and internationally, and it is held in various national public collections. His writing has been published in Matters, Art News, Elle Magazine (India), Consider Journal, Waist, Saltwater Love and Lieu. He studied Art History and English at the University of Auckland and recently completed his Masters in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters.