Take Me Somewhere: Cindy Islam

Theatre used to be a thing, and so did Take Me Somewhere, Glasgow’s festival of intriguing and experimental art. Fortunately, both things are making a comeback and, like a tired ghost crawling from the wreckage of East Lothian’s lockdown hilarity, the Hip Priest is bothering artists for a few words on their productions.

Cindy Islam is, unsurprisingly, the first pick of the priest: with a name that collides a well-known but imitative doll and a major world religion, the Hip Priest couldn’t wait to send over a selection of email questions. But first, here’s the show’s description…

A TRAMWAY PERFORMANCE NOW COMMISSION / PREMIERE
CINDY ISLAM (Scotland):

BEDROOM FREQUENCIES

IMMERSIVE VR FILM
Thu 27 May 2021

8.15pm (30 mins)
+ 2D version on demand 28-29 May

ACCESS: The work is an interactive 360 film which is highly visual and does not contain any spoken text.

Bedroom Frequencies renders a virtual reality experience of a biographic narrative about a young girl growing up in a strict and violent household. Going out, partying or attending mixed gendered environments were prohibited, and with the rest of the home hostile, the girl had nowhere but a small bedroom. It was here she found a safe sense of freedom – performing in front of the mirror, using the body and sound together in synchronicity to combat feelings of trauma and isolation. A space for imagination and dreaming, where she would formulate stories of love and passion, in the hope that one day her thoughts could breed a different reality.

Bedroom Frequencies is about being alone in bravery and vulnerability. Where the mind can transcend walls and the restraints of the body. A place to be free from the expectations of the outside world and a vortex into creating other worlds.

This virtual reality experience conveys sound, light, textures and movement, whilst giving the audience agency to roam freely within the interiors of imagination.

The first thing that strikes me about the work is that it appears to have a very direct and immediate narrative: the biographical narrative of a young woman in a hostile environment, finding a space where freedom can be found. But I am also concerned with your rejection of the cult of the artist, which suggests to me that approaching this work as autobiographical is probably missing the point. In this space between a strong narrative, which might speak to certain expectations conjured up by the name ‘Cindy Islam’, and the rejection of the artist as celebrity, what approach or strategies did you use in the making process of the work, and does any tension between the two generate surprising consequences?


I find myself limited in coherence against the backdrop of emotions inserted in the politics of Palestine. So please, bare with me.

I don’t reject the cult of the artist but find myself apprehensive to join the army of brand ambassadors online. Not all, but a lot of artists are selling a lifestyle package I just can’t conform to or uphold. My way to execute personal narratives is to talk from an alter ego, potentially as a route to heal and process my experience from an external place. These identities, which shift, simultaneously operate as a mechanism to critique how artists are being presented as social media celebrities.

How many followers you have should not inform how many commission/residencies you get but it does! Another factor to being anonymous is that my parents don’t know I make art and they would be really upset to see me posing half naked or dancing ‘provocatively’. I guess I am so cynical of people using their real identities all the time to make art because I don’t have that luxury – does cynicism come from jealousy? In my case, yes!

The name Cindy Islam derives from my wanting to be a blonde girl Cindy. Growing up I dyed my black hair blonde and covered my dark eyes with blue contacts. Islam is used as a Utopian model of my Muslim/Sufi spirituality. The half-naked masked girl can also be Muslim – we come in a variety of powerful aesthetics.

Islam and its visual forms informed a lot of my qualities as an artist and that is mimicked in the aesthetics of the piece. Although autobiographical, my recollection of the past changes all the time. The same way our memory is always tinted by a plethora of factors. Cindy Islam is the conduit to formulate this recollection of a specific life experience and merger of past, present and future.

The consequence is that it can be so easy to become hypocritical or contradictive but it is a natural human characteristic and shouldn’t be held with negative connotations, especially against the backdrop of hyperreality. I love knowing parts of me are fluid; my ideas, gender, sexuality, opinions, and identity can change at any time and that’s really exciting and keeps me wanting to exist.

Given that we are going to only be able to watch the work over the internet, there seems to be a powerful echo of the current isolation caused by the lockdown and in the ideas that you are exploring, in the elegant oxymoron of the bedroom as a place of aloneness but also a place where other worlds can be imagined. I think this question is going to become a cliche in the next six months, but has the necessity of video performance impacted on the structure or shape of the piece?


This phenomenon of realising I could enjoy aloneness as the space where I could activate my imagination has been quite a recent realisation for me. Growing up I had to do it to survive being in a violent house. Now I use it to counteract all sorts of feelings, from depression to horniness to boredom. The imagination of other worlds and the use of a VR camera worked perfectly in synchronicity.

I was able to work closely with the VR editor to accentuate my imagined reality. The surreality of it is as I was making the piece for the 360 experience it became more and more like I imagined it! These lines are always blurring, whether reality informs imagination or imagination informs reality. This is echoed in the glitches and loops within the piece, and what the act of conjuring those blurs between reality and imagination visualises. It’s here that I find words limited and where I know my process isn’t over because I will continue to search for an accessible language for these concepts.

You state that Britishness is in a state of ‘paralysing stagnancy’. How would you define that stagnancy – is it a specific product of the UK’s cultural and political histories, or is it a consequence of modernity, post-modernity and technology, or something else altogether?


Of course the cultural and political histories are so present all the time and constantly erupting! I still get racially targeted here and despite Britishness claiming itself to be a token of equality, I find no solace in being British, on the contrary I find it really loaded. It’s shocking to me that some British people don’t know the UK’s colonial past.

Being British isn’t a state of arrival it is a constant battle of correction, counteraction and awareness. We should always be elaborating on models of care and I think Britishness can be stagnant on that front. Personally, I don’t want to be British as long as it keeps perpetuating the same capitalistic, neo-liberal, colonialist structures and regurgitating mentalities that should’ve expired generations ago.

How far do you find performance a particularly powerful way of exploring the issues or concerns that you want to communicate? 


The issues and concerns are there in essence but what manifests is a materiality of time and space that I can’t yet comprehend. The exploration tackles my experience as one which I believe to be part of a unified consciousness. I believe if we can focus on fixing ourselves first, that can thereafter ignite change and betterment. I perform from a retrospective place, wherein I mean the performance is done from me, for me, of course ego is always involved but it is never dormant but an active awareness of self.

The whole experience from start to finish unfolds like an exorcism; fear, insecurity, doubt, all sorts of deep rooted behaviours float to the surface of my being. I find movement powerful as a way to reconnect myself to my body, sourcing different postures where pain lingers and almost massaging them out. Alongside this, I constantly try to operate from gratitude, I feel like this whole thing is a luxury and I’m constantly pinching myself that I’m able to delve into my creative mind. Whilst my immediate family in Iraq are hustling for basic necessities, I am sitting here writing email interviews about my ideas. It’s a huge privilege and I hope it keeps me rooted and in check.

In terms of this production, would it be possible for this performance to be experienced, after COVID, in a live situation? Would this change the performance on your part, and would it enable a free audience response that could perhaps be more immersive?


Immersive is such a problematic word for me, although it was advised I use it for lack of a better word, I don’t think I know what it means. I think the audience adds so many more dimensions to a performance, their presence as well as their observations of each other. There’s definitely more shades of exchange that can be introduced between me and other bodies and it is an exciting potentiality, one I haven’t really had a chance to consider properly. Personally, I feel life is still under the restraints of the pandemic and its changing variants.

For now I have surrendered the piece into the universe, I am happy with it and really hope people enjoy it, it was no small task. I thoroughly enjoyed working with the team at Tramway, I imagine creating more with the option for a live audience in the future.

Cindy Islam is one of the artist’s most recent pseudonyms. The artist uses different identities and anonymity as a way to critique the “celebrity” status afforded to some artists.

Cindy Islam is a counter(re)action of Britishness. Cindy Islam is the aftermath of thirty years of failing to comply with assimilative demands. Cindy Islam forges a Diasporic reality of ambivalence and rejection of homogeneous cultural values. Flux, intensity, trauma, attitude, over-communication and otherness, are all used as power vessels to challenge the dominant normative behaviours.

Cindy Islam gifts a parallel space for Britishness to evolve beyond its paralysing stagnancy.

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