This Woman’s Work

Peter Garfield, Harsh Realty, 1998. From the series Mobile Homes. Gelatin silverprint 50 x 68 inches edition of 4, + 1 Artist Print

Over drinks the other week, I showed my friends Tinka and Marla a print of Paul Stanley’s ultrasound. With that, Tinka thought it would be funny if we posted it on facebook – me grinning from ear to ear while holding it up, conveniently omitting that what was pictured was not my, but my cat’s, uterus (she gave birth last week to three kittens). The likes that picture got are in the high 50s, far more than anything else I’ve posted in the last few weeks, followed by a string of congratulations. To some, not only was I pregnant, but the fact that I was actually happy in the shot meant that I probably wanted to be.

Which meant I had a boyfriend!

Which meant more congratulations!

And of course it’s easy to congratulate a woman for being pregnant, reproductive work being her only work of any real value, moreso if she’s hitched–and only to a man in this case. Everything else is just a way to kill time before the inevitable. While I anticipate (and unfortunately look forward to) the celebrations that come with partnering up and making babies, I don’t think I will ever feel completely at ease with discussing any other accomplishments.

I’ve kept this blog for over a decade, almost a third of my life (or at least me talking about my life) is on the record here, but a substantial chunk of it is devoted to self-pity and trying to move past fucking up at the personal and professional level. There’s a clarity to making mistakes though, because once resolved, you get to return to regular programming. Before I became super unemployed, I never fully grasped how much time between the mundane business of living (like picking up the laundry or going to the bank) goes to putting things back in order. Once order is restored, you get to breathe. You get to rest.

In the absence of any routine outside of waking up and pretending to do my thesis (before throwing the towel in and spending 3 hours checking Facebook instead), most of what I do now is restoring order to the tiny universe I’ve eked out in my corner of Manila – things like making and remaking the bed, keeping the floor clean, feeding myself, doing the dishes after feeding myself, scooping poop, cleaning the floor again so it stays and free of kitty litter and dust tracks–you get the picture. The amount of time I spend just keeping my shit in order within a life already unburdened by full-time salaried employment just goes to show how porous the borders between order and disorder have become. The order of things is sustained by everyday disorderliness.

I’ve been trying to figure out where all the time has gone, now that I’ve been technically unemployed for over two months. More specifically, why is the amount of progress I’ve made on my thesis after two semesters in residence so laughable. Given all the time I had to write a 5-chapter dissertation–two chapters of which have already been presented elsewhere–why do I keep getting stuck.

It scares me a little to thresh this problem out, because it will only sound like I’m making excuses; but besides not actually having been unemployed for very long, it would be more productive to realize the impossibility of being stuck when even my leisure time is spent on work and the things I do for fun are indistinguishable from the things I do as research.

People working with art are particularly notorious for this kind of behavior: bullshitters will call it “doing what you love” or DWYL (I know, it’s gross). In practice, navigating between the personal and professional becomes so much more delicate. You’re not sure which of your moments are made instrumental or turned into fodder for someone’s ongoing project. I’m not denying that there’s beauty in overlapping the terrains of work and play–in a perfect world, wouldn’t we all be friends? I’m just saying there are complications that don’t get resolved precisely because of friendship.

When it comes to feeling “stuck” or “unemployed”, being surrounded by friends all the time makes the stagnancy of hanging out difficult to tell apart from actual work. It takes a kind of discipline I do not have yet–the boundaries between work and after hours and the people who fill those periods need to be clear-cut. I’ve worked on projects with friends, but until now, I’ve never had to get projects–usually with friends–just to have work and all the great things that come with it (like money and lines on the CV). Usually the projects were carried out despite having work to do elsewhere.

Not only do I need to get over these insecurities to keep from feeling “stuck”, precisely because the depression that comes with feeling stuck is what gets you stuck in the first place. I need to recognize that the trajectory has changed and how this is just another way of moving through (and not “up in”) the world.

So that was a lengthy intro to hopefully ground the unpleasant admission I’m about to make:

I have impostor syndrome.

…If it isn’t obvious by now, I mean.

I am too insecure to even say the words “achieved” or “accomplished” without a lengthy internal monologue about the possibility that luck just happened to be on my side. I am so used to being talked down at that I can’t take it seriously when I’m actually being praised.

I am perfectly fine with public speaking, with things like lectures or pitches. I’ve presented papers at conferences and colloquia, I’ve applied to so many things I may have clearly been ineligible for because “how the hell would you have a shot if you didn’t at least toss your name in there?” But through all of this, I default to expecting rejection–in every form–despite this year alone serving as mounting evidence to the contrary.

That up there is a photo of a house exploding in mid-air. It is by Peter Garfield. I chose to show a house because two weeks ago, an exhibition proposal I wrote that was centered on housing (contextualizing Engels’ Housing Question) was selected by The Japan Foundation to be realized in early 2017, after two rounds of field research and an apprenticeship for an exhibition series about Southeast Asia, slated for next year.

Anyone working in culture would be familiar with the tedium that comes with applying and competing for grants and the overwhelming mix of relief and flattery of actually being awarded or accepted. It recognizes that your work is worthwhile and worth (some other government’s) money. Despite this, I often catch myself shyly speaking of what I’m working on and what I’ve done as if there’s no value there, as if it’s just another silly way to kill time, an insecurity fed not only by its being about art–add my background in fashion and teaching are both still broadly considered “women’s work”, diminished even further by my actually being a woman.

The sad part is I’m not even imagining this! I know my male counterparts get far more free passes for far less work; yes, this is an issue across the board, for both cis or homosexual males. What’s worse is that while there are congratulatory butt pats and such, there are just as many raised eyebrows and underhanded comments about how “I guess they were looking for something easy to digest,” or “I guess the other guy was feeling under the weather that day.”



What is it really to actually expect to be pulled back with every attempt you make to push forward? How fucking unhealthy is it that even with all the support I’ve received (monetary or otherwise), I still feel the weight of my fraudulence (imagined or otherwise). I still get shy, still get intimidated, still get scared of how stupid I probably sound, still hear that I’m a girl doing a boy’s job or a girl doing a job a boy could have done better–despite the number of women working in art and exhibitions, who also have it pointed out that they’re “boyish” or “alpha” women rather than simply women at work.

It feels so much easier to talk about how I’m stuck, I was wrong, I fucked up, then keep tabs on how far along I’ve gotten with fixing my shit. It’s comfortable. It’s familiar. To appeal to the things I’ve done right would be to take on work with no clear cut end, work that can only get better or at least more interesting as it moves in whatever direction. The first step though would be to accept and actually believe that what you’re doing is of any value which, if we were to go by history, just isn’t the case with women’s work.