Despite editor Tess Maunder’s opening description of Absolute Humidity as a “sweaty brow,” this book is refreshing. Published by Hardworking Goodlooking / Lobregat Balaguer, and printed in a printing stall recovering from fire damage in old downtown Manila, Absolute Humidity employs the weather as a deceptively simple premise to craft a collection of conversations with 28 artists and art collectives from the Asia-Pacific region. Free of art jargon, the collection is grounded in the lived realities of the region and the artists who work here. Over the last few months this book has become a welcome guest in my studio, gifting good conversation with the turn of a page.
Absolute Humidity casually carries the reader into the complex terrains of transnational relationships, ecological threats, disputed territories, anxiety, sovereignty, ancestry, nationalism, displacement, and migration through the relationship between weather and art-making. The publication is structured in three main sections. The opening section (“folds”) contains introductory texts that set the book’s tone; the main body (“interviews”) consists of 28 interviews with artists and collectives; and the closing section (“clouds”) contains a poster insert, biographies, colophon, and end notes.
Within the “folds” section is an exchange between Lucreccia Quintanilla and Léuli Māzyār Luna’i Eshraghi about the complexities of artistic and institutional approaches to “difference.” Though it’s written primarily in English, Sāmoan words occasionally appear in passing before the conversation shifts suddenly, and for almost a page, from English into Spanish — and then back into English with the following commentary from Quintanilla:
It should not be the case that our words hitting paper here unwittingly become some kind of political act. It should be a given that as human beings, we are entitled to multiplicity, to understanding that cultures are living organisms …. We’re not only driving home the point of our freedom of movement, expression, thought, but also our right to participate in and continue culture. Our languages, verbal and non-verbal, our aesthetics, our ways are our living cultural inheritance. They are not italicised Other. Nor are they static.
This multi-lingual intervention, alongside opening essays by Raqs Media Collective and Brenda Croft, asserts the multiplicity of human experience and creative output. This current runs, with power and subtlety, throughout this book.
For the most part, Maunder’s questions are direct and succinct: “How did you begin your career as an artist? What do you think is the most urgent environmental concern today?” In one or two instances the answers are equally direct. Occasionally, artists who seek to highlight the nuance and complexity of their stories push back with thought-provoking responses. In unaffected, conversational language, Maunder, as the curator and editor, allows us to hear directly about the artists’ work, why they produce it, and how the “weather” (and their broader social, political, and personal contexts) comes to shape it. This reflects Maunder’s intention to bring curatorial practice back to its most basic form: listening to artists. There is immense value, as well as great pleasure, in this.
In Absolute Humidity’s conversations, we read about artists’ personal experiences and artistic processes that don’t often make it into the didactics of exhibitions or curatorial essays. We hear how New Delhi artist Ravi Agarwal’s childhood obsession with the camera followed him into adulthood and the world of environmental activism. Rirkrit Tiravanija shares his interest in dissemination as part of the artistic process. We come to understand how motherhood pushed Angela Tiatia toward a professional arts practice that challenges the systematic inequalities placed on the Pacific body by colonization, when she commenced art school as her five-year-old son began preschool. GULF Labour Coalition’s conversation highlights how the group’s genesis was profoundly influenced by the Arab Spring, while sharing the astounding fact that up to 90% of the UAE’s nine million residents are “low-skilled” migrant workers. Belyuen-based Karrabing Film Collective explain in great detail how their group formed in response to a massive neo-liberal reorganization of Australian governance of Indigenous life. Drew Kahu’āina Broderick demonstrates how, in the context of Hawai’i, descent is often entangled with expressions of dissent. And there is so much more.
Absolute Humidity is crafted with a welcome sense of humility, as Maunder listens and the artists infuse the conversations with the great plurality of difference across a region that occupies almost a quarter of the earth’s landmass and much more of its relational ocean surfaces. Absolute Humidity provides a timely glimpse of the worlds across the Asia-Pacific that produced these artists and, in turn, the worlds that these artists are producing, highlighting how these points, almost like a constellation of stars, shed light on some of the most urgent issues of our times, not least of which is the weather.
Absolute Humidity is edited by Tess Maunder and published in a limited edition of 400 by Hardworking Goodlooking / Lobregat Balaguer (2018).