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Further Afield Logo featuring a green table microphone outlined in black and black text which reads Further Afield. exploring art and disability in rural spaces.

Interview with Harry Josephine Giles

Writing by Gabrielle de la Puente

“… waking up to a density of birdsong, that is important to me, being able to go for a walk on the beach in the hills, that is important to me, like, honestly, those are things that I live for, and the smell of being on an island like that’s, that calms my mind.”

About the conversation

In the second interview in the series, Bella speaks to Harry Josephine Giles, a writer and performer from Orkney, living in Leith. They discuss the cross-geographical experiences of the rural and how rural cultures and histories continue to inform her work, as well as exploring her experiences of creative communities as a disabled artist in both rural and urban locations.

Accompanying this recording is a brilliant text written in response to the conversation by Gabrielle de la Puente. You can read it below.

Further Afield Logo featuring a green table microphone outlined in black.

Further Afield interview with Harry Josephine Giles

Listen to the audio version here
“It does mean that you have… a huge number of writers and artists, visual artists, musicians [in Orkney]…. So I consider it the place that has fed, you know, my artistic self from the very beginning… I’m singing the praises of my home because I love my home…”

Accompanying writing by Gabrielle de la Puente



I wait in the bedroom and I wait in the living room and sometimes I wait in the spare room when I’m sick of being sick in the first two. I know these rooms intimately. I know them so well that I hate them. I know how the sun moves across the furniture over the course of a day. I know the bland cracks in the ceilings; I could colour-match the landlord-beige of the carpets without even looking. I know where the mould is sprouting (behind the canvas on the wall, and round the back of the bedside table) — its slow growth the only movement in these rooms where I sit still and wait. I should probably do something about that, both the mould and the waiting, but I don’t quite know where to start because I’m just waiting for things to get better, generally. Things. Things as in bodies, houses, worlds, every-thing. I’m waiting for cures, good ideas, revolution. It cannot be like this forever, surely? Not this bad in and out of each of our personal worlds. But I joke with friends that the only way we’ll ever own a house is inheriting one from our parents. How long will I have to wait for my parents to die? There’s no punchline but it must be a joke because we laugh.

I try my best to write in this house and it does not go well. I have spent most of the last three years alternating between these waiting rooms because Long Covid does not let me travel further. I used to go to so many places and meet so many people; I used to live a life that I could write about, but it’s much harder to speak nowadays. And it’s like, I know that I live in Liverpool, a city known for creativity. I know that I once did a Fine Art degree. My CV says that I’m a writer based in Liverpool. I’m definitely here. But in going nowhere, and in watching the dance of the sun and the mould, and in chronic fatigue and chronic pain, and in forgetting the names of those places and people I used to work with, and in cognitive issues, and in speaking less, and in everything staying the same, I know I’m in Liverpool but I really feel like I could be anywhere. I could open the curtains to find I’m on an island, or lost in a hedge maze, or I’ve been dropped into the centre of Shanghai. Anywhere or nowhere. 

There are months when I slip into a solitary nocturnal existence, so those curtains stay closed throughout the day and the night. When that happens, I might as well be on the moon. But the moon, it turns out, still has an Internet connection; still won’t let me forget the life before I got sick and could really, really move. From the moon,  I leave whispered messages for my friends to wake up to. I watch slow TV videos on YouTube filmed on cameras tied to the front of Norwegian trains. They cut through snow and slip under mountains. I go with them. The train journey ends after seven hours and then it’s time for me to delete emails. I get invites to early morning press previews that start an hour after I finally fall asleep. The emails come from the biggest galleries in the world and I don’t even reply. Like the length of time I’ll have to wait for my home-owning parents to die, I just don’t think I need to know. 

There is a lot I miss about being an art critic in perfect health but I do not miss the exhibition openings at various white cube galleries and other institutions. Whether I prefer those rooms more or less than the cursed trinity of the bedroom, living room, and spare room is hard to say. Rooms full of arts professionals are also waiting rooms in a sense, and they drag in the same dull way. There are curators waiting for their turn to have a go at curating a show there; artists waiting for their turn to be the show. There are critics waiting for entertaining opinions; collectors waiting for their horses to win big. But everyone, I think, is really waiting for a level of success that means they don’t need to come to these events anymore, not unless their name is the one set in vinyl on the wall, or this is happening in their self-titled museum. It’s a terrible way to spend a few hours, when there are so many other things you could spend your time doing (watching cameras strapped to Norwegian trains, or staring into space). Before I was on the official invite lists, back when I would find a way to get inside, the single image I remember of that time is something that looks like this:

Hundreds of people are crammed into one of the historical gallery chambers at Tate Britain, bordered by a tall salon hang. There is contemporary art being launched in another room in the museum but no one will leave this chamber to go near it. Everyone here is suited and booted, or wearing a mid-length asymmetrical dress. The suits are rubbing shoulders with other suits. They are listening patiently to speeches, giving speeches; recognising the people they know, being recognised; handshakes, drinks, lips, white wine, regular burning camera flash. The inner-circle is standing around waiting to be spoken to, waiting to be praised for something. Around them is a looser group of people who aren’t wearing suits or mid-length dresses. Their posture is different. They are the artists, less formidable, arranged like a strange glow around a black heart. The artists are also waiting to be spoken to, waiting to be praised for something. It’s the same concentric ache. The artists face the core of the room, which means that absolutely everybody’s backs are to the paintings on the wall (and like the Liverpool I assume is still outside my window, the art might as well not be there at all). 


I don’t like to think about these images but they stay in my head, taunting me. I think it’s because in waiting for things to improve, the site of the VIP exhibition opening appears to be a place where such change can happen for those of us who work in the field. The event provides access to people who have more money than I do, and those people aren’t here in my house (in my bed) with me so I — I have to stop myself. I have to remember that opportunity does not slip easily from those with privilege to those without it. Anyway, if a powerful person has successfully been cajoled into sharing their wealth, it doesn’t happen on a whim during a meet-cute at a busy private view in the country’s capital. Those processes are slow, and there are strings attached — strings attached to the personal, social, and financial gain of the giver.

I wouldn’t go to an exhibition opening now, even on a day when I had a bit of energy to spare. Doctors don’t know what would happen to my body if I were to catch Covid a third time, and whilst I’m not antisocial, the art scene is not seriously left-wing enough to test and mask and protect people like me. So, I’m not about to roll the dice for the sake of an awkward conversation with someone whose name I’m never going to remember at the National Portrait Gallery or the V&A. But when Harry Josephine Giles talks about the flow of ‘money, interest and attention in particular rooms that rural artists, disabled artists, and all minority artists are excluded from,’ I see the logic — the longing to be in attendance at gallery events because if you’re there, you exist, and if you exist, you are someone who maybe, possibly, one day, may well be considered for an elusive opportunity (and if you’re not there, unknown, then nobody will know to save you). However, I don’t think people who are distanced from these events need to feel any loss about not being there. 

Having been in those rooms, and having seen the way that flow moves; having been benched to this bedroom for three years, and contending with a new way of operating as a writer; I don’t actually think that all hope is lost but only because I don’t think the hope was ever really there. I used to look up when I was in museums and galleries, wishing they had windows that could open so that I could breathe, sick of the air conditioning that pumped out hot staid air. My company would not care. The flow of money, interest and attention only really energises the middle class. That flow is their fresh air. That flow is also there in the slight exchange from shoulder to shoulder, mouth to mouth, and eye contact across a crowded room. I don’t mean to make it sound so romantic. I just want to describe a closeness between the suits and the mid-length dresses; I want to say that people who know each other will drink from the same cup. This slow, charged flow passes between only them — stays between them — unless it is in their direct interest to drip support over one of our dry heads.

Nobody’s life is going to change in one of these rooms. The artists think they are where they are supposed to be — having clawed themselves out of routine and home studios and isolation and overalls — but that awkwardness overrides everything about the whole charade. Galleries are much more alive in the daytime when visitors can be alone with the art. At night, when it is people facing people and the art becomes a backdrop, there is an awkwardness that makes the whole place feel off-kilter. There’s the gap between broke artists and salaried curators; between needing and having, or asking for something and keeping your mouth shut. There’s the gap between the artists in attendance and the ones on display. Artists will wait through that awkwardness because they think they have to. They will stay put, waiting for a conversation with somebody they hope will change their life. Somebody who will see them. Somebody who will bring them into the flow. But nobody talks, and if they do, the chat is only a chat; or the inconsiderate curator will get the artist’s hopes up and never follow through. The night will not bring the material change the artist needs to carry on in a world that doesn’t want them to be an artist. They wait, stay, live for nothing, and eventually they leave. They didn’t even need to be there. They might as well have stayed at home. 


I don’t want to wait in this house for the world to get easier. I refuse to stay in the shadows of museums hoping the art world will take a break from helping itself to help others instead. It would be very satisfying and optimistic of me to end this text with a perfect solution that supports all artists living on the sidelines (or to declare that I’ve made peace with disability keeping me in these rooms! And I don’t mind the mould, or the rent, or the carpets!). But I think optimism about a better art world is self-soothing. A happy ending to this piece would be impossible to write anyway, because I don’t expect positive change, nor do I want to let the industry as it stands off the hook. 

The only way I have staked my claim in the art world is by way of the Internet. It is the only reason I have a career, and it’s the only way I’ve managed to keep one after Covid changed me. In 2015, I bought a domain name and began self-publishing my own writing on my own website. I did not have to ask for anybody’s permission. Years ago, an artist called Bella Milroy read my work online. In 2023, Milroy had a video call with a writer called Harry Josephine Giles. Bella then emailed to ask if I would respond to their conversation, and although the three of us have never been in the same room, writing this makes me think that we might as well have been. I like our exchange more than the exchange of money and power and the stifling flow that chokes up art institutions. Ours is an exchange of ideas and isn’t that what art is supposed to be about? All the conversations I have eavesdropped on at exhibition openings don’t hold nearly so much weight, and they fade from memory as soon as they’re over. 

The Internet transcends and connects and it sticks and it is still there when I’m on the moon, in my own timezone, when nobody in England is awake but my friends in the US are online and I’m just clicking from place to place until I decide to join a live talk on Zoom about independent arts organisations in Hong Kong. It’s the Internet that means new ideas still come before me. It’s the Internet that means I can continue waitstayliving, a word that punctuates Giles’ 2021 science-fiction verse novel Deep Wheel Orcadia like a deep drum, or a countdown. Verses are written in the Orkney dialect  with an English translation below them, but not all words have neat equivalents, or Giles doesn’t want the translation to be neat. So there are composite words such as whirlrushdancespins, heavymeaningful, and placedistancepartwhile. A friend once told me that writing a book is a case of trying out the same sentence multiple times before choosing the best version in the edit; Giles retains them all, enriching her words by expressing one thing from two, three, or four parts of the mouth, like an insistent harmony.  

When I sat down to write this text, I thought about how I go about waitstayliving. I never used to think about the how, and now I have to because everything is harder. I hate the false optimism of so much of the writing around these topics when, besides the conversations I have with friends about inheriting houses from not-yet-dead parents, we talk so often about how much we are all struggling. Without committing to an answer, I recognise that there is an outside-art-world, one I’m not interested in anymore. I also recognise the inside-art-world of doing things like this. Sitting in a room I hate but listening to a conversation I don’t, and then downloading the audiobook of Deep Wheel Orcadia and listening to Giles in my head while I knit a mohair jumper, needles moving in rhythm with her verse. Finishing the book, thinking about how it made me feel, and then coming back to the exchange, writing until I find my place within it — until I can see the bad bedroom and the bad living room and the bad spare room as a site of culture, one that’s perhaps much less threatening than the ones I used to know.

A headshot of a person. They wear red rimmed glasses and have shoulder length light brown hair. They wear a grey top and cardigan.
Harry Josephine Giles

Harry Josephine Giles is from Orkney and lives in Leith. Her verse novel Deep Wheel Orcadia was published by Picador in October 2021 and won the 2022 Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction book of the year. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Stirling. Her show Drone debuted in the Made in Scotland Showcase at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe and toured internationally.

Their award winning book “Deep Wheel Orcadia” is available in print, or you can listen to it as an audio book which is brilliantly narrated by the author.

A black and white photo of a person drinking from a milkshake through a straw. They have shoulder length hair and wear a pale coloured T shirt.
Gabrielle de la Puente

Gabrielle is a writer that co-runs The White Pube with Zarina Muhammad where they publish criticism on art, video games, films, books, theatre and all the culture that gets on their nerves (for better or worse). They publish reviews in text, audio and video. They also run a Successful Funding Application Library and a Working Class Creatives Grant. The White Pube think broadly about how they can make a better art world for everybody (one that is fair, accessible, and a lot more affordable).

The White Pube’s new book which is set to release in autumn 2024.

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