Art and Anachronisms
The series of Gallery Reflections takes place in between each chapter of the one-year programme Untie to Tie: Colonial Legacies and Contemporary Societies and, like the metaphor of a reflection, tries to refract, break, and divert the possible gaze into curatorial and artistic processes today and beyond. It is also an exercise in collaborative work between artists, curators, and anthropologists that seeks to rethink anthropological practice as a form of conversation where the researcher is not the unseen and unmarked author, but becomes what we call a ‘sparring partner’, meaning that in doing this kind of collaborative work, anthropology becomes part of the critique and observation. A first opening statement on this idea and collaboration can be read online here.
To accompany the opening chapter and exhibition by Cameroonian artist Pascale Martine-Tayou, we devised a panel on the question of urban diasporas and decolonial thought. Key for us here was to combine questions about hidden ways of seeing urban space with a discussion of Asian, meaning here Korean, Vietnamese, and Indonesian diasporic formations. A video of this event with urban scholar and activist Dr. Noa Ha, anthropologist Trang Tran Thu, and performer Hyunsin Kim can also be watched online here.
While themes of space are also crucial to debates about art and colonial and postcolonial experience, so are issues of time and temporality. This essay reflects on and echoes some of the concerns discussed on 7 September 2017 in the ifa Gallery Berlin for the second iteration of the gallery reflections series, entitled
Traces, Legacies, and Futures: A Conversation on Art and Temporality, which is announced here and a recording of which can be viewed online here. For this conversation, I invited Berlin-based artist Nora Al-Badri (artist, Berlin), Prof. Silvy Chakkalakal (anthropologist, HU Berlin), Prof. Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll (artist and art historian, Birmingham/London) to poke at and interrogate the temporal dimensions of concepts we use to talk about the colonial past, present, and future. Moreover, we talked about agency of objects, hacked and stolen, found and shared, and the affordances of artistic practices in facilitating those inquiries.
The constructedness of notions of time and temporality, their use as rhetoric and artifice, is evidently also central to the sustained auto-critique of anthropological writing since the Writing Culture debate. Johannes Fabian captured this in his seminal work Time and the Other (2002), wherein he investigated the way in which ethnographic accounts use the denial of contemporaneity and co-evalness, i.e. the acknowledgement that we all live in the same here and now, as forms of othering of non-European societies. As a discipline involved in the making and representation of knowledge, he argued, anthropology requires its scholars to engage in the sharing of time with others and yet denies that same shared temporality in the construction of its narratives. It has, in other words, a long history of ‘keep[ing] the Other outside the time of anthropology’ (ibidem). This conversation wishes to problematise this aspect and seek other ways of thinking time and temporality in the context of decolonial artistic and scholarly practices.
The literal backdrop of our conversation was the exhibition
Watch your step / Mind your head with artists Irene de Andrés and Sofía Gallisá Muriente, curated by Marina Reyes Franco, in the third chapter of Untie to Tie. It presented a selection of works developed between 2015 and 2017 that ponder the question of who constructs the concept of paradise and who consumes it, focusing on how this is experienced from the Caribbean nation of Puerto Rico. The artists worked in photography, print, installation and video formats, remixing original and sourced materials from various official and personal archives, as well as the internet to construct alternate soundscapes to the usual tropical narratives. In doing so, they contested the visual economy of tourism, but also paid attention to the ways in which historical narratives are re-written.
The notion of paradise already takes us straight into the three central concepts of the second gallery reflection: Traces, legacies, and futures. Traces are defined as a mark, object, or indication of the existence or passing of something. The word has the beautiful double etymological meaning of ‘a path that someone or something takes’, allowing it to be a term that conjoins the past with the present and the future. It is also a term often used to refer to the detective search for remains, be they traces in ethnological museums such as the Humboldt Forum, under construction a stone’s throw away from the ifa Gallery Berlin in Berlin-Mitte. In reaction to pressure from activist groups (see for instance the conference resolution from an event entitled Prussian Colonial Heritage organised by the umbrella organisation No Humboldt 21! in Berlin in October 2017), provenance research has come to the fore of discussions at this stage of the planning of the Humboldt Forum. Yet, it still appears more like scattered and inquisitive detective work with comical Columbus rather than systematic post-Gurlitt anthropological inquiry, which my colleague Larissa Förster has called for in a blogpost. Research into object provenance and the question of restitution are but two examples of a current issue at the crossroads of traces, legacies, and futures, situated within the complex temporal processes taking recourse, among other things, to the reconstruction speculative histories in the face of a scant and absent record of the past. The book Haut, Haar und Knochen. Koloniale Spuren in naturkundlichen Sammlungen der Universität Jena (2016) [translated as: Skin. Hair and Bones. Colonial Traces in the Natural History Collections of the University of Jena], is a recently published example by Larissa Förster and Holger Stoecker, which embraces the speculative as a means of tackling the violent history of German colonialism in Namibia. But the leaving of traces can also be rethought as an active intervention – creating new traces and burying newly made traces to be found in a distant future, for instance, has been described by Nora Al-Badri, who participated in this second conversation, as “technoheritage”, explored in her joint collaboration with Nikolai Nelles in their project Fossil Futures.
The notion of legacies, too, is fraught and problematic, yet also ambivalent and productive to think with. A legacy denotes something left or handed down by a predecessor. This could be, as in the title of Untie to Tie, in the form of continued colonial legacies – such as architectural or urban traces of colonial conquest marked by statues of Christopher Columbus discussed in the show Watch your step / Mind your head – a presence contested in the new iconoclasm in post-Charlottesville US, which erases and actively destroys such legacies. ifa Gallery Berlin’s director Alya Sebti uses the term legacies differently in the Untie to Tie programme, more explicit in the German translation Vermächtnis or Hinterlassenschaft, which describes the active projection of something new into the future; the creation of future memories. In such a way, legacies and traces can provide insight into parallel or multiple temporalities, into juxtapositions of anachronies, archives of anachronicity.
With recourse to notions of the future – how it affects our present, how visions of the future can shape the contemporary status quo – that we problematised ideas of shared heritage and the construction of social fantasies. Is it the case, as philosophers Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik have argued in proposing the terminology ‘post-contemporary’ that anticipations of the future actually shape the present and that we are better off moving from a futureless focus on experiences in the now (so prevalent in contemporary art) to ideas of anticipation and the post-contemporary? To what extent are notions of the future employed as political rhetoric, how do they function politically in a performative sense, and how does this affect our conceptions of alternative possible realities?
The three participants for the evening were: Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll, who is an artist, historian, and Professorial Chair of Global Art at the University of Birmingham. Author of several books, including Art in the Time of Colony and The Importance of Being Anachronistic, Khadija has made several exhibitions on the themes of chronic decolonisation, including at the Venice Biennale, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, and SAVVY Contemporary. We have collaborated on a number of occasions, most recently on a short thought piece for Calvert Journal in which we argue why the idea of a zombie utopia might be helpful in thinking about the Humboldt Forum. Silvy Chakkalakal is Junior-Professor at the Institute for European Ethnology at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin with a focus on gender, education, and the future. She is author of two books and has analysed how time and life-processes are constituted via images of natural history in early ethnography – but she has also worked on Boasian cultural anthropology and the relations of artistic, educational and political collaborations. She also advises various exhibition projects, including the Johann Jacobs Museum in Zurich. The third panellist was Nora Al-Badri, a Berlin-based artist, who has worked since 2009 as a collective with Jan-Nikolai Nelles with whom she opened her first solo show NOT A SINGLE BONE at Berlin’s NOME Gallery. Their practice incorporates interventions and engagement with the role of technology, including the much-speculated about project ‘The Other Nefertiti’ aka ‘The Nefertiti Hack’. You can watch our conversation here, an edited transcription of which is to appear online as a forum on the website of the journal Third Text in the near future alongside the other conversations.
Jonas Tinius, October 2017
Gallery Reflections is a series of public discussions on art, institutions, and curatorial practices convened by anthropologist Jonas Tinius. The encounters take place in the ifa Gallery Berlin once per chapter, crisscrossing the overall themes and decentring the focal points of the one-year programme Untie to Tie: Colonial Legacies and Contemporary Societies (2017-2018) curated by the gallery’s director Alya Sebti. In this first column and introduction to the series, Jonas Tinius writes about the role of discourse and conversation, reflection and listening, in rethinking a possible dialogue between anthropology, curatorial practice, and contemporary artistic work with decolonial perspectives.