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Cutting through the ‘Spectacles’
at blaxTARLINES KUMASI Project Space

 Spectacles. Speculations…’ Exhibition Review by Robin Riskin

Spectacles. Speculations… installation view. Work by Kelvin Haizel, Akwasi Afrane Bediako, Ibrahim Mahama, Aisha Nelson, Poku Mensah. Image courtesy of Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh

 

A dialectical tension. Seduce and cast out. Inside and outside. Lights on, lights off. White cube, black box. Surface or meaning. Flatness or depth. Mediation or immediacy. Spectacle or direct experience of reality. What is reality? What is truth?

Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh’s exhibition ‘Spectacles. Speculations…’ deals with all of these contradictions and inconsistencies that mediate contemporary experiences of life and social relations. Riding the current of Guy Debord and the Situationists in France; Espinosa, Solanas, Getino and Third Cinema practitioners of the ’60s-’70s in Latin America; as well as other vanguard movements of the past century, Ohene-Ayeh joins a contemporary conversation on the spectacle (essentially, human relations as mediated by images) which looks at how conditions of our time have been reshaped by technology and globalisation.

The exhibition deals with two main curatorial premises: one, to unhinge the image from its historically dominant pictorial/representational format; and two, that images are not neutral. The idea is to start from the point of multiplicity, from the void; where visual, aural, gestural, linguistic, and other means of image-making all lie on an equal plane. The exhibition does not claim to cover all modes of image production, but it proposes a plurality that, as Ohene-Ayeh has said, alludes to a bigger picture.

Braille translation of curatorial statement

From various angles, then, ‘Spectacles. Speculations…’ speaks to the material conditions of our times. At first glance, the space may appear to be dominated by electronically powered screen-based works (monitors, wall projections, hanging projections, even visitors’ own smartphones). We are, after all, living in the ‘screen age’, as curator Nicolas Bourriaud has argued[1]. However, a bit of patience and attention will attune visitors to the presences of non-electrical/non-digital elements. Braille wall texts mark individual works. Metal-plate masks line the edges of the space (a sculptural installation by Edwin Bodjawah). Printed texts on paper are mounted to the wall (by Aisha Nelson and Francis Kokoroko, for whom the paper is merely an avenue to his Instagram). Theatrical and performative events, likewise, take place at various moments—e.g. spoken word by Dzyadzorm, a musical night hosted by Koliko collective, a video recorded iteration of black box theatre by MENonBLACK, and Bright Ackwerh’s animated projections of his computer-aided drawing process.

Clearly, even these gestural, textual, and aural means overlap with screen-based productions—things do not sit neatly in their categories. The exhibition also leads us to consider the sculptural and compositional qualities of the screens themselves and how they have been placed or produced. Think of Mawuenya Amudzi’s vertical sequence of vintage TVs, or the translucent fabric used for Poku Mensah’s filmic projection, which also serves as the site for various screenings throughout the exhibition period. ‘Spectacles. Speculations…’ takes ‘technology’ in a broad sense of the word, with every means of production operating as a kind of technology—going back to the root of the word tekhnēas in ‘art’ or ‘craft’; and tekhnologiaas ‘systematic treatment’. The point is to unhinge our approach to the idea of ‘image’ or ‘technology’; to start from a position of equality.

The 15 artists featured in ‘Spectacles. Speculations…’ (from hereon, ‘Spectacles’) work with the idea of the image in various ways. Their coming together in the blaxTARLINES KUMASI project space[2]under the curatorial direction of Ohene-Ayeh makes for a sparse and tightly argued exhibition.

If the other main premise is that images are not neutral, then ‘Spectacles’ makes that strikingly clear. Throughout the space are various points and counterpoints that draw the viewer out of a state of absorbed contemplation, and prompt awareness of the constructed nature of the experience and one’s place in it. A white cube space is sliced at the side by a black corridor. A relatively rectangular room and wall displays are cut off diagonally by a hanging screen. An indoor space is juxtaposed with temporal outdoor projections (Ackwerh’s political cartoons). A pair of video monitors at the centre shows you watching yourself (work by Akwasi Afrane Bediako)—but to see your face or see where the camera is coming from, you must turn around, and thus lose sight of the image.

Ohene-Ayeh argues that we must reflect on the ways we produce, disseminate, and consume images, and the ways we inherit them.[3]Taken collectively, the artists present diverse but consistent positions on this question, and on the histories of modernity that have inscribed it.

How have images been used in conditioning the global imagination, Ohene-Ayeh asks. The ideologies behind them can lead us to believe that our current conditions are just the way things are, or the best way things could be. And if for our ancestors things were different, that is because they lived in a time of primitive savagery or medieval darkness—but our times are better, more progressive, more enlightened. Civilisation always moves toward progress, is the mantra.

In recent decades, new modes of technology have exponentially transformed the accessibility and speed with which we access images from around the world. More recent technologies have involved not just one-way image dissemination to a viewing/listening subject (the movie, the phonograph, the TV or radio), but multi-way exchange between users who receive and communicate in both directions (the internet and social media, the computer and cell phone and their ever-evolving prostheses). These devices and platforms have reoriented the ways in which we consume and spread news, stories, text, sound, images. They could have had the emancipatory effect of opening up communications and their interpretation to the masses, but collectively thus far, have only been reincorporated into the capitalist machine. The contemporary failure to effectively democratise new media technologies presents itself as a site of critique for Ohene-Ayeh and artists featured in the show.

Framing the World

Working with a paraconsistent logic enables the exhibition to thrive on contradictions. Tensions between surface and depth, appearance and object, concealing and revealing, recur throughout the scope of ‘Spectacles’. Even with seemingly more fixed formats, meanings begin to slide and spaces unfold beyond their literal dimensions.

In Kokoroko’s work, for instance, a set of printed instructions invites the viewer to sit down and interact on his Instagram page, leading the physical site of exhibition to a virtual flow of images where time runs on a different pace, and an endless newsfeed threatens to perpetually absorb attention. The material presence of Nelson’s work, meanwhile (a translation of her poem from English to Ga), may appear to ground the viewer, who theoretically must wage a mental struggle against colonisations of language. For exhibition-goers who do not speak Ga, the work may operate in a sense like a modernist painting, in which no deeper meaning is to be accessed beyond its surface. At another level, however, a formalist sensibility is disrupted, as meanings creep in from different sides—a) for those who can understand Ga, or with the poem’s original form in English, and b) in the extended analysis/account of the work narrated on Nelson’s blog, which opens up the work to the discursive space of the internet.[4]

Spectacles. Speculations… installation view. Work by Aisha Nelson, Akwase Afrane Bediako, Mawuenya Amudzi, Poku Mensah, Kwabena Afriyie Poku. Image courtesy of Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh

As much as technology can be used to make appearances present, it can also operate to obscure. Images of violence proliferate throughout the exhibition, and yet through digital mediation, their brutality is softened, even concealed. Kelvin Haizel stretches the time of a hip-hop video that recalls Apartheid police violence, such that all the viewer can see are pixellated stills of an abstracted vulture. María Leguízamo appropriates a YouTube compilation of footages of explosions that appear out-of-focus. The images are doubly filtered, having been made by filming the online video as it appeared on screen. A dead fly is stuck onto the exhibited monitor screen with honey, re-invoking the image’s presence as a physical object, or perhaps emphasising its distance.

Poku Mensah projects a photographic appropriation of Dutch Golden Age still life aesthetics depicting a dinner setting. It is only upon repeated or extended attention that the image reveals itself as moving filmic projection, in which the main platter is a black human body curled up on a dish of silver. Ironically, Kwabena Afriyie Poku’s video montage of himself performing martial arts moves may read as potentially aggressive to those familiar with the action movie industry, but are as much premised on rhythms and motions of dance.

The artists’ work highlights the extent to which we imbibe images through their mediation—and their tendency to mask and desensitise; even more so to project as natural or eternal, conditions which are in fact extremely contingent, historically formed, and specific to our time. What the image does is to cut out a frame from reality, and to freeze time, as if its contents were divinely preordained.

This has been the aim of traditional and dominant forms of art since the time human beings began to put representation to the world through pigment. The point was to assure as sanctified the dominant social orders, whether they be of God, King, nation, or more recently, money itself. This was achieved through conventions of beauty, morality, purity, and sacredness. It was validated by the ritualistic experiences of spectatorship constructed in the art museum, gallery, auction house, institution; or historically, the church, temple or palace; or even in Palaeolithic times, the cave.

The artists in ‘Spectacles’ recognise the political forces at work in contemporary productions and historical residues of image-making. Their work attempts in some ways to prompt reflection on, in other ways to question, these conventional orders.

Distance and Intimacy

For instance, Edwin Bodjawah explores the historical production of the so-called primitivist paradigm, engineered as part of the European colonial domination project. Ibrahim Mahama negotiates material residues and exchanges of commodities under systems of global capital. Mawuenya Amudzi, in his recent work, re-situates images from Ghanaian funerary pamphlets—a symptom of the modern disciplinary order not to ‘kill them’ but to ‘let them die’.[5]All of these systems have been designed as a way to separate the self from the other through a relationship of hierarchy—white from black, rich from poor, civilised from savage, human from slave, propertied class from subjects.

Spectacles. Speculations… exhibition production. Image by the author

It is this vital separation that the spectacle makes possible: once it is cut away from its reality, I need not relate to its subject in the same space and time as the one in which I am standing. The distance protects me from entering into dynamic human relations, and keeps me at a safe remove. Thus, images of tragedy and disaster in the world “out there” make welcome fodder for entertainment, even sympathy, but rarely act as means to prompt into self-critical action. One image is just a click or a scroll away from the next, and oh so far away; or so it seems.

However, it is also possible to take distance as something productive. In this sense, it is the very gap produced by the work, the space between artist and audience, that makes it possible for readers to play the role of active interpreters, and thus writers of their own iteration of the story. Such is the case with Afriyie Poku’s martial arts montages, for instance, which resist narrative sequence and play out over time. Through the act of reading or spectating, audiences may translate and/or reform the work. Their understandings may even be subversive to the author’s intentions, which are no more final or authoritative than the reader’s position. A spectator may be a spectator, and an artist an artist—we can acknowledge the roles without presuming a relationship of hierarchy.

Indeed, most of the screen-, text- and image-based works in ‘Spectacles’ (all cohering under the broader concept of the image) demand contemplation and call for time spent studying them. Yet in certain discursive and temporal elements, the distant position of spectatorship is eluded, and a human interaction is yielded. From Dzyadzorm’s spoken word performance and Koliko collective’s music and dance session; to discussion panels taking place in Kumasi and Accra; to phases of exhibition production and daily operations; communities and relations within existing communities have been forged and strengthened through the work, in spontaneous response to given events and needs. Building off the legacy and spirit of previous blaxTARLINES exhibitions, a number of which Ohene-Ayeh has worked on, the situation has not only suggested but actualised the potential of individuals to come together as a group and take hold of their means of production, and to make or assemble new forms.

The dialectical tension between distance and intimacy in ‘Spectacles…’ is not a hierarchical one, but rather productive. The contradictions were called to light (quite literally) during a discussion panel, “In Terms of Images”. Just as Dzyadzorm’s performance was taking off, the power went out and lights and screens shut down. A collective moan filled the room, but immediately audience members and organisers began to switch on their cell phone torches. The whirring of projectors came to a pause, and Dzyadzorm performed by the light of those surrounding her—cutting through the spectacle to the human, and yet still, ultimately, illuminated by its machine.

Dzyadzorm performs spoken word at “In Terms of Images” event, by the light of Selom Kudjie and others’ cell phones. Image by the author

Means of Production

From various points, then, ‘Spectacles’ oscillates in this space between distance and direct contact; individual spectatorship and collective co-presence. Either can be an effective method, as we can acknowledge the equality of the roles of acting and spectating, which are in fact contained within each other. The question, then, is whether new tools are offered to the masses through the production of the work; whether the means of production are democratised.

Does the exhibition intimidate and impress audiences with its apparent authority, specialised expertise, and perfected production values, as Espinosa asks[6]? Is it one where the work exists in a separate, ideal space from the audience, and which only elite art audiences are meant to understand? Or does the work set an example that could be emulated, reformed, remodelled—a teaching function premised on universality? Are the modes of production and spectatorship offered for the consumption and participation of a select few, or are they ones that could be owned by all?

While maintaining high exhibition standards, ‘Spectacles’ leaves signs of its own ground-up, improvised and community-formed basis. The ‘white cube’ model provides a relatively neutral backdrop for presenting works, but is not perfected to the point that the reality of the space dissolves. Exposed beams, uneven rafters, and other apparent ‘imperfections’ remind viewers of their own presence; negating the typical ‘white cube’ idiom of transcendent space or disembodied viewership. They might even suggest the potential of one’s own capacity for production.

Individual artists’ work, moreover, offer models that are increasingly accessible, produced through common technologies and media platforms—YouTube, Instagram, digital editing softwares, smartphone cameraapplications, mini-surveillance devices, alongside age-old practices of writing, drawing, and performing. Digital mediums make it possible to stage an exhibition with artists who practice in disparate places in the world (Ghana, Colombia, and Holland, in this case), and to reproduce works in situ without having transportation costs to cover.

Even the most ‘spectacular’ and high-budget of works—Ibrahim Mahama’s monumental architectural interventions, as documented and conveyed through film—makes an argument for the principle of equality of intelligences. Members of the political and economic underbelly of society, hired as collaborators in the work, take the role of active interpreters who must make sense of their own role in the production. Meanwhile, Bodjawah’s sculptural installation of decommissioned lithographic plates and corrugated roofing sheets, while formed through a series of mechanical tasks that make heavy material demands, is produced with collaborative efforts from studio assistants. It is this community spirit in the College of Art at KNUST that makes ambitious projects possible without outside funding.

Ownership of the Commons

On both an intellectual level and a practical one, then, ‘Spectacles’ defends an art of and for the commons, even as it relates to the issue dialectically.[7]The question that remains, one posed by Ohene-Ayeh’s curatorial premises but which has yet to be resolved, is that of the ownership of the commons. In effect, the art may concern, be produced by, and be exhibited with the masses in mind, but how will the work materially operate when it comes into an economic arena? How artists and curators choose to deal with this question may form the next revolutionary terrain on which art is staged.

In our time, digital and reproducible work proliferate in the artistic field; work made collectively is common practice. Originality in its pure sense has long been lost to history, and the mark or skill of the artist’s hand is no longer deemed necessary. Despite these technological revolutions in aesthetics, the market retains time-old conventions that bring the work back to singularity, in its mission to promote and protect authenticity and thereby commodify and accumulate (cultural) capital.

For even as technology democratises, it also excludes. Aside from arbitrary limitations placed on works for the sake of economic demands, there are other very actual delineations enacted by digitally based works. Digital means make it possible for the curator and artists to make ambitious and widely reachable work on a relatively low budget—but they may also leave out the non-digitally savvy or non-digitally equipped visitor. You will be required to use a smartphone with an internet connection”, read the instructions to enter Francis Kokoroko’s Instagram-based work, as if calling attention to its own borders.

As imperial strongholds of European and American culture exhaust their cultural cachet, they turn to further and further sites upon which to articulate predominant notions of democracy—liberal, progressive iterations that affirm ideals of peace and unity without questioning hegemonic realities of financial capitalism. Such are the conditions of the contemporary global order. Yet even as ideological centres of the world incorporate ever-wider margins into their realm, some artists and practitioners resist the system from within it. Through independent practice premised on modest means but carried out with commitment, the means of production may be democratised toward participation of the masses.

Such is the ethos promoted by blaxTARLINES KUMASI, and shared by the artists participating in ‘Spectacles’ (to an extent). It is not an easy nor straightforward road, and the artists and individuals who choose it must constantly check and reexamine their position. This is where ‘Spectacles. Speculations…’ leaves us, in the space between the institutionalised art world and its conventions, and the precarious throes of charting our own path through the network of signs and significations.

Perhaps we might be aided here by kąrî’kạchäseid’ou’s proposal of the “anamorphic stain” as a way to conceptualise the dialectical mode of practice encouraged among young artists at the College of Art in KNUST.[8]The idea is to work “paradoxically”, as kąrî’kạchä describes it, “by first becoming an anamorphic stain in the bigger picture itself”:

This way, the stain instigates a new vision, which requires a necessary shift in the spectator’s perspective. And this shift in perspective leaves the older picture as a stain in the new picture.[9]

In other words, the point is not simply to reverse (op)positional hierarchies in a hegemonic system, nor to reject the system entirely, but to operate as a stain from within that system in order to enact a [re]distribution of the sensible(of modes of sensing, speaking and acting). The site must not be entered based on an illusion of harmony. Rather, it should be intervened in through dynamics of tension and conflict. When an artist asserts their place in that dynamic, a shift in relations can be produced. When this assertion is premised on the principle of universal equality, thus will be to enact politics.

 

— Robin Riskin is a curator based in Kumasi, Ghana and born in Brooklyn, New York. Her work thus far has revolved around architectural and aesthetic residues of modernity, taking inspiration from a multiplicity of ecologies. She has co-curated the blaxTARLINES KUMASI exhibitions “the Gown must go to Town…” (2015), “Silence Between the Lines” (2015), her MFA Curating exhibition if you love me…” (2016), and written texts for publications produced by documenta 14 and the White Cube Gallery (2017). She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi, Ghana.

Read more about the Exhibition here. 

 

Notes:


[1]See Nicolas Bourriaud’s ‘Relational Aesthetics’ (1998/trans. 2002 by Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods with Mathieu Copeland).

[2]blaxTARLINES KUMASI is the project space of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana. Its operations have been quietly at work for years, and were brought under a name and launched to the public in 2015.

[3]Ohene-Ayeh made this point in the discussion panel titled, “In Terms of Images”, held on 9 March at the ‘Spectacles. Speculations…’ exhibition space.

[4]Nelson’s blog can be accessed on aishawrites.wordpress.com; Kokoroko’s Instagram feed at @accraphoto, as well as Ohene-Ayeh’s blog under the name iubeezy.wordpress.com.

[5]Thus is the modus operandi of a modern political state that monitors and fosters the life of its subjects, as opposed that ofa feudal sovereign who determines their life or death. (A deeper and more compelling analysis can be found in Michel Foucault’s notion of biopolitics.)

[6]See, For an imperfect cinema”, by Julio García Espinosa (1979), as well asTowards a Third Cinema”, by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino (1968), which echo arguments made by Walter Benjamin in The Author as Producer” (1934). Benjamin references the operative and productivist practices of Tretyakov, Brecht, Artaud and artists of the Soviet revolution, particularly through mediums like the newspaper, theatre and film. Espinosa, Solanas and Getino re-situate concerns toward the politicisation and massification of art in a postcolonial context, with the “Third World” as the source/site of worldwide liberation movements. They apply these questions to what they deem a “Third Cinema” that arose in Latin America in the ’60s-’70s and with counterparts in Asia and Africa, as a committed technique of guerrilla practice—to revolutionise not only the aesthetics but also the production and distribution of film; in which the art operates as merely a pretext for political consciousness and mobilisation.

For Rancière, meanwhile, politics is not premised on ‘conscientising’ or bringing spectators into action, but is enacted in the moment when the masses recognise their excluded position from the authority to speak or act (the partitioning of the sensible) and thus enunciate for themselves, based on the principle of universal equality (see ‘The Politics of Aesthetics’, 2004). For Rancière, spectatorship is already something active, and looking is an act that reconfigures and transforms the world.

Ultimately, the differing perspectives come back to the same point: to revolutionise the means and tools of production toward a society based on universality. This is the universal principle of the equality of intelligences; of the equal endowment amongst all of the capacity to see, speak, and act; the universal ability to be in the world and also to reflect on it, as made possible through the equalisation of configurations of space-time. For Benjamin, Brecht, Nicolas Bourriaud and others, such a work should be reproducible; it should act as a teaching model. Thus, the many who participate (or for Rancière, spectate) in it can learn from and then reproduce the tool on their own terms.

[7]While much theoretical debate has been waged on the topic of the commons, in this context it can be taken to mean the masses with a shared stake in global resources and social space, who might ideally operate on the basis of collective as opposed to individual interest. Žižek refers to Hardt and Negri’s understanding of the commons as the “shared substance of our social being”, which under capitalism is violently privatised (“How to Begin from the Beginning”, New Leftist Review 2009). “Today, we are all potentially homo sacer” (proletarian, oppressed, excluded), Žižek writes, “and the only way to avoid actually becoming so is to act preventatively”, on the principle of universality as proposed by Rancière.

[8]The artist kąrî’kạchä seid’ou is a teacher in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at KNUST (including my own teacher as well as the curator’s and many of the participating artists’).

[9]seid’ou, kąrî’kạchä and Jelle Bouwhuis (2014). “Silent Parodies: kąrî’kạchä seid’ou in conversation with Bouwhuis.” In Jelle Bouwhuis and Kerstin Winking [eds.], Project 1975: Contemporary Art and the Postcolonial Unconscious. London: Black Dog Publishing, pp. 111-117.

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Spectacles. Speculations… exhibition review by Billie McTernan

 

Imagine you are watching some action on a digital screen and the screen goes blank. The sound continues but you see nothing. You keep your eyes on the screen urging the action to return to it. You shuffle in your seat. You look around you. You desire it. What if the action, as you saw it, never returns. Instead another image appears on the screen and it is of you. You are now looking at yourself, looking at yourself.

Curator Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh introduces the exhibition hall for ‘Spectacles. Speculations…‘ as a laboratory, a testing ground for visual and auditory stimuli. The exhibition seeks “an experimental exhibitionary approach to analysing the contemporary condition of the image given its immanence of aesthetics and politics,” he writes in his curatorial statement. To this end Ohene-Ayeh focuses on spectacles by way of mass media, advertising, and the Internet. Tools of our time used to transmit, and receive, information.

Pointing to the last century, he further describes the spectacle as “a regime of images manufactured by ruling classes to subvert reality and indeed to replace it.” It is the means by which the global power struggle between capitalist, socialist, communist and fascist ideologies played out in the arts – in film in particular – and the way images were used and disseminated as a means of justifying causes. In the current age, as capitalism rules supreme, images are created to feed an appetite of consumerism. By regime, a word associated with political oppression, there is little room to mistake the curator’s misgivings about the modern way images are presented.

To think about the image I look to philosopher Vilém Flusser’s forward-looking essay – first published in 1985 – Into the Universe of Technical Images. In which he writes:

“Technical images are currently connected so that their senders are at the center of society, places from which the images are broadcast to scatter and disperse the society.”

With the propensity of social and digital media, we are in the position to increasingly observe but not necessarily interact with each other. He points to the illusionary nature of these centres of society, the subversion of reality.

He later adds:

“They are like the proverbial onion: layer after layer comes away, but when everything has been understood, explained, there’s nothing left. It appears that no one and nothing lies at the center of contemporary society: senders are nothing but those dimensionless points from which the media bundles stream.”

Where Flusser views this as a non-place that has developed from an increasingly automated and functionary use of technology, here, in this room filled with screens and video projections it feels as though we have stepped into a control room. A physical behind-the-scenes place we would normally not have access to.

One of the most striking pieces in the show is ‘Fooding‘ by Poku Mensah, who, like a roasted turkey, is crouched, tied up and gagged on a chopping board, while hands grab the potatoes and oranges on plates around him. Occasionally a meat cleaver is clenched and a piece of bread wiped along his back. When the artist, in his portrayal, looks around the room he is in and occasionally looks into the camera there is a sense of desperation. It is uncomfortable to watch and yet I can’t take my eyes off of it. I feel like a voyeur, passively observing the destruction and exploitation of his body.

On four screens, adjacent to each other, we watch a sequence of a man performing sequences of Karate katas. It would seem that he has mastered those steps, he moves methodically, carrying out a ritual. Through Kwabena Afriyie Poku‘s installation we are peering into his space, his process, watching his hands sway, the thrust of his leg and stamp of his feet. Though less harmful than that of the previous piece, the voyeuristic feeling returns.

There is a fly stuck to an old television screen, in a piece by María Leguízamo. At first glance it appears to be inside the box, part of the image that is being shown. But as you get closer, as you put your nose up against it, you see that it has been stuck on. Let’s take ourselves to be the fly. Edging ever closer to the alluring images on our screens until one day, we are stuck.

The three-month long exhibition culminates with the screening of a black box theatre production by MENonBLACK, an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The TrialIn the piece the protagonist is arrested and charged with a crime that is unknown to him and unknown to the state that has charged him. The dangerous absurdity that comes with an almost deranged system is cutting. What if the order flips? How does one know what should be considered normal or just when the establishment is ultimately flawed?

A Big Brother of sorts appears in different parts of the exhibition. There are the serialised face masks by Edwin Bodjawah that run across the wall and the ceiling upon entering the exhibition hall, and a live camera feed overhead recording the visitors seeing themselves seeing things.

‘Spectacles. Speculations…’ encourages viewers to question what they consume. It encourages a questioning of the systems that propagate that consumption and the question about who benefits from our consumptions. We are reminded here that data is king. The hottest commodity of our time.

To drive home this point a more deliberate social media campaign by the curatorial team would have been welcomed. A considered anti-campaign approach to counter what fills our mobile and laptop devices. Though the exhibition hall as a centre for the points of consideration was fulfilled, interaction through newer technologies and platforms on which these issues currently play out could have been more engaging.

While Flusser posits that there is nothing at the centre of contemporary society, no “dark men behind the scenes or gray eminences with evil intentions that can be exposed,”  Spectacles suggests that these sinister beings do indeed exist, or at least a sinister system, couched in purposeful manipulation to control thought and subvert reality. But we are not removed from this system. We are both the senders and receivers of images. We also create, and curate, our own spectacles.

As the visitors shuffle around the exhibition hall I watch them through the live camera feed. I catch a glimpse of myself and check that my hair is not out of place or my clothes dishevelled. I look around with caution to see if anyone noticed. I can’t tell. Maybe there is another camera in the room, watching from some undetected place.

 

Billie A. McTernan is a writer and editor covering the arts, culture and political affairs across Africa and the black diaspora. Follow her on Twitter @billie_mac.

 

Read more about the Exhibition here. 

The curatorial statement of the inaugural Lagos Biennial (2017) calls participants and audiences alike to “re-think” and to “re-imagine”. It seems to align itself with a transgressive attitude to instigate political action through art and to shift the siting of art from the autonomous space of the white cube into the theatrical realm of the community.1 The premise for this is based on an artistic investigation into the hopeless conditions of “losers in societies around the world — the unseen majority who are pushed to the brink of their existence” 2, in other words, global sufferers in a neoliberal world disproportionately bearing the injustice of policies of privatization and deregulation resulting in wealth concentration, worker insecurity, atomization, invasion of privacy, you name it.

At the risk of falling into conservative traps of regionalism, the statement again calls for a reflexive approach: to consider the city of Lagos and its multicultural dynamics as leitmotif to reflect on conditions that impact this global mass of precariats. This anti-regionalist position seems to invoke, at the very least, the conception of art as an expansive site that has the capacity of inclusivity to be able to address the aforementioned problems from various regions across the world through international participation3.  At the end, the artistic director summarizes things in this way: “[A]rt will be put to the ultimate test; can it save the world or at least make an attempt?”.

There is a sense of naive optimism in the rhetorical question which could be problematic as a political basis for the biennial’s engagement of local communities in Lagos. It seems to be taking the redemptive potential of art for granted without critically considering the contradictions of capital and contemporary art. First of all, the traditional postwar large scale international exhibition structure — of which the biennial is one— is itself in crisis and may have run its course and so using it as the platform to speak to issues of poverty may be a contrivance.4 For the simple reasons that it relies on blockbuster budgets and has become excessively commercialized events for cultural tourism, the opposite can be true that contemporary art too is complicit in this socio-economic dynamic of financialization, exploitation and disempowerment that artists and curators often delude themselves about intervening in. And so rather than save the world, art can sometimes create more problems for it. Hito Steyerl summarizes this point more succinctly when she says “[i]f contemporary art is the answer, the question is, how can capitalism be made more beautiful?”

 To highlight this paradox is neither to take away from the potency nor the legitimacy of art in our time. Artists and curators who take the symbolic freedoms offered within the limits of art for granted may be shocked to learn that there is an outside world often infested with harsh realities to be engaged. There is no reason to overburden mega art events such as the biennial (which has internalized capitalist systems for its operations) with the task of salvation. Even if so, we cannot expect all artists to fulfill this interventionist call; it would be for the politically engaged artists to make that decision. (And within this category of practitioners we can further distinguish between so-called productivists and reformists. The former seek to deracinate the status quo in favor of a new system altogether while the latter are preoccupied with preserving the conventions of the status quo but by changing it at the symbolic level).

When a critical context is not set for such political claims for an exhibition project, it only gives fodder for misinterpretation. The controversy surrounding the biennial and the condition of the squatters at the Old Running Shed provides an insightful example into what I mean here. In an article titled “Life in Lagos imitates art as squatters evicted for biennial exhibition”6 a journalist seems to be attacking this uncritically benevolent position taken by the biennial organizers. For the journalist, “[i]t is not just the fact of the evictions [of the squatters], but the violent manner in which they are often carried out.” The article does three things as I see it:

1. It exposes the flaws in the curatorial claims and raises the corollary that art can exacerbate misery for poor people.

2. The writer conveniently side-steps aesthetic judgments so as to overemphasize political and moral ones in her discussion of an artistic project. At best her description of the few art works mentioned is burlesque and based on a priori judgments. There are equally aesthetic concerns to be raised about the biennial as there are ethical ones. Once equivocated, this imbalance could mar the whole process of criticism.

3. The article sensationalizes as well as mystifies the problem of poverty in Lagos, as if there is something essentially special about poor people in Nigeria. But very little distinguishes poor people in Lagos from those in North Philadelphia or New Delhi, for example, apart from geography. What they have in common is a geopolitical structure that conspires against them to remain in that condition in order for the system to thrive.

It is true that sensationalism in mainstream media is what sells. But beyond this “intensified bottom-line orientation”7 of mass media institutions, I suspect a much deeper reason for this kind of deft primitivism. Mass media has become contemptuously assimilated as a propaganda tool by private corporations —  that is, they too have become actively culpable agents of neoliberal capitalism. The journalist betrays this fact by resorting to a simplistic moralist accusation of the biennial organizers rather than performing a systemic analysis of the conditions that manufacture inequality to produce binary oppositions of rich and poor, haves and have-nots in Lagos — such as colonialism, economic globalization, deregulation, Structural Adjustment Policies, and so on. The sanitized judgments passed in the article are no more useful than the naive optimism expressed in the sentiment of art saving the world. Art and media practitioners today ought not be blindly self-righteous in their critique of social injustices. The question is not whether the biennial (or its organizers) can stop or delay the inevitable fate of the precariats at the Old Running Shed (indeed, it seems to have facilitated their eviction). There is a global community of such desperate and disempowered groups and the solution is not only to appeal to them symbolically through art. This tendency merely psychologizes the problem of poverty and ends up with the desire to make poor people ‘happy’ rather than resort to the solution of attacking the root cause of economic disempowerment by redistributing wealth.8

To its credit, the Lagos Biennial functioned in somewhat unorthodox fashion to the traditional biennial system by the fact of it being low-budget and relying primarily on volunteers, goodwill of sponsors, commitment of artists who largely mobilized their own funds and optimizing limited resources in a milieu famished of cultural support. It also enhanced cross-regional collaborations by featuring thirty nine artists from over nineteen countries worldwide. To the extent that it functioned in this way it paradoxically gained something and lost it at the same time: it gained in the sense that its very existence could have been a potent critique of the postwar exhibition model currently in crisis. What it lost is in the way it reneged this vital opportunity from which to intentionally enunciate an anti-biennial politics from the perspective of Lagos. Is it not perilous to be this dispositionally indifferent in such a political arena?

That said, contemporary art is a minefield of contradictions and is often elusive to classical logic. Rather than argue that it will save the world, it may be better to assess that contemporary art is already embedded in the problems of the world (and sometimes culpably so); this permits us to then begin our dialectical expositions. Curatorial work in Africa in the twenty-first century must prove itself rigorous not only to invent new canons but also to come to terms with this unique moment in history that makes it necessary to significantly shape art world polemics. We must seize this opportunity with resolute conviction.

— Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh is a curator based in Kumasi, Ghana. He participated in the Lagos Biennial 2017 as guest curator.

 

Notes:
1. On the question: “What are the results you are expecting from this first edition?” asked by Bisi Silva, Folakunle Oshun, the artistic director begins by responding, “[w]e intend to go beyond the “white cube” and into the community letting the city dictate the pace.” See biennial catalog, conversation between Folakunle Oshun and Bisi Silva titled “Lagos: The Making of an African Capital of Culture”.

2. On the question “What is the curatorial premise [of the biennial]?” Oshun responds “[t]he first edition of the Lagos Biennial (www.lagos-biennial.org) hopes to highlight the stories of individuals, groups, and communities in the society who are marginalized from the center. This type of engaged intervention – critiquing the socio-political climate from outside in, is essential in a city like Lagos where the dichotomy of rich and poor prevails. Themed “Living on the Edge” the biennial seeks to explore the experiences of artists living in and around crisis situations across the world”. See biennial catalog, conversation between Folakunle Oshun and Silva titled “Lagos: The Making of an African Capital of Culture”.

3. It is recorded on the Biennial Foundation website that the Lagos Biennial is “not driven by Afrocentric ideologies but rather embraces the unifying simplicity of the human experience”. See http://www.biennialfoundation.org/biennials/lagos-biennial-nigeria/

4. Are we not already in a post-biennial paradigm? What have we learnt from such longstanding curatorial interventions on the African continent such as Dak’Art, Bamako Rencontres, and Marrakech biennials? The ghosts of Johannesburg bienniale, Cape Town biennale and Benin biennale still come back to haunt us. Why could they not go beyond two editions? Documenta in its 14th edition and the Marrakech biennial are amongst prime examples of mega international art events riddled with debts. See the following links for more information: “Documenta rescued from bankruptcy”, https://artreview.com/news/news_13_sept_2017_documenta_rescued_from_bankruptcy/, “Marrakech Biennial cancelled due to lack of funds”: http://theartnewspaper.com/news/marrakech-biennale-cancelled-due-to-lack-of-funds. We must rethink these structures (especially the ones that exist in Africa) if they exist in schizophrenic limbo to serve neocolonialist interests. In response to problems of cultural tourism, exploitation of labor and intellectual property, all of which the traditional biennial format cannot adequately deal with (because it also thrives on it), events such as Arte Nueva InteractivA, inSITE and The Roaming Biennial of Tehran serve as alternative models. Proposing exhibition models that rely on collectivism, low-budget, non-site-specific and nomadic orientations, they also optimize virtual social media platforms. As insufficient as these may seem, they, at least in attitude, remain resolutely intolerable to annexation by governments and commercialized interests.

5. Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen, e-flux Journal, Sternberg press, 2012, pp. 93. Steyerl goes on to state that“[t]he art field is a space of wild contradiction and phenomenal exploitation. It is a place of power mongering, speculation, financial engineering, and massive and crooked manipulation. But it is also a site of commonality, movement, energy, and desire.”

6. See Ruth Maclean’s article published by The Guardian here: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/oct/26/lagos-biennial-holds-mirror-to-gentrification-as-squatters-evicted. The Lagos Biennial Team responded via Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=915341811940512&id=596729820468381&pnref=story

7. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky write about this twentieth-century century phenomenon where they focus on “[t]he growth of media conglomerates that control many different kinds of media (motion picture studios, TV networks, cable channels, magazines, and book publishing houses), and the spread of the media across borders in a globalization process.” See Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Pantheon Books, New York, Introduction, 2002

8. Arundhati Roy, in the wake of the Occupy Movement, gave a speech to the People’s University published as the afterword in her book Capitalism: A Ghost Story (2014), in which she makes the following demands for the abolishment of capitalism:

“They (the 1%) say that we don’t have demands… they don’t know, perhaps, that our anger alone would be enough to destroy them. But here are some things — a few “pre-revolutionary” thoughts I had— for us to think about together. We want to put a lid on this system that manufactures inequality. We want to put a cap on the unfettered accumulation of wealth and property by individuals as well corporations. As cap-sits and lid-ties, we demand:
One: An end to cross-ownership in businesses. For example: weapons manufacturers cannot own TV stations, mining corporations cannot run newspapers, business houses cannot fund universities, drug companies cannot control public health funds.
Two: Natural resources and essential infrastructure — water supply, electricity, health, and education — cannot be privatized.
Three: Everybody must have the right to shelter, education, and health care.
Four: The children of the rich cannot inherit their parents’ wealth.”
See Arundhati Roy, Capitalism: A Ghost Story, Haymarket Books, 2014, pp. 95

Frank Gyabeng’s curatorial project “Its a Hit” is an artistic extrapolation of the film medium vis-a-vis Ghana’s history of cinema. Working with filmmakers, actors, and crew from Kumawood (a loose term that refers to film productions in the Akan language made in Kumasi), the exhibition posits a critical relationship between film, video, performance and theater. The curatorial model incorporates video, sound, and installation, and permits a conflation between actors and non-actors, artists and non-artists in a concerted process of collaboration. The exhibition is splintered across sites identified as History Room, Living Room, “live shoot”, live stream (via Facebook) and “sound on trees”. I will focus centrally on the History Room and live shoot to think through themes of form, fiction, time as well as other characteristics of the medium.

The History Room in the exhibition displays props from Samuel Atta Frimpong’s set design for the live shoot, and a copy of the Ghana Film Act (Act 935) of 2016. The Act serves as “the legal framework for the production, regulation, marketing and development of the Ghanaian film industry”. It established the National Film Authority with the mandate to create “[an] economically self-sustaining and culturally conscious Ghanaian film industry to develop local production, distribution, exhibition and marketing of its films”. The Act had been in Parliament for over two decades before being passed.

Other objects in the History Room include handwritten and printed film scripts by Kwaw Ansah, Christopher Kyei and Enoch Agyenim-Boateng and two videos on screen: the one is a documentary titled An Honest Reality made by filmmaker and academic, Jim Fara Awindor, that discusses the evolution of cinema in Ghana from celluloid to digital technologies (the birth of the internet, rise of home videos, etc), its economic and socio-cultural implications. The other video work is a lot more ambiguous: it is not titled and is also not indexically traceable to an author when encountered in the exhibition. The work was done by the curator himself. Per conjecture, this could be a strategy to undermine his own project by inserting its counter-argument, or done in the spirit of jest, or as some sort of decoy. Or not.  This “hole” is left open for speculation since the curatorial statement is silent on it.

The video is a two-minute-fifty-second split screen of scenes extracted from 20th century Soviet Union and Third Cinema classics, Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Heritage Africa (1988) by Sergei Eisenstein and Kwaw Ansah respectively. The former’s “Odessa Steps” is juxtaposed with the latter’s “Petition scene” — when workers were massacred after they had marched to the colonial headquarters and insisted to deliver a petition to the governor — with overlays of sound from both scenes.  The issues brought to the fore are not only technical, i.e highlighting similarities in directing and editing techniques, but also centering on the politics they share of agitation and inciting working class revolution.

At the exhibition opening, the short film Uncalculated Love was shot in situ, edited and premiered the following day targeting the same audiences who witnessed the production live. The decision to combine pre-production, production and postproduction in rapid succession, unimpeded by duration, countenances the hyper-proliferation of Kumawood films, demystifying filmmaking in terms of production and distribution. Taking a quasi-Medvedkin1 approach, the live shoot and consequent screening introduced a reflexive dynamic to the experience of the exhibition. The dynamics of filming, editing and screening to audiences of the same bracket is further complicated by the fact that, for this shoot, some members of the audience were spontaneously cast as extras. And so, at the same time that the audience are contemplating the spectacle of cast and crew before them during the production, there is also participation.

During the screening, some obvious but important things happened that merit discussion: the finished video that is being screened contains elements of what is factually there when the spectators were witnessing the shoot but, of course, omitting the presence of the camera and crew. In the film we neither see the several takes that the actors performed nor the varying dialogues they improvised on set. We also presently watch things in the film that could only have been possible in postproduction such as the special or visual effects. The medium, with all of its tools, techniques, and operations presents us with what we know to be true of the moment as well as what we know it not to be. But the fact that the finished work belongs as much to fiction as to reality is not an impediment to the spectators’ fascination with it. In fact it is precisely because of this dialectic at play, I think, that makes possible any wonderment of the images moving before their eyes. This dialectic also contributes to the poetics of the moving images.

If we think of the camera as a tool that records what there is in the objective world, editing is the operation that subverts this factography; fictionalizing what has been captured in realtime. One may raise the challenge that continuity editing poses to such a claim.  But I think that fiction is still a compelling aspect of film — even more so of the documentary film genre since it presents what is historically true by relying on archival footages, interviews, and other materials from various (sometimes random or arbitrary) sources and stringing them into a coherent sequence. This implies that the story is constructed in postproduction (ie. during the process of editing). The logic of its composition is therefore based on the principle of montage. And montaging, in terms of film, is essentially inventing mythic relations between hitherto unconnected images (still and/or moving).

On another point, the camera estranges the actor from his/her image. And so alienation is always happening as a fact of the medium — the camera performs alienation on one level with the images it records, while the editing bench and distribution channels for the film exacerbate estrangement of the image[s]. Walter Benjamin discusses this kind of alienation politically, in terms of the actor’s estrangement from their own image through the mechanical reproduction processes the camera offers. He draws a parallel between the kind of estrangement that happens between a factory worker and the product their labor produces and the actor before the camera whose image is now unhinged, severable and commodifiable destined for the consumer market.2

The live shoot at the exhibition is a process that highlights the deconstruction of the “fourth wall” (breaking the illusion/distance between what is shot and what is seen on screen) to, in a sense, massify the process of filmmaking — typifying the spirit of Kumawood. Spectators witnessed and participated in the filmmaking process from beginning to end. But between what was witnessed live and what was viewed on screen there was a third, hidden, element— the editor’s hand. This hidden hand, as hinted earlier, is also the authority by which we experience the story unfolding on screen.

These are some of the paradoxes we are invited to contemplate in Gyabeng’s curatorial project. For me, the most remarkable aspect of the project is that he forged collaborations with a diverse group of non-artists. “Its a Hit” opens up the principle of multiplicity in contemporary art.

— IUB (2017).

Credits:

It’s A Hit: Part 4&5
5th – 6th May, 2017
Old Techsec Block – KNUST
Curated by Frank Kofi Gyabeng
Collaborators: Isaac Danso aka Sptous, Samuel Antwi aka Khemical, Samuel Atta Frinpong a.k.a Attas, Marfoa Acheampong, Joseph Amoasah a.k.a Black Scorpion, Jim Fara Awindor, Kwaw Ansah, Nana Osei Bonus, Bright Donkor, Gideon Osei, Anita Adu
Supporting institution: blaxTARLINES KUMASI, project space for contemporary art, KNUST

Notes:

  1. Aleksandr Medvedkin was a Soviet filmmaker whose revolutionary ‘Cinetrain’ films — documentary in form — were shot, edited and screened from mobile train cars and showed to the peasant workers on kolkhozes (collective farms in the Soviet Union).
  2. For Walter Benjamin “[t]he feeling of strangeness that overcomes the actor before the camera […] is basically of the same kind as the estrangement felt before one’s own image in the mirror. But now the reflected image has become separable, transportable. And where is it transported? Before the public. Never for a moment does the screen actor cease to be conscious of this fact. While facing the camera he knows that ultimately he will face the public, the consumers who constitute the market. This market, where he offers not only his labor but also his whole self, his heart and soul, is beyond his reach. During the shooting he has as little contact with it as any article made in a factory. This may contribute to that oppression, that new anxiety which […] grips the actor before the camera. The film responds to the shriveling of the aura with an artificial build-up of the “personality” outside the studio. The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the “spell of the personality,” the phony spell of a commodity. So long as the movie-makers’ capital sets the fashion, as a rule no other revolutionary merit can be accredited to today’s film than the promotion of a revolutionary criticism of traditional concepts of art. We do not deny that in some cases today’s films can also promote revolutionary criticism of social conditions, even of the distribution of property. However, our present study is no more specifically concerned with this than is the film production of Western Europe”. See Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936, Schocken/Random House, ed. by Hannah Arendt; transcribed by Andy Blunden 1998; proofed and corrected Feb. 2005, pp. 12, source: UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, translated by Harry Zohn. https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm

…from Love and all ITS Friends…Part 1 is an art exhibition featuring Georgina Fynn, Tracy Naa Koshie Thompson, Louisa Badger, Dickson Artoqui, Gideon Olaga-Jumpa, Praises Adu Benhene, Daniel Osei Poku, Kelvin Haizel and Emmanuel Ocran, curated by Patrick Nii Okanta Ankrah. The exhibition puts together works that altogether raise questions of how synthetic and mechanical objects interact with biological lifeforms when they encounter each other.

Benhene’s damp decommissioned clothes — folded, stacked, hanged, cast in p.o.p — collected from “galamsey” (illegal mining) and car fitting sites are presented in sculptural and installation form. Not only do they embody a presence of things in decay but also of materials frozen in time and of things that are becoming. The clothes that have been preserved in their natural state with accumulation of dirty oil stains, sweat, and dust have molds/mildew/fungi growths on them. Poku’s installation of severed cattle horns strung together grotesquely hang from the ceiling. Visible on them are horn moths that feed on its keratin. What happened to the cattle? The question is answered in a video work by the artist which shows how the commodified ungulate animals are transported from various parts of the Northern region of Ghana and subjected to brutal fates of butchery for a ready consumer market. Both Benhene’s and Poku’s works emit smells consequent from the immanence of decaying and emerging life forms.

Artoqui and Olaga-Jumpa are horticulturalists whose plants are brought into conversation with synthetic materials. The former’s experimental attitude has permitted him to successfully cultivate strawberries in Kumasi.1 The latter’s plants — Snake Tongue, Urn, Lillies, Purple Heart, etc — are distributed within the exhibition space. Both are cared for throughout the period of the exhibition. Thompson’s plastic forms made from melted polystyrene mit oil paint appear in conversation with these plants. She melts the polystyrene with gasoline (which is almost like a reflexive gesture of transforming something with its own self to test what it becomes). In the family of petroleum-based products, Ocran’s installation of bended, torched and twisted PVC pipes and plastic gallons extends the space of the exhibition from its interior boundaries into an outdoor environment. Badger’s participatory work — writing on blackboard sited on the fence of the old KNUST Museum (away from the other works) — locates itself in an outdoor space and invites public intervention by way of writing on the blackboard to continue the preambles she defines on subjects such as love, rain, journeying, and so on.

Still within the interior space of the exhibition, Fynn’s and Haizel’s objects exist in varying states of objecthood. The former’s are made with brown paper and stiff fabric through processes of soaking, wood-block printing, bleaching, dying and drying. One is sculptural —a mould made from a log displayed on the floor— the other is a rectangular board, with the same brown paper treatment, diagonally mounted to connect the ceiling to the floor. Haizel’s process of printing and pasting opaque and transparent images onto disused car doors and lamps respectively also inheres the idea of mapping images onto objects. The lamps are electrically wired and powered by car batteries.

The exhibition becomes a theatre of various technologies of life participating in the dialectical process of being and becoming… Could Love, then, be the attitude that acts as the universal binder for these forms?

— Written by Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh (2017)

Note:

1. It is not impossible to grow strawberries in tropical climates. Appropriate soil, water and care conditions (i.e. love) will ensure its success.

…from Love and all ITS Friends… Part 1
Opening: Thursday 27th April 2017, 5:30pm
Closing: Wednesday 31st May 2017
Opens from 9am — 8pm
Venue: The Painting and Sculpture Department
Participants:
Georgina Fynn, Tracy Naa Koshie Thompson, Louisa Badger, Dickson Artoqui, Gideon Olaga-Jumpa, Praises Adu Benhene, Daniel Osei Poku, Kelvin Haizel and Emmanuel Ocran.

Curator:
Patrick Nii Okanta Ankrah

The image, thought of not just as signs or marks perceptible exclusively by sight but as existing in an expansive realm encompassing other apparatuses of perception, opens up an enticing array of possibilities for art. We can think of how it exists on screen as a video object or magnified through light rays beaming onto surfaces/objects; as word, dialogue, or gestures on stage; as photography or painting; as braille, mathematical ideas and so on. By breaking its [over]reliance on resemblance or reference to something beyond itself, we can further constitute many forms of what the image can potentially be whether through skilled or mechanical means.

Kelvin Haizel’s solo exhibition, “Things and Nothings” (2017), deals with immanent forms of the image — still and moving — and opens up an ontological dimension to its status. The artist posits a relationship of identity and alterity between things and nothings. In the realm of phenomena, he asks how the transition from image to object occurs, what the object of an image is and how we can tell things from nothings.1 The sub-text to this relationship of alterity is based on a logic of hierarchies; therefore value judgments such as banal, mundane, pure, and so on made about a thing or nothing functions on such ordered principles of objectness.

Haizel’s image-objects range from installations made from disused car and motorbike parts (doors, head lamps, tail lamps, indicator lights, taxi top signs), a video displayed on an upward-facing screen fitted in a rectangular wooden encasement and a single-channel video projection. The car doors are installed in both interior and exterior environments of the exhibition. On them are lamp attachments and opaque photographic prints.2 Images on transparent sticker are superimposed on the tail and head lamps. Light rays beaming through its bulbs through the images animate the lamp objects.3 The lamps are strung into electrically wired systems comprised of indicator lights, tail lamps, head lamps, flasher units and images on transparent sticker, distributed into two independent installations powered by car batteries. The flasher is the mechanism that causes a number of the lamps to pulsate light and steadily alternate soft ticking sounds that subtly pervade the exhibition room. In this sense, light and sound become forms that also fill space — internal and external.

The projection shows a soundless video of two hands playing an improvised version of the pit and pebble board game, Oware. The picture is a network of parallel columns of images serialized uniformly into a coordination of moving images. Slow motion and fast forward operations exacerbate movement and achieves an unnerving spectacle of moving images in symmetry. The video displayed on screen in the wooden encasement remixes scenes from the music video of Casper Nyovest’s hip hop song War Ready. Haizel proceeds to stretch his one-minute-thirty-six-second extract from the aforementioned video into a twenty-minute sequence. This causes his moving images to behave like fragmented stills colliding, frame by frame, into each other. Here, the immanence of still and moving image is given visual form — the image behaves like still shots that have been broken apart and are beginning to stitch themselves (at a snail’s pace) together to constitute a picture.

Our conception of what the image is is extended, compounded and layered when printed and handwritten information contend with holographic seals, bar codes and braille embossments on pharmaceutical boxes pasted in one corner of the exhibition space. This is the subtlest and most ambiguous form of image in the exhibition: with regard to the braille, it makes itself intelligible by touch; for braille-literate spectators the information is accessible; for illiterates, they are patterns of dots in relief on the flattened boxes. The braille embossments reveal themselves upon closer inspection and so for spectators who do not bridge the distance between themselves and the art objects all that is seen are the flattened boxes. There is a gap here between what is known and what can be known. One form of sensory perception fails or must fail for another to make the information contained therein intelligible. It is also possible for touch and vision to participate in unraveling the layers of imagery/meaning. In this palimpsestic image there is a constant interplay of meanings availing themselves and others becoming elusive. The patterns of dark and thin lines, digits, alphabets, embossed dots and holographic prints function together to constitute something more than their pragmatics. If we decide not to overemphasize what is happening on/in the pharmaceutical boxes — with its multi-sensorial implications— we could resign to an indexical position invoking a disembodied eye contemplating flat objects on a wall.

And so we find ourselves returned to the questions the artist begins with in the first place: “How do transitions from images to objects occur? What is the object of an image?”.  The image can be subverted, extended, reduced and it can also act as a tool which subverts, extends and reduces either itself or the reality that produced it.

— Written by Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh (2017).

Things and Nothings

Solo exhibition by Kelvin Haizel

9th — 27th May, 2017, opens from 5:47pm – 8: 21pm from Monday to Friday.

Venue: Old KNUST Museum, KNUST, Kumasi, Ghana.

Supporting institution: blaxTARLINES KUMASI, Project Space for Contemporary Art, KNUST, Kumasi, Ghana.

Notes:

  1. The thesis for Kelvin Haizel’s project is captured in the following when he writes : “Things and Nothings” is the result of investigations into the image (still and moving). A thing is considered a thing because it has yet to enter any form of categorization outside of being a thing; it has yet to be classified. However, nothing is already classified among the sub (-stitute) (-altern)            (-standard). It may be considered as inferior, derogatory and or lowly within a certain hierarchy of objects. In another breath the image as nothing may be thought of as not-special, banal or even mundane. In the world saturated with all sorts of images, we could experience them in their material form as objects that are things or nothings. How do the transitions from images to objects occur? What is the object of an image? How can we tell things from nothings? Using a body of work produced over the past two years, I present the image (in both still and moving form) and the objects they become”. See Things and Nothings (2017) exhibition brochure.
  2. These photographic prints are scenes from motor accident sites that Haizel has documented. He fictionalizes his documentation of these sites of trauma by introducing playful, but foreign, elements such as stuffed animals and footballs. This subversive gesture wrests his photographs from the genre of documentary into compositions contesting their own facticity. The images on the tail and head lamps are also from these sources.
  3. Perhaps, it is a fact of auto electronics that light shines through tail/head lights. But when it ventures into the ambit of art — the realm of intentionality and freedom — this fact can no longer be taken for granted. The artist’s nominalist gesture activates a non-functional part of an auto-mechanical system. It may exist as it is, unaltered from its state of disrepair, or subjected to additional processes, procedures or operations to become something compounded or other or more than what it is.

Memory and Amnesia: In the Presence of Absent Futures

Let us think of the library as an event where time and place are in perpetual conflict: a place where one is able to open up their imagination into different worlds potentially subverting the past-present-future teleology: a heterotopia where fictions of time and place become possible. The library is also a repository where informational material sourced from various geographies, demographics, references, histories and so on are recorded, archived and reorganized according to a logic of mythical relations invented to conform to internal indexical systems and/or organizational principles. The mythic relations may be based on synchronic or dialogic principles; it may also be hierarchically structured. That the library is a site of heterochronies — a place “of all times that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its ravages”1— subject to systems of sourcing, archiving and reorganization which conform to an institutional ethos is testament to its conflicted nature: for these become the systems by which it attempts to constitute all times as well as vet what makes it into its space and what is left out.

Memory and Amnesia: In the Presence of Absent Futures reflects on the dialectics of the library as place of political relations through which potential futures can be envisioned. The exhibition is sited on the ground floor of the Prempeh II Library on KNUST campus. The titular “Memory and Amnesia” distinctively sets up an opposition between a thing and its negative. The antinomies result in a paradoxical theme under which binaries participate and the exploration of possible futures begin. Seven artists’ works ranging from photography, video and installation populate the areas between the security center and discussion area of the library’s lending section. Selasi Sosu’s single-channel video installation projects abstracted glass images onto plexiglass — the still image is visible from both sides of the translucent screen and is changed on a daily basis. Mawuenya Amudzi’s installation is a four-stack hexagonal monument of disused cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors with light fixtures. Images are transferred from transparent sticker onto the screens. Light emissions from the monitors through the images gives the form a theatrical quality. On theatricality, Caleb Prah’s tableaux, inspired by medieval stained glass windows, is a staged composition of individual subjects haloed by baskets (objects of their profession) symmetrically facing each other. His two works, framed with aluminium and glass, printed on flex, mounted against windows with draperies on both sides, animated by natural light evokes the aesthetics of a church room window or perhaps one in a living room. Francis Nii Addo Quaye’s video montages sequence “poor images”2 of derelict architectural structures, old posters, advertising boards, notices, etc dubbed with sounds recorded from radio stations and the streets of James Town in Accra. Quaye’s video editing technique of ‘moshing’ images, audios and texts into a sequence achieves the effect of bombardment mimicking urban societies where one is constantly barraged with aural, image and textual information.

Deryk Owusu Bempah’s 9ft x 14ft photograph on flex mounted on the east end wall of the discussion area depicts an empty tunnel. The tunnel is of a real place on KNUST campus (it is usually a busy interstitial space connecting the main building of the Republic Hall to its annex building). There is an uncanny vacantness in the trompe l’oeil of continuing space in this picture. In the exhibition space the photograph sits behind a spiral staircase that leads to the upper floors of the library. The actual space of the spiral staircase and the illusion of vanishing distance beyond the two-dimensional support of the photograph potentially causes the spectator to contemplate, if only for a moment, how to engage this two-fold visual cum phenomenological paradox. Teresa Menka’s absences characterized by photographs of unoccupied places (bedrooms, kitchens, workshops, farms, etc) exacerbate the theme of negated presence. Menka’s photographs printed on paper are mounted on both sides of three wooden shelves horizontally placed and in diagonal relationship to each other. Eric Gyamfi’s black and white portraits printed on cloth are laid facing upward on all tables in the discussion area. Users of the library participate in the life of the work and/or its use depending on how they engage it: could this merely be a decorative gesture? Does the work function as a table cloth? Is it art? This display strategy makes Gyamfi’s photographic cloths a function of the use of the discussion area itself and breaks any distance between the audience (or users of the library) and the work. An intimate engagement is then established when the spectator is able to touch and inspect the work more closely countering an otherwise contemplative gaze.

The exhibition also calls the status of the image into question.

— Written by Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh (2017).

“Memory and Amnesia: In the Presence of Absent Futures”

Participating artists: Caleb Prah, Teresa Menka, Selasi Sosu, Deryk Owusu Bempah, Eric Gyamfi, Mawuenya Amudzi and Francis Nii Addo Quaye.

Curator: Mavis Tetteh-Ocloo

Advisors: kąrî’kạchä seid’ou, Dorothy Amenuke, Kwame Opoku-Bonsu, Kwaku Boafo Kissiedu, George Ampratwum

Partner institutions: Prempeh II Library, KNUST, blaxTARLINES KUMASI, Department of Painting and Sculpture, KNUST.

Notes:

  1. Michel Foucault, in his essay “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias” (1967) outlines six principles of what he calls “heterotopias”. He distinguishes this concept from utopias (“sites with no real place”) as sites which exist but which simultaneously represent, contest and invert real sites — a counter-site. His third, fourth and fifth principles are the ones that squarely suit my trajectory of thought on the library. The third principle posits that “The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible”. In the fourth principle is where he gives the specific heterochronic nature of the library: according to Foucault, “there are heterotopias indefinitely accumulating time, for example museums and libraries. Museums and libraries have become heterotopias in which time never stops building up and topping its own summit, whereas in the seventeenth century, even at the end of the century, museums and libraries were the expression of an individual choice. By contrast, the idea of accumulating everything, of establishing a sort of general archive, the will to enclose in one place all times, all epochs, all forms, all tastes, the idea of constituting a place of all times that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its ravages, the project of organizing in this way a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation of time in an immobile place, this whole idea belongs to our modernity. The museum and the library are heterotopias that are proper to western culture of the nineteenth century.” Even though Foucault is making his analysis of the library as heterotopic site in the context of nineteenth century Western modernity, I find that he is at the same time able to describe some universal qualities about this site. His fifth principle captures the systems of inclusion and exclusion that regulate heterotopias i.e. who is permitted to enter or not.
  2. Hito Steyerl defines the poor image as one which is first of all digital, ranked and valued according to its substandard resolution, of bad quality by being heavily compressed, itinerant, distributed for free, remixed (ie. reedited, reformatted, downloaded, shared), ripped (AVI or JPEG), with filenames deliberately misspelled and so on. See Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen, 2012, e-flux journal, Sternberg Press, Berlin, pp. 30 – 44.