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ISSUES…

Color is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality.
But this is a distinction so extremely hard to make that the West
has not been able to make it yet. And at the center of this dreadful
storm, this vast confusion, stand the black people of this nation,
who must now share the fate of a nation that has never accepted
them, to which they were brought in chains.”                        — James Baldwin, 19621

 

“[B]ut the truth is that no white American is sure he’s white.” — James Baldwin, 19692

 

Still a target
But the badge is the new noose.
Yeah,
We all see it,
But cellphones ain’t enough proof
So we still loose.”                                                       — Pusha T, Sunshine, feat. Jill Scott, 2015

 

 

The phenomenon of general isolation imposed on world populations as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic has come with mixed feelings of despair, anxiety, and hope as we witness the myth of the centrality of human beings to this planet exposed by an undead organism indifferent to its host’s age, sexual orientation, class, and/or race. As we entertain ourselves with one virtual challenge after another, we have also, in the same vein, been compelled by grueling footages of unarmed black people being killed by police officers or fellow (white) countrymen in the United States. The most recent one which has ignited global outrage is the murder of George Floyd which occurred in broad daylight by an indignant group of police officers in Minneapolis, while bystanders who could do nothing but capture the incident on video looked on helplessly. And this comes at a time when the state of Minnesota is hitting its peak in COVID-19 cases as healthcare workers, lacking sufficient personal protective equipment, are getting infected with the virus.

Systemic inequality is in the spotlight once again as minority groups in the U.S endure the double-edge of trauma (from COVID-19-related deaths) and unmitigated terror from police brutality. As infuriating and demoralizing as this is, these moving images of modern-day lynchings have become all too familiar in the age of social media. And laughable as it may seem to any creature of mild intelligence from another planet, we human beings (the ones some swear are the protectors of this planet) discriminate against, disempower, and often genocidally annihilate each other based on such arbitrary categories as the colour of one’s skin.

 

Trumpeting Baldwin

James Baldwin’s prophetic voice rings timelessly true for our epoch even as he poignantly diagnosed the despotism of racial inequality some decades ago. The latter offers the circular or self-referential logic that there is nothing beyond the stultifying horizons by which our imaginations have been crippled, thereby diminishing the revolutionary potential of love. For Baldwin, love is not merely the convenient reciprocation of what one receives from someone they already agree with or bond with; it is a secular ethic which is joyful, courageous, sensual, tragic, traumatic, and ultimately functions as the cure against seductions of inequality (this is precisely the temperature of freedom, as Baldwin sees it, experienced in some gospel songs, jazz and blues music, for example). Baldwin left the church because he could not find this secular thrust of the Christian ethic in full espousal. “When we were told to love everybody, I had thought that that meant everybody. But no. It applied only to those who believed as we did, and it did not apply to white people at all. […] But what was the purpose of my salvation if it did not permit me to behave with love toward others, no matter how they behaved toward me?” Toni Morrison puts it in another way: “Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.”

This fountain of renewal is what constitutes Baldwinian fidelity and the hope of transformation; that is to say where true freedom exists and runs contrary to uniformity and solidarizes for a common cause. Understanding the stupidity and depravity of racial segregation— which essentially posits the self-contradictory ideology of an impure purist system of privilege and disempowerment supremely hinged on the arbitrary category of the pigmentation of one’s skin— Baldwin’s infinite wisdom and timeless lessons abide. Baldwin deployed the secular thrust of love against indignations of racism. Racism is essentially a form of cultural difference based on which human beings hierarchically distribute power— a cowardly and “criminal power, to be feared but not respected, and to be outwitted in any way whatever”. But since existing in this kind of world necessitates differences— ethnic, personal, and so on— one can say that difference in itself is not the problem but the structure of power which any society uses to regulate it. In this sense there can be egalitarian difference, as there can be its opposite. The proliferation of different differences— sexuality, age, race, gender, religion, etc.— renders love all the more meaningful. It means that progress, if there is such a thing, must be achieved through tensions and not necessarily through homogeneity.

Whiteness, like any other inegalitarian worldview, is the practice of taking refuge in a delusion. It joylessly fantasizes about itself as the fixed, provincial, ubiquitous center; it dreams about consensus and practicalizes conformity. Whiteness cannot address itself to the everybody Baldwin speaks of in any meaningful way since it necessarily targets and concentrates within the minority for whom its power exclusively proliferates. The pathology that sustains the constitution of white subjectivity perversely augments the paradoxical situation of a desire for a total annihilation of all other races outside of its spectrum (blackness in this case) with the secret knowledge that if it achieved this it would also cease to exist, and so it falls on the cruel imperative of subjugation. In other words, it cannot kill them all because in their absence whiteness cannot justify its existence. The relationship is only one of vertical distance, of mutual exclusivity. And this is what corrupts its host(s), for no person nor group of people on this planet can survive on this bigoted principle without going mad. (And is this not the hysteria that drove an unprovoked Amy Cooper, a white American woman, to make a distress call for the police after threatening Christian Cooper, a black American man— her fellow “brother” or countryman— that she is “going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening [her] life”?)

If we undermine the mutual exclusivity in the above scenario with “communion”, which establishes relations based on what Baldwin calls “brotherhood” or what a contemporary thinker has referred to as “filial kinship” to create egalitarian distance— the “vanishing mediator” that restores equality in times of crisis— it gives us a different picture. Because “[w]hat the Americans do not realize is that a war between brothers, in the same cities, on the same soil is not a racial war but a civil war.3 And “[w]hat is really happening [in the US] is that brother has murdered brother knowing it was his brother. White men have lynched Negroes knowing them to be their sons. White women have had Negroes burned knowing them to be their lovers. It is not a racial problem. It’s a problem [of] whether or not you’re willing to look at your life and be responsible for it and then begin to change it”.

Baldwin’s indifference to the stultifying fictions of race is telling. He gives us this entanglement between personal responsibility and the universal call. That in order to fight this cancer of inequality “we have to discover how to reunite ourselves [on] the terms on which we can speak to each other”. But, these “terms” cannot be based on existing identitarian fables, and so he cautions that “lest anyone misunderstand me, I’m not really talking about colour, I’m not talking about race, I don’t really believe in race. I don’t really believe in colour”. What he believes in is the disposition which respects the differences we all bring to the proverbial table but which is willing to transcend them in the practice of emancipatory politics; as in the rallying universal call to action, establishing solidarity, and transcending differences as the way forward. The forcefulness of Baldwin’s secular call to love (addressing the everybody) in the face of brutal oppression which weaponizes fear is amplified in his statement that “[w]hite people in this country [the US] will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed”.

Therefore one has got to decide for oneself, and if we are to listen to Baldwin’s call to subjectivation, that the actual and moral basis on which our world now rests is obsolete and must be changed. “As far as they are obsolete they are wicked, [and] as far as they are obsolete they are oppressive”. And “if this is so, one has no choice but to do all in one’s power to change that fate, and at no matter what risk—eviction, imprisonment, torture, death. For the sake of one’s children, in order to minimize the bill that they must pay, one must be careful not to take refuge in any delusion— and the value placed on the color of the skin is always and everywhere and forever a delusion.”

What is at stake in this “dreadful storm” is Equality. Equality must be democratic, hence its secularity; it exists for all, and not merely for some. And the subject at its center, in this case black people, exists as a ‘vanishing mediator’ acting on behalf of themselves on the one hand, and for all of humanity on the other hand (the everybody). And since all oppressive regimes thrive on center-periphery politics (where one achieves inclusion only on condition of conformance to what the minority in power determine), all egalitarian counterpositions must expand to preserve the ‘generic multiplicity’ (where one is already part of the social system and can assert independence based on the axiom that ‘we are all equal’). Equality, then, is not a crutch, it is already there and has always existed prior to human experience. We do not need to look hard to find it, it is universally available for all who seek, for what we have known for millennia untold is its opposite— liberties contrived by imperialism.

COVID-19 has come with the tormented lesson that the sustenance of humankind is not an isolated question from the health of other life forms, living and non-living, on the planet. The worst thing is to return to normalcy (and here we thought consuming and being numbed to lynchings on social media is a thing of the old world). If we are to overcome this ideological virus, we all need the “spine” or courage to stand up against injustice. It is not only a matter of black people in the U.S protesting these senseless and avoidable killings in the streets but also that given the contingency of history and power, it could be any of us in that condition and so rising up for a fellow human in the name of justice is rising up for oneself, plain and simple. It demands the responsibility of arousing our conscience to be sensitive to one another’s plights and never allowing ourselves to be numbed by the inaction of others.

We have already witnessed glimpses of this form of solidarity across economic and cultural lines in our century (the so-called Global Protest Wave of 2019 is a clear example). It has to be insisted on and amplified irrespective of separations in time (histories) and geography. This might seem like an impossibility given the warped and totalistic realities framed for us by empire and capital, but Baldwin reminds us that “in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand.” To speak of impossibility in this sense is only to say that something else is possible outside of what pertains in the status quo; to exult in the redemptive force of justice and true democracy while wresting ourselves from the vindictive passion of unforgiveness.

We all carry the artistic duty of creating new possibilities as much for ourselves as for past and future generations to come. Secular love alloys all these potentialities. This is the impossibility that is already present which must be restored.

 

— IUB (2020)

 

Author’s note: All quotations, unless otherwise stated, are attributed to James Baldwin and have been montaged from three sources: 1. Baldwin’s 1962 book-length essay first published by the New Yorker as “Letter from a Region in my Mind” and later published as “The Fire Next Time” (1963), 2. Horace Ové’s 1969 black-and-white cinéma vérité documentary film of Baldwin’s lecture at the West Indian Student Centre in London titled “Baldwin’s Nigger”, and 3. Baldwin’s open letter to Angela Davis written in 1970. See endnotes for citations.

 

Endnotes:

1 James Baldwin. Letter from a Region in my Mind. 1962. New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1962/11/17/letter-from-a-region-in-my-mind [accessed on May 28th, 2020].

2 See Baldwin’s Nigger. 1969. A documentary film of James Baldwin and Dick Gregory at the West Indian Student Centre in London. Directed and produced by Horace Ové. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zkWshZRm-M [accessed on 28th May, 2020].

3. See James Baldwin. An Open Letter to My Sister, Angela Y. Davis. 1970. https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1971/01/07/an-open-letter-to-my-sister-miss-angela-davis/ [accessed on 29th May, 2020].

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kelvin Haizel, Babysitting a Shark in a Coldroom II (BASIC II). Series. No. 2, 2018, Inkjet print on Dibond, 92.6 x 139.7cm. © Kelvin Haizel.

 

Our present theme « to dream, to imagine » brings the concept of ‘virtual time’ to my mind. And the image that goes with it is artist Kelvin Haizel’s « Babysitting a Shark in a Coldroom » (2018) photography series.

For me the image,  with all its paradoxes, impossibilities and contradictions, speaks to the radically new laws of visuality, of perception, and of cognition by which our digital paradigm sets for us. Truth is vital and necessary. But the experience of the world today, especially in terms of images, renders the classical truth-false binary inadequate.

The digital image (whether pictorial, sound, gestural, or in any other codified form) connects us to infinite dimensions in terms of time and space. Therefore to dream or to imagine in a world such as this could be a very powerful and emancipatory gesture.

♣♣♣

*This note in response to a virtual project I am collaboratively developing with LABO148 titled New Cartographies: Letters from the “Whole World” (2020-2021) on the theme ‘to dream, to imagine’. See more here.

The following conversation was published as Renzo Martens: Tretyakov in the Congo? kąrî’kạchä seid’ou and Jelle Bouwhuis in Critique in Practice: Renzo Martens’ Episode III: Enjoy Poverty , 2019, Sternberg Press. You may purchase the whole book through Sternberg Press, MIT Press or Amazon.

Download full pdf of conversation here

 

 

Jelle Bouwhuis: You saw the film Enjoy Poverty for the first time only recently. What was your first response after having watched it?

kąrî’kạchä  seid’ou: Incidentally, I knew about Renzo Martens’ ongoing Institute for Human Activities (IHA) reverse­ gentri­fication project—the sequel to Enjoy Poverty—before I watched the latter. For me, the reverse­ gentrification project cast some light on Enjoy Poverty like a future which redeems unrealized revolutions of the past. Apropos Nabokov, “the future is but the obsolete in reverse.” Of course, my first impression was that unlike the IHA project, it was an artifact of cynical reason. The titular “Enjoy Poverty” could strike one as an Afropessimist or class­ventriloquist injunction to the Congolese underclass to accept their fate in a neoliberal capitalist status quo. But probably against his intentions, Martens meditates on a familiar political demand popular today among a circle of accelerationists, “The only way out of the horrors of capitalism is the way through it.” This seems a rehash of the good old anti­capitalist logic of “principled opportunism” from Lenin’s schema for the socialization of big banks through Negri’s leitmotif of the multitude to Jameson’s socialist­utopian proposal for a re­ purposed Walmartification. The message at the heart of these schemas is akin to an aphorism in Wagner’s Parsifal, “Only the spear that struck the wound can heal it.” In Enjoy Poverty, Martens’ own attempt to invent an organizational structure congenial to this political demand is the collabo­ rative project with Congolese photographers, which attempts to appropriate the Afropessimist image market of the West. This attempt fails in capitalist estimation but it is a different question whether it fails as a component of filmic practice.

Formally, Martens’ documentary fiction struck me as a crossover between “reportage” (the factographic) and “intervention” (productivist). The film seems to exist between two vanishing points of spectacle and participation. Considering Martens’ conflicting roles as muse and maker or as colonial explorer, humanitarian photographer, and institutional critical artist, I hope I can suggest that he rubs a “Tintin in the Congo” motif against a “Tretyakov in the Congo” avatar1. If Tintin is the colonial reporter who is indifferent to the imperialist conditions of his practice, Tretyakov is the productivist artist who intervenes in the production process and dissolves the infrastructure of reportage itself.

JB: I had a strong tendency to take the issues that the film presents as a kind of general “African problem.” Did you as well, or was I simply drawn into the kind of stereotypes of “Africa” that are still ubiquitous in Western Europe?

ks: Well, having some Marxist sympathies, I try not to see these motifs as Africa­specific or Congo­specific but rather capitalist­specific. The capitalist conditions which birth failed states like the DR Congo, Libya, or Syria are already hinted at in Engels’ Anti-Dühring (1878) and even in Marx. Each thinker talks about the imminent withering away of the nation­state consequent on the increasing sophistication of capitalist productive forces. Interestingly, against Engels’ and Marx’s Communist expectations, failed states have be­ come a structural component of global capitalist expansion in regions where there is coltan, oil, diamonds, and so forth.2 The oxymoronic transformation of imperialist Union Minière to “clean capitalist” multinational Umicore is a good reminder. Presumably, we know enough not to follow the “primitivist” line of thought which psychologizes the issues by simply reducing indicators of objective global phenomena like the Congo crises to “explosion of old ethnic passions,” “poor leadership,” “the greed of tribal warlords,” or some­ thing essentially or culturally African. Apropos Lacan, we can understand Western stereotypes about Africa and other ex­colonies as gravestones marking the absence or corpses of populations written off history by a sophisticated capita­ list machinery. In a sense, Enjoy Poverty meditates on the “unconscious” of the seeming capitalist triumph of our times.

JB: The film presents us with a deadlock as to the relation of capital vis­à­vis the living conditions and deprivation in central Congo. But it also transfers this deadlock to the realm of art. Capitalism creates a system of art pro­ duction, appreciation, markets, and institutions and thus denies the deprived from having any position in it. Can you elaborate on this aspect from your point of view, that is, from the College of Art at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), and, in gen­ eral, the situation with art institutions and art reception in your region?

ks: Martens makes this non­coincidence of labor and capital (he prefers “profit”) central to his practice. For him, this deadlock is roughly homologous to the gap between, on the one hand, “places of intervention” in art production where precarious labor is exploited and rewarded symbolically, and, on the other hand, “places of art spectating” where capital is accumulated.

I find the structural gap in this deadlock also re­ peated as a silent motif of a joke popular among the Slovenian Lacanian School. In Alenka Zupančič’s version, a man who believes that he is a grain of corn is taken to a mental institu­ tion, where the doctors do their best finally to convince him that he is not a grain, but a man. No sooner has he left the hospital than he comes back, very scared, claiming that there is a chicken outside the door, and he is afraid that it will eat him. “Dear fellow,” says his doctor, “you know very well that you are not a grain of seed, but a man.” “Of course I know that,” replies the patient, “but does the chicken know that?”

Referencing this joke, Slavoj Žižek reproaches the Left liberal anti­capitalist whose hyper­activism merely “changes the way we humans talk about commodities” (social relations or what the post­cure patient knows) rather than dare “change the way commodities talk among themselves” (capitalist production forces or what the chicken knows). Martens’ critique of post­documenta 11 “critical art” is similar in spirit to Žižek’s. In Martens’ estimation, politically engaged art today typically changes the way artists and audiences talk about exploitation and inequalities and so forth by showing work to elite audiences while being indifferent to the work’s position within the exploitative processes of production and spectating. This disavowed complicity brings to mind the Ghanaian novelist Ayi Kwei Armah’s mythical Chichidodo bird; the bird that hates excrement with its soul but only feeds on maggots which grow best in the lavatory.3

I touched on this subject a bit in our earlier conversation “Silent Parodies” in which I indicated how Ghana’s art institutions had become a “cultural slum” by the turn of the century owing to the rise of neoliberal market logic.4 Working in the “cultural slum” of KNUST College of Art in Kumasi, my institutional critical response was to go on artistic strike, stop “making art” symbolically and to inaugurate a practice of “making artists.” My political strategy was what I called “ironic overidentification” with the conditions of the cultural slum. Through that, I hoped to transform art from the status of commodity to gift. My way of changing the language of the chicken or confronting the lavatory saw myself in several artistic, curatorial, and non­artistic roles. I formed loose collectives with some young tutors and former students, and also networked with international artists and curators in an ambitious curriculum transformation. After about a decade of this intervention, the College of Art has become an important hub of contem­ porary art in West Africa. My concern today is for it not to become, in Okwui Enwezor’s phrasing, another “veri­table farm system for the art gallery world.”5

JB: Would you present the film to your students, and, if so, would there be specific aspects that need explanation—for example, does its attempt at institutional criticism and the way it explains itself in that sense, also make sense in Kumasi? What would its main lesson be for your students, according to you?

ks: I showed the film to MFA students in Kumasi the moment I had access to it. Already my own off­site and “institutional critical” practice, and the work of some alumni I had mentored overlapped with some aspects of Martens’ practice so it made sense.6 The film screening somehow coincided with my lessons on political emancipation and the complex relations between authoring, spectatoring, collectivization, and the dissolving of genres in “activist” and participatory practice. I take the film’s main lessons

to be its extraordinary plasticity, especially in the extra­ artistic roles Martens inaugurates in order to transform documentary filmic practice. The productivist literary practice of Martens’ avatar Tretyakov is exemplary here; among others it had involved, “collecting funds to pay for tractors,” “persuading independent peasants to enter thekolkhoz [collective farming],” “creating wall newspapers, reporting for Moscow newspapers,” and “introducing radio and mobile movie houses.”7

JB: What do you regard as positive and what as negative about the work?

ks: In one of its several expressions, the film presents itself as a meta­critique—a liar’s paradox of sorts. It makes visible the possible failure of what gets shown in a gesture remini­ scent of Derrida’s “autoimmunity”; a gesture of self­preser­ vation that leads to self­destruction. On the one hand, the film humorously presents itself as being complicit in global capitalist exploitation, and, on the other hand, as an insti­ tutional critique of it. It shows itself as one of the Western­ engineered exploitative projects that depend on a new “white man’s burden” or humanitarian blackmail; “What you should do is train them, empower them… There are new opportunities… new markets, new products.”

But if the film does not quite get ahead in its productivist task of transforming the capitalist conditions of film practice, it succeeds in preparing the ground for the succeeding IHA reverse­gentrification project which attempts “to induce other producers to produce, and, second, to put an improved apparatus at their disposal.”8 According to Benjamin, “this apparatus is better, the more consumers it is able to turn into producers—that is, readers or spectators into collaborators.”9

Notes:

  1. This dialectic is at the heart of Walter Benjamin’s “Author as Producer” with Sergei Tretyakov as its “poster boy.” Benjamin references Tretyakov’s distinction between the operating writer (productivist) and the informing writer (factographic). The mission of the operating writer is “not to report” as in symbolic actions “but to struggle”; “not to play the spectator but to intervene actively” in the relations and techniques of production of the time. See: Walter Benjamin, “Author as Producer,” address at the Institute for the study of Fascism, Paris, April 27, 1934, inThe Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2008), 79–96.
  2. My country Ghana’s own political destiny was tied in various ways to developments in the DR Congo. Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, was a keen observer of developments in the Congo: It is possible that neo­colonial control may be exercised by a consortium of financial interests which are not specifically identifiable with any particular State. The control of the Congo by great international financial concerns is a case in point. See: Kwame Nkrumah, Neo-Colonialism; The Last Stage of Imperialism (New York: International Publishers, 1973), x.
  3. Ayi Kwei Armah, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born(Oxford: Heinemann, 1969), 45.
  4. See: “Silent Parodies: ka ̨rî’ka ̨chä seid’ou in Conversation with Jelle Bouwhuis,” in Project 1975: Contemporary Art and the Postcolonial Unconscious, eds. Jelle Bouwhuis and Kerstin Winking (Amsterdam and London: SMBA and Black Dog Publishing, 2014), 109–18.
  5. Okwui Enwezor, “Studio, Lab, Study, and the World,”Foundations in Art: Theory and Education in review, ed. Kevin Bell, vol. 31 (2009–10): 4.
  6. The alumni I refer to here include Bernard Akoi­Jackson, Ibrahim Mahama, and Kwasi Ohene­Ayeh.
  7. See: Benjamin “Author as Producer,” 81–82.
  8. Ibid, 89.
  9. Ibid.

*The following was given as a presentation at the ‘African Modernism: Architecture of Independence’ symposium on the panel “Exchange. Exchanger. Before, After and Hence”. Ibrahim Mahama confronts Max Gerlach, Drew, Fry and Owusu-AddoAn essay will be published forthcoming. 

 

For this symposium I propose to interpret Ibrahim Mahama’s politically engaged practice in terms of contradictions in the way it responds to the global neoliberal catastrophes at hand— migration crises, privatization, precarious work and so on. I prefer the dialectical method which proves more dynamic in dealing with immanent contradictions. Through this lens, we can come to terms with oppositions without having to cast one aside or wish the other away. In this context it then becomes imperative that as Mahama confronts the bigger issues affecting the masses of humanity he must also question his own assumptions and potential complicity in this system of economic disempowerment as it relates to his internal processes of acquisition and negotiation of/for objects, materials and labor (especially as he works with Kayayei1, “shoe-shine” boys, truck drivers, students, refugees, and so forth who are already vulnerable to many forms of exploitation).

An example of dialectical tension in Mahama’s practice can be cited when he smuggles commodification back into art by causing alienation of the everyday materials he nominates from the labour class that rely on its use value and when he, at the same time, attempts to universalize the principle of freedom of movement for non-European people. For example, when Mahama participated in the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015, he had intended to travel with five of his workers/collaborators to assist in producing and mounting his walk-through installation at the Arsenale. All five of them were denied visas by the Italian Embassy. However, the overused jute sacks, which have now acquired the status of commodity through circulation in the art market, had already been shipped from Accra to Venice with minor problems. The reason these workers were denied entry into that part of Europe is because the embassy was certain they would not return to Ghana, their home country, given their condition as economically precarious workers. 

The rising tide of Right-wing xenophobic/racist populism around the world, but particularly in Europe with the threat of African and Arab refugees knocking on its doors, renders it as though the Italian Embassy recognizes the urgency to thwart Mahama’s attempt to globalize “Free Movement” — one of the founding principles of the European Union (EU) that recognizes and preserves the principal right of EU nationals to move and work in member countries— by extending it to citizens of other parts of the world, and how dare he! In fact, to paraphrase the European Commission (EC), the freedom to move to another EU country to work without a permit is, more or less, an exclusive right reserved for EU nationals.2 

Slavoj Žižek points out that “[t]he actualization of this freedom [that ‘everyone has the right to settle in any other part of the world, and the country they move in to has to provide for them’] presupposes nothing less than a radical socio-economic revolution”3. Why? Because, as in Mahama’s gesture, it intends to proffer an obverse reality rooted in equality and universality which overturns the “commodity fetishism” most of the world has been absorbed in since industrial capitalism took shape in the 19th century— that is, in the way we prioritize commodities over people.

We see by the foregoing that those whose labour produce the commodities Mahama’s practice relies on are those who are themselves restricted from moving across those same borders the product of their labor has transcended. This is a contradiction of corporate capitalism. Now, in the same example, an internal contradiction to Mahama’s practice is revealed: that Mahama, in the name of art, causes alienation of the everyday objects he nominates from the labour force which produce it — whether they are old jute sacks, sewing machines, wooden ‘shoe-maker’ boxes, etc. This way, the materials, when they become art, reinforce the class antagonisms which keep the poor and rich as they are. This is owed to the fact that after production, the works are fetishized as they participate in the art market (the capitalist market system) and circulated within elitist galleries around the world. It is this alienation which makes it nearly impossible for the labourers to become co-authors or co-producers, except in a symbolic sense, as far as ownership and spectatorship of the work is concerned. A gulf is created between the space they inhabit as producers and the elitist places of spectatorship. The magnificent tapestries may travel the world but the bodies of its labourers tend to be left behind. 

But if Mahama’s nominalist gesture portends to alienation, his efforts to globalize free movement undermines it— that is, attempts to mitigate the distance reinforced by alienation. Mahama’s insistence on making these invisible labourers seen became more productive two years after the visa denial incident when he participated in documenta 14 in Kassel and Athens in 2017. During this time the artist was able to get two of his workers to travel to Kassel to produce his installation and also to become spectators of the prestigious quinquennial. This is something that would have otherwise not happened had it not been for the artist’s stubborn approach to confronting these new forms of apartheid.

I perceive these tensions as necessarily bound to Mahama’s processes of negotiation and objectification through art. Through them the artist forges a compelling reality. Before we morally deride his work as predatory, we must understand that, as an artist, he is intervening in a political economic system which prioritizes profit as its supreme ethic and which is indifferent to morality. Consequently, he must also adopt a strategy that can speak to the system from deep within its bowels. As Mahama shows his work in Africa, Asia, Europe, South America and elsewhere, he is simultaneously bringing attention to the multiplicity of ways labourers/workers are exploited and the complicit role art tends to play in this condition. The way I see it, the artist has adopted a positive posture to coming to terms with the inconsistencies inherent in the status quo and has consciously appropriated these processes into his work. This has become his ethical method. His aesthetic approach, therefore, could be said to be taking advantage of the contradictions of capitalism to reveal its problems to us by implicating himself. What is to be done is therefore an open question to all of us.

— (2018)

Notes:

  1. Typically, Kayayei are women who have migrated from the Northern region of Ghana to Accra, the capital city, who carry goods for shoppers in open markets in Accra. Those who move outside the markets work as domestic cleaners who go around cleaning people’s homes with the aim to do any house chore permissible— some wash and babysit, others fetch water for households without running water and so on. The excesses of such workers flooding into the capital city annually means that value for their services keeps plummeting. Owed to their precarious conditions of work and desperate accommodation situations (some sleep on sidewalks, in front of shops, in wooden kiosks, overcrowded rooms, under trees, etc), they are left vulnerable to a wide range of factors including landlords who extort rent, shoppers who merely pay them meagre sums for their services, rapists, robbers, reckless drivers, rainfall, social prejudices and on and on. According to Citi News, they earn between nothing to about GHC 30.00 (approx. $5 or $6) per day with no health benefits. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=7&v=jPTUcapcu58. 
  2. See http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=470&langId=en
  3. See Slavoj Žižek, Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours, 2016, Penguin Random House, UK, pp. 83, e-pub (iBooks).

 

“The spectacle is the bad dream of a modern society in chains, and ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of this sleep.” — Guy Debord, 1967

 

In a thirty-second Techno Mobile campaign on Instagram for the Phantom 8 model of the company’s smartphone brand, a fascinating mise-en-scène unfolds. A sedan is shown driving down a street. Then, in rapid succession, the editing reveals a bizarre sequence of medium, close-up and wide-angle shots narrating the story of a day in the life of a working man. He is first shown seated in the backseat of the car busy on his phone. The sedan he is riding in comes to meet other cars held up in traffic with irritated drivers and passengers wondering what it is that is holding them up in this kind of situation. Just then this man, with the aura of a superhero, gets down from the back of the car where he alone was seated, reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out the phone. He confidently wields the device in one hand while pinching the screen with thumb and index finger of the other to “super zoom” into the event eluding the vision of everyone in the picture, including himself. His implicit confidence in the device is affirmed as it reveals the comical event obscured before them: a truck carrying poultry had spilled its cargo with people frantically collecting them about the street.1 (see fig. 1) The message here is familiarly clear, the mobile phone manufacturer is promising potential customers that the phone camera, with its inbuilt functionalities, can enable us surpass limitations in natural vision— in short, augmented human ability is potentially available to anyone who can afford this commodity.

I use this public relations hyperbole to draw attention to what has become commonplace dictum that the technical function of zooming multiple times into one’s environment with a mobile device permits us to penetrate so deeply into the details of the natural world in a way that is unmatched by the naked eye. Lest we take this digital technological advancement for granted, Walter Benjamin — writing at a time of the impending Fascist regime ushered in by the Third Reich in Nazi Germany in the 1930s — apropos Paul Valéry, anticipates this radical transformation of our visual apparatus of perception in the early days of analog photography and film when he analyzed the implications of the invention of the camera on art and its relationship to politics.2For Benjamin our logistics of perception are shaped just as much by historical circumstances as they are by nature (Benjamin: 1936, p. 5). His position is a radical modernity unrooted and unbounded by Fascist identification of nationalism or ethnic property. He is of the conviction that the invention of photography (and consequently film) had the potential to transform the very nature of art itself wresting it from the “cult of beauty” into a practice based on politics.

The politics of the image factored significantly in the ideological wars of the past century therefore underlining its relevance as subject matter for our time. Since the early twentieth century there have been consistent efforts by artists, filmmakers, dramatists and intellectuals to undermine the traditional values of capitalism’s “illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculations”3(Benjamin: 1936, p. 14) from the Soviet Union, through Europe, to Latin America, Asia and Africa. We owe the development of techniques and genres such as montage, collage, assemblage, jump cuts, documentary films, pamphlet films, essay films, et al to these anti-art movements since their political passion was to profanate the conventional and institutional limits of art thus changing its relations with the public.

Postwar geopolitical events of the twentieth century exposed a crisis of the image amidst liberation movements in the former colonies of Asia, Africa and Latin America (Ghana in 1957, Nigeria in 1960, the Cuban Revolution, etc), Civil Rights Movement in the USA, 1968 riots in France, Mexico and elsewhere around the world, the Vietnam War, Cold War geopolitics, amongst others… In 1967, a year before the student-led uprisings in Paris, Guy Debord, filmmaker, theorist and member of the Situationist International, published his philosophical treatise “The Society of the Spectacle”. His dialectical exposition critiques capitalist conditions of production by exposing its contradictions and alienatory effects on the masses. First Debord defines the spectacle as “the visual reflection of the ruling economic order”4— a unified and autonomized world of images. But at the same time that the spectacle is “capital accumulated to the point that it becomes images”, it is also “not a collection of images” but “a social relation between people that is mediated by images.” His paraconsistent logic is taken a step further when he concedes that the spectacle is “not merely a matter of images, nor images plus sounds” but “an affirmation of appearances” which detaches it from pictorial dependencies and frees it up to phenomenology — that is, in terms of how things appear in the world of the sensible or realm of phenomena. In this way it simultaneously begins with a multiplicity of forms of appearances as well as modes of perception. This is the radical understanding Spectacles. Speculations… brings to the conception of images such that it becomes possible to discuss works from photography, video, film, text, sound, black box theatre, computer-aided design, installation, sculpture, and spoken word poetry in the context of images (see curatorial statement).

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Read full essay here. This essay is written for the exhibition Spectacles. Speculations… To learn more about the show click here.

 

Notes:

  1. https://instagram.com/p/Bb_py6DFtTY/
  2. See Benjamin W. (1936). The Work of Art in Mechanical Reproduction. Retrieved from http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/benjamin.pdf
  3. Ibid.
  4. Debord G. (1967). The Society of the Spectacle. Retrieved from http://www.bopsecrets.org