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ISSUES…

*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).
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I did an interview with Eli A Freee for his ‘Audacity: For The Culture’ podcast series. We discussed things from art and curating to blaxTARLINES KUMASI. This episode also features an interview with dancer/drummer Alphonse Ahumani. Our interview begins at 36:16 secs.

 

 

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.

 

“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

The Trial screeningSpectacles. Speculations… restages the black box theater adaptation of Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ by the collective MENonBLACK via video at blaxTARLINES KUMASI, KNUST on 26th April, 2018.

 

About the work:

Men on Black is a collective comprised of poet Sir Black and actors Dr. So and Jeneral Nta Tia. Adapting Franz Kafka’s characterization in The Trial into a three-person stage act, the trio explore the situational dynamic between performer and audience with the experimental form of black box theatre. In The Trial (originally published in German as Der Process in 1925), Kafka tells the story of Josef K, Chief Clerk of a bank, who is, for no reason, arrested one morning and assumed guilty. His prosecution becomes a series of events shrouded in bureacracy and secrecy — from his offense to the rules of the law court, to the remote authorities behind the courts. The play was directed by Simon Eifeler and premiered in Theaterfabrik in Düsseldorf, Germany in 2016.

Spectacles. Speculations… restages this performance via video projection and extends the dialogics at play in the collective’s translation of Kafka’s literary work from a series of live actions and gestures into a medium that alienates the image of the actors and their live audience from literal space. Their image, which has now become a moving picture being thrown by means of light onto a rectangular semi-opaque screen, is severed from its dependence on the presence of the actors’ and audiences’ physical bodies. Thus, a work of literature is translated from text and adapted onto the stage with live actors and audiences. The live moment is recorded via video, extending the life of the work into the digital realm where time can be manipulated beyond restrictions of three-dimensional space-time (the performance can now be slowed down, repeated, duplicated, accelerated, and so on). The video work is a result of postproduction; an editor’s hand – the new producer-author in addition to the director, actors, audience, production crew and cameraperson – has contributed to the form and experience of the work, i.e. what the work becomes.

If the experimental space of black box theater purports to abolish frontal distance between the stage, where the actors are placed, and the audience (as in classical theater where the spectacle or illusion is homed), the display method used in the exhibition smuggles frontality back into this iteration of the performance through separation by means of a 52in. x 71.5in. screen. The screen, diagonally suspended from the ceiling in the exhibition space, processes the images beaming onto it by mirroring them in an asymmetrical display with audiences frontally receiving moving images on both of its surfaces at a necessary distance.

Hence, the director adapts a literary work for the ‘stage’ by exercising artistic decisions which include and exclude parts of the original work, the editor dissects time on the editing bench via montage to create the video, the curator remixes these poetics at play in the video (factual, aesthetic, technical, and fictional elements) by restaging it in the context of an exhibition to establish new relations regarding how the work exists in the world of things. The experimental ethic in the exhibition is heightened when another work in the exhibition space is temporarily displaced to be able to show this work. The screen used to display Poku Mensah’s video Fooding (2014) will be used for the duration of screening The Trial. This alternation of displays emphasizes the screen as the site of interest: the technology that interplays with other technologies in the continual production of images within the exhibition space.

 

For more information on the exhibition, click 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

17th ACASA (Arts Council of the African Studies Association) Triennial Symposium on African Art
Session 7.4 – Emancipation: Critical Art Teaching in Kumasi and the Rise of Independent Public Art Projects in Ghana
Paper by Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh
August 10, 2017

The Politics of Relationality

The assumptions historically underlying Socially-Engaged or Community-based practices often take marginalized groups as a starting point for political engagement. Artists then go on to identify these communities as their ‘sites of intervention’. If poverty is systemically produced then to what extent are the symbolic solutions proposed by artists sufficient as responses to this problem? Do we as artists ourselves not benefit from the conditions we denounce in the domain of the other both in symbolic and material terms? Is there not a tendency of exploitation inimical to engaging already disempowered marginal communities — be they autistic children, senior citizens groups, women’s groups, African American communities, LGBTQ societies, Hispanic communities, and so on?

The ever diminishing role of governments in regulating global finance in our neoliberal epoch animates community-engaged art practices in ways that should compel artists in the early decades of this century to re-think the assumptions that underlie this kind of practice. Exacerbating the phenomenon of excessive privatization is the “NGO-ization of everything”, where NGOs seem to offer answers with the funding they provide. But do they really?

So too must we rethink the historical Relational Aesthetics: that is, art that takes conviviality as its premise and form, if we are to respond to the crises, contradictions and finitude of capitalist processes.

I propose that politically-engaged art practices must, in equal measure, consider the oppressed or exploited other — in whose name they make their political interventions— in terms of history (cultural identity), economics, geopolitics, ethical judgment, aesthetic judgment and personal responsibility.

1. History: Is in terms of the socio-cultural events that define the sites of intervention.

2. Economics: Looks at the economic relations that pertain between members of this community group and the dominant culture or status quo.

3. Geopolitics: Takes into account global political events that compel a holistic disposition in diagnosing how ‘sites of intervention’ are produced in a financialized world economic system. These sites are not accidents and also relate one to another.

4. Ethical judgment: This is the reason for which the artist is making their intervention in the first place.

5. Aesthetic judgment: Takes into account the quality of the artwork. If the form is relational, then the formal qualities must be assessed on this basis, actively engaging the tensions and antagonisms implicit in the “means of production” where exploitation, disempowerment, marginalization and so on are produced.

6. Personal Responsibility: Looks at potential complicity. This is where the artist must reflexively ask “What is my role in all this?” The artist has identified this site and, in most cases, has nominated him/herself as the intercessor. They must, first of all, deal with the tendency of exploitation in themselves that is always inimical to any act of alienation (which is implied in their decision to make any kind of intervention) so as not to perpetuate the pertaining status quo, if that is a concern.

If the former model takes its subject as a passive collaborator to be “saved” and only reads them in terms of cultural identity, the model I have proposed seeks to invoke the oppressed or exploited person or groups as a complex agent or set of agents no different from the artist him/herself when we locate their agency in their own will — that is, whether or not they are willing to collaborate with the artist or cultural institution initiating whichever project; whether or not they are even willing to subvert the conditions they find themselves in and so on.

This dimension, the will, introduces an immensely complex dynamic between the marginalized group, the artist and/or art/funding institution.