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ISSUES…

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.

 

 

 

“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.