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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.

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*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.


 

To dream and to imagine function as necessary correlates acting either in service of leisure/entertainment or in the urgent tasks of personal and political emancipation. Both terms imply the necessity to create: to create realities or existences which may be thought of as impossible within the coordinates of a given reality. To dream or to imagine at all is to exercise the vital artistic duty of inventing alternative worlds especially when one is under imperial authority. When one finds themselves in a world in which inequality is taken for granted, the initial task, if one wishes for its opposite, is to dream or imagine another in its place, if only as a momentary escape. And this is sufficient for political action for it constitutes the thought behind one’s will-to-do. Both terms, to dream and to imagine, invoke a third term: freedom. And the freedom to dream and to imagine is the political will to desire and to think. This form of liberty cannot merely mean that one can impetuously do anything they please. It especially means coming to terms with one’s own sense of responsibility and self-discipline. Since it is, in the first place, the commitment to a struggle even if the conditions are not convenient to endure. This means that one could, through the activity of dreaming and imagining, limit one’s own self in terms of what one will do and what one will not do. For instance, one ought not to engage in any activity that would be contradictory to the cause one has, through dreaming and imagination, committed themselves to. Which is to say that any devotion to a cause transcends personal convenience and taps into a generality that one might call truth. To engage one’s dreams or imagination is to venture into the domain of images— virtual images, so to say. In this sense one could begin to talk about truth images. The principle of equality is one such truth image. And since it defines itself as truth as such, it can only be verified as much in thought as in deed— embodied in actions or real images, so to say. Therefore to dream and to imagine correspond to a universal image if one is politically motivated about the world in which they presently inhabit. Both terms address universality insofar as their ethics, once announced or professed by an individual, generate a concatenation of voices in its affirmation. Hence such images may be held subjectively but shared collectively. The infinite power in the ability to dream and to imagine cannot be understated. We must!

Photo by I.U.B. 2020

Photo by I.U.B. 2020

 

*** I wrote 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 above title references a conversation I had with fellow co-curator of the 2019 Bamako Encounters Biennial of Photography, Astrid Sokona Lepoultier, for Eye of Photography (ODLP) on Felicia Abban’s photography as shown at the Biennial. Read the full interview here:

 

 

About Felicia Abban:
Mrs. Felicia Ewurasi Abban (maiden name Ms. Felicia Ewurasi Ansah, b. 1936) is the only daughter among five children born to eminent Gold Coast photographer J. E. Ansah and Theresa Yankey, a textile trader. Abban is a veteran Ghanaian photographer whose work in studio photography and photo-journalism begins in the 1950s and spans over six decades of practice. Throughout her illustrious and industrious career Abban chalked many firsts: she is generally regarded as Ghana’s first known professional woman photographer; she is the first woman president of the Ghana Union of Photographers (GUP) and is also the first woman to have joined Ghana’s presidential team of photographers. She was trained from the age of 14 years onwards by her father in his studio and was his only female apprentice. After her marriage to Richard Bonso Abban (a textile designer whose most notable work is the design of the commemorative cloth that featured Ghana’s first president Dr. Kwame Nkrumah’s portrait for the Independence celebrations) in 1956, she moved from Sekondi to Accra where she set up her own photo studio in the central business district. This is only a year before the Gold Coast colony would transition into becoming the Ghana nation state. The state became a Republic in 1960. During this period she documented many significant political events as a member of the official team of presidential photographers all the while maintaining her studio practice. In 1966 she was due to have travelled with President Nkrumah to Hanoi during the Cold War but could not because she discovered she was pregnant with her first child. While Nkrumah was out on this official duty, a military coup d’état was staged in Ghana which ousted his Pan-Africanist government and he was subsequently exiled until his death in 1972 in Sekou Toure’s Guinea. After this event Abban moved on to work with Guinea Press (now Ghanaian Times). During her time with GUP Abban engaged in countless training and workshop programs around the country inspiring generations of photographers. She played a vital early role in mentoring seminal filmmaker Kwaw Ansah (one of her younger siblings) in lens-based practice. She completely retired from her practice in 2017. Her photographic work made its first public appearance in an exhibition in the group show Accra: Portraits of a City (2017) at the ANO gallery in Accra. Abban is also one of six artists– alongside El Anatsui, Lynette Yiadom Boakye, Ibrahim Mahama, Selasi Awusi Sosu, and John Akomfrah– selected to feature at the first-ever Ghana pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale 2019.

 

“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

 

Orderly Disorderly (2017) completes the trilogy of large scale end-of-year exhibitions held by blaxTARLINES KUMASI, the contemporary art incubator and project space of KNUST, in collaboration with Ghana Museums and Monuments Board (GMMB) and its subsidiary, the Museum of Science and Technology (MST) in Accra. The exhibition features works by fresh graduates, alumni, and guest artists (living and dead). The previous two exhibitions — The Gown Must Go to Town… (2015) and Cornfields in Accra (2016) — honored Dr. Kwame Nkrumah and Ama Ata Aidoo respectively. “Cornfields” also honored the memory of Cameroonian conceptual artist Goddy Leye (1965-2011). Orderly Disorderly shares and celebrates the political vision of artist and educator Professor Ablade Glover who mobilized artists toward economic emancipation within a hopeless artistic milieu in the early 1990s when Ghana’s cultural institutions had been famished of domestic and international support.

Intergenerational conversations, collective curating and accessibility programming are vital to the curatorial model adopted by blaxTARLINES KUMASI during this series of exhibitions. blaxTARLINES actively collaborates with GMMB and MST in programming and curating to incorporate artefacts in their permanent collection into its exhibitions. The terms of the exhibition trilogy were set by “Silence between the Lines” in 2015 based on a deliberate misreading of the Sankɔfa legend by karî’kạchä seid’ou. In this new reading, the Sankɔfa bird unfastens its customary anchor of nostalgia and “attempts to grasp what it might have forgotten from futures that are to come”. This summarizes the new spirit of the Kumasi Art School which would be interpreted as anagrams of emancipated futures.

Orderly Disorderly combines the political attitudes and principles underlying Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s practice — notably The Bread and the Alley (1970), Orderly or Disorderly (1981) and The Chorus (1982) — and seid’ou’s emancipatory art pedagogy. Kiarostami is reputed for his deliberate use of non-actors and unprofessional crew to produce very significant films. His vital efforts to intervene in the film form saw him subvert conventions of filmmaking in order to transform and reinvent the medium. This spirit aligns with that which animates contemporary art production in the Department of Painting and Sculpture (KNUST, Kumasi). seid’ou’s egalitarian and emancipatory teaching practice “encourages student artists and other young artists to work in the spirit of finding alternatives to the bigger picture which excluded their voices but paradoxically by first becoming an anamorphic stain in the bigger picture itself.” This typifies his politics of ironic overidentification.

With this background the exhibition reflects on the status of art in the early decades of the 21st century. The exhibition posits art as a site of multiplicity. Art that is de-substantialized and emerges from a void: a state of indifference that is not pre-emptively prejudicial to any particular medium, content, skill, material, trend or process. If anything can be said to be art today it must necessarily be invented.

There are important analogies to be drawn from the artistic and political indifference espoused by the curatorial team of Orderly Disorderly, and the state of hopelessness and indifference experienced by sufferers and witnesses of the current global crises of public commons (refugee crisis, economic precarity, threats of ecological crisis in the epoch of anthropocene, new forms of apartheid emerging as invisible walls in the public sphere, gentrification of digital space and intellectual property, etc). As a response, the exhibition features a generic participant, ‘The Unknown Artist’. This character embodies the void, the disavowed, which haunts the consistency of exhibition projects operating within the finitude of contemporary capitalist processes but disavowing the precarity they leave behind.

Orderly Disorderly countenances diverse multi-site projects extending from MST into the city of Accra and further into virtual spaces — straddling human-centered and posthuman, art and non-art practices alike — by over 90 artists, including seminars, outreach programs, art talk events and a body of archives of the Kumasi School among which are manuscripts of poems authored by Uche Okeke. The exhibition invites its audience to deal with the contradictions that are constitutive of their everyday lives.

Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh and Curatorial Team.

‘ORDERLY DISORDERLY’: KNUST end of year exhibition
OPENING: Friday, 30TH June – Friday 1st September, 2017
Museum of Science & Technology, Accra
Organizers: blaxTARLINES KUMASI
Supported by: Ghana Museums & Monuments Board (GMMB)