Cutting through the ‘Spectacles’
at blaxTARLINES KUMASI Project Space
‘Spectacles. Speculations…’ Exhibition Review by Robin Riskin
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.
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. 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 spaceunder 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.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.
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’.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.
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.
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? 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.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.The idea is to work “paradoxically”, as kąrî’kạchä describes it, “by first becoming an anamorphic stain in the bigger picture itself”:
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.
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.
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.)
See, “For an imperfect cinema”, by Julio García Espinosa (1979), as well as“Towards 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.
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.