“… [C]onsciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed: it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described.” — William James, 18901.
“Freedom is a matter of fighting, of struggle, not of choosing.” — Alenka Zupančič, 20192.
To posit ‘streams’ in the sense offered by the biennale is not only to infer a continuity of time and space within which this flow can occur but to also suggest a space-time within which breaks, overlaps, ruptures, and transmutations may happen — encapsulating the montage of ideas that characterize the quality of our individual thought processes. In this context dualities such as psychic and secular time, cognition and sensation, artist and spectator, among others are not merely external to each other but bound together preserving the creation of new possibilities through plastic relations, not excluding antagonisms. The theme for this biennale compels one to take seriously the things that exist in what is generally considered to be the ordinary, the banal, or in the fleeting multiplicity of possibilities. What conditions this approach is the location of the very gesture of capturing, manipulating and rendering reality as such, first as a political act of thought. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, the artistic director, entreats us to consider this phenomenon in both its private and shared tendencies in terms of still, moving and aural images at this moment in the history of the Bamako Rencontres. The curatorial directive to spotlight photography collectives also comes to terms with this necessary relationship between “irreducible pluralism”3 on the one hand and extra-subjectivity on the other (as much as it complements the subtitle of the biennale, A Concatenation of Dividuals). For Ndikung this means “the possibility [sic] of arguing for the fact that in society we are not individuals, but rather the Deleuzian notion of dividuals… which is to say we are divisible entities that together make up a larger collective as opposed to the idea of the individual which means indivisible, or the tiniest unit of society” [my emphasis]. Granting the ethical position in the statement —that through such times of environmental, economic, cultural, biogenetic et al. catastrophes, solipsism must be jettisoned in search of new possibilities of mobilising across ethnic, class and personal differences for the restitution of public commons— we can also add that the network, or the need for collectivist approaches, is not automatically emancipatory.
Simultaneously, if we approach the aforementioned imperative laid out by Ndikung from a dialectical perspective we are able to side-step what might appear as a partisan call privileging one form of being over the other (in the slippery individual-dividual opposition) to be able to populate, or perhaps complicate, it even more. In this direction, it must be noted that Gilles Deleuze’s short text Postscript on the Societies of Control published in the last decade of the twentieth century —when the factory had given way to the corporation4— was distinguishing between the transition from one form of capitalism (industrial capitalism) to the other (finance/corporate capitalism) with regard to its effects on people and public life in terms of social manipulation, discipline and/or control. Deleuze notes that the “disciplinary societies” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries5 enforced its laws and punitive measures based on two things: “the signature that designates the individual, and the number or administrative numeration that indicates his or her position within a mass”. For Deleuze, the “old disciplines operating in the time frame of a closed system” were replaced by “ultrarapid forms of free-floating control” from the postwar era onward (exacerbated by neoliberalism later on in the century) where the societies of control6 organise (or rather disorganise) people based on a depersonalised “numerical language” that transmutes the hitherto “single body” (i.e. the ‘individual’ who is moved from one space of enclosure to the next: that is, from the family, to school, to church, to working in a factory, and then to prison, and so forth7) into a code or password. Hence the ‘dividual’ which according to Deleuze is the numerical identity that conforms to the system of perpetual modulation or variation and surveillance that paradoxically maintains atomisation and manipulation of consciousness8 by giving its population the illusion of freedom.
In other words, both regimes— of ‘discipline’ and ‘control’ that govern the individual and dividual respectively— and their processes of social, political and economic organisation, for Deleuze, possess tendencies towards consensus as well as inegalitarian ends. I say all this to make the point that the structure or “grammar of necessity”9 which determines the transition from individual to dividual is the same. And so the problem with any proposition which tends to a mutual opposition of the two (suggested with the negation of individuality in favor of dividuality), as hinted earlier, is that it might render one oblivious to the systemic conditions producing both— and this structure is one that has proven pathologically indifferent to and can subjugate both (even including collectives) to its utilitarian and instrumentalist ends. Yet, Deleuze himself glimpses into the immanent nature of the problem by asserting that there are also anagrams of “liberating and enslaving forces” even within this gloomy picture and so at any historical moment the emancipatory imperative is to fashion “new weapons” out from within such systems of control, against it.
More still, the curatorial focus on collectives gives a retroactive nod to Okwui Enwezor’s recognition of emergent modes of collaborative and collective production in times of crises at the turn of the twenty-first century10. By directing his attention to those forms of “work driven by the spirit of activism” some fifteen years ago, in opposition to apolitical regimes of art that exalt the artist’s autonomy as sacrosanct, Enwezor mainly distinguishes between 1. “Networked collectives” — with a “flexible, non-permanent course of affiliation [between members], privileging collaboration on project basis than on a permanent alliance”, and 2. those based on permanent alliance— with structured operations and fixed members who have worked over a sustained period in whom authorship is identified with the group. It goes without saying that there exists hybrids of these two types (or perhaps even more kinds, especially taking into consideration the breadth of collectives featured in this biennale) but what I find of shared significance between Enwezor and Ndikung here is the recognition of the necessity of contingency especially in relation to politically-engaged art practices and the consequent attitudes with which actors must respond to these emergences.
Returning to the gesture of rendering physical and/or virtual reality (through whichever artistic medium) existing first as a political act of thought; what I find to be powerfully stimulating in the conceptual framework of this biennale is the attention it brings to the brain as “evental” site of politics. We could perceive of thought streams or flows as the void (i.e. the “generic multiplicity” or zone of infinitely multiplying multiplicities) which functions as content or activity of the brain, but we could also perceive the brain as consciousness in itself for “it is no longer important to ask whether brain and consciousness are one and the same thing— let us put aside this old and specious debate. Instead we must constitute this strange critical entity, at once philosophical, scientific, and political, [sic] that would be a consciousness of the brain”11. This void which “homes” the interconnected network of neuronal and synaptic activity could at once be understood in terms of its development based on one’s interests, passions, movements and so forth, as much as it points to a consequent “concatenation” of or tethering to the plethora of other unique subjects who possess and also use it on their own terms. There is, so to say, “a mechanism of individuation that makes each brain a unique object despite its adherence to a common model”12. And this “mechanism of individuation” dialectically tied to an “adherence to a common model” inevitably points us to the operation of true universalism— where the uniquely13 subjective (or particular) and the multiplicity (potentially speaking, ‘the all’) are immanently bound. This implies that as long as one has a brain “the ability to learn, to acquire new skills and new memories, is maintained throughout life. And this is true [sic] in a different way from one individual to the next”14. In other words, the facility of reasoning is open to everyone, equally but not uniformly— as much for me as for others (whether our ideas align on some issues or not is a later matter). In this sense, the curatorial framework for this biennale points us to the space of universality from which one may act in affirmation of their independence.
To come to terms with the force that accompanies independence as such in this context is to have to invoke the essence of plasticity. We know that the brain is a plastic organ15, we are its subjects and objects at the same time: “[i]n fact, plasticity”, according to Catherine Malabou, “is the dominant concept of the neurosciences”16. Plasticity as a metaphor for independence (or what one might call the will to freedom— and this is where I align with Alenka Zupančič in the epigraph) locates the myriad activities of the brain squarely within the domain of politics as such. Malabou draws attention to the forcefulness of this quality by describing the brain as an organ that possesses the ability to receive form (being “modifiable”), to give form (create something), and to obliterate the very form it has the ability to create and/or receive at the same time17. Thus “to talk about the plasticity of the brain means to see in it not only the creator and receiver of form but also an agency of disobedience to every constituted form, a refusal to submit to a model” [my emphasis]. It is easy to see how inegalitarian regimes (referring to colonial anthropology and pedagogy but also to cognates such as economic globalisation and the “parliamentary-capitalism”18 of today and so on) would be passionately opposed to this principle knowing where the latent will for refusal could lead.
Read in this way, neuronal plasticity, in its myriad determinations, permits a short-circuiting that could re-frame mainstream exhibition making with material evidence affirming a space for the practice of equality in the symbolic space of art— in terms of expanding what we can know about art, what art can be, its media possibilities, audience categories, and so on and so forth19. The Biennial, by positing the universal-particular category of heterarchical thought streams, nudges us to consider the possibility of curating for photography and more; for collectives and more; and more in the secular space of ‘the all’— an inclusive space not necessarily regulated by the stultifying dogma for consensus. For me, the generality of consciousness streams occasions us to launch into multiplicity, and from there onwards come to terms with its manifold determinations. I find this dimension determined by the curatorial starting point vital to think about.
What is art today? I prefer to think of this question in the terms formulated by kąrî’kạchä seid’ou that “art is anything that is radically new”20. By this, we are yet again affirming the necessity of historicalness (or what we have already called contingency) not merely for its sake but in such a way as to undermine hegemonic and totalistic prescriptions of fictional ontologies of art by allowing contemporary circumstances (economic, techno-scientific, cultural, etc. concerns) to also participate in its determinations. This is especially vital to consider for practitioners from areas of the world with the experience of colonialism whose worldview has been indelibly (but not irredeemably) stained by presuppositions of western modernity. The “radically new” does not privilege any particular heritage or geographical location. It potentially emerges from anywhere which cannot be known beforehand (counter to the modernist project where the avant-garde bore the torch towards humanity’s uniform destiny).
Furthermore, the condition of the image is not the same as fifty years ago. For example, the “society of the spectacle”21 successfully nudged us to analyze a political relationship between images and the body in a pre-digital dispensation. The relationship between people was deemed to be mediated by a structure of images manufactured by capitalist modernity with consequences for social relations22. However, the proximity already achieved between artificial and natural intelligence today makes it nearly impossible to abolish the distance between us and the system of images manufactured by late capitalism. In this sense we can say that at any point in the encounter, creation, manipulation or dissemination of images we are always already responding to the politics of imaging.
Historically speaking it is also important to keep in mind that photography (and cinema for that matter) has not always been considered art. Throughout its history it has had the double-function of existing in a “pensive”23 state between art and non-art. For instance, with regard to occidental art education it was only after the Second Coldstream Report in 1970 that the British begun to look beyond established early modernist media, genres and styles to be able to include photography in the experimental range of artistic possibilities in art curricular24. Photography unequivocally serves the classical cult of uniqueness (indexical to the genre of portraiture in particular but not exclusively) as well as carries the register of transforming art as such. Which is why we simply cannot take its status as art for granted; nor can we reduce its spectacles to images preoccupied solely with achieving representational likeness25. Obviously it can be that. But not only that. And if an image (any image for that matter whether manually, mechanically or digitally produced) can be more than the totalizing [re]production of likenesses or resemblances then it also possesses a mode of being which points beyond this horizon. Which means that in order to appear in the world it can begin from but should be able to transcend the photographic form if need be. This would be the artistic function of the image26 in full expression created by the actant’s desire to exercise the freedoms associated with testing something to its logical and material limits. And freedom, as already mentioned, is a political state of being. Relatedly, this argument can be extended to say that photographers (or artists in general) need not contrive the artistic form which materializes out of their experimentation to fit their ideological or partisan tendencies. Very often artists and curators fall into the snare of using exhibitions as mere illustration of politics rather than coming to terms with the full thrust of the complex nature of the artistic potential they have invoked by subjecting their own axioms, [pro]positions, or conclusions to immanent critique.
— Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh is an artist, curator and critic based in Kumasi, Ghana. He was guest curator for the inaugural Lagos Biennial (2017) in Nigeria and is co-curator for the 12th Edition of Bamako Encounters Photography Biennial (2019) in Mali.
~*A version of this text is published as On Thought Streams, Networks and Short Circuits in the Bamako Rencontres reader titled Streams of Consciousness: A Concatenation of Dividuals, edited by Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Aziza Harmel, Astrid Sokona Lepoultier and Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh, 2019, published by Archive Books.
1 See William James (with introduction by George A. Miller), The Principles of Psychology Vol 1,2, 2007 (originally published in 1890), Harvard University Press, pp. 148.
2 See Alenka Zupancic in Interview with Alenka Zupančič: Philosophy or Psychoanalysis? Yes, please!, by Agon Hamza & Frank Ruda, in Crisis & Critique, 2019, Volume 6, Issue 1, pp. 435-453, pp. 446.
3 For William James “absolute insulation [and] irreducible pluralism, is the law” of stream of consciousness. See op. cit. James, 2007, pp. 140.
4 I paraphrase Deleuze here. See Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on the Societies of Control, (Winter 1992), October, Vol. 59, pp. 3-7, The MIT Press, http://www.jstor.org/stable/778828, accessed on 11/07/2011.
5 Apropos Michel Foucault.
6 This is the term Deleuze derives from William S. Burroughs which he uses to describe the paradigm distinct from those ‘disciplinary societies’ of enclosure, theorised by Michel Foucault, in op. cit. Deleuze, 1992.
7 Deleuze differentiates between them this way: “The different internments or spaces of enclosure through which the individual passes are independent variables: each time one is supposed to start from zero, and although a common language for all these places exists, it is analogical. On the other hand, the different control mechanisms are inseparable variations, forming a system of variable geometry the language of which is numerical (which doesn’t necessarily mean binary). Enclosures are molds, distinct castings, but controls are a modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other, or like a sieve whose mesh will transmute from point to point. Op. cit. Deleuze, 1992, pp. 4.
8 Deleuze states that “… in the societies of control, one is never finished with anything— the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation.” Op. cit. Deleuze, 1992, pp. 5. Also see Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, 2002, Pantheon Books, New York. And also Noam Chomsky, Profit over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order, 1999, Seven Stories Press, New York.
9 I owe this phrasing to Alenka Zupancic in op. cit. Zupančič, 2019.
10 Enwezor’s short lecture titled The Artist as Producer in Times of Crisis was given on March 30th, 2004 at the 11th annual Elaine Horwitch Lecture in Contemporary Art Criticism at Arizona State University, U.S.A.
11 See Catherine Malabou, What Should We Do with Our Brain?, 2008, trans. Sebastian Rand, Fordham University Press, New York, pp. 2.
12 Marc Jeannerod, as quoted by Malabou in ibid. pp. 7.
13 Here I will make a distinction between being “unique”, that is separate from “special”, for example. I do not mean the former in the context of a center-periphery logic of power play but in the sense as to guarantee difference or distinction between individuals or people so as to give meaning to their collective identity and not necessarily privileging one over another as is suggested by the latter.
14 Op. cit. Malabou, 2008, pp. 6.
15 William James describes the brain as “an organ whose internal equilibrium is always in a state of change,- the change affecting every part” [my emphasis], see op. cit., James, 2007, pp. 151.
16Catherine Malabou makes it clear that “[t]he work proper to the brain that engages with history and individual experience has a name: plasticity. What we have called the constitutive historicity of the brain is really nothing other than its plasticity. […] In fact, plasticity is the dominant concept of the neurosciences”. See op. cit., Malabou, 2008, pp. 4. Malabou also distinguishes between the brain being a plastic organ as opposed to being reduced to elasticity.
17 “We thus note that plasticity is situated between two extremes: on the one side the sensible image of taking form (sculpture or plastic objects), and on the other side that of the annihilation of all form (explosion).” Op cit., Malabou, 2008, pp. 5.
18 I use the term as by Alain Badiou to critique the concept of “democracy” as is practiced today in Highly Speculative Reasoning on the Concept of Democracy, trans. Jorge Jauregui, https://www.lacan.com/conceptsym.htm, accessed on Aug. 10th 2019.
19 By curating that take into consideration children, mentally- and physically-disabled people, etc. blaxTARLINES KUMASI, the contemporary art institution at the Department of Painting & Sculpture at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, is an example of a collectivist response to this ethic. See Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh, On Universality and Curating in the Void, 2019, https://iubeezy.wordpress.com/2019/01/20/on-universality-and-curating-in-the-void/, accessed on 11th August, 2019.
20 kąrî’kạchä seid’ou made this pronouncement in one of his lectures. He is an artist, mathematician, poet and philosopher who is currently the Dean of Faculty at the College of Art and Built Environment in KNUST. His Emancipatory Art Teaching project has inspired countless artists since 2003 and has also played a critical role in the founding of blaxTARLINES community in Kumasi, Ghana, based on the egalitarian principle of equality. See Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh, Curating in the Void, 2019. Retrieved on 24th September from https://iubeezy.wordpress.com/2019/01/20/on-universality-and-curating-in-the-void/. See also seid’ou k. et al. 2015. Silent Ruptures, Emergent Art of the KNUST College of Art. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science. Vol. 5. No. 10: October 2015. Another way of saying this is also that if anything can be said to be art it must necessarily be created. I paraphrase the axiom from the curatorial statement of the large scale exhibition Orderly Disorderly organized by blaxTARLINES KUMASI—the contemporary art institution established in 2015 at the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST)— in Accra, Ghana. See Orderly Disorderly (2017) curatorial statement here: https://iubeezy.wordpress.com/iub-projects-2/2017-2/od-curatorial/. Retrieved on 24th September, 2019.
21 See Debord G. (1967). The Society of the Spectacle. Retrieved from http://www.bopsecrets.org.
22 The somewhat naïve conclusion then was to abolish this objective distance, or at least attempt to. Situationists were right in their diagnosis of the distance through which social and inter-personal relations were organized. Is this still not relevant even today especially with the proliferation of virtual social networks and its many cognates? We can share the condition of mediation with the necessity to revise its conclusion of abolishment because contemporary society with the fact of myriad imaging technologies, machine learning and other things fueled by globalized capitalism, wars on terror, cyber security, ecological concerns and so on, cause us to rethink the ambivalent status of the image in our time.
23 See Jacques Rancière’s essay “The Pensive Image” in his Emancipated Spectator, 2009, trans. Gregory Elliott, Verso, London & New York, pp. 107.
24 This was a report by the joint committee consisting of the National Advisory Council on Art Education (NACAE) and the National Council for Diplomas in Art and Design (NCDAD) in 1970. For the first time in British art education fine art was to be considered as an “attitude” rather than “thought of simply in terms of drawing, painting and sculpture or in terms of the componential life drawing, plant drawing, pictorial composition, modelling and creative design but in terms of a distinctive posture, an attitude which was critical and contextual in spirit. In this new paradigm, [Sir William] Coldstream separated the fine art curriculum from the core medium-disciplines; to study fine art, time-honoured and classical materials, processes and assumptions were neither sine qua non nor prioritised over contemporary approaches. It acknowledged the relevance of new media such as film, multimedia, sound and photography and processes in fine art production and discourse. This was an acknowledgement of the significance and achievement of avant-garde practices, somehow displacing “the last vestiges of centuries old academic assumptions and priorities” (Walton, n.d.). The new paradigm acknowledged diversity, and encouraged responses to innovative practices in contemporary art. This was the critical turn of British art education.” See kąrî’kạchä seid’ou, 2006. Theoretical Foundations of the KNUST Painting Programme: A Philosophical inquiry and its contextual relevance in Ghanaian Culture [Unpublished PhD Thesis]. Kumasi: KNUST. pp. 145-146.
25 Jacques Rancière calls this function of the image its “artistic operation” and has cautioned us that the term ‘image’ refers to “two different things. There is the simple relationship that produces the likeness of an original: not necessarily its faithful copy, but simply what suffices to stand in for it. And there is the interplay of operations that produces what we call art: or precisely an alteration of resemblance. This alteration can take a myriad of forms”. See Jacques Ranciere, The Future of the Image, 2019, trans. Gregory Elliott, Verso, London/New York, pp. 6.
26 This image function is what Rancière calls its “artistic operation” in ibid.