LEAP: Be Here, Now - An Introduction to an Introduction
Published in LEAP 2016 JAN/FEB
By: Stephanie Bailey
Translated by: 顾虔凡
Jan 01, 2016
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.”
In autumn, 2000, New Literary History published an issue asking if there was life after identity politics, to which Marlon B. Ross responded: “Which ‘identity?’ What ‘politics?’ ‘After’ when and where?” Ross’s point was this: Before “identity politics” there was already a politics of identity—and “wherever there is identity, there is a struggle for power.”1 In the same issue, Eric Lott located this struggle within a “politics of participatory discrepancy,” created when emergent social movements collide and collude to form a dissonant social fabric composed of rampant intersections and interactions between groups.2 It is in this fabric that Lott located a potential for a unified, anti-normative politics, in which no one is represented by one movement, and no movement is expected to represent the entirety of a human being.3
In these hyper-global, hyper-connected, and hyper-volatile times, in which we have seen a new wave of neo-nationalism, regional power grabs, and the emergence of a networked movement in the nightmare image of ISIS, conversations around identity have become dangerously essentialist yet loaded with potential agency. Today, a politics based on difference offers a useful frame to think through the globalized present. This is especially true when considering Arjun Appadurai’s prescient vision in the 1990s of a transglobal, diasporic landscape in which the “materials for a post-national imaginary” are “around us already.”4 As proposed elsewhere, these “materials” are the histories that walk among us—people that transcend the frameworks laid down by the past precisely because their existence is based on being “caught in the discontinuous time of translation and negotiation.”5 As we move between different subjective and objective worlds, we are all such people.
This condition was explored in a 2014 exhibition curated by Anders Kreuger and Nav Haq at Antwerp’s Museum of Contemporary Art (M HKA): “Don’t You Know Who I Am? Art After Identity Politics.” Presenting 27 contemporary artists from all over the world, from Amsterdam to Vilnius, “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” sought to transcend identity politics as it has been understood (and maligned) so as to focus on “identities (in the plural) as part of an overall understanding of complexity”—something “the art system has not always been able or willing to accommodate.”6 (This is certainly true when thinking about the trend of framing exhibitions according to region or nation.) The exhibition considered identities—and thus, histories—as concepts that are neither fixed nor linear: produced within the industrial furnace of globalization, a process tied to capitalist modernity.
Guan Xiao’s Cognitive Shape (2013) diagrammed this perfectly. In the three-channel video, the artist articulates a worldview constructed from some 30 found images and video clips collected from YouTube, Vimeo, satellite TV, and DVDs, all edited alongside scenes the artist filmed. The video is composed of chapters titled according to symbols constructed like Chinese characters from parts of contemporary logos, like Xbox, Google, and Nike. This articulation of a post-consumer symbolism was grounded in Oscar Murillo’s A Bastard Class (2014). The installation-cum-production site is inspired by factories specializing in ceramic coconuts found in Colombia and Mexico, and includes packaging materials stuck to the walls, from Easy Cook Haleem to Sir Edward’s Finest Scotch, and a Chinese Heaven Bank Note. The result highlights the de-localization of localized production—and thus local culture—through the mechanisms of global capital.
In Cognitive Shape, one part of the video presents a taxonomy of culture organized through images that make up an ever-expanding genealogical tree: from Neolithic arrowheads to a diving suit and rollerblades. These products—the things we fashion to supplement our existence—are described as “stones” of the past and future “rolling on the endless surface” whose meeting constitutes now. In one swoop, the abstract nature of who we are and where we come from is tied to infinite time: history as an expansive and rhizomatic trail of longue durees, in which the past becomes an ongoing tangle of knots, chains, extensions, compressions, constructions, and projections. In this hyper-complex frame, we are at once united by capitalism’s hand in forming us all, and divided by the historical impact this unifying—or homogenizing—force has had.
In “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” this impact was articulated in Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s sound piece and single-channel projection Double-Take: Leader of the Syrian Revolution Commanding a Charge (2014). The installation includes two photographs. The first is an image of Théodore Géricault’s painting Officer of the Chasseurs Commanding a Charge (1812). The second is a Syrian businessman’s commission in which the French imperial officer in Gericault’s painting is replaced by the leader of the Syrian uprising against the French between 1925 and 1927, Sultan Basha Al-Atrash. By placing an Arab in the position of colonial conqueror, Abu Hamdan notes, “200 years … are condensed in one moment of a double take, into which a whole history of the colonial project can be read.” Such a double reflection occurred, too, in Carlos Monroy’s Lambada’s Museum, presented at the 19th Videobrasil in 2015: an installation that traced the Lambada’s origins to Bolivia via labor immigration to São Paulo in the late-1980s through the song Llorando se fue. Written by the Bolivian group Los Kjarkas in 1981, it was remixed by Chico de Oliveira shortly after, and released in Brazil by the band Kaoma in 1989, which then sparked a global phenomenon. Monroy’s cartography reveals the Lambada’s true nature: a hybrid global production. And Brazil does not escape this formal blurring. A postcolonial space once colonized by the Portuguese, it is shown to be a colonizing force in its own right.
Suddenly, the Lambada, like Brazil, is located neither north nor south, nor in-between, but in process: a condition Keli-Safia Maksud visualized through her 19th Videobrasil commission, Mitumba (2015). Composed of a large cube made of Dutch African wax fabrics hanging over a small pond, a solution of bleach dripped over the materials for the duration of the exhibition. For Maksud, the work represents a cleansing act of decolonization that acknowledges the impossibility of erasing the past. The fabrics—which symbolize a historical struggle within and for African identity—will never return to an original state but become something else altogether. This transformation was embodied in Tao Hui’s grand prize-winning work at the same 19th Videobrasil, Talk About Body. In this 2013 video, the artist reads his body like a map, with every feature corresponding to different ethnic sources and the histories associated with such mixing. In the end, the complexity is so great Tao Hui concludes that his body belongs to the soil.
This is where the title of this issue, “Children of Empire,” comes in. The proposal is that we are all children of empire, regardless of whether we belong to the dominant imperialist forces of the past 500 years or not. Whether we like it or not, our personal, political, and cultural identities are intertwined with inheritances that are painful, violent, and foreign. Consider here 60 archival photos collated by Maryam Jafri that depict inaugural Independence Day ceremonies of Asian, Middle Eastern, and African nations from 1934 to 1975, from Burundi to Syria. Repetitive aesthetics unite each photograph—a pageantry inherited from the colonizers and mimicked in inaugural expressions of postcolonial autonomy. There is a cruelty to these macabre connections. But there is something liberating, too, as illuminated in “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” by Iman Issa’s Material (2009–2012): a series of ten displays offering proposals for monuments commemorating things like “the destruction of a prominent public monument in the name of national resistance,” or “a bygone era of luxury and decadence.” In the work, history becomes a universal template. Each monument could relate to any nation, since we have all been the destroyer and the destroyed, in some way, at some point, somewhere.
This brings us back to the politics of participatory discrepancy. If our world is indeed both universal and particular, and we are at once post- and neo- everything, then to recognize this would be a step towards what Ernesto Laclau called “a serious theoretical rationale for new social movements” predicated on “a politically forceful universalism shorn of the deadweight of essentialism.”7 But how might such a politics translate beyond the notion of “One World, One Dream”? In the case of “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” the suggestion was made in Shape of a Right Statement, a 2009 video in which Wu Tsang re-enacts a 2007 YouTube video made by autism activist Amanda Baggs, In My Own Language. The work is literally “a strong statement.” It argues for “the existence and value of many different kinds of thinking and interaction in a world in which those who deviate from the norm are considered non-persons.” The point of Wu Tsang’s performance—and this issue in general—is to recognize a shared otherness amongst ourselves without erasing the differences that make us unique.
It has to be said that there are two specters in this issue. The first is Gulf Futurism without the Gulf specificity—the postcolonial condition identified by artist Sophia Al-Maria to describe the effects of rapid modernization in the oil-rich nations of the Arabian Gulf in the second half of the twentieth century. (The connections between the Gulf’s metropolises and Asia’s are all too apparent, after all.) Yet, it became increasingly apparent, as conversations began to develop, that such a comparative exercise is only possible if rooted in personal—and historical—experience. This brings us to the second ghost, which was raised in Walter D. Mignolo’s contribution, “Verses on Decolonization”—the 1955 Bandung Conference, in which 29 states came together in the hopes of transcending western hegemony.
Mignolo’s text ends with both a lament and a challenge: What position might the art world take in the world today, when postcolonialism is meaningless, decolonization has failed, and humanity appears lost? The question relates to the proposition the theme of this issue makes: that we, as children of empire, might locate a future politics between us, in which our complexity becomes our agency. But this issue offers no answers, nor does it offer a road map out of our current quagmires. This is, rather, a proposal for a future study. An introduction to an introduction—a gathering across time and space narrated by voices brought together through the art world’s trans-global networks in order to explore the complex inheritances that have shaped us all.
Marlon B. Ross, “Pleasuring Identity, or the Delicious Politics of Belonging,”New Literary History, Vol. 31, No. 4, Is There Life After Identity Politics? (Autumn2000), p. 832.
Eric Lott, “After Identity, Politics: The Return of Universalism,” New Literary History,Vol. 31, No. 4, Is There Life After Identity Politics? (Autumn 2000), p. 667.
Ibid., p. 666.
Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large. Cultural Dimensions of Globalization(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), p. 21.
Stephanie Bailey, “Transition Times: Performing Armenity at the 56th VeniceBiennale,” Ibraaz, May 28, 2015, in which I am partially quoting Homi K. Bhabha in a discussion on the body as a historical cartography.
Don’t You Know Who I Am? Art After Identity Politics, online catalogue.
Lott, p. 670.