Before I report back from the World Social Science Fellowship seminar on global social governance (what a mouthful!), here is a video I recently came across. At university, I belatedly got introduced to the series ‘The Clangers’ (thanks, Faith & Steve!). For those who are unfamiliar with this series, it is set on a moon-like planet populated mostly by whistling mouse-like creatures, but also other ‘aliens’. These occasionally struggle to interact with human artefacts (as well as humans themselves) that land on their planet from space. This episode from 1971 – innocently titled ‘The Tablecloth’ – makes fun of flag planting and presents a very carnivalesque take on Cold War geopolitics… I would also be interested in seeing the Clangers’ ‘Vote for Froglet’ 1974 election special. The BBC website explains that, in this special programme, “The Clangers are introduced to the concept of democracy…” Wikipedia writes:
“Inspired by what Postgate refers to as the “Winter of Discontent” (a phrase usually used by others to refer to the winter of 1978–79, but in his case to the miners’ strike of 1974), and by his recollection of post-war Germany, it was broadcast on the night of the second election in 1974.”
Does anyone happen to have a copy?
*spoiler warning: do not read on if you still want to see these films & not know what happens*
The other week, I was able to catch two very interesting films at the Glasgow Film Theatre: The Golden Dream and Belle. The Golden Dream traces the stories of four teenagers who try to leave Guatemala for the United States. For the film, writer and director Diego Quemada-Díez interviewed over 600 immigrants over six years to build a script which reflected the dangers of the journey from South America to the United States. Belle, by contrast, started with the discovery of an 18th century painting that showed a Black woman next to a White woman, both of seemingly equal, aristocratic status (see below). Subsequent research managed to identify the woman, but revealed only fragments of her story. In fact, the script deliberately changes the women’s story as an inquiry into other possible histories. Very different in style and feel – one is a social realist film, the other a full-on costume drama – the films still revolve around the same subject: the status of the individual within economic relationships.
Juan (Brandon López) posing as a cowboy for a photo at a local market place
In The Golden Dream, we get to know four young people who try to get from Guatemala to the United States: Juan, Sara, Samuel and Chauk. The film takes care to emphasise how the characters are driven as much by poverty as by curiosity, adventure and poetic imagination. Although all of them are aware that neither the journey to the States nor the States themselves are going to be an easy ride – Sara, for instance, tries to protect herself against potential rape by disguising herself as a boy, and Juan sews money into the insides of his jeans to hide it from robbers – they all nurture their own particular relationship to the country: Juan takes pride in his cowboy boots, even stealing a new pair when his get taken by corrupt police, and Chauk hopes to experience the magical beauty of snow. The film also shows the development of the personal relationships between the characters: the sadness of having to leave a close friend behind when Samuel drops out after the first violent encounter with border police, the change from animosity to friendship between Juan and Chauk, the interactions between Sara and the two enamoured boys, and the varied degrees of empathy of the people around the railway line with the ‘wealth seekers’.
It is clear that the teenagers’ journey cannot normally come to an end without dangers – even the director ended up in life-threatening situations during his research. Still, each time it comes as a shock when the lives and dreams of the characters are coldly and gruesomely obliterated one by one. In an instant, the characters’ status changes from person to body, number, animal, vagina, parasite. People become mere carriers whose money, phones, plastic bags, shoes, clothes, drugs, weapons, phone numbers etc are being extracted by the perversely interlocked systems of crime and governance. Of course, with the arrival in the States, the horror does not end. Maybe because of its portrayal of poetic moments and unexpected acts of kindness, The Golden Dream succeeds so well in portraying the utter inhumanity of the conditions of immigration from poor to rich countries. How can the actions of the people who throw food and water to the exhausted rail travellers weigh up the brutalities of rapists, kidnappers and racist sharpshooters? How can they make a difference in such the powerful machine of economics and securitisation? (Only this week, President Obama petitioned for billions of pounds to ‘improve’ border security and deportation, specifically of unaccompanied children.) How can they, or the beauty of their environments, compete with the combination of structural inequality and the allure of the American Dream that has been reproduced for centuries?
Image source: Wikipedia (there is a short feature on this painting in relation to the film here)
Like The Golden Dream, the story of Belle tackles the topic of inequality. This time, the protagonist is not an immigrant, but of uncertain legal status – and extremely negative social status – as well. Belle fictionalises the life of a real person, Dido Belle Lindsay, who was born to a White British naval officer and an enslaved African woman. After the death of her mother, her father puts her in the care of his uncle and his wife, who are already raising her cousin. This uncle happens to be William Murray, a Scottish aristocrat and Lord Chief Justice. Belle turns this background into two interlocking themes: Dido’s growing up as a noblewoman in social and legal limbo, and the involvement of her guardian in key rulings on the legality of slavery. Regarding the latter, the film focuses on the Zong massacre trial, which was indeed overseen by William Murray. The crew of the Zong threw 142 Africans overboard when conditions on the overloaded slave ship worsened and threatened to endanger the remaining ‘healthy cargo’. Since the slaves were worth more dead than alive – their loss could be claimed back from the insurance – the ‘merchants’ argued that the killing was economically necessary. In the film, Dido is shielded from such public discourse, but becomes increasingly aware of it and of herself as a barely human commodity. This awareness and gradual acceptance of this status leads her to eventually supply information to the abolitionists.
Although the film sometimes verges a bit too much on the didactic and builds up to a classic girl-gets-boy ‘happy ending’, it manages to leave the audience with enough uncomfortable questions about times past and present. In fact, one suspects that the real Dido might have experienced much worse moments of ‘revelation’ that those selected for the film. Aside from obvious questions about racism and the production of ‘immigrants’, Belle appears to address another form of oppression. When Dido finally gets to marry the man she loves, the many discussions about the economics of marriage that took place throughout the film, distinctly undermine the romantic finale. One is left wondering if, after the abolition of slavery in most parts of the world, marriage should be the next thing to go. While most of us may not have the worries of aristocratic succession or economic dependence, marriage still remains an institution that legitimises and enforces conservative norms. True to the genre of period dramas, the film portrays the full set of anxieties around ‘legitimate’ relationships. Here, the slightly inverted history (in the film, Dido is richer than her cousin Elizabeth) allows for additional twistedness, whether in the form of a racist but impoverished aristocrat being forced to propose to Dido because of her wealth, or Dido’s realisation that she is actually better off as a social outcast. As a financially independent Black woman, Dido falls outside the social AND inheritance system. Not having to worry about either economic well being or status, she is thus free to marry – or not marry – whom she wants. Of course this is not entirely true, as her choice of partner is rather restricted, but in principle she is free not to participate in the marriage economy.
One could say that, in some sense, both films leave us with rather depressing outcomes. In Belle, despite her awareness of marriage as a form of oppression and social control, Dido chooses to marry after all. In The Golden Dream, we are left with the feeling that economic migrants, despite their awareness of the system, continue to risk their lives to be exploited in the United States. No amount of risky ‘data leaking’ (Dido supplying evidence to the abolitionists from her guardian’s papers), marriage proposal rejection, food donation, refugee hiding or poetic re-imagination seems to help. At the same time, the films seem to suggest that the option of by-passing the system by ‘opting out’ of marriage or immigration may be only marginally better for the characters and creates less opportunities to affect the system. If Dido had stayed unmarried, taken a lover and overseen the daily affairs of the estate, that would have merely confirmed another stereotype. If Sara, Juan and Chauk had stayed home, other people would have taken their place in that journey. So what kind of possibilities for intervention remain?
In Belle, the marriage between the legally ‘flawed’ Dido and the aspiring barrister John Davinier is clearly controversial. It becomes part of the on-going struggle against slavery and unequal humanity. Despite the marriage ending, the marriage can be read not as an end in itself, i.e. this is what we should be fighting for, but as a starting point for further change, i.e. equal rights and eventual abolition of marriage as an engine of inequality. The semi-fictional ruling in the Zong case, in which Murray declares that no humans should ever be treated as cargo, suggests that institutions are not indestructible. At the same time, it alerts us that the desire for change can often be abandoned once small victories have been achieved – in this case, one destructive system is merely replaced by another (e.g. slave labour by quasi-slave-labour; women and immigrants remainining ‘flawed citizens’, to paraphrase Ariella Azoulay). Likewise, The Golden Dream suggests that an improvement of immigrant rights or immigration conditions, while urgently necessary, should not be the end in itself either. As immigration issues, in political debates, too often serve as a deflection from the need to tackle the root of the problem, attention needs to be reorientated towards intervention in the wider, on-going production of social and economic inequality for economic gain. This production is shown, more so in Belle than in The Golden Dream, as something that does not only affect, but is affected by individuals. Despite their differing levels of optimism about the agency of the individual, both films appear as pleas to go further in one’s demands – in what we demand of life and in what we demand of the system we are co-producing – so that fewer lives remain worth less than zero.
Today, the Society & Space Open Site published my review of Alondra Nelson’s ‘Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination’, which I highly recommend to any geographers working on health, racism, ‘active citizenship’ and political activism. I came across the book as part of my research on ‘parallel institutions’, which are alternative institutions founded by disenfranchised publics. I will be exploring the topic more in the future, also as part of my World Social Science Fellowship in global social governance.
A few weeks ago, I went to see Hito Steyerl’s exhibition at the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) in London. Unfortunately, the exhibition has since ended, but Steyerl’s performances have stayed with me as some kind of lightbeam that flags up disturbing ‘facts of life’. The exhibition showed her films as well as her performance lectures, although the films seemed to take centre stage (they were displayed in a more cinema-like manner). While these films were already very interesting (especially the one about security in the gallery space, entitled ‘Guards’), I found her performance lectures even more striking – in the case of ‘Is the Museum a Battlefield?’, quite literally. The talk, screened back to back with ‘Guards’, traces the intimate connections between the art world and the military-industrial complex. Here is a version of it:
(This is a different version to the one at the gallery, which was a live recording from the 13th Istanbul Biennial whose theme was ‘Mom, am I a barbarian?’)
In the talk, Steyerl keeps on emphasising the mundaneness of atrocities: the battlefields that look unremarkable, the software that is used by weapons manufacturers as well as artists and designers, the military coups that open art and architecture markets, the arms money that circulates through public institutions, the mobile or internet communications of ordinary citizens that are routinely under surveillance. All around her, Steyerl discovers traces of bullets, highlighting their ubiquitous but obscured presences by holding up and even catching invisible ammunition. She finds that, when she shoots her videos, she inadvertently shoots people (including her friend Andrea Wolf), thanks to the technology’s implication in ‘toxic data clouds’ and common manufacturing processes. For Steyerl, bullets fly in circles: if you trace a piece of debris on the battlefield to its origin, you might end up with yourself, picking up said piece of debris. Her talk ends with the question: can we reverse or interrupt this cycle, to prevent more people from getting killed on this ever-present battlefield?
Still from ‘Is the Museum a Battlefield?’ Source: e-flux
A few days after seeing Steyerl’s exhibition, I encountered the work of Juliana Spahr through a poetry reading and a conference talk in Milwaukee. At the conference, Spahr described her current project with fellow poet Joshua Clover as an attempt to bridge between two poetic trajectories that do not seem to speak one another: environmental and political poetry. This lack of dialogue, for me, also manifests itself in academia, between environmental or ‘new materialist’ theory and political or ‘historical materialist’ theory. In her talk, as well as her poetry, Spahr’s struggle to create bridges emerged as a productive one, through its density and its sense of the depths and levels of our current predicament. Moving between skin cells and war, kisses and labour movements, air composition and species extinction, she thoroughly stripped away barriers through her renderings of mechanisms and relations.
Juliana Spahr – Gender Abolition and Ecotone War
What she also very viscerally rendered present, for me, was the struggle with one’s own implication in both environmental and geopolitical destruction as an artist, academic and ‘ordinary person’. Given the magnitude of her question, I was rather saddened by some of the stereotypical academic responses to her talk, which tended to focus on trivial definitions or mockings of Marxism where, instead, some empathy or brainstorming support in terms of related strategies would have been more appropriate (although any response was arguably more productive than my silence).
Another remarkable thing is that Spahr reads without drama – the whole time that she is seemingly running through her poems, the drama (horror, exhilaration, lightbulb moments) unfolds relentlessly in the listener’s head. The effect, for me, is a sort of energising exhaustion. This tension between the casual, everyday and the drama and obscene violence of the geopolitical stage appears to be central to Juliana Spahr’s poetry in general. Whether she speaks about the Iraq war, the poetry scene, trade unions, bird species or the Anthropocene, Spahr’s emphasis lies on uncovering and grappling with mechanisms that tie us in our homes (or desks or beds) to very big and interconnected problems:
‘In bed, when I stroke down on yours cheeks, I stroke also the carrier battle group ships, the guided missile cruisers, and the guided missile destroyers’ (from This Connection of Everyone with Lungs p. 74).
If one were to generalise the essence of her question, it might run something like: what does it mean to be human and what can we do, as humans, to change our predicament?
The connection between the two artists is their emphasis on the fact that – and how – any of us on this planet are permanently at war: not only are there wars around the world all of the time, but we are involved in them all in some way or another. Moreover, they both state that they are not satisfied with merely highlighting the problem. In their efforts to come up with possible modes of intervention, they do not only seem to address fellow artists, but ‘audiences’ (not just art audience, but especially those who do not see themselves as such). Steyerl is particularly cynical about the role of art as a carrier of resistance. As she put it in her essay ‘Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy’, ‘[i]f contemporary art is the answer, the question is, how can capitalism be made more beautiful?’ (The Wretched of the Screen p. 93) She acerbically diagnoses high art’s predicament as follows:
‘The Global Guggenheim is a cultural refinery for a set of post-democratic oligarchies, as are the countless international biennials tasked with upgrading and re-educating the surplus population. Art thus facilitates the development of a new multi-polar distribution of geopolitical power whose predatory economies are often fuelled by internal oppression, class war from above, and radical shock-and-awe policies. Contemporary art thus not only reflects, but actively intervenes in the transition toward a new post-Cold War world order.’ (p. 94)
According to Steyerl, art shies away from these connections and, instead, matches the ambitions and self-image of the harbingers of ’post-democratic hypercapitalism’ in its advocacy of opportunism, unpredictability, unaccountability, individualism, brilliance etc. Instead, she calls for the disenfranchised publics to reclaim art as a public good, using the repeated storming of the Louvre as an example.
Spahr also criticises the appropriation of ‘public art’. In her opinion, it is too frequently used by governments as a means to justify the continued perpetuation of a cycle of violence. For instance, the commission and display of monuments not only serves to superficially appease, but to actively naturalise violence:
‘At moments, once they [the writers/poets] got sufficiently theorised, they tried to think their way through this by thinking about Antigone and the public need to bury a body. But the minute they thought this, they then realised that Antigone was a figure of resistance against the state, not the state putting up one more piece of art to support its endless and unjustified killing of people of other places as well as its endless and unjust killing of a disproportionate number of its own people and of certain races and classes in the pursuit of endless and unjustified killings of people in other places.’ (from The Transformation, p. 162)
September 11 memorial ‘Tribute in Light’
The key, for Spahr, despite its problems, seems to be to reappropriate the tools that were, in turn, appropriated in the service of destruction, in her own case language. Steyerl seems to second this strategy with her reappropriation of the audio-visual space.
Further, Spahr finds that artistic interventions frequently preach only to the converted and seems to echo Howard Zinn’s mantra ‘everyone must be involved – there are no experts’ (from ‘Artists in Times of War’, p. 11). By minutely detailing her own struggle as well as that of people around her, she almost creates a manual for possibilities of resistance. Yes, this manual also includes multiple failures and even humorous instances (both Spahr and Steyerl share a dark sense of humour, with Steyerl on the more satirical end), but it shows the struggle at a human scale and the need to recognise and make connections to related struggles.
Here, Spahr’s wrestling with the tension between treating humans as a species (‘this connection of everyone with lungs’) and humans as a society with antagonisms that lead to environmental and political problems adds another dimension to the ‘everyone’. Everyone is already involved through the physical processes that come with being alive, but not everyone is in an equal position in the social mechanisms. In her talk ‘Gender Abolition and Ecotone War’, Spahr extends this critique to authors who argue that all humans are equally affected by environmental changes. Emphasising that environmental changes cannot be seen independently of political changes, she reverses Dipesh Chakrabarty’s argument that ‘unlike in the crises of capitalism, there are no lifeboats here for the rich and the privileged’ into ‘I don’t know where Chakrabarty’s been looking, but the rich are buying life boats right now’.
In grappling with the perceived abyss between the everyday and the geopolitical – the apparent isolation of events such as sleeping, celebrity weddings, sturgeon poaching and full-scale war – Steyerl and Spahr keep returning to the question of the agency of the individual. There is no shortage of desperation in their writing. In one of Spahr’s post September 11 poems, for example, she writes: ‘beloveds, we do not know how to live our lives with any agency outside of our bed’, and repeatedly attempts to tie this emotional and bodily agency to the scale of the planet. Steyerl echoes this loss of agency in her depressing vision destitute (art) labourers dancing to ‘viral Lady Gaga imitation videos’ rather than rousing protest music. Yet both artists stubbornly refuse to give up either the content or their medium of struggle. As Spahr asserts: ‘‘We want to get ourselves out of bed.’ Here are two quotes that, for me, sum up the refusal of the medium despite its obvious taint:
‘If politics is thought of as the Other, happening somewhere else, always belonging to disenfranchised communities in whose name no one can speak, we end up missing what makes art intrinsically political nowadays: its function as a place for labour, conflict, and.. fun – a site of condensation of the contradictions of capital and of extremely entertaining and sometimes devastating misunderstandings between the global and the local.’ (Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen’ p. 98)
‘With grief, with worry, with desire, with attachment, with anything and everything, they began listing, inventorying, recognising in the hope that a catalogue of vulnerability could begin the process of claiming their being human, claiming the being human of their perverse third Sapphic point, claiming the being human of the space in the palm of their writing hand, in that space that their little and ring fingers made when they held a pen, the space that when they were learning to write in first grade they had been forced to fill with a small cool marble so as to learn the proper way to hold a pencil.’ (Juliana Spahr, The Transformation, p. 214)
At the same time, both artists/authors stress that art practice and poetry are not the only means, and that even armed resistance or defense may need to be considered, given the pervasiveness of militarisation. In this context, Spahr’s and Clover’s insistence on an Ecotone War serves both as a provocation to shock people out of their set ways of thinking about – and responding to – the current crisis (although Spahr also wonders about its usefulness and whether they should hold on to it). By contrast, Steyerl explicit terrorism references in films such as ‘November’ emphasise the question of what counts as terrorism and point to a dependence on circumstances and on who tells the story. Who is terrorising whom in the various ‘wars on terror’ around the world? Although she does not call for people to become terrorists (in her worldview they more or less already are), she seems to ask for a re-evaluation of terrorism and a potential rewriting of violent histories. She does not do this naively, showing the disturbing aspects of terrorism such as martyrisation and other forms of glorification of violence, and the loss of usefulness of violence.
What I appreciate about both artists is their challenging provocations, both in the kinds of questions they ask and in the means they offer as pathways to action. In setting examples that clearly state the double-edgedness of all interventions, they leave us with uncomfortable tools, but with tools nonetheless.
This week, I attended the Anthropocene Feminism conference at the Center for 21st Century Studies in Milwaukee. There, I spoke as part of a hugely enjoyable all-female (!) geophilosophy panel with Jessi Lehman and Stephanie Wakefield (organised by Rory Rowan, Elizabeth Johnson and Harlan Morehouse). On this occasion, I decided not to put together a standard paper, but something that could be described as an experiment in lyrical prose. It discusses Simone Weil’s amor fati (love of the order of the world) and Hannah Arendt’s amor mundi (love of the world). I have uploaded it here. Comments appreciated!
I would also like to thank the conference organisers for facilitating conversations between academics from such a diverse range of subjects, and Lee Mackinnon (check out her blog ‘The Speculative Ceiling’ for Anthropocene themed short stories and poems) for invaluable comments on earlier drafts.
Rona Lee from Northumbria University has been advertising for art PhD studentships, so am passing them on, in case of interest. Some of them have an art-science, art-geography and art-philosophy theme:
Imaging & Imagining Fundamental Science
Principal Supervisor: Fiona Crisp, Reader in Fine Art.
‘Meeting Place’ Practice performed across the disciplines
Principal Supervisor: Christine Borland, BALTIC Professor.
Abstract Geology – Critically Engaged Fine Art Practices of the post human within a new geologic era
Principal Supervisor: Dr Rona Lee, Professor of Fine Art.
Curatorial approaches, activities and attitudes within the practice of contemporary art
Principal Supervisor: Dr Joanne Tatham, Senior Lecturer in Fine Art
Improvisatory action: the unpredictable and the unforeseen in site-responsive performance art.
Principal Supervisor: Dr Sandra Johnston, Senior Lecturer in Fine Art
Performing Philosophy/Philosophising Performance
Principal Supervisor: Dr Cormac Power, Senior Lecturer in Performing Arts
Models of Meaning and Practice: Synergies Between Paper Conservation and Contemporary Fine Art
Principal Supervisor: Dr Jane Colbourne, Senior Lecturer in Conservation
Image: Semiotext(e) Whitney Biennial pamphlets 2014
I’ve written a short post on Simone Weil for WomanTheory blog (if you haven’t already, please write one, too!). The theme of the post (published this morning) uncannily fitted in with the rest of the day, which ended with a powerful talk by Jennifer Doyle on ‘Campus Security’ (her invitation to the talk included the phrase ‘come and get ANRGY!’, to give you an idea). Doyle presented a very visceral account of the troubled relationship between students, academics and society through the increasing privatisation of the university, for many Americans epitomised by the infamous ‘pepper spray cop’ image and the reactions to it (which included the ridicule of students). It was interesting to hear more of the backstory to that image, especially about the silencing of the police officer in question who had initially proposed a much more sensible approach than university management. Post-talk discussions included university branding strategies past and present, UK vs US modes of securitisation and management, and possible ways for academics to affect university management (e.g. through committee work). Interestingly, Doyle’s talk was based on an essay for the Semiotext(e) contribution to the 2014 Whitney Biennial, which also features Simone Weil’s ‘Note on the Abolition of All Political Parties’. Can’t wait to re-read both Doyle and Weil!
WomanTheory blog is looking for YOU to write 500 words on the woman thinker/theorist/writer who influenced you most. Have already signed up!
They also have a couple of events on – one at Warwick on ‘Feminist ‘turns’ and the political economy of knowledge production’ and one at London Southbank University on ‘Critical Diversities: Policies, Practices and Perspectives’.
Today, I belatedly visited the ‘Foreign Bodies – Common Ground’ exhibition at the Wellcome Collection. The exhibition presents the work of the ‘Art in Global Health’ scheme, during which six artists undertook residencies at scientific research centres around the world: Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Thailand, the UK and Vietnam. Despite their different local contexts and artistic approaches, the artists shared a common concern with the tensions between ‘experts and ‘lay public’. The (giant!) exhibition booklet emphasised the ‘exclusionary hierarchies and impenetrable languages’ produced by specialisation – whether it is disciplinary boundaries (where even experts cannot understand one another across fields) or the ‘ivory tower’ image of research. While this theme is not new, the exhibition recognises correctly that the problem persists and continues to call for new approaches that address local contexts.
Behind the scenes of Pata Picha.
One of the memorable images from a film in the exhibition showed a stark contrast between a high tech research centre that was located right across from a field of improvised shacks where poor, local people lived. Such contrasts prompted the question of possible interactions (or obligations, as scientist Michael Parker put it) between locals and researchers, which the some of the artists took as starting points. In many ways, the artworks, and especially the processes that lead to them, sought to operate as bridges. In the exhibition, this bridging between discourses was frequently symbolised through resituated ‘boundary objects’: labcoats that contained elements of Kenyan dress (see photo above), laboratories that are crossed with living rooms, surgical gloves that float in the air like fragile jellyfish. Other means of translation included physical theatre, as in the work of the B-Floor Theatre from Bangkok, participatory photography, as in the work of Zwelethu Mthethwa, or housing decoration, music and language inventions, as in the work of Elson Kambalu. As the exbibition commentary emphasised, translation is often not only needed between researchers and the local lay people, but amongst researchers and locals themselves: both locals and researchers were made up of different ethnic groups, speaking up to 24 languages amongst themselves.
In addition, some of the artworks dealt with the scepticism with which the so-called ‘non-experts’ encounter scientific intervention. Examples included Lêna Bùi’s ‘feather sorters’ in a Vietnamese village who only reluctantly participated in the artwork after their negative experiences (enforced change of practices, relocation of industry, job loss) with avian flu management. Despite their geographic removedness, the experiences of the feather sorters are likely to resonate with farmers who were negatively affected by food and mouth disease or BSE management strategies. Common ground, indeed!
Double still from Lêna Bùi’s ‘Where birds dance their last‘. Source: Wellcome Collection.
A further theme that ran through the exhibition was proliferation, expressed through the ‘spreading’ of ideas and viruses. Scientists interviewed in the films (show on small screens dotted around the exhibition) frequently mentioned that they feel that they are agents in a ‘messy battlefield’: they get a sense of the organisms’ desire to live while they are trying to find ways of protecting their own species against it. Further, they emphasised the need to explore things at a societal as well as a ‘micro level’, as microbiologist Peter Piot suggested. Indeed, the ‘modern demands’ could be described as one of those societal pressures that change a myriad of practices – and intimacies. Some of the installations focused on such changing relations, as well as the possible two-way direction of this transformation: what consumption and production practices promote less disease (modern? traditional? is the mixture the problem?)? What is modern medicine teaching to ‘developing’ countries? What is it learning from its previous interactions with these countries to improve its ethics or communication? What kind of assumptions does ‘modern medicine’ hold about ‘traditional medicine’ and its different kinds of intimacy? There is one poignant example in the booklet where a researcher looks the drawing of a rhino in a medicine-related painting and wonders whether it signifies some superstitious believe in the medicinal properties of rhino horn. It turns out that the painter of the rhino added it to make the scenery ‘less boring’, thus making the researcher question her own expectations.
What struck me during the exhibition was the installations’ ambition to function as a two-way engagement: the pieces had to work in the local as well as the Wellcome context. I thought about how some of the most engaging artworks in a local context might not necessarily make an equally engaging exhibition object (one could argue, of course, that art does not have to ‘work’ in the same way in different spaces – see e.g. the ‘relational aesthetics’ debate – but that requires another blog post!). For instance, the comparatively static representations of sculptures, photographs and theatre-on-film communicate their ideas, but perhaps do not involve exhibition visitors to the same degree as the people who were involved in their production. This was partly ‘remedied’ by the presence of Wellcome staff who involved visitors in discussions (or vice versa). During my visit, for instance, a lively discussion evolved around Katie Paterson’s ‘Fossil Necklace’, a necklace made of chronologically arranged fossil beads that emerged from her work in a Cambridge DNA lab. Like me, other visitors were struck by the way the magnifying glasses, that were distributed at the entrance to the room in which the necklace was exhibited, made the fossil beads look like planets: each geologic period appearing as literally another world.
Detail from Katie Paterson’s ‘Fossil Necklace’. Source: Wellcome Collection.
Generally, the layout of the exhibition seemed to promote visitor interaction, as I witnessed (and participated in) more discussions – around the ‘feather village’ work tasks, the different visitors’ explorations of the Pata Picha photography set, or the history of experimentation on colonial subjects that is still on many people’s minds today (here, some books on colonialism and medicine could have been added to the library and reading list that accompanied the exhibition). The ‘Pata Picha’ set even made me venture down to the Wellcome shop to try to borrow one of the giant fluffy microbes I had seen earlier: I desperately wanted to take a picture of me in the ‘humanised’ lab coat examining a ‘humanised’ virus with the stethoscope to carry on the artists’ mission (they might disagree with me here!). Sadly (or for the better?), I wasn’t allowed to temporarily abduct one, so no further boundary object (foreign body?) was introduced…
In case you want to visit – and experiment – in the exhibition yourself, ‘Foreign Bodies – Common Ground’ has been extended until 16 March 2014 (thanks Russell Dornan for the info!) at the Wellcome Collection in London (opposite Euston Station). Free entry!