Imagining “World Music”

My spot on last week’s Curved Radio programme was on ‘world music’. Since the topic overlaps with my research, I thought I’d post a short summary. Basically, I played three tracks by French bands that are classified as ‘world music’ and have quite different relations with the ‘world making’ of ‘world music’.

‘World music’ has been a controversial term since its conception. Mainly used as a Western marketing term for non-Western ‘traditional’ music in the 80s, it has expanded to included almost anything that isn’t anglophone Western pop music (which, could be argued, isn’t just ‘Western’ in the first place). As South African trumpet player and composer Hugh Masekela, interviewed by Anya Wassenberg for the Huffington Post, describes it: “At one point, the term ‘world music’ was coined,” he remarked dryly. “I woke up one day and people told me I was playing world music.”

Many have argued that it is practically meaningless, other than as a commercial, quasi-colonial construct. In a discussion on Reddit, contributor Scaredoftriangles comments: “World music has always been such a derogatory term to me…pan pipes, chimes, old men in non-ironic wolf shirts selling dreamcatchers.” Indeed, this sight can be experienced at many ‘world music’ events, and even bigger festivals such as Peter Gabriel et al’s Womad. One of the more famous rants against ‘world music’ is David Byrne‘s 1999 New York Times Commentary: ‘I Hate World Music’. In this article, he criticises both its absurdity as a category and its exoticisation. This exoticisation works down to the shape of award figurines given out for ‘world music’. For Wassenberg, the term ‘world music serves to ‘ghettoiz[e] great music’.

At the same time, there have been many defences of ‘world music’, even from people who are uncomfortable with the term. There appear to be two broad directions: the ‘conservation’ and the ‘decolonisation’. The ‘conservationists’ believe that ‘world music’ contributes to ‘discovering’, supporting and thus preserving types of music that would otherwise have gone out of fashion and thus cultural practice. From ‘ethnological’ recordings to Buena Vista Social Club, there is a huge spectrum of attempts to create ‘revivals’, some more successful than others. Advocates of this practice argue that the commercial appropriation, insufficient contextualisation and frequent dependence on Western valudation outweighs the benefits to the culture in question.

The ‘decolonial‘ direction is characterised by the impulse to use Western/non-Western cultural exchange to dislocate the West as a centre. This is also the direction that Curved Radio tries to follow. This direction more or less comfortably unites, for instance, people who have found their world expanded through hearing music from other places, and people who are struggling against losing further ground in the struggle over cultural hierarchies. Here, the entanglement of economic and cultural power are hotly debated, and the various means that could work toward subverting the worlds sonic hierarchies and towards creating a different one. Particularly here, the terms of presenting music from other cultures are constantly negotiated, although this impulse can also sometimes be found with the ‘conservationists’. I tried to illustrate some of these issues through three band that I encountered in France around the same time in the early 2000s: Edgar de L’est, Monkomarok and Lo’Jo.

Edgar de L’est (Isabelle Becker and Edgar Daguier), as the name already implies (a world play on ‘at Gare de L’Est’), hav a very tongue-in-cheek take on ‘world music’. If I remember correctly, I read in an interview that were founded on the idea to sonically imagine other places through music. To me, their chanson, folk and jazz inflected music reflects the German term Fernweh – a longing to be in a far-away place. With titles such as ‘Mon Cowboy’, ‘L’Orient’, ‘Slavinka’, they could easily be accused of exoticisation. At the same time, their music feels both innocent (like a child discovering the world, not being able to go anywhere and contextualise yet) and knowing (playing with Western/non-Western clichés through ‘trashy’ renditions). It is an approach that we have attempted with a song in my own band, now, where we took a ridiculous commercial jingle for Asian food and deconstructed it in a song called ‘Ethnik Snack‘. In the song ‘L’Orient’, Edgar de L’Est use a different method of subversion: they go through every imaginable orientalisation, but also give a look behind the scenes where the lonely, miserable narrator sits drunk in a bed in Paris, a city and sound fraught with its own struggle against commercial caricature. It’s about exoticisation as both a form of sad escapism and as an inevitable perpetuation of that which one is trying to escape from. (I did actually play ‘Slavinka’ on the programme, but now I think the ‘L’Orient’ song illustrates their method best – plus there is a video online!)

The second track that I played was from Toulousian experimental ‘world’ band Monkomarok (Alima Hamel, Laurent Rochelle, Sylvain Fournier, Loic Schild) – who were active from 2000-2008. Their first album blew my mind with its range of influences and its trippy sound. I still love how they worked with tension and energy, it felt like they were using acoustic music (although they sometimes also use synthesisers) to produce an electric surge. The sleeve notes to this 2002 album, entitled ‘Au plafond’, talk about the profundity of their own musical encounters and about creating an imaginary place within them. This is also reflected in the many thankyous to people they count as influences, supporters and collaborators. Their use of vocals is particularly interesting, with Alima Hamel (who is also a poet) singing in languages such as Algerian Arabic, French and German but also experimenting with sound textures. On ‘Au plafond’, she is doing a lot of impressive percussive work with her voice, as well ‘controlled chaos’ vocalisations which make her sound like a human randomizer. For me, this ‘what on Earth is this??’ reaction that the band often elicits, paired with their definite Western and non-Western influences, is an interesting musical provocation – to the imagined commercial ‘world music’ utopia but also to many music genres that appear to have ossified into particular forms such as ‘dance music’ or ‘jazz’. While I played the hypnotic ‘dance’ track ‘Le Sueur’ (Sweat), there is no online recording, so here, instead, is a rare live recording of ‘Au Plafond”s opening refusal, ‘Non Merci’.

The lyrics of this song are remarkable, too, especially through the play on the double meaning of the French word for ‘everyone’: ‘tout le monde’. For the current world to work, everyone is supposed to hide their anger – the machine must run smoothly – but she is celebrating refusal.

Je suis toujours en colère
Ca ne se voit pas
C’est parce que je m’applique
Je fais comme tout le monde
Je trompe mon monde
Je fais semblant

Ani kolwun mkelba
Ndil kime koul ness
Nralat lribed
Ndil bel reni

Ma colère?
Je l’ai soingneusement cousu contre mon sein
Les mains plenes contre mon coeur
Qu’est ce que je deviendrai sans ma colère?
Un pantin raide couleur glaise.
Une machine à fabriquer des ronds.
Une chose parfaite qui ne dit jamais non.
Un indigne mouton borgne sans rêves.
Non merci, sans façon…
Je fais l’apologie du refus.
Je fais l’éloge du pas d’accord
Aini mra ou nogrod wefka
Aini mra ou nogrod wefka

The final track of the show was from Lo’Jo, who are much more well-known in the offical ‘world music’ circuit due to their participation in WOMAD and collaborations with groups such as Tinariwen and Gangbe Brass Band. They initially started out in the early 1980s as a duo or trio (Denis Péan, Richard Bourreau), which seemed to grow into a community that combined music with street theatre, acrobatics, dance, film. The group did not become a more fixed formation and did not record albums until the mid-1990s. The sound of Lo’Jo is frequently described as ‘Gypsy’, tribal, nomadic (initially they were even called Lo’Jo Triban) or even shamanic, as they combine folk music from North and West Africa, Eastern and Western Europe and the Caribbean. I have also seen the term ‘global fusion’ applied to them, and one album review (for ‘Au Cabaret Sauvage’, 2002) reads “Tom Waits meets the Touaregs. Very tasty.”

What drew me to them were their epic, ecstatic sound, that is produced by a super-tight arrangement of string instruments (khora, violin, bass), percussion and vocal harmonies (amazing singers Yamina and Nadia Nid el Mourid, supported by Kham Meslien and Baptiste Brondy on bass and drums). John Lusk from the BBC argues that despite their many influences, they have a distinctive local sound: “As the barriers around ‘fortress Europe’ get ever higher, Lo’Jo’s open-minded and outward-looking approach to music seems to make them more and more identifiably French.” Lusk is quick to point out that around 56% of the French population identify as being of ‘foreign’ background, and that the band’s local support and ties very much contribute to the development of their sound:

“The group’s core still live and work collectively in a farmhouse given them by the mayor of Angers in return for providing local children with musical education. Another municipally inspired boost for the unlikely idealists came with twinning of their hometown with the Malian capital of Bamako.”

In many ways, Lo’Jo personify the utopian and problematic tropes of works music, and I cannot help thinking about them when listening to their undoubtedly beautiful music. The band describe themselves as ‘plantetary troubadours’ who maintain an ‘anarchic garden’ of ‘world rhythms and universal harmonies’, which may raise alarm bells with cultural and especially decolonial critics. At the same time, Lo’Jo emphasise and try to practice cultural exchange on equal terms. In and outside their music campaign for a multicultural French national ideintity (e.g. their song “La Marseillaise en Creole“), and in an interview in the New York Times, where Denis Péan explains: “The name Lojo means nothing. It is just a sound. Basically, Lojo is a school. Everybody learns. Everybody teaches.” For me, the sound and journey(s) of Lo’Jo exemplify that, especially for white ‘Westerners’, different forms of cultural exchange need to be attempted despite the many problems on the way. We all shape world music and the economy and relations it is embedded in, and music is a place as good as any other to start experimenting.

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The cosmology of the tarantella

This Sunday, I am doing a Curved Radio spot on the tarantella (podcast recording here). It follows on from the show in which I talked about the ‘Mexican baroque’ and other black and indigenous influences on early and classical music. Much of it is based on two albums (Los Impossibles and La Tarantella: Antidotum Tarantulae) by an experimental baroque ensemble called L’Arpeggiata, led by the Austrian theorbist/harpist Christina Pluhar. These albums, and the booklets that accompany them, provided a starting point for looking up other versions of the songs they performed, but also more on the hidden histories of music we usually perceive as ‘European’ and devoid of all associations we might have with music from other countries. For instance, we do not often connect European music with ritual, not even when we talk about folk music. We also tend to forget about European histories of trade, travel, war and colonialism, which all brought Europeans into contact with other musical traditions.

L’Arpeggiata’s Los Impossibles album, for instance, features a couple of villancicos, a musical form that was shared across Southern Europe (Portugal, Spain) and Latin America in the 15-18th centuries. This style was known for incorporating instruments, rhythms, speech rhythms and words (actual or made up) from other cultures, such as African or Native American. Although this appropriation was often done in a mocking fashion, satirising the primitiveness of the Other, it nevertheless constituted an influence that then proceeded to move to other musical and poetic forms. The negrillo (such as L’Arpeggiata’s version of ‘Sa qui turo‘ above, another example is ‘Bastiao‘) is an example of attempts to copy African speech and music. It has also been argued that some of this music was used for subversive ends, to express commonalities and even solidarities between poor people from both sides of the colonial divide and their political struggles. Robert Stevenson, in his survey of baroque villancicos, gives the example of a 1677 song by early feminist villancico poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, whose lyrics translate as “tumba, la-lá-la, tumba la-lé-le/wherever Peter enters, no one remains a slave”. The active influence on negrillos by black musicians (from the mid-15th century) has also been documented by Stevenson. Curiously, by the close of the 18th century, negrillos – and villancicos as a whole – were forbidden (by royal edict!) in both Portugal and Spain.

The tarantella, an Italian (and, through migration, Argentinian) folk dance, was popular during a similar time, although some sources date it back to the Middle Ages or earlier. In fact, the beginnings of the tarantella are so obscure that the myths that surround it sound as plausible as the many origin stories that have been suggested across the last 600-or-so years. The L’Arpeggiata booklet samples some of these legends, from medieval field workers’ spider bite treatments to dancing sirens that tried to overcome Ulysses’ resistance to their songs. At its most basic level, the tarantella is a song and dance combo, most often in 6/8 time. Its name appears to reference spiders (or the Italian city of Taranto), and it is commonly portrayed as a highly ritualised cure for spider bites. More recently, anthropologists such as Ernesto de Martino have been looking at 20th century practices of tarantism (you can sample some of their films and audio recordings at the Wellcome Collection archives and also on youtube), and ethnomusicologists such as Giovanna Marini and Diego Carpitella have been been instrumental in reviving research into this cultural phenomenon.

What I find interesting about the tarantella is that its history, whichever one is true, suggests a series of different oppressions, especially from the Church. For instance, it has been proposed that the tarantella is a remnant of Greek/Roman pagan rituals devoted to gods such as Diana or Dionysus that were driven underground by the Church and then became redefined as a medical cure and also a social dance for courtship, funerals et cetera. At a later point, the Church seemed to have intervened again, initially banning the dance and the music. When this containment did not work, they banned the music, forcing performers to solely rely on vocalisations and the use of colours. The Church additionally proceeded to ascribe the healing powers to Saint Paul, in an effort to create, as Jean-Paul Combet put it, “theologically satisfactory explanations” for this obstinate insanity. This suppression has strong parallels with other ‘civilising missions’, for instance, the ban on indigenous and slave music in many European colonies (there is a powerful talk by Tanya Tagaq on the attempt to erase throat singing as a First Nations cultural practice).

The question that always fascinates me is how much music (and often dance, too) is perceived as threatening, even more threatening than words. Not only was the music of the tarantella periodically banned, but also any publications on the topic. So, what does the tarantella look like in practice, and what does it allow performers and ‘victims’ to do? Christina Pluhar, the creative director of L’Arpeggiata, describes the ‘healing’ version of the tarantella as follows:

“In order to overcome the poison, he must overcome the broken equilibrium in himself. On his journey the sick person identifies himself with Nature, whose harmony he perceives through sounds and colours and whose vibrations he absorbs into his body. The sick person becomes the black sun (or black spider) in the centre, surrounded by the planets, which are symbolised by the people and the musicians who accompany him in his quest for healing. It has always been written that each sick person reacts to different melodies, rhythms, colours and instruments according to his own character and the nature of his illness. The appropriate music is found by empirical means: the musicians play different melodies until the sick person reacts and his body begins to move. The healing process can spread over several days of almost uninterrupted dancing.”

For her, the disorienting change and improvisation over recognisably stable repetitive sequences – basically a long quasi-psychedelic jam – serves to dislocate the afflicted person from their current state in order to “restore the cosmic order”. The tarantella serves supernatural ends and therefore constitutes a rival to other providers of supernatural services such as the Church.

While the tarantella may have had an actual function, at least at some point, to keep a person alive after a spider bite – the music would certainly keep a person awake, which is often crucial in the first stages of paralysis or convulsion inducing spider bites – this functionality seemed to spill into spiritual life (or is it the other way round?). What is interesting here is the role of the spider. As Combet describes, different spiders are assigned different moods (melancholia, anger etc) and colours (red, green, yellow or black). Given that the tarantella appears to enable a number of controversial boundary crossings such as gendered behaviour – for instance, the tarantella allows women to express themselves differently erotically and socially (e.g. their role as musicians) – the connection with the lowly but feared spider, an animal mainly encountered by peasants during harvest (Combet writes that some municipalities even paid for musicians to ‘treat’ farm workers, so they wouldn’t get into debt and miss out on work more than necessary), suggests a strategic affiliation with the nonhuman. The nonhuman element appears to permit not just boundary crossings, but extravagant enactments of these transgressions. Pluhar even wonders whether the role of women as not only as singers and dancer, but primarily as percussionists, adds another nonhuman dimension: “woman as the pulsating rhythm of the earth…?” This seems to affirm Athanasius Kircher’s mid-17th century view that “the cosmos was revealed in musical ratios and that musical harmony mirrored universal harmony” (reference source: J-P Combet).

For me, the music-spider-farming-gender-cosmos connections that appear to endure against the onslaught of time feel like a form of resistance to the imposition of a different worldview (monotheism, modernism etc) – a worldview that was perceived as limiting. Here, the role of sound and oral culture stands out as a more successful format than print, both in terms of its accessibility, communicability and destrucibility. So few print works have survived from ancient times, on the tarantella and overall, but we still, despite the inevitable mutation and evolution of the songs and dances, hear the same songs, the same lyrics, the same themes (the lyrics are often in old and/or local languages such as Griko). While the lyrics may not speak of political or spiritual struggle – the lyrics often seem quite bawdy and rude, speaking of voluptuous women, heartache, inebriation, food, poverty, madness, death – they feel like a Bakhtinian/Rabelaisian use of the grotesque as a celebration of that which is being excluded from official culture. Some of my favourite lyrics accompany the intensely percussive Pizzica Ucci: for me, they represent an undisguised mockery of the Church’s attempt to clean up the spiritual side of the tarantella via an association with St Paul:

St Paul of Galatina, pardon this young lady!

St Paul of tarantulas, pinch the girls’ bottoms.

St Paul of serpents, pinch the boys’ balls.

The imagery is brilliant in its takedown of the officially ‘highest’. It is also funny and highly understandable, qualities that assure its wider appeal and transmission. The music, too, despite its filtration through a variety of contexts, instrumentation and other ‘treatments’, powerfully transmits a concept. Whether it is the maddening speed and repetition of the pizzica or the frighteningly grating ‘harmonies’ of the funeral laments, a tarantella almost never fails to disturb and/or arouse, even in its most sanitised renditions. There is something raw and alien about the dance, the music, the lyrics – or all three of them at once – that makes you want to know more about it. While no one may ever be able to trace the tarantella’s exact history and purpose, it is perhaps sufficient that it has survived and continues to trouble and inspire, from women in rural Italy to people in unexpected locations, searching for a different connection to the world than one is supposed to be having.

Notes: This post follows on from Protest music: questions of travel (2013)

The Curved Radio show that features the tarantella spot broadcasts on Sunday 14 May 2017, 11pm – 2am Sydney time, 2-5pm UK time.

British Academy/Leverhulme Grant for Mutable Matter Workshop


Image: David Alfaro Siqueiros ‘Cosmos and Disaster’ (circa 1936)

Mutable Matter will be hosting its first workshop this year, generously supported by a BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grant and Warwick Social Theory Centre. The workshop, entitled ‘Cosmos & Crisis: interdisciplinary conversations’ will be taking place in late Summer/early autumn. More details coming soon!

“Hidden Figures” and the pursuit of excellence through diversity

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A couple of weeks ago, I watched the film Hidden Figures, after a friend (thanks, Donnamarie!) recommended it to me. As a black British woman, she was blown away by this piece of history – three African American women who contributed, as NASA employees, to putting an American into the Earth’s orbit. What we both liked about the film was not just the uncovering of the phenomenal achievements of these women against the obstacle of white supremacy and misogyny, but how much the story still relates to current times, both in terms of issues and the kind of rhetoric that is used.

For example, in the film, there is a scene at a barbecue where NASA employee Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monaé) talks to her husband about going to court for taking classes to become an engineer. Jackson is generally encouraged by her friends and the Jewish scientist she is working with, because her potential success might open up paths for future generations. Her husband, however, initially cautions her against entering a system that is effectively designed to take its fuel from her while burning her in the process. This tension is still very much present in contemporary debates, for instance, the one surrounding ‘why is my curriculum white?’: should we, as non-white students and academics, join the academy and attempt to make it less racist, or should we try and create something outside of a system that is racist in its foundation? This conflict has, for instance, been sharply dissected in the work of Kehinde Andrews.

hidden_inspection

A key moment in the film, for me, was the scene where the white boss of Katherine Goble (later Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson), an incredibly talented black mathematician, asks: “why are we not as good as the Russians?”. While asking this question he is surrounded by all the talent that could help them achieve the same or better results, but is completely oblivious to it. Neither Goble nor the brilliant supervisor and programmer Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer), nor Mary Jackson – or any of the other African American “computers” – are even recognised as humans. They are even denied access to the very means – programming books, computers, classes, scholarships and even toilets and coffee – that would enable them to contribute. Everything about that moments feels totally nonsensical: the space race feels like an idiotic alpha male competition that somehow made it to the international scale, the absurd extent of racism and the resources put behind it adds another layer of incomprehension, and, overall, the way the project is managed seems utterly in opposition to what is desired to be achieved. As another friend cynically put it: exploitation works best if everyone is exploited equally and made to want to be exploited.

hidden-figures-hf-228_rgb-e1483623580966

Having recently done some work in relation to the Race Equality Charter Mark, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the current rhetoric of “excellence” in diversity committees. There, the argument that is often made is that diversity is needed to achieve excellence. At the same time, it is plainly obvious that while this rhetoric is rolled out at every opportunity, the most brilliant people are still being systematically pushed out, often by the same dynamics as shown in Hidden Figures (all-male panels and decision-making boards, moving the ‘finish line”, lack of support, ignorance towards other embodiments of excellence). What Hidden Figures highlights against this background is that real excellence is not actually desired, because it would mean disturbing the way things work and disturbing the narrow logic of competition to which we have become accultured. To me, it is no coincidence that nearly all of my living intellectual heroes are working outside of the academy, in sports stores, FE colleges, manual jobs, where they have no institutional support. The few who manage to remain in academia, often as tokens of ‘diversity’, often have to make do with insecure contracts, are pressured into leaving or are simply not promoted. Many are moving abroad, through the added injustices of Brexit and other destructive immigration regulations.

A recent article in the Timed Higher Education touched on this issue, sadly without getting to the bottom of it. The author lamented that “young academics’ research is elegant but not interesting”, because they are afraid to speak out and end up self-censoring. Instead, according to the author, it was the senior academics who seemed to present more daring arguments. What is missing from this analysis, again, are the ‘hidden figures’: the people whose work is too challenging for hiring panels, for funding bodies, or whose work is being appropriated by professors without credit. ‘Excellence’ is rarely found at academic conferences, but in the growing para-academic spaces that frequently overlap with activist and artist circles. As Jack Stilgoe put it in a related rant in The Guardian: ‘excellence tells us nothing about how important the science is and everything about who decides’ (for a more elaborate analysis, see this article by Moore et al).

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The film also nicely showed how efforts to progress are being undermined by supposedly natural allies, in this case, white women. Not only did Kirsten Dunst’s supervisor character “Mrs Mitchell” participate in the oppression of her black co-workers, but she effectively sabotaged herself. Another layer of failed alliances was added through the reviews of the film where at least one woman performed the same move as the white female supervisor by devaluing the race dimension. And, like her, she would probably have to reacted to the criticism in a similar manner:

Mitchell: “Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all.”
Vaughan: “I know you probably believe that.”

This line is brilliant, because it so poignantly summaries the kind of rationalising that people perform to justify violence. The allies who supported the women in the end were men – the women’s husbands, the Jewish scientist and the boss who desperately needed the black women’s skills (partly also in order not to lose his own job, or, as one reviewer put it, he is ‘too busy to hate‘).

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What makes this film so successful (quite a few people I have spoken to since have reported standing ovations from black audiences), Donnamarie suggested, is the fact that is provides so many different angles on the subject. Everyone can find a way into discussing it, whether through race, gender, family and workplace dynamics, science etc. This certainly worked at the café where we talked, and there have, of course, been many articles in the media, from the NASA website to black community newspapers. While progress might not proceed in linear ways, a film like Hidden Figures illustrates that the lucky constellations that bring progress do not just depend on co-incidence, but also determination. The film’s clear parallels with today give a prompt to all possible audiences of this film to not repeat history, but continue the work of creating a better one. As “Mary Jackson” put it at the start of the film, when the three black women manage to turn a potentially dangerous traffic control by a white male police officer into a police escort to take them faster to work: “I’ll tell you where to begin”.

“Less a juncture to control than an adventure to be had” – Working with Michel Serres and Mikhail Bakhtin (2005)

mixingdesk
Image: “Abyss” by Alpha Coders

While working on my section for the forthcoming Routledge International Handbook of Interdisciplinary Methods, I stumbled upon an old essay on researching with Michel Serres and Mikhail Bakhtin. It is one of three essays that I wrote in 2005/2006 for the social theory module of my MSc in Human Geography Research Methods at the Open University. I had stopped being a Fashion student in 2003 and had worked on my own for two years to develop a theoretical project. At the same time, I was negotiating the future of my art practice and how it might sit within an academic framework as a “method”. The MSc, and especially this module, gave me the opportunity to explore a lot of different theories and experiment with my writing. There are quite a few essays and working papers that I have never published, but am thinking of re-editing for teaching use. When I ran the Theory Surgery at the British Library café, the Serres/Bakhtin essay often came in handy as an example, and I was planning on publishing it, however I gradually became unsure about it, because I felt I had moved on in theoretical and stylistic terms. Looking at it now, I think it already shows some of my current themes, although I would probably turn to different philosophers now for the same questions due to the growing influence of feminist/queer/postcolonial critique on my work. Despite this shortcoming, I feel that it still offers some useful prompts, which is why I have decided to upload it after 12 years on my hard drive. Here, then, is some vintage Mutable Matter – even including adorable references to Open University ‘audio-cassettes’!

Less a juncture to control than an adventure to be had –
Working with Michel Serres and Mikhail Bakhtin (pdf)

Abstract

What is it like to work with the ideas of Michel Serres and Mikhail Bakhtin as a researcher, especially as an early career researcher? How might their ideas and experiments affect you at various stages of your research, from asking questions to writing for particular audiences? In this essay, I  focus on themes in their work that resonate with my own project, which considers the relation between the human and nonhuman in method, and also incorporates sensory methods. The themes of communication, invention and responsibility are discussed through Serres’ and Bakhtin’s non-linear philosophies, represented through the gods Hermes and Janus respectively. After some more project focused discussions, I end on a set of general observations on the relationship between theory and method or ‘practice’.

Otto Freundlich “Cosmic Communism” @ Museum Ludwig, Cologne

Museum Ludwig, ML, Ausstellungsansichten Ot­to Fre­undlich - Kos­misch­er Kom­mu­nis­mus, Ausstellungszeitraum18. Fe­bruar – 14. Mai 2017, Köln

Museum Ludwig, ML, Ausstellungsansichten Ot­to Fre­undlich – Kos­misch­er Kom­mu­nis­mus, Ausstellungszeitraum18. Fe­bruar – 14. Mai 2017, Köln

I am currently working on my book on ‘Cosmic Materialism’, supported by Warwick Social Theory Centre. The book looks at the role of science and the parallel re-evaluation of alternative cosmologies/ontologies in the anti-colonial and anti-totalitarian movements of the interwar period. The artist statement in this exhibition (h/t Gesa Helms) is very exemplary of how the cosmic was envisioned as a provocation to contemporary politics:

“For him [Otto Freundlich], abstraction expressed a radical renewal that went far beyond art. For instance, the curved patches of color in his paintings reflect the concept of space in Einsteinian physics, with which he was familiar from an early age. Still, overcoming representationalism also had a social dimension for him. As he saw it, every form of material perception was permeated with possessiveness and thus outdated: “The object as the antithesis to the individual will disappear, and with it the state of one person being an object for another.” He always viewed the harmony of the colors in his paintings in the context of the greater whole. The notion of communism for which he fought sought to abolish all boundaries “between world and cosmos, between one person and another, between mine and yours, between all the things that we see”.”

Needless to say, this book (and this exhibition) isn’t sadly just about the past.

Otto Freundlich
Cosmic Communism
February 18–May 14, 2017
Opening: February 17, 7pmMuseum Ludwig, Cologne
Heinrich-Böll-Platz
50667 Cologne
Germanywww.museum-ludwig.de
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