Image source: Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
‘Why are you going to an STS workshop? Haven’t you moved on to postcolonial studies?’ This question was posed to me by a colleague who seemed perplexed about my continued desire to participate in STS (science and technology studies) related events. By many academics, STS is increasingly seen as the antithesis of politics, and especially as a field that is unable to engage with matters of gender, race and general inequality. This frustration with apolitical appropriations is even voiced by STS scholars who wish to take these matters into account and who are experimenting with forms of political intervention. The workshop that I attended at the Museum for Natural History in Berlin, entitled ‘Dead Wasps Fly Further’, did not start off with a lack of confidence about its political content. Rather it showed how STS is ‘naturally’ political and postcolonial if you look at things properly.
The ‘Dead Wasps Fly Further’ workshop was centred around the exhibition of the same name, put together by sociologist Tahani Nadim and artist Åsa Sonjasdotter to invite a different kind of engagement with the museum’s collections. Casually breaking the ’15-seconds-or-less’ rule of visitor engagement with museum objects, ‘Dead Wasps Fly Further’ challenged the wide-spread ambition to meet expectations of this statistically determined visitor construct. The exhibition was composed of three parts which, according to the description, represented interventions that ‘assemble humorous, poetic and troubling stories about anthropocentric biodiversity, colonial cultivations and cosmic care. ’ In the first instance, display cases with controversial amounts of text narrated stories around three objects: a digger wasp, dust and the sisal agave. The dust section further contained a short film that portrayed dust as an object, but also as a key irritant in the museum environment – dusting taking up an incredible amount of invisible museum labour (about 30% if I heard correctly). Lastly, Tahani Nadim took us on a theatrical tour through the insect collection that destabilised the boundaries between natural/cultural history, subject/object, human/nonhuman. This tour involved her own transformation into a digger wasp, as well as readings and interactions with behind-the-scenes objects such as microscopes, nets and prepared insects.
Image: Sisal part of the exhibition
The concluding workshop promised to ‘stay with the troubles’ of the events and their setting (echoing Donna Haraway’s call), and this is very much what we did. After a day of exploring not only the exhibition and the tour, but also the museum and its wider context (number of specimen, research institutions, institutional affiliations, history, organisation structure, local cultural politics), our reflections first focused directly on what we had seen and experienced. This included discussions of colonial and on-going plant and animal trafficking (I’ll never look at nappies the same was again!), German colonial history, and the current negotiations of museums with their colonial roots and collections. We also shared very different impressions of the kinds of language that was used in her performance. For instance, the use of taxonomical language was perceived as both ridiculously abstract/inappropriate for the description of an organism, and as poetic and appropriately alien. The paper and film presentations that followed drew out and expanded on these themes, and I will try to give an insight into those in the remainder of the blog post. An understated but much appreciated part of the workshop was also an improvised ‘running library’ to which we were invited to contribute throughout the workshop (with hard copies or written suggestions on big paper sheets).
For me, it was particularly interesting to hear about the present engagements of German cultural institutions and of the German government with their colonial past. Walking through Berlin’s streets, I noticed adverts for a German chocolate brand, Rausch, that advertised ‘plantation chocolate’ packaged in ‘timeless colonial style’. The ubiquity of this brand and its advertising, and the lack of political awareness about colonialism was jarring, especially when I heard about other examples of this kind – an apparent resurge in ‘colonial style’ from architecture to product design. Why is the colonial aesthetic still so unproblematically accepted as opposed to, let’s say, the fascist aesthetic? Even today, many Germans seem totally oblivious about the fact that Germany did have colonies, under the German empire as well as the Prussian and Habsburg monarchies. The colonies most discussed in the workshop were German South West Africa (Namibia and small part of Botswana), German West Africa and German East Africa.
Image: Map of German colonies (Wikimedia)
Despite the relative brevity and limited territorial reach of German colonisation, at least compared to other nations, its was absolutely devastating, amongst other things leading to the first genocide of the 20th century, that of the Herero and Namaqua people in 1904. To this day, the German government has difficulties admitting to the genocide, presumably in fear of having to pay reparations. Likewise, German cultural institutions are reluctant to engage with the colonial origins of their collections, in fear of having to return them.
A particularly disturbing example of how institutional practices are still linked to the 19th century (or earlier) was the contemporary plans for rebuilding the Berlin ‘Stadtschloß’ (a former imperial palace). Not only did a German aristocrat lobby manage to persuade politicians to reconstruct the palace, but there has been an initiative to rehouse the region’s ethnological collections in it. These plans have attracted protests not only against the scandalous relations between politicians and aristocrats (in fact, many German politicians are of aristocratic backgrounds), but against the inappropriate dealings with Germany’s colonial past. With Berlin being touted as the ‘centre for non-European cultures’, archives of colonial violence are being turned into a cultural resource: ‘but everyone can learn from us now’. This attitude reflected wider strategies adopted by cultural institutions, which also include having artist-in-residence schemes to legitimise collections (again, the Stadtschloß associated Humboldt Lab/Humboldt Forum was mentioned as an example).
Image: No Humboldt 21 postcards
While it always feels as if such plans cannot be stopped, they at least do not pass without resistance. The ‘Humboldt Forum’ initiative was, for instance, countered with a postcard protest, which used controversial quotes from meetings between protesters and officials, after negotiations were refused. Such examples formed the beginning of our engagement with the question: what do I do when I am confronted with a colonial story? Or, making use of our reference to Nikolai Chernyshevsky and his involvement in an infamous Russian literary debate (all added to the running library): what is to be done? How do I make it heard despite the infrastructures and power structures that persist in suppressing it? Does change makes different things legible or does making different things legible create change?
Regina Sarreiter and Matei Bellu’s project Unerhörter Bericht über die deutschen Verbrechen in den kolonisierten Gebieten und über das fortwährende Wirken der Gewalt bis in die Gegenwart (Unheard/outrageous report on the crimes of the Germans in the colonized regions and the ongoing effect of violence to the present day) represented one quite literal answer in their use of archival sound recordings of Herero and Namaqua people from the time of German colonisation (transcribed by Annette Hoffmann) to make voices heard. After their recording, the testimonies had neither been listened to again nor transcribed. By finally placing the voices of coloniser and colonised into dialogue in an exhibition, an alternative history became apparent. Two major problems with the recordings of colonised that the two researchers identified were that, in the first instance, political statements were never received as such, because the recordings were relegated straight to an ethnological collection: only about a century later were they were receiving attention. Further, there are issues with recording methods which affect representation and restitution. In an example shared by Tahani Nadim, songs were not even recognised anymore by today’s descendants, because of the peculiar recording methods of the time. For instance, people had to stick their head into a gramophone type contraption, and often people had to be made compliant with alcohol to overcome their fear.
Image: from ‘Unerhörter Bericht über die deutschen Verbrechen in den kolonisierten Gebieten und über das fortwährende Wirken der Gewalt bis in die Gegenwart’
Such problems highlighted the issues around restitution – of both physical objects and recordings. With regard to physical restitution, a variety of conventions and ceremonies have developed over the last decades. It was cynically remarked that ‘everything can be done or said in restitution ceremonies but an apology’. Regina Sarreiter presented to us a documentation of a German-Namibian skull restitution ceremony. In this ceremony, the skulls were displayed not only in coffin-like wooden boxes, but also in transparent cabinets, allowing the delegation to eventually see the scientific markings and cuttings on the skulls. This movement from burial object to scientific object back to burial object and back to scientific object again was so powerful that the atmosphere moved from a silent, emotional state to one of outrage and protest. In terms of digital restitution, the first question that surfaced was ‘what does digital restitution mean’? Again, the researchers hit the aforementioned problems of the inappropriate recording methods as well as issues around what to do with non-physical cultural heritage that was taken.
Film emerged as another means of giving voice to underrepresented people and positions. Again, we revisited the exhibition, and especially the filmic representation of dust. The representation of the labour of dusting (my favourite scene was the ‘dusting of the universe’ in the planetarium) is normally completely absent in museum documentaries and anything written about these institutions. Comparisons were made with the ‘museum porn’ of Das Grosse Museum (2014) and with the film Un Animal, Des Animaux (1995). Madeleine Bernstorff then reminded us that, while film is always presented as an accessible and powerful affective medium, it is also arguably the most policed (film as generating, but also disciplining audiences). In addition to introducing us to the creative cinematic history of human-insect encounters through La Peine du Tailon by Gaston Velle, Bernstorff put into sharp perspective the historical difficulty of engaging with colonialism. She evocatively portrayed the extreme problems that film-makers faced under stately and public censorship in the making of works such as René Vautier’s Le Glas (1964), Afrique 50, Afrique Sur Seine and Les Statues Meurent Aussi (extracts of which I had shown during my presentation but insufficiently contextualised). Here, she pointed to the often underplayed genealogy of cinematic counterhistories. As a spontaneous response, Bodil Furu’s Code Minier was screened on the final day as a recent experiment with self and counter representation, being shot with a script and performance by local actors. Code Minier traced the social and environmental impact of resource extraction in the Congo, again fighting with issues of access and censorship.
Les Statues Meurent Aussi/Statues Also Die (English Subtitles)
In my own talk, I also focused on colonial controversies, distilled in the figure of the German ethnologist and archaeologist Leo Frobenius. Although exiled from the academic establishment of his time, Frobenius is now a major figure within German academia, with research institutes and posts named after him. Frobenius was also a key figure for the négritude movement, inhabiting the odd position of a resource to reimagine black identity. However, despite his identification of the ‘barbaric Negro’ as a ‘European fiction’ and his attempt to move African art from the domain natural into cultural history, Frobenius was also an opportunist who appeared to look at the economic side of his endeavour more than anything else. This included his friendship with emperor Wilhelm II, colonial enthusiast and infamous for authorising the systematic massacre of the Herero and Namaqua. His exact biography is still under-researched, partly due to the wartime destruction of the German colonial archive. One of the underlying question of my talk, which for me also reflected the dilemmas of cultural production in general, was: could it be that Frobenius was both a figure of black empowerment and black genocide?
Workshop participants suggested that cultural institutions could take lessons from négritude movement and their grappling with the tension between negotiating cultural essentialisms and the need to acknowledge change. In some ways, participants saw the parallel also in the constant failures of museums versus these failures also carrying the seed for re-imaginations. Here participants suggested projects which included working with the absences of ‘museum objects’ in the countries where they are missing (e.g. Berlin’s and the world’s biggest mounted dinosaur skeleton being taken from Tanzania), or projects that highlighted unacknowledged colonial labour.
I also talked about the relevance of the cosmic in the négritude imagination, and the movement’s critique of science as following an interest in anything that divides, but not unites. This theme of ‘otherness-making’ being embedded in knowledge-making returned us to the subject of taxonomy and its function: what does taxonomy do? Do we interact with it as order or a semblance of order? For many participants, taxonomy functioned both as commons and as oppression. Again, there was a debate about relations – to other organisms, landscapes or power structures. Does it represent interwoven human/nonhuman biographies or does it keep the subject-object divide in place? How does it reflect knowledge and decision making? In this context, participants emphasised taxonomy as an ‘art of attending to details’ and determining what matters and what doesn’t. How are decisions related to what is visible and invisible? Can we live, think and make knowledge without ‘otherness’, and does taxonomy pose or prevent a step towards establishing different ontology? Would such ontologies be automatically devalued – like in the refusal of so many indigenous ontologies? Here, conversations kept going back to a moment in Nadim’s theatrical museum tour in which she says to the unclassifiable wasp ‘we had to develop a new language for you’ (the work of Evelyn Fox Keller on ‘feeling the organism’ was added to the library).
Monsanto Hearings: Opening from Sarah Lewison on Vimeo.
From the on-going repercussions of past colonialism, our attention turned to neo-colonialism in all its shapes and forms, though mostly relating to agriculture and biodiversity. Sarah Lewison presented several examples from her work, which included performative strategies such as organising alternative courts hearings against Monsanto (another set of voices that is currently not heard) and creating awareness of environmental racism in the US and beyond. Lewison’s first example of the North American Cahokia civilisation, which flourished and appears to have perished due to corn monoculture, and Monsanto’s headquarters in the same place, was absolutely striking and underlined the urgency of her work: are these two monoculture empires not only overlapping geographically but also in terms of their historical trajectories? Lewison’s projects involved, as she put it, ‘experimentation with educating ourselves and other white people about on-going colonial histories’. Again and again, participants pointed out the total lack of understanding they encountered from other white Europeans and Americans regarding the on-going mentally and physically toxic practices of colonialism (here, the work of Vanessa Agard-Jones on the toxic legacies of Martinican plantations was added to the library). Speaking of the ‘privatisation of goodness’ by multinationals and other entities, Lewison also implicated academics in this process, through their similar and questionable knowledge-making practices, appropriating language, ideas and concepts.
Discussions of attempts to change narratives continued until the final day. (As an aside: we learned that the biggest storytellers were also the biggest killers of butterflies: Vladimir Nabokov and Walter Benjamin!) Endre Dányi’s presentation prompted a discussion around who or what can tell a story. How can we, for instance, manage the stories and histories of nonhuman public figures in spaces such as that of a Natural History Museum? And how far is this decision-making affected by those we are trying to engage? Animals also surfaced in Filippo Bertoni’s talk. After discussing his experiments with postcards to resituate explorer narratives of Svalbard (here Georges Perec’s 243 Postcards, Allen C. Shelton’s ‘Where the North Sea Touches Alabama’ and Ursula K. LeGuin’s ‘carrier bag theory of fiction’ were added to the library as feminist narrative strategies), he offered an alternative narrative of heroic war history through focusing on an inventor’s dog (Umberto Nobile’s dog). Other participants subsequently added related examples of polar hero narratives versus Sami narratives, the latter being about Sami guides and their animals taking the so-called explorers to the pole.
Image: Svalbard Seed Vault
Elaine Gan offered more provocative reversals, in her case in relation to the ‘invisible modern revolutions’ of agriculture. First making us wish that things were run after a fungal clock, so we can avoid the summertime change that we were uncomfortably subjected to during the workshop, she proceeded with making us wonder whether landscape is a backup for humans and their technology, and not the other way round. Her study of permafrost and rice seed banks, in fact, raised multiple backup issues. Firstly, the surrounding area of the famous Svalbard seed vault was shown to be insufficiently cold to serve as a backup in case of power failure. Here, parallels were drawn between temperature as structuring time in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain (another library addition!) and seed banks. Both relate disturbingly classed and enforced temperature ecologies (can we leave the magic mountain?).
Secondly, the severe punishment of public attempts to maintain biodiversity – as a commons or otherwise – seemingly contrasted with the gigantic efforts to conserve biodiversity in increasingly ridiculous conditions (including ‘seed repatriation’ issues in warzones). For instance, while a diagram of the current rice varieties appeared like an ‘aristocratic family tree where everyone gets uglier and uglier due to inbreeding’, farmers and gardeners were being subjected to ‘seed razzias’ which took away alternative varieties. NGO involvement appeared to make the situation worse rather than better, due to their links with corporations. How is this selective weaponising and policing of seeds to be countered? Again, participants shared examples of people using animals and plants rather than farmers as their strategies and resistance allies. Especially US farmers were being seen as mainly interested in ‘fast farming’ and competitively maintaining ‘clean fields’. By contrast, animals and plants not only had similar interests in maintaining biodiversity, but could also function as seed smugglers (animals being fed seeds etc) or carriers of resistance to ‘modern’ pest control methods (companies having to ‘go back’ to a more diverse stock). The amusing but thought-provoking term ‘non-consensual eco-sex’ also entered this debate as a figure of reversal with humans involuntarily playing host to reproducing organisms.
Video: Elaine Gan ‘Rice Child’ (2011)
Fittingly, our last discussion revolved around the figure of the ‘citizen science’ (and the ‘active citizen’). This figure represented a position that was increasingly difficult to maintain, due to governments increasingly regarding assertive citizens as threats to the status quo. However, it also presented troubles with the figures themselves: who is the citizen here? What image of the citizen do we work with? After all, the citizen is a product of a particular ideology. In German, citizen science translates as ‘Bürgerwissenschaften’, which has strong bourgeois connotations. But there are other troubles: in Germany, as in other countries, the figure has infamously been used to combat what is being perceived as a ‘defiant German population’ in the face of ‘scientific truth’. Many German citizen science schemes have tried to wear down criticism of science, seemingly not understanding that citizen resistance is about a critique of power relations, not science (parallels were drawn with the difficulties of cultural institutions in negotiating cultural divides was also linked to their lack of embeddedness in particular communities and a lack (or refusal) of understanding what is at stake).
In the face of such responses, what is to be done, indeed? A lot, we concluded. Throughout the workshop, we were once again reminded of how representation and power interplay extends across all that is material or even immaterial, and across all scales of existence – from the smallest particle to the cosmic. This is, of course, reflected in the contemporary challenges for changing knowledge making and knowledge dissemination practices. This blog post tried to illustrate some of the avenues that researchers and artists explored to address the different levels of attention. The most important thing that I took home from the workshop was that it is not just important to realise that something needs to be done – or even what needs to be done – but to persist in doing.