Performa 17: Afroglossia and Circulations

This interview with Performa curators Adrienne Edwards and Charles Aubin appeared online in Mousse magazine:

Agnieszka Gratza: As well as being Performa’s chief curator and director, RoseLee Goldberg is overseeing the South African pavilion this year, and you’re looking after Afroglossia while Charles Aubin is curating Circulations, Performa17’s performance and architecture program. Perhaps you could start by explaining how you divide tasks.

Adrienne Edwards: Typically what happens is that RoseLee has some instinct or inclination about what she might like to focus on in the next biennial. And so, in 2015, she said to me, “I think we should do a geographical focus on Africa,” and I thought, great, since my areas of expertise have always been the African diaspora and the Global South. There’s a profound openness at Performa; you might get a prompt, but the curators themselves actually develop programs. Each curator owns their platform in the context of the biennial, and then that platform gets assigned a set of producers who work closely with the curators and the artists to make whatever we’ve dreamed up over a two-year period happen.

AG: Besides Afroglossia and Circulations, there’s a third research theme which is Dada. Who looks after that? Or is it subsumed into the other themes?

AE: With each biennial there’s a historical research anchor that operates a little differently than the curatorial platforms. That historical anchor doesn’t always end up as a program in the biennial. In 2013 we did Surrealism, and then Russian Constructivism and Futurism. Dada came up early on as a result of the centenary of Dada. It is something we were thinking about over a two-year period leading up to the biennial. For example I did a program called “100 Degrees above Dada.” I invited Yvonne Rainer and Adam Pendleton to collaborate. I saw in both Adam’s “Black Dada” project and the way Yvonne works with language some Dada sensibilities. They developed a beautiful film together called JUST BACK FROM LOS ANGELES, which features the two of them.

AG: Let’s focus on Afroglossia, which is a term you coined, I gather. Could you explain what you mean by it?

AE: “Polyglossia” is the word I’m drawing from. The afro is replacing the poly. The “many” of this term has been used to point to the multiplicity and complexity that is Africa. Glossia is referencing the voice, the fact that there are many voices from one geographical area. All the artists in Afroglossia are born in the 1970s, except the guys in the Nest Collective. So they came of age around independence, and there’s a historical fashioning of the individual in that context and its relationship to the collective. There were some shared sensibilities, a desire to point to something opaque but working with it in a fairly abstract way, whether that be in language, the way they use imagery, or how they draw upon sound and music.

AG: Africa is vast, and yet it’s often treated as if it were a country—the United States of Africa. But it isn’t. Why should Morocco and South Africa have any more in common than, say, two countries at opposite ends of Europe?

AE: You’re right, Africa is not a country, and I remember having extensive discussions about the fact that there’s a kind of impossibility to even trying to approach Africa in such a way. And yet there’s also a historical, utopian project around pan-Africanism that’s even bigger than just the continent of Africa. It encompasses the entire diaspora. Even if pan-Africanism is a complicated, historically failed project, it’s been useful in imagining the possibility of a kind of African commons. That said, that’s not really what Afroglossia is about. These are different voices out of various countries, and I don’t think I’m trying to connect them any more closely than that.

AG: I noticed that there’s a particular focus—despite the diversity of the places where the artists come from (many of them also live in New York and other Western places)—on Nairobi and East Africa. The Kwani Trust, Wangechi Mutu, and the Nest Collective all have ties with this region.

AE: The amount of things happening in Kenya is mind-boggling. It is just so rich in terms of real experimentation that is interdisciplinary. The Nest is primarily known for their video and film work but they’re also in fashion, and they make art animations and drawings. Performance itself as a notion gets stretched a bit in the context of the biennial. With Kwani, the journalists, writers, and people who collect oral histories are looking at lived experience in a way that is politically engaged and also cultural. They have poetry and music nights, all kinds of ways in which they animate the cultural scene of Nairobi.

AG: Would you say that there’s an emphasis on literature and the spoken word in your program, as the “glossia” in the title suggests?

AE: It’s certainly evident in the work Yto Barrada is doing, something that is all about voice: her mother’s voice, correspondence, records and interviews of figures her mother was with on a tour of the United States in 1966. Teju Cole is known not only as a critic but also as a novelist and an essayist. And Tracey Rose is working with two writers: one in the United States, one in Cameroon. They’re developing a script as part of a poetic performance that, like Yto’s, is about sieving archives, narratives, and oral histories.

AG: You said that the notion of performance is stretched in the Performa biennial, which seems right to me; as a result the performative element is somewhat elusive.

AE: Each project is like a container for the various ways and artist works. So with Yto, for example, you’ll see her textile works, her photo prints, her film, you’ll hear her sing; they’re all these things that people could experience in one way or another in relation to Yto’s work, but this time it’s all sitting in one space.

AG: But that one space doesn’t appear to be very distinctly about performance.

AE: It depends on what your expectations of performance are. For me, performance is interdisciplinarity. There’s a live component, but it’s not the only one. These kinds of commissions have always had various visual art elements in the experience.

AG: Would you say that there are any overlaps between Afroglossia and the South African pavilion?

AE: All the other pavilions, since we started the Pavilions Without Walls in 2013, have been with European countries. There’s an infrastructure and an apparatus in place to support the presentation of European artists around the world. Such a thing does not exist for a country like South Africa, so it was very important for us and RoseLee in particular, who is from South Africa, to do a deep dive into that country. There are some overlaps with Afroglossia and shared sensibilities, certainly an interest in the ethical, social, political dimensions of art making.

AG (to Charles Aubin): The Glass House, where you are working today, is one of the iconic architectural venues your program will occupy. How did this particular project within your program come about?

Charles Aubin: A year and a half ago, I mentioned in passing to Jimmy Robert that the Glass House is a strange extension of the New York architectural landscape, with all the different pavilions that Philip Johnson built here on the site. Jimmy told me about Dan Graham’s Kammerspiel, a book he’d read by Jeff Wall on Graham’s work. In Jeff Wall’s text there’s a whole section discussing how at dusk the artificial light inside and the darkness outside create a choreography of reflections of the self in which the transparent walls become mirrors. And this is where Jimmy started bringing in questions of identity and representation.

AG: And in particular black representation, I gather.

CA: Exactly. And the more research we did, the more interesting this site became because of either repressed histories or some elements of Philip Johnson’s biography, in particular his romantic relationship with the Harlem Renaissance cabaret figure Jimmie Daniels.

AG: Which seems fitting given the overall emphasis on Africa and its diaspora in Afroglossia especially.

CA: Adrienne and I have conceived of the two programs Afroglossia and Circulations on their own, but we have sometimes posed similar questions that can be addressed through performance. With the Glass House but also Marching On—a project with Mabel Wilson and Bryony Roberts commissioned by Storefront for Art and Architecture—political questions of identity were very much our concern. Bryony has been researching the political role of marching bands in African American communities and parades coming from military US tradition at a time when African Americans had participated in world wars, but were not granted the same civil rights.

AG: You’re also editing a publication with Carlos Mínguez Carrasco from Storefront for Art and Architecture.

CA: The way that I conceived of Circulations was as a curatorial platform with a discursive aspect in the shape of a symposium on November 11 and a book that Carlos and I are coediting. One of the impulses for the book and the program is the renewal of interest in ephemeral, event-based actions from architects since the 2008 financial crisis. That’s something you can see in The Other Architect show that Giovanna Borasi, who will be speaking at the symposium, curated at the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

AG: I was struck by the variety of “performative” disciplines in Circulations, from poetry to singing to choreography and marching bands. Did you opt to give as wide a spread of possible fields that architecture can have an impact on, and vice versa?

CA: For me, performance is not so much a discipline as a tool. It allows visual artists to expand on their work in space, and it’s this kind of nexus where an artist can actually borrow from different disciplines. It’s more of a strategy, if that makes sense.

AG: Could you comment on the title Circulations?

CA: I was interested in this idea that architecture is a space where bodies are allowed or not allowed to circulate in different ways, and that there’s a kind of implicit choreography that is somehow directed. Politically, it’s a complicated moment and I wanted to open up this notion of circulation toward more political concerns: Who gets to circulate and how does that happen? This question is embedded in François Dallegret’s Bubble circulating in different parts of the city, trying to create this kind of movement.

AG: Dallegret’s Bubble, which embodies the degree zero of architecture, has never been realized until now. Was it easy to construct?

CA: The Los Angeles–based architect François Perrin, who had curated a show of Dallegret’s work, came up with this idea that we should build the Bubble for the first time. To be honest, the most simple and minimal forms are somehow the most complicated ones to make. The Bubble, as Dallegret conceives of it, is a place for reprogramming interactions between inhabitants. That’s why the choreographer Dimitri Chamblas was brought in as a dance workshop leader. For us, dance was going to be a tool to activate the Bubble.

AG: This kind of reprogramming is also at the heart of Alex Schweder and Ward Shelley’s practice. Their biennial offering, The Newcomers, was originally going to be a nomadic architectural installation. What came of that?

CA: The very initial idea, which proved impossible to realize for security reasons, was a suspended structure that would be assembled and disassembled and moved every day over a period of ten days. We were looking at various sights. Among the different options we had 28 Liberty downtown, an iconic International-style skyscraper, which contrasted with what Ward and Alex were planning in terms of a more nimble, ephemeral mode of thinking about architecture. An architecture that mutates or produces its own constant reshaping.

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We Come from the Sea

This essay, which starts from a quote by Joan Jonas, was commissioned by TBA21-Academy Journal:

 

Speaking at the first of the Structured Conversations (“Unpredictable Oceans and the Monstrosity of the Sea”), held at Cochin Club in Fort Kochi, Kerala during the opening of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale on 13 December 2016, artist Joan Jonas mused:

We come from the sea. We don’t think about it very often but […] our semi-circular canals are similar, our eyes are similar, we have backbones. And the fish grew little legs and came out of the sea and then developed into what we are today. There are different theories about how that happened. My idea is that we have a memory of that. Somewhere in our unconscious we remember that we come from the sea. It’s not a memory; it’s a feeling; it’s in our DNA. I think that’s where all these stories come from and our desire to go back to the sea, our desire to swim under water, which I love to do… I did love to do.

This dense cluster of ideas, from which the present essay stems, would be developed and illustrated by Jonas the following evening, in what the artist insisted on calling a “demonstration talk” (to distinguish it from a fully worked-out performance) staged in the public Vasco da Gama Plaza. Modestly titled “Oceans – sketches and notes”, the talk with its performative elements was an experiment that – by her own admission – marked a new departure for the artist, even though some of the accompanying images and music, notably by Jonas’s habitual collaborator Jason Moran, had appeared in previous works, above all her project for the US Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, They Come to Us Without a Word (2015). Taking over the pavilion, the installation prominently featured bees as well as various aquatic species and yet, as Jonas explained during the Structured Conversation, by “they” she meant specifically the fish.

Jonas’s remarks spoke to me for a number of reasons. An avid swimmer, like Jonas, I always felt that nothing quite compared to the sensation of well-being verging at times on euphoria that full immersion procures – and nowhere more so than in the sea. But in May 2015, what had hitherto been by and large a leisurely pursuit took on a more adventurous turn. Just as Jonas’s installation in the US Pavilion was being unveiled, I was asked to write about swimming in the sulphurous waters of the Santorini caldera at the outcome of a week-long residency hosted by the Santozeum Museum in Thera. Volcanic swimming, as I soon discovered, can be quite addictive. In the last two years, I have swam inside crater lakes and sea-flooded calderas from São Miguel in the Azores to Hachijo-jima in the Izu Islands of Japan; around volcanic plugs and islets in Iceland and California, off of Stromboli and Nisyros; in the acidic pale green waters of Ijen volcano, a working sulphur mine in East Java. I knew I was hooked but could not easily explain to myself why I took to this somewhat eccentric pursuit with all the eagerness of a budding collector.

Some of the swimming, writing and thinking on the subject of swimming as an aesthetic and quasi meditative activity, which for me felt as natural as walking and breathing, have taken place in the context of self-assigned “immersive residencies” in Li Galli, on the Amalfi Coast, once thought to be the dwelling place of the mythical sirens (of the half-bird, half-human variety) and hence known by the alternative name of Le Sirenuse; at Roni Horn’s VATNASAFN / LIBRARY OF WATER in Stykkishólmur, a small harbour town on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in Iceland; and, most recently, in preparation for the “Growing Gills” project involving a research residency on the Aeolian Island of Stromboli facilitated by the Fiorucci Art Trust. The working title for this collaborative venture that brings together four female artists, all of us keen swimmers, seemed fitting for a project setting out to stage long-distance group swims in an extreme natural environment. Yet it took on a whole new meaning once I started unravelling Jonas’s poetic statement in an attempt to grasp what it implied.

In the summer of 2015, the Portuguese artist Marta Wengorovius invited me to São Miguel in the Azores to help her elaborate the concept for an exhibition that was to take the form of a map of the island.[1] One afternoon we drove out together to Lagoa do Fogo (“Lagoon of Fire”), a crater lake within the Agua de Pau Massif stratovolcano, situated right in the centre of the island of São Miguel, whose shape on a map recalls that of a whale. It might have been the centre of the Earth. As we went down into the caldera, along a path cutting across a thick growth of endemic plant species that looked positively antediluvian to me, the lake’s distinctive crescent shape with its twin udder-like strips of land jutting out into the middle of the waters gradually disappeared from view. The water I swallowed while swimming from a sandy beach to the other, more barren side of the lake, peopled by a colony of seagulls and terns, tasted sweeter than anything I had ever swam in before. Nothing could induce me to go out. From then on, Marta took to calling me “Agnieszka the Fish”.

What on one level is but an idle metaphor, a manner of speaking, when looked at from the vantage of phylogenetic classification is simply stating a fact. To quote British paleontologist Jennifer A. Clack, whose expertise lies in the field of evolutionary biology,

although humans do not usually think of themselves as fishes, they nonetheless share several fundamental characters that unite them inextricably with their relatives among the fishes. If one of the aims of classifying animals is to reflect their relationships and phylogeny, then inevitably humans and other tetrapods fall within the same grouping as other members showing these characters and sharing the same common ancestor.[2]

Simply put, phylogenetics investigates how closely different species are related in evolutionary and historical terms to work out their “phylogeny”; in the case of molecular phylogenetics, this is done by comparing DNA sequences in the genomes of organisms, which contain information about the historical evolution of the organisms in question. Humans as well as all other mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians living today are descended from four-limbed vertebrates known as tetrapods (literally meaning “four-footed”). The tetrapods themselves evolved from archaic Sarcopterygii or lobe-finned fishes about 370 million years ago in the late Devonian period – an interval of the Earth’s history appropriately, for our purposes, dubbed the “Age of Fishes”. As Clack points out, in phylogenetic classification tetrapods are Sarcopterygians (fish with lungs and bony-limbed fins) while humans in particular are Ostreichthyans (more commonly referred to as “bony fish”).

Since we are not only descended from fish but – one could argue – fish full stop, it stands to reason that there should be many similarities between them and us. In the excerpt from the first Structured Conversation quoted at the start of this essay, Jonas briefly evoked the semi-circular canal (in other words the hearing apparatus), the paired eyes and backbone or spinal column we have in common with all vertebrates, not just fish. To these, in the lecture demonstration proper, she added the fact that our embryos have the same shape, just as our skin, hair and teeth are fashioned from the materials fish are made of. According to fish paleontologist Neil Shubin, whose popular BBC documentary series Your Inner Fish: An Evolution Story Jonas invoked in the discussion at the Cochin Club, a “shared anatomy” binds us to fish. If our skeletal architecture and other anatomical features are remarkably alike this is because, as Darwin argued, at some stage in the distant past we shared a common ancestor that displayed these characteristics too.[3]

In On the Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin noted the close resemblance of the species at the embryonic stage, which he took to prove his theory of “descent with modification”. After stating his belief that animals have descended from “at most only four or five progenitors”, and in the case of plants possibly even fewer, he posited that “probably all the organic beings that have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form into which life was first breathed”.[4] The concept of the last universal common ancestor (LUCA), from which all organisms currently living on earth are descended, is in keeping with Darwin’s hypothesis. By comparing the DNA letter sequences from a vast pool of genes stored in DNA databanks a team of evolutionary biologists has narrowed down 355 genes that would appear to have originated in the LUCA: a single-cell microbe that lived some 3.9 billion years ago (bearing in mind that the earth began to form 4.6 billion years ago). That’s not to say, however, that life started with the LUCA; it is simply our earliest known common ancestor.

There is evidence to support the claim that the LUCA lived in a hydrothermal deep-sea vent setting, as in submarine volcanoes where erupting magma mixes with sea water, but from there to suggest that life as we know it originated in a marine environment is quite a leap. (Some scientists working in this field think warm pools on land were a more likely scenario, arguing that the energy provided by the sun’s ultra-violet light was key to life’s origin.)[5] Yet the tantalizing suggestion that the LUCA may have dwelt at the bottom of the ocean in a geochemically active environment rich in gases, if anything bears out Jonas’s assertion that “we come from the sea”. For me personally, the deep-sea  vent hypothesis goes some way to account for the elemental appeal of volcanic swimming.

The LUCA pre-dates tetrapods – the first truly terrestrial creatures that emerged from water onto land, which they began to colonize in the late Devonian – by about 3.5 billion years. But the freshwater versus marine origin is also a moot point when it comes to our more recent ancestors. New fossil evidence has challenged the widely-accepted view that the earliest tetrapods as well as the lobe-finned fish from which they descended inhabited rivers and swamps. It is now believed that the earliest known tetrapods dwelt in the diverse ecosystems of intertidal zones, marine lagoons and the like, subject to retreating tides that left behind a network of inland tidal pools, more or less removed from the sea.[6] This scenario can  accommodate Alfred S. Romer’s influential theory, outlined in his pioneering study Vertebrate Paleontology (1933), according to which those fishes that evolved limb-like appendages were at an advantage when it came to reaching the nearest body of water over dry land, in the event of being stranded. On this view, our fishy forebears developed limbs not in an effort to gain ground but rather to regain water.

The many theories explaining why and how the tetrapods left water and evolved limbs fitted with digits that Jonas evokes but does not dwell on are necessarily provisional and speculative. What is certain is that the major evolutionary shift from a body equipped with fins and gills for underwater respiration and swimming to one with limbs and lungs allowing the animal to breathe air and walk was not so much a leap as a gradual process of adjustment. “The Greatest Step in Vertebrate History: A Paleobiological Review of the Fish-Tetrapod Transition”, led by John A. Long and Malcolm S. Gordon, concludes that the complete transition was staggered over some 25 million years and involved various intermediary groups of animals – from sarcopterygian fishes to prototetrapods, aquatic tetrapods, true tetrapods and terrestrial tetrapods – who went from swimming to swimming, paddling and walking, and then to paddling and walking.[7] (The sturdy limbs ending with digits will have been an asset for underwater paddling as much as for venturing out onto land.) These changes in the modes of locomotion went hand in hand with the reduction of the reliance on gill breathing, progressively replaced by lung and subcutaneous respiration, and eventually discarded altogether.

Neither was the transition irreversible. Rather than a move in one direction – from water onto land – driving forward the historical evolution of the group of animals from which the air breathing and walking land mammals that we are arose about 100,000 years ago, a back and forth between land and sea ensued. There have been plenty of instances across the ages of tetrapods reverting to semi- or fully-aquatic lives. Those still around today include cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), sirenians (manatees, dugongs) and pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, walruses). Independently of each other and at different moments, all developed bodies fit for survival in water. Take whales, for example, whose closest common ancestor is the hippopotamus; they evolved from walking land mammals and have remnants of hind limbs to prove it. The same is true of sirenians (though their closest relations are elephants and hyraxes), who are fully aquatic creatures that live on land’s edge in marine estuaries, coastal wetlands and rivers. Otherwise known as sea cows (possibly because they are herbivorous), manatees as well as other equally fleshy species of sirenians were still designated as “mermaids” by sailors well into the nineteenth century, and may lie behind the widespread belief in fish women.

Written in 1964, Italo Calvino’s “The Aquatic Uncle” – one of several literary references in Jonas’s lecture-demonstration – beautifully illustrates in condensed narrative form many of the ideas explored throughout this essay. The tale belongs to a collection of twelve short stories called Le cosmicomiche (“Cosmicomics”), each focusing on a significant event, a milestone in the history of the universe. Presented as the recollections of “old Qfwfq”, the narrator and protagonist of the story, “The Aquatic Uncle” is a family saga doubling as a love story, set at the end of the “water period” against the backdrop of earth settlement by prehistoric creatures at different stages of transition from aquatic life to inhabiting dry land. But it is above all a tale of paradoxical return to the sea, flying in the face of the seemingly inexorable march of evolution. On the face of it, the narrator’s betrothed Lll, whose very name has sci-fi overtones, is an unlikely candidate for such a conversion. She and her kin having skipped the swimming phase that Qfwfq and his own less evolved relatives still had to go through, Lll is a land creature through and through, darting forward, leaping about, even standing on her hind paws in one climactic moment – a sort of Future Eve that the infatuated narrator is awed by: “in her I saw the perfect, definitive form, born from the conquest of the land that had emerged; she was the sum of the new boundless possibilities that had opened.”

Enter Uncle N’ba N’ga. The narrator’s venerable relative, who inhabits the muddy shallows of a lagoon that were the breeding grounds of Qfwfq’s fish ancestors, is impervious to all entreaties of his concerned family when they try to get him to come ashore and live like the rest of civilized folk. One day the narrator reluctantly introduces his fiancée to him, dreading her reaction. Nothing could be more at odds with the pioneering spirit Lll embodies than his unashamedly fishy uncle, flapping his gills like a true monster, making rude comments, and propounding unfashionable views about the superiority of water respiration over air breathing. And yet, far from scathing, Lll appears won over by his reasoning. On a repeat visit, she queries: “Don’t you think, Uncle, that if we wanted to learn to breathe under water, it would be too late?” The obliging uncle gives her a demonstration followed by swimming lessons, and soon ousts his nephew from Lll’s affections. As she revels in how finely her paws work as fins, her spurned lover wryly comments about this being a “big step forward”, before assuring her: “Nobody can turn back!” But Lll begs to differ. She has made up her mind to marry the uncle and become a fish again. The future, for her, is aquatic.

 

[1]“UM, DOIS E MUITOS – UMA ILHA EM EXPOSIÇÃO”, Museu Carlos Machado in Ponta Delgada (31 August-26 November 2016).

[2]Jennifer Alice Clack, Gaining Ground: The Origin and Evolution of Tetrapods (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), pp. 17-18.
[3]Episode 1, broadcast on BBC Four on 9 June 2015.
[4]Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (London: John Murray, Albermarle Street, 1859), pp. 483-44.
[5]See Nicholas Wade’s article “Meet Luca, the Ancestor of All Living Things”, published in The New York Times on 25 July 2016.
[6]Clack, Gaining Ground, pp. 129-132 and Steven A. Balbus, “Dynamical, biological and anthropic consequences of equal lunar and solar angular radii”, in Proceedings of the Royal Society A, 2014 470, p. 2.
[7]Physiological and Biochemical Zoology (Sept-Oct 2004), 77: 5, pp. 700-19.

Céline Condorelli

This interview with Céline Condorelli, on the occasion of her solo show at Stroom den Haag, appeared in Metropolis M magazine in Dutch translation:

Image result for celine condorelli stroom den haag proposals photo

Céline Condorelli: Proposals for a Qualitative Society (Spinning) photo: Gerrit Schreurs, courtesy Stroom Den Haag

Agnieszka Gratza: Attempts to Read the World (Differently) is an umbrella project that has many different strands, in which you took part either with other artists or on your own, with Display Show which morphed into Another Reality. After Lina Bo Bardi at Stroom den Haag. And you’re about to do a show there involving spinning tops and carousels.

Céline Condorelli: We’ve been working together for the past two years on a series of linked projects but Stroom is also supporting my research long-term which is really exceptional for an institution. When I was invited to contribute to Attempts to Read the World (Differently), I didn’t know what that would be like. I was trying to think of a starting point that would lead me somewhere. It took quite a long time; that’s the nice thing about a research-based invitation. We started thinking about what ‘reading the world’ meant. At the time, I was interested in forms of display which for me is a way of reading the world: the way things are shown and the way we are able to approach them. Of course that’s very much what’s at stake in exhibition-making. Any kind of presentation of culture has to do with display. So that was my entry point in the ongoing project that started from Display Show with Gavin Wade and James Langdon.

AG: I gather that Display Show had two prior editions in Dublin at Temple Bar Gallery and then at Eastside Projects in Birmingham.

CC: The final one is at Stroom, which allowed us to put some of the displays to work. We started from three historical positions and a contemporary reading – one of El Lissitzky, one of Herbert Bayer, one of Eileen Gray – and these works were then used to display other works on display in the second iteration at Eastside Projects, and were later transformed again for the iteration at Stroom den Haag, which was probably the most complete one but also the most complex one. Part of our argument is that in order to look at something like display, which is a relationship between things, you need to put it to work – to display things and use artworks to display other artworks. That was a really interesting show to have at Stroom.

The work on Lina Bo Bardi came out of the conversation with Stroom programmer Francien van Westrenen. In November 2015, we went on a study trip to Brazil together to visit Lina Bo Bardi’s buildings and decided it was important to look at her, first of all, in relation to forms of display but also through how contemporary practices use her work or refer to it or make further work from it.

AG: What would you say the difference is between a historical approach and the way a contemporary artist such as yourself might approach Bo Bardi’s work?

CC: Well, what was shown wasn’t Lina Bo Bardi’s work but works born from reading or referring to her. There was a Leonor Antunes that refers to the floor in her house; a Wendelien van Oldenborgh reconstruction of one of the display systems with material about the social, historical and political economy of Brazil; there were works of mine in relation to a show that Lina Bo Bardi did. People who went to see the show looking for Lina Bo Bardi materials were probably disappointed because there was not even one. What there was were her ideas and how they live today through contemporary artists – a lot of women, actually mostly women.

AG: Francien, in an email to me, described Display Show transforming into Another Reality. After Lina Bo Bardi as a ‘choreography’ which you jointly set up. Can you describe this process?

CC: We did not finish one show, take all the work away and then do a second show. Each work was removed one by one and then other things appeared every week and in that way the process of construction of display was made public. Something like that relies on having a very good team that communicates what’s happening because there are people walking into Stroom seeing boxes and things not looking finished for a period of three weeks, so it’s really important that an institution communicates what is happening and why that’s important or interesting.

AG: What about the exhibition you’re currently working on with Stroom?

CC: It starts from a drawing by Lina Bo Bardi of the museum of contemporary art in São Paulo, the MASP, with a playground on the square. She said that the museum should contain a collection, popular arts (and by that she meant craft, ‘arte popolare’) and a playground. Then there’s ‘A Model for a Qualitative Society’ by Palle Nielsen for which he turned Moderna Museet in Stockholm into an adventure playground. This was not an educational program; it was the main exhibition and he really meant it as a case study for a society constructing itself.

AG: The dates of these two projects, 1969 and 1968 respectively, are quite close. Is that a coincidence or were they aware of each others’ work?

CC: I had no idea. I don’t know if they even heard of each other because they were in very different parts of the world. Lina Bo Bardi never went back to Europe after she moved to Brazil in 1946; she might have visited her family in Italy but I don’t think she was very present in Europe and she wasn’t famous.

AG: But what is it that made you want to bring these two projects together?

CC: They’re references that help me think through this idea of display, on the one hand, and secondly I’ve been interested for a long time in thinking about undoing a certain elitism of contemporary culture. Even a four year old knows that they’re not supposed to touch anything in a museum. This idea that culture should be something you look at from a distance is a strange construction, one I don’t necessarily agree with. Intimacy with culture is, I think, extremely important.

AG: Francien told me that the objects you’ll make for the exhibition are designed to be handled and touched, which is not ordinarily allowed in a museum.

CC: The playground is a recent addition but I’ve made museum benches, for instance, as artworks – another object in the museum that’s not normally part of the art but is nevertheless in the room. The idea of a playground or play object is related to objects I’ve been making for a long time but also to this idea of intimacy with form that’s not normally allowed with cultural objects. Even more so perhaps because it relies on an interaction with children, not exclusively, but mostly with children who of course have a different encounter with form – as something to climb on, sit on or play with; the body is very important in that encounter. It’s not just vision, the eye or the ear.

AG: What is the relation between the spinning tops and the carousels?

CC: The spinning tops are models of the carousel, miniatures if you like. The first thing I made were carousels for MASP.

AG: This was for the group show called Playground in 2016?

CC: Yes. There were two carrousels called Conversation Piece, one inside the museum and one outside, on the square on which Lina Bo Bardi had imagined a playground that was never built. I thought it was doing some kind of poetic justice to complete her project in a way that she wanted by restituting the carousel for it.

AG: And why are they called Conversation Piece?

CC: I thought it was non-verbal conversation between people and form, form and the social. Like this interaction I was trying to describe that is of the body rather than the intellect or just of eyes.

AG: And how did people in Brazil react to this work?

CC: I don’t know really, but the one feedback I got was through Instagram; that’s how you know how people interact with you stuff and there’s a number of Instagram posts of people photographing their children, making little films with the carousels, posing, or whatever. That I think is the biggest compliment.

AG: Well, I hope it will be the same at Stroom. I’m sure it will be a fun show.

CC: It doesn’t really have a title yet. What we’ve constructed is another conversation between exhibitions and public art, which is also something that’s often missing in contemporary art. The public art category is completely separate – different artists, systems, places, exhibition practices – and I’ve always wondered why. I think I fall somewhere in between those two and so I had this idea of showing a series of carousels in the exhibition space, working with local schools. They would pitch in order to choose one for their own playground, so at the end of the exhibition the carousels would leave the exhibition space and become public art but also just infrastructure in local schools, properly public objects. This allows me to have a series of workshops with kids making spinning tops and colouring them, which will inform the making process, the production of the carousels themselves.

AG: Are these carousels and spinning tops merely inspired by Lina Bo Bardi’s and Palle Nielsen’s ideas or do they more directly reference the form of these works?

CC: The reference is in function, not in form. I try to apply their program. I take it as instructions. And then that’s interpreted or produced through forms that are entirely my own.

AG: I know you’ve curated a Puppet Show at Eastside Projects in 2013. How does that relate to your interest in spinning tops and carousels?

CC: For me everything is connected; it might not be clear from the outside. My interest in puppets is in relation to sculpture, putting things into the world that are not dead but articulate – they speak – and in many ways any cultural production speaks for itself independently of its authors up to a point. Playgrounds or play objects articulate certain ideas of what playing, childhood and culture are. Play is supposed to be low culture.

AG: Perhaps we could probe this notion of play and what potential, subversive and other, it holds.

CC: I think that play is a direct relationship with form, objects. It’s exactly this relationship of intimacy that I was trying to describe. But it’s also a relationship to objects in which objects are somehow instruments for things; not that dissimilar to musical instruments. When you play a musical instrument, you use the object to create something: a piece of music, an experience. The musicians take enormous care of their instruments because they need them to perform. You touch the object in a specific way in order to get it to do something.

That’s exactly the way toys work, especially spinning tops. But I also think that the playing child changes the relationship to the city. This is something Palle Nielsen describes quite well. He doesn’t mean the Moderna Museet as an educational side program for children; he really means it as a case study of human society.

AG: If I understood what went on at the Moderna Museet correctly, it was a radical proposition; it effectively meant that only children could fully experience the exhibition. Do you know Coram’s Fields in London?

CC: Sure.

AG: I’ve always been drawn to it.

CC: Have you ever been?

AG: No, because you need a child to get in.

CC: You can borrow children. That’s how I’ve went there!

AG: I love the world-upside-down you get in such places, which is also what Johan Huizinga talks about in his study of the ‘homo ludens‘, the carnivalesque aspects of it. ‘Play is the work of children,’ Maria Montessori said. In a child’s way of apprehending the world, there’s huge potential for reform of society at large. But I’m not sure what makes it so.

CC: Children allow adults to understand collective work in a completely different way. It’s also about not being burdened by existing models, a kind of spontaneous participation. I’m not a children’s or play specialist at all; I’m just interested in taking the idea of authorship and the construction of process-based culture from the hands of artists alone, and protected objects.

AG: This strand of the Stroom program is in fact aimed both at adults and children. I’m equally fascinated by the idea of playgrounds for adults.

CC: What does that mean?

AG: For one thing, they’re not aimed at children: they’re playful outdoor spaces for adults to unwind in. I’ve not tried them out myself, but they were becoming fashionable in New York when I lived there in 2012. Are the sorts of structures you’ve set up in the offices of Kunsthalle Lissabon and which will now take over Stroom playgrounds for adults?

CC: It’s a good question. I don’t really like the word ‘participatory art’ but, like with most things that require or can have an interaction with the public, as an artist you’re only partially in control. What I try to do to the best of my abilities is to offer things, constructions or situations that can be interpreted at different levels; a two-year old child can use it to climb on when he’s learning to walk or an adult can use it to sit on and have a completely pretentious conversation. I would really like to make the contexts that can be used in those two ways and other ways in between.

AG: Yes, but do you think these objects are a kind of one-fits-all size? I like the fact that you have spinning tops which are scaled versions of the carousels.

CC: They are 1:20. The spinning tops are 15 cm and the carrousels are 300 cm in diameter.

AG: And is that a size more suitable for children or adults? I mean that of the carousels.

CC: Carousels are quite big things. I think both and neither. It could be fitted for giants as well. They’re a bit low for giants perhaps.

AG: How many carousels will there be at Stroom?

CC: Three. They’re all inside. At the end of the exhibition they will all be outside.

AG: They’ll end up with the schools you’re working with.

CC: Francien is trying to work on having one in a public square which, if it happens, would be really wonderful.

AG: How did you select the different schools involved?

CC: They’re schools that Stroom has been in touch with. They often work with schools or school children for their public program. It’s a conversation that’s been happening for the last year: finding local schools that were interested and suitable; getting public funding from the city to allow this to be done properly. There’s a tradition of playgrounds built by artists and architects in Holland. Aldo van Eyk made some 300 playgrounds for Amsterdam. I’m intervening within an already existing tradition.

AG: Besides Van Eyk, the show will be referencing architects and designers such as Constant Nieuwenhuys, from what I’ve heard.

CC: You’ve got Palle Nielsen and Lina Bo Bardi. Nieuwenhuys did these play structures for museums that are quite interesting but I don’t know if they’re going to appear in the show. Isamu Noguchi also did lots of play structures but I’ve only seen them in photographs. There’s a book by Peter Friedl called Playgrounds I really love that has photographs of playgrounds from around world and one by Nils Norman on adventure playgrounds, which is also great.

AG: Will you show any documentation from this history of adventure playgrounds?

CC: I’ll try and have some context there. I don’t think it will be archival stuff but more to do with how it’s been used. And there will be a library as well, a bibliography for the project.

AG: Are there any other elements to the show, besides that, the spinning tops and the carousels?

CC: No, that’s it. That’s the important bit. Can’t get too distracted.

Taste of Things to Come?

Seen from the top of a mountain overlooking the fishing village, Henningsvær resembles an archipelago of islands loosely strung together, not unlike Lofoten as a whole. Bathed by the sea, some of the oldest volcanic rock formations on the Lofoten peninsula can be found on the edges of the settlement, right behind the sports arena known as Henningsvær Stadion – one of the locations of this edition of LiAF, in fact. For the first time since its inception in 1991, the biennial, which in the past has mainly been held in the larger, neighbouring towns of Solvær and Kabelvåg, took place within the confines of Henningsvær. Due to the decline of the fishing industry to which it owes its wealth and the ongoing threat of oil rigging, the town faces an uncertain future, thus lending itself beautifully to the theme chosen by curators Heidi Ballet and Milena Høgsberg for this edition of LiAF, titled I Taste the Future.

As it happens, the works by some twenty artists and artist collectives featured in this year’s LiAF – a good mix of international, Norwegian and locally-based artists with a connection to the place – are spread across three atmospheric, dilapidated venues that were former sites of fish production, before closing down in the 1980s and 90s. Is this the taste of things to come? I was left wondering. The largest of the three, Trevarefabrikken, an old cod liver oil factory turned into a cultural centre boasting a bar and a cafe, was the designated festival hub. Youmna Chlala’s blue neon installation,  one of (all too) few site-specific artworks to be located outdoors, deftly availed itself of the skeletal wooden racks visible all around the village that are still used to hang cod out to dry. Part of a larger text-based work spanning the three venues – How Many Tongues Does It Take to Make a Color? (2017) – the sign read “Here We Cut Tongues”, in keeping with Chlala’s poetic claim that “In the future we will weave, cut and preserve tongues in the hopes of preserving languages. If blue is the horizon of colors will it appear infinitely?”

Written out in cobalt blue letters, the latter was inscribed on the wall in a room of Trevarefabrikken with sweeping views of the sea and the jagged mountains beyond it. In the same room, packed with people at the opening, I witnessed the start of Adam Linder’s roaming performance To Gear a Joan (2017) enacted by Stine Janvin Motland. Sporting parts of an armour fashioned out of carbon fibre over a plain grey outfit, the pale Norwegian vocalist looked the part of Joan of Arc or else a “future Eve” as she moved around slowly, in a controlled manner, and repeated Linder’s lyrics in an eerily high-pitched tone, over and over, like some incantation. As she stood by the vast square window dominating the room, Motland appeared to vie for our attention with the breathtaking scenery. “We’re not in competition but in conversation with the landscape,” Chlala would tell me later.

Not all the artists saw things this way, though. Eglė Budvytytė’s Liquid Power Has No Shame (2017), another choreographic performance that spilled out of Trevarefabrikken onto the streets of Henningsvær, saw the three Brussels-based performers pitted against the landscape, “refusing to surrender to [its] romantic pull”, to quote the festival booklet. Clad in gold hooded jackets bearing fanciful octopi motifs, the dancers moved languidly down a wide street, followed by their audience and the amused gazes of local youths, until they reached a rocky promontory overlooking the sea, where they carried out peculiar, mildly erotic rituals. These involved round colourful urchin shells from which the dancers poured out water into each others’ navels, drank it and then spat it out into a shallow pool of water nestled in the rocks.

Imagine a future with no humans
The festival’s very title suggests a way of apprehending the future through the senses. The sense of taste itself was represented by Liv Bangsund’s People’s Kitchen project, which during the opening weekend served up delicious free lunches cooked with food past its sell-by date in a bid to raise awareness of food waste in Norway and beyond. But the titular “taste” stood for an all-round sensory experience. “We could have called it I Smell the Future,” Høgsberg explained at a press briefing on the day of the opening. Or indeed I Hear the Future, given the prominence of audio works showcased in the festival. Daisuke Kosugi’s audio guide, for one, invited participants to follow specific instructions, directing them to specific places located in and around Henningsvær Stadion’s football field. This resulted in a silent choreography as visitors – each in his or her own world yet dimly aware of other people’s movements – listened to two different versions of the audio with four discrete tracks on it, ranging from the upbeat 1947 song “I’m My Own Grandpa” to what the artist referred to as “hell tourism” stories (apparently a popular genre in Japan), inspired by a folk tale about a monk who travelled to hell and back. These briefly captured my interest but soon I found myself drifting away from the football field to inspect the curious gneiss formations thought to be some 25-million-years old; the work could hardly compete with the scenery in this instance.

Kosugi’s recordings challenge us to imagine a future with no humans in it. At the outset of her own “outdoor sensory tour”, which was among the opening weekend’s highlights, Elin Már Øyen Vister  also reminded those who went on it that cod fish were coming to those shores long before humans ever did. Her contribution to LiAF, Dear Henningsvær and the Ocean that Embraces You! (2017) –  a title that reads like a love letter – engaged with the village and its setting to a greater degree than any of the other exhibiting artists. Már Øyen Vister, who lives in Lofoten, is well aware that it takes a long time, sometimes years, to make a site-specific work worthy of the name; she admits that on this occasion she only spent two months at Henningsvær in the run up to LiAF, getting to know the place according to her usual practice: first by walking around and meeting the landscape, sounding it out, deep-listening to it, and then by getting to know its people and their stories.

Sea Sámis
Unlike Már Øyen Vister’s audio walk that visitors could go on by themselves, and which engaged with various actors (both human and non-human) and aspects of life in the fishing village, the tour at the opening weekend focused more firmly on the Sea Sámi people and their culture. By living in the area, the artist became aware of Norway’s colonial history and present as regards the Sea Sámi, which she was not taught at school. Her work in the context of LiAF attempts to address this but it does so in a way that I found somewhat troubling. On the tour that I attended, we were led towards two women sporting traditional Sámi costumes presented against a stunning natural backdrop of sea and land that was, at least implicitly, presented as rightfully their own. This despite the fact that, as far as I could ascertain, neither one of them – singer Elisabeth Misvær and translator Heidi Birgitta Andersen respectively – actually comes from Lofoten. Given the regional disparities between the Sea Sámi people, reflected by the very different costumes the two women wore, Már Øyen Vister may have cast her net a little too wide, particularly if her aim was to convey to us the fruit of her research into local lore and oral histories.

Már Øyen Vister was not the only LiAF artist whose work touched on the fraught Sámi question. Besides Sorry (2014), Siri Hermansen’s informative documentary built around film footage from King Harald’s official apology (“for wrongs inflicted on the Sámi people by the Norwegian State through policies of hard Norwegianization”) made at the opening of the Sámi Parliament in 1997, the second floor of the Nordbrygga venue housed sundry drawings by Danish archaeologist Povl Simonsen, whose pioneering field studies in the 1950s showed that the Sámi people were the first inhabitants of some parts of Northern Norway. These were selected by Silje Figenschou Thoresen, an artist of Sámi origin, and presented alongside found objects and sculptures of her own. When I asked her how Simonsen’s drawings related to the biennial theme, the artist’s response was that the work “talks about the past, and we will always do that in the future”.

This was certainly true of Marysia Lewandowska and Neil Cummings’ video Museum Futures: Distributed (2008) that one could view in a black room right next to Hermansen’s installation. Commissioned by Moderna Museet to mark its fiftieth anniversary in 2008, the work imagines a live virtual interview between Moderna Museet’s executive director Ayan Lindquist and a Chinese archivist, Ms Chan. Set in 2058, fifty years from now (at the time of its conception), the dialogue flits back and forth in time, spanning a century of the museum’s history – roughly half of which is speculative. The fictive scenario at the heart of Museum Futures: Distributed mirrors the curatorial premise behind this edition of LiAF: Ballet and Høgsberg had asked artists to project themselves 150 years into the future. None of the participants took this literally, as Høgsberg admitted on the day of the opening, explaining that this brief was intended “to move past apocalyptic scenarios and get into a more playful way of thinking”.

A Cyborg Manifesto
Unsurprisingly, given the approach encouraged by the curators, several works on view nodded to Donna Haraway’s 1984 A Cyborg Manifesto. The feminist theorist and her convention-defying life style are sympathetically portrayed in Fabrizio Terranova’s feature-length documentary film Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival (2016), screened in a dedicated projection room. The Cyborg Manifesto informs Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s video TEETH, GUMS, FUTURE, SOCIETY (TGMFS) (2016), which turns an adornment associated with hip-hop culture – the gilded “grill” worn over teeth – into a futuristic prop that a group of four Memphis-based actors dons as they  read out from and discuss the Cyborg Manifesto on a makeshift stage inside a suitably modernist-looking building.

Haraway’s influence and her brand of feminist science fiction make themselves felt in the cyborg-like, female or androgynous, creatures who are a ghostly presence in the works of Adam Linder, Lili Reynaud-Dewar, Marysia Lewandowska and Neil Cummings, and above all Ann Lislegaard. “Billy”, the cyborg whose effigy looms large in Maelstrømmen (2017) – Lislegaard’s 3D animation for two screens set amid industrial machinery at the Trevarefabrikken – is made in the artist’s own image, albeit with shaved hair that significantly alters her appearance. In conversation with Milena Høgsberg at the opening weekend, Lislegaard said that one of the reasons why she has long been interested in science fiction as a genre is precisely that it explores gender issues and sexuality in interesting ways.

But Haraway’s ideas were also invoked by artists whose work gestures towards alternative forms of communication, not only between humans but also, intriguingly, between different species. Lislegaard’s cyborg Billy appears to be hearing the voices of other beings, which he attempts to capture by holding up his hand to his ear. Occasional glitches in the transmission that keep the viewer engaged, as far as the artist is concerned, recall the odd slip in the otherwise implausibly articulate debate that Cummings and Lewandowska’s two female protagonists engage in. Ms Chan and Ayan Lindquist seem to be browsing materials lodged in their heads even as they converse; the future technology that enables this is taken for granted (it comes with its own vocabulary) and never spelled out.

A similar haziness surrounds Filip Van Dingenen’s concept of “interspecies diplomacy”, illustrated by the case of seaweed. Van Dingenen, who spent time learning about traditional seaweed cutting and farming in Ireland, has since joined the ranks of worldwide activists fending for the legal rights of seaweeds, faced with the reality of mass harvesting. The artist sees seaweeds as sentient beings endowed with spiritual qualities. At the opening weekend, we had the chance to get more closely acquainted with a variety of locally-sourced specimens that Van Dingenen collected especially for his Seaweed Cutting, Collecting and Conservation Project (CCCP) workshop. This was to be sure a pleasurable activity that appealed to more than one sense, yet I came away feeling none the wiser as to how this particular instance of interspecies communication was to work, nor what the artist meant by “new forms of diplomacy” in our dealings with seaweeds, other perhaps than his insistence on addressing them as “sea plants” – a more politically-correct term, grant it.

The artworks that made the deepest impression on me at this year’s performance- and video-heavy LiAF were undoubtedly the ones that acknowledged the surrounding scenery and worked with it, not in defiance of it. On the whole the curators struck the right balance between different media; and yet, despite Lofoten’s famously unpredictable weather, a case could be made for having more outdoor installation pieces and fewer video works whose projection requirements kept visitors cooped up inside the main festival venues.

 

Roberto Cuoghi: Perla Pollina

This review of Roberto Cuoghi’s “Perla Pollina” at MADRE, Naples appeared in Mousse magazine:

The accidental title of Roberto Cuoghi’s midcareer retrospective, which the press release attributes to “the erroneous effects of an auto-correct program,” invites various possible readings. A reclusive and enigmatic figure who has been known to shun the art establishment, the Italian artist cultivates a hermit-like persona. The titular “pollina,” suggestive of chicken manure, put this critic in mind of Aesop’s fable about a rooster who finds a jewel in a dung heap only to cast it aside, since in his eyes the gem is no substitute for plain corn. It has certain affinities with the playful name Cuoghi adopted in one of his earliest self-portrait series, Il Coccodeista (1997), a made-up word that conjures the cackle of a hen. In an interview quoted by the show’s curator, Andrea Bellini, in the opening essay of the lavishly illustrated monograph accompanying PERLA POLLINA, Cuoghi suggests that “pearls are an illness of the seashell.” Not unlike the tumor-generating cancer—a diseased outgrowth and error in the order of nature—pearls are excessive in every way, and yet we set great store by them.

It would be fitting, for an amateur of the fugue such as Cuoghi, that his retrospective should take the form of three iterations of growing complexity. Whether this will happen remains to be seen. Of the three exhibitions, all curated by Bellini—starting with his home institution, the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, and traveling to MADRE, Naples, and then on to Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne, over the course of a year—only two have taken place to date.

If these are anything to go by, there is a conscious effort on the curator’s part to vary the presentation of the selected works that goes beyond the constraints created by the exhibition spaces. By and large the same individual works and bodies of work, showing Cuoghi’s artistic evolution in the last two decades, feature in both shows, from the early self-portraits for which the artist subjected himself to all manner of grueling (and much-discussed) experiments to the ceramic crabs in the 2016 Putiferio series and the kilns in which they were fired. If anything, the inaugural show at the Centre d’Art Contemporain is the more complete of the two when it comes to the number of works on display. Moreover, the sound installations documenting Mbube (2005), Mei Gui (2006), and Šuillakku(2008) (which, admittedly, were not the most successful part of the Geneva show, as the headphone presentation failed to do justice to the complexity of these choral works) are not shown at MADRE. Instead, a seminar focusing on this aspect of Cuoghi’s oeuvre will take place during the exhibition.

Cuoghi tends to work in cycles and series, obsessively exploring a given technique or method that requires him to master a set of skills, until his interest is exhausted and he moves on to the next thing. Works belonging to each series were grouped together in Geneva in a roughly chronological fashion on the third floor (where most of the drawings, diary works, maps, and some of sculptural pieces were displayed,) resulting in a more coherent show. Those same works were deliberately mixed and matched on the corresponding (second) floor at MADRE, in a way that brought to light possible connections between discrete cycles and suggested new readings of individual works.

Take for instance Megas Dakis (2007), an astonishingly lifelike profile portrait of the Greek collector Dakis Joannou in the guise of a Roman emperor minted on a coin. The fleshy wax effigy, complete with human hair, morphs in places into strange hybrid creatures—doll and animal rolled into one. Unlike at the Centre d’Art Contemporain, where this was the centerpiece and focal point in a dedicated room, at MADRE the work was hung behind one of the Pazuzu sculptures, named after the demon of wind in Sumerian mythology, whose face in this instance bore Cuoghi’s likeness; rather than Joannou’s portrait, it took center stage. In Geneva, the work was shown alongside prints and wonderfully absurd reproductions of deep-fried surgical instruments that form part of Joannou’s collection; the fourteen works in question appeared mounted onto the wall in single file, spanning three communicating galleries in Naples, but taken out of context their overall impact felt somewhat diminished.

In lieu of the shrine to Joannou as a patron and collector, toward which the different rooms on the third floor of the Centre d’Art Contemporain built up, the eight smaller gallery spaces at MADRE strikingly featured a collector’s room. Minimally furnished with dark-wood period furniture, which served to display some of the artworks, it brought together a range of ceramic crabs, a layered map of the world, and prints of surgical instruments, hung salon style, beside the dark painted portrait of yet another maimed art aficionado, staring back at the viewer with his one intact eye. Staged in this way, familiar works by Cuoghi took on the aura of wonders produced by nature and art alike—the sorts of objects one would expect to find and marvel at in an eighteenth-century gentleman’s Wunderkammer, which incidentally is what Cuoghi’s own studio is like.

 

Florence Hercule at NMNM

This review of “Florence Hercule. Le nouveau Robinson” at NMNM Villa Paloma appeared in the May 2017 issue of Flash Art International:

 Hercule Florence, Sem titulo (canoa de Guatòs, ao por-do-sol), ca. 1835, watercolor and China ink on paper, 32 x 43,5 cm - Collection C. H. Florence -  Leila et Silvia FlorenceHercule Florence, Sem titulo (canoa de Guatòs, ao por-do-sol), ca. 1835, watercolor and China ink on paper, 32 x 43,5 cm – Collection C. H. Florence – Leila et Silvia Florence

Meticulously researched and documented, this captivating show co-curated by artist Linda Fregni Nagler and NMNM’s Cristiano Raimondi brings together a vast array of drawings, watercolours, prints, letters and manuscripts that shed light on the remarkable achievements of the nineteenth-century draughtsman, printer and inventor Hercule Florence (1804-79). Born in Nice but raised in Monaco, this self-styled “new Robinson” is little known outside of Brazil, where he settled and worked for much of his adult life, after taking part in the ill-fated Langsdorff expedition (1825-29) into the Amazon that cost the German leader Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff his sanity and the French painter Aimé-Adrien Taunay his life.

Florence’s studies of the Amazonian landscapes, its flora and fauna, as well as indigenous tribes and their customs hold pride of place in the show alongside the finely illustrated diaries he kept during the expedition. Yet this forgotten figure from Brazil’s colonial past deserves our attention today for his subsequent discoveries: innovative proposals for a system of musical notation of bird song and animal cries; a sixth architectural order, the Palmian; and more or less successful experiments with different printing techniques, including “photographie” (a term he coined in 1833 for a technique of printing with light) – a few years before Daguerre was credited with the invention of the photographic medium.

Commissioned works by five international artists, three of whom live in Brazil, provide a welcome contemporary twist to an exhibition which might otherwise flag owing to the sheer weight of archival materials. Formally varied in approach, they pick up on different aspects of Florence’s oeuvre, whose ongoing preoccupation with copying and recording informs Fregni Nagler’s own artistic contribution. Lucia Koch’s translucent silk curtains printed with subtle colour gradients drawn from Florence’s enchanting watercolour series of cloud-strewn skies are one of the exhibition’s highlights.

Oceans: The Forgotten Habitat

This interview-based piece appeared in Chinese translation in the Conference Room section of LEAP magazine (April issue):

Hosted by Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21), The Current Convening #2 took place in Fort Kochi, Kerala on 13-15 December, 2016, coinciding with the opening of the third Kochi-Muziris Biennale which was dedicated to, among other, water and hidden rivers. Set up by TBA21 founder Francesca von Habsburg together with artistic director Markus Reymann, The Current is a three-year exploratory fellowship program dedicated to research on the oceanand specifically the Pacific Ocean and its archipelagoes. In addition to The Current fellows and expedition leaders Ute Meta Bauer and Cesar Garcia, who took part in recent expeditions to French Polynesia and Papua New Guinea aboard the Dardanella, TBA21’s own research vessel, this Convening brought together participants from the fields of art, ecology, law and policy-making to examine what the arts can effectively contribute to the debate concerning such pressing ecological concerns as climate change and deep-sea mining. The following text is excerpted from the three “structured conversations” or round-table discussions that engaged with the ocean as a mythical space, a complex ecosystem as well as a legal entity.

1. Unpredictable Oceans and the Monstrosity of the Sea

UTE META BAUER The ocean today is less explored than outer space. The three “structured conversations” address the urgency to protect the oceans as an irreplaceable resource for all forms of life and as habitat for tens of thousands of known and even a larger number of unknown species. Humankind has long seen the ocean as an unknown, monstrous and imaginary space. Such a view has been shaped by our limited experience of the oceans and is fed by mythological and cultural narratives that have been passed down from generation to generation. As the planet is confronted by unprecedented challenges in the age of the Anthropocene, including climate change, the rise of the sea levels, pollution of all sorts, overfishing and most recently seabed mining, it’s more important than ever to reexamine our relationship to the sea, to respect its manifold and complex ecosystem, to imagine new possibilities for coexistence. Admitting how little we know might also change our personal and collective attitude towards this large and powerful entitythe ocean.

DANIELA ZYMAN If the oceans are the last frontier, what does it mean in terms of the monstrous? Is it no longer the Leviathanthe mythical or biblical figure of the animal creature? Is the monstrous a figure that has more to do with global economies and the consequences to the oceans and the environment developed out of outrageous extraction strategies? One other picture of monstrosity: the Mediterranean that has lately become a graveyard of vessels and boats and people trying to cross the Mediterranean in the hope of accessing different forms of life. This has brought up again the need for us to intervene in those spaces with a regulatory system, trying to reconnect and create on a humanitarian but also a regulatory and ecological level new forms of legal bodies and entities that would allow this forgotten space to be redrawn and given a sovereignty that it has never had.

2. Ocean as Habitat: The rights of nature and the international law of the sea

T J DEMOS My provocation will be to try to get you to reconsider the term climate refugee” and what that means. What happens when the ocean becomes a kind of “sacrifice zone,” a term that environmentalists use for when areas of oceans or land become dedicated to forms of extraction that basically give up any hope of saving or preserving an ecosystem’s integrity? We’re living through the sixth mass species extinction; we’re entering into a period of a mass refugee crisis where we’re running out of refuges.The humanitarian desire is to produce the category of “climate refugee.” It’s an incredibly problematic category. Climate refugee is not even recognized within international law. A lot of people, including in the Maldives, would resist this category because it tends to produce a victimizing objecthood. In certain ways it’s a fatalistic discourse that gives in to the end result of rising seas and submersion and the loss of territories. A term we could think of in relation to this: wishful sinking.

MARKUS REYMANN The ocean offers a habitat for 90 per cent of the species. So far we’ve mainly talked about one, which is human. If we’re talking about reconsidering the rights of nature and the concept of common heritage of mankind, or humankind, then we need to consider organisms other than the big charismatic ones, the dolphins and the whales that have pushed legislation forward but only because we can create empathy for them. But what happens to all these organisms down there at the bottom of the sea that have the sedimentation of one millimetre per square meter per year? […] The organisms down below are not to be mined; if anything, they’re to be farmed.

D. GRAHAM BURNETT The future of the protection of the ocean lies in the codification of rights in nonhuman creatures, from the microorganisms that are capable of metabolizing complex minerals right up the food chain to the charismatic megafauna that we can create a cognitive or an emotional relationship to. You’re not going to get people to take seriously the need for a legislation unless you can make them care. This was what did happen when people mobilized to save the whales and get an international moratorium on commercial whaling; that happened because a bunch of visionary folks, Greenpeace and others, began transforming how people thought about those animals. Here’s the link between saving the ocean, law and the kind of work that many of us as artists and creative people or scholars or writers do: it’s to say minds have to be changed and they need to be changed by making the kinds of ideas that are real, true and important dynamic, vital, unforgettableto make them stick in our heads. That’s how it happens.

3. Ocean as Treasure Trove: Deep-sea mining–the next gold rush?

STEFANIE HESSLER Everybody who has a smartphone or a computer should care about deep-sea mining because it involves the extraction of minerals and rare earths from the seabed that are being used in consumer electronics, in batteries etc. We’ll most likely hear this term in the future because the extraction activity is about to become a reality. The conversation about deep-sea mining began in the 1960s with a publication by J. L. Mero entitled The Mineral Resources of the Sea. That book suggested there was a near limitless supply of what were called “potato-sized” nodulesmetals that were found in the sediment of the sea floor. The early attempts to make deep-sea mining a reality failed as a result of the collapse of world metal prices; however, in the past decade, with the soaring metal prices, especially for gold and copper, deep-sea mining is on the table again. […] The nodules that are being extracted are not dead matter but actually living beings so speaking about the rights of nature and rights of other than human organisms is also important for this conversation.

AMAR KANWAR We need to understand what it is that we’re going to lose and, unless we do that, we will not comprehend the meaning of the crime. In a certain way we’re talking about a crime to be. And how do you respond to a crime that is about to take place? If you look at extraction, any kind of extraction, and if you look at the evolution of the law, you can see that it has a very close relationship with the whole process of extraction, wherever you go. The law gets conceived for extraction. Before a crime takes place, it is conceived; after you conceive it, you plan to execute it. You can see the evolution of the law is the crime already. So when you’re looking at evidence–what would be evidence of massive destruction on the bottom of the sea when you can’t access it or see it?–I would say that the crime has begun.

NABIL AHMED I’m from Dhaka and we have a very long maritime border with India. In fact, the very first maritime dispute boundary that was presented and debated in the international tribunals for the law of the sea was the maritime boundary dispute between Bangladesh and India. I would add that the seabed is also a spatial condition. The geospatial and the marine sensing that are used for those exploration purposes could be turned to monitor these and to set up a counter-forensics. Perhaps there is a way that these technologies could be shared to open them up to artistic practices that could use our kind of sensitivity, our background and experience to track what might happen. For example, I work around a landmine in West Papua. It is not a technical exercise; in fact, the work is there to support the self-determination of the West Papuan people. This kind of forensics must work with the people to whom these seas belong and not only to the state.

MARKUS REYMANN This is my question to everybody: how do we bring the dimension in which we operate to the table, persistently, in technical terms like the comments [TBA21 put] to the Mining Code at the International Seabed Authority or any other kind of authority. Becoming an observer to this United Nations’ body is for us–as a cultural agency, an arts organisation–an opportunity to insert a different language, a different thought and mode of operating. We saw it at the ISA, as soon as we start speaking their language we lose. It’s not going to change anything immediately but you have to be there, and you have to be persistent. It’s one drop, and another drop, and another. We’re there for life. But the beauty of this is that the crime hasn’t been committed.