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Art and Politics

The fourth lecture: Sarah Owens und Rahel El-Maawi

Der Vortrag von Owens und El-Maawi war mehr Dialog, als Monolog, wirkte offen und porös, statt glatt und durchgetaktet. Sie sprachen von ihren Erfahrungen als Aktivistinnen und Forscherinnen in Bezug auf Blackness, Gemeinschaft und Kunst in der Schweiz und darüber hinaus. Hier kann ihrem Gespräch, Wer interveniert? Gedanken aus kunst_ / kultur_aktivistischer Perspektive, zugehört werden:

Sarah Owens und Rahel El-Maawi, 27.11.2018

Fotos: Impressions from the lecture. © Private.

Art and Politics

Jack Halberstam: Unbuilding Gender – Neue Architekten braucht die Welt

Das Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Basel ist an diesem Dienstagabend packend voll. Jack Halberstam präsentiert «Unbuilding Gender: Trans* Anarchitectures In and Beyond the Work of Gordon Matta-Clark». Viel vorstellen konnte ich mir unterdiesem Titel nicht – aber Halberstam schaffte es das Publikum innert Sekunden mitzureissen und für keine Sekunde zu verlieren. Besonders bleibend waren die Ausführungen wie scheinbar kleine Dinge wie z.B. Toiletten die Zweigeschlechtlichkeit unserer Gesellschaft entscheidend mitformen. Am Ende des Abends ging ich nicht nur mit neuem Wissen aus dem Vortrag, sondern erlebte einrichtiges «Aha!-Erlebnis».

Jack Halberstam präsentierte seinen*ihren Vortrag im Rahmen der Ringvorlesung «The Art of Intervention». Die bereits erarbeiteten Leistungen sind beachtlich und verdienen einen Blog-Eintrag für sich selber; er*sie ist nicht nur ein*e angesehene*r Professor an der University of Columbia in New York, sondern unter anderem auch sechsfache*r Autor*in (ich ermutige den*die Leser*in Jack Halberstam selber noch einmal nachzuschlagen).

Generell bewegte sich Jack Halberstam innerhalb diverser Themen im Arbeitsbereich von Gordon Matta-Clark so schnell, dass man als Zuschauer*in kaum folgen konnte. Ich habe mich daher bewusst entschieden, nur einen Teil seines*ihres Vortrages abzudecken, der mich persönlich am meisten beschäftigt hat; «Unbuilding Genders – Gendered Architectures».

Die Vergeschlechtlichung von Architektur war in Gordon Matta-Clark’s Projekten immer wieder ein Thema. So befasste er sich in mehreren Projekten mit dem Thema «unbuilding». Matta-Clark war auch eine für den Begriff «Anarchitektur» prägende Person. Dabei wird die Elementarschicht der Architektur problematisiert. Vereinfacht bedeutet dieser Begriff «Gegen-Architektur» – was es aber genau bedeutet scheint nicht ganz klar zu sein und ruft Uneinigkeit hervor. Bekannte Beispiele für «unbuilding architecture» sind «Splitting: Four Corners» und «Day’s End» (Pier 52 in New York). Jack Halberstam ergänzte in seinem*ihrem Vortrag immer wieder, dass Architektur von Männern regiert ist und sich das in den Bauten lesen lässt.
Architektur ist «gendered» ob wir es wollen oder nicht. Wir laufen dieser gesellschaftlichen Norm ständig über den Weg. Teilweise begegnen wir ihr auf subtiler weise, oftmals jedoch sehr krass und direkt. Trotzdem werden diese Normen gesellschaftlich akzeptiert und selten bis gar nie hinterfragt. Warum ist das so? Und wie kommt es, dass das auch heutzutage nicht hinterfragt wird?

Die Toilette. Es gibt kaum ein Raum, der von beiden Geschlechtern fast gleich identisch genutzt wird, als das Badezimmer. Dennoch – sobald wir in den öffentlichen Raum treten – ist es ein Raum der am striktesten getrennt ist. Wie Jack Halberstam das so schön formulierte: «absurd representation» von Gendertrennung, die es gar nicht wirklich braucht. Wer hat entschieden, dass es auf einmal zwei verschiedene Toiletten braucht? Eine für Damen und eine für Herren. Und wieso? Was ist geschehen, dass dieser Ort geschlechtergetrennt werden musste? Gerade dank einzelner Kabinen in den öffentlichen Toiletten macht es kaum Sinn. Der einzige Begegnungsort der Geschlechter wäre beim Anstehen und beim Hände waschen. Und ich kann mir nichts Gewöhnlicheres vorstellen als die vorhin genannten Tätigkeiten.

Die unhinterfragte architektonische Geschlechtertrennung im öffentlichen Raum und den Institutionen hat letztens auch für negative Schlagzeilen gesorgt. Bei einer Massenschiesserei an einer amerikanischen High-School waren sich die Lehrer nicht einig, ob sie die Trans*Person, die sie an der Schule haben, in die Männer- oder Frauen-Sportumkleide lassen sollten, die in einem solchen Fall aus Sicherheitsgründen aufgesucht werden muss. Dies endete mit dem Tod des*der Schülers*in, da die Trans*Person auf dem Gang zurückgelassen wurde.

Als Aufklärung; es handelte sich dabei «nur» um eine«Shooter drill» Übung für den Ernstfall. Dabei wurden keine Personen wirklich getötet oder verletzt. Doch selbst unter diesen ernsten Umständen konnten und wollten sich die Lehrer nicht festlegen und liessen am Ende den*die Schüler*in auf dem Gang zurück – was in einem echten Fall dann wirklich zum Tode des*derSchülers*in geführt hätte. [1]

Diese gesellschaftliche Norm ist in uns allen tief verankert– auch wenn man sich liberal und offen nennt. So erhielt ich z.B. erst gerade vor ein paar Wochen im Büro eine E-Mail mit der Nachricht, dass die Herrentoilette defekt sei und ich (als einzige Frau) doch Verständnis haben soll, wenn sich Herren auf der Damentoilette befinden. Damals habe ich mich gefragt; Verständnis wofür? Muss ich in diesem E-Mail namentlich erwähnt und gewarnt werden, dass sich Herren für einen Nachmittag auf der Damentoilette aufhalten werden? Ist aus der Nachricht, dass die Herrentoilette defekt ist nicht automatisch klar, dass sie die Damentoilette benutzen dürfen und auch sollen?
Und doch habe ich einen double-take im Starbucks letzte Woche gemacht, als mir eine männlich aussehende Person auf der Damentoilette entgegengekommen ist – weil ich dachte, dass ich mich in der Tür geirrt habe.

Diese Verinnerlichung von Gendertrennung an unnötigen Orten ist in unserer Gesellschaft so tief verankert, dass sie reflexartig an die Oberfläche treten – auch wenn man sich bemüht, diese Vorurteile hinter sich zulassen. Oder wie der Soziologe Erving Goffman, der sich mit der «institutionellen Reflexivität» von Toiletten im Spezifischen und Architektur im Allgemeinen auseinander setzte, so schön sagte: „Die Trennung der Toiletten wird als natürliche Folge des Unterschieds zwischen den Geschlechtskategorien hingestellt, obwohl sie tatsächlich mehr ein Mittel zur Anerkennung, wenn nicht gar zur Erschaffung dieses Unterschieds ist“ (Goffman 1977, 134[2]).

Jack Halberstam, erwähnte so schön; es sind nicht «more creative signs» oder «alterning signs» notwendig. Es sind gar keine Schilder nötig. Es ist auch nicht nötig, die Räume nach neuen Zwecken zu kategorisieren (z.B. Räume wo man nur pinkelt, oder nur die Nummer 2 verrichte. Oder dem Kind die Brust gibt).

Wir sollten die Toilette als erstes zurückerobern und neue Standards festlegen. Und zwar den Standard von nichts.

Und wenn wir das erst einmal hinter uns haben, dann erobern wir den Rest des Hauses, die Strasse und die Welt!

Text by Rahel Liviero.


[1] https://www.rt.com/usa/440720-transgender-student-shooting-lockdown/

[2]Erving Goffman Das Arrangement der Geschlechter von 1977 sowie den Ausschnitt im Anhang vom Handbuch Soziologie von Nina Baur et al.

Art and Politics, Uncategorized

Today! «Art, War, Displacement» Roundtable Conversation with Hito Steyerl, Heja Niturk, Sener Özmen and Önder Çakar

We’re very much looking forward to the final event of our lecture series, a roundtable talk on „Art, War, Displacement“ with Hito Steyerl, Heja Niturk, Sener Özmen and Önder Çakar, moderated by Bilgin Ayata and with an introduction by Sören Grammel. Please join us at Kunstmuseum Basel | Gegenwart, St. Alban-Rheinweg 60, 4052 Basel at 6 pm.

The talk will be held English, German, Kurdish and Turkish with translations in German available.

Art and Politics, Uncategorized

Intervention with the Body

Michèle Magema is a Congolese-French artist who deals with questions of identity, race,colonialism and femininity in her work. Although she is a multi-media artist, she herself states that performance is her favorite medium, because it is most“real” and can never be replicated identically, duplicated or viewed twice. Similarly, her presentation on 13th November at Museum for Gegenwartskunst mirrors this statement. Instead of giving a talk about the body or theory behind her work, her talk seems to be more of a performance in which she stages her identity:“identité multiple et complex” (“multiple and complex identity”). This is what she performs in her talk, where she uses fragments of words that define her and her experience as a woman, Congolese, African and European. She performs these identities in a form of rhythmic speech: “Congo. L’Idée. Exploité.(…) Génocide Oublié.” (Congo. The idea. Exploited. Forgotton Genocide). In the beginningof her speech, she says she is “Congolese, French, Parisienne,” categorizing herself with words that on the one hand may reflect contradictions but on the other hand which define her reality and her experience. In colonialism, and in post-colonial societies, the non-white and the colonial subject is othered and can thus never be truly “European,” or “French”. Nevertheless, although colonial ideology perpetuates a dichotomy between the European and the “other,” reality, especially because of and in post-colonial societies, prove that identities are always mixed and fragmented rather than categorical. Identities can be fractured, layered, mixed, and woven into one, and Magema represents this through her body and her work. She proves her own existence by deconstructing those dichotomies, through performing with her body. Therefore, she herself acts as a form of resistance: “Je veux laisser des traces. Je resiste” (I wantto leave traces. I resist). Resistance is formed by portraying an experience that is more complex and real than dominant political ideologies and propaganda. Through her performances and her body, she takes up space, proving and marking her existence.

The use of the body, as generally with performances, is central to Magema’s work. This is evident, for example, in her famous piece two-channel video installation “Oyé Oyé.” One channel shows the artist miming a military march with her head cut off, the other channel shows public images from the Mobutu Era, including parades with young women. In her analysis of the work, N’Goné Fall writes: “In both, the African female body is shown as an instrument of propaganda. By parodying the political concept of identity, Magema forces us to reconsider a country’s past”.[1]Therefore, not only her body itself, but also the body in its female form acts as a catalyst for rereading both the past and present. Through being active in the performance, Magema takes control of herself and herself as a subject rather than being an instrument of propaganda.

In one of her newer works, “Derrière la Mer”(Behind the Ocean) from 2016, Magema also shows a woman, probably herself, walking out into the ocean on a two-frame scene, with rhythmic singing playing in the background. In the second half of the video, the woman returns to the coast, putting signs up in the sand. The signs are encrypted, although still illegibly. The video switches between two and three different frames, while sometime the frame is merely mirrored in the second frame. At four minutes into the video, the frame darkens. After the darkness, we see a body lying at the shore between the signs which read “Past” and “Truth”. Uploaded on her Vimeo channel only one year after the Europe-wide debate on refugees, this video can be read as a commentary on the increased death toll of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. However, in light of her overall body of work and her position as an artist, this video seems more complex. Rather, it could also be understood as personal revelation, where Magema embodies perhaps both herself as well as other people whose existence and identities are fractured by the Mediterreanean, or what borders represent. It is open to the interpreter whether truth is to be found or lost in the past.

Text by Fabienne Bieri.


[1] https://feministartblog.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/fall_global-feminisms_providing-a-space-of-freedom.pdf

Art and Politics

The third lecture: Michèle Magema

In her speech, Michèle Magema reflects on the difficulty of positioning oneself and others in a postcolonial world with a haunting past and complex contemporary realities. Her lecture, Performing in public space at the time of identity claims and political resistances, can be listened to here:

Michèle Magema, 13.11.2018

The next lecture will be by Sarah Owens and Rahel El-Maawi and is called Wer interveniert? Gedanken aus kunst/kultur_aktivistischer Perspektive in which they will give insights on taking an intersectional perspective in their artistic and activist work.

For more information, please see also the program of the lecture series.

Fotos: Impressions from the lecture. © Private.

Art and Politics, Uncategorized

Searching for a queer Utopia hidden in Shrek and The Lego Movie

Jack Halberstam, Columbia University Professor of English and Comparative Literature, finds that both “Shrek” and “The Lego Movie” can be viewed as counter-narratives that challenge dominant heteronormative conceptions of success and gender-identities. Responding to children’s independence from these conceptions, children’s movies depict alternative forms of community and association, effectively turning into windows of opportunity with transformative potential for the imagining of a queer utopia in the cinematic industry.

Victor’s cinema

If history is written by victors, then most of mainstream cinema is made by successful people with a clear understanding of what their (adult) audience wants: sentiment, progress and closure (Halberstam 2001: 119). Children’s movies however usually lack all of the above in order to fully acknowledge the nature of children’s narrative desires, which in turn tend to be amoral, antiteleological and unsentimental (Halberstam 2001: 119). In fact in this very indifference towards established norms and narrative tools lies children’s films’ potential transformative power. Queer and gender theorist Jack Halberstam explains in “The Queer Art of Failure” (2001) and the recent public lecture titled “Unbuilding Gender: Trans* Anarchitectures In and Beyond the Work of Gordon Matta-Clark“ (Basel, 16.10.18) how children’s films can be viewed as countering and challenging dominant conceptions of success and gender.

The power of being wrong

Starting with Shrek (2001) the author points out the queerness of this animated fairy-tale, which depicts a wide range of queer embodiments and relations (Halberstam 2001: 119). An ogre living in a swamp teams up with a speaking donkey to fight for the rights of the exiled fairy-tale community and eventually both end up falling in love with “inappropriate partners”: Shrek falls in love with a princess and Donkey is courted by a dragon. Furthermore the otherness of fairy-tale creatures is reason enough for the villagers to despise and exclude them, pushing them to the margins of society. It is not until other fairy-tale creatures are exiled into Shrek’s swamp, that he realizes that because of their difference, their personal and political spheres are intertwined. Their appearances are no longer a personal matter, but are reason for political acts of discrimination. To stand up for the rights of the dispossessed fairy-tale community, Shrek becomes a freedom fighter opposing the evil Lord Farquaad, who is enacting the discriminating laws. In this confrontation, the Lord represents all the qualities that Shrek lacks: power, wealth, success and social status. Although it seems quite impossible for Shrek to win this battle, by joining forces with the other fairy-tale creatures he manages to overthrow Lord Farquaad. For Halbertsam the beauty of the film lies in the embracing of queer characters and relationships and in not choosing success over failure. Shrek and his friends win the battle not despite of their queerness, but because of it. In embracing their failure of being normal and in joining forces to fight for more equality, they surprise Lord Farquaad and his knights and take his castle by storm. They remind us that there is something powerful in being wrong and that “empathy with the victor invariably benefits the rulers” (Benjamin 1969: 256). So the movie calls out to it’s viewers to walk the unbeaten tracks, to take the wrong turns or get to lost, because there is as much happiness and delight to being viewed as wrong and failing to fit in as to succeed in doing so.

The gluing of gender and sexuality

Continuing with The Lego Movie (2014) Jack Halberstam draws the parallel between the inhabitants of Legoberg building and unbuilding their town everyday and the Architectural Turn in Gender Studies, which theorized the body as a piece of architecture, that could be built, altered and unbuilt at will. Legoberg stands therefore for a dismantling of the social world, where we now have the freedom to construct our identity brick by brick with the ease of using a Lego-Set. But trouble enters Legoberg in form of Lord Business, who plans to glue everything in constant, unchangeable perfection, using his evil super-glue. For Halberstam this image of freezing perfection is a concept deeply rooted in heteronormative common sense, where the gender-binary and “appropriate” sexuality are naturalized and effectively essentialized. In this logic, gender and sexuality are static concepts, “givens” of a sort, that can’t be altered individually, because of the social control exerted in society. The only hope for Legoberg and metaphorically speaking for us is the so-called pièce de résistance, a brick that can undo the power of the super-glue and bring back the fluidity and make the construction of our reality visible again. Predictably, at the end of The Lego Movie the pièce de résistance is found and the evil Lord Business is defeated. Where do we find our personal pièce de résistance to unglue the given concepts of our everyday-life?

Unbuilding mainstream cinema

Jack Halberstam gives us the example of Gordon Matta-Clark, an architect who studied the works of Le Corbusier, only to deconstruct his concepts, rearrange them and turn them inside out. Instead of simply applying Modernism’s esthetical tools, he used a concept of linguistic reversal in architecture: instead of building houses, he cut pieces out of them or split them in half, opening up new views and spaces filled with nothing but light and air. Same as Gordon Matta-Clark didn’t take his teachings at face value, we shouldn’t simply accept the gendered world as it is, but strip it of its natural, static character and bring the dominant narrative of the essential gender-binary and heteronormativity to it’s knees. Finding a way of de-essentializing and de-naturalizing the dominant order would mean to find the pièce de résistance to unbuild our social reality, opening up the possibilities of building new imaginings of a queer utopia.

Same as there’s no place for light and air in faceless concrete buildings, there isn’t any space for a queer utopia in mainstream cinema. But like Gordon Matta-Clark who opened up the room with his Cuttings to let light and air into the newly created space, children’s movies cut into the mainstream and open it up to new forms of relating and belonging, effectively letting imaginings of a queer utopia into the film industry.

Text by Fabian Hofmann.

Art and Politics

NOTHING WORKS, but how?

Making nothing out of something works – it does something. Revisiting New Yorker (An-)architect Gordon Matta-Clark’s Conical Intersect (1975) and Splitting (1974) and discussing Bologna based street artist Blu’s intentional destruction of his own murals in 2014 and 2016, I further explore the idea of making nothing and how this can function as an intervention, in architecture, art and gender.

Unbuilding – Nothing as space

In a captivating talk on October 16th, Jack Halberstam introduced the audience in the KuMu Basel to interesting connections of the ideas of Anarchitecture and Unbuilding Gender. He referenced works by Matta-Clark in the 1970-ies, such as the piece Conical Intersect (1975), made for the Biennale de Paris, which entailed cutting a cone-shaped hole into two old townhouses from the 17th century. They were to be torn down in order to make room for the new Centre Georges Pompidou.

conical intersect
Gordon Matta-Clark and Gerry Hovagimyan working on Conical Intersect, 1975. Source.

The piece opened a space within the townhouses that enabled new perspectives into the buildings and also new perspectives onto the surrounding neighbourhood. It called attention to the change that was about to take place by performing the possibility of deconstructing and opening space for construction. Being able to have a look into the skeleton of these massive buildings laid bare their constructedness and emphasised the moment of being ‘in-between’ – of the ‘nothing’ that will be filled again – in a way that is not yet clear.

Matta-Clark’s previous piece Splitting (1974) entailed splitting a detached single family house into two and thereby also laying bare the inside, the constructedness of the house and making it completely unfunctional for its original purpose. Seeing the house split intervenes with the whole sense of the bourgeois nuclear family.

splitting
Gordon Matta-Clark Splitting, 1974. © Courtesy The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark and David Zwirner, New York/London/Hong Kong. Source.


Unpainting
– Nothing as surface

A further and rather current example of making nothing out of something are the destructions of street artist Blu’s murals in Bologna and in Berlin. Blu is a Bologna based artist whose impressive, political murals have been appearing on facades in European cities and in South, Central and North America since 1999, critically addressing capitalism, consumerism and the destruction of nature. When in 2016 Blu’s hometown was hosting the exhibition “Street Art – Banksy & Co.” the street art scene was irritated by a sudden change of attitude from despising street art as vandalism to cherishing and institutionalising it into the museum. Having already been displeased with the commercial tourist guide tours around the street art in Bologna, Blu took action when the curators for said exhibition took down seven of his big murals in the industrial neighbourhood and transported them into the museum – without asking the artist’s permission: Blu covered up all his street art in Bologna with gray paint, before the exhibition opened.

A similar case happened in Berlin, where Blu covered up his two famous murals at Cuvrystraße after learning that a housing complex would be built next to the spot with a plain view on the paintings – this location would increase the value of the apartments and therefore commodify the mural. As the artist wanted to destroy the painting, I am only showing the result here, a big black surface, ready to be painted anew.

blu berlin
© Nerdcore. Source.

Both these interventions by the artist via destruction and creation of nothing are a clear statement against the cities capitalizing on his artwork. They penalize the profiteers and the admirers of the artwork at the same time and call attention to the institutionalizing and commodifying of public and locally rooted art. They point towards the original idea of a right to the city. #rechtaufstadt!

Undoing – Erasing gender-roles

I would like to close coming back to the quote by Richard Buckminster Fuller by which Jack Halberstam opened his talk:

I live on earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing – a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process – an integral function of the universe.

Being able to unbuild gender, to break down gender roles, ‘making them nothing’ would mean opening up a free space for action and performance for everyone, without specific performances putting the performers into specific, constricting, fixed categories. We are all in constant evolution and should be allowed to build and unbuild our performances of being in the world as we want – as we are our own authors.

Surely, ‘nothing’ is a space of creativity and implies being in process. Be it in architecture, art or gender, a moment of destruction of original structures, productions and roles creates an atmosphere in which a constant building and unbuilding can take place on various levels. In a utopia, individuals are not sanctioned for this, but are rather enriching each other. So, let us unbuild and then create away! And then destruct, intervene, again!

Text by Stephanie Zundel.

 

Sources (regarding Blu):
Neue Zürcher Zeitung (23.3.16): Gehört Street-Art ins Museum?, URL [accessed on 30.10.18].
The Guardian (17.3.16): Blu v Bologna: new shades of grey in the street art debate, URL [accessed on 30.10.18].
Urban Shit (14.3.16): Urban Art Künstler Blu übermalt alle seine Bilder auf den Straßen von Bologna, URL [accessed on 30.10.18].
– (11.12.14): Blu lässt Wandbilder auf der Cuvrybrache in Berlin schwarz übermalen, URL [accessed on 30.10.18].
Wikipedia: Blu (artist), URL [accessed on 3.11.18].
Wu Ming Foundation: Street Artist #Blu Is Erasing All The Murals He Painted in #Bologna, URL [accessed on 30.10.18].