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 Magemais 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.


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.