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.
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”.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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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].
Gordon Matta-Clark schloss ein Architekturstudium ab. Doch anstatt Häuser zu bauen, sägte er sie auseinander: Er schnitt grosse runde Löcher in die Wände und Böden oder teilte die Gebäude in der Mitte entzwei.
Leerstehende, zerfallende Piers in New York City oder Einfamilienhäuser, die im Bauboom der Nachkriegszeit gebaut wurden und nun neuen Gebäuden weichen sollten. Als Mitglied in der New Yorker anarchitecture group der 1970er Jahre dachte Matta-Clark nicht an Konstruktion sondern an Dekonstruktion. Ihn interessierten die Leere und das Zwischendrin – das Nothing, wie er es auch nannte. „Nothing Works“ notierte sich Matta-Clark auf einem kleinen Zettel, den Genderforscher Jack Halberstam später im Canadian Architecture Museum fand. In dieser Bemerkung Nothing Works sieht Halberstam die Essenz von Matta-Clarks Arbeit: „He makes nothing out of something. It is not minimalism, it is not cutting away until you have something small left. It is cutting away to have nothing.“ Ein Anarchitekt, der wegschneidet, um zum Nichts zu gelangen.
Doch was interessiert Jack Halberstam, Professor für Genderstudies aus New York, an diesem Nichts?
Für Halberstam ist der Ausdruck Nothing Works mehrdeutig. Entweder meint es die – etwas mystisch formulierte – Macht des Nichts. Das Nichts ist ein Vakuum und hat ebenso eine Kraft wie das Etwas. Weiter meint es: Das Nichts funktioniert, es hat eine Funktion als Hinweis auf Veränderungen, Neuordnungen oder Zustände. Oder es heisst: nichts funktioniert und unsere wirtschaftsliberale, patriarchale Gesellschaft ist gescheitert.
Die letzte der drei Deutungsweisen, nichts funktioniert, überschneidet sich mit einem Ansatz der Genderstudies: Diese fordern unter anderem dazu auf, die bestehenden Machtstrukturen unserer Welt zu hinterfragen und zu verändern, um schliesslich das Patriarchat und die Konstruktion der Geschlechterrollen aufzulösen.
„Take it, destroy it, remake it“, fasst Halberstam zusammen und zieht weitere Parallelen zur Architektur und zur Kunst. Die Künstlerin Louise Bourgeois, beispielsweise, malte den weiblichen Körper als ein „house out of which other bodies come“, wie Halberstam sagt. „For Bourgeois this was a trap and she wanted to paint her way out of it.“
Audre Lord wiederum sah das Haus als Symbol für das Patriarchat und das Niederreissen des Hauses als Kampf gegen dieses Patriarchat. Lord schrieb: „For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house“. Und meinte: Bleiben wir innerhalb des bestehenden gesellschaftlichen Systems, werden wir das System selbst nie überwinden.
Das Haus wird als abzulehnendes Symbol für den weiblichen Körper gesehen, aber auch als Modell für das ganze patriarchale System. Mit diesen Beispielen rückt Halberstam die moderne und zeitgenössische Architektur nahe an die Theorien der Geschlechterrollen. Auch „gender is a social construction“ und wir sollten dieses Konstrukt auch wieder dekonstruieren. Aus build folge unbuild. Das beziehe sich aber nicht nur auf die Gesellschaft, sondern auch auf unsere Körper: Vor allem im Bezug auf Transsexualität plädiert Halberstam dafür, nicht mehr von einer Reise vom Mann zur Frau oder umgekehrt zu sprechen, sondern von einer De- oder Rekonstruktion des Körpers. Denn Transgender bedeute nicht, irgendwann am „Ziel anzukommen“, sondern sich in einem fluiden Raum zu bewegen.
Dieser Raum wiederum sei vergleichbar mit Matta-Clarks Arbeit. Matta-Clark habe sich vor allem für den „Moment between upright an collapsing“ interessiert, sagt Halberstam. Also für den Moment, an dem das Haus nicht mehr steht, aber auch noch nicht in sich zusammenfällt: Ein Schwebezustand. Ein Plädoyer für das Dazwischen, welches sich dem „Entweder-Oder“ entzieht. Es ist hier weder alles ganz, noch ganz zerstört. Dieser Zustand sei es, der uns daran erinnert, dass wir unsere Welt konstruieren und folglich auch wieder dekonstruieren können.
Nicht immer sind die Bezüge, die Halberstam zwischen Architektur und Gender herstellt, für mich überzeugend. So tragen die Vergleiche zwischen Dekonstruktion und Transgender auch eine negativ aufgeladene, zerstörerische Ebene in sich. Obwohl Halberstam bewusst von der Dekonstruktion und nicht von einer Zerstörung spricht, ist das Licht, welches dieser Vergleich auf die Thematik wirft, düster. Klarer wirken hingegen die Aufforderungen zur Dekonstruktion des patriarchalischen Hauses: Sowohl die Beispiele aus der Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts, als auch das Mantra Nothing Works tragen für mich – seltsamerweise – einen konstruktiven Ansatz in sich.
Das Bestehende abreissen, um es neu zu bauen. So würde ich den Ansatz von Jack Halberstam zusammenfassen. Eine Utopie ist dies aber nicht. Denn um sehen zu können, was als nächstes kommt, müssten wir zuerst die alte Welt abreissen, sagt Halberstam.
In her talk at the Kunstmuseum Gegenwart, Banu Karaca gave the audience a tour through censorship in Turkey, pointing out amongst other things, ways of reacting to censorship of one’s art under a government that seems to be cracking down on freedom of artistic expression.
It is this “reaction to the reaction” – that is, artists reacting to the state reacting (unfavourably) to their artwork – that merits a closer look: what options do artists have under oppressive state rules to continue showing, and even producing, art? What effect does censorship have on artists, and on the future of art? Is this something specific to Turkey, or can this type of censorship happen elsewhere?
The state of art
Banu Karaca laid her focus on bringing the Basel audience closer to the reality of art censorship in Turkey, a topic that she also focuses on in her writings and research. She began laying out a timeline of notable examples in the politics of censorship in Turkey, with the contested Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code at its center. Article 301, which in its first version came into effect in 2005, states that anyone denigrating “Turkishness” or the turkish military will be punished with between three to six years of imprisonment. Since its inception, it has been criticized widely, especially as in the beginning it was used as a free for all by the government to curtail art. Though the article has since been amended- notably after the assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink- it is still widely used by the state to delegitimize those that are critical of it. As Karaca stated, the 2000’s in Turkey were “marked by contingencies of delegitimization”. It is precisely these events of delegitimization and censorship, as well as notable reactions to this, that I wish to focus on in this post.
The earliest example mentioned by Karaca, and one she has extensively published on already, comes from the Istanbul Art Biennial of 2005. Here, in a small “Hospitality Zone” devoted to two smaller shows within the biennial, Halil Altındere curated an exhibition entitled Free Kick. Included in this exhibition are photographs by the Kurdish photographer Cengiz Tekin, with one photograph showing a Turkish man aiming a free kick at a lineup of Kurdish civilians. Another work shows a Turkish military official looming in the frame, titled “Hulk”. These photographs led to an anonymous complaint filed with the ministry, resulting in the prosecution of Altındere and the removal of the exhibition catalogue. Though both charges were ultimately dropped, the prosecution nevertheless led to the court overstepping and so established a precedence to further state encroachments upon artists. Photography is not the only art form that has been (partially or fully) censored in recent times: mixed media artworks such as Tenger’s 1992 I Know People Like This II, and (documentary) films such as Bakur (2015) or Zer (2017) have also been targeted and silenced.
“I love you 301”: art as (re)action
Though censorship in any form is “effective” in terms of silencing someone- whether this be through an outright active movement such as pulling an exhibition catalogue from an exhibition or through the artist self-censoring works, there are also artists that engage in a different way with the possibility of censorship. Though in Turkey there is a real and palpable danger of censorship by the state that can range from bans to imprisonment, nevertheless, there are artists that use the machinery of the state in their art, and thus make a statement. If Article 301–a textual legislative that is accessible to the public–is the backbone of the censorship apparatus used by the government, are there ways for artists to expose this backbone and the silencing that goes with it? Indeed, some artists have found ways to make the gaps left by censorship visible and make these gaps speak for themselves. “I love you 301” was an art installation by Ferhat Özgür that was set up like a karaoke gig; instead of singing along to contemporary pop songs, visitors were able to “sing” the lines of the Article itself. In my favourite example of defiance, after a short-notice ban of his film at a festival, the director of Bêrîvan took to the stage and stood in front of the black screen, recounting the film scene by scene to the audience. Another example of a film director refusing to be cowed by the censorship was Kazim Öz, who was told to cut certain scenes from his film Zer and complied, adding a subtitle to the blacked out scene stating that the content of the scene had been deemed unfit to be shown to audiences by the ministry.
Indeed, artists have a hard choice to make when faced with censorship: do they comply and let their artistic output be stifled, or do they refuse to be silenced and have to deal with the consequences of no funding or worse? The counter-reaction to Article 301 in these examples seems to go two ways: in the case of Özgür it is taking the literal text used to legitimize censorship and putting it on display as if itself was a piece of art that the audience can interact with, and in the case of filmmakers such as Öz it is speaking up about the ways that the Article has impacted the original piece of art.
301: confined to Turkey?
Though there has been much focus laid on the state of critical contemporary art and whether it is possible to still be produced in Turkey, this form of censorship imposed by the state is by no means limited to Turkey. This type of crackdown on critical art is a political tool, and is utilized by governments and officials in many countries across the globe. If it seems as though the furore around Article 301 has quieted down and art censorship is a thing of the past – as media outlets focus on different sorts of censorship, this is far from the case: a current example is the “loyalty in culture” bill in Israel, where the culture minister has continually been proposing to enforce this bill. Though it was not accepted the first time it was proposed, it will again be brought before the legislative committee. If approved, artists that denigrate Israel or attempt to show a Palestinian national narrative will have their funding cut by the government; it remains to be seen how contemporary artists will deal with this, and in what ways they react. Art is exciting precisely because it is a tool that can be used to portray the world around us in all its multi-faceted aspects both good and bad, and as Karaca showed in her talk, fighting for the art you make is crucial.