Confusao, images from Angola

August 24, 2013 § 2 Comments

Since moving to Sub Saharan Africa I find myself struggling with a new understanding of the medically scanned body. Whereas before the scan dataset was something I took more or less for granted, I now recognise its strong symbolic resonance signifying privilege both in terms of wealth and access to digital technology that is far from global. I have returned to the images of Melanix that the radiology software first offers: Melanix utterly alone floating in a deep black vacuum, a weightless void ripe for dreams, nightmares, superstitions, suspicions, myths and rumours. My mind brims with questioning images and I am driven to see them; Melanix with her worth in cows, Melanix having her soul released by a buffalo thorn branch, Melanix with a cloak of Angolan hair braids, Melanix hollowed out like a canoe in order to float, Melanix leaking. This intense proliferation of images encourages a refinement of my practice and my first body of work in Angola has been to create a series of images rather than sculptures. Returning to techniques I specialised in as a student (and have since become rarefied thanks to digital technologies) such as silver gelatin photography and etching I am creating what feels like a library of clashes, impossibilities and paradoxes between the physical and the digital worlds we are all having to precariously straddle. Moving forward my intention is to use this library as a resource for creating sculptures that make real some of the imagery within them whilst fusing together ancient manual skills such as wood carving, fishnet making, marquetry and weaving with those that digital mechanisation make possible such as laser cutting, CNC machining and rapid prototyping.

Dugout

August 24, 2013 § 2 Comments

Dugout

detail

Ink stained and flame charred laser cut MDF.

In 2011 we moved to Angola. Unlike in Brazil, where we lived before to moving to Angola it proved challenging to find local fellow artists or artisans as the long Angolan civil war and endemic poverty has left people deskilled and without a handed down craft. The artefacts that I did come across however were those associated with fishing such as fish traps and dugout canoes. At this time my mother in law was also diagnosed with terminal cancer so these searches for ‘authentic’ African objects in a war and poverty torn country were shadowed with the sadness and harrowing practicalities of a close relative with Stage 4 cancer. There was hope of surgery to remove the cancer if the radiotherapy was able to reduce it’s size. These two things coming at the same time triggered an image of a CT dataset (the technology that is used to image the body is the same that is used in radiotherapy) that has had all its cancer ridden organs removed in order to survive. The icon of the dugout that I had found in Angola fitted very well not only aesthetically but also poetically as it is a fine balance when carving out a canoe for it to be hollow enough to float yet strong enough to carry its passenger.

Human Rights and the ethics of thick relations real or imagined

July 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.                                                            

These words, attributed to the Pastor Martin Niemoller, and often repeated in their numerous variations, offer a powerful insight into the nature of moral indifference.We speak out (or act) in defence of victims of oppression, Niemoller suggests, only when we include them within our community – whether that be social, religious, ethnic or political. Modern human catastrophe, it has been argued, has at least in part been a product of the individualism and exclusion that characterises the institutional, economical and ideological structures of modern society. Modern civilisation, so preciously guarded, may not only be unable to prevent atrocity but might even provide the conditions required for its occurrence.  In Zygmunt Bauman’s words: ‘We suspect (even if we refuse to admit it) that the Holocaust could merely have uncovered another face of the same modern society whose other, more familiar face, we so admire’ (Bauman 1989: 7).  In her famous study The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt makes a similar point when she notes an essential paradox of human rights: supposedly anterior to all political arrangement and independent of citizenship or nationality, stemming as they do from man’s natural or innate qualities and status, they are nonetheless denied to those human beings that are not members of a (political) community: “The conception of human rights, based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships – except that they were still human. The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.” (Arendt 1986: 299) To be a human being is not enough to be the Subject of human rights. In Arendt’s words, “it seems that a man who is no more than a man has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow-man” (Arendt 1986: 300). Arendt illustrates this point with reference to the apatrides of post-war Europe: denaturalised and stateless, the apatrides were effectively right-less and thus pose a challenge to the universalist theory of human rights, as do present-day ‘stateless’ human beings.[1] Denied legal status and nationality, the stateless person is in a position similar to that of Agamben’s homo sacer – an exile to the law. Yet if the life of the homo sacer is considered politically worthless (zoë), it is by no means inconsequential in ethical terms. On the contrary, the very existence of the apatride exposes a fault line in the theory of human rights, namely the fictional nature of a sacred humanity that precedes and exceeds collective society. In other words, their condition exposes the precariousness of a moral system based on ‘thin’ relations. Michael Ignatieff’s insightful reading of Shakespeare’s King Lear in The Needs of Strangers takes up this same point, exposing the gap between the social and the natural human as crucial in determining our response to human need and, by association, human suffering. For Ignatieff, “the possibility of human solidarity rests on this idea of natural human identity” and the claim that “human beings actually feel a common and shared identity in the basic fraternity of hunger, thirst, cold, exhaustion, loneliness or sexual passion” (Ignatieff 1985: 28). In reality, however, natural human identity is rarely enough to guarantee the solidarity of human beings; it is community in difference that assumes this luxury: “For who has ever met a pure and natural human being? We are always social beings, clothed in our skin, our class, income, our history, and as such, our obligations to each other are always based on difference […] The role of natural duty seems obscure. It is difference that seems to rule my duties, not identity.” (Ignatieff 1985: 28) Modern morality, then, is based on a fantasy of abstraction that fails to account for the particularities of situated (embodied) human life. What Ignatieff seems to suggest here is that in order for me to act altruistically towards another person, I must (in general) have some sense of differentiated identity with that person, some tangible, ‘lived’ connection; in other words, the strongest and most reliable sense of ‘moral’ responsibility we can hold is ethical in the terms described by Margalit. Paradoxically, the emphasis on universal humanity – the cornerstone of modern morality and human rights – threatens to make way for what Margalit calls ‘moral Don Juanism’. Don Juan, Margalit observes, ‘is a romantic who cares deeply for the ideal woman but not for the flesh and blood women he encounters’ (Margalit 2002: 28). Is there a risk that the moral marketing of the abstract ideal of humanity merely offers an alibi for avoiding the obligation to care for the flesh and blood human beings we see suffering on our street corners and TV screens; that in some sense it permits the objectification, the othering of those who are presented as being in excess of the abstract model of the human? Conspicuously absent in the traditional moral theory of human rights is any obligation of care or personal mutual responsibility; it is a person’s rights that are violated, rather than the person herself or our relationship with her. Indeed, the structure of rights is intended on a certain level to make up for this lack of relationality. This type of non-caring morality, it is argued, corresponds to the needs of a modern society in which the individual reigns and communities of mutual responsibility shrink to circles of the closest proximity. In this sense, morality is designed to mitigate the impact of mutual foreignness in modern society. As Margalit writes: “[…] we need morality precisely because we do not care. That is, we usually lack an attentive concern for the well-being of most members of the human race. We care about our parents, children, spouses, lovers, friends, and by extension some significant groups to which we belong, but by no means do we care about everyone […] Most people most of the time carry on by not caring for most other people.” (Margalit 2002: 32-3 While morality may be necessary to mitigate non-caring relationships between strangers, it will always lack the solidity and solidarity of the ethical. As Margalit notes, ‘morality walks on a thin rope, with very little emotion among mere human beings to keep it tight’ (Margalit 2002: 143). The question is thus whether it is ever possible to ‘care’ in the ethical sense for strangers, our knowledge of whom is essentially distant or mediated. In the ethical realm, Margalit contends, it is the thick relation itself that provides the grounds for ethical action, rather than the properties or characteristics of those individuals involved in the relation. The scope of ethics is thus determined by our thick relations; it is within these relations that we carry with us a sense of responsibility and care towards others, and it is within these relations that we are most likely to act altruistically, to come to the aid of someone in need. But how do we determine which relations count or could count as thick? Is the scope of ethics determined by ‘the actual [thick relations] we happen to have, or the ones we are assumed to have or ought to have’ (Margalit 2002: 45)? In the latter case, Margalit suggests, the thick relations we ought to have might, in their most extensive scope, encompass all of humankind. ‘Thus’, he writes, ‘morality turns into ethics’ (Margalit 2002: 45). The remaining question then, is how to extend the imagined boundaries of our ‘thick’ relations? If ethical bonds are in part formed through shared narratives and memories – as Margalit suggests they are – then could cultural representation and historical memory have a role to play in encouraging us to relate to distant others in ways that approximate our ‘thicker’ responsibilities, allowing us to imagine an ethical relationship of care to those we have never met? If the stories of the suffering of distant others were to become part of our so-called collective memory, does this mean we would come to see these others in ethical terms?


[1] The challenge that statelessness poses for international law has been highlighted in a number of reports and campaigns recently, for example in this one by the Open Society Institute: http://www.soros.org/indepth/stateless (accessed 18/12/2009). See also a report on Statelessness by Refugees International, available online at: http://www.refugeesinternational.org/policy/field-report/statelessness-international-blind-spot-linked-global-concerns (accessed 18/12/2009).

Choreographing Empathy

April 23, 2012 § 1 Comment

Image

I recently read this book by Susan Leigh, Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance. Three words in the title have already occupied me for years; now I can add choreography. Leigh is writing about dance, but the underlying tone of her book suggests that she has something to say about life more generally, about the ways in which we feel into each other with our bodies. I’ve been trying to think about this in relation to the memorial. How do visitors experience the space of the memorial, how do they perform the chronotope of its architecture, physically and cognitively? Empathy, Kinesthesia and Performance are all part of the memorial experience, but I believe we can also think it in terms of choreography. It is a choreography at one prescribed and improvised: a collaborative choreography between the visitor, the space, the other visitors. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin is the perfect stage for such performances and their collisions; here we see choreographies of play and laughter coincide or conflict with dances of sadness and solemnity. These videos posted by visitors serve as records of the dances, and show the similarities and differences between performances. In each case I think we can speak of a form of kinesthesia or embodied empathy at work between the space and the people occupying it, as well as between the people themselves – all three are linked, so that the observer is the observed, the spectator spectated (a metaphor well extended by the videos themselves, and us watching them). Why do people post these videos? Is it to prove they were there? To find an audience for their performance: what is the performance to them? Do they see it as a form of witnessing, or simply a form of fun?

An exercise in devil’s advocacy, or: on the violence of representation

November 23, 2011 § 1 Comment

I am currently preparing a paper that goes against the grain of idealism that has up to now characterised my work on memory and trauma – sometimes cleverly concealed behind a show of academic scepticism, but always there, as it has been since my childhood (I always insisted, at school and university, on ending my essays on an optimistic, positive note, on finding the dim ray of hope for a better future for the characters in the books I was studying, the readers, the world in general). Now I find myself playing devil’s advocate, the cynic and detractor, and there is more pleasure in it that I imagined. The topic of the paper is violence and representation or, better said, the violence of representation. I have argued in the past, following Susan Sontag and many others, that the representation of violence and suffering has the potential to inflict further violence upon victims of atrocity who, being ‘represented’ in museums, images, films, and texts, also all too often become victims to objectification and appropriation, displayed for voyeuristic pleasures. The notion of ‘concentration camp pornography’ (Karen Goertz 2001: 179) is not new, and certainly the possibility for representation to symbolically (and sometimes literally) repeat the harm and humiliation inflicted upon victims is a real one. Nonetheless, I have frequently argued that the representation of suffering also allows for the possibility of an ethical response to the victim’s plight by the spectator, a response based in empathy, care and a sense of social (in)justice inspired by the encounter with the representation of the other’s suffering. In this way, I have repeatedly suggested that representation – in the form of memorials, art, and literature in particular, but also (although often more problematically) photography, film and media images – can have a positive social and ethical impact by encouraging or eliciting a culture of cosmopolitan response-ability (to use Kelly Oliver’s term) and secondary witnessing. But the focus does not lie merely with the representation; of equal importance is its spectator, receiver or interlocutor – the potential ‘secondary witnesses’ themselves. A visitor to a memorial or the spectator of an image of atrocity also contributes something to the representational moment. He or she not only brings personal experiences, fears, perspectives and prejudices but also a conscious or unconscious willingness or unwillingness to engage ethically with what is being encountered. ‘Ethical secondary witnessing’ is thus a two-way process.

Representations of violence and in particular our ways of encountering them, I have suggested, run the risk of inflicting a second violence upon the victims of atrocity. The perceived ‘victim’ of the violence of representation here is almost invariably its object, that is, the victim of the original event; the spectator, on the contrary, is positioned as a purveyor of or accomplice to violence. My proposal for the paper I’ve been writing is work against this instinctual analysis in order to examine the ways in which representations of violence and suffering can and do exert violence upon their spectators. Is it also possible to speak of a violence inflicted upon those asked to encounter representations of suffering an atrocity? If violence can be identified as part of spectator experience, then the question that remains to be asked is whether and in what circumstances this violence of representation can ever be productive. Is the violence of representation ever ethically justifiable, and if so, is this one occasion where the exception applies?

So far I have identified three instances of violence as being potentially present in spectator experiences of representations of atrocity:

1. The violence of Emotional and Moral Unsettlement (sometimes known as ‘Vicarious trauma’, though this is problematic, I will come back to this concept in another post)
2. Accusation and Manipulation
3. Disempowerment and disenfranchisement of the spectator as moral agent

It is of course crucial to be as specific as possible about the forms of atrocity representation we are dealing with; the potential for and the nature of violence exerted by representations will vary greatly according to this and other variables. Nonetheless, reflecting on my own experience, as well as that of some of the respondees to my survey on visitor responses to memorials in Berlin, has made me think it is time to take spectators’ experiences of violence more seriously, whatever representational form the source of these experiences may take.

The paper is still a work in progress, so for now I am still asking questions: is the encounter with representations of suffering – in the many and varied forms they take, on the news, in museums, in films, photographs, memorials, literature and art – an encounter marked by violence? What are the effects of the proliferation of atrocity images on the internet and in the media (I am thinking, for example, of the image of a dead and dying Gadaffi that made it on to the front page of most major British media websites, including the BBC and the Guardian)? Does our exposure to representations of the suffering of others empower us by giving us knowledge, or does it rid us of our moral agency, by ‘numbing’ us to the reality of injustice and our role in combating it?

Marilene has recently moved to Angola, and is, I know, being moved on a daily basis by the realities that she sees there firsthand. Can representation ever move us in the same way? Doesn’t it always also manipulate us, framing our knowledge and understanding of events in a way that exercises power over our politics as well as our perception?

Moving Memorial to German Unity

May 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

As anyone who has visited Berlin in recent years will have noticed, Germany’s capital is a city steeped in memory and, above all, in memorials. You might be forgiven for thinking they didn’t need anymore. And yet, nearly 18 months after the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall, plans for another memorial are finally taking shape – this time  more optimistically marking the historical event of German reunification. After another long and drawn out process lasting over 12 years and involving two design competitions, the winning proposal for a new Freiheits – und Einheitsdenkmal has been announced – and it has, as expected, drawn much comment from a nation already very well-versed in historical debates. For this is not just another memorial and it’s concept differs significantly from the traditional image of the immovable and stoic stone statues of past centuries. Holocaust memorials in Germany since the 1980s have, it must be said, in general already marked a departure from traditional forms to the more conceptual memorial; but this new memorial, not to the Holocaust but to the moment in German history that marked the beginning of its recovery after this catastrophe, takes things a step further. The memorial design, entitled ‘Buerger in Bewegung’ or, ‘Citizens in Movement’ is a collaboration between Stuttgart designers Milla & Partner and Berlin dance choreographer Sasha Waltz. Taking the form of a 55m long concave steel dish, the memorial is designed quite literally to be a moving memorial. Visitors will be encouraged to climb on and interact with the structure – indeed,  this active participation and interaction is key to the design, since the memorial itself is set in motion by the movement of its visitors. The design takes the trend for interactivity already at work in many memory museums to an extreme, and, for me, makes some very interesting comments about the role of visitors to memorials as active and embodied agents in the construction and maintenance of memories and their meanings.  To visit this memorial will be to perform, in a way not dissimilar to Waltz’s dance troupe, in the collective remembering of the peaceful revolution of 1989. Visitors will be asked to use their bodies in the process of meaning-making, they will be asked to focus on physical as well as emotional and intellectual sensations, and they will be asked to do this together, as a collective – the memorial requires more than 20 people to start moving.The metaphors are obvious and, perhaps, not very imaginative, but they work in their simplicity. Johannes Miller, one of the architects behind ‘Citizens Movement’, has sought to make the difference between this and traditional memorials clear. It is a difference in function and in ethics as well as in aesthetics:

“The rest of the world’s monuments are built to be looked at. This monument isn’t just an object to look at. It should be entered and set in motion. That movement is only possible when a large group of visitors cooperate. With this concept, it’s the people who’ll make it into something. Maybe they’ll use it for theatre, or like Speaker’s Corner, or skaters will use it. The people will make it their own.” *

Something in this statement recalls Peter Eisenmann’s comments about Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, which finally opened in 2005 and which has, indeed, become a space for all types of interaction, including providing a hide-and-seek paradise for children. While this new design has, like Eisenmann’s, inspired much criticism from a variety of wholly legitimate perspectives, I can’t help but to like it and look forward to seeing it in action. In 5, 10 or 20 years it may, as the critics predict, seem frivolous and populist, unable to withstand the ravages of time as more sombre constructions might do. But I would argue that right now, in this moment so marked by memory and trauma and attempts to ‘deal with’ the past, projects such as this one serve a crucial purpose not only in terms of remembrance, but also of reflection upon the ways in which we remember, and upon the part we all have to play in the process of sustaining the relevance of the past  within the social, cultural and political contexts of the present.

Bearing witness to the witness: some thoughts on hearing wounds talk

May 15, 2011 § 2 Comments

Talking wounds.
Can wounds talk? Pain is often a great silencer; unshareable and often uncommunicable, it frequently cuts us off from others. But it is also true that, as in the story of Tancred and the tree, wounds never stop speaking, seeking out listeners who will hear them or, if such a thing is possible, heal them.  Holocaust survivor Primo Levi writes in if this is a Man of his recurring nightmare: the ‘ever repeated scene of the unlistened-to story’. The dream expresses a fear he says is common to survivors, and which is connected to the need to ‘tell our story to the rest, to make the rest participate in it’ (1987: 15.) The plea of the survivor, then, is to be heard, it is a request that we, who did not have to suffer the trauma of the surviving the Holocaust, bear witness to the witnesses of atrocity. It is a request that was for a long time painfully denied, but which has in recent years found itself at the heart of a burgeoning interest in trauma and, along with it, an emerging ethics of witnessing. For Cathy Caruth, for example, the call of the ‘crying wound’ of trauma represents an ethical address of the other to the self that ‘demands a listening and a response’ (1996: 9). Similarly, in the psychoanalytic model of trauma testimony described in Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub’s by now seminal study Bearing witness or the Vicissitudes of Listening, ‘it takes two to witness the unconscious’ (1992: 15). Holocaust testimony is here described as a performative act that can be understood not as a statement of truth but as ‘a mode of truth’s realisation’, in which the witness to the witness is an active participant. For Laub, the listener is an ‘enabler of testimony’, he or she is ‘party to the creation of knowledge’ (Felman and Laub 1992: 15). The listener, as the ‘enabler of testimony’ is what makes possible the process by which ‘the narrator (the survivor) reclaims his position as a witness’ (Felman and Laub 1992: 85). To witness then, is no solitary act; the wound that talks always seeks the secondary witness that will hear it. French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard has also theorised this relationship in his succinct and oft-cited formula for a ‘testimonial pact’. Among the conditions necessary for successful and politically useful testifying Lyotard notes the importance of ‘an addressee, not only willing to listen and accept the reality of the referent, but also worthy of being spoken to’ (Nance 2006: 87).In his model the listener – who actively and ethically listens, recognising the voice and subjectivity of the testifier in the process – is not merely an additional benefit, (s)he is a vital element without which the testimony would not exist. Put simply, it is only in the company of a (worthy) listener that my story can be told. This is perhaps no great revelation, and indeed the notion of an audience as a necessary part of the act of witnessing is nothing new. One of the earliest categories of witness, the martyr (etymologically linked to the modern term witness, via the Greek martur, itself said to be linked to the Indo-European word for ‘remember’), is a case in point.  In early modern stories of sainthood – often called the pious pornography of the middle ages – the martyrs bear witness to their faith in God always and necessarily in front of an audience. The martyr becomes a saint by virtue of her tortured, gruesome, bleeding body: flesh and limbs are torn apart, breasts are sliced off, and nubile young girls are set to boil in vats of hot oil. But this body does not suffer in isolation, for the witnessing body of the martyr is in all senses a site of performance and spectacle – of the pagan torturer’s power (which is undermined), of the faith and endurance of the saint, of the miraculous blessing and protection of God, and of the sublime nature of suffering and abjection. As with every spectacle, the audience is crucial to the success of the act. Without the belief of the audience, both within the narrative (the pagan spectators who convert to Christianity, the God who observes and intervenes), and without (the medieval layperson who reveres relics and images of exotic martyred flesh) the saint would quite simply not be a saint. As Blondheim and Liebes put it, in biblical witnessing, ‘the witness is the addressee, not the medium. It is the collective which performs the witnessing’ (Blondheim and Liebes 2009: 115). If Judaeo-Christian storytelling is not as popular as it once was, the principle of religious witnessing seems to be making a come-back in the secular creeds of trauma, memory and human rights discourse. The entreaty made to us by survivors who tell their stories or historians who construct their museums and mausoleums in remembrance of the ugliest of pasts is, indeed, as Levi put it, an entreaty to participate in a community of collective remembering in which witnessing the witness becomes an ethical imperative. So what does this mean for us? What should it alter about the way in which we regard the wounds that speak to us every day – in books, films, or artworks; through the museums and memorials that we visit; or even in the news as we eat our dinner? For me the first step is to begin to think of ourselves in this position of reader/spectator/visitor/viewer less as the passive receivers of media projections and more as active listeners, as secondary witnesses whose role in the production of memory and its meanings is far from obsolete. This is on the one hand an empowering move: as active listeners we are also free to question the narratives constructed by these media projections of the past into the present; to do so is critical in all senses of the term, for to challenge something is also to engage in it. This does not, however, mean that by becoming active listeners we should or would callously join the league of deniers; for when we accept our role as active participants in the ongoing conversation with the traumas of the past, we also enter into that testimonial pact that Lyotard has outlined. We commit also to partake of an ethics of listening by which we are positioned first and foremost as witnesses to the witness. Through this commitment we acknowledge our responsibility of recognition towards the original witness who, like so many of those survivors of the holocaust who have so graciously given us the gift of their terrible stories, are no longer there to tell their stories, but whose wounds nonetheless continue to speak, and must continue to be heard.

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