My last post from mid-September made a transition from the HKW’s spring and summer theme of Ape Culture towards the Haus’s new thematic of 100 Years of Now, launched in early October. The short piece was built around a concept Anselm Franke discusses in a recent interview: “the now of recognizability.” While filing through my notes from the presentations of the SYNAPSE 2015 curators, today I found what might be the actual phrasing by Walter Benjamin, which Rachel Thompson cited it in her talk at the July workshop:
“The past can be seized only as an image that flashes up in the moment of its recognizability, and is never seen again.”
Inspired by this subtle connective resonance, I decided to revisit all of the presentations and report some more about the ideas developed during the workshop. To recapitulate: the SYNAPSE 2015 workshop (30 June – 4 July) was the third gathering in the bi-annual series. Like at previous editions, it hosted eleven emerging curators and curatorial thinkers, this time a group of individuals working around human-animal relations and the nature/culture divide. The selected participants, David Ayala-Alfonso, Juan Canela, Silvia Franceschini, Sophia Gräfe, Agnieszka Klepacka, Renan Laru-an, Joan Legalamitlwa, Sofia Lemos. Caroline Picard, Jenna Sutela, and Rachel Thompson, thus spent a jam-packed week in Berlin, visiting institutions and attending lectures by invited “mentors” as well as introducing their own projects and methodologies in half-hour presentations. Unsurprisingly, these individual papers produced the most interesting relays and engaged discussions. In the session with papers by Sofia, Agnieszka, and Silvia, for instance, “dust” became a recurrent theme inspiring ideas about steering the conceptual attentiveness of the curator towards the smaller, more distributed and volatile matters of bigger questions.
Another session (with complementary talks by Rachel Thompson and Sophia Gräfe) reflected curatorial practice through the lens of movement and temporal composition in the context of the moving image. While Rachel’s presentation departed from the cinematic-essayistic montage as a constellation of things and thoughts brought together by images, sound, and text, Sophia’s case study underscored some of the problems inherent in the unifying gaze of twentieth-century scientific film. So, where one approached film through its capacity for kaleidoscopic multiplicity, the other emphasized the hidden existence of multiple planes of meaning by unpacking a seemingly homogenous film-object. And whereas more traditional curatorial frameworks such as exhibition making or the gallery played a mere minor role in both these presentations, the relationship between the “world” and the “image”, the deterritorialization of perspectives, and modes of production of visuality could not be more relevant themes for a discussion among curators in the “Anthropocene.”
Speaking first, Rachel introduced her own epic essay film, Extinction Number Six, in which the anthropologist and gamelan musician confronted the monumental, yet heterogeneous cultural and colonial history of Indonesia. Unfolding across more than two hours in length, this work traverses episodes from Java’s colonial, mystical, and paleontological past, weaving together local princely mythologies with stories about the 1815-eruption of the volcano Mount Tambora (which in 1816 Europe caused the so-called “year without a summer” inspiring literary works such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) and the Belgian biologist Eugene Dubois’s eccentric unearthing of the Pithecanthropus Erectus (the long missed “man-ape” also featured in Ape Culture), and Suharto’s military coup of 1965, which subsequently unleashed an anti-communist genocide (brought into the public eye by filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer).
The question, how to navigate such a vast and heterogeneous archive—a veritable “labyrinth of linkages”—without having to artificially force these partials into a single, linear interpretation or reading, Rachel explained, became a central methodological problem in making the work. Ultimately, it was a combination of theories of both the literary essay and the filmic montage, which led her to develop and settle on a strategy of “fragmentary wandering and ambulatory inquiry.” Extrapolating from this personal experience as author-maker, and by citing Michel de Montaigne, Theodor Adorno, and Chris Marker as her conceptual allies, Rachel subsequently formulated a view of the curatorial as a “horizontal montage” in which scholarly and artistic pursuits can co-exist, allowing for the open-ended, tentative, and constellational thinking through of materials. Indeed, curatorial assembling is interesting to her, she said, precisely because it allows “to multiply the power of a given thing and change the viewer, reader, or listener’s encounter with these things, whether textual, temporal, or sonic.”
To get a glimpse how language and images in Extinction Number Six are appropriated and rescued as disparate shards, and used to assemble something “more akin to an itinerant microstructure rather than a lasting edifice,” visit Rachel’s website weirdweatherproductions.com. A new written composition by Rachel on her Indonesian research will moreover be published in Reverse Hallucinations in the Archipelago, our third volume of SYNAPSE’s paginated exhibitions series, intercalations, coming soon.
The conceptual and methodological opening argued for by Rachel was thereafter echoed dialectically by Sophia Gräfe, a young academic trained at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar and the Humboldt University in Berlin. Presenting her research on the historic German science project, Encyclopedia Cinematographica (1952–94), a gigantic comparative film archive of natural history recordings, she directed our attention towards a hidden stasis embodied within this specific type of moving image playing back animals in locomotion.
Focusing on the live movement of all kinds of animals, scientists such as Konrad Lorenz considered the EC able to provide more comprehensive insights into nature than traditional, perpetually static scientific taxidermy specimens, which indeed tend to give little clues about ethology, or animal behaviour. Problematizing their role as neutral evidence, however, Sophia critiqued the alleged scientific objectivity of these “filmic specimens,” by reminding us that they too originated from the same scientific gaze and will to knowledge as the stuffed objects in museum collections, thus making none more life-like than the other. Rather, by emphasizing the recordings’ object status as split between the material model on the one hand and the document on the other, Sophia argued that also the living animal captured on celluloid ultimately merely provides a frieze-dried glimpse of “nature”—locked into place (and into the archive) by anthropocentric vision.
The transformation of the world into images and the biopolitics of the infosphere at the heart of both of these presentations is focalized in a recent essay by film scholar Irmgard Emmelhainz entitled “Images Do Not Show: The Desire to See in the Anthropocene.” Discussing cubism, experimental film as well as more recent digital imaging and data visualization techniques, she asks a question that is most relevant also to our reflections in SYNAPSE:
“[H]ow can we transform our relationship to the indeterminant and deterritorialized multiplicity of diverging points of view to provide a heightened sense of place and thus allow for the possibility of collective autonomous subjectivation, and a new sense of politics, and of the image?” (138)
From their two vantage points, Sophia and Rachel’s analyses about the aesthetico-political role of film both pushed curatorial work as a mode of image production towards the realization of something, which Emmelhainz, with respect to Godard, has called “a conception of the image as a promise of flesh.” (138) That is, whereas the flattened filmic specimen of the Encyclopedia Cinematographica archive now prompts a sense of alienation best summarized in one participants’ question—“But where is the animal?”—the performative proposition of essayistic meander of works such as Extinction Number Six, albeit forever fragmented and temporary, can be seen as an attempt to invigorate “vision as a critical activity.”(138)
[Reports on two more sessions coming soon.]