In preparation for the May 24 Research Lab A Sensorium of Cinematic Apparatuses, the students of the UvA MA seminar Curating the Moving Image reflect in their blog posts on a particular aspect of the themes in the required theoretical readings or on the development of the curated EYE on Art evening.
Decolonizing the Curatorial
By Elinor Gittins
In the final week of the course, ‘Curating the Moving Image’, we discuss the norms of Western curation and the way these traditions have been disrupted. When thinking about the term ‘decolonise’, we might ask, how does the process of decolonising curation differ from the genre of postcolonial curation? To me, the difference seems to be temporal. Where the prefix post- suggests a timeframe that comes after the event, the prefix de- suggest that a process is ongoing. This might explain why there is growing interest in the ideas expressed in decolonial theory. Curator Irit Rogoff describes the problem with postcolonial theory as follows: “You can never have the right stance or ethical posture. Instead, you are mired in it, you’re part of it, you’re deeply implicated in in it […] we are living out the postcolonial, all of us, across the world” (33). On the other hand, a decolonial movement imagines a more active stance.
The idea of decoloniality stems from an emerging Latin American movement, which seeks to make clear that inequalities shaped by colonisation are perpetuated today by Western imperialism and globalisation. According to Anibal Quijano, the practice of decoloniality is a search for “social liberation from all power that is organised as inequality, discrimination, exploitation and domination” (178). These ideas have spread beyond Latin America, creating movements around the world that aim to decolonise various institutions by delinking them from Eurocentric thought.
Elena Filipovic points out that “we are more conscious in recent decades that modernity is a construct that has suppressed, obscured or transformed whole cultural histories and their producers” (49). In Amsterdam, several groups are forming to strengthen these ideas. The University of Colour is a group that fights for a greater balance in the demographics and curriculum of the university, which should include non-Eurocentric perspectives. Another local movement is called Decolonize the Museum. They make “an effort to confront the colonial ideas and practices present in ethnographic museums up until this day.” The critique comes from the groups whose heritage has been put on display in museums, but who themselves do not feel to be the target group of the exhibitions. I will now discuss an exhibition space in Amsterdam which actively searches for postcolonial curatorial practices.
Framer Framed is a small room, situated in the Tolhuistuin, which holds concerts and others events, and has a popular restaurant attached. Framer Framed was started as an initiative to deliberate contemporary curatorial practices, specifically in relation to politics of representation. In other words, while considering the way some individuals tend to stand in for others. In line with the pattern of modernity that Filipovic describes, the curators aim to overcome the “shortcomings of modernist definitions that constitute the foundation of their respective institutions”. The title, Framer Framed, is inspired by Vietnamese filmmaker, Trinh T. Minh-ha, whose films refuse to adopt an ethnographic gaze. In other words, she refuses to speak for subjects through her camera. The curation practices in this space could be seen to disrupt Western traditions to some extent.
The current exhibition at Framer Framed is called Voices Outside the Echo Chamber: Questioning Myths, Facts and Framings of Migration. An echo chamber is an enclosed space that reverberates sounds. As the use of this metaphor suggests, by listening to voices outside of the echo chamber, the exhibition is interested in obscured or oppressed histories. Katayoun Arian, the curator, is wary of so-called echo chambers in which “individuals intensify their world-views by surrounding themselves with information that corroborates and echoes back their own beliefs”. Whilst attending the exhibition, I felt that many of the installations convey a sensation of anger, outrage and exhaustion. Several of the artists adopt a satirical lens to comment on current migration discourses. Two of the installations which made an effective use of the moving image where The Negotiation by Kaya Behkalam and Azin Feizabadi, and Condecoración by Daniela Ortiz.
The screen for The Negotiation is not directly noticeable when walking around the exhibition. Behind one of the walls is a black box created with the use of curtains. Inside, the film shows a group of actors in their own black box space, a set that is meant to resemble the UN Security council. The actors stage a round table meeting around an unnamed crisis. The actors move around the space, exploring the borders between fact and fiction, between the individual and the collective. There is a visible cutting up of the round table, which is missing a segment. This interruption in the shape could be linked to similar interruptions that Framer Framed makes in the form of their own exhibition. The space itself could be described as a white cube, a form which Filipovic is critical of. But there are breaks in the architecture caused by random walls and corners. In other words, the cube is not really a cube. Could both the video installation and the room itself be seen to experiment with the traditional Western forms which Filipovic hopes to see transform?
In the video component of Condecoración, Ortiz is shown slapping a white sculpture. Her piece is introduced as a commentary on the invisibility of the migratory control system in Europe. The sculpture is an attempt to make visible one of the responsible individuals, since it is a replication of the current Executive Director of FRONTEX (a migratory control agency). As the viewer continues on from the video installation, they are confronted by the damaged sculpture from the video. Ortiz is one of the artists who will come to speak about her research as part of the dialogue series organised by the curators, further allowing for a confrontation for the audience.
According to Filipovic, “the aesthetic and intellectual premises on which an exhibition is based […] need to be more fully articulated in the forms exhibitions take” (58). It would seem that, in order to be decolonised, an exhibition must become inherently political. How can the message of an exhibition better be articulated? Voices Outside the Echo Chamber works hard to live on outside the curated space, by providing an abundance of paper components for the visitor to take home (such as a mock-up of a newspaper or a list of the employees at FRONTEX). By taking a piece of the art home, the visitor is more likely to continue thinking about the message. Filipovic finds that a curator can be described as a political activist (50). In my understanding, the most desired result of decolonised curatorial practices, is to politically activate the visitor.
‘Curating/Curatorial: A Conversation between Irit Rogoff and Beatrice von Bismarck’. In Beatrice von Bismarck, Jörn Schafaff and Thomas Weski, eds.Cultures of the Curatorial. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012. 21-38.
Filipovic, Elena. ‘The Global White Cube’. oncurating.org, issue 22. April 2014. 45-63.
Minh-ha, Trinh T. Framer Framed. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Quijano, Anibal. ‘Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality’. Cultural Studies, 21:2-3. April 2007. 168-178.