Thursday, March 26, 2009

Laughing at Abu Ghraib

Laughter is essentially not an external but an interior form of truth; it cannot be transformed into seriousness without destroying and distorting the very contents of of the truth which it unveils. Laughter liberates from external censorship but first of all from the great interior censor; it liberates form the fear that developed in man during thousands of years: fear of the sacred, of prohibitions, of the past, of power…it [laughter] helped to uncover this truth and to give it an internal form…Laughter showed the world anew in its gayest and most sober aspects.

It was the victory of laughter over fear that most impressed medieval man. It was not only a victory over mystic terror of God, but also a victory over the awe inspired by the forces of nature, and most of all over the oppression and guilt related to all that was consecrated and forbidden...It was the defeat of divine and human power, of authoritarian commandments and prohibitions, of death and punishment after death, hell and all that is more terrifying than the earth itself.

-Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World

I begin with a set of questions that I don’t have the answers to. I think the answers or discussion produced from these questions hold a great deal of significance for me and I will come back to these questions in future posts.

Can you laugh in the face of horror?
Does laughter change an individual’s capacity for interaction with what is instinctually refused, abject?
Is this laughter linked to a liberation from a fear of death and injury?
What is the space between refusal and acceptance and is it filled with empathy?
Is empathetic laughter a way of collapsing of the boundary between self and other?

According to Bakhtin, part of what characterizes Medieval folk humor which forms the basis of Carnival laughter is the lack of separation between the object and subject of the laughter. The one doing the laughing can never be separate from the world at which the laughter is directed. This interconnection is important I think. This absolute importance and contingency on not being able to create distance between the self and the other in the act of laughing is what I am interested in thinking more about while considering the photographic evidence of torture that took place at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq.

The images connected to torture and humiliation at Abu Ghraib first began to circulate after a 60 Minutes broadcast in April 2004 followed by a Seymour Hersh article “Torture at Abu Ghraib” in the New Yorker in May of the same year. It seems an average response to the images might be to look at them, shake ones head at the horror, and then stop looking. Maybe its too difficult to examine how anyone looking at these images might themselves be implicated in them- implicated in the logic that produced them. I have been looking at these images regularly since they began circulating. I have kept them in my studio and periodically try to engage them. I can’t fully explain why I think it’s important to look at the visual evidence of an event that provokes nausea, disgust and disorientation in me. Yet, I think we should all be looking at these images, individually and collectively. I believe there is something to be gained from looking at and facing these images which constitute extreme forms of violence - at once political and sexual. Why would anyone want to provoke such deeply unpleasant experiences in themselves? I think it’s because the alternative to looking might be something far worse. It may mean a deeper implication and participation in perpetuating these forms of violence.

But it isn’t just looking that I am proposing. The title of the post is Laughing at Abu Ghraib. I am suggesting that there is a space for laughter in interacting with the images of horror. I am not referring to derisive and objectifying laughter that operates on a necessary distance between the self and object of laughter. This objectifying laughter relies on distance and the pleasure produced though a process of reduction and isolation. Instead I am interested in the possibilities of Bahktin’s analysis of Medieval folk humor and Carnival forms of laughter that are liberatory in their form and function. An unofficial popular answer to power and hierarchy and it’s uses of fear related to punishment and death.

Does laughing at Abu Ghraib construct a space for me to identify with both the victims and perpetrators of the violence? I am struck in looking at the images by the universality of body language, of the language of posing and display connected to photographic representation. These are the same poses we have all have taken, thumbs up, ‘I was here’ tourist poses - snapshots to remember our experiences, a point of future reflection and remembrance. Of course I have different contexts for posing for the camera, but the point of relation between these guards and myself has to be considered if I am to engage in this idea of a liberatory form of laughter. The ability or developing the capacity to equally identify and empathize with the guards and the prisoners is what I am after through engaging in laughter. If I begin to inhabit these images I feel myself begin to dissolve. The instinct is to turn away but if there is a way to stay through laughter then maybe this disintegration of distance between me and what is pictured in these images opens the possibility of moving through them and coming out the other side.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Kobena Mercer The Cross-Cultural and The Counter-Modern

Jan Van Eyck Website

Call for Applications

Artists, designers and theoreticians are invited to submit proposals for individual or collective research projects for a one-year, two-year or variable research period in the departments of Fine Art, Design and Theory.
Deadline for submissions is 15 April 2009.

— research project

The striking feature of modern art is that it has ceased to recognise the categories of tragic or comic, or the dramatic classifications, tragedy and comedy. It sees life as tragicomic, with the result that the grotesque is its most genuine style.

– Thomas Mann

Whatever happened to hybridity? The concept seemed to promise immense critical potential in the early phases of post-colonial studies, but fell out of favour as a result of numerous critiques. Developing a frame for the study of cross-cultural interactions in the relationship between modernism and colonialism, my seminar at the Jan van Eyck will review the hybridity concept alongside a range of cognate terms that have been put forward as alternatives, including syncretism, creolisation and transculturation. By working with the notion of ‘multiple modernities’, developed within the sociology of globalisation, the aim is to examine a variety of artistic, curatorial and writing practices that evoke a combinatory logic of heterogeneity and mixture in antagonism with the logic of purification that was supported by the normative tradition of formalist universalism in modernist art criticism. To the extent that such normative formalism saw itself as the inheritor of a classicist outlook in post-Enlightenment aesthetics, the method of approach in this research project focuses on the contra-classical drive associated with a cluster of aesthetic categories, namely the gothic, the grotesque and the ornamental. These can be viewed as portals or gateways that facilitate the travel of cross-cultural elements brought into contact in pre-modern periods of globalisation and migration.

To the extent that the cross-cultural antagonises the classical tradition of formal purity, the modern is produced as a heterotopia of mixtures. The aim is to explore the historical, philosophical and archival issues that confront the ‘centrist’ logic of an assimilative logic of cultural universalism with various translations or transculturations that pose instead the question of the modern as the art and culture that is produced by the open-ended encounter among unassimilable differences.

The Cross-Cultural and The Counter-Modern is an initiative of Kobena Mercer, advising researcher in the Theory department of the Jan van Eyck Academie.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Points of Penetration: Locations of the Grotesque
A proposal to Arttransponder

Last fall I was invited to teach a graduate seminar at the California College of Art in San Francisco. I developed a course that would allow me to extend my studio practice and research through the process of teaching the course, Points of Penetration: The Grotesque Body and Humor in Art. My teaching methodology involved a collaborative and two way learning process, structured around the idea of shared power within the classroom, myself acting as a facilitator that received and transmitted information.

The Grotesque functions as a model of perpetual growth and mutation, disturbing any form of boundary or hierarchical condition. It is a frame for looking at the in-between, the other, the space between inner and outer. It also offers a frame to think about social and political agency with its upsetting of boundaries and inherent ties to liberatory forms of laughter. Part of the course’s conception had to do with a desire to extend the discussions beyond the classroom and to begin to construct a community that could debate, exchange and influence each other’s art practice. This is the origin of my first proposal to Arttransponder. I chose Arttransponder specifically because of it’s support of experimental artistic and social models. The desire to have an exhibition exploring the Grotesque is about wanting to continue building on the structure of this community into a wider and wider dialogue; from seminar to online blog to exhibition to public programs engaging international artists with how these themes have impacted their work.

I propose an exhibition that presents the unfinished and growing relation between myself and my ex-students as a model of the grotesque in action, with a larger thematic exploration of the work generated from our discussions. Divided into three sections: Aesthetics, Politics and Social/Biological Difference, the exhibition, accompanying catalogue, participatory online archive and discussion group, and public programs engaging Berlin based artists, will present the next phase of our dialogue on the grotesque, moving out of the classroom and into a public and international space.

The members of the group include Maja Ruznic, Annie McKnight, Raphael Noz, Patrick Hillman, Maggie Haas, Zina Al-Shukri, Alice Warnecke, Brigid Mason and Rajkamal Kahlon.

Raphael Noz is a performance artist whose works play on the contradictory spaces of personal and cultural shame, both his and his audience’s, imperial history and play through the use of the hybrid character, Cortezuma, a blending of Montezuma and Cortez. Contribution: Video Projection that deals with colonial history and the doubling of identity.

Alice Warnecke is an artist employing painting, photography, video and projection to unpack the gendered histories of both painting and the larger field of vision within which it’s situated.
Contribution: An edition of flip book for the viewer to take that enacts the disappearance and remaking of the penis into and from her mouth। The books are accompanied by a projected animation of the flip book.

Annie McKnight is an artist questioning the value systems attached to materials both precious and debased. Trained as a metal smith, she has been exploring the intersections of taxidermy and jewelry making.Contribution: an installation of the taxidermy process and her hybrid objects.

Brigid Mason is an artist exploring the hidden narratives of childhood found in photographic snapshots through painting.Contribution: A painting that uses the symbolism of the costume as a metaphor to explore the representation of self and other.

Zina Al-Shukri expresses a violent form of portraiture through her use and erasure of mark making materials.Contribution: life-size drawing.

Patrick Hillman is an artist challenging representations of love, normativity and gay male identity using strategies of morbid humor and camp. Contribution: A pre-memorial project, of embroidered portraits of men on pillowcases. The images are derived from gay personal ads that reference a willingness to engage in barebacking.

Maja Ruznick is an artist exploring the themes of repressed violence and war. Her intimate experiences with the Serbian war are fictionalized in her writing and enacted through her markmaking process.Contribution: An installation of small ink drawings and writings.

Maggie Haas is an artist working in between the spaces of craft and fine art, painting and sculpture, crude materials and refined detail. Recurring throughout her work is a repetitive and obsessive pattern, at once organic and threatening.Contribution: Floor Installation of sculpture

Rajkamal Kahlon interrogates the ideological positions of representation as they are linked to forms of racial and colonial authority. In her dialectical engagement with historical texts she critiques the will to "make" humans implicit in the visual practices backed by repressive regimes of power in part through the use of violent imagery framed by psychedelia and the human body turned grotesque through its traumatic encounters with colonialism, military rule and torture.Contribution: Video Projection of autopsy texts into the viewer’s space and onto their bodies. The ideas is about using the viewer’s body as a surrogate for the visually absent bodies of the Iraqi and Afghan men described internally and externally in the text.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Double Consciousness: Painting and Performing the Racial Grotesque, Lecture at NGBK Berlin by Rajkamal Kahlon, March 20, 2009

Re/Positionierung Conference organized by Meta Nationale


Racist structures degrade People of Color to objects – the taking on of a subjectivity by rejecting an ascribed passive position describes a form of resistance and a simultaneous process of empowerment. The African American philosopher W.E. Dubois coined the term of “double consciousness” in order to speak about a form of self-perception which juggles an individuals point of view in relation to the perspective of a dominant exterior world. Rajkamal Kahlon discusses this phenomenon in her artistic/scholarly contribution. Suzan Onur Kömürcü speaks about the life and working experiences of artists of Color in Germany. Branwen Okpako marks the consequences of and dealings with an individual's subjective positions based on the history of Maggie Mufu and Juliane Strohschein shares the insights she gained, conducting Critical Whiteness workshops.

Friday, March 20

18:00h: Double Consciousness: Painting and Performing the Racial Grotesque
Rajkamal Kahlon
lecture/Performance (E)
20:00h: Cultural Diversity and the creative City: Living Conditions of artists of Color in Berlin’s cultural Industry
Onur Suzan Kömörcü
Lecture (E)

Saturday, March 21

17:00h: Maggie Burns
Branwen Okpako
Painting and Sound Installation
19:00h: Positioning and Dealing with Whiteness
Juliane Strohschein
Lecture (G)

All events will take place at:

Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst Oranienstraße 25, 10999 Berlin VH, 1. OG (Veranstaltungsraum)

Aktion with a Male Body: Notes from Schwarzkogler to Shahzada
Performed at Artists Space, July 16, 2008, Rajkamal Kahlon

Aktion with a Male Body: Notes from Schwarzkogler to Shahzada marked my first public performance and continues my explorations of the transformed and grotesque body within historical moments of crisis. The multi-media piece moves between post-war Austria of the 1960's and our contemporary moment of war, offering a new way of looking at Rudolph Schwarzkogler's work, while reflecting on the impact of technologies on our present individual and collective bodies. Considering that war can now be created and watched from a vast distance, Notes from Schwarzkogler to Shahzada addresses a collapse of this distance and attempts a recovery of the bodies we have seperated ourselves from.

An audio component features the voice of Shahzada, a former Guantanamo detainee and tribal elder from Afghanistan known through the camp for his sad and beautiful singing voice.The songs are based on lines of poetry smuggled to him by fellow inmates.

Schwarzkogler, a member of the Vienna Actionists, began his career as a painter and went on to create largely private performances using himself, a model and a photographer. The results were simple, disturbing and austere photographic images of the body injured, healing and in the process of being handled and manipulated. Aktion with a Male Body: Notes from Schwarzkogler to Shahzada makes reference to the frame as a device that links painting to performance, image to the real and the past to present.

Rajkamal Kahlon
Jesse Lopez
Erin Shigaki
Elia Alba

Photography & 8MM: Elia Alba
Digital Video: Kara Spellman