Guest Author of April 2012
In her text Stored Code Clémetine Deliss, current director of the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt, copes with the urgent questions adressing the role of the ethnographic museum in contemporary society. Starting with Carl Einstein’s concept of museums as “dynamic schools”, Deliss explores the possibilities of reconceptualizing and eventually restaging the collections and the histories storied in a world-cultures museum. The essay could be read both as a theoretical speculation, which can even embrace the museum tout-court, and also as a premise for a critical practice within the museum’s walls. Since her appointment as director, the Weltkulturen Museum has initiated a new research lab “on the borderline between advanced art practice and anthropology”. Contemporary artists and theorists are invited to conduct research and rethink the museum’s collections also in view of exhibition contexts. (Link to the current exhibition Object Atlas- Fieldwork in the Museum: http://www.weltkulturenmuseum.de/en/content/object-atlas-fieldwork-museum-1) We are very glad to share with our readers this important text which reshapes the rigid notion of ethnographic museum into a space for negotiation, research and practice rather than a passive showcase for colonial collections and classifications.
Stored CodeWriting as early as 1926, Carl Einstein, the German theoretician of African art contemporaneous with Walter Benjamin and Aby Warburg, declared that museums were the foundation for dynamic schools. Einstein argued against the idea that works of art from the past possessed a kind of material and sentimental immortality. He claimed this approach to objects contradicted the historical process representing a ‘terrible legacy’, which ‘falsifies the past (…) and sprinkles fiction and dead perceptions into the present.’ Einstein wanted to nurture an intellectual lifeline between the museum and the research institute. The greatest strength of a collection, he wrote, lay in its mobility. In other words: in the intentional act of switching the position of exhibits back and forth from analysis and interpretation to public visibility. The itinerancy of objects would make people look again, understand better what they saw, and take apart what they believed or assumed. Collections would reflect the extremes of intellectual exploration and exhibitions would speak of human experience and knowledge. If not, he claimed, museums would become nothing more than “preserve jars“, and “anesthetize and rigidify into a myth of guaranteed continuity, into the drunken slumber of the mechanical1”.
Einstein’s dynamic proposition for the museum as a living school encourages further reflection on precisely what kind of educational framework might be best suited to a world-cultures museum in the 21st century. For Einstein, the collected object becomes a player in a transforming polymathic dialogue that builds on the conversational informality of the ‘educational arrangements2’ of the Enlightenment, and transfers these approaches onto the museological environment. A similar model can be located in the Scottish generalist system of the nineteenth century in which it is the possible assemblages between disciplines and cultures that provide an enriching backdrop for comparative knowledge production. In the twentieth century, Gregory Bateson, the cyberneticist, linguist, and anthropologist pursues this cross-referential, organic stance when he writes in the 1970s, “Such matters as the bilateral symmetry of an animal, the patterned arrangement of leaves in a plant, the escalation of an armaments race, the processes of courtship, the nature of play, the grammar of a sentence, the mystery of biological evolution, and the contemporary crises in man’s relationship to his environment can only be understood in terms of such an ecology of ideas3.”
Throughout the twentieth century, anthropologists have applied the contrast medium of other disciplines to the practice of ethnography and its theoretical counterpart: ethnology. Practices of art and literature help to shift the locus of analytical inquiry from fieldwork on other cultures to models closer to home that question the subject-object distinction. In this regard, Frankfurt in the 70s and 80s has played an important role as a catalyst for critical analysis and publishing. This position can be traced in the ethno-poetics of writer and publisher Hans-Jürgen Heinrichs who, between 1979-1985 brought out scores of books on anthropology and psychoanalysis as well as limited editions of artworks by Joseph Beuys, Francis Bacon, and others in his legendary Qumran Verlag. In addition, other Frankfurt based publishing houses such as Syndikat and Suhrkamp were central to the ‘Grenzüberschreitungen’ that constituted the German-speaking reference to a meta or reflexive anthropology of the 1980s. Here, literature, autobiography, psychoanalysis, and visual culture merge with ethnographic interpretations in the texts and films of Hubert Fichte, Fritz Morgenthaler, Hans-Peter Duerr, Mario Erdheim, and Michael Oppitz, to name but a few. If there is a reference around which the Weltkulturen Museum can model itself today, then it is to be found in the continuation of this seminal paradigm of experimentation and meta-analysis.
Established in 1904 by the citizens of Frankfurt, the Weltkulturen Museum houses 67,000 objects, 100,000 photographic images and films, and a library with over 50,000 books and magazines. Nearly one hundred years after Carl Einstein’s progressive charter for museums, the challenge of the Weltkulturen Museum is to remediate the objects and images in its collections by engaging once again with tentative and innovatory forms of inquiry. The term remediate, introduced by American anthropologist Paul Rabinow offers a useful metaphor for a conceptual tool kit with which one may begin to rethink the object of study in a post-ethnographic context4. He writes:
“Metalepsis: takes up the past or an aspect of the past, or rather the enduring presence of something past, and makes it function within a different narra-tological milieu – thereby subordinating it to a different function and thus transforming it and making it present.” Paul Rabinow, ‘Assembling Untimeliness, Permanently and Restively’, (unpublished paper 2010)
In the first instance, to remediate implies to remedy something, for example, the ambivalent resonance of the colonial past. Here one needs to develop something like a post-ethnographic museum, for one can no longer be content to instrumentalize earlier examples of material culture for the purpose of depicting the ethnos, tribe or an existing range of grand anthropological themes. Our earlier assumed epistemological authority does not extend comfortably within the post-colonial situation. We can respect and critically integrate earlier narratives and hypotheses written by anthropologists and experts from the field, just as we need to take on the existing testimonials that originate from the producers and users of these artefacts. But we also need to expand the context of this knowledge by taking these extraordinary objects once again as the starting point and stimulus for contemporary innovation, aesthetic practice, linguist translation, and even future product design.
Secondly, to remediate also means to bring about a change of medium, to experiment with alternative ways of describing, interpreting and displaying the objects in the collection. Here we recognise the value of re-introducing the laboratory into the museum, both as a physical location for research and as a virtual extension of communication.
Today, Frankfurt – as an icon of the post-modern European city in general – is the temporary home for its citizens for an average of 15 years. For people whose logic of place is in flux, the former geographical distinctions evoked by departments of Oceania, Africa, Asia and South East Asia, the Orient and the Americas and that we still find today in ethnographic museums can no longer provide a satisfactory geo-political or emotive sense of belonging. This nomenclature as it was set up over one hundred years ago only makes sense if one wants to keep things as they were then, to operate as guardians of the past, of the world as it was conceptualised when the majority of these objects were collected. It remains nevertheless the discourse through which the cultural producers of these objects are mediated, interpreted, and understood in Europe. So how can objects in the Weltkulturen Museum articulate new identifications, the ‘presence’ Saskia Sassen refers to that ‘generates operational and rhetorical openings’ beyond continentalist cartographies? Sassen’s recent paper on incompleteness and citizenship emphasises the transformatory, denationalising potential of the nature of citizenship today5. For a transforming museum, the possibility of engaging with incompleteness is about being ‘capable of responding to the historically conditioned meaning of citizenship’ by shifting the classifications or organising principles that determine the ways an object is displayed and what approach or method is applied in mediating information about it.
These questions lead to a further problem area: museography. Over twenty years have passed since anthropologists and curators began to debate the distinctions between a so-called ethnographic display replete with contextual information on walls, and the power-pedestal spot-lit presentations of tribal art exhibits, understood as art exhibitions6. Remarkably, this dissatisfying polarity resurfaces again and again, determining models of exhibition making in the majority of world-culture museums, but with one distinction. Designers have become more expensive, and the earlier homemade mise-en-scènes so typical of ethnographic displays have been superseded by expensive department store sets. Indeed, I would argue that there is a latent class differentiation that subtends these presentations in contrast with neighbouring ‘high art’ museums that show objects borne of greater proximity in time and space. If the latter employ a more corporate style for their cabinets and lighting, the former offer the aesthetic equivalent of working class shopping precincts or health-food stores. Dioramas, mises-en-scène with manikins, and colourful constructions invoke a form of psychological compensation for that which is not known, underlining the exoticism perceived in the objects and the distance to the cultures that produced them. The Victorian emporium model can be found in the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam as it can in Selfridges on Oxford Street or Macy’s in New York. In addition, the prolongation into the 21st century of the 19th century consumption of ethnographic objects relies on certain forms of atmospheric, artificial lighting and by extension, the photographic representation of these artefacts in auction or exhibition catalogues, positioned against a auratic moiré of grey shadows to best highlight their concave and convex forms. The ideological apparatus that subtends these conventions of display and photographic imaging extends deep into the presuppositions that surround the reception of ethnographic objects and needs to be critically reconsidered.
In some cases artists have successfully attempted to dislodge this persistent museographic genre. One example of this form of intervention is Jorge Pardo’s reinstallation of the pre-Columbian objects at the LACMA in 2010. Another example is the exhibition GEO-graphics curated by architect David Adjaye at the Bozar in Brussels (2010). GEO-graphics placed groups of figurative tribal sculpture from Africa, which he borrowed from the Tervuren Museum, against a backdrop of snapshots taken in the fifty-two African capital cities that Adjaye visited over the course of the last ten years. As he says so succinctly, ‘It’s about the story you want to tell’. And this story with its subjective, experimental potential wins over the clumsy decor tendencies of mainstream ethnographic museum display. Indeed, it begs the question of what indeed an ‘ethnographic’ exhibition might actually represent in 2011? As philosopher Jacques Rancière recently suggested, we are entering a ‘period of indecision, trying some new forms of connection between objects and practice, between framing the visible and making sense7’. The input of artists, writers, philosophers and scholars from various disciplines is central to this process of remediation. For these artist-led constellations create neighbourhoods between objects and people by introducing a multiplicity of contemporary micro-practices and visual decoding procedures.
Artist Issa Samb of the Laboratoire Agit’Art in Dakar, Senegal offers the following modus operandi. “One way of proceeding with an ethnographic museum is to begin with an inversion: exhume these objects, place them at the forefront. This will be the first level. Then walk around the museum and the storerooms but do not begin to classify anything. Walk, look, and name the directors who preceded you, and recall their preconceptions. With this critique you can start to mark your passage. You will be able to socialise each object and discover the life within them. No object in a museum is useless. By reading them, you can learn about current affairs. If you encounter a prototype, isolate it immediately, and give it a number written below its existing one, a number below a number, so as to create a new classification. You need to criticise classifications. They contain a germ of racism. Museums of ethnography confused culture and civilisation, man and objects. All people have culture, but civilisation is an invention8.”
Issa Samb’s practice recognises that collections have an anthropomorphic, even fetishist feel to them. They are both about our failings and about our successes. They signify relations between things and ideas, between the inheritance of meaning and its erasure over time. The ethnographic museum can be seen as a household with a history that is diasporic, immigrant, bourgeois, feral, reclusive, rehabilitating, convivial, consumerist, effusive, curious, concerned, failed, domestic and obsessive. The collection is simultaneously a series of household articles and a set of hermeneutic tools of inquiry. If these objects once projected a certain aura they quickly become forgotten and acquire a layer of anachronism, fading in immediate relevance and yet still carrying deep meaning. To re-think the ethnographic collection means to engage with that necessary mix of discomfort, doubt, and melancholia in order to transform these objects into a contemporary context and gently build additional interpretations onto their existing set of references.
For this process to work, fieldwork has to take place within the museum itself, in a laboratory such as the Weltkulturen Labor in Frankfurt, and no longer on journeys to distant lands. Today, expeditions take place within the stores where it is about coming to terms with what has been collected and why, and finding out about the different paradigms that have signified the research of former directors and curators of the museum. However, if these earlier anthropological models lead us today into a theoretical and curatorial cul-de-sac and promote the repetition of outdated modes of display, then how can we put into practice a relationship between the collection and a set of new logics for spatial and temporal comparatives? How can we configure connections between objects and people in line with present and future trade routes? How do we cross-connect China and Africa for example, or the Middle East and Europe? What platforms do we need to construct in order to provide emotive connection to these objects from past times?
These problematic issues identify the purpose behind the Weltkulturen Museum, which bases its activities on fifty per cent inquiry and fifty per cent exhibition production To do follow this through a laboratory or workshop has been introduced into one of the Villas on Schaumainkai. It spans half the space of the Museum and includes studios and apartments for guest artists and scholars. Inquiries conducted in the Weltkulturen Labor therefore feed into every show, event, publication, and seminar organised by the Museum. New flexible furniture in grey aluminium and ivory linoleum commissioned from Viennese designer Mathis Esterhazy provides a physical structure upon which to place, hang, and juxtapose selected artefacts. Guests live and work in the Labor villa for up to four weeks at a time. Their presence restores the fertile domestic cycle of living, working, and dialoguing inherent to this form of city architecture. The emergent and innovative practices that are carried out in the Labor energise the Museum’s events and exhibitions such that visitors immediately identify Weltkulturen with 21st century ideas and questions. To compliment the physical site, the Weltkulturen Museum is currently working with cocomore AG, a multi-media company in Frankfurt to develop a digital extension that will act as a virtual production site for articulating innovation in formal design, ergonomic and ecological function, as well as transmitting personal biographies that envelop today’s users as much as yesterday’s producers.
The philosophy behind the Weltkulturen Museum holds that in 2011 each individual artefact in the collection is a prototype and therefore a trigger for future concepts. To reference the American artist Allan Kaprow, the objects in the collection contain stored code9. To decipher them requires a productive, engineered confusion between histories, roles and disciplines, and an unorthodox predisposition to that which Kaprow called in the 1970s signal scrambling. For the Weltkulturen Museum, the partial narratives that originate from earlier ethnographic research on the objects offer a seedbed for further knowledge production and cultural mediation. For objects operate as ‘shadows’ (John Urry10), altering their significance, ‘accreting material and symbolic elements’ as they migrate from one hand to another, from an indigenous location to a storeroom, from a research lab to a public exhibition.
In this way, we can view the different artefacts as vehicles of cultural translation, operating in the tension and traction between pedagogy and performativity: pedagogy with its ‘continuist, accumulative temporality’ (Homi Bhabba11) and performativity that engages with the recursive language of creative adjustment. This may help us to redefine the condition of mobility that Einstein referred to by highlighting the far-reaching even radical character of ethnographic collections per se. The existing conservatism of the tribal art market with its implicit top twenty of the tribal art charts where a piece from Nok or Benin will be at the top of the scale and a set of woven rattan fish traps from the Sepik at the bottom, no longer retains its ideological status. The associated apparatus of display including genres of lighting and photographic imaging also needs to be critically reviewed when thinking of post-ethnographic presentations12.
All this leads us at the Weltkulturen Museum to a framework that Carl Einstein would have called configured vision, an extended practice of advanced art and inquiry that combines the potential of a major physical collection with a museum-in-the-mind13. Formulated for a hyper medial world with a digital laboratory that compliments the physical space of the Museum, the activities at the Weltkulturen can begin to connect communities both inside and outside of Frankfurt, and to reflect a new geo-political disposition toward dialogue by providing younger migrant populations with that crucial sense of institutional belonging.
Today, the museum has the potential to constitute a new, emphatic space of visual inquiry, one that is differentiated from university education or cultural consumption. It can offer intellectually stimulating events, laboratory presentations and workshops that build directly on the collections. Together with guest artists and scholars, the experimental reworking of an ecological epistemology based directly on the collections provides the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt with a central thought-structure that is naturally interdependent and interactive with other art forms, disciplines and cultures14. In that sense the museum becomes a space of visual inquiry and production where new craftsmen of future societies and new theoreticians of aesthetic practices can contemplate objects from the past and find ways of translating what they see: visually, through art works, films, and recordings, but also through writing and other forms of virtual community communication.
fn1. “Diese Sammlung müsste jeweils mit Hilfe der Forschungssammlung ausgewechselt und stetig erneuert werden, damit die Besucher ein ausreichendes Bild der Elemente der Kultur und Völkerbezirke gewinnen können. In dieser vergleichenden Sammlung vor allem müssten Vorlesungen und Führungen veranstaltet werden; wie die gesamte Schaustellung durch Lehrer verlebendigt werden muss. Hier ist der Punkt, wo die lebendige Bindung zwischen Museum und Forschungsinstitut einzusetzen hat, soll das Museum nicht durch das Fachpopuläre nur Schau und nicht Lehre gewahren.” Einstein, 1926, Carl Einstein, ‚Schausammlung und Forschungsinstitut (Noch ein Wort zum neuen Völkerkundemuseum), in Der Querschnitt, 6, 1926, page 453. Quoted in Uwe Fleckner, Carl Einstein und sein Jahrhundert. Fragmente einer intellektuellen Biographie, Akademie Verlag, 2006, p.303.
fn2. One can trace an affinity to Carl Einstein in the later work of the Edinburgh philosopher George Elder Davie when he refers to ‚educational arrangements’ in his book, ‚The Democratic Intellect’ (1961, EUP). In his critique of the English attempt to subordinate Scottish Enlightenment systems of learning, Davie identifies the subversive potential of generalism and its promotion of popular education and free discussion. Davie writes, ‘Education became the chief forum for resistance to Southern encroachment, and provided a rallying-point for national principle, which could still bring together the dissident religious factions’. Generalism – the whole over the parts, the general over the particular – provided the citizen with an inclusive perception of the world and, by extension, an anthropological understanding of ‘the relations of the subject to social life’.
fn3. Gregory Bateson, Steps Towards an Ecology of Mind, 1971.
fn4. Paul Rabinow, Marking Time: On the Anthropology of the Contemporary, Princeton, 2008.
fn5. Saskia Sassen, “Incompleteness and the possibility of making. Towards a Denationalized Citizenship?” in Cultural Dynamics, 2009, 21(3), Sage Publications.
fn6. See, for example, Susan Vogel, Art/Artifact, 1990, Center for African Art, NY; Clémentine Deliss, Lotte or the Transformation of the Object, 1990, Styrian Autumn, Kunsthaus Graz, Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna; and Clémentine Deliss in Ivan Karp, Steven Levine, eds., Rethinking Exhibitions, 1990.
fn7. Jacques Rancière in Art Review, January 2010.
fn8. Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, 1993.
fn9. John Urry, Monika Büscher, Katian Witchger, Mobile Methods, 2010, Routledge.
fn10. Homi Bhabba, The Location of Culture, 1994, chapter 8.
fn11. As stated by American anthropologist Paul Rabinow, who gave the first research seminar at the Weltkulturen Museum in November 2010, dissent is inherent within experimental research: “I have always remained loyal to a vision of anthropology by remaining vigilantly disloyal to the existing state of affairs. I am anti-theory and pro-concept, and pro-experimentation.” (Paul Rabinow, Towards an Anthropology of the Contemporary, 2001)
fn12. In 1991, artist Judith Barry attempted to build a mnemonic museum, created by memory using an ancient recall system activated by the viewer. See Judith Barry in Carnegie International, Pittsburgh, 1991, and discussed by Lisa G. Corrin in Mining the Museum, in Museum Studies, an Anthology of Contexts, edited by Bettina Messias Carbonell, Blackwell Publishing, 2009.
fn13. In February 2011, guest artists and scholars include Antje Majewski, Otobong Nkanga, Thomas and Helke Bayrle, Pablo Leon dela Barra, Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky, Hans-Jürgen Heinrichs, Dieter Roestraete and Marc Camille Chamowicz.
fn14. I am grateful to Richard Sennett for his reference to Ruskin’s Working Men’s College in The Craftsman, 2008, Chapter 3.