What is to be done?
by Christopher Pinney
Our current century opened with events that destroyed the implausible proposition that history had ended. These events also further eroded an art practice increasingly aware of its own isolation from world history and its inability to produce knowledge about that world. These parallel historical implosions were brought into sharp relief by the curator Okwui Enwezor's brilliantly provocative transformation of Documenta 11, in Kassell in 2002, into politico-philosophical praxis. In Enwezor's vision, the white cube became a gallery without walls, opened to a world of conflict.
This provides one frame through which to approach the work of two of the artists featured here. Paul Seawright and Admas Habteslasie's work bears the traces of an immersion within the unavoidable contradictions of living in an era of compressed globality in which the necessity of what Sarat Maharaj terms xeno-epistemics - a knowledge predicated on otherness becomes ever more pressing. Paul Seawright documents the invisible peripheries of African cities, vast metropolises 'hidden in the blind spot of the West'. In Admas Habteslasie's photographs we encounter an Eritrea which in the photographer's own words has 'fallen off the timeline of history' hovering in a limbo between war and peace.
Seawright's Invisible Cities project, from which the images presented here are drawn is a study of several of the fastest growing urban conglomerations in the world. All are African Lagos, Johannesburg, Lusaka, and Addis Ababa. A characteristic Seawright aesthetic of the margin is evident, but in focusing on the peripheries of these cities the photographer draws our attention to spaces outside the frame. First and foremost we are presented with what we perceive to be a fragment of some larger narrative: in Bridge, an image which might serve as the leitmotiv of any postcolonial city, a bus traverses an elevated concrete flyover above a wasteland of rubble and mud in which humans are attempting to dwell. The transience of this space is underscored by the movement of the bus whose journey inscribes a logic of flow. The space beneath marks disjuncture and the predicament of standing outside this flow.
A similar spatiality is apparent in Untitled (Pylon) in which, beyond a foreground of floating flotsam we see the same proximity of flow and disjuncture. Different lifeworlds jostle in the same compressed space. The pylon is a punctuation mark in a larger structure lying beyond the picture space. Here it overshadows a fragile accretion of shacks clinging to the water's edge: power and powerlessness lie within a few feet of each other, side by side, layer upon layer. 'Knock 'n' wait outside' as the door in Interior II says.
Admas Habteslasie's Limbo series records a vision of Eritrea in August 2005. After several decades of intermittent warfare with Ethiopia and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, Habteslasie found himself confronted with a disjuncture that he labels 'historical regression'. He sees his ongoing project as a critical response to photojournalism's redemptive project and its assumption of a single historical timeline. Here there is no 'belatedness' in need of updating; rather we see the 'modern' imploding. The telecommunications building in the border town of Senafe sags into a heterogenous temporality, no longer part of a global information flow it falls out of a universal 'now'. The liquidity of telecommunication data bits crumbles into dust. Many images resonate with Seawright's: idle cranes in distant docks conjure the frustrated connectivity of the entrepôt: this is the disjunct version of Alan Sekula's Fish Story. The Unfinished School in Senafe likewise conjures this stasis. The steel protruding from the pillars suggests an optimism about future completion but halted, like Roman ruins, they merely decay.
Where earlier work (from early colonial documentary photography to Salgado) fore-grounded the body, the work presented here shares in common a voiding of space. The recession of the corporeal allows us to see more clearly the marks of habitation left by absent bodies. Anthropological photography was also interested in the environment, but only really as a cultural artefact, that is as an epiphenomenon of those bodies that made it in its (culturally different) image. The work presented here negotiates different kinds of ratios between bodies and the places they inhabit. Admas observes that 'the body is not an entry point for me'. In Admas' Mary in the Shop the Madonna hangs at the centre of the dream world of commodities, standing in for all the bodies which the biscuits will nutrify and the Omo cleanse. In Shopping, Asmara the passing body of a consumer fails to connect with the doubly refracted bodies of the shop window manikins that attempt to hail her. In Paul Seawright's Incident, bodies serve only to direct our attention to an incident occurring outside of the picture space. Bodies here serve not as visible objects of knowledge but as vectors of the ineffable.
Whereas much nineteenth century photography took the human body as a signifier of difference, this absent/present environmentalism invents a new ratio of difference. Now a sign of a common humanity, the body evaporates in this new practice, leaving behind what remains truly different: architecture, place and the different times they inhabit and the political forces that structure them. And where portraiture might ground the body, face to face in a comforting encounter between viewer and viewed, these images present dislocation. In Admas' work Eritrea is incarnated as a point in a cycle of flows: the only conventional portrait in his work presents bodies clothed at a distance: by remittances originating from Eritrea's large diaspora population.
Reacting to his profession's postmodern turn and refusal of the real in the 1980s and 90s, the Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins once imagined an advertisement for a job in a US Anthropology department: 'Poets Wanted: No Experience Actually Necessary'. Sahlins' vision of experience was that of 'fieldwork' of the kind that Hal Foster in his influential 'Artist as Ethnographer' had critiqued as a proxy of a disavowed self-presence. Foster cautioned Derrida-savvy art practitioners who understood the pitfalls of transcendence from seeking this very quality through site specificity and community based projects. These ran the risk, he claimed, of finding a new transcendent signified in 'the people'.
The images here are decidedly not 'ethnographic'. I have tried to suggest that they abolish the 'ethnos' in favour of a different political ratio. Zarina Bhimji's work (her film Out of the Blue featured in Documenta 11) suggests that it would be equally misleading to see them as a return to 'fieldwork'. Although the images are the result of several visits to Uganda from 1998 onwards 'they are not about Uganda'. They draw on extensive research on indirect rule and the colonial construction of customary law (utilizing newspapers, maps and sound recordings from the British Library and the School of Oriental and African Studies) but they are 'not descriptive' in any localizing sense. Rather they engage broader concerns with 'stain, emotion, and grief'. They are responses to the smell of sweat in a room, to sounds, and to the voice and poetry of the Sufi singer Abida Parveen.
Love (1998-2006) concerned with 'large scale betrayal, grief, love, violence [and] spirituality' is also intended to express 'beauty and tenderness': Bhimji contests any narrow political or historicist reading of her art, proclaiming her affection for the white cube. But they bring an uncanny and disturbing presence into that space: they are all haunted by deep stains of powerful poignancy; desolate rooms, chandeliers dumped in back-alleys, quartermaster's offices given over to dogs.
Bhimji's Love is overlain with a powerful historical presence and layered with other inescapable images: Cracked Earth places a sleeping mat and humble belongings in a Rothko chapel, No Border Crossing showing the paperwork of territoriality also unavoidably invokes a longer history of bureaucracy's enormity. But Bhimji's transfixing images also map environment as a metaphor of the dilapidated negative. Metaphor may be an inadequate term: in the surfeit of inscriptions, the data overload of peeling paint, the scratching branches and twigs of an overhanging tree (in Spider's Score) mimetically aspire to photography's own excess. They simultaneously burden the viewer with an impoverishment and wealth, deficit and excess. Often this is achieved by captions which catch one unawares: a cell almost entirely divested of its paint is turned upside down by its linguistic sign: My Heart Was Beating Wildly. This adrenalin-surging response fails to fix the cell as a place of incarceration; the caption unhinges it; perhaps it is sloughing its skin, some shiny new form struggling to emerge. Bhimji plays the volatility of her aphoristic captions alongside the instability of her images.
Here photography's transcriptional excess entails its own incapacity to fix any image. Photographers and critics having convinced themselves that belief in photography's 'index' amounted to a capitulation to bourgeois naturalism, may be reluctant to concede that photography's instability, rather than reflecting its artifice is the precise result of the excess that photography's very technicity guarantees. No matter how hard the photographer tries to exclude, the camera always includes. This is what provoked Benjamin's comments about photography's 'tiny spark of contingency' and Barthes' punctum is in essence the real which slips past the watchful gaze of the photographer, waiting in the image for subsequent recovery. The photograph's there-then, here-now, also harbours an ineluctable more-than.
What is to be done? As Enwezor noted in his commentary on Documenta 11, today's avant-garde is 'so thoroughly disciplined and domesticated within the scheme of Empire that a whole different set of regulatory and resistance models has to be found to counterbalance Empire's attempt at totalization'. Sarat Maharaj wrote very thoughtfully at the time of that show about 'xeno-epistemics' and the potential of visual art for knowledge production that might provide such a counterbalance. Noting the different modalities of the visual arts and 'high-speed' knowledge systems such as science and social theory, Maharaj conceptualised art as '"xeno-equipment" rigged out for attracting, conducting, taking on difference...' and harbouring the possibility of 'art-ethical processing plants churning out options and potentials... for action and involvement in the world'. Maharaj raises the challenge not merely of expanding the xenology of our objects, but also of our practice, recognising how its explicit materiality its enfleshed alterity permits it to comprehend the complex materialities and temporalities of the world. Photography, because of its ineradicable more-than, intrinsically constitutes a kind of xeno-epistemics: it will always capture more of the world its surplus or xenos - than the photographer expects or desires. Photography becomes a xenography that might take its place at the centre of this new form of knowledge production, and action.