What Follows Came Before

 

To articulate the past historically does not

mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was.’

It means to seize hold of a memory as it

flashes up at a moment of danger.

 -Walter Benjamin,

Theses on the Philosophy of History[1]

 

The question of what happens between A and B, of what is left behind, of what becomes a distant memory of the journey, is especially pertinent in today’s day and age. What Follows Came Before attempts to answer these questions by interrogating the processes inherent to the formation of diasporas and reflecting upon the amnesia that complicates our ability to truly comprehend the past. In the exhibition, five artists consider a wealth of ambivalences that exist between origin and the present moment, meditating upon a multitude of alternatives to the Modernist, imperial attitude of history as a series of singular and fixed events. 

In responding to the theme of ‘diaspora,’ I considered in what context of late I had heard the term used. My conclusion was that, in recent years, there has been a conflation of ‘diaspora’ and the term ‘cosmopolitanism;’ a problematic which surely merits discussion. Such a conflation, we will see, is reductive, and embodies a certain wilful amnesia of the more ominous side of globalisation. Indeed, it is because the discourses surrounding both diasporisation and cosmopolitanism revolve around globalisation and migration that this conflation is understandable. Yet to consider diaspora as analogous to cosmopolitanism dismisses the fact that trauma is part and parcel of these consistent transformations and regroupings. 

So, to begin, what are diasporas? Diasporas are, on a very basic level, phenomena of human displacement intrinsically tied to globalisation. Furthermore, they are phenomena which have existed for centuries, and which consistently takes on new forms parallel to the many iterations of globalisation. In his magnificent lecture Creolization, Diaspora and Hybridity, the late social theorist Stuart Hall considers the discourse surrounding diasporisation in relation to creolisation, a consideration that helps to ground an understanding of the lineage of diasporisation. Originally, creolisation was a form of cultural hybridisation that occurred at the site of French-Caribbean colonisation.[2] According to Hall, the term has since come to stand for a larger, global phenomenon which can be applied to a multitude of diasporic groups that have experienced, “forced transculturation under the circumstances peculiar to transportation, slavery and colonization.”[3]  Hall pinpoints the arrival of this phenomenon to the end of the fifteenth century, that is, to the first stage of globalisation. [4]  Significantly, in giving creolisation this specific temporal place within history, Hall characterises the event as inextricably tied to imperialism.

Indeed, curator and art historian Okwui Enwezor’s definition of diaspora, which he characterises as the result of, “migration, displacement and exile,” does not differ vastly from Hall’s articulation of creolisation. [5]   Enwezor’s definition translates creolisation into contemporaneity, underscoring a lineage between creolisation and the present-day conception of diaspora. It supports the argument that contemporary diasporisation is particular to a new wave of globalisation that is a manifestation of the first wave that produced creolisation. The comparison of creolisation and diaspora formation reveals the constant repetition of human displacement and trauma. Furthermore, this repetition, is indicative of the power structures that have manifested in the face of globalisation and which continue to manifest to this day.

Cosmopolitanism, in stark contrast, suggests the myth of the “global village.” It is, writes Nikos Papastergiadis,

 

both the product of an idea of the world and an ideal form of global citizenship. Everyone who is committed to it recalls the phrase used by Socrates and then adopted by the Cynics and then the Stoics: ‘I am a citizen of the world.’[6]

 

If one is a “citizen of the world,” a member of the ‘cosmos,’ from which the term ‘cosmopolitanism’ is derived, they belong to an elite minority. In an extension of Papastergiadis’ statement, I posit that the overarching concern in relation to cosmopolitanism is the fact that the term denotes an advantaged position which, as I see it, stems from one’s class, nationality or a combination of both. Cosmopolitanism, in a nutshell, is imbued with positive connotations, implying privilege and the luxury of choice. For this reason, applying this reading of privilege, of belonging to a “global village,” to diasporic entities is fundamentally flawed. Processes such as migration or exile certainly do not elicit connotations of advantage. [7]

That process is inherent to the formation of migratory identity is also too often disregarded by cosmopolitan discourse. “Identity,” argues Hall

 

is not just about “being” but also “becoming”- always continuing to emerge in response to different historical circumstances; formed in that place where the vicissitudes of subjectivity (where “the subject” as a subject-of-culture first emerges) is positioned by and repositions itself in the narratives and discourses of a culture and a history.[8]

 

Process is a basic element of the incessant regroupings that define diaspora, whereas cosmopolitanism signifies an endpoint, a satisfaction in the present tense. This observation is intrinsic to the conceptual framework of What Follows Came Before. Thinking about diaspora through the framework of process recognises identity as a concept that is constantly in flux. In recognising the transient nature of identity, we may begin to identify the manner by which events have been neatly indexed into history; a device used to smooth over the complex topology of trauma, loss and amnesia that process signifies.

In short, it seems to me that there is an absolute disjuncture between cosmopolitan theory and reality. My reservations stem from the fact that there are so many contradictions in the 21st century globalised world which, in a certain hangover of the failed Modernist project, inhibit cosmopolitanism as a reality for most. Few can declare to be “citizens of the world.” After all, isn’t cosmopolitanism a mere euphemism for class and fixed power relations? Considering the work of Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson, I conclude that cosmopolitanism cannot exist because globalisation works to reaffirm hierarchical distinctions between groups, rather than acting to equalise humankind. Jameson writes,

 

If the progress of capital produces the even greater misery of the workers […] then it must also be said that class-struggle- the increasingly articulate and self conscious resistance of the workers themselves- is itself responsible for the ever greater productivity of capitalism.[9]

 

Communication, technology and transport have accelerated to the point where a greater proportion of people are afforded the privilege of enjoying the same ‘freedom’ one might consider a defining factor of‘global citizenship.’ Despite this, disparities continue to prevail, rendering cosmopolitanism a utopian ideal, rather than an actual reality. Globalisation is the bearer of false hope; it offers false security through the myth of equality. It is essentially a power structure that works to ensure structures of class and minority profiling remain intact.

Now comes the point where I might be accused of contradicting myself, but bear with me. If, as Papastergiadis posits, cosmopolitanism, “exists but always in the form of a future- oriented nostalgia,” the concept can not be applied to the real world.[10] Art, however, might offer a sort of cosmopolitan vision that acts as a mediator between people of divergent backgrounds- an effective tool for the communication of ideas that attempt to bridge the gap between the affected and the spectator. I draw this concept from what Papastergiadis terms “aesthetic cosmopolitanism”- art that acts as a driving force behind “re-evaluating the function of imagination in the construction of reality.”[11] Like modernity, the discourse of cosmopolitanism grapples with the idea of an unobtainable goal and, for that reason, I am adamant that cosmopolitanism does not exist outside of a conceptual form. The “future oriented nostalgia,” might be located in art, but never in reality.

Furthermore, because globalisation shows little sign of slowing down, it seems futile to consider a world without the trauma, loss and anxiety that diaspora formation embodies. This final comment might be viewed as simply rubbing salt into the wound, but I make no apologies for it. For, in accepting this inevitability, we can begin to think about processing the voids inherent to diasporic identity, the amnesia that diaspora as a process brings about, as a means of considering the here and now. Acceptance of the inexorable encourages reflection. This reflection encourages the production of slow, heuristic poetics. This heuristic approach is embodied by the five pieces presented in What Follows Came Before. As such, this exhibition seeks to apply a framework to these conceptual notions surrounding diaspora. In looking to the past, we might at least begin to tease out the complexities of the present and of what is inevitably to come.

Julies Shiels’ sculptural installation Things Fall Apart (2013) embodies inevitability and functions as an allegory for the themes explored throughout the exhibition, giving them form and substance. Composed of small plaster moulds meticulously arranged atop a pegboard base, the piece speaks of the tension between control and loss. Despite all efforts to control every aspect of the formation of Things Fall Apart, the inevitability of chance becomes apparent from the moment of installation. Each plaster form, despite having been created from the same mould, consistently turns out to be one of a kind. Thus, the process of formation already reveals the limitations of control and these limitations are amplified as the plaster forms crumble throughout the duration of the exhibition. Furthermore, the difficulty in determining the amount of plaster lost through the holes points to the inevitability of the unknown. The plaster forms almost appear solid from afar and it is only upon closer inspection that one realises their powder state, demonstrating the fragility of seemingly stable forms.

Bridging the general and the personal is Phuong Ngo’s Sequencing Archive 1.1 (2014), a work that signals the starting point of the exhibition’s post-colonial deconstruction of history. Ngo’s oeuvre is concerned with a personal exploration of his place within the Vietnamese diaspora. This work builds upon previous studies, with Ngo engaging viewers in the quest for a narrative lost to history. Lacking context and the personal narratives of those who photographed these images, Sequencing Archive 1.1 (2014) invites spectators to arrange approximately 150 slides purchased from eBay, which depict images photographed during the Vietnam War by unknown individuals. The process is inherently haphazard, spotlighting the impossibility of reaching a single historical truth. In recent years, the deconstruction of the single, authoritative archive has become a favoured artistic tool for re-considering single narrative histories, and Sequencing Archive 1.1 builds upon this practice. Ngo presents a consideration of the internet as a tool that exacerbates the decontextualisation and distancing that occurs when diasporas form, thrusting archival deconstruction into the absolute nowness of contemporaneity. Sequencing Archive 1.1 therefore reveals the advent of the internet as a recent occurrence that gives nuance to the story of diaspora.

Not unlike the archive, the monument represents a tool for indexing collective memory. The traditional role of the monument is quickly undone by Nikos Pantazopoulos in We Were Here (2014), a three-part installation that attempts to clutch at history in a futile attempt to reverse its amnesiac effect. The video and photographic elements occupy a grey space between tangible and intangible, materially present but always threatening to fade away. The photograph and video are presented concurrent to a rethinking of the discourse of the take-away element so deeply embedded within the exhibition discourse. As a marketing tool for the artist's project, the take-away, once removed from the exhibition site, is inevitably disregarded or discarded. These two elements- the narrative of the Greek diaspora, and the broader narrative of the take-away- are not mutually exclusive. They each consider the framing of discourses and the way in which the physical materials that stand for a period in time- the Spartan monument, the edition- are reinvented through the course of temporal and physical displacement. As such, Pantazopoulos presents what Nancy Spector calls, “a multivalent narrative in which the intimate and the communal are fused.”[12] The crux of the work rests in the fastening of the ‘take-away’ poster to the plinth. Rarified through its limited production number and its contact with the plinth, a signifier of what “history and values are supposed to be,” the ‘take-away’ is monumentalised when it can not be displaced.[13] Asking the audience to meditate upon the processes that came before (the video) and those which might come (the edition), We Were Here is a rich meditation upon the power of sites and the transformative effect of travel and time.

Steaphan Paton’s Poor White Fellas (2014) interrogates Australian colonial history, questioning the way in which diasporic narratives have been fashioned according to Western hegemony. Reminiscent of the modernist desire to capture the ‘primitive’ through the representation of the exotic other, Poor White Fellas challenges the contemporary claim to post-colonialism, presenting instead a statement for the contemporary era as a neo-colonialist era. Okwui Enwezor argues that European modernity has time and again been exploited as a justification for global imperialism. History, in turn, becomes, “susceptible to epistemological and historical distortion when deployed in the service of European imperialism.”[14] As a member of the Gunai and Monaro nations, and all too familiar with the labelling of Indigenous Australians as the ‘diaspora’ of the land, Paton offers an alternative to Australian Colonial narratives. Democracy, as a concept of opposing standpoints, is a central trope of Poor White Fellas. “A democratic society,” argues Claire Bishop, “is one in which relations of conflict are sustained, not erased. Without antagonism there is only the imposed consensus of authoritarian order.”[15] Giving form to democracy as outlined by Bishop, Paton works against accepted narratives through the reversal of the colonial gaze. In this sense, Paton considers an alternative reading of Australian settler history, coercing the complacent viewer into consciousness.

Finally, Mariana Jandova’s gesamtkunstwerk, The Journey Home (2014), acts as a poignant finale to the exhibition, exploring very personal narratives that, when reconstructed, reveal the complex interplay between history and subjectivity. We can return to history because it is a concept, but diasporic entities, argues Hall, “cannot go home. The scattering, the dissemination, is permanent,” because the home they belong to no longer exists.”[16]The Journey Home, presents Jandova’s attempt to piece together an understanding of her own identity through an exploration of her father, Josef, and his first wife, Dana’s, story of fleeing former Czechoslovakia. Jandova’s exploration of diasporic identity reveals the threshold of what we can return to and what becomes a distant memory. Through the presentation of three projections, one of Josef, one of Dana and a third that shifts between photographs of Czech and Australian landscapes, Jandova attempts to weave a narrative of her own personal journey, but must rely upon idiosyncratic recollections to do so. In this sense, the home of the title is metaphoric rather than literal; Jandova attempts to access the grey area of Josef and Dana’s subjective pasts, which she herself never experienced. The separation and concurrent playback of the three projections disorient the spectator, highlighting the inaccessibility of a history that is so close yet, ultimately, so removed.

What Follows Came Before reveals the necessity of revisiting the past, if only conceptually, in an attempt to understand the present. Doing so re-articulates history through the perspective of the subjective lens, allowing for a certain understanding of the gap that brings diasporic entities into the present situation. If the global village does not exist, then the place for imagining this ‘utopia’ occurs in the pieces presented in this exhibition. For cosmopolitanism is the utopian politic, always available conceptually but never completely tangible. Diaspora, by contrast, is the reality of globalisation and will remain our reality for a long time to come.

Amelia Winata

Melbourne, July 2014

 

References

Bishop 2004: Claire Bishop, ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,’ October, No. 110 (Fall 2004), pp. 51-79.

Benjamin 1999: Walter Benjamin, in Hannah Arendt (ed.), Illuminations, London: Pimlico, 1999.

Enwezor 1997: Okwui Enwezor, ‘Introduction: Travel Notes: Living, Working, and Travelling in a Restless World,’ in Okwui Enwezor (dir.), Trade Routes: History and Geography: 2nd Johannesburg Biennale 1997, Johannesburg: Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Council and Thorold’s Africana Books, 1997, pp. 7-12.

Enwezor et al. 2003: Okwui Enwezor et al., Créolité and Creolization: Documenta 11_Patform3, Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2003.

Enwezor 2010: Okwui Enwezor, ‘Modernity and Postcolonial Ambivalence,’ South Atlantic Quarterly, No. 109 (Summer 2010), pp. 595-620.

Hall 2003: Stuart Hall, ‘Creolization, Diaspora, and Hybridity in the Context of Globalization,’ in Créolité and Creolization: Documenta 11_Patform3, Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2003, pp. 185-198.

Jameson 2011: Fredric Jameson, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One, London and Brooklyn: Verso, 2011.

Papastergiadis 2012: Nikos Papastergiadis, Cosmopolitanism and Culture, Cambridge and Malden: Polity Press, 2012.

Spector 2007: Nancy Spector, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications and Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2007.

[1] Benjamin 1999, pp. 247

[2] Enwezor et al., 2003, pp. 13-14

[3] Hall 2003, pp. 186

[4] Hall 2003, pp. 193

[5] Enwezor 1997, pp. 9

[6] Papastergiadis 2012, pp. 81

[7] Enwezor 1997, pp. 7

In this introductory essay to the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale, Okwui Enwezor draws attention to the fallacy of the so-called “global village” arguing against the term as coined by Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s. “His [Marshall McLuhan’s] thesis,” writes Enwezor, “suggests a gathering of common interests in a mediatised exchange system of information and images which today, in many quarters globally, remains only faintly and marginally hopeful.”

[8] Hall 2003, pp. 188

[9] Jameson 2011, pp. 58

[10] Papastergiadis 2012, pp. 11

[11] Papastergiadis 2012, pp. 81

[12] Spector 2007, pp. 54

Spector writes in relation to the late Cuban-born American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres whose work also considered public/private binaries as explored by Pantazopoulos.

[13] Spector 2007, pp. 59

[14] Enwezor 2010, pp. 596

[15] Bishop 2004, pp. 66

[16] Hall 2003, pp. 191

 

This essay was written for the exhibition What Follows Came Before which I curated as part of SEVENTH Gallery's Emerging Curators Program. The exhibition ran 23 July - 16 August 2014