But where exactly will be the location of this historic rendezvous?[ii]
In fall 2014, I was teaching a course at the Zurich University of the Arts. It took place at the newly inaugurated Toni Areal, a former yoghurt factory turned into a prestigious project of urban development in the gentrified district of Zurich West. The course was in a module called “Interculture” and was attended by students from art education and community arts. We discussed the unacknowledged role of colonialism in the Swiss public space and about what kind of subjectivities emerge in an environment of assimilation and exoticism, racism and diversity marketing. During the break of one of the sessions, a few students and I were walking across the bridge over the entry hall. Our attention was drawn to a person in the center of the hall. I identified a young man—of South Asian origin, so it seemed to me—who was wearing a red T-shirt with a white cross on it, and who was holding a can of beer. He was walking slowly around the boundaries of a rectangle marked with scotch tape, his head bowed down. At one corner there was a pile of empty beer cans. I heard a student of my class asking: “How did this guy get into building?” I was rather astonished by the question and answered: “I guess this is a fellow student doing a performance.” The student was skeptical, and others agreed. We discussed the incident in class against the background of our syllabus, but many of the students still remained skeptical about my interpretation. By chance, I met the performer some days later at a party in an art space on Langstrasse, a demographically highly diverse area, where mainly Italian guestworkers dominated the public space till the 1970s and that now combines clubbing, galleries, sex work, and gentrification. The German-Sri Lankan actor Patrick Balaraj Yogarajan had just finished his degree at the Zurich University of Arts. He told me that later on the day of the performance, he was even kicked out of the building by the security staff. We were glad about the coincidence, which allowed us to discuss the performance, and enjoyed one of the rare opportunities to chat about everyday racism in Switzerland as well as on our transnational lives and biographies—without any need to explain or justify it.
One can learn a lot from this vignette about the ethnic composition and about discrimination or inclusion of the students, staff, and teachers at the Zurich University of Arts. That is to say, of how a person of color who does a performance on the public presence of race, bodies, and space is not easily identified as fellow student—particularly when the performance inserts the non-middle class representation of Tamils in Switzerland into a middle-class space like the Zurich University of Arts.
Concerning the Zurich University of Arts, the project Art.School.Difference has taken up the issue.[iii] It has shown in detail how selection processes are exclusive concerning class, race, abilities, and age. Further, the project made clear that institutions, in order to be more inclusive, have to reflect and transform the question of “Othering” in information events and brochures, in formal selection processes of students and staff, and in curricula.
Yet, I want to argue that the claim of “decolonizing art institutions” should not remain at the level of institutional non-discriminatory measures or strategies of inclusion only, as important and relevant as they are. Rather, the vignette also sheds light on the ways the public space in Toni Areal is produced by a specific cultural regime of gazes. It shows how different persons within the same space look or are looked at, are seen or not seen, are being affected by the space or not, can be present or not. The vignette reveals a racialized hegemonic gaze, which identifies (il-)legitimate bodies according to a politics of locality, which isomorphically equals race, culture, and place. This hegemonic gaze is insisted upon fiercely, hinders self-reflection and, therefore, ignores and bypasses multifocal perspectives and other, transnational public spaces – for example Patrick’s. To put it bluntly, the mainly white, Swiss bodies of the art students in my class were resisting the “Other” returning their gaze, and therefore were unable to connect to a multifocal world, which is very real, but beyond their horizon. It is striking, again and again, that an understanding of multiple identities and hybrid life-worlds is not a self-evident part of the cultural repertoire in a city where around 40% of the population have a migration background, and where symbols of globalism and hybridity are so omnipresent—in graphic design, in club culture, or in multicultural cuisine. And I would argue that the space of the artistic institution or the field cultural production as such were not an exception to this production of locality,[iv] but rather a continuation. Cultural hybridity, which is so much the currency of artistic production and popular culture in postmodernity, seemed to be only decoded as a sign in a simulacrum and not as a lived reality of the many, let alone as a political project.
Being trained as an anthropologist with a background in postcolonial studies and anthropology of globalization, I have gotten involved in different artistic productions and institutions in Zurich in the past few years. One important global development during this time, which also became obvious in Zurich, has been the ambivalence between the drive toward internationalization of artistic production, research, and education and the stubborn resistance against it. Another, phenomena has been a growing interest in postcolonial issues in Swiss academia, in arts, in media, and in the public—at least at its critical margins. This was not self-evident, considering that in the official and hegemonic mythology, “Switzerland has nothing to do with colonialism.”[v] Only in the last ten years have a new generation of researchers, activists, and artists shown how Switzerland had not only been collaborating in colonial economic exploitation, but that its hegemony, that is to say, its education system, its academic knowledge production as well as its public culture have been marked by colonial complicity at first and by postcolonial amnesia afterwards and up to today.[vi]
While these postcolonial scholars, activists, and artists confronted the dominant society with the unwanted facts of colonial complicity, their work was also meant to create public spaces for themselves, their allies, and minorities in general. By representing their “other(ed)” bodies and narratives, they became subjects “in a different way.” They affectively articulated their experiences of racism, transnationalism, and hybridity—and therefore multiplied the public space. In these spaces, for example, Bollywood cinema was not a curiosity anymore, as it was discussed in the Swiss hegemonic public. For me it became a legitimate biographical, cultural, and political reference in a multifocal global public space, connecting early childhood memories, the contradictions of liberalizing India, and a politics of hybridity in Zurich.[vii] And even this subject position was shown to be ambivalent, since, in the process of writing this piece, I was confronted by a Tamil activist and theater director for whom Bollywood movies represented the violence executed by Indian military forces in Northern Sri Lanka during the late 1980’s. There was always this double moment in the project of “Postcolonial Switzerland,” of addressing the dominant society to induce social transformation, but at the same time of creating a space of feeling at home in a globalizing world beyond the provincialism of Switzerland and Europe.
It is against this background of my coming of age as a postcolonial scholar and person that Hamid Dabashi’s recent essay, “Can Europeans Read?”[viii] had such an important intellectual and affective impact on me when I read it for the first time. Dabashi had written the essay as a response to a debate initiated by some European philosophers, who defended themselves against alleged accusations of “Eurocentricism.” Yet, the main point in Dabashi’s argument is that for most postcolonial scholars today “Europe” has ceased to be the main political, moral, or philosophical reference point. Or, as he states it very simply, “We have been to much greener pastures.” The decentralizing of global capitalism, with growing middle classes in Asia, Africa, or Latin America, as well as the transformations induced by the Arab Spring, he argues, have made the epochal narrative of “West against the Rest” obsolete. Hence, both in its colonial and in its critical anti-colonial stance, this mythological code is no longer able to grasp the multifocal planetary realities. Rather, “Europe” is just struggling with its imperial historical legacy, without being able to even slightly understand what is going on in other places, in the multifocal world in the making. “[Me and many colleagues] are part of a generation of postcolonial thinkers who grew up compelled to learn the language and cultural of our colonial interlocutors. These interlocutors have never had any reason to reciprocate. They had become provincial in their assumptions of universality. We have become universal under the colonial duress that had sought to provincialize us.”[ix]
While one can surely still feel anger in the tone in Dabashi’s piece, the perspective and the attitude are totally calm and clear. He embodies a self-conscious position of knowing his history, his anchored worldliness in a postcolonial geography, his academic capacity and social status. At the same time, the piece shows an honest interest, an offer, and desire for conversation—under the conditions, however, that “Europeans” overcome their epistemic narcissism and their postcolonial anxieties. “It is long overdue that Europeans exit the certainty of their mythical self-philosophizing and re-enter history. They must come down off their high horses and fat Humvees and stop philosophizing me, and instead kindly consider philosophizing with me. The moment they dismount they will see me, Walter Mignolo, and Aditya Nigam waiting, with laptops open. But where exactly will be the location of this historic rendezvous?”[x]
This self-conscious attitude is quite an important departure from the postcolonial debates of the 1990s. These were defined by “provincializing Europe” and on exploring spaces of hybridity as the location of resistance and critique. Yet, these debates were theoretically and politically constrained by the inscribed gap between “the colonizer” and “the colonized.” The claim for a new cosmopolitanism[xi] and or for conviviality[xii] showed that this generation of activist scholars became aware of the limits within their work and that theirs was not an intellectual project of blunt criticism and resistance. Rather, in order to be successful, it should be anchored in the changing historical conditions of decentralized capitalism, in an ethical prospect of the good life and in the hope for a new beginning. Wouldn’t otherwise even the most self-conscious postcolonial critic still carry the burden of racism for which he or she was not responsible? And where were the spaces for friendship and solidarity across the color line, while not adopting a colorblind universalism?
Dabashi’s paper forcefully embodies the self-conscious claim for a mode of thinking which goes “beyond the limits of the condition called ‘postcoloniality,’” that is to say, for a new cosmopolitan conversation within a multifocal planetary horizon. However, the context of its appearance also marks the difficulties and contradictions involved in negotiating these cosmopolitan places in the practice of the globalizing fields of humanities, arts, or popular culture—let alone in politics, science, or economy.
There seems to be a gap between the ongoing and accelerated globalization (of the academic and artistic fields and institutions) and the lack of cultural, ethical, and affective resources to reflect and shape these processes. The bodies, institutions, technologies, and images that operate these processes are still inscribed by colonial, capitalist, and patriarchal ruptures and contradictions. Yet, there are no readymade recipes, theories, methods, practices, or identities to understand und inhabit this new world in the making, which has left behind the provincial universalism of European modernity.[xiii]
I would argue that the affective uproar in the debate between the postcolonial scholar Dabashi and his white “European” fellows cannot be explained solely through philosophical argument. Rather, I argue, that the main theoretical point in Dabashi’s paper is that the particular experiential position within postcolonial geography not only influences the arguments one makes and the texts one might choose to read, but moreover, how one is affected by these arguments, books, and authors, images, and objects within the historical and political conditions from which they get their meaning. Reading European philosophers and social theorists or literati through the filter of their translation into the historical and cultural realities and archives of postcoloniality reveals not only the gestures of European colonial power, but also opens new epistemological horizons and avenues of ethical action.
Taking this argument of the postcolonial worldliness of knowledge seriously would mean that an understanding between philosophical positions or probably human relations in general is only possible if one’s own and “the Other’s” position in a postcolonial geography is existentially recognized—a process, I argue, that is fundamentally embedded in an affective dynamic. Sarah Ahmed argued that affects are like the surface of the body, which make it possible to align with persons, objects, and images in a specific way—or not to align. This emotional surface of bodies is regulated and negotiated within power relations, public culture, and historical settings. Therefore, the politics of affects regulate the way people can create communities and publics, the common cultural ground for understanding the language of “Others.” There is no escape into a universalism without addressing experiential and existential differences within the postcolonial condition. Thus, the intervention by Hamid Dabashi might be less about the philosophical arguments about Eurocentrism or Universalism. Rather, it is about conveying the experience of being in the world differently, about communicating that there is world beyond the imagination of European modernity, which cannot be understood through philosophical arguments but only through experiential exposure, recognition, and affective alignment. So where und when will a real encounter take place, one that makes it possible to leave the postcolonial condition behind us? And, moreover, under which ethical and affective conditions—and in what kind of space?
While postcolonial academics, activists, and intellectuals have written brilliant pieces about how colonial histories are inscribed in bodies, archives, or even affects, they are not able to intervene or even adequately explore these sublime levels of our multifocal world in the making. Culture and aesthetics are part of the hegemonic making of globalism. Yet, art has a privileged position for productively reflecting these processes. The aesthetic tensions of hybridity and authenticity, of materiality and virtuality, and of locality and globality are the cultural repertoire of de-centered capitalism.[xiv] And, the other way around, the conditions of globalism affect aesthetic practices in everyday life, and in the field of artistic production. Artistic and curatorial practices are capable of intervening in the aesthetic, affective, and ethical spheres, which are so seminal in making (sense of) the postcolonial geographies of de-centered capitalism, and in acknowledging the colonial ruptures and wounds written into the archives of our bodies.
An interesting project of decolonizing art institutions by intervening in the politics of locality was initiated by Katharina Morawek—at that time curator of Shedhalle Zurich—and the Viennese artist Martin Krenn. In the project “The Whole World in Zurich,” they curated a process of practical social utopia on the subject of urban citizenship.[xv] Against the backdrop of the fact that 25% of the city’s population was excluded from voting due to being foreigners, the project invited an expert group of activists and scholars who were to explore the potential of the city as space for social transformation. The curators and the expert group departed on a process of so called “Hafengespräche” (“harbor conversations”) on the three topics of freedom of mobility, freedom to services, and freedom to representation. For every topic, an expert group came up with its specific curatorial formats for engaging decision makers, activists, and migrants in a conversation of how to induce change. The historian Kijan Espahangizi and I, who were tackling the issue of freedom to representation, decided to invite cultural producers of color and/or with a migration background. We wanted to explore and discuss how a public space should look and feel, so that we were able to be at home. The first session was amazingly full of analytical confusion over the term of racism (which is totally misused in Swiss public as a term to describe physical violence by right-wing extremists instead of structural racism), of forceful biographical stories of discrimination, transnational family life and conviviality, as well as of criticism on the failure of the city’s cultural policy. The raw and fragmented, perhaps even carnivalesque, atmosphere of the first session embodied an experience that didn’t have a social form or a shared language, ethic, or aesthetic. Within the open setting we had offered, political affects co-emerged into a new collective public practice—compared to the intimate, often lonely biographical contemplations on being “Othered” that the participants had been used to previously. In the performative process of assembling, the participants claimed the “right to appear,” which was much stronger in its affective presence than by explicitly claiming it by words.[xvi] This unexpected assembly had triggered something that might be what Raymond Williams had called a “structure of feeling,” “a social experience which still in process, often indeed not yet recognized as social but taken to be private, idiosyncratic, and even isolating, but which in analysis has its emergent, connecting, and dominant characteristics, and its hierarchies, indeed.”[xvii]
Based on this experience, a collective initiated a series of happenings, which was called Salon Bastarde. The first happening was a late night show called “A Family Festival of the Second Generation” (“Familienfeier der Second@s”), which combined a historical-political review of assimilation and self-representation of second generation youth since the 1970s with the performance of contemporary voices of Second@ artists, researchers, and activists, which inscribed their histories and practices into the public space. In a similar fashion, an evening called “Afrodrexciya” explored the utopian archives of black diasporic music culture by combining sound listening sessions, storytelling, and live acts. In a third event, the Salon Bastarde, together with the political-cultural center Autonome Schule Zürich (ASZ), organized a “Banquet at the border” in Uster, where asylum seekers are held in bunkers and not allowed to leave the districts. During a carnivalesque dinner cooked by activists from ASZ, performative interventions by migrant activists and Roma artists made it possible to reflect on the long history of the racist border regime in Switzerland and to inhabit the borderlands “in a different way.”
The Salon Bastarde was a political-affective intervention into the public space of Zurich. It attuned its protagonists to each other and allowed for a re-coding of the hegemonic public space. It produced an alternative public (space), which was not there before and which assembled people to perform a self-confident affective community.[xviii] Through the collaborative curatorial decisions, the agency of the institution Shedhalle was transferred to a social process in which the aesthetic, affective, and ethical conditions of postcolonial amnesia were both exposed and disrupted and a utopian moment of a new beginning became tangible.
While the project “We all are Zurich” was an interesting, experimental way to decolonize both the routines of the institution(s) involved as well as the racialized public space of Zurich, it also has limits for thinking through a program of “decolonizing art institutions,” as the Salon Bastarde accepted the local public space as well as the political framework of democratic citizenship as its reference point. Nikita Dhawan—following Spivak—is right to be skeptical about the allusion to subalternity and hybridity in European migrant activism as long as these practices are not understood within global power relations.[xix] In exposing the urban Swiss space as “Othered” space within the framework of inclusive citizenship, the manifold contradictions that connect Europe to its former colonies and that manifest themselves in the materialities that build this space and in the bodies which inhabit it, were not engaged. So far, the Salon Bastarde was an important local intervention, which remained within the limits of a European space and discourse.
The contradictions and the challenge to “decolonize art institutions” become much more evident, but also more relevant, when scaling up to global dimensions. This became obvious at the International Conference DRAFT, which took place in Zurich in summer 2016. It was the second conference of a project with the same name, curated by Gitanjali Dang and Christoph Schenker, which assembled eight interdisciplinary teams (one curator, one artistic position, and one critical observer) from eight different cities from all over the world, in order to come up with artistic strategies on how to intervene in public spaces and debates. The teams from Cairo, Cape Town, Hamburg, Hong Kong, Mexico City, Mumbai, Shanghai, and Zurich had met in 2015 in Mumbai to present their ideas. One year later in Zurich, they presented their ongoing projects to each other, to students from an international summer school, and to a wider audience. There were two ethnographic moments that made clear the inherent contradictions of this project of building up an international conversation or even collaboration in the field of public art.
In one incident, a participant of the conference told me that he had told a joke to a South African man. Thinking that the joke was racist, the latter laconically answered that in some townships in his home city, one might be seriously injured if one tells this particular joke. While the participant was very self-critical about the incident, he could not fully understand the reaction of the South African student, which—and that is the point—is probably neither necessary nor possible. It only shows how, despite a globalizing popular culture (in this case of comedy) and a common framework of a summer school in art, these do not automatically deliver the affective, ethical, and cultural disposition that makes it possible to translate such complicated issues such as race und postcoloniality into an effective and affective community. In a second incident, during a discussion during a coffee break, I was told the rumor that some students had expressed their suspicion that the conference was taking place in Zurich in order to show “how rich” Switzerland was and how inferior the guests were. Without taking this as serious evidence for the organizers’ intention, it just expressed the immense experiential gap that must be bridged between participants of the conference accustomed to the gentrified public space of Zurich West and others who were used to the infrastructure and the public spaces in the megacities of the Global South. Not only were the public spaces totally different, but so were the respective framework, resources of the art institutions, as was the practice of intervening in public spaces.
Yet, there was also another moment at the conference that showed the potential of artistic and curatorial projects to intervene in these ruptures in postcolonial public spaces. In the project “Psychotropic Swiss Gold,” knowbotiq, Nina Bandi, DJ Fred Hystère, and I presented our ongoing work, in which we explored the aesthetic, affective, and ethical levels of postcolonial amnesia in Switzerland, particularly Swiss trade with gold. In the presentation, the team gave background to a performance that had taken place a day earlier. The project and presentation combined artistic, theoretical and ethnographical practice on how Switzerland was involved in the gold trade with the apartheid regime and still is one of the biggest refining countries of raw gold. “Swiss Psychotropic Gold” explored how a history of violence was systematically neutralized in a regime of postcolonial amnesia. The problem was not that there was no awareness about the Swiss involvement in this history of violence, so we argued, but rather that there was an aesthetic regime that hindered subjects in the public to be affected by this knowledge. After the presentation, one member of the South African team reacted excitedly to the presentation by adding that the history just presented was connected to a place only a few hundred kilometers away from where he lived. He told the stories of the exploited bodies in the mines during apartheid and how the structural discrimination continued in today’s mining industries. Although it was early morning, one could feel the full attention of the whole audience. One could hear a pin drop in the room. Suddenly, the different experiences of Switzerland suppressing its history of violence and of South Africa renegotiating the history of apartheid were affectively articulated in this space. Suddenly, it was felt as a shared history. The transnational cultural archives opened and the mass of imaginations, memories, and analyses—which were there before but not activated—could be connected. Suddenly conversations, social relations, new communities, and identifications seemed possible, those that were not possible before. On a meta-level, the DRAFT project should be looked at as the making of a new transnational public space itself, which was embedded into specific aesthetic conditions and strategies of being aligned, affected, and recognized.
To be sure, the meaning of this singular moment should not be exaggerated. Yet for me it was an important ethnographic moment for understanding that we are in a multifocal world in the making, which needs adequate aesthetic, ethical, and affective repertoires, rather than only good philosophical arguments, efficient institutional set-ups, good business deals, technological solutions, or legal judgments.
The argument I want to make here is that we won’t get far in terms of decolonizing art institutions if we don’t have a good analysis and practice of the aesthetic make-up of public spaces in the context of de-centered capitalism. A decolonial program should not only focus on institutional measures of antidiscrimination or new funding policies, although this is highly important. If the institutional transformation is going to be successful, it has to be connected to a new aesthetic, affective, and ethical practice, one that accepts the ontological status of multiplied subjectivities, spaces, and bodies, of simultaneities of different public spaces, of the postcolonial worldliness of knowledge production. Art and art institutions should contribute to questioning the cultural mechanisms that govern this multifocal world in the making. Firstly, it is probably the strength of good artistic or curatorial practice, ethnography, or activism to inhabit and investigate the liminal spaces of the possible and impossible in the context of global change and rupture. Secondly, institutions and practices in the artistic field are themselves embedded in these global conditions, which requests reflexivity and critique as some of the main capacities of art. In the best of cases, artistic practices and institutions can contribute to the understanding and intervene in the contradictions and utopias of our times. In the worst of cases, they participate in producing and reproducing the cultural and aesthetic texture of a new hegemony. In this sense, we should not only ask where and when the historical rendezvous of decolonizing art institutions will take place, but also how.
I would like to thank the following colleagues and friends, with whom I had been working in collaborative artistic projects and which helped me to reflect on the issue of decolonizing art institutions: Katharina Morawek, Carmen Mörsch, Kijan Espahangizi, Martin Krenn, Yvonne Wilhelm, Christian Hübler, Christoph Schenker, Geetanjali Dang, Nina Bandi, DJ Fred Hystère, Dorothee Richter, Said Adrus, Tim Zulauf, Franziska Koch, Kadiatou Diallo, the collective Salon Bastarde, and the participants of the DRAFT Conferences in Mumbai and Zurich.
Rohit Jain is an anthropologist and anti-racism activist based in Zurich and Bern. His current work focuses on the connections between postcolonial archives, the politics of affects, and the performative intervention in translocal publics. Rohit has done research and published texts on the entanglements of racism, humor, and anti-PC in TV comedy, on transnational politics of representation among “second generations Indians” as well as on the connection between the Swiss public discourse of Bollywood, yoga, and IT and postcolonial anxieties. Recently he has collaborated in artistic research projects on the “An/aesthetics of Suburbia” and on “Swiss Psychotropic Gold” (both at IFCAR Zurich) and on urban citizenship (at Shedhalle Zurich). He is co-founder of “Laugh Up. Stand Up! Antiracist Humor Festival” and of “Salon Bastarde,” a series of post-migrant happenings in Zurich.
iii Philipp Saner, Sophie Vögele, Pauline Vessely, “Schlussbericht Art.School.Difference. Researching Inequalities and Normativities in the Field of Higher Art Education,” accessed 19 September 2017, http://blog.zhdk.ch/artschooldifferences/.
vi Franziska Koch, Daniel Kurjaković, Lea Pfäffli eds., The Air Will Not Deny You. Zürich im Zeichen einer anderen Globalität, Diaphanes, Zurich, 2016; Patricia Purtschert, Barbara Lüthi, Francesca Falk eds., Postkoloniale Schweiz. Formen und Folgen eines Kolonialismus ohne Kolonien, transcript, Bielefeld, 2012.
vii Rohit Jain, “Bollywood, Chicken Curry – and IT: The Public Spectacle of the Indian Exotic and Postcolonial Anxieties in Switzerland,” in Harald Fischer-Tiné, Patricia Purtschert, eds. Swiss Colonial Encounters and Postcolonial Assemblages, Palgrave/MacMillan, Basingstoke, 2015.
xviii Rohit Jain, “Die Schweiz, ein*e Bastard*in – Reflexionen zu einer postkolonialen Praxis im Kontext von Urban Citizenship in Zürich,” in Katharina Morawek, Martin Krenn, eds., Urban Citizenship. Democratizing Democracy.
xix Nikita Dhawan. 2007. “Can the Subaltern Speak German? And Other Risky Questions. Migrant Hybridism versus Subalternity.” translate, webjournal of eipcp, accessed 17 September 2017, http://translate.eipcp.net/strands/03/dhawan-strands01en.