A Conversation between Christian Nyampeta and Jonatan Habib Engqvist
Jonatan Habib Engqvist: Let’s start with the notion of anticipation. Sifting through the etymology of the word, it basically entails “to cause to happen sooner,” or “taking care ahead of time;" This original meaning of literally “taking into possession beforehand” suggests an awareness of something to come. Today, we use the term in the sense of expectation or looking forward, but anticipation has an element of preparation or forestallment that should prevent it from simply being used as a synonym for expectation as representation or assumption of a future act or development as if presently existing or accomplished. So it would seem that we’re speaking of potential or prolepsis. This makes me think of how you speak of the physical environments that you create as tools that you construct in order to create spaces of encounter. This might seem instrumental, but on the other hand there will always be something that escapes the design. If the instruments you create allow slippages to happen—moments that exist outside of the program or calendar of the institution—perhaps this distinction between “expectation” and “anticipation” could be fruitful?
Christian Nyampeta: Perhaps anticipation is related to a promise? I amuse myself by thinking that, day-to-day, encounters are organized following spoken and unspeakable promises. When an agreement is put into words or made visible in some way, we speak of a contract. Maybe then, once such arrangements are reached intuitively and left unannounced, we may call them expectations. An agreement then is the structuring of contingencies into stabilized codes, and here resides the tension.
I find it useful to think of the spatial arrangements and instruments as “hosting structures.” Perhaps these hosting structures point to the overflow, or maybe also underflow of an expectation as caricatured above. At stake in these hosting structures is the idea of a reserve of a doing, a reserve of encounters. I think this resonates with the words of philosopher Jean-Paul Martinon in London, who writes that, “The encounter involves asymmetrical movements of generosity that could not take place if there were no symmetrical movements of egoity,” and that “the encounter involves a ‘doing’ that has no objective and yet could not take place without the setting up of objectives.”
Also the words of Isaïe Nzeyimana come to mind, a philosopher working in Rwanda. I visited Nzeyimana last year, and we talked about the meaning of rest and its role in the shaping of our subjects. In our conversation, Nzeyimana mentioned the notion of umwaku. Nzeyimana calls this a malevolent wish. Suppose, Nzeyimana says, early in the morning you are up for some task, and you meet someone who makes a stirring comment to you. In Nzeyimana’s words, this may be very banal. The person may tell you that your shirt is dirty, or the person may find that you are not looking good in this or that way. As the day advances, this comment grows on you to become agitating, and your disturbed mind prevents you from working restfully. For Nzeyimana this is umwaku: a piece of information, some news, or a comment, actual or false, that is troubling to the mind. The notion of umwaku is of an animistic origin. What makes such comment stirring is not so much its unsolicited delivery, but its pre-emptive, anticipatory resonance to a possibly feared, relatively undesired image of the oneself.
The hosting structures are in tension with the institution of umwaku. For want of a better word, the idea of “letting” comes to mind: the hosting structures make it possible to remain, to let go, to make available, to slacken, to leave, to depart from, to leave undone, to allow, to bequeath. I think that the hosting structures perform the contradiction of such “letting.” The tension and contradiction remain, because of the image of letting go, for example, through weariness or through neglect. Letting can also indicate to allow a perceived, alleged, or convicted offender to go unpunished, but also to divulge. These meanings open up to letting as ceasing, to stopping, to letting alone, to not mentioning, also as a way of sheltering. With this reflection, I am imagining an encounter whereby a speech leaves the guest and host alone; or whereby a conversation leaves the other at rest, but without abandoning the other…
JHE: When you say that the indistinct hosting structures are in tension with the institution of umwaku, it makes me think of Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica and what today seems to be a rather utopian idea of a kind of lazy creative leisure, which he calls creleisure. Ceasing, stopping, letting alone, not mentioning, and letting objects become sensing organs—I believe you might be addressing a certain trope of activity, a stubborn idea that Art should be understood as a mode of action, as a doing, or even as a particular kind of activity. Perhaps your work can resonate with someone like Oiticica in a way that is helpful in trying to review the validity of that notion. For instance, these ideas of rest, laziness, or, to put it philosophically—active passivity—connect Art to a different notion of subjectivity through a body that isn’t busy doing stuff, but that simply exists.
What if we re-orient your ideas of “how to live together” into “how to rest together”? Could we speak of this “letting” as a form of Interpassivity? A space, or the promise of a space designed in order to do nothing in particular?
CN: Creleisure sounds fascinating. I will consult that reference to refresh my memory. At present, I would outline the “rest” that I am evoking not as passivity-as-usual. Do we understand passivity as inaction? As laziness? In contrast, if we understand passivity as the passing of one subject into another, including our previous and future selves, then passivity is at stake in the hosting structures. This is because I consider rest not as leisure, or laziness, or inaction, but as an action of being sensitive to what is to come. In this way, I evoke rest as a shared resource in and out of our command. As such, rest involves the giving of rest rather than only taking rest. This contradiction makes it difficult for me to define rest conclusively. This way, rest falls outside of conceptualization, it is the rest of the concept. In some ways, this is helpful. This difficulty sketches out rest as that which is left or stays proper to its own being. It takes so much material and so many indescribable efforts to take rest, let alone to give rest. Maybe then rest connects our being to the world to come, as a reserve of a future event or encounter…
JHE: What I am trying to get at is how the notion of passivity changes the dialogue between the thing and the wearer/user, or a specific environment and what takes place within it. Apropos of countering umwaku or avoiding pre-defined activity, Oiticica also had a notion of quasi-cinema. Today, we would simply call it a multi-channel installation, but in the 1970s it was a kind of revision of the cinematic order, where he attempted to expand the notion of film by producing spaces where an audience could watch without having to discern a particular position, without aligning their gaze according to a predefined order or with others. Instead, one could lie or stand while experiencing projections of multiple images on diverse surfaces. With his Quasi-Cinema installations, Oiticica said that he wanted to create “architectures of the libido” that “appeal to the complexity of perception through multiple senses and the integration of the arts.” Quasi is perhaps a good word. It contains this notion of passivity, and I really prefer it to the more dialectically negating terms that have been in circulation like “immaterial” or “dematerialized,” as it makes me think of notions like the placebo, the quasi-object, something that exists and does not exist, yet holds some power over how reality is perceived.
CN: Yes, this passivity, again if it is an activity of a passage, of a passing over. However, if passivity is inaction tout court, then it remains predictably incomplete. Nzeyimana finds that, day-to-day, a rest defined as inaction cannot exist in physical, biological, and psychological terms. Otherwise, Nzeyimana says, we are speaking of the end of a life, of existence. The planet, time, the organs, the mind, all of these are engaged in alternating but constantly active functions. Rather, Nzeyimana finds tranquility in this changing of activities. Tired of working at the office, we may find it restful to work in the garden. Another way Nzeyimana finds rest is through speaking to a stranger. Here, the contradiction returns: on the one hand, Nzeyimana highlights the importance of keeping ourselves away from the kind of speech and encounters that solicit or transmit umwaku. And yet, on the other hand, Nzeyimana finds it restful to talk to a stranger, whereby both speakers expose themselves to the unknown. The distinction, and not entirely the resolution of this contradiction, is the difference between meeting the unknown and falling into the unknown. In reference to the quasi, to the multiple immaterial you evoke in the reorientation of the cinematic sequence of that specific time of Oiticica, the idea of being a synonym of oneself comes to mind. This is how I propose to re-orient the idea of How To Live Together into How To Rest Together. I think laziness is too defined in this context. Rather, rest understood as a passivity, as a letting that is nevertheless a doing, understood as a way of changing the dialogue, as you say, this rest is a manner of finding synonyms of ourselves, of our structures, of our lives.
JHE: Can you develop what you mean by being a synonym of oneself, and how this relates to rest?
CN: I was noting my impulse to develop synonyms of my doing, my thinking, and my being. Of taking rest from “myself.” This can be a shared need, particularly as a way of intervening within a crisis or moment of exhaustion. I am attracted to the plurality, which is occasioned by the idea of synonyms, when I am facing such a “lack.” This ending, characterized by a tiredness of means or exhaustion of options, can be banal or extremely serious. For example, I speak languages that do not have the word art in their vocabulary. And yet symbolic creative work informs the everyday, as a specialism with specific sets of practices, and as a part of mundane encounters. Chatting with a child, flirting, describing the weather to a stranger, lengthy greetings and valedictory exaggerations, and so on.
For instance, another friend philosopher, Obed Quinet Niyikiza, refers to an anecdote attributed to Luther. Allegedly Luther was asked what he would do if tomorrow were the end of the world. Luther responded that he would plant a tree. This assertion is a way of overcoming an ending, an exhaustion. This assertion is a performance, with or without a goal in mind. This performance instantiates a simulation, a synonym of the ordinary. The extraordinary becomes the ordinary by another name. Conversely, such performance of the ordinary can have a goal: it may carry a terrifying charge of interpellation, of keeping the other in check. But the synonyms which Niyikiza sketches are means of overcoming an ending, an ending of words, of ideas, of habits. These means may connect us to the rest, to a radical outside. The hosting structures, the instruments, are synonyms of chairs, of tables, of beds, of sandals, of monochords, and so on. Within these spatial arrangements, we can then ask questions that reach beyond the exhaustion of our speech: what is art in this or that language? These questions can of course be felt, asked, and dealt with away from these hosting structures. But I imagine that the material dimension of the same discursive question might further the inquiry.
JHE: In short, the things you make are synonyms of objects, or quasi-objects, that amplify certain questions. What then is the role of the exhibition?
Let’s say that the exhibition is a place to rest, for instance. It obviously won’t solve the complications of fatigue, but I guess it might provide some calm to reflect within the structure of the institution where it takes place. Correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as I have understood you’re not really into the passive/active dialectics, so you cannot simply be saying that if the art world is making us tired, we should try turning the tables and exhaust its spaces... So I would like to ask you if you also could talk about the relationship between the things that you make, the hosting structure, and the institution where they present themselves. Could you give an example of these connections?
CN: It is a beautiful question. In my experience, every exhibition is contextual. In some cases, an exhibition is the culmination of a sets of elaborate activities, in some other cases it is a setting for further research, in some others it is a setting for hosting workshops, and in some others it is a thesis, etc. All together, leading to the exhibition are interior activities, and the exhibition is a space to meet the rest, to meet the outside: if we retain the notion of rest as a sensibility of attending to what is to come. Indeed, the distinction between action and passivity is not what is at stake in “my” exhibitions. I am now speaking from South Korea; I am here on the occasion of the Gwangju Biennale. The entry of my contribution in the exhibition catalogue speaks of these exhibition activities as also restful activities: watching movies, debating, reading, eating, drinking, workshopping, finding solutions, talking to strangers and friends, etc. All these activities can be ways of resting. Resting compels self-determination, it makes it possible to inhabit oneself with or without a goal in mind.
The hosting structures, the synonyms of objects, are often prototypes whose use is to develop affective and working relationships between artists, communities, and the surrounding resources through producing studies for new tools and settings. In the past, these structures have included community notice boards, public benches, toys, sandals, notebooks, musical instruments, aprons—things of all kinds that become relevant through sustained use and dialogues.
The exhibition then oscillates between the roles of host and guest. Occasionally, the structures supporting, accompanying, or hosting these activities become useful for other artists or staff of the institution. This was the case at Casco – Office for Art, Design and Theory in Utrecht, The Netherlands. I would also cite a work realized in collaboration with The Showroom at Church Street Library in London. Here, the actual structure is a permanent mural conceived in collaboration with groups and communities neighboring The Showroom, realized through The Showroom’s Communal Knowledge programme.
Today, my uses of such “communal knowledge” is the staging of extended discursive programmes about the uses of art outside the field of art, in collaboration with philosophers. By philosophy I mean the conception of ideas, and this needn’t be practiced only by those schooled in the traditions and disciplines of philosophy.
JHE: I like how you define philosophy as thinking rather than its expression through speech, and resting as inhabiting oneself with or without a goal in mind. It reminds me of a cheeky quote by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard where he says, ”People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” There is a moment of non-doing, or openness, in thought, which is easily overridden by the institutions of contemporary art such as biennials. To be fair, under those conditions it is very difficult to work without a clear goal in mind, but it seems to me that one often tries to compensate a desire for intimacy with intensity. With some restraint (given our political contemporary), one might on the level of rhetoric draw a parallel to the trope of compulsive activation or judgment vis-à-vis the more contemplative “letting” you described earlier.
But what strikes me with your answer is how clearly you articulate that discourse and gaze inform our understanding of space. Yet to my mind the phenomenological subtlety of what you do often goes the other way. Somewhat clumsily put, your prototypes allow the space to betray how we speak and see. In a sense they become an artifact “in between” the time and space of an exhibition. Perhaps my last question should have been when rather than what is an exhibition?
To give a specific example, I was thinking about the sandals you made for Casco. Any environment is of course understood differently when you are busy trying to keep your balance, constantly aware of your feet, hips, gaze or when every step you make creates a sharp sound. Could you describe that specific work, and since we’re speaking about anticipation—what did you anticipate from it and what was the outcome?
CN: If rest is being, I imagine that thinking is the awareness of this being, of inhabiting oneself with or without a goal in mind. This thinking can be expressed in a speech, but thought is not speech itself. Thank you for the quote by Kierkegaard! In the logic you sketch, perhaps biennials are a form of language, of material appearances and arrangements that include and exclude the non-doing and openness of thought. Here, we then find that there is a goal to such exhibitions and activities. If all is well, the existence and the contours of the demands of this goal are known in advance, and the extent of these prospects can be navigated, and its terms can be negotiated. At least in theory. At the same time, my presence here in Gwangju is partially owed to the long reveries, meditations, and open conversations we held with curator Binna Choi over a few years on the subject of how to live, work, and rest together. This intimacy becomes an intensity at specific moments such as the installation weeks. The intensity shifts into a distributed intimacy, as we encounter the works in various forms, as exhibitions, publications, events, and so on. The “letting” is also letting intensity and intimacy grow into something not yet known or no longer known. This, again, reminds me of a synonym.
“When is an exhibition” is a beautiful phrasing. Yes, the spaces of display, the exhibition spaces, and the activities in which we encounter each other and the work are co-determined by a temporal element. Prototypes are “examples,” models, simulations, synonyms of ways of inhabiting the world. The work you mention was realized in the context of New Habits, the research exhibition curated by Binna Choi at Casco in 2014. Elements of these prototypes were structured as a performance titled Models, Manners, Prayers. We performed together with fellow artist Aimé Zito Lema and other friends. The prototypes, these sandals, allow for the passage between “habits,” between ways of life, and between how these ways of life may translate in aesthetic and ethical forms. This was the question at stake in Casco’s New Habits. I study asceticism, and some of the ascetics value physical or symbolic pilgrimage. With the sandals, we were thinking of life as a set of journeys, and how such journeys would be facilitated by furnishings that model themselves into new forms through use in time and space. The sandals at Casco offered structures for visiting the exhibition, which is perhaps also a journey of sorts. The sandals are a sensing organ between the body and the environment of the exhibition. We thought that wearing sandals induced a way of walking that is specific, responsive, and sensitive. There arises a certain receptivity when vision corresponds to balance and sound; in other words, when our otherwise separate senses are active associatively.
It is hard to measure the outcome, but the resulting gestures and movements placed the body in a heightened correspondence with the environment of the exhibition. The sandals provided an extension, a conjoiner, a passage between senses and the works, from one sensory space into the other, from one habit into another. If an exhibition can be a model of how to organize our world, then this correspondence, this conversation between works and senses can have resonance outside of the exhibition.
JHE: I wanted to end by asking you how the institution is affected, but I can’t help noting that what you are describing also could be seen as analogous to the structure of a joke. Both artworks and jokes can reconfigure the structure of how we perceive the world by providing a thought that can at once point out structures to which society conforms and be a wink. Or by breaking with habitual thought or perception… Bringing us back to the question of anticipation, one could say that humor appears in the disjunction between the way we perceive things to be— and the way they appear in the joke—between what one might expect and what is developed within the logic of the joke. Examples can vary from speaking animals, to farting bishops, curators installing light bulbs, or straight linguistic inversions. Cicero once said that the most common joke is when we expect one thing and another is said—here, our disappointment makes us laugh. Kant says something similar. Basically the joke departs from a notion that we live in, or believe ourselves to live in, a rational and ordered world. In this environment we become accustomed to certain reoccurring events, patterns, and routines: that things happen in a certain order and have certain reoccurring structures. When something happens that disrupts that order, that breaks our expectations or habits—we burst out in laughter. Or it can also be a question of unexpected similarities. For instance, Pascal writes that two identical faces, of which neither could produce laughter, can make us laugh due to their similarity (it can for example be funny if the guy in the café looks just like George Bush, not because the guy in the café is funny, and not because George Bush is particularly amusing—but simply because it’s funny that the guy in the café looks just like George Bush). The comparison is, in other words, that impossible equation between our habitual concepts and the things that these concepts represent. More to the point: Immanuel Kant defines laughter as an affect that depends on an expectation transformed into nothing. Kant’s definition seems sensible, and I would say that it has been widely used and accepted when talking about humor. But how apparent is it that a failed expectation could create an affect tied to joy? How can disappointment make us happy? Analogously to your description above, Kant shows how a storyteller gears our expectations in a certain direction toward an inevitable solution through narrative succession while the logical, habitual or obvious consequences of the story are exempt. One of his examples is a story about a rich person who wants to arrange a fancy funeral for a relative, but the more money he gives to the grievers so that they will appear sad—the happier they get! If this story had ended the way that Kant assumes that we are expecting—that is to say if the grievers had played sad, it wouldn’t have been as funny. Being a 300-year old joke—it actually has a rather low "ha-ha-factor," but the point is still clear: the story’s climax is its anti-climax which in turn relies on an absurd logic, or even a non-rational non-logic that breaks with cultural habits or the cause-and-effect of the everyday. Perhaps, and I do realize that I am stretching it and that this might be an improper comparison, but perhaps this break with expectation, this questioning of habits, of “letting” is not about anticipation at all but the potential of a non-resolved promise?
CN: I think the category of a joke can be a useful analogy to chart the shifting of terms and registers of how we understand our relations to our environments, our practices, and ourselves. Your analysis of the jokes from these philosophers is helpful for thinking about the notion of anticipation, because some categories of jokes dissolve or displace anticipation. In addition to your analysis, we can sketch out a spectrum of jokes and its relation to my artistic wishes. On one end of the spectrum, we could find the jokes of a comedian. On the other end of this spectrum, we may find the jokes of, let’s say, a dentist who is at work. The jokes of a comedian are warranted. When we don’t find the comedian’s jokes funny, the absence of our risibility is relative to many factors including our own ethics and tastes. However, the jokes of a dentist at work are not easily becoming. It could be that at the moment we hear the joke of a dentist at work, we find ourselves in a position of such discomfort that laughing will only make matters worse. Do you think that the jokes told by Cicero, Quintilian, and Kant can be located in the middle of this spectrum? The relation between the propositions of the ways being and doing at the heart of my work and a joke is the devaluation of an impasse, it is the dissolution of an exhaustion. This deflation is not necessarily a solution. Instead, it is an orientation towards another center, towards an exterior mode of thought. I will conclude by imparting to you my current whereabouts. I was in London when we started corresponding. By now I am writing from Jerusalem. If we speak of promises, Jerusalem is a place and maybe also a time, which is pregnant with a kind of anticipatory violence. I am here for the Qalandiya International, a biennial in Palestine now in its third edition. I am contributing to The Jerusalem Show VIII, on the invitation of Vivian Ziherl who is curating this edition in collaboration with Al Ma’Mal Foundation for Contemporary Art. This edition is themed Before and After Origins. For my contribution, we are making a filmic work. I have titled the film The Hereafter. The film expands on Guelwaar (1992) by the late Senegalese novelist and filmmaker Ousmane Sembene. Guelwaar is a Christian who fights against the imposition of international aid to his community by militating for women’s rights. When Guelwaar passes away, his body is mistakenly buried in a Muslim grave. As a result, in our new film, Guelwaar arrives in the wrong heaven! No longer a man or woman in the Hereafter, Guelwaar meets the Inhabitants who advise on matters concerning how to live together in the Hereafter, how to behave in this new reality, how to feel at home in this wrong heaven, and how to find a way to the right heaven, if this exists at all. These Inhabitants of the Hereafter include a philosopher, a comedian, a healer, an archaeologist, and a child.
The Hereafter is set in the Shu’fat Refugee camp, which was established in 1967. The Camp is located in the municipality of Jerusalem, but the Camp is isolated by the Separation Wall. Shu'fat is outside of either Israeli or Palestinian authorities. The navigation through the Hereafter is facilitated by a “new” signage system carved in stone and developed in collaboration with Assyriologist Yasser Khanger and artist and stone mason Hasan Khater, as a system from before the emergence of heavens as we know them today. Indeed, it turns out that our heavens are the result of an erroneous partitioning of the Hereafter!
Stockholm/Växjö/Zurich/Limassol/London/Gwangju/Jerusalem, September 2016
Christian Nyampeta is a Rwandan-born, Dutch artist. In 2017, he had an exhibition at Camden Arts Centre, London, UK. This year, his work will be included in the Biennial of Contemporary African Art Dak’art, Senegal; and at Tensta Konsthall, Stockholm, Sweden. Nyampeta convenes the Nyanza Working Group of Another Roadmap School Africa Cluster, runs Radius, an online and occasionally inhabitable radio station, and is a research student at the Visual Cultures Department at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Jonatan Habib Engqvist is a curator and theorist with a background in philosophy and aesthetic theory. Previously project manager for visual art at Iaspis (2009-2014), curator at Moderna Museet (2008-09) and The Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm (2005-07). He also manages Curatorial Residency In Stockholm and is editor in mischief of the online journal tsnoK.se and has curated a number of large international exhibitions, including Survival Kit 9 in Riga, Latvia, Sinopale 6, Sinop, Turkey (2017), Tunnel Vision, the 8th Momentum Biennale in Moss, Norway 2015 and (I)ndependent People, the visual art focus of Reykjavík Arts Festival 2012. He is curator of The Children of the Children of the Revolution at Färgfabriken in Stockholm (April 2018) and New Småland on commission by four art museums and a university (2016-2019). Books include: Big Dig – Om passivitet och samtidskonst, CLP Works, 2018, Studio Talks: Thinking Through Painting, Arvinius+Orfeus Publishing, 2014, In Dependence – Collaboration and Artists´ initiatives, Torpedo Press, 2013, Work, Work, Work – A Reader on Art and Labour, Steinberg Press, 2012, Dharavi: Documenting Informalities, KKH, 2008, Academic Foundation, New Delhi 2009.
2 Christian Nyampeta, Comment vivre ensemble, HD video, 30 min., color, sound, 2015. Conversations and commentaries on the role of rhythm in the shaping of our subjects, our communities and our localities. With theorist Olivier Nyirubugara, at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, philosopher Isaïe Nzeyimana at his home in Butare, Rwanda; philosopher Obed Quinet Niyikiza at his home in Butare, Rwanda and philosopher Fabien Hagenimana at INES-Ruhengeri in Rwanda. In conversation with artist Christian Nyampeta.
6 Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1670), II, "La Vanité.” "Two faces that are alike, although neither of them excites laughter by itself, make us laugh when together, on account of their likeness.” (Translation by Jonatan Habib Engqvist.) It’s a remarkable quote as it used by both Freud and Bergson as a point of departure for speaking about humor.