Sarat Maharaj: In Popular Music from Vittula1, Mikael Niemi gives us a deadpan rendering of ‘everyday backwardness’ at the Artic rim of Sweden. It is a pocket of murky life left behind in theforward march of the model social democratic state and its success story. What he touches on strikes a chord across the developing world: how to take the sound of ‘backwardness’, how to forge a lingo that can both give voice to it and go beyond the gag it imposes:
“We gradually caught on to the fact that where we lived wasn’t really a part of Sweden. We’d just been sort of tagged on by accident. A northern appendage, a few barren bogswhere a few people happened to live, but could only partly be Swedes. We were different, a bit inferior, a bit uneducated, a bit simple-minded. We didn’t have any deer or hedgehogs or nightingales. We didn’t have any celebrities. We didn’t have any theme parks. No traffic lights, no mansions, no country squires. All we had was masses andmasses of mosquitoes, Torndalen-Finnish swearwords, and Communists.
Ours was a childhood of deprivation. not material deprivation – we had enough to get by on – but a lack of identity. We were nobody. Our parents were nobody. Our forefathers hadmade no mark on Swedish history. Our last names were unspellable, not to mention being unpronounceable for the few substitute teachers who found their way up north from the realSweden. None of us dared write in to Children’s Family Favourites because Swedish Radio would think we were Finns. Our home villages were too small to appear on maps. We could barely support ourselves, but had to depend on state handouts. We watched family farms die, and fields give way to undergrowth…our school exam results were the worst inthe whole country.
We had no table manners. We wore woolly hats indoors. We never picked mushrooms, avoided vegetables, never held crayfish parties. We were useless at conversation, recitingpoems, wrapping presents, and giving speeches. We walked with our toes turned out. We spoke with a Finnish accent without being Finnish, and we spoke with a Swedish accentwithout being Swedish. We were nothing.”
The ‘indices of underdevelopment’ and ‘monikers of modernity’ Niemi chalks up have a quasi-sociological air, a tongue-in-cheek cumulative table of facts. He gauges ‘developmentalshortfall’ through a stream of impressions and quirky, subjective scraps of association: a far cry from hard-nosed statistics or scientific method. The mode is introspective, in the shape of first person consciousness: a feel-think-know device for probing the world’s stickiness, its sensations and intensities. It gives us a feel of how things tick from the inside. We are plungedinto the lived experience of nonentity status,
into the thick of ‘zones of morbidity’. We can relate the mode to the thrust of Amartya Sen’s critique that analytical approaches to development tend to treat the subject in rather narrow, quantitative, ‘GNP terms’.2 He argues that we should see rates of material improvement and progress, rising living standards, better conditions and resources asclosely tied to the endeavour to engender and expand freedoms and rights. This is a key link if we are to grasp the drift of development and modernity ‘from the inside’, as self-understanding of the process on the part of those ‘in the thick of it’. In today’s interconnecting, globalizing world, tackling exclusion, the lack of rights and freedom cannot be put off to some time ‘after basic development has taken place’. When individual participants begin to express and interpret their social and cultural wants, they are chipping in with howto shape development, how to orchestrate it rather than having it thrust upon them. But what sorts of communicative structure and art activity can contribute to this, to opening up self-reflexive mental, emotional, semantic dimensions both for voicing ‘backwardness’ and for stepping out of it? I wonder, Gilane, whether we might look at this in the light of your research as curator of the show Faultlines for the Africa Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (2002)?
Gilane Tawadros: In addressing the keywords ‘communication and development’ in a global context, we need to distinguish between communications for and on behalf of a globalized capital economy and other types. The former tends to be homo¬genous emerging principally from financial and political power centres. Its forms are largely unilateral. Although they might be inflected with different accents, capital enterprises have been ingenious with inflecting communications so they can apparently speak to and ‘fit in’ with different spaces and places, they arenonetheless particular messages with predetermined outcomes within the global economy. Some art practices, on the other hand, create possibilities for another kind of communication:a space, in my view, about dialogue and exchange rather than something one-way. Contemporary art is not always clear- cut or transparent, nor is it homogenous or unilateral.
For example, in Moataz Nasr’s installation One Ear of Dough, One Ear of Clay (2001), the video piece depicts ordinary Egyptians in the street, hunching their shoulders. The gestureis repeated over and over by individuals of various ages, genders and social class, a colloquial physical gesture, a shrug that suggests: ‘So what can I do about it? That’s just the way it is.’ The work comments on political apathy questioning why people with a history of political engagement are not as involved politically at this juncture. In his installation Tabla (VeniceBiennale, 2003), a huge video screen depicting a drummer playing on a traditional Egyptian drum, or tabla, dominates the space. We don’t see his face or head, just the tabla clutchedbetween his legs and his hands beating out a powerful, continuous rhythm. The sound ricochets through the exhibition scattered with tablas of varying sizes, like a geographical map ofthe Nile Delta. It’s deafening, relentless. You register the work acoustically before you read it visually, as the sound of difference.
Arab music is about atonality and dissonance. But it’s also a sound that takes over the space and overwhelms the viewer. There is a disparity between the single tabla with a soundthat is distinctive and powerful and the reverberations from others that are connected to the main screen and which create sounds in response. The piece works on a number of levels such as the question of political agency, of how individuals are implicated in the political situations in which they find themselves.
Sarat Maharaj: Nasr’s Tabla seems to parallel a wider involvement of today’s visual artists with ‘high-decibel sound saturation’. Perhaps one way of making sense of this is to press thedistinction you imply between terrains of communication and their archaeologies. From the 1960s, the spread of communications-consumerist culture: TV, radio, cinema, advertising,fashion, sport, transport, popular culture, commodity design, saw a burgeoning concern with the look of things right down to their micro-texture. The Situationists pointedly summed up this ‘aestheticization’ or ‘grooming of the everyday’ as ‘the production of the spectacle’. The stakes were raised as reality came to be seen as the processed effect of digital simulation technologies. Had this somewhat stolen the thunder of artists if not upstaged the ‘creativity’ once associated with fine art? What kind of art was possible that did not simplymirror ‘the spectacle’ or become ensnared by it?
We might also ask straight away whether this was an issue at all or in the same way for practitioners outside ‘the developed world’, beyond mainstream consumerist art- culture circuits? By 2000, satellite, cable, digital terrestrial TV and radio, dial-up internet and broadband services, mobiles, SMS, cashpoints, Nintendo, video games, iPods intensified visualization of everyday info-data flows. I call these sound-image economies ‘retinal regimes’ to connote sheer overload of images, sonic signs, visual representations mixed in with whatDeleuze/Guattari spotlighted as asignifying systems. Could sound scan the visual, supplement it, if not short-circuit it in the face of its retinal condition? Sonic constructions,multiple frequencies, noise, sonic dirt vibes, inundations and interference become stuff with which to probe, if not shatter, the ‘spectacle’, to dispel its ambient muzak. As antidotes toinfo-spin-jabber they allude to other communicative wavelengths, alternative acoustic awareness. In Popular Music from Vittula, the sense of other possibilities is caught by the jarring, raw ‘rockunrol’ awkwardly eked out by stubby-fingered, speechless Niila and by the farm worker turned music teacher who had lost his fingers in an accident and now strummed the guitar with a thick, penile thumb. What they manage to croak out are painful spasms of release, of coming to voice, of prising open a chink in numbing ‘backwardness’. By the 1980s,the term ‘spectacle’ tends towards an almost entirely pejorative, black or white connotation. With ‘retinal regimes’, in contrast, I hope to signal an oscillating positive-negative charge inthe pervasive syntax or ‘visual Esperanto’ of the knowledge economy.
Although the latter is billed as cutting across developed/ developing barriers, beyond certain advanced centres its infrastructures are still sparse with patchy access. This is roughlycomparable to the lack in the developing world of modern gallery-museum systems and art education- communications structures of the sort that are the staples of the developedworld’s art-culture industry.
Nevertheless, practitioners have invented strategies through internet-new media domains. Sites and networks by Raqs Media Collective (India) or Open Circle (India) are ‘adisciplinary’manoeuvres: almost ad-lib assemblages of info-images and discourses, experimental inquiry tools for social action, learning sessions, urban investigative tours that have a feel of therandom walkabout and happening. Torolab’s (Tijuana, Mexico) ‘trans-border pants’ designed with multiple-use pockets can be switched over according to citizenship status forimmigrant or American usage: a ruse for embodying and inspecting the politics of belonging in the ‘lab conditions’ of the US/ Mexico frontier. These are think-know-act projects that mightnot look like ‘art’ but in their open-ended semantic fission count as art. To pigeonhole them as ‘developing world artwork’ rather misses the point: they are art- communication ploys that question the norm of the airtight modern gallery-museum system whether inside the developed world orout.
Gilane Tawadros: This goes back to whether by communication we mean a one-way conversation or a dialogue. Often, both in the arena of development and the art world, the developed world is seen as having opportunities and goods to offer and the developing world as the consumer who is potentially available in fantastic numbers. It’s more complicated than this becausethe product, in terms of the artworks being made in the developing world, are packaged, taken back and presented to consumers in the developed world. Here, the artworks areframed in particular ways, which define and prescribe how they're read. This is often in narrow terms, either as part of a national or ethnographic discourse, or as illustrations ofpreconceived ideas of what the ‘developing other’s’ creativity is about. But the critical point for me is that the work of contemporary artists within the African continent I did get tosee, even if my range of evidence was somewhat limited, offered up many ideas, possibilities and points of engagement that I hadn't seen in the developed world. I came back to London, having travelled in Johannesburg and Cairo, for example, thinking, ‘Here I am in this capital of the developed world where all this infrastructure exists, all theseopportunities but much of the work I'm looking at appears empty.’ It was lacking in the substance we are talking about. What is considered to be at the top of the hierarchy ofcommunication worlds actually seemed empty of knowledge, however full it might be with information. They seemed more akin to global, commercial communications products. I found in Johannesburg and Cairo artists working with¬out infrastructure, in extremely difficult circumstances, without wider cultural or, in some cases, moral support, working in quiteisolated spaces. Yet I found work that challenged me, that was not in any way aping Western practice but opening up new forms of artistic practice in making and communication.There are artists in both cities dealing with specific, local questions: they are by no means turning their back on the rest of the world. Nor indeed are they ignorant of the realitiesof being part of a globalized economy. They are making work that focuses on particular issues that undoubtedly resonate beyond these particular contexts. If anything, one’s sense of being in a globalized economy (and artists’ awareness of its implications) seemed heightened in Johannesburg and Cairo than in London or Helsinki.
Sarat Maharaj: The global/local imbrications you touch on highlight why we should be wary of simply pitting them against each other. At the end of Apartheid, the focus was either oncoaxing the local gallery-museum system to develop beyond received racial designations or on plugging into global circulation through events such as the ‘Biennale’. After the second Johannesburg Biennale (1997) the ‘global option’ was scrapped. Under the ‘local’ umbrella, something like Serafina II (1999), a musical centred on HIV/AIDs awareness,backed by the Health Minister Nkosazane Zuma, but mired in controversy, was seen as the way forward. It was a follow up to the original Serafina (1989), a look at Apartheidaround the time of the 1976 Soweto uprisings. Today this approach to creativity and development is perhaps sustained in Henning Mankell’s projects where those affected byHIV/Aids write about themselves, about kith, kin and clan: an ‘archive of the domestic’ for the generations left behind.3 As the ‘global option’ of the biennale has spread across the developing world, it has tended to dispel what some artists often felt was the legitimating test posed by ‘Venice’ in its heyday. Though thebiennale is sometimes treated guardedly as an import, it also functions as a global/local transaction site for regional idioms and concerns, as with Sharjah, United Arab Emirates orKwanju, South Korea and Shanghai. If some governments use it as a mechanism for jump-starting local regeneration, others use it as a ‘sign of modernity’, of ‘artistic open-mindedness’ quite at odds with the restrictive political and cultural policies they otherwise operate.
Gilane Tawadros: The capacity for some kinds of art to create spaces for reflection, for ‘indirect’ communication is vital, though ‘indirect’ might not be the correct word. Perhaps I should sayart is not so much roundabout or circuitous as not completely transparent, not immediately legible, simply because the problems themselves, the issues and questions are not fullyknown, and the answers are also not known.
What one needs is opportunity to reflect, to take time to pose questions without necessarily answering them. As you say, the logic of judicial processes, the agenda of political, social and economic requirements for communication militate against that kind of space and time. From this viewpoint, in the exigencies of executing change and of transforming society, art can often be seen as little more than an indulgence. When there are pressing issues facing the developing world, why should one spend time, energy and resources onwhat appears unimportant, which is not necessary in the way food, education, sanitation and water are self-evidently essential? The implication is that this ‘indulgence’ should only beafforded to society at a more advanced stage in its development. It assumes a strictly linear progression to social and cultural development, a hierarchical organization of priorities.However, the question remains: can social, political and economic transformation be delivered without knowing what kind of changes one wants to achieve and to what end in the name of modernity, without addressing the full lexicon of human needs beyond the physical and material.
Sarat Maharaj: Globalization in full spate presses on us now the need to re-conceptualize modernity, transformation and development in terms of something like a ‘recursive’ model in which we get constant feedback on how matters ‘upstream’ affects development ‘further down’. The model differs from earlier top/bottom approaches such as Walter Rodney’s classic How Europe Underdeveloped Africa4 centred on unpacking abiding, exploitative colonial legacies at the heart of modernity. The implication is not that the North/South divide is no longer the principal fault line: it persists with graveinequalities. Development has yet to kick off in swathes of the South where IMF/World Bank prescriptions have thrown some economies out off joint while WTO rulings have buffeted others. But their plight is paralleled by another global dynamic where as some zones ‘catch up’, others ‘fall behind’ sometimes right at the core of the developed worlditself. We have ‘upcoming’ quality of life alongside ‘stagnating’ ones or non- starters. Niemi at the Nordic tip of the globe, amongst others graphing this unevenness as ‘backwardness’, turns the classic North/South binary upside down: it is the relative South that is depicted as flourishing. Such symbolic inversions thicken the plot of the developmentstory. They dramatize how globalization renders relations between developed/developing zones topsy-turvy and interdependent. It becomes less easy for ‘modernity’ to keep ‘development issues’ at arms length, as a problem elsewhere. We are ‘in it’ wherever we are. A sense of this seems to be missing in the cost-benefit treatment of the subject:a shopping list of what ‘we’ need to spend to put right the developing world malady ‘out there’, which is why this feels like a rather lopsided mapping.5 Sen captures the‘thickening of the development plot’ in more empirical terms by citing some surprising anomalies: for example, male longevity rates in South India turn out to be higher than thosefor African-Americans in the nucleus of the developed world. We might be inclined to brush this aside as an isolated glitch. But a pattern emerges once we relate it toconcomitant tendencies: increasing obesity as shown up in ‘Body Mass Index’ research6 and its potential for reversing longevity figures; ageing outstripping birth and fertilityrates; psycho-morbidity and depression endemic to modernity; substance dependency often triggered by the fact that not only work but also play and leisure have become equallytaxing regimes governed by a punishing performance principle; job loss in advanced sectors through outsourcing; environment damage. A host of problems seems to crop up ‘after development has taken place’ at modernity’s high tide. At one end, we have parts of the developing world in circumstances of dire want with other sectors plugged into servicing the developed world at ever-higher levels. At the opposite end, the developed world itself seems beset with ‘post-development blues’: new forms of malaise and backwardness. Should we perhaps collate data on this jadedness as indices of over-development? At any rate, it cuts across all developed zones whether inside or outside the ‘developed world proper’. The contemporary appears as an uneven, perplexing terrain of advanced development and its discontents. Here the modalities of art practice become indispensable probes for questioning not only ‘development’ but also life after it.
Gilane Tawadros: What you say about the globalizing, later phases of the developed world are not so much described as a ‘crisis’.
They are raised as a question about what we mean by ‘development’ and its ends when developed socie¬ties are beginning to face new, huge problems. You suggest these might beindications that something is not quite right or, in any event, not quite right with a ‘linear progress’ mapping of modernity. This parallels whether art in the developed world is actuallyadequate to the task of generating other dimensions, as you say, of the temporal, the reflexive and critical, even non-utilitarian spaces beyond the culture-consumption industry. Whyare these so diminished? It seems it’s not only in the developing world where the relationship of artistic practice and social needs has to be looked at and interrogated but also inthe developed world.
Sarat Maharaj: The developing world presents searching questions to its advanced counterpart on all the fronts we are looking at: how to develop modern gallery-museum infrastructures without getting bogged down in the self-sealing art- culture industry; how to extend communications without becoming passive consumers of pre-packed communications commodities: how to ‘do development’ without ending up with ‘development blues’. As developed/developing world entanglements grow, rates of translation across their lines rise rapidly churning up more difference, more variation. This counterpoints globalization’s drive towards flattening difference: a demand for assimilation that can easily slide into thexenophobic as we see now in the North European democracies of ‘tolerance’. With overlapping translation sites, creolizing tongues, disjointed identities, the contemporary amounts to a difference-generating, disjunctive space. This is at odds with the even-keel regularities of the ‘sphere of communicative action’ centralto Jürgen Habermas’s formidably rigorous attempt to sound modernity. His concern throughout is with how to iron out differences, how to deal with what he would later call the ‘inclusion of the other’. However, the ‘dialogic exchange’ he places at the heart of the communicative sphere boils down to a rather measured transaction between relatively similarcultural subjects. To count as serious players in the exchange, participants are expected to strip bare off all elements of difference. But can this be treated as so much extraneousbaggage? The haphazard, messy, subjective everyday is pared down till we reach the rock bottom of a ‘commons or universal meeting ground’. There the contenders can thrash outmutually agreed goals through rational deliberation and debate. However, the proviso that they must be ‘sincere, authentic, responsible’ is not only problematic from a theoreticalperspective (Derrida). It is also a far cry from our present-day experience of the conditions of discursive exchange where simulation, camouflage and smokescreen are not so muchaberrations as intrinsic components: perhaps it is the internet chat room of nicknames, aliases, hide and seek that sums up something of this polytonal communicative logic. If modernity is sounded in ‘dialogic exchange’ we see participants at their ‘rational’ best, on a steady cognitive wavelength. The welter of less transparent, non-discursive, non-rational somatic registers are brushed aside as so many ‘memories of underdevelopment’. The contemporary ‘translation-migration’ Babel, however, presents a situationriddled with untranslatables, with the sense of epistemic non-fit, with unsquarable cultural differences and things teetering on the edge. It is shot through with an uneasy feeling of the‘radical other everywhere in our midst’ but nowhere to be seen or heard. If the symptomatic figures here are the deterritorialized cases, the ‘sans papiers, clandestini, illegals’, it isthe black hole of non-communicating communication of the ‘irrational suicide bomber’ that seems definitive. We are faced with a double-movement: a drive towards the rock bottom ‘commons’ beyond elements of otherness and difference: against this, a push towards an ever-mutating ground of difference, towards precarious ‘planes of parley’ where self/other ceaselessly invent a lingo for exchange to live in and through difference and multiplicity.
Someone points out in Memories of Underdevelopment7 that instead of the ‘developed/underdeveloped’ distinction, we should take the sound of modernity with the starker terms of‘capitalism/socialism’. The thought is enmeshed in Cold War polemics but it now comes to suggest the need for alternative mappings, for a plurality of models of enlightened advancement,other than the apparently single- track sweep of corporate globalization. The film put the critical spotlight on the lead character Sergio’s deep- freeze inaction, his disdain for ordinarypeople’s crude manners, lack of taste, their ‘backwardness’. Elena, the working class woman, sizes him up fairly quickly: ‘You are neither reactionary nor revolutionary: you are nothing.’ It is as if Niemi’s musings at the Artic edge of the world forty years later come to echo her words giving them a biting, if less denunciatory though more cross-hatched importfor our time.
South African born, Sarat Maharaj – Professor of History and Theory of Art, Goldsmiths College, University of London where he is now Visiting Professor – has written extensivelyon visual art as knowledge production, textile art, sound, cultural translation, difference and diversity. He is currently Professor of Visual Art and Knowledge Systems at Lund University, Sweden. He was the first Rudolf Arnheim Professor, Humboldt University, Berlin (2000) and Research Fellow at the Jan Van Eyck Akademie, Maastricht. With Hans Ulrich Obrist andGillian Wearing he curated The New Contemporaries (1997) and with Richard Hamilton and Ecke Bonk Optical.Retinal.Visual.Conceptual… (Boijmanns van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 2001). He was co-curator of documenta 11 (Kassel, 2002). His recent work investigates consciousness,convergence of art practices and science in a series of Knowledge Labs (Berlin, 2005 and 2006). Since 2007 he is the Professorial Mentor, New Media Art, Banff, Canada.
Gilane Tawadros was founding Director of the Institute of International Arts, London in 1994-2006. During this period, she lectured widely on contemporary art, curating and criticism – pioneering publications debates and discussions around issues of contemporary art, identity, nation, migration and race. Her work has been influential in shaping understanding on „diversity and cultural difference” especially in the UK. She has edited numerous books, catalogues and talks and broadcasts on questions of cultural diversity, modernity, globalization and new media art. Hercuratorial projects have been notable for bringing to visibility artists and art practices from outside the cultural mainstream and beyond the national space. She was curator of Faultlines, AfricaPavilion, Venice Biennale 2003. She is the Artistic Director and Curator of the Brighton Photography Biennale, United Kingdom 2006 and with Jens Hoffmann she was Curator of Alienation, ICA, London 2006.