Reply to BLESS Bureau d’Esprit

Berlin, 19th March 2021

Dear Friends,

I am sending you the link to the video recording of yesterday’s remarkable Bureau d’Esprit, created by BLESS . I’ve gone through it briefly, and it has some superb moments – for example our breathing exercises, or when Margareta in Paris, and Tom in Berlin receive the BLESS courier and manifestos. I’d like to use the exceptional character of this occasion to send you a few thoughts in the hope that they trigger responses from you too, and that we can start up a conversation in between our sessions.

The Situation designed by BLESS was in all respects conceptually invigorating and emotionally very touching. From the start of the collective breathing exercises on zoom (a first in my case), I felt a greater sense of trust and communion between us.
The BLESS-EXPRESS actions that followed really set the stage for a discussion on the relationship between possession and ownership that Abdoulaye and Margareta had developed the session before.

So, I would like to propose a speculative scenario in order to trigger more thoughts and feedback from you all.
As you recall, we were introduced to the online archive of BLESS. And while this was going on, our respective doorbells were activated. Nearly all of us became part of this collective “pacemaker’“ (BLESS) through a simultaneity in reception that was effectively an analogue experience, an event. Meanwhile, we connected through the virtual or digital environments that were also undergoing changes, also initiated by BLESS.
Afterwards, Tom spoke about the circulation of gifts (cf. Mauss, Bataille, etc), and Luke about concealing money in sports shirts to bypass the incommensurability of banking networks to Fiji. I kept thinking about the MM-U research collection… And the tradition of Potlatch. If you look up Potlatch, the basic definition you find is that it is a “gift-giving feast practiced by Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and the United States, among whom it is traditionally the primary governmental institution, legislative body, and economic system. Historically, the potlatch functioned to redistribute wealth in what some refer to as a gift-giving ceremony. Valuable goods, such as firearms, blankets, clothing, carved cedar boxes, canoes, food and prestige items, such as slaves and coppers, were accumulated by high-ranking individuals over time, sometimes years.
These goods were later bestowed on invited guests as gifts by the host or even destroyed with great ceremony as a show of superior generosity, status and prestige over rivals. As part of a policy of assimilation, the federal government banned the potlatch from 1884 to 1951 in an amendment to the Indian Act. The government and its supporters saw the ceremony as anti-Christian, reckless and wasteful of personal property. They failed to understand the potlatch’s symbolic importance as well as its communal economic exchange value. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia that I have drawn this info from, the last major potlatch, that of Daniel Cranmer (Kwakwaka’wakw) from Alert Bay, British Columbia, was held in 1921. The goods were confiscated by agents of the Indian Department and charges were laid.”
Rather like iconoclast movements in mid-20th century West Africa, colonial powers, all over the globe, knew how to exploit this ritualized ‘disposal’ of valuable artefacts, which could, in turn, nurture European museums and ‘tribal’ art dealers worldwide, but that’s another story…

Yesterday, many of us felt that we had been gifted a very special object, something that had never seen before, and that combined the functional with the “speculative”, the quotidian with the “magical”, – an “ultimate instance”, to use the words of BLESS. The fur wig, the mini-treadmill, the folding brown baby-kid chair, the haired brush, the slinky sexglasses – all outstanding carriers of meanings and agency. We also received a glass that appeared broken but wasn’t. Instead, the object displayed regalia (the golden chain), and habit: a walking-stick-goblet that accompanies you through life, like a faithful hound.

Later that evening, when BLESS wrote to us all to indicate that they would wish to “recollect their archive pieces” while announcing that the bottle and wine glass were for us each to keep and use, I think we all felt a touch perplexed. At least I did.
And then something happened:

I recalled Abdoulaye’s distinction between possession and ownership, his investment model, and its aspect of redistribution.
I re-visited the archival system that BLESS had introduced us to during the session.
I thought back to my own work with the museum in Frankfurt, and the prototypes that artists produced by remediating these holdings engendered by colonial kleptomania.

And then I imagined something perhaps utopian but lodged nevertheless in between the distinctions that BLESS had raised, and that connect import to inhaling, and export to exhaling. Even more, I remembered their discussion of new professions based on “learning and giving” (BLESS).

This is my speculative proposition:

What if BLESS had actually gifted their selection of historical prototypes to the MM-U Collection? Not to us individually, but to our common project? What would this act imply in terms of possession and ownership? How might this gift actually reflect the passionate model that BLESS itself seeks to nurture through their work?

Further, by translocating these prototypes from the BLESS archive to the guardianship and care of another collection, might we be able to suspend the power of ‘ownership’ (as with the Potlatch)? Could this gift become the transducer for a dynamic, pro-active understanding of the archive, one that is not only post-coronial (Matthias) but, significantly today, decolonial? In other words, a ‘holding’ that releases one from the fear of loss and of value connected to the insidious technologies of the colonial archive that Ariella Azoulay speaks about and that permeates all our institutions: from museums to universities and more.

What would be lost through this process? Might BLESS be in danger of fragmenting their specific history, breaking up their combined trajectory, giving away clues, code, and initiate knowledge? Or, on the contrary, would they be building a different, dialogical and polysemic archive?
Let’s conjecture that this takes place. Then, we all would be committed – each and every one of us – to complement their action of giving with significant prototypes of our own?

For my part, I would offer the early hand-made mock-ups of my Metronome publication series from 1996. Perhaps, too, patterns of shoes I designed, or the prototype flipflops made from books. I would accept the challenge and rigor of each of you to push me to relinquish the most salient generator of all.

If we engaged in this act of radical generosity, we would be building a reservoir of remarkable virtue. Because, as BLESS wrote to me, all our prototypes can be re-edited and re-launched. And that is a wonderful thought to be considered for the future: a symbiotic production that accompanies rigorous teaching, and poly-disciplinary inquiry.

Perhaps, the energy source, the ‘magic’ that actually holds our communal project together is less the prospect of future re-editions (although this is great), than this initial and very fragile investment. This contains risk because it implies the dis-integration of an individualist archive. It feels as if we shall no longer have a full set of teeth!

This is somewhat different from the initial thought I had for an MM-U research collection. Here we would build up a collection based on the liminality of our respective inquiries. Artefacts, images, words, references etc, would be unresolved, unfinished, as if syncopated between intuition and production. Henrike’s NS doll’s house is a good example. This liminal condition for a collection could still become the basis of our mutual investment.

Yet with this new proposal, triggered in my mind by BLESS’S Situation last night, the stakes are higher. It asks each of us to relinquish an organ that signifies the past embodiment of our individual ingenuity. This is, in and of itself, ‘unheimlich’: for we try to hold onto these things, our prototypes, as if they were magic effigies. They signify the realization – even the proof – of our ability to communicate with others. A collection made up from a set of such organs would be metabolic. It would emanate the vitality of initial desire and thereby become divinatory for others.

I fully understand why BLESS have recalled their archive and respect their brilliant and generous engagement. Yet their action is so successful that it has tuned the pitch further than I expected to hear. It has thrown into jeopardy the normativity upon which we rely when speaking of archives and collections.

I’ll stop now. I do hope this text provokes you. I also hope that BLESS will accept this replique on my part, and look forward to hearing from you.

Much respect, Clémentine