School of Remediation
“In the museums, infinity goes up on trial.”
—Bob Dylan, “Visions of Johanna,” 1966
Between 2010 and 2015, I worked to transform the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt, with its 70,000 objects and 120,000 photographs and documentary films, into a “post-ethnographic” institution. This involved setting up a location for domestic research made up of apartments, studios, and project rooms, and, most importantly, a laboratory for visioning archival materials and historical artifacts. This live-in lab experience enabled artists, writers, lawyers, and anthropologists to test out new inquiries based on their own experimental assemblages of ethnographic artifacts.
In Germany today there exist approximately fifteen anthropological museums that have administrative, legal, and pedagogical control over more than five million objects from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. Beyond contested proprietary rights, the sheer scale impedes a mass restitution from taking place, be this back to an original source or, more controversially, to new, twenty-first-century diasporic homelands. Indeed, for these material migrants, “home” is a contested issue. Can an ethnographic collection, given its obvious anachronism, become incisive and operational in the twenty-first century? What constitutes a contemporary research collection?
In 2015, the ethnographic museum epitomizes inherent defeat while signaling extraordinary urgency and potential. While it gapes with soiled colonial histories and anachronistic programming, its collections of hundreds of thousands of artifacts from around the world are central to what could become a new, inclusive methodology of aesthetic, curatorial, and performative practices. There is a danger, however, that these physical collections will be made increasingly inaccessible. De-substantiated within digital museum data banks, or reduced in number to key metonymic exhibits with masterpiece pedigrees, the former colonial holdings of the world’s art histories will eventually become invisible, only assured a token presence in the context of large-scale political developments such as the Humboldt Forum in Berlin or the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Additionally, growing fears around the latent toxicity of these artifacts has begun to compromise efforts at restitution. Like mass graves of dormant DNA code, these collections give rise to retention strategies from conservation to quarantine, thereby determining ergonomic barriers and defining the ethnographic museum as a new space of risk.
Today, these exceptional collections can form the basis for a new, hybrid institution that combines interdisciplinary research with new systems of production and education. Such a “museum-university” harks back to an idea expressed by Joseph Beuys in 1975 when he spoke of a “museum in motion.” Beuys proposed that one might “turn museums into universities that have a department for objects.” The museum, he wrote, “could offer the first model for an ongoing (or permanent) conference on cultural issues.” Forty years later, the museum-university can set itself apart from existing art academies with their discursive, post-studio practice, or university departments that network across virtual landscapes. Instead, the museum-university is marked by the sheer bulk of its historical collections and the stubbornness of their physical presence. Rather than initiate research through topical, politically correct themes, the post-ethnographic approach encourages speculative rerouting. Guest artists, writers, lawyers, ecologists, designers, choreographers, and social scientists formulate conceptual adjacencies, which in turn lead to linguistic metaphors that are powerful enough to extend the discursive framework of earlier anthropological classifications.
Further, by commoning these historical collections—which were perversely acquired without reference to individual authorship—one can engineer alternative strategies of critical reappropriation. If an ethnographic collection is made open-source, a new form of ownership may be established. Take a mid-century basket from Angola made of twisted rattan, for example. A conservative ethnographic museum might wish to exhibit its original function and embed meaning within an ethnically defined context. In contrast, remediation through interdisciplinary experimentation extends the object’s original function to engineer a new application of technicity. Patenting based on innovation and prototypes, which display a proof of technicity, can establish new rights to ownership and allocate authorship to inventions that was hitherto denied.
To transform the contentious holdings of nineteenth-century anthropology into a heterodox postcolonial museum-university is to unlock the floodgates to these mass, global collections. This speculative methodology pushes the parameters of knowledge production beyond the superficial revisionism of world cultures toward a deviant economy of heterodox knowledge sharing and innovation.
How does a collection – particularly an historical one – become operational?
What is the concept for “research collections” in the future.
?Restitution or Remediation?:
Restitution interrogates the ontology of the museum, how it was constituted and how it retains this structure. But it can quickly become the latest commodification of a debate around ethnicity. Today ethnographic museums discuss restitution as if it were the only solution. Send the objects back! Back where?
Remediation: healing and transferring
Remediation is about reworking a deficient situation through the implementation of transferrals, additional interpretations, new metaphors, media, representatations.
e. g. Patenting: to patent something, the criteria of technicity has to exist. The emotional attachment to an object as such cannot be patented but something produced on the basis of it can be patented, if this has a technical purpose. Applied to the ethnographic collection:
1. Open source collection: ethnographic objects that have no authorship
2. Patent potential: technicity can be derived from these objects, e.g. a fish trap
3. From the prototype a new technical purpose is derived, which is applicable
4. On this basis, ownership can be established and rights allocated.
Think of the ergonomy of an exhibition, the movement of people in space, the relationship to the body, to the sensibility of emotions, to lighting systems, to the absence of seating, to accelerated consumerist temporality: when can an exhibition be visited, for how long?
?The museum as a space of risk, where the physical proximity of the human being to the objects on display becomes a potential act of aggression.
Break the biosecurity codex surrounding historical collections and occupy them.
• Biosecurity and viral collections:
the potential for microbiological viral transmission: DNA in human remains, carpets carrying rats and shoes, transmitting the plague, or feathers, and sars, or m-e-r-s and camel hair (Willem de Rooij)
• the dangers of infestation by fleas, moths, flooding
• (double) toxicity as an argument against restitution: the Kogi case
• outsourcing analyses: museums to medical centres, Songye sculpture: both magical and medical incentives!
• “stockpiling”: mass graves of dormant objects, retention strategies, banks of viruses in laboratories
• quarantine procedures in the form of museological conservation
• the breeding imaginaries of the caput mortuum of degeneration, so what is the life of a collection? 300 years, 900 years?
• Custodial chaos created by the miscegenation of departments, of regionalisms.
Building Synthetic Alliances: Heterodoxy and experimentation in the production of new aesthetic and epistemological practices: law, ecology, writing, mnemonics, aesthetic practices with differentiated methodologies.
These ‘synthetic alliances’ are connected to creolising positions, for example, between African, Queer, issues racial oppression, territorial occupancy, decolonisation, but also subterranean trends, e.g. Saskia Sassen… These are visceral experiences (Suely Rolnik). It is no longer about identity politics but about thinking with the body in the museum.
?Commoning the collection!
Yonger generation of curators, students of cultural studies, etc.
Creating a public space for it: the museum university has to be an alternative to cultural consumption, to mass-media, to the large-scale marketing of artists, artworks and exhibitions.