Towards Other Forms of Archives

Installation view from Shadow Circus by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam at SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin, in the framework of Forum Expanded, Berlinale, 2019. Photo by Raisa Galofre.

After the Archive? is an Istanbul-based initiative of artists, writers and curators, which emerged in 2016 in response to the increasingly uncertain future of the newspaper archives that were under the threat of being shut down by the government in Turkey. Since then, the initiative has organized many public programs with individuals and organizations that build archives about less visible subjects, including those that focus on LGBTQI+ communities, forcibly displaced individuals, and forced disappearances, among others. For us, what is compelling about After the Archive? is its proposition that artists and cultural workers have a responsibility to shape discussions about public memory, especially in times of crisis.

Below is a conversation between writer and curator Gökcan Demirkazık and curator, author, and biotechnologist Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, who was invited by After the Archive? to give a talk in Istanbul in June 2019. Gökcan and Bonaventure discuss how one shapes public programs for “non-center” arts organizations, what hearing beyond the ear could mean, and how one could go beyond the “archive fever” and imagine non-object-based archives. How do archives create spaces while also accumulating? And how do they become more permeable?

Image from the ongoing pillar project at SAVVY, Colonial Neighbours: A Participatory Archive and Research Project on Germany’s Colonial History.

Gökcan Demirkazık: I would like to start by asking about SAVVY Contemporary, the contemporary art center you founded and one of the two places that you direct in Berlin. On the website, I saw that SAVVY has this tagline, “the laboratory of form-ideas,” which reminded me of Charles Webster Leadbeater’s “thought-forms.” Where did this description come from?

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung: Maybe I should start by pointing out that I would like to see SAVVY Contemporary as a space wherein multiple art forms manifest themselves, rather than a center. Actually, it is a non-center. The notion of the center is something I have always found problematic.

Now to your question: It came from an interest in bridging the yawning gap that has been put between forms and ideas, bodies, and thoughts—something that one finds a lot in Western philosophy, this kind of separation of the thing itself and thoughts—, which I did not want to buy into. My interest was to look at the thing as the thought itself and thought as the thing itself. From there came the hyphenation, “form-ideas.” It could have also been “idea-form.” What interests me is the hyphenation of both. It was really about the impossibility of separating the idea from the form, which makes one simultaneously think of bodies and knowledge that is embedded in bodies, as well.

Installation view from Shadow Circus by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam at SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin, in the framework of Forum Expanded, Berlinale, 2019. Photo by Raisa Galofre.

Gökcan: This situatedness is also very much related to a current year-long project that you have at SAVVY called “The Invention of Science,” which probes the epistemological violence perpetrated by Western-centric tenets of modern science. I was wondering if you could elaborate on the manifestations of this project, and how it is informed by your background as a trained biotechnologist.

Bonaventure: We often take the sciences for granted—as a given, as a fact. Even historians of science hardly put in time to question the genealogy of science and what had to be sacrificed to get to the point we are with the sciences. If you think of it, one can say that a lot of people who have been “othered” were forcibly made to “contribute” to the challenges of the sciences. The so-called “subaltern” was made into a space of experimentation, so that was my point of departure. How are black bodies, or people who have been made “others,” serving as guinea pigs in scientific processes?

Being a scientist myself, I wanted to question this history of science from different perspectives. Looking at the etymology of technology itself—tekhnē, which denotes “craft,” the possibility of making or doing something, and logia, the surrounding discourse—the main line of inquiry becomes: how have tekhnē and its surrounding discourse been highly hijacked and framed by Western epistemological structures?

We divided the project into 5 chapters, on which we work for an extensive period of time in order to give the projects both depth and breadth. First one—Soil is an inscribed body: On Sovereignty, Agropoetics and Struggles for Liberations curated by Elena Agudio—is on agropolitics, looking at land, looking at the politics of what is called agriculture, agronomics, other related sciences, as well as considerations of who owns land and what kind of land. This approach is also building on philosophies proposed by someone like Amílcar Cabral and the way he used notions of soil and agriculture in order to articulate a whole philosophy of revolution.

Then, we are also considering toxicity and waste management in The Long Term You Cannot Afford: On the Distribution of the Toxic curated by Antonia Alampi. The non-West has become—in fact, has always been—the dumping site of everything toxic from the West. Even in the West, especially the sites inhabited by underprivileged segments of the society, have been dumping sites for waste, for example the former West Germany used East Germany as a dumping ground for its toxic waste. One aim is to challenge the understanding of toxicity, and the forging of “disposable bodies.” We live in a system that creates waste, rendering people “waste” and making them “disposable.” We want to dig into this issue by also looking at the internet today and the proliferation of toxic material within social media and so on.

The third chapter is Ultrasanity. On Madness, Sanitation, Antipsychiatry and Resistance on what we call “ultra-sanity,” investigating madness but not as a synonym of “insanity.” Whoever is mad is considered insane—the opposite of sane. What we try to do is to destabilize the term, and actually say the person in question is “ultra-sane,” that is, beyond the norm of sanity. One can therefore hyphenate the “in” and “sane” in insane, therefore re-casting a person “within sanity.” Therefore madness not as the opposite of sanity, which would be insanity, but madness as an extension of sanity. Another important facet is the relationship between sanity and sanitation. Of course, the relation between insanity and not being clean was a central tool in the colonial enterprise, which presented a system of being in the world that cast the colonizers as “clean” or “sane,” and the colonized as “the unclean” or “the insane.” We are trying to explore these associations in so many ways in different countries, from Germany to Morocco to the Congo.

Then, the fourth chapter is called A Brief History from Anthropometry to Biometry, which interrogates the relation amongst pseudo-sciences of the 19th century-early 20th century, including those that take measurements of skulls of certain demographic groups in order to fashion knowledge. In a way, this moment is brought into contact with the contemporary—to algorithms we create now. We cannot be surprised that algorithms are just as racist as the people who make them. It is clear that biometry descends from the lineage of anthropometry. And the fifth chapter is devoted to thinking about fractals. The way fractals from other societies have played a role in computation is the key concern here, so we are working on that.

Installation view from Sonic Gestures by Pamela Z at SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin, in the framework of Untraining the Ear. Listening Sessions No.8, 2019.

Gökcan: One medium of programming you are very involved with is sound, whether it is the radio programme Every Time A Ear di Sun at documenta 14 or the Marrakech Biennale satellite program If You Are So Smart, Why Ain’t You Rich?. You also happen to be not only a professor of Curatorial Studies but also of Sound Art at Städelschule. I am curious about what kind of potential you see in sound and how you work with it.

Bonaventure: What draws me to sound is the possibility of foregoing the overemphasis on sight, and exploring other senses that are more wholesome. For me, the sonic does that. You can hear something before you see it. You can hear something around colors the way you can’t see certain things. My interest is rooted in a deep history of learning from sounds of all kinds, be they natural or composed—a desire for learning how to listen or practice deep listening, as proposed by Pauline Oliveros. What I was trying to do with the radio for documenta was to find the possibility of making an exhibition in the ether—one that is not accommodated by a physical space—in order to constitute a sonic space which does not mimic physical space.

I am really interested in hearing beyond the ear, as well as the body as a listening organ. I am convinced that one of the most important elements of what I have called corpoliteracy is listening. This is an extensive field of research which we are exploring with the listening sessions at SAVVY curated by Kamila Metwaly, Beya Othmani, and Jasmina Al-Qaisi, titled Untraining the Ear. In a recent project we did for the Long Night of Ideas with the title Today, I Broke Your Solar System. On Partition and Partitura, I was really interested in the role of the sonic in the partition of India and Pakistan and later Bangladesh, or the effect of the partition on the sonic. There, I was quite interested in something one might call cross-listening. The listening of that which has been forbidden. Listening as an act of rebellion and resilience. Listening to the “enemy.”

Installation view from Sonic Gestures by Pamela Z at SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin, in the framework of Untraining the Ear. Listening Sessions No.8, 2019. Photo by Raisa Galofre.

Gökcan: In anticipation of your talk for After the Archive?, I would like to ask about quite a few initiatives you have at SAVVY Contemporary around archives such as Colonial Neighbors or Savvy.Doc. What is your point of departure for such initiatives?

Bonaventure: I am very skeptical about the whole “archive fever” and the fetish of the object. We need to shift and to re-think other forms of archives: body as an archive, for instance, is of greater interest to me, or streets as archives. Unfortunately, I will not have enough time to do research in Istanbul, but I would really like to look at the city from this vantage point where streets are archives in themselves. What I would like to propose during my talk in Istanbul is essentially the concept of the “apoptopic archive,” based on the idea of apoptosis—the programmed death of a cell, as opposed to necrosis, which is the externally inflicted destruction of a cell. Some cells perform apoptosis; they kill themselves so that the rest of the body can flourish. So the question is: through which processes can we create spaces that accumulate knowledge and make them accessible? It is a matter of making space, and not just amassing everything. How do we create spaces without destroying and how do we make archives more porous?

View from Untraining the Ear Listening Session No. 3 at SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin, 2018. Photo by Patrik Bablo.

Gökcan: This also goes along with what you just said about sound as a medium of art and programming. You said you did not want to mimic the physical space, but think about a different kind of exhibition practice. I guess what you said about archives is a reflection of this tendency, because you are not interested in preserving everything as they are and fetishizing them as constants. You are introducing change and flux into the idea of the archive, which is refreshing.

This will, perhaps, be a rather big jump, but I would love to hear about the trajectory you are drawing for the upcoming edition of Bamako Encounters.

Bonaventure: The point of departure for the 12th edition of Bamako was the literary technique called stream of consciousness, which originally comes from psychology as proposed by William James in 1890. The literary technique has been recognised in the works of writers like Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, or Marcel Proust, just to name but a few prominent examples. The term describes seeing something and writing—this flow of conscience from a trigger phase. I wanted to associate it to art, to photography in this case. How can one apply this literary technique to photography? I see streams of consciousness a lot in the work of a photographer like Akinbode Akinbiyi. The stream of consciousness does not end with the moment a photographer sees something and chooses to shoot an image. Upon viewing the image, it continues in the mind of the viewer. I am interested in understanding the cultural psychology or the psychological perspective of how this stream functions. That is the proposal I am making.

Another point of departure was an album made by Abdullah Ibrahim and Max Roach called Streams of Consciousness. It is a fascinating sonic piece, which made me rethink what exists beyond the visible. Photography is writing with light—photo is light, grafia is writing; so photography is writing with light, but how can we understand streams of consciousness as instances of writing with thoughts? Also, if one can write with light, how can we imagine photography as a form of writing with darkness? This album serves in so many ways as an anecdote for what I want to do, because what it does is creating sonic streams of consciousness. While creating a stream of consciousness, it is also the meeting point for an African from the continent and an African from the diaspora. I wanted to look at the stream of consciousness from within that space, as well. I additionally intend to make it into a metaphor by looking at streams, at rivers that flow and carry civilizations. The way civilization has happened around water bodies, if you look at the Nile for example, the way cultures go from Upper Nile to the Lower Nile.

S/HE SPOKE ‘I AND I’ FOR WE. On the Poeisis of Collective Mental Healing, 10.05.2019, the 8th AoN Venice Symposium in the framework of SAVVY Contemporary’s project: Ultrasanity. On Madness, Sanitation, Antipsychiatry and Resistance in collaboration with the Psychiatric Community of the Fondazione Emilia Bosis.

Gökcan: You mentioned streams – does the conceptual framework engage with geography or landscapes of Bamako in any way? Or is it more of a metaphor?

Bonaventure: It mostly plays a role as a metaphor. As you know, the Niger River flows through Bamako and defines the city. I’m also interested in what happens along that river as it goes through Mali, Niger, and many other African countries. The life and culture around the river exists independently from the nation-state—the river has its own life. But the landscape of Bamako does play another role as host of the exhibition, as a significant part of the exhibition will happen outside of museal structures.

SAVVY Doc as part of the exhibition Geographies of Imagination at SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin, 2018. Photo by Raisa Galofre.

Gökcan: I had one last question on a topic that is potentially a little outside the scope of our conversation. In one of your interviews, you say: “diversification of the art world can happen with three p’s: projects, public, and personnel.” Most institutions, especially those with a long history of cultural programming, seem to only focus on projects. To me, diversifying the public appears to be the hardest one for such mainstream institutions. Obviously SAVVY is a model in some ways, but I wanted to hear from you what constitutes such models apart from the subject-matter of the projects. How could we diversify publics?

Bonaventure: I will propose two things. First one: people who do the projects matter. People are not stupid; I don’t want to get bogged down into a discussion around cultural appropriation, but the audience understands that certain subjects are just being commodified as they get dragged through certain institutions. It’s not because the institutions are committed to these communities; they are just committed to doing the projects around them.

So the two points I want to raise are: who does it? And how committed are they? If you, as an institution, organize an exhibition around, say, Turkish art, once in ten years, the audiences will know that you are just playing a trick on them. There should be more commitment. If people of Turkish origin are already part of the society, they should be in several projects. You don’t really need to do a Turkish season for that. There is also a limitation in understanding certain knowledge systems: to quote the feminist notion of “situated knowledges” from Donna Haraway and many others, in whose bodies is the knowledge situated? We need people that embody the situated knowledges. I am talking about what Ayşe Güleç and Natascha Sadr Haghighian and others have called “situated migrant knowledges.” These are women, these are people of color, these are people who have different geographical, cultural backgrounds, who should have roles in museums, and not just as security guards—we see that all the time—but as curators and directors of institutions. We are talking about things which were already being discussed in the 80s and 90s, when people were already claiming these positions. But we still have to insist on this, as most institutions are being directed or controlled by white men. The question again comes down to: Who does it? And how committed are we to them?

You suddenly see a few institutions doing outreach programs, bringing one person from the so-called “community,” somebody—say, of Turkish origin—being put in place as “outreach manager” at the institution. The only thing this person has to do is not to influence the program, but to bring people from the community. There is a complete rift—it does not work that way. When this outreach person goes in to the community and tells them to come, people will ask: “…but what is in there for us?” As simple as that. They will also say: “We know that this institution also belongs to us because it is run with taxpayers’ money, but there is nothing in the institution that really makes us want to come. We do not see ourselves reflected within this institution.”

Pamela Z: Other Rooms, performance at SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin, in the framework of Untraining the Ear. Listening Sessions No.8, 2019. Photo by  Raisa Galofre.

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung (born in 1977 in Yaoundé, Cameroon) is an independent curator, author, and biotechnologist. He is the founder and artistic director of SAVVY Contemporary Berlin. He was curator-at-large for documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel and guest curator of the 2018 Dak’Art Biennale in Senegal. Together with the Miracle Workers Collective, he is the curator of the Finland Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2019. He is currently a guest professor in curatorial studies and sound art at the Städelschule in Frankfurt; artistic director of the 12th Rencontres de Bamako, a biennale for African photography, 2019; as well as artistic director of Sonsbeek 2020, a quadrennial contemporary art exhibition in Arnhem, the Netherlands. 

Gökcan Demirkazık worked as an assistant curator at Alt Art Space and SALT in Istanbul, and was a 2017-2018 Fellow at Ashkal Alwan Home Workspace Program in Beirut. His criticism has previously appeared in ArtAsiaPacific, Artforum, Art Review, Art Unlimited, di’van, Even and Frieze. Currently a participant at the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht, Demirkazık holds a BA in History of Art and Architecture from Harvard University.