A Thought Experiment on Experimentation: Notes Toward a Wakeful Curatorial Practice
by Mehdi Ait Oukhzame
I feel strongly that I need ‘permission’ to bring the stories of these murdered Africans to light—above the surface of the water—to ‘exaqua’ them from their liquid grave.
–M. Nourbese Philip, Zong!, 2008, 202.
For an incomplete archive to speak with the fullness of a voice, it has to be created, not out of nothing but out of the debris of information, on the very site of the ruins, the remains and traces left behind by those who passed away.
–Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics, 2019, 160-61.
In a recent webinar entitled “Regimes of Taste”, the literary scholar and cultural critic, Simon Gikandi, asserts that “We are in a moment of experimentation” groping for strategies and practices to undo the colonial heritage within the museum.1 I mention Gikandi’s statement in that it echoes one of the pertinent questions that stood out to me when I attended the “Learning and Unlearning: Rethinking Archival Practices” workshop: “How might ‘we’ practice experimentation without (re-)producing violence in dealing with archival materials relating to historically oppressed communities?”2 Since “the endless labor of restoring that which has been destroyed goes on” (Mbembe, 2019, 159), attending to such an open-ended ethico-political question requires extensive discussion and collaborative work between institutions, archive workers, researchers, artists, activists, and audiences. Rather than claim to provide a conclusive answer to the aforementioned question, the present reflection dwells on the potentialities of emotion, care, and ‘wakefulness’ as a critical optic for dealing with the colonial archive. Hence, this intervention is in itself a thought experiment on experimentation.
Curators as architects of “choreography of assembly”
In his Tweets and Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism, Paolo Gerbaudo coined the notion “choreography of assembly” to highlight the role social media play in providing the symbolic and technical mediation necessary for assembling people in the public space to strike against totalitarian and exploitative conditions (Gerbaudo, 2012, 40). Gerbaudo’s idea of a “choreography of assembly” can be extended to curators as ‘choreographers of assembly’ setting the scene for experiences of coming-together to re-imagine and prepare the ground for a shared just world. Curators can also be seen as ‘healers’ and agents of repair involved in processes of amending the wounds of the past-present and undoing the colonial imprint of the museum and other institutions. Despite the various structural constrains, curators might act as visionaries of what Achille Mbembe terms the “anti-museum” as the figure of a place of “radical hospitality” and “unconditional rest and asylum for all the rejects of humanity” (Mbembe, 2019, 172). The “anti-museum”, in other terms, is a place of polyvocality attentive and resistant to the “negative theory of representation” which strips the Other of all substance of life, trivializing the material and symbolic violence exerted upon the represented (ibid., 139).
Objects, in this context, are the media through which curators stimulate processes of collective meaning production and consumption, as well as they are “the palimpsests3 in which […] potentialities are inscribed” (Azoulay, 2019). Given that objects carry with/in them a variety of stories and histories (violent and otherwise), curators cannot be immune from the various forms of affect embedded in the object(s) on which they work. As Tina M. Campt reminds us in her Listening to Images, archival materials such as photographs are “deeply affective objects that implicate and leave impressions upon us through multiple forms of contact,” including the visual, haptic (physical), psychic, and sonic (Campt, 2017, 72). The task, then, is to find ways in which the emotional experiences arising from encounters with the archive can be utilized as a generative force that animates critical reflections and responses to the colonial archive. Commenting on the role of emotion in the creation of “poetic knowledge”, Aimé Césaire asserts that “It is in [the] state of fear and love, in [the] climate of emotion and imagination that [humankind] made its first, most fundamental, and most decisive discoveries” (Césaire, 1990, xiii). Instead of overlooking or suppressing the emotional, Césaire invites us to “[s]urrender to the vital movement, to the creative élan [energy]” (Césaire, 1990, xviii) to which emotion give rise. The “most fundamental […] and most decisive discoveries” to which Césaire refers might be seen as an epiphany that might occur in surrendering to the affect of objects. While the objects constituting the colonial archive influence us in myriad ways depending on how we relate to them, our experimentation and work on the archive cannot be indifferent to how it affects others. Hence comes the importance of emotion, care, and ‘wakefulness’ as the basis upon which our experimental work on the colonial archive should stand.
Taking the emotional element underlying our encounter with the archive into consideration, the question is what does it entail to develop a curatorial practice – or rather a poetics of care – grounded on an ethico-political positionality that does not perpetuate the violence of the past-present, but rather paves the way for engendering a “grand collective we”?4 Such an ethico-political approach to an archive bearing the colonial imprint is one that is conscious of the sensitivities, realities, and histories of the populations directly affected by the archival material subject to research and curatorial work. This is what Christina Sharpe would call “being in the wake and doing wake work” (Sharps, 2016). While the notion of “wake” in this context refers to the awareness of the enduring effects of an occurrence, “wake work”, on the other hand, is to think and act based on the consciousness that the past is still with us—past-present. In the words of Sharpe:
If […] we think the metaphor of the wake in the entirety of its meanings (the keeping watch with the dead, the path of a ship, a consequence of something, in the line of flight and/or sight, awakening, and consciousness) and we join the wake with work in order that we might make the wake and wake work our analytic, we might continue to imagine new ways to live in the wake of slavery, in slavery’s afterlives, to survive (and more) the afterlife of property. I mean wake work to be a mode of inhabiting and rupturing this episteme with our known lived and un/imaginable lives. With that analytic we might imagine otherwise from what we know now in the wake of slavery. (Sharpe, 2016, 17-18)
The idea of wake and wake work provides an optic that might allow for working on and with the colonial archive without perpetuating the very violence that we attempt to undo. It is an embodied critical positionality as a “modality of being in the world”, to use Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s terminology (Azoulay, 2019). Wake work is also a practice of care that does not limit its scope to repair, but rather endeavors to enact ways of inhabiting the world otherwise. In doing so, it “insists and performs that thinking needs care […] and that thinking and care needs to stay in the wake” (Sharps, 2016, 5). To do wake work on the colonial archive, one has to imagine two persons standing on one’s shoulders. While the first represents the colonial framework that persists to inform our training, discipline, and profession, the other constantly reminds us that we have to deploy our skills and privileges to “defend the dead”, the subaltern, and the dispossessed (Philip, 2011, Azoulay, 2019).
Keeping with the question of experimenting on the archive with emotion, care, and wakefulness, I think of M. Nourbese Philip’s book-length poem Zong! (2008) which I discuss in the next section. The relevance of Philip’s contribution emanates from the kind of ethical and methodological questions she wrestles with in her work on the archive, as well as her focus on “whose perspective matters” (Hartman, 2020, xiii) in dealing with the colonial archive. As such, I see the work of Philip on the archive as a poetics of care that constantly keeps in mind the specter of the people whose stories are subject to experimentation. I should also mention that I use Philip’s Zong! only to provide a concrete example of how I imagine a wakeful experimental approach to the colonial archive could look like. That is, I do not claim that her work offers a conclusive answer to the main question that guides this reflection. Yet it might be used as a source of inspiration for curators and historians concerned with questions of silence in the archive and forms of telling stories that resist to be told.
Untelling the colonial archive
Working on and with the colonial archive poses several ethico-methodological challenges relating to violence, silence, and representation. Mbembe argues that the “archive is above all a fissile material, its specificity being that, at its source, it is made of cuts” (Mbembe, 2019, 172 [emphasis added]). Similarly, in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Saidiya V. Hartman maintains that “Every historian of the multitude, the dispossessed, the subaltern, and the enslaved is forced to grapple with the power and authority of the archive and the limits it sets on what can be known, whose perspective matters, and who is endowed with the gravity and authority of historical actor” (Hartman, 2020, xiii). Left with cracks, cuts, and omissions, those working on the archive are confronted with the question of how to (re-)construct and (re-)tell the stories of the subaltern, the dispossessed, and the enslaved out of silence, “the debris […] and traces left behind […]” (Mbembe, 2019, 160-61)? In this case, we can think of curators and historians as storytellers who derive the substance of the stories they tell from a variety of archival materials. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Ariella Aïsha Azoulay addresses in particular museum workers and historians in her illuminating article “Imagine Going on Strike”, in which Azoulay calls for a practice of refusal that constantly questions one’s positionality and privileges as a gesture of “care for the shared world” (Azoulay, 2019). Yet, as I demonstrate in relation to Philip’s poem Zong!, the kind of stories we tell and how we tell them—through multiple media and forms—always matter.
In her book-length poem Zong!, the Canadian Caribbean poet and performance artist, M. Nourbese Philip, grapples with the pressing ethico-methodological question of how to tell stories of those who passed away from the debris and silence in the archive. Zong! is based on the eighteenth-century incident of the British slave-ship Zong which was initially, but also ironically, called Zorg (care) before its renovation. In the 1781, the ship was carrying around 470 African enslaved people deported from Ghana to Jamaica, and as a result of overload and navigational errors the captain of the slave-ship decided to throw overboard around 150 enslaved people to minimize the ‘loss’ (Philip, 2008, 189). Needless to mention that, for the captain along with the slave-ship owners and the British law, these enslaved people are no more than a ‘cargo’—disposable commodities. Aware that the slave-ship owners can claim compensation from insurance underwriters based on the British law, the captain of the ship was confident about his act of murdering these people. Yet, failing to convince the insurance company about the reason behind killing them, the slave-ship owners went to court to claim financial compensation. While there is no evidence whether or not the owners of the Zong succeeded in collecting insurance monies, the existing archive contains only a two-page court report that documents this incident (ibid.).
Emotionally affected by the case of Zong (Philip, 2008, 194), Philip decided to honor the life of these African enslaved people through a book-length poem followed with solo and collective performances. Before embarking on her journey of writing Zong!, Philip reckoned: “I feel strongly that I need ‘permission’ to bring the stories of these murdered Africans to light—above the surface of the water—to ‘exaqua’ them from their liquid grave” (Philip, 2008, 202). In a sense, Philip is asking for “permission” to experiment with the event of Zong as an acknowledgment of the ancestors and as a contribution to their unfinished struggle for a just world. Besides her ethical concern with the permission to unveil and re-construct their stories without perpetuating the violence of the experience, the silence about the Zong case in the archive left Philip with the question of how to tell the stories of these people. As she writes: “Haunted by ‘generations of skulls and spirits,’ I want the bones” (Philip, 2008, 201). Philip’s request for “the bones”—that is, the traces and the missing parts in the archive of slavery—is motivated by a poetics of care that seeks to honor the life of those whose stories are erased or, at best, footnoted in the historical record. Drawing on Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx (1993), Philip maintains that the “‘work of mourning’ demands clarity: that we know who the deceased is; whose grave it is; where the grave is and that the body or bodies ‘remains there’—in situ [on site]” (Derrida, 1993, as cited in Philip, 2008, 202). It is not only the silence of the archive that challenges Philip’s work on Zong, but also the form and language in which the stories of the murdered African people should be told? For Philip, since the language in which the two-page legal case of Zong was written is part and parcel of the very system of knowledge that legitimized the occurrence, the poem Zong! should be told in a different register and form to avoid “doing a second violence […] to the memory of an already violent experience” (Philip, 2008, 197).
Using her legal training and practice (as a former lawyer) together with her poetic craft, in Zong!, Philip plays with the very words of the two-page legal case document. In so doing, she deploys what she terms a “poetics of fragmentation” where words are scattered on page with extra space between them as if Philip attempts to offer space for the 150 “thingified” people thrown overboard to breathe (see for instance Zong! # 20 [figures 1. and 2.]). It can be argued that in Zong! Philip aims to activate the voices and perspectives of the murdered enslaved people against the legal system that stripped them of their humanness and lived experience reducing them to a case report of two-page long.5 It would also be useful to think of law in this context as both a discipline and an institution (e.g., court, museum, university) where Philip—as a former lawyer—refuses to surrender to the constraints of the structure to which she belongs so as not to sanitize or re-produce violence. In Azoulay’s terms, this is a way of “going on strike” against injustice. As Azoulay explains: “Going on strike is to claim one’s right not to engage with destructive practices, not to be an oppressor and perpetrator, not to act according to norms and protocols whose goals were defined to reproduce imperial and racial capitalist structures” (Azoulay, 2019).
By fragmenting the tow-page case report, disrupting its grammar and stylistics (as ordering mechanics), Zong! troubles the legal order and the (il-)logic that naturalizes the treatment of human beings as disposable property. When reading the poem Zong! or watching the performance, the reader or viewer is confronted with disorder, unpredictability, and opacity—that is, the meaning of Zong! lies in its nontransparency and nonlinearity. Zong!, however, cannot be confused with “non-meaning”, but rather it is “anti-meaning” (Philip, 2008, 200) as a gesture towards unlearning imperial modes of knowledge production. Its “almost non-sensical style” pushes the reader to make an effort in order to “‘make sense of an event that eludes understanding” (Philip, 2008, 198). The nature of the event of Zong and the missing traces of the murdered people onboard constrains the ways in which this story can be told. In this case, Philip choses to tell their stories by “un-telling” it through the fragmentary and “anti-meaning” characteristic of Zong!. As she eloquently puts it, “Zong! is the Song of the untold story; it cannot be told yet must be told, but only through its un-telling” (Philip, 2008, 207). The un-telling of painful stories—which might be embodied through different strategies—is an act of unlearning and a mode of refusal akin to “going on strike” by way of saying no to destructive structures and practices. It is a practice of care that attempts “to render the world habitable again and for all” (Mbembe, 2019, 161 [emphasis added]). In short, what Philip does in Zong! is an example of how an emotional experience with archival materials carrying histories of violence can be translated into an act of “intervening in existing narratives” of the world (Azoulay, 2019). Her work is an endeavour to articulate a counter-history (an ‘anti-archive’) which draws a strong link between the past, present, and future to animate the silence of the archive so as to “speak with the fullness of a voice” (Mbembe, 2019, 160).
By way of conclusion
Working on archival materials pertaining to histories of injustice behooves us to constantly ask what is at issue ethically, politically, and epistemologically. The question of “How might ‘we’ practice experimentation without (re-)producing violence in dealing with archival materials relating to historically oppressed communities?” calls for an understanding of care as an ethical and critical positionality embodied through curatorial work, research, and other practices of dealing with the colonial archive. Philip’s Zong!, in my view, does provide an excellent case in point in this direction. The authors that I engage in this reflection are part of a ‘collective utterance’ that seeks to foster strategies to unlearn and undo the colonial legacies. Yet, engaging with the aforementioned question might not necessarily lead to final conclusions, but rather further generates more questions. The point, however, is to preserve the open-ended characteristic of the question that guides this reflection, while attempting to stimulate inspiration, dialogue, and discussion.
1.Informed by Simon Gikandi’s book Slavery and the Culture of Taste (US and UK: Princeton University Press, 2010), the “Regimes of Taste” webinar engages with questions of aesthetic formations and imaginaries that emerged within the encounter of Europe and its Other(s). It looks at how colonialism and slavery shaped (and continues to inform) our taste in relation to the trading of certain products such as salt, sugar, and textile, blurring the ‘source’ of products and styles as well as engendering an entire aesthetic regime. In an attempt to foreground the perspective of the colonized/enslaved as an ‘outsider’ of colonial modernity, the webinar addresses the question of how might the European ethnographic museum draw attention to the enduring effects of the colonial regimes of taste. For further information on the webinar, see the official website of the Research Center for Material Culture (RCMC): https://www.materialculture.nl/en/events/regimes-taste
2. This question was posed by Stevie Nolten, one of the participants in the “Learning and Unlearning: Rethinking Archival Practices” workshop organized by the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, Royal Netherlands of Southeast Asia and Caribbean Studies (KITLV), and Research Center for Material Culture (RCMC). I am thankful to Carine Zaayman and all the people who organized and participated in the workshop which I found quite illuminating and inspiring in terms of ideas, questions, experiences, and expertise in dealing with the archive. My special thanks goes to Stevie for the pertinent question which inspired the topic of this reflection as well as sparked a moment of revelation in my thinking about the colonial heritage within the museum. For more information on the “Learning and Unlearning: Rethinking Archival Practices” workshop, see https://www.materialculture.nl/en/events/learning-and-unlearning-rethinking-archival-practices-workshop
3. The term palimpsest refers to a parchment or an old document where a written script has been removed and covered or replaced by new writing. As Bill Ashcroft et al explain, “The characteristic of the palimpsest is that, despite such erasures, there are always traces of previous inscriptions that have been ‘overwritten’” (Ashcroft et al, 174, 2001). Before starting to be deployed in some areas of research such as postcolonial, literary, and cultural studies, the term palimpsest was mainly associated with paleography—the discipline of deciphering ancient writings and manuscripts (Dillon, 2005, 2).
4. This phrase is borrowed from Saidiya V. Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route. (US: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), 75.
5. For a short talk and performance of Zong!, see “M. Nourbese Philip: Zong! and the Black Outdoors”, Duke University (April 4, 2017) [accessed June 15, 2021]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TLQIlExEYmw. For more context on Philip’s creative and scholarly project, see “Our Stories: Interview in Conversation with M. Nourbese Philip”, Ubuntu Talks (April 24, 2018) [accessed June 15, 2021]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LyPgUZ31Izc.
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