nothing too see
RR: What was the first sculpture that you made?
KA: Probably The Dream Machine, which was a vending machine that contained various products branded with a halal logo that I designed. I made it just after 9/11. In France at that time, young migrants from Muslim backgrounds were looking for a way to embrace consumerism, but through this sort of Islamic filter. For me, this was something new, because I grew up in a world where this did not exist: we didn’t eat pork, but we didn’t use halal, either. But at the end of the 1990s the teenagers from the part of the society that I come from – the French suburbs that were home to a large migrant population from North Africa and Southern Africa – were looking for a narrative that would speak to them and that they could feel a part of, rather than the official national narrative promoted in schools and the media. You’d go to school and read Victor Hugo and La Rochefoucauld to find big ideas. They were very important writers, but I discovered later that there were also tremendous French writers from the former colonies who were not taught in the schools in France, even though in some areas the majority of children are from African countries. Writers like Kateb Yacine from Algeria, Leopold Senghor and Boris Diop from Senegal, and the Moroccan poet Saida Menebhi. In terms of pop culture, there was a ‘born in the ghetto’ trend within urban fashion brands from the USA that had a strong impact on French Muslim consumerist society at that time. One of the most interesting was FUBU, which means ‘For Us, By Us’ – a black, hip-hop streetwear fashion brand. I wanted to take this a step further and explore this eagerness to create your own consumer universe, so I created the Halal clothing brand.
RR: How did you present your fashion brand – in a gallery exhibition?
KA: It was exhibited in a private gallery in Paris, and then in Nice at the Villa Arson. It was presented as a shop, a real shop, with ‘Halal’ sweatshirts, hoodies and jeans, also sexy things, including ‘Halal’ g-strings. It was crazy.
RR: Could people actually buy any of this merchandise?
KA: No, nothing was for sale – it was a political statement. I did register the name, however, and later I received many offers from companies to buy it – but I never sold it. Many young people commented on my Halal clothing on social media, some of them saying it was the biggest sin to put this holy word on clothes, and others saying, ‘No, I’m proud of it, it’s great. Halal is us and we are also now part of society – if I can buy one of these I will take it and wear it proudly.’ The word of mouth was so strong that journalists contacted me and asked for interviews. That was the idea of the project – it was a sort of a cynical action to get a response from journalists. All of the French articles were Islamophobic, saying this is a brand created by a Muslim, and it will encourage radicalisation, et cetera. This was in 2003 – so that tells you that the current rhetoric about radicalisation and Islam is nothing new.
RR: Before the Halal project you were mainly taking photographs. Did you start out taking pictures in and around the neighbourhood where you grew up?
KA: Yes, I was always taking pictures there. I grew up in a neighbourhood of concrete buildings – but behind these towers there was a huge area of forest and a farm. I remember how much time I spent there when I was a kid, looking at the landscape, drawing it. It was just a small piece of land, but in this very rough, poor, concrete place, it probably helped to create my desire for dreaming. I used to run alone in that forest, and I think my teenage years were made bearable because of the presence of nature. I don’t know if I would have been the same if I had grown up totally surrounded by concrete architecture.
RR: When did you realise that making pictures was something you wanted to pursue more seriously?
KA: I think my first photographs were of architecture, taken in Mexico when I was travelling. I was 19 or 20 at the time and I was fascinated by the Spanish colonial architecture there. But I have to say that even though I was interested in the texture of walls and the shapes of buildings, I’ve always been taking pictures of people. I’m definitely a humanist photographer. When you photograph people – whether the person is posing for you or not – there are so many things going on: your curiosity for other cultures, other generations, other types of people; you are also trying to understand how they think. After Mexico I went to Algeria many times, and also to the Congo, where I took portraits of people in Brazzaville. When I was back in Paris after more than two years travelling, it happened that I was crossing the street one very sunny afternoon and I heard behind me, in the middle of this crowd in the street, two men talking like women in Arabic. I turned around and discovered the two men were dressed as women, wearing skirts and stilettos. People were staring at them but they didn’t care. They were just so free and brave that I decided to follow them. After walking for half an hour we ended up in a small, very bizarre café, full of transgenders from Algeria, which was for me, like, ‘Wow!’ I didn’t know that this world existed.
RR: You had never noticed any transgender people when you visited Algeria?
KA: At that time – this was 1998 – Algeria was in the middle of a civil war between the Islamists and the army. And to be someone who looked different could mean death. Many of the transgender people that I met were in Paris to escape from the risk of being killed in Algeria. So that was how it came about that I started to photograph this group of transgender immigrants – completely by chance, but also through curiosity. In addition, I felt there was something important to do, and that I needed to do something because I was lucky enough to be there. I think this notion of curiosity is very important in my practice, because I really like to share not only my experiences but also a non-objectified view of people who are unknown to the mainstream. When I was working on these photographs over a two-year period, my aim was to show the viewer something they had no idea about.
RR: Why did you call this series of photographs The Landing Strip?
KA: ‘The landing strip’ is the slang way that they referred to where they were working as prostitutes in the outskirts of Paris, along these avenues that are so big and so flat that they ook like landing strips. They used to say, ‘I arrived here directly.’ It was a very tough area.
RR: Were they comfortable with you taking pictures of them? I can imagine that if you are an illegal immigrant and working as a transgender prostitute, you are probably worried about getting the wrong kind of attention.
KA: I think it was more difficult for me at first to gain their confidence because I was Algerian, and they were all worried I would send images to their families. It took about six months of building up trust before I could make the first pictures. I started out by trying to assist them with their legal efforts to stay in France, because they were all illegal immigrants. You can imagine the danger they faced: if they were arrested by the police and sent back to Algeria dressed as women, they might have been murdered on arrival. These Algerian transgender people are very strong. Few of them have pimps. They also have different ways to enjoy life – one of them is to have a nice big party for their birthday, but the birthday is like a ritual, either for presenting a new boyfriend or to entertain the audience with the love story that they are living with the boyfriend. As we became friends, they asked me to become the photographer of their parties and fake weddings. I know how to do wedding photographs, of course, with a flash and a nice camera. I did this because it helped me become part of the whole family. And for me it was a way to illustrate the good moments in their lives, because I was also shooting scenes of prostitution and their difficult day-to-day existence. I wanted to represent the whole picture of their lives, to show that even illegal migrants working as transgender prostitutes have moments of joy, of happiness. For me, this is about being respectful. When we represent minority communities like this one, we need to include images that do not show them as victims.
RR: Many of your pictures portray very intimate scenes, and almost feel like they were taken by a member of the family. How did you manage to create this sense of closeness with your subjects?
KA: Since I was a kid I’ve always had a sort of empathy with the pain of others. It’s in my nature. And I really do think that this empathy is often expressed in my work. With The Landing Strip photographs, it’s the only explanation for why I was so interested: I was never intrigued by the glamour – though they are glamorous of course – but to be honest, they really touched me. Some of them have very tough stories. Especially in Muslim societies, they are often the perfect scapegoat. So when I talk about making humanist photographs, it means creating pictures that convey a certain respect for someone and trying to do as much as I can to retain the dignity of that person.
RR: You took approximately 2,000 photographs over this period. How did you finally decide that the project was finished?
KA: With a project like that you do not decide. It was very much a life project, and I do not think it is finished even today because their struggle is ongoing. Last January, I helped to organise a symposium on the relationship between prostitution and colonialism, and some Algerian transgender prostitutes came.
RR: Did you identify with the way these illegal immigrants risked publically defying social norms to fashion their own identity?
KA: I completely identify myself as a rebel, and I think transgender people are rebels. For me, this rebel attitude is definitely what makes a man or a woman into a bigger person. If we do not resist society, we become its slaves. This is why I have always been interested in political activism and why people’s revolts, rights movements, protest and demonstration are an important aspect of my work – lately, for example, fighting for migrants’ rights or exposing political injustice. And what I have discovered so far is that both transgender people and people like me are alone when we first decide to struggle. Of course then you discover the communities that are also resisting. During this period the transgender prostitutes became like my sisters. And if I was touched by them, it was partly because they were the incarnation of being alone and trying to establish a social group just to protect themselves.
RR: Was it difficult at the time to find a gallery willing to show these photographs?
KA: When I showed the first pictures to a fancy magazine in France, a Leftist one, the art director said, ‘Oh, they’re very nice, they’re beautiful – but an Arab girl on the cover of a magazine in Paris? This will never happen. A transvestite? No way, darling.’ Later I tried to show this work in many places, including galleries in Paris, and they all said no. Finally, one day I decided that I would show them myself.
RR: So would you consider that to be your first art exhibition?
KA: Yes, definitely. I transformed my small apartment in Belleville and painted it all black except for one section of white wall where I projected a slide show of these pictures. Then I covered the whole neighbourhood with advertisements for the show. And all the outsiders of Paris came! I should have photographed all of them. I did this every evening for three months and as word-of-mouth spread, activists and art-historians also came, and I met many incredible people.
RR: Most of your later video projects also feature groups that find themselves apart from the mainstream of society in one way or another, including amputees and people with mental health issues. You seem deeply interested in the experience of people who are different and so are made to feel like outsiders in their own society.
KA: I’m very much affected by the notion of humiliation. It’s extremely important for me to show that people from former colonies – for example, Algeria, where my family comes from – belong to generations struggling against humiliation. In Arabic, there is a word ‘hogra’, which means humiliation. When Arabic speakers talk about a former colonial eader they say, ‘They’ve humiliated us’. The Tunisian psychoanalyst Fethi Benslama, who I interviewed for my video dealing with phantom limb syndrome, says that colonisation is exploitation, is rape, is expropriation – but colonisation is also humiliation.
RR: Did you personally experience humiliation growing up in Paris?
KA: Yes, of course. Among other things, I encountered racists insulting me and saying things like ‘Go back to your country’. It’s not by chance that I work with so much anger and passion on the subjects that are addressed in my work. We are surrounded by a continuum of humiliation in society and this produces monsters sometimes, like terrorists who feel they have nothing left to lose. From my perspective, our world today cannot be understood without taking into account the psychological and emotional aspects of society. That’s why I talk with a lot of psychiatrists for my projects. I’m also interested in schizophrenia and mental disease, because to some degree a mentally diseased person is alone. But within the context of their own illness, they make sense.
RR: You have spoken about the ongoing critique in your work of the West’s obsession with classifying and ordering knowledge in tightly logical systems. This critique animates some of your works that address the modernist housing estates in the Paris suburbs where you grew up.
KA: The way that post-war social housing for migrants and workers, called ‘Grands ensembles’ in France, was pushed by the rationalisation of space and time incarnates a crucial aspect of modernity: the so-called promise of equality and comfort. This has failed and it did so because of the obsession with creating a controllable tool for the nation state. I often think about the Panopticon when I am doing research on social housing. State surveillance of the ‘proletariat’ has always been a continuation of the colonial project that experimented on populations in other countries. Indeed, in many respects colonialism was the laboratory in which the design of the French suburbs was developed. Right after the independence of its former colonies, the French state knew that to grow their economy they would need a very cheap source of labour, which they would have to control with a national hegemonic narrative. French social housing landscapes form both a panopticon and also a kind of mise-en-abyme, and this is a symptom of a complex control machinery which started with the accumulation of objects in cabinets of curiosity and continues today with the accumulation of people in these open-sky jails.
RR: You mentioned mise-en-abyme, which in art history refers to placing an image within a similar image, but the term also conjures the common experience of standing between two mirrors and perceiving a seemingly infinite series of reflections. This uncanny device is referenced in a number of your works, from wall paintings and sculptures to some of your photographs that depict housing estates as landscapes of repetition.
KA: For me, it is one of the most sophisticated ways of communicating emotion. In French, the term relates to the idea of a putting into darkness, of endless depth as well as repetition. So we can see different kinds of mise-en-abyme: the kind in the neighbourhood where I grew up, a landscape filled with similar modern and postmodern buildings, and the kind that plays with endless depth. The importance of this depth for me is its incarnation of nothingness, which produces a sort of anguish that relates to many things that I’m working on.
RR: I wonder if this mise-en-abyme device – which was used in the early twentieth century on commercial packaging for a number of popular food products – also illuminates anxieties around mass production, the endless multiplication of identical objects that reshaped the character of life in industrial societies.
KA: I think that my upbringing was shaped not only by the architecture of the French suburbs but also by the society of consumption. The next step, which we are living through today, is digital, which is even scarier. It is an example of the disappearance of physicality. The industrial revolution produced real goods, but today the physicality of human relations is dissolving. For me, this is important because emotion is physical, not quantifiable, measurable, or digital. It’s part of our deepest elementary instinct – the gregarious instinct to gather together in groups.
RR: Your use of mirrors in a number of works also relates to the power of mise-en-abyme effects to simultaneously fascinate and unsettle a viewer.
KA: I have always been a bit scared by the depth of two mirrors facing each other. But it also fascinates me because it is a technology that has existed for thousands of years and has been used as a magical, symbolic, ambivalent form. The early exchanges between Portuguese sailors and the Congolese involved the exchange of mirrors. There was an interesting text on this by Frantz Fanon in which he describes how the Portuguese people thought the locals were really stupid to be exchanging ivory for fragments of mirrors but for the Congolese people these were rare items. For them it was a translation of values, they already had a lot of gold and ivory.
RR: That history seems to surface in those works where you tile over African masks with mirror fragments.
KA: These works have a different source. In 2009, I visited the exhibition Picasso and the Masters at the Grand Palais in Paris, which included works by artists like Caravaggio, El Greco, Paul Cézanne… all of whom influenced Picasso. But there was not a single African mask. We know that African masks clearly influenced Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon and the work of some of his contemporaries such as Georges Braque. Omitting them from this exhibition was an insult to the traditional art of Africa. In response to this exhibition the first thing I did was to make a work that simply showed to the audience how Cubism was invented. I took an old mask that I found in a market in Dakar – not a Senegalese one but a copy of a traditional Dogon mask. I plastered on mirror pieces following the angles of the mask. After I had put on five pieces, I looked at the mask and saw myself completely fragmented, so I continued to cover the whole surface. This mirror mask is showing everybody who looks at it a Cubist portrait of themselves. Its reference to the influence of African art on Picasso’s art is very simple and direct.
RR: In a number of your vitrine installations (pp. 118–26), African masks are placed alongside taxidermied animals such as cheetahs and monkeys. In these juxtapositions, are you recalling the way that museums of ‘natural’ history in the West traditionally presented ‘primitive’ cultures alongside exhibits of flora and fauna?
KA: In many of my works, especially when it comes to the complexity of dealing with the aesthetics and ethics of colonialism, I ironically re-enact what has been done historically. The vitrines are depicting what has been erected, worshipped and celebrated by museums as a way to explain the world, juxtaposing native populations with exotic animals. But for me it’s more than that. It’s very important to be clear with this use of material that carries the legacy of colonialism, racism and the exploitation of other societies. In these vitrines I juxtapose animals that are imaginatively depicted by masks or wooden sculptures from traditional societies with stuffed animals produced for people of power in Western cultures, for whom this literal form of representation – of making dead animals into life-like specimens – confirms a sense of mastery over objective existence. This says a lot about human nature, and what we need to keep an eye on: our physical relationship with the other and with creation.
RR: Some of these vitrines allude to acts of looking: a taxidermied animal seems to gaze intently at a mask, or stuffed birds are placed alongside optical instruments like telescopes. These scenarios bring to mind the notion that the vitrine itself is a kind of virtual optical technology, a display mechanism that dematerialises objects and stages them as images consumed behind a glass screen.
KA: I like the fact you evoke this, because my fascination with mirrors also comes out of this desire to look. I come from a culture where ‘looking at’ is very important, including looking with malicious intent. In North African culture this is called the Evil Eye. And interestingly, here we are back once more to this question of physicality. The devotion that we give to objects and artworks, to the process of making an exhibition – what is it all about in the end? It’s that we want to be together. That’s why I want to call this exhibition The Museum of Emotion. I hope that we can open up physicality again as a medium of collective experience.
RR: You began to explore the aftermath of physical injury, and different cultural ideas about repair, with your major installation The Repair from Occident to Extra- Occidental Cultures (2012; pp. 80–85, 87). A key and disturbing element in this work is the group of historical images that depict severe facial injuries suffered by soldiers in the First World War, images you also explored in Open Your Eyes (2010; below and pp. 76–79). How did you get interested in working with these portraits of men whose faces – the visual marker of our identity – had been brutally altered by violence?
KA: It was while I was doing research into the ritual scarification practiced in some traditional African cultures that I started to remember what I call the ‘broken faces’, these soldiers from the First World War. I’d seen images of them in the past, but I hadn’t looked carefully. Across seven years of research, reviewing thousands of images of these broken faces, I discovered that in the early years of the war the body retained a significant presence of the injury. The French and German armies were so overwhelmed by the number of injuries that they sent nurses onto the battlefield to sew up the faces of soldiers before they took them away. I then discovered that towards the end of the war, doctors evolved new techniques of repair – they began to work with sculptors and painters to imagine the missing jaw, for example, and to build resin prosthetics and paint them in skin tones. The repair had moved much closer to a fantasy of modernity, based on the Latin etymology of repair, reparare, which means going back to the original state. The First World War is the most interesting, significant event in modernity – probably the first collapse of modernity. And the ambition of giving back the injured body its original shape was tied up with this modernist vision. That is how society works now – we are fascinated with staying younger, removing wrinkles, all traces of aging. For me, this myth of the perfect is like the prehistory of the world we’re living in today. The notion of beauty is very important in this work too.
RR: The other main components in this installation are displays of damaged and repaired traditional carved masks from Africa. You placed these masks in proximity to the images of damaged human faces as if setting up an equivalency between them. The juxtaposing of these two types of elements, which no normal Western museum would have put together, is very unsettling.
KA: What interested me with this project was how to connect the facial injuries of soldiers with these broken artefacts that have been treated and repaired in a non-modern or even anti-modern way. In Western society, the pinnacle of repair has become to erase all signs of the injury (though these pictures show this wasn’t always the case). In traditional societies, it’s the opposite: they have ways to fix an injury that also keeps it visible. I’ve always been fascinated by traces, by the way that objects are used by time – broken, rusted, and so on – and as I continued my research I also became fascinated by this difference between traditional and modern modes of repair: one that acknowledges the passing of time, and the other one that aims to deny the effects of time.
RR: So you’re contrasting two aesthetics – one that embraces the traces of activity, and another that is trying to conceal or erase them.
KA: In the course of my research I discovered that when you look at these kinds of objects that I’ve included in The Repair… you’re not only looking at a repair but an injury. The word ‘repair’ is an oxymoron. Every repair is entangled with the injury – you cannot separate the two.
RR: Museums, of course, typically look askance at historical objects that have been repaired, as if they had lost their original meaning and were no longer ‘authentic’. By showcasing repaired artefacts in your installation, you raise a question about how institutions view the damaged works in their own collections…
KA: When I had a residency at the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C., the first question I asked of their anthropologists was, ‘Do you have a category for repaired objects in the database?’ Databases in such museums are huge: they have categories you have never even thought about. But I was surprised to find out they didn’t have one for repair. Later, a woman who had worked there for years showed me some of the repaired objects they had in storage, which were not easy to find. They had amazing objects, like a mask from Congo covered by a piece of tin metal torn from a milk box. For me these repairs are not only smart, they also have a lot to say. I think the fact that anthropologists from the West have completely neglected these objects is a sign; it explains something. It shows how much Western museography has been colonising these objects.
RR: The dramatic lighting for your installation and the way you group and display the various images and objects seems to refer to the theatrical presentations of old-fashioned history and natural history museums.
KA: For me that style of presentation was ironic, it was partly a critique of the modern obsession with classification. When I use the word ‘modern’ here, I’m talking about the period following the rise of the age of reason, which saw the development of forms of certainties surrounding knowledge – what we today call epistemology. I’m critiquing those social sciences that claim to control and understand the world better than other ways of thinking, just by classifying it.
RR: You talked earlier about the cult of the original object, which you see as a crucial symptom of a dysfunctional modernism. You approach this subject from a very different angle in your video Reflecting Memory (2016; right and pp. 96–103), which explores – with great sensitivity – the difficult subject of amputation and the phenomenon of ‘phantom limb’ syndrome. Would you say that the video also explores our attachment to this idea of the original object – in this case, the intact human body?
KA: I think the video is definitely about the fact that the absence is painful. In German you don’t say ‘phantom limb’ or, like in French, membre fantôme: in German it’s Phantomschmerzen – ‘phantom pain’. What is interesting is that this absence of the missing limb calls for repair through pain: what you feel when it hurts is actually your brain building the feeling of the pain so that you ask for repair to stop. For me, the video is very much about the repair. In the end you are left wondering if repair is even possible or if the injury is ultimately irreparable.
RR: On one level, phantom limb syndrome is a very uncanny phenomenon: you are being haunted by a ghost that was once part of your own body.
KA: The neurologist Boris Cyrulnik says that it’s like losing someone with whom you have lived for many years. At the end of the film there is this moment where they are talking about the difficulty of mourning someone. And Boris says there are two ways to repair the pain of mourning. On the one hand, culture: art, literature, films, creating things. And on the other hand, affections: you have to liberate affection. Boris, who lost his mother and father in the Holocaust, is actually more of an idealist than some other people. The American scholar Huey Copeland gives an interesting answer at another point in the video, saying that for him intense grief is a visceral thing you cannot repair. And the film hangs between these two directions – on one hand there is the possibility of repairing, on the other hand irreparable grief. So my film was really an ongoing research process carried out through discussions with different people, and including poetic images in which there reside no particular answers. I really took care to make sure that Reflecting Memory ends without a moralistic sense of certainty… it is definitely not like a film from the History Channel.
RR: Your video also explores phantom limb syndrome as a possible metaphor for memories of cultural trauma – in a society, for example, which has isolated or amputated some particular part of the larger social body.
KA: When I worked on this film, it started out as a form of research. I was asking historians, anthropologists and psychiatrists if they thought we can compare the trauma of the phantom limb not only with the huge missing part of a society where there has been genocide or extreme racism, but also with the amputation of its knowledge of colonisation. I was not expecting a single answer but all of them said, ‘Of course, yes, we can.’ Fethi Benslama said, ‘We have to be careful because in psychoanalysis and psychiatry we should not use simple metaphors, but it works in this case.’ One of the reasons he said it is comparable is because sometimes the phantom limb cannot be repaired – there is no effective treatment to stop the pain.
RR: Like much of your work, this project involved an extensive research process – you interviewed anthropologists, psychiatrists, ethnologists, sociologists, plastic surgeons as well as amputees. But unlike the output of many ‘research-based’ artists, your work transforms the research into something emotionally as well as intellectually compelling.
KA: Research projects should not sweat the researches. This is why I was very happy when Fethi Benslama told me: ‘I really like this film, Kader, because it’s not a boring film. This is what we psychoanalysts need… Take the average book about psychoanalysis – if you are not a psychoanalyst you won’t read it.’ He said that the film tells us much more about the psyche than many essays about psychoanalysis, and in a very simple and poetic way.
RR: Your ability to immerse yourself in long processes of research seems to reflect the curiosity you spoke of earlier.
KA: I am interested in ways of learning constantly. I’m not talking about knowledge as encyclopaedia – I’m convinced by forms of knowledge that escape academia. I’m talking about modes of thinking and making correlations that are elliptical processes, and that lead you somewhere new. I think my research into the repair, for example, is something significant that will stay – and not only in my work. I have the feeling that I have brought to light something very important.
RR: For me, your work that most explicitly references research is the 18-channel video work Reason’s Oxymorons (2014; p. 61), which explores Western and non-Western approaches to treating mental illness. You created an office-like installation that resembled a research centre or mediatheque.
KA: With all the office cubicles in that installation, as well as the repetition of desks and the screens, I was wondering how to make sense of the times we’re living in by ironically representing the modern mania for order that is driving all societies, by exaggerating its aesthetics. At the same time I included many videos of African people talking, sometimes very academically, and sometimes not. This is what I’m willing to do much more today – give a place to non-Western and non-modern forms of thinking. I want to contribute to a critique of modernity by really making a space for those voices.
RR: You recently made a video trilogy – Shifting Borders (2018) – that explores different ways people deal with post-traumatic stress disorders in Korea and Vietnam. These three videos – The Paradoxes of Modernity, Recycling Colonialism and Catharsis: The Living and the Dead are Looking for Their Bodies – add a new chapter to your exploration of notions of repair. You seem especially interested here in the therapeutic role played by traditional spiritual beliefs as well as the importance of collective acknowledgement in healing socially-related trauma.
KA: I’ve always been interested in the way that before colonialism and the modernisation that happened at the end of the nineteenth century, humanity had been using traditional forms of healing that had lasted for thousands of years. In the film Catharsis, a psychiatrist talks about a case connected to the Korean Sewol Ferry disaster of 2014. One family received the luggage belonging to their eighteen-year-old son who had died in the sinking boat. The mother wanted to throw the luggage away but the father kept it, and put it on the passenger seat of his car every day and talked to it. One day, they met with a psychiatrist and they decided to open it. It was not easy. The psychiatrist opened it with the wife, and there was the son’s school uniform. They started to cry, and the psychiatrist had to admit that they needed the help of a spiritual healer. This openness to traditional belief systems is an interesting thing that I found in Asia. Even as they have completely transformed their economies, they have been able to adapt traditional legacies to deal with present situations. In Vietnam, I was very much struck by the worshipping of the Goddess of the Three Realms, which is still practiced today even though it was banned by the Communist party after the war. When you visit a medium in Vietnam who heals somebody who has been possessed by a dead US or French soldier, they take it seriously. I think it works because their religions are much more tolerant than Islam or the Judeo-Christian religions; they are animist, much more spongy. I have seen ancestor shrines in Vietnam that include representations of Christ alongside Ho Chi Minh and General Võ Nguyên Giáp.
RR: Besides offering a postcolonial critique, do you think your art can also play a kind of healing role by helping us to see groups of wounded people in a different light, and also helping them to see themselves in new ways?
KA: Until a couple of years ago, I never thought of that. But after making my video installations Reflecting Memory and Reason’s Oxymorons, I began to receive letters from people who were affected by stories in these works. There is an American guy who wrote me an email about Reflecting Memory, which he said he’d seen four times. He is an amputee who lost his leg in Vietnam during the war. When I make my videos, I go out and meet with all kinds of people. I’m a storyteller, and I’m a storyteller who tells the story of others. In the Shifting Borders films, I found some truly remarkable individuals who had experienced tremendous suffering; both myself and my interpreter were crying during one of the interviews. The shamans and the traumatised people who you see in these films, they are not academics, they are simple people and what they are saying touches all of us.
Published in: Kader Attia. The Museum Of Emotion, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery Publishing, London, 2019, p.8-33.
To contextualise this conversation for our readers, it took place in the wake of a presentation by Kader Attia entitled ‘The Abolition of Distances’ at Goldsmiths Department of Visual Cultures in London in January 2016. The discussion we had the next day picked up some of the themes of the talk regarding cultural perspectives that sustain the production and circulation of certain kinds of images of the non-West. We also focused on the ability of such images to aid the production of fear, one of the greatest forces sustaining the current security-obsessed state. But the conversation was aimed not just at the images circulating us but also their reading strategies and the other opportunities artists and thinkers have in order to question and subvert the smooth flow of over-determined knowledges. We began our conversation by insisting that knowledge could no longer operate as a set of discrete and framed forms of expertise divorced from their political conditions – this in the hope that its active potential might be let loose.
Irit Rogoff (IR)
Kader Attia (KA)
KA: I think specialisation is certainty. Not always, but the risk of specialisation is certainty. I’m sure you’ve experienced this with fellow academics. For instance, when I was giving lectures and doing research at Quai Branly, most of the anthropologists, specialists in this or that ethnic group, gave a formal description of the way repair was done instead of allowing a critical distance to evolve between the viewer, themselves and the object. They constantly disagreed amongst themselves because scholars are scientists, and scientists produce truth (or seek truths). Any mathematical equation is about the accumulation of a succession of truths that leads to one truth (the conclusion). But the artist has this amazing possibility to think by creating ellipses, and with this I mean unexpected correlations. Sometimes it fails and sometimes it’s magical, but it opens incredible pathways for knowledge. So, I do care about that, and I think that when you mentioned that some colleagues found the lecture reminded them of …
IR: The Sir John Soane Museum.
KA: For me, it’s a compliment. The Soane is a place full of unexpected correlations initially created by an individual mind, Sir John Soane …
IR: I too see it as a compliment that the presentation of your work seemed to have a similar ethos to the John Soane Museum with its jumble of seemingly unconnected objects. The lack of connection has to do with the objects not having a historical, national, regional, cultural or genre-based coherence and with the fact that original objects and facsimiles are combined without distinction. I think that what worries people about such assembled presentations that don’t adhere to a single logic is that they are not sure how or where they might locate the criticality of the discourse being presented. I think really one of the questions that we should talk about is, how can one, on the one hand, not limit knowledge to tiny little specialisations that cannot address the big and urgent questions, and, on the other hand, how working with a whole set of general knowledges can maintain the power for political struggle. Because that’s not so obvious since most political struggles are quite specific.
For myself, I’m not frightened by generalisations because I think that the most important thing for us is to know how to think the large and important questions and that generalisations can aid the ability to think big. But, for many, I think, of your listeners, the translation between the big questions and, by contrast, how to have real effective political power in the work that one does, on an everyday basis, creates a missing link, and it would be interesting for us to maybe think about the missing link. In essence what I am invoking is the thorny old set of questions we never seem to be able to escape, between the dual need to see the big picture and the imperative to be specific, close to the lived conditions of the day.
KA: I think that when you question this missing link, you’re already giving an answer because when you polarise on one side the big image and on the other the little mechanisms of specialisation, you are in fact addressing this link. Because something is always present: both in theory and in practice nothing doesn’t exist.
Actually this missing link isn’t absent at all; on the contrary, it’s essential between the sides. It’s the fundamental fold that links and divides the two sides you speak of … but of course, it has to be exposed, made visible and audible so that we can question it. Without it, the thought process would rely only on the big image or only on the little mechanisms. This would lack distance and fall once again into an impasse … (the dead-end of certainty).
IR: I also want to ask you about permission, which is the subject of our lecture series this term, about where you get your sense of permission. By this I mean the permission that you have to work in a different way, to start from elsewhere and mix materials that are of different histories and cultures? It seems an important question to ask within a body of work that is closely linked to postcolonial criticism. Because while postcolonial theory is crucially important as a critical body of thought, it is also often quite ethically rigid: there are rights and wrongs, offences and violations, and it’s quite difficult to mix things up.
I am very interested in the question of permission because I think we struggle for it rather than simply receive it. It took me many years to get a sense of permission in my own work because I was trained as an academic and there were certain understandings about how you legitimately went about producing knowledge, so I’m interested in that as part of your own artistic process. The lecture series that you opened last night, ‘Permissions: The Way We Work Now’, is dedicated to examining the different kinds of permissions that accompany decolonisation or gender emancipation or being critical of neo-liberal hegemonies. It assumes that operating from a position of being politically critical requires another form of working, a new methodology.
KA: I think there’s a crucial point here. In my practice, permission is an issue because, as you said quite eloquently, I address colonial matters, both directly and indirectly, dealing with instances of dispossession and reappropriation (I made work that looked at the dispossessing of traditional objects and questioned the role that the Christian missionaries and the Vatican played in this pillage). Yet colonial issues don’t only concern colonisation. They lead up to or are the continuation of other calamities, such as slavery, neo-liberalism, fascism, the hegemony of Western Modernity … the monopoly of suffering isn’t owned by colonisation or slavery. The domination of man over man is made up of endless and complex ramifications that continuously spread …
Within this sad state of things, the permission for another methodology in the creative process presented itself quite naturally in my work. In a way, it relies on permission as an act that becomes radical because it seeks freedom – freedom of thought. Colonisation of knowledge is one of the most ambivalent consequences of Modernity, and to extract oneself from it can be part of a radical choice that demands transgression of what would or wouldn’t be permitted, to find in fact the missing link between things that were separated or that will arise from an unexpected assemblage.
Then I think there are two things. Probably it sounds obvious to me because I’m on the other side of the lecture – and it’s not that obvious for the audience – but I have to say that I do not pretend to provide theoretical dogmas because I’m frightened of certainty. It can’t last that long in a world that is constantly changing. That’s why I appreciate the fact that you referred to the methodology of how to proceed rather than what we are looking for.
Yesterday’s lecture presents my interest in dismantling the entire frame and canvas that we’ve been forced to think and from which we need to define another way of understanding, another distance, I would say. This, I think, is very difficult, and the reason why I don’t want to propose a very clear political impact of the ideal I’m drawing out is that I’m not sure of it. I’m just proposing. And the lecture, as it was, is a proposal. It suggests another methodology – how we have to deal with this extreme and escalating violence through mass media today, as this is not about to end; how we have to rethink and reinvent the entire dialogue these productions tie us to; how we have to probably reformulate or reinvent the scale of mass media which we’ve committed to, because I think it’s all about scale. I talk about how there is a cultural scale in which we are, at some point, imprisoned.
We were talking about nature after a while, the story of the birds and the way they mimic intrusions in their environment and that, maybe, we can reflect at a different scale through nature’s agency, for instance. I’m thinking about an alternative methodology we could maybe find by looking at nature. All the political failures of mankind have an echo or an interdependent relationship with nature … That’s why the extinction of species today is the mother of all crises.
IR: Extinction of spaces?
AK: I was talking about ‘species’ rather than spaces. What we call ‘the age of Anthropocene’. The crisis of global warming, the disappearance of these ‘species’. This is, for me, the mother of all crises – economic, environmental, affecting relations between groups and individuals etc. …
IR: So this is what we were talking about last night, questions of how to shift to a planetary scale?
KA: At the same time, the abolition of ‘spaces’ is at the core of my lecture because it has been a crucial accelerating point these past fifteen years in world history. After being Modern and ‘specialists’, the Western world has woken up to a global world – global warming, global economy, global fear … But not one nation (or what remains of this so-called great narrative) has been able to fit into this new global infrastructure. What has been built during fifty years as the first largest community of different countries is collapsing. All European countries are building fences and closing their borders to protect themselves from refugees: it is a total paradox.
But again, I totally understand why some people can have difficulties in understanding the impact of the political aspect of my work, but it’s not my aim. I think it’s much more difficult because the current political situation changes every day. The political situation worldwide is becoming incomprehensible … I think of it as the metaphor of Sisyphus: at the end of the day, all we try to do is raise something above us but unfortunately it keeps going back towards the ground.
IR: While I totally agree with your analysis, I don’t think that you are in charge of global political solutions. I think, for me personally, as a thinker, the real importance of contemporary art is learning other ways of thinking something, finding other entry points into a problematic, not solutions for it.
KA: Exactly. I agree.
IR: I’m interested in the way in which art can point me to other ways of thinking very urgent issues and different points of entry and different knowledges, but also a whole set of permissions, for example. That’s one of the things that really interest me about the way you work vis-à-vis knowledge, giving yourself permission to start in the middle. Scholars, unlike artists, will always try to start at the beginning, whereas artists have the permission to start in the middle. I think starting in the middle is a very interesting strategy. You may have intuitively desired to start at the beginning, but it’s not a classically scholarly desire, so I’m very fascinated by this.
KA: Artists certainly allow themselves to think of knowledge differently than scientists do, even if Nobel Prize recipients, such as Serge Haroche, often say that to become a great scientist it requires imagination (next to observation and intuition). I ultimately think that this is the reason why art exists. To not only use elliptical thinking and to never cease to expose this but also to allow oneself to consider knowledge not as a part of the unavoidable order of things, that comes and goes between the signified and the signifier, but also as something that is out of control, unknown, that cannot be categorised, something unexpected … And this something that resides (as long as it isn’t used) in non-knowledge requires an open methodology in order to allow such freedom of access. This freedom of non-knowledge is perhaps a necessary mirror to the certainty that science blindly advocates … Artists are here to maintain this essential imbalance. I don’t know if artists begin by thinking of knowledge ‘from its middle’, as you say; I mainly think that they have always been moved by an agency that links social reality to the virtual (from traditional societies until now), and that this embodies the ‘middle’ you’re speaking of – this missing link between societies and beliefs …
What I’m trying to do with this lecture, ‘The Abolition of Distances’ – especially in the conclusion when I say that it’s not easy – is to illustrate how much we have been enclosed by the dialectic of the signifier and the signified. I speak of the Inca civilisation and of the Aztec in the way Serge Gruzinski explained them to me. He was working during many years on the Aztec calendar, on several Aztec codexes, and he discovered that the representations – the drawings – of what we see as depictions of a piece of corn are actually a representation of human flesh. When the piece of corn is very close to the calendar date of sacrifice or ritual, it means human flesh. And when the piece of corn is represented far from human sacrifice, it’s simply corn. The thing is, if you don’t know this, as a Western European academic you simply see a piece of corn. It took him more than ten years to understand this crucial detail … The fact that the representation of corn and human flesh is the same thing goes beyond any mode of Modern Western thinking. And this is what we don’t or can’t understand, because we analyse everything, even if in a correlative way. Everything passes through a signifier and signified process; there is constantly something that is referred to. Yet, in traditional societies, as for example the Inca, when something is represented, it is the thing. If we talk about the dispossessed traditional objects that are now disseminated in the Western world of ethnology, it’s the same thing. They are the spirits they represent.
And, what’s extremely complex for an art historian today is that when you are in front of this image, it doesn’t just represent one thing. It not only embodies human flesh or corn or the mountain or the butterfly or the fish, but it is supposed to be the thing! And for us – because I was asking him (it was a very interesting interview) about psychoanalysis and consciousness – what if we do an analysis and dig into the subconscious of traditional societies and ancient civilisations through their sculptures and what they left on paper? Well, he said, this is extremely complex because obviously they have a subconscious, that’s clear, but all referents …
So, what I found fascinating in the interview we had last time on Skype is that, like you, I care about the fact that, at the end of the day, the world we’re living in today allows us to criticise the system, to struggle against the system, against neo-liberalism, against neo-capitalism – we can critique. The real question is not the critique but how we critique. And I found that one of – I mean, as far as I’m concerned, and as an artist – one of the most interesting methods that I would like to develop through lectures, artworks, discussions, teachings, dialogues is to dig into this non-knowledge thing. Because it is an alternative to knowledge. Do you know what I mean?
IR: I do know what you mean, and I think I’m really sympathetic to it, but one of the questions – and it’s not a question to you, it’s a question to all of us, however we work, if we work for the same urgencies – is how we set up the problematic. For example, yesterday’s lecture was really a genealogy of the constitution of fear, over many, many layers, which then plays into a contemporary politics around global extremism and so-called terrorism. In this scenario one of the things you were unpacking – only one – was the fact that this does have a whole set of historical antecedents that makes the fear more powerful. It builds a layer of nineteenth-century fears and twentieth-century fears and twenty-first-century fears and so on. Each layer of fear building on a series of previous alarmist and prejudiced images. I too am interested in the politics of fear and in the systematic foregrounding of ‘the terroristic’ as a mechanism of surprising alarm. Except in my case, I’m interested in the spatial politics of instability, which is what I think of now as politics of fear. So, if, in an old mode, we may have been able to fortify the border, we could make the border stable by fortifying it so no one could get in and no one could get out, now the spatial politics of fear have changed dramatically. At a time when everything is exploding – cars, buildings, aeroplanes, suicide bombers etc. – fortified borders are meaningless. As a result there is a spatial instability since we are not able to isolate and fortify space. Space is vulnerable. And I think that’s another aspect of the politics of fear, especially since 9/11. An aeroplane becoming a bomb, crashing into a building was a kind of spatial understanding we never had before. And probably in the same way that at the beginning of the twentieth century aerial bombing was a completely new sensibility that totally rewrote the notion of space for people and produced a new vulnerability about was coming from above, from the sky.
KA: I found very interesting the way you politicise space … because you are spatialising the crucial issue of living together and the difficulties that arise from this. I’m thinking of migration and how it has become a so-called crisis (mass media uses this terminology constantly, but migration is a norm in nature and culture evolution). People have always migrated to survive, just like birds … America was built on this myth at the cost of the First Nations who were living there before. Anyway, I think it relevant to map the vulnerability of space nowadays because, as you said, from the beginning of the twentieth century, space became a threat inside of man’s psyche … Add the fact that new technologies have abolished distance and our appreciation of space becomes even scarier …
IR: So, I think we both have a real interest in the politics of fear and the kind of instability that it brings and how it is instrumentalised politically. The question is, what is it that one can do about the politics of fear, because one thing I think we all know is that you cannot explain away fear. You can analyse and analyse and analyse and it doesn’t erode or subdue fear. Fear is atavistic and you can’t explain it away, you can’t rationalise it, you can’t analyse it.
KA: Yeah, it’s a very interesting question and there are many answers.
IR: There are many answers and many directions we could take here, though I don’t find any of them very convincing, but I do know that we are able to develop strategies and positions with regard to stemming fear – for example, for me, teaching is one of the most important strategies I have at my disposal to do something about the politics of fear. The classroom, for me, is a place, a political space where I can address fear as a calculated politics rather than an intuitive response. And not just fear of Islamic extremism – fear of unemployment, fear of precarity, fear of a futureless world …
KA: Fear of yourself.
IR: … fear of yourself, fear of the fact that your education and your knowledge are not buying you a future the way they used to buy you a future, or in the way you had been promised a future.
KA: I agree.
IR: So we have many levels of fear and I think that we are honour-bound as practitioners of whatever to find a way of dealing with fear.
KA: The thing is that fear nowadays has become a business, a trade. Fear is connected to capitalism. I have to say that when I was reading, I think it was a Hezbollah chief in the 1980s who took this from Iran – I put the quote yesterday in the lecture – he was saying that at the end of the day, the only thing any enemy can do is create the fear of losing our lives. They have weapons to remove lives, and the psychological power they use is based on the fear we have of losing our lives. If we consider and accept that the ultimate accomplishment of life is in death, in suicide, in martyrdom, then their power collapses because their power is based on fear. So, on both sides …
IR: So if you have agency about the removal of life …
IR: … then you don’t fear the loss of life inflicted on you by someone else.
KA: Yes … at the end of the day, the most powerful answer to fear is showing that you’re not afraid. You actually show your enemies that you don’t fear death for instance – it comes from a very old culture of martyrdom. This exists everywhere, as, for instance, in Israel 2,000 Jews committed suicide during the Roman Army’s siege of the Masada Mountain. It is probably a legend but powerful enough to have deeply impacted the local psyche, and even now many Israeli people bring their children to the Masada Mountain. It has become a kind of pilgrimage. Every culture has such mythologies and cults of martyrdom … but maybe it’s not a myth. Philosopher René Girard developed the concept that myths are actually based on real facts. And indeed, it’s disturbing that these kinds of myths are being reactivated more and more nowadays, especially because they have become something else, a trend, marketing, signs of existence and of belonging to the national narrative of a political agenda.
We can observe this in other contexts, with other communities still in the Middle East, like in Iran. After the Islamic Revolution, when Iran was involved in a massive war against Iraq, they constructed the same national narrative of martyrdom to federate millions of soldiers ready to commit suicide for the Islamic Revolution … because it was Saddam Hussein who, at that time, was more powerful and was backed by the USA through the Saudi monarchy. The Bassiji were young soldiers, some in their early teens, who were promised access to Paradise by the ‘guide’ Ayatollah Khomeini when they committed suicide against the Iraqi army’s front line, which was full of mines … They had reactivated the legend of Imam Hussein’s martyrdom, who was at the origin of the Shia. Imam Hussein was the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. He was slaughtered with his family and relatives by the army of the Sultan of Damascus. Today the martyrdom of the Imam Hussein is still celebrated every year with blood by all Shia communities worldwide. It is called the Ashura …
In Iran, the reactivation of this legend had only one goal: to create a new generation of soldier-believers ready to die for the Islamic Revolution. In Islam it’s probably the highest sin to commit suicide (since only God can decide when you are meant to die). So, the invention of such a thing proves that the reactivation of the myth of martyrdom can be readapted to a political agenda.
The thing is, the struggle against fear is definitely becoming an ideological process, an act of resistance. I think if the notion of fear in the last two decades has turned into something political, it has to be understood as part of the new geopolitical order, from economy to religion. I’m also thinking here about Milton Friedman’s neo-liberal derivatives, such as producing fear of losing your home, your job, your health etc. …
IR: I suppose we have to acknowledge that beyond security fear is also central to neo-liberal ideology.
KA: Of course. Milton Friedman’s theory is, on one hand, based on a pragmatic view which divides the different steps of productivity and, on the other hand, on mankind’s basic individual and social behaviours. This means that ‘societies that aren’t ruled by cupidity don’t exist’. But there is more to it than just economical facts that were thought or debated before him by, amongst others, Adam Smith, Ricardo and Keynes … It’s the psychological aspect of fear. I think Naomi Klein in her ‘Strategy of Chaos’ spoke of this. She writes that Milton Friedman had been in touch with a psychiatrist who survived the concentration camps, and what he saw there convinced him that what humans will do out of fear, or even worse out of the fear of fear, is by far the worst. M. Friedman then applied the psychiatrist’s comments and conclusions towards economy. For instance, he sent his first students from the University of Chicago (who were called ‘the Chicago boys’) to Chile, because he supported Pinochet’s dictatorial methods of sociopolitical administration. There weren’t any public killings, but people ‘disappeared’ because the disappearance created fear … So, there is nothing better than fear to manage a population, to control a population. It’s the most powerful tool to control people. And Pinochet exemplifies this policy – there were tortures and kidnappings, most of the population disappeared and it was impossible to find the bodies. Remember the mothers of the missing students and dissidents called ‘las locas de mayo’ (the crazy women of May) demonstrating in silence with a portrait of their child? The fact that the kidnapped students were never found created far more fear than if they had been. So everyone was very scared by this fascist strategy of power. On the other hand, what Margaret Thatcher did also intended to generate another type of fear – the socio-economical fear I was talking about before: losing your job, your house etc. … you know the story.
Apparently now is maybe a good time to get to the Frankfurt exhibition … The title of the exhibition is Sacrifice and Harmony. The notions of sacrifice and harmony obviously go along the lines of many of the things I was talking about during the lecture, but not only that. It began with the philosopher René Girard, who died just two months ago … He was also the historian and ethnologist who developed the mimetic theory. Actually, he explains by going back to the beginning of mankind how evolution, social evolution, was possible thanks to sacrifice – more specifically, because mankind has, what he calls, a ‘gregarious instinct’, the instinct of gathering. Sacrifice brings harmony to the group. Before we sacrificed animals, we used to sacrifice humans. Then we started to sacrifice animals because some people were affected by the disappearance of some of their relatives, but the notion of sacrifice remains fundamental to make the group not only compact but also balanced. In his book entitled Le Bouc émissaire (the scapegoat) …
IR: This is Violence and the Sacred, right?
KA: Well I think Le Bouc émissaire was published after Violence and the Sacred, but it’s a continuation of it. For instance, they both develop his crucial argument that all myths were most probably inspired by real facts … At the beginning of Le Bouc émissaire he uses a poem from the Middle Ages that describes a pogrom. The first time you read the poem you think it describes a pogrom of Jews in a barbaric, surrealistic way – there’s a part where the victim is convinced to have spread poison into the river, but mathematically it’s impossible at the time to have contaminated an entire river, so reading this macabre poetic description of the pogrom sounds exaggerated … too many details sound impossible, but actually he slowly unfolds the poem and it leads to a strong conclusion, where the poem describes an event that had really happened. It was written for the ruler of the land after a massacre, at the end of the plague, which was described as an evil act committed by Jews … What I find interesting and important here is that from the earliest ages of mankind, society always found a scapegoat to sacrifice in order to find balance again. But nowadays, from one civilisation to the next, the notion of sacrifice for the harmony of the group has taken a global turn because we are facing the age of globalisation and the end of distances. What kind of alternatives do we have within the neo-liberal financial global order we live in if it isn’t to sacrifice ourselves? And this is what we are forced to do … We waste our lives on things linked to pseudo concepts that we consume. The neo-liberalist system, a blind mutation of capitalism, pretends that it is providing you life in a democracy, but it’s actually offering you nothing else than to sacrifice yourself, to work, to pay your rent or your credit, to eat, to heal yourself when you get sick in order to go back to work, then to reproduce and die. I know we are all embedded in this system, as soon as you light a cigarette, drink a glass of beer or wine or water, eat something, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t embody a virus to disturb this hegemonic system which endlessly colonises our life by removing what has been won after decades and decades of social struggle …
So, this is what I found very interesting as a proposal for a solo exhibition today: in the light of these paradoxical issues, this notion of ‘sacrifice for harmony’ or ‘sacrifice versus harmony’ has to do with the fragility of the world we’re living in and how to invent an alternative methodology of resistance.
IR: So you are saying sacrifice within a neo-liberal world system becomes the inability to not be entirely embedded within its logic? The inability to find an ‘outside’ of it?
KA: Let’s go back to the economic aspect. Is it clear for you that individuals have no choice but to live in the neo-liberal system of sacrifice? For me, this is the issue I really want to raise with the exhibition. Because what the neo-liberal system says about sacrifice – whether considering its methodical acts or aftermaths – is that it is them who are the others, the barbarians, the wild people, but us, the civilised, we don’t sacrifice’ since sacrifice means the blood of innocents. The relationship we have with death within these post-Modern neo-liberal systems is completely occluded by the illusion of living in peace. This form of fake peace is also very important. Because we do not care about the death of these others as much as we do living in peace and in harmony …
I’m now jumping to the opposite side of the exhibition, where there will be an important installation of sculptures (in terms of size), where an eleven-minute movie by Abel Gance called J’Accuse is screened. J’Accuse is a movie that was shown for the first time in 1918, just after the First World War. It’s an accusation – it took the ‘J’Accuse’ by Émile Zola as the title – against the incredible political and human disaster of the First World War. Just after the First World War, there were a lot of pacifist movements in France, in England, in Germany, everywhere. In 1938, one year before the Second World War, during the rise of the Nazis in Munich, Abel Gance reshot the very same movie.
And in this movie, you have this incredible moment when the lead character, who sounds like a kind of charismatic, messianic figure, is talking in front of a huge First World War cemetery … you know, the ones with crosses everywhere, thousands and thousands of crosses without names. And he’s calling out to the soldiers’ ghosts, telling them to ‘wake up, come back from hell, tell them what war is because they want to do it again!’ It’s very theatrical and expressive; it’s beautiful. And then, with a very primitive cinematographic effect, you have this silhouette of a man coming out of the graves and walking towards the camera. The thing which I found extremely interesting is that all the actors here are real former soldiers, the broken faces of the First World War. Did you know that the First World War, because of the incredible power of the weapons and the contrast between these already extremely powerful weapons and the very classical technics of battle, produced I think 6.5 million broken faces – the injured, wounded faces of soldiers; in French we call it gueules cassées. There were like 2 million in France, 1.5 million in Germany and in the UK there were more than 1 million. I’ve been thinking and working a lot on this, because what it triggered and represented for science at that time was an incredible challenge in terms of repair. The doctors, whether in Germany or at the Wellcome Foundation in London, or in Paris, doctors such as Hippolyte Morestin and Suzanne Noël, what they did, what they had to repair was just incredible. It created transformed and destroyed faces, and very, very impressive faces … with the mouth here and the nose on the opposite side of the face, you know the whole story … I can tell you more about this. I’m fascinated by the position and the way these soldiers had to exist after the war. Most of them ultimately went to psychiatric hospitals. They were repaired, but the way society looked at them, seeing them like monsters, destroyed them – not the weapons, but the reactions.
IR: A lot of German Expressionism of the First World War was preoccupied with this.
KA: Exactly, like Otto Dix and George Grosz, etc. … What I found interesting is that, in this installation of sculptures that I’ve been working on for many years now, because it started when I was preparing the documenta project, is the endless rhizomatic construction of links that repair is based on. In Senegal I was sculpting basically with wood. Then, I discovered that the pieces of wood I was working with were the same age as the injured soldiers represented in each sculpture – 100 years. I used portraits from the archives of the Frankfurt Historisches Museum, the Musée du Val-de-Grâce and even from here in London, from the Wellcome Foundation …
So, there will be a dialogue between the screen, this movie of Abel Gance and the huge installation of wooden busts representing a crowd of injured soldiers. Because it is absolutely insane to understand how these people, who were even scared by their own representation, their own new faces, accepted being screened in a movie. They actually believed that pacifism was an emergency for their time. We cannot agree more … We all know today what it meant, and we know what happened after …
IR: You are talking about a kind of new monstrosity, a sort of twentieth-century monstrosity. And I think the difference between the previous moments of monstrosity, medieval monstrosity and so on, is the fact that, there, monstrosity has a very acceptable place within a certain kind of cultural narrative, influenced by religious values that life was habituated in. Whereas, in fact, I think what you’re talking about now is a kind of monstrosity that cannot be received, that has no designated place in culture. So, as there is no interpretative community for the monstrosity of the First World War, so it becomes detritus, it becomes the exception and it is pushed out.
My question to that would be, yes, that’s a historical moment. But it begins to raise for us a new question. After a whole set of wars – not the Second World War, which has a kind of different place in the consciousness, but Vietnam, the Gulf Wars, again and again, Cambodia, Afghanistan – there is an inability to reintegrate a certain kind of experience back into the general cultural narrative. So your historical narrative starts us there, but how do we contemporise it? How do we make it part of a general cultural problematic of fear, because I think part of the inability to integrate is about illusions of the necessity of war for well-being. If wars are being argued as absolutely necessary to re-establish well-being, monstrosity cannot therefore be reintegrated into that narrative because it goes against the grain of the ultimate success of the war as re-establishing well-being. I also think that there is a capitalist narrative to what you call repair and to what I call the inability to reintegrate, because I think one of the great rhetorics of capitalism is that it can fix anything. It’s a fixer, capitalism.
KA: Capitalism aims at even more than fixing; it creates your new addiction, which makes the old ones obsolete. So, in reality, it doesn’t fix but addicts you to a new concept or product or goods, which you will need to consume. It replaces something you never needed by a new needless thing …
First of all, and if indeed we consider the First World War as the paroxysm of Modernity, it is, in the light of monstrosity, a complete paradox. Because in the case of Germany, for instance, it was perceived by the society as a huge shame, whereas in France, injured faces of soldiers incarnated heroism … Well this was in the official public sphere … Because monstrosity always frightened the modern psyche as a visual disturbance of its obsession for perfection. But indeed, we can now focus on wars that came after monstrosity broke with the smooth flux of the Modern narrative of well-being …
I was interested in the injured faces of soldiers initially because the First World War is, at this point in human history, probably the strongest conflict between two eras – the Classical age and the Modern one. Of course, Modernity as a concept started much earlier, but technically and technologically its culminating point and paroxysm is the First World War. Weaponry became so powerful, whereas the battlefield was still using the classic techniques of charging and trenches. At the very same time colonial empires were the most powerful economic, cultural, political and military modern orders … It was almost twenty years after the Berlin conference.
What’s important to understand when talking about capitalism as a constant illusion of fixing is that the real issue of war is the polarisation between repair and destruction. This helped me understand how much war and creation – war and art – work together in a very narrow, complementary and interdependent process, echoing the endless processes of life in the universe, which at some point are embodied and personified, and representing the notion of repair. Because there is no repair if there is no injury somewhere. Conceptually you cannot conceive of the notion of repair without an injury. Repair is fed by injury and vice-versa.
So, what’s extremely fascinating is that when you look into the First World War, first you understand that every avant-garde, every artistic avant-garde, every intellectual avant-garde started almost at the exact same time as a major conflict – either before, just after or during, like Dada in 1914 in Zurich, which was an ‘Antikrieg’, anti-war movement, but also pro-war movements, such as Futurism and the Performance poem left by Marinetti mimicking the sounds of bullets shot by machine guns. They were the witnesses of such extremes …
IR: It’s also a term that I don’t quite understand. I would really like you to elaborate more on it.
KA: What do you mean? If you talk about repair and the way I came to conceptualise it from my artistic research into practice, here’s an answer …
Let’s consider, for instance, the notion during the First World War when soldiers have these almost ‘unrepairable’ bodily or facial injuries, and young nurses were repairing them with what they found – string and needles – because this happened, most of the time, in the middle of the battlefields. They had no other choice than to repair them like a broken piece of wood. The very early repairs I observed in the archives, between 1914 and 1915, are extremely rough. Some people were repaired with a simple piece of wire or a string of leather. Then, slowly but surely, the evolution of repair during the entire First World War became more and more sophisticated. And by the end, you get almost ‘perfect’ repairs … Needless to say that among the many scientific challenges of the First World War, maxillofacial plastic surgery was one of the most important ones …
IR: Reconstituted faces …
KA: Reconstitutions in which surgeons sometimes used bones prostheses, wooden prostheses, resin prostheses for the missing parts of the face. The further you go into the First World War, I mean as it gets closer to its end, in 1918, the clearer it becomes that the main goal for facial injury operations is the complete disappearance of the incurred injuries. Although the real challenge for Modern science, in medical repair and in many other fields, was clearly to remove injuries; in traditional societies the notion of repair does the contrary …
For instance, traditionally, if a broken pot, a broken mask, a broken shield was repaired, was fixed by the repairer, this repair had to be visible. Said like this it sounds obvious, but it’s very important. We have forgotten to focus on such things. I recently interviewed a plastic surgeon in Paris, Maurice Mimoun, director of a department of plastic surgery in Paris. He told me that even after thirty years of practice, he is still fascinated by the flesh’s repair mechanism and the fact that a wound always leaves a scar; it never disappears … Repair in traditional societies – it could be a calabash, could be a mask, could be whatever, and as a human derivative, a body too – has to embody the injury as a sign. It has to express the injury in a post-injury state: the repaired. So you still have the failure, the fault, and then the piece of string that is roughly and sometimes very carefully there … It’s an act that marks, that signs the time (by keeping a trace of the injury as a moment in life) – the contradiction of ‘the Modern obsession for perfect’, which aims at making injury disappear, pretending to go back to the original state or to the idea of the original state, which is pure illusion. We are trapped in our connection between capitalism and repair, which I think is pure illusion …
IR: There has to be testimony to both.
KA: Exactly, that’s what I call the signature. The person who repairs the calabash, the plate or a body has to leave something visible so we understand that the piece was repaired. Maybe you remember these Japanese ceramic pots that are broken and then repaired. The cracks are painted in gold, and when you’re invited to the tea ceremony in such beautiful places, the owner gives you the pot with the flaws turned towards you, and you have to turn it back towards your host to give him the privilege he’s offering you. What I’m saying here is that we have two opposite conceptions of repair: on one hand, Modernity is obsessed with the disappearance of injury, and on the other, traditional societies who are, on the contrary, using the repaired injury as a starting point for the object’s new life. The object gets a new life, a new start. Metaphorically you can explain many things with this.
IR: But you can also say that it’s absolutely parallel to a theory of capitalism, for which there is only the present – capitalism has no history – it only operates in the present, and it only operates in terms of how a set of present conditions and resources can move about, can circulate more fully. A capitalist logic tells us that the offence and the means to repair it produce one another, are part of the same logic. So, the progress of modernity is always what you call a work of repair, the ability to find new solutions for a whole new set of offences that we have created. But parallel to that is the theory of capitalism, which absolutely refuses any kind of a history. And certainly refuses any inscription of offence. Capitalism is non-offensive. It does not have victims, it doesn’t have sacrifices. What it has is …
KA: It’s denying …
IR: It denies, but also it can’t think in those terms; it can only think in terms of growing resources, growing circulations, growing spheres of influence, of profit …
KA: No, but I also agree with you in the sense that there’s a difference between considering an injury as part of the history of the object or of the body and an injury that should disappear, that’s denied, because it’s – this is what I have summarised with nice words such as ‘the myth of the perfect’ – because it’s impossible. When you repair the body as a plastic surgeon – Professor Bernard Mole, another plastic surgeon I interviewed in Paris told me this – ‘every patient wants to come back again. When you become a plastic surgeon, you just get people who want to come back. This is impossible. They only believe it when they look in the mirror and say, “this is perfect”.’ I found this to be exactly what I like about your link between capitalism and the notion of repair, because I think and absolutely agree that capitalism’s temporality is an eternal now.
Indeed capitalism takes part in the denial of history, and we can observe the complete opposite in traditional repair (I am thinking of non-Western cultures and Western cultures prior to Modernity). This opposition is the ultimate celebration of history because of the importance that is given to the wound’s treatment. It shows its different moments and stages by maintaining the traces (the wound) and the potentiality of what it became (repair), achieving sometimes wonderful aesthetic forms that give a new life to the object …
IR: It’s an eternal now and it’s an eternal future. What you’ve accumulated in the present is of very little importance. This is what we learnt from Michel Feher, that the principle of neo-liberal capital is the accumulation of credit not of wealth. And credit is a promise for the future. On the basis of credit, you can grow, you can expand, you can have wider horizons, etc. etc. So this is tension of an eternal promise of the now and its expansion versus a recognition that we are propelled forwards by a series of offences in the aftermath of which we have to develop the technologies and abilities to make right, as it were, ever-more sophisticated medicine that will deal with ever-more sophisticated weaponry, that will injure more and more people that ever have to be healed … So, we have here a problem of two very contradictory logics. We know that, this is hardly new to either of us, but the question is what do you do, how do you make these logics talk to one another.
KA: Actually, according to capitalism, destruction and repair follow completely opposite rationales … On one side, we have perfected technologies of repair, while on the other, we have perfected technologies of destruction … it’s a huge paradox. But capitalism itself is a huge paradox. Especially since the beginning of the twentieth century, when most of the crises were caused by an excessive amount of money that doesn’t exist. Every time the market crashed between 1929 and today, it was due to credit and speculative bubbles. We borrowed money that didn’t exist to speculate, until the moment comes when everyone realises this and then the bubble explodes … and then, we start again. It’s what happened in 1999 with the Internet crisis, it’s what happened in 2008 with the subprime crisis, it is what is happening today because interest rates have never been so low, so everyone is borrowing money excessively …
The problem today is that the banks (via brokers and traders) that lost a considerable amount of money during the crises, which they were partly responsible for by lending money to insolvent people, are always bailed out with public money. Indirectly, it’s probably what David Ricardo referred to as ‘the invisible hand’ – an inherent reflex of capitalism that would repair the imbalances of extreme situations. But it no longer works like this today … Ricardo’s invisible hand was based on the fact that the English businessmen who built their economy mostly on a foreign one would always prefer to return to English banks, but today, within a globalised world, this invisible hand has become completely unpredictable … We see, on the contrary, how the Greek population, for instance, decided to refuse the dictates imposed by the relationships between finance and politics … The extent to which we need to lie to ourselves always amazes me …
That’s why it was important for my research on the concept of repair to begin with the traditional repair of objects and continue with human repair during the First World War. I then focused on the question of the human body and went back to traditional societies and discovered the fact that, like Didier Anzieu’s well-developed argument in his book The Skin Ego, in traditional societies body injuries have been so far a platform for exposing signs of belonging to a group – I’m thinking of cultures of scarification and human transformations. As I explained before, repair cannot exist without injury, in this sense I think the notion of repair is an oxymoron. It’s an issue that functions with paradox but it isn’t a paradox. It really becomes clear when we consider how scarification has always been mapping social structures in non-Western, non-Modern societies – Western or non-Western – because scarification was practiced in Europe during the Middle Ages. But this too is another issue, because scarification was in fact a medical process.
The fascinating thing here is that from nature to culture, injury and its process of repair have always been working through a kind of paradox, which always leads to an oxymoron. Mirroring what I was saying about capitalism, and following your interesting comments on ‘the eternal now and eternal future’, I think more and more that human culture is just mimicking nature as a superior order of things, which precedes it …
Let’s go back to the First World War, because I think Abel Gance’s movie is important to answer one of your questions. You said something very important – how to think about this in a contemporary way. And I’d like to give an answer to that. I think that nothing is more contemporary than the fear of a new major conflict right now. I’m thinking of the fact that Abel Gance shot his film again in 1938, two years after the rise of the Nazis. It was just before the Second World War. So he did his movie again, saying, ‘Are you crazy, guys? Aren’t you aware of what is rising now? We are going directly to the big war.’
I want to display with the installation, with J’Accuse and the wooden busts of soldiers, with the injured faces, the monstrosity of war and the incredible and genuine heroes acting in the movie, not acting on the battlefield. The heroic act of these broken faces is to transgress their own fear of being seen. I trust that the alternative to what you can’t struggle against is to at least resist by transgressing your own fear, the fear of yourself …
Many years ago, I wanted to make a movie with someone in Paris who was completely burnt. I used to work in a bar and he was an everyday customer, a very nice guy from Serbia, Goran. One day I told him I would like to make a movie. He never answered and then one day he said, ‘You know, Kader, I like you, you’re a very nice guy, but frankly I hate pictures.’ And then I understood clearly what it meant. Because I saw Goran every day, for me it was like I didn’t see that he was burnt.
I think what’s important in the project Sacrifice and Harmony is that in this day and age of civilisation shift there’s a real and very important question for curators, artists and viewers regarding a new exhibition: Why a new exhibition? Not only what and how, but why … Why another one? There are so many exhibitions that dissolve over time because of laziness, certainty or, even worse, political correctness … and amnesia! It is important because you were talking about the non-historical temporality in capitalism and looking for the eternal now – I would say amnesia is what’s equal to that.
IR: They’re mutually important.
KA: Consuming is based on amnesia.
So now we can come back to the fixed objects. In traditional societies, the notion of repair in itself is not only the signature of the repairer and the history of the object’s life – in other words the non-denial of the thing’s life – but it’s also an anti-consumerist thing. Because if you go today to traditional societies, even in Africa (where I spend half of my life), you find broken plastic baskets (I can show you pictures) repaired in a traditional way. The dictate of the whole consumerist and capitalist process says that when the basket is broken, you buy a new one. I think that’s why the notion of capitalism within the notion of repair is important to me.
But then again … I want to go back to your second question when you said you wanted to know more about repair. I think what you need to understand is that, for me, the word ‘repair’ is also a concept. A concept that exists with its own paradox, the injury. As soon as there is injury there can be repair somewhere, but there is more, before and beyond our cultural understanding. When Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace described the theory of evolution by saying that a living species cannot last if it becomes unable to adapt to the evolution of its environment, it means that a portion of the chain has to be able to adapt to its environment but not all of its members. This amount is represented within the species’ chain as variation. This is what’s very important because this is evolution. ‘Natural selection’ is the name they gave to the process that defined the members of a same species as more able to survive by generating a ‘more adapted’ variation. Natural selection is repair. It repairs the weakness and inadaptability of certain members by resisting against the disappearance of the entire species. Natural selection is due to an unconscious survival instinct that every living system is moved by. Variation appears in the vegetal and animal kingdoms but also within the immateriality of the intellect, human intelligence … Indeed, remember what Deleuze and Guattari described with their ‘rhizome’, if not the similarity with Charles Darwin’s tree of life, and probably beyond?
Remember the fruit … the example of the peach: it can have either velvety or smooth skin depending on the climate where it grows, but we give them different names, like nectarine or peach, but it’s just a variety, isn’t it?
IR: It’s a hybridisation of a plum and a peach.
KA: Exactly. What we have to understand here is that we shouldn’t mistake the variety that is artificially created with the variety that naturally proceeds from an evolutionary cycle. Let’s take for instance the lyrebird. Some years ago there was an amazing documentary showing this bird in the middle of the Papua New Guinea forest. The fact that the lyrebird is able to reproduce the sound of the modern machines that penetrate and destroy its environment doesn’t create a new variety of lyrebirds, because they’ve always been able to reproduce any sound, even before the existence of the machines they’re now mimicking. This is because like any living species on earth, these birds come from a long evolutionary chain. But at the same time, it could also be variation … Indeed, if we go over the history of the species, the fact that the lyrebirds produce this act of mimicking sounds from its new, aggressive and changing environment is also transforming them. The explanation for this is not only the modifications in the lyrebird’s environment but also natural selection …
Over many years, Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin co-developed the theory of the evolution of species, until one of them started to become sceptical about a non-logical fault in the theory … For Wallace, nothing explained the fact that humans have bigger brains (proportionally) than their ‘cousins’, the great apes. And there’s more … because of this oversized brain, humans were clever enough to dominate their environment and to survive. There was no need to lead human evolution to its greatest catastrophe, the industrial revolution, or in other words the beginning of the end of environment supremacy … Moreover, for Wallace, the whole theory concludes that any species on earth is allowed to survive thanks to the ability to interact with its environment. In other terms, if mankind has both an oversized brain and the ability to transform its environment to survive, it is because there is something beyond human logic that created this interdependence between humans and environment and facilitated the environment’s flexibility and receptivity to humans …
Wallace thought that there was a supernatural force behind this, but for Darwin, who was utterly convinced by determinism, this was random chance. So, what should we make of this controversy? On one side, natural selection is indeed, as considered by every scientist I’ve met, whether a biologist or a molecular scientist, a form of repair. Within any species, the flaws are repaired, otherwise the species would collapse. Repair is a matter of life. If you take bees, for instance, you have thousands of different species of bees, but they have all adapted to the context of their environment – the bees in Sweden are not the same as the bees in Israel etc. … For Wallace, the real challenge is not for species to be able to evolve with the evolution of the environment but to be able to evolve with mankind’s evolution.
IR: I’m really reluctant to open up yet another huge subject, but this has relevance in current debates around the Anthropocene. The belief that we existed in a naturally evolving environment and we’re now shifting to a man-made environment does seem extremely naive as a set of beliefs, in the sense that things are not that simple and they have been much more intertwined for a very long time.
KA: Yeah, I don’t know if you are thinking of those debates that took place last year that Bruno Latour is strongly defending. Although I have been and still am convinced by his essay ‘We Have Never Been Modern’, where the smooth dialectic between tradition and Modernity flows perfectly, I am very reluctant as to the relevance of the Anthropocene, which I would not qualify as naive but just delusional. I find the whole excitement around and about the Anthropocene very post-hippy re-enactment, so not really contemporary to our times …
IR: We cannot open up yet another big subject …
KA: The important point is that I do believe that repair is either at the origin of everything or articulating everything. If you start to observe (because watching has never been enough), you will have a hard time getting rid of such conclusions. Anything you look at – this door for instance – results from repair: there are two steps between the previous and the current state. Originally it was a piece of wood until the human hand decided to transform, cut and carve it and intervened culturally according to the natural process of agency. I think we can draw a parallel between natural selection (as a form of repair) and mankind’s modes of interaction with its environment which have produced what it is called culture …
I think it’s important to understand that the very simple definition of repair, as in ‘to fix something’, is insufficient. It is limited and won’t allow you to grasp this. But, if you keep the repair of injuries at a distance and consider together the traditional cultures and the way they created injuries to have traces on the body (scarification), the fact that when natural species that were about to collapse within their environment had to reinvent themselves and create variation to continue, if politically you try to understand whether democracy or capitalism are ideological processes of repair, if you find a complementary dialogue between art as a creative process and war as destructive process that are both completely linked and occur one after the other, only then can you really map the entire history of humanity on the fundamental process of death, creation, destruction, repair. And this for me is very interesting as a key to understanding the agency of mankind.
Most of the time I do think that creating art, any kind of art, from music to poetry, is a deep instance of repair. Heidegger used to say that if mankind had been immortal, art would probably not exist. According to him art aims at existing beyond the finitude, either for the group or the individual. Art might be animated by an instinct of staying alive in the universe.
IR: I think I’m following what you’re saying, but I find it very difficult to accept. This is, to me, mystical. I find mysticism difficult to accept. I want to finish with this … I understand what you’re saying about repair and I find it interesting analytically as it sets up a dynamic of actions or offences that are destructive and that then need to produce the mechanism of their own repair, which provides an interesting understanding of modernity and progress. But I’m not interested in the mystical part of it, which has to do with the fact that nature is imbued with its own mortality and its own destruction. However, how does one do this work as an artist, as opposed to an anthropologist or an activist? What kind of agency does this perception give one as an artist? And maybe this would be something that we could finish our conversation with … And anyway, I think this conversation will go on for years to come, so we don’t have to discuss everything that interests us today!
KA: I think there is something interesting when you said something about capitalism and this eternal now, or present. Let’s put aside the mysticism you aren’t into … I mean, I don’t think it’s mysticism …
IR: You’re allowed mysticism; it just doesn’t sit well with me, that’s all.
KA: You think it’s mysticism to talk about Wallace and Darwin, or …?
IR: No, I think it’s mysticism to produce a general theory of the importance of mortality for the notion of development.
KA: But this is Darwinism.
IR: Alfred Russel Wallace and Darwin are really very specific. You know, everything is linked to a particular life form, a particular kind of fieldwork, a set of observations – this bird, this lizard, and so on.
KA: But you know, sorry to interrupt you, Wallace was a mystic. He was a very powerful mystic and was convinced that there was some sort of parallel force that explained non-logical facts, such as why human brains have always been disproportionate … And by doing so, he also uncovered what rationalism opacified by creating mechanisms in our ways of thinking that are not self-critical but are dogmatic frames.
IR: I disagree that there should be mysticism. I don’t think like that, that’s all.
Right now, tell me about how the understanding of a whole set of historical and contemporary cycles as the mechanism of repair – which I think I now understand – how does this give you agency as an artist. This is what I want to finish with.
KA: I understand, but I am not sure about the epistemological relation between ‘artist and agency’. Art is unpredictable … and agency sounds like the contrary … two dissonances … but I agree with you, let’s go back to ‘the large perception of historical mechanism working as repairs’ and how it affects my own intellectual project and sensitive praxis …
When I was saying, for instance, that this object, an old crafted wooden door, completely hand-carved, is a form of repair, it’s the process of transforming a piece of wood, which comes from nature, into a carving of a beautiful conception of the universe. We call this culture. I’ve always been fascinated by the concrete productions of the hand – the object. I think I have to say that the extreme digitalisation of everything doesn’t scare me but frustrates me a lot. When I arrived here, I touched the door and I found it beautiful because of its physical presence not because of its image. I think, as an artist, as a sculptor – if you want me to go back to very concrete, less mystical things – I’m fascinated by forms when they carry physically their own history, with a kind of charge, their own energy … You can call it mysticism as well, but it would be denying the fact that chemically and physically matter keeps the trace of time. If you ask cellists why a Stradivarius sounds so amazing, they will answer that their own instrument isn’t a Stradivarius. But if they stop training for a month, theirs will sound different. Between musical instruments moved by vibrations, a religious representation made out of wood, and any other object which was cared for by an individual or a group, there is a common denominator that echoes the experience of time … I’m very curious to reuse, explore and tackle the notions of physicality and visuality in art.
IR: Well, you see, I think that I actually see it very differently. I think that the agency – I don’t know your practice very well, I know a little bit – but I think the agency comes from the incredible inconsistency between practices that you unfold when you present your work. This is where, for me, the agency comes. There is the collection of images you have assembled, there’s the reading of a million different kinds of texts, there is the translation of certain kinds of ideas into almost traditional objects that operate almost like traditional art, and all of this is going on simultaneously. For me, the agency comes from the inconsistency, from a kind of sense that we’re facing the world, and we have to use whatever we have in order to fire at it, and that if we retreat and work only in one idiom which has only one small audience and only one set of interlocutors and only one tradition, then we have no agency. And this really goes back to the very first question I asked you yesterday: What is the power of generalisation? I think that’s the power of generalisation.
KA: It’s incredible, because I was thinking about that when you were describing that inconsistency. I immediately thought that’s what I find interesting in generalisation. At the same time, I think it’s very easy to generalise conceptually with lectures or through dialogue like we are doing here, but it is another thing when you’re an artist in front of the complex notion of the artwork. Because you’re facing a Hydra snake that needs taming to perhaps reach a chaotic order …
IR: Yes, but you also say that your practice is not just making art – it’s having conversations, it’s teaching, it’s making archives, it’s all of these things.
KA: Between practice and theory there is a narrow space which both separates and binds those very different positions. So, when ‘the agency comes from the inconsistency’, as you said, it reminds me of the radical artistic positions of the avant-garde … Dada, then Surrealism, Tristan Tzara, Victor Brauner, Hannah Höch … the list of artists, writers, poets who dealt with inconsistency is long … but not activists, or philosophers, or theorists … How does one produce a rational statement through inconsistency?
So, to get back to your question, I find the notion of inconsistency to be exactly what I believe and defend, even as a new or different methodology of thinking and working. And indeed, intellectuals and scholars should sometimes mimic artists and art practices to be innovative, or at least as an alternative breath outside of the academic framework.
IR: I think it’s parallel to non-knowledge.
KA: I absolutely agree.
IR: I think this is a very good moment to stop. Thank you very much for joining me for this conversation.
Invité au Centre Georges Pompidou par l’ADIAF à l’occasion du Prix Marcel Duchamp 2016 dont il est le lauréat, Kader Attia nous entraine dans un espace pensé comme une exposition personnelle. Sa proposition nous fait suivre le cheminement d’une réflexion qui, à travers la thématique de la réparation du corps, ouvre notre réflexion sur les questions de la mémoire, des origines, de l’héritage, du langage, de la culture, dans de dimensions « éthiques et politiques » et nous engage à agir dans l’actualité. Nous faisant emprunter une suite de couloirs en spirale, Kader Attia nous convie à entrer dans un territoire dépouillé, de parole comme avec le film Réparer la Mémoire ou de silence avec Entropie, jusqu’à un espace central où le visiteur entre dans l’installation L’Empreinte de l’Autre. Une oeuvre qui interpelle ce qui est enfoui au plus profond de l’inconscient collectif.
Cherchez-vous à provoquer une rencontre avec l’installation L’Empreinte de l’Autre ?
Absolument. Beaucoup de gens sont fascinés par cette installation et me demandent quelle en est la signification. Cette incompréhension m’intéresse parce que dans l’art, ce qui nous marque très longtemps, est ce que nous ne comprenons pas. Beaucoup
de visiteurs, même des adolescents, voient dans les pièces de L’Empreinte de l’Autre des masques africains.
Quelle peut être l’origine de cette identification ?
Cette œuvre explore notre psyché d’enfants du modernisme et du postmodernisme, des esthétiques qui n’appartenaient pas au monde occidental mais qui ont été apportées en Occident par la colonisation. Aujourd’hui, si nous sommes capables de dire qu’il s’agit de masques africains, c’est parce que nous avons été surimpressionnés par ces esthétiques brutalistes venues d’ailleurs, par l’empreinte de l’autre. Si nous étions face à cette œuvre au XVe siècle ou au XVIIIe siècle, nous ne la verrions pas de la même manière et elle nous serait incompréhensible.
Pensez-vous que les occidentaux assument cet héritage de la colonisation ?
L’installation nous place devant une vérité qui est en nous mais que le déni fait que nous ne voyons pas. Depuis trois ou quatre décennies, il persiste une tendance que j’appelle l’amnésie des sociétés consuméristes. Elles ne vivent que dans l’instant et considèrent que tout est une sorte d’état des choses qui existent comme cela. On oublie très vite que les arts premiers ont influencé considérablement les arts modernes et en particulier le cubisme, et nous faisons comme si cela n’était pas important.
À partir de quels objets l’installation est-elle composée ?
Mes œuvres sont des ready-made. Je n’ai opéré aucune modification à ces emballages de micro-ondes, de disques durs ou de radios que j’ai collectés pendant près de trois ans dans les poubelles de Berlin où je réside. Il ne faut pas oublier ce que dit Marcel Duchamp quand il dit que c’est le regardeur qui fait l’œuvre.
Son emplacement au coeur des 100m2 de l’exposition est-il « stratégique » ?
Je crée des situations spatiales, sonores et visuelles pour impliquer le spectateur qui a mon avis est le troisième chaînon de l’histoire. Je travaille beaucoup sur les questions de contraste entre les dimensions des espaces, des couloirs, des espaces silencieux, des espaces de parole. Le spectateur est confronté à l’œuvre dans un contexte, comme le dit Duchamp. C’est comme exactement vous et moi maintenant. Nous ne sommes pas deux, il y a vous, moi et le contexte. Et ce troisième secteur est fondamental. Si nous nous rencontrions dans un bar, nous n’aurions pas la même conversation même si nous parlions de la même exposition.
Un autre exemple de cette mise en situation est le miroir présent dans l’exposition qui renvoie à ce propos sur le manque…
Cet élément en forme de lame avec ce trou au milieu est en fait une prothèse. L’un des acteurs du film y insère le moignon de sa jambe. Sa jambe gauche se reflète alors dans la prothèse qui est elle-même aussi une lame. On a là une sorte de mise en abîme de la réparation.
À travers certains gestes de reconstruction, de réparation, ne cherchez-vous pas à recréer une forme d’unité ?
L’idée d’unité est très présente dans mon travail. J’ai beaucoup été influencé par la lecture du structuralisme et de Lévi-Strauss. L’installation porte une réflexion qui est d’ailleurs pour moi la poursuite d’une des conférences de l’anthropologue dans laquelle il explique à des étudiants américains en leur montrant un masque de Colombie-Britannique qu’un jour il leur montrera un masque ou un objet d’une autre culture qui n’a jamais rencontré celle-ci et qui pourtant sera similaire. Et cinq ans plus tard, il leur présente un masque du Congo quasiment identique. J’aime beaucoup cette phrase qui dit que c’est parce que nous sommes tous différents que nous sommes tous semblables. Je pense qu’il y a effectivement dans cette question d’unité quelque chose que je poursuis.
L’unité et la continuité passent-elles pour vous par une réflexion sur la mémoire ?
La mémoire, ce n’est pas commémorer un événement une fois par an. Il faut l’entretenir dans le débat et l’assumer. Je montre dans le film „Réparer la mémoire“ que c’est l’accepter, accepter ses blessures. C’est un travail qui se fait dans le cas de traumatisme aussi bien pour les victimes que les descendants des bourreaux. Je crois que la notion de continuité est fondamentale. J’aime beaucoup le texte de Bruno Latour „Nous n’avons jamais été modernes“ où il explique la continuité entre la tradition et la modernité. C’est incroyable comment nos sociétés postmodernes sont brainwash, amnésiques. Au point que parfois je me demande comment une ville comme Paris n’implose pas. Je crois qu’en fait cette production d’une amnésie est une des raisons pour laquelle elle résiste. L’oubli, beaucoup de neurologues psychiatres pourraient vous en parler, est une des capacités du cerveau permettant à l’être de survivre.
Quelle est la place du langage dans votre travail ? Est-il important comme Boris Cyrulnik l’affirme dans le film que les choses doivent être dites ?
Le film Réfléchir la mémoire m’a aidé à comprendre à quel point le langage était sans doute le miroir par excellence dans la culture humaine. Nietzsche dit à propos du langage qu’il met un nom sur la chose, qu’il donne un nom à la chose. Le langage que l’on utilise est le résultat d’un long processus de création ou d’évolution de mots qui en appelle d’autres et qui en appelle d’autres. Quand vous parlez vous vous référez à quelque chose qui se réfère à quelque chose qui se réfère à quelque chose, etc. En fait, le langage est un processus mimétique par excellence. Quand René Girard écrit dans La Rivalité mimétique les rapports entre les êtres humains dans les sociétés primitives, il décrit les débuts de la civilisation.
Published in: Point contemporain, 30.01.2017
Kader Attia: This conversation could begin on an American road between Los Angeles and San Antonio. You know, the endless roads scattered with old cheap motels, like the ghosts of the modern dream designed in 1950s aesthetics and acting as a link to a so-called era of great progress. Back when the west was a symbol of conquest, and capitalism was an ideal. . .
I thought about you when I was in San Antonio. I visited several seventeenth-century Spanish Christian missions, or rather what was left of them. Most of these beautiful architectures can easily be compared to any Mediterranean Christian architecture. If you remember that Spain had been colonized by Muslims for five centuries, you can see and understand better how Spanish colonial style took root in America thanks to characteristic Arabian-Muslim vernacular architecture. This brings up my first question to you, instigator of the amazing project In the Desert of Modernity: Colonial Planning and After (2008–2009): Is colonialism responsible for the evolution of architecture through and toward a modern agenda?
Marion von Osten: Historically speaking, the purpose of any colonial plan was to create new settlements and to bring new housing solutions for a distinct non-indigenous population arriving from some other part of the world. When I say “distinct,” I mean separated. These constructions were created for colonists—colonial settlers—and separated them from other, already existing habitations and social communities. The colonial settle ment is thus a biopolitical entity, a satellite community in a partially unfamiliar area and one that does not want to mingle. But as it has been proved, this will to segregate itself from the local environment always fails. In relation to your comment about Spanish missions, I just visited the historical Franciscan missions in California, where I learned that the church and cloister in Santa Barbara, for example, were built by local Comanche tribes.
This is important, for the Franciscan monks would not have survived without the Comanche, as the latter fed them when they arrived in the eighteenth century. Also, the First Nations handled the construction of the cloister, church, and houses while teaching the monks how to craft textiles and pottery. After the mission was established, the natives were given free food and Christian education as a reward for their labor. Here it becomes interesting because, even though their survival was completely dependent on the Comanche’s local knowledge and food, the monks assumed native people to be naive people who needed education and to be taken care of. This is what makes any colonial civilizing mission so paradoxical, as it depends on local people’s knowledge, yet it does not acknowledge them as de jure subjects. This is also expressed in architecture. You can find some transcultural translations in these specific places. The church design is based on drawings from Vitruvius’s famous architecture book from ancient Rome. However, the monks only followed Vitruvius’s model of a Roman temple because they had no other example. Plus, in this strange church-temple you can find small transpositions of Comanche ornaments on the ceiling and Mexican figurative elements beside paintings with belated baroque aesthetics. This eclecticism or conscious or unconscious translation—praised as California’s multicultural heritage—conceals that Christian and Roman aesthetic traditions remained hegemonic, while other transcultural elements remained marginal. This hierarchy in the use of aesthetics is mostly expressed in the settlement designed by monks for First Nations converts. The Comanche housing facility next to the cloister showed very modern lines; it was designed like a camp built in a grid-like structure. This small-scale housing grid, specifically created for the natives, echoes philosopher Jacques Rancière’s words about distributing the sensible1 and, therefore, about domination.
Even when we need to constantly highlight transfers and exchanges created through specific cross-continental encounters like between the Comanche and Franciscans, as they later became a particular Christian group following early communist ideals, architecture still reveals this hierarchy and dominance that denied the Comanche’s rights to be represented as gifted fishers, sailors, and farmers or as spiritual collaborators, political allies, or even fighters. When the economic and military interests of Spain, Russia, the Mexican Empire, and, later, the United States caused never-ending conflicts on this territory, the first to suffer abuses and die were the Comanche.
And there, again, what is striking is the specific rationality in the Comanche settlement from the Santa Barbara mission, for it consequently used this same grid pattern. The grid, as a planning principle, is to be found in the organization of most colonial processes. It already existed during the Roman Empire, so in the end, Spain was not the first one to use it. This grid structure is an artificial and rational pattern free from any context and can be expanded any time. It is about expansion, identifying and conquering new territories in any part of the world. It is about housing a great number of people, about future population growth, since the grid can easily spread into any direction. It is also the same pattern as the famous Philadelphia grid developed during the eighteenth century, and yet when you come to studying colonial cities, you realize it had already been adopted for years in each and every one of them. A village or town based on this structure is the very basis for creating any new artificial site or, just like in Caracas, for example, a colonial town similar to many other places you might add to your own research. New town planning and the grid structure that are nowadays perceived as high modernist aesthetic items were brought into building practices and modern discourse through colonial expansion.
KA: Your answer reminds me of how Spanish Emperor Carlos Quinto ordered Mexico’s city planning, following a parallel and perpendicular street pattern. And do you know why? To have control over the population. When Tenochtitlan was taken over by the Spanish they decided to slowly develop their new city on top of the former Aztec capital. These days, some architecture from these colonial settlement projects, such as the Catedral del Zócalo, are slowly falling down because of the old Aztec temples underneath. These “conscious and unconscious forms of cultural translations” seem to be another kind of “repairing,” because they act as endless cultural translations from one cultural space/time to another. To come back to this colonial settlement planning and to why it reminds me of the first urban plans in Mexico during the early sixteenth century that aimed at controlling people, do you sometimes think that architecture consists of filling a given space, while actually it is the contrary, thus making urban plans more important than the buildings themselves in the end? Do you think that projects led by you and me, among others, like the architect and urban planner Michel Écochard in Casablanca, aim at controlling people through some vertical panopticon or, on the contrary, providing intimate spaces for the inhabitants? And eventually, what drew them to totally close their own balconies?
MvO: Yes, I think you are right, colonial settlement is mainly about organization and urban landscaping, but not so much about establishing an individual house for one particular settler. Biopolitical implications are quite obvious when we think of them as closed entities. What most people ignore, as your question pointed out, is that this vision of colonial planning has considerably influenced modern building concepts like, for instance, city planner Ebenezer Howard’s famous garden city. A book entitled A View of the Art of Colonization: In Letters Between a Statesman and a Colonist (1849), edited and co-written by Edward Gibbon Wakefield, which also served as propaganda to convince the British government to build a settlers’ colony in New Zealand, mainly influenced Howard’s concept. But the latter’s goal with the garden city that actually started his career in the US before being published in the United Kingdom went even further than its colonial blueprint. The idea was to sustain, through a satellite city concept, “a healthy, natural, and economic combination of town and country life”2 thanks to balanced working and relaxing times. This concept aimed at getting away from the contentious relations between industrialization and countryside. Just like in future replicas of the garden city—such as the satellite city or the cité nouvelle—life, production, and education were strongly connected. Moreover, spatial organization of confined islands, segregated from the heart of the city and from other social groups, must have been based around new ideas about labor conditions and accumulating wealth as well. In Howard’s original vision of a confined settlement, discipline and control were obviously part of the strategy. It is also strongly related to hygienic and epidemic argumentations. Only later was consumption added to the garden-city movement, following new town-planning systems created in the twentieth century. From then on, the new town emerged not as a sign of total enclosure, but as a place that was organized from A to Z. The principle of neighborhood units also appeared there and then developed in the US with urban planner Clarence Stein.
When living in Casablanca under French protectorate, Marshal of France and colonial administrator Louis Hubert Gonzalves Lyautey followed ideas close to Northern American industrial development plans and Howard’s garden city concept in his vision of the European colonial town, Casablanca. This concept, first introduced in European cities, was later used as a strategy to shut the local community out of the center when building what they called the Habous neighborhood or the new medina. Later on in the 1940s, Verlieer, a French town planner and socialist, appropriated the garden-city model again in his new planning of the huge Aïn Chock settlement, a fantasy of a Moroccan village using the grid plan; local workers then lived far away from the heart of Casablanca. A few years later, Écochard established a housing grid for his constructions —applying the “Housing for the Greatest Number” principle— because of the increasing number of colonial factories or even service workers. This housing grid, as the main instrument for new urban neighborhoods, was also meant to replace the numerous slums from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s that were mostly inhabited by rural migrants. In fact, the large-scale housing programs were the French protectorate’s attempts to build modern settlements for the colonized just when anticolonial uprising emerged as Morocco obtained independence in 1956. In those times of resistance, the French urban planning services strategies varied from reordering the slums (restructuration) to temporary re-housing (relogement) while also creating new housing estates with controlled rents (habitations à loyer modéré), all according to Écochard’s grid. His master plan applied notions of “culturally specific” housing, making—according to his vision—local construction practices the starting point for developing a variety of housing typologies adapted to each category of inhabitants. These categories were still confined to already existing definitions of cultural and racial differences. However, it was only under colonial rules that categorization reinforced and was turned into a means of exercising governmental power. Écochard’s plan divided the city into different residential zones for European, Moroccan, and Jewish residents, as well as industrial and trading areas. Only “Muslim” housing estates were built far from the “European” colonial city by creating a so-called zone sanitaire (sanitary zone), the boundaries of which were actually the newly built motorway. This spatial separation was also inherited from the colonial apartheid regime during which Moroccans were forbidden from entering the protectorate city unless employed as domestic servants in European households, and, likewise, that constituted a strategic measure, facilitating military operations against any possible resistance.
KA: Do you remember, Marion, how we first met many years ago? I think it was for a video work called Normal City (2003) (depicting social building facades from my teenage years in Paris’s suburbs). Could you find a link between European western or eastern social architecture aesthetics and what has been functionally experimented as a modern housing ideal for the native people and “adapted” in former colonial areas (during pre-independence times)? Again, I am thinking about Écochard in Morocco or architect Fernand Pouillon in Algeria, who apparently tried to adapt their designs to local indoor and outdoor living traditions. I always have the feeling that it is only possible to live in (not to say survive) such a neighborhood, just like in millions of other social housing blocks built for immigrants in the west, because the inhabitants re-created a social structure identical to those of the villages most of them came from. Everyone knows each other and says hello, and if something wrong is about to happen, someone can see it from their window and, for instance, advise you to remove the bag you forgot in your car or park it in another place so that you can keep an eye on it. So, again, here is my question: How do you deal with this dialectic between social housing aesthetics and ethics, this complementarity of minimal functionality and aesthetics? Does it make sense to you? Does this aesthetics fit its own time, which was considered “nice” or stark on the contrary?
And last but not least, could this aesthetics have been part of the control project that happened through standardization of the subjects (the inhabitants) as the objects of the modern social order. . . ?
MvO: I think you are right in both cases, since the modernist project was and is about ambivalences, on the one hand, to grant people with a better life but, on the other, to control and educate them. The Écochard grid was dimensioned according to a typology of houses with courtyards believed to be appropriate for future inhabitants who will live in slums. His so-called culturally specific “Housing Grid for Muslims” measured eight meters by eight and consisted of two rooms and a wide outdoor space related to Arabic patios. Part of the ensuing 64 m2 was organized as a so-called neighborhood unit resulting in an intricate, ground-level structure of patio houses, alleys, and public squares. A single house in this grid consisted of two or three rooms and a patio by way of entrance. Using a variety of combinations, it was designed to be flexible enough to eventually adapt to creations seen in other housing types (individual or collective), states the architectural historian Catherine Blain. The patio house in Écochard’s vision allowed “growth” through usage. As psychologist Monique Eleb stated during the conference “The Colonial Modern” at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin—which you attended in 2008—the patio reference was not a copy of a traditional courtyard house but a European (mis)interpretation. On the other hand, the patio house structure developed in French colonies should be understood as a modernist synthesis, a Eurocentric translation that also carried pedagogical intentions to teach people modern industrial production and consumerism.
Though housing programs in French colonies from the 1950s/ 1960s did take certain specific local, regional, or cultural conditions into account when they were conceived, with decolonization these conditions turned out to be much more complex than originally thought. The single-floor, mass-built modernist patio houses, intended to facilitate control over Moroccan workers, are now so altered that one can no longer distinguish their original base structures. The builders simply used the base of the original design and foundations to construct three- or four-floor apartments. The many ways of appropriating space and architecture by people can also lead to assume that neither colonialism nor postcolonial governments ever managed to establish complete control over the populations.
KA: I agree, and it sounds very interesting, as an investigation process, to reveal how and why reappropriation emerges. As far as I am concerned, it took me years of thinking to be able to observe early “signs of reappropriation,” from architecture to any items, even human behaviors. Rancière offered an interesting analysis in The Emancipated Spectator,3 which is a reference to another article called “Le Tocsin des travailleurs” (The Tocsin of Workers), published in the nineteenth century in an old French union newspaper. . . To sum it up, the article describes a worker cleaning the wooden floor in a bourgeois house, removing the old surface with a large blade (tough job). After long hours of efforts, he decides to stand up and then looks out the window. He slowly ends up appreciating the view, as well as the perspective leading to the horizon of French “classic” gardens. The pleasure he takes there makes him dream of how he would set up all the furniture in this room, just like he would at home, following his own tastes to decide the kind of furniture he would buy, as well as where and why he would put a given item in a given place, etc.
Rancière explains how, from bending on the floor and working hard to standing up in order to stretch a bit and look out the window, the worker switches from one state to another: from “the manual state” to the “visual state.” At this very moment, he stops being only hands executing orders so as to “reappropriate” his own self by watching and coming up with his own conclusions. From the hands to the eyes, his individuality reappropriates its freedom by reappropriating the perspective his social position has shut him out of and from which his eyes had been taken off. Founder of mutualist philosophy Pierre- Joseph Proudhon was the first to highlight “reappropriation.” Remember his “property is theft”?4 It also meant social struggle is a reappropriation of what has been dispossessed by the bourgeois and bureaucratic system. . .
Another personality you made me discover in one of your essays, “Architecture Without Architects—Another Anarchist Approach,” published in e-flux journal, issue no. 6, in 2009, is the British anarchist and architect Mark Crinson (perhaps you did it on purpose). The questions such an interesting political figure and personality raises within the understanding of contemporary social architecture are in the continuity of Proudhon’s thought.
I would definitely compare him to Paul Robeson, a multitalented personality. This African-American former athlete, who was physically impressive due to his height and voice, was an actor, a singer, and an active communist. In a movie, I saw him sing the Chinese national anthem on a stage right in the middle of the street! The notion of cliché might not exist in human nature; it is probably a product of the modern mind as a consequence of rationalism based on two obsessions: measuring the world with classification (through categories) of things and the fantasy of progress as a pure sign of evolution.
Philosopher and literary critic Edward Said has beautifully summarized the relationship between anarchism and architecture through the western cliché of Orient with his recognition that the Orient has been Orientalized by Occident. It sounds like a legacy of the western desire to control otherness, first culturally, then politically.
The way windows and balconies were arranged in so many social housing buildings designed by European minds in non-western, colonized contexts from Asia to North Africa (in Casablanca, for instance) raises two questions. If these transformations of balconies into kitchens or closed, inward facing rooms are “reappropriations,” then what about freedom? In the cité verticale, why have all the large and comfortable balconies, which aimed at opening each apartment to the outside so as to take advantage of both public and private spaces at the same time just like a private courtyard, been covered and closed by the inhabitants? Was it for self-protection, for moral issues (which are linked to Islam and privacy) in response to a design generated by another culture from another time, the culture of colonial domination imposing its utopian vision on another culture?
Could we say that adding confinement to these constructions is a “reappropriation”? When in Arabian Berber Muslim culture, domestic privacy cuts women off from outside eyes so there is no way to see their faces and bodies in their private apartment, could we say that the modern European architecture gender issue failed here? Or as Said investigates in his essay Orientalism,5 is it a purely western fantasy to think it is easy to reach Muslim Arabian women? I am sure you have seen examples of these thousands of old colonial postcards representing such “western fantasies,” like half-naked women in their apartments. . .
MvO: I vaguely remember an article about veiling in North Africa, stating the first forms of veiling noticed by natives were English ladies covering themselves from the sun and sand. And the author then highlighted the invention of sunglasses with which you can look around even though no one can know what you are looking at, since your eyes cannot be seen. So, I have no answer to your last questions, but perhaps some more comments on your first one that might lead to a whole set of future investigations on what we like to call production and what is called appropriation.
There is a concern about the use of the word appropriation and its concept: in it sleeps the very notion of property, as you pointed out when you quoted Rancière. The concept of appropriation thus suggests that something used to belong to some
thing/somebody and was later developed by somebody or/and used in another geographical context or fashion. This concept suggests no original articulation in itself. Notions such as copy, imitation, and appropriation deny any immediate emergence, yet in the meantime, this emergence is claimed by western modernists, like the architects we were talking about. In the last decades of cultural anthropology and postcolonial thinking, appropriation was used to mark tactics and strategies in a de Certeauian sense, I believe, to show that programs and concepts from above can be altered and subverted from below. But somehow it also suggests that there would be no “first” voicing, but always a belated reaction, only existing because there already was a first voicing by somebody else. The problem I have started to have with this concept is that it is mainly used for describing social class relations or in non-European articulations. When you talk about reappropriation, it aims at making this all a bit more complicated, since it is not clear who a concept and idea originally belonged to. And, as I discuss it in my own research, this is also true about modernism, as it can only be understood as a constant translation or synthesis of vernacular practices into a more rationalizing and universalizing concept that was later called modern. Still, it was a concept that appropriated the Arabian kasbah, the Indian bungalow, the courtyard house, arts and crafting from the colonies, etc. According to this, it escaped the classical and renaissance past, but in the same way the classical era claimed to have higher taste and value, to be more civilized and universal in the end. What I try to highlight is that it is a product of worldly relations and many forms of transculturation mainly triggered by colonialism. But when we think about the uses and adaptations the inhabitants made that can be so easily spotted in Casablanca, it becomes incredible. Actually, the modifications are not mere changes or adaptations; some houses have been completely overworked. Then it brings us back to different issues about biopolitics and government matters specific to each society.
One could say people who lived in Écochard’s grid in Casablanca adapted a non-functional house and rebuilt it. Écochard surely thought his system was functional and so people would get used to it. But what actually happened is that they built a new house upon an old structure that did not offer many possibilities because it was too small, as it aimed at creating nuclear family households. Therefore, one could agree on the fact that inhabitants have altered, adapted, and appropriated existing structures to their needs, thus subverting European programs. But when you sort of ignore the original structure, is this still appropriation, is this not production? Nowadays, scholars tend to link appropriation to the concept of freedom. Yet, it can only be done in such a case as the one I am talking about—this is what I am criticizing here: European ground structure is considered the ultimate model from which all other activities have emerged. If you do not follow this Eurocentric idea, you need to accept that the inhabitants have built new structures on top, if that was possible. Until now, this local “growing house” building practice or culture has been associated with the already existing construction methods in the northern African medina. Many studies have ended there so far. But when you read documents that show more concern about the history of the medina as a transcultural encounter site than about French colonial cultural politics aiming at Orientalizing and museumizing the medina as a site of pre-modern forms of production, it gets even more complicated to distinguish whose building practices and cultures we are talking about. And this is what lies at the heart of the problem: that architecture was and is still read as the expression of one cultural identity and not of a different way of living, trading, and articulating that had been exchanging with other cultures long before the beginning of colonial modern projects and in which the northern hemisphere was not always the ruling, colonizing power since other local imperial forces had their own ways of governing people and handled war, trade, and exchanges in their own fashions. These transcultural traces are seldom found in current discourses, as they are mainly based on binaries of the modern and pre-modern, on political identity, and do not focus on transfers, translations, and exchanges.
KA: Philosopher Achille Mbembe has spoken of boundaries referring to the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885.6 Before that, the nature of boundaries was different. There were areas between ethnic groups that were meant to both separate and bind them. In fact, these were places for traditional trade, war, language exchanges, etc. . . They were exchange areas of a different kind. They would revitalize both cultures. . .
I would like to come back to the complex reappropriation concept and whether any situation or item that embodies it is born from nothing or, on the contrary, is linked to some already existing thing or not.
Let’s take the example of Écochard’s cité verticale and the balconies that have been “re”-covered by all inhabitants.
Indeed, the use of “re” (for reappropriation or repair) as an intellectual western speculation and deduction occurs through the prism of western modern intellectual values and references. From philosopher Immanuel Kant’s critique of philosopher David Hume’s analysis we know that the way we read the world is based on the relationship between cause and effect: “causality” . . . It is true we are unable to think things from within themselves. If you watch a house or a flower, you can be sure that neither of them will be able to think of what it is…And so there is no human mind able to think this house or this flower by and within themselves. It always has to think them through the “relation” that exists between this thing and the mind. The relation between themselves consists of both the experience of the object and all the references linked to this relation. This relation is called “correlation”. . .
So when we have a close look at a house and a building that have been “rebuilt” by the inhabitants, then we are just part of this “correlation”. . . Thus, if social architectures that developed through a modern political agenda in North Africa tried to provide the natives with a western vision of modern housing but have been quickly “re”-adapted by them, then it is just an endless process of human knowledge based on “correlation”. . . Indeed, you can do a very simple analogy to link such a behavior by native people to modern western “new” architecture: This is how traditional homes and cities (medina) were built. . . There is not a single house isolated from another in a medina. Each one is built against another so as to provide both a strong, load-bearing wall to the new house and a connection to another area from the terrace. . . Even when the first one is in construction, the second one is being built at the same time. . . In vernacular urbanism, the notion of “city” is the accumulation of houses built “one against another,” which I have been able to observe in North and South Sahara. . . What architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, also known as Le Corbusier, found fascinating in a city like Ghardaïa (Algeria), for instance, is the fact that every street of this medina puts town facilities (market, madrassa, mosque, grocery store. . . ) within walking distance. When he created his first cité radieuse in Marseilles, he claimed it to be a “vertical Ghardaïa,” and each corridor in this modern social housing was called a “street,” as they linked all flats to social facilities you can find in the building, such as a swimming pool, a kindergarten, a school, a church, etc. In fact, he even used to say this is a vertical “Beni Isguen” (Berber name for Ghardaïa). Just as people from North Africa constantly adapted to their natural environment for centuries, they did adapt to their new artificial environment. . . And to push the “re”-adaptation process further, I would add Le Corbusier’s “reenactment” on a so-called personal creation, which sounds just like a repair of his modern building project, yet with traditional functionalism.
When you pointed out that the first veil story we heard about was a British woman protecting herself from sand, you also meant that, in the Sahara, men are veiled, too. Therefore, indeed, what you see is never what reality is. Especially from a western insight. . .
I recently came upon an interesting story about a vernacular, iconic architecture made of clay in the Sahara. . . A story I had already heard but that was never established as true. Did you know that Djenné’s mosque in Mali is a fake? Actually, what looks like an authentic twelfth-century mosque is not. . . This beautiful architecture was “re”-built by the French at the beginning of the twentieth century in 1907.
As far as I am concerned, this is extremely interesting, as we always point out that there is “reappropriation because of dispossession.” But what if the reconstruction of a mosque that has been destroyed several times by local people and foreigners is ordered by a colonial power—in this case, by William Merlaud-Ponty, the French governor?
People in Mali do not complain, but in all former colonies, especially French ones, relationships to colonial architecture are highly problematic. In Morocco, associations such as Casamémoire are doing a great job protecting architectural legacy, but in Algeria, protecting construction built under the former colonial administration is considered nonsense, except for religious buildings. As a matter of fact, most churches were saved due to the fact they became mosques. This is another process of reappropriation, just like so many Ottoman mosques were turned into churches during colonization. . . It is an end- less process, and reappropriation is a loop, too.
MvO: Cultural articulations always have these incredibly rich, multiple trajectories, but traces and transfers are likewise valued differently than the people producing culture: the architect earns cultural and symbolic wealth; the carpenter does not.
On colonial grounds, this perception or creation of value starts with the ideological construction of traditional behaviors and acts against modern behaviors. In this binary pattern, there is competition between two value systems. This pattern is mostly due to European scholars. French Orientalists’ analyses and texts about local economies, crafts, and building traditions either state Moroccan local productions were non-original copies of an Arabian style or call Berber crafting authentic indigenous art as long as it had no disturbing contact with Arabian aesthetics. These Eurocentric and anti-Arabian classifications caused great problems for the post-independence generation, and also do not help to understand what a non-capitalist local economy is even nowadays.
Still, crafts production—the way French powers categorized it—was the local Moroccan economy playing a part in trade relations and style exchanges over centuries. In opposition to what French people believed, not only was it more than a mere stable canon reproducing itself and simply influenced by the Ottoman Empire, but like in the medina district, local production was also an expression and meeting point for different aesthetic trajectories and translocal trade relations with Africa and Europe. Moreover, guilds were in charge of controlling the local market, rewards, trades, and production standards in Morocco over centuries, too.
When the French protectorate took over the government, one of the first interventions concerned guilds; that is to say, local economy and local production. New goods were introduced from other markets. Shoes produced in Asia, for instance, partially destroyed local shoe production. That had an impact on European markets because Moroccan leather products were imported to Europe as well; however, trade relations changed with the introduction of Asian products. Therefore, it also modified the classification of local production, trade relations, and local and traditional crafts, since the intervention into Moroccan guilds by French officials caused these manufactured goods to be seen as traditional and belated. On the one hand, the local economy was now considered traditional/ pre-modern, and on the other, the French argued that these forms of “cultural production” would need to be protected and supported by French officials in the future when Morocco would be completely modernized. This double-faced destruction—devaluing and finally protecting local economy—made it possible to declare it a mere extra, a boutique element decorating the real thing that would be consumer goods made from industrialization.
For all of these reasons, the medina district was protected by Lyautey as a kind of living museum about ancient living habits, surrounded by the cité nouvelle built for French colonists. To help Moroccan local trade, Lyautey had an Oriental-modern Habous neighborhood constructed; by the way, it still exists as a central market area isolated from the former European city center. I am talking about this because it is linked to your last comment—the fact we missed this very point in our first project in Berlin at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in 2008, as we did not focus on who actually were the construction workers involved in building the new modern city of Casablanca. We were focusing on governance ideologies and anti-colonial resistance, but not so much on how working relations dramatically changed after French intervention. So how were these workers recruited? Obviously, most of them were Moroccan, while the planners, architects, and technicians were European. I only understood it after reading about it, but the Moroccan workforce was there because of the same intervention in the local economy and because of the catastrophic decrease in handicraft skills that occurred after protectorate intervention in Morocco. So, first you have to destroy local production and value systems, then you have a highly skilled workforce build the new city for Europeans as well as some houses for the Moroccan workforce.
But these free-floating skills were not just used in the name of colonial powers; they also served a lot of other purposes. As you know, the medina house has always been an adapted and growing house. It was always accommodated according to a family’s need, then it could be made bigger when it became too small. This actually was the local building practice, and you can find it in the whole Mediterranean area. Italian villages and smaller cities were built the same way, thanks to adapted construction practices through which buildings can grow. This practice has not been erased by the colonial power; besides many others, this skill survived industrialized means of production and can still be found nowadays. But as a result of colonial rule, local production, being in the margin of industrial chains, has been turned into folklore and transformed into a souvenir culture. But still, this is an economy with its own logic besides other globalized forms of production, and it also makes it possible for people to let houses grow and adapt to the population’s needs.
1 Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004).
2 Ebenezer Howard, Garden Cities of T-morrow, second ed. (Adelaide: ebooks@ Adelaide, 2012), p. 11, online at: https:// ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/howard/ ebenezer/garden_cities_of_tomorrow/ index.html.
3 Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Gregory Elliot (London: Verso, 2009).
4 Originally published in 1840 in French as “La propriété, c’est le vol!“; Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What Is Property?: An Inquiry into he Principle of Right and of Government, trans. Benjamin R. Tucker (New York: Humboldt Publishing Company, 1890).
5 Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).
6 See, for instance, Achille Mbembe, “At the Edge of the World: Boundaries, Territoriality, and Sovereignty in Africa,” Public Culture, vol. 12, no. 1 (Winter 2000), pp. 259–284.
Published in: Kader Attia and Léa Gauthier, eds., RepaiR. Paris: BlackJack Éditions, 2014.
Kitty Scott: The notion of repair is central to your current thinking. Can you tell me where and how this originated?
Kader Attia: I have been working on the concept of repair for many years. There are several origins of my interest, but the central one is linked to the term “re-appropriation.” Over a long period I have observed, in my home village in Algeria as well as in other African cities I have lived in like Brazzaville, how much sociocultural and socioeconomic contexts were grounds for the “re-situation” of things as well as words – that is, of both material and immaterial signs. Sometimes the Western cultural vocabulary called it recycling, but it was much more complex than this.
It started to become more obvious after considering the different points of view on re-appropriation of three thinkers: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Oswald de Andrade and Frantz Fanon. Proudhon invented the term re-appropriation based on the principle that property is theft and gave it a political connotation. This insight will influence a whole range of thought about re-appropriation. A few decades later, the poet Andrade, with his poem / manifesto about cultural anthropophagy, moved the concept toward the cultural field. “Tupi or not Tupi: that is the question” – referring to the native Tupi people of Brazil and, of course, to Shakespeare – is its first sentence. Finally, Fanon situated the word in the colonial context, raising the issue of re-appropriation in relation to the notion of repair and what people had been dispossessed of. Re-appropriation – a concept that arose within European anarchism during the Industrial Revolution and developed within different colonial contexts – governs all relations between modernity and tradition. It sheds light on the parallel relationship between power and modernity and, more precisely, colonization and modernity.
Thus re-appropriation began to take on its larger meaning, which is actually that of repair. As I understand it, the motivation for these struggles – from the social struggles of the Industrial Revolution to the racial and cultural struggles of colonization – came from an instinctive desire of the human mind for repair. From culture to nature, repair, as a concept, became more and more clear in my observations.
KS: Can you trace this concept in animate and inanimate things? I am thinking in particular about objects and images I have seen in dOCUMENTA (13) and more recently in Berlin.
KA: After years of research and observation mainly focused on concrete things such as those belonging to the sacred or the profane – from the holiest to the most everyday of objects – it slowly dawned on me that a similarity exists at the core of reality in the differences they share, but not only these. Indeed, René Descartes states in his book Regulae ad directionem ingenii [Rules for the Direction of the Mind] that the order of things does not only lean on a system based on comparisons or similarities but that, through inference, we can also assimilate differences between things as analogies that bind them together.
When a Congolese fetish is made of, or includes, a Western item and when a Western item made of a bullet or a bombshell from the First World War is transformed into a holy Christian artefact or an everyday object, these things create a new, ambivalent reality that emerges from the one belonging to its original context and that links it to another – the context of its new reading. Each transformed object embodies a bridge that can be seen as both animate and inanimate. Objects created by the mind and the hand within contexts of poor material conditions always embody such a bridge between two spaces – including the one between nature and culture, which is key – as well as between multiple times.
During the First World War, soldiers from different countries, stuck in the middle of hell – often the place where they met an early death – made artefacts. This trench art, the things they made with their hands, was constructed out of deadly objects such as bullets, shells and other remnants of war. From the tools of destruction, they produced art and in doing so they have created another reality. This very reorientation is a repair.
Modernity has embodied a rupture of the bridge that used to link us to nature’s logic. What remains of that is now, to some degree, present within the social sciences. For example, in Germany the terminology used in ethnological museums to name their subjects is Naturvolk, which means “people of nature.” The hegemony of culture as a form of knowledge emerged from such disciplines as the unique power to control otherness, as Michel Foucault demonstrates in his Archaeology of Knowledge. So what if, parallel to everything visible and vibrating, an inanimate order of things is the real canvas or net on which the human being is based?
In any minor human flesh injury, any biological injury, or when any natural element is broken, the body instinctively “auto-repairs” itself as if the injury was insignificant. What the human mind does when it is repairing is just following nature’s logic. It is more obvious when the rupture is really big, but in the end the only thing the mind does is continue a natural specificity, which is an endless repair. So the difficulty of repair is its fatal automatism. Actually here we should not say that the human mind “does,” because it is not just an act consciously thought by the mind. It is a natural process. I call this “the continuum of the repair.” Continuum is what it is all about here. I have developed this notion in work I made for the Whitechapel Gallery entitled Continuum of Repair: The Light of Jacob’s Ladder.
KS: A subtheme in your research is the notion of reconstructive surgery and its relation to the notion of the repair. A more extreme version of this strand of thinking leads us to plastic or cosmetic surgery, which is so prevalent today. Is this area of repair something you have considered in relation to this body of work?
KA: Yes it is, especially through my research on transgendered bodies. They are always between different forms of representation – representation dictated by the social sphere, which channels all relations between people through a visual contact, more than the private one. The illusion of not being “discovered” as a man for a transgendered woman, especially from the modern Western world, is an important stake of living a transgender life.
KS: Where do you find these repaired objects? Can you describe the search process?
KA: For more than a decade, I have observed and researched contemporary objects during my frequent travels to North and Sub-Saharan Africa. Little by little, I collected some contemporary repaired objects. This activity led me to dig deeper into their history and to question the origins of the repairs. Eventually I began to look in museums, where antiquities are stored, whether in Africa or the West. I wanted to make sure that the starting point of my interest in the repair within traditional cultures – say, an nchakokot, or raffia “skirt” made by the Kuba people of the Congo that a friend had given me – wasn’t a rare or isolated phenomenon. It was a fascinating time. Many things I learned at this moment were fundamental to my subsequent research. For example, it is difficult to find repaired objects because the Western institutions where I worked never had a category for repaired objects in their databases. The repair of antiquities from non-Western, traditional cultures used different methods and forms. The most common method would be to use a staple to hold something fragile together, but there are many other methods, including the most unexpected: using a Western material in the repair, through delicate and skilful plaiting, all of which gives a new, decorative supplement to the repaired object.
And last but not least I realized re-appropriation and repair are two concepts that exert a relation of mutual interdependence.
KS: Your discussion here focuses on objects. Can you tell me how you have worked with images? What are you looking for in imagery? Where do you find the images that come into the project and how do you work with them in the context of exhibitions?
KA: I have always been fascinated by images. My first artworks were photographs. I even taught photography for two years when I was younger. And the first time I exhibited here in Berlin, where I live now, I showed a very humanist slide show, entitled La Piste d’atterrissage [The Landing Strip, 1997-99], at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in the early 2000s, in “The State of Things,” organized by Catherine David. Years have gone by and I now also find pleasure in space, sculpture, volume and installation. However, sometimes using images is unavoidable and imperative in the face of the real object’s presence. The difficulty is then to produce an artwork that won’t fade in front of the superiority of the object’s presence, because nothing will ever compete with the strength of an object’s presence in front of the viewer’s eyes. This is even truer when the research theme deals with the object as such.
KS: So why images? What do they bring to the corpus of knowledge displayed in an installation like Repair?
KA: Images articulate reality without substituting for it. They talk about a reality through the proxy of their physical and intellectual characteristics. Yet in the frame of repair as a physical element, the fundamental reason for their interest is their political aspect. Indeed, whether in traditional cultures – in which repair is displayed as a new element and, above all, as the expression of an individual (the repairer) intended for a group (the community, or maybe some other group) that underwrites an individuality – or in modern Western cultures – in which the stake of this act of repair is the disappearance of the wound as well as of the repair itself – in both case the ethical result asserts a desire for the superiority of culture over nature, over, that is, a specificity peculiar to a natural order of things. The wound of a body as well as of an object is the result of a natural weakness, and the act of repairing it is cultural, hence ethical and political. It’s because they are highly political that images are, in that case, of interest to me. First of all, contrary to objects from traditional non-Western cultures, images are a pure technical and semantic product of Western modernity – and so a unidirectional political tool, from the West toward itself. Images, cultural products par excellence, perhaps embody a form of repair of culture over nature peculiar to the West, just as these non-Western repaired objects embody the sign of a re-appropriation and a repair of culture – that is, of knowledge – over nature, in the sense of the natural order of things.
Last but not least, the slide show included in the installation The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures illustrates a critique of the amnesia indirectly – and sometimes directly – enshrined by modernity in regards to the cultures of people who are still close to nature, and particularly of those whose rituals of intentional body transformations embody the cultural continuity of human genealogy itself.
From ethnography to ethnology and then to anthropology, modern sciences have always tried to rationalize the evolution of humankind through measurement and categorization. Yet in my opinion this mathematical, Cartesian logic misses one thing: magic. Images in this artwork, as well as in art in general, embody the link that separates and links us to the magic of things.
The issue of repair is now one major focus in my artistic research. I thought about it watching a mere piece of raffia cloth a friend gave me in Congo, in 1997. The peculiar thing about this traditional loincloth is that it is scattered with small western fabric “patches”, reminding of Vichy fabric. For years, I thought these elements were “just” decorations with unexpected aesthetics, bits of eastern modern material added like some sort of transplant on a traditional African piece of cloth. One day, I turned this ambivalent item around and discovered that behind each patch there was a hole due to excessive use. The patches are actually signs of both an aesthetic and ethical act: it is a repair. From then on I spent my life looking for such signs… It enabled me to discover the complexity of fixing, in traditional extra-western societies and in modern western societies as well. Objects, masks, intentional or unintentional physical injuries, all carry a repairing purpose changing from one culture to another. As a surgeon working in Paris, how do you understand this description of an inanimate, lifeless object; this loincloth mended by Kuba people in Congo with elements from a western culture? You also worked in Africa, if I am not mistaking.
The repair you are talking about is a passive one, it is the same as what we use in reconstructive surgery when we have to make up for a lack of skin with a self-transplant (meaning taken from the patient themselves). The result is quite variable on a cosmetic point of view because the skin always keeps the characteristics of where it came from; even if it sometimes perfectly merges with the surrounding skin, it can also leave an “imported part” impression, which is obviously not the expected result for a patient, who always dreams of an ad integrum restoration. The most elegant repairs often make use of what can be very complex scraps allowing true reconstruction of several tissues at the same time; these can perfectly mimic the original one. The most ancient repairs go back to three thousand years BC, in India, and to the 15th century, in Italy, back when “traditional” punishment consisted of completely amputating one’s nose.
The ultimate stage for this kind of operations was reached a few years ago in France with a complete facial homo transplant (from someone else), under the guise of a very heavy anti-rejection treatment, bringing into light as many technical and ethical issues: as a matter of fact, spending the rest of your life with someone else’s face is not easy at all! However, by checking on the first cases several years later, it appears this integration is absolutely possible. Let us not forget such patients are completely disfigured before the operation and have, therefore, already “lost their original face.”
To some extent, mending a piece of clothing with bits taken from another eventually falls under the same process: you keep one alive thanks to the other and inasmuch as you can sometimes be quite emotionally attached to the former. This reminds me of a Sicilian story I heard from Dominique Hernandez about that very poor woman who owned an apron since her wedding day, and it had been sewn back up so many times that her husband ended up giving her a new one as a gift: as a reaction she did not replace the old apron with the new one but used the latter to cut new bits and complete her patchwork up “to the end” (all in all meaning death)!
I always felt the polysemous characteristic in the repair concept. For from the act to the result, possible interpretations are infinite, as much in who sees the repairing as in who carries it out and who/what is being repaired. Yet, some fixed up cloth has no self-awareness of having been so, just like it is not conscious of being fabric. As for the seer, can they think about the piece of cloth as repaired in itself? Impossible.
What enables the human mind to picture one thing and/or concept, like fabric or wound fixing, is the intellectual and experimental relation existing between the repaired item and its repairer, just like between the repaired item and the seer. This relation called “correlation” by “modern” philosophy is what structures and rules over knowledge. What I find fascinating in this idea is the way the link established between two independent things is what distinguishes them just like it ties them to create knowledge of the thing by inference. Without correlation, knowledge would not exist.
Do you think correlation is a conceptual form of repair specific to intelligence, that it fills the abyss between intelligence and things? Speaking about modern western thought, could we say that, up to our contemporary days, modern western reconstructive surgery would be looking for the ethics of ad integrum restitution as the one and only standard for perfection, because it seems (according to your earlier example) to be the effect the patient wishes?
I humbly admit my intellectual inability to give answer to such a question. Usually, surgeons are pragmatic, not to say down-to-earth people, they are artisans interrogating themselves before, and sometimes even during, the operation. Yet, what distinguishes them from any other craftsman is that they must absolutely “finish the job” once they started! Despite what could be said, even when the patient as a demand for perfection, modesty should make us recognize the fact that the best result also comes from some personal part played by the person undergoing the operation. Ambroise Paré said this astonishingly humble and clear-sighted quote that proves to be a sort of guiding light throughout a practitioner’s career: “I bandaged him, and God healed him.” By the way, on a legal perspective, the final result matters less than what was done to get to it.
I spent a lot of time watching the amazing formal analogies one could find between soldier’s facial reconstructed wounds, such as the “gueules cassées”, or broken faces, during World War one, and African traditional masks. I show particular interest in the early years of the conflict because at the time, physicians like Hippolyte Maurestin, in France, or Dr J. Joseph, in Germany, quickly got overwhelmed by the increasing number of casualties. They had to fix fast and with rudimentary means, because they lacked equipment due to war and certainly to the technology available at the time.
What is striking in those reconstructions is their ethical and especially aesthetic dimension, their expression echoes African masks traditional repairs in which other constraints fashioned almost similar aesthetics…
That aesthetics was limited by the means at hand, and Claude Levi Strauss even called it a “patch-up job.” In Europe, that expressive aspect inherent to reconstructed war injuries, inspired expressionist painters like Otto Dix and Georg Grosz. By seizing it they condemned the horrors of war and gave birth to an important artistic movement: German expressionism…
As I carried on my research, I discovered, especially with Dr J. Joseph from Berlin, that reconstructive surgery developed during World War one. A four year conflict is long, for soldiers and doctors as well. I was baffled by the physicians’ talent, not only by their skill but also their creativity that, sometimes thanks to single patch-up work, could do miracles…
Does your story about nose reparation fall under this kind of odd-jobs? What are the results? Could a patient attempting to hide his outlaw past manage to do it?
As terrible as the injuries were and as imperfect as the repairing was, a broken face led to certain respectability (for it brought to mind bravery, sacrifice and self sacrifice for your country, etc.). But things changed during World War two. After this conflict, priority was given to not showing signs or to hiding injuries the public could not have born to look at. At the same time, surgeons’ status changed as well: amputation champions under Napoleon (only chance of survival for soldiers with wounded limbs), claiming rightful status with the creation of the Red Cross by Henri Dunant who had been horrified by the butchery in Solferino, they benefitted from the shy but meaningful progress in anesthesia and the tottering surgery of bits seen during World War one and later managed to establish real rules in taking care of serious injuries during World War two.
I do not know if repairing amputated noses gave the operated victims a chance to change their social integration. We can assume it did whenever the result was skillful and discreet, but it must have been rare… Seeing the evolution of surgeons’ status throughout history is funny: during Antiquity, they were respected for their knowledge and boldness, then they were despised and put down to the same rank as barbers up until Renaissance (it is true they owned intellectual power in colleges but what they knew was based upon absolutely crazy theories that surely took more sick people to the grave than the disease itself). It would have taken surgeons to finally be able to cure Louis XIV’s anal fistula for them to win back a social position worthy of their talent!
Tracking down how some trades evolved in their social position throughout history is fascinating. Architects too have known various levels of acknowledgement depending on the time they lived in. I remember an interview of Auguste Perret complaining about architects’ status in the 20th century. They are not as praised as they used to be. In Ancient Egypt, Pharaoh would greet them almost like demigods, while nowadays they are just employees for local elected representatives or company managers… Still, apart from this acknowledgement you are mentioning with Louis XIV and his doctor, Félix de Tassy, to me, architecture sometimes seems to be sharing the same reason for being as surgery. You can find some kind of repair work in building. I am not only talking about reconstructing ancient ruins or renovating old modern buildings. I mean, what truly animates the human mind as both the factor and messenger of the evolution of its superiority over other species, through instinctive ethics urging it to compete against the laws of nature: building, enhancing, transforming, recreating, etc.
There are many possible analogies between the human body and architecture. According to philosophers like Michel Foucault, who expressed it in his lecture “Utopian Body”, body and mind are almost dissonant. The mind would be an inhabitant in the body the same way a body inhabits an architecture. Bernard, Kader, your relatives, mine, people outside, all the people you assimilate to their earthly body, are something else in reality. What you can perceive, their shell, only is a puppet controlled by their mind. Every living person is above all a “thinking mind.” Your body is not you, but the shell inhabited by your spirit. This idea can be contradicted, and Michel Foucault himself does it in the second part of his lecture.
Nevertheless, I would like to come back to an example you quoted earlier. This story raised up several questions I would like to ask you…
It was about a transplant on somebody who had been attacked by a dog, causing the said person to be disfigured. The operation consisted of transplanting someone else’s face. You said both body and mind could react negatively to such a graft, hence the necessity of complex medical disease prevention along with serious psychological follow-up care. Is there a double consciousness of the repair by the body and also the mind, or is it just a matter of medical ethics? I particularly recall a Cameroonian friend’s father who had been transplanted with someone else’s organ. He never psychologically accepted having something he could not see but that seriously felt like some alien presence inside of him… Eventually, his body never managed to accept the graft and he died. Are there situations where the mind welcomes the graft while the body does not, or vice versa? Does this particular face transplant, along with what it implies in matters of “acceptation and reject” by body and mind, fall under repairing or is it pure creation? In other words, when you transplant a new face, or new hands, on a body that has lost its original parts, does the surgeon only fix it or does he create some new being?
I would like to reassure you right away: there is no such thing as a “Pygmalion-surgeons”…or if there is, such a physician’s behavior is clearly due to pathological perversion. Literature is full of these kinds of myths, from Faust to Frankenstein, where man thinks he can act like God. In this respect, I cannot resist telling you a joke: “do you know the difference between God and a surgeon? There is not, except that God does not think he is a surgeon.” There is a tendency to fantasize about our power as surgeons. Actually, we have none, we only have duties, and the most important one is to act properly for the sake of whoever gave us their trust. Everything else is but literature… We have been overwhelmed for several years now with so many fantastical visions – that tend to be more or less pathological – and they do not help in improving our image. About this (is it coincidence?), for our next convention, set in Tours in late May, ORLAN will deliver a lecture I would gladly attend, but more out of curiosity than real interest mind you. Her trade is not mine, I leave her with full responsibility for that and do not want to be involved in that kind of approach. Still, I know some fellow physicians cannot resist such an extra, and perhaps they would need a bit of psychoanalytical flashlight, too!
No face transplant falls under creation, or maybe “re-creation”, meaning restoration-reparation. Nevertheless, this does not prevent one to wonder, of course, for our actions sometimes have an unexpected impact on a patient’s behavior. We always hope it will be a positive one, but with experience, you get to learn it can also be deleterious, probably because we did not really get what lied underneath this demand for reparation. Once you are more experimented, such consequences are seldom but one never knows! As far as I am concerned, I also chose this specialty for the psychological support it implies, as well as the impossibility to cheat with the result.
Perhaps the myth of Pygmalion surgeons comes from the fact they walk alongside death, and most of the times, cast it back to where it came from. They sometimes have out of size ego. Artists too have variable ego sizes, in the difference that they do not save lives. Their works create a vanishing point with the horizons of thought and emotion, but it remains mere representation, staging. Mankind’s superiority lies in the ability to bring science and art both in harmony and dichotomy… Everything can be measured and then explained with mathematics. Everything but Art. Not only contemporary art, but truly all artistic initiative without exception, from arts wrongly called primitive to the ones excessively considered as “major.” This is the reason why I am interested in the incursion of artistic process into the field of science. I mean, for example, a sculptor reconstructing and imagining down to the last detail what a broken face torn up part looked like in order for the surgeon to follow that lead and fix that face or order resin prosthesis. I saw such prosthetic items from World War one in Val de Grâce Hospital, in Paris.
What I find interesting here, is not only what you humbly mentioned as the artisanal part of your profession, but also the borderline between art and science, and honestly, between beauty and its opposite. All in all, the issue of beauty.
You work in Paris, but I heard you also go to Africa with an association aiming at fixing children’s smiles (or do you also perform all kinds of surgery on adults and children there?). Could you tell us a little more about this fantastic action you carry alongside your Parisian activities? What does it imply to help people who do not have the means to access facial surgery? I guess you involve your professional experience in both an ethical and aesthetical perspective…
And secondly – this question is a bit more sensitive – what can you say about beauty with the example I am about to give you? For several years now, I have been working on what is called “sickness masks” in Central, West, East and Southern Africa, and Asia (from Tibet to Indonesia), and I would not be surprised to find some in Japan as well. A mask representing a sick person’s face has got a very meaningful place. Some of these objects had a real impact on the evolution of 20th century western thought…
Pende people from Congo, even created the legend, and it might be true in fact, that such items directly influenced Picasso’s “The Young Ladies of Avignon”, the iconic painting of cubism golden age. If extra-western societies show sickness, it is surely in order to exorcise it, but especially to give it a noticeable position in public space: it is like acknowledging illness and giving it a social and material, as well as immaterial, almost divine, value. Sickness masks faces are misshapen, twisted and expressive, not to say expressionist. With off-the-wall aesthetics, they mark what the modern western mind finds asymmetric, anomalous, almost repulsive… They remind me of aesthetics concerns and social issues broken faces had to undergo in their after war life. Jacques Derrida said that human physical beauty is certainly what is truly rare. Perfect face symmetry is seldom, therefore it is beautiful…beautiful and rare, perhaps as much as a totally asymmetric face could be.
According to you, what is beauty in reconstructive surgery, is it primarily born from the surgeon’s personal choices or from societal codification?
Now, this is some delicate inquiry, and it questions the very notion of beauty: is it a gift from nature, a product of personal effort, a cultural footprint? Certainly a bit of all that. On the contrary to what people usually think, you must first approach the idea of beauty with lots of doubts and yet, some certitudes. First, beauty transcends the ages: even when you want to bring into contrast Rubens’ voluptuous Venus and Giacometti’s ascetic ones, you soon realize beauty is immanent, it imposes itself throughout history. Be it Nefertiti’s famous bust exhibited in Berlin, Praxiteles’ reproductions, faithful paintings of Agnès Sorel and so many others…who could possibly have a look at them and think “peuh, not that good…” ? Beauty is fascinating and repulsive, attractive and frightening, it is a grace one must use carefully, or a destructive weapon to whoever gets to be seduced (the devil’s beauty).
Strangely, it is rejected by our Judeo-Christian society…and yet it is worshipped by it. To those who tell me “after all, it is nature that made us the way we are, so we should not try and question God’s work”, I reply “our religion allows us to represent God, his son and his sanctified disciples in a glorified way: oddly enough, I never saw a painting of Jesus with sticking-out-ears, a crooked nose, or as a fat person.” And if you happened to be in such disgrace, would not you ask for “reparation” (also meaning “redressing injustice”)? Of course, as far as I know, there are several levels of appreciation according to civilizations…and needs. However, when you travel around the world, you soon realize beauty sometimes compellingly stands out by itself. Like a sort of masterpiece that is unfortunately temporary, but that you agree to behold without jealousy. I find it hard sometimes, but then I just play the part of the spectator who is simply happy to meet grace and exception!
I will conclude by saying that the purpose of aesthetic surgery is not to “bring beauty” (because what standards should we follow?) but harmony. By the way, such a demand is quite reasonable in France and only very few patients come with tabloid pages to use as model! Plus, those kinds of needs are quite dubious because they can lead to dysmorphophobia, which cannot be solved.
I always believed the apex of human civilization was ante-monotheist. As soon as the notion of a unique God appeared, human beings never stopped dogmatizing relations between people, from the social sphere to the intimate one, to finally control them through morals. Homosexuality, for instance, only was stigmatized and demonized after the advent of monotheisms. Greco-roman civilizations left us obvious proof about that. As a humanist photograph, I found interest in people from all confessions and sexual identities. A few years ago, I directed a movie with a transsexual friend of mine, who had been dreaming for years of going in India or Pakistan to meet with the Hijras. Originally, Hijras are men who enter an Ashram where they live with other men who took the decision never to live as males again, but as Hijras. When you do not know about them, they seem to live as women, but when you happen to spend some time with them, they will tell you “I am neither male nor female, I am hijras.”
Progress in plastic surgery does not only concern face, but body and genital organs transplants as well, it goes way further than breast implants we all know about. What does it mean, to a surgeon, to graft elements that were not on a body, but that people want because they utterly need them for personal reasons? When Dr Joseph, in Germany, or Dr Maurestin, in France, fixed broken faces during the war, I guess their actions embodied some sort of an ethical mission, and also some kind of exhilaration, a technical challenge for them to take up. And especially, they mended something that had been destroyed by a bullet or shrapnel. Sometimes, the purpose of transplantation is for a missing part to be replaced. I really like yours mentioning the artisan’s thorough mind and I have one final question for you.
To you, and on the perspective of repair, what does it mean to take male genital organs off a man who always felt a woman deep down inside, or to add flesh on female genital organs on a woman who is convinced to be a man? Unless I am mistaking, for I am not really knowledgeable on the technical parts of the matter, it appears that on the one hand, the surgeon is taking parts off, and on the other hand, he is adding things. From that on, could we say he is repairing?
From a technical point of view, a man-woman transformation is relatively easy and often so well done that it can even deceive your most intimate relatives, even gynecologists. Meanwhile, the other way around is way much harder, even though complicated and bold tricks may give partial illusion…but hardly…
In France, this sort of surgery follows serious rules and the procedure takes a lot of time. Indeed, you need a surgical-psychiatric-endocrinologist collegial permission for the act to be taken into consideration; this requires years of patience, mostly because of the psychiatric expertise, which actually is the key in such a situation. Once you have this permission, change in identity must be granted by State administration before the operation. The operation proves to be a major part of the process, but when making a man a woman, it is common to perform a reversible act, such as grafting breast implants or reducing Adam’s apple, in order for patients to get used to inhabiting their new personality beyond mere clothing. Also note that if you follow these official rules, the intervention is taken care of by healthcare services.
In margin of this “authentic” process certainly are less official operations with no psychological or psychiatric care. Those can lead to dead ends you have absolutely no control upon, to utter sexual misery and often suicide. So, as far as I am concerned, it seems fundamental to wrap this process up with long and thorough follow-up care during which the surgeon, though he seems to be playing the most essential part, has no right to say anything about the actual decision.
As for saying we mend things, this is what a psychiatrist could say about our trade. At best, surgeons bring balance between patients’ personal convictions and the attributes they are claiming! This enthralling issue inspired so many pieces of literature, and it obviously has nothing to do with what the public usually confuses with transvestitism. Then again, the fantasy box is wide open and the technical surgeon must remain careful…yet open-minded!
Bernard Mole, Plastic Surgeon, in France, is a founding member of the French Society of Plastic and Aesthetic Surgeons (SOFCEP). Former Paris Hospitals’ intern and later head of the Faculty Clinic, he has conducted research and fellowships on several topics such as clinical applications for the human epidermis growing. A precursor practitioner, he’s the main IMCAS Paris Course Coordinator regarding Plastic Surgery teaching materials for several years. As of today, he’s a renowned physician, specialized in plastic and reconstructive surgery. He is the national secretary for France of the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS). He divides his time between his local practice and his humanitarian activities.
Published in the Kader Attia Catalogue : Signes de réappropriation, BlackJack Edtions
Kobena Mercer: Art and architecture have become increasingly closely connected, but in con- trast to artists whose sculpture explores the purely formal properties of space, or architects who have constructed gallery spaces for the exhibition of art, your work has a strong historical or even archeological dimension with regards to our understanding of architecture in colonial or post-colonial contexts. How did your research interests in colonial architecture come about, and how would you characterize the conceptual issues that you set out to explore in works such as Kasbah (2007)?
Octavio Zaya- In a recent statement that you made public during your exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle (USA), you mentioned that you have been questioning political issues through art, and that from the resulting reflections you have taken “a more critical step”, questioning “the limits of these discourses” in the face of everyday life. Could you elaborate on these “critical steps” and on what is it that you understand as the “limits” of these political discourses?
For Momentum 9, French artist Kader Attia uses simple materials—foam-padded cots bearing the imprints of bodies—create a poetic meditation on childhood, absence, and community (see p. TK). Chief Curator Nicholas Baume spoke with Attia recently about his creative approach, the threads that unite his works, and the importance of emptiness.