Interview with T.J. Demos

TJ Demos, Reader of Modern and Contemporary Art at University College London, recently published two powerful books exploring contemporary visual culture. The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis (Duke University Press, 2013) analyzes the relation of contemporary art–including practices from North America, Europe, and the Middle East–to the experience of social dislocation, political crisis, and economic inequality, and Return to the Postcolony: Spectres of Colonialism in Contemporary Art (Sternberg Press, 2013), which addresses the recent returns of artists–including Sven Augustijnen, Zarina Bhimji, Pieter Hugo, Renzo Martens, and Vincent Meessen–to former colonial states in Sub-Saharan Africa and the resulting art–predominantly photography and film–that investigates the traumas of past and present colonial relations and injustices.

Demos’s analysis of contemporary conjunctions of art and politics is, I feel, extremely generative. Highly impressed by his work, I asked him a series of questions by way of laying out some of the key themes of his criticism for ST readers.  Our exchange follows:

Ashley Dawson: How do contemporary artists find ways to represent the breathtakingly uneven geographies of globalization without reproducing those numbing conditions in the aesthetic realm? What are some of the most successful strategies adopted by contemporary documentarians in this regard?
TJ Demos: There’s a real diversity of approaches to this pressing subject in contemporary art, and it’s not at all simple or easy to assess the success of the various strategies artists have employed in representing, or negotiating the uneven geographies of globalization in the artistic realm. For instance, British artist Steve McQueen has investigated the conditions of mining in Sub-Saharan Africa in his filmmaking practice, beginning with Western Deep in 2002, and continuing with Gravesend in 2007. In the first, we see shots of laborers in a goldmine in South Africa, in the second, informal and migrant workers in mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In both contexts, they are shown toiling away in more or less brutal conditions, yet without any authoritative voice-over or pedagogical contextualization. Rather, McQueen produces a cinema of powerful, visceral affects–for example, through the use of visual abstraction where figures turn into luminescent bodies, and where sound oscillates between screeching mechanical noise and an alienating silence–according to which the audiovisual exploration images the “necropolitical” conditions of labor in the post-apartheid context (to use the terms of Achille Mbembe), and in the neoliberal deregulated Congo of resource extraction, which impacts viewers physically and conceptually. McQueen opts for a reinvention of documentary as affective allegory that generates a relation to uneven geographies via sensorial shock and the overdetermined visuality of the postcolonial context, but leaves viewers to investigate his seductive provocation delivered without pedantic direction.
At the other end of the spectrum is an artist like Renzo Martens, who, in his film Enjoy Poverty, 2009, investigates the conditions of abject poverty in the DRC by performing a parodic characterization of the do-gooder artist, humanitarian, and engaged photojournalist wrapped into one.
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He does so in order to explore the uneven geographies of the global imagery of poverty, and his work exposes the fact that the poor cannot even own or benefit financially from the images of their own misery. Martens’ is a critical mimicry of these conditions, which, unlike McQueen’s experimental cinematic approach, engages the inequities between global North and South in order to make them visually evident, but simultaneously runs the risk of reproducing those very conditions in his own satirical performance. McQueen’s films, on the other hand, court a potential depoliticization insofar as they present a complex and highly aestheticized relation to their subjects, even while that aestheticization distinguishes his films from the expected documentary-ethnographic treatments and stereotypical filmic approaches to Sub-Saharan Africa. Both have their provocative aspects, and each its limitations, and I attempt to deal with exactly this complexity in a critical way in my recent books The Migrant Image and Return to the Postcolony. That said, I would emphasize that the ambition to assess success is a notoriously thorny project. A strong, provocative argument can be made about an artwork, though its effects are never limited in time, so it’s impossible to judge effectiveness unless the temporality of reception is artificially curtailed. Still, I think it’s crucial that these and other artists are creatively addressing the uneven geographies of globalization in relation to globalization, which are otherwise ignored completely in so much contemporary art, let alone reproduced in numbing ways.
AD: Your observations about the links between aesthetic indeterminacy and the indeterminacy of biopolitical being of refugees and other marginalized subjects of neoliberal globalization lie at the core of both The Migrant Image and Return to the Postcolony. In reading the two together, I was reminded of Sara Ahmed’s observations in The Promise of Happiness concerning the “melancholy migrant” as a ghostly figure “who haunts contemporary culture as a kind of unnecessary and hurtful remainder of racism.” Can you explain how what you call moving images – the conjunction of digital film and new modelings of affect – offer new opportunities for coping with historical & contemporary experiences of trauma, melancholia, and loss?
TJD: The idea of “moving images” responds to two recent cultural transformations. The first is the post-medium condition that comes on the heels of what was once a field divided between film, video, and the projected image or expanded cinema. Today these mediums no longer retain their singularity in the way they once did, as artists such as McQueen, Zarina Bhimji, Vincent Meessen, the Otolith Group, and Sven Augustijnen, often shoot in 16 or 35mm and then transfer film to high-definition video, which is how the work is most often displayed in galleries and museums. This process brings about a mobility of the image in relation to flexible mediums, and is symptomatic of the ascendancy of video as a universal equivalent for audiovisual works, their exhibition, and their market. Second, “moving images” defines the departure from documentary’s conventional fetishization of facts and the objectivity of information, and toward a new economy of affect, by which images move us in ways that are visceral, physical, psychological, and political, which has yet to be accounted for. Theorists like Deleuze have pointed out how mobilizing information as a corrective to mass media mythologies fails to take into account of the workings of the political unconscious and thereby can lead to a further intractable defensiveness (the unconscious realm of desires and identifications helps to explain how people can continue to vote against their own class interests, even when presented with “evidence” that exposes this situation). Artists like Walid Raad have crafted aesthetic approaches that move by other means, that addresses unconscious processes in order to narrate traumatic histories (that of the Lebanese civil wars, in Raad’s case), doing so through inventive storytelling that opens up commemorative practice. Raad’s work contests the state-sponsored amnesia that serves the interests of those in power, some of whom were themselves perpetrators of civil war violence during the 1970s and ’80s. Even if Raad doesn’t provide anything like an alternative truth and reconciliation commission that aims for a redemptive social justice, his work does creatively transcend the sectarian politics that has been so damaging for postcolonial Lebanon, opening up the progressive potential for dis-identification and subjective reinvention.
Other work takes up such questions of the modeling of affect in very different ways. Consider Vincent Meessen’s film Vita Nova, which explores the 1955 cover of Paris Match that shows a young African cadet saluting the French flag.
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It’s a prime instance of the visual culture of French colonialism, and Meessen attempted to find the subject of that image in contemporary Burkina Faso, which takes viewers on a journey that is not only geographical, but also historical and historiographic, as it investigates Roland Barthes’ own relation to that image which he wrote about famously in his book Mythologies, even while he disavowed his own family relation to the colonial context (his material grandfather, the explorer and Colonel Louis-Gustave Binger, Meessen’s research reveals, “gave’ Cote d’Ivoire to France in the nineteenth century). The account opens onto a critical and moving conjuring of the spectres that haunted one of France’s most enlightened cultural critics, a history that has yet to be fully acknowledged today in cultural, historical, and political discourse in a France that has largely refused to critically engage its colonial legacy. If works like Raad’s and even Meessen’s surrender the pretence of objective “truth,” then the resulting indeterminacy of their own historical research invites a political agency on behalf of the viewer, different from the spectatorial obedience of documentary’s erstwhile regime of fact. As a result, aesthetics and biopolitics converge in an indeterminacy that rejects readymade grievances and the assuming of universal rights–responsibility instead has to be continually reinvented in the particularities of social struggles and the aftermath of traumatic histories at each turn.
AD: Near the end of The Migrant Image, you describe the arts as a kind of commons that needs to be defended, just as we must defend the remnants of the Keynesian welfare state and other forms of common wealth. In various other parts of the book, you refer to the important role played by exhibitions such as Documenta 11 in inverting established art hierarchies and fostering an emphasis on documentary representation of the injustices of neoliberal capitalism. I wonder if you could reflect more on the institutional conditions for the emergence of radical artistic practices today. What are the limits of current institutional arrangements in the art world? What are the conditions for more liberatory practices to emerge? I’m particularly interested in this question in relation to Return to the Postcolony, which looks at European artists (+ one white South African) who return to Africa to explore the legacy of colonialism. How are artists based in Africa challenging current representational regimes, and what changes might enable them to do so more effectively?
TJD: Documenta 11, in particular, was inspiring not only for exploring the postcolonial dimensions of contemporary art, which it turns out offer critical but still under-valued resources against the hegemony of neoliberal globalization, but also for displacing the institution itself via the five “platforms” that brought the discursive part of the 2002 exhibition to places like Lagos, Delhi, and St. Lucia. Those platforms constituted sites of discussion that invited an unprecedented range of international speakers from the global South to comment on the conditions of transitional justice, creolization, and the current modes of sub-Saharan African urbanization. The example–and there are many others–shows that the artworld’s institutional arrangements are in fact more flexible and complex that what we might otherwise think. If there is the curatorial will to show such work in Europe or North America, much could be done to alter the given institutional arrangements of the artworld, which focus so frequently on blockbuster exhibitions of dominant and predictable Euro-American artists. However, artistically-engaged activists all too often dismiss the gallery as a monolithic site of capitalist depoliticization, which in my view is unfair and surrenders a potential ally in the progressive cause. Of course galleries can also be places of commodification, spectacle, and thoughtless consumption, but there’s no reason that they can’t also be occupied and transformed into zones of conflict, discursive production, and criticality, even if temporarily, and especially in their nonprofit, community-engaged forms. For those of us who write about art and politics in the expanded geographical frame, doing so can help to gradually change the tide so that the institutional conditions might further transform into more open, politically directed, and deprovincialized ways.
Return to the Postcolony takes up a number of moving image works that have been displayed in diverse locations, including art galleries, museums, film festivals, academic contexts, online websites, and cable television in Europe and Africa. So here too the institutional arrangements of exhibition and dissemination are quite expansive and multiple, especially for those artists who pursue such diverse modes of distribution. While the book is largely focused on Europeans who examine the colonial heritage and present-day conditions, I do also consider some local African practices (which I’m interested in pursuing further in future projects). For instance, I discuss the 2006 film Bamako by Abderrahmane Sissako, which portrays a community in the capital of Mali who decided to place the World Bank and the IMF on trial for their destructive role in Africa, which has brought about the neocolonial devastation of quality of life, implementing forms of debt servitude that have entailed the drastic reduction of state spending on health care, education, infrastructure, and local economies.
Most importantly, Sissako’s film builds an entirely positive range of affects that energize belief in grassroots community activism, transnational political solidarity, and social equality. If the “melancholy migrant” that Sara Ahmed mentions presents us with a ghostly figure “who haunts contemporary culture as a kind of unnecessary and hurtful remainder of racism,” then Sissako shows us the macroeconomic mechanisms that produce such specters by destroying the viability of sustainable forms of life. He points us to inspiring forms of collective resistance as well, by which we might learn to contest this spectralization of the migrant and create a more equitable arrangement of appearance.

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