Kulturhaus Dock 4, Saturday, 09.08.2012, 14:00 h
Presentation in the framework of a symposium at dOCUMENTA 13 organised by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation
The romantic idea of an ideal space
Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung (PhD)
dOCUMENTA 13, 11.08.2012
Just a few weeks ago, I offered myself for an experiment to optimise the scan parameters for a Magnetic Resonance Imaging trial we were about to carry out for my day’s job. Although I had brought along a relaxed spirit and a good portion of respect for this unusual space of a closed bore MRI scanner, I was all the same struck by the creeping tentacles of claustrophobia. Lying in there, I thought of a sentence I had once read from a lecture delivered by Michel Foucault in 1967 with the title “Of Other Spaces – Heterotopias” … and I quote: “The nineteenth century found its essential mythological resources in the second principle of thermodynamics- The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space.”
The concept of an other “space” and the zeal and zest to understand how art can be articulated in this “other space” has haunted me for a while.
Already in 2007 I had been playing with the idea of putting up an art space. This idea needed 2 years before it germinated into something half way concrete. This space which is now known as SAVVY was indeed born out of necessity. And deliberating on how to do an art space, the aforementioned lecture by Foucault “Of Other Spaces – Heterotopias” played a colossal and emphatic role in my conception of a space, which I envisioned as a kind of Heterotopia. I must stress here that from the very onset, this idea of a space wasn’t intended to be limited to a physical space, but rather an immaterial, philosophical and even fictive space, under whose auspices we could, on the one hand, create the challenge of renegotiating some ‘standards’ and on the other hand cogitate on the reigning notions of the “we” and the “other”… with art as the main channel of communication.
In that epic lecture (which I know most of you are well versed with and mind you I am aware of the fact that these concepts have been re- and misinterpreted by many, including me), Foucault describes his concept of Heterotopias using 6 principles, which I will very much like to share with you today:
1st principle is that there is probably not a single culture in the world that fails to constitute heterotopias. That is a constant of every human group. E.g. a honeymoon trip, privileged or sacred or forbidden places, reserved for individuals in a state of crisis: adolescents, pregnant women, the elderly, etc.
2nd principle of this description of heterotopias is that a society, as its history unfolds, can make an existing Heterotopia function in a very different fashion; e.g. a cemetery or a church.
3rd principle: The Heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible. E.g. the stage of a theatre or a cinema, or the garden
4th principle: Heterotopias are most often linked to slices in time. The Heterotopia begins to function at full capacity when men arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time. E.g. Museums and libraries have become heterotopias in which time never stops building up and topping its own summit.
5th principle: Heterotopias always presuppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable. In general, the heterotopic site is not freely accessible like a public place.
6th principle: The last trait of heterotopias is that they have a function in relation to all the space that remains. This function unfolds between two extreme poles. Either their role is to create a space of illusion that exposes every real space. Or else, on the contrary, their role is to create a space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled, i.e. a space of compensation.
Of course I cannot claim that with Savvy we succeeded in realising these principles – as this wasn’t the aim – but each one of these principles served as a sort of guideline towards creating “an-other” space in Berlin.
The point of departure of Savvy and its side projects, including the art space, an art journal, an alternative colonial archive, and a publication platform, was the necessity to interrupt a rather Western hegemonic discourse that at the time seemed prevalent in Berlin. It goes without saying that Berlin is one of the most tremendous places to be in and do art! Having lived on and off in Berlin for over 15 years my subjective observation was that things tended to rotate around their own axis, which historically has been a Euro-American one. Exhibitions in museums and other prominent art spaces, collections, art institutions are grafted along the linear genealogy of the Western canon as a sole or dominant point of knowledge emanation. Apart from a few examples, the prominent art spaces in Berlin have been limited to artists with a Western background, while art projects of Non-Western background have been more or less limited to the “House of World Cultures” or the “Institute of Foreign Relations – ifa”.
In many cases exhibitions and museum practices with Non-Western positions go-ahead to construct and solidify the concept of “otherness” and the logics of “epistemological violence”, as termed by Francoise Verges.
That said… it seemed logical for me, in a city that has taken upon itself to be the epicentre of the art world, to initiate a space that will strive at:
Looking at art not only through the prism of the Western world, but bringing together multi-dimensional perspectives from the West and the Non-West,
Positioning itself in Berlin’s and most especially the Neukölln/ Bohemian village’s historical reality, which also includes a 275 years migration history and a conglomeration of peoples from 162 different nations,
Juxtaposing in this space several other spaces, several sites, several art mediums that are in themselves presumed to be incompatible,
Reconsidering the traditional conception of time and the narratives that have accompanied this time, e.g. by reconsidering the perception of Germany’s colonial history,
By situating Savvy geographically in Neukölln and not in Mitte we take upon ourselves the renegotiation of the centre and the periphery, while dealing with the their links to the notions of penetrability and isolation,
And most especially, creating a functional relation and network to other spaces and initiatives around the world.
Thus, Savvy Contemporary considers itself as a platform for discourses of contemporary culture, while engaging in theories of cosmopolitanism and transnationalism in our current colonial or post-colonial age (depending on where you stand). Savvy Contemporary has learned to see it self as a space of Post-Otherness, a term coined by Prof. Regina Römhild, as she writes “with the figure of the post-other emerges: a figure still bearing the signs of historical Othering while at the same time representing and experimenting with unknown futures beyond it.” Or “The moment of the post-other, however, is still in the state of emergence…, waiting for the diverse struggles to potentially unite. The search for possible common grounds is taking shape situationally at some of the intersections between the posts… e.g. postsocialist, postcolonial, and postmigrant”
From the very onset, we intended to deal with topics that to our opinion have a social relevance… we might never attain this goal but I will like to be guided by this quote from a 1994 interview given by the Nigerian poet and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was later executed:
“What is of interest to me is that my art should be able to alter the lives of a large number of people, a whole community, of the entire country…So the stories that I tell must have a different sort of purpose … It’s not an ego trip, it’s serious, it’s politics, it’s economics, it’s everything. And art in that instance becomes so meaningful both to the artist and to the consumers of that art.”
We might never get there… but we are trying.
To gradually come to an end, I will like to say a word about a milestone aspect of Germany’s cultural policy that directly or indirectly influences my curatorial practice. The talk of cultural diversity… This is probably a very progressive idea towards integration of voices from a yonder. But I am not sure in what direction this notion of cultural diversity is supposed to be understood. I have the creeping suspicion that most grants labelled with the tag of cultural diversity are mostly given to Germans that do projects with titles that carry blinking words like migration, Africa, Arabia, revolution etc. On the other hand, I have witnessed x-times that if one happens to have a so-called “Migrationshintergrund” and sells projects in this level, then one is also seen as a potential candidate for support, but people with “Migrationshintergrund” that deal with other discourses are rather ignored. Many a time I was also chanced to here… “There is a financial pot for African projects” and the question I ask myself is: Why not the pot for art projects from the ministry of culture but the pot for Africa from the ministry of foreign affairs? Is this policy also about the creation of boxes, where certain groups of people are recommended to dwell in? These questions also go in line with the reception of some of my art projects… for example; recently an interview with me was published in the online journal artnet. Until the date of publication I was quite contented with the questions asked and the answers I gave, which go in line with my curatorial practice of the dialogue between the Western and the Non-Western. But in the last minute before publication, the editorial of this journal decided to change the title of the interview to: Jenseits von Afrika! I think this says it all.
I will like to conclude this short lecture by asking a question propagated by
Édouard Glissant, who passed away last year, i.e. if the ‘project’ called “the West” can genuinely be thought outside the entanglements of empire, i.e. after centuries of economic, cultural and political involvement, dependency and entanglement can one ever talk of a pure Western identity or the so-called “Leitkultur”?
I will like us to go beyond the other… and while we deliberate on our differences and discrepancies, we shouldn’t forget the proximity that might characterise a non-hegemonic space. This space is not necessarily an illusionary context of absolute harmony but maybe of harmonious dissonances, i.e. a space, where the few points of intersections or common denominators between discords are fully appreciated and respected. This is the romantic idea of the ideal space.