Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Museums and the Anthropocene

As the (brand new) Director of the Michigan State University Museum (MSUM), I’ve been giving particular thought of late to the strengths and limitations of the term, “The Anthropocene” in museum contexts. The term, as is well known, is rather a “portmanteau” word that has been variously used by scholars to characterize world history since: (a) the first nuclear explosions in 1945,  (b) since c. 1780 and the rise of the industrial revolution, (c)  dating back to the Neolithic Revolution and the rise of agriculture about 13,000 years ago, or even (d)  back to the late Upper Paleolithic and the rise of particularly effective human mass hunting strategies, perhaps 17.000 or 18,000 years ago.  Whatever the specific timescale being invoked, the posited era is characterized by one or more of the following: human-caused climate change, rising ocean temperatures, a profound decline in animal and plant biodiversity, a rise in mass extinctions (the “sixth great extinction” era) and anticipated dramatic rises in sea level.
State of Exception exhibition (Richard Barnes)

For a museum like MSUM— featuring major collections in natural history, archaeology, ethnology, folk arts, and cultural history—the “Anthropocene” is clearly an engaging concept, suggesting promising avenues for integrating diverse collections, exhibitions, public programs and research projects. One could imagine fascinating exhibitions, for example, linking the visual and performance arts of modern refugee communities to migration patterns induced by global climate dynamics (e.g. droughts, cyclones, aquifer depletion);  or, using ornithological, mammalian, and cultural collections to tell stories about how different societies have understood extinction events over the past several centuries; or,  relating Great Lakes archaeological materials on the rise of maize cultivation millennia ago to present day debates around the world about the politics of monoculture and the centralization of control over seed distribution;  or,  drawing on collections of indigenous watercraft and stilt houses to suggest creative ways humanity might cope with “Waterworld”-like futures; or, interpreting aesthetic representations of nature, landscape, and natural species in diverse global cultures in reference to nostalgic impulses born of massive habitat loss and biodiversity reduction. (Such a show might start with Dutch landscaping paintings, which prominently featured windmills and reclaimed former underwater lands as a celebration of the power of Capital to transform the visible world.) 

In an era in which arts and humanities funding is increasingly imperiled, it is perhaps inevitable that we as curators and museum administrators seek to recast much of our work as being “STEM-relevant,” as explicable and salient within scientific and technological frameworks. My impression is that a number of major museums around the world, including the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, are increasingly headed in this direction: exhibition and research projects that can present themselves as related to the “Anthropocene,” have better odds of being funded, approved, and nurtured. At a time when we all find ourselves having to make  the case for the continuing value of scientific and cultural collections, it is always useful to cite instances in which these collections can be used to help evaluate the past impact of climate and environmental change, and potentially suggest solutions for future climate-triggered upheavals.  The impulse here is not entirely cynical; there are to be sure, genuinely fascinating intellectual connections to drawn out for our publics, in exhibitions about how domains of human culture can be fruitfully reinterpreted with an eye to dramatic global environmental transformations.

Having said that, I'm uneasy about a headlong embrace of the “Anthropocene” as the be all and end all of museum exhibitions and initiatives. To begin with, one of the most important functions of museums is deepening the public’s wonder and knowledge about the vast range of the non-human, to contemplate temporal and spatial scales and dynamics far beyond the human realm-- as valuable in and of themselves. Museums offer glorious vistas in radical alterity,  opportunities to behold the glories of stellar nurseries thousands of light years away (the topic of the most recent exhibit I’ve worked on) or the pulsating soundscapes and lightscapes and crickets and fireflies (which I wrote about in my last blog post , on  Robin Meier and André Gwerder’s remarkable Synchronicity installation at the Broad). To be sure, there are fascinating human-related elements to all these topics, such as, in the case of the molecular clouds in which stars are born,  the ingenious use of new space-born instruments to perceive and analyze data gathered from non visible segments of the Electromagnetic spectrum, and the complex digital algorithms used to create dazzling color enhanced photographs of stellar nurseries. Yet, the value of these kinds of important natural phenomena should never be reduced solely to the human: otherwise, museums risk a kind of solipsism in which our species alone becomes the measure of all things.

In turn, there are risks in reducing the enormously complex tapestries of human cultures, including visual and performance arts, to a kind of uni-dimensional environmental calculus. As Claude Levi-Strauss long ago observed, while human cultural imaginations have long been obsessed with faunal and floral speciation, and long used metaphors of species differentiation as foundations for thinking about society and personhood, the complex structure of how those species are evaluated in any given human culture cannot be reduced to their material functionality. As Levi Strauss famously observes in The Science of the Concrete, “species are not known because they are used; they are used because they are known.”  Museums need to convey the dynamic interplay between meaning and environment in any given sociocultural order, without reducing one to the other.

An interesting, thought-provoking example of an “Anthropocene”-framed exhibition is State of Exception, organized by anthropologist Jason de Leon, recently on view at the University of Arizona and the Parsons School of Design in New York City. Inspired by De Leon’s remarkable book, The Land of Open Graves, the exhibition provides a heartbreaking archaeology of the present, chronicling the stories of economic migrants who traverse (or fail to traverse) the Sonora desert borderlands between Mexico and the United States. The exhibition centers on a startling installation of the backpacks, water bottlers, images of the Virgin of  Guadalupe, and other ephemera left behind by migrant women and men, objects which in many cases come to function as symbolic substitutes for the never-recovered human remains of those who have succumbed to snakebite, dehydration, or homicide during ill-fated desert crossing. The exhibition subtly explores the intersection between political, cultural, and environmental factors in contributing to this little understood body count. De Leon’s text emphasizes the ways in which the US Department of Homeland Security deploys, in effect, the Sonora desert as an alibi for the mass death of refugees. Even though border control policy funnels refugees into dangerous desert zones, this policy is left unstated, so that thousands of deaths can be attributed to “natural causes.”  The migrants themselves can in many instances be understood as climate or agro-policy refugees, in many instances driven north by the dumping of cheap US grown corn into Mexican and Central American markets.

The exhibition intensifies the spectral qualities of these inanimate reliquaries by having audio tracks of the voices of migrants emerge as if from within the abandoned backpacks. The gallery space here is figured as an uncanny frontier between the living and the dead, which holds up a particularly disturbing mirror to North American viewers who bear a degree of complicity in current US immigration policy.   Here then is a museum project that powerfully foregrounds the dramatic eco-scapes of the Anthropocene, without reducing the meaning and impact of mass human migration to purely environmental factors or determinants. For all us in the business of integrative, interdisciplinary museum projects, this is surely an example worth pondering.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Synchronicity by Robin Meier

Robin Meier/André Gwerder, Symchronicity (detail). http://robinmeier.net/
Yesterday I had the thrilling experience of being taken through the  remarkable art installation, “Synchronicity,” (co-created by  Robin Meier and André Gwerder) by the artist Robin Meier himself. The work is a key component of the spectacular two floor exhibition, “The Transported Man" in the Eli and Edythe Broad Museum of Art (Michigan State University), the first show at the Broad curated by its new director. Marc-Olivier Wahler.  (On July 1, I will assume the directorship of the nearby MSU Museum, a few buildings west of the Broad.)  This specific installation is the latest iteration of Meirer and Gwerder's multiyear, international Synchronicity project, previously created for Art Basel 2015 and elsewhere, in which the artists have incorporated live insects and human-produced sound, to explore, among other things, the emergent and unpredictable dynamics of organic and human made synchronization.

At the Broad, from the outside, Meier and Gwerder's piece appears as a kind of black circus tent, suspended by multiple cords connected at oblique angles to the gallery's' sharply angled ceilings.  We hear, emanating from within the enclosed artificial biosphere, the steady beat of metronomes and the pulsing sound of chirping crickets. A few guests at a time are allowed to enter through a zippered portal, finding themselves first in a kind of antechamber, which allow our eyes to adjust to this alien low light environment, and  reduces the likelihood that the insects within the main installation space will escape. We are immediately aware of a dramatic rise in temperature, simulating the tropical homelands of some of the insects we are about to meet, and which might also evoke the interior warmth of a womb-like space. We are next allowed to enter the main chamber, covered in silver, reflective material,  centered on two adjacent, ticking metronomes (seen in the image above). These at times pulse in tandem, or they may be reset by a docent to beat at different pulses, gradually returning to synchronization with one another.  Again, in keeping with the womb-like imagery, one has the sense of a maternal heartbeat, to which the fetal heartbeat is either attuned or from which it may be differentiated.

Located around the softly lit chamber is vegetative material, inhabited by scores of crickets (which are not easily seen). The insects adjust their chirping to the pulse of both, or one, of the metronomes. Meier explains that in nature, different cricket micro-colonies will pulse at different rates, allowing each small group to establish unity with their fellow group members and differentiate themselves from other cricket clusters. Our field of vision is dominated by a large transparent enclosed column filled with LED lights, blinking together at a set rate. This enclosure will soon be filled with a special species of Southeast Asian fireflies, currently being hatched in Thailand, which are distinguished by the males’ propensity to flash their lights at precisely the same rate. Meier notes that in nature, this capacity allows a group of males, within a given bush, tree or micro-environment, to attract females at a distance, in the interest of collective reproduction. Once arrived from Thailand, the fireflies will flash their lights at a synchronized rate keyed to the blinking LEDs.

Scattered around the base of the chamber, filled with the kind of dried plant material that might cover a rain forest floor, are several turntable record players, which from time to time turn themselves on, playing on spinning LPs  short electronic musical interludes composed by Meier. These pieces complicate and to some extent destabilize the overall predictability of the metronomes’ regular beats. The overall impression created by this intersection of organic and mechanical audio wave productions is of a matrix of patterns that transcend our capacity to decipher, and yet which are rather calming and beautiful. Then, visitors are ushered into the final transitional airlock chamber. Once the slit is safely zippered behind us, we are allowed to pass though the final zippered slit back into the gallery.

Previous installations of the work have received a good deal of thoughtful critical commentary, including an insightful piece by Bastien Gallet, http://robinmeier.net/?p=2330.   Experiencing this  three chambered sequence as an anthropologist, I was immediately put in mind of the classic work, Les Rites de Passage (1910), by Arnold Van Gennep.  Van Gennep, in an insight subsequently made famous by anthropologist Victor Turner, notes that rituals of transition the world over manifest a shared three=part structure: (1) initial radical separation from the conventional world, followed (2) by an intermediate state of “betwixt and betweeness" (referred to by Van Gennep as the “liminal period,”   often characterized by profound disorientation and the increasing intensification of abstracted dramatizations of contradiction and paradox), and finally (3) by re-integration or re-aggregation, in which the ritual subject re-enters the normal world.  Everything is the same, yet everything is different.  This three-part structure is observable in all manner of human life-crisis rites, from initiation, graduations, and weddings, to inaugurations and funerals.  In small-scale, pre-capitalist human cultures, in which the transcendent goal of society is the periodic production of new social persons, the successful management of the three-part initiatory process, turning children into adults, is quite literally a matter of life or death for the overall body politic, allowing each generation of elders, in effect, to give symbolic birth to the next cohort of future adults.

Within the biosphere's central chamber, watching the reflected pulsing lights on the silver interior surface, I found myself thinking of the earliest evidence we have in the archaeological record of this ancient tripartite structure of life transition, the famous Upper Paleolithic caves of southern Europe, including Lascaux and Chauvet, famously painted with magnificent depictions of animals. Here, we surmise, innumerable generations of initiates or adepts were brought into womb-like cave chambers, first separated from ordinary life above ground, then radically transformed in a liminal space and time through exposure to Mystery, and then finally reintegrated into the conventional universe, transformed in ways that may have been difficult for them to put into words. (Great art, anthropologist Alfred Gell notes, functions as a 'technology of enchantment" that depends on "cognitive indecipherability.")

Ancient musical instruments suggest that these cave womb worlds,  from which persons were periodically reborn at higher levels of social and cultural integration, were characterized by complex soundscapes, which may have emulated and transformed audio registers of the natural world. As brilliantly suggested in Werner Herzog’s 2010 3D documentary on Chauvet, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, seen in the light of flickering torches, the paintings on contoured rocks would have seemed to come alive. Here, at what may have been one of the wellsprings of art and religion, we sense a revolution in human consciousness, centered on the emerging human capacity to give life to that which had once been inanimate, to create through carefully calibrated, collective action the illusions of art--social fictions which turn out, ultimately to be true: new people, and new ways of being in the world, really can be born out of creative human mimesis, which simultaneously copies and transforms elements of the natural world.

Herzog's artistic insights are consistent in many ways with the 2002 scholarly book. The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art, in which archaeologist David Lewis-Williams argues that paleolithic rock art both reflected and helped constitute new forms of inter-subjective awareness in early human communities, associated with the rise of complex language, spirituality, and cultural frameworks of higher level cognition --allowing for collective problem solving in the realms of hunting and other vital encounters with the natural world.  (Possible links between these cognitive developments and the emergence of music are explored quite brilliantly in Gary Tomlinson's  2015 book A Million Years of Music: The Emergence of Human Modernity.)

Traversing Robin Meier and André Gwerder's chambers, I was also put in mind of my own fieldwork experiences in southern and central African rural communities, in which some elders, highly keyed to the soundscapes produced by insects,  will at times interpret synchronized or de-synchronized wave patterns in insect sound as predictive of environmental shifts, including decreased or excessive rainfall. The elders' wisdom about the guiding waveforms of insects is transmitted to younger generations through song, oral poetry, dance, and other performance media. I once heard an Ngoni man instructing his nieces and nephews, as their grandmother was explaining in sing-song how an imbalance in two insect species' pulsations presaged a coming drought, "Listen to this, children, for when old age speaks of these matters, she speaks with the Wisdom of God.')

Humans have presumably been attuned to the overlapping, synchronous and asynchronous pulses of our insect neighbors for at least one hundred millennia.  Meier and Gwerder, in integrating some of the oldest and newest of human technologies, in concert with these long-traveled ambassadors from the insect world, have miraculously helped return us to some of the most pivotal, and enigmatic, moments in the cognitive evolution of our species.  Leaving their cave-like womb world—our eyes readjusting from the regular pulses of flickering light and our ears still echoing the overlapping rhythms of mechanical and organic sound—we find ourselves, like our most ancient ancestors, reborn in ways that we cannot easily articulate. As we blink and look around, outside of this latter-day cave, everything seems the same, yet, everything, somehow, is different.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Zohra Opoku at Armory Show

Zohra Opoku installation, Armory Show, March 2017
I am delighted that the Mariane Ibrahim Gallery’s solo display of multimedia works by the German-Ghanaian artist Zohra Opoku, has been awarded the first Presents award at the current Armory Show in New York City:

http://theartnewspaper.com/market/art-fairs/young-seattle-gallery-wins-first-10-000-presents-prize-at-the-armory-show/

I enjoyed writing the gallery notes for the Zohra Opoku installation, as follows:


UNRAVELED THREADS

In this compelling body of work, the German/Ghanian multimedia artist Zohra Opoku meditates upon the overlapping strands of her complex family history. She was born in the GDR, the former East Germany, to a German mother, Brigitte Gerda Marlies Jurk, and a Ghanaian father, Dr. George Bob Kwabena Opoku. Her father, an Asante royal, returned to Ghana soon after her birth; her mother had to remain in East Germany, and raised Zohra under challenging circumstances.

On cotton and canvas surfaces, the artist has printed photographs of her father wearing his regalia as the Asante monarch Nana Opoku Gyabaah II, Chidomhene of Asato/Akan, within the Ghana’s Volta Region. Zohra herself has no direct memories of her father, and has had to reconstruct her father’s story, and her relationship to Akan spiritual worlds, through her mother’s distant recollections and the memories of her younger siblings, who came of age in Ghana.  Significantly, she has reworked photographs given to her by her Ghanaian siblings after her father’s death; these images on cloth highlight both the profound distance between the artist and her father’s homeland, and the continuing work of reestablishing intimate family bonds.

The blurriness of the images is, the artist explains, not intentional,  but in a rather fortuitous fashion it evokes ambiguous spaces between imagination and direct knowledge, between dreams and narrative, and between the modern world and the ancient past. Her artistic process involves repeatedly washing out by hand photographic screens, introducing the errors and disruptions inevitably accumulated across geographical distance and the passage of time, as family stories are told and retold. Photography here functions as a form of divination, bringing the honored Dead into dynamic relationships with their living descendants across the great divides between worlds. This sense of mysterious intimacy is intensified by the presence in many photographs of sacred trees and sacred groves, which in Akan cosmology serve as portals to the life-giving powers of divinities and ancestors.

Into these assemblages, the artist has worked kente woven cloth, historically reserved for those of royal rank among Akan-speaking peoples. She honors the intricate, sacred symbolism of kente, whose color combinations bear profound meanings and sacred potencies. In so doing, she weaves together her father’s royal lineage and her own immediate family histories, including ties to her East German mother.  She incorporates wool thread once owned by her mother in a manner that  echoes weaved stripes joined together in Kente, both binding together her parents' disparate lineages and highlighting their distinctions. In so doing, she explores her own interstitial status in the global system of racial identities: in Ghana she is classified as a “white woman,” while in Germany she would be considered a person of color. Her work creates sheltering spaces for all persons who have multiple, overlapping heritage, who seek a sense of belonging and acceptance in a world that seems increasingly obsessed with division and exclusion. Within these encompassing, welcoming garments, all of us are given a glimpse of home and homecoming, and a tangible reminder that there is always, somewhere, a place for us.

-Commentary by Mark Auslander