Polyphonic worlds: justice as medium

Adelita Husni-Bey

Through my labor I produce pedagogical frameworks that draw on anarco-collectivist studies, as well as video representations of these moments. With my artistic practice I attempt to put into question how a “we” can be constituted, re-centering anti-imperialist struggles, feminist and queer practices, and an analysis of class constructs within the frameworks I use.

Agency (2014) is the result of a workshop that began in 2013 with a group of volunteer students from Manara High School in Rome. In the months proceeding the workshop the students were visited by editors, social justice workers, and economists who conversed with them about their respective roles and their stakes in the sociopolitical landscape of contemporary Italy. The three-day workshop was held at Maxxi Museum in Rome and saw five different categories battle for “power”: journalists, activists, bankers, workers, and politicians. While these categories that the students adhered to were certainly banalizing, the students were encouraged to render the overlaps between them visible and produce complex interrelations as the role-play progressed. Journalists were responsible for an hourly report on the advancement of “society” in which they exposed what they could glean from each group. The simulation was interrupted by planned moments of abstraction from the game; moments of debate both about the social conditions which were being constructed in the workshop situation through the delivery of choices and decision making, as well as, importantly, on the meaning and workings of power.

Adelita Husni-Bey, Agency-giochi di potere, 2014
, still from HD video, 27’40’’, courtesy the artist and Laveronica arte contemporanea

Agency

Agency is a Brussels-based initiative founded in 1992, which constitutes a growing list of “things” that resist the split between the classifications of nature and culture. Art practices often involve non-humans (animals, birds, plants, rocks, etc.) and other-than-humans (death, spirits, extra- and intra-terrestrials, etc.), yet in terms of intellectual property rights there seems to exist a species divide. Although the copyright law definition of “author” does not explicitly refer to humans, it does not consider non-humans and other-than-humans as possible “causes of art works.” This understanding of non-humans and other-than-humans in copyright erases their capacity for agency.

For Assembly (Polyphonic Worlds), Agency calls forth a selection of two things from its list, speculating on two different questions: What if non-humans become mutually included within art practices? What if other-than-humans become mutually included within art practices? For Contour Biennale 8, Agency invokes thing 001652 (Monkey’s Selfies) and thing 001621 (Dead Son Drawn by Psychic Artist). Thing 001652 (Monkey’s Selfies) concerns a series of photos made by the macaque Naruto and published in a book by the wildlife photographer David Slater. Thing 001621 (Dead Son Drawn by Psychic Artist) is about a journal reproduction of a drawing of the spirit of the son of A.P. by the psychic artist Frank Leah. For each controversy, Agency organizes a gathering with a group of diverse concerned guests to respond to the readings of the legal case in question. The purpose of this assembly is to re-invoke the moments of hesitation during the original court case and to explore the operative consequences of the apparatus of intellectual property for an ecology of art practices paying attention to all agencies. The aim of these assemblies are less a reenactment of the judgment and more of a “palaver” that prolongs the hesitation around a problem.

Agency, thing 001652 (Monkey’s Selfies), 2016, courtesy of the artist

Ana Torfs

The tension between text and image plays a central role in my work, and with it the related processes of visualization, interpretation, and translation. I try to enable a topical and authentic perception of the scattered remains of our cultural and political histories. My installations feature a variety of reproducible media, ranging from slide projections, sound, photography, video, and film to xerography, Jacquard weaving, and offset and screen printing.

During my scholarship at the DAAD Berlin Artist-in-Residence program in 2005, I researched the German Federal Military Archives on the “Case of the Murder of Dr. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg” and the trial proceedings before the Military Field Tribunal of the Cavalry Guard Rifle Division in the main courtroom at the Berlin Criminal Court (1919). From these trial records I distilled the statements of twenty-five different persons that were interrogated, and processed them into a “Tragedy in Two Acts,”—the literary script for my project.

I chose twenty-five German actors and filmed their “interpretations” of the testimonials on video. Through twenty-five versions of the “truth,” a fragmented and shifting image of the last hour in the lives of Liebknecht and Luxemburg—the founders of the German Communist Party—emerges.

The testimonials (in German) were simultaneously translated by an English court interpreter. This “interpretation,” audible in the work over wireless headphones, accentuates that there is no clear divide between bare facts and interpretation, between fact and fiction. A story is perennially colored by language.

Another seventeen actors of four generations posed for a series of black-and-white photographs in the demonstration room of an anatomical theater. These appear as a set of slide projections providing an abstract scenographic counterpoint to the scripted performance in the video.

Ana Torfs, Anatomy, 2006, slide photograph, photo: Ana Torfs and courtesy of the artist

Arvo Leo

In 2003, there was an enormous forest fire in Canada that lasted seventy-five days and destroyed many trees and homes. When the fire was blazing through the small town of Barriere, the transmission of a Ford Mustang was engulfed in flames and its metal liquefied. This hot molten metal then trickled its way down into the underground tunnels of an anthill, resulting in the creation of a marvelous, accidental sculpture.

Eleven years later I made a silkscreen poster as a way to celebrate this sculpture and meditate further on the strange way it entered the world. As I doodled I began to imagine this destructive/creative event from several non-human points of view by asking, “What if this sculpture was not actually made by accident? What if the car, the trees, the flames, or the ants themselves wanted this sculpture to be made and were responsible for its coming into being?” Other drawings on the poster arose while imagining the origin of fossil fuels, the history of the internal combustion engine, the living body within the Ford factory assembly line, the shifting of humans from nomadic to sedentary beings, animals using tools, and the basement as a stomach.

For Contour Biennale 8 I am showing a video premised upon these narratives, as well as my poster in basements around Mechelen. It is important that these posters go subterranean—down to the lair of the ants, to the realm of dirt and metal, to a place slightly removed from human affairs. As a result, the audience is small; primarily the locals who agree to harbor these posters. However, one or two posters may pop up above ground like mushrooms.

Hearings

Arvo Leo, Detail from Accidental Ant Hill Sculpture (Born in 2003 after a forest fire made love to a Ford Mustang), 2014, screen print on paper, courtesy of the artist

Basir Mahmood

I am interested in exploring my position as an artist by adopting multiple roles including: an author who writes narratives; an initiator who sets in motion collisions of people and improvised scenarios to create original stories; as an observer who teleports in or out of the everyday situations he is observing to see intimately: from within and from without; and a withdrawn subject, at times, such as a disengaged onlooker on a main street. In my recent work for Contour Biennale 8, Monument of Arrival and Return (2016), I have attempted to withdraw from the direct making of the film, instead positioning myself as a dramaturge setting up a scene where the protagonists—a group of railway porters and luggage carriers (locally referred to as “coolies” in keeping with the British colonial expression)—are invited to engage and improvise with a set of domestic objects and personal items. I remotely produced the film with a local crew in Lahore, Pakistan, who received a series of sketches and narrative instructions while remaining far away from the actual shoot, and only later received the intuitively performed footage as a “delivery package” to carry out the editing process. My own journey as filmmaker thereby, becomes inscribed by the longer history of the movement of coolies (“Kuli”) who were transported as indentured labor during the British Empire across plantations, industrial units, shipyards, and railway platforms. Today—wearing red shirts bearing sewn numbers—the porters at Lahore’s railway station continue to wait for the rumbling trains to arrive, then call out and rush toward incoming travelers to transport their belongings from the stone-laid platforms to the asphalt road outside.

Hearings

Basir Mahmood, Monument of Arrival and Return, 2016, video still, 9’37’’, courtesy of the artist

Beatriz Santiago Muñoz

Black Beach/Horse/Camp/The Dead/Forces (2016) was shot in Vieques, Puerto Rico—an island that was used as a bombing range by the United States Navy for sixty years, and that for the past ten years has been fighting for its decontamination. I shot image sequences following an intuitive approach toward materials and movements relating to death, toxicity, and mysticism. The black magnetite beach is slowly eroding, an artist who has helped to resurrect a sacred tree which was once within the navy’s gates has herself resurrected from illness more than once, 3,000 wild horses roam across the old target range, and a man performs daily rituals by the beach with the religious certainty that his movements will return the island to a cosmic balance.

Matrulla (2014) is a film about Pablo Díaz Cuadrado, who had a hallucinatory vision, fueled by the fragrant flower of Brugmansia versicolor in 1972 and saw his future life in Orocovis, by Lake Matrullas. The name Orocovis is an indigenous word—orocobix—that means first mountain and Pablo weaves together the vision with the place, in a circular, spiral path through his house. The film is a portrait of a rearguard visionary, a gleaner, who sees the future through a collection of remains: seeds, satellite dishes, songs.

I made these films in order to think with and through the people within them.

Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Black Beach/Horse/Camp/The Dead/Forces, 2016, video still, 8’, courtesy of the artist

Cooking Sections

Empire Shops were first developed in London in the 1920s to teach British subjects how to consume foodstuffs from the colonies and overseas territories. Although none of the stores ever opened, they aimed to use ingredients such as sultanas from Australia, oranges from Palestine, cloves from Zanzibar, and rum from Jamaica, all available and common in the British Isles. The Empire Remains Shop speculates on the possibility and implications of selling back the remains of the British Empire in London today. A public installation by London-based duo Cooking Sections, in 2016 The Empire Remains Shop hosted a critical program of discussions, performances, dinners, installations, and screenings that employed food as a tool to assemble new sites and geographies, while exploring origins, destinations, and exchanges across the present and future of our postcolonial planet.

This long-term research project began in 2013 to explore the infrastructure and cultural imaginaries established within the British Empire to promote gastronomic and agricultural exchange between the local and the global at the beginning of the twentieth century. The project takes the Empire Marketing Board—a British governmental agency that promoted colonial trade in the 1920 and 1930s through fine art, film, and graphic propaganda—as a point of departure. The Empire Remains Shop is a platform to investigate the invention of the “exotic” and the “tropical,” shrimp sandwiches, conflict geologies, the financialization of ecosystems, “unnatural” behaviors, the ecological perception of “invasive” and “native” species, “culturally neutral” food aid, the banana that colonized the world, retiring to former colonies, the construction of the offshore and Special Economic Zones, and much more.

For Contour Biennale 8, alongside Empire Marketing Board posters from 1920s, a franchise agreement is presented for public institutions and individuals operating in Belgium to open their own Empire Remains Shop.

Hearings

Cooking Sections, Cases of Confusion (50-40-20) (56-45- 25) (55-40-20), 2015, courtesy of the artists

Council

The concept of “nature” is still widely used to criminalize individuals for their sexual orientation, gender identity, or way of being. In Lebanon, article 534 of the penal code condemns “sexual intercourse against nature”; in India, article 377 defines “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”; while in Kenya, article 162 declares “carnal knowledge against the order of Nature.” “Nature,” as opposed to “culture” (or “society”), is recognized as one of the cruxes of the modern Western value system. Even if “against nature” comes from the contra naturam in the Napoleonian penal code, there was no cultural translation for its legal implementation in former French and English colonies. In Lebanon for instance, there is no legal document that defines what “against nature” means and what nature is with regard to the law. These questions were addressed in Council’s inquiry The Manufacturing of Rights (2013–15) in collaboration with Legal Agenda and Ashkal Alwan, Beirut.

The Against Nature Journal advances that inquiry by producing a three-year program of publications, exhibitions, and conversations, whereby each journal issue will deal specifically with a country where such a law exists. Contour Biennale 8 and Museo de Arte Moderno in Medellin will host the launch issue 0 of The Against Nature Journal, which will introduce the journal’s graphic identity, its editorial framework, and politics of distribution.

Founded in 2013 by Grégory Castéra and Sandra Terdjman, Council introduces the arts in domains that do not fully recognize its legitimacy, composing the arts with sciences and civil society, staging new forms of council, and observing situations where human nature is reexamined. The Against Nature Journal involves Aimar Arriola (chief editor), Julie Peeters (designer), and Francesca Bertolotti-Bailey (Council’s associate), among others.

Hearings

Council, Joscelyn Gardner, Hibiscus Esculentus (Sibyl), 2009, hand-colored lithograph on frosted mylar, 91,5 x 61cm, courtesy of the artists

Eric Baudelaire

Also Known as Jihadi (2017) follows the progress of a young man’s journey from France to Syria, and back to France where he is incarcerated for allegedly joining Daesh. Based on real events, and drawn from thousands of pages of judicial documents, the cinematic work employs the so-called landscape theory (fukeiron in Japanese). The theory originated in the film AKA Serial Killer (1969) that is codirected by Masao Adachi, who was the subject of an earlier film work of mine: The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and 27 Years without Images (2011). In Also Known as Jihadi, his most recent film, the character’s paths to radicalism are rendered purely through a series of landscape shots filmed at the locations traversed by the subject: a biography determined not by what the subject did, but by what the subject saw, and one that questions how these landscapes reflect the social and political structures that are the backdrop for a journey of alienation and return. This new film builds on a link between some of my previous work and the events that are occurring with increasing frequency in many parts of the world. I started thinking about this film more than a year ago, before the events in Paris of November 13, 2015 and before those at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris in January 2015. From this vantage point, I wanted to make a film that affirms the position of trying (not) to understand. Or, in the words of Pierre Zaoui, to make a film that “aims to understand and not to understand at the same time—to understand up to the point that one no longer understands—and also to show, refusing to understand or explain, so that with a dreadful feeling of confusion we are surprised to find ourselves understanding, discovering a subtle sympathy, telling ourselves that maybe monstrosity is our shared condition.”

Hearings

Eric Baudelaire, Also Known as Jihadi, 2017, courtesy of the artist

Filipa César & Louis Henderson

The lighthouse, as a man-made object built to shed light into the dark unknown, encapsulates perfectly the desires of the Enlightenment project of modernity: the domination of nature through reason and intellect, the advancement of technology and trade on a global scale, the illuminatory transparency of European Christian morality—a beacon in the dark. This “op-film” will be a disorienting and disoccidenting dérive from optical navigation to algorithms of locating—an essay against the grain of Western patterns of referencing and situating. From a film made with lenses and photosensitive celluloid to the desktop locating engine, we will navigate from the material production of Fresnel lenses to the invention of global navigation satellite systems (GNSS)—the tool that announces the obsolescence of the lighthouse.

GNSS alters human perception of space, powers of vision, and cartographic capabilities, and create new images of the world. With this new system of mapping come new forms of power and control. If the lighthouse signals a growth in transatlantic transportation, then satellite systems signal the transfer of the material substrate of commerce from goods to data. GNSS is born in an age of the networked interpolation of military space, civic space, commercial space, private space, and public space. The lighthouse remains on the shores of consciousness as a form of thinking—GNSS navigates it further.

Filipa César & Louis Henderson, Sunstone, 2017, production still, courtesy of the artists

Ho Tzu Nyen

In NO MAN II (2017), a ghostly choir assembles in a mirror—an unruly gathering of figures of uncertain origin. They range from animals to human-animal hybrids, cyborgs, and anatomical figures; some are manifestations of mythical archetypes, while others are cultural stereotypes. Perhaps they are a small sampling of humanity’s figurative imagination across history.

These figures are animated by movement incongruous with their appearances—movements of an ambiguous nature, ranging from innocuous human gestures like loitering, to iconic movements such as break dancing, or the convulsive and stuttering advance of zombies.

With interwoven voices that rhythmically fall in and out of phrase, oscillating between individual and collective utterances, they sing:

No man is an island entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea,
Malaya is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as any manner of thy friends
or of thine own were;
any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.

I think of NO MAN II as a plea by beings of uncertain ontologiesa plea as ambiguous as it is incommensurable.

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The song lyrics were adapted from “Meditation XVII – Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions” (1624) by John Donne.

Music by Vindicatrix, with additional mix by Ho Tzu Nyen and Jeffrey Yue. The figures are created with the assistance of Mimic Productions (Berlin), as well as Vividtree Productions (Singapore).

Ho Tzu Nyen, NO MAN II, 2017, video still, CGI projection on double sided mirror, 360’, courtesy of the artist

inhabitants

inhabitants (www.inhabitants-tv.org) is an online channel for exploratory video and documentary reporting.

Current systemic imbalance in the world, in itself, is hard to represent and defies both the causality of reporting and the sequential nature of perspective as captured by the camera lens. Activist campaigning, academic writing and speculative fiction, experimental and documentary film, as well as amateur techniques are among the formats that short-form video has taken online to address such issues. These different modes of address, their possibilities and desires, fuel Inhabitants and its short videos intended for online distribution.

Launched in 2015 by visual artists, the channel has developed an eight-part series on the Anthropocene, a five-part anti-oil-extraction campaign in Portugal, and published a brief history of geoengineering. It has collaborated with Haus der Kulturen Der Welt and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, as well as with Berardo Collection Museum and the Wages for Facebook campaign. It has also published a video by artists Filipa César and Louis Henderson conceiving a material vocabulary for cinematic research into Guinea-Bissau’s post-independence film archive.

In collaboration with Contour Biennale 8, inhabitants is publishing a multi-part video series exploring the subject of social justice and the curatorial premise of “Justice as Medium,” looking at different forms of embodiment, rights, and representation, by addressing contemporary cases on personhood, historical research, and activist claims.

Hearings

Image Notes

Venues

inhabitants, Hobby Lobby vs. The Allegory of Justice, 2016, video still, courtesy of the artists

Judy Radul

On the ground floor of the Schepenhuis, an erstwhile seat of the Great Council in the Burgundian Netherlands, there are two contrasting types of windows. There are old leaded glass windows, through which the views of the surrounding streets are faceted and wobbly, and a large plate-glass window, the product of recent renovation, which looks directly into the shop window across the street, whose clear image, backlit by the shop window, prefigures a flat screen. What passes for clarity and transparency in any era may change according to its media.

In the center of this room sits a teleological system—a video camera reading a publication whose pages are turned by a rudimentary machine. The publication, created specifically for this setting, visually and textually engages questions of evidence production, from which forms of “judgment” arise, while also recollecting Mechelen’s history of lavishly illuminated polyphonic manuscripts.

Images do not dictate how they are seen, or not entirely. This work includes a study of eye tracking movements to demonstrate the polyphony of seeing an image; marking the rhythmic stream of individual perception while auditing and surveilling the bodily eye with an animated digital eye. Of course, in the near future eye movements will also be used to turn virtual pages by a “swipe” of the gaze.

What, therefore, will testimony—the declaration of “I saw that”—mean? What registers now and in the future as evidence? No definitive answer to these questions is provided, simply an invitation to watch: to watch the camera eye roam the space and traverse the world through windowpanes.

Judy Radul, World Rehearsal Court, 2009, video still, courtesy of the artist

Karrabing Film Collective

The Karrabing Film Collective’s The Stealing C*nt$ (2017) is an exploration of theft, survivance, and toxic sovereignty in north Indigenous Australia. The work consists of four pieces: their 2016 film Windjarrameru, The Stealing C*nt$, and three works produced for Contour Biennale 8: Law Wall, Toxic Sovereignty #5, and Can you brighten yourselves?

Windjarrameru is the second of a three-part film exploration of what the collective calls “Living in Intervention Times”—the condition of life during the Australian state’s neoliberal experiment on Indigenous people. Windjarrameru tells the story of four young Indigenous men who find two cartons of beer in the bush only to be accused of stealing them by miners illegally working nearby a sacred site. The four young men flee into a contaminated swamp. Soon the police, the miners, and their extended family surround them. The film explores who goes to jail for what kind of stealing and how the ancestral landscape remains the same as it undergoes a toxic change.

The three works surrounding Windjarrameru draw out some of the legal and material conditions in which the film was made and about which the film reflects. The Law Wall reproduces white law that attempts to sit on top of Indigenous law—but is run through with ancestral beings that exist within the land. Toxic Sovereignty #5 explores the cartography of mutation, dispossession, and survival across a series of historical maps, miniature photography, and mutated creatures. Can you brighten up yourselves? uses an enlarged pixilated portrait of an ideal passport photo to work through different sorts of barriers to Indigenous movement—racialized and colonized incarceration, poverty, and securitization.

Karrabing Film Collective, Windjarrameru, The Stealing C*nt$, 2015, film still, 35’, courtesy of the artists

Lawrence Abu Hamdan

The recovered manifesto of Wissam [inaudible]

In the Chouf Mountains of Lebanon, old cassette tape is wrapped around fruit trees as a vernacular technique to ward off birds and insects. This makes a whole orchard of clementines become incandescent with dozens of pieces of tape containing hundreds of songs and sermons. One day, one tree, deep in an orchard, stood out to me. The tape that was protecting this tree’s clementines was much thinner—it was mini-cassette tape, the kind used in small Dictaphone recorders or answering machines. Anticipating a more personal content to this recording, I collected all the mini-cassette tape from the tree and harvested the voice that was magnetized to its surface. The voice had weathered badly in its tireless defense of the clementines, yet there were small fragments that remained recoverable. The process of recovery was demanding, some phonemes had to be listened to for hours in order to properly differentiate the muffled words from one another. After listening over and over again to the opening lines, I eventually heard the voice identify itself as Wissam [inaudible], and understood from Wissam that I was listening to an audio recorded manuscript for a book or a manifesto on the elusive concept of Taqiyya. Taqiyya is an esoteric Islamic juridical concept that is widely understood as the right to lie. The recovery of the voice is a laborious and protracted task, and the ninety minutes of running time presented in the garden of the Mechelen law courts are the totality of the audible fragments that I could salvage thus far.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Wissam, 2016, installation view at Maureen Paley London, courtesy of the artist and Maureen Paley

Madonna Staunton

Madonna Staunton is a Queensland-based artist and poet whose immersive practice is a key influence in Australian modernism. Staunton’s paintings emerge from an “inner impulse” derived from landscapes she has traversed, as self-portraits, letters to poets and authors, intuitively composed Dadaist assemblages, and color-laden abstract works. Across five decades of art making, Staunton has sought to understand the nature of the mind and structures of emotion within the realms of painting and sculpture. Her thinking is channeled through reading philosophy and theology, as well as being encircled by literature from Aldous Huxley to Franz Kafka.

Contour Biennale 8 presents a series of recent paintings, Immigrant (2008), The eye of the storm (2012), Base camp (2012), and Amputee (2010), which reflect the dark characteristics of slow violence while expressively chronicling the rise of alienation and entrapment in the contemporary human condition. Additionally, a set of monotypes, N.Y. 11 Sept 01 2001 (2001), record a fragmented and distraught body that also stands for the many lives lost to America’s “perpetual war” in the Middle East following the historic moment cited in the title. In close-up views of the artist’s hands, skin is pressed upon paper, exposing individual vulnerability in times of global unrest. One is reminded that eventually the body is a battleground.

Hearings

Madonna Staunton, Immigrant, 2008, synthetic polymer paint on card, 23 x 26 cm, courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane

Otobong Nkanga

Otobong Nkanga’s practice relies on modes of visual and performative storytelling that gesture toward the transition of “nature” into commodity and modernity as a terrain of constant displacement. Her recent work considers the poetics of stone and the intensive use of mineral fragments as personalized souvenirs, industrial source material, and boundary markers. The earth sediment is bound up in a chain of effects and ruptures across power struggles, deep extraction, and performative excess—and Nkanga’s work inevitably reads human bodies as fragmented, mineralized landscapes.

Nkanga also indulges in conversational formats and language play, interlacing Nigerian Pidgin English in her poetic verse for performance and film work. In the video, Reflections of the raw green crown (2014) the artist places her body opposite Berlin’s churches with green bell towers, elaborate roofs—and recites. The anonymous human subject and the raw mineral specimen are woven together while we watch the built landscape with architectonic deposits of malachite and azurite, possibly drawing from a historical mine in Namibia that the artist visits through her work’s journey—manifested in the modular installation, Tsumeb Fragments (2015). Both works engage memory, archival study, and field visits to the abandoned mine in Tsumeb, once known as Green Hill, that was hand mined by the Ovambo for generations and later given over to industrial extraction and heavy exportation under the German colonial administration in 1905.

I want to go where you were
The green mountain glistering afar
Land of incredible specimens
The finest of them all, they said.

—Otobong Nkanga, Reflections of the raw green crown, 2014

Otobong Nkanga, Remains of the Green Hill, 2015, video still, 5’48’’, exhibition view of “Comot Your Eyes Make I Borrow You Mine” at Kadist, Paris, photo: Aurélien Mole and courtesy of the artist

Pallavi Paul

My work is engaged in the technologies of poetry and time travel—proposing orders of tense malleability that inhabit nonfiction material. Using the disruption between “reality images” and “documentary” as a starting point, I attempt to create a laboratory of possibilities that test the contours of fantasy, resistance, politics, and history.

The ambition of my work is to create an imaginative playing field where historical combustion can be extricated from the languages of deficiency and mourning, to become a playful critical interface. A primary influence is the chaos of the contemporary and the dizzying tessellations that sprout from it.

The Dreams of Cynthia (2017) chases the inner life of its primary protagonist—who is at once imagined as a literary character, a measure of time, a form of experience, and a landscape. She also bears witness to the lives of two people—an executioner and a trans artist whose lives are intertwined within a small town in North India and with each other through an informal history of labor, violence, and death.

Pallavi Paul, The Dreams of Cynthia, 2017, video still, 44’, courtesy of the artist and Project 88

Pedro Gómez-Egaña

My work remains concerned with building a certain intimacy with places, conceiving temporal structures, and inscribing narration. This intimacy has to do with engaging the historical experience connected to a location, but also with the experiential nature of being present in a room with a particular sensorial background. Through study that ranges from the acoustic to the kinetic, to learn of minute characteristics and embedded chronicles of a site, I begin to consider how to stage the work such that there is both a mechanistic apparatus as well as a human involvement in the composing of a scene. The audience is often led to witness a sense of transportation in the process of becoming part of the work. The work involves the charting of proximity as well as distance, where handmade and automated constructions become counterpoised as an immersive environment and time perception is continually recomposed.

In Mechelen, I have become engrossed in learning about the complex tradition of riddles used within the polyphonic music of the Flemish Renaissance, and how music scribes inserted enigmatic texts in manuscript scores to be interpreted by the performer. Additionally, I have been fascinated with the early printing traditions of this region and find a poetic charge in the mechanical function of the printing press. Its articulations, gears, and levers have the aim of creating a moment of total darkness when ink and printing blocks are forced onto paper to produce a radical instance of exchange. The implications of these two referents—a linguistic silence and a mechanical darkness—constitute the central influences for The Moon Will Teach You (2017), which is hidden inside the attic of the Renaissance-era House of the Great Salmon.

Munich F Manuscript - Petrus Alamire, courtesy of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München

Rana Hamadeh

My artistic practice draws upon a curatorial approach and manifests in the development of longstanding discursive projects that think through the infrastructures of justice, militarism, histories of sanitation, and theater. In 2011, I initiated the ongoing project Alien Encounters, which operates as an incubator for a growing series of propositions that aim at complicating the notion of “alienness.” Throughout the project’s chapters, which take shape as performances, theatrical/cartographic works, sound- and text-based installations-as-stage-sets, as well as writings and conversations, the “alien” turns into a discursive tool that allows for the setting up of alternative archives from which to read and locate corporate and state-sponsored forms of violence and their enabling legal apparatuses.

For Contour Biennale 8, I am presenting the first iteration of an opera in progress, The Ten Murders of Josephine (working title)—a new, multi-faceted, two-year project composed of several sequential and interdependent iterations. Inherited from the genre of legal spectacle in part, and from my practice’s earlier claims of justice as the measure to which one can access theater, this operatic project brings forth a new intuition: it asks what would it mean to constitute oneself as a “testimonial subject” not only outside the bounds of the court of law, but, even more so, in place of the legal subject. Thinking the notion of the testimonial as the phonic trace of all that is unspeakable, rather than as the rational form of utterance that is bound to the workings of a tribunal. The performance, presented along with its exhibited script, tests out the limits at which theater bypasses justice and turns itself into an end—an end to which justice becomes a mere means.

Hearings

Rana Hamadeh, The Sleepwalkers, 2016, installation view at The Showroom, London, photo: Daniel Brooke and courtesy of the artist

Ritu Sarin & Tenzing Sonam

We have been making films together for three decades, telling stories about people our lives have intersected with and inquiring into issues that touch us directly. A recurring subject in our work is Tibet, with which we have been intimately involved; personally, politically, and artistically.

The multipart series Burning Against the Dying of the Light (2015–17) examines as well as contextualizes the politics of protest in Tibet, especially in its latest manifestation: the radical practice of self-immolation. It attempts to locate this unprecedented and dramatic expression of dissent within a historical continuum that has its roots in the occupation and colonization of Tibet under Chinese rule six decades ago—an ongoing process that now threatens the very survival of this ancient land as a sovereign and distinct entity. At the same time, by incorporating documentary evidence in the form of citizen videos, portraits, testimonials preceding death, poems, and letters, we attempt to shed light on the unresolved questions of the ethics, motivations, and justifications of this most horrific of political protests by framing them—as do the self-immolators themselves—within the weltanschauung of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

The newly commissioned film Drapchi Elegy (2017) builds upon this terrain of resistance through a portrayal of Namdol Lhamo, a middle-aged Tibetan woman who lives in Brussels and works as a housekeeper in an old people’s home. Lhamo is one of the famous Drapchi 14, a group of nuns imprisoned in the notorious Drapchi prison of Lhasa in the early 1990s for peacefully demonstrating against the Chinese occupation. This work reflects on the loneliness of political exile, and on the direct progression of the Tibetan freedom struggle, from the defiance of the nuns in the 1990s to the sacrifice of the self-immolators twenty years later.

Ritu Sarin & Tenzing Sonam, Drapchi Elegy, 2016, film still, courtesy of the artists

Rossella Biscotti

The ongoing project Other interlaces the history and use of the census and its definition of social categories and their position. Departing from the concept of punch cards, a tool and method based on a binary system used to program the Hollerith machine for early data processing and the automated Jacquard Loom, it considers the modification of population management and its default position toward individual histories. By working with comprehensive data, collected from Brussels’ population census, I examined the lives and relations of households to eventually replot this demographic analysis into the form of woven textile.

Moving through a hierarchical flow chart of “yes” or “no” answers to marital enquiries—centered on the criteria of a conventional family unit—the individual defines his/her final status. “Other” is the last box, a particular category of people that have “fallen out” of all given possibilities, for example: a person sharing an apartment with a fellow student or coworker, a grandparent hosted by a different family, or people in temporary living conditions. What I consider to be “institutional houses” are particular cases within “Other”: large amounts of people registered in one household (old people’s homes, refugee centers, or care homes). I traced and analyzed how a person’s residential status remains static or fluctuates, how an individual might be reabsorbed into a family structure, disappear, move away from the city, or die.

The textiles are a matrix composed of square modules where x and y are given conditions and z is the quantity of individuals that are placed in the same position. These quantities are represented by a grayscale, created through different woven bindings (where black is the highest density of people and white the lowest). Some individuals are singled out and their data reemerges in a textual form on the bottom of the matrix. This form of data montage establishes an intrinsic relation between “official” power structures and “unofficial” individual narratives.

Hearings

OTHER

Rossella Biscotti, Other (60 persons house), Other (44 persons house), 2014, installation view at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, 2015, photo: Cassander Eeftinck-Schattenkerk and courtesy of Wilfried Lentz Rotterdam, Mor Charpentier ©Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art

Susanne M. Winterling

The multipart installation Glistening troubles (2017) sets into motion a timely reflection on ideas of ecological solidarity as well as the poisonous and toxic aspects of life forms that possess a collaborative constitution and growth pattern. With a CGI audiovisual installation, sculptural works, and a sound composition, the project investigates close-up studies of algae varieties and the phenomenon of bioluminescence, shaped as performative research with non-human actors, used to tell stories and theorize further the deep impact of the Capitolocene upon precarious ecosystems. It engages concepts of an “anthropology of the otherwise,” radical feminisms, demolishing and refracting the nature/culture border, and the subaltern.

Much of the project’s research on species “lighting up” oceanic terrains, animated studies of fungi constellations, as well as bacterial productivity is nurtured through field research in the Caribbean, in particular the glistening waters of Puerto Rico and Jamaica. Collaborative working structures include dialogues with local fishing communities and scientific laboratories to gain a perspective on indigenous knowledge, environmental politics, and non-Western models that study the earth system through algae, highlighting our mutual dependencies and acting as a navigation system.

Bringing together knowledge formation from different branches of the sciences—biology, oceanography, ecology, and microscopy—to intertwine with social theory, digital culture, and avant-garde science fiction, Glistening troubles engages an interspecies solidarity to invert the power hierarchy that entirely privileges human impact in re-coding the Earth’s present and future geo-narrative. At Contour Biennale 8, the viral nature of this artistic work constantly shifts the sentient experience of its underground venue—located close to a riverbank that forms the main artery of Mechelen city and opposite to The House of the Great Salmon.

Susanne M. Winterling, Glistening troubles, 2017, CGI animation still, courtesy of the artist

Trevor Paglen

Trevor Paglen explores the limits of visibility across varying registers of governmental surveillance while deploying satellite imaging, mapping, and undersea network cables, and consistently engaging with sensitive documents of the “deep state.” Trained as a photographer and a geographer, previous projects have taken him to drone bases, secret military installations, and to observe the movement of ghost prisoners in CIA black sites.

Contour Biennale 8 presents the wall-size lexicon on state secrecy and mass surveillance Code Names (2001–ongoing), a list of words, phrases, and terms recounting classified military programs and intelligence units. These cryptic and often uncanny entries, ranging from “Desperado” to “Giant Cave,” illustrate the massive spread of networked intelligence-gathering operations and form a language cannon of militaristic activity—while also accumulating visual evidence of classified exercises such as the Pentagon’s “Special Access Program,” which remain active as a global spying constellation.

To catch sight of classified military bases and remotely located surveillance sites is impossible for the unaided “civilian eye.” These hidden infrastructures are decoded and optically accessed through Paglen’s video series Limit Telephotography/ Janet Video (2006), which employs high-powered telescopes with focal lengths ranging between 1,300 and 7,000 milimeters, resembling the magnification levels needed for astrophotography. In plotting a Janet aircraft at a United States Air Force base, this accompanying artist video is ultimately a stealth endeavor toward unraveling the military industrial complex.

Hearings

Trevor Paglen, Code Names (installation view), Ongoing list of classified Military and Intelligence programs, 2001 to present, dimensions variable, courtesy of the artist

Trinh Thi Nguyen

My work with moving images has been a process of opening up to potentialities, sometimes unintended, of sound, images, texts, and preexisting materials; of searching for hidden structures that underlie our realities, while resisting the power and authority of the image, narration, and representation.