Film By Other Means: Monument Group at, ‘Forcible Frames’

I wanted to reflect briefly on last Tuesday’s workshop with the Monument Group: Four Faces of Omarska. In their introduction, Jelena Petrović and Milica Tomić described the Monument Group/Grupa Spomenik as a collective who convened ‘working groups’ to engage with an archive of materials and histories concerned with the war in former Yugoslavia, and indicated social sculpture as their underlying methodology.

The working group, Four Faces of Omarska, is concerned with a specific geopoliticised site that has passed through four distinct phases, overlaying it with multiple co-existing narratives. Omarska is simultaneously:
  1. a metal deposit in a region of former the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina that emerged after the war as part of the (ethnically cleansed) Republika Srpska.
  2. the site of the Omarska concentration camp which lasted from May–August 1992, facilitating the genocide of thousands of Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) whose remains are still on the site.
  3. a current mining complex operated by the steel manufacturing conglomerate ArcelorMittel.
  4.  a film set for the World War I ‘ethno-historical blockbuster’ St George Slays the Dragon (2009), which received significant funding from the the governments of the Republika Srpska and Serbia. 
We were given a hasty overview of the archive, as an already complex and contested history that I think most of us felt uncomfortable and unqualified to speak about. However, Jelena and Milica signalled some ways for us to engage with this difficult material. ‘Film by other means’ emerged as one such strategy derived from a supplied text Kapo from Omarska (2009) by the film theorist Pavle Levi in which he reasons his decision not to watch St George Slays the Dragon as an ethical imperative, declaring ‘In the name of cinema, I have not seen and will not see this film’. The Four Faces of Omarska approached Levi’s text as a set of instructions for a work of conceptual art, which they drew in relation to a performance art piece devised by film director Milčo Mančevski, 1’74”. In his instructions for the piece Mančevski deconstructs a common understanding of cinema with a set of questions that might also speak to structuralist/materialist film practices, that I had transcribed as: 
  • Does film have to be exposed? 
  • Does film have to be screened? 
  • Does film have to be tape (celluloid)? 
  • Does film have to have a story? 
  • Does film have to exist in order to be a film? 
Compelled by Levi’s refusal to watch St George Slays the Dragon, the working group is urged to find ‘the images behind the images we reject to watch.’

If cinema is understood to be the definitive language of the twentieth century, the idea of ‘film by other means’ suggests another approach to cameraless film making, based on the deconstruction of the common language of film itself. Departing from the formalist notion of film making as sculpting light in time and space, cinema might also be understood as an articulation of actions, affects and duration. As such, the camera is no longer the principle device (or signifier) that brings cinema into being, but rather it is the artist-audience as an apparatus that frame, edit and co-produce the unfolding cinematic event.

The previous day’s exercise, Following Piece and Looking and Listening, effectively instructed the participant to behave as a camera and concluded by linking the act of observing to speech. The working groups formed for the Four Faces of Omarska were informed by a notion of ‘collective editing’, or rather the act of speech that drives the cinematic event, suggesting a discursive form of cinema. This understanding of cinema as a practice emphasises acts of translation, interpretation, debate and consensus.

The results of our workshop with the Monument Group’s Four Faces of Omarska were presented to the public as a set of separate, but interrelated vignettes. These encompassed interviews that veered towards interrogation, a concept for an actual film, performative actions and discussions of very specific aspects of the archive that as a group we had accessed very fleetingly. Furthermore it became apparent that this ‘act of cinema’ could only be realised with an audience — those outside the processes being presented, that nevertheless played an active role in the event’s becoming. The exchanges between the co-producers of the event — the sociability between performer and audience — is then the material of a discursive cinema.

Continuing to think through a discourse of cinema, what might a notion of discursive cinema bring to bear on the opposing and diverging threads of film history and praxis; as documentary, as drama and representation, and as investigations of its material and structural qualities?

Milica Tomic. 2010. Four Faces of Omarska: Memorial as a Social Sculpture – Artwork as Common Good and Property.
Grupa Spomenik/Monument Group.
Pavle Levi. 2009. Kapo from Omarska.

Published no-w-here Open Studio Blog, 6 July 2013.

Poetics of Failure: A correspondence with Joaquin Segura

Exercises on Selective Mutism 2012. (Installation view) Handmade protest banners, wood, rope, steel wire & latex paint

SS: In a recent interview with Brett W Schultz you state:

“As I've made clear in the past, I don't really believe in the notion of 'identity' or the idea of 'nation', which I find totally laughable and heartwarmingly passé. I'm convinced that these are totally outdated models of understanding our differences and similarities, expanding our already immense and irreconcilable cultural abysses instead of bringing them together, thus resulting in their total dispersion among the complex and extremely arbitrary weaving of contemporary social nucleii. Pretty much a frankly bad joke, if I may say so. The fact that I live and work in Mexico is a completely random geographical and temporal factor, which of course affects what I think and what I do, but I've chosen not to be limited by this specific circumstance. In the past, while working abroad, I've taken advantage of this preconception of Mexico—to be more exact, pretty much all of Latin America—as one of the last barbaric bastions of western civilization. Totally amusing, if you ask me about it. I consider my practice to be, among other things, a gonzo strategy of deceit: there are quite a few roles you can adopt in this approach that may actually reveal themselves to be a privileged vantage point. In my experience, the gentle savage is one of the most effective ones to establish my standing position. Thus, I'm a Mexican artist if I need it to prove my point. If it's not necessary in a specific circumstance, I'm not. Quite simple, I think. Said in other words, it's just an ace I can play to win a particular match. It has worked so far, at least for me.” [1]

I am also very interested in the idea of postnationalism that you refer to in the above quote, and am trying to a get a sense of the idea as it exists beyond political theory. I know that when I'm working in Sydney I tend to feel quite confined, entrapped. Like you, I take no truck in the notion of 'identity' or 'nation', however sometimes when I'm working abroad I have a sense of being 'made in Australia', in that certain events and ideas have shaped the concerns that I find myself returning to.

JS: I’ve spent much time lately thinking about those very notions you touch on. Overall, I think the importance we consciously or unconsciously convey to localisms may be, in the end, a survival strategy. It may very well represent a desperate attempt to rely on uniqueness as an exchange token in the market of symbolic capital. In other words, to make a rather fragmented context mean something somehow. In the end, perhaps we’ll be able to see it from a distance and perceive that it always was about totalitarian systems of thought — in every sense you can possibly imagine. This is exactly what I refer to when stating that perhaps we must adopt our cultural differences and use them as a departure point to attempt to empathize with everyone else. Which may very well be a botched battle from the start, but hey, we can try and no one can blame us for that.

Untitled 2012 from the series The Messiah Syndrome

Along with postnationalism, the idea of failed states is one that has been haunting me over the past few years. I consider my work to be a sketch on some sort of poetics of failure and disenchantment. There are a few key concepts that I’ve briefly incorporated along this glorification of downfall: impossibility, absurd and nonsense as vital driving force behind any human act. Wherever this may have taken me, I’m always experiencing a deep feeling of disenfranchisement; not as something I’ve been pushed to but as a strongly personal choice. After all, I may be more interested on the sole existence of these concepts as an idea. I’ve grown sick of the idea of contemporary art as a tool or platform striving towards meaningful social change. Not at all. I don’t believe in change, I believe in failure. I’m strongly convinced that if you’re actually interested in bringing down any social structure you should take the streets and torch a car — not work within the safe limits of a studio, producing commodified objects that are easily integrated into a market dynamic that actually relies on harsh ‘critique’ to reinforce itself.

I think my work is, indeed, an attempt to deceive, understood as an effort to get rid of the sociopolitical framework that took us — or me at least — to this point in history.

SS: You’ve exhibited in a number of prestigious shows, received several prizes and garnered international acclaim, yet when Laura and I contacted the Mexican consulate here in an attempt to bring you out as a representative of the country's ‘dynamic contemporary arts scene’ we suspect you weren't the kind of artist they had in mind.

JS: Quite fair. I could perfectly imagine that. It would be totally natural as I do think I’m not really the artist I myself expected to be.

I believe the situation is of course far more complex and I view it as the logical outcome of the strategy I’ve devised over the past few years. I think I am now where I wanted to be some time ago. My practice relies on understanding legitimating structures, the way they’re built and how they operate. The next step is to use these conjectures – however deep or superficial they may prove – to cause a collision within the structure itself. I’m absolutely repelled by the idea of state and institution. I cannot deny that I’ve received support from institutional structures in the past – and continue to do so – but I don’t see this as a contradiction to what I’m stating in these few lines. I think it is one of the most pressing duties of a contemporary artist nowadays: confront, discomfort and challenge. Although I can always wear a mariachi hat and drink my brains out if strictly necessary.

For the Grace of God 2012

SS: I'd like to discuss how artists operate in largely self-determined ways, but are obliged to make certain concessions in order to secure institutional support. Certainly there are a number of artists that have come out of Mexico over the last decade that have achieved international acclaim that contribute to the perception of the country as an incubator for subversive or confrontational practices. Immediately I think of Teresa Margolles and Yoshua Okón, alongside Santiago Sierra when he was there in the 1990s. It gives the impression that the Mexican art world has a lot of game, however it seems works that overtly critique the ironies and extremes of contemporary Mexican life still ruffle some feathers?

JS: My generation seems to be located at this unbelievably complex point in which we are situated in a privileged position where we are beginning to enjoy a fair part of the attention the artists you very well mention attracted initially because of their provocative modus operandi, not only practice-wise, but as icons of rupture. It’s just that it turns out this has not been as positive as it sounds. I can see that the excessive attention brought down on Mexican contemporary art in the past few years has contributed to what I think is a certain loss of edge; at least in the younger artists that came after — and from which I’m undeniably part of, willingly or not. Think of it as the unavoidable hangover after a rather eventful night out. A process of normalisation; but I think that happens to any particular energy that might have taken you by surprise at a certain time.

Truth is you can’t really have fun all the time. There’s a moment in which you are forced to stop and reflect; this may very well be the actual point where we failed as a generation. Yes, the artists you mention all paved the way but there is one point when my generation should have taken command, or at least share their provocative mindsets, not just get the free drinks. I think we missed that critical moment – perhaps it happened over a museum cocktail or during the annual Mexico City art fair-; even though, it’s definitely not too late. I think there are still a rather solid group of artists sharing this set of concerns: think of Artemio, Ruben Gutierrez, or younger artists like Cristian Franco or Edgar Cobian. These are some of the most cynical, interesting and challenging people over there. They’re just not too interested in the spotlight but boy, are they interested in fucking stuff up. Talk about professional suicide, and then again, maybe not. Maybe we’re part of the same problem, just sold in a different package.

SS: Obviously, different strokes appeal to different folks and art audiences are as varied as the artists they endorse. There has been a buzz around contemporary art in Mexico in recent years. Cuauhtémoc Medina, who was in Australia earlier this year (2012) to discuss his curatorial projects including this year's Manifesta, has also been subject to your critical provocations? Could you describe what happened?

JS: This is a long story, and a rather funny one. I still believe that the contemporary art apparatus in Mexico has definitely a univocal operating procedure. What is meant to be a dialogue doesn’t really constitute one; it’s pretty much about implanting standards through pontification and submission. A few years back, me and a fellow young artist with whom I used to collaborate back then talked a lot about this; how the figure of the few Mexican art critics we had were pretty much quasi-religious icons; untouchable and unattainable, with the power to demolish or project a young artist’s career to the stratosphere with the almighty touch of their magnanimous pens and rather ambiguous writings. This, rather than frustrating, was absolutely amusing to me. I’ve always been interested in the nature of any form of power, its inner workings and how it is obtained. So we were on a cigarette break during the installation of Damien Hirst’s first Mexican show where we both functioned as glorified laborers and we came up with this idea of making a Buddha sculpture in the likeness of Cuauhtémoc Medina, who as you very well mention, is a Mexican curator with a highly international profile, in Latin America and pretty much everywhere else. This was because, at least to us, he was the most visible face of this apparatus we were trying to understand and challenge. What follows next could take up the whole extension of this interview, so I won’t go into any further detail, but it was rather revealing. Cuauhtémoc got the joke after some time and he even had one of those over at his place at some point. I don’t know if he still does. In the name of truth, he wasn’t delighted at all when all this happened, but I guess he thought it over and understood our exact point: we live among constructs and even when some may be taken as absolute truths, there’s nothing like that anywhere. The position he occupies is just one of those constructions. It was really never personal. Absolutely everything is there to be challenged, denied and taken down. At any cost.

Cuauhtémoc Buddha 2006 Joaquin Segura & Renato Garza Collaboration

SS: You are also on record for being critical of the international art figure Gabriel Orozco for claiming to be a Mexican? For me your position on 'being Mexican' is somewhat confusing. In a recent email you indicated that you think it was time for you to get out of Mexico for a while. Why so? Is Mexico still home?

JS: I think being Mexican is not really what is confusing; Mexico is. Call it a love-relationship if you will, but I’m convinced that the whole place is falling to pieces. Which is really exciting from a certain point of view but it’s also consuming and exhausting. My interest on Gabriel Orozco is not really on the particular aesthetic he has managed to create and cultivate in the past couple decades, although I mostly consider it to be a highly exoticizing and marketable take on the improvised spirit that permeates our country — or whatever the hell it can be called now. In other words, it’s always about politics. I’m rather intrigued on the position he built from himself in the Mexican art circuit and how at some point everything else seemed to revolve around him. I don’t believe he’s the demi-god a handful of people think he is. I believe he stopped making interesting work years ago; as I don’t believe in the possibility of poetry, I consider his ‘highly-poetic’ practice to be rather corny and pseudo-nostalgic. But it’s undeniable he knew how to play his cards; deciphering the trick is way more appealing to me than a clay lump held by a bare-chested guy.

I don’t know if Mexico is home, as I don’t know if it ever was. It’s definitely a place I understand despite all its blatant contradictions, rampant disparities and unbelievable energy in other aspects. It’s a place where I can think and make work but it’s so demanding on a daily basis that I also feel I should establish distance and learn to relate to this non-territory from away. It’s one thing to believe in the seductiveness of disaster and chaos and a completely different one actually facing it day to day. I guess I’ll always go back there one way or another; after all, food is good and ladies are quite alright. Beer is also dirt-cheap.

Untitled (Gringo Loco) 2009

SS: Early in your career you earned a reputation as a provocative upstart. One incident in particular concerns the work Untitled (Gringo Loco) (2009), an exact replica of the sign that welcomes visitors to Las Vegas that reads “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada” in lights. Your homage however reads “Fuck Off You Chili-eatin' Gringo Loco Up Your Ass”. Given the history and politics of the region I'd expect that a degree of antagonism towards the US is quite the norm in Mexico, so I was surprised to learn that your sign is was more specifically concerned with issues surrounding a proposed Guggenheim Museum in the city of Guadalajara, and was commissioned by the city itself. Days before the project opened the Mayor of Guadalajara de-authorised your work and had the police escort you from the site where you were installing at gunpoint.

JS: The whole thing was actually a joint project between Arena Mexico, my gallery in Guadalajara, and the city cultural commission. It included a show in a state-operated space that displayed work from a period of about eight years, a second exhibition in the gallery showcasing all new projects, the public sculpture you mention and a three day seminar with fellow artists, curators and writers around the themes that inform my production. We worked on that for almost a year and in the end that was what made me come to Guadalajara in the first place as I had spent most of that year in Los Angeles and trying to cover all that from a distance proved a bit complicated. To cut a long story short, yeah, you got the facts pretty pinned down. The city pulled off just before the unveiling of the sculpture claiming they were not aware of the actual content of the sculpture, but hey, the secretary of culture himself participated in the press conference on the whole thing. After that, they clumsily sabotaged the rest of the program as was widely documented in local and national press and pretty much enacted what came out to be a poorly acted slapstick sketch. That was a bit amusing actually. This guy was so paranoid about everything that was going on that he was sure we were taping all our conversations with him to bring him down. It wasn’t really necessary. He was stupid enough to do it by himself, we just watched.

SS: It was a dramatic sequence of events, was there any other fall out?

JS: Not really, although I would say my relationship to official exhibition spaces in Guadalajara became a bit complicated. Not that I particularly care. They would still invite me to develop projects but they never happened, such as the exhibition that I was asked to propose to the Museo de Arte de Zapopan in 2011 and in which I spent months working, with lots of genuinely interested people collaborating in the project, just to have it put on hold a few weeks before actual production, allegedly because of ‘adverse political climate’ in words of its director. Now, that makes me wonder what the ideal political climate for contemporary art might be?

SS: This incident adds an extra layer of irony to the work – which I understand you have exhibited recently (where?) – but anecdotes such as these also serve to affirm a perception of Mexico that is, as you say, ‘one of the last barbaric bastions of western civilization.’

JS: The sculpture remains unseen as we speak. There have been a number of proposals to show it here and there but for some reason, they never seem to go ahead. It doesn’t really bother me at all. The sculpture is stored in this beautiful open-air workshop, with weed growing all around it, as in a carefully controlled decay process. I think that perhaps that’s the way some works should function: as a trigger in ad-lib socio-political experiments and not as objects with an exchange value within the art market. The physical work itself was important because that was what made everything happen, but when it all ended, perhaps it’s nothing else but a fancy souvenir. Quite bulky too.

SS: Are there plans to show it in Guadalajara?

JS: God, no. Although messing with cultural officers and city authorities is actually my idea of good old-natured fun, it takes too much time and I’m a bit busy at the moment. They must wait. Maybe in a couple years I’ll be back for round two.

SS: The Guggenheim franchise has also copped some criticism of late over human rights violations of workers building the museum in Abu Dhabi. Given your recent escalating status if you were commissioned to produce a work for the Guggenheim, what would you do?

JS: Something absurdly huge and expensive. Something horrid and pointless, I guess. Those all seem to be prerequisites for almost any public project financed by an institution of the sort. Which is not necessarily bad at all; it can still be fun.

Things left unsaid (but not forgotten) #1  2011

SS: I was in Mexico over 2010—11, a period of time marked by celebrations for the bicentenary of Independence and the centenary of the Revolution, but also as violence between warring organised crime cartels — the so called 'Narco Wars' — escalated at an alarming rate. The regularity of killings, the very visible and often formally arranged displays of death, the trophy videos and narco communiqués were both horrific and banal, and often the topic of conversation – to paraphrase Margolles, ‘what else is there to talk about?’ However, I was also very conscious of being a gringo and commenting on a situation that I could simply walk away from.

JS: That’s perfectly ok. I do think it’s a privileged position but when I find myself in a similar stance, I have no prejudice towards using it in my own favor when confronting a specific set of problems in a different context than the ones I’m used to operate in. We should pretty much take advantage of that when located in that liminal point when you can enunciate a clear statement even though there are aspects of it that may or may not reveal themselves at the time. After all, and talking specifically about what you saw in Mexico, a severed head in an ice cooler is pretty much universal.

SS: We first met at the opening of Simon Fujiwara's exhibition at Proyectos Monclova, Mexico City where he premiered the work Letters from Mexico (2011). Letters… is a series of semifictional missives addressed to ‘Yorop’ Fujiwara’s observations (and deliriums) as he travelled to sites of historical significance over the last days of 2010 – a year that marked the bicentenary of Independence, and the centenary of the Revolution. Fujiwara had dictated his thoughts touching on colonial legacies and class discrepancies, in English, to street typists who transcribed his words as a phonetic Spanglish that needs to be read out aloud to be understood. Fujiwara’s account takes some clever narrative turns and there is a final twist where the typists themselves revolt.

Fujiwara often presents his work as an autobiographical fiction playing off his mixed race heritage, and cosmopolitan upbringing with homoerotic figurations and gestures. He has become something of a pin-up boy for “multiethnic, multidisciplinary”[2] postnational practices; a globe-trotting transcultural commentator, who teases out the ironies of race, identity, sexuality and history via a self-reflexive ficto-critique.

I still think of Letters.. as a rather elegant collaboration, that makes use of mistranslation and self-effacing humour, but I recall the patrons were divided?

JS: I found it to perfectly fit with one of my most personally dreaded sub-genres of recent contemporary art in Mexico – el arte de turistas. Famously practiced by Gabriel Orozco, a tourist in his own country, yes, but with a solid following in the years after him. Just a few weeks ago, I saw a Ryan Gander invite for his show in a major Mexican museum. It displayed three bottles of local soft drinks lined up on a rosa mexicano coloured tablecloth at a street restaurant somewhere in Mexico. The show was actually named after the combination of the beverage’s brand names. Really? I don’t think that postnationalism has anything to do with exoticisation at all. I think it actually has to do with the denial of that exact same notion.


[1] Schultz, Brett W. “Gonzo Strategies of Deceit: An Interview with Joaquin Segura”, continent. 1.2, 2011, pp 117-124.
[2] Morgan, Jessica “Simon Fujiwara”, Artforum International September 2010.


An edited version of this interview was Published in Das Superpaper Issue 25: Periférico, November 2012

The Work of Art in the Age of Neoliberal Acculturation: Reflections on a correspondence with Karmelo Bermejo.

Contribution of Fuel to the Costa Da Morte 2005
Ten kilos of fuel-oil poured into the sea at the Costa Da Morte. 

I came across Karmelo Bermejo’s work through an offhand photograph of a scuffed Nilfisk vacuum cleaner in an otherwise slick art magazine, captioned: Internal Component of the Vacuum Cleaner of an Art Centre Director Replaced by a Solid Gold Replica with the Funds of the Centre He Directs, 2010.

Intrigued, I sent Karmelo an email, leading to correspondence and eventually a meeting at Documenta 13, where in suitably cosmopolitan surrounds, we mapped common friends and divulged plans. After some time, Karmelo announced he would like to present me with a gift, flipping open his wallet, producing a crisp, green one hundred Euro bill.

‘Take it.’

Sumugan Sivanesan — With your series Contribution of Labour Free of Charge to… 2005—2007 you subvert assumptions about work, value and exchange by voluntarily cleaning the windows, displays and tables of multinational corporations. How did these businesses react to your gifts of labour — were there confrontations with management or security?

Karmelo Bermejo — Yes, there were always confrontations with management, security and with the police too.

SS — Were you ever physically removed?

KB — Yes, every time.

SS — Is it a crime to volunteer unrequested labour to a profit-making enterprise?

KB — I did not volunteer my labour, I just executed it.

SS — When you contribute free labour to Burger King, the Deutsche Bank and Gucci you do the work of a cheap, exploitable workforce, consistent with the profitable functioning of business, but for Contribution of Fuel to the Costa da Morte 2005 you re-perform a major oil spill, a costly accident that was the result of incompetence. Was this a parody or a memorial to the ecological disaster?

KB — Neither.

SS — Or something of both, like a memorial to incompetence?

KB — I do not run my own pedagogy department. The answer is no to all of the above. Since it is the spectator who finishes the work, no work of art in this world is ever finished.

SS — The pre-modern practice of ‘potlatch’ — a lavish expenditure offered ‘with the goal of humiliating, defying and obligating the rival’(Bataille, 1933 p121) — has been posed as the precursor to contemporary forms of economic exchange. Do your gifts of labour seek to humiliate these corporations?

KB — A potlatch happens without compromising or revealing its objectives; this is to say, without considering itself a ‘potlatch’. Revealing the objective of a work of art compromises the objective of the work.

SS — To me this series suggests an excess of labour that in advanced economies flows into the (anti) production of art as an indicator of cultural prestige.

KB — Exactly.

The Readymade Artist
According to curator Lorenzo Fusi, the Contribution... series ‘empowers those who normally perform these duties for little money and reveals the truth of their exploitation’ (Fusi, 2010 p30). What then do these gifts of labour reveal about the exploitation of artists?

The vanguard assertion of an autonomous sphere of art, from which one may consider and critique the conditions of life, is currently manifest as the art world — a globalised constellation of galleries, museums, schools, studios, publications, fairs and international events animated by a circulation of curators, collectors, critics, theorists, historians, educators, administrators, installers, production assistants, personal assistants and other skilled and unskilled labour forces — the expanded field of art. Across this rarefied terrain, artists undertake paid and unpaid work to compete for grants, residencies, institutional endorsements, gallery representation, critical favour and recognition, in a contest synced with the art market intent on commodifying the experiences of an intensified cultural existence.

In this late capitalist mise-en-scéne, artists have evolved into a semi-professional ‘creative class’ who exploit their networks, skills, work and leisure time to facilitate an art scene — a giddy social-political milieu, the financialisation of which benefits corporate-civic brands and private investors. Artists conditioned in the thin air of social competition no longer critique the status quo, but instead aspire to become it, a deeply conformist twist on the vanguardist demand to collapse art into life. Are artists themselves now the ultimate readymade?

Internal Component of the Vacuum Cleaner of an Art Centre Director
Replaced by a Solid Gold Replica with the Funds of the Centre He Directs:
The Vacuum Cleaner at the Director´s House
18 carat gold, undisclosed dimensions 
The vacuum cleaner at all times remains the property of the Art Centre Director. 

A Bruit Secret
SSInternal Component of the Vacuum Cleaner of an Art Centre Director Replaced by a Solid Gold Replica with the Funds of the Centre He Directs 2010 redirects public funds into the private sphere. This publicly funded artwork becomes the property of the director, which he can then sell for personal profit. You also refuse your artist fee, effectively gifting him the work. With the Contribution... series you are also gifting power, but as a series of disruptions in business-as-usual, enabling a critical re-evaluation of ‘work’. With Internal Component… only the director/owner of this work can access the gold component, enriching him not only in material wealth, but also with a ‘secret knowledge’, in an arrangement that seems to distill the wealth, class and social inequalities inherent in globalised Capitalism. How is it that you now come to be effectively gifting power without recourse?

KB — In chess, there is a move called ‘pawn for pawn’, it takes place a priori since both parts agree it will be beneficial for them. Certain moves are good for both, even if adversaries are irreconcilable in the game. The commonly agreed aim is to go forth until the end of the game, towards the defeat of one of the adversaries. Waiving the fees was an insistence on the gift — a bruit secret1 — that is why my activity as an artist mustn’t be remunerated. If I were to reveal that the gift had a defined goal, it would deactivate the notion of the gift. So, I offered my service of deviation of institutional funds to the director for free. The director becomes the proprietor of exclusive information he alone knows. If anyone should believe this to be a lie, they can demand their money back. Public money that is, or are public art institutions mechanisms for lying?

SS — Where is the vacuum cleaner now? Is it for sale on the secondary market? If so, for what price?

KB — I don’t know. Ask the owner: Ferran Barenblit.

The Use-value of Life
Chicago School economist Gary S. Becker proposes that people as commodified agents can add use-value to their ‘human capital’ by improving their competitiveness in the market according to its desires: undertaking education and training, caring for their health and so on.

In a neoliberal scenario an artist’s value is less determined by the commodities they produce than how they are perceived by the market and their ability to generate a satisfying return on investment. This profile might be determined by factors such as museum and private collection holdings, the receipt of prizes and awards, one’s exhibition history, the opinions of critics and speculators as well as an artist’s notoriety, all of which contribute to their cultural capital.

Solid gold nugget painted in false gold

The Anti-production of Art
SS —The piece < is a solid gold nugget coated in imitation gold. The Spanish Conquistadors melted down much of the gold artefacts they pillaged into bullion, reducing the cultural or occult worth of these objects to that of their base material.

KB — Exactly. However, gold painted in fake gold is more expensive than gold itself.

SS0 is the documentation of a grant you received for €2000 to produce an artwork that you then refused to make, which you later reimburse. Can you reveal what you refused to make?

KB — No.

SS+ 0 is the documentation of the interest accrued on this grant after you delayed the repayment for a year. Was this amount also gifted back to the funding body?

KB — Yes, hence the + 0, which is the symbolic value I granted to that money, the legal credit of the money intended to keep the amount from devaluating in the process of delinquency. The internal logic of this piece answered exclusively to a one-sided decision: my own. Not counting the museum, it was I who developed the piece, gave back the money and paid the interest. I weighed the possibility of the Museum financing the additional expense entailed in the payment of the interest of the money, so that the completed piece would remain enclosed in an algorithm equal to 0, however this idea was discarded so that the activity of the Museum on the piece went exclusively in another direction. This is because the Museum was unconsciously turning into a more elegant accomplice by financing the framing of the piece and giving it the status of a trophy according to my instructions. The Ministry of Culture, co-author due to financing, is also one of the members of the board of the Museum. The Ministry in its display of labyrinthine finance, framed and hung the piece in a context far more important than paying for it. However, the piece was also funded by them. Not only does Spain pay traitors it also erects their statues.

SS-10,000 consists of €10,000 Euros from the Fundación Botín, buried in the grounds of the museum and marked by a bronze plaque. The money, taken out of circulation and hermetically sealed, is unable to be put to work or even generate interest. What is the purpose of removing this money from circulation and production?

KB — I am not yet in a position to talk about this piece on those terms. I’ll give you another example: on the piece Tip 2007 a fine was paid with public money that came from a State grant; furthermore the fine-collector was given a 10% tip over the price of the sanction. A year later, the application requirements for that grant featured a new clause specifying the existence of a new infraction — paying fines with grant money. Tip would have made room for prohibition, which is great, but it would have also contributed to positive case law, not only on a merely legal sense, but also regarding art. The valuable aspect is art.

Tip 2007Fine plus a 10% gratuity.
The inspector of the Hamburg line U-Bahn paid with public money the amount
corresponding to the fine imposed for travelling without a ticket, plus a 10% gratuity. 

Matters of Life and Debt
‘Are you satisfied it is real?’

I snap the note between my fingers to test its tensility, holding it up to the light to inspect its watermark and signs of integrity.

‘Do you want to go to a bank and have them prove it?’

I am surprised by his unexpected gift, but cautious. What’s the catch? Karmelo reaches into his pocket and retrieves a cheap plastic lighter.

‘Now burn it.’

Cash and coins are fetish items of fortunes-yet-to-come and triggers for misplaced desires. So what is it to burn money — or more precisely be gifted the opportunity to burn money, free from any notion of guilt or personal financial consequence? What is money’s use-value in this occult form of expenditure? Does desire itself mutate as such uncommonsensical gifts erupt from market-determined life? What is the force of debt that such a gift bestows?

-x 2012Bank notes, glue, dimensions indeterminateAn undisclosed sum of false counterfeit banknotes,
acquired with public money and moulded by hand by the Director of the Art Centre into a ball, which was
later auctioned in order to be burnt by the highest bidder at a secret meeting later in the Director’s office. 

The Secret Value of Art Work
In June, Karmelo produced a work at Casa Del Lago, Mexico City entitled -x. It follows a mathematical logic to rationalise the financialised personal relations between the artist, museum director and collector and their deliberately misleading acts in the service of art. The institution’s funds were used to acquire an undisclosed amount of ‘false’ counterfeit bank notes — real bills which were glued together with the same face on either side. The director hand-moulded these ‘false false’ bills into a very tight ball, which was then auctioned off to the highest bidder for an undisclosed sum, ‘x’. Framed within the functions of an esteemed cultural institution, such actions produce weird oscillations that disturb the worth of the raw material bank notes, their ability as counterfeits to de-value a currency, and their indeterminate value as symbolic objects, both as money and as art. When we met, Karmelo revealed to me documentation, from behind the closed doors of the director’s office, of the collector burning the actual money he had paid, hence its title -x and the secret function of the work.

With these acts Bermejo appears to alter assumptions about professionalised artmaking as ‘selling out’ into a series of strangely emancipatory tasks that subvert the commodification of relations between people — the market capture of life. The irrational desires that produce such art unveil a systemic error inherent in the logic of Capitalism at work in both public and private spheres, effecting an apocalyptical recouping of life from the market.

‘Next I will send you a certificate of authenticity.’


Bermejo’s gifts of burning money are entitled . that refers to the value exchanged for the amount being burned. It follows the logic that money is finite, whereas the edition is infinite.

Translations by Andrea Quiñones Armería and editing assistance from Tessa Zettel. 


Reference List
Georges Bataille, ‘The Notions of Expenditure’, 1933, in Allan Stoekl (ed., trans.) Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927—1939, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2008, pp 116-29.

Gary S Becker, Human Capital: A theoretical and empirical analysis, with special reference to education, National Bureau of Economic Research, New York, 1975.

Nicholas Brown, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Real Subsumption under Capitalism’,, Emory College of Art and Sciences, 13 March 2012. 

Claire Fontaine, Ready-Made Artist and Human Strike: A few Clarifications [PDF], translated from French by Olivier Feltham and Continuous Project, Paris, November 2005. 

Lorenzo Fusi, ‘Re:thinking Trade’, in Lewis Biggs, Paul Domela,  Sacha Waldron, Andrew Kirk (eds) Touched—The Book Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art Ltd, 2010 p 30.

Pascal Gielen, ‘The Art Scene. A Clever Working Model for Economic Exploitation?’ Open 17: A Precarious Existence, Vulnerability in the Public Domain, SKOR, 2009.


Published un Magazine 6.2 [PDF 5.8MB] December 2012.

A collective inquiry into our present through various proposals

dOCUMENTA (13), 9 June – 16 September 2012, Kassel, Germany.

“You are worse than capitalism!” was an insult leveled at me during a recent visit to Kassel. Indeed, the overarching effects of global capitalism have occupied the minds of numerous critical thinkers over recent years, as reflected in the welcome statement of dOCUMENTA (13) curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev:
dOCUMENTA (13) is driven by a holistic and non-logocentric vision that is skeptical of the persisting belief in economic growth. [1]
If the first documenta in 1955 was a cultural project aimed at re-aligning Germany to liberal democratic values after the period of National Socialism, this 13th documenta may well be concerned with the re-aligning the overdeveloped world to the concerns of the globalised during a period of neoliberal postnationalism.

The small contingent of Occupy protestors that set up camp in front of the iconic Fridericianum museum during the opening week has swelled since the closure of the Berlin Biennale in which they were officially included. Having been much discussed across d(13)'s program of talks and seminars, the movement was officially welcomed by Christov-Bakargiev (garnering the nickname dOCCUPY) and entered into documenta's process of historicisation, aligned with “the spirit of the moment and the spirit of Joseph Beuys”. [2]

Although autonomous in ideology, it is understood that art events of this scale are reliant on major corporate sponsors that must be handled diplomatically, as a quick browse of any d(13) promotional material will confirm. More problematic is the claim of local activists that Kassel remains one of the largest arms and weapons manufacturers in Germany. [3] This industry led Kassel to be a key target for bombing campaigns during the Second World War which left the city in ruins, and ironically shaped the conditions that prompted the first documenta as a cultural rebuilding exercise.

Such is the circuitous nature of contemporary life that even those that oppose corporate greed and the industrialised war economy are effectively sanctioned by the very institutions they are critiquing, absorbed into the boundless new spirit of capitalism. So, how do you stage a critique of neoliberal values from a position of complicity?

Why is it easier to imagine the destruction of the planet than an end to Capitalism? Can we explore together the potential for non-capitalist life? What does it look like, sound like, feel like, move like, taste like?[4] 

AND AND AND are an initiative of the artists Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri, founders of the 16 Beaver group in New York, in collaboration with d(13)’s Chus Martínez and its Maybe education and public program. During d(13) the collective are interrogating the connections between the art event, the political economy and its local context, and in doing so perform a self-critique within the organising body and its constituent subjectivities.

Based in a former gymnasium at the periphery of the d(13) geography, their Turnhalle location serves as a workshop, meeting room, kitchen and dining hall where the collective hosts talks, screenings and unworkshops according to a series of thematics that have so far included “Capitalism out of the body”, “The politics of small groups”, “Five decolonial days”, and “An anti-capitalist approach to noise and improvisation” as well as a week of anti-university teach-ins.

Collaborating with local students, activists and food producers, the collective operates a cart serving tea made from herbs cultivated in the courtyard of the Ottoneum, Kassel’s natural history museum. They also arrange a food kiosk in the expansive city gardens, Karlsaue park, selling a variety of locally sourced fruits, vegetables, boiled eggs, sandwiches and pastries, that is also the site of a Sunday morning conversation series relating to food and ecology.

As an open-to-all project of activities addressing local concerns via the process of 'commoning', AND AND AND are awkwardly positioned in relation to the organisation from which they emerge. The Turnhalle, Tea Garden, and Food Kiosk are all accessible without the entry ticket required for the other d(13) exhibitions. Their internal programming draws from d(13) participants as well as others not included, extending the scope and reach of the official program, connecting local concerns to a global network of affiliates.

A contemporary historical place.

At the opposite end of the spectrum the artist Gareth Moore pursues an obscure and isolationist alternative to AND AND AND's accessible collectivity. Moore's installation, a place – near the buried canal, is located in the maintenance area at the far end of Karlsaue Park. The site, although listed on the d(13) map, is difficult to find, partly due to the artist having removed its identifying peg.

Moore has lived on site since early 2010 and over that time built a small self-sufficient compound from scavenged and discarded material. Besides the cabin in which he lives, the artist has assembled an inter-spiritual temple, a kiosk selling sodas and incense, a Museum to the Rhinoceros Clara of Infinite Orange Rinds, a healing centre and a small pensione in which guests can stay. (Moore's artist page in the d(13) guidebook is a typewriter set advertisement which includes a cut-out coupon good for one free “Hot shower OR Coffee OR Morning Whiskey OR Beans on toast” valid with accommodation.)

Built with ingenuity and attention to detail, the work affects an outsider enthusiasm making it a word-of-mouth must see. Fenced off behind a small thatch of forest it operates to Moore's own visiting hours and requires a single coin entry fee (all coins are accepted), regardless of a d(13) ticket. Visitors are discouraged from straying from a tightly controlled planked walkway and cameras must be checked at the gate, swapped for a small chestnut on a string.

Whilst it might not be a direct critique of institutional entanglements with neoliberal capitalism, a place... does showcase a self-determined lifestyle and an unorthodox craftsmanship that unfolds as a surprising and delightful series of affective intensities.

Given the unstoppable advance of capitalism unbound, could it be that these documenta enabled pockets of irreality hint at a cure yet to come?


[2] “dOCUMENTA (13) Artistic Director welcomes the»occupy« movement”,, 8 July 2012.
[3] “Heute, Mo. 18.06.2012 // 20.00 Uhr: Andandand // 1000Gründe gegen Militarismus”, panzerknacken, 18 June 2012.
[4] AND...AND...AND...“Commoning in Kassel”,


I Rep Malang: Indonesia Bali Funk and the struggle for the Word.

Presented at Sonic Ontologies: Music as Translation
School of Transforming Cultures, University of Technology Sydney, 23 May 2012.

This paper concerns the inaugural visit to Australia of the Indonesian poet, activist and MC, Nova Ruth, over the summer of 2007—8 on behalf of Gang, an Australia-Indonesia cultural exchange, and in particular our collaboration; a song titled Arek Malang Kudu Seneng and this subsequent vinyl record. 

I consider this to be one of several artifacts of a minor history—that came together over a series of slight coincidences, overlaps and happy accidents—played out against the backdrop of two significant events. The first being the hospitalisation and death of Suharto in January 2008, Indonesia’s second President and New Order autocrat, whose 31-year-reign had come to an end a decade earlier during an era of popular revolt known as the Reformasi. The second significant event was the much anticipated ‘Apology to the Stolen Generations’ by the then newly elected Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in February 2008.

Dropping English
Some drop science, well I’m dropping English.’   N.W.A.  Express Yourself, 1988. 
A handful of artists had arrived from Indonesia for Gang that summer and between them and the local co-conspirators here, we spoke varying degrees of English and Bahasa. I knew a few words of Bahasa, but fortunately Nova speaks a very sophisticated English, and we were able to develop a significant rapport. Nova spoke English in such a way that Hip Hop parlance would intertwine with what I dubbed a Reformasi-styled earnestness. For example, Nova told me of her stage debut at a freestyle battle where she unexpectedly dropped a word considered taboo. This word caused some fuss amongst the organisers, who wanted to edit or delete it from the recordings that they planned to release on CD.
Nova described to me how she really had to ‘struggle for the word’ in order for the recordings to remain uncensored—a phrase which struck me as unusual, and we began to say things like:

‘Hey Nova, I got a car this afternoon do wanna go struggle for the beach.’

‘Hey Mas, can you struggle some salt across the table.’

And so, ‘struggling for the word’ became a principle phrase in our rapport.

The Word from a rapper whose name was a mathematical equation
The phrase ‘Word’ has a specific use in Hip Hop parlance as an affirmation of truth. According to the definition voted most popular on Urban Dictionary, Word is the shortened form of the phrase: ‘my word is my bond’ originated by inmates in U.S. prisons.

According to Hip Hop mythology it was the B-Boy enigma, The Rammellzee—a pioneer of Wild Style writing and a rapper whose name was a mathematical equation—who introduced the phrase into the Hip Hop lexicon.

The Rammellzee theorised a world where letters armed themselves to revolt against the tyranny of Roman alphabetization. He believed bombers who put ‘burners’ on the sides of trains—the elaborately designed pieces that drew all round respect and awe—were heir to a secret knowledge akin to medieval monks operating in a mostly illiterate world, and in the words Hip Hop scholar Dave Tompkins, demonstrated the ‘extraordinary power of words to shape reality.

The Ramm’s life work was the development of the dual philosophies, ‘Gothic Futurism’ and ‘Ikonoklast Panzerism’ that concerned the secret powers of language and letter forms. The story goes that in the early development of these theories (in the late 1970s early 1980s) he had broken the English language down to its most basic form. During this phase any attempt to strike up a conversation with the Rammellzee would be met with a solitary monosyllabic response—Word.

The Rammellzee reduced the entire system of spoken English into a single subdefining sign, rendering its ‘affirmation of truth’ into the equivalence of the untruth of hegemonic white Anglo-American tricknology.

The Word made me do it
When Nova and I first met she told me her father Toto Tewel was also a musician—a rock god, actually—and I later discovered something of a national treasure. He was revered as a guitarist performing in numerous bands including Kantata Takwa, Swami, Elpamas and Kelompok Pengamen Jalanan (KPJ)—all groups whose music had been banned by Suharto during the Reformasi. I’d asked Nova to hear some of her father’s music and she produced some yet-to-be released recordings in which Toto Tewel had re-interpreted traditional Balinese motifs for the electric guitar.

Nova also mentioned Toto did not like Hip Hop. Right then and there we decided to steal his tracks to make something new. Arek Malang Kudu Seneng stages an altercation between Nova and the performance artist Exi Mahardana as MC SBY. SBY is the widely used acronym for the current Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. President SBY is also an enthusiastic songwriter and coincidently Toto also plays in the President’s personally selected supergroup.

Arek Malang Kudu Seneng is assembled over a sequence of predominately Baile Funk breaks. Baile Funk is a genre of dance music derived from Miami Bass and Afrobrazillian rhythms that developed in the favelas of Rio. It had a sudden explosion of popularity across Europe and America (and of course Australia) with the advent of broadband technologies, and from exposure and commercialisation via superstar DJs and producers such as Diplo.

As such, Arek Malang Kudu Seneng sits within the genre of ‘global mash-up’ or ‘global bass’, and it could easily be read as following that particular music trend. Alternatively, it could be read as a critique of the ‘Diplodisation’ of globalised Hip Hop via an accelerated hyrbridisation of regional sounds. But as I was organizing these Brazillian rhythms together with Toto Tewel’s Balinese licks, I thought of it instead as a bending of pop flows, in which Rio’s Baile Funk became Indonesia’s Bali Funk. It’s a terrible pun, but it’s true. The Word made me do it.

I Rep Malang
Nova and Toto are both from Malang, a city in east Java known for its fiercely proud ‘Arema’ culture expressed through it’s punk bands, rock musicians and a famous football team. Malang Arema—generally understood as Malang teenagers—exhibit a fierce local pride and refer to themselves as ‘Arek Malang.’ According to Nova they also have a reputation for being ‘trouble makers’ (ie hooligans).

Nova and MC SBY rap in Malang-style Javanese that is considered coarse by many in the West of the island, and Nova appeals to ‘the young people of Malang to better use their great energy in more positive directions. Not okol (muscles), but akal (brains).’ [1]

I knew none of this as the song took shape in my bedroom studio. As I was at the time attempting to learn some Bahasa, I was listening very closely to the vocal takes for familiar sounding words. Nova laughed out loud when I removed my headphones to ask her:

 ‘Did you just say ‘I rep Malang’?’

It was an unintentional pun on Malang-Javanese and Hip Hop terminology that coincidently holds its meaning (I rep Malang/Arek Malang). Admittedly it’s a very slight pun, but it was enough to lead us to think more about this process of workable miscommunication.

Wordplay also common to Indonesian slang, is complicated by a number of regional languages and dialects playing across the lingua franca of Bahasa and English, which is also recognized as a working language in the Indonesian constitution.

A technique common to Javanese slang is to reverse the word. For example I have a friend, Maya, from North America who lives in Yogya. When you say Maya in reverse it becomes Ayam. Ayam is the Bahasa word for chicken, and henceforth Maya became known as Maya Otos—in turn, the reverse of Soto Ayam the popular chicken soup available at many street vendors.

It’s a cute nonsensical nickname that draws Maya into a matrix of spoken processes that familiarize and reassure and are ultimately hospitable. Everywhere Maya Otos goes in Java the street vendors unintentionally call out her name…backwards.

Maya is now something of a celebrity in Indonesia, so presumably everybody knows her name. I suspect this confirms what The Rammellzee already knew—that the world made of words is full of un-signifying things.


[1] Sista Nova, ‘Arek Malang Must Be Happy (I rap Malang)’, gang re:Publik (ed) Crosby, Alexandra et al Gang Festival NSW Australia 2008.

Aztec (No) Futurism

Jorge Arreola & Jorge Juan Moyano, Emptying a FOLDING TIMELINE

TIEMPO MATERIAL Espacio Cultural Edificio S, Sotano, La Universidad Iberoamericana Ciudad de México, 8 Marzo – 6 Abril, 2012.

Billboards and hoardings stand large and empty over Ciduad Juarez – advertising nothing – a testament to NAFTA’s empty promise of prosperity.

Merz – marks, scratches and layers of paint, pen, paper, plastic, popular icons, snatches of newspaper headlines recount gods, monsters and mortals at war and/or at play.

Painting and photograph face off. Terminal points transmit a field of forces that oscillate, attract/repel. A re-presentation that allows one to perceive at once the socio-political processes (colonialism, capitalism, postmodernization, globalization) that manifest as the maquiladoras-theme parks-yonkes-check points-dental clinics-discount chemists-red-light-districts that signal the trash strewn limits of the first world.

Times change. Bodies once caught within the gears of industry (and once sacrificed to cosmic machinery) are superseded by more flexible forms of info-techno-capital that self organize, reproduce, work and expend. Biopolitical forces conditioned within a climate of semiocapitalism propel the processes of life (and death) along the border.

Too old for Juarez, too young for America. Los Ni Nis—Generation Free Trade—got wise to the fact that the fast cash from the dirty work in the drug trade is the only way to make any sense of their short lives. Homicidal and suicidal foot soldiers in a war already absorbed into the everyday.

Una mujer decapita a un integrante de Los Zetas is a grizzly YouTube artefact of an act that quite literally attempts to unmask the state, and predictably reveals no villain nor any great conspiracy. Captured-tortured-decapitated-broken- blogged-tagged-Tweeted – desensitized poor players are caught in a self-perpetuating game of impunity. Echoes of pre-Colombian mythology in recent history suggests an ancient order or blue print of the present in the past, but what is the use of such a meta-narrative? What is so good about such an underlying truth? Why bother with meaning at all?

“I answer tentatively that I think there is a correlation between the causelessness of Mexico's war and the savagery. The cruelty is in and of the nihilism, the greed for violence reflects the greed for brands, and becomes a brand in itself.” [1]

Billboards and hoardings stand large and empty over Ciduad Juarez – advertising emptied of its symbolic meaning – promise nothing, but belie a significant philosophical shift. As a relic of the future, they hint at a time to come once liberated from the repetition of myth and unbound from the insistence of history.


[1] Vulliamy, Ed. “Ciudad Juarez is all our futures. This is the inevitable war of capitalism gone mad.”, 20 June 2011.

The House that Thatha Built


I entered Sri Lanka for the first time over December with my mother who was last there in 1973. We hoped to visit the house my grandfather built in a village near Jaffna in the 1940s. It was one in a series of distinct houses built by ‘Malaysian Returns’ – Jaffna Tamils that had left to work in Malaysia but returned later to re-settle.

My mother, who was born in Singapore, lived in this house for only one year yet still bears strong childhood memories of her time there. As a family accustomed to the city life of Malaysia they had trouble adjusting to the ways of the village. Thatha eventually acquiesced to the family will and they returned to Malaysia, leaving the house to care takers.

My parents moved to Sydney soon after my sister and I were born, extending the family network. I can recall an incident from my childhood when a group of young men came to our house to solicit donations for ‘the movement’. My father sent them away firmly stating that we were Malaysian Tamils with no interest in their cause.

Years later, during the ceasefire I developed my own interest in the island, but family friends advised against visiting. ‘You look Tamil, but you only speak English – it will only cause you trouble!’

My interested was again piqued after the 2004 Tsunami. Then in 2009 diaspora politics suddenly nose dived into my activist concerns, as boats full of Tamil refugees arrived in Australia in the aftermath of war. My investigations around this issue lead to a lesser known history of South Asians at sea; of ship borne anti-colonialism and dockside activism that had real effects in Australia, as well as travelling further abroad. My own engagement with this history took its course from a tattoo–performance in a Sydney gallery, to find an absurd connection with an anti-authoritarian T-shirt maker in Guadalajara, Mexico, and eventually prompted speaking engagements in Toronto, Canada.

Jump Ship with WT Nobert, Gaffa Gallery Sydney, 11 February 2010

I was circling around the international diaspora, but had yet to arrive at Jaffna. Upon reflection it was a process of negotiation across politics, family and traditions that I had spent most of my life questioning and departing from. By the time I touched down at Bandaranaike International Airport, mother in tow, I had no idea what to expect.

From Colombo it was an overlong haul in a clumsy minibus that delivered us to Jaffna sometime after midnight. After a day to recoup and sight see, we finally arrived – on Christmas day – at the house that Thatha built. Once wide and grand, it was now in a state of disrepair, having passed through several hands since my grandfather packed up his family and left. It is currently home to a large family of fisher folk forced to relocate by the fighting several years ago. Having arrived unannounced, they cheerfully allowed us to poke around.

A question of race

Conversations with family and friends revealed not only a sense of relief that the war had ended, but also some trepidation regarding the momentum of re-nationalisation, and with it the urge to forge an all encompassing national identity in an effort to alleviate the issue of race in post-war politics.

As discussions in the media and elsewhere indicate, there are concerns that establishing an overly patriotic code of national identity will invariably lead to defining a standard by which the national may exclude or discriminate – potentially stifling the political representation of not only Tamils, but also Muslims, Burghers and other ethnicities identified on the island.

My praxis over recent years has engaged with processes of dis-identifiaction and de-nationalisation – problematising aspects of my Tamil identity and Australian citizenship – with the intent of opening a space for (trans)cultural practice that operates beyond the allure of race and the agenda of nationalism. As a critical practice, it is most often placed in Australia within a discourse of Asian orientated multiculturalism, which I complicate by linking it to a history of anti-colonialism.

At the conclusion of my trip I was interviewed for the program Connections on Young Asia Television that, as the title suggests, connects Sri Lankans around the world. When asked about my Sri Lankan identity I replied that I had a very tenuous connection to Sri Lanka, but a problematised affiliation with the Tamil diaspora. I was quickly advised that in Sri Lanka the word ‘diaspora’ carries connotations of internationalised support for anti-state terror.

Dinner with an NGO

What then is the role of the diaspora now that the dream of Tamil Eelam has been quashed? Before leaving Colombo I had dinner with a friend of a friend from Toronto now working for a non-government organization (NGO) that designs and implements basic education and food programs with communities devastated by the war.

The competing and contradictory narratives as to what occurred during the final stages of the war and its effects on civilians are well known, so naturally I probed him for information on interment camps which are still operational, displaced people that might never return to their homes and areas developed with World Bank initiatives that are now completely flattened.

Speaking carefully he talked of a generation that has known nothing but the trauma of war, who have lived through circumstances that his organisation have neither the resources or qualifications to deal with. Projects such as counseling are not only difficult to implement, but may also be politically discouraged for establishing some sort of account that contradicts the Government narrative. Instead their NGO focuses on rebuilding, educating and designing pathways for development with the communities concerned. He appeals to the diaspora, as those with a long serving interest in the region and its people to help establish long term rehabilitation projects and to encourage translocal connections with people limited in the extreme, regardless of their race or ethnicity – encouraging a globalised circuit that effects de-nationalised change.

The Lanka Project
January 2012