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Appropriations / Project Description

Choreographies of Distance and Proximity

by Florian Malzacher

Appropriation, even cultural appropriation, is always a violent act. The (direct or structural) violence, with which ethnological collections have appropriated many objects, repeats itself in the ongoing reappropriations of these objects through interpretation and contextualization. However, appropriation also implies a proximity that does not leave the appropriators themselves unchanged.

The performative conference “Appropriations” on November 16, 2014 in the Dahlem Museums reflected the difficulties of appropriation from alien (to the West) knowledge and cultures via the path of performative reconstruction, reformulation and reenactments. It is an approach that is suggested by the nature of the collection: a large proportion of the objects, above all those of the Ethnologisches Museum, seem to demand to be used, yet at the same time their use is denied us for ethical, political but also conservational reasons. Their performative nature lies in their original usage – whether as part of a ritual, in art or in everyday tasks. Within the logic of performance theory these objects are performance remains.

So how can one approach such irrecoverable or inaccessible performative acts, whether profane, artistic or sacred? This ethnological question resembles one from the performative arts: how do you reconstruct a performance or choreography without having seen it, or of which there are perhaps only a few photos, notes, audience descriptions or props? Is it possible to simulate the act of experience? Is it possible to appropriate a performance that is temporally or also culturally, distant, without simply filling the gaps of the unknown, the incomprehensible, and negating them? And how can one avoid false representations?

Reenactment as Appropriation and Rapprochement

While the concept of reenactment commonly designates the restaging of historical events in a way that seems to be as true-to-life as possible, within the performing arts, in recent years a more differentiated discourse around the term has developed. In dance and performance it mainly describes a critical way of dealing with the possibility and impossibility of reconstruction or the reinterpretation of central choreographic works of modernism. What is always at issue is the difference, the incomprehensible, the not-knowing. Appropriation is seen in its ambiguity, which is inherent in the German word “Aneignung”: appropriation and rapprochement in one.

There are also overlaps with the discourse on reconstruction in architecture: David Chipperfield’s sensitive handling of the Neue Museum in Berlin is one of the most prominent examples for its emphasis on the gaps, on what cannot be reconstructed. In contrast to this, the reconstruction of the nearby Berlin Palace represents the desire to heal historical and architectural wounds without, as far as possible, leaving any visible scars, while at the same time reformulating Prussian history and whitewashing uncomfortable memories: with the move to the Humboldt-Forum, the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst are relocating into an uncritical reconstruction full of hidden agendas.

Ethnological museums are, on the one hand, symbols of the West’s colonial past and, at the same time, concrete manifestations of this history that is far from past, and in Germany’s case, compared to other countries, has only been partially processed. During the preparations for “Appropriations” the question was repeatedly raised as to whether it is even possible to work in an artistically responsible way, within the context of the Humboldt Lab and the Ethnologisches Museum. Can critically challenging positions be formulated productively from within, or do they, on the contrary, merely serve as a legitimization of the institution that produced them? The artistic and curatorial consensus though was that it is necessary to repeatedly confront these toxic legacies of our Western colonial past – especially in and with the collections themselves. The legacy of a colonial past remains: it will not disappear; it is also part of our present and something with which we have to come to terms.

The performative conference “Appropriations” was preceded by an almost year-long research phase with participating artists and numerous discussions with the scientists and curators of the museum that were often very productive, but at times also very difficult. As part of a workshop in May 2014 the preliminary results were sketched out. At the end of this process “Appropriations” marked an agonistic field, upon which the various aesthetic and discursive positions confronted the collection: the participants roamed from lecture-performances by Dorothea von Hantelmann, Ulf Aminde & Shi-Wei Lu and Kapwani Kiwanga to Alexandra Pirici’s immaterial additions to the collection, and to the theatrical installation by Ant Hampton and Britt Hatzius, encountered famous fakes in the depot, accompanied Yael Bartana on a visual journey into the Amazon and were themselves cast as performers in the choreography of deufert&plischke. Later, in 2015, the artists’ cooperative Politique Culinaire plans to bring the crimes of the so-called 1884/85 Congo Conference onto the agenda, within the framework of a re-dedication of an historical dinner.1

Productive Spaces of the in Between

Positions, ideas, proposals – sometimes overlapping, sometimes contradicting each other. “Appropriations” was a performative conference, not only because its contributions were of a performative nature, but because they were performed themselves: by visitors roaming the museum in different groups, their corporeal presence becoming a significant component of the conference in which time and duration consciously contributed to the choreography; by excitement, exhaustion, collectivity and isolation, moments of haste and times of relaxation creating their own dramaturgy of awareness.

“Appropriations” was not only site-specific but also to a large extent time-specific: in 2014 the Ethnologisches Museum found itself in an interim phase, in which encounters were facilitated that could not have previously taken place in the same way, and soon will not be possible again. “As Never Before / As Never Again,” as Hampton & Hatzius called their work. It is a collection on call; its temporality is tangible. And not only the actual museum is on call, but also the historical, ideological, philosophical basis on which it was founded. Ethnological museums are a symbol for the crisis of modernity, enlightenment, Western self-perception and at the same time their symptom – which is especially visible in the Dahlem suburb of Berlin, where the former West suffers its phantom pain with dignity.

This unstable situation leads to a prevailing sense of irritation, which places its stamp on all the works within the frame of “Appropriations” and indeed makes them first possible. Only in this context was it possible for the artistic soft power (Alexandra Pirici) to have an impact: “We are strong in our weakness” (as Yael Bartana expressed it in a different work). It is a fragility, that could well be a strength, because, beyond all the rhetoric of “state museums” and “Prussian cultural heritage” the hegemonic narrative of the Dahlem museums is porous and can only be formulated as an in between. The Humboldt Lab Dahlem (which, in this respect, and contrary to all political intentions, is not the precursor of the Humboldt-Forum) is located in exactly this space of in between, which is precisely why it is such a problematic but, at the same time, often very productive space.

Only where there is a consciousness of temporality, can performance, whose own ephemerality is one of its essential themes, begin: the original collection objects that were reproduced by Hatzius and Hampton may, after the museum’s move, be destined to remain in the depot for eternity. On the other hand, Kiwanga’s installation consists of objects that have yet to reach the collection. deufert&plischke allow us to briefly strike a pose, Aminde demonstrates the helpless futility of Western attempts at appropriation, and Pirici wishes to contribute nothing more than intangible additions anyhow…

Behind the sandstone-clad concrete walls of the Humboldt-Forum in the new Berlin Palace this kind of soft power of art will no longer have an impact – the soft hegemony, which will skillfully incorporate all criticism whilst simultaneously casting its position in cement, certainly won’t have any need for genuine irritation.

1 For various reasons, the Politique Culinaire project for the Humboldt Lab Dahlem could not be realized (editor’s note.)

Florian Malzacher is a freelance curator, dramaturge and author, as well as artistic director of the Impulse Theater Festival. He curated “Appropriations. A Performative Conference” for the Humboldt Lab Dahlem.

You can view the program of the performative conference here (PDF file.)

You can find further reading on this project here.