February 3rd, 2007

New Wine, Old Bottles

A couple nights ago I attended the reception for an exhibition currently showing at the Glass Curtain Gallery (Columbia College) in downtown Chicago. Curated by anthropologist art historian Deborah Stokes and entitled “Africa.dot.Com: Drums to Digital,” it is billed as “an exhibition that visually and interactively explores the collision of modern culture and technology on cross-cultural communication.” The description continues —

Against the background of traditional African “talking” drums, dance and oral traditions, powering of the voice through electronic media has altered these long-established customs. New technology has strengthened and reinforced the assimilation of African expressive culture into vibrant new forms in America.

Unlike classical African art exhibitions, Africa.Dot.Com focuses on representing Africa as part of the modern world, with cultures that have navigated into new media alongside the global community. Since the 1960s, dramatic changes have taken place as a result of African independence, and access to new media, computers, digital technology and mobile phones is growing at a rapid rate. Anthropologists currently encounter all types of digital media in both urban and rural settings, and the charting of innovative, varied practices within a range of media has only just begun.

There were a couple things in this text that set off bells for me before even attending — in partic, the use of quotation marks around “talking” (b/c, y’know, it’s not as if the drums really talk or anything) and the use of the plural form of culture, which I tend to avoid myself due to the implication that there are various, stable, discrete cultures in this world rather than the kinds of interconnected, overlapping, porous, shifting fields of cultural practice that this exhibition actually, in spirit, seemed to want to emphasize. Even so, I recognize that we sometimes simplify our vocabularies in order to say something clearly or provocatively, so I wasn’t really too suspicious going in. Nonetheless, I did expect to encounter plenty of “ironic” examples of African uses of and riffs on technology — you know, ironic, because who would expect to find so many cellphones in Africa, never mind so many tricknological gizmos integrated into traditional art forms? To wit —

& what (post)modern African art exhibition would be complete without a bit of kitschy signage, especially if the irony is increased with references to American rappers and cities (and this city to boot!) —

& of course, rather than proto-cubist carvings of men and animals, etc., there were sculptures of cell phones —

I didn’t snap too many photos with my crappy cellphone camera, although it did occur to me that I was adding another level of irony to the preexisting layers by using a cellphone to take pictures of African cellphone art. In particular, tho, I regret that I didn’t take any pictures of the more “trad” objects on display — the kind of sculptures and drums one would expect, here placed at the entrance for contrast — so that I could better illustrate the attempt and yet, I’m afraid, the ultimate failure of the exhibition to transcend persistent, pernicious modes of representing African art.

Now, I realize I probably already sound rather snarky here (and trust me, the snark has yet to come), but don’t get me wrong — I recognize that this sort of exhibition is long overdue and perhaps even ::sigh:: still necessary. I can understand and appreciate the explicit, if simple/vague, desire to represent Africans as modern members of the “global community,” esp considering the ways that Africa (monolith a monolith) has been perennially figured in, as they say, the “Western imagination” (or, if you will, in ebog’s imagination, to take a specific case), as premodern, backwards, and primitive (or, for ebog, as “the most fucked up (and most heroic)” [and stinky?]).

It wasn’t until I started looking closer at the objects on display and their identifying information that I began to bristle a bit, wondering, especially since these pieces were all relatively recent (w/ cellphones as their subjects and such): who are the artists who assembled and sculpted and painted and threaded these wonderful things? Why did they choose to do what they did? What do such representations, such forms&contents, mean to them? (I’m guessing one or two might have something more interesting than “cross-cultural communication” as an answer.) It was at that moment, when I noticed that the artists appeared to be utterly anonymous (in contrast to, say, the curator and collectors), that I remembered a quotation which had leapt out at me last week while reading Tim Taylor’s “A Riddle Wrapped Inside a Mystery” (an essay I mentioned a couple posts back):

Anthropologist Sally Price was told by a French art dealer that “If the artist isn’t anonymous, the artist isn’t primitive.” (73)

This specious/useful formulation fresh in mind, I began to inspect more closely the info-cards accompanying the pieces on display. The cellphone sculpture above, for example, was glossed as —


Sorry about the blur — it’s there to make my own representation seem more authentic, natch cultch.

The card reads:
CELL PHONE
Carved wood, Tanzania
Warren Holstberg Collection,
Illinois

Yep, all the information one could want. I suppose the artist must be named “Tanzania” — how cheeky! How modern!

And here, if we do a little google archaeology, we stumble onto yet another irony — actually, perhaps one of the only truly ironic dimensions of the exhibition, albeit one that the curator might rather remain implicit: the cellphone sculpture comes from the collection of — buh-dump-bump — a Motorola veep! (You can’t make this stuff up, folks. If I were writing anthropological fiction, as the Prices sometimes do, I would have a hard time passing up such a downright structural metaphor.)

Returning to the official description of the exhibition, and another line that made me skeptical, it is perhaps unsurprising (if disappointing), that the spotlight shines where it does here. The last line indicates, not to get too personal in my critique, a self-centeredness (and lack of self-consciousness) that requires the anonymity of one’s “subjects” in order to maintain one’s own centrality to the story (and the cachet, the privilege, the power, the opportunity, the free-to-move-ity): “Anthropologists currently encounter all types of digital media in both urban and rural settings, and the charting of innovative, varied practices within a range of media has only just begun.” [update (2/8): allow me to note, again (see first para), that the curator describes herself as an art historian, rather than an anthropologist, which essentially makes this last paragraph an off-base accusation -- in this case; in plenty of others, however (like this blog?), what I describe here remains all too common a dynamic.]

Indeed. Better get crackin on them charts, keep the cameras pointed in the right direction & —

In this day&age, it is hard to believe that there’s no way to bring actual individual African voices — voices with names and faces and dreams and bank accounts — into an art gallery here in Chicago. And I don’t mean literally (necessarily). As the exhibit admirably shows, the technologies of communication and connectivity are already there to a great extent. (And surely a lil Motorola money could get us the rest of the way?)

As I was describing my problems with the exhibit to a colleague last night, he recounted one of John Blacking‘s last public statements which, to paraphrase a paraphrase, went something like this: Blacking, who wrote extensively on the music of South Africa, lamented at a meeting of ethnomusicologists that when he looked at the captions in his books and saw things like, “African girls singing a puberty rite” or “African man playing a transverse flute,” he thought about how such descriptions contrasted with representations of European music; can you imagine, he asked, a picture of Bach that read, “German man at keyboard instrument”?

Just so I don’t seem totally sardonic here, I should note an exhibit like this one, for all its problems, might still prove productive for all sorts of viewers, including European-Americans and African-Americans of many, many stripes (and there were plenty of stripes in attendance Thursday night). And yet, the persistence of this old model of anthropologists // collectors // anonymous subjects seems to betray any real traction. New wine, old bottles. This is the ultimate irony of the “Drums to Digital” exhibition: it utterly fails to challenge, despite its novel surfaces, the same ol’ ways of representing, of maintaining the status quo, of reinscribing the asymmetrical power relations between the rest and the “West” (i.e., in this case, the American academy and American anthropology, if we’re gonna name names, which — as I hope I’ve argued compellingly here — we probably should).

As much as we might want to celebrate African modernity and uses of technology and all of that good stuff, the mere movement of these images and objects outside Africa to metropolitan centers such as Chicago ain’t necessarily doing all that much in the way of “cross-cultural communication.” This is still very much a one-way street we’re traversing. The others are streets with no names. Not that I’m calling for better maps or charts — far from it — but how are we supposed to navigate this chasm, & continue the conversation, without better, realer connections?

Considering this (uncritical) celebration of the sheer circulation of Other things, as if their simple presence in our midst is enough to heal the world ®, I’m reminded of what Steve Feld has written about about a similarly celebratory stance (in this case, of the circulation of “world music,” which is to say, “non-Western” music). In an essay called “From Schizophonia to Schismogenesis: On the Discourses and Commodification Practices of ‘World Music’ and ‘World Beat’,” Feld contends that such celebrations “risk confusing the flow of musical contents and musical expansion with the flow of power relations” (263).

And so I’ll finish here by (trans)posing a question that has been very much on my mind all quarter and which this exhibit brought into focus in yet another way: might we level same critique that I marshal above w/r/t anonymous African artists at various, recent, half-decent attempts to broker the sounds of the Other, of the Global (“dirty“) South, to metropolitan audiences happy to consume the next real thing?

(I’m thinking of things like —

or

& it’s not just about tracklists [or lack thereof], it’s about track records [or].)

I’m just sayin asking.

12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. kmm  |  February 4th, 2007 at 1:34 pm

    Hear hear! Couldn’t agree more. My students will soon be undertaking a critical album review assignment (choosing from an array of mostly world-music-packaged-Latin sort of stuff) and I’m trying to decide whether to send them to read this post before or after they write the papers.

  • 2. wayneandwax  |  February 4th, 2007 at 1:52 pm

    Thanks, kmm. Just curious — what are the albums under consideration? In our class, we’re trying to consider everything from SubFreq and MadDecent to Rough Guide, Putumayo, Luaka Bop, Nonesuch Explorer, etc. Such an interesting range of representational strategies out there.

    And allow me to add to the conversation some interesting comments via the anthro grad student who sent me the announcement for this show in the first place. She raises some interesting points to consider vis-a-vis my own critique [thx, sk!]:

    Thanks for directing me to your posting re: Drums to Digital. The threat of reinscribing power dynamics and essentialist visions is what I think the quintessential problem with academic endeavours that attempt to study human experiences and lifeways. I see your point re: Stokes’ omission of artists’ names accompanying the objects on display. It’s a scenario that is oh so common when it comes to exhibiting art forms that are not made by Euro/American artists. Nevertheless, it is important to consider what the artists who fashioned the objects on display were going for. In other words, many African producers of material culture and visual art objects are driven by an authenticity factor that, though at times contrived and constructed by Euro/American interests in a certain imagined “African” aesthetic, require an element of anonymity. Is the concern with marking an object with the name of its creator an obsession of Euro/American individualism and free-market motivations to get ahead, get noticed, make a name for oneself? Another element of the authenticity factor is its reproduce-ability. By making something look like it is a replica of an ideal(ized) object, which is a replica of and ideal(ized) object which is… an artist is achiving a certain element of authenticity that a one-of-a-kind object could never achieve. I have a feeling that many of the things on display at this show are NOT one of a kinders, and in fact are objects in a series of look alikes made by a range of artists (definitely the textiles). By lamenting the absence of giving credit to the creators of the objects, are you getting into a Benjaminian sense of loss? i.e. that these reproductions of reproductions of reprod… have lost their grounding because they are not marked in the way that we think is most fair to the process of art making? I go back and forth on this because in response, one can argue that this whole explanation further perpetuates the power of making/keeping the “Other” nameless… Hence the quintessential problem. Where is a fair(er) middle ground? Is there one?

    For more on this see Manthia Diawara’s In Search of Africa and Christopher Steiner’s “Authenticity, Repetition, and the Aesthetics of Seriality: The Work of Tourist Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Each of them troubles namelessness, whilst recognizing why and how it has come to be an m/o for many artists.

    In response to her cogent questions about obsessing over individualism, etc., I would say, at least for myself, that I’m not at all interested in upholding/bemoaning the authenticity of the original (a la Benjamin). Rather, I’m simply dismayed that in a context such as this one, where there is clear accrual of cachet/power based on keeping the contributors nameless (and naming the curators/collectors), there was no attn given to such a glaring problematic. I also tend to be more activist about these things than the cool remove of academia/anthropology typically allows. Rather than “troubling” something — and that’s a pomo verb I absolutely eschew — I would prefer to change it. Artists’ m/o or not, the last thing that acapologists need to be doing is reifying reifications and reconstructing/respecting authenticity (again, the paradox of this exhibition).

    That Diawara book, btw, has long been a favorite of mine. I think I’ll have to return to it as I continue contemplating all of this. And the Steiner article sounds v germane indeed.

  • 3. zack  |  February 5th, 2007 at 2:27 am

    I am glad to see mention of Sublime Frequencies in the discussion. After having discovering hours of beautiful music through the label, I began to realize how dissatisfied I was with the presentation of the compilations as place rather than individuals, and the artist being the western explorer of the “other” rather than those actually creating the music. I realize none of this is a new perspective to you (although I worry that it has never been mentioned in any review of the albums i have seen in seemingly leftist “independent” media), but I wonder if you know anything about the business end of the label? I would imagine payment is never an aspect of making the radio comps, but it seems especially horrifying imagining people like the Taureg having DVDs of themselves being released without continued payment.

    Also, thank you for such a constantly interesting blog. I am soon finishing a BA in sociology with hopes of graduate school and academic career, and your blog has been constantly useful in indulging both musically obsessive and intellectually excited sides of my personality. I feel more certain now about being able to fuse personal and academic interests as a result. Thank You!
    Zack

  • 4. Emil  |  February 5th, 2007 at 1:01 pm

    As you might suspect given our recent email exchange, Wayne, I’ve found this post very interesting and absolutely on-point.

    -e

  • 5. wayneandwax.com » A&hellip  |  February 6th, 2007 at 12:09 pm

    [...] At any rate, given this auspicious day and the resonance of one of my favorites from Bob’s oeuvre with my New Wine, Old Bottles post of a couple days ago, I couldn’t resist sharing this powerful chantdown of, as he calls it, “Babylon System” – [...]

  • 6. Channing Kennedy  |  February 6th, 2007 at 8:11 pm

    This seems an appropriate place to drop mention of a project I’m involved in. It’s an album called I Love Machine, a series of remixes of birdsong, except the singing bird in question isn’t nameless, it’s a Bicheno owlfinch named Cagesan, who lives with his owner Toog in Paris. Cagesan says:
    ” I am very happy to be the first bird to
    be considered as a true artist. I LOVE MACHINE is
    the
    first album which is not an anonymous bird singing
    recording. This is why this decoration is very
    important to me: it means every bird can become a
    rock’n roll star. I want to say that to all my
    brothers, birds and various living animals: time has
    come to reach the public with a name! To humans,
    we’re regarded as
    ‘outsider musicians’, because they don’t speak our
    language; but truly,
    it’s human music that is ‘outsider language’, as it
    imitates the fusion
    of music and language that we songbirds perfected
    millions of years
    ago. Time has come
    to consider ourselves as creators of our singing and
    sounds, like human song writers do. Time has come to
    reach the stars and release albums, make shows and
    give interviews like the other artists do. We’re not
    less, we’re not more, we are like you are. And now,
    let’s go party!

  • 7. Deborah Stokes  |  February 6th, 2007 at 8:20 pm

    I see from your critique of the exhibition, Africa.Dot.Com that you clearly missed the INDIVIDUAL names of the Africans who are a part of this show: James Muriuki, Alassane Soumare, Jaby Jiara, Zodwa Mjwora, Mboniseni Khanyile, Elliot Mkhize, Gerard Atomkouri, Rim a Rim Idrisson, Okala Ebode, Paolo Bombe. Their INDIVIDUAL names are found on the special thanks to list as you enter The Glass Curtain Gallery, on photo captions, and on object labels. You write,

    “In this day&age, it is hard to believe that there’s no way to bring actual individual African voices — voices with names and faces and dreams and bank accounts — into an art gallery here in Chicago”

    Well, the INDIVIDUAL voices, names, AND faces of Gerard Atomkouri, Rim a Rim Idrisson, and Okala Ebode are projected on the 8′ x 8′ installation of ‘Beepez-le’, as they discuss in their own voices, the concept of culturally specific communication through coded systems. In addition, a transcription of the entire text is made available to take by anyone viewing the exhibition.

  • 8. wayneandwax  |  February 6th, 2007 at 8:52 pm

    Sounds like quite an album, Channing. Should provide a corrective to all anonymous bugs on the Broken-Hearted Dragonflies comp. (How I wish I knew the names of those insect Carusos!) You’re right, this is an appropriate place to mention it.

    And you’re right, Deborah. I totally missed those names. (And when I asked the people working the table at the front how I could find out who made a lot of the art on display, they didn’t/couldn’t point them out to me. But they did ask me if I wanted to buy a handsome Drums2Digital mousepad — the proceeds from which go where exactly?) I appreciate that you make such gestures, if, I must say, somewhat inconspicuously (I mean, I was looking) — and I was glad to see the video component — but I think my critique still stands. Mr.Motorola looms large, as do you. The framing of most of the pieces, and of the entire exhibition, seems pretty old school despite the sheen of the new.

    I make this critique in good faith, just as, I’m sure, you present your exhibition in good faith. The general problematic I describe here, as I note with my turn to “world music” at the end, continues to inform representations of Africa and the non-Western world more broadly. I didn’t mean to offend or attack you, Deborah. I know that we all get rather invested in (and tied up with) our work and I’m sure that a great deal of work went into Africa.Dot.Com.

    Finally, I just want to say that, judging by the subtexts of both of your comments, I’m really not out to fetishize the INDIVIDUAL here. I have no problem with communal art, with nameless art, with “outsider” art, with art that doesn’t want to call itself art, or with non-art. I do have a problem, though, with status quo notions of self/other, West/rest, etc./et al. And ultimately, I think that, for all their productive qualities (challenging stereotypes and all that), the mediations of labels like Sublime Frequencies or of this exhibit tend to shore up rather than tear down the spurious social divisions that continue to structure our world.

  • 9. becca  |  February 7th, 2007 at 10:14 am

    This is a fantastically interesting and difficult issue. Thanks to sk for her thoughtful and necessary reply and to you for posting it. It is interesting to me that sk herself remains in initials only. Seemingly, in this blogspace there is a tendency to treat anonymizing as a protection rather than an appropriation.

    It appears that there would be no unproblematic way to do an exhibit like this one because we neither want to reify nor ignore the differences in perception and practice between the artists and the audience. Your critque centers on the idea that western art audiences appreciate african art only when it is given a particular gloss. You suggest a partial solution that seems to boil down to presenting the artists more like we would present western artists. sk comes back with the observation that treating these artists like western artists perhaps imposes an equally distorting gloss. The history of presentation of african art to western audiences is the 800 pound gorilla in the room that, you argue, must explicitly acknowleged to the viewers of the exhibit. This responsibility, I think you rightly claim, rests on the shoulders of the presenter of the exhibit. I wonder what you would recommend to a curator. How should the implicit and unavoidable gloss be presented to a non-anthropologist audience? And, in the end, are we really talking about making sure that the artists are treated fairly in an economic sense regardless of representation? That is, being appropriately compensated in both $ and social capital?

    And, um, for those non-anthropologists among us, is there import to the noun-use of the adjective “problematic” as opposed to the more straightforward noun-use of the noun “trouble”? Isn’t that even weirder than the past-participle use of “troubling”, which does seem to actually be grammatical, if metaphorical in the sense in which you use it? I’m a fan of new coinage–lexical stasis is, quite literally, an inhuman goal–but what does it mean?

  • 10. wayneandwax  |  February 7th, 2007 at 11:20 am

    Thanks for clarifying a lot of this, Bec. You cut thru clearly as usual.

    As for “problematic” as a noun, you’re right, that’s as bad as “trouble” as a verb. (Not “troubling,” which is at least part of the non-academic vernacular.) I suppose I could have said “problem,” but I somehow wanted to signify that it’s a complex of problems? I dunno. I try to strive for precision as much as poetry, and often I hit neither!

    &w/r/t anonymizing some of my (email-based) sources/interlocutors here on the blog, I usually do so in order to respect people’s wishes to keep themselves, or certain semi-private correspondence, ungooglable, if you will. It is a form of protection as well as explicit acknowledgment. I don’t think it’s nearly the same thing as the kind of anonymity applied in the conventional presentation of African or “primitive” art. I suspect that most artists, if they consider/describe themselves as such and know that their pieces are being presented in an art gallery, would choose not to be anonymous.

    In general, I would prefer that people allow me to cite them by name (or comment as themselves themselves), but I know by experience that a good many people with something interesting to say prefer not to say it on the internet (or have it associated directly with them). Too bad, for any number of reasons. (Then again, there are the advantages/possibilities of avatars, jokenames, etc., which I wouldn’t want to rule out.)

    Hoping the conversation can continue. Onwards and sideways –

  • 11. Deborah Stokes  |  February 8th, 2007 at 8:43 am

    Wayne, please clarify how “Mr. Motorola” (your term) looms large. I would suggest you have a chip on your shoulder and are misinterpreting the loan of an object to fit a prefabricated agenda, – the power dynamics lens through which you view this exhibit and others without actually SEEING the details. The old school model of anthr/collector/subject was not the organizing principle for Africa.Dot.Com. Send me an e-mail off-line – let’s meet to discuss. (One other quibble and point of misinformation – I am an art historian, not an athropologist.

  • 12. wayneandwax  |  February 8th, 2007 at 9:05 am

    Certainly my term! And I’ll admit to a chip on my shoulder when it comes to corporate $, “venture” capital, and the relationship to art collection (or the relationship to anything for that matter). But, heck, that’s just anti-capitalism speaking through me. I don’t mean “looms large” in terms of details (i.e., having his name on lots of things there), but in terms of the structure of the exhibit’s (re)presentation, which I don’t think is unfairly characterized by anth/cllctr/sbjct. It may not have been the conscious organizing principle, but there’s no wishing it away from those spartan little cards sitting next to the sculptures. I mean, please tell me you can appreciate the irony — as I’m sure does Mr.Motorola ® — of a telephone company executive collecting sculptures of cellphones in the greatest growing market for cellphones, and having his name be the one most prominently connected to the piece. Even so, as I describe, it really wasn’t a prefab agenda. Rather, the critique occurred to me as I made my way through the exhibit and found the context/frame lacking.

    For instance, to speak more literally of “frames,” before I even noticed the conspicuous absence of artist names w/ objects (or their inconspicuous presence, as you contend), I was dismayed that it was quite unclear — as in the case of the “TV” photo — who did the various levels of framing: who took the picture, who had it taken, who put it into the painted wooden frame in which it appears, who “collected” it and when, why?? I don’t think these questions are asking too much, but perhaps they are. I just found a lot of context lacking, and as such, that the message of the exhibition seemed inherently compromised. If this exhibition is about public outreach and education of a sort, I think it could go further in making people reconsider their conceptual frames. That remains my critique, based on my experience, overlooked details notwithstanding. That may sound like a harsh verdict. But it’s only mine. (Though I should say that the person accompanying me seemed to agree, so I guess that’s 4 attentive eyes that failed to SEE the details.) And it’s only here on this little blog. I’m sure your write-ups in the papers and such are far less critical.

    At any rate, I’ll get in touch (though I’m not sure how to send an email offline), and I apologize for the mislabeling (!), though perhaps that explains some differences in conceptual framing (&it certainly recontextualizes the use of “anthropologists” in the description) — will correct above.

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Wayne&Wax

I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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