July 23, 2014
‘With only slight exaggeration, one can say that the reputation of vodou as a unifying and revolutionary force begins with the ceremony of Bois Caiman.’ David Geggus
There is a scene in the 1967 film adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians that, somewhat unexpectedly, touches upon the conclusion of the talk I recently gave at the October Gallery. In the scene Philipot, the artist nephew of the murdered Minister for Social Welfare whose body was found at the beginning of the story in the empty swimming pool at the Hotel Trianon, explains to the morose and faithless-realist hotel-owner Brown that he is going to a Vodou ceremony that night to summon the African gods who will help him fight the Tonton Macoutes and overthrow the Duvalier dictatorship. The particular loa to be summoned will be Ogoun Ferraille, a Dahomean warrior and metalworker spirit who has been syncretized in Haitian vodou with Saint Jacques Majeur (or Saint James the Moor Slayer). “My grandmother came from Africa” Philipot tells Brown proudly, “and her gods are the only ones that can help me now. I’ve pretended to be western for too long”. During the ceremony, in which a black cock is sacrificed by an unlikely looking (though reputedly authentic) houngan, Joseph, the bartender at the Trianon, is possessed by the spirit of Ogoun Ferraille, spraying the terrified Philipot with rum and tapping his palms and soles with a flat of a machete before the young painter is initiated into the warrior cult. Ogoun Ferraille, along with Erzulie Dantor, Mambo Marinette and Ti Jean Petro are the four loa most commonly associated with the legendary Bois Caïman ceremony that reputedly ignited the first uprisings of the Haitian revolution in August 1791.
Despite the general acceptance of the myth in most popular accounts of the revolution, some Haiti scholars have disputed whether the ceremony actually took place, and one in particular, Léon-François Hoffmann, proposed in 1991 that the story was fabricated by a “malevolent” French colonist and plantation physician, Antoine Dalmas, whose intention was to denigrate the slaves and distance the French elites from the African insurgents. Hoffmann’s claims were tendentious within the Haitian studies community at the time and the debate was rekindled by the publication of David Geggus’ Haitian Revolutionary Studies in 2002. After taking a thorough look at Hoffmann’s claims, sources and alternative accounts, Geggus concludes that a ritual ceremony probably did take place sometime around August 21st, but that the facts pertaining to it, which are thin on the ground, have been significantly embellished by subsequent historians seeking to emphasize the African and slave-led currents within the revolution (and therefore at the foundation of the Haitian nation).
Dalmas’ account is based on the testimony of three slaves captured after an initial, well-documented public gathering of the “slave elites” (coach-drivers and slave-drivers) from 100 different plantations at the Lenormand De Mézy estate on Sunday August 14th. An alleged smaller gathering took place a few days later in a wooded area called La Caïman (the Alligator) at which a pig was sacrificed, its blood drunk and its hairs taken to make protective amulets. According to Dalmas the captives said that the pig was “surrounded by fetishes” and sacrificed “to the all-powerful spirit of the black race”. And that was it.
By 1953 the Haitian historian and diplomat Dantès Bellegarde would described the Bois Caîman ceremony in ways that had by then become familiar to all elite-educated school children in Haiti:
‘During the night of 14 August 1791 in the midst of a forest called Bois Caïman, on the Morne Rouge in the northern plain, the slaves held a large meeting to draw up a final plan for a general revolt. They consisted of about two hundred slave drivers, sent from various plantations in the region. Presiding over the assembly was a black man named Boukman, whose fiery words exalted the conspirators. Before they separated, they held amidst a violent rainstorm an impressive ceremony, so as to solemnize the undertakings they made. While the storm raged and lightning shot across the sky, a tall black woman appeared suddenly in the center of the gathering. Armed with a long, pointed knife that she waved above her head, she performed a sinister dance singing an African song, which the others, face down against the ground, repeated as a chorus. A black pig was then dragged in front of her and she split it open with her knife. The animal’s blood was collected in a wooden bowl and served still foaming to each delegate. At a signal from the priestess, they all threw themselves on their knees and swore blindly to obey the orders of Boukman, who had been proclaimed the supreme chief of the rebellion. He announced as his choice of principal lieutenants Jean Francois Papillon, Georges Biassou, and Jeannot’. (From Histoire du Peuple Haïtien, 1953)
So how did the story of Bois Caïman develop from such a basic schematic account to the established myth we know today? And more specifically how did the characters Dutty Boukman, houngan, rebel leader and author of the legendary Boukman Prayer, the mambo Cécile Fatiman, the old priestess and the loa Erzulie Dantor, Ogoun Ferraille, Marinette, Ti Jean Petro, all find themselves cast into this “operetta sanguinaire” of Haitian independence?
That’s what I tried to account for at the October gallery talk. It goes something like this: Read the rest of this entry »
June 28, 2014
I will speaking along with David Beth, Leah Gordon and Gabriel Toso at this event on Saturday July 5th at the October Gallery. There are only a few tickets left to snap up so you will have to be quick.
There will be an after-party from 10 pm till 3 am with DJ sets by Jean-Louis Huhta (aka Dungeon Acid), Oliver Fay (aka Xenoglossy) and Ryan Jordan, screenings of Leah Gordon’s Bounda Pa Bounda (2008) and Mazibel’s Achantè (2013), and visuals by OrphanDrift.
£5/3 on the door – rough bar
Top Floor, Unit 73a Regent Studios, 8 Andrew’s Road, Hackney, London E8 4QN
June 26, 2014
“REacting shows a lack of control, an inability to stay cool/clearheaded under pressure. Pwen songs push the point in a way that circumvents the need for reaction.” – Houngan Matt
On the surface the exchange is about whether there might be genetic factors determining the quality of electronic music created by certain races. It began with Nick’s suggestion that contemporary accelerationism would benefit from a ‘new pulse of darkside electronic music’ that, in his ‘hardcore racist’ opinion, would most likely come from the Black Atlantic. Robin’s surprised reaction to Nick’s claim that no such thing could come out of China prompted Nick to ask if this was because ‘the notion of overwhelming racial patterns in compulsive rhythmo-memetics is so obviously implausible?’ To Robin’s response ‘“Natural Rhythm” Omg, Omg, Omg’, Nick’s ‘Less-Evil’ twin shaded “Is “omg omg omg” supposed to be some kind of exhibition of natural rhythm?” After Robin’s fruitless search for any darkside, cyber-apocalyptic electronic music coming out out China, Nick duly noted that he’d perhaps been “Pwned by DNA”.
Now in Haitian folklore the word pwen has multiple cultural meanings and inflections. Derived from the Kreyol for “point”, it is specifically associated with the communication of meaning and the special “charge” of the mystères in Vodou song and ceremony. To be “pwened’ then, is to have pointed contact with energies of the loa (Vodou spirits). A pwen is a first brush with the loa that precedes full possession. It also means, in popular parlance, to be hexed, and, appropriately, given the conversation above, to be insulted (as in the contemporary ‘pwn’, on-line, gamer “elite-speak” for being defeated in a computer game, or “owned”).
Which brings me, somewhat circuitously, to the recent ‘Communities in Conversation’ event hosted by the Konsthalle C in Hökaränge suburb of Stockholm. The event included presentations from various people who had been involved in the Ghetto Biennale, including Leah Gordon, Roberto N. Peyre, André Eugène and Jean Claude Saintilus (both from Atis Rezistans). I presented, in diagram form, the basic schema for the current chapter of Undead Uprising, based loosely upon Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which attempts to describe and account for the bifurcation of the zombie complex around 1968, mentioned in this previous post. I had hoped that a public presentation might help me break the conceptual bottleneck I seemed to be stuck in. This post is a second shot at that.
June 9, 2014
I will be speaking this Friday (June 13th) at Bonnie Camplin’s The Military Industrial Complex event at the South London Gallery along with the inimitable psychedelic parapsychologist Dr. David Luke. The event starts at 7pm, is free but you’ll need to book (call 020 7703 6120). On the agenda will be the super soldier mythos, metaphysical energy barriers, fractal soul waves, the substance of hallucinations, mind-control, subtle energy weapons, black ops, dark matter and shadow entities, MK Ultra super-assassins, the war on consciousness and other paranoiac-critical and super-psionic goings on.
June 2, 2014
Roberto N. Peyre and I have some work in the Obliteration Device show at IMT Gallery. We have developed a ‘Ponto for Swedish Youth’ in response to the recent right-turn in the European elections. The new ponto is based on, among other things, the “voltigeur” petroglyphs of Bronze Age Sweden, the double helix, Ian Curtis’s dancing and Northern Soul arm spins. The Joy Division/Northern Soul axis is hinged on two stories recounted in the excellent 2007 Grant Gee documentary ‘Joy Division‘. The first concerns Rob Gretton, the band’s first manager, who advised the band to drop the Nazi imagery they had used on their first EP An Ideal for Living.
The later 12″ release replaced the offending imagery with a more “industrial” scaffolding image.
The second story involved Wigan Casino DJ Richard Searling who was working for RCA records in Manchester in the mid 70′s. Ian would spend a lot of time at the studio in the hope of meeting his hero Iggy Pop. When Richard was asked by the label to find a punk band he asked Ian and his band to make a cover version of N.F. Porter’s stomping Keep on Keeping On, something of a Northern Soul anthem at the time and one of the clear thematic bridging tunes between the US Black Power movement and the Northern scene. The result was the ballistic Interzone. Keep the F***ing Faith Bothers and Sisters! This, along with Willie Collon’s Skinny Papa we the track we were dancing to when making the work. Check the break! We love to Boogaloo! It’s all the about the Mixed Blood.
The final piece we called Voltigör (Ponto for Swedish Youth). Here’s an image of the install.
April 25, 2014
On May 14th I will be in conversation with Leah Gordon about her exhibition ‘Caste/Cast‘ at the Regency Town House in Brighton which is part of the 2014 Brighton Festival. The conversation will take place at the University of Brighton Gallery at 6.30 pm. Tickets are £4 (£3 concessions) and available here.
In her ‘Caste’ series of photographs Leah represented, in contemporary mode, the practice created by French colonists, living in Saint Domingue during the plantation era, of grading skin colour from black to white in an elaborate, combinatorial and graded schema. Taking the ‘Caste’ portraits as a starting point, Leah’s new project explores junctures between shared Haitian and British histories and cosmologies, with an emphasis on links between the slave trade and the industrial revolution.
The exhibition includes a film of a journey along the Manchester Ship Canal from Manchester (a city built on industrialism), past Ellesmere Port (the town where Leah was born) and onto Liverpool (a city whose wealth was made through the slave trade), pointing to the shared economic and political histories that connect Haiti to Britain, and the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the industrial revolution.
Two further films are shown in the former library room, one of ruined and overgrown machinery, manufactured in Liverpool in 1818, on a former plantation in Haiti and one of the storage rooms in the National Archives at Kew, where Haiti’s 1804 Declaration of Independence was found by a student, undetected for decades. These films will show Haiti’s history hidden and embedded in Britain’s colonial archives whilst Britain’s industrial past lies rusting and overgrown in Haiti’s tropical landscape.
These historical reflections sit alongside a prophetic photographic reconstruction of William Blake’s illustration of ‘Europe Supported by Africa and the Americas’ (1796).
March 28, 2014
I’ll be giving a lecture about the Zombie Complex at Goldsmiths College on April 29th (details above). It’s a public event so all are welcome. There’s even a Facebook event.
And here’s the burb:
‘In its passage from Haitian folkloric myth-figure to a multivalent metaphor for ravenous, unthinking (in)humanity, the zombie figure has come to perform a vast range of allegorical and metaphorical functions, its meanings as diverse as a displaced person eking out a precarious existence at the biopolitical limits of late capitalist society, to the unfeeling advocates of free-market fundamentalism who allegedly oversee it. At the same time the Zombie Apocalypse narrative has become a metaphor for both climate change and its denial, insurrectionary trans-humanism and new forms of tele-mediated ‘drone’ labour. In this presentation I will trace the historical geneology of what I’m calling the Zombie Complex – a super-resilient, (in)human self-image and massively operational cultural meme, dead but persisting, on the brink of the ‘self’, ‘humanity’ and ‘civilization’, while oscillating between the seemingly antithetical poles of apocalyptic, sub-human savagery and progressive, mass mindlessness – from it’s origins in Haiti to the apocalypse of World War Z.’
March 15, 2014
TéléGhetto, the video collective from the Ti Moun Rezistans group in Port-au-Prince, have a new website. Highlights include a gallery of art videos including the excellent Guedé inspired Plezi Gedi Credi by Romel Jean Pierre.
In Haitian Vodou Papa Guédé is Lord of the Dead, a figure closely related to the somewhat more famous Baron Samedi of James Bond Live and Let Die fame. The Guéde are a family of spirits, generally dwelling in and around the cemetery and associated with death, sensuality, sex and procreation. They include the Barons Cimetière, La Croix, Kriminel and Maman Brigit, all closely associated with Papa Legba (a chant for whom you can hear at the beginning of E Pluribus Unum).
Also excellent is Steeven Simeon’s Imajine Ou Leve Demen Epi Mizik Disparet (Imagine You Woke Up Tomorrow and Music had Disappeared) named after the Bill Drummond graffiti piece from the 2009 Ghetto Biennale (shown in the video). Great to see the aesthetic and visual techniques of Atiz and Ti Moun Rezistans translated into the medium of video. All three pieces capture some of the atmosphere of Lakou Cheri where the Ghetto Biennale takes place and the Guédé spirit of the Atiz community who live there.
February 20, 2014
This is a slightly extended version of my response to Nick Land’s Zombie Wars post at Outside In. It coincides somewhat circuitously with the image I oversaw today in a British newspaper of a protest against Atos, the French international IT and Consulting corporation whose Healthcare division won the UK Government contract to carry out ‘Work Capability Assessments’ for the Department of Work and Pensions in 2012. These assessments are designed to determine the client’s level of disability and/or ability to work. Since Atos took on this role there have been many reported deaths caused by their decisions and questions have been raised about the companies own fitness for purpose.
I wanted to make a number of brief, technical-historical points in response to the Michael Hampton post that prompted Nick’s. Firstly, as I have mentioned in other posts, the zombies described by Seabrook in The Magic Island (1929) [a book, not a film, incidentally] were allegedly working for the Haitian American Sugar Corporation (HASCO) whose operations had been threatened by anti-imperialist Haitian rebels (the Cacos) between 1912-15. The US occupation of Haiti began, in part, as response to this threat. As Mary Renda has convincingly shown in Taking Haiti (2001), an important ideological justification for U.S. intervention was the myth of white American paternalism over its black ‘Cannibal Cousins’ (the title of a 1934 book about Haiti by former U.S. marine John Huston Craige). During the occupation the marines reintroduced a forced labour system in which peasants, many of whom had been made landless by the new industrial production methods, either paid a road-building tax or were forced to build them. The marines also set about trying to eradicate the scourge of Vodou, which they identified, correctly, as having something to do with the rebels. In response the Cacos seem to have mobilized myths about their own supernatural powers (including stories about voodoo, cannibalism and zombies).
Even though Seabrook’s zombies were working for a sugar manufacturer the author failed to see them as a revenant of the horrors of plantation slavery under the Code Noir. They were in many ways too ‘modern’, a reminder of the ‘soulless robots’ who inhabited the factory system and contemporary metropolis. He was, after all, there to slough off his white skin and loose himself in sacrificial ‘voodoo’ ecstasies. Like his surrealist ethnographer friend Michel Leiris, who took The Magic Island with him on the Dakar-Djibouti to Africa in 1931, Seabrook failed to draw the correlation between the master-slave dynamics of human capital within the New World slave economy and the ‘robotic’ and ‘automated’ quality of life within modern industrial capitalism. (As Susan Zieger has pointed out in this excellent article the reason for this had much to do with their shared transgressive fantasies about race, sexuality and ‘blackness’). Seabrook found it hard to believe that the beings he met had actually been risen from the grave, instead he preferred to think of them as nothing more than “poor, ordinary demented human beings, idiots, forced to toil in the fields” (Seabrook 102). The point being that, unlike the chattel slave, a person that is either fit-for-work or dead, the zombie is both.
The second point has to do with White Zombie (1932), the first of the ‘zombie-films’ which does represent zombies as slave-workers in a plantation system. But it stages this system as an aberrant and anachronistic gothic fantasy rather than as a contemporary reality. The zombie figure in this context operates as a way of not representing what the US was doing in Haiti at that time. (No mention is made of the US occupation in this or any of the other voodoo-themed films of the 1930′s and 40s). Importantly the slave-master in White Zombie is depicted as a white hypnotist zombie-maker, a figure that is as much a metaphor for the powers of mass spectacle in modern societies as it is for the powers of industrial capital (in crisis).
The metaphorical zombic transition from black New World slave to modern, industrial automaton passes historically through the mass medium of cinema and its spectacular hypnotic powers. In this sense the zombie-automaton-somnambulist figure represents a subject condemned to geopolitical and historical oblivion by the combined forces of political-economy and hypnotic, media sorcery.
The final point has to do with the crux of Nick’s post: the question about which side of the conventional political spectrum the right to exterminate life comes from. Rather than wade too far into this ghastly philosophical mire, I wanted to note that some of the most interesting writing on the post ’68 apocalyptic zombie figure have made use of Michel Foucault’s concept of biopower and Achille Mbembe’s necropolitics, both of which are based on a fundamentally racial demarcation within the biopolitical state. As Gerry Canavan puts it ‘the zombie is a figure for those persons whose exclusion from ‘life’ secures biopower’s continued capacity for violence’ (Canavan 173). Mbembe, following Fanon, asserts that ‘sovereignty means the capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not’ (Mbembe 27). (Interestingly, given the ‘Fortress Jerusalem’ theme in World War Z, Mbembe goes on to suggests that ‘The most accomplished form of necropower is the contemporary colonial occupation of Palestine’).
From the perspectives of biopower and necropolitics race continues to have a constitutive role in decisions about who gets to live and who gets to die, but it does so in ways which exceed any normative formulation of the Left/Right dualism. Instead the question devolves onto how sovereign power – as the right to decide who lives and who dies – is exercised, by whom and on what philosophical-judicial grounds?