Ghetto Biennale II

February 25, 2016

Footage from the second Ghetto Biennale in December 2011 shot by Alex Louis from Tele Geto.

In an earlier post (23/12/15) I mentioned an incident that occurred during the penultimate night of the Ghetto Biennale in which a young man from Lakou Cheri, Gerard Masalen, died after a fight with another man. I think it is important to write something here about the circumstances surrounding Gerard’s death within the broader context of GB IV, the political tensions in the streets of Port-au-Prince at the time of the biennale and the experiences of some of the participants and guests that have not been widely discussed or publicly shared. The main issue I’m trying to tease out here has to do with the complex relationship between the actual and perceived risks for artists participating in the biennale, the implicitly economic and often fraught nature of inter-personal relations between visitors and locals, and how the perceptions and realities of such are understood, represented and managed by the GB organization.

My own contribution to this year’s biennale was a “gossip wall” hung within Lakou Cheri, the main site of the biennale, on which local people and visitors were invited to write anonymous stories about what was going on “off-screen” as it were. I would collect any gossip at the end of each day, then wipe the canvas clean ready for the following one. The idea was to create a kind of local gossip column that would potentially give voice to dissenting or critical opinions about the biennale. This was part of a broader project conceived as a means to gather material for an essay in the forthcoming Ghetto Biennale catalogue that would be based, in part, on the opinions of people outside the biennale’s inner circle. I mention this to frame my comments here in terms of the broader project I was involved in during the biennale. That being said, my account of the circumstances leading up to and following the events that night is primarily a personal one, supported by details gleaned from conversations with biennale guests during and after the event, witnesses, members of the organizational team and people who knew Gerard personally.

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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.

 

Here is a short interview with me that Alexander McLean shot during the Portman Gallery “Art Power” exhibition which gives some background to the production of the show as well a little bit about Haitian history.

Next week I will be working with students from Morpeth School in Bethnal Green to produce a large scale banner based on the working methods and styles of Haitian tap tap painters. The finished banner will be shown alongside the sign made for Tele Geto during the last Ghetto Biennale and the video documentation of its making. The exhibition will take place at the Portman Gallery, Morpeth School, Portman Place, London E2 0PX. There will be a wine reception in the gallery from 6 till 8 on Thursday March 21st. All welcome.

Details below (click on flyer for higher resolution). Art Power E-Flyer Final (jpg)

This is the first of a three-part summary of the excellent 1804 and Its Afterlives conference that took place at Nottingham Contemporary on December 7th and 8th as part of the events programming accompanying the Kafou: Haiti, Art and Vodou exhibition. Video recordings of the sessions can be found on the above link. I will focus here only on salient points from the many inspiring talks that touch upon issues of direct relevance for the Zombi Diaspora narrative and the work of the Ghetto Biennale.

Friday 7th (Day One)

The keynote lecture  – ‘The Gods in the Trunk (or Writing in a Belittered World)’ – was given by Colin Dayan, author of Haiti, History and the Gods (1995) and the recent The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons (2011). Her talk offered “a context for reconfiguring our understanding of the supernatural…that asks: What could we feel if we could feel what we experience sufficiently?” Prompted by her knowledge and experience of Vodou practice she questions the meaning of justice, the reach of cruelty and the uses of  reason within the generally decorous and polite academic discussions of ‘humanism’, ‘humanitarianism’ and ‘human rights’, in an attempt to “breach the gap between body and mind, dead and living, human and non-human”.

Her focus on the language of ‘humanism’ and ‘humanitarianism’ has bearings for earlier posts that have addressed post-earthquake disaster relief as a form of neoimperialist violence that masks and intensifies the suffering of the populations it claims to be aiding. As I have argued in a forthcoming text for the Transmission annual on Catastrophe, the militarization of aid in post-earthquake Haiti was an intensification of the strategic utilization of humanitarian aid as part of an ongoing neoliberal strategy that has been undermining the possibility of Haitian popular sovereignty since the Duvalier era. There is a kind of humanitarian wall built around Haiti that hides and prevents access to the real violence being waged there in the interests of a tiny international, capitalist elite. The systematic suppression of Vodou, despite not beginning with it, seems to intensify during periods of occupation, significantly during  the US occupation of 1915 to 1934, the UN occupation beginning in 2004 and the second phase of US occupation that began after the earthquake in 2010. President Martelly’s recent repeal of Article 297 of the Haitian constitution, and the arrest of Ougan Zaza and nine other participants at the annual Bwa Kayiman ceremony this year, suggest that a renewal of the anti-Vodou program may be underway. At the same time, as Reginald Jean Francois’ account of the defacing of the Florentine boar in Plaza Italia by UN peace-keepers in 2004 suggests, there are aspects of the MINUSTAH mission that exceed ‘pure’ security and stability objectives.

Dayan began her lecture with a question – “What is the particular terrain for human cruelty and who gets to command its shifts in terms of species and race?” – which she contextualized in terms of a turn towards a “political metaphysics” of the sacred which affirms the “concreteness of Vodou practice” and attemptins to locate “in granular and theoretical registers” the “often invisible nexus of animality and human marginalization”. In a gesture evocative of the ‘surrealist ethnogapher’ Michel Leiris’ 1938 essay The Sacred in Everyday Life, Dayan proposes that “the unlikely and extraordinary are part and parcel of the commonplace” and “how rituals thought bizarre become ordinary”. She asks how we might re-figure our understandings of the supernatural to include “everyday practices of casual cruelty and commonplace harm” sketching out a landscape of that “defies reason” and “skirts transcendence”.

Dayan based her talk on Haitian novelist Marie Vieux Chauvet’s trilogy Amour, Colère, Folie (“Love, Anger, Madness”), completed and first published in 1969, but unavailable until 2009 due to fears of reprisal against Chauvet’s family by representatives of the Duvalier regime.  Focussing on the final novella of the trilogy – Madness – Dayan uses Chauvet’s works to stage a series of fundamental ethical and historical questions about what we consider to be human, and what happens when the poles of magical and the juridical, supernatural and rational are ritually reversed. “Are we prepared” she asked “to re-adjust ourselves to a conception of human life that turns our own reality upside down?” Within what she calls the “precincts of Chuavet’s fiction” that exist in the nightmare landscape of Duvalier’s Haiti, “the immediate thing is the supernatural” and the real is “no more than a symbolization of events in the world of ritual”. In such circumstances “the most incorporeal is re-cast as reasonable” and this “relentless acceptance of unreality” Dayan claims is a necessary part if Haitian history and crucial to its mythology.

Dayan addresses the management of “societal refuse” in which distinctions are drawn between “the free and the bound, the familiar and the strange, the privileged and the stigmatized”. There was something very Bataillian about this formulation of “an unreal rationality of racism” depending for its power on “the conceptual force of the superfluous, what can be rendered as remnants or waste or dirt”. Given Dayan’s response to the show’s curator Alex Farquharson’s question about ‘the abject’ during the Q&A session, and her evident aversion to ready-made and over-used theoretical terms that often work to cover-over and obscure the very things they claim to be addressing, I propose this reference with some circumspection. Bataille is undoubtedly a philosopher whose concepts (like ‘formless’, ‘transgression’, ‘dépense’, ‘sovereignty’ etc.) have been used in precisely this fashion in respectable academic and artworld circles for many years now. That said, I think it is worth re-stating here the general thesis of a polarity of the sacred in which the impure elements are associated precisely with filth, waste and other forms of repellent ‘base matter’ that threaten, unsettle and destabilize those modes of “civility, consensus and rationality” upon which academic claims to decency are made. The Psychological Structure of Fascism, for instance, written in 1934, attempts to account for the role of imperative ‘pure’ forms of heterogeneity (loosely, the sacred) in the formation of Fascistic totalitarianisms, that depend upon the violent suppression and elimination of material (human, animal or otherwise) deemed unclean, abhorrent and ignoble. Bataille was concerned particularly with the affective register of sacred forces, going so far as to suggest that “the object of any affective reaction is necessarily heterogeneous”. Informed by Alexander Kojève’s lectures on Hegel which he was attending at the time of writing, he developed an idiosyncratic, psychoanalytically inflected account of the master-slave dialectic, deeply resonant with Dayan’s reading of Chauvet. According to Bataille “the heterogenous nature of the slave is akin to that of the filth in which his material situation condemns him to live” while “that of the master is formed by an act of excluding all filth: an act pure in direction but sadistic in form”.

As those familiar with Bataille’s work will know, the spectacle of sacrifice and the “making of the sacred” were fundamental concerns for him, as they are for Dayan. “In the spectacles of sacrifice that concern me today” she said “to be disposable is not having the capacity to be dispossessed, to be nothing more than dispensable stuff”. With this in mind she made reference to the medieval law of the deodand, literally a “thing given up to God” symbolizing “forfeiture and power, loss and gain” and “an object or thing that becomes endowed with intent and malice and thus must be sacrificed or forfeited to the state, church or king”. Then, in a gesture which recalls the thought experiment known in consciousness studies as ‘the zombie problem’, she asked us to “imagine that this thing-like-thing returns in the shape of things that look like humans but are really evacuated of all characteristics that make social personhood possible…just at the moment that their life, their resistance is most present and visible”. For Dayan Wilson Bigaud’s portrait of a bull – Conflicts and Tensions (1957) – exhibited in the Kafou show captures what this thing-like-thing, that is so filled with spirit, might be.

Miluad Rigau Conflicts and Tensions

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This video was shot during the 2nd Ghetto Biennale in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in December 2011. It documents the painting of a sign I commissioned for a special Ghetto Biennale tap-tap truck, intended to promote Ti Moun Rezistans’ Tele Geto project during the event.

Mis-Attribution

February 25, 2012


This is a short post to correct a mis-attribution of a photo of André Eugène’s  ‘Badgi Pom Louko (Altar for Louko)’ (2011) to myself in Nadine Zeidler’s recent review of the biennale in Frieze. I took the photo but the work is very much Eugene’s (with contributions from Michel Lafleur, one of the tap tap sign painters). The photo is relatively high-res. The details are well-worth a closer look.


Here is the scratch edit of the video I made during this year’s Ghetto Biennale. A final, subtitled version will be screened and exhibited along with the sign itself during 2012.

Days 1 and 2

December 12, 2011

It’s too much to explain what it is like to arrive at the Oloffson and to be plunged into the energies of the Ghetto Biennale. Suffice to say that it is a medium.

It turns out that the Tap tap I’ve commissioned to be painted has already been half done and that there seems to be some confusion as to whether the owner – Evel – will allow the rest of his truck to be painted, and whether the $100 US I sent to pay for the job will be recuperable from the guy Michel who painted the other parts of the truck.

I meet with Evel and Chevy from Atis Rezistans and some sort of deal is struck about making a painting on the bonnet of his truck on plastic so that it can be taken off after the biennale. That’s agreed. Now it’s a question of finding the painter and working out the cost.

After dinner I meet with a guy who says he can do the job. But we will have to speak to Michel first. I’m not sure how this is going to work out exactly or whether any definitive agreement was reached because I’m working in incredibly bad, broken French with bits of English thrown in. I’m never sure exactly what I’m saying or if it’s being understood. There’s also a lot of discussion and debate moving in Kreyol between the different interests to which I’m not party. I’m re-assured something will be sorted.

The next day I spend some time walking around the neighborhood with Jana Evans Braziel, who is writing a book about Atis Rezistans and the Ghetto Biennale. I take the opportunity to take some photos of signs in the area.

I notice that several of the signs have business names and contacts written on them, suggesting that they are made by free-lance painters. I had assumed that their might be some kind of guild system working, at least with the tap tap painters, but I’m starting to think that sign painting in Haiti is a much more individual and entrepreneurial venture pursued by any one with a feel for it.

That certainly seems to be the case when I start to negotiate with both of the sign painters, who turn out to be friends, down at Grand Rue, the site of the biennale.

Michel and Joseph on the Grand Rue

After some negotiations with Evel, Eugene, Michel and his friend we agree on a price for the new work which will be painted on a canvas which will be attached to the bonnet of the truck: $200 US, $100 each, the first today, the second on completion of the job in two days time. We shake on the deal. I will be at the rue tomorrow at 8 to start the filming. I go back to Eugene’s yard, take a few more photos of the biennale space as the light fades, then head off back to Oloffson on Evel’s truck.

Romel and Racine at Eugene’s place