Ghetto Biennale II

February 25, 2016

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

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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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“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

A recent twitter spat between Robin Mackay (Urbanomic) and Nick Land over at Outside/In has prompted me to write a second ‘In the Blood’ post.

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 of 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.

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Basket Case

Intrigued by the persistent use of the term by journalists and other commentators on Haiti I’ve been doing a little research into the origin of common epithet for Haiti, a country which has been described variously as an economic basket case, an environmental basket case or more generally the basket case of the western hemisphere. It seems that the first use of the expression in relation to Haiti was by Lars Schoultz in his 1981 book Human Rights and United States Policy Towards Latin America since when it has become something of a reflex journalistic cliché for anyone seeking to represent the Haitian nation as an irredeemably damaged and incurable political-economic entity.

A brief review of the history of the expression itself is revealing. The term was first used officially at the time of WW1 by the Surgeon General of the US armed forces in an attempt to quell potentially demoralizing rumors amongst military personnel that hospitals were filling up with men who had lost both sets of limbs in battle and, as a consequence, were being transported home in baskets (Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition). Similar rumors began to circulate again during the second world war. Interestingly for Haiti, the first recorded use of the term in the context of international relations was a reference made in a 1967 British newspaper article suggesting that the political solutions proposed for southern Africa by Kwame Nkrumah – the Pan-African independence leader and first president of Ghana – did not make him a basket case. This seems to be the first time the expression was used to describe a mental rather than physical state of irreparable damage or disability. Importantly, from the perspective of Haiti, Nkrumah brings together the association of unworkable agricultural and economic policies in post-colonial nations with the idea of African despotism. Like several Haitian presidents before François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Nkrumah also eventually made himself ‘president for life’. However by the 1970’s the term “basket case” was also being applied to the disastrous national agricultural policies of European states like Bavaria and Italy. Interestingly the two themes of post-colonial national independence and disastrous agricultural policy have recently been brought together in the frequently repeated simile: from bread basket to basket case. Behind these different levels of meaning there is often a sense that a basket case nation is usually led by a basket case president.  

Horror film fans will probably be more familiar with the use of the term to describe a person driven irredeemably insane by terror, like these unfortunate gentlemen who made the big mistake of watching a sexploitation horror double-bill: The Blood Spattered Bride (1972) and I Dismember Mama (1974). The term was given a new lease of life with the release of Frank Henenlotter’s 1982 comedy-gore exploitation film Basket Case in which the able-bodied brother of siamese twins carries around his mutant and murderous twin Belial – named after the Judaic demon identified in the Dead Sea Scrolls  as leader of the Sons of Darkness – in a basket.

On a more controversial and “neoreactionary” note (for Zombi Diaspora at least) Mark Krikorian, author of The New Case Against Immigration (2008), has argued that Haiti’s basket case status is due in part to the fact it it was not colonized for long enough (the argument being that the revolution cut short the possibility of Haitian’s benefiting from ‘the more advanced civilization of the colonizers’) and partly, echoing sentiments expressed by Lawrence Harrison elsewhere, because of ‘the strength of paganism, in the form of voodoo’ that the French ‘weren’t around long enough to suppress’.

In fact there have been ongoing systematic attempts to suppress and eradicate Vodou from Hispaniola since well before the revolution, and long after. And it was not only the French who sought to rid the island of this unruly ancestor cult but also many of the Haitian leaders themselves (later in cahoots with the US army and Catholic Church). That being said Duvalier’s overt public embrace and political use of Vodou as a source of noiriste Afrocentric nationalism didn’t exactly help the religion’s reputation in the outside world. By the time of this rare interview with Alan Whicker in 1969 the difference between actual basket cases caused by war, the thousands of psychological basket cases produced by his reign of terror, and the mind ‘Voodoo Dictator’ himself had become abysmally undifferentiated.  

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.

Here is a PDF of my essay ‘The Militarization of Aid as an Act of Religious Violence’ which was recently published in the Transmission Annual publication on Catastrophe. In the essay I reflect upon the militarization of aid in post-earthquake Haiti from the perspective of George Bataille’s Theory of Religion.

Catastrophe Cover020

A Pig’s Tail

January 2, 2013

At long last Leah Gordon & Anne Parisio’s inspirational film A Pig’s Tail (1997) is up on Vimeo. Thanks for that!

There have been several references to the story of the Haitian pig here at Zombi Diaspora. It is the “same pig” that Reginald Jean Francois spoke about in his story about the 2004 defacing of the replica of the Florentine Boar by UN troops in Haiti.  The story resonates very strongly with Colin Dayan’s talk at the 1804 and Its Afterlives conference discussed in the previous post, especially in terms of the competing justifications and rationales for animal slaughter/sacrifice. The description of the ceremonial welcoming of the all-new American pig to the island sounds like the kind of legal ritual she has been writing so insightfully about. It is also, on a more optimistic note, probably the ancestor the the ‘hybrid’ pig she encountered when she was last in Haiti. 

Although it was “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s Tonton Macoutes who carried out the extermination program, we should note too the central role played by USAID, whose director from 1977-79, two years prior to the total eradication of the creole pig from the country, was Lawrence Harrison also mentioned by Dayan, who in the interview linked to in the previous post and elsewhere, argues for a “cultural revolution” in Haiti (and Benin) to totally eradicate Vodou from the minds of its people on the grounds that it “gets in the way of democratic governance, social justice and prosperity”. The irony of this claim is made painfully clear by the Haitian’s interviewed in Leah and Anne’s film who explain how the Haitian pig helped them put their children through school, pay for medicine, buy land or build a house. As A Pig’s Tail shows so well, the pragmatic realms of utility and mysterious realms of the sacred are not so easily separated in Haiti.

Great to see once again the meeting of Edgar Jean Louis, Vodou priest and flag-maker, and Andre Pierre, the person who taught him “the way of the spirits” who is one of the key painters exhibited in Kafou exhibition.

André Pierre 'Ceremonie Vodou' (1970)

André Pierre ‘Ceremonie Vodou‘ (1970)

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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Zombie Metaphor II: Video

November 30, 2012

zombie metaphor II

Here’s a link to the video recording of the Zombie Metaphor talks that took place at Nottingham Contemporary on November 7th. There were some technical problems which meant the talk started a little late. The introduction begins at about 9:50.

Here is a new video by Alex Louis from Tele Geto and Ti Moun Rezistans.

Alex is currently looking for a video arts program that he can apply for. Please let me know if you have any ideas about this.