Online Assembly: Jelena Juresa and Arlette-Louise Ndakoze

Conversation transcript

In the frame of NOT FULLY HUMAN, NOT HUMAN AT ALL
Exhibition and symposium
Curated by: Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez, Bettina Steinbrügge
Kunstverein in Hamburg

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Arlette Louise-Ndakoze
Thank you, Nataša. Hello Jelena. Do you hear me well?

Jelena Jureša
I hear you well [inaudible].

ALN
It is good to see you.

JJ
It’s good to see you.

ALN
We will talk today about your film Aphasia. Actually, that’s the way I pronounce it. How do you actually pronounce that title?

JJ
Aphasia.

ALN
Aphasia? It can be Aphasia, Aphasia.

JJ
Yes.

ALN
So we will talk about all these: About the possibility to speak or the inability. Let me shortly introduce this film to you, to the ones who will yet have a chance to see it. Aphasia is a feature-length film essay dealing with the politics of memory and oblivion, inscribed in social and historical contexts. In three chapters, Aphasia detects a thread of positions of power, racism, injustice, and violence from Belgian colonialism, Austrian antisemitism, and atrocities in Bosnia during the Yugoslavian wars. The film explores how collective crimes keep being repeated and reflect social and political constellations, unfolding constructions behind nation states, and national identities.
Jelena, I think, because of the short time we have, we can directly immerse ourselves in the film. What do you think?

JJ
I am here for you. So, go.

ALN
Wonderful. Let’s go, let’s do that.

FILM NARRATOR (voice)

The diorama is held together by preservatives of varying chemical compositions, adhesives, stitches. Taxidermy, the arrangement of skins, a science dedicated to the prevention of biological decay. Ooohhh the oookapi! His smooth legs, his athletic proportions. Yes, you cry out, This IS HOW IT IS IN NATURE!

Someone explains, We’ve come a long way from the early days of the art, when animal skins were stuffed with sawdust and rags in inelegant, unnatural forms.

Yes! You say, We’ve come a long way from the days of violent and racist resource extraction, eugenics, abuses of power!

YES!

—Restitution!

The sunlight strokes the face of the okapi, of elderly tourists and attentive schoolchildren.

A preservative stronger than formaldehyde. Amnesia. The museum acknowledges our colonial past with a firm hand on your shoulder: Yes, we have come a long way.

ALN
Jelena, we have come a long way. We need to say that this is the narrator of the first chapter.

JJ
Yes, that’s the sound of the narrator in the first act of the film. A white, entitled male voice. The first act starts with this, liberal, trustworthy voice, that we are familiar with from documentary film-making. He leads us into the film and into the  Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, the so-called and self-proclaimed “Last Colonial Museum” in Belgium.

ALN
Your research goes deeply into photos, into image footage. I wonder, how come you were interested in that? You could say, the architecture of colonialism, the diorama, the taxidermy? What was there? What was in the background of that research?

JJ
As you were explaining at the beginning, the first act deals with the museum and Belgian colonialism. I found it to be an appropriate frame to question our ways of seeing. And when I say our: the ones we inherited through Western colonialism,  the colonial gaze we embedded into the building of museums and with the development of media, into photography and film. I decided to focus on the lens not only as a metaphor for our way of seeing the world, but also the way we feel entitled toward whatever we see. And when I say “we” it is also a very questionable “we”.  We cannot speak about museums as spaces that are neutral.

ALN
When you mention “we”, I think it is important to also say how much of that colonial museum is one prism of that lens that had unfortunately for hundreds of years put the way we think very much under conditions. So, it also conditioned the way we are taught about the way the world is shaped.

And you as a person from your own background, the way you were taught history, I wonder how this connection has been made. Why you chose to first go into the history of Belgium, in that specific museum.

JJ
When I first moved to Belgium, I was very much triggered by its colonial history and amnesia. Actually, we can think of colonial aphasia when it comes to Belgian colonial history because it is something that is known. It’s not really a question of amnesia, of something that has been forgotten or pushed aside from the public realm, but it is something that is very much present. For example, it was much more accessible to tackle the history of antisemitism in Austria or the question of the politics of forgetting in my own country. When it comes to Belgium, colonial codes are everywhere, especially in public spaces, starting with the streets named after animals from Africa. These codes activated ways of how  I was finding myself in these spaces. I tried to understand why the traces of the Belgian colonial past are so present and obvious. And then I understood that this was something that I had not encountered before. This was the first time I had lived in a Western country in the continuity of several years. It really became a palpable reality, and I decided to use the opportunity of the Tervuren museum restoration and to focus on museums as spaces implicated in the history of forgetting and violence.

ALN
I realized in your film, there are some connecting points. I would also call them coordinates, in the way we move through that history. It is also important to say that your research is very much about continuity. And that’s why I found it interesting that the narrator speaks in a very dissociative way. As if we are not meant to find the connecting points. So, the way the narrative is being done also from the West—it means the embedded narrative of the behavior—to speak of the Western culture as the one which had “invented” what science is about. It is the one that erases knowingly, from the way it passes on that knowledge, and the way we reach it: In between, we might not know what has happened. So,  this friction between what is known, as you mentioned, and what is not meant to be seen—everything is there, you can see it: the museum, the way it is propagated, and how much publicity was done when it reopened. How do you deal with the way that denial is still so visible?

JJ
I don’t know how I deal. Having an African museum in Belgium—I find it wrong at its core. The reason I focus on the museum’s collection of taxidermy is to go deeper into the question of the existence of diorama and the ways that the other is arranged in a  desirable way, meaning how certain politics are promoted through diorama. For example, that of a family or the one of lighter Africa. Also, when it comes to the taxidermy collection in the RMCA museum, it was a nice opportunity to have the collection present without any taxonomical order and to have a chance to capture with my camera this epistemological chaos.

ALN
Yes, especially because in the first chapter you are the one who is capturing, right?

JJ
I was there. I had a collaboration with the RMCA and I spent a lot of time there, very much alone in the basement. And it’s a funny space and funny place to be in. And it also gives you an opportunity to think a lot about what you are seeing.

ALN
What do you mean by funny?

JJ
I found myself suddenly among all these taxidermies. When I say “funny”, I don’t mean “haha” funny, but the surreal feeling of being there with all these non-objects or objects that represent a certain life. At one point, I found myself having a desire to touch an animal because it seemed so alive. And the way they are created—the life that has been taken in order to be transcoded into a certain political message—is also something that I found fascinating. When it comes to taxidermy, we cannot speak about taxidermy without speaking about the history of photography or the hunter’s mentality that Western European countries employed in connection to their colonial endeavors.

ALN
Now, what you mention, the second medium:  that’s also very strong in your film. So, from the speech, the semantics, we go to what is not verbal, but what still is in a certain semantic. I will now show one of the pictures of an alligator being hunted.

Arlette Louise Ndakoze conversation

ALN
I wonder, in the narrative of violence, and the way that your film is about deconstructing that or rendering it visible: how to be able to find a language for the trauma and still show what trauma is about on the ground. Now, for example, killing the animal. And is the animal in a hierarchy related to the human? Because in your film, you specifically decided not to show violence directly inflicted on humans.

JJ
In the third act of the film, we focus on one photograph that has to do with the wars in Yugoslavia and the atrocities that happened in the city of Bijeljina at the beginning of the war in Bosnia. I don’t show the photograph in question, but it is connected to the scene in the film, the scene where an alligator is being hunted. And this scene comes from a so-called “documentary film” filmed in Congo at the beginning of the last century. What I  find interesting is that in this image we see a murder performed for the camera. And if we speak about a certain taxonomy—that has to do with, as you said, human imperialism toward everything on the planet—we can also ask which taxonomical level the photographer or the camera person occupies within this order. What I  find interesting is that at the Cinematek film archive in Brussels I  found many similar images that capture the killing of an animal,  the event staged solely for the purpose of filming this violent act.

ALN
Thank you for sharing. I think it would be an ongoing question in the common research of de-coloniality:  how to first show where the very subtle colonial consequences still lay in our society, in our consciousness—and how to go out of it, without naming it and without showing it and then in that way re-enacting it. We will talk further about it, mostly at the end, where I will specifically ask you a question on that.  I think we can move to the next medium and when I say “me dium”, I say “a way to express”. Because as specifically referred to in Aphasia, the impossibility of expression really goes throughout the different media that we have as embodied senses. So, I will go directly to that.

[Loud drone with high overtones, industrial, digital, foreboding, intermittent, high pitched hammering]

ALN
I need to say that violence is still very strong in the film. So, actually, that sound is laid on an image of violence, a  video actually, a moving image, done to humans. It is not murder,  but still very brutal violence. What is that sound about?

JJ
You explained it very well as a transition when we talked about it earlier. I collaborated with composers and musicians Alen and Nenad Sinkauz, who worked on the soundtrack and also you see them in the third part of the film as performers making the live sound on the stage. And in this part which deals with racial violence implemented through racial experiments—at the beginning of the second chapter—we see images of prisoners of the First World War through filmed experiments performed by Rudolf Pöch, an Austrian scientist, and the chapter ends with Kurt Waldheim and his speech as the Secretary General of the United Nations. Thus, this arc from racial experiments and the establishment of eugenics in Austria and in Germany towards the United Nations is something I wanted to create, and not to think about antisemitism and the Holocaust as something that hasn’t been exercised before. I wanted to make this direct connection with colonialism and the racial violence that was also happening on the African continent at the same time, before but also during and after the  First and the Second World War.

ALN
Yes. It is important to mention: The connections are there and you only point them out. That it is not about building a hierarchy of violence that would mean that one act of violence is more severe than the other. It is rather about understanding how violence is structured and perpetrated again. Because, in the colonial time especially—because I focus on the colonial era in Africa—and specifically in Rwanda, we know that skulls were collected to make exactly these kinds of examinations. With a pre-built postulate confirming those whom Europeans have declared as non-humans are in fact not humans. This has continued through eugenics.

JJ
Many of these racial scientists, racial hygienists,  and anthropologists were avid filmmakers and photographers. In a  way, they were pioneers of photography and filmmaking and, in this case, Rudolf Pöch also established the institute of anthropology in  Vienna. He was not only a filmmaker and someone who knew how to record sound, an anthropologist and a doctor, but also a gravedigger.

ALN
We will go directly to the next sound.

FILM NARRATOR

Do not be misled. History and the evidence show us, Nazi crimes poisoned the entire system. Germany could not have done it without its collaborators. The SS could not have done it without the military. The commanding general could not have done it without his staff and his troops. The one A could not have done it without the one B and the one C. The colonels could not have done it without the lieutenants, nor the lieutenants without those who wielded the weapons. For two years, Kurt Waldheim has been urging the world to do what Nazis have done since 1945, to slice the responsibility into such tiny pieces, that no one can be held responsible. If we believe that, what do we believe next? That these millions of dead were victims of a natural disaster?

ALN
This is very powerful. I will let you explain to us: What is that sound?

JJ
It is the sound from a closing statement of a prosecutor—a real prosecutor—in a trial that was not really tried, but filmed for television in 1988. It was the mock trial of Kurt Waldheim.  So, a former Nazi lieutenant who served as a soldier in the Wehrmacht on the territory of Yugoslavia and also in Greece and who became Secretary General of the United Nations. At the end of his career, he was running for President of Austria: Austrians had their first publicly antisemitic elections when they elected Kurt Waldheim while being well aware of his Nazi past. And this is the time when the oblivion towards the Holocaust in Austria started to crumble, once  Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi past was revealed. What I found interesting instead, even though he was never tried, is that the mock trial was filmed with real witnesses and real prosecutors. And I used small parts of this fantastic film document in my film. I also found this prosecutor quite outstanding especially for how well he put together the problem of what Kurt Waldheim was—the question of responsibility and how responsibility of an individual can be traced, something that I had to question a lot myself during and after the wars in Yugoslavia. Something that the third part of the film focuses on.

ALN

Yes, I found it comes really through in your film—the connection between the one who designs, the one who narrates what has been designed, and the one who executes. Specifically, in that trial, to point out that you could not have executed if you had not been told that it is right to do so. And you could not have been told that it is the right thing to do without anyone who had designed it in a way that you find it a right thing to do. And I  think it is difficult to leave a certain narrative without a new narrative. So, what I see in your narrative is that you lay out…you lay down how it has been designed and still you bring it into a design.  Now coming into your third chapter, we will go more into that,  and I will share a picture on how a way to transform the narrative is very much incorporated.  

Ivana Jozic

ALN
So, the body as a language and the language that comes after the character we see here incorporates a person, a living person that tells, that gives testimony. What is behind that narrative of yours?

JJ
To answer your question, I need to explain the context of what we see in this photograph. One can call it a choreography of violence. We see a dancer. This is Ivana Jozić. And she’s dancing or re-enacting a scene of violence. It was captured in a photograph by American photographer Ron Haviv, taken in Bijeljina in 1992. She is re-enacting this impossibility of speaking about violence. And complicity. Not only of the person who was captured in the photograph while kicking dead civilians on the pavement,  but also about the violence that was perpetrated and that everyone around that individual knows about. Questions like how to tackle state violence and where it brings personal responsibility, i.e. responsibility of each of us implicated in the violence that happened. Without seeing this part of the film, it may be a bit abstract to explain what the dancer is trying to achieve. And also, there is a  dimension that I prefer not to translate into speech or to explain about this film, that needs to be left for everyone who is watching this film to find it for themselves.

ALN
There are several layers in there. There is a woman, a woman who doesn’t speak, but who moves with the body,  a body that, as you mention, stands for a violent choreography, a  violent design. The design that is not meant to be seen, that is designed by a state, and that you cannot pick, pinpoint to one person.  The way the film begins with a man, a man, who, as you say, is a  white man who talks in a very dissociative way and that guides the listener, the viewer into different points of history. How did you design that narrative yourself? What was there that made you choose first the man and then a woman?

JJ
The reason that I chose to start with the male voice: It’s not the man we see, still we know the voice belongs to a  white male. Why do we know it’s a white male? Because we know the level of arrogance he brings in, the way that the words are spoken, we know to whom these words belong. I wanted to make the narrator, this male narrator, aphasic and a bit hysteric, I wanted him to fall apart. I would never do this to a woman’s voice and also, he is a representative of this imperial voice, of this entitled voice that deciphers histories for us, and we are there to follow his lead. The gender element in the film is the important one. I hid gender ciphers within the film and used humor as a tool to deconstruct these common narrative gestures that we are used to seeing in filmmaking. Why the body and not the voice? There is a female voice in the third part and it belongs to a journalist, Barbara Matejčić. Barbara is speaking about the photograph we don’t show in the film. She is also interested in going beyond the photograph and seeing how photography can be powerless when it comes to justice, but then also questioning what needs to be connected to the medium of photography in order for it to work as judicial evidence. She is also a kind of voice able to go inside herself and to bring in the question of complicity, a question of how I position myself in connection to everything that this film speaks about.

ALN
That is one answer to that: that you position yourself and that, as such, you make it visible. I think, if we talk about violence, the structure of violence, the paradox is that the ones disseminating violence consciously have in mind that in the Western idea everything which is needs to be evident, palpable. That is also the way they define history. And that is how they come to say that people who presumably have no evidence—that these people have no history. So, we can go into this so-called philosophy of the Enlightenment which is based on that theory. We can specifically talk about Hegel who says about African people that they don’t have a history, although he has manipulated the canon and he has been appropriating that history. Specifically, the history of women philosophers and of the ones outside of so-called “Europe”, which is a construct. I think, it is interesting to talk about what you say: that the instrumentalization, manipulation, is very much known. That they know there is something that is not meant to be seen. But the violence reposes on something again that is not meant to be seen,  something that is there in the shadow, is perpetrated by someone who has designed it very well. But it is the one who executes who we call violent, right? And so, the people around it, seeing—who you call the accomplices—it becomes difficult for them then to say what the violence is. Because, sometimes, they don’t even know how that violence has been thought about. Until today. When you talk about decoloniality, many people don’t know what it means, don’t know that it is not (only) about saying an “N” word or about killing someone. But it is about that which is rendered invisible, that which needs to be spoken out. So, I would like to speak one quote, to mention one quote of philosopher Seloua Luste Boulbina, an Algerian-French philosopher who is very much concerned with finding ways out of that construction of violence. So, it’s from her book L’Afrique et ses fantômes :  Ecrire l’après [Africa and Its Ghosts: Writing What Comes Next],  published in 2015. She says: “[D]ecolonial politics has also the decoloniality of the subjects at stake. Decolonization is a challenge which only has meaning for subjects as human beings, as bearers of a singular subjectivity, which was once called spirit or soul.

Decoloniality is a becoming, which has meaning only from the point of view of the subjects thus defined. It is in terms of space a  third-place, neither that of the colony nor that of the post-colony.”

And here we have to explain what “third-space” means. She re fers to Derrida. And in the preface, Achille Mbembe explains “the search for this third-space, a term borrowed from Derrida, a kind of desert in the desert. Since it is neither simply the arch-origin nor simply the in-archable. History, language, and the colony are  in this sober and incisive text related to the internal architecture,  internal politics, gendered space and veiled gender.”

I would like you, Jelena Jureša, to tell me really shortly—posed in that question—what makes your narrative not be violent and how do we get out of that construction of violence in the narration?

JJ
I don’t know whether my narrative is violent or not. This is something that also bears the question of responsibility, if you speak about violence and how you treat this violence. And I think this treatment can be easily recognized. The way you craft a film or take a photograph, you also shape how you think about a certain topic, how you not just interpret a certain topic, but also which questions you find important when it comes to violent events or when it comes to troubled history. In that sense, these are the questions that are tough and this is something that I had a lot of conversations about during the production of the work. But once the work is there, once it is produced, I guess it is also up to the viewer to try to understand which position  I occupy within the work itself. There are several, let’s say, lines of responsibility I try to delineate in Aphasia and one of those would be the question of the medium itself for sure, but mainly the position of myself within a troubled history: someone who was born and raised in Yugoslavia and continued to live in Serbia, which led the proxy-wars on the territory of ex-Yugoslavia. And the important question for me was: How can I speak about this violence but also position this violence? I don’t want to say in a wider context, but actually quite the opposite—in a more precise frame, by going much deeper into trying to understand where the danger lies, and what are the steps that can transform our neighbor into the enemy and what are the circumstances that can easily lead one society into the horrors of war. 

I think that many people who lived in Yugoslavia would probably offer a similar response, that whenever you trace or see even the slightest sign of fascism or something that smells like it—the experience you already recognize on a bodily level—you kind of know all of the scenarios that certain events can lead to. And you hope that the catastrophe won’t happen.

As a philosopher, fiction writer, and curator, Arlette-Louise Ndakoze researches on pan-African sciences and their forms of mediation. Since September 2020, she is the artistic co-director of the art space SAVVY Contemporary – The Laboratory of Form-Ideas. It engages with systems of oppression through artistic articulations towards their potential transformation, into a co-living with the multidimensional common.
A.-L. Ndakoze focuses on the connection between text and sound, in the broader sense the one between spiritual-immaterial and physical-material spheres – those spaces of possibility in the making.
For more than ten years, A.-L. Ndakoze has been drawing on artistic and intellectual movements – in Rwanda in particular, and across pan-African cultures in general – with research on philosophical disciplines, sonic history, literary scenes, and the link that holds cultures together to this day.