“I Guess the Objects Remained Rather Unimpressed”

Florian Malzacher in conversation with Beatrice von Bismarck and Benjamin Meyer-Krahmer

In: Curatorial Things. Eds. Beatrice von Bismarck, Benjamin Meyer-Krahmer. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2019. 118-130.

Beatrice von Bismarck: Florian, you curated the project Appropriations: Choreographies of Proximity and Distance, which ran from 2014 to 2015 as part the Humboldt Lab Dahlem, a multipart experimental investigation into the potential exhibition practice of two museums that will be housed in the Humboldt Forum in Berlin—the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst.1 With your professional background in performance and theater, you dedicated Appropriations to modes and strategies of a performative appropriation of other forms of knowledge and cultures. These reconstructions, reformulations, and reenactments involved distinct approaches to objects in the museums’ collections. Could you map out the ideas and aims that you connected with a performative approach?

Florian Malzacher: One starting point was the basic observation that the vast majority of objects in any ethnological museum can only be understood in connection with the way they were meant to be used. Most of them were performed or used in a performative way—in daily household activities, in rituals, or in other spiritual and/or artisticactivities. Within the logic of performance theory these objects are performance remains. In the museum, they are cutoff from these contexts in terms of time, geography, culture, and so forth. They cannot be used anymore, and it also wouldn’t make much sense to try to use them. Many of them literally cannot be touched now because they are museum objects and fragile artifacts—and they are poisoned not only metaphorically but also factually, through the chemicals used to preserve them. The situation is paradoxical: dealing with objects that can only be understood through their use but that cannot be used the way they were intended anymore.

This ethnological problem resembles one from the performative arts: How do you reconstruct a performance orchoreographic work without having seen it, apart from possibly a few photos, notes, audience descriptions, or props? How should the experience be fully simulated? Is it possible to appropriate a performance that is temporally and culturally distant without simply filling in the gaps of the unknown, the incomprehensible, and negating them? And how can one avoid false representations? For example, some of the museums’ curators wanted us to recreate a specificancient Mayan dance.

For me and the artists involved this was an absurd idea: How can you reenact something in a different part of the world, in a different time and culture? What would we understand by doing this? Wouldn’t it rather disable understanding by assuming a false closeness or familiarity? The audience would also have to reenact the original audience, not in terms of costumes but in terms of the entire context. So the idea of reenacting was a strong part of the concept, but with the clear awareness that a concrete, literal reenactment was impossible.

The other starting point was the obviously highly problematic history of ethnological museums. Many objects in their collections should not be there in the first place. Although the demand for returning them is just, and museums should stop slowing down this process, ultimately it is not an easy task to carry out; it’s almost utopian. Every object has a different story, and it’s unclear where many of them should be returned. While we should be more dedicated to returning what we can, we won’t be able to return all of them— just as we cannot simply get rid of our colonial history. The concept of ethnological museums is wrong in itself, but it is a wrongness we have to live with while trying to handle things as thoughtfully and responsibly as possible. That is why we chose Appropriations as the title for the project. Appropriation, even cultural appropriation, is always a violent act. The direct or structural violence with which ethnological collections have appropriated many objects repeats itself in the ongoing appropriations of these objects through interpretation and contextualization. But appropriation also has the aspect of rapprochement, of wanting tounderstand and to learn. It means that it does not leave the appropriators themselves unchanged (which is even clearer in the German concept, Aneignung). The term expresses the ambivalence of ethnological museums quite well.

Benjamin Meyer-Krahmer: Could you give two examples of how those threads were then realized or performed in this institution?

FM: First of all, the idea was not only to commission performative works, but to understand them as part of a conference that is performative itself. Visitors were divided into different groups, taking different routes through the space and the program. Their corporeal presence became a significant component of the conference; time and duration consciously contributed to the choreography. Excitement and exhaustion, collectivity and isolation, moments of haste and times of relaxation created their own dramaturgy of awareness. With this, I hoped to convey through comprehension and experiences that Appropriations was not only site-specific but also, to a large extent, time-specific. In 2014, the Ethnologisches Museum found itself in an interim phase before closing for a few years to then reopen in another location. This specific moment in time enabled encounters that could not have taken place in the same way previously and won’t be possible in this way again. So the form of the conference, the created artworks, and the objects of interest all related to the idea of performance. We rejected the idea of reenacting or re-performing and instead emphasized how we, as the typical Western audience, perform our own gaze—in a way, the visitors represented Western museum audiences or even Western society.

This was clearly shown in the work As Never Before / As Never Again by theater maker Ant Hampton and visual artist Britt Hatzius. The title refers to the site and time specificity I just mentioned—within an exhibition that had a clear expiration date, temporality was tangible. And not only was the actual museum on call, so was the historical, ideological, and philosophical basis on which it was founded. Ethnological museums are a symbol of the crisis ofmodernity, Enlightenment, and Western self-perception—and, at the same time, their symptom.

Hampton and Hatzius brought objects and spectators into a subtle performative situation. They selected terracotta figures from the Mesoamerican Department that would soon be disappearing into the storage depots—possibly forever—because they will not be on display in the museum’s new space.

These figures were scanned and replicated via 3-D printing. These replicas then faced the originals—or, rather, theoriginals had to face their copies. As Never Before / As Never Again highlighted the process of selection and brought up the question of originality, which is a complex question with differing answers in post-structural or postcolonial discourses. For me, the main question was about the value of these objects—the projected value, the financialvalue, the symbolic value, and perhaps the spiritual value. There was a moment of melancholy in how these objects looked at one another, and how we looked at them.

BvB: Could you relate this moment back to the ambivalence of the original? The idea of the original, on the one hand, always runs the risk of playing into a certain kind of fetishization of the objects within the museum collection. The aspect of melancholy in the work by Hampton and Hatzius that you mentioned could be seen pushing their investigation in that direction because, as you pointed out, we might never see the originals again, unless we go to the storage depots. On the other hand, the loss of the original also implies a dimension of cultural policy in terms of accessibility: the copy allows for easier access since it is no longer restricted by the material precarities of the original.

FM: Yes, that is part of this melancholy. It is not primarily connected to the specific object, which we might not care much about anyway. For all we normal visitors know, it could already have been replaced by a copy—or was a fake from the beginning. And it is already kind of useless in its vitrine. The feeling of melancholy is rather connected to understanding that concepts like the original might not be valid anymore, or at least have a different status. It is part of a bigger change of reevaluating the criteria, values, and achievements of modernity. We should also acknowledge thatwe have to cope with this loss: not needing the original anymore for the distribution of knowledge. And this ambivalence is part of the museums. On the one hand, the idea of making all knowledge accessible is on the agenda;on the other, museums survive from the concept of the original, which legitimizes much of their existence. So they keep the copyrights—you can buy copies in the museum shop but the data of the 3-D scans cannot just be made available. Itis also a business. These museums contain many of the problems and contradictions of Western culture in a nutshell.

BvB: I think it’s an issue that depends on the cultural context of the museum.

Where, for a variety of reasons, there aren’t any material collections, the societal function of the museum might bedefined differently, or other, immaterial means to define the museum function might be developed in terms similar to the museum tradition in Europe and North America. In that respect, the question of the original and its digital reproduction opens up a whole spectrum of other questions.

FM: The installation by Hampton and Hatzius was situated in the Mesoamerican Department. The ownership of the objects in this department was not necessarily the most problematic or the most discussed—not as charged as, for example, the African Department, even though of course the question of provenance applies to both. So this discussion also resonated in Hampton and Hatzius’s work in suggesting that the originals could be given back and copies kept—whatever“giving back” would exactly mean in the case of Mayan works. If we don’t believe that these artifacts are spiritually charged, and if we don’t believe in a similar spiritual idea of the original, we could just as well keep copies. Of course, this is not entirely true, since there is also a forensic interest in the material—the information stored throughout the years in the clay, for example. And we are far from being able to make copies that look exactly the same as the originals. These are some of the questions raised by this work.

Another commission went directly into the ethically charged discourse around the Ethnologisches Museum, especially the African Department. Alexandra Pirici, a Romanian choreographer who has worked a lot on museum collections in recent years, tackled the notion of appropriation through the concept of cannibalism and the discourse around African modernity in her work Cannibals and Forms of Life. Pirici showed that appropriation can also be a strategy of self-empowerment by so-called marginal cultures as an attempt to hybridize and, if you wish, “cannibalize” the opponent. This strategy is, of course, ambivalent, sometimes bordering on mimicry or assimilation. African modernity has alsobeen debated in this context: Is it an act of self-colonization or an act of self-empowerment? This discussion is again charged by the criticism of modernity in general because it is considered by many as the failed project of the West. Pirici created a performed exhibition that stretched from Oswald de Andrade’s Cannibalist Manifesto to African modernism, the work of Yinka Shonibare, Wifredo Lam’s Lisa Mona, voguing, grime, and the dystopian Nick Landianspecter of assimilation/extinction of the inferior human by a superior artificial intelligence. It also included works ofthe existing collection of the museum, such as photographs of King Njoya of Bamum. This exhibition only existed in time through the performed enactments and quotations of the dancers, an ephemeral and “immaterial addition to the collection,” as the work’s subtitle termed it.

It was playful, but also a challenge for the viewer since nobody would likely know all the objects, artworks, and textsreferenced. It was an exhibition that could not be fully grasped since the viewer will always miss something.

BMK: Since you just mentioned the objects in the space, could you say more about the specificity of the venue and the motivation to realize this kind of performative approach there—the surrounding references and objects in comparison to other venues? Because, of course, it does make a difference where you realize this kind of project.

FM: First, all contributors were highly aware of the problematic state of ethnological museums as concrete and symbolic places of our colonial past. In the case of the Ethnologisches Museum in Dahlem, it is not only the collection that poses a problem, but also the fact that the Humboldt Lab program that Appropriations was part of was meant to discursively prepare the move to a new venue, the Stadtschloss (city castle) in the historic center of Berlin, which will host the Humboldt Forum. I will not go into the discussions about the reconstruction of the Stadtschloss at thesame location where the Palace of the Republic stood during the GDR. This reconstruction is wrong in many ways—one being how it deals with our colonial past.

The idea of the Humboldt Forum is not unproblematic either. There are many discussions about this move andseveral activist groups are fighting it.

This was obviously influencing our work in Dahlem. Even though most artists and I were opposed to the idea of theStadtschloss, and that it will house the Ethnologisches Museum, we still felt that we were able to deal with thespecific situation of Dahlem, a neighborhood where you can feel the former West as a kind of phantom pain borne with melancholic dignity. Dahlem is a place that now feels distant. The museum with one of the biggest, most important ethnological collections was on the outskirts of the city in a somewhat humble setting. Even going to this partof the city is a site-specific experience. And then you entered this museum that is so well designed and so recognizable as an example of postwar West German modernism. The foyer is even reminiscent of the famous chancellor’s bungalow in Bonn. All of this was already part of the project and the context. The Ethnologisches Museum in Dahlem is not only a disagreeable place.

One can understand that these collections were built not only by ruthless people but also by others that, like Humboldt, really wanted to understand other cultures. We know today that their approach was also problematic and brought pain to many people—either directly or by feeding into colonial ideologies. But we also have to see that the creation of “the other” was at first an attempt to acknowledge and appreciate it in its difference. Today we are aware of the problems that this “othering” produces. And still, we are part of this ambivalence. We are among these objects and we know that this place probably shouldn’t exist. It’s a mess. But it’s our mess and we have to continue to deal with it. Ignoring it or not trying to understand it doesn’t make it go away.

In the end, all the artists agreed to work in the museum, but all had serious concerns about the location and its implications. Even though none of the works felt “at home” in the museum, and we all remained strangers to theobjects as well, we were all invested in investigating this concrete distance.

BvB: To extend Benjamin’s question further: What difference would it have made if the artists had dealt with the objects not in the museum itself but in an institution conventionally designated to performative arts, like the Volksbühne or the Haus der Berliner Festspiele?

FM: Well, the works were mostly site-specific rather than object-specific.

Many negotiated a distance rather than a proximity to the objects in the museum. Putting living bodies next to the objects—like in Pirici’s work, or a work by choreographers deufert&plischke that made the audience itself perform—these were ways of trying to communicate. But I doubt that any of the objects were interested in us. And we were rather interested in the collection as a whole and the concept of collecting in general. Two artists, for instance, worked on the idea of adding not only immaterial—as in Pirici’s case—but also real objects to the museum. Ulf Aminde did so temporarily with an iPhone and a video installation that addressed the complex issue of copying and copyrights in the Asian Department, with his work performing labour contracts, made in Taiwan (to love is give) #booty_nn´Dahlem_version2. And Kapwani Kiwanga, with Doubles, managed to get into the process of entering objects into the collection for good. She created abstracted versions of existing artifacts and wanted them to be subjected to the same preparation, decontamination, indexing, and conservation as any other object in the museum. If the project had happened somewhere else we would have conceived it completely differently from the start.

  1. The presentations and performative conference Appropriations were part of the Probebühne 4 Humboldt Lab at the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin Dahlem, November 2014.

BvB: You’ve mentioned before that you and most of the artists had the feeling that the objects you were encountering had a certain kind of deadness. What happened after you dealt with them? In the discourse around museum objects, notions of actualization, liveness, and survival have become prominent, and you talked about survival in your talk at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt.2 How would you describe the altered state that the objects took on, if they did so at all?

FM: For most of the artists, and for me as well, these objects felt quite distant, quite unalive, having been cut from their culture, their performative use, their time, their contexts. And I guess the objects remained rather unimpressed byour appearance. I would say that hopefully the state of the collection as such, of the museum, of the space, was slightly altered for the visitors. They were the ones who we approached. It was about the relation between humans in the present and the past, in different cultures and times, mediated by the objects. One could say that our project wasrather un-animistic.

During preparations for the project, the Samoan artist Rosanna Raymond had a residency at the museum. She was directly interacting with objects, connecting ancient rituals with her own. For her, as I understood it, the objects hadpersonalities and came to life. They were made for a certain use and not to be in a vitrine, and she could connect through her own traditions to that use. Interestingly enough, she did not see the collection negatively— sheappreciated that the objects were well kept. She said that they should not be put away but should still be in use. But she was in a special position that the artists involved in Appropriations felt they were not in. Kapwani Kiwanga and her approach of putting new objects in the collection may have come closest. She wanted to be part of the collection and claim a certain authorship. That our project kept a distance to this approach might also be because the Ethnologisches Museum already invites artists from different cultures connected to the collection—like Raymond—towork with the objects and perform or reenact certain rituals or ceremonies. For us, as I said, this was not an option.

BvB: Would you say it altered the state of the objects in terms of their agency?

FM: If you define their agency in relation to the people visiting Appropriations, I would of course hope so. That is, in the modest way of an artistic project: to see the objects in the specific discursive, political, cultural, and economic structures in which they are used and interpreted. My curatorial proposition to the artists was not really in line with manycurrent object theories. Rather, the idea was to slightly shift the agency that is assigned to them in the museum by the curators or the visitors. We are the ones giving them an agency, we are the ones changing this agency.

BvB: I’m not sure that the projection of a certain agency makes the object less an agent or whether this kind of projection is part of the agency.

FM: It depends on the definition. Let’s say our approach remained anthropocentric. Due to the problematic status of the objects we did not go in a direction that would be more connected with the ideas of Polish theater maker Tadeusz Kantor, who created the concept of “bio-objects” that had fluid borders between objects and actors—an idea that seems to be connected to Bruno Latour’s concept of the “actant” as a source of action. But in Appropriations the objects were only a source of action indirectly.

To come back to the possible changes of agency: of course our view of the objects changes when you think of their possible uses in the past and in a different culture. We have to navigate a possible understanding within these limits. Even if we perform the exact same movements with them, the same rituals, the same cooking or praying or whatever, we won’t overcome this distance. You might even physically feel the idea of that object—your body might“understand” the physical idea of, for example, a spear. But it is a fake memory or understanding: I have no idea what it’s like to use this spear in the situation and way for which it was made. This is the trap that museums often fall into when they suggest that we can understand something by reconstructing or reenacting it.

Appropriations contemplated the idea of using these objects, but at the same time made this use impossible. There would never be one way of using, one way of looking, one way of interpreting, but rather there would be the awareness that we cannot reach this knowledge. Still, we have to struggle and try, without believing that we will succeed.

  1. The talk was given at the conference “Curatorial Things,” conceived by Beatrice von Bismarck and Benjamin MeyerKrahmer, at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, October 30– November 1, 2014