This page tracks my involvement in Headless from 2008 onwards and links to any available materials online and/or on the site. It is not a full time-line for Headless itself as a project and nor does it include everything that has been part of Headless. It will grow as I find more material. The project is much bigger than the bits I have been directly involved in and whilst I am aware of much of the other stuff, I am sure there are aspects of it that I don’t even know about. If goldin+senneby ever decide to archive the project as a whole, perhaps we’ll find out. Until then, this is intended to stand only as a record of my personal collaboration, as much for my own purposes as anyone else’s. However, I hope it will also be of use to people interested in the way that Headless developed. If you spot any mistakes or want to suggest further links, please leave a comment.
March 2008: Tower 42 meeting.
My first involvement in Headless after an emailed invitation from goldin+senneby followed by a printed copy of the first chapter of the novel – all that had been written at that stage. I had been tipped off that I would be getting the invitation from Prof. Susan Roberts at the University of Kentucky who they had initially approached. Unable to attend herself, Susan suggested that myself and co-author Ronen Palan would be suitable alternatives because of our book The Imagined Economies of Globalization. Ronen was unable to attend, so I went myself.
The meeting, held in the Regus Offices in Tower 42 in the City of London, lasted exactly 2 hours and was hosted by Rasmus Fleischer who acted as ‘spokesperson’ for the event. goldin+senneby were not present. In addition to Fleischer and myself there were around ten other people at the meeting, some of whom subsequently appear in the novelised version. The version of the Tower 42 meeting that subsequently became Ch.3 of Looking for Headless is based on a transcript typed simultaneously, live into her blog by Sebastian Mary. There may also have been recording, but it must have been a sneaky one. This is my own first appearance in the novel:
“Angus Cameron (University of Leicester) shifts in his chair and exhales audibly. Years of faculty meetings have taught him how to get attention when he needs it.
“I haven’t read Bataille,” he says slowly, thinking his words through before speaking, his stocky, rugby-player’s body rocking slightly as he seems to wrestle slo-mo with each thought as he delivers it, “but with reference to offshore, it’s not about secrecy, it’s privacy. We’re private here, not secret…”
He points to Sebastian Mary, who is typing into a laptop even as he speaks. She looks up, her mouth wrinkling with a nano-smile, then looks back down at the screen.
“…it’s a mode of publicness that’s about accessibility. Private, going back to the thirteenth century, is constituted with reference to the public – they’re not in opposition, they’re symbiotic. But offshore is different, a private sort of privacy, which effectively redoubles the withdrawal, because it is not constituted with reference to the public.”
Around the table heads nod slowly.”
October 2008: TINA – The Drawing Room
TINA was a group exhibition curated by Olivia Plender, starting at The Drawing Room gallery in London before touring round the UK. The title is the acronym for Margaret Thatcher’s dictum from the 1980s ‘there is no alternative’. Used ironically in the show, all the artists in one way or another presented either radical alternatives to contemporary capitalism or critical reflections on it. The Headless exhibit consisted of a filmed interview with novelist John Barlow conducted by Olivia Plender. This was played throughout the exhibition on a screen mounted above the platform and chairs on which the interview had taken place. I acted as spokesperson for goldin+senneby in an ‘artists’ talk’ involving all the artists and hosted by curator Kim Einarsson.
[Participation in this event led to a piece I wrote for Belgian art magazine A Prior inspired by Olivia Plender’s ‘board game’ “Set Sail for the Levant” exhibited as part of TINA. The text is posted here.]
October – December 2008 – Sao Paolo Bienal, Brazil
Headless was represented at the 28th Sao Paolo Bienal by a reading of the novel in progress presented by an actress posing as KD and by a static installation including materials from the project and 8 short articles published in the Sao Paolo Metro newspaper. The articles were my contribution to proceedings, being published weekly during the course of the exhibition. The articles were published in Portuguese, but the original English texts can be found here:
December 2008 – The Power Plant, Toronto.
The Power Plant is a major contemporary art space in Toronto and was the venue for goldin+senneby’s first major exhibition in North America. The exhibition consisted of various materials from the project displayed in two large rooms with a desk and chairs so that people could read project-related texts and a huge ‘mind-map’ of Headless.
An early version of the documentary film, Looking for Headless, by Richard John-Jones and Kate Cooper was shown on a huge screen in the gallery’s auditorium. My contribution (in addition to a couple of the Sao Paolo texts on the wall) was a public lecture in the auditorium, ‘Les Artistes 100 Tetes’ that was filmed and played on a loop in the foyer throughout the exhibition. The video of the lecture, with Gregory Burke’s introduction, can be accessed through goldin+senneby’s website or through Google Video. Click the image below to view the whole thing:
Although I was only dimly aware of it at the time, this was my first proper ‘performance’ as part of Headless. It also represented my first major contribution to the project, introducing ideas and phrases that would recur in subsequent events as well as later versions of the novel. Following the Power Plant performance I was interviewed by curator Kim Einarsson about Headless and my involvement in it. Edited versions of that interview were published in the book recording the Power Plant exhibition, and subsequently in short plays by Kim and used as the basis for a performance by Kim and myself at the Index Foundation Gallery in Stockholm (see below).
October 2009 – LABoral, Gijon, Spain
The Feedforward exhibition was a major group show at the extraordinary LABoral Gallery in the northern Spanish city of Gijon. As part of the opening of the show, the curators organised a conference bringing together many of the artists with assorted academics in various fields from around Europe. The result was an intriguing mix, but with some fascinating contributions. My personal favourite was the brilliant Minneapolis Art on Wheels project which involves strapping high-end computers and projectors powered by car-batteries onto bicycles and ‘drawing’ in light on the dark streets and buildings of Minneapolis.
The goldin+senneby contribution to the exhibition was a mysterious and rather understated group of armchairs arranged in a circle and interspersed with newspaper racks. Over the course of the exhibition the racks would gradually fill with copies of the local daily newspaper in which appeared a series of chapters of a novella version of Looking for Headless. A good view of the installation can be seen in curator Steve Dietz’s filmed walk-through of the whole show here:
I had the rather tricky job of both introducing Headless to an audience who had not encountered it before and saying something on my own behalf about the exhibition. A sort of half lecture/half-performance. To judge from the reactions of at least one reviewer of the show, it seemed to work.
The whole thing was given an extra edge by its situation. Not only is the LABoral gallery huge – a great sprawling underground complex: like a nuclear bunker crossed with London’s Hayward Gallery – but it is next to Gijon University campus. This was built by Franco and his fascists in the 1930s and is a sort of cross between a factory and a gothic prison. Piranesi would have felt right at home. In addition to all the fascist symbolism adorning the place, the strange ‘chapel’ at the centre of the site and the many statues (at least one appropriately headless) on the walls, the main building contains an enormous mural of naked men cavorting about in a semi-mythical landscape. Whatever else it was supposed to be, it seemed to me to speak volumes about the repressed sexual politics of Spanish fascism…..
November 2009 – Index Gallery, Stockholm.
This was a performance to mark the opening of goldin+senneby’s show at the Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation’s Index Gallery. It involved myself and Stockholm-based curator Kim Einarsson ‘re-enacting’ the interview she had conducted with me following the Power Plant exhibition. Kim had edited the interview down and converted it into a playscript published first in a Norwegian art magazine (that I have yet to track down) and in a San Francisco-based journal News of Common Possibility (from which a PDF can be downloaded). For some reason both of these have me dressed in a corduroy suit, which only goes to say something about how far fiction can deviate from the real! This script formed the basis of what we would perform in the Index gallery, with images synced to the action projected on a screen behind us, and is eerily close to the final event.
Just to make my life complicated, g+s had transcribed into the script an audience question thrown at me after the Toronto lecture, and planted an actress, Eva Rexed, in the audience in Stockholm for us to recreate that too. The question was a long, rambling thing that no-one really understood and I had answered it very badly in Canada, so redoing it was not welcome. Just to confuse the audience even further – who did not know that the interview was not spontaneous – we were holding the scripts and wearing radio mics. for the audio recording of the event.
In the event I did not use my scripted words because I am such a poor actor, but used the scrawl above as a prompt. But this worked, if anything, even better because it further blurred the status of what was going on on stage. Despite the tiny gallery in which this took place (which I was assured would only hold about 30 people), at least 60 people crammed in creating an extremely hot and very intense atmosphere. One of the reasons that g+s had planted Eva Rexed in the audience was to stimulate questions from others. Apparently Swedish audiences tend to be quite passive. In the event they needn’t have worried because of the large number of non-Swedes in the audience, particularly a very feisty Greek contingent, who made me work very hard indeed. And great fun it was.
The audio recording of the Index performance went on to be incorporated in an installation by goldin+senneby at Nottingham Contemporary in 2010, of which more below.
December 2009 – Anywhere you aren’t…
This event temporarily inverted my relationship with goldin+senneby. Invited to give a presentation at a Swedish conference on ‘net art’, they had originally wanted to put me up as spokesperon. As funds were not available to support this, the compromise solution was that they would deliver the presentation, but I would write it. Their only contribution was the title – ‘Anywhere you aren’t: A lecture exploring goldin+senneby’s repeated and failed attempts at becoming virtual.’ The script, complete with the images projected during its delivery, is here: Anywhere you arent XT.
Not being present I have no idea how this went down with a Swedish audience expecting to hear about interesting developments in on-line art, but I hope they enjoyed it. I did if only because this is the only lecture/presentation I have ever writtten out in full. Very odd….
March 2010 – The Headless Conference, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York.
Like the LABoral symposium above, this was part performance and part presentation. Organised by Bard College curatorial student Ginny Kollak and Brian Droitcourt of Rhizome Magazine, the conference involved a range of speakers and myself in semi-Headless mode being interviewed on stage by Brian.
After Ginny’s introduction, the main two speakers, Keller Easterling and Allan Stoekl spoke about aspects their own research, repsectively into new economic/architectural spaces and the philosophy of Georges Bataille. I was then interviewed by Brian about hiow all this might or might not relate to Headless. Videos of the various performances can be found here in three parts:
May 2010 – Uneven Geographies: art and globalization, Nottingham
This was a major group exhibition at the Nottingham Contemporary gallery bringing together artists and objects addressing globalization in many and varied ways. Most were contemporary, but the exhibition also embraced artists that had been working on such themes in the 1970s and 1980s as well as including an example of the ‘Fool’s Cap Map‘ dating from around 1590. I was particularly excited to see this object, as it was the one I had used on the cover of my book Imagined Economies of Globalization with Ronen Palan), but which I had never seen in the flesh.
goldin+senneby’s contribution to the Nottingham show was a large installation that essentially reproduced the performance space that had been set up in the Index Gallery in Stockholm (above). Ranks of chairs faced a blank wall on which were projected the images used in the Stockholm performance. Two empty chairs sat on a low stage in front of the screen and the sound recording of the Index Gallery event was played on a continual loop in the gallery. Watching people interacting with the installation was both interesting and unnerving on the occasions when I was in the Gallery. People seemed a little unsure whether they were supposed to sit in the audience chairs to listen or to hover at the back. Some dutifully sat through the entire thing, though I have no idea what they thought of it. My personal encounter with the installation was made all the stranger because I took my partner and children along to the opening night. So to my existing multiple identities in and around Headless, I unwittingly added husband and father which was very peculiar.
In addition to my ‘virtual’ appearance in the Gallery, I also presented aspects of Headless to the excellent symposium, The Geopolitical Turn, that ran across the opening weekend of the exhibition and later gave a paper on Xenospace as part of a series of academic contributions that took place at the Gallery across the three months of the exhibition.
May 2010 – The Decapitation of Money, Paris/Foret de Marly
When goldin+senneby first asked me to do a lecture on money in a forest outside Paris, I was not entirely sure they were being serious. When they assured me that they were, I was not entirely sure what it was supposed to achieve. This was partly because in an attempt to avoid (as they later told me) ‘polluting’ me with their own ideas, they managed not to tell me everything that I needed to know. Specifically they didn’t tell me anything about the exhibition at the Kadist Foundation in Monmartre in which the recording of the event was to play a central part.
My brief was to deliver a peripatetic lecture with the title ‘The Decapitation of Money’, a phrase I had used in my 2008 Toronto lecture. The lecture was to be in three parts, starting at the entrance to the forest at the village station of St Nom la Breteche and then progressing in stages deeper into the forest. The reason for the location was that this was the place chosen by Georges Bataille and the members of Acephale to carry out their nocturnal rituals. These were focused around a particular lightning-struck oak deep in the woods that Bataille used as a physical metaphor for the decapitated monarch – the king of the woods struck down by the forces of nature…
Earlier in the week I had the immense privilege of being asked to present to a research seminar at the EHESS organised by art critic and all-round legend Elisabeth Lebovici. Although the presentation was related to Headless, it was more a ‘me’ performance that a g+s event. The seminar was very well attended by a great bunch of students and staff from EHESS who were all very responsive (despite my having to deliver the thing in English because of my horribly rusty French).
The day of the Marly performance was blisteringly hot which partly explains the size of the audience that took the train out from Paris to St Nom la Breteche to hear my ramblings. At one point in the preparation I had been assured by g+s (I seem to recall, anyway) that the only people present in the forest for the talk would be myself, the sound-recordist and a gallery assistant from Kadist. This seemed about the right number to me. However, when the appointed train pulled in at St Nom, it disgorged about 50 people most of whom were heading my way.
Giving a peripatetic lecture in a forest turned out to be a great experience. I was originally a bit freaked by the lack of familiar props (lectern to hide behind, screen to point at, dodgy technology to blame), but in practice it was all very liberating. My audience were extremely patient and enthusiastic which made it a lot easier, but the context added an extra dimension to proceedings that was quite unexpected. I suspect Bataille would have been quite pleased with it.
The event was recorded and subsequently formed a central part of g+s’ Kadist show. The Kadist exhibition consisted of two rooms: one a mock up of the lobby of the VTB (Eurobank) Bank in Paris (complete with authentic chairs loaned by the bank) and one used to represent the forest.
The bank was represented because, in an earlier manifestation, it was the Soviet-owned bank that in part kick-started the Eurodollar markets in Europe in the 1950s. Eastern bloc countries fearing that their dollar reserves would be sequestrated by the US government if they passed through the New York banking system, placed them in ‘friendly’ European banks. Eventually (in 1957) decisions by the Bank of England allowed these dollars to be used in inter-bank trades without reference to the US authorities (who were greatly annoyed). In addition to its historic links to offshore banking, by chance the bank’s foyer also contained a mural of a tree that could have been straight from Bataille himself.
The forest room was dark, and completely black except for a copy of Bataille’s own hand-drawn map of the Foret de Marly painted in white on one wall. A bright lamp periodically lit this so that the image of the map would be briefly burned onto the retinas of the audience sitting opposite. The only other thing in the room was a TV monitor which rolled subtitles translating my talk from the forest playing on a continuous loop throughout the show. The idea was that the talk (and this was the bit g+s did not tell me about in advance) would be the element linking the dark forest and the garishly bright bank weaving together themes of money, decapitation, monarchy, sovereignty and Bataille. Some quite rapid rewriting took place between the rehearsal and the actual event! I never saw the final installation, but from what I hear it worked very well. The reviews of it were certainly very positive.
The catalogue to the Kadist show included, in addition to the ‘Epilogue’ to the novel by KD/Barlow reproduction of my notes for the forest lecture alongside various images I’d used in the EHESS talk. One of the pages of my notes is reproduced below:
October 2010 – Gasworks, Hydrarchy, London Zoo
Early in 2010 I was asked to contribute both as myself and as g+s spokesperson to an event hosted by the Gasworks Gallery in London. The Gallery were planning a maritime-themed group show, originally under the title ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’. Over several months of planning this eventually evolved into ‘Hydrarchy:Power and Resistance at Sea’ borrowing its name from a book by Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh about insurrectionary movements in the North Atlantic called The Many Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Over the opening weekend of the exhibition Gasworks organised a conference of the same name.
The conference was an excellent event and very thought-provoking. Videos of the various papers and discussions, including my own, can be found through the Disclosures blog maintained by curators Anna Colin and Mia Jankewicz. My contribution to the conference was a paper on the metaphoric function of the island in shaping spatiality. The Prezi used can be found here. The written version of the paper presented was ultimately published in Geoforum and can be found here.
goldin+senneby’s contribution to the exhibition consisted of two off-site events. The first was a series of screenings of Kate Cooper and Richard John-Jones documentary Looking for Headless, commissioned by g+s and including various contributors to the project as well as their own journey to Gibraltar in search of Headless Ltd. The other event, which took place a couple of days after the conference, was a lecture by me outside the macaque enclosure in London Zoo.
Strange as this sounds, it was arguably preferable to the original proposal. The first suggestion was that I would have two slots at the Hydrarchy conference, one so do my own thing and one to interview myself on stage for an hour in my capacity as g+s spokesperson. If anyone is wondering whether I have ever said ‘no’ to the peculiar things I have been asked to do by g+s, this was one of those occasions. Not only would the audience have been subjected to a full two hours of me (not something I’d visit on anyone), this would have tested my limited acting skills far beyond destruction. So I declined.
After an eerie period of complete silence, the proposal for the Zoo performance arrived pretty much fully-formed and, once I’d got over the initial shock seemed like a much better (if insane) alternative. In practice the Zoo talk was the most complicated of the performances, because it needed to integrate with the final chapter of the novel.
In this final chapter, which was written by KD/Barlow before I did the actual Zoo performance, a certain Angus Cameron has taken over the writing of the novel Looking for Headless after the fictional John Barlow cracks under the pressure of it all and abandons it. In what is, and is to become, Chapter 12, Cameron is seen travelling to London from Leicester, having been commissioned to complete the novel by a mysterious organization called ‘Art Discovery Ltd.’. He is still acting as spokesperson for g+s (who may or may not know that he’s now also writing the novel), and is off to London to do a (perhaps) final performance for them outside the macaque enclosure in London Zoo. In the course of that performance, the ambiguity, danger and general craziness of Headless finally overcomes him, his friends desert him, a monkey destroys his laptop (with the sole copy of the novel in it) and he has some kind of breakdown, ending up on the ground rocking back and forth on his feet with his head in his hands moaning pathetically.
I found out about all this in the weeks prior to the performance when a draft of the novel was sent me from John Barlow with the message that I was to be ‘utterly destroyed’ in the course of the chapter. Even by the standards of Headless this threw me just a bit. I’d grown quite fond of my fictional doppelganger and was just a bit disturbed at news of his/my imminent demise. The purpose of this very brief exchange with Barlow, was to ensure a degree of overlap between the performance at the Zoo and its novelised representation, sections of which I was to read out in the performance itself.
g+s also, helpfully, provided me with a title for the talk, not this time plucked from my own earlier performances, but from Bataille’s strange prose-poem The Story of the Eye (text available through this site) – ‘Each thing seen is a parody of another or the same thing in a deceptive form’. This was accompanied by a brief asking me to include references to sovereignty, Gibraltar, monkeys, offshore, parody and Bataille himself.
All this was necessary because beyond the performance at the Zoo itself, an audio recording was to be incorporated into a g+s installation at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet. The recording was to play on a continuous loop out of a large, fibreglass ‘rock’ (bearing a distant resemblance to the Rock of Gibraltar – see above and below) upon which the audience would sit to listen to my words of wisdom.
The Zoo performance had a small but select audience of around 20, supplemented by occasional members of the public who wandered over to see what was going on and the macacques themselves. In addition to the audio recording for the installation, the event was filmed, a brief snippet of which was placed on YouTube by the Moderna Museet. As usual, an attentive and enthusiastic audience made the whole thing much easier than it might have been and even the monkeys behaved themselves – cavorting about and screeching at appropriate moments. Indeed by far the oddest aspect of it from my perspective was not the venue, but the thin wall of iPhones that I often found myself talking to as people recorded what was going on for themselves. Despite that it was all very enjoyable and exhilarating and the audience were full of questions at the end. The only comment on it I can find is Neil Cummings’ very positive version of events on his blog.
October 2010 – Serpentine Gallery ‘Map Marathon’
The Serpentine Gallery‘s ‘marathons’ have become a fixture of the art world’s calendar in recent years. Originated by the Gallery’s co-director – Hans Ulrich Obrist – they bring together a large number of people – artists writers, musicians, scientists, etc. – to deliver short presentations on a particular theme one after another over 24 hours. The 2010 theme was ‘Maps’ and was held at the Royal Geographical Society building in Kensington.
My role was to be interviewed by Obrist as g+s spokesperson late on the second day of the event. This meant I had the chance to see the rest of it and, as I wrote in a blog entry at the time, much of it was extremely interesting and stimulating. My interview was about 20 minutes long and seemed to be very effective, raising both the obvious questions (‘why am I takling to you?’) but also (I suspect at g+s’s suggestion) branching out into some of the more obscure corners of Headless. Once again, the whole thing was greatly helped by a very attentive and enthusiastic audience who must have been pretty shattered by the time I got to do my bit.
February 2011 – e-Flux Magazine/Hans Ulrich Obrist
As part of an ongoing series of artist (and other) interviews for New York-based online magazine e-flux, g+s were invited to participate in a ‘curated interview’ organised by Hans Ulrich Obrist. Several artists would be asked to contribute questions to the interview, the precise order and content being decided by Hans Ulrich on the day. g+s were invited partly because of their previous contacts with Obrist (see above) and partly, I suspect because of their connections both to Sweden and to debates about copyright. Both were important because the interviewee on this occasion was Wikileaks founder and nemesis of the US Dept of Defense, Julian Assange.
Looking at Assange and wikileaks form the perspective of Headless was interesting. Wikileaks was originally intended to be, as Assange himself put it in an earlier interview, ‘faceless’ and yet he himself ended up becoming its all too public face. He gave it a rather more heroic twist by describing himself as its ‘lightning rod’. As the whole purpose of a lightning rod is to dissipate destructive power safely, this seemed a poor analogy to the situation he was in at the time (facing extradiction to Sweden on sexual assault charges and getting regular threats leveled against him by Wikileaks’ more fanatical opponents).
In any case, the relationship to Acephale/Headless was an obvious one – Bataille himself having struggled with the dilemma of being publicly known as the founder/leader of a ‘secret’ acephalous organzation. This contradiction was one of the reasons that Acephale failed. Indeed it was heavily criticized at the time even by friends of Bataille such as Walter Benjamin who dismissed Acephale’s use of secrecy as ‘working for fascism’.
Our various positions with respect to Headless – g+s as ‘secret’ and myself as ‘spokesperson’ – thus became very interesting as we considered Assange’s position. The question and answer session was recorded and transcribed by e-flux. The filmed version may appear at some point, but until it does the text version appears here.
June 2011 – Abstract Possible, Salon, Mexico City
Ostensibly a straightfoward gallery discussion between myself, a curator and an artist/writer in a gallery in Mexico City, conducted via Skype this proved to be one of the more challenging appearances. The technology, which had worked perfectly in tests, did all sorts of strange things on the day. That, combined with the fact that my view of proceedings was myself on a screen several thousand miles away whilst I was actually sitting in sunny rural Leicestershire, made the whole thing very disconcerting. Hopefully the film of the event will give a clearer account of things than I could get, squinting through a fuzzy and halting skype window, but it is yet to appear.
Fortunately, the recording at the other end seemed to be of a better quality than anything I could see. Here are three sections of the event on Vimeo:
October 2011 – Melbourne, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA)
A version of the Headless exhibit originally shown at the PowerPlant in Toronto (see above) was included in a group show of contemporary peformance art at ACCA. Curated by Hannah Mathews, ‘Power to the People’ was a small, but very varied show of recent conceptual art from all over the world. The Headless contribution was ‘The Reading Room’, a linear display of materials from various points of the project’s development, linked together by sections of a shorter version of ‘Looking for Headless’ by KD.
In association with the exhibit, I flew out to Melbourne to deliver two presentations: the first in the gallery space itself and addressing the themes and evolution of Headless as a whole; the second in the local Regus Offices in the Rialto Tower in the city, and concerning my own work, partly inflected by Headless, called ‘Trickster in Between’. Later in the exhibition the regus offices will also be used for screenings of the documentary.
Both talks were interesting, partly because of the nicely receptive audiences Headless always seems to attract and partly (for me anyway) because both seemed to bring the project full circle. My first fully ‘performative’ contribution to Headless took place in the exhibition space at the Power Plant in front of the first manifesation of ‘The Reading Room’. My first ever encounter with Headless took place in a Regus office in Tower 42 in London almost identical to that we used in Melbourne. Although (probably) not quite the end of my involvement in Headless, both events seemed to round things off neatly.
(But not neatly enough, it seems….Headless contiinues)
April 2012 – Contemporary Image Collective/Townhouse Gallery Cairo
goldin+senneby were invited by curator and director of the Contemporary Image Collective in Cairo, Mia Jankowicz, to contribute to an exhibition of ‘absent’ artworks. Part of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Fair (D-CAF), the exhibition, ‘I’m Not Here’ consisted of mainly textual (arabic and english) accounts of the ‘biographies’ of artworks that had, variously, been censored, stolen, destroyed, lost or had otherwise gone missing. In some cases the works were represented by empty frames and/or wall-spaces where they might have hung. The result was a rather austere (all black and white) but very thought-provoking show. Although the idea of an empty exhibition is itself not new, the particulat context of the ongoing Egyptian revolution – there were very noisy street protests going on around the gallery during my visit – gave it a particular resonance. The late and unlamented Mubarak regime was notorious for its censorship of the arts, but this seems to be a habit of Egyptian governance that has far from passed. Not only does the interim government try to maintain censorship, but the prospect of a Muslim Brotherhood victory in forthcoming presidential elections has raised fears that it may even get tighter in the future.
The ‘Headless’ contribution to ‘I’m not Here’, consisted of a lecture entitled ‘The art of not being (t)here: on the representation of absence’, which introduced Headless itself to an audience that had not encountered it before, and then explored various aspects of the ways in which ‘absence’ is structured by the state (through the drawing of boundaries defining ‘them’ and ‘there’), present in everyday objects (money) and is used as a playful political strategy. The latter looked at the particular use of paradox by contemporary art projects such as Headless, but also traced the history of the politics of paradox back to Renaissance poetry, literature and painting. This drew in particular on the work of Rosalie Colie, whose 1966 book, Paradoxia Epidemica, explored the proliferation of paradox in theology, poetry, political writing and many other critical and reflexive media during the 15th and 16th centuries. One of the reasons for the popularity of paradox at the time – in addition to it’s often rather beautiful and very clever construction – was that it allowed for the playful and apparently trivial engagement with controversial ideas. So, for example, Sir Thomas More’s 1516 account of the paradoxical Utopia – literally ‘no-place’ – allowed him to explore political and social possibilities at a relatively ‘safe’ literary distance in the context of a Tudor court that was violently intolerant of real or perceived dissent. Such ironic engagements with the politics of the day have been seen during the Egyptian revolution – particularly in the form of the grafitti art that now covers the centre of the city – and in many similar protests elsewhere. For example, the wonderful ‘reclamation’ of this Red Army statue in Bulgaria by grafitti artists in 2011 typifies the playful power of the paradox:
The playful mimicking of offshore finance by Headless – copying the elaborate structures of inter-related people and institutions, the use of proxies, agents and spokespersons and the gentle provocation of ‘real’ offshore entities – deploys very similar techniques of paradox to those of the Renaissance. As Colie put it in her book:
“…paradoxes are phenomena by no means peculiar to the historical period we call the Renaissance, but occur in any period or place where intellectual speculation goes on. They tend to constellate, however, in a period, like the Renaissance, of intense intellectual activity with many different ideas and systems in competition with one another. The epidemic of paradoxy in the Renaissance coincides with active speculation on the market of ideas….”
Colie, 1966, Paradoxia Epidemica: 33