The exhibition Animism sets out to provide a different context for reflecting on an old topic in the theory of art, one that has considerable reverberations in the present: the question of animation. Rather than investigating the effect of animation merely within the registers of aesthetics—for instance, by presenting a collection of artworks exemplifying different ways of achieving the effect of life or the lifelike within a field demarcated by the dialectics of movement and stasis—this exhibition tackles the unquestioned backdrop against which the aesthetic discussion of such effects normally takes place. This backdrop is usually taken for granted or carefully kept at a distance, but the works in this exhibition seek to bring it into the light. While the evocation of life is a well-known effect in animated cartoons and digital animations, and in more delicate ways, in painting and sculpture, outside the territory of art and mass media animation has been a disputed problem—one that leads to core issues in current debates about modernity. When animation is taken outside the field of art, it turns into an ontological battleground.
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Remember Me. Photo: Anselm Franke. Photo: Laura Fiori. Photograph by Laura Fiori. Exhibition view: "The Whole Earth. Anselm Franke has become known for developing curatorial projects of great scope and influence, which are characterized by solid and extensive long-term research processes. In their practice, theoretical and discursive aspects play a fundamental role, and a dialogue between research and art practices has a critical impact on contemporary world essential issues.
The conversation with the German curator flows through some of his past and ongoing projects, on matters such as: the need for negotiation among different ontologies, the possibility of acting on the dichotomies of modernity to complicate them, the contradictory place of the exhibition as an unveiling of gaze in order to understand the complexity and the weight of colonial past , or embracing the irrational, the mimetic, or the animic to propose another social order.
Juan Canela: Anselm, I think we could agree that we live in a time in which the social accord between individuals, society, and state has been broken, and it seems urgent to rethink this issue from different perspectives.
What is your perception on this panorama, and how do you articulate the idea of the nervous system to rethink the relationship between life and technology, between the organic and the material?
Anselm Franke : It gradually becomes clear that the digital economy has far reaching effects on our social behavior. Everything we previously might have deemed personal has been subjected to profiling and pattern analysis, and our very feedback mechanism with the world and others are hence changing.
Already in the 19th century, the nervous system was both subject of scientific inquiry and a widely used metaphor in relation to electrification and the shock of industrial modernity. We wanted to highlight the ideological character of this equation, but also its lure.
Overall, I think we painted a rather grim picture of how our technologically integrated societies have developed under the conditions of platform capitalism. What we are witnessing is less the disruptive innovation that is propagated by Silicon Valley, but a freezing of reality into reductive categories and the re-inscription of those social categories through pattern analysis and algorithmic modeling.
We wanted to create awareness, encourage dissociation, and instigate social invention in response. How does this gathering of different knowledge work, and what is the importance of trans-disciplinary in your curatorial practice? It is not about using art to illustrate a theme, as is often assumed, but the opposite: to challenge discourse with art and art with discourse, in order to make this oscillation between meaning and material productive.
JC: In recent years, you have developed curatorial projects that are characterized by solid and extensive long-term research processes. How do you come across with the subjects you work with, and what is the relationship between the research stage and the audience, between the theoretical and the artistic production?
AF: There is always a group of people, typically artists and writers, with whom I think. I am almost never alone in any of these projects, and most of them are developed in response to both a particular work—or a body of work—and a series of books. The topics of these projects are often initially hidden in works of art, as an implicit backdrop.
I read art discursively and discourse aesthetically, perhaps. It is, in each instance, an attempt to step out of certain frames, certain narratives, and certain limits of the cultural imaginary. Stepping out of these frames is both a critical effort and an aesthetic effect, a modern effect.
I also aim at articulating knowledge as precarious, to make clear what it is that is under threat at a given time. Animism , for instance, was also about the intuition that film did not just restore gesture and older forms of mimesis to modern human beings, as Walter Benjamin diagnosed.
It was also about the fact that since digital animation the situation might have been inverted, from an opening to a closure. People no longer go to the cinema to learn to cry again, but instead are trained to accept that even their emotions might not be theirs anymore.
But in other projects, the research was much more integrated in the exhibition. This relationship is always complex, and even more when the theoretical has as much weight as in your projects. How do you decide the articulation of that dialogue in each case?
Looking back, I do think this distinction between the research and the art was not completely resolved. This slippage is political, but also inherently aesthetic; it inhabits the borders of linguistic communication, but it also opens up a realm of meta-communication about the means of communication, of interacting bodies and their affects.
Several films were shown to further activate this exploration of mimetic behavior, mirror-effects, and desires in a reflexive way: We cannot escape our own ape-hood.
We think that this part of the exhibition should have been even further removed iconographically, and turned more into a meta-reflection on different registers of mimesis and social power. Could you comment a little on how this project was developed, and how you work on a subject like this in the exhibition format?
AF: It is a question of the vantage point: From where do you ask the question? What are the underlying assumptions? What have they to do with the way an object and the perception and knowledge thereof is constituted? But that border is ultimately a historical variable. And this is in itself a colonial mechanism of grave consequence; it amounts to an ontological death sentence—that historically helped to justify imperial conquest, even genocide—and continues in the rationale of capitalist modernization in various forms.
So in making this exhibition, I wanted to create an experience of this border itself, and its malleability. And I wanted to show how the exhibition and the museum is itself implicated in the making of this modern system of ontological and disciplinary divisions. Rather, it is an irreducible phenomena of our mediality, our being-in-a-medium-of-communication.
We will never escape being animists, but our animism can be organized in manifold ways. The project thus attempted to provide both a critical viewpoint on modern boundary-making techniques and their naturalization in the form of disciplined knowledge and institutions. And it wanted to also transmit a sense of openness, of the possibility and reality of otherness. And this perspective needs a dialectical, stereoscopic gaze on the past, which can be activated, perhaps paradoxically, in the medium of the exhibition.
How do you picture the current moment in relation to these questions? What do you think we can bring from contemporary art to these processes? AF: Contemporary art can traverse the horizon of any given cultural imaginary, and also delineate and expose its limits. Yet our exhibition also was meant as a reminder that this appeal to a planetary dimension cannot be politicized effectively without political analysis of capitalist and colonial relations.
We felt it was important to recount the story of the imperial frontiers and especially how the Whole Earth milieu also gave rise to the Californian ideology of the s. The ideology at work in the Californian articulation of universalism and in cybernetic ideas of management have largely failed us. And yet, many of the ideas at work there could, and also have occasionally been put to a different use.
How do I picture the current moment? It was in that sense an anti-politics. It ended up as the neoliberal ideological interpellation of the subject to reconcile and de-alienate oneself. Ecology, he says, exposes the original technicity of sense. It is a discourse that is enabled by—and needs to try to come to terms with—the becoming environmental of technology on a global scale, the rise of the so-called technosphere.
In terms of the broader picture, I think that we are currently facing the monster of extractivism and the profit machine with new force, combined with the return of the unredeemed evils of the colonial past. We have to rework the answers of the past, but also acknowledge the continuities of struggles, and that means to acknowledge and defend complexity. We need new narratives, which are outlining how we got where we are today, and provide new ways of making sense of our situation.
It is how they address themselves—and how they bring a subject into being—that needs to be reinvented. Could you tell us a little about how you, together with Hyunjin Kim, articulate this project? In each of these projects, I tried to draw on the perspective developed with the Animism exhibition, in order to activate a different imaginary of the history of modernity in East Asia, one that resists identitarian divides, imperial and nationalistic schemes, and the still escalating effects of Cold War militarization.
Each of the works interrogates history and tradition but from a non-essentialist perspective. The exhibition is different from most of the other projects discussed above, in the sense that it does not include any documentary material in addition to the works of art. These works themselves are mostly epic in their range of historical narratives. The starting point is the opulent work of Ho Tzu Nyen, a new and final piece of a series of works he did on the role of tigers in Singaporean and Malayan history.
Because the tiger is a figure that crosses the partitions of the modern world on a subterranean level, antecedent to the divisions, but upon surfacing as a symbol or image, it mediates them, as if from the other side.
Thus, for instance, the tiger morphs historically from a mythical creature that marks, from its outside, the limits of the society of humans into a symbol of national identity and military prowess, as when it is charged with crafting a continuous national space and body politic—zoomorphically mapped, for instance, onto what is today the divided Korean peninsula—to re-emerge in the more recent metaphor of the Tiger States, symbolizing the hypermodernizing condition of recent decades.
The mythical symbol of the tiger is often put in the service of reifying national identities, but in this project, it is torn away from these molds and used instead for a different imaginary: that of a history of experience that transcends the divisions inflicted by colonial history, subsequent militarism, and national conflict. It is a medium that might hence help to imagine identities that are not based on these divisions and their paranoid psychology.
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Animism: Notes on an Exhibition
Reto Pulfer, Aerophone Wood, fabric, rope, mixed media, pencil. Courtesy: Balice Hertling, Paris, and the artist. In The Dangers of Petrification I — , Jimmie Durham dishes up a full meal in a vitrine: a strip of bacon, a truncated salami, a bit of a Portuguese sausage. Franke has organized the show to unfold over the course of three years, in various constellations in Bern, Antwerp, Vienna and Berlin, as well a series of publications a related publication was produced by Sternberg Press earlier this year. The strength of the initial iteration lay not only in its purposeful choice of artistic positions but in the subtly changing connections evoked between cultural and temporal contexts. The work comprises a interview the artists conducted with Guattari shortly before his death, combined with conversations with colleagues and friends, radio interviews, documentation of Brazilian and Japanese rituals and studies of methods of institutional psychotherapy.