Advanced Practices’ Laboratory 2020-2021:
2nd Johannesburg Biennale of 1997
Advanced Practices’ Laboratory of 2020-2021 conducted research through a diffractive case study from the middle into the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale of 1997.
This extensive research of four groups – Curatorial/Agency, Narratives, Lacunae and Affect – was presented to the public during a two-day virtual conference ‘Absent Audience’, organised by the Laboratory on June 10-11th, 2021.
The ‘Absent Audience’ event was supported by the CHASE Doctoral Training Partnership and the Department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths.
By working from the middle, the Advanced Practices Laboratory has been reversing the traditional case study; we are not simply looking at the Biennal’s history, specific events within it, or its impact but ‘looking otherwise’; mixing investigative data with different affects, temporalities and imaginaries. In positing all of us as the contemporary audience for the historical event of 1997, we are asking whether its horizon of ambitions has been able to project forwards.
As absent audiences, looking at the Biennial from our current temporality provides opportunities for unframing the event from the singular arguments of exhibition history, accepting instead that we can never grasp anything fully and frontally. Rather, it is in the fragments of how it operated, in the traces and oblique testimonials it left behind that we can connote the event in the present.
Gabi Ngcobo is an artist and curator and is currently the Curatorial Director at the Javett Art Centre, at the University of Pretoria, SA. She is also a facilitator within collaborative platforms such as the Center for Historical Reenactments (CHR), which she co-founded in 2010. The CHR explores how historical traditions in contemporary art are developed and dispatched. As one of the original instigators of NGO - Nothing Gets Organised in Johannesburg, she has examined the processes of self-organisation that take place in zones that she considers external to these regimes of control. She was curator of the 10th Berlin Biennale (2018) called “We Don’t need Another Hero”.
Sarah Pierce is an artist based in Dublin. She is currently a lecturer in the School of Visual Culture at the National College of Art and Design Dublin. Since 2003, she has used the term 'The Metropolitan Complex' to describe her work. Despite its institutional resonance, this title does not signify an organisation. Instead, it demonstrates Pierce's broad understanding of cultural work, articulated through various working methods, involving performances, interviews, archives, exhibitions and self-publishing.
Day One: Thursday 10th June 2021
12:00-12:15 Introduction to Advanced Practices - Irit Rogoff
12:15-12:45 Introduction to the Johannesburg Biennial 97
- Francesca Lazzarini and Haruna Takeda
12:45-13:30 Guest Speaker: Sarah Pierce
14:00-15:00 Lunch Break
15:00-15:35 Curatorial Group
15:35-16:10 Narratives Group
16:10-16:40 Breakout Rooms
16:40-17:00 Screen Break
17:00-17:30 Wrap-up Discussion
Day Two: Friday 11th June 2021
12:00-12:15 Introduction/Summary Day 2 - Irit Rogoff
12:15-13:00 Guest Speaker: Gabi Ngcobo
13:30-14:30 Lunch Break
14:30-15:05 Lacunae Group
15:05-15:40 Affect Group
15:40-16:00 Screen Break
16:00-16:30 Breakout Rooms
16:30-17:15 Wrap-up Discussion & Conference Closing
Advanced Practices’ Laboratory
‘Advanced Practices’, the most recent of the Visual Cultures Department (Goldsmiths, London University) post graduate research programs, has emerged in response to the research turn in the arts - artistic activity propelled by exploring, inventing and restaging knowledge formats. Advanced Practices is the term we are using for understanding what constitutes the grounds for practice and asking how do practices move forward or ‘advance’ to offer forms of contemporary entanglement.
As part of the M.Res and Ph.D program we have launched a ‘Practice Laboratory’ that develops a research project that is collective and collaborative and driven by sharing and exchanging the many forms of knowledge and experience present among the program’s participants. For the period of 2020-2021 the Practice Lab has chosen to focus on the 1997 2nd Johannesburg Biennial. Here we followed a suggestion by our colleague Nora Sternfeld (HBK, Hamburg) whose students were simultaneously thinking about the logic of the ‘Case Study’- a single event that becomes a generalisable argument. The Practice Lab chose a diffractive approach to the case study – the wave like outward spreading of the event through minute agents that are barely registerable. Thus they developed a vocabulary of how to register these invisible movements out of a historic event and towards our current horizon and to ask whether we today might become its audience.
Unframing the event out of its historical perspective and insisting on its significance in the presents is an attitude shared with many contemporary practitioners engaging with moments of decolonisation, of systemic protest and of non-alignment. It's an attitude that asks whether these can be our histories today – not as direct experience but as diffractive magnitude. Along the way many colleagues joined us and contributed their considerable insights: Tamar Garb, Nora Sternfeld, Vali Mahlouiji, Sarah Pierce, Gabi Ngcobo among many others.
We have done our best to reflect the collaborative process and the worlds that opened up to us through a restless methodology that responded to our questions and conditions rather than dictate them. This site hopefully reflects the ability of ‘research’ to be both inventive and speculative and of how it can effect collective knowledge transformation.
Diffractive case study from the middle:
2nd Johannesburg Biennale of 1997
Since the beginning it was clear that our research’s aim was not to reconstruct or piece together what the 2JB was - there were already such good works doing that - but to figure out how it can operate as an active force in the present. We were interested in understanding how different knowledges may emerge from an event and how they can interact and connect the different temporalities of the past, present and future, generating new meanings and new ways of knowing.
While usually it is the object of study to ask for a method, in our practice we tried to understand what our times demand from us, and to allow the current conditions to speak and suggest methodologies. By not following a specific path of research or disciplinary knowledge, it becomes crucial for us to invent new methods and languages.
This led us to what we defined a ‘Diffractive case study from the middle.’
Our method is diffractive because we would like to hold on to the afterlife of the Biennale through giving space to the multiple knowledges that can speak out of the event to our present. And a case study from the middle means for us to avoid frontality and refuse a position from the above as well as to abandon the illusion of the possibility to grasp the entire reality of a thing, from the beginning to the end.
Then, we wondered what this approach of a diffractive case study from the middle does to the historical discourse, given that we are starting from the present. Sarah Pierce’s use of the notion of the Absent Audience has enabled us to project the historical event into the present and to assume the position of its contemporary audience.
In other terms, our research produced a portal, a doorway connecting the event to contemporary urgencies. It allowed us to project ourselves in the past starting from our times, taking up the address of the biennale, and bringing back its preoccupation, its urgencies, making them ours by using the lens of what our time demands of us.
Visualisation: diffractive case study from the middle (by Kaya Lau)
“We weren’t ready for it.”
“We weren’t ready for it.”
Researchers: Gema Darbo, Deniz Kirkali, Jocelyn Contreras, Jianying Gao, John Angel Rodriguez, Xavier Acarin Wieland.
The 97 Johannesburg Biennale was curated by Okwui Enwezor and a team composed of curators from all over the world. Under a variety of thematics, Hou-Hanru, Octavio Zaya, Gerardo Mosquera, Kellie Jones, Yu Kim, Colin Richards and Mahen Bonetti worked on six exhibitions that were on display across several venues between the cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town. Having participated in this case study of the event twenty four years later, the Curatorial research group has not approached the figure of Enwezor from a biographical perspective. Instead, we have envisioned the Biennial as a tool to think back and work with it in the present. Our entry points from the beginning concerned how to look into an exhibition without looking at either the exhibitions nor the artworks? How to think about an event that we have not witnessed and experienced?
Enwezor’s curatorial practice was “a mode of curating emanating from the crisis” and we wanted to contemplate on the conditions produced by the crisis and how working within the crisis may intervene in the potential of the curatorial to mobilise conditions as a method that produces events of knowledge. Therefore, our main question has become: How to curate (from within) a crisis? This question also introduced the question: What does the curatorial do to address the crisis? These two questions have provided us various entry points into the conversation around the two notions, crisis and the curatorial, as we all had different levels of familiarity with the biennial and its historical impact. Can we think of the curatorial differently by thinking of the role of the curator otherwise? Where does the work of the curator begin and where does it end? Does it end once the exhibition is over? Sarah Pierce’s adaptation of Blanchot’s disavowed community into the community of the exhibition has been key in handling some of these questions as we have tried to understand how new curatorial methodologies emerge and how the curatorial might produce long term interpretative communities and alternative archives across temporalities, cultural, social and political contexts.
Researchers: Anne Julie Arnfred, Haruna Takeda, Heidi Rustgaard, Marie-Charlotte Carrier, Silvia Caso, Patricia Roig, Sanjita Majumder, Aliaskar Torkaliaskari, Poppy Bowers.
Events are always framed by narratives that argue their significance and historical importance. Our project is not the proposition of an alternative narrative, nor a counter-narrative. Rather, we are asking ourselves how to speak from the multiple echoes of the diverse histories, stories and relations that emerge from the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, bringing forward a series of narratives through which this event is recounted today.
The term “narratives” came up as another iteration of the term “context”
- working with the term narratives rather than contexts eliminated the danger of forming new cannons or adhering to determined linear and frontal perspectives of the Biennale. Working with “Narratives” allowed for a multitude of stories, histories, fictions and ways of entering and going out from the event.
To understand the Biennale’s multiple narratives, we approached a polyphony of narratives from different vantage points. We did that through published and documentary materials from the Biennale, through notions such as Genealogy, Rhythm and Singularity, and through the discursive and performative horizons the biennale had set up. From the gathered material we ended up with a cacophony of traces, places and relations – and we accepted that as a way of working.
We tried to learn how to work with this as a polyphony of rhythms. Asking if the rhythms of the different relations that occurred then can be felt today? And if so, what is their trajectory? How have they contaminated thought, theories, practices etc., how have these contaminations fermented over longer or shorter periods; and then mutated into something else?
In the middle of this cacophony of ways of approaching and trying to enter the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, we realized something. That, the multiplicity of narratives becomes a multiplicity of entry points into the project. Changing the idea of the narratives of the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale from being an end product to becoming a method, reflecting our own process when working with the biennale.
Researchers: Mariam Atieh, Silvia Caso, Zoe Keller, Ayesha Keshani, Siegrun Salmanian
The Lacunae group was initially called the absence group.
The starting idea of our research group working within the Johannesburg Biennale case study was to create a space of thoughts where all absences, of the biennale but also of the case study could be brought into presence and thus taken into consideration. It started with local notions of absence of representation, absence of audience, absence of Communities.
At the beginning of the project, the term absence helped us enter the case study in a non- frontal way, it helped us consider the case study not as a complete whole that we need to discover and unfold, but as a disruption. But absence later became a limitation that was preventing us from going forward in the discussion, because with the term absence, we were constantly taken back to binarity, to notions of inclusions or exclusions, presence or absence, even notion of judgement between good or bad.
Yet, our initial conversation took us to a more expanded notion of absence and pushed us to navigate between scales from the local to the global, from the specific to the abstract and led us to reconsider the name of our research group.
In order to draw attention to the entanglement in which the Johannesburg biennale is embedded in, we decided that we needed a term that allowed us to embrace those complexities. And we have changed our group name from Absence to Lacunae group. Lacunae meaning an unfilled space.
The term lacunae embraces the gaps, the missing parts, the illegible and the legible. This changing of name allowed us to research this case study from within, with the possibility of bringing together multiple scales: the local and the global, the specific and the singular, and thus engage in a dialogue from these moments of tensions that haunt the present time. In other words, to trace resonances of the biennial in our contemporary urgencies and Conditions.
We consider the figure of the ghost as a vehicle to travel time and space and listen to the promises of the biennale, the stories of time, the in-betweens and try to pay attention to the unknown, the unrepresentable, the unarchived.
The Lacunae research group is looking for the traces of a spirit of resistance that haunts the Johannesburg Biennial. The uncertainty of the leaves an unresolved residue, tensions permeating through time and space. With this state of non-resolution comes a form of resistance in itself. Resisting a transparency of full disclosure, of the methods of Eurocentric historiography and the impulse to historicise, turning instead to the right to opacity.
Researchers: Ofri Cnaani, Jiaying Gao, Stu Hansom, Hadas Kedar, Francesca Lazzarini, Vaida Stepanovaite
The Affect group started thinking of the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale of 1997 in affective terms -- as an event that has been able to continuously affect. Many people have kept revisiting the Biennale for the last 20 years in a myriad of ways, and proposed the event towards the present. Therefore, following the writings by Deleuze and Massumi, we tried to understand about the afterlives of an event and their ability to provide a certain intensity for the years to come.
We have initiated a search for answers to such questions:
How can we activate the affect of an event to which we don’t have direct access?
How can we allow the Biennale to open up virtual spaces of potentials today? And how do knowledges emerge from the actualisation of this affect?
How can we have access to the affect of the event if the object has been withdrawn and we are the absent audience?
For our research, we considered the ancient tool of navigation as a way of working with gathered materials, and as a form of study together. Understanding this affective navigation as an intensive movement based on already lived experience, revived to orient further experience”, as proposed by Massumi. We conducted many interviews with people who you would probably not think about first. They were technicians, educators, drivers, installers, people who visited the Biennale, even artists excluded from it, and people who missed it. We attuned to what was shared with us by engaging in what we call affective listening of recorded interviews – immersing ourselves as a group in the words spoken, noticing what resonates with each of us on different affective levels, allowing words and ideas to pass through, those deposited in our hearts and brains to handle with care. We were not using the interviews to gather information but to understand another dimension of how the project unfolded, or the affect of the event.
We set up a notion of affective alliances - looking for them when conducting the interviews, during the affective listening of them, which then became a grounding concept for our research group. These alliances are not established on the base of allegiance, belonging, evaluation, beliefs, or ideological loyalty. They arise non-consciously, from the experience of being together in, or relating to, an event, and from the affective attunement that the event can generate, allowing to invoke the notion of Absent Audience. They are not necessarily tied to a moment of display and its object of representation -- thus allowing us to propose the Biennale, the event of the past as an affective event.
Graphic Design for the Practice Laboratory 2020-2021: Mariam Atieh