Sailing the Ship of Fools: A Carnival Trilogy

Claire Tancons

In 1492, Genoese sailor Christopher Columbus was credited for the discovery of the Americas for the Kingdom of Castile. A couple of years later, German theologian Sebastian Brant wrote The ship of fools (das narrenschiff) against the abuses of the Church.1 Caravels and slavers, ships of discovery and ships of servitude alike, began crossing the Atlantic to conquer, capture or settle so-called Indians, lowly Europeans, and Africans, while Ships of Fools continued to crisscross the seas and canals of Europe to detain the madmen and other deranged denizens of the late-medieval world. Was the same folly let loose on the Ship of Fools as was unleashed on slave ships? Was Le Passage de la Ligne—a traditional ritual on board European ships consisting in a pagan baptism conducted by a costumed Neptune upon crossing the “line”, i.e. the Equator—a ritual of the Middle Passage as well? On the line or in the middle, lives of sailors and slaves cut through. How many nautical miles and imaginary tales between the Stultifera Navis (or “Ship of Fools”, the Latin translation of Das Narrenschiff) and the Carrus Navalis (or Chariot of the Sea”, the alternative Latin etymology to Carne Levare “Farewell to the Flesh” for Carnival)? Ships of Fools and carnivals, rites of Othering and festivals of otherness, were celebrated on distant seas and into deep oceans of oblivion where fools and slaves might be sunk. What if Carnival was born at sea to sailors and slaves and other destitute persons rather than on land? Wasn’t the ship one of the first locus of a world turned upside down with the threat of capsizing and specter of revolt always on the horizon? Was Carnival reborn in colonial America after having thrived in feudal Europe? If capitalism is the madness of our times, might we no longer wonder why Carnival emerges anew in these nefarious decades of greed? To anti-corporate capitalism activist group, Reclaim the Street’s 1999 declaration of “Carnival Against Capitalism”, I bring to bear Eric Williams’ 1944 study on capitalism and slavery in the book of the same title. 2 For if slavery is at the root of capitalism, Carnival is a counter to both, historically—as Williams, the first Prime Minister of independent Trinidad and Tobago otherwise known as a “Carnival Country” failed to account—and symbolically—as Reclaim the Street successfully staged in the City of London during the G8 summit. As I have suggested before, Carnival is the missing link between Capitalism and Slavery and it is worth reiterating that Carnival, Capitalism and Slavery is a triadic historical, cultural and political combination worthy of continued investigation.So what if Carnival, like the Ship of Fools of old, set sails toward uncharted territories, and called at previously inhabited locales only to make landfall in otherwise strangely familiar landscapes?

This carnivalscape tentatively periodizes a first carnival phase in Europe, during the Middle Ages, fueled by servitude and feudalism and, a second phase in the Americas, powered by colonization and slavery. It identifies a third phase as a return to Europe through a process of retro-colonization, whereby colonial subjects (in the late 1950s) and soon-to-be-independent Caribbean populations (with the independences of the early 1960s) migrated to the former colonial center (London) and its satellites (i.e. New York, and Toronto) throughout the first half of the 20th century. These movements gave rise to the Harlem Carnival in New York in the mid-1940s (ancestor of the present-time Brooklyn Labor Day Parade), the Notting Hill Carnival in London in the late 1950s and Caribana in Toronto, among other diasporic carnivals (in this context, carnivals of the Caribbean diaspora in North America and Europe.) This periodization ponders a subset of this third phase, or a fourth phase of its own, with the emergence, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, of immigrant and multicultural carnivals in the Nordic countries, (e.g. Sweden), following the migration of Latin American political refugees. If this carnivalscape charts a periodization of carnival according to the power dynamics of European colonization and its aftermath, however, the art historical alternative it presents goes beyond historical and geographical boundaries, and the counter-curatorial model it offers knows no creative confines.

Sailing the Ship of Fools: A Carnival Trilogy pursues this longstanding investigation into the modernity of Carnival, the contemporary uses of the carnivalesque and the topicality of both Carnival and the carnivalesque as performances of protest and demonstrations of dissent, artistic practice and interventionist action. This trilogy of carnival projects is the pendant to an ongoing reflection on Carnival’s many turns (as delineated above). It provides the basis for a re-reading of Carnival history starting from Modern times, and a re-writing of Carnival theory after the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin (author of the reference volume for the theory of the carnivalesque, Rabelais and His World)3 and the Brazilian anthropologist Roberto Da Matta (author of the landmark title, Carnivals, Rogues and Heroes).4 It also proposes an alternative genealogy of performance practices beyond the European avant-gardes of the last century, and an experimentation with display methodologies outside of the exhibitionary complex (as presented below). As a whole, it considers a radically different history of performance that leads not to the theatre stage or the gallery space but to the streets, with its marches, processions, parades and demonstrations. A history of performance that addresses not the few but the many, in keeping with the turbulent increase of global citizens’s access to and re-creation of public space.

September 5, 2008 /
May 18 Democratic Square and Geumnamro

7th Gwangju Biennale

SPRING was inspired by the May 1980 Democratic Uprising or Korean Spring and analogized into the fountain, or indeed spring, of the May 18 Democratic Square around which it took place on September 5, 2008, on the opening day of the 7th Gwangju Biennale. A ninety-minute mass public processional performance of around 200 participants and countless members of a mostly local public with a sprinkling of international audience, it was also fueled by the unlikely combination of the Spirit of May and the resistant ethos of the modern carnivals and other public rituals of the Americas, from Trinidad to Brazil, and a hint of New Orleans and the French Caribbean.

SPRING, final view around the May 18 Democratic Square. Photo: Cheolong Mo, Gwangju Biennale Foundation.

Public assembled around the May 18 Democratic Square, watching in the awe and surprise the spectacle of the first performances. Photo: Akiko Ota.
Mario Benjamin, Le Banquet. Photo: Akiko Ota.
Karyn Olivier, Grey Hope. Photo: Akiko Ota.
Jarbas Lopes, Demolition Now. Photo: Akiko Ota.
Marlon Griffith, RUNAWAY / REACTION.
Photo: Akiko Ota.
MAP Office (Laurent Gutierrez & Valérie Portefaix), The Final Battle. Photo: Cheolong Mo. Courtesy of Gwangju Biennale Foundation.

A Walk into the Night
May 2, 2009
/ Company Gardens


The outcome of an ongoing dialogue with artist Marlon Griffith, A Walk into the Night performed a ritual return of black and Coloured populations once displaced by Apartheid-era Forced Removals, and extended an invitation to all current residents to join into the city center of Cape Town. A night walk whose title was inspired by a novel by Alex La Guma, it took place in the Company Gardens of colonial memory, on May 2, 2009, the opening day of CAPE09, the second (and last) Cape Town Biennial. The masquerading traditions of the Cape Town Carnival, a New Year’s tradition from the city’s Coloured population, underwent a radical transformation through Griffith’s designs and display: performance participants, hidden behind screens, projected shadow images, eschewing prevalent associations between skin color and race.

Marlon Griffith, A Walk Into the Night. Photo: Mark Wessels.

Marlon Griffith, A Walk Into the Night. Photo: Mark Wessels.
Marlon Griffith, A Walk Into the Night. Photo: Mark Wessels.
Marlon Griffith, A Walk Into the Night. Photo: Mark Wessels.
Marlon Griffith, A Walk Into the Night. Photo: Mark Wessels. Garth Erasmus and the Khoi Khonnexion behind the screens.
Marlon Griffith, A Walk Into the Night. Photo: Mark Wessels.
The end. Photo: Mark Wessels.

September 6, 2013
/ Götaplatsen to Esperantoplatsen
AnarKrew: An Anti-Archives
September 7
November 17, 2013 / Göteborgs Konsthall and Hasselblad Center

7th Göteborg International Biennial of Contemporary Art

AnarKrew: An Anti-Archives took the the personal archives of Johan Heintz, founder and director of the Göteborg Carnival (19821993) as its premise to confront other related, if unexpected, archives (of the European anarchist movement as staged by Nicoline Van Harskamp’s in the multimedia video installation Yours in Solidarity (20112013), introduce competing memories (of the anti-E.U.-U.S. summit unrest of 2001 as collected and interpreted in Sonia Boyce’s film, MOVE (2013)) and, ultimately, interrogate the myth of multiculturalism in Sweden. The exhibition was preceded by ANARKREW, a processional performance wherein the public rather than the artists assembled in a march and brought some of the performance’s elements back into Göteborgs Konsthall.

MYCKET and The New Beauty Council in collaboration with Maja Gunn, Exclude Me In performance. Photo Attila Urbán

Jean-Louis Huhta, PAN ACID, with truck decorated by MYCKET and The New Beauty Council in collaboration with Maja Gunn with special guest Makode Linde. Performance on Götaplatsen. Photo Attila Urbán
MYCKET and The New Beauty Council in collaboration with Maja Gunn, Exclude Me In installation. Photo Attila Urbán
Psychic Warfare, Psychic Attack, 15-min. performance in front of Stora Teatern. Photo Attila Urbán
Sonia Boyce, MOVE, video, 2013.
Roberto N. Peyre & NOKAKO, LOVAMAN #4: Gully Swag Breeze, Rosenlundkanalen. Photo Attila Urbán
Deimantas Narkevičius, detail, Feast for one alone
or a few,
2013. Photo Attila Urbán
  • 1. Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (New York: Random House, 1988 (1961)), 15.
  • 2. Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, 1944.
  • 3. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (1965), 1968 for the first English translation (Cambridge: MIT Press).
  • 4. Roberto DaMatta, Carnival, Rogues and Heroes. An Interpretation of the Brazilian Dilemma. (1979), 1991 for the first English translation (Notre Dame (IN): University of Notre Dame Press).