Of Regret and Other Back Pages
This third and final installment of Manifesta Journal, guest-edited in collaboration with Rasha Salti, concludes the red thread on “the politics of time”. Woven around the theme of “regret” and its many semantic and lexical connotations—remorse, redemption, bereavement, cooptation, subjective versus institutional memorialization(s) and nostalgia, to name a few—the issue takes up and further develops some of the pivotal themes that have been touched upon in the previous two issues.
Regret raises powerful questions as regards the relationship to time and contingency; the retrospective gaze at and the evaluation of past experience; the ambivalence of hesitation and the burden of shame. Yet—regret is fickle. It has a perniciously double life. For one, the formulaic “we regret to inform you…” is (sadly) all too familiar to anyone who has applied for a job, grant or award. It is also a familiar motif in the unguarded conversations between amiable curators with enough trust and affinity to disclose “insider” stories or lament their disappointing experiences. However, regret rarely, if ever, seems to appear in public and formal realms, let alone in the framework of intellectual, critical or theoretical meditations on the profession. Obviously, self-critique is central to curatorial and artistic practice, but because the system in which practitioners operate and in which their labor is commoditized is so cruel, restless and flimsy, self-critique is precariously private, marginalized and under-valued. Is it almost as understated and pervasive as a… taboo?
The public life of a curator (as well as that of an artist) can easily be described as being intensely “social”, in a myriad of ways. It involves a high degree of interactivity with all sorts of practitioners from very different fields—people who produce ideas and knowledge, and, on a more superficial level, people who attend a significant number of social events. What is not as obvious, however, is how, paradoxically, the life of an arts practitioner can actually be profoundly solitary. For example: independent curators journey from one project to the next, or juggle several at once; they travel from one city to the next, switching from one culture, language, set of codes, social mores, and dynamics to another. The situation is hardly less complicated for institutional curators. Pushing the argument further, the pace at which curators are generally expected to produce exhibitions, and the material and immaterial paradigms by which their labor is evaluated (or “valued”), are embedded in a merciless logic of cognitive capitalist production. Moreover, the virtue of the curator’s position as mediator between the institution(s), groups of artists, artworks, audience members, critics, wider socio-economic contexts and political stakes, only deepens this sense of solitariness. Regret, or at least our approach to the notion in Manifesta Journal #16, comes from that space of solitary reflection, sensibility and feeling.
Just recall a few quotidian moments: the silent, meditative, “empty” time whilst waiting to board a plane or ride a train; or better yet, whilst waiting after being interrogated by an immigration officer (who vigilantly guards the borders of a G8 country on high alert because its unemployed youth are protesting new economic austerity measures), and explaining to no avail what it means to be a curator… These are by no means moments of truth, they are not pregnant with epiphanies; they are simply unguarded moments when the sordidness of life unravels in one’s mind and weaves unpredictable narrative threads. In these moments, regret often creeps in, sometimes like a taunting demon, and sometimes like a wise, but melancholic and retrospective reckoning. Regret is not remorse because it does not bear the cross of responsibility, but it certainly dwells in the same neighborhood. Neither is it entirely about redemption, nor is it entirely about nostalgia; it is not exactly melancholic, not quite a kind of mourning, and not altogether memorializing. It travels between these notions. It is our hope that this issue of Manifesta Journal will inspire a vivid discussion of the richly evocative significations of regret that weave themselves in and around curatorial practices.
We inaugurate this issue with eloquent mourning and hauntings: Leeza Ahmady’s compelling eulogy to the late artist Rustam Khalfim preempts the guileless gesture of the art establishment’s self-congratulating and posthumous “discovery” of artists kept away from visibility during their lifetime. We conjure up ghosts of pasts yet unsettled with Françoise Vergès’s The Slave at the Louvre that unveils the (mis)representations of slavery in the very bosom of the renowned museum as well as the constitution of Europe’s modernity; Khaled Fahmy’s The Essence of Alexandria, the conclusion to his masterful deconstruction of nostalgia for the city’s colonial cosmopolitanism (whose first part featured in Manifesta Journal #14); and Mustapha Benfodil’s gut-wrenching The Shuhada of the Past Fifty Years, a scathing reconsideration of Algeria’s fifty years of independence.
With Mnemosyne 42, Georges Didi-Huberman revisits Aby Warburg’s notion of art history as a “ghost story for adults”, by curating an iconographic montage of classical and contemporary representations of lament from the wide repository of art and cinema. Mnemosyne 42 enacts an open-ended writing of history that reclaims the political agency of grief and grievance. Meanwhile, Ariella Azoulay’s generously annotated photo album, When the Body Politic Ceases to Be an Idea is a passionate call to reconsider the (regretfully) oft-ignored experientialist knowledge of insurgent bodies. In turn, politics of listening are likewise investigated by Lawrence Abu Hamdan, whose Aural Contract Audio Archive displays the distorted embodiment of law through transformed voices taken from famous recordings of trial hearings.
Remains of what can never be again: in Maja Petrović-Šteger and Hito Steyerl’s exchange over The Form of Remains, which drafts—and incarnates—a meditation, at once poetic and penetrating, on the stories contained in the remains of “posthumous” bodies, especially those of victims of war, and how we apprehend them; Marc Nichanian’s The Image and the Survivor boldly explores what remains after the death of the witness and how artists have represented survivors; and Gal Kirn and Robert Burghardt’s Yugoslavian Partisan Memorials parses an unlikely, captivating (hi)story of Yugoslavia from the trail of World War II memorials that snake their way through the posthumous territory of the once-federal republic. In collaboration with Robert Burghardt, Kirn reveals the mechanisms of the co-optation of these monuments that arises in parallel to the disintegration process and its new nationalistic moments. In her study of the posters from late Ezzedine Qalaq’s collection (PLO representative in Paris in the 1970s), Rasha Salti explores how artists and illustrators articulated subjectivity and a sense of bearing witness for Palestinians and their struggle for nationhood in the 1970s.
Cinders of loves lost: Adnan Yıldız’s The Portrait of a Lover visits the museum that Nobel-laureate Orhan Pamuk curated after his own best- selling novel The Museum of Innocence, where he showcases everyday objects, traces of a love story that were gently, and obsessively collected by the novel’s bereft protagonist. Karim Aïnouz and Marcelo Gomes’s “Etude” of I Travel Because I Have to, I Come Back Because I Love You, the feature film they co-directed, shares glimpses of their protagonist’s car journey through the desolate, arid landscape in the northeast of Brazil, soliloquizing as he comes to terms with the loss of love.
Returning to examine the predicates that regiment the conditions of our labor and creative production, Bojana Kunst’s The Project Horizon: On the Temporality of Making, delivers an incisive and lucid critique of the centrality of the notion of “project”; Cuauhtémoc Medina’s Chinese Labels contemplates the implications of a curious curatorial wall text carved into marble, while Cosmin Costinaş’s Thoughts and Notes after rites, thoughts, notes, sparks, swings and strikes, reflects provocatively on the strategic recourse to alternative and unconventional modes of engagement in order to circumvent cooptation. On the other hand, we have culled selections from Burak Delier’s We Will Win Survey, which evaluates, in a caustic sleight- of-hand, the “marketable” skills of artists and perceptions of the effectiveness of artistic production in Turkey.
Of regret and shame: in their conversation, Ann Cvetkovich, Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz examine the so-called negative effects of regret and/or shame as regards activism, chronopolitics and queer theory. They attempt—much as Boudry and Lorenz’s works Normal Work, No Future / No Past or Toxic do—to foreground their counter-productive potential as a site of resistance to the normalizing power of neoliberal capitalism. And last but not least, in Political Therapy, which is conceived similarly to a journal, with the mission to “develop alternative languages and imagine other possibilities to deal with politics”, Valentina Desideri proposes a practical tool to engage with social and political questions that can sometimes be overwhelming.
It seems paradoxical to conclude a triptych with “regret”, a theme that ails from lack of “closure”. In the two previous issues, we have thoroughly enjoyed indulging ourselves in the irreverent gesture of searching through the vast jukebox of pop and rhythm and blues tunes. With “regret”, however, song titles containing the word were remarkably fewer, and the most infamous one, Edith Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien”, has already once been appropriated by the French Legion battalions that served in the Algerian War. We thus did not want to shoulder the burden of that reference. Instead, we have settled for “Regret” adjoined to “Back Pages”, in reference to Bob Dylan’s My Back Pages, released in 1964 on his album of folkish protest songs, Another Side of Bob Dylan, with the infamous lyric: “Ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now”.