THE CONSTITUTION OF THE DAMNED at Landings Project Space (Arena), Curated by Fatima Hellberg and Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz at Vestfossen (31.07.-28.08.2011) by Gerd Elise Mørland

Performed (dis)organisation as running force

Using the comprehensive archive of self-organized initiatives and manifestos put together by Tranzit.org for Manifesta 8 in Murcia last year, the two London-based curators Fatima Hellberg and Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz have created an admirably well-curated exhibition that discusses the importance of performativity and irrationality in such initiatives.

Alternative ways of archiving and history-narrating seem to have become an obsession among curators and artist in the last few years. A number of shows, publications and artworks have been brought forth by Michel Foucault’s theories about the archive and Walter Benjamin’s demand for a history of the presence in his pioneering work “On the Concept of History.” Instead of rehashing already well debated ideas and criticizing traditional archival practices though the presentation of “counter-archives,” as most initiatives tend to do, a different strategy is enacted in this project. By selecting artworks that enable a discussion around certain elements of the content of the Tranzit-archive, self-organized initiatives and manifestos, the two curators manage to recreate the original spirit and driving force both in the singular pieces and the original archive on the level of the exhibition.

Seven artists have been selected for this show, and both the selection and the organization of the pieces are inspired by the disorganized working methods of Charles Fort’s book, The Book of the Damned from 1919. Thus, there at first seems to be few common features linking the different works. The most outstanding lead turns out to be the disturbing and absurd sound image from one of the works reverberating through the whole show– something that normally and unintentionally would ruin the experience of an exhibition. However, on this occasion, the sound which originates in the soundtrack of Lovelies and Dowdies– one of British filmmaker Ken McMullen’s early films from 1974– works as a key element setting the tone for a show discussing elements of staging and absurdity in self-organized initiatives and manifestos.

Lovelies and Dowdies is a point of reference here as the film shows a surrealist theater play from 1938 by the Polish theater director Tadeuz Kantor performed by a Polish theatre group called Cricot 2 that was established in Poland in the ’30s. The theater group was formed by a group of surrealist artists performing cabarets of resistance during the Polish occupation. After coming into the open in 1945 it was forced underground again in 1948 by the Stalinist doctrine of Socialist Realism. For viewers that aren’t familiar with Polish, like my self, the lack of meaning from the dialogue of the actors invites one to pay greater attention to the absurd sound and moving bodies of the actors, the surrealist costumes and the irrationality of the whole affair. Like a Dionysian feast, this renders one aware of the power in irrationality and performativity as a driving force of critique, contrary to the assumption that critique should be expressed in the format of language only. What is more, the fact of specifically including this piece and using its soundtrack as a leitmotif in the exhibition helps resist the romanticization of such initiatives. Indeed, it points out how they hard they must work to stages certain ideas and thoughts in hopes of obtaining a specific goal.

Another key work is this context is Fay Nicholson and Oliver Smith’s AArchive (2011). A commission that invited the artists to respond to the Tranzit-archive, it displays a series of posters with slogans like “Lust is a force” and “We believe in grammatical purity and avoid any elaborate punctuation.” Since these statements are printed on cheap paper, commenting on motivations and ways to communicate resistance, the works inevitably reference political posters with simple and catchy messages. This in turn offers a concise insight into the fact that revolts and self-organized initiatives are often obliged to communicate simplified messages, and therefore depend on a kind of reductionism in order to do so. Furthermore, this work in turn also reflects on how the gesture of commissioning these pieces and displaying them in this show could be read as an act of performance, thus reminding the viewer that this act isn’t a neutral gesture either.

The balance between absurdity and significance in performed initiatives is also a key element in Babi Badalov’s Can I Not Think (2011)This large and beautiful painting on fabric, which hangs down from the ceiling, mixes letters from Russian and Azeri with English phrases. The sum-total is an ornamental expression where portions of the represented symbols are recognized as meaningful words. In the catalog, the piece is said to be based ondodagdeymez, a traditional improvised spoken poetry from Russia meant to be recited without the reciter’s lips to touch one another. Through this, the work references both the performative element in the mediation of signs and the significance and power of the format by which something is mediated. The result is a piece that balances the importance of content against the format and focuses our attention on the meaning produced in the performance of messages.

Nick Laessing, Excerpts from a Diary, 2009

“Constitution of the Damned” is a critical and inspiring approach to initiatives of resistance. Such critical reflexions tend to use language and rationality as their starting point. In this show, the power of dis-organization is however enhanced and used as producer of meaning, appearing not just as a system of opposition, but as an independent and original proposal. Rather than presenting such initiatives as admirable revolts, the exhibition critically examines the importance of irrationality and performativity they employ. In spite of, or should I rather say, because of being a self-consciously performed initiative itself.

Fay Nicolson & Oliver Smith, A Publick Display (of performed normality), 2011

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