A conversation between Jumana Manna and Ane Rodríguez Armendariz and Jone Alaitz Uriarte
A conversation between Jumana Manna and Ane Rodríguez Armendariz and Jone Alaitz Uriarte
We are debuting the first solo exhibition dedicated to your work in Spain. We’ve been able to see some of your pieces in group shows, most recently at the show curated by Natasha Marie Llorens in Tabakalera, L’Intrus, which included Stage for Any Sort of Revolutionary Play (2016), an installation that depicts bodies on a platform, and we saw Wild Relatives for the first time at CAPC (Bordeaux) as part of the Satellite programme in 2017.
Your practice tackles different issues such as ideologi cal constructions and the complexities of preservation practices, what gets protected and what gets erased or removed, and it explores the ways in which social, political, and interpersonal forms of power interact with the human body.
One of the works we present is A Magical Substance Flows Into Me (2016), a film where you navigate the viewer through different interviews with musicians, people from diverse ethnic communities and relatives to depict the tradition of music in Levant1. This journey is somehow guided by the figure of a Jewish German researcher, Robert Lachmann, who arrived there in the 1930s and created a radio program for the Palestine Broadcasting Service called Oriental Music. You have presented the film at festivals as a singlechannel film, but also as an installation accompanied by big sculp tures from the Muscle-Vase series, representing hollow parts of the body. You define yourself as a sculptor and filmmaker, two very specific and different ways of going about artistic practice. How do you relate one medium to the other in your work? What do you look for in each of the mediums? How important is a narra tive medium for you, as opposed to a more abstract and formal one?
Each medium offers different potentials that are both distinct and overlapping. I am learning to be careful in differentiating between narrative (film) and abstract / formal (sculpture), as this is an unnecessary distinction that I am sometimes guilty of when speaking about the work.
Filmmaking lends itself very well to unpacking immate- rial relationships of power; relationships of people and places in a complex and multi-layered way. In that way, my films may appear more discursive in the obvious sense of the word: sections of dialogue, images, places and sounds unfolding over time to create a thesis, a set of relationships. Although I am interested in narrative, it is not the primary motive when I am making a film.
When I work in sculpture, I tend to reconsider the instal- lation over and over again depending on the exhibition venue and context, and this too takes on a narrative as- pect through the titles given, the exhibition design, the meeting of different materials, their economies and ref- erences and so on.
A lot of my sculpture considers the social and political implications of crafts in relation to industrially produced materials. And in that sense, they are materially driven.
Sculpture, as a spatial practice, allows for more abstrac- tion or openness, perhaps; this could be because there is the possibility to freely form a material from scratch. This materiality provides more tools for corporeal under- standing, muscle memory, and other embodied knowl- edge since it shares a space with the viewer occupies on the floor. Sometimes, the sculptures are condensations of some of the themes I deal with in the films, and some- times vice versa: the relations I begin to set up in the sculptures inform the filmaking process. There are ethi- cal and political considerations that I find more press- ing when a camera enters someone’s life, or house, that sculpture is more liberated from. I like moving back and forth between the two, because I get excited by (and impatient with) the possibilities and limits of both pro- cesses, and also the kinds of spaces their combination might enable.
In your work, there is somehow the implicit figure of the “newcomer”, in this case, to the Levant region; Robert Lachmann, as mentioned, in the case of musi cology; George Edward Post in the case of botanics in the sculptural work Post Herbarium (which will not be shown at Tabakalera); or even an organisation as a newcomer, like ICARDA2 for the selection and preser vation of seeds, as we will see in your other film, Wild Relatives (2018). What interests you in terms of the complexity behind this “outsider’s view” of people who go to the Middle East to classify and build their own narratives of heritage, tradition and nature?
A lot of my work is invested in making the ideologies behind various forms of knowledge production visible. In Menace of Origins (2014), as well as the projects you mention –Post Herbarium (2016), A Magical Substance Flows Into Me (2016)– I looked at how the gaze of Bibli- cal scholars seeking to restore their fantasy of an ancient historical Middle East created an artificial freezing of time, relegating Palestine in particular to an imagined past, all the while ignoring the complexity of local socie- ties, forms of knowledge and practices that were right there in front of them. Later, in Wild Relatives, I came to suggest that this colonial and orientalist freezing of time also extends to life at large under industrial capi- talism – through the intended / unintended results of biotechnological projects. In a sense, when ICARDA was established in Syria in 1977, the type of seeds and agricul- tural practices that they disseminated could be thought of as a “newcomer” in terms of the methods practised by farmers in semi-arid regions before them. And this newcomer promoted a divisionary and standardising logic that shares ideological roots with the German, Brit- ish and French archaeologists who came to Palestine in the 19th century: a predetermined binary world view of what the landscape is, how it can be named, valued and controlled. At times, this encounter was enriching, but more often than not it trampled more porous exchanges of knowledge and practices.
I’ve been trying to deal with these violent inheritances of colonialism which are not behind us, but continue to define our lives and material culture, both through their consequences, and through the new forms of in- stitutional violences. So often through colonial archives, including living contemporary archives like seed banks, I have looked for the potential of multiplicity that has survived in contexts that traditionally promoted a binary world view.
These persons or bodies then become the starting point for you to discuss the role of archive and archaeology in relationship with (or in opposition to) memory. Who gets to classify, who gets to select which narratives, artefacts or species prevail above others, and where does the desire to do so come from?
I am always interested in the question of positionality. Where a form of knowledge or practice is coming from, who benefits, and who decides what is made to become extinct and what gets to live on.
The other film we are showing is your most recent one, Wild Relatives (2018), where you focus on the many contradictions that lie in the effort to reconstruct the Aleppobased ICARDA seed bank with the backup copies they had stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, situated on a Norwegian island near the North Pole. Why did you get interested in this matter?
Wild Relatives brought together two things I had been in- vested in: plant taxonomy and broader questions around land use on the one hand, and the uprising in Syria on the other. I tried to think of contemporary parallels to these 18th and 19th century taxonomies - organising plant life for the purposes of both research and economic benefit. That is how I began to look at seed banks and, more specifically, the story of ICARDA’s evacuated bank in Aleppo. I thought of these seed banks as inheritors of the lineage of botanical gardens and herbariums that helped with the transfer of flora from the corners of the world to European centres; organising the “disorder” of plants to adapt to the needs of big business. Both herbar- iums and seed banks have the effect of condensing life from an expansive, shifting space into a compressed and frozen form. But in relation to looking at Syria, where the Revolution came primarily from rural populations unable to sustain farming and, therefore, sedentary life, there was this whole other level of politics at play in the centralisation of seeds. From herbarium to seed bank to Syrian Revolution, it became about thinking of forms of soft and hard power, between the centralisation of seeds under the banner of rescue, and the centralised control over agrarian populations in Syria under the guise of modernising the state.
With this in mind, what do you see as the implications of the Lebanese Civil War and later the Syrian Civil War on these processes of preservation, reconstruction and imposition of cultural narratives? The unravelling of power structures is very implicit in your work.
Well, obviously, they have been destructive on all aspects of life: psychological, material and ecological. That is what wars and perhaps particularly civil wars do, they create a violent rupture with tradition. But my interest is not in the wars per-se, but in how international or impe- rial powers benefit from these wars, particularly when it comes to reconstruction efforts.
In this sense, in your work we can feel some tension between preservation, the need to preserve cultural heritage, and destruction. How do you address this issue in you work? There is also something interesting in the way you make heritage (sometimes formalised in sculp tures) and rubbish or waste (containers, plastic chairs) coexist. Is contemporary waste a kind of archive?
Detritus is often a sign of neglect but also a way of re- membrance. I don’t necessarily think of these plastic elements and materials found as something archival in nature, but perhaps a material manifestation of the state of things and, in that sense, a witness. When I join crafted objects in the form of body vases, containers and hardened skins, I am thinking of the overlaps between material ruination and psychological weight – but also how bodies and places mutate and become reconfigured through the process of survival.
I find the anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler’s work pro- foundly informative in thinking about these questions. In her introduction to the edited volume Imperial Debris, she explains how this work is not a study of ruins in the sense of the romantic and melancholic gaze of European romantics, but rather it is a study of ruination. She de- fines this as an active process, a conditioning act, with a focus on “the wider structures of vulnerability, dam- age and refusal that imperial formations sustain.” These imperial formations are always relations of force which harbour mutant political forms that have endured ex- clusions and unequal opportunities. This resonates for me and the forms I’m interested in. I continue learn- ing about how projects of protection/enlightenment and erasure/exploitation are not at odds but entangled; particularly when it comes to land use and bodies under colonial and capitalist regimes.
This concern about heritage and its preservation is also well represented in a project such as The Contractor’s Heel (2016). What is the idea behind the sculptures that make up this body of work?
The Contractor’s Heel, made for the 6th Marrakech Biennale, is a theatrical staging composed of a group of sculp- tures at the remains of the 16th century El Badi Palace. It takes the Palace’s history and current material state as a starting point, while building on my ongoing interest in archaeology and heritage sites as theatres for modern myth production. The sculptures were generated from shapes and lines I saw in the clay walls and wedges of the building, mimicking the encrustations around them and acting as hard skins. The scaffolds both brace the plaster and bone pieces and lift them up, as podiums would do.
Monochrome and bare, I intended for the shells to em- phasise the absence of El Badi’s once ornamented inte- riors, while responding to the vitality of the remaining walls.
In a project such as Adrenarchy (2018), the body –its hollowness– is emphasised as a certain emptiness. What’s the meaning of emptiness/hollowness in your artistic production? As we can see, most of the volumes you work with are hollow.
I like the play of scale and weight; playing with things that look big and strong but are in fact fragile. A lot of the sculptures I do are hollow both because they have to do with the possibility of containment, in the sense of carrying, hiding something away, but also like vessels, pipies or conduits which allow for flows of liquids or sounds to pass through. They tend to be hollow because I am focused on surfaces; and in these works, surface and volume become one and the same. In the case of Adrenarchy in particular, I was thinking of prudishness, the process of becoming self-aware when things get out of proportion and where shame and desire or eroticism get intertwined.
1 A geopolitical area that, in most definitions, encompasses Cyprus, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Turkey.
2 International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry eas.