Tuesday 8 November 2011

GUESTures: Awakening the Space of Precarious Knowledge by Branislava Kuburovic

Margareta Kern's solo exhibition GUESTures is a series of carefully staged performative archival interventions, installed in its fullest and latest incarnation at the Gallery of the Student Centre in Zagreb in October 2011. The exhibition is part of the artist's long-term project GUESTs, envisioned as a 'travelling archive' which develops in a constant and complex dialogue with its audiences and with the 'subjects' of the artist's parallel historical and ethnographic research into the mass labour migration of the workers from the socialist Yugoslavia to West Germany in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Within this broader context of Kern’s research, GUESTs has always been a project dedicated above all to the marginalised histories of women migrants, whose presence in the mass waves of labour migration from the former Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia for temporary work abroad remains extremely poorly documented, although women formed large sections of the Yugoslav ‘gastarbeiters’, ‘gastarbajteri’ in a local spelling accompanied by a measure of condescension, or simply guest-workers, as the original German term translates. What remains the most significant underlying theme of the GUESTs project is this hidden history that shows how the untranslatable notion (in the masculine form) of ‘gastarbaiter’ in fact related also to a large number of young women who, most often entirely alone, barely more than eighteen or nineteen years old, and after undergoing extensive health-checks organised by German medical teams with an aim of recruiting only entirely healthy workers, left the socialist Yugoslavia for temporary work in the most developed countries of the Western Europe. Kern, whose grandparents were part of this wave of migration, follows this complex personal and social history through thorough archival research, and through a series of interviews, conducted initially with her grandmother, who today lives in Slavonski Brod in Croatia, and later with some fifteen women with whom the artist has been meeting over the last several years in Berlin, the city that has always been one of the centres of immigration in Germany and where the majority of these former ‘temporary’ emigrants still live.

As with the artist’s earlier projects, the link between the anthropological and the personal is key in the work. Kern creates an alternative archive of intimate life narratives, of the histories of women whose stories and whose visibility, as she would soon find out, ‘in the existing archives (both in Germany and the former Yugoslavia) were minimal or did not exist at all’. By documenting these invisible histories through the recollections of the women, recorded after almost forty years of them living in Germany, the artist has at the same time followed the history of her own family, as well as her personal story, the story of a new generation that left the by then already former Yugoslavia in the course of the wars of the 1990s:
Recognising my state of ‘temporariness’ and continuous planning (even if only subconsciously) of departure, I also recognised a similar state in which my grandparents spent twenty-two years of living and working in the West Germany. They left Yugoslavia in the late sixties as temporary ‘guest workers’ for “two years until we’d build a house, and then until we’d help your mother with the wedding, and then constantly there was a need for something else, a new car, carrying things to-and-fro, and so two years turned into twenty-two.”

The way in which these various thematic layers are linked in the project is far from obvious. The artist’s process of ‘awakening the archival material’ does not seem to hold any pretentions of becoming yet another, however alternative archive of (post)Yugoslav migration, evening-out what are after all some highly disparate experiences, as well as entirely personal life stories of the migrant women. Instead, in this encounter, the visitors are given an opportunity to themselves become guests on some imaginary migrant ground, perhaps made up most of all from a certain entirely novel sense of time, from an ongoing series of departures, a permanent slippage of time that nonetheless brings with it a certain sense of freedom and a possibility to live and create one’s life story outside of the dictates of prescribed identities and notions of belonging.

The central work in the exhibition in the Gallery SC is the video-installation titled GUESTures, created on the basis of the transcripts of the interviews. The work is an artistic intervention inspired by the principles of the verbatim plays and the political potential of this particular form of theatre. Recorded in the artist’s studio in London, GUESTures transposes the ‘authentic’ interviews into the frame of fiction, albeit through a highly faithful interpretation of the original texts in the work of the actress Adna Sablyich. The resulting work is both visually subtle and understated in terms of the acting. It both follows and subverts the impulse of the verbatim style to achieve a certain ‘ideal’ authenticity of expression through the use of documentary material. Kern does not hide the artificiality of the context she creates for these women’s stories and instead includes the process of creating the ‘fictional’ framework into her video installation, which consists of two equally sized rectangular screens on which we can simultaneously follow two complexly linked contents. One of the screens shows publicly very rarely seen and thus highly valuable archival material from German telecommunications factories in which these women most commonly worked, introducing the historical background of the interviews but also – through being edited together with the material shot in the artist’s studio as the documentation of her creating the frame of the other parallel screen – reminding us that there exists no such thing as an ‘objective view’ in the process of filming and editing, that we are always observing an image created from a highly particular angle and with a highly particular purpose. In the case of these documents, and from this temporal distance, the promotional and political purpose of this archival material is all too obvious. The parallel screen consists of a series of film portraits, entirely focused on the stories of the interviewed women; visually, the frame rests fully on the actress, who is seated on a simple, geometrically shaped white sofa, framed by a minimal ‘backdrop’ of a white wall and a black board on which each of the women is always represented by her name and a simple chalk drawing of an object which is both a simple marker and a subjective symbol of her specific character, recognised in the course of the time in which these interview slowly took shape.

Still from GUESTures | GOSTIkulacije, HD video, 33 minutes, 2011

The pared down nature of the expression of GUESTures is particularly effective in the work of the actress Adna Sablyich. Limited both by the concept of the verbatim theatre and by the bareness of the video frame, Sablych has developed the variety of her ‘roles’ by the most minimal acting means. Apart from the changing colours and forms of her work uniform/costume, the different women’s characters are revealed in the most discreet shifts in the actress’s body language, nuanced differences of her hand gestures, the manner in which she sits, small changes of her facial expressions, and the accents which are as faithful as possible to the manner of speech of the women who have been interviewed. The desired effect of the Brechtian ‘distancing’ of the narrative is additionally achieved through occasional subtle interventions by the artist herself, from significant pauses in the interpretation of the text, to the sudden inclusion of the artist’s voice replicating parts of the interview, now repeated in the context of a fictional redoing of the conversations but also in the very real space of the artist’s working space, of her art studio.

Still from GUESTures | GOSTIkulacije, HD video, 33 minutes, 2011

This constant switching between different spaces and temporalities in GUESTures is not accidental. It reflects the artist’s questioning of the notions of the document and of memory, and of the nature of art and politics the work is able to activate. Kern does not look for answers to what is above all a temporal and experiential paradox of the act of recollection by somehow striving to resolve the sheer variety of content in her work, which is a mixture of public and private documents, and of documentary and staged material. Neither does she make any attempt to give this variety of material in her exhibition any easily recognisable common denominator in its final form. GUESTures are by their very structure an open space of investigation that materialises what are often irresolvable versions of reality without necessarily attempting to offer a solution. The effect of the thus conceived ‘distancing’ of the very format of the exhibition emphasises the fragility of knowledge in which the relationship between document, memory and testimony is never a given. The political potential of the work is thus always a matter of the present moment in time in which we are all active participants in a dialogue with the material and thus at least partially responsible for possible interpretations of history.

Still from GUESTures | GOSTIkulacije, HD video, 33 minutes, 2011

GUESTures materialise this concept above in their interaction with us, their visitors and temporary archivists, and only to the degree to which each one of us is ready to engage with the material they consist of, that is often activated through a physical gesture, however small, we have to make in order to access the material. This brings the project closer to the performativity of the notion of the archive itself, which, as Jacques Derrida reminds us in his book Archive Fever, is ‘at once the commencement and the commandment’,[i] both a beginning and an order, both a place in which memory begins, and a patriarchal institution of memory in which some memories will be weaved into the fabric of the historical narrative, and others not. By activating the performative aspect of the archive, the artist also reminds us that the historical selectiveness is not simply the doing of some invisible authority outside our reach, but begins and ends with each one of us, with our individual gestures of acceptance and activating, or of refusal and forgetting, of some very simple human experiences that often change official histories and that are thus so often conveniently forgotten.

This questioning of the notions of memory and forgetting in the project is significant also in the context of the perhaps most painful problem people face in emigration, a feeling of being under a permanent threat of loss, from the simplest but often dramatic existential losses to the loss of their mother tongue, their country of origin, or simply their sense of identity in the new society in which they live and work. Hamid Naficy, US-based exiled Iranian film and media theorist, warns against two equally common and dangerous strategies among the exiles themselves resulting from a hastened desire to circumvent these threats.[ii] Under the pressure of the dominant population, and in an effort to avoid loss at all cost, immigrants reach for either a fetishisation of their past which – while as complex as their present – is from the temporal and spatial distance of exile experienced as a space of protected and simple belonging and identity; or for an ideal mimesis, for ‘fitting’ perfectly into their new environment. Naficy questions both of these mimetic gestures, both the holding on to a fixed notion of identity through the framework of a frozen image of the past, through a certain imitation of one’s ‘original’ self, and the apparent letting go of that past through an insistence on blending with the new environment, on shaping oneself in the image of the ‘host’. GUESTures help us recognise the extent to which both these strategies are based on the premise of identity understood as an act of adequation, as an ‘I’ which is always identical to itself, as a being without a ‘reminder’. By structuring its interpretation of memory and identity in the form of a visual and textual dialogue, by mixing historical documents with very personal recollections and stories, and by playfully experimenting with the different possibilities of the archival recording of the past, and its aesthetic and political activating in the present moment, the project opens the space of identity as simultaneous and multilayered, as a space in which the difference of the immigrants may be seen not as a problem to be resolved but as an occasion for developing a complex awareness about difference. It is only by accepting that there can be no identity without difference, and abandoning the idea of society and culture defined through the exclusion of the other as a precondition for a comfortable life inside the borders of a protected identity, that these invisible experiences can become part of our shared history.

Together with the invisible migration of women, which is the most significant forgotten experience the GUESTures project brings back into the public space of memory, there will also remain in the project the notion of the guest, with its double meaning of someone to whom utmost trust and respect is granted through the act of inviting them into one’s home, but also someone who is always already about to leave, who does not belong, or expects to ever become part of that most intimate space we consider inalienably our own. The twofold nature of the notion of a guest is reflected in the stories of these women, with all of the contradictions and double standards entailed in any attempt to curtail an economic programme of mass migration,[iii] through limitations of the rights and length of residence permits of those whose work is indispensible but whose presence in one’s culture and society is avoided at all costs, or at least limited to its very minimum. The temporal distance of this particular history should not deceive us, for what is at stake here is not an already somewhat anachronistic principle of national technocrats from the era of the so-called high modernism, but a very current political strategy. Just several months ago, British Immigration Minister Damian Green has stated that: ‘[w]e want the brightest and best workers to come to the UK, make a strong contribution to our economy while they are here, and then return home’.[iv]
What this political statement leaves out entirely deliberately is exactly the human and political context of migration which Kern’s artistic intervention brings back into public discourse. What is omitted in that seemingly straightforward statement is the political arrogance of an elite convinced that their only apparently clear economic calculation can justify gross disregard of the complexities of relations between work and migration, and of the inevitability of not just sharing the space of work, but sharing the entire complexity of the social and the political space with the migrants. GUESTures are, as the artists says, both ‘a portrait and an encouragement to experiment with the questions of voice and representation, of veracity, of authenticity, of document and of fiction’ in which these nameless and faceless ‘brightest and best workers’ become some entirely specific people whose life stories can easily becomes stories of each and every one of us. The aesthetic space also allows the artist to open up the question of class stereotyping of the ‘gastarbeiter’, pointing to the political background of the decisions through which a growing percentage of the global population is being kept in a long-term, and increasingly a permanent state of non-belonging, of an existence between two sovereign countries which both profit from keeping such large numbers of their ‘brightest and best workers’ constrained in the space of border identities, in the border spaces where the obligations of the state have always been minimal and the potential profits enormous.

The ethics of wit(h)nessing, through which theorist Bracha Ettinger emphasises the multilayered and intertwined nature of the notions of experience, community, witnessing and memory, is one possible reading of the specificity of the aesthetic and ethical space opened up by GUESTures as an active political space. Wit(h)nessing is a po/etic boundary concept through which Ettinger strengthens the political potential of such border identities, where community is an affective notion which does not belong to the past only but is always created anew in the present moment, in which memory becomes possible only inasmuch as it is open to being affected by others, so that each, however incompatible experience can become part of a shared space of memory. This is the radical potential of art as an archive and a reminder of all that is unsaid and unheard in the discourse of history. By opening the potential for wit(h)nessing, the aesthetic space enables us to always question the dominant historiography and history anew, shifting it from the space of conflict into an affected space of compassion and of precarious knowledge.

[i] Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1996, p. 1.
[ii] Hamid Naficy, The Making of Exile Cultures: Iranian Television in Los Angeles, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
[iii] Kaja Shonick speaks of a bilateral agreement between socialist Yugoslavia and Western Germany about organised temporary migration of over 500 000 Yugoslav workers between 1968 and 1973. See: Kaja Shonick, ‘Politics, Culture, and Economics: Reassessing the West German Guest Worker Agreement with Yugoslavia’, Journal of Contemporary History, 2009, 44(4): 719–736 (719).
[iv] See: Tamson Pietsch, ‘Don’t let immigration caps leave academics out in the cold’, sreda 22.06.2011, Guardian Professional:

Branislava Kuburović, born in Prijepolje, Serbia, lives and works between Prague and London. She holds a PhD from the Department of Theatre and Performance at the University of Roehampton in London with the thesis ‘Performance of Wit(h)nessing: Trauma and Affect in Contemporary Live Art’. Her research has been presented at a number of international conferences, it has been published in the journals parallax and Performance Research, and will be part of two forthcoming edited books: Intimacy: Across Digital and Visceral Performance, published by Palgrave Macmillan, and Theater und Subjektkonstitution/Theatre and the Making of Subjects, published by Transcript, Bielefeld (2012).

Installation Photographs: Marcus Kern, 2011

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