Here’s a link to the recording of Leah Gordon’s artist talk which I hosted at the Art House in Worcester in November. For those of you who don’t know Leah’s work, she is the co-curator of the Ghetto Biennale and an artist, photographer and writer with an impressive list of works, curated exhibitions, and books on her CV. She is currently in Kassel working with Atis-Rezistans on a Ghetto Biennale on-site project for documenta 15.
This is the first of a three-part summary of the excellent 1804 and Its Afterlives conference that took place at Nottingham Contemporary on December 7th and 8th as part of the events programming accompanying the Kafou: Haiti, Art and Vodou exhibition. Video recordings of the sessions can be found on the above link. I will focus here only on salient points from the many inspiring talks that touch upon issues of direct relevance for the Zombi Diaspora narrative and the work of the Ghetto Biennale.
Friday 7th (Day One)
The keynote lecture – ‘The Gods in the Trunk (or Writing in a Belittered World)’ – was given by Colin Dayan, author of Haiti, History and the Gods (1995) and the recent The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons (2011). Her talk offered “a context for reconfiguring our understanding of the supernatural…that asks: What could we feel if we could feel what we experience sufficiently?” Prompted by her knowledge and experience of Vodou practice she questions the meaning of justice, the reach of cruelty and the uses of reason within the generally decorous and polite academic discussions of ‘humanism’, ‘humanitarianism’ and ‘human rights’, in an attempt to “breach the gap between body and mind, dead and living, human and non-human”.
Her focus on the language of ‘humanism’ and ‘humanitarianism’ has bearings for earlier posts that have addressed post-earthquake disaster relief as a form of neoimperialist violence that masks and intensifies the suffering of the populations it claims to be aiding. As I have argued in a forthcoming text for the Transmission annual on Catastrophe, the militarization of aid in post-earthquake Haiti was an intensification of the strategic utilization of humanitarian aid as part of an ongoing neoliberal strategy that has been undermining the possibility of Haitian popular sovereignty since the Duvalier era. There is a kind of humanitarian wall built around Haiti that hides and prevents access to the real violence being waged there in the interests of a tiny international, capitalist elite. The systematic suppression of Vodou, despite not beginning with it, seems to intensify during periods of occupation, significantly during the US occupation of 1915 to 1934, the UN occupation beginning in 2004 and the second phase of US occupation that began after the earthquake in 2010. President Martelly’s recent repeal of Article 297 of the Haitian constitution, and the arrest of Ougan Zaza and nine other participants at the annual Bwa Kayiman ceremony this year, suggest that a renewal of the anti-Vodou program may be underway. At the same time, as Reginald Jean Francois’ account of the defacing of the Florentine boar in Plaza Italia by UN peace-keepers in 2004 suggests, there are aspects of the MINUSTAH mission that exceed ‘pure’ security and stability objectives.
Dayan began her lecture with a question – “What is the particular terrain for human cruelty and who gets to command its shifts in terms of species and race?” – which she contextualized in terms of a turn towards a “political metaphysics” of the sacred which affirms the “concreteness of Vodou practice” and attemptins to locate “in granular and theoretical registers” the “often invisible nexus of animality and human marginalization”. In a gesture evocative of the ‘surrealist ethnogapher’ Michel Leiris’ 1938 essay The Sacred in Everyday Life, Dayan proposes that “the unlikely and extraordinary are part and parcel of the commonplace” and “how rituals thought bizarre become ordinary”. She asks how we might re-figure our understandings of the supernatural to include “everyday practices of casual cruelty and commonplace harm” sketching out a landscape of that “defies reason” and “skirts transcendence”.
Dayan based her talk on Haitian novelist Marie Vieux Chauvet’s trilogy Amour, Colère, Folie (“Love, Anger, Madness”), completed and first published in 1969, but unavailable until 2009 due to fears of reprisal against Chauvet’s family by representatives of the Duvalier regime. Focussing on the final novella of the trilogy – Madness – Dayan uses Chauvet’s works to stage a series of fundamental ethical and historical questions about what we consider to be human, and what happens when the poles of magical and the juridical, supernatural and rational are ritually reversed. “Are we prepared” she asked “to re-adjust ourselves to a conception of human life that turns our own reality upside down?” Within what she calls the “precincts of Chuavet’s fiction” that exist in the nightmare landscape of Duvalier’s Haiti, “the immediate thing is the supernatural” and the real is “no more than a symbolization of events in the world of ritual”. In such circumstances “the most incorporeal is re-cast as reasonable” and this “relentless acceptance of unreality” Dayan claims is a necessary part if Haitian history and crucial to its mythology.
Dayan addresses the management of “societal refuse” in which distinctions are drawn between “the free and the bound, the familiar and the strange, the privileged and the stigmatized”. There was something very Bataillian about this formulation of “an unreal rationality of racism” depending for its power on “the conceptual force of the superfluous, what can be rendered as remnants or waste or dirt”. Given Dayan’s response to the show’s curator Alex Farquharson’s question about ‘the abject’ during the Q&A session, and her evident aversion to ready-made and over-used theoretical terms that often work to cover-over and obscure the very things they claim to be addressing, I propose this reference with some circumspection. Bataille is undoubtedly a philosopher whose concepts (like ‘formless’, ‘transgression’, ‘dépense’, ‘sovereignty’ etc.) have been used in precisely this fashion in respectable academic and artworld circles for many years now. That said, I think it is worth re-stating here the general thesis of a polarity of the sacred in which the impure elements are associated precisely with filth, waste and other forms of repellent ‘base matter’ that threaten, unsettle and destabilize those modes of “civility, consensus and rationality” upon which academic claims to decency are made. The Psychological Structure of Fascism, for instance, written in 1934, attempts to account for the role of imperative ‘pure’ forms of heterogeneity (loosely, the sacred) in the formation of Fascistic totalitarianisms, that depend upon the violent suppression and elimination of material (human, animal or otherwise) deemed unclean, abhorrent and ignoble. Bataille was concerned particularly with the affective register of sacred forces, going so far as to suggest that “the object of any affective reaction is necessarily heterogeneous”. Informed by Alexander Kojève’s lectures on Hegel which he was attending at the time of writing, he developed an idiosyncratic, psychoanalytically inflected account of the master-slave dialectic, deeply resonant with Dayan’s reading of Chauvet. According to Bataille “the heterogenous nature of the slave is akin to that of the filth in which his material situation condemns him to live” while “that of the master is formed by an act of excluding all filth: an act pure in direction but sadistic in form”.
As those familiar with Bataille’s work will know, the spectacle of sacrifice and the “making of the sacred” were fundamental concerns for him, as they are for Dayan. “In the spectacles of sacrifice that concern me today” she said “to be disposable is not having the capacity to be dispossessed, to be nothing more than dispensable stuff”. With this in mind she made reference to the medieval law of the deodand, literally a “thing given up to God” symbolizing “forfeiture and power, loss and gain” and “an object or thing that becomes endowed with intent and malice and thus must be sacrificed or forfeited to the state, church or king”. Then, in a gesture which recalls the thought experiment known in consciousness studies as ‘the zombie problem’, she asked us to “imagine that this thing-like-thing returns in the shape of things that look like humans but are really evacuated of all characteristics that make social personhood possible…just at the moment that their life, their resistance is most present and visible”. For Dayan Wilson Bigaud’s portrait of a bull – Conflicts and Tensions (1957) – exhibited in the Kafou show captures what this thing-like-thing, that is so filled with spirit, might be.
This is a short post to correct a mis-attribution of a photo of André Eugène’s ‘Badgi Pom Louko (Altar for Louko)’ (2011) to myself in Nadine Zeidler’s recent review of the biennale in Frieze. I took the photo but the work is very much Eugene’s (with contributions from Michel Lafleur, one of the tap tap sign painters). The photo is relatively high-res. The details are well-worth a closer look.
It’s too much to explain what it is like to arrive at the Oloffson and to be plunged into the energies of the Ghetto Biennale. Suffice to say that it is a medium.
It turns out that the Tap tap I’ve commissioned to be painted has already been half done and that there seems to be some confusion as to whether the owner – Evel – will allow the rest of his truck to be painted, and whether the $100 US I sent to pay for the job will be recuperable from the guy Michel who painted the other parts of the truck.
I meet with Evel and Chevy from Atis Rezistans and some sort of deal is struck about making a painting on the bonnet of his truck on plastic so that it can be taken off after the biennale. That’s agreed. Now it’s a question of finding the painter and working out the cost.
After dinner I meet with a guy who says he can do the job. But we will have to speak to Michel first. I’m not sure how this is going to work out exactly or whether any definitive agreement was reached because I’m working in incredibly bad, broken French with bits of English thrown in. I’m never sure exactly what I’m saying or if it’s being understood. There’s also a lot of discussion and debate moving in Kreyol between the different interests to which I’m not party. I’m re-assured something will be sorted.
The next day I spend some time walking around the neighborhood with Jana Evans Braziel, who is writing a book about Atis Rezistans and the Ghetto Biennale. I take the opportunity to take some photos of signs in the area.
I notice that several of the signs have business names and contacts written on them, suggesting that they are made by free-lance painters. I had assumed that their might be some kind of guild system working, at least with the tap tap painters, but I’m starting to think that sign painting in Haiti is a much more individual and entrepreneurial venture pursued by any one with a feel for it.
That certainly seems to be the case when I start to negotiate with both of the sign painters, who turn out to be friends, down at Grand Rue, the site of the biennale.
After some negotiations with Evel, Eugene, Michel and his friend we agree on a price for the new work which will be painted on a canvas which will be attached to the bonnet of the truck: $200 US, $100 each, the first today, the second on completion of the job in two days time. We shake on the deal. I will be at the rue tomorrow at 8 to start the filming. I go back to Eugene’s yard, take a few more photos of the biennale space as the light fades, then head off back to Oloffson on Evel’s truck.
Here is a great short film featuring Belle Williams from the Grand Rue Atis-Resiztans community talking about the Ghetto Biennale and how the community is responding the the crisis.
And here is a very good program on Haiti after the earthquake from Al Jazeera which shows Haitian government workers telling reporters that it is important that they should lead the repair and reconstruction work of Haiti rather than foreigners, a message which we need to support. The program has interviews with Haitian government representatives explaining how they have been handling the disaster and even an interview with Réne Préval, the Haitian president, being questioned about the perceived US occupation of the island. Such reporting has been sadly very rare in our mainstream media.
The program also includes an interview with Haitian businessman Fritz Mevs who is allowing US troops to use his family’s private pier and land on his 2 1/2 million square foot ‘industrial park’ to land helicopters and transfer wounded people to USS Comfort hospital ship. He puts forward a rather unconvincing argument about how private business interests should lead the re-construction of Haiti. “What we need to do”, he says “is not to punish the rich for being rich but to educate the poor to have the means to become rich”.
More problematic are the images of Haitain’s blocking government officials trying to collect aid, suspicious that they are doing so for themselves. In response they chant for the “USA, USA!”. This footage was shot six days after the earthquake when there was still hope that the US military might be better at delivering the much needed aid than the Haitian government which is generally considered to corrupt to do so.
Please pass the link to the video on.
I will be posting updated information and commentary about the unfolding situation in Haiti here.
We have put out a call to groups, collectives and individuals to attend an emergency meeting to discuss collective action in response to the situation in Haiti. Please send a representative of your group if you can, or email us so we can keep you informed of further action / meetings.
Sunday 24 January 2009
2.00 – 4.00 pm at the Do you remember Olive Morris? exhibition that has meeting space available.
Gasworks, 155 Vauxhall Street, London SE11 5RH (tube: Oval / Stockwell)
I am currently working on a brief historical overview of the situation in Haiti and information about how best to get charity to the right places most effectively and most immediately. I should have this done for the meeting on Sunday and will post it here.
I’ve also uploaded some video footage from the Ghetto Biennale here. It shows Grand Rue artist Alex Louis interviewing the toy Tap Tap makers during the opening event.
I have also posted some images from the Ghetto Biennalehere.
And I just uploaded a clip of Reggie Jean Francois here telling the story of how Sri Lankan troops in the UN mission to Haiti performed a ceremonial ritual on the sculpture of a boar in Port-au-Prince in 2004.
Please feel free to use and circulate.
Donations to Organizations active on the ground in Haiti
Given that the social sector of Haiti is now run almost entirely by NGO’s these are the organizations that are likely to be delivering aid and assistance on the ground there. However the massive involvement of international NGO’s has the long term effect of undermining Haiti’s powers of democratic self-determination.
For people wishing to get their donations directly to the communities in most urgent need I suggest the following organizations, most of which are run largely by Haitians in Haiti:
PAZAPA staff, who survived the quake, indicate that there is an immediate need for food, clean drinking water, shelter and medical care. They describe virtually no distribution of emergency food (with much of the disaster relief efforts centred in Port au Prince) and have stated that the primary work of emergency relief agencies in that community has focused on search and rescue. The price of food is rising and water and fuel is becoming dangerously scarce. They need our help with funds to immediately purchase essential food supplies such as rice, beans and oil, that can be distributed to the centre’s children and families most effected by the quake. PAZAPA staff are working, despite suffering their own losses, to locate and assess the needs of the centre’s children who will be terribly affected by this tragedy. For more information about the centre, link to a recent video , http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5OKK1T-zgdA.
Konbit Pou Ayiti/KONPAY (Working Together for Haiti) strengthens existing organizations, builds national networks, creates relationships between individuals and organizations in the U.S. and Haiti, and and supports collaboration and the sharing of technology and expertise. KONPAY focuses on Haitian solutions to environmental, social and economic problems and provides training and funding to grassroots and community-based projects.
3) Honor and Respect for Bel Air, a big community-based network in Port-au-Prince, and Coordination Régionale des Organisations de Sud-Est (CROSE), which brings together some of the most active community groups in the south (via Avaaz.org)
The Lambi Fund’s mission is to assist the popular, democratic movement in Haiti. Its goal is to help strengthen civil society as a necessary foundation of democracy and development. The fund channels financial and other resources to community-based organizations that promote the social and economic empowerment of the Haitian people.
PAPDA is a coalition of nine Haitian popular and non-governmental organizations which work with the Haitian popular movement to develop alternatives to the neo-liberal model of economic globalization. When the Haitian government moved to privatize certain industries, PAPDA worked with the unions and the business community to create strategies that would improve production and minimize cost without privatization.
Fonkoze is Haiti’s alternative bank for the organized poor. In fact, it is a family of three institutions working together shoulder-to-shoulder towards a single compelling mission: building the economic foundations for democracy in Haiti by providing the rural poor with the tools they need to lift themselves out of poverty. This mission is reflected in our name, Fonkoze, which is an acronym for the Haitian Creole phrase “Fondasyon Kole Zepòl” meaning “Shoulder-to-Shoulder Foundation.”
I await news from Leah Gordon who is now in Port-au-Prince about what is the most effective way to get aid working on the ground.
According to a CNN report from Sunday one of the few working hospitals in Port-au-Prince is La Paz hospital.
This hospital is being run by Cuban medics supporting the strong argument for more Cuban-US cooperation in the aid mission.
Here is a video report from MediaHacker Ansel on the ground in Haiti the day after the quake in which local citizens express their anger at the absence of assistance from either UN or US forces.
Activists and citizens both in and outside of Haiti are concerned with what they see as a lack of response by the UN authorities in Haiti and by recurrent stories of immanent violence on the part of the Haitian people which we fear may be used to justify violent intervention by both the UN and US forces against the Haitian people. Articles like Tim Padgett’s ‘Will Criminal Gangs Take Control in Haiti’s Chaos‘ and Mark Lander’s ‘Clinton, in Visit to Haiti, Brings Aid and Promises Support‘ set the tone for this kind of ideological scare-mongering. Lander warns that “As Haitian and international officials try to coordinate an effective relief response to what is probably the worst disaster to ever hit the western hemisphere’s poorest country, they’ll need to be mindful of the human rats that come out of the capital’s woodwork at times like these”.
He goes on to say that “unless the international community can exert some semblance of street-level law enforcement in the coming days and weeks, gangs are likely to lay down the law in its place”.
Outside the mainstream media reports from the ground tell a very different story, such as this one from Dave Belle, director of the Cine Instute there.
Regarding the historical politics of debt and aid in Haiti this article by Richard Kimin The Nation is one of the most thorough and informative, exposing precisely that ‘history’ which Bill Clinton, in his speech accepting the job of coordinating the US aid mission in Haiti, said that Haiti was on the verge of ‘escaping’.
Clinton’s complicity in UN Human Rights abuses in Haiti is discussed here.