The Unfinished Conversation: Encoding/Decoding, The Power Plant, Toronto

The PowerPlant
  • John Akomfrah, The Unfinished Conversation, 2012, installation view, The PowerPlant, Toronto, 2015. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid, courtesy of the artist, Smoking Dogs Films and Carroll Fletcher, London
  • John Akomfrah, The Unfinished Conversation, 2012, installation view, The PowerPlant, Toronto, 2015. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid, courtesy of the artist, Smoking Dogs Films and Carroll Fletcher, London
  • Terry Adkins, Flumen Orationis (from the Principalities), 2012, installation view, The PowerPlant, Toronto, 2015. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid, courtesy of the Estate of Terry Adkins and Salon 94, New York
  • Terry Adkins, Flumen Orationis (from the Principalities), 2012, installation view, The PowerPlant, Toronto, 2015. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid, courtesy of the Estate of Terry Adkins and Salon 94, New York
  • Terry Adkins, Flumen Orationis (from the Principalities), 2012, installation view, The PowerPlant, Toronto, 2015. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid, courtesy of the Estate of Terry Adkins and Salon 94, New York
  • Steve McQueen, End Credits, 2012, installation view, The PowerPlant, Toronto, 2015. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid, courtesy of the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris and Thomas Dane Gallery, London
  • Steve McQueen, End Credits, 2012, installation view, The PowerPlant, Toronto, 2015. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid, courtesy of the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris and Thomas Dane Gallery, London
  • Sven Augustijnen, Spectres, 2011, installation view, The PowerPlant, Toronto, 2015. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid, courtesy of the artist and Jan Mot Gallery, Brussels
  • Sven Augustijnen, Spectres, 2011, installation view, The PowerPlant, Toronto, 2015. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid, courtesy of the artist and Jan Mot Gallery, Brussels
  • Shelagh Keeley, 1983 Kisangani, Zaire, 2015, installation view, The PowerPlant, Toronto, 2015. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid, courtesy of the artist
  • Zineb Sedira, Gardiennes d’images (Image Keepers), 2010, installation view, Toronto, 2015. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid, courtesy of the artist, Third Line Gallery, Dubai and galerie kamel mennour, Paris
  • Zineb Sedira, Gardiennes d’images (Image Keepers), 2010, installation view, Toronto, 2015. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid, courtesy of the artist, Third Line Gallery, Dubai and galerie kamel mennour, Paris
  • Zineb Sedira, From the Shipwrecks series: the Death of a Journey V, 2008. Photo: courtesy of the artist and galerie kamel mennour, Paris

The Unfinished Conversation: Encoding/Decoding
The Power Plant, Toronto, January 24 - May 18, 2015

The current exhibition at the Power Plant, The Unfinished Conversation: Encoding/Decoding, is one of the most politically assertive projects since Gaëtane Verna took the curatorial reins in early 2012. Co-curated with Mark Sealy, director of Autograph ABP, a British organization concerned with the photographic representation of marginalized cultural identities, the works exhibited share strong formal and thematic commonalities. Together, they raise central issues of the past century: national liberation struggles, their violent resistances, and the challenges of racism and shifting identities for postcolonial subjects.

Toronto is an appropriate location for such topics, given its reputation as one of the world’s most welcoming multicultural cities, and Canada’s historical posture as “peacekeeper.” Of course, obscured by national mythologies is the colonial domination of the indigenous peoples of Canada, a legacy of racist immigration policies and active participation in military adventures of Western imperialism. Such conversations disentangling colonial history and its cultural coding have barely begun, and this exhibition might help ignite them.

Six film, video and photographic installations intersect and overlap in a strikingly coherent and dynamic dialogue. Their transcontinental conversation spans the modern geopolitical landscape, exploring historical moments in relations between Britain, France, Belgium and the United States, each reluctant to relinquish control of their rebellious African and Asian colonies. All of the works revolve around archives. And each video resuscitates a key historical figure whose ghostly presence mingles with our present.

Moving among us with considerable influence still is the spirit of the late cultural theorist, Stuart Hall. A Jamaican immigrant to Britain, Hall was concerned with racial identity, left politics, power, history, and how these issues are mediated. The exhibition title comes from Hall’s early essay, “Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse” (1973). Influenced by Roland Barthes’s semiotics, Hall developed his understanding of a fluid identity that is always in process. Mainstream media audiences and subjects of colonialism alike are not bound to consume dominant narratives whole, but actively formulate their own relations to them. This concept is liberatory for human subjects, but when applied to the formal values of visual media, as these artists do here, they similarly dissemble codes of existing power structures.

The artwork in this exhibition most closely connected to Hall – both the person and his work – is John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation (2012). In his “archive driven love letter,” Akomfrah, a founder of the Black Audio Film Collective, patches together fragments from Hall’s personal archive. The montage of imagery and sound unfolding across three screens charts Hall’s biography: his mixed race upbringing, his immigration, and the intertwining development of his personal, academic and political lives. Mass media clips spliced into the biographical bits make the narrative decidedly non-linear: street protests on both sides of the Atlantic; televised segments of Hall’s BBC appearances as a public intellectual; and his diverse aesthetic inspirations, such as Miles Davis, William Blake and Virginia Woolf. The public dovetails with the private. A social identity, not limited by private history, comes out of the interweaving of the personal, political, and public and is always “unfinished.”

This piling up of textual fragments builds the only kind of monument possible out of the ruins of history and diaspora. Through a dialogic approach, Akomfrah’s work blends and erases boundaries – like the sea that Hall travelled across – and chips away at the strict temporal linearity of classical, Aristotelian narrative structure. Akomfrah here acknowledges the political import of Audre Lord’s directive that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

The legacy of black cultural figures is furthered in Terry Adkin’s Flumen Orationis (From the Principalities) (2012). Surprisingly obvious is the priestly paring of Martin Luther King and Jimi Hendrix. Their voices – King’s melodic 1967 plea for peace, “Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” – entwine with imagery of early military dirigibles, including hot air balloons, in reference to the guitarist’s early career as a paratrooper. Together, their fertile “river of speech” butts against the quaking and jarring imagery of war technology, charting a course against the destructive imperialist tide.

Still another towering black American counter-hero, one who shares King’s activism and Hendrix’s sonic strengths, is Paul Robeson. Steve McQueen, now working toward a feature film on Robeson, presents some of his research in End Credits (2012). During the McCarthyism of the Cold War, the FBI obsessively tracked Robeson for his proclamation of “anti-American” socialist ideas. The six-hour projection scans 3,000 pages of heavily redacted microfiche documents from his FBI file. A voice reads out the same, mostly innocuous, details creating an effect that is at once tedious and antagonistic, because the spoken words are not synced with the written text, thus reflecting the contiguity between banality and the totalizing power of state security machinery.

The shadowy ghost shifting through Sven Augustijnen’s documentary film essay, Spectres (2011) is Belgium’s colonial legacy – its historical role in the continuing internal political turmoil and Western exploitation of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Augustijnen’s shaky camera follows Jacques Brassinne de La Buissière as he tours through a shady history that ends with the murder of the Congo’s first democratically elected Prime Minister and national liberation hero, Patrice Lumumba. The camera follows Brassinne, once a Belgian colonial bureaucrat in the regime’s final days, as he visits and converses with figures connected to that history: the son of the Belgian Minister for African Affairs, Harold d’Aspremont Lynden, at his aristocratic estate, whose view of Belgian innocence is not-surprisingly aligned with Brassinne’s; Lumumba’s family in their more humble African home, where Brassinne bestows upon them copies of his book that clears Belgian complicity in their father’s death; and to Brassinne’s own study, where he proudly displays the volumes of his thesis research.

The film draws to a close at the overgrown site of Lumumba’s execution. Monumental strains of Bach’s St. John’s Passion, recalling another sacrificial murder, accompany Brassinne as he stands in the car headlights like a captured deer. The film is a slippery display of the malleability of history, and its manipulation to serve state power. While Brassinne’s authoritative explanation of the facts clears Western complicity in the obstruction of democracy, the attentive camera and the subtle detail it absorbs suggests ambiguity and skepticism.

More credible historians, of course, offer a very different narrative: to maintain economic control of the resource rich region, Belgian and US forces arranged Lumumba’s assassination and allowed the puppet leader, Mobutu Sese Seko, to take power. Some 20 years after that brutal dictatorship began, Toronto artist Shelagh Keeley travelled through the area and surreptitiously photographed the decaying ruins of colonial Belgian modernist architecture. Drawn from her archive of photographs, Keeley’s 1983 Kisangani Zaire (2015) forms a mural that lines the open walkway between galleries.

Archives become tools of communication only through access and interpretation. In French-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira’s film installation, Gardiennes d’images (Image Keepers) (2010) Safia Kouaci breathes life into the photographic archive of her late husband, Mohamed Kouaci. The couple left Paris in 1958 to join the growing Algerian independence movement based in Tunisia. His documentary photographs show resistance communities, their cultural activities, fighter training in the mountains and refugees fleeing Algeria; after independence Kouaci was the official photographer for the new Algerian government. Safia lives on with her memories, surrounded by the paper remnants of their lives together and their shared struggle against French colonization.

Sedira’s filming style creates a soft separation between the intertwined historical and emotional details of their lives. On one screen, and in a more conventional format, Safia describes political developments and introduces important figures through their photographs, including the international liberationists supporting the movement, such as Frantz Fanon and Che Guevara. On the opposite wall, and disrupting viewers’ simultaneous attention to both, two paired screens allow a more personal and non-linear approach to the subject. The widow Safia, aging and beautiful, handles the photographs while talking about her husband, their life in the resistance, her current solitude, and the dilemma of finding a protective home for her historically valuable collection. Sedira’s lens leans in to capture intimate shots of Safia, showing her neck, her hands lifting the photographs on the table before her, the deep lines of her face, eyes revealing a rich past – all cast in warm window light of Algiers. Like the other works here, Sedira pays tribute to an important historical figure and moment. Yet she does so with an added emotional quality that attends to her subject’s complex person and politics.(1)

Archives are never neutral collections of information from the past. Those who build and control them – most often states – attempt to control their meaning. In their creation, re-presentation and reinterpretation of archives, the artists here do the important work of decoding: they allow contentious voices from the past to surface again, and breathe hope into our present.

NOTE

(1) Sedira’s contribution inside the gallery is extended outside with her billboard installation, presented through Contact Photography Festival until September 7, 2015. The monumental photograph (From the Shipwrecks series: the Death of a Journey V, 2008) shows the ruin of a ship that ran aground en route to its graveyard in Mauritania, where its toxic materials would have been dissembled by economically-desperate Mauritanians. The example of ongoing postcolonial exploitation continues the discussion occurring inside the gallery.
http://scotiabankcontactphoto.com/public-installations/380

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