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Foreword Afterall Journal issue 29

Perhaps a clichéd observation, but 2011 was a hell of a year, in which time and space seemed to condense current events to a degree of incredible intensity. The first days of the new year seem, as I write in London, to have been met by a mood of abjection rather than the usual jollified optimism, compounded by states of conflict and oppression which have no visible end. Despite unprecedented and innumerable climaxes, every faked orgasm of public synergy and human cohesion — Tahrir Square, #solidarity, the rebel ‘victory’ in Libya — seems to result not in an afterglow but in worryingly incurable and lasting sores.

Overcome by the prospect of examining each global context in its specificity, the generalised phenomena of public frustration, inertia, interregnum and conflict have been balled up into apprehensible parcels and nomenclatures: the Jasmine Revolution ushered in the Arab Spring; the Occupy movement compared neo-samizdat notes along a widening axis from New York to Washington, London, Moscow and beyond. Each instance arises with specific motivations, narrative and histories, but thanks to the broadcast of images and (as has been exhaustively, inconclusively discussed) the ease of participation and interpersonal exchange via technological means, a solidarity binds these disparate situations, making them at once identifiable and indigestible in terms of their particular values. The historiographical achievement of these nomenclatures is the invention of (a) history itself.

The artists included in this issue can be said in a broad sense to address the production or productions of histories, contextualised by interrogations of how these histories are activated and the subsequent impacts of doing so. Eugenio Dittborn’s compositions of images of the face, for example, collaged from printed ephemera, chart not only the history of the gaze and its various motivations but also create their own narratives. Tucked within postal envelopes, his paintings chart a course around the world, producing temporalities that are inscribed, stamped and indelibly folded into the works themselves, gaining affect with each instance of exhibition. The journeys made by the works and their airmailed vehicles almost supersedes the images therein, yet it is critical for the artist to document where those images are culled from, noting the tellings within each telling.

In the teaching of architectural history, one is compelled to take account of the narrative contexts which materialise in built form; indeed, following my experience in architectural education, one could conclude that there is perhaps no such thing as history at all, only a series of pasts which evolve from their own contingencies — history is produced when these ‘pasts’ are perceived from another contingency or context. Dierk Schmidt’s images present histories that are in the process of becoming, and which implicate the viewer in the process of narrative construction. As Christian Höller writes, the absence of a ground in Schmidt’s paintings emphasises the artist’s restraint from assuming a didactic position.

Wendelien van Oldenborgh’s filmic and theatrical works, discussed in this issue by Emily Pethick and Sven Lütticken, also effect a recombinant strategy of historical telling, working through the antimonies of local histories to be further explored and confronted by their own protagonists. Though the works do not promise any ‘fixes’, the interstitial spaces in her installations between image and sound, or film and text, similarly implicate the viewer in the process of historical production, as he or she bears witness to the uncertain narratives of suppressed colonialism, changed labour markets and national identities.

In her piece on artists’ cinema, Maeve Connolly discusses the importance of the very fantasy of a public sphere — how obsolete models of cinematic experience such as the drive-in are resurrected to conflate the historical recombinance with the imagining of a temporalised and spatialised ‘public’. But perhaps nostalgia, or obsolescence in the face of the passage of time, is most evident in the photography of Moyra Davey, whose languid images irrevocably, steadfastly defer and stretch ‘the moment’.

In Hito Steyerl’s video Lovely Andrea (2007), the artist attempts to retrieve an image taken of herself in 1987; an act which she perceives as being somewhat futile at the outset, and which is quickly subsumed by a secondary narrative unrelated to Steyerl’s own past. Maija Timonen’s discussion of this work focuses not on Steyerl’s attempt to reclaim a material fragment of her history, but on the image of self-suspension, in the rope-tied bondage photographs of Steyerl’s collaborator. The image serves as an ontological symbol (initially) of delayed reward. Reconfigured in today’s climate of austerity, it becomes a cipher for a self-administered, even sadomasochistic tendency of repression, but where limbo is perhaps better than touching bottom. 01

Writing for the Design Observer, Reinhold Martin similarly uses a metaphor of bondage to describe the patently conflicted scenario that was made visible by the Occupy movement last year. Writing from New York, he describes the forcible eviction of Zuccotti Park (redubbed Liberty Plaza, and itself an example of that oxymoronic typology, the ‘privately owned public space’) in mid-November of last year as demonstrating a ‘double bind’: that which we call public space ‘is not and cannot be truly public in the sense of universally available and accessible to all; and yet … we have every right to expect it to be so’.02 Martin writes about the Occupy movement’s being both subject to and active in confronting, another double bind at a structural level of mediation: ‘The absence of consistent demands coming out of the Occupy movement is partly due to a principled refusal to reproduce the limitations of state-based politics, including top-down governance structures.’ However, he continues, it is simultaneously possibly to read the ‘right to the city’, as asserted by occupations of squares and (perceived) public spaces across the world over the last twelve months as also a ‘“right to the state” […] that is, as a claim on the contested, common ground of public space as guaranteed by the state, even — or especially — as an obsolete form.’ Working on the question of the contestation of the image and of the public’s right and access to it, these artists offer new means of negotiating this common ground.

In the text ‘Citizen Artists: Group Material’, Afterall issue 26 (Spring 2011), there is an error in the description of Phil Collins’s they shoot horses (2004). Rather than staging two separate dance marathons for Palestinians and Israelis, as it appears in the text, for this video Collins worked with young Palestinians in Ramallah: he filmed two groups dancing on two consecutive days. Afterall regrets the error.