Skip to main content Start of main content

Foreword Afterall Journal issue 38

The corruption of bodies is a pledge of their resurrection. Hence, the goal of history is to rediscover in each piece of the past’s flesh the corruptible element par excellence, not the skeleton but the tissue.

— Roland Barthes, Michelet, 1954 01

A ‘queer desire for history’ animates this issue of Afterall — what Carolyn Dinshaw describes as a ‘desire for a different kind of past, for a history that is not straight’. 02 A medievalist scholar, Dinshaw coined this phrase in Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (1999) to describe the affective connections that her work attempts to tease out across time, between those on the margins of sexual norms then and now.03 Although concerned with a more recent past, the artistic practices gathered in these pages also reject a linear understanding of history to embrace a temporality based upon anachronisms, jump cuts and interruptions. Clearly, Dinshaw is not alone in placing an embodied and heterogeneous subject at the centre of current historical enquiries; however, her focus on a tactile notion of history, inspired by Roland Barthes’s account of nineteenth-century historian Jules Michelet’s impulse to touch bodies across history, particularly resonates with the material reassessment of the past invoked in this issue — from the use of montage as a means of bending historical and affective time in works by Sharon Hayes, James Richards and R.H. Quaytman, to critical analyses of the institutional frames through which art history is written and assessed.

Julia Bryan-Wilson brings up Dinshaw’s articulation of a queer temporality in her study of two recent video works by Hayes that use the figure of the sound technician to present the subject as listener rather than viewer. In Parole (2010), an actor records historical and contemporary speeches that reflect upon how sex, race and gender inflect language, whereas in Ricerche: three(2013), it is the artist herself who, after Pier Paolo Pasolini, holds the microphone, asking a group of students about their attitudes towards sex. As Bryan-Wilson notes, listening in these works focuses on both the meaning of language and its materiality as embodied speech: how the words of the past occupy — and affect — present bodies. If these works heighten our capacity to empathise with others, earlier performances have foregrounded the breakdown of reciprocity at a time when virtually all forms of communication have been monetised. In a detailed reading of one of the artist’s ‘love addresses’, in which she recites a letter that folds together stories about love, war and politics, Kris Cohen refers to Hayes’s short-circuiting of communication as a ‘broken genre’ — a term inspired by Fredric Jameson and Lauren Berlant’s conceptions of gender as a social contract.

In using dissonance — the slippage between the words uttered and the body that speaks them, between activist and intimate language — as a form of distancing, Hayes’s practice can be read within a lineage of critical montage. The intervals between images and sounds in Richards’s practice are instead filled with affect; they make materials that are digitally stitched together vulnerable to one another, as in the tradition of lyrical film. Connecting his work to the wandering visions of Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren and Jean Cocteau, Ed Halter considers Richards’s drifting through appropriated images as an attempt not to reflect upon how we have become visually anaesthetised but rather to refashion images and sounds as instruments of communication. In Richards’s viscous media archaeology, Halter remarks, the markers of time on the image’s surface become confounded with the traces of life on the body’s skin, and the history of recent image technologies meets that of queer gestures and codes. Considering how Richards’s own practice has changed over time, Anders Kreuger studies compositional continuities and shifts in his films: from the prevalence of imageless pauses in early works to more recent instances of contrapuntal montage, in which archival and self-generated images and sounds are made to interact freely.

Just as Richards’s films and curated programmes are peppered with references to television and internet culture, as well as to the artists he admires, so is R.H. Quaytman’s work populated by images of and by others, forming what she calls an ‘artist’s art history’. Here too appropriations are moulded into a complex composition: a self-devised archiving system that Quaytman conceives as a book made up of ‘chapters’, or groups of paintings produced for specific exhibitions. Although conceived in literary rather than filmic terms, this splicing together — of historical allusions; references to exhibition sites, artists and friends; old and new pieces — can also be understood as a form of montage. Sarah Ganz Blythe describes how Quaytman’s work bridges notions of painting as window and as screen, simultaneously calling attention to the references summoned in a painting’s surface and its context — its position in relation to other paintings, the body of the viewer and, more generally, within the art world. Richard Birkett, meanwhile, invites us to think of the artist’s use of visual and textual quotations within the tradition of marginalia, arguing that the intertextual web she weaves in her paintings poses a critique of the art historical canon.

That it has historically been up to artists to push against standards and regulations in the presentation, valuation and circulation of their work is demonstrated in João Ribas’s genealogical study of the solo show. Prompted by the realisation that monographic exhibitions have increasingly become tied up with commercial speculation, Ribas unearths the dissident origins of this format in eighteenth-century Europe. Indeed, it was in self-organised solo exhibitions that display practices were first experimented with, in fierce opposition to the unyielding control of Academies and exhibition juries. Calling attention to this hitherto overlooked area of exhibition histories,04 Ribas’s essay points to the need to think of artistic and curatorial practice as framed within the broader political economy of art, and its institutional ecology in particular.

How to develop institutional models that foster the diversity that is being jeopardised by market pressures as well as by cuts in public spending is one of the main concerns of L’Internationale, a confederation of six European museums. In a conversation chaired by Nathalie Zonnenberg, these museums’ directors discuss, amongst other things, how museum practices can articulate alternative historical narratives based on plurality — ones that not only seek to trace complicities across time but also across territories, thereby undermining a homogenising and monolithic conception of history. As Dipesh Chakrabarty has shown, such postcolonial re-examinations require non-Western transitions to capitalism to be recast as specific processes of translation, in which relationships with colonial centres are understood in terms of ‘translucence’ rather than ‘transparency’. 05 It is such gradation that Marcus Verhagen sets out to examine in his study of translation as an artistic strategy that takes stock of artists’ own nomadic life-worlds and the quickening circulation of artworks within a globalised art system. Altogether, then, the essays gathered in this issue of Afterall leave historicist narratives aside and instead trace desire lines that cut across temporal and geographic borders. These are, as Barthes would have it, desire lines in search of history’s flesh.


  • Roland Barthes, Michelet (1954, trans. Richard Howard), Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992, p.87.
  • Carolyn Dinshaw in conversation with Lee Edelman, Roderick A. Ferguson, Carla Freccero, Elizabeth Freeman, Judith Halberstam, Annamarie Jagose, Christopher Nealon and Nguyen Tan Hoang, ‘Theorizing Queer Temporalities: A Roundtable Discussion’, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol.13, no.2—3, p.185.
  • See C. Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.
  • Afterall’s Exhibition Histories series is addressing in part this historical blind spot (what João Ribas calls ‘the repressed of exhibition histories’) with the forthcoming study of Richard Hamilton, Victor Pasmore and Lawrence Alloway’s collaborative exhibition-cum-artwork ‘an Exhibit’ (Hatton Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, 4—19 June 1957 and Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 13—24 August 1957).
  • Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000, p.17.