‘History lessons’

Exhibition title: History lessons
Artists: John Akomfrah, Halil Altindere, Kader Attia, Shoja Azari, Tania Bruguera, Marcelo Expósito, Nuria Güell, Miki Kratsman, Teresa Margolles, Avi Mograbi, Jo Ractliffe, Raqs Media Collective, Fernando Sánchez-Castillo
Corator: Octavio Zaya
Dates: 26.06.2015 to 13.09.2015
Place: CAAM – Los Balcones 11. Planta 3. Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. Spain.
Hours: Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 9pm. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Produces: Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno. Cabildo de Gran Canaria
Collaborate: Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, MAC de Puerto Rico

We live in a present tormented by anxiety about its own future. At moments such as these, when unexpected or inexplicable events happening on a daily basis force us continually to update and re-examine our convictions, understanding history and its ebbs and flows seems absolutely crucial. However, paraphrasing Blanco White, it is not so much that we are bound to repeat history if we forget it: in this time of ours, which views history with disdain—or as something merely to manipulate, revise, conceal, or erase actual facts and events in the name of a present perpetuated as a socio-political and economic omnipresence, ever more authoritarian and one-dimensional—we find ourselves transformed into agents devoid of “historical existence.” But we cannot just get rid of history and the past as if they were an old pair of jeans or an outdated PC. History and the past are under our skin. We are caught up in the middle of our historical condition; we have not chosen it, and, as Habermas might put it, it is existentially inescapable. Yet, for us to regain an awareness of the past and of history, our present condition implies, not only a mere misfortune or predicament, but also a challenge. On one hand, we may claim that new information technologies are now beginning to saturate knowledge as we struggle to negotiate the relentless bombardment of messages and images we face day after day; on the other, the loss of our historical memory could be directly allied with our insatiable thirst for information and knowledge.

Many contemporary artists choose not to sidestep these complex dilemmas and concerns. While some come back to history for inspiration, or engage in a dialogue with it in order to develop projects and works that comment on the meaning of our place within it—as if new technologies were unable to fulfil their potential to improve that meaning—others perceive the past, the present, and the future as part of a computational and cognitive fabric that stretches beyond our linear conception of time. Some revisit the past to bring to light documents and facts consciously overlooked or ignored by the powers that be to justify repressive and violent actions and policies, while others pillage archives in order to rediscover—without any nostalgic or romantic intent—activities, situations, and relations that build discursive spaces of disciplines connected with surveillance and control. The past is sometimes addressed to express or denounce the deterioration or ruthless destruction of our cultural traditions in the face of a context of growing suffocating homogenisation, while sometimes obsolete or anachronistic manners, formulas, and practices are recovered to be extolled as worthy of the status of Art, in opposition to the ongoing standardisation of formal languages and designs. At the same time, in the midst of the current frenzy of perpetual commercial obsolescence, scornful of history and the past, others seek refuge in personal choices and creations, tracing the genealogy and family history that afford them an antidote against the absence of memory and against forgetfulness. It is never about a counterfeit past’s control over a future that does not exist, which is precisely what is being fostered and perpetuated by the prevailing consumerist culture. Rather, it is about bringing existing cultural trends into question instead of magnifying them, accepting our historical condition, and freeing the past from the terror that stalks a futureless culture. George Orwell said that “who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

Bearing this in mind, the exhibition at hand is a reflection inspired by Alain Badiou’s ideas on what he calls “Le Réveil de l’Histoire” (whose English version was given the title “The Rebirth of History”).

Since the beginning of our century, the world has been witnessing a wave of popular transnational and global uprisings still in progress. In Tunisia, Egypt, Iceland, Greece, Spain, Israel, Chile, UK, USA, Turkey, Brazil, Hong Kong, and other places, we have seen people taking to the streets to protest against injustice and inequality and in favour of real, participatory democracy. In consequence, the struggles that had already been set into motion over the years took on newfound visibility, and new movements were formed that have given rise to other struggles, but also to new frustrations and repressions.

In this time of global capitalist crisis, there is, on one hand, a return to critique, both theoretical and practical in the form of social rebellions, as a reaction to the commodification and exploitation of the whole spectrum of present-day life. On the other hand, the question arises as to the role played by so-called social media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) in contemporary capitalism, in the crisis, the rebellions, and the potential creation of participatory democracy. The total commodification of life has also led to the commodification of social media and of communication, which, as they stand today, are first and foremost commercial entities.

Against this backdrop of rebellion and struggle within what we call global capitalism, which lurches between institutional violence, social fragmentation, and lack of representation, this exhibition, rather than providing updated takes on history, is meant to deploy alternative narratives about our most recent past and our present, through works by various artists who tackle the ever-changing relationship between the subject and history. In this regard, the exhibition embraces a number of aspects of the historical awakening of our time, in which we confront the arsenal and forces of the New Order of policies and regimes. The exhibition covers various examples of our recent history and, at the same time, demonstrates, through some events and works by the artists included, the urgent need to rebuild and create our own histories and our own order.

In a certain sense, the exhibition not only propounds a thesis but also promotes a way of understanding contemporary art’s ability to think, represent, and conceive theoretical and practical changes in the context of present-day global capitalism; a way to bring us closer to a number of proposals that form part of that long-term laboratory that already presupposes the ongoing construction of a new poetics—insolvent, fleeting, and collaborative.


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