Photo: David von Becker / Drawing: Florian Stirnemann

The Milieu of the Dead. Part 2: Absences
The Afterlife of Slavery and the Gaps in the Archive

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4 & 5 December
Show 19.30
Doors Open 18.30

St. Elisabeth-Kirche, Invalidenstraße 3, Berlin

German and English with simultaneous translation

Admission free with rsvp
for Dec 4: rsvp (until 1.12.)
for Dec 5: rsvp (until 1.12.)

Limited number of seats in the mechanical arena. We also offer additional seating and a video live stream at Villa Elisabeth.

Film programme:

She's Gotta Have It
30 November, 9pm,
Meeting point: S-Bhf. Jannowitzbrücke. (In collaboration with HIT and RUN KINO)

Killer of Sheep
1 December, 8pm
Wolf Kino, Weserstraße 59

For Ahkeem
2 December, 8pm
St. Elisabeth-Kirche, Invalidenstraße 3

Mobile Akademie Berlin:
Concept: Hannah Hurtzig, Marian Kaiser
Stage: Florian Stirnemann
Film Curator: Dorothee Wenner

Production: Eva Lämmerzahl, Laura Weber
Video: Phillip Hohenwarter
Sound: Jonas Hinz
Dokumentation: N.N.
Translation: Paul Bowman
Simultaneous translation: Lilian-Astrid Geese, Sungur Bentürk
Research: Sonja Lau
Event management: Philipp Hochleichter
Stands and stage: Bartmann Berlin
Supporting steel structure: Ertl & Zull
Rail system and curtain: Gerriets

Many thanks to:
Sarah Lewis Capellari, Alexandra Heimes, Gisela Lenthien, Siddharta Locanandi, Marc Siegel, Antke Engel, Institut für Queer Theorie; 
Moira Hille, Akademie der Bildenden Künste Wien; Khashayar Naderehvandi, Valand Academy Göteborg

A production by Mobile Academy Berlin, coproduced and organized by the Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss, made possible thanks to the representative of the Federal Ministry for Culture and Media.

The Milieu of the Dead in 2018

Part 3: The Breathless Museum (Taxidermy and the sixth extinction).
With contributions by Etienne Turpin and Anna Sophie Springer, Max Mönch and Alexander Lahl

Part 4: The Unpractised Ritual: Juristic, symbolic and diplomatic acts of past restitution

Since 2010, the theorists and artists of the MAB have been working on a range of topics related to the new life sciences; they are examining the precarious zones between life and death and investigating the milieu of the dead – or more specifically, advocating changing the milieu of the dead for the better. With the series continuing from 2017 through to the end of 2019 in collaboration with the Humboldt Forum Berlin, it is now focusing on gaps and absences in archives, collections and exhibitions. While the Humboldt Forum exhibitions present world history through objects and artefacts, the performances by the Mobile Academy Berlin stage the stories of things and beings which cannot, or should not, be exhibited, and where any representation is doomed to fail.

Part 2. Absences
MAB has invited the American authors and theorists Saidiya Hartman and Christina Sharpe to take a close look at the impossibility of describing, representing or historicizing slavery, using their own previous works as a starting point: Lose your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route and In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Is it possible, narratively and imaginatively, to overwrite the emptiness and limits of the archive of slavery?

In the 1990s Saidiya Hartman travelled through Ghana searching for remnants of the history of the enslaved. As a footstep traveller, she follows the old slave routes, visits the dungeons and reads historical papers, chronicles and documents. She finds deserted places, abandoned landscapes and silence, for “to read the archive of slavery is to enter a mortuary”. And because “Africa was the land of graves without bodies”, even the dead are absent. The history and stories of the enslaved cannot be told because signs of their existence were erased, and because this history has not passed into the past, but is inscribed in the present. The losses were passed on, and they still determine the reality of black lives: “We live in the wake of slavery” (Christina Sharpe), in the backwash of the slave ships on the transatlantic route.

Hartman’s method of “critical fabulation” takes the gaps and absences in the archives and the ephemeral signs of the lives of the enslaved as the starting point for impossible stories, which at the same time reflect on the historical and contemporary reasons behind the impossibility of telling them. Christina Sharpe entwines a wide variety of images and motifs from poetry, film, art, historical documents and current news reports as a way of looking closer at the deeply ingrained history of slavery in contemporary “black lives” and “black deaths” – “a past not yet past, in the present.” Both books circle around the impossibility of describing slavery’s “archives of breathlessness” and reflect on the systematic conditions which have prolonged this situation down to the present day. Hartman collects a choir of voices before adding her own story of what could have happened to what she did not find. Sharpe’s writing approaches theory as a kind of poetology that calls on us to read, speak and imagine differently. She traces concepts and motifs in repetitions and variations through history, weaving them into dense theoretical and poetic patterns.

An echo of polyphonic speech acts respond to the two authors on the two evenings: the theorists pick out text and pictorial motifs from their books and comment on them in short, overflowing footnotes, which top up the motifs with their own research. A performer and a DJ recite text passages in a spoken-word performance, while experts in exhibition practice and theory give responses pondering what the ideas of Hartman and Sharpe could mean for ethnographic world museums. What leads and pointers can literature and theory give for curating collections and exhibitions?

For The Milieu of the Dead series, Mobile Academy is setting up a travelling theatre at assorted locations around Berlin (concept by Hurtzig; architecture by Stirnemann; production by the Humboldt Forum). A mechanized arena which has been specially designed for the series alternately shuts the audience and protagonists in and out. It functions like an earpiece, making it possible to listen in on the dead and their hitherto unheard stories. The irreverent Berliners have nicknamed it the “Humboldt Snail”.

Monday, December 4

Presentation: Saidiya Hartmann: Lose Your Mother. A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route

8pm Footnotes:
*1: Un/Picturability
Looking at museums in Liverpool and London and how they use documents, pieces of writing, narratives, political accusations and evocations of empathy, Ulrike Bergermann will provide a footnote on the un/picturability of slavery in exhibitions: what language speaks of slavery in the museum, through its space, design and objects? (Ulrike Bergermann)

*2: Historiographies for emancipatory movements
Karin Harrasser will provide a footnote on how to practice historiography in a way that is dedicated to urgencies of the present while keeping the future open. How can we narrate history in such a way that the past is able to transform our political present? How can I write about music I have never heard, but which colonized minds and bodies 250 years ago? (Karin Harrasser)

*3: Zombi
Narratives about the Caribbean have defined the zombi as the living dead whose soul has been stolen, so that after their death, burial and resurrection, they can be put to work as a slave. These narratives have shaped the zombi as a figure that passes on the memory of enslavement. (Gudrun Rath)

8:30 Intermission

Response 1
Wayne Modest will consider the influence of theory on the curation practices of ethnographic museums. Drawing on his experience as both a researcher and curator, he reflects on how best to cope with the difficult legacy and the “postcolonial anxiety” that is so disconcerting for European collections and institutions. (Wayne Modest)

Response 2
The MuseuAfroBrasil in São Paulo is an artistic and ethnographic museum dedicated to researching, preserving and exhibiting the objects and works of black people in Brazil. Philosopher and curator Etienne Turpin describes why this museum is the best he has ever seen. (Etienne Turpin)

End approx. 10pm

Tuesday, December 5

Presentation Christina Sharpe: In the Wake. On Blackness and Being

*1: Aesthetics and Affect

This footnote deals with the interconnectedness of historical archives and contemporary affects and the influence of this connection on the aesthetics of writing about slavery. How does Christina Sharpe’s critical, poetic, essayistic, collectivistic and associative text reflect the afterlife of slavery? (Elahe Haschemi Yekani)

*2 & *3 Recitation & spoken word
The performance artist and storyteller Goitseone Montsho and the Berlin DJ İpek read extracts from Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake and from the long poem Zong! by Canadian poet M. NourbeSe Philip. (Goitseone Montsho and İpek İpekçioğlu)

8:30pm Intermission

Response 1
Clémentine Deliss discusses the unresolved condition facing ethnographic museums in Europe. She argues that this colonial institution, which is currently deadlocked around questions of public display, needs to perform a radical transition into a “museum–university”. By enabling artists and researchers from diverse disciplines and cultures to gain rights of access to so-called ethnographic collections, a new kind of inquiry and interaction can take place between rigorous transdisciplinary research, innovative aesthetic practice, and tests in law, economics and mediation.  (Clémentine Deliss)

Response 2
The MuseuAfroBrasil in São Paulo is an artistic and ethnographic museum dedicated to researching, preserving and exhibiting the objects and works of black people in Brazil. Philosopher and curator Etienne Turpin describes why this museum is the best he has ever seen. (Etienne Turpin)

Response 3
In his footnote presentation, Friedrich von Bose reflects upon the disturbing potential of an archive’s blind spots for exhibition practice. How can we deal with these blank spaces and simultaneously leave them open for future interpretation and narratives? How do they relate to the museums’ crowded storage areas, which tell their very own histories? How can museum critique be made fruitful for exhibition practice without losing its transformative power? (Friedrich von Bose)

End approx. 10pm

The Participants
Saidiya Hartman is a professor for English and comparative literature at Columbia University, New York, specializing in African-American literature, history and theory. Her writing oscillates between historiography, theory and literature in a method that she has called “critical fabulation”. A prerequisite of this method is a refusal to fill the gaps within the archive of slavery and provide closure to a single unequivocal history. It means not only writing history with and against the archive, but also telling an impossible story while enacting the impossibility of telling a story that could represent the lives of those enslaved. Saidiya Hartman is the author of Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-making in Nineteenth Century America and Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. Her new book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, will be available at the end of this year.

Christina Sharpe is professor of English at Tufts University. Her work is concerned with Black visual studies, African-American literature and culture, Black queer studies, and Black diaspora studies. She is the author of two monographs on the afterlife of slavery in contemporary culture and society: Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects and In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. In the latter, Sharpe delves into literary, visual, cinematic and quotidian representations of Black life that comprise what she calls the “orthography of the wake”. Activating multiple registers of “wake” – the path behind a ship, keeping watch with the dead, coming to consciousness – Sharpe illustrates how Black lives are swept up and animated by the afterlives of slavery and what survives despite such insistent violence and negation.

Ulrike Bergermann is a professor for media studies with a special focus on gender and postcolonial studies at the University of Arts in Braunschweig. Her current work focuses on the “Hidden Atlantic” and on the persistence and effects of colonialism up to the present day. One of her most recent publications is the essay Sugar and Shame about the exhibition German Colonialism in the German Historical Museum.

Clémentine Deliss is a curator, publisher and cultural historian. She studied contemporary art and semantic anthropology in Vienna, Paris, and London. Her work addresses historical and contemporary iterations of global artists’ networks, the remediation of ethnographic collections, and the articulation of artistic practice and interdisciplinary through alternative forms of education and publishing. She is Visiting Professor, ENSAPC, Paris and Visiting Researcher, INHA, Paris. She lives in Berlin.

Karin Harrasser is a professor for cultural studies at the University of Art and Design in Linz. Within the MAB, she is an expert for the manifold relations between bodies and media and the complicated relationships between the living and the dead. She is currently researching the decolonization of political media and affective technologies, through e.g. musical practices in South America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Her translation of Donna Haraway’s last book Staying with Trouble will be published soon by Campus.

Elahe Haschemi Yekani is a professor for English and American Literature with a focus on postcolonial studies at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. She is currently finishing her work on her new book Familial Feeling: Queer Entanglements between Early Black Atlantic Writing and the Rise of the British Novel, in which she confronts canonic novels of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, e.g. by Daniel Defoe, with the first written self-testimonies of Black British authors like Olaudah Equiano.

Based between Berlin and Istanbul, queer-living DJ, producer and curator, İpek İpekçioğlu plays in clubs and on festivals worldwide. Her music has a strong political agenda related to womyn, immigrant and queer issues and upholds a principle of cultural diversity: “The Queen of Eklektik BerlinIstan” mixes psychedelic turkish funk to disco, balkanfolk to minimal, Anatolian folk to deep house, kurdish halay to electro, turkish tango to break beat, bhangra to moombahton, dabke to reaggaton, albanian folk to twerk, iranian bandari to techno.

Wayne Modest is head of the Research Center for Material Culture, the research institute of the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden, Afrika Museum, Berg en Dal and Wereldmuseum, Rotterdam. He is also professor of Material Culture and Critical Heritage Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Operating between museum and academia, his work is concerned with the histories of ethnographic collecting and exhibitionary practices in relation to colonial heritages, with a special focus on slavery.

Goitseone Montsho is a storyteller who uses oral tradition as a channel for her passion in activism, intersecting narratives and performance art. Storytelling and performance art gives a voice to unknown narratives and helps us all connect and understand each other better. Her poetry is inspired by tales of daughterhood, motherhood and the many shades that can form such alliances. Narratives of the black female experience are combined with storytelling and the urge to give the next generation a better experience.

M. NourbeSe Philip is a Canadian poet, writer and lawyer. Her poetic work Zong! is based on historic legal documents from the end of the eighteenth century relating to the notorious murder of Africans on board the slave ship Zong. Equal parts song, moan, shout, oath, ululation, curse and chant, Zong! collides memory, history and law, reworking them into poetic fragments.

Dr. Gudrun Rath is a cultural studies scholar working at the University of Arts and Design in Linz. Her research focuses on the politics of memory and cultural theories. Currently, she is investigating narratives of the undead from a historical and transatlantic perspective. She is especially interested in the role played by figures of the undead in passing on the memory of colonialism and enslavement, but also of rebellion. She has recently edited Zombies, a special-issue of the Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften/Journal for Cultural Studies, on her current research.

Dr. Etienne Turpin is a philosopher, curator and founding director of anexact office, an atelier for design research in Jakarta and Berlin. With Anna-Sophie Springer, he co-directs Reassembling the Natural, an exhibition-led inquiry into the colonial will to knowledge. They are currently curating Disappearing Legacies: The World as Forest in the Zoological Museum of the University of Hamburg, which considers the legacy of European natural science in Amazonia and the Malay Archipelago.

Friedrich von Bose is a cultural anthropologist and associate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin’s Hermann von Helmholtz Center for Cultural Techniques, where he is also curator for the Humboldt Lab in the future Humboldt Forum. He is particularly interested in the potential for exhibitions to become spaces of critical knowledge production. His ethnographic study about the planning process of the Humboldt Forum was published by Kadmos in 2016.

What you cannot see, you can talk about. What you cannot know, you should definitely talk about. Narrating, fabulating and hallucinating in all appropriate ambiguity: that’s the way to maintain relationships with things and beings that are not present.
(The Milieu of the Dead, 2010)