Fragments of Our Memories: On the Incompleteness of Broken Nostalgia
Speaking, writing, and discoursing are not mere acts of communication; they are above all acts of compulsion. Please follow me. Trust me, for deep feeling and understanding require total commitment.
Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism
Working with archival material that is connected to the colonial period of Germany means being surrounded by racist and dark objects that speak of a time that seems to be distant, but the mechanisms of that violence are sadly not. How to work and live with objects that bear witness to the mad superiority of a few leading to the organized extinction of communities? To find the space to deeply generate a consciousness for such disturbing realms, one needs to go beyond the mere acts of critical theory and performative alliance towards the affected bodies.
Decolonial practice as a verb means to operate beyond labels and superficial engagement; it is a long-term process of perpetual encounters with the darkest sides of the human condition.
We need in collective formats in order to develop the tools that allow us to live with archives and give us the confidence to embrace incompleteness as the reality we are working with. Essays, concepts, and guidelines are two-dimensional structures that are freed from consequence and action. This is embodied in our thinking with and through the practice of archiving. Through various formats alongside school classes, performances, and collective listening sessions we try to linger with the stories and use the tool of repetition as one of many forms of intervention.
… I proposed that we need to look at the archive, in the spirit of Foucault, less as a container of the accidental trace and more as a site of a deliberate project. The archive as deliberate project is based on the recognition that all documentation is a form of intervention … This further means that archives are not only about memory (and the trace or record) but about the work of the imagination, about some sort of social project. These projects seemed, for a while, to have become largely bureaucratic instruments in the hands of the state, but today we are once again reminded that the archive is an everyday tool. (Appadurai 2003, 24)
When the archival project Colonial Neighbours was invited to join the project “Archive außer sich” alongside fellow projects in 2017, we were very much looking forward to not only presenting this fragmented attempt to archive histories, but were interested in processing the archive from different perspectives.
Colonial Neighbours, a project by SAVVY Contemporary—The Laboratory of Form Ideas, was initiated in 2009 via an object that was found in an attic. The object held unknown memories that were tied through family constellations, a photo album with innocent descriptions written below images that held places of violence.
The material or immaterial objects in the archive, which are connected to the colonial past, are not the main focus in this archival attempt. It is the histories, both shared and unknown, that are of importance in this journey of drawing a fragmented map of our collective memory in regards to our stories here and then. It is a research project investigating the colonial history of Germany, including its ongoing impacts upon the present, aiming to address gaps in Germany’s politics, education, and media in order to question dominant knowledge structures and historical narratives. The archive, being activated by discussions, performances, and collaborations with actors from various fields, should serve as a platform for exchange and research.
Today, knowledge of this history and its impact is hardly present in the German public sphere. Official German “collective memory” actively displaces, silences, or denies this history. Many schoolbooks, media outlets, and politicians ignore this period, downplay its importance, or portray it as if it evolved in isolation from an alleged “core” of “German history.” As a consequence, colonialism is often seen as part of the “distant” past. As some are now trying to say, however, we cannot understand Germany without understanding its role as a colonial power. The act of remembering should not be the burden of an individual but one’s story read in context of its time and in a perpetual collective attempt. Both, archival structures and our own memory are fragile entities to house stories that are living beings.
How can we open discourses on colonial entanglements without creating a fetish regarding a specific time in history, but think along the threads in time and connect ourselves with this distant past? How can personal stories, which are often multilayered, allow us to remember our own past, encompassing the brokenness and dark periods of time. And how can we exit a perpetuation of these violences in the deliberate project of the archive?
When thinking about our tools, then we need to start with our bodies. In our practice, we acknowledge the fact that the human cognition is not only shaped by the brain, but is indeed encompassed in the body, which performs cognitive tasks like conceptualization, reasoning, and judgment. Human cognition is formed through interactions with the environment or the world at large. Alongside Esiaba Irobi’s writing we are thinking of the body as a site of discourse and a platform on or through which histories can be transmitted or narrated.
They went there from 1441 to 1856 as kinaesthetic/phenomenological and iconographic literacies. They got there because the body is a site of discourse. And just as some cultures privilege the dissemination of information and knowledge through writing, oral cultures of the world privilege the encoding and decoding of precious information in the body and the expression of these knowledges through performance. (Irobi 2008)
The body as a site of discourse turns the archive into a performative practice, an activation of embodied knowledge through the senses. Cinema too finds its roots in oral storytelling practices. It’s a somatic experience that lives through the reverberations of the sonic and the visual in a collective setting. Like archives, films are performative practices. They can be fragments in a collection, and a collection/remix of fragments. When we think about strategies of non-perpetuation of violences in sonic archives, what does it offer us to think of the material practice of filmmaking as a form of critical archiving?
Colonial Neighbours organized a workshop by the title “Fossilised Sonicities: On Mapping Lessons and Sonic Archives” as part of Archival Assembly #1 at the Arsenal—Institute for Film and Video Art in September 2021. At the heart of the workshop and sonic mash-up was the quest to understand how we can think of film as a sonic archive. The idea of fossilized sounds was borrowed from The Urban Feral, whose sonic investigations are inspired by the Sufi understanding of the healing properties of sound vibrations (SAVVY Contemporary 2022).
The challenge of engaging with film as sonic archives also bears the risk of reproducing the histories of domination and extraction that are being challenged. How do we deal with toxic sounds that forever live in the body of a film? How do we confront the ghosts in this archive? At epistemic and material levels, the questions of who “speaks” for whom in the conversation matters (Mhishi 2023).
Imagine a de-speaking cinema: wandering towards an unknown place, a place that isn’t already there, that isn’t yet there. Imagine a cinema like a performance of preparation, a speculative gesture to welcome what comes or could come from the outside of these visible worlds, worlds that are cleared (habitués) by and for a particular eye. (Marbouef 2021)
Let’s take a short detour and turn to the question of what cinema is or can be. In his essay “Towards a de-speaking cinema (A Caribbean hypothesis),” Olivier Marbouef calls for a phenomenal shift by postulating a new, de-speaking cinema, a cinema in which “all presences flee towards the margins. … A cinema of dispersion by flight, but also a cinema of excess, cacophony, and explosion. For it removes itself from the centre of the scene as much as it atomizes the centre itself, by making it impracticable, inaudible, untranslatable” (Marbouef 2021). Critical of centralized perpetuations of representations (and the expectation of the margins to ‘speak up’ against the center), a de-speaking cinema is a space “where ‘it’ spoke,” understanding “it” as a “wider spectrum of the speaking image to forms of matter, environments, that spoke from assemblies and alliances between existences and phenomena placed at the margins of the scene of dominant human representations” (Marbouef 2021). The idea of the de-speaking cinema offers us a space, a speculative gesture and hallucination, to reimagine how we can think of cinema, film, and the material practice of archiving. It opens a pathway beyond the binary production or counter-production of a centralized canon, but rather calls for a porous, hallucinated space that can hold a pluriverse of knowledges and rhythms in simultaneous existence. It thereby revokes institutionalization. In this new space, the idea of film as a sonic archive finds an anchor. In it, film practices of disobedience, appropriation, and decentralization find their echoes to subvert the trap of colonial reproduction and representation.
The film Mapping Lessons (2020) by Philip Rizk is a conversation between political struggles across time and space, from anti-colonial battles against the French and British in the 1920s to the Syrian revolution in 2011, 1936 Spain, a revisionist memory of Russian Soviets, and the Paris Commune amongst others. It questions Eurocentric historiographies and narratives by drawing a map of fragmented autonomies. The film’s musical score features a recording of a 1972 free jazz session between six musicians in Egypt, one of the first of its type in the region, and undoes something important. It undermines what was formalized at the Arab Music congress in the 1930s, which set out to Europeanize and standardize Arab music. The 1972 session deliberately subverts this standard. The film Mapping Lesson utilizes this recording session as a basis and an essential element of the soundtrack. Sequence by sequence, the mini essays on autonomy that make up the film place the sonic scores in juxtaposition, dissonance, reversal of the image. This creates an uneasy tension between the archival fragments.
What happens if you exit the gaze and listen? What kind of knowledges are produced and revoked? The film offers a space for short lived moments that don’t necessarily claim to be part of a longer narrative because many of them have come to an end. The sonic offers a beat for a new reading of experiments of autonomy that have been misinterpreted, silenced, or completely overlooked. The practice of filmmaking then becomes a deliberate project of archiving, a site of cannibalizing historicities and canonical violence.
While doing so, cinema as a hallucinated space, a “performance of preparation” offers to the archive a different circulation practice and forms of exhibition making. It is a space for a multiplicity of simultaneous experiences, to de-speak, rethink exhibition making, to focus on untraining the ear and deep listening in collective practice.
Appadurai, Arjun. 2003. “Archive and Aspiration.” In Information is Alive, edited by Joke Brouwer and Arjen Mulder, 24–25. Rotterdam: V2_Publishing/NAI Publishers.
Irobi, Esiaba. 2008. “The Problem with Post-Colonial Theory: Re-Theorizing African Performance, Orature and Literature in the Age of Globalization and Diaspora Studies.” Sentinel Literary Quarterly 2 (1). Accessed May 9, 2023. https://www.sentinelpoetry.org.uk/slq2.1/esiaba_irobi.htm.
Marbouef, Olivier. 2021. “Towards A De-speaking Cinema (A Caribbean hypothesis).” Non-Fiction 3. Accessed May 9, 2023. https://opencitylondon.com/non-fiction/issue-3-space/towards-a-de-speaking-cinema1-a-caribbean-hypothesis/.
Mhishi, Lennon. 2023. “Sound, Film and the Question of Return: What Forms Can Restitution Take?” The Cinema of Ideas, March 9. Accessed May 9, 2023. https://cinemaofideas.org.uk/writings/sound-film-and-the-question-of-return-what-forms-can-restitution-take/.
Minh-ha, Trinh T. 1989. Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
SAVVY Contemporary. 2021. “Fossilised Sonicities. On Mapping Lessons and Sonic Archives.” Events 2021. Accessed May 15, 2023. https://savvy-contemporary.com/en/events/2021/fossilised-sonicities/.
SAVVY Contemporary. 2022. “FOSSILISED FREQUENCIES.” Events 2022. Accessed May 15, 2023. https://savvy-contemporary.com/en/events/2022/fossilised-frequencies/.