Archival Ethics and Possibilities of Representation: Tal Adler and George Mahashe in conversation

17 Nov 2020 - 11:15

On the 30th of October, the CCA held the first of its new Spirals virtual seminar series talks between the Centre for Curating the Archive (CCA) and the Centre for Anthropological Research on Heritage and Museums (CARMAH) in Berlin.

Formulated by the CCA's newly appointed Junior Research Fellow, Dr Duane Jethro, the series is meant to draw artists, scholars, curators and practitioners in Berlin into a discussion with researchers and graduate students at the CCA about the nature of archive and the curatorial in our contemporary world.

The first session, Archival Ethics and Possibilities of Representation, featured as its presenter Tal Adler, an artist and researcher at CARMAH. Adler started his presentation with the following statement (courtesy of the ever-amusing Zoom transcript): 

Okay. So I'll start actually
With a conflict or disagreement, it's always very attractive to start like this and I'll share my screen.

The conflict or disagreement in question concerned a skull situated in the anatomical collection of the Humboldt University, Berlin. This skull (known as ID 8470) had recently been selected by a team of curators to feature in an exhibition of ‘highlight objects’ drawn from the various university collections – an inclusion which resulted  in an internal disagreement amongst the curatorial team about the ethics of putting it on display in the future. No stranger to display, this skull had in fact already featured in a range of exhibitions spanning the last 20 years. Its role in all of these were however, as a representative of the 19th century practice of phrenology (because of the markings made on its surface) with little attention paid to ethical concerns about the display of human remains. For Adler, who was brought in as an external advisor to the curatorial team, the internal disagreement between the curators revealed the extent to which this singular framing of the skull as an anatomical scientific object overshadowed any questions regarding the identity of the individual to whom it belonged. His resulting project, Who is ID 8470?, therefore set out to address this omitted (and absent) provenance through the creation of a series of historical and imagined identities which he manifested as a series of projections (drawing on a popular 19th century illusion technique called Pepper’s Ghost), in the exhibition space. 

Responding to Adler’s research, the discussant, Dr George Mahashe, whose own research meditates on ideas of rumour and criticality in relation to the contemporary art circuit, ethnographic museums and colonial archives, raised a series of pointed discussion topics which opened the floor for further deliberation. Topics raised and debated included:  the implications of institutions ‘outsourcing’ their ethical dilemmas to artists; the worth of speculative methodologies that step away from the scientific methods that were instrumental in establishing these university collections in the first place; artistic practices which combat fixity and permanence; the role of the artist as an exorcist of the problematic ethnographic collection; as well as an interesting discussion which problematised the discourse of the 'ghost' as it is currently used in Europe and South Africa, and introduced the term 'spirit' as an alternative with which to grapple with these issues.
These later points made for rich discussion between the artists and the audience, leading to generative ways of rethinking singular modes of addressing the presences that wander in museum spaces (ghosts, hauntings, specters), culturally diverse ways of addressing the dead and their varied and various implications for art practise and scholarship engaging museums, human remains and the dead. These are precisely the points of productive difference in perspective the series hopes to spin out going forward.

Adler and Mahashe’s session provided a stimulating foundation for a series which promises to throw ideas of art, archive and the curatorial into flux and, in the words of Dr Jethro, one that invokes the spiral “to summon up a generative set of exchanges”.  The next session, Nature(s), Archive and Anthropology,  is scheduled for the 27th of November, and will feature as presenter, Tahani Nadim, Professor at the Museum of Natural History in Berlin, and the artist-curator, Fritha Langerman, as the discussant.

Watch a recording of the discussion between Tal, George and the various researchers of the CCA, the APC and CARMAH here.