October 19 2008 – January 4 2009
Letter to Leopold, Brussels Biennale
Description: Three single-channel videos with two-channel audio narration (Daisy Tam & Michel Daigneault reading excerpts from various key Canadian literary works).
Curated by Anselm Franke
Claim staking is a prospector’s term that refers to the activity of mapping out terrain by means of a series of markers which lay “claim” to the land for the purposes of ownership and resource extraction. To stake a claim, is to perform an act of sovereignty over the land. A claim is also a discursive statement that “stakes” out a position by a speaker. To make a claim, is to perform a speech act over which the question of its truth remains open. This project is about the territorial nature of the “claim” as a mechanism for asserting authorship over land and speech. I’ve long been intrigued by three small cities located in South-western Ontario, Canada named Brussels, London, and Paris respectively. Berlin is also in the vicinity but was renamed during the WWII. European colonists settled each of these locations during the 18th and 19th centuries. As rather modest cities and towns, their eventual naming after grand European capitals invokes the central dynamics of the colonial project. No only did their act of naming, claim the land as an extension of the imperial project’s global reach, conjuring memories of homeland on behalf of settler and immigrant populations, but it also functioned to erase aboriginal presence given that these locations were already named by the indigenous peoples that lived there. Re-naming thus affirmed the right of European occupation while simultaneously rendering invisible native populations, which in turn abrogated their legal claims to the land. This is the subject matter of this photo-suite and video triptych.
The first Brussels Biennial presents a concurrence of eight exhibitions by contemporary art institutions, merging contributions of sixty international artists. Opening October 19th, it marks the fiftieth birthday of the 1958 World Fair closing and the arrival of modernity into the fabric of the city of Brussels. The exhibition venues – among them a former post sorting centre at the station Brussels-South and the Pre Metro Station Anneessens – are located along the North-South railway axis. Letter to Leopold, conceived by Extra City within this frame, is a project bringing together some ten participants in a reflection on Belgium’s history, its global dimension in modernity, and its present day legacy and implications for Europe and European policies. Leopold refers to Leopold II, King of Belgium until 1909, owner of the ‘private’ colony ‘Congo Free State’ which was later handed over to the state of Belgium and which gained independence as the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1960. Not least through Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness a steady trope of the colonial imaginary, larger public consciousness of the realities in colonial Congo, the relationships it has shaped and the shadows it continues to cast only began to awaken as recently as in 1998, with the appearance of a historical study by Adam Hochschild entitled King Leopold’s Ghost, and subsequent studies and documentary films by various authors that followed.
In the exhibition Letter to Leopold this historical heritage is reflected through aesthetic strategies in an investigation of the structuring of the political imaginary. What relationships are embedded in pictures and narratives by which history is mediated? And what possible relationships do they foreclose or empower? The format of the ‘letter’ raises the question of the personal speaking position. It reflects the way in which the initial address induces and establishes a relationship, and asks about the possibilities to ‘speak to’ the past.
Michael Taussig (USA), Nico Dockx Yves Vanpevenaege (Belgium), Ulrike Ottinger (Germany), Stefan Schneider (Germany), Florian Schneider (Germany), Christine Meisner (Germany), Peggy Buth (Germany), Susan Schuppli (Great Britain), Andreas Müller/ Jesko Fezer (Germany), Ines Schaber/ Stefan Pente / Karen Peters (Germany), Gert Robijns (Belgium), Edgar Cleijne
Other participating institutions include B.P.S.22, espace de création contemporaine de la Province de Hainaut, Charleroi; BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht; Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven; Drik, Images, Communication & Information Technology, Dahka; L’appartement 22, Espace indépendant pour la création contemporaine, Rabat; MuHKA, Museum voor Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen and Witte de With, Centrum voor Hedendaagse Kunst, Rotterdam.
Excerpt from Roughing it in the Bush written by Susanna Moodie, 1852 (narration Daisy Tam)