The following is a collection of texts and videos produced in the course of our research for European Attraction Limited. We performed a series of interviews with arts professionals, scholars and curators and the videos below were recorded during the symposium “Rethinking Cosmopolitanism: African in Europe – Europe in Africa” celebrated in the Akademie der Künste, Pariser Platz, Berlin, Germany, February 2-3, 2013
We held after that a two day conference that attempted to put to the table views on the relevance of a proposed project to recreate a human zoo that occurred in Oslo in 1914.
Three years ago we stumbled upon information about a human zoo that had taken place in the heart of Oslo in 1914. Not being from this country, naturally, we assumed that this was common knowledge among natives, so, in an interest to learn more about the general consent on the exhibition, we started asking around. As it turned out pretty much no one we talk- ed to had ever heard about it (even if they had heard of human zoos in other countries). Given how popu- lar the exhibition was (1.4 million visitors saw it at a time when the population of Norway was 2 million) the widespread absence of at least a general knowledge was surprising. It is hard to understand the mechanisms of how something could be wiped from the collective memory.
One explanation may be the discussions around cultural, ethnic and national identity that we have followed during the few years we’ve lived in Norway, the circular patterns in the media have become apparent. The discussions are usually triggered by an incident of one kind or another followed by a series of petulant commentary that tend to provide a set form of arguments, the same questions and the same answers, chewed through and never really digested only to be repeated in the same unresolving manner again. We should really rethink this format, we should consume all the old questions and try to pursue new ones without falling into a trap of bumptiousness.
Since the 100 year anniversary of the Oslo human zoo was around the corner and because of the impo- tency of looking at archival images; giving a feeling that it has little to do with us today, we suggested the idea that we would re-build the village. The reaction to our suggestion was mixed. Many were for and many were against. The arguments on both sides were familiar. It was the same circular pattern that we wanted to confront in the first place. Still, the question remains; how do we confront a neglected aspect of the past that still contributes to our present? We wanted to investigate the linear or non-linear (whatever the case may be) connection between the messages of racial superiority that lined the intentions of the human zoos in the past to a more contemporary idea of superiority of goodness.
Human zoos were in general seen as giving important educational experiences and the Oslo human zoo in particular played a key role in an exhibition that marked an important stage in the building of the national identity.
The specific Nordic national branding has come to include the promotion of a people that are not only naturally good but also more tolerant and liberal than most. When quantifying humanitarian goodness the paradox is inherent in the advancement, how can anyone be equal to the most equal? Certainly, the neo right uses humanitarian bravado and liberal tolerance as an argument for cultural and racial exclusion.
“New forms of social Apartheid and structural destitution have replaced the old colonial divisions. As a result of global processes of accumulation by dispossession, deep inequities are being entrenched by an ever more brutal economic system. The ability of many to remain masters of their own lives is once again tested to the limits.”
Achille Mbembe, The Year of Frantz Fanon, 2011
In an attempt to break from the circularity of these discussions, it might help to distinguish between two understandings of racism: a modern racism and a post- modern racism. The former is based on arguments of inequality and the existence of inferior or superior eth- nicities and races. Postmodern racism emphasizes the impossibility of equitable dialogue among different races and ethnicities to establish common rules for liv- ing together.
Europe is becoming increasingly xenophobic, clos- ing its borders and utilizing draconian law. We need new perspectives and approaches. We can’t discuss racism without discussing global economy and structural racism embedded within the system.
We should also discuss racism among minorities and how that inherent racism is turned into oneness when confronted by Norwegian homogenous racism as a possible defense mechanism generated by the fear of being exposed to xenophobia or Islamophobia.
In the scope of this project we need to discuss what purpose a reenactment can serve, how it is made relevant for us today in order to gain new knowledge that addresses the issue of spectatorship both in 1914 and in 2014.
“No doubt, historical constructions play essential, almost central roles in the formation of the apparatus and what has been taken for granted as a given in the dominant world order. Therefore within the scope of emancipatory artistic productions, historical reenactments can, and do play a significant role.”
Centre for Historical Reenactment, Johannesburg
We are instigating a discussion that we hope leads to new questions. To do this we can’t dictate the terms of the discussion. The more we provide the less we get. To simplify an un-derstanding of why we have taken a fairly passive role in this discussion we have come to explain our role as quasi-national therapists. It’s a simplification, that is because, for now at least, the content is more important than the form.