The Brooklyn Rail - original pdf
Rainer Ganahl In Conversation with Paul Mattick
Brooklyn Rail (Paul Mattick): Columbia exhibition: Please,
teach me ... Of course, its appropriate for a university
gallery. But it runs counter to the dominant position taken by artists,
especially modern artists: typically, they have taken the position of
teacher. What do you have in mind with your appeal for instruction? And
to whom are you addressing yourself?
Ganahl: Please, teach me
only the title of several bodies of work but is also at the core of many
art projects I have been involved with for more than a decade, which have
involved learning foreign languages, going to lectures, reading books,
listening to people, and engaging in dialogues (most recently, for instance,
with Iraqis). Though I am in constant need of language instructors, I
dont have any specific population in mind in using this title, since
everybody could teach something.
Rail: As you say, the original incarnation of this idea was in your language-learning
pieces. What gave you the idea of taking learning languages as an art
activity? Which languages have you tried to learn, and why?
Ganahl: Moving to America in 1990 was a very important change in my life.
I had just finished my studies at various European universities and art
schools, none of which ever mentioned the problem of Europes (or
the Wests) colonial legacy and its intellectual and cultural ramifications.
My encounter with the writings of Edward Said (Orientalism), Gayatri Spivak,
Stuart Hall and many others was a big eye opener and led to a revival
of the interest in learning foreign languages I had since childhood. Already
at age 12 I was learning Italian on my own, followed by other languages.
Of course, I grew up not far from Italy and France, and Spain was soon
too on my map. But Edward Saids books about the interconnections
of culture and politics and the problematics of intercultural exchange
made me newly sensitive to the concept of foreign language acquisition.
After studying Russian for some years in the aftermath of 1989, I started
to learn my first Asian language, Japanese, as an art project in 1992.
At that time Japan was seen as a threat to Western economic hegemonythey
were on a buying spree in America similarly to the way that China
is perceived today. A couple of years into the Japanese learning enterprise,
I took on Korean for 3 years, precisely because it became evident to me
that Japanese-Korean relations were not very sound at the time. It was
quite interesting to experience myself, when I studied Japanese, learning
not only a national language but also acquiring national prejudices and
sympathies. In 1999, I launched myself into My First 500 Hours Basic
Chineseanother language project that is ongoing. When it became
obvious that George W. Bush would act upon his preventive war doctrine
I embarked on a second language (in addition to Korean, that is) that
is spoken in a country listed as a member of his Axis of Evil: Arabic.
Since 1992, I have been studying Arabic along with Chinese. I just started
my Second 500 Hours Basic Arabic and I more or less know what
I have to do in this line for the next couple of years.
Rail: Central to the Columbia exhibitionagain, fittinglyare
photographs of famous cultural theorists lecturing. They could be taken
as academic celebrity photographs, though I doubt this was your intention.
What are you after in these pictures, that makes taking this risk worth
Ganahl: About 10 years ago, Edward Said gave me permission to audit an
entire seminar of his at Columbia University, entitled The Representation
of Intellectuals. That seminar, and its title, gave me the idea
to take a camera to the many lectures I went to visit anyhow. In 1993,
I started to parody colonial practices by bringing books to the different
foreign locationsJapan, Russia, France, etc.where I was invited
for exhibitions. I would engage with interested people in reading and
discussing them, and I photographed our sessions. The interesting resultspictures
of people reading and discussingwas one more motivation to expand
this kind of pedagogical photography and start the photo series
S/L, for Seminar/Lectures, that you are referring
to. Of course, I only photograph people Im interested in, or people
who discuss topics Im engaged with, since I have to listen to them
for about 90 minutes at a time, but that doesnt mean that all of
my S/L subjects can be referred to as theory stars. Also, the photographs
of the lecturers are presented together with photos of the public, the
audience. Unlike my own reading projects, the S/L series involves professors
and lecturers, and also university set-ups, pedagogical institutions,
and educational politics. The questions these pictures are meant to raise
cant be limited to the lecturing subjects and their topicswhat
is the lecture about?but also must include questions about who sits
in these classes (racial and socio-economic profiling), the prerequisites
for admission, the general ideological outlines of these platforms, and
so on. I think that the results of several hundred sessions of these events
are not only a (self-)portrait of my intellectual flâneurism, but
also present a sample of a decades intellectual activity in various
places. In reactionary times, with eroding public liberties and diminishing
public and private spheres, it is no wonder that universities, cultural
and scientific communities are coming more and more under attack. It might
be useful to remember an earlier moment.
Rail: In the last few years, your work has focused fairly closely on the
American attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. How is this focus related, if
it is, to your earlier interest in issues of communication? When you address
a postcard to George W. Bush asking, Please teach me Arabic,
what do you have in mind?
Ganahl: It is true, the Bush administrations and the right wing media
industry has made me feel miserable and disillusioned in many ways. Their
aggressive politics contaminates language and creates a propagandistic
nomenclature that is worth observing. I reacted in many ways to phrases
such as their War on Terror, their Axis of Evil,
their Shock and Awe, their Operation Iraqi Freedom
with their Freedom Fries and their Patriot Act.
Last year, while attending Arabic classes in Syria, I sent postcards to
friends that I stamped with the phrase Please, teach me Arabic.
For over ten years, whenever I have traveled to a country where a different
language is spoken, I have been sending postcards to friends using stamps
that read Please, teach me (whatever language it is).
With Arabic perceived in the media as a suspicious, dangerous code, it
became clear that I should start sending Please, teach me Arabic
postcards to people in order to suggest they could know more about this
linguistic/cultural region so closely associated with their fates. For
the first time, I addressed my postcards to denizens of the White House,
news experts covering the Middle East, and others not my personal friends.
In this show, I display 160 postcards which I had sent addressed to such
famous Americans in care of the Wallach Gallery. It is up
to the visitors to the exhibition to find or not find existing or non-existing
connections to the Arab world. The commercial postcards that I used show
either a statue of Saladin (the Arab leader who stopped the crusades in
the Middle Ages) or Damascuss Martyr Square. The stamps
show the former Syrian president Assad, who ordered the slaughter of ten
thousand Syrians in the city of Hamma in the 1980s. This was carried out
in plain view of the worlds population, which wasnt too upset
by it, probably since many victims belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Though the wars and tragic events produced by the current administrations
politics have kept me busy in the last couple of years, I have continued
all my other projects as well, since most of my art works are ongoing.
Somehow, almost everything belongs to my educational complex.
In many ways, I have also been able to address war and neo-imperial practices
from within the framework of my work oriented towards issues of education
and dialogue: thus I have been learning Arabic, have organized readings
on Frantz Fanon, and have visited/audited/photographed multiple panel
discussions addressing our cynical and sinister times.
Rail: These works are political art in anyones definition,
I think. What is the relation, as you see it, between politics and the
conditions of displaying art in a university galleryor a commercial
gallery, for that matter? How do the politics of war and the politics
of an artworld career fit together?
Ganahl: To a certain degree any work that is relevant to the times one
lives in has a political character. The politics at work at a university
museum are complex as well, though Im not at all involved in this
sphere. Bill Kaizen, the curator of this show and a Ph.D. student under
Benjamin Buchloh, has selected me for this show to address issues of dialogue
and communication in contemporary art. Concerning the art world, a successful
career is defined by sales and prominent representation in commercial
galleries and trend-setting museums, and I think it is thus less a question
of what one does but more of how it looks, how objects are rendered. Given
the nature of my projects, I cant help but choose forms of representation
that are economical and minimal, so I am not very well situated in this
rat race. Whatever I do, whether it is considered political or paedagogical,
if it doesnt live up to the expectations people have for the spectacle
it is supposed to be as an artwork, it remains minor literature
and a minor art form, to use the parlance of Deleuze. In German, the word
for boring is langweilig, long lasting. This translationwhich
is ambivalent and layeredmaybe describes my learning and reading
projects very accurately. If Duchamp talked about fast, ready made
things, I talk about things that form over a long time and might therefore
be called hard tryings or lasting longs. A university
museum like the Wallach Gallery
might be the place best suited for these ever-unfinished, ongoing projects.
Brooklyn Rail - original pdf -