Hans Ulrich Obrist on a radically utopian museum model that has yet to be made and why it is worth pursuing
Hans Ulrich Obrist met the Martinican philosopher, poet and public intellectual Edouard Glissant in 1999; the encounter influenced the direction of Obrist’s work for years to come. Their relationship was animated by a spontaneity which allowed them to collaborate on a dozen projects, including “Utopia Station” at the Venice Biennale 2003. Co-organized by Obrist with Molly Nesbit, Rirkrit Tiravanija, with Elena Filipovic, the project was based on conversations with Glissant.
Prior to his death in 2011, Glissant participated in a total of nine interviews with Obrist, which, as part of the curator’s extensive archive of 4,000 conversations, are now on display at the newly opened Luma Arles in southern France. (The conversations are the subject of a forthcoming book, The conversations of the archipelago, by Edouard Glissant and Hans Ulrich Obrist, published by Isolarii.) The object of this first presentation of the Obrist archives is a collection of audiovisual material linked to Glissant: videos of public and private interviews are projected on eight viewing stations, allowing visitors to listen to Glissant dialogue, read his poetry and form his thoughts by speaking. The presentation also features posters of contemporary artists who are either close to Glissant or who feel connected to his reflection.
On the occasion of the exhibition, we publish below the extract of Obrist’s essay on Glissant from the next Museum of the future: what now? (edited by Cristina Bechtler and Dora Imhof), in which the author reflects the influence of the philosopher, and what his writings can teach us about the good future of museums.
What could constitute a museum for the 21st century? In search of answers, I keep coming back to an unrealized project by the late philosopher, public intellectual and curator Édouard Glissant, who always told me that what matters is the production of reality.
Glissant, born in Sainte-Marie in Martinique in 1928 and who was throughout his career a defender of the independence of the island vis-à-vis France, imagined a museum of the Caribbean island which would present the multiplicity of art from the two American continents. It was to extend from the ancient Mayans to the present day. He imagined the museum as an archipelago that would shelter a network of interrelationships. He wanted to create a museum that would not only point out urgent issues, but respond to them as well. He imagined it as a “quivering” place that would transcend established systems of thought and seek the utopian point where all the cultures of the world could meet.
Glissant describes his utopia as a “tremor” or “tremor” because it transcends established systems of thought. “It must be said from the outset that the tremor is not uncertainty, and it is not Fear,” he writes. “The” trembling “thought – and in my opinion all utopia passes through this kind of thought – is first of all the instinctive feeling that all categories of fixed thought and all categories of imperial thought must be rejected.
The Glissant museum was inspired by the history and landscape of the Antilles. The first question that preoccupied him was national identity in the light of the colonial past. It is also the theme of his first novel, Ripening. He considered the mixture of languages and cultures as a decisive characteristic of the West Indian identity: “In the West Indies where I come from, we can say that a people is positively formed (built up). Born from a melting pot of cultures, in this laboratory where each bench is an island, here is a synthesis of races, customs, knowledge, which tends towards its own unity.
Based on these ideas, he later observed that there are similar cultural mergers all over the world. In the 1980s, a period when a theory around globalization developed, he developed the concept of creolization in collections such as Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays, applying it to the continuous fusion process, noting that it is a process that never stops.
In one of our many conversations, Glissant told me that “the American archipelagos are extremely important, because it is in these islands that the idea of creolization, that is to say of mixing of cultures, s is the most brilliantly performed. The continents reject mixtures … [whereas]Archipelagic thought allows us to say that neither the identity of each person nor the collective identity is fixed and established once and for all. I can change through the exchange with the other, without losing or diluting my sense of self. And it is archipelagic thought that teaches us this.
“Archipelagic thought”, which strives to do justice to the diversity of the world, is at odds with continental thought, which claims the absolute and tries to impose its vision of the world on other countries. To counter the homogenizing force of globalization, Glissant coined the term “globalization” for a form of global exchange that recognizes and promotes diversity and creolization.
The conception of the museum at Glissant also extends to the way in which we understand the function of the exhibition. He told me that so often the exhibitions are presented in a way that is invisible to large sections of society. This idea also refers to the multiplicity of languages: the world can be expressed not in one, but in several ways. We can move between different languages because they offer gateways to different worlds, beyond the closed quarters of a landscape, a nation or a particular identity. As Glissant told me in our last conversation, it must be remembered that neither individual identity nor collective identity is set in stone and established once and for all.
For Glissant, utopia is a place, he writes, where “all the imaginations of the world can meet and get along without being dispersed or lost. And that, I think, is above all utopia.
Maybe you can see why I thought of a much on Édouard Glissant. As an agent of change, he always remains relevant amid discussions around repatriation, justice and the place of beauty between them. As he said, what matters is the production of reality. As for museums, he imagined them as networks of relationships, thrilling places that can transcend established systems of thought and serve as meeting points for the culture of the world. Although not realized, his ideas for a museum remain a source of wonderful possibilities.
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