As part of the »Membrane Exhibition – Refracted Gazes,« the artists and researchers Janine Jembere and Nicole Suzuki present an installation, using paper and writing (as in history writing) as a starting point and drawing from the Japanese art of shifu, a Sun Ra song, and old screensavers. The works The Text Is Text-ile & Of Sounds And Something Else, as the artists say, »bring forth the possibilities of a material, emotional and disobedient reading-writing.« The work challenges dominant written knowledge by discussing moments of erasure. Gain insight into their new collaborative work.
Schlosspost: The works The Text Is Text-ile & Of Sounds And Something Else (2018/19) follow up on your research on traces of colonization and epistemic violence. How did you become interested in working with these issues?
Janine Jembere: For me it all started slowly. A colleague in my old studio advised me to read Black authors and critical theory. That, and working with young people for the Akademie der Autodidakten opened up a lot for me. Before that, I had never read postcolonial thinkers or came into contact with artists that were not part of the white German »normal.« In Berlin the scene around Eoto e.v., Ballhaus Naunynstrasse, Savvy Contemporary, Berlin Postcolonial, etc. is quite vibrant and many people do great work that is hard to miss. So I was really lucky to find myself there. The question of how colonialism transformed thinking and being started to interest me; not only its violent workings on the »far away« or »elsewhere« of the colonies, but its impact on the »center.« As an artist I wondered how my own imagination and perception are limited and shaped by it. How to thematize and problematize the conventions and ideas that are the product of this (ongoing) violence?
Nicole Suzuki: My artistic work is strongly influenced by my experiences as an independent publisher. Ten years ago I founded a queer-feminist publishing house to create a space for voices and positions that are outside the norm, especially with regard to race, gender, and sexuality. While the publishing house has published more than 60 books so far, I have also come to realize that established concepts of how writing, reading, and publishing should work themselves are based on powerful norms, which, if unchallenged, serve to reproduce epistemic violence.
»How can I conceive of knowledge not as a single body of sorted ideas, but rather as consisting in fragments and patchworks? How can I leave room for hybridization and for untranslatabilities?« Nicole Suzuki
My work as an artist deals with questions of knowledge production with a special focus on the possibilities, violent histories, and limitations of the medium of the book. I take a lot of inspiration from postcolonial thinkers, who emphasize that we need to actively interrogate the given power relations and forms of knowledge and understand how these are already inscribed in our habits and actions.
Accordingly, my artistic work has focused on unlearning, i. e. on challenging the established and questioning the accepted. And it has centered around questions such as: How can I conceive of knowledge not as a single body of sorted ideas, but rather as consisting in fragments and patchworks? How can I leave room for hybridization and for untranslatabilities? And given that the medium of the book itself is entangled in epistemic violence – how can I break down the medium of the book with artistic means and activate it in a way that accounts for that violence and try to redress it? Overall, my artistic work inhabits a space where my practices as an artist, researcher, and publisher overlap and inform each other, offering new opportunities to explore and alter paradigms of knowledge production and dissemination.
Schlosspost: Your installation The Text Is Text-ile & Of Sounds And Something Else (2018/19) is named after a quote and a song. Can you tell us a bit more about your sources and inspirations?
Janine Jembere: »Of Sounds And Something Else« is the name of a song by Sun Ra and The Arkestra. The song itself, although stunning and humorous in my opinion, seems rather tame in comparison to other things they’ve done. It might be a good entry point to their musical work precisely because of that, though. What struck me about it was the title, the Something Else that is like a blank to be filled by the listener, to be thought and wondered about. If this song is of sound, but also of something else, what might this something else be? I am really inspired by sound and even though my work does not always register as something to be heard, for me sound is something I want to and believe I can, learn and shape ideas from. Sun Ra and The Arkestra are a phenomenal inspiration, because they were and are so radical as a group of people working together, as musicians, as thinkers and performers. The title of the piece is a tiny gesture of gratitude for what they brought into the world.
Nicole Suzuki: »The text is text-ile. To suture here is to weave, as in invisible mending.« is a quote by the scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak that I was really inspired by. Spivak speaks here about the transformative and tedious work of intervening in colonial discourse. And of course I was intrigued by the metaphor of weaving as it connects with my works that employ the technique of shifu – making fabric from paper.
Schlosspost: Janine, you often incorporate performative elements and music in your works to discuss relationships between bodies and sensual experience, as well as the process of socialization. For The Text Is Text-ile & Of Sounds And Something Else a Sun Ra song functions as starting point, although it’s not audible in the space anymore. Can you tell us a bit more about this song and its impact?
JJ: As I spoke about the song already, maybe I can give a more general answer: I see the question of perception and senses as intertwined with how societies function and what is expected from the individual. The way we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch is conditioned and also what we associate with the senses, how we approach them. In Europe, centuries full of binaries like that of the weak flesh and the noble mind, the laboring body and the thinking head surely limited how and what we perceive today. The so called mind-body problem is something very specific to European thought, that has also been employed to position women, (forced) laborers and non-European others on the less noble »body side« of the equation. I am really interested in these ideas, because I am conditioned and positioned by them as well and I look for ways to reduce this impact. Sound and listening are so important to me probably because that is what interests, nurtures, and at times distresses me most, but I also work visually and performatively and surely see no way to attribute one sense some superpowers that other modes of sensing do not have.
»In Europe, centuries full of binaries like that of the weak flesh and the noble mind, the laboring body and the thinking head surely limited how and what we perceive today.« Janine Jembere
Schlosspost: Besides the Sun Ra Song, the Japanese art of shifu, and paper in general play a crucial role in your installation. Can you tell us a bit about shifu and your specific relationship to paper, Nicole?
NS: Yes, the work THREAD is inspired by shifu, the Japanese art of making paper thread in order to produce textiles. It is closely connected to writing as a legend shows: A messenger who was supposed to deliver a secret message through enemy territory, spun the paper on which the message had been written into thread and made a coat from it. Wearing this coat he could cross the enemy territory and finally unroll the message again.
While learning this traditional technique, I was reminded of Spivak’s metaphor of unlearning as an endless process of weaving invisible threads into an existing texture. THREAD explores how we can conceive of knowledge in a way that does not assume one single red thread and where loose ends and unauthorized connections are made a matter of principle.
Another work which is part of »The text is text-ile« consists of pieces from my series PAPER. In PAPER I explore how we can imagine knowledge as consisting of fragments, and how we can find ways to negotiate diverse knowledge approaches and bring them together even when they are seemingly in conflict. A specific approach to knowledge is always already engrained in the very material, i. e. in paper and books, that we write on and print texts in.
Although the basic material for the work are discarded books, after the process of pulping them and molding them into »new« paper, there is almost no visible trace of the information that was contained in the original books – the »new« paper seems to be just white and empty. Thus, PAPER is an invitation to move away from the assumption of the empty page as a neutral space.
Schlosspost: Nicole, as an artist and researcher you are interested in forms of (written) knowledge and in how these are already inscribed in our habits and actions, and thus drawing from postcolonial theory, you are practicing the method of unlearning, can you tell us more about that?
NS: Unlearning is an approach directed at questioning the accepted and challenging the established. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak considers unlearning from the perspective of postcolonial theory and calls for an »unlearning of one’s privilege as one’s loss« in her attempts to find a way not to speak for the oppressed, nor to simply allow for the oppressed to speak. Unlearning does not simply involve a disavowal of the histories of violence – it is not possible to go back to a time before the current power relations were in place. Rather, it can be described as a lengthy and tedious process – as already mentioned, Spivak compares it to weaving invisible threads into existing texture. The resulting pattern is not determined beforehand, and those who are weaving also must be willing to be changed themselves. The concept of weaving also invokes notions of simultaneity. I perceive the conventions of linearity of how we read/experience text as strongly resonating with the assumed linearity of »progress,« conventional history writing and the chronopolitics of coloniality. So to find ways to trouble this is really exciting for me.
Schlosspost: »All our planet produces are the dead bodies of humanity. That’s its only creation. Everything else comes from outer space, from unknown regions. Humanities life depends upon the unknown«.  This is a quote by Sun Ra taken from the first scene of the documentary A Joyful Noise from 1980. Can you draw connections from Sun Ra’s »posthuman MythScience« that creates the possibility to reject history and the postcolonial method of unlearning? 
»I do not see the possibility of rejecting history, but rather the possibility to change the narration and intervene in the realities that were created.« Janine Jembere
JJ: The quote reminds me of Frantz Fanon’s critique of Europe »where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe. For centuries they have stifled almost the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called spiritual experience.« Sun Ra grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and I guess some of his thinking must have been influenced by the gross violence, terror, and death administered by white supremacy. He, like many others that are excluded from the universal brotherhood of man and placed as less-than-human are rightly skeptical of the ideas of humanness and European enlightenment. I do not see the possibility of rejecting history, but rather the possibility to change the narration and intervene in the realities that were created. In my view Sun Ra and others do not reject history but reject a specific canon and approach that renders certain events and people as important while nullifying others. He does not stop at saying »this is not my history« but goes further and creates another canon, drawing from other sources and troubling the hierarchies of a universal history that has placed him as eternally inferior. He abandoned this canon for something that made his own and the livelihood of others possible. For me this connects somehow with Saidiya Hartman’s concept of critical fabulation for example, a critical intervention into the narratives of archives. And yes, it also connects to what I see as the aims of postcolonial thinking – not to reject what happened but to first study the assumptions behind it and then intervene, unravel, add, object and take a step in another direction, one that points to a world that is more livable than the one we are in now.
Schlosspost: The screensaver once a simple tool to blank out the display, thus also information and knowledge, introduces new patterns – in your case patterns that remind us of outer space and the universe. Can this »other« patterns offer »other« meaning and fostering different ways of approaching physicality, the body, time, and space?
Janine Jembere: It’s funny you say that. I haven’t thought about what the screensaver had to offer! Now I am struck by the possibilities you see! All intentions and interpretations aside, it’s really important to me that my work is accessible, no matter what someone read or saw or did. That it’s possible to experience and enjoy the craft of it. I draw from theory, but – or precisely because of that I want my work not to be intimidating or elitist but approachable on an emotional and physical level.
Back to the screensaver: I wanted to use it because it’s so very not special and simple. It’s reduced to a point that makes it very easy to get into the movement forward or backward. In this context for me it’s also a meditation on what it means »to read« or »to write.« There are understandings of reading and writing that go beyond the word, the page, beyond the black and white. The installation is all paper, all black and white and yet not satisfying the conventions that often come with this material.
Often when I look, I look for something, something to interpret, decipher, connect to. With this reworked screensaver, there is a resistance to that. I stop looking for something, I am paradoxically stuck with the movement. For me it’s like looking back and forward, but all I see are these fleeting points. The universe you say, yes surely, it could also be dust, memories, or whatever one wants, really. In connection with the two high stacks of blank paper that frame the screen there is also the quality of possibility, of pressure and of trying in vain, a moment of never arriving. Something that is exciting, exhausting, and humbling at the same time. Everything is moving and what is to be done is behind, before, between us … and it’s endless.
Denise Helene Sumi conducted the interview.
- Robert Mugge: Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise. 1980.
- Kodwo Eshun: More Brilliant Than The Sun: Adventures In Sonic Fiction. London 1998.