30 September 2018. A SWICH blog to honour UrbanNomadMixes participants in the Weltmuseum Wien exhibition Out of the Box. Written by Camilo Antonio, invited by Weltmuseum Wien.
“There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us…”, so run the lyrics that the hero and heroine sing in West Side Story, a musical that the composer Leonard Bernstein transformed into a modernized adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, where tragic lovers cope and struggle with a kind of internal diaspora and yearn to cross the ethnic divide and class hatred embedded in their families. In both stories, we see a classical depiction of internal emigration and displacements: the lovers yearning for “a home” away from home. Another diasporic dimension depicted by Bernstein, whose parents were East European Jewish migrants, is New York as the setting of West Side Story, where Puerto Ricans belt out their coping strategy in the diaspora, asserting their right against the resistance of earlier-settled Caribbean immigrants, a typical representation of migrant worlds steaming to the United States with the dream: “I Wanna Be In America”. It is ironic that while Trump is banning the entry of certain Muslim nationals to the U.S., Europe is seen as ‘A New Mecca’ for African and Asian migrant communities with multiple diasporic versions of envisioned promised lands and we watch boat peoples being refused entry, some tragically drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.
Out of the Box, a collaborative exhibition that ran from April to September 2018 at the Weltmuseum Wien (World Museum in Vienna) is part of the EU-funded project, ‘Sharing a World of Inclusion, Creativity and Heritage’ (SWICH). Ten museums within the EU reflected on various themes to re-contextualize their ethnographic collections in today’s globalized world. My first act upon being invited as guest curator was to convince my counterparts at the Weltmuseum Wien to change what I saw as a problematic focus on a religious altar, comprising statues of Catholic saints and other related artifacts that had been procured from a Filipino family by which the Philippine Community in Vienna would be mobilized to bring their own versions of altars, that they presumably kept in their homes, for an interdiscursive process as “diaspora objects”. It is to the credit of my co-curators, Doris Prlic and Jani Kuhnt-Saptodewo, that they welcomed the challenge to change the terms of engagement, which is what this article is all about. Thus was I requested to activate an ensemble of UrbanNomadMixes, a loose collective alliance of creative transcultural activists and performative artists that I initiated 20 years ago. We have been a Vienna-based multinational group making interventions in the public space with the same essential feature ever since our story began: an improvisational organic approach whereby members jointly develop specific projects in response to impulses for collaborating with institutions that bridge ethno-racial divides and such binary oppositions as them-versus-us. UrbanNomadMixes ensembles made their first public appearances in 1998, 1999 and 2000 during the Hallamasch Festival of Cultures at the Völkerkunde Museum (Ethnology Museum), whose transformation into the Weltmuseum Wien I followed with interest. I was especially encouraged by a new approach that I had sensed behind the EU project: a paradigmatic shift whereby museum collections were opened for the public to engage with, to diffuse exclusivist ‘ethnology readings’ and to question usual practices of custodians and curators.
Bringing in UrbanNomadMixes as a community to share perspectives in accordance with the SWICH mandate entailed creating a new ensemble whose members participated in a year-long series of intensive workshops that began with a research process to choose diaspora objects from the museum’s collection. The process was documented for the exhibition as an integrated mix of outcomes: texts, video clips and photography put together as audio-visual graphic installation and a catalogue. Our manifesto of “understandings” as rearticulated by the group does not distinguish between artists and activists; both roles involve “matters of culture”, which we also no longer view as the exclusive property of the aesthete artist, the so-called learned or cultivated, or the folkloric collector and what I call “religio-cultist”.
For me, culture entails not being fixated on beliefs or value systems. Rather, I align myself with Paul Gilroy’s assertion in Between Camps (2001: 56f), that a change in the resonance of “history” and “culture” in such closed entities as Europe might contribute to a reorientation of forms of consciousness, solidarity and subjectivity. Thus I also work along the concerns of human development expert Mark Pagel who argues in Wired for Culture (2012) that culture is a “wiring” in the mind akin to the cultural implantations by which human thought and ways of thinking have been colonised. The spirit of cultural activism that we practise as a group consists in asserting each person’s right as a subjective agency to question wirings of the mind while we negotiate unequal or inequitable and unjust conditions of coping in each one’s particular diaspora. We are enabled to read contexts (situations or conditions) from different perspectives by means of coping strategies of people as illustrated in Global Diasporas (Robin Cohen 1997, 2008) and in Diasporas Reimagined Spaces, Practices and Belonging (Nando Sigona et al, 2015). Empowering the capacity to articulate ideas is my reference to ‘poetics’ that draws inspiration from sources as varied as institutions (the schule für dichtung in wien and the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetry in Boulder, Colorado, USA) as well as scholarly references that include John Docker (1492: Poetics of the Diaspora, 2001) and James Clifford (On Writing Culture, the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, 1986). Encounters of the kind have honed my involvement with UrbanNomadMixes in performative balancing acts and dialectical turns. Franz Prüller, a protagonist who has been with the group since its inception, summarised what others expressed: we use culture as a software that enables us to negotiate our journeys individually and collectively, not just as a cultural heritage of traditional roots, but as free choices among a multiplicity of routes or trajectories through places and times.
To link people with museum objects as a way of reimagining diaspora stories is one of the six main themes of the SWICH project. That understanding of the EU mandate and context was a major motivation for my interest in curating Out of the Box. I’m still wondering if that theme would not have been a better title for luring people to come and see the 6-month “show”. Fact is, I was warned that ‘diaspora’ is not a widely understood word, misleading even among museum custodians and an impossible proposition for a marketing pitch. Thus I conceded, recalling that the term out-of-the-box is associated with lateral thinking conceptualized by Edward de Bono and popularized by “radiant thinking” or mind mapping by the Tony & Barry Buzan brothers (BBC Book 1993). As I write this blog my mind journeys in lateral ways to ideas, thoughts and questions: was it the objects or the persons who brought them out of the depositories and storage areas that were taken out of context? Which origins, personality roles and/or functions were displaced, and/or dispersed and disoriented? So what was re-ordered or possibly more fragmented in what sorts of diasporic conditions or situations?
Various diasporic situations and dynamics provide insights and perspectives in considering how dialogues with objects we see around us could be facilitated: by comparing consequences or multiple causes that effect identities and signifying practices for both diaspora objects and people. Neil MacGregor shows us how to do this in A History of the World in 100 Objects (2010/2012) and he refers to how a Japanese bronze mirror “not only has a voice, but the power to reveal Japan to itself (Object 58). But who would care about our stories at a time when objects all over the world must be branded “exclusive” so as to be desirable points of sale and when migrants as people of a diaspora are discussed as though only a special few are wanted: so many are hopelessly pigeonholed, if not stereotyped, and most are unwelcomed. How should we then apply words? Similarly to or differently from Dadaists or Surrealists who could change the definitions of objects and even go so far as to transform their original intentions?
Discovering many words that were loaded with negative or positive experiences, I opted for engaging and coming to terms with diaspora, one of those notions originally reduced to master narratives of biblical Jews and classical Greek or Armenian histories. Academically, diaspora has been contested because of the word’s own diasporization, as Rogers Brubaker argues in Diaspora Diaspora (2005). But it is helpful that he considers the word as a stance, a claim or idiom, not as a bounded entity. Thus I have a personal stake in reloading the word by creating a space in which I claim to make two contributions: one, as ‘coping’ with states of the diaspora effect; and two, by focusing on the ‘heroic poetics’ emanating from that diaspora effect. Heroic poetics has become my form of cultural activism as I try to emulate writers who engage their words from the perspective of exile. And I join scholars like Marie-Aude Baronian et al in Memory and Diaspora (2016) who focus, not on 'external' boundaries of diaspora, but on “memory”, as an important 'internal' boundary to which I add the ‘imagination’, a reference Salman Rushdie makes in Imaginary Homelands (1981/1992).
From the poetic and diasporic lens with which I view multiple worlds, the microcosmic metamorphosing into globed-in and cyberspaces, made me wonder what is referred to in the EU project title SWICH? I decided to drop the title’s “Sharing a World” and to refer to “Sharing Worlds…” instead. A sub-versive explanation may come from the circumstances of having been born with a multiple choice. It was only while writing this article that I realized how my interest in living with and researching “diaspora” possibly derives from three main autobiographical sources. Firstly, my own displacement already at birth in the Philippines, was related to me as having taken place in a village hut strewn among a few others, while my parents were fleeing Japanese occupation soldiers in the 1940s because my half-Chinese father was being sought, not having been accounted for among Filipino-American prisoners of war who were on the Japanese instigated “Death March”. My father was unable to explain how he survived, all of those who made it to the concentration camp were cruelly mishandled to death as a way of sending them off to their final diaspora. Consequently, my mixed-Malay mother used to recall that “home” was whatever they could pack up quickly to get away from danger on to the next safe hiding place. Secondly, early childhood memories after the World War II come from fragmentary experiences of dispersion – comings & goings of parents, uncles and aunts moving phantom-like, bringing back adventurous snippets of life in “things” that contained microcosmic stories from big urbanizing areas to which they sometimes took me. Thus I remember my first trip to Manila as a fascination with neon lights and fireworks dispersing colours up and away in diasporic dark skies. Thirdly, observing and understanding migratory movements of people as “the show that never ends”. “There’s no business like show business” is a multifaceted way of life that I have come to know while growing up and being swept by it as something I share with social groups in search of better lives and as part of what is called “development” in humanity’s ongoing march for so-called progress. The U.S. of America, still known to many in the Philippines as “Uncle Sam” or “Hollywood Lab” was a natural progressive trajectory and I found myself going through “waves of good fortune” both as a recipient of educational awards for post- graduate studies – having gone there at a time when democracy took an irreversible downturn in the Philippines under the Marcos dictatorship that lasted 20 years.
I’d like to also recall a diasporic phenomenon in cold war geopolitics when so-called refugees from the Soviet Union were readily welcomed by Western capitalists, big time and small time. In fact many post-1990s governments in Central and South Eastern Europe have been strategizing on that aspect of life: setting up Ministries of the Diaspora, encouraging nationals to go abroad, even recruiting and exporting domestic servants and care takers and cashing in on what they earn, not only for investment projects but also to drum up patriotic interests and distanced nationalism. But when and how did globalization take the turn for a troublesome dynamics that favours trade in goods and ideas, financial transactions and services at the expense of the basic human right to move: to find a better life elsewhere? Taking a different perspective with regard to Europe, Zygmunt Baumann, in a talk hosted by the Institute for Human Sciences here in Vienna shortly before he passed away, referred to a “diasporization of the terrorist stranger” who threaten even more the local precariat’s sense of security because of what so-called strange immigrants mirror or reflect: the new “others” who are removed from past histories and homelands with seemingly no stakes neither in the present nor in the future.
The spirit and form of cultural activism in UrbanNomadMixes is to join others who assert the 'right' to remember and the 'responsibility' to imagine as central discursive issues of relating diaspora to cultural politics. The conjuncture of imagination with memory imply important critical (and sub-versive) potentials such as transcending the territorial logic of dispersal and return and thus emerge as a new source of redefining diasporic identity, practices and conditions. Thus my interest in poetics and creating diasporic spaces for cultural production entails responsibilities of testimony and engaging forces that determine amnesia, forgetting and performative speech as forms of cultural politics. We therefore pursue and engage the thesis: as subjective historical and political agencies, we can play critical roles in imaginary, figurative and memorializing processes rather than merely representing institutionalized and securing spaces of diasporic identity.
That kind of consciousness streaming accompanied my guest-curating Out of the Box: by which I had offered an alternative interpretative framing, a paradigmatic shift of looking at the museum’s collection. It was a call to adventure where UrbanNomadMixes were activated to delve into re-working worlds and ways of being. Through a ‘mirroring process’, the protagonists were facilitated to dialogue with their inner voices as they explored, individually and collectively in-and-out of workshops, why they selected museum objects. Thus in my dual roles as group-activator and as guest curator for the exhibition, I provided a basic orientation to potential participants for coming to terms with what I call the ‘diaspora effect’ as a complex condition that emanates, not from mathematically proven or rigorous linear causal relations, but rather from multiple causes such as undefined feelings of non-alignments with prescribed scripts of identity and cultural formulae. Feelings to open up the wide frontiers that define “homes on the range” are associated with internal displacements, dispersion of traditional roots and fragmentation or loss of self.
Diaspora effect is a phenomenon that I believe every human goes through and can consciously share as a community by providing the context to engage the question: how do humans cope while being “no-longer-there and not-yet-here?” In my own case, I can empathise with people fleeing wars and persecution because that question preoccupied me after leaving the Philippines for studies in the U.S.A, shortly before Ferdinand Marcos established his dictatorial regime from 1972-86, a situation that made me identify with those who left as exiles. Ironically, landing a job as an international civil servant at the United Nations in Vienna supported that resolve: engaging a committed diasporic consciousness even as I wrote a doctoral dissertation on coping with the diaspora effect as heroic poetics in search for ‘an elsewhere’. I also realized that the issue could not be resolved by becoming a naturalized Austrian with the greater plus that I personally craved, a common citizenship with other Europeans. That yearning for an elsewhere, I argue, persists especially among those who are unable to choose between binary oppositions such as ‘somewhere’ or ‘anywhere’ as categorized by David Goodhart (2017).
Curating Out of the Box, I spent hours and hours of sit-ins with participants clarifying crucial conceptual distinctions, beginning with: what does it mean to engage in a reading of objects from a diasporic perspective? We discussed how and why “diaspora” has been used interchangeably with racial-ethnic banishment and variations of exile such as self-declared ‘expats’ and NGOs who smartly apply the category to brand themselves for patronage purposes or to mobilize national diasporas for foreign investments. The process led to significantly different outcomes from the “reading viewpoints” of economic migrants or refugees seeking asylum. The section of the exhibition’s Catalogue, Diaspora Dialogues and the video documentation allude to post-colonial and/or post-modern ways of viewing oneself and ‘others’ via ‘mirroring’, a reflective process that became the key element in the project’s conceptual approach.
So, how were the protagonists selected? That’s a question that the media and visitors to Out of the Box seemed most interested in? For a start, I asked veteran members and then opened the search to ensure as diverse a transcultural representation as possible. There is a specific criterion that demanded courage, which understandably, not all prospective participants were willing to consider, especially among refugees whom I tried to bring in: our intervention as a performative act in the public space entails a willingness to articulate thoughts in texts as well as to appear before recording photo-and-film cameras. Understandably, not all were prepared to do that, especially those without a secure base. Another critical factor was time, probably the most important criterion by which interested participants deselected themselves; time determined who could make the SWICH journey for almost a year that the processing of exhibition outcomes required, a process that turned out to be as important as the exhibition itself. So I had to cast the net wide and it is another sign of creative adjustment that my curator-counterparts accommodated an increase to 30 protagonists from the originally-envisioned number of 6-10 participants, which entailed adjusting budgetary considerations. Then, when I asked my co-curators and photographer Aleksandra Pawloff, videographer Marc Jarabe and display architect Itai Margula to become UrbanNomadMixes protagonists, they acceded, enhancing the multiplicity of voices and choices.
In essence, the process required a balancing act on several levels. What’s the clue, what’s the glue? It’s in the mix, but no ready-made recipe. There were delicate, if complex, song-and-dance numbers that the protagonists needed to engage in, calling for a good deal of listening skills, not just with their ears. For instance, when we were told, contrary to plans and expectations, that the selected objects could not be made available for the video documentation during the workshops but that we had to go down to the basement and storage rooms, we all had to switch to a different tune. That process involved personal, organizational and logistical re-arrangements on both sides. And how do you manage serendipitous discoveries, like Kate Elamthuruthil and Nael Elagabani did, in search of an object out of their shared fascination with water. They participated in all of the four organized visits, considering variations of water vessels until at one point, they looked up and saw boats moored up high, some hanging from the ceiling. And they asked, what about those? Jani’s immediate response: “Too fragile and they require complex restoration work.” But in the end they got restored and, although, we didn’t intend to highlight an object for the exhibition: the sailboat from Borneo has became a shining star. Another charming object was a miniscule electric Madonna from India, a plastic Mother Mary in a blue mantle, which Alina Serban and Vera Lackova chose because it reminded Alina of cars in Romania that had such an icon as though they were mobile churches or temples; while for Vera, it resonated the black Madonna or Kali Sara/St Sarah of the Roma people. But of course that entailed bureaucratic-technical hurdles: it had to function as a blinking statue inside the vitrine to make the point. And what do you do with Inez Wijngaarde’s question: can I bring my mother’s wooden chair from Surinam, which she would like to donate to the museum? The chair, smartly handcrafted from one piece of wood by artisans who had learned from Ghanaian ancestors, was taken to Holland, where the family had immigrated, a multilayered story, but there were transport issues aside from treatment for bugs! And then, Rafael Neira Wolf, a protagonist with a Mexican background said, “I’ll participate but I want the “Penacho”, symbolizing the crown of Montezuma: I want to deal with what Mexicans have been protesting about; what’s it still doing here?” That question assumed and required removing that fragile object from the permanent exhibition! Upon hearing that Franz Prüller and Itai Margula pointed out that the objects of their choice were likewise being boxed in “permanently privileged” places. The solution of showing photographs of the objects and their references raised questions from visitors at the Lange Nacht der Forschung. In so many ways the curatorial team was constantly challenged to step out of being complacent about the conceptual approach. So I appreciate the way the Weltmuseum Wien staff, under the leadership of Steven Engelsman, Christian Schicklgruber and Claudia Augustat, who had to do what it takes to integrate brains and brawn during the implementation phase of the exhibition, which had become much bigger than originally planned.
We had only positive media coverage: print, radio and TV broadcast plus an Instagram Takeover instigated by Kate and Pri Elamthuruthil and Nael and myself for UrbanNomadMixes. The best compliment came right after the press conference that gave the exhibition an uncompromising praise. Wiener Zeitung journalist Judith Belfkih wrote: Out of the Box was the kind of exhibition that, in the best sense of a quiet exhibition, demands meditative attention and reflective thought; the stories do not lend themselves to fast-and- easy consumption. But that is a rather mild and poor interpretation so I quote her to do justice to what she beautifully wrote in German: Es ist eine stille, eine im besten Sinne nachdenkliche Schau geworden. Im Vorübergehen konsumieren lassen sich die Geschichten nicht. Es braucht Zeit, sie zu erzählen - in Texten, mit Bildern und in Videos. Und es bedarf auch Zeit und Konzentration, sich die mitunter komplexen, mitunter philosophisch-poetischen Überlegungen erzählen zu lassen - und dabei zu den scheinbar abgegriffenen Themen Fremdheit, Heimat und Kultur immer wieder neue Perspektiven zu entdecken.
Reading that verdict justifies my curatorial assumption against all warnings: not to underestimate the interest of people, young or old, in the power of words to stir the imagination and their memories. In the end, our curatorial team decided to give the protagonists more than one-liners and one-minute video clips: they were enabled to create more than twitter texts and each had a 3-minute video clip. And I can also attest to surprising reactions from groups to whom I gave tours and visitors who came with their families and children and refuted the proposition that people no longer read or that young people have a short span of attention and can’t concentrate. Young people and children stayed in front of reading panels and before monitors absorbing the multiple voices. Of course, they wanted to also touch the objects that were physically in vitrines and thus questioned the paradoxical title: what’s out? But that’s another Pandora story.
Apropos, here’s a story to honour 20-year old Tommy Thanawat Thomas, whom Pri and Kate introduced to me. Born in Bangkok and growing in multicultural work environments of his Indian-Thai parents, he came to Vienna for the summer holidays and engaged with the exhibition. Tommy produced a beautiful painting and a comprehensive analytical report on his Out of the Box encounter, which he also presented at the last interactive workshop and public talk at the museum, demonstrating par excellence how he had imbibed a great deal of what it means to be a cultural activist in the spirit of UrbanNomadMixes. More significantly, Tommy wants to transfer what he has learned while working on his Bachelors in the Netherlands and he plans to set up an NGO, perhaps a satellite UrbanNomadMixes, for extra-curricular education of children in Thailand from where his mother hails.
Finally, I want to compliment my co-curators: when I asked them to describe in one word what their experience had been, Doris outrightly said “UrbanNomadMixes” and Jani spontaneously said, “dancing”. I thought of the latter’s interpretation in terms of “the tango” to get us not just anywhere or somewhere, but to a special elsewhere. So each one of us did the dance steps: carefully intervening with strategic, if seemingly idiosyncratic moves. The curators got the museum and the community of UrbanNomadMixes to become committed in getting “out of boxes” while keeping the forms and revising our steps to the tunes and rhythms of bureaucratic and institutional requirements. And it feels good to report that we the curators, Doris, Jani and I, somehow managed to reflect dancing the “tango zu dritt” all the way to the closing Party.
All’s well that ends well, so the saying goes. But for those who hadn’t seen the exhibition, I’d like to bring in what I had written to orient visitors to the exhibition.
“welcome to this special corner where vienna’s worlds mix: a momentary arrangement of homes on the range; a cultural space between longing for where you come from and yearning for an elsewhere; a local brew of views from outsider-insiders looking in…
enter, visit, or linger at your own risk in a bubble of belonging: where 30 vienna settlers have chosen objects with which to perform a reflective dance of diasporic journeys and who invite you to partake of their cocktail as urbannomadmixes…
there is no bar here to concoctions of diasporic mushrooms and dandelion seed puffballs with bloody marys and rebranded benedictines – try alpine trysts for homegrown colonial plantations and imperial dream exoticas – beware of reloads that stir fixed wirings of the cultured mind…
meander along streams of change and jump into love boats that surf over waves of diaspora effects, towards other shores of displacements, where dispersed objects may find subjects that will link-into various delights in new brands of: ur ban no mad mixes and viennas-to-return-to…”