The Conundrum of Imagination

curated by Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung; co-curated by Pauline Doutreluingne

On the Paradigm of Exploration and Discovery

© William Hogarth, Das Ei des Kolumbus, 1752, Kupferstich
© Ahmet Öğüt
© Abraham Oghobase
© Jean-Pierre Bekolo
© Filipa César
© Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc © Courtesy gallery Marcelle Alix & the artist
© John Akomfrah © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery
© Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa
© Viron Erol Vert
© Ho Rui An © Hideto Maezawa
© Ines Doujak
© Cooperativa Cráter Invertido © Pauline Doutreluingne
© Pascale Marthine Tayou
© Dineo Seshee Bopape © Hordeland Kunstsenter
© Marco Montiel-Soto
© Melanie Bonajo
© The Chronist (c) Viron Erol Vert
The 2017 Festwochen exhibition includes 16 artistic positions at the following locations: the Performeum (the new temporary performance museum of the Wiener Festwochen) at the main railway station in the 10th district; the Leopold Museum; and the urban space. In addition to the commissioned works of visual art, all 16 artists and artist groups will contribute performances and lectures to The Conundrum of Imagination, casting an unusual, post-colonial glance at the “European Age of Discoveries.” 

*Imagination creates the
situation, and, then, the
situation creates

It may, of course,
be the other way around:
Columbus was discovered
by what he found.

James Baldwin, Imagination

Introduction by Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung

 When the legendary Jamaican reggae musician Burning Spear dropped the album Hail H.I.M. in 1982, it landed like a bomb. This was in part because of Columbus, a track in which he almost insolently chanted "Christopher Columbus is a damn blasted liar". An accusation which calls for a second look. Of course, Burning Spear was referring to the conundrum regarding Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America. This dispute has existed since time immemorial, or at least since Columbus set his foot on what he mistakenly thought was India.
In the popular lore of Columbus and the egg, it is said that some people at an eminent dinner challenged Columbus about the simplicity of his discovery of America. As a response Columbus passed around an egg and asked those challenging and mocking at him if any of them could make the egg stand on end? When all of them failed, Columbus took the egg, struck one end of it gently on the table, thereby breaking and flattening the shell a little, and made the egg stand upright. Then he said: "Gentlemen, what is easier than to do this which you said was impossible? It is the simplest thing in the world. Anybody can do it – after he has been shown how!"
Whether this anecdote as narrated by historian Girolamo Benzoni in his 1565 book History of the New World is truth or fiction is rather irrelevant. The brilliance Columbus showed in silencing his opponents is exceptional and insightful, as is the simplicity and the problematics behind the concept of discovery. 
But one thing at a time …

 Of all the waves of exploration known in history – from the Carthaginian in West Africa in 500 BC, the Greeks’ ventures in Northern Europe around 380–310 BC, the Han dynasty’s exploration of most of Central Asia in the 2nd century BC, through to the Vikings exploring most of Europe and setting foot in America from around 800–1040 AD, the Polynesian exploration of the Central and South Pacific until 1280, and the Chinese exploration of Southeast and South Asia as well as the East African coast in the 14th century – the most striking of all exploration ages, the most productive and enriching for some and at the same time most devastating of all for others, was what has been coined the “European Age of Discovery”.
The stories of the European explorers who charted the world from the early 14th to the 19th century during 
their discovery spree – from Columbus to Humboldt, Cao to Cook, from Dias, Da Gama and Magellan to Vespucci, Tasman and Bering – have been told and retold. Their praises have been sung: how they “discovered” lands and waters, vertebrates and invertebrates, how they were the first to crest mountains, and their contributions to the natural sciences and geography. Accolades have been given to these explorers for setting trade routes between continents, which they ploughed with the three Gs at the forefront of their minds: Gold, God and Glory.
 So, while the “European Age of Exploration” is still highly celebrated in most parts of the world – with countries, cities, rivers, animals and plants still carrying the names of its main protagonists – and with countries setting up cultural and political agendas and institutions in reverence and commemoration of these explorers, it is important to reflect on the other consequences of this Age of Exploration, beyond 
the advantages evident from the European perspective or viewpoint of the axis of power.

Gold … 
 In the midst of an economic stalemate in Europe due to the then disputed Mediterranean and the perilous Arabian Peninsula that hindered trade with Asia, European kings had ushered explorers onto the high seas to find alternative ways to get to the sources of gold, spices and other resources. This opened the way for an age of global capitalism and imperialism. It goes without saying that every piece of gold or other resource taken back to Europe from the countries just “discovered” was one piece less for the owners. Apart from an uneven economic structure built on exploitation, these expeditions led to the initiation of the transatlantic slave trade as unpaid labour for European- owned plantations. The economic models set up then are still
preeminent today.

God … 
An important part of the “companhia” of conquistadors was the clergymen who accompanied the soldiers and who came with a firearm in one hand and a bible in the other. 
While evangelising and securing religious territory for the Pope and the kings back in Europe were more of an excuse to obtain support for their trips, these expeditions led to the eradication of indigenous religions and cultures in their bid to impose their monotheistic Christian religion on the world. They went as far as not only forcefully converting natives to Christianity, but as stipulated e.g. under Castilian law, prohibited non-Catholics from dwelling in captured territory and thereby prompting a Hispanicisation and Catholicisation of the whole territory. 

Glory … 
 An accumulation of wealth and territory, a superimposition of your civilisation, cultures and religions, a propagation of your epistemologies and thereby destruction of other knowledge systems is nothing if it is not recognised and glorified. It is said that one of the most important power installation mechanisms is the 
act of naming. Thus, by naming countries, cities, insects, plants, animals and mountains with the 
likes of Humboldt, Magellan, Tasman, Bering and Cook, their glories live on. At the time of the European Age of Discovery, the newly invented and popularised medium of writing came in handy in the dissemination of the explorers’ claims of discovery, their righteous deeds and the knowledge they had acquired. Needless to 
say, a good part of the knowledge propagated might not have been utterly true, and this was a foundation of the savage slot and epistemic violence that was later officially adopted in the curriculum under the name of Anthropology. Writing and distributing the book helped Amerigo Vespucci give the impression to the world that he had actually discovered America, although he got there after Columbus, the Vikings and especially the natives, who, one would think, had already discovered their lands long before. 
Such was the case too when Humboldt spread the information that he had been the first to climbChimborazo mountain. This was strange, as knowledge of that mountain had been part and parcel of myths and knowledge systems of the Ecuadorian people since time immemorial. 
Glory also came on both sides of the Atlantic as explorers were either feared as gods in the conquered land or honoured as great knights, scientists and visionaries in their homeland.

 All these came along with the spreading of diseases that were imported into the conquered territories, an obliteration of native civilisations, cultures and languages, of peoples, and paving the way for colonialism.
 Interestingly, the notion of exploration and discovery, not only in strategy but also in vocabulary and actions, was imported from the European Age of Exploration into space expeditions of the 20th century, as exemplified by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s planting of the American flag on the moon in July 1969. Once more, in space exploration there is the hope to acquire new knowledge about newly discovered territories, to find some precious minerals or living creatures or some other salient discoveries and satisfy the human desire for adventure. 
 The exhibition project The Conundrum of Imagination aims at exploring the paradigm of exploration and discovery as an empirical system. The project is not about pointing the finger at anyone, not about Columbus nor Humboldt nor any of their peers, but rather about humanity’s insatiable desire for wealth that goes beyond the proverbial searching for and sharing of greener pastures, but rather possessing and depriving others of those pastures. The exhibition will investigate humanity’s endless quest for knowledge as revealed in the concept of exploration and discovery, but also the tendency to foster certain epistemological 
systems and suppress others through selection mechanisms. The project gets granular on religion and culture as tools for the crafting of identities within societies, but as weapons for the construction of the other and similar utensils for suppression. The exhibition seeks to situate the concept of exploration and discovery within a genealogy of academic disciplines, e.g. anthropology. The Conundrum of Imagination aims to 
investigate continuities of the notion of exploration from its earliest days into the contemporary age. The project looks at the internet as a contemporary terrain for exploration, where the same laws of the three Gs are applicable, as terrain is secured on the internet in form of domains, and how the scramble for gold in the El Dorados of then are equivalent to the financial booms in the age of the internet, social media and APPs, and most especially how everyone using Internet Explorer or other browsers becomes an explorer of the internet worthy of fame and glory. 
 The project picks up on James Baldwin’s question: what if the explorers were actually discovered by what they found and not the other way around? The project is about the human psyche and the predicaments that our minds set us up in when the »conundrum of the imagination dictates, discovers, or can dismember what we feel, or what we find«, as is the case with the concept of exploration.

Epilogue by Pauline Doutreluingne 

 Imagination offers space to unravel life and look for new forms of seeing and thinking. Imagination is elusive and can be experienced, interpreted and appreciated in different ways. Just like dreaming, imagination 
can be used as a resistance strategy. 
Imagination has a squealing effect when it turns into paranoia. Paranoias have often been used as a political tool for the expansion of power structures and supremacies. This exhibition delves deep into the 
quintessence of the conundrum of imagination. 
How are the (hi)stories told on the other side of the hegemony? 
The project zooms into fragments of lost knowledge, forgotten dreams, oppression, traumas, resistance and empowerment in places like Malinalco, Mexico City, Guatemala, Maracaibo, El Congo, New Nuremberg, 
Singapore, Nigeria, Cameroon, Guinea-Bissau, Congo, Dogon villages, Mali, the Kingdom of Ndongo, the Bijagos Islands, Angola, the Kingdom of Kongo, Mbwila, South Africa, Brazil, the Mediterranean, England, French Guiana, Suriname and the Internet.
History does not only belong to the past. These stories resonate in the present. Our views to date have been largely influenced by the travel diaries and conquest memorabilia of the European explorers since 
the 16th century. The medium of film, represented by Hollywood and the dominant Western education system staged the white conqueror, the white missionary and the white teacher as the heroes of our “successful” Western society, keeping the white supremacy and the image of the racial divide neatly in place. The power structures that were set up centuries ago, with violence, suppression, the spread of diseases and paranoia, still largely remain and have left their marks in the collective memory. 
 When technology progresses so fast, why does the imagination of mankind foster so few new political ideas? Why is the world reverting to old models that create dividedness instead of unity? 
The sixteen artists invited to make new works based on this theme expose the human psyche. They remind us that history and inventions such as colonialism embody different perspectives and long-lasting 
consequences. »Amnesia is a constant sea. We swim in it all the time«, states filmmaker John Akomfrah. Therefore, he looks at the historical to come to a balance. Fragments come together. The image is one of the ways in which mortality is enshrined in our consciousness. 
The representation of the “other” has been a conundrum of our imagination for centuries, and this still affects the current political and social arena. The journals Stanley wrote for King Leopold of Belgium or the 
British East India Company at the end of the 19th century still inform the image of Africa today. 
How come migrants today are suddenly called cockroaches?? 

Some of the artists, such as Ines Doujak, Ho Rui An and OPAVIVARÁ!, focus on the theme of the body itself, how the porous cells and colours of the skin were politicised, categorised and (mis)used. The works attempt to give the “disenchanted” body back its vital force and make it dance with other species. Others, like Pascale Marthine Tayou, Cooperativa Cráter Invertido and Viron Erol Vert, bring lost cultural identities back to life and reject the dominant ways of thinking, which act ubiquitously on us through the media and the devouring capitalist system. 
In this exhibition project, a multitude of perspectives shine light on this human invention called colonialism and examine the European Age of Exploration, looking at the three Gs that were the focus of such enterprises: Gold, God and Glory. The project situates itself in our day and age by looking at the impact and echoes of the Age of Exploration in the world today, but also by analysing expanded forms of exploration and the rhetoric thereof e.g. Internet explorer.

*How do we solve the conundrum? 

one must learn to trust
one’s terror:
the holding on
the letting go
is error:
the lightning has no choice,
the whirlwind has one voice. 

Excerpt from James Baldwin, Conundrum 

*Poems by James Baldwin excerpted from JIMMY’S BLUES AND OTHER POEMS, © 2014 by the James Baldwin Estate. Used by permission.

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