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A few days prior to the newest Covid “mini”-lockdown, we opened a new exhibition. The show “Posted! Reflections of Indigenous North America” is hosted by galerie KUB and jointly organized by Grassi Museum / State Ethnographic Collections Saxony and Karl-May-Museum Radebeul. The exhibit was designed by students of Ethnology and Curatorial Studies at Goethe University Frankfurt/Main. It presents posters from the US and Canada, either made by/for Indigenous communities, or directed at them, covering the period from the 1970s until today. The topics range from election posters, powwow and art show posters, to posters from information campaigns on public health, social issues, or the US census.
We are glad about this project for several reasons. We wanted to increase our collaboration with universities and give students better access to practical work at the museum. “Posted!” not only helps give the Frankfurt students’ work better visibility, it also helps us devise our own student projects. This leads to the next factor: As we are working to improve our museums’ networks with civil society and players in local culture, the arts, and civic engagement, working with galerie KUB helps prepare the ground for future projects with students and civil associations.
The current lockdown put events around the show on hold, but we have already started a school project with an English course at the nearby Kant Gymnasium high school that will interpret the posters and develop their own presentations on topics discussed in the show. Once the lockdown is lifted, we also hope to provide guided tours that had to be postponed for now. The tours will offer general information on Indigenous North America and on the exhibit, but there are also special themes, such as Indigenous politics and the 2020 presidential election in the US, or social issues, public health, and the Covid crisis.
In early May, I was invited to participate in the symposium “The Art of Misdirection,” discussing the exhibition “Present Continuous” of Berlin-based Israeli video artist Omer Fast at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, UK. Many of the works exhibited here tackled issues relevant for my project on war experience, discussing the struggles of homecoming and reintegration, but also moral implications of warfare, and guilt.
As the Guardian‘s review of the exhibition states, Fast’s works warn us over and over “that the world is not to be trusted.” Films like his 5000 Feet is the Best (based on Fast’s interview with a US Predator drone pilot) subvert genre conventions: they suggest ‘authenticity’ and ‘truth’ in their gestures toward the documentary mode but insert orator’s tangents and flashbacks, time loops, and obviously veer into fiction at times, making the observer wonder if the interviewees and/or the filmmaker are lying to us, and why. It didn’t help here that I recognized the actor representing the drone pilot, Denis O’Hare, from the TV series True Blood, where he played the vampire Russell Edgington, a particularly untrustworthy character.
In A Tank Translated, the crew of an Israeli tank share their experience about fighting in the conflict with Palestine. Lighting, the positioning of the interviewees, the sequence of questions and answers, all suggest an oral history documentary, until the English subtitles subtly begin to take on a life of their own: words disappear or change, often altering or even contradicting the meaning of what was just said.
I was fascinated and confused by this blurring of genres. My researcher self longed for the documentary mode, to be able to trust the films as sources (as far as oral history can be trusted as a historical source in the first place), and take home more information on how war experience can be narrated. Yet, I also enjoyed how the films played with the viewer, and how their rejection of genre conventions visualized not only possible renditions of traumatic war experience, but also hinted at a veteran’s struggle to talk to a stranger about his experience, the decision on whether or not to be truthful, and what repercussions one’s personal tale might have―on one’s reputation, one’s sense of self, or on the public imagination and memory of that particular conflict.
The Symposium’s contributions marked a truly trans-disciplinary approach to Fast’s work. While I contextualized it with my take of milblogs as a form of ceremonial storytelling, other scholars approached it via historical perspectives on visual artists as military spies, via trauma studies in literary theory, via critical observations on militarization in urban studies, or historians’ efforts to protect cultural heritage sites in conflict zones.