In his landmark book Local Histories, Global Designs, Walter Mignolo put forward the idea of postcoloniality as a point of connection between a diversity of local histories, in the face of a global project that has established Western history as universal history and 'global design'. As Luis Camnitzer has rightly pointed out "Imperialism is no more than provincialism with bullying power"1. In the framework of the L'internationale project The Uses of Art, Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid has recently opened the exhibition Really useful knowledge curated by the Croatian collective WHW. In the words of the curatorial group, the exhibition employs strategies that seek to "deconstruct the 'common knowledge' and hegemonic views on history, art, gender, race and class." WHW proposed an overall diagram of political art, made up of 'local histories' that wants to be told through the work of over thirty artists and collectives. Many of these are based on strategies located in the contexts that generated them, as a means of subverting normative subjectivity and at the same time connecting the sites of production with the long colonial histories that cut across them.
This is certainly the case with Catarina Simão, whose work The Mozambique Institute Project (2014) aims to activate Portuguese colonial history and decolonisation. The same can be said of Brook Andrew's Splinters of Monuments: A Solid memory of the Forgotten Plains of our Trash and Obsessions (2014). In 1992 Fred Wilson used the collection of the Maryland Historical Society in his famous work Mining the Museum as an indictment of the history of slavery in the region, and Andrew goes a step further in this strategy of artistic appropriation of archives and collections that began in the early nineties. In this case, he mixes his own personal archive on British colonialism and racism in Australia with material from Spanish collections, creating links between these documents and the imaginaries around Indians, Arabs and Blacks in Spain, which were exalted during Franco's dictatorship. Meanwhile, in Nation-State II (2014), Daniela Ortiz activates the continuing presence of coloniality in Spain by focusing on the exclusion that we migrants live today. To this end, she presents a video in which Palestinian refugee artist Firas Shehadeh learns Spanish by repeating racist declarations of Spanish politicians in the media, along with a critical guide to passing the test for integration into Spanish society.
Although these recent projects take the form of interventions situated in the present, the exhibition also includes a series of historical projects in which images played a political role. This includes projects such as the art of the Partisan resistance following World War II for example, exhibited in the format proposed by Modern Galerija in Ljubljana, as well as Emory Douglas and the Black Panther Party (1966-1982), which are shown opposite each other in the same room, along with works by Miladen Stilinovic, Darcy Lange and Hannah Ryggen. In these examples, the problem of the place and the time of enunciation is erased, in as far as the projects are decontextualised. The same can be said in the case of Cecilia Vicuña's video What is Poetry to You? (1980), which is displayed without acknowledgement of the contextual conditions of Bogota in the late seventies and early eighties as the field of operation of the artist's poetic-political action. The exhibition thus dilutes the density of some of the frameworks of repression and resistance in which many of the practices operate or operated, in sharp contrast to other exhibition projects such as Losing the Human Form. A Seismic Image of the 1980s in Latin America (2013). Instead, the curators focus on the political effect of the iconic image in an arbitrary selection of supposedly political art, based on the original meaning of the word propaganda: that which is to be said.
The exhibition illustrates the difficulty of coming to terms with local histories and processes through a global design of subversive knowledge, as we have seen before with other projects such as Global conceptualism (1999) and Global feminism (2007). The mediation work by the collective Subtramas aims to alleviate this problem, as does the expansion beyond the exhibition space with the seminar Degenerated Political Art. Ethical Protocol by Núria Güell and Levi Orta, which debated the gesture of subverting the logic of capital using its own means in the current political context in Spain. Meanwhile, Subtramas (Diego del Pozo, Montse Romaní and Virginia Villaplana) worked with the Museum's education department to design a series of Public Actions for Really Useful Knowledge. Through four itineraries based on questions such as What do Images Activate Politically? they invited local groups to take part, including the squatted social centre El patio maravillas, the collaborative film group Cine sin autor, the research platform Penínusla, the social movement of health professionals Marea Blanca de Madrid, and the collective of migrant domestic workers Territorio Doméstico, to name some of the almost twenty collectives invited. The idea is to activate at the local level the relevance of certain global problems that the exhibition aims to confront.
An unexpected activation of the exhibition was the uproar over the work of Argentinean collective Mujeres Públicas, when Christian law associations and individual believers accused the museum of providing a space for criticism of the Church as an institution, and particularly of its active role in having a say over women's bodies and their freedom to have an abortion. The media sensationalism that surrounded the project simply confirms its relevance in today's Spain, where the government has attempted to limit women's freedom to decide. The Mujeres Públicas project stoked the local debate within the framework of a series of activist practices in public space that take place in contexts such as Bolivia, Argentina and Chile, where the conditions in regard to abortion are extremely precarious. While the University Collective of Sexual Dissidence has carried out a series of actions in recent years under the slogan 'the right not to be born', in Bolivia, Mujeres Creando has produced, among other things, the project Space in which to Abort presented at the last Sao Paulo Art Biennial.
At around the same time as Really Useful Knowledge, the collective Declinación Magnética, which Diego del Pozo also belongs to, opened the exhibition Until Lions have their own Historians.... which consists of two projects that confront the colonial past and the capitalist present by revealing their roles as generators of disposable lives and stories. They did so performatively by drawing attention to the narratives of the conquest of America in the work Margin of Error, and in the culinary sphere, they joined Baba au Rhum to recover the disposable, cooptable stories of American food in the performance Les aliments refuses which took place a few days after the opening.
Declinación Magnética distorts the disciplinary logic stemming from the Enlightenment and colonialism, which established the division and specialisation of knowledge and practices. As the role of artist in the nineteenth century was being shaped and curtailed, anthropology was emerging as the discipline for cataloguing and controlling other bodies. Declinación Magnética breaks away from this structure and dissolves the roles of artist, curator, producer and historian among all its members when they embark on collective artistic production and research.
Without intending to, Until Lions have their own Historians... counters Really Useful Knowledge with a locally situated response to the global issue of the continuing existence of colonial processes and certain forms of resistance to contemporary capitalism rooted in historical and current policies of the Spanish state. The selection of videos from different contexts in the installation Vencejo/ley/film opens up the specifically Spanish debate to other places in which collective subjectivation is activated by means of creative, public forms of imagination and political protest. It is a kind of local history that does not rely on a global design as a strategy for exercising power, and instead analyses a specific context in order to shed light on connections that may exist beyond it.
In this sense, locally situated actions –such as those by Declinación Magnética and by the artists who produced new work for Really Useful Knowledge (Catarina Simão, Daniela Ortiz, Núria Güell and Levi Orta, Brook Andrew and Subtramas), and the urgency and relevance of work such as the project by Mujeres Públicas, can genuinely activate critical, useful power in particular contexts of enunciation. Localised critical actions contain the power of thought and the power to appropriate the fragility and vulnerability generated by global necropolitical and neocolonial devices that operate in specific contexts of enunciation, so as to bring about shifts that can alter our everyday colonial unconscious. As Beatriz Marcos Preciado says, it is through fragility that the revolution operates. A revolution with a usefulness that touches the bodily and intersubjective levels of those who dwell in the hierarchical memories of the global system.
Translated by Nuria Rodríguez