A Permanent Return To The Imaginary 

Of Archeology, Expeditions, Found Objects, Installations

An Approximation of Marco Montiel Soto’s work in Four Stanzas

 

When our tears are dry on the shore
and the fishermen carry their nets home
and the seagulls return to bird island
and the laughter of the children recedes at night,
there shall still linger here the communion we forged,
the feast of oneness which we partook of.
There shall still be the eternal gateman
Who will close the cemetery doors
And send the late mourners away.
It cannot be the music we heard that night
That still lingers in the chambers of memory.
It is the new chorus of our forgotten comrades
And the halleluyahs of our second selves.

Kofi Awoonor (George Awoonor-Williams), Rediscovery

*

To return, one must have a sense of a space and time of departure. For what seems like an eternity, I have argued against the notion of return. At least a return that implies and suggests a simplistic movement backwards to a place one left or one’s forefathers left tens of, hundreds of, thousands of years ago. This because no space and no time stays put for one to return to. Spaces are made up of energies, which indeed are enabled and accommodated by those – animate and inanimate – that occupy such spaces. Which is to say that whenever one leaves a space, so too does the space leave one. The notion of return, as colloquially used, which means going back to a particular geo-spatial space, often produces paradigms like the Israeli occupation of Palestine, or the ‘return’ of former African slaves to Liberia in the 19th century. The consequences of these are common knowledge.

There is a tendency for Africans and Latin Americans who emigrated to Europe or Northern America to study, work or just search for greener pastures to fabulate about the need to return home. Such too is the case with many Africans in the diaspora, whose foremothers and forefathers were violently seized during the infamous Middle Passage, and brought to the so-called New World as dehumanised human resources. Indeed, this tendency can be witnessed in different diaspora communities around the world, that exist in the believe that there is a home they can go back to: the Turkish diaspora in Germany, the Armenian diaspora in Lebanon, the Lebanese diaspora in Brazil, the Mexican diaspora in the USA, the African and Jewish diasporas around the world, the Venezuelan diaspora in Spain. The list is long. This Ernest wish to go back to a place one was born in, grew up in, or where one’s foremothers hailed from is more often that not met with a great deal of disappointment, deception and even violence when one arrives in that promised land. Things have changed, the clock didn’t stop thinking as one had expected it to, babies were born that became grown up men and women, many others died, the economy changed as much as the political dispositions, the promises made by generations of grandparents about the ideal spaces they would return to slowly crumble as the encounter between the returnee and the space of return becomes a reality. Even the weather – once upon a time the only thing one could rely on – is not even as it used to be, or as it was said to be. It has been said that if you want to know about Anatolia you should rather head towards Dortmund, if you want to know about Jamaica head towards Brixton, and if you want to know about Cameroon, Maryland might be a place to begin. This is because diaspora communities tend to become extremely traditionalist and hold to unevolving romanticised notions of a home, that might be long past.  When conversating with some returnees from the return, i.e. those who returned and found themselves completely lost in that space that was promised to them as that anchor point, they recount how they couldn’t find themselves there, how things had changed, how they lost their bearings, how the compass had lost its functionality. 

*

In my early university years in Berlin, the standard small talk conversation with my colleagues in university consisted of two sentences: “where do you come from” and “when will you return.” Besides the insolence that came through these questions, what always shocked me was the preemptiveness of these questions in relation to the notion of return. Return? Whereto, how and why? So I adopted a standard response along the lines: “I do not move backwards. If my journey forward takes me back to where I came from, then so be it.” But this took into consideration the eminent spatial-temporal changes, the imaginative power, the possibility of creating a space anew based on props, references, bits and pieces of what could mean or stand in for that space that one might call the space of return. Which is to say that the notion of return only makes sense if it is the “return to the imaginary.” Which brings me to the work of Marco Montiel Soto, who’s work one might qualify – citing him, but purposefully taking this quote off context – as a “A Permanent Return To The Imaginary.”

But the question at stake is of course how does one craft the imaginary and make it a space of return or how does one convert that space of return into the imaginary space. This to me is the quintessential issue in the practice of Montiel Soto, which he tackles by engaging with, by submerging into, by appropriating processes, methods, technologies, languages of archeology as an artistic practice. In describing his works – the materiality and process – Montiel Soto writes “Expedition, Found Objects, Installation, Archeology.” Which is to say the work is deeply ingrained in the recovery and recomposition of material and immaterial elements of culture as that possibility of re-imagination, reconstruction and repair. Like it is with every archeological practice, the archeology in Montiel Soto’s practice involves surveying to find evidences of the distant and immediate pasts in the presence, excavating them, engages them in a conversation that one could choose to call analysis, then stages them as an installation of found objects, sounds and stories, then mediates them by constructing structures that accommodate the findings, enhance theses findings, contain them or illuminate them towards the beholder. 

In the pursuit of this “Permanent Return To The Imaginary,” Montiel Soto employs and intersects, as well as interjects a multitude of disciplines that deal with the study of human societies, cultures and their development, and human biological and physiological characteristics (anthropology); the study of what characterises different peoples, as well the relations and differences between them (ethnology); the structuring, functioning and social problems of human society (sociology); the systems of faith, devotions and worship of peoples (religion); the study of the physical features of the earth and its atmosphere, and of human activity as it affects and is affected by these, including the distribution of populations and resources and political and economic activities (geography); or the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation in a given society (semiotics). I say interjection as in disruption, as Montiel Soto doesn’t employ or implicate these disciplines literally of frontally, and neither does he engage in any form of study of peoples, rather he approaches all these disciplines tangentially, disrupting their functionalities and aims as means to study, and employs them as means of construction of the imaginary to which one might be able to return to.

As it is with many archeological processes, Montiel Soto negotiates the encounters with physical, psychological, economic and moral ruins and ruination of the postcolony that are omnipresent in our societies from Cameroon to Venezuela and beyond.

*

I got to know Marco Montiel Soto in the very early part of the second decade of the twenty first century. Just a year or so before we met, I had put up an art space in Berlin, SAVVY Contemporary, to which he was invited to participate in a group exhibition curated by Susanne Husse with the title “Looks Familiar.” This was the first peripheral collaboration, but it wasn’t until 2014 that we started working with each other deeply. But along the years from 2011 onwards, we have shared deeper conversations that transcend the relationship between a curator and an artist. These conversations have led to four major artworks within the framework of four exhibitions, which I will like to see as the four stanzas of a poem that is till to be completed.

Stanza I

Memories are made of chance and Mistakes. Archaeology of a journey in Morocco

In 2014, I invited Marco Montiel Soto to be part of a group exhibition in Marrakech, Morocco as part of a collateral exhibition with the title “If You are so smart, why ain’t you rich – on the economy of knowledge” for the Marrakech Biennale. The exhibition was in reference to and reverence of Julius Eastman and his epinomous piece If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich? (1977) for violin, 2 French horns, 4 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, piano, 2 chimes and 2 basses. This exhibition which was co-curated with Pauline Doutreluingne introduced Eastman to 15 young artists from around the world, who were encouraged to deliberate on an economy of knowledge by listening to Eastman. A strange but enriching adventure that was the beginning of a re-listening and resituating of Eastman beyond the epidermal and sexual orientation. For this exhibition, Montiel Soto presented an installation comprising of a map of Morocco, postcards, photographs, bus tickets, stones, money, species, amulets, papers, flutes, drums, notes, sand from the desert, 59:14 min. sound loop. A sort of collage of his archeological findings. The results of the metaphorical digging during his ‘expeditions’ and a jamboree of found objects, sounds, texts and videos. The work is a mental and physical recording of his five visits to Morocco and all the adventures that come with such travels – getting crooked, lost, drugged, being perplexed, recovering, surviving and coming again. After the roughness of the first encounter, the only thing that would permit one to ‘return’ is the possibility of constructing an imaginary to which one can return to. Which is to say, the installation becomes not a representation of that imaginary, but the imaginary itself. 

“The visitor becomes an explorer of this journey, the map is an open archaeology guidebook about these five times in Morocco. The map makes links and works together with sound, found objects, Morocco’s musical instruments, photography and videos. The videos were recorded on the road, on the beach, in the desert, in the city, the Rif Mountains, the Drâa valley, Atlas, Erg Chebbi, Oasis, snakes, monkeys, camels, and donkeys. The visitors have the freedom to walk around the installation and be surrounded by voices and sounds coming from 4 speakers (megaphones). The voice tells the story of this journey in different directions and from different cities, languages, memories, conversations, prayers, storytellers, field recordings, drums, and flutes.”

The visitor is indeed caught up in a memory web and co-journeys through Montiel Soto’s memory lane. The visuals and sounds of the installation form an echo, an almost psychic and psychodelic encounter. “Alongside these memories, the visitors experience a diffused and dissected voyage, metaphors for the continuous personal-social movement, paranoia, where true and false memories circulate legitimized in this journey.”

Stanza II

Spell for a few crocodile tears

In 2016, I curated an exhibition titled “The Incantation of the Disquieting Muse – On Divinity, Parallel- and Supra-realities or the Exorcisement of ‘Witchery’” at SAVVY Contemporary. This exhibition, co-curated by Elena Agudio, explored the possibility of looking at ‘witchery’, its idioms, proverbs, metaphors, symbols, chants and otherwise expressions as manifestations of cultural, economical, political, historical, medical, technological or scientific infrastructures on which present parallel realities are built, and on which futures can be built. The project was not to give answers, but rather to pose critical questions that could create new spaces of understanding. The project looked at ‘witchery’ as an epistemological space and a possible medium of historical, spiritual/ religious, scientific and cultural continuity, as well as aimed at using the prism of art and discourse to liberate and exorcise ‘witchcraft’ from that space of the ‘savage slot’, and cleanse it from the pejorative associations in which it has been confined and bondaged for centuries by perpetrators of the monotheistic religions and the ‘science’ of anthropology.

For this exhibition, Montiel Soto proposed an installation of various objects like candles, stones, skulls, sounds, bamboos, dry coconut palms, feathers, images and stuffed animals. Again, the installation seemed like the reassemblage of the findings from an archeological scene or the autopsy of history. Again various mediums of sculpturality, videos and sounds converged to recount the genealogy of how a space transformed, as if he were to say that if one were to return one would have to deal with these histories of politics and spiritualities. There can never be a return to the Caracas of Bolivar, nor to the Caracas of Chavez. But to imagine the imaginary of the present and the future Caracas, one must face the visible and invisible powers that have transformed that space in time.

““It is my will: that after my death, my remains rest in the city of Caracas, my homeland” – Testament of Simón Bolívar. Simón Bolivar wrote his testament at the age of 47, some days before he died of tuberculosis on 17 December 1830, in Santa Marta, Colombia. His remains were buried in the cathedral of Santa Marta and twelve years later in 1842, as Bolivar wished, they were moved to Caracas, where a mausoleum was built in the National Pantheon of Venezuela. In 2008, Hugo Chávez set up a commission to investigate theories that Bolívar was the victim of a poisoning assassination with arsenic. On Friday, 16 July 2010 after midnight and without announcement, a team of fifty people – soldiers, forensic specialists and presidential entourage – entered the National Pantheon in Caracas, wearing masks and white outfits, as astronaut-like suits. The skeleton was pulled apart, pieces such as teeth and bone fragments were removed to analyze. As insomniacs with dropped jaws, people followed the exhumation live streamed on state television. By presidential decree, every TV channel in Venezuela had to show images of Chávez, Bolívar historical paintings and the skeleton, with the national anthem as a soundtrack for a macabre parody. Illnesses and accidents under strange circumstances happened to the ones who took part in the exhumation, at least to six of them, including Chávez. Spell for a few crocodile tears is a ritual by itself, where myth, sacrilege, profanation, babalawo, politics, black magic, bread and circuses are twisted. A precarious mausoleum containing objects, candles, stones, skulls, sounds, bamboos, feathers, images and stuffed animals. Crocodile tears (or superficial sympathy) are a false, insincere display of emotion such as a hypocrite crying fake tears of grief. The phrase derives from an ancient belief that crocodiles shed tears while consuming their prey. While crocodiles do have tear ducts, they weep to lubricate their eyes, typically when they have been out of water for a long time and their eyes begin to dry out. However, evidence suggests this can also be triggered by feeding.”

Stanza III

Permanent storm for a tropical constellation

In 2017, I curated an exhibition with the title “The Conundrum of Imagination: On the Paradigm of Exploration and Discovery” for Wiener Festwochen, Leopold Museum and Performeum in Vienna, Austria. The research and exhibition project was a deliberation on the ‘European Age of Discovery’. Of all the waves of explorations known in history, the most striking of all, most productive and enriching for some and at the same time most devastating of all ‘exploration ages’ was the ‘European Age of Discovery’. The stories of the European explorers that charted the world from the early 14th to 19th centuries in their discovery spree have been told and retold. Their praises of how they ‘discovered’ lands and waters, how they were the first to crest mountains and their contributions in the natural sciences and geography have been sung. Accolades have been given to the 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 this project was an effort to reflect on the other consequences of this Age of Exploration, beyond the advantages evident from the European vantage point of the axis of power. The Conundrum of Imagination went granular on the paradigm of exploration and discovery as an empirical system. It explored humanity’s insatiable desire for wealth that goes beyond the proverbial searching for and sharing of greener pastures but rather a matter of possessing and depriving others of those pastures. The Conundrum of Imagination examined continuities of the notion of exploration from its earliest days into the contemporary age. The project, co-curated by Pauline Doutreluingne, took up James Baldwin’s question: What if the explorers had been discovered by the people they found instead of the other way round?

Montiel Soto’s contribution to this exhibition has been the most elaborated and sophisticated in the history of our collaborations – architecturally, archaeologically, narratively, as well as in terms of historical research. This complex architectural structure of wood, bamboo, water, lights, sound, videos, photographs, objects, hammock, coconuts, maps took its cue from a mythical, almost mystical space called El Congo, Venezuela. It is common knowledge that Venezuela was a destination for many of the people that were taken from the Congo and made slaves during the Middle Passage. It is rumoured that when some of them disembarked the boats in Venezuela, they thought they had ‘returned’ to Congo, as that space much reminded them of the vicinity of the Congo river. And in addition to that visual similarity, that space in the New World was haunted by lightnings and thunders just as much as they had known it in Congo. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center declared Lake of Maracaibo, Venezuela as the Earth’s new lightning capital with an average rate of about 233 flashes per square kilometer per year, an accolade that had been previously carried by the Congo Basin in central Africa.  The installation “Permanent storm for a tropical constellation” was the result of an expedition by boat that Montiel Soto did from Neu Nurnberg to El Congo, via the Lake of Maracaibo. The installation was a materialisation of the notion exploration, and the ‘explorer’ brought back with him as knowledges, languages, cultures, traditions, architectures, gods, histories, musics, fairytales and myths around the Catatumbo Lightning. There is a self criticality in the work as the artist tries to perceive the world through his prism. The prism of a Venezuelan who comes from a space more privileged than. Others, who’s name reveals a certain history entangled with the history of colonialism, but at the same time entangled in the fuckedupness of the postcolonial realities of the Caribbeans and Latin Americas in general. 

The installation waxes a narrative of the descendants of the peoples who had been brought here in search of Black Gold. Lake Maracaibo is the largest lake in South America and considered as one of the oldest lakes on Earth. Thus the lake is full of oil, that Black Gold that was once a blessing and now a curse for Venezuela. The installation relives the phenomenon of “Relámpago del Catatumbo” or Catatumbo lightning that occurs at the mouth of the Catatumbo River where it flows into the Lake Maracaibo.

Stanza IV

The origin of everything: von Tropische tieflande zum ewigen schnee

Our most recent collaboration has been for Documenta 14’s sound and radiophonic programme . “Every Time A Ear Di Soun- On the Historicality of the Audible and the Embodiment of Sound-Space”in Athens and Kassel, 2017. “Every Time A Ear Di Soun” explored sonority and auditory phenomena such as voice, sound, music and speech as a medium to write counter-hegemonic histories. It reflected on how the sonic impacts subjectivities and spaces, especially through the medium of the radio, and was accompanied by live-acts in which issues on the phenomenology of the sonorous, the sonic as medium for historical narration, Frantz Fanon’s concept of radio as medium of resistance as described in This is the voice of Algeria, Rudolf Arnheim’s Imagery of the Ear in Radio and many others were tackled in and through speech, sound and music. “Every Time A Ear Di Soun,” co-curated with Marcus Gammel, also explored the possibility of understanding orality and embodiment through auditory phenomena as a means of sharing knowledge and archiving memory in/on a moving and vulnerable body that exists within a specific time and spatial context. The project aimed at deliberating on the embodiment of sound, as well as how sound creates and accommodates psychic and physical spaces, but also how through sound a synchronicity emerges and reigns between bodies, places, spaces, and histories. At the same time, it attempted to give space to alternative narrations, out of the necessity, as James Baldwin stated, not only “to redeem a history unwritten and despised, but to checkmate the European notion of the world. For until this hour, when we speak of history, we are speaking only of how Europe saw – and sees – the world.“

For Montiel Soto’s contribution “The origin of everything: von Tropische tieflande zum ewigen Schnee” he wrote:

“A dog barks in the park, a beggar asks for money after sticking his head with a mirror, girls sell underpants of all sizes, street vendors screams to sell peanuts, books, chocolates, headphones, balls, key chains, coconuts, umbrellas, lotions, movies, lottery, fruits, fish and cd’s of the Bible narrated by Enrique Rocha. Musicians play different melodies, people ask for money, cars fights with a bus orchestra, horns, bids and parrots Pancho and Pepe talk and laugh. Nuestro Insólito Universo plays on the radio, Porfirio Torres narrates about strange things with a dramatic chicken skin voice while story tellers talk about the galaxy, gods and politics. These are part of an archive of sounds recorded between 2013 – 2017 in the streets, airports and underground transports in Mexico, Venezuela, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. All these sound fields are mixed with voices, drums, flutes, maracas and other native musical instruments collected as well, during expedition in these countries. The creole sound composition “The origin of everything: von Tropische tieflande zum ewigen schnee”, is an open mapping to different popular oral cultures in the streets of Latin America, a free puzzle cartography that encompasses archeology of knowledge, chaos and cosmos.”

*

I guess what I have been trying to do is to think loud of what makes up the professional relation and friendship with and to an artist who in his biography writes “Marco Montiel-Soto (1976, Maracaibo,Venezuela), emigrant and permanent traveller, constantly finds himself returning; returning to his home in Maracaibo, or from there returning to his chosen home in Berlin. The starting point and goal of his journey becomes imaginary. Those are the artist’s dream locations that melt into one another.” 

Geographical spaces become space holders for the imaginary, which is the actual point of departure and the destination. Between those ends of beginning point and endpoint, the artist engages in the excavation of lost or parallel worlds, unpacking of meanings hidden or too omnipresent that they can no longer be seen. Between those two ends Montiel Soto finds himself in the business of materialising that which has been made invisible, or that which is about to vanish, as he reconstructs the worlds that are mere imaginaries. In the four aforementioned stanzas, one notices that one of the consequences of the archeological process is that the artworks engulf the visitor and provoke one to rethink about understandings of object and objecthood, materiality and textuality, as one becomes material and text. The collection of artefacts, sounds, data, stories, lives, myths and mysteries. The formulation of biographies of things, images, places, postcards, superstitions. Editing and re-editing. And composing them to face the encounter of the gaze. These all are the processes of facilitating the permanent return to the imaginary.

So while everything changes and will continue to change, “There shall still be the eternal gateman/ Who will close the cemetery doors/ And send the late mourners away.”

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, 2019

this text was originally written for a Marco Montiel-soto´s CAAM publication.

 

1. from work description on the artist’s webpage

2. ibid 1

3. ibid 1

4. Mutabaruka, song title of dub poetry, 1981

5. James Baldwin (1979) “Of the Sorrow Songs: The Cross of Redemption.”, in: The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, Vintage, 2011.