Thursday, July 14, 2011

Ann Stoler: Ruin | To Ruin | Ruination

Ann Stoler at JWTC


Ann Stoler’s presentation was a provocative and inspiring invitation to open the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism for 2011. She addressed the problem of the tangible as an aesthetical and political possibility to activate postcolonial thinking in the present.

The dialectical structure between materiality and the psychic condition, which Benjamin sets on the ruin, allows Stoler to re-think the conditions of possibility of temporality and spatiality of the colony and the imperial forms of domination.

If the ruin stands as a tangible form that activates the past in the present, to open the question of potential futures, maybe the ruin, as a remain of the past, can be a setting to locate the relationship between the colonial past and the imperial present in a way that it re-activates postcolonial thought in the blind spots that resist thought.

Stoler shifts the benjaminian argument of the ruin as a form of the critique of modernity - the object that condenses the promise and the failure in a dialectical image - to the possibility for a present critique of the colonial past. The vocabulary that Stoler proposes seeks to generate other articulations between persons and objects to explore the different folds that systems of domination create and that, most of the time, remain hidden. If domination is not always tangible or visible (as visibility is also a political condition), we must search elsewhere, and the ruin opens a wide spectre of possibilities.

Beyond the benjaminian vocabulary, in Stoler’s invitation, the ruin becomes more than a noun and takes the role of a violent verb – to ruin— that creates other temporalities that allow us to think of history as a process that remains on time and where the effects and affects still create the configuration of the sensible. Ruination becomes then a possibility and an invitation to re-think the past in the present as a rotten materiality that needs to be explored in order to activate a potential future.

Perhaps, in order to activate postcolonial critical thought, going beyond disciplines is needed and searching in the tangible, in the specific form that emerges in the surface, as a trace or a witness, to collapse temporality and opens up the possibility of time and the creation of other subjectivities.

Stoler’s talk resonates in very different fields. It is interesting to think how this question of the ruin, as tangible materiality, has been working as a critical device to dislocate historical discourses. Art practice is one form of experience that has been working around this site of temporalities, allowing the sensible to emerge as a political form. Some contemporary art practices, which follow the radical avant-garde traditions, keep searching for those blind spots to create a tension between visibility and invisibility in the form of the aesthetical experience.


This is an exploration that does not pretend to be an example or a case but only a specific site to locate potential lines that might create a constellation with Stoler’s invitation. The ruin can be addressed, not as a monumentm but as a site where the uncanny emerges in the surface and collapse time, experimentations that, in the form of the work of art, allows us to have an experience of the tangible. Teatro Ojo is a Mexican collective that has been working on activate this uncanny spaces to dislocate official narratives and temporalities.


To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious. Walter Benjamin, On the concept of History.

Teatro Ojo is an artistic exercise that overflows disciplines, contaminating public spaces with a practice that seems to go against the current of artistic tendencies in Mexico. In a circle that privileges the modern tradition of artistic disciplines, still searching for autonomy and the fetish, Teatro Ojo comes out of the theatre and works in terms of the stage, like narrative unities with a spatial character that dislocate temporality to make way for the past to come. They also renounce artistic practice that intervenes as a relational exercise in order to conjure and create nonexistent relationships to invoke some kind of reconciliation. Rather, they approach art in a poetics of chance and contingency, they intervene without having any ultimate goal and without looking for an object that would materialize their process in a work of art. A theater-less theater and an objectless art, Teatro Ojo renews artistic practice by an experimentation that allows for a search for those fissures through which the instant slips in, hitting us like a profane enlightenment and letting a sort of estrangement surge forth, wherein daydreams begin to collapse. As actions devoid of spectacle, their work is almost imperceptible. They work in uncanny spaces, hidden or forgotten by the passer by, to seek out the dialectical image that allows promise and failure to emerge so as to collapse any sense of progress as a political construction of time that justifies domination. They know that the only way to crumple the promise of progress is on the ruin that stands, as Benjamin says, as the production of a time in which each epoch dreams the one that follows.

In México mi amor, nunca mires atrás (Proyecto Estado Fallido 2. Multifamiliar Juárez) (Mexico my love, never look back [Failed State Project 2. Juárez Housing Project]) Teatro Ojo worked on the soccer fields of the Juárez Housing Project in order to explore reality not as a representation but as a confrontation. The group held a soccer match between two of the teams whose league plays on those fields with the aim of intervening in their game. The match was played on the dirt fields while a general audio track narrated the 1966 World Cup match between England and Mexico, creating a dislocation between the present and the past, the visible and the invisible, the future and the time to come. The game was halted every so often and the audience could approach the players, who, paralyzed in a dust cloud that transformed their sweat into a thin film of clay, held small speakers that played back audio recordings of political speeches of the ancient regime that ruled the country for more than 70 years, presidents justifying the implementation of neo-liberalism, public declarations about NAFTA, radio slogans from political campaigns from the 60’s to 2000’s, advertising campaigns with the promise of a better future and voices of intellectuals and common people full of anger and despair. Voices from recent Mexican history that invoked a nation made up of the ruins of a project of modernization we have seen fall again and again...

For the second half of the nineteenth century, the plot on which this soccer field was built used to be the La Piedad civil cemetery. Later, in 1924, it was home to the National Stadium – promoted by José Vasconcelos, one of the architects of Mexico's post-revolutionary institutions – where presidents like Plutarco Elías Calles and Lázaro Cárdenas took oath. Twenty-six years later it was the site of one of the architectural works characteristic of Mario Pani, an architect who attempted to implement Le Corbusier's ideas in Mexico, in a development project aimed at the modernization of Mexico: namely, the Juárez Housing Project.

Two of the buildings in this housing unit collapsed in the 1985 earthquake, burying hundreds of people beneath them. The only thing that could be done with the rubble was to put up some dirt soccer fields where the residents of the area now play their neighbourhood leagues, beneath a Nike poster promoting commodities and the spirit of competition so needed for capitalism which declares: "Never look back."

México mi amor, nunca mires atrás is an historical intervention that breaks with the modern enchantment of time as a continuum, where the juxtaposition of temporalities gives way what has failed or been annulled. With this action, Teatro Ojo does not just attempt to activate memory, but to seek out through repetition those moments that produced this epoch, where the promise has been betrayed and we inhabited it as deception. The work of history is not to commemorate or to celebrate, but to assume that history is never a matter of the future but of the past, that justice will only be able to emerge from there.

The Juárez Housing Project soccer fields are presented as the witness to a space that denounces the failure of the utopia of the modernization project in Mexico and that assumes the complex fabric of heterotopias as paradoxical layers that are superimposed in urban space and that annul any hegemonic project. Heterotopia is concentrated in space, but this juxtaposition also generates another uneven and disjointed time that annuls all social projects based on progress as promises of a better future to come. Here there is a series of folds and layers superimposed atop one another, and Teatro Ojo intervenes in their unfolding and in their activation, where everything happens at the same time, to reassemble the political structures of a nation whose modernizing project attempted to consolidate a utopia while ruins were accumulating beneath our feet.

Teatro Ojo is theater without a theater, for which the world itself is a stage. Here the attempt is not to dramatize reality but rather to intervene in each fold and each layer, to dislocate time and to let the past spill out its effects. It is a political project that knows that history is our battlefield and that art is the device that lets us stir up space and time and produce affects to create another stage upon which the only way to move forward is by looking back.

By Helena Chávez Mac Gregor (UNAM).