Jette Hye Jin Mortensen New Songbooks, production still. Installation: video 15:00 min. uniforms, songbooks.

"On Cultural Translation or The Ongoing Translations of Culture"

By Judith Schwartbart - SUM #2 Magazine for Contemporary Art (June 2008)

On Cultural Translation was the theme of an international conference held in Copenhagen. It was part of a series of events leading up to the
U-TURN Quadrennial of Contemporary Art opening in September 2008 and was a joint venture between the University of Copenhagen and
The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, where it took place on November 24th 2007. On Cultural Translation featured presentations by a
number of international artists and theorists. Slightly revised versions of the contributions of German cultural critic Boris Buden and Brazilian
psychoanalyst and cultural critic Suely Rolnik are included in this Focus section, which also features excerpt of the work of Japanese/German
artist and filmmaker Hito Steyerl´s work Journey No 1-and Artists Impression. Other contributors included Jalal Toufic and Johan Schimanski and
the event opened with a screening of Lisl Ponger´s film Phantom Fremdes Wien. The objective of the conference was to establish debate on the
topic of "cultural translation", a concept arising from post-colonial discourse with its notions of "the other", i.e. the issue of meeting thatwhich is
foreign to us; the non-inclusive aspect of a more or less given "we".

The question of "the other" is related both to the issues of incompatibility and to that of relations of power. In post-colonial discourse as it evovled
after many colonies arcieved independence in the latter half of the 20th century, the front line was moved from being external (i.e. between colonisers
and colonized), to being internal: The institutions by which the colonies liberated themselves were largely established by the colonial powers, while
migration meant a significant representation of people from the colonies (encompassing both paperless and naturalized citizens) within the colonizing
nations themselves. This integration of one into the other, however, in no way abolished the oppositional relations that where still trapped within a "black
and white" dichotomy. Concepts like hybridity and multiplicity were brought into play by people like Homi Bhabha by way of an emancipatory project
as well as being a means of defence against notions of essentialist identity and unopposed cultural community.

The concept of cultural translation is related to this debate. While philosophers like Judith Butler may for instance use it to reflect on what languages
may be applied in the fractious community of diverse value and knowledge systems, cultural translation to Buden is not so much about finding a
language as a question of translation from one culture to another: "Does culture translate!" he asks. "Not many questions grow in complexity the easier
they are to answer, the way this one does: No. Culture cannot be translated, that much is certain. All experience (...) is translated into the language of
culture, but the experience of culture itself no longer finds a language into which it may be translated."
We may, however, understand culture itself as a process of translation. Buden indicates how current society has been dissolved into culture and its
main criticism of post-modern and post-colonial theory relates precisely to this political blindness. In practice there is no direct correspondence be-
tween two languages (cultures), they cannot be suspended in a third, synthesized, hybrid, universal form. For Buden the only possibility of communica-
tion lies in a form of translation where the original "text" no longer exists.

Visual Arts and Nationality?

An interesting thing about considering visual arts in relation to culture in general as well as to globalization is mainly the idea that visual culture
translates across linguistic and conceptual barriers. Furthermore, it basically challenges our notions of culture and nationality. Artistic production
has perhaps always been used to political ends - not least for nation-building purposes. It is noticeable to what extent political fault lines (particularly
since 9/11) have been defined in cultural terms. Yet artists and politicians do operate in different ways. While artists are increasingly exhibiting and
circulating internationally - helped along by artist-in-residency programmes, biennials, internationally oriented institutions etc. - some politicians
propagate ideas to protect national cultures from external influence.
Perhaps this is due to the erroneous belief that culture evovles within a hermetically sealed system. How would Danish music sound without the influence
of jazz, rock and hip hop? What about Danish art history? What would that be like without Greek sculpture or Egyptian funerary portraits?
While the entire Danish nation - if local media are to be believed - seek "particularly Danish" features, numerous artists are actively opposing national
categorization, not wishing to be considered representatives or essences of their homeland or its culture. Instead many artists reflect the local in relation
to the "other-placely" and the other within ourselves. In Autumn 2008 U-TURN Quadrennial for Contemporary Art in Copenhagen will present a number
of artists operating in this field.

For Jette Hye Jin Mortensen the constructed character of culture and the possibilities it offers for community are the subject of her artistic endeavour as
she uses the composer Carl Nielsen to consider national-romantic Danish music. New Songbooks is a new interpretation (both textually and musically)
of these national-romantic pieces. The work exists both as a performance - a choir work - and as a video installation consisting of elements such as song-
books and uniforms. The video was created to resemble a long-standing Danish weekly television programme featuring church choirs from different parts
of the country. It starts with the following verse on the topic of the mythical Holger Danske or Ogier the Dane, vigilantly guarding the Danish nation in
the cellars of Kronborg Castle:

Find Holger Danske
Find Holger Nydanske
Find Holger Udanske
Find Holger Nudanske

Find Ogier the Dane
Find Ogier the New Dane
Find Ogier the UnDane
Find Ogier the Now Dane

Thus Mortensen focuses not only on the current search for a Danish national character but also questions the currency and comprehensiveness of national
notions. Her credo speaks for itself:

"Thou shall not think thouself to be Danish for being born in Denmark. Thou shall not think thyself to be Danish for speaking the language fluently. Thou
shall not think thyself for being Danish for being a Danish citizen. Thou shall not think thyself to be Danish for living in Denmark. Thou shall not think of
thyself to be Danish for abiding the Danish law. Thous shall not think thyself for being Danish for flying the Danish flag. Thou shall not think of thyself to
be Danish for terming others "new Danes". Thous shall not think thyself to be Danish for be willing to die for Denmark. Thou shall not think of thyself to be
Danish for feeling Danish. This is the law of the Danes."

This text is clearly based on Janteloven (the Law of Jante). These are the ten commandments of social repression, formulated in the 1933 novel En Flygtning
krydser sit spor
by Aksel Sandemose and common knowledge in Norway and Denmark.
Of course there is nothing new in using art in active establishment of national community, as Mortensen reminds us with New Songbooks. This dates back
to national romanticism and the birth of the nation state. Today, however, we no longer need to believe in the myth of a given, essential culture, but are able
to relate to its form, as well as its means and ends in a well-considered manner. When dealing with the concept of of translation it is important not to read the
linguistic metaphor not too literally. It would be all too easy to mistake a linguistic domain for a culture, and in doing so to consider it an unalterable given.
When considering cultural translation in the field of cultural studies and post-colonialism, we frequently resort to the theory of German cultural critic Walter
Benjamin. To Benjamin translation is an eternal process in which the original text adn the language in which it was written is also altered. This line of thought
does not refer to an original vis-á-vis a slightly reduced copy, referring instead to a single text frozen in time in a language that no longer reflects the actual
spoken tongue and ongoing translations relating to the current linguistic state of development at any given moment.

In this light, culture - including the visual arts - are a constantly ongoing process of translation, where the original is an illusory starting point located in a
distant past and that from which we translate is already itself a translation. Today, culture is global, but still strongly differentiated. Thus Mortensen´s re-
interpretation of old Danish songs expresses both an interest in cultural heritage and a clear reflective gesture concerning the political implications of culture
and - not least - the uses we put them to.

Jens Haaning has frequently worked with these inclusive and exclusive cultural aspects. He often uses the simple trick of exchanging things, creating - quite
literally - a displacement, that not only indicates cultural differences (and standards) by connecting certain geographical locations, but also points out
political and economic imbalances between different places in the world. In 2003 he executed the work Redistribution (London-Karachi) , in which chairs
from the popular ICA café in London were transported to a public square in Karachi, were they where freely available for use or removal by passers-by.
We know little of what became of the chairs, or how their new owners felt about them. Thus we are obliged to deal with this project at the conceptual level.
This is a displacement of a large number of designer chairs from one of the favourite hang-outs of the cultural elite to the streets of the largest city in Pakistan.
Not only is Pakistan a former British colony, since 9/11 it has also been generally perceived as a breeding-ground for anti-western extemism - with all the en-
suing cultural and political turbulence that entails. The title highlights this work as a symbol of the necessary redistribution of resources. However this is also
a symbolic displacement. What does these chairs represent within this different context? How do they circulate in the local economy? What aesthetic value
do they hold here?

Cannibal Culture

While the translation metaphor upholds culture as text, we get a more sensual and bodily metaphor in Suely Rolnik´s contribution. Rolnik takes her cue from
thoughts that are quite central to Brazilian cultural understanding, anthropophagy - i.e. the notion of culture as cannibalistic. This concept, which relates to
European colonial literature, originates from the Brazilian early 20the century literary avantgarde. It refers to the Amazon Indians and their ritual consumption
of foreigners with the purpose of integrating their power and courage into their own bodies - provided of course, that the foreigner was considered worthy of this
gesture - and may in a way be considered Brazil´s way of taking its colonial history upon itself.
There is not one, but several cultural starting points (Amazon, African, Portugese and others) for what in the 20th century could be considered Brazilian culture.
Anthropophagy was - amongst other things - a way of assuming one´s history, without of course ending up in the typical victim role of colonization.
The notion of cannibalism also turned out to be extremely useful in relation to strong cultural influences from the U.S. in the 1960s and 70s. This was a culture
of which the Brazilians where not victims. Rather they where able to appropriate and transform it in a critical manner, making it part of their own culture without
any ensuing fidelity requirements vis-á-vis a particular hierarchy or essential origin.

Anthropophagist prestige is proportional to the number of foreigners consumed. These are accumulated by ritual scars on the body of the consuming warrior
and the process of consumption is supposed to bring increased vitality. According to Rolnik´s thinking this image also tells of the subjectivation of contempo-
rary capitalist society. The subject is not given from the outset, but becomes through an endless process of incorporation in and inscription on the body. She
does, however, distinguish between two forms of anthropophagic subjectivation. While one is a pre-packaged solution that is assumed in its entirety, she de-
scribes the other as a more chaotic meeting with the other, the foreign. Where the former provides a definite product in the form of a clear cut identity, the
second refers to a more experimental process whose results cannot be known in advance.

The Cultural Battlefield of the Body

Anthropophagic rituals provide an almost too-literal reading of the work of Dand Vo Buôn Kosir. The Statue of Liberty tattooed onto a persons apparently
living in a non-western context testifies not only to the export of both culture and political ideology, but also to a voluntary ingestion. The Statue of Liberty
as a symbol of an entire system and its values of freedom and financial prosperity must in this context be considered foreign,in that they presumably are not
reflected in the external life experiences but have become an integrated part of the bearer´s values and dreams. Like an icon of almost religious significance,
we may consider this tattoo the the adoption af a pre-packaged ready-made delivered at the doorstep with no real possibility of influence.
As such it perhaps represents more of an other-worldly idealized image, like say, the statue of Virgin Mary, rather that a hard won earthly symbol. What pos-
sibilities does the bearer have of appropriating this vision, of incorporating it into lived reality?

Cannibalistic culture accummulates the foreign or external within itself simultaneously with the erosion of the totality of this culture. Wangechi Mutu´s use,
of collage is symptomatic in this context. The New York based Kenyan artist mixes gouache with fragments from porn and fashion magazines in what are fre-
quently dramatic scenarios featuring the black female body as the site of eroticism, exoticism and violence. The motif of Misguided Unforgivable Hierarchies
, 2005, is constituted by three figures, in which the lower one is larger than life (the collage is roughly 2 m high). This bottom figure is squatting (s typical sit-
ting position in places where chairs are not available) and constitutes the base on which the two other figures stand. Reminiscent of traditional African family
totems, it too is carved in wood, but here the power does not emanate from below. Instead the whole thing is controlled by a scary little figure on top, while the
middle figure is predominantly white, sticks out its tongue at the lower figure.
As in a number of Mutu´scollages, the figures in Misguided Unforgivable Hierarchies are neither black nor white, but all contain a touch of the other. These
are not simple oppposites but complexities. As in the cannibal, direct antagonism has ceased through consumption, thus internalising opposition. However the problems are obviously not solved rather they are built into the hierarchy power. Mutu presents a visual universe that is traditionally African (batique and wood
-cut) side by side with western art history (dada-collage and surrealism) and mass-produced globally circulated images (fashion and porn magazines). The count-
less cultural layers are supplemented by all sorts of projections, ranging from prejudice to exotic desire, and deposited onto the body.

The works of Jette Hye Jin Mortensen, Jens Haaning, Danh Vos and Wangechi Mutu offer ethical and political reflections or negotiations in their aesthetic.
They not only ask us who we are, but also where we are heading. The two metaphors "culture as translation" and "culture as cannibalistic" both point away from
a static concept of culture towards more dynamic notions, away from identity thinking into subjectivation processes, away froma society that builds walls
around itself towards one that enriches itself and builds itself up, taking nourishment from outside influences.

SUM Magazine for Contemporary Art