As a continuation of the “20 and Odd” quincentenary, ‘Witness?’ illustrates the forgetfulness of traumatic experiences, accumulated through an individuals genetic lineage. Defining the human body as an archive of ancestral thoughts and memories.
Freud referred to this condition as ‘Archaic Remnants’, mental forms whose presence cannot be explained by anything in the individual’s own life and which seem to be aboriginal, innate, and inherited shapes of the human mind.
Christopher Lutterodt-Quarcoo, an MA design interactions student at the Royal College of Art, invited me to take part in a workshop in dialogue with his film Witness? (2015) at the Southbank Centre as part of the Changing Minds Festival. The film, which I initially read through a lens of science fiction, focuses on human subjects as they encounter a technology that identifies and deletes traumatic experiences passed down through the genetic material of the body. The layering of visual images onto the surfaces of human bodies, onto skin, through skin, speaks to vulnerability and the enactment of many different kinds of violence across time. Visually the work also plays with the ways in which scientific practices and the aesthetic converge through the human body. I am referring here to visual histories emerging out of different kinds of discourses, modes of thought and ways of imagining the world. The artist, performing the role of a scientist in a white coat, staged a workshop in which specific issues, related to historical forms of trauma, and its transmission across generations, were engaged through the various forms that reparation can take.
We were asked to focus on these forms of reparation and give each a value. I was part of a group focusing on law enforcement, and we spoke and thought a great deal about racial violence. In encountering a discussion about historical trauma, and in foregrounding racial violence, historical and contemporary, my immediate point of reference is always my own situated relationship, as a subject racialised as white, to historical memories related to colonialism, and apartheid. This underpins my thinking and perception of the world no matter where I am situated geographically. Of course, I do consider geographical and historical specificities at the same time. I think a lot about what it means to bear witness to history as a historian embedded in historical and contemporary experiences of extreme violence and cruelty. I am neither detached nor impartial and engaged by the subjective and the performative in the process of constituting historical work. The workshop and the encounter with the film produced discussions and observations related to complex, enmeshed ethical and political questions. It was also a very emotional experience, and afterwards I thought a lot about vulnerability, suffering, and the ways in which historical trauma is reinscribed in ongoing social, political and economic conditions of violence. I also think a great deal about the psychic, emotional and bodily experience of trauma, which may be opaque and overwhelming, an unsignifiable thing. Each of us, participating in the workshop, had to decide in the end whether we would vote yes or no for the deletion of traumatic ancestral memories. I voted no because the ethics of such a proposition bothered me. What is at stake in forgetting in a political sense and whose interests would it serve?
All images reproduced here courtesy of Christopher Lutterodt-Quarcoo.