Words for Worlds

Vents Vīnbergs


A Conversation Between Sofia Lemos and Vents Vīnbergs

Sofia Lemos is the Associate Curator of Public Programs at the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art “and suddenly it all blossoms”. The program has manifested over the course of the last 20 weeks as a glossary of keywords that inspired the curatorial proposition of the biennial, exploring how words make worlds and could articulate multiple and open-ended imaginaries. This conversation is dedicated to futures, and it's an opportunity to look back, and to project forward, to assemble some of the important thoughts and calls to action that arose over the course of the biennial.  Vents Vīnbergs is a cultural critic based in Riga, Latvia. He has been responsible for the profiles that have accompanied the series of talks and conversations published online on the website of and translated into English, Latvian and Russian. These profiles, along with interviews, were conceived as forms of approaching and creating an intense proximity with the contributors of the series, presenting their ideas in context. These introductory texts allowed for a deeper form of engagement with the ideas that inspired the biennial’s program.

Sofia: Futures for us, in the plural, are roots and routes to developing alternative approaches and sensibilities that urge new habits, practices of attention, invention and experimentation against the calculative logics of late modernity's understanding of time as linear progression. While preparing for this conversation, you mentioned the idea of being an impostor or an amateur, which I’d love for us to depart from. Whereas I approached the series as the curator and yourself as a critic, we share the viewpoint of keen readers and humble listeners who attempted to translate these ideas to a non-specialist audience. In retrospect, I wonder your thoughts on the experience of engaging with the authors’ critical works almost on a weekly basis?

Vents: I often think about my role as a critic. I started out as an architect, but very early on, switched to writing about it and then writing about culture in general. I think of myself as a person who goes to some weird places and then comes back to report the public about it, although not exactly in a journalistic capacity. I think of it more like an artist's practice. For me, artists often do what common people usually wouldn’t dare to. They go to places, cross borderlines, entering uncharted territories and then return and report on it in their own words: "Let's go that direction,” or “it's a dangerous place, Let's avoid it." That's how I see my work. And this is how I justify my own practice: reading a lot, being interested in everything and then coming back to report on it.

Sofia: A lot of what you mentioned resonates with my experience and the curatorial pursuit of the unknown. In a way, I think curiosity, the idea of nurturing and pursuing the unresolved or the unsure, which is also at the heart of artistic practice, is fundamental to curatorial research. In that journey we’re able to bounce back propositions that are multifarious, and can manifest multidimensionally as artworks, ideas, poetry, theory, etc. One reference that I keep returning to over the years, is the definition of amateurship advanced by the British collective Art & Language. Active since the 1960s, they describe their practice as “radically incomplete”, as a form of art making that is less at the cultural margins than it is confounded by them, that is fugitive rather than being exiled in its genius. They describe an amateur as someone “who signs up for the game without any guarantees as to where it will end—what the result will be—and, for that matter, without being sure where and when it began.”[1] There’s a risk in exposure that really interests me, a lack of concern for the pre-given and for its posterity. I hear their echoes in Tobias Rees’ propositions, for instance. Tobias is a many-layered anthropologist whose thinking does not only service academic discussions, but also works at the intersection between civil society, information technologies and different disciplinary fields. His idea of political exposure was captured very well in the interview.

Vents: I enjoyed it very much because all of the ideas touched upon in this series, or most of those ideas, somewhat vindicated my own intuitions and my own little private life hack practices. It is not particularly a sabotage of the system, but some idle practices, that you can do without a definite goal. We can get to the question of language, too. Let’s say, a rational thought is somewhat finished. It has to be well thought out and articulated to be considered valid. Before that, it is not. I'm struggling with that all the time because, for me, nothing is ever completed while life goes on. When you finish something, it turns into a product you can sell – a sales pitch. This came out a lot in the series, how ideas and information are commodified, and the need to avoid categorization – a very precise and straightforward language – but instead be more poetical. I struggled with that in my texts as well.

Sofia: Absolutely. I think that the intensity of the listening is perhaps the process by which these assumptions and categories can be challenged. This brings me to a question you initially emailed me about, regarding the potential tensions and frictions between theory and practice. Perhaps it is not only about how syntax or grammar allow you to organise and deliver an idea, but also how that idea can be delivered in non-linguistic terms. Delivered as a process. Do you want to talk about these tensions in the series?

Vents: This is what Tim Ingold mentioned in his talk about the “generation of now”. One can have wild theories and radical thoughts about what's happening and about what's going to happen, but at the same time you have to go about with your everyday stuff. This is the contradiction I feel all the time. You have to do business as usual, do some things right now and speculate afterwards in your very well-put words about the problems of late capitalism. How do radical ideas co-exist with worrying about one’s tenure-track in academia or paying one’s mortgage, etc.

Sofia: Yes, the tension of everyday practices and high theory was certainly present, especially considering how state-sanctioned immobility coincided with a historic moment of political upheaval and solidarity for black lives, as André Lepecki noted early on in the series. One of the main ideas that was influential to Rebeca’s curatorial proposition for the biennial, and that we debated at the initial stages of this program, was re-enchantment as a call for radical re-evaluation. I was inspired by the Jamaican cultural theorist and literary critic, Sylvia Wynter’s work on re-enchanting humanism and her provocation for being human as praxis. This is a direct contravention to being human as a noun. The absolute language you alluded to before. This speaks very much to Marisol de la Cadena's talk on the runakuna, on being human but not only. Or again to Tobias’ contribution, who asks what does it mean to be human when you expose the historically constructed noun to the gut microbiome and other conceptual events. These events are game-changers and might equally arrive to us from such different fields as Andean cosmologies (Marisol) to AI, genetics and bioinformatics (Tobias). Speaking from very different perspectives, both of them discuss conceptual events that put to test the idea of being human as a stable, fixed category, as a noun that negates all other forms of humanness, and that asserts what is non-human by definition and control of the inter-specific and intra-specific relations that might arise in their exchange. 

And so, returning to Wynter, she says that the human is a mythopoeic being. In this way, the internal title for the series and that gives name to this interview is a direct tribute to her: words for worlds. For Wynter, our humanly invented and retroactively projected origin stories are “auto-poetically” instituted, subjectively experienced and performatively enacted, meaning the human invents him-self and self-organizes its social formations as a narrative. The latter is both biological and social. These myths erect particular architectures of being, what she calls “genres of the human,” which serve one possible definition of being human: the white, propertied, liberal self, legal rights holder and figure of the Man. So, she distinguishes between Men and humans and proposes the possibility of re-enchanting a praxis instead of reiterating the events where these symbolic myths are socially enacted and projected forwards...

We need new thinking, different sensibilities and new narratives that radically upturn those built on hetero-patriarchy, colonialism and capitalism, and re-examine the inscribed notions of property, of the human, non-human and inhuman, of production and subjection. The idea of being able to enact ourselves as a practice is something that is at the core of the vocabularies advanced by the thinkers in our glossary. Federico Campagna spoke very openly about the encroachment of absolute language that erects and institutionalizes the metaphysical building blocks of our world. But there are many worlds. Someone like Boaventura de Sousa Santos who is a radical reference in a lineage of decolonial thinkers, poignantly points at the gap between epistemology and ontology when discussing the referent, universalizing “we”. In his talk he exposes this deeply troubling order in relation to the pandemic. Later in the programme, McKenzie Wark looked at the slippage between facts, opinions and beliefs with scientific data and inquiry taking the back burner to non-truthfulness, deception and deliberate falsehood mediated by asymmetric relationships to information, effectively highlighting our differential experiences of reality.

All these different ideas of being human as praxis are putting to test the metaphysical groundings of what we call “reality” and its narrative version of being human. I was very pleasantly surprised that in the series of talks there was very little mention of ontology except for those moments in which it was attacked as a project of absolute language. I think that this was something that revealed itself throughout the series and emphasizes contemporary calls for political organization that do not rely on pre-established assumptions of who and what counts as a political agent. What does it mean to create new social formations? How can we use the idea of an autopoietic languaging system to create new vocabularies for art practice but also for un-making the inequities that underlie being human as a noun? I’d say Jack Halberstam pointed us into some really interesting directions.

Another important reference for the program is a 1945 lecture by Aimé Césaire, “Poetry and Knowledge,” where he accuses the natural sciences of being “half-starved,” incapable of dealing with human predicaments. He proposes instead a “new science of the word” with seven propositions for poetic invention: “Within us, all the ages of mankind. Within us, all humankind. Within us, animal, vegetable, mineral. Mankind is not only mankind. It is the universe.” In this new science, poetry becomes the “process which through word, image, myth, love, and humour establishes me at the living heart of myself and of the world.”[2] At a moment when post-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary alliances are perhaps more urgent than ever, and in which experimental (and experiential) knowledge-making practices that meld perceiving, sensing, feeling and knowing begin to gain legitimacy in and beyond contemporary art practice, it’s essential we create spaces where we can dwell in the imagination, in hopeful narratives, in poetic invention and myth-making, and this is what the series of talks attempted to do. This is also why we launched the series with a talk by poet CA Conrad taking “Endings” as a point of departure.

Rebecca and I opened that talk with a reference to the science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, who we have returned to time and again. We talked aboutLe Guin’s acceptance speech for a lifetime achievement award by the U.S. National Book Foundation. Allow me to quote it, “I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now. Who can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom—poets, visionaries; the realists of a larger reality.” Then of course there are all forms of complementarity that have emerged from feminist approaches to STS (Science and Technology Studies), history of science, anthropology… What these thinkers are coming at is that there is no I in Human, only a continuum of togetherness and an ever-emerging ‘we’ that is neither absolute nor universal as modern thought would have it.

Sophie Lewis, Astrida Neimanis and Michael Marder, for instance, provoked us to think about “holding” as a possible poetics of care; holding others within ourselves, even those who seem too fraught by rage and grief, too immense, such as our planet’s bodies of water, or as distant as a 12th century Benedictine polymath. You know, for the great biologist Lynn Margulis, “holding” was the coming together of single-celled organisms in the evolution of nucleated cells that transformed relationships between lifeforms. For the anthropologist Anna Tsing, it is the inter-dependency between fungi and trees without which there would be no forests; For Donna Haraway, it is the sym-poiesis, or making-with, rather than auto-poiesis, or self-making (which takes us back to Wynter) and that provides the means to building more livable futures. And so, the series of talks and conversations really attempted to tackle the question of liveability but also the perceived distance between theory and practice.

Vents: Yes. Now with social media we feel that we're living in bubbles. We are constantly reminded that we are living in bubbles that cannot interact and penetrate each other. We are more polarized than we ever were. This may not be true all the time. For instance, I move in-between very different circles and I try to share the ideas I hear in one place with other people in another, in ways that could perhaps not be accessible to them. That's how I see my task as a writer and critic. I am speaking now in the outskirts of Riga in a very proletarian neighborhood. There, of course, I cannot use the words I am using, hearing in the talks or reading in their books, but I'm somehow trying to transform this either in another language or in some practices as well.

Sofia: You mentioned in your email the difficulty to digest and translate for local readers the notions and ideas in which some cases have no tradition of usage in Latvian language. So, how did you manage or how did you feel like you could overcome this challenge in writing up the profiles for each of the speakers on the website? Was it by using allegorical language? Was it by, as you were saying, recurring to metonymy? So, how do you feel you were able to convey these ideas in Latvian?

Vents: One thing I was looking for was something at least remotely similar metaphorically speaking. Trying to invent new metaphors, actually. This is also another thing that was occurring in these talks time and again. The use of metaphors and how you have to stick with them, if you choose one, for the rest of the talk, let's say, or for the rest of your work. This is one thing. Another thing is looking for similarities in the local everyday practices that correspond to those academically articulated ideas. People are actually practicing some of those things, but they are not formulated or often even verbalized. They're not contextualized in that way. Let's say, here in Eastern Europe, we are talking a lot about the grey economy and how it seems impossible to eradicate it, but what I see as an expression of what you mentioned throughout the series about the Baltic experience – how here we have experienced the end of the world many times already – it’s true. Actually, within the last hundred years or so, we have had eight regime changes here altogether, not three or four, but eight since 1914. Therefore, people here, although they rarely theorize about it or even name it, have developed practices of “work-arounds” and detours. We live somewhat between lines all the time here. This is what I tried to do – to connect my understanding of these themes with something that the people actually could recognize in their personal life practices already taking place.

Sofia: I’m really taken by that expression of liminality in this region – to see the former east and west still at odds with one another but co-existing with forward-looking yet utterly pagan local costumes. You wrote to me about “the persistence of our weird little Baltic languages” as “a magnificent example of ambiguity, non-compliance, dissent, queerness, irrationality etc., that the speakers were talking about.” I love how the beauty of everyday practices, and this idea of living between worlds in this region, inspired Rebecca’s curatorial proposition. So, perhaps the latter speaks to what cultural production is at the end of a world, or at the end of the future, as Federico would have it. I think the fact that the Baltic countries have experienced changing regimes and ideology, the violence of cultural erasure and different forms of resilience and resistance blossoming from a continued scenario of political instability in the 20th century, delivers a very specific field of lived experience at the end or at the edge of a world. In a way, how these multiple worlds and time frames overlap, recede and renew, seems very relevant today, right? Look for example, to the electric grid connecting the Baltics to Moscow, a legacy of the Baltic states’ past as involuntary members of the Soviet Union. I understand that Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia want to synchronize their grids with Europe amid fears of a Russian shutdown. When a regime changes and even when the ideology appears to change with it, it doesn't mean that the structures of everyday life change too. Instead, life blossoms in its ruins.

This is what Boaventura calls “ruins-seeds”, and Federico “fertile ruins” – being aware and inventive about our legacies while accountable for their operationality. This is definitely one idea that stuck with me over the course of the last 20 weeks: how to foster aesthetic gestures after the end of a future. It struck me not only because of its relevance to the history of the Baltic states, but also because of its ability to speak to the clocked-out nature of our contemporaneity – the simultaneous time of our haunted presents and its possibilities, as Avery F. Gordon showed us.

Vents: A close example of how that is still happening is, let's say, in Eastern Ukraine. We feel what is happening there very, very intensely here. It is somewhat a lawless area now, also a place where some kind of history has ended. With adolescents roaming around as Federico puts it, archaic warlords who are looking to create a new order. People live here in a very precarious situation that started out in the 1990s and this is still felt very strongly. So, it resonates very much. That too is what I tried to deliver after reading and listening to these authors as well.

Sofia: Was there a talk that resonated with you most?

Vents: Actually, Federico’s, which somewhat informed a lot of my reading of the program. I also feel that worlds end all the time and agree that this should be faced without anguish and pessimism, but expect and be prepared for those new archaic adolescents to appear any time soon. I don't know how you felt it in other cities in Europe, but here we felt very vividly that there was a burst of wildlife at the very beginning of the pandemic: it was spring and everything was blossoming. I feel that the burst was so much bigger because people retreated, stayed home and so on. For me it was like an explosion. People were tweeting and posting photos on Instagram of hedgehogs standing atop streetlights. I saw many more birds than I usually do. Wildlife was taking over immediately, not as gradually as in Andrejsala, or in the places that were abandoned some 20 or 30 years ago. It’s not a slow and steady process, it actually happens very quickly.

Sofia: I suppose the zoonotic nature of the Covid-19 that appears as a direct consequence of sustained human intervention in the ecosystems that modern, industrial capitalism commodified, signals a kind of resurgence. Perhaps it’s not so much that wildlife suddenly blossomed at the start of the spring, but that us taking a step back allowed for listening and looking intently to what is already the world but remains hidden from view. The contributions to the online series of talks and conversations and artworks in the biennial's exhibition prompted forms of sensibility or attunement to the world. I think it's also relevant to think how even though these questions might not seem initially as relevant to artistic practice, they show us the role artists and artistic research plays in developing practices of attention, invention and experimentation and how no sphere – of art, theory or politics – is autonomous. Perhaps last spring we felt the relational extent that connects all beings more closely, what Jackie Wang called “oceanic feeling” – the space where we find our lives entangled with each other and with those of other species.

[1] Art & Language, We Aimed To Be Amateurs. Art-Language, 2 (June 1997): pp. 40–49, reprinted in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, edited by Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson. Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1999, pp. 443–44. Print.

[2] Aimé Césaire, Poésie et connaissance [Poetry and Knowledge] (orig. 1945) reprinted in Aimé Césaire: L'Homme et l'oeuvre (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1973) and translated Aimé Césaire: Lyric and Dramatic Poetry 1946-82 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1990)

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