Here and there: Mario Pfeifer on cultural extinction - Art Collector

Mario Pfeifer, Approximation in the digital age to a humanity condemned to disappear, 2015. Installation view, KOW Berlin, 2015. Photo: Ladislav Zajac. Courtesy the artist and KOW, Berlin

By Joel Mu

Mario Pfeifer, known for his stunning films, spoke with me recently about his latest solo-exhibition at KOW Berlin, provokingly entitled Approximation in the digital age to a humanity condemned to disappear. Dipping in-and-out of seemingly incompatible contexts, from an archive in the petit-bourgeois surrounds of Dahlem-Berlin, to a remote fishing town of the southern-most tip of Chile, Pfeifer’s new work offers a hypnotic thesis about the rules of cultural representation, while breaking them at the same time

Why did you travel to Shunoko (Navarino Island)?

The Muso sin Muros, a new commission organised by the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Santiago de Chile, invited me for a project and two exhibitions. Since the proposal of the exhibition was open, I suggested a site-specific production and looked at different momentums in Chile. I finally decided to travel to Isla Navarino during my initial research period, mainly because I had seen Martin Gusinde’s photographs depicting different "antiguos" that an anthropologist and missionary took 85 years ago, in a moment when these nomadic tribes still lived free. Since Gusinde was of German origin and one of the few who lived amongst the Yaghan, I was interested to see how and if his work had an impact of the culture, region and domestic politics. What I found on site, and later in Gusinde’s estate at the monastery Sankt Augustin in Germany, went beyond my expectations - so I decided to install myself for about four months in the southernmost urban settlement of this planet, Puerto Williams.


In depicting the Yahgan, it is interesting how you develop a multi-layered approach to representation, in that, you cut or merge traditional song with techno music; or black-and-white archival photography with the same imagery animated by After Effects; or depictions of current-day hunters with workers in a food production-plant; or footage and audio from the Museo Antropológico Martin Gusinde with personal chatter from Yahgan kin. How do you characterise these respective forms of representation in your latest work?

My approach and strategy is most of all defined by what I experience on site, in the respective environment and its cultural, social and economic condition. Since projects like Approximation are somehow and unavoidably taking place in the context of anthropology and ethnography, certain rules or representative systems become very apparent and also define the interaction between protagonists (often called informants) and me (mostly from their side I would say), since I always situate and introduce myself as a visual artist.

The Yahgan certainly have experiences with anthropologists and sociologists and they are not necessarily positive. So these sets of rules or conditions heavily influence my interaction, which is moderated through my presence and the technological tools I use, in this case a 4K video camera and sound recorders. In my observation and the stance I take, I fundamentally question anthropological and ethnographic activities that concern minorities and their culture, whether they are in a state to disappear or are still active, as most often such research is conducted in a limited time-frame from the outside.

I acted as a cultural producer within a situation where culture was produced, and to a certain extent was in mourning, since its destruction. This mourning somehow describes a condition where the actual cultural producers (in my case: the Yaghans or their descendants) stopped practicing and developing their culture as it was either destroyed by the land takers or institutionalised by museums, sociologists, anthropologists or ethnologists. One finds a situation in which culture has been declared as almost dead and everybody involved somehow tries to benefit as much as possible from this state, naturally claiming and believing to protect a heritage.

My project engages with exactly those institutions who declare such a state and the people who are bound to memorialise their own culture, while at the same time search for economic benefits based on their ancestors progressive linguistic, performative and musical way to live. My approach through digital devices such as Ipad or 4K video technology contemporises a culture declared dead and it allows its participants to interact in the now with their heritage, while the depicted museums show replicas of religious ceremonies that fundamentally act like a prepared grave for those who are still alive. In
Approximation I question the borders between dying and living cultures, insider and outside perspectives and aim towards an open engagement between (geographically) marginal and central aspects of cultural production today.

I believe
Approximation leaves an audience in a trance-like state where culture acts as an always renewing momentum, even at the margins of our planet, even with a culture that probably not many people have ever heard of and that everybody, even its descendants, believed dead. It would be great to finally listen to some of Approximation’s techno tracks in a place like Berlin’s Berghain, packed with a diverse audience of any age and background.

What I like about your work is that the archive is not handled like a rarefied site and that your approach deals with questions and difficulties of so-called cultural extinction. What are you thoughts of human extinction in the twenty-first century?

A culture can be extinguished, if its practitioners allow it, but there is always a chance for resistance, as history has proven. It’s a community that protects and practices a culture and they don’t necessarily need a museum for that. Artefacts that represent a culture can be easily destroyed as we realise with tremendous brutality looking at the situation in Iraq and Syria and many other unnamed places that are not in the focus of daily news. Human extinction is a very different, highly complex topic. Can a community or even an entire nation resist against a brutal oppressor? Thinking about the 21st century in this context is quite overwhelming, in the sense of how history repeats itself by just acknowledging how technological tools could accelerate the extinction of humans by military, economical and social means. That culture remains rather powerless is frustrating, but in the same breath, the voice that culture has might be the only valuable weapon to fight with - at least it’s the one I believe in to represent my voice in an intricate world.

Approximation in the digital age to a humanity condemned to disappear runs until 25 June 2015 at KOW, Berlin.

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