"…the nostalgia that I explore here is …. for the unrealised dreams of the past and visions of the future that have become obsolete.... not solely searching for newness and technological progress but for unrealized possibilities, unpredictable turns and crossroads."
Svetlana Boym, Nostalgia and It’s Discontents
On Saturday 5th October I sat in Arnolfini’s auditorium waiting for Trophies of Empire: Traces and Legacies to begin. This event offered the opportunity to look back at ‘an influential exhibition from the early 90s in which contemporary artists explored Britain’s colonial past’ (Arnolfini 2019); the afternoon comprised of panel discussions and opportunities to view material from Arnolfini’s archives.
We began by watching a video projection on Arnolfini’s cinema screen of a report from BBC’s South West news programme Points West, about the opening of the Trophies of Empire exhibition at the arts centre in 1992. After the titles rolled a young reporter introduced viewers to the artworks, artists and curators involved in the exhibition. As the video progressed, I could hear very gentle intakes of breath rippling through the audience. There was footage of artist Donald Rodney positioning the trophies in Doublethink. As the piece continued, I found myself experiencing small rushes of excitement in response to shots moving through the galleries, showing them as they were before the building underwent a major reconfiguration in 2003. A couple of seats away from me, a curator was literally hiding behind her hands to avoid watching her younger self talking to camera. We were all time travelling in our own way; attempting to fill in and make sense of that gap between ourselves and the past.
Once the video projection ended Keith Piper turned to his colleagues who were sitting alongside him underneath the projection; for a second or two he seemed unable to find the words to articulate what he had just experienced. The speakers and we (the audience) were stunned, coming around from a collective concussion, caught somewhere between then and now, disorientated and left in suspense, desiring and searching for another lost time or place. An imaginary past was becoming mythologised by us - the audience, the majority of which were never there in the first place. What were we each hoping to gain from returning to this past? What did we think we were returning to? What does it mean to return to a past when it isn’t one you played a part in? How can we do this returning effectively?
As the event progressed there was more disorientation than clarity as participants struggled to remember who was there and who did what nearly thirty years ago. Despite this confusion those attending the event spoke about how working with Trophies of Empire was an overwhelmingly positive and important experience. Artists, curators and gallery educators talked about how much being involved in Trophies of Empire developed their thinking, challenged their practice and created the opportunities to talk about hidden histories and bring unseen art practices to light.
However this event left me feeling we need to drill so much deeper. We were so consumed and seduced with navigating our way through a thick, sticky and all-consuming wave of nostalgia (and memory loss), that at times it hampered and got in the way of critical discussion about the exhibition, live art and gallery education programmes and how the institution operated. We need to excavate deeper and unearth what didn’t work and what the struggles were. For example one artist who took part in the live art programme for Trophies of Empire spoke about how the experience was mostly positive, but he couldn’t understand why he wasn’t invited back or programmed again after the show had finished. Eddie Chambers wrote a deeply critical exhibition review forTrophies of Empire in Art Monthly in 1993. Amongst other points he raised he describes the open submission brief as an "overstuffed lucky bag of historical and political grievances" that artists were invited to respond to and describes "the lesser work as muddled".
Fozia Ismail (artist) and Marcus Corrd Brown (Arnolfini’s Researcher-In- Residence) took part in the last panel discussion of the day. They are both currently involved in Arnolfini’s City Fellows programme. In the last few minutes of the day, Chair Dr Anjalie Dalal-Clayton (Research Fellow at the Decolonising Art Institute, University of the Arts London) invited Fozia and Marcus to share their thoughts and reflections. They both asked direct and challenging questions about why black artists and communities are still having the same conversations with white arts organisations nearly thirty years later. Fozia spoke about Arnolfini's current group show Still I Rise, exploring feminist resistance (taking it’s title from a Maya Angelou poem). She questioned why the show includes only two artists of colour out of approximately seventy practitioners. Marcus wanted to know why there not been more institutional change? Lindsey Fryer, Arnolfini’s Education Officer in 1992 began responding by talking about how we need to look at who is working in institutions and making programming and operational decisions. These conversations need to breathe and be given so much more space and time.
Indeed institutions suffer from double time. In the present they operate at break neck speed, with rapid, constantly changing programmes. They innovate, experiment and respond to current urgencies. Then there is institutional change, operating in a completely different gear, barely audible or visible. The speed at which the culture, habits and internal structures of institutions change is painfully slow. Institutions are massive machines that don’t slow and share power or change course easily. Trophies of Empire happened a generation ago. On the surface it appears that there has been little visible change as to who holds cultural power and agency. Returning to Trophies of Empire has provoked the following questions:
Is it possible for a curatorial project or exhibition to provoke change?
What legacy Trophies of Empire did leave in terms of how artists and arts workers practice and think?
Why aren’t we seeing and feeling greater systemic changes today?
What is blocking that change?
What did Trophies of Empire actually affect and change?
How can we navigate the past when everyone’s attachment to it is different?
How can the returning to the past act enable us to create our future?
In October 2019 we, the audience and speakers, sat in Arnolfini's auditorium, looking for something. Time has muddied the waters. The archive caused a stir and it’s is going to take time for memories to settle into any critical clarity. This gathering felt like the very beginnings of conversations about structural institutional change and questioning our responsibilities within this process. In terms of my own research I am curious about the role and complications of working with archival material, to connect with and produce new knowledge and understanding about the past.
Tomorrow there is another event re-visiting the legacies of Trophies of Empire at Bluecoat, Liverpool, Relocating the Remains: History and Representation. It promises to "focus on the relationship between history, representation and cultural identity through the prism of contemporary art: what impact does the past, and nostalgia for it, have on the present? How can different histories inform and transform our understanding of the present?" Bluecoat 2019). I can't be there in person but there will watching a live online broadcast at 6.30pm.
Unless we revisit these conversations again and again, and navigate our past with greater criticality, we are in danger of writing the history of Trophies of Empire and our cultural future on dangerously unstable and partial foundations.