Fonda / Olu Oguibe Interview
20-21 March, 2001
1. I have been reading about you all over internet, interviews, essays and articles. Even though I agree on several points you are making, like the fact that digital revolution is some how circumscribe to an elite (usually well educated and mainly wealthy people), and it does not involve the biggest part of the world, I still believe it is a great thing. It would have been a tough and long work for me to have access to all the information about you without it.
O.U.: I'm not sure I understand the question, but if the implication is that Olu Oguibe is against the digital revolution, nothing could be farther from the truth. I doubt that I have made any statement about new information technologies that did not acknowledge their usefulness, or indeed their indispensability for certain societies at this point in history. My first text on the subject, published almost six years ago, makes this acknowledgment in the following words:
…but surely, a technology as versatile and increasingly domineering as that of cybercommunication holds inevitable possibilities, and consequences, for not just the minority that presently accesses and controls it, but for many others, too.
[Oguibe, Forsaken Geographies: Cyberspace and the New World "Other"', 1996]
The text goes on to state: "And while a country devastated by war may have a more immediate need to restore its telecommunication system than achieve instant connectivity, it would nevertheless be wrong to preclude such a possibility or fail to recognize its ultimate desirability," eventually concluding that "we should perhaps define the concrete, positive gains of cybertechnology, recognize the present inaccessibility of this technology, and ultimately outline a strategy for making these gains available to as many as possible." I doubt that it could be put more clearly.
In Connectivity, and The Fate of the Unconnected, written in Bellagio, Italy in 1999, I even go further to note that:
As a medium [the Net] can be manipulated to realize an entirely new category of cultural products and situations. It also functions as a vehicle for the conveyance, distribution, and critical evaluation of such cultural forms and contexts. Third, the Net enables communication and collaboration between artists as well as between artists and other content producers outside the cultural arena. It also serves as a means of information and commodity exchange, in other words as an increasingly important element of the global trade in cultures.
I have been a major Internet presence since 1995 when I won a prize from Netscape as a web designer, even before I began to write on new information technology. I auto-check my email every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day. I have owned six laptop computers since 1990, in additional to numerous, desktop personal computers, computerized chessboards, PDAs and imaging devices. I spend at least four hours on-line everyday. Obviously it would be very inaccurate, to think that Olu Oguibe is a cyberphobe or that my critique of the cyber revolution amounts to a dismissal. On the contrary, I think that my point always was that we must not forget those who are left out of that revolution and who may, quite clearly, be paying an unwarranted prize for their condition.
2. The phenomenon of globalization is quickly spreading around all over the world. Years ago we hardly knew the work of artists from Asia and Africa, today we are learning about them and appreciating them. Don't you think this could be a result of global exchange of information?
O.U.: Globalization is really only a pretty new name for a very old phenomenon. Under imperialism, the global economy of empire was united, and each colonial power interfaced its economy with those of like powers, creating an intricately connected global colonial economy. Frivolous products and exploitative technology were exported to the peripheries of empire while colonial goods and services centrifugally flowed to the center. The wealth from the colonies sustained industrial and cultural advancement in Europe. Both Walter Rodney in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, and Edward Said in Imperialism have clearly plotted the global configuration of the economy of imperialism.
Therefore, the more one ponders the current discourse of Globalization, the more one concludes that it is a conceited exercise based on a convenient, amnesic obsession with the present. We are witness not to a new phenomenon called Globalization, but to the triumph of old, global power relations: Francis Fukuyama’s end of history, coupled with the illusion of a new, porous metropolis. With hindsight one now realizes that Kwame Nkrumah was not at all mistaken when he described imperialism as the last stage of capitalism, even if he had the very opposite of this final triumph in mind.
The West does not know about more African artists today than it did in 1945. You can still count African artists that are visible in the West on the fingers of your hand, and the conditions for their relative visibility haven't changed much. The majority of these artists who actually live and practice in the West still have the doors shut in their face. Some may believe today that the prominence of artists like Ofili and Shonibare is unique and indicative of a new spirit of openness, but bear in mind first that if it weren’t for their color, these artists would not be considered as successful outsiders because in reality they are not outsiders. Ofili and Shonibare, for instance, were born British, in England. Bear in mind that the complex conditions for William Kentridge’s recent visibility in the West place him closer to the writer Doris Lessing, which is to say that William’s race is as important in his acceptance in the West, as the quality of his work, which is unfortunate. Bear in mind that a great many Western artists with even the remotest connections to Africa, remain on the outside in Europe. It is hard then to see how so-called Globalization has made a difference when there isn’t any difference.
Yet one must not over-flog the issue. It would be wrong for anyone to think that African artists are clamoring for visibility in the West, and this is a point that I made over ten years ago. I believe that the more important issue at stake is the larger question of the conditions of our co-existence in the West, and what those conditions reveal about the soul of the West even at the turn of the 21st century.
3. Which is potentiality of the African art from your point of you?
O.U.: In the context of contemporary art, frankly, I do not think it is fruitful to talk repeatedly about African art. I am becoming less certain what people mean--or indeed what they mean to mean--when they use that descriptive. If we talked just as repeatedly about European art as we do of African art today, it would certainly sound ludicrous. I think that artists are simply making art and would want to be seen that way without the backbreaking baggage of a continent that some of them do not even know. Much as one is involved in this seemingly inescapable labyrinth of a discourse, one is nevertheless certain that we would all benefit more were everything to devolve to the level of the artist and what it is they are contending with in their work irrespective of where their parents were born. Then one might find reason to contend with one artist because he or she makes work that relates to the question of origins, and another on a different platform because he or she does not, but not as a herd.
4. Does the African identity mean anything for an artist or for a curator, or is it necessary to adequate to the Western parameters in order to break through of the so-called Western art scene?
O.U.: This is a very complex question to answer in a few words without running the risk of being misunderstood. For a more considered opinion on the matter I would rather refer the reader to my text, Art, Identity, Boundaries [in Reading the Contemporary, eds. Oguibe and Enwezor, inIVA/ MIT Press, 1999] where it is dealt with at considerable length.
5. In an interview you said that usually the Western culture tends to reduce African art into ethnicity. Don't you think that this is an attitude of commodity? Which means there is no need to question the Western cultural establishment and therefore impose it, as the only way?!
If you decide that African art is ethnic, you have given a definition, so you do not have any need to question further this item. It is a sort of anesthetic, therefore a commodity!
O.U.: It is a particularly complex matter, but I like the way you put it. There is a lot of verity in that. I especially like the term anesthetic; it is a loaded word that speaks to the variegated, multi-layered rules of the culture game, a great pun because the search for identity or the mark of ethnicity becomes an esthetic that inoculates--anaesthetizes--the art establishment in the West from dealing with those non-Western artists whose work would stand the rigors of the mainstream aesthetic. To keep such artists at bay, you introduce a new commodity category that they must fit in order to be accepted. 'Otherness' becomes a requirement; the price of the ticket. Witness how much effort has been put into forcing a connection between Mr. Ofili's elephant dung and Africa when in fact, Ofili's informing context is not Africa but the conceptual art of David Hammons who was in turn quite strongly influenced by arte povera. However, in order to market Mr. Ofili he must be taken away from his roots in Manchester, England, and plugged into Africa.
But this does not have to be the case. In other words, the issue is not simply one of the rules of the market. There are more fundamental issues involved that come ahead of the need to invent and package a commodity. Principal among these is the unrelenting desire to maintain a fortress without walls, and to keep certain people outside the gates of that fortress. That fortress is the so-called great, Western tradition into which contemporary art has now been roped. To articulate Mr. Ofili and his work solely within the trail of conceptual art, with the backdrop of arte povera and dirt art, is to admit him fully and unconditionally into the annals of contemporary art. But for some reason which only experts can explain, the custodians of the cultural establishment--by which I mean curators, dealers and collectors, art magazine editors and critics, gallery and museum directors, art historians in the universities--seem to have a problem with that. Somehow they feel within them, without necessarily knowing it or knowing why, that it would be an anomaly to accept such an artist wholly and unconditionally, as part of the mainstream of contemporary art, which is now seen as an extension of the great, Western tradition. It does not matter that he was born British, in Manchester. He cannot be allowed to walk around freely like the rest of his British contemporaries, like the rest of his countrymen. No. He must wear a tag. Something must be done, some word introduced, some sign or appellation, to mark him as an outsider. And so, silly connections are forced between his work and Africa where according to the director of the Brooklyn Museum--an otherwise perfectly intelligent man--people venerate animal dung. The tag is in place and voila! Everyone is comfortable again.
What is frightening is that this twisted logic is endemic, and that it sits like silt at the bottom of the academy and the society at large, poisoning the fabric of young, cultural brokers in the making. For this reason the young curators and critics running around in New York or Milan today are no better than their predecessors. They may exhibit inspired flashes of enlightenment at some point in their careers, only to relapse into the received ways. Nothing changes.
6. On the other hand you also said that the digital revolution is reconfirming the imperialistic power of Western society, defining the world and creating huge gaps between the third world and the industrial countries. What do you think about the spread of information being also a weapon against the fact that those third world regions have been left apart, and now they cannot be ignored anymore? Their voices are rising up. And you and some others are an example.
O.U.: In my thinking, my visibility in the West has little to do with the digital revolution or the third world. I have lived and practiced in the West for over a decade. I am a philosophiae doctor of the University of London. That I am able to reach an audience as an artist and philosopher in the West does not mean that the third world is no longer ignored because, at the end of the day, the consequence of nations depends on their comparative power in the community of nations, their aggregate economic and technological significance, rather than the visibility of certain individuals no matter how seemingly influential. One must not forget that the so-called third world--if by that we mean the former non-aligned countries--is a huge entity constituting almost two-thirds of the world’s population, and so, we cannot equate the visibility of a handful of expatriate African, Chinese, or Latin American cultural thinkers and curators living in the West to the final arrival of third world countries.
But even more importantly, anyone who is familiar with my work on the political economy of new information technologies would know that its fundamental argument is that the old dichotomy of industrial countries versus so-called third world countries is not very relevant in the digital age. I introduced the concept of 'digital third worlds' several years ago in order to articulate a more accurate human geography of the digital revolution. The facts indicate that there are as many people on the outside of the digital map in Appalachian United States as there are in Liberia or the Ukraine, people who, though they live in the wealthiest nation on earth, nevertheless have no access to three square meals a day, not to mention a computer or cash machine. These are not inner city, black people, as the cliché would have it, but rather well meaning and decent white Americans who live in dire poverty with no shoes on their children's feet. At the same time, while many think of the digital revolution as an almost Anglo-American revolution, the fact remains that two-thirds of the successful firms at the heart of that revolution in Silicon Valley, California are owned by South-east Asians, and the most powerful venture capitalist in The Valley is from India. India is a third world country, but it has nuclear capability, and digital technology is an integral part of modern nuclear technology. In other words, the gap is not between industrial nations and so-called third world countries; the gap is between those who have access and those who do not.
7. You have been talking about new borders. What do you mean about this term? And how is this going to affect us?
O.U.: I believe that anyone who has no access to the incredible power of new information technologies is an endangered species in the digital age. With those technologies it is possible today for the surveillance machinery of the United States and its allies to track every significant object and that includes every single human being on the face of the earth. That is power, and that is vulnerability. In other words anyone who has no understanding of these technologies, and no means of enabling themselves with them, is at the mercy of those who possess them. The United States may have made a shoddy mess of its recent military campaigns around the world, but that has more to the do with the inherent incompetence of its military personnel and the complete absence of morality in its missions. The truth of the digital age is that the technology now exists to change once and for all, the nature of human confrontation, and anyone who is not equipped to deal on a par is entirely at the mercy of those who are. That places a huge moral burden on the human race, and the lesson of history is that the human race is not a moral race.
My worry is not so much about the danger of violent erasure that this extraordinary power portends, but even more so about the huge gulf of alienation and disparity now in the making between those who are equipped and those who are not. That is the new border: between the digitally enabled and the digitally deprived. This alienation has enormous cultural consequences, and some of those I have explored in Connectivity, and The Fate of The Unconnected. Inasmuch as the wealth of nations and the complex web of contemporary cultural capital are now inextricably tied to digital technology, any individual who is left behind on account of non-familiarity with that infrastructure will be taken for granted, and to be taken for granted is to be in great peril. It is to be condemned, and that is a frightening specter because, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote in the final sentence of Cien Anos de Soledad in 1967, "races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth. "
However, there is a respite, and that respite is in parity. It is in making the technologies of power available to all so that they not only have access to the positive benefits of those technologies, but also have the power to put the negative on check. We are most respectful of one another when we are equal.