In our increasingly digital world, discovering a physical box on an archive shelf, pulling out a folder from within, and carefully examining its tangible contents can feel particularly ceremonious.
Research can be an opening to the inaccessible, the unknown, or the forgotten. Kapwani Kiwanga explores this fact in her work, perhaps due to her background in anthropology and comparative religion before becoming an artist. By materializing details and histories often pulled from documents, she brings us closer to things that, though, seemingly obscured by dominant narratives, are actually in plain sight.
It was during a research project of my own investigating the architectural details of carceral environments that I first encountered Kiwanga’s works pink-blue (2017) and A Sum and Its Parts (2017). These pieces struck me in the way they transformed archival documents and photographs into affective experiences. The method Kiwanga used specifically, unearthing the specifications of carceral spaces and other architectures of control and translating them into large-scale immersive installations was immediately alluring to me as both a researcher and designer.
My own research examined the architecture of Canadian immigration detention centres, specifically looking at the ways in which these government-sanctioned facilities that detain undocumented migrants further reinforce ideas of illegality and criminality. The government often refuses journalists and researchers access to these centres, and very few photographs of the interior architecture of the buildings themselves are available. So, when I began analyzing them, my primary interest evolved into a question of how to access this inaccessible information.
One possible way was through documents; I made my first access to information request last year, which is a process that involves applying to access public records from the Canadian government that is only available upon request. I waited nine months for the request to be processed by the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA). When I finally received the documents, they arrived in a benign manila envelope with an unmarked CD inside- a format so anachronistic that I was not sure where to even read it.
The CD itself did not contain building plans, but rather, hundreds of pages of mundane guidelines that stipulated the dimensions of bathrooms, bedrooms, and living quarters for a new immigration holding centre being built in Laval, Quebec. The pages specified whether a floor surface was tile or carpet, and what the reflectivity of the ceiling should be. While I found these documents compelling since they shed some light on how the architects designed the building, my instinct was to translate these pages into something that was more accessible and could allow for a better understanding of these spaces. This is when I revisited Kiwanga’s work, pink-blue.
Images of pink-blue exhibited at both the Power Plant (2017) and Esker Foundation (2018) are some of the most widely circulated photographs of Kiwanga’s work: the Baker-Miller pink-and-blue-lit fluorescent hallway became instantaneous Instagram fodder. Although aesthetically alluring, her choices are reflective of the insidious nature of prison architecture and the way in which design controls marginalized people.
What captivated me about the piece was how Kiwanga translated design decisions into affective environments that have concrete implications on the body. The Baker-Miller pink hallway is not only about its pinkness, but the implied understanding that this distinct shade was painted inside prisons, specifically to reduce or calm the aggressive behaviour of inmates. In the second half of the space, Kiwanga installed bright blue fluorescent lights akin to the fixtures that are installed in public bathrooms to deter intravenous drug injection, as the light negates the appearance of veins. In both instances, she isolates design choices used to control the body and reproduces them within the gallery space. When placed within this new context where these details are amplified to such an extreme, the viewer becomes disoriented by their scale.
This translation from written specifications as fact, to an aestheticized space that evokes an embodied response in of the viewer, was in some ways what I intended to replicate. However, instead of intensifying one characteristic of the design, I became interested in all the details of the space and attempted to recreate them in an uncanny manner. To decipher the documents, I reproduced the spaces that they described as miniature models and then filmed them. This created a distortion of scale, between the table-top size of the model and the final size of the projected film that allowed visitors to feel as if they were inside the space itself.
While Kiwanga is not an architect, much of her work is explicitly architectural in its references to materials and their scale in relation to the proportions of the human body. Perhaps this is the natural evolution of her early performance-based art practice which required one to have a complete understanding of one’s position in relation to space.
To think of one’s orientation within a space leads one to think about our own relationships to power; specifically, the ways in which these imbalances are not always clear, or easily subverted. Kiwanga’s work Jalousie, for example, uses two-way mirrors and louvres to filter views and subvert the relationship between the observer and the observed. In doing so the work unsettles the viewer, by using this nebulous space of power to create a sense of discomfort. Kiwanga often works in these threshold-like spaces: between past and present, present and future, and between continents. By situating viewers in a space of shifting time and ground she compels us to think more about our own embodied experiences and positions as we move through the world.
The following conversation was conducted with Kiwanga this past summer over the phone as she was in the midst of preparing for upcoming projects at her studio in Paris. While Kiwanga has since pivoted away from work relating to carceral spaces, her current work still uncovers concepts linked to the body and forms of external control over it. She is now examining this through plants and their history; specifically, the ways in which plants were used as tools of Afro-descendants’ resistance, for example, to induce abortion in productive bodies that were not free.
I often deal with questions of power imbalances, but it’s never as if there are two poles that are fixed. They are always positions that slide between the extremes on various spectrums.
My own research interests are rooted in the intersection of art and architectural practices, specifically examining the ways in which architecture can reinforce the borders of settler-colonial states and exert control over bodies, which is why I was so interested in speaking with you. I am hoping to talk about the spatial qualities of your work.
In many ways, it seems like your projects are always informed by architecture. In what ways do you read into architecture as a manifestation of colonial power?
I see architecture as encapsulating all types of power containing imbalances, the big one being the colonial. My work is a way for me to understand growing up in Canada. It’s a bit different being in France now, because it’s predominantly on the emitting side of colonialism as opposed to the receiving.
I would say that my work looks at colonial power, but not all the time. It looks more generally at power and space. Working at an architectural scale was a natural progression with the invitations that were given to me; as I was invited to exhibit in spaces that were relatively large, and I was able to work on a larger scale. I started to work as an artist in video and performance, specifically performance lectures, and that scale was dependent on a modest economy.
By doing performance lectures I was working with thoughts and concepts, but in working more with the body in space, I moved toward installation. My projects adapt and react to the spaces I am invited into, as each space has its own historical background in the country or town that I’m invited into and of course the space in which people experience the artwork. In that sense, I’m thinking more about how bodies move through space and how I’m going to respond to it. Our bodies are submitted to, controlled, and influenced by dominant modes of making and being. I try to be aware of that, and to then think about other ways that the body can exist in the exhibition space that might be somewhat different or that might amplify or explode the structures that surround us. I work with scale in order to magnify ideas of dominance or power imbalance or to do the opposite through tranquility—giving the body an experience that defies the way in which we’ve been taught to interact with each other and with space.
As someone from Canada now living in Paris, and as a member of the African diaspora, what role does context play in the execution of your work, specifically in terms of geography and your relationship to the locations and the art spaces in which you’re working?
When I’m doing new work, it’s very important to know where I’m standing first, the history of the space, the city, whatever, and then of course how my body and how my experience is working within that. The only filter I have is my own, so I can be sympathetic and empathetic to others but the only thing I can really feel is my own body and my own experiences moving through spaces. Even when it doesn’t always filter into the work that I make, there’s a part of me that is grounded in some way, as an entryway into a space.
Of course, that is just one of the many steps I take to look at history. Sometimes there are works that arise out of different invitations that end up traveling, that don’t have a specific link to the space in which they’re shown. I always find that a bit more complicated, so I try to find out how the work is rooted. Of course, it has a larger resonance than just the local. I like feeling that there is a rootedness in place.
As you say that, I think that it must be interesting to have projects you worked on or exhibited here later transposed into and responded to in a European context. There is some understanding of settler colonialism within a North American context that may be starting to be explored in Europe but it’s a relatively new idea there. How do audiences respond to that work? Do you find that a preamble is sometimes needed?
I don’t give too much preamble to things; I try to put the work in the context that inspired me. It’s interesting, because every space and every city and every type of institution, whether it is an artist-run space or a publicly-funded institution or a private foundation—all of that really creates a different lens through which people start to apprehend a work.
I think of the works that I’ve done in Canada, for example, Positive-Negative (morphology), which was exhibited at Joliette and then went to the South Alberta Art Gallery. I’ve not shown it in Europe yet, at least not every part of it. I’m not sure if it would be read in the same way, because of a less obvious or further removed experience of settler colonialism that is linked to land and land reparation. So, some things don’t transfer in a 1:1 ratio but most things kind of do, in the sense that I often try to think in a trans-geographic and trans-temporal way.
When I’m doing research, I’ll be looking at different locations and different time periods, and there’s kind of an interweaving of these to make the exhibition so that when it travels to a different space and different context, there’s something that can resonate with the audience. It might not be everything, but it could be the key that opens up to the other things.
What role does research into material histories play in your practice?
It’s true that I come from a research background. It’s interesting because in some situations within art, some people will talk about coming from a particular medium, people will talk about being a sculptor or a painter. That’s not the way that I work, and because my real medium is concept, that’s the starting point. Very rarely do I use a material “just because.”
It’s often the history of a particular material that is important, or perhaps I feel that it’s going to have an immediate referential quality. For example, if I’m doing work around painting in reference to different wall colours, et cetera, I’ll use drywall because that’s one way to relay the reference, that this is a wall and an architectural object and not a painting per se. Those choices are important, as is understanding how material can also hold economic or political history.
There’s a series of works I’ve done with sisal, a type of agave. Brazil is currently the biggest exporter of sisal, although Tanzania is also a major exporter. If you look at the arrival of sisal in Tanzania through German settlers who began plantations, its production then shifted into a big effort during World War Two when the British administered the territory. Then Tanzanian independence came along, and sisal became a nationalized cash crop. It became an actor in a non-aligned quest to be independent and not rely on either the Eastern or Western Blocs. I find these kinds of histories, which are embedded into the material, to be significant.
There is also something about art, which is that often you’re not meant to be touching things- but people seem to touch the work if they can. There is something about people feeling drawn to and wanting to interact with a work [...] I don’t really have a conscious desire to push the haptic but there is the question of inviting the body somehow, to not see things as objects but things that one can interact with.
Sometimes I get the sense that you’re trying to overwhelm or submerge the viewer either through soundscapes, colour, or tactility. A lot of the time, with visual or tactile objects, this comes through in the materials themselves. Could you further explain this relationship between embodiment and materiality in your work?
There’s definitely a physical and phenomenological experience I’d like people to have, and so in disciplinary architecture, for example, the colour and light are really important because of the studies that show they influence how we move, how we feel, et cetera. I wanted to create spaces that try to push bodies into different places and to navigate the exhibitions in a particular way, but to also have freedom. There’s often one way in and one way out of an exhibition, and I think about that when making an exhibition; how do your physical positions affect subjectivity and positions of power, or at least give an idea of multiple perspectives? I’m trusting that the body is going to be one of the principal receptors, as well as the mind.
In the work pink-blue, I’m pushing the body beyond the physical experience of making the scale bigger so that one can experience the use of colour in a more overt way. I think things become so normalized that we don’t see how much things are constructed; amplifying or making things smaller, working in different ways that slightly step out of what is the norm. I do not use super luxurious materials, but ones that are found in the everyday, materials that are commonly encountered. Using scale and intensity to push a perception past normalcy, is one way of working.
I want to go back to the idea of multiperspective that you were talking about, and the idea of subjectivity or role-reversal between the viewer and the object. I’m thinking of your work Glow, but I’m sure this comes across in your other works: the concept of surveillance. How do you understand the visitor in relation to the piece and where does subjectivity work itself in?
Glow is one series of works, but the work Jalousie, which uses a two-way mirror might be more exemplary. When you come in you see a louver structure that has four panels assembled. You first apprehend it as a mirrored surface. But of course, in the exhibition, you turn around and you realize that you can see through it, you can see the rest of the exhibition and the visitors that are coming in, et cetera.
The ideas of visibility and of seeing and being seen are literally reversed. You come in being observed and you exit being the observer—so there is the question of a continually shifting ground and context, understanding one’s experience and the power that is related to that. I often deal with questions of power imbalances, but it’s never as if there are two poles that are fixed. They are always positions that slide between the extremes on various spectrums.
You’ve been asked a lot of questions relating to the historicization of your work, and in some ways, I read some of your pieces almost as artifacts. They are like deconstructions of historical materials or devices, and then by re-materializing the historical document through these art objects, they take on a new shape.
How does the research change once it becomes these art objects, or in some cases artifacts?
I hope they change. I mean, one of the things that I continually question myself about is the status or the role of documents and documentation in archives. That’s partially where I start research and thinking about what could become new documents and new ways of understanding the past and present moments.
It can speak to a melding together of different temporalities. This past that I’ve drawn up was filtered and melded together through me and is shown in this particular time. You can’t ignore that I do this differently than someone else would, et cetera. I think the melding happens when I ask what is the dragging up of the past means to this present? Aesthetically, but also politically, socially, —all those things meld into something of an artifact.
One of my projects, Soft Measures, where I’m using granite and fabrics, is talking about geographic time in relation to the African and European continents. The granite has engraved lines that create units as if it were a ruler. It shows a measurement of the velocity of the African and European tectonic plates, which are moving toward one another. Formally, this work reminds me of some archaeological objects that were used as either tallies, accounts, or storytelling stones. They hold information, which you can speculate on. I was thinking about those stones as pushing us into the very far future where there’s no separation between these two tectonic plates, and I was projecting into the moment when they actually collide. If you read these lines in the distant future, will you understand the velocity I was referring to today? Or will it just be lost knowledge like so many other archaeological objects?
I think about how things can be seen out of context, out of an art context, for example. Would this work still exist, and would it be comprehensible? I think it’s fair to try to document by finding other ways beyond the text, iconography, and all the rest.
The example you just gave us—Soft Measures— explains this idea well. Your work is often described as historical but, in which ways is your work speculative or future-oriented?
I wouldn’t say the work is Afrofuturist, but the work looks through an Afrofuturist perspective, if you can call it that. And that interest in past, present, future—mixing those together in past works like in 2009, 2011, it was quite important. I think there’s always a future that is present and I’m always thinking about how this can push us out of our present.
This project called Green Book that I worked on looked at the Negro Motorist Handbook. It was published over three decades in the United States. This work was a response to thinking about movement throughout space. Of course, there are a lot of questions around movement and migration generally at this time. But I was thinking about experiences of space through different bodies, or different ideas of racialization. To understand where we were at, now, I had to look back, and look at legislation.
Glow, for example, is also a part of that. Glow and Green Book are both in that same, longer, vein of research. I was thinking about where the structures that got us here are. The forms that I choose are attempts to make the body feel altered, or are a possible exit from where we are now, in this cell that we are trying to slightly crack open to see ways forward.
I’m thinking, for example, about my first solo exhibition, in 2014, Rumours that Maji was a Lie... It’s basically a shelving unit that goes from the floor to the ceiling. I was looking at many things, but mostly ethnographic museums in France and Germany as these immense store-holds of over-the-top collecting, stealing, and amassing. This overload was incredible to me. This amassing was happening at the same time in the visual arts, in video work we were seeing, where we were viewing one object after another at a hyper-fast pace. I was thinking that I couldn't make an exhibition where I was showing and reproducing objects, where I was recreating the gesture of amassing.
For me, it made sense to give space to immaterial things; there was a lot of emptiness in that installation, a lot of video and image projection and sound. The absence referred to the power imbalance of this mass of objects in one part of the world that were taken from other parts of the world, and how those “empty” spaces are filled in different ways. This helps to explain the notion that my choice of the forms and aesthetics is an attempt to look for alternatives to the status quo of how we relate.
Are you responding to dominant Western narratives in your work?
It varies. There is a bit of that, but personally, it is really important for me to share other stories that may not be so well-known so as to acknowledge some of the strategies and alternatives that have been proposed by other people. These stories have always existed, but they haven’t necessarily had the same wide-reaching scope; maybe they’ve failed, or they’ve been flawed. Alternatives have not always been able to sustain themselves or been able to find ways to subvert or survive within these systems.
I pay a lot of attention to celebrating the creations and the infrastructures made by non-dominant communities and individuals. There is an understanding that the majority of people who come into an art space where I’m showing have been educated in a certain way and that they also function in these dominant spaces. I’m trying to mold outside of, beyond, and around dominant spaces.
To conclude this conversation, can you speak about what you’re working on now?
I’m working with plants a lot at the moment; histories of plants, and how those have been used in Afro-descendants’ resistance. Plants that have either supported maroon communities or are used to regain control of reproduction when these bodies are not able to be completely free. I am interested in how Indigenous and African peoples, as well as African descendants in the Caribbean and the Americas, used plants for abortion.
One of the exhibitions looks at this idea, and it goes back to the sculpting of space. I’m doing an exhibition in Munich next, and there are English gardens behind the building [the Haus der Kunst] where I’ll be showing. The building itself has a lot of history but the English gardens behind it are interesting as a constructed public space “for everybody”. I’m looking at the space of the English garden creatively, but also thinking about how the trans-cultural exchange around floral and botanic stories can sometimes be imbalanced. This project in Munich though, is more of a focus on outdoor space as sculpted nature.
Anyway, I’m working a lot around plants. This is not new, since my work with flowers has been kind of there all the time. It is based on an interest in looking at non-human knowledge, as well as possibilities to push towards looking for new [kinds of] documentation.