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That Which is Not There
Abhijan Toto

We talked to each other from the ends of the earth, connection shaky. There’s a storm outside. Our worlds are falling apart around us; we start talking immediately about the fires raging around us. I tell her about the student-led protests here in Bangkok, the Harry Potter-themed demonstrations as well as the clever and subversive use of popular culture, such as the three finger salute, adapted from the movie Hunger Games. She tells me about the mood of the Black Lives Matter movement, recent experiences of anti-Asian racism in the US. And of course, the man in the White House. Our talk quickly turns to the Philippines, a place we both have a relation of home to but both are, in a strange way, strangers to it, foreigners in a foreign way. The traces of the American withdrawal hold sway over the fortunes of this trice-colonized archipelago as the government of its current fascist sells the country piece by piece to the new regional super power. At the same time, he turns his attention to the censorship of the media, the murder of activists and passing of draconian legislation. The latest of these bears a curious trace of America’s legacy in the world - formulated as an “Anti-Terror Bill” by the government, and called simply as the “Terror Bill” by activists; it is the long unfolding of the ‘‘War On Terror’’ emerging from the American imperial imagination, where the ‘‘enemy’’ always remains the “unknown unknown”. A ghost, a shadow, always shapeshifting. That which is not there, but there. Activists warn of the use of the bill to ‘‘red-tag’’ anyone opposed to the government’s policies— ie, to brand them as members of armed communist guerilla movements, rendering them homo sacer in a regime of unbridled extrajudicial violence.

We turn to the present, the upcoming show. She’s developing a new version of a sound piece, built around the sound of bells, recordings, onomatopoeia, references, drawing from popular culture, excerpted sound recordings and other sources with a resounding knell being the primary refrain throughout the work. The piece comments on the Liberty Bell, itself a thing that fails to serve the purpose it was originally intended for, there but not there, and its place as a symbol of America as promise. When we imagine America, do we imagine ‘‘liberty’’? By drawing, across time, the sound of an un-ringable bell, she captures and gives form to the many presences of this phantom, one which had once drawn her family from its peripheries to the center of the empire. She tells me that because of the prevailing restrictions, she cannot realize the piece as it was originally intended—inside the bell tower of Christchurch, where the Liberty Bell would have hung. We can’t get too close to it. Instead, there’s a different idea: She’s been working with a group of bikers to disperse the piece throughout the city, making it resound through the streets, thus bringing into life the ossified symbol. The piece will ride through the streets with the bikers—there’s quite a culture of biker counterculture in Philadelphia, she tells me, of kids taking over the streets with their bikes, defying traffic, setting their own rules. It gestures back to the occupation of America’s streets in the on-going anti-racist, anti-fascist Black Lives Matter protests, and how this work, in such a form intersects with these. She will then restage it again with the collaboration of Farid Barron, a keyboardist for the Sun Ra Arkestra, who will drive around the Liberty Museum and Independence Hall, blasting the piece from his car. This also references the sonic occupation of American streets by POC (primarily black youth) with cars blasting music as a sign of defiance, of resistance, reenacted with the remixed sound of Liberty.

In recent weeks, the protesters have faced increasingly violent responses from the state, with police using decommissioned military grade equipment on protestors. The use of such violent tactics and technologies points precisely to the ways in which never disappear, but rather collapse in on themselves. Violence that was formerly directed outwards, gets directed towards its own body, instead. With the increased US withdrawal from global conflicts, more and more military equipment found its way into the hands of police departments and domestic security agencies. This in turn shape their responses to civilian movements, who therefore get framed as occupying enemy forces, or as ever-amorphous agents of terror, and are then dealt with accordingly.

There is a particular weight in this moment of the notion of a national symbol leaving its ossified confines to ride through the streets. Whose streets? Our streets. I think of the trajectory of the last 20 years of protests in the US. Of 2001, in Seattle, which produced the hopeful cry of ‘Another World Is Possible’. That was a moment of solidarities, of possible utopias. A future beyond that of neoliberal capitalism. Of 2008, when that same system produced another situation of collapse. The call then, too, was to occupy not only a space, but rather occupy finance itself, and therewith, occupy its ability to trade in our futures. Around that time, Judith Butler and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak entered into a conversation later published in a volume entitled Who Sings The Nation-state? [1], where they draw from the anti-racist protests in 2006, and the use of American nation symbols, such as the national anthem, and their deployment by immigrant communities almost an enchantments which could produce communities of belonging. The current movements present, however, an entirely different mood: one can argue that every march today in the streets of the US is only part of an extended funeral retinue, bodies gathering to add strength to the enactment of loss: a loss of black lives as well as the loss of a particular dream of America. The bells, tolling, rolling through the streets of Philadelphia, performing the sound of an un-ringable bell, seem to form part of this retinue, becoming a dirge to the nation-state itself.

[1] Butler, Judith, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Who Sings the Nation-State?: Language, Politics, Belonging. Seagull Books: 2007.

Abhijan Toto is Curator, Co-director, the Forest Curriculum, as s well as Curator, SAC, Subhashok The Arts Centre, and Artistic Director of 'A House In Many Parts’, both in Bangkok. He has previously worked with the Dhaka Art Summit, Bellas Artes Projects, Manila and Council, Paris. He is the recipient of the 2019 Lorenzo Bonaldi Prize at the GAMeC, Bergamo, his exhibition for which is currently on view, titled "In The Forest, Even The Air Breathes” on through February 14, 2021.

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