5 Questions to Anna-Sophie Springer
by Alexandra Navratil
A.N.: Anna-Sophie, it is hard to keep up with all the different projects you are working on and that you are involved in. I first encountered you as an exceptional translator, then as an excellent thinker and writer and then as the co-founder of K. Verlag. But I am especially curious about your most recent project that took you on a longer research travel through Indonesia earlier this year. Could you tell me more about it?
A.S.: Thank you for your interest, Alexandra! The research you are referring to is leading toward an exhibition, 125,660 Specimens of Natural History, on the contemporary legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace’s collecting expedition through the Malay archipelago that I have been working on for a bit over a year now. And you are right, thanks to a generous research grant by the Goethe-Institut I was able to spend last summer doing site and studio visits as well as fieldwork together with my co-curator, the Jakarta-based philosopher Etienne Turpin. Taking Wallace as a protagonist, with the project we explore legacies of modern colonial science and politics of knowledge—earlier stages of exploration, classification, and extraction—with respect to contemporary land use transformation, environmental destruction, and conservation. The idea originated during a weeklong workshop in the framework of the SYNAPSE network of international curators at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s The Anthropocene Project in Berlin where we discussed the scenario of nature–culture relationships. Chus Martinez by the way took part in this, too.
I personally find curatorial thinking interesting in this context because it allows you to approach cultural archives—objects, (hi)stories, concepts—constellationally. You can ask, what happens if you shift or intervene into a given set of relations. What will change if you put certain things side by side that are traditionally kept much further apart? When one does this, what kind of space is both virtually required as well as actually instantiated—by doing it? Which is where the performative, aesthetic, or design parts of this kind of work come in making the operation the more complex and multi-layered. As you know well from your own work, looking at nineteenth-century naturalists in the Tropics provides an immense amount of material to confront: the colonial entanglements, their contemporary traces, both as postcolonial and postnatural trajectories… Narrowing that down to one protagonist, A.R. Wallace, has obviously been a helpful strategy for us.
As someone researching knowledge practices and the role of collections and exhibitions, thinking about nature–culture quickly brings you to the natural history museum. Here, artists and scientists work together to create simulations of “nature,” most often encouraging us (still!) to perceive it as a realm that’s “out there”: intact, in the wild, and quite independent from human impact. But, as Donna Haraway already wrote in Primate Visions, that’s of course a paradox as soon as you start questioning how those taxidermy animal-objects have ended up in the dioramas, etc. Given the ecological crisis we are facing now in the twenty-first century—characterized by a huge biodiversity loss, massive deforestations, and rapid climate change—it’s an interesting problem to reimagine what a natural history exhibition could look like. There was a project at the New York Queens Museum in the early fall that tried this by addressing the corporate entanglements of natural history institutions in the US, for example by asking, how does it shape their narrative conditions when petrochemical conglomerates act as sponsors? I am also very curious about the new “Anthropocene” exhibition at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, which I will visit over the Christmas holidays. Regarding 125,660 Specimens, something we’ve been especially interested in is the fact that in the history of natural history the importance of the Indonesian archipelago as a source for revolutionary scientific discoveries cannot be underestimated. But in traditional science exhibition curatorship this legacy is hardly ever reflected or addressed in its form of colonial knowledge production based on rather unequal economies of mobility and exchange between Europe and Southeast Asia. So, shifting the focus towards some of the less visible dynamics surrounding Wallace’s collecting efforts in Southeast Asia (1854–62)—in the sense of Rob Nixon’s concept of “slow violence”—is one of the things we would like to achieve with the exhibition.
Regarding the canons and constellations of stories and histories you should know that it was the letters Wallace sent from various Malay islands to London, which spurred Charles Darwin’s publication of his famous The Origin of Species in the year 1859. Darwin had of course been working on the theory of evolution for decades but had hesitated to publish it because he feared its worldview-shattering effects. Although Darwin mentions Wallace in the Introduction of his book, most of us have rather little idea about the role Wallace played in marshaling the theory of evolution through natural selection. We do associate one archipelago, yes, but that’s normally Galapagos. At the same time we tend to overlook the groundbreaking role of that region which today is more or less covered by Indonesia, and its incredible biodiversity, in revolutionizing the discipline of biology and Western thinking. One explanation for this might be a class issue because Wallace, in contrast to his senior Darwin, was not your traditional scholarly naturalist. Although he did set out with quite clearly formulated scientific problems, he was first of all a professional collector–explorer who earned his living by catching, preparing, and shipping to Europe exotic specimens to various collectors. This in part also explains the gigantic number of animals Wallace collected. If other explorers brought back 20,000 specimens it was already a big amount. But Wallace shipped more than six times as much!
In a recent talk about his new research on the aridity line, Eyal Weizman so poignantly emphasized the need to recognize “climate change as a 200-years old project rather than as a collateral effect.” While we are dealing less with the desert and more with rainforest ecologies, this is an angle, I think, we take too in our research. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “Nature” is increasingly replaced by “Natural Resource,” focusing on those aspects of nature that can be appropriated by human use—on a large, industrial scale. And when we map out stories of figures such as Wallace, what we find is an entanglement of scientific and economic interests, which is very important to understand regarding the broader context and trajectory of tropical expeditions such as his. In fact, the career Wallace did have training in was as a land surveyor. He was a professional measurer. Maybe you know Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World on Alexander von Humboldt. Wallace “measured” the extent of Southeast Asian fauna, and the pinned beetles, stuffed orangutans, and birds of paradise then also testify to economic and classificatory power relations and the often severe environmental transformations these entail…
A.N.: In what form will the research become manifested and accessible? Are you thinking of a series of exhibitions or interventions in different locations?
A.S.: The exhibition itself will open in August 2015 at the fabulous art center Komunitas Salihara in Jakarta. And here I emphatically want to say that we are collaborating with artists predominantly from the Malay region as well as with zoologists from the Indonesian Institute of Science. So far, Etienne and I have shared elements of the historical research and theoretical contours in various frameworks internationally. We even presented a small display at the University of Tasmania in Hobart and a sort of satellite project, For a Minor Ornithology, at the 15th Jakarta Biennale, which included this co-written essay, Some Notes Towards a Minor Ornithology.
But, I am aching to open up the field to more perspectives and voices! The brand new Call for Proposals can be accessed here from January, 15. The project is envisioned as a multi-part exhibition cycle travelling from Indonesia to Europe (one version is planned for Berlin in 2016). But it has been a conscious decision to first return to where Wallace’s epic journey originally took place. Today, all known Wallace specimens except two—one bird and one beetle—are located in the Western world. Getting this project off the ground is an invitation to consider the complexity of such a relatively simple sounding fact.
A.N.: I have to admit, even though it is a bit embarrassing, that I sometimes buy books that you have mentioned or recommended on Facebook. This has given me some great reads. The last one that I encountered thanks to you was The Transformation by Juliana Spahr, a book I enjoyed a lot. What are you currently reading? How do you read? And could you please recommend me one very special book in poetry, one in literature and one in theory/ philosophy?
A.S.: Then you probably saw my recent post that “Books may be my ruin”!
Regarding what I’ve said about my interest in collections, stories, and knowledge archives I guess that books—never-mind how outdated some might nowadays frame this medium—are still the most effective way to get my “fix.” While I notice that reading online often makes me frantic, “info-whelmed,” so that I end up feeling mentally cluttered, I usually find reading and underlining on paper, as well as building thematic book piles, to be both more calming and more productive intellectually. How do I read? Well, good question. The first thing I want to respond with is: optimistically. This worry to never be able to read enough. Right? And yet, to never give up either. I also tend to read fiction and non-fiction (and everything in-between) with the same “confidence” in the sense of affect, learning, connection, relaying, etc. While a novel with plot and characters and an academic essay may stimulate differently, I always wish to read them in close proximity and for mutual infiltration in terms of how cultural memory —life as a problem to think about and live through—gets channeled into what I do, how I live, think, as well as how our current era relates to the struggles and experiences of previous times or generations.
Like you, I also often read based on recommendations, and that’s how I first heard about my absolute favorite read of 2014: Juliana Spahr’s meticulously composed memoir, The Transformation (Atelos, 2007). It’s an extraordinary, deep reflection of all those things you mention: poetry, literature, theory—and much, much more. It’s a troubled novel where language is identified as the first structure requiring a re-imagination in order to allow for any other political change. The book reads like a 200-page poem about human domestic arrangements, ecological habitats, alienation and belonging, art, love, and capitalist patriarchy. Besides confronting personal aspects like sexuality and human interrelationships, it deals with the geopolitical entanglements of Hawaii and New York City as two island regions with intense colonial histories and altered ecosystems. In large parts, it is invasive and displaced bird, fish, and plant species through which Spahr narrates and conjoins her subtle, more-than-human histories of violent occupation. I ended up reading half of the work out loud and, nearly a year later now, it continues to resound within me profoundly.
A book I read in one night in the summer was Polyamorous Love Song (BookThug, 2014) by my friend Jacob Wren, a writer from Canada. Full of razor-sharp humor, its plot is much more bizarre and theatrically constructed than The Transformation. But the concerns driving the work are similarly earnest and produced, I feel, with just as much mindfulness and care. Whereas I’ve recommended Spahr’s book to people working outside the art field—in science and environmental history, and they loved it—Jacob’s book is more eccentric and inward-looking towards art-and-life, an artists’ writer in a sense. His protagonists transpose their various performances into what you might want to call the “real life” in order to intensify both life’s perceptive stimulus and their own ethical position towards it. Perhaps you’ve read Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (Metronome, 2005). It’s similar in some ways, but still so much more grotesque and weird. It’s my favorite book by Jacob so far!
Regarding theory, I thought for a long time and finally I am choosing Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard University Press, 2011) because I already mentioned him above and because in many ways it’s a book about books as well. “Slow violence” basically refers to socio-environmental consequences that unfold too slowly to trigger a media spectacle (such as a Tsunami can). For this reason, Nixon writes, they are “often difficult to source, oppose, and once set in motion, to reverse.” Examples that he discusses are DDT, Bhopal, Chernobyl. It’s a book that asks you to rethink narratology in relation to temporalities, and to focus especially on slowing down your perception against the background of digital acceleration. Coming from ecocriticism and literary studies, Nixon focuses on the question of how writers can contribute to making drawn out ecological processes more tangible to our senses and imagination while continuing to propose both philosophical and formal questions. A lot of Nixon’s analyses and ideas, I feel, have relevance to cultural producers working in other mediums than writing as well—artists, curators, filmmakers… I just saw the Laura Poitras exhibition at Artists Space in Manhattan. Although dealing more with the messy ideological entanglements of post-9/11 politics than, say, the eco-sociological ruptures of petro-capitalism that are no doubt connected, her film The Oath (2010) is a masterful example of art that engages serious research and “worldly matters”. The film produces a sense of complexity, urgency, and criticality that makes your head spin. But without applying heroism or preaching! Other books I would recommend are Julian Assange’s When Google Met Wikileaks, Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, the essays and speeches of Ursula K. LeGuin, and Chris Kraus’s Aliens & Anorexia. And, Clarice Lispector.
A.N.: In 2011 you co-founded K. Verlag together with Charles Stankievech. How did the necessity arise for you to publish books? What was the first publication that you made and which is the most recent one?
A.S.: To make a bit of fun, let me admit that I already ran the so-called Anna-Sophie Verlag when I was still a girl, supplying my family with handmade picture books, preferably, of human anatomy. But on the serious side, when I was first hired by Merve Verlag in Berlin after completing my Master’s at Goldsmiths I was asked to work on a book project by Thomas Hirschhorn and the German philosopher Marcus Steinweg. I moved back to Berlin with the plan to manage the development and production of an artist’s book that would function like a book-as-exhibition displaying reproductions from the mixed-media collage series MAPS. Entitled Foucault-Map (2008), The Map of Friendship Between Art and Philosophy (2007), and Hannah-Arendt-Map (2003) the original works are enormous in format and partly made by Hirschhorn in collaboration with Steinweg. They bring a diverse array of archival and personal documents or small objects into associative proximities and reflect the complex impact philosophy has had on, predominantly, Hirschhorn’s art and thinking. Sadly, our endeavor to make a kind of atlas with large fold-out, color-printed sheets ultimately failed because it simply proofed unfeasible for a small publisher without institutional funding support, but affordable pricing policy, to make a book that needed such meticulous handiwork. The artworks have since been exhibited for example at the Pompidou in Metz but the book has never come out. Among the many amazing experiences I took away from my job at Merve I would say this was my inauguration to seriously starting to think about the book as an architecture to work with and think about curatorially.
The most recent publication is TRAVERSALS, for which I spoke to Dora García, Chris Kraus, Mark von Schlegell, Charles Stankievech, and Jacob Wren about the mutability between visual art and writing. Having mentioned the book-as-exhibition, in addition to the contents of the conversations themselves, the book moreover embodies an implicit reflection about the relationship between the gallery and the book as the texts were originally produced for an installation piece in 2011. As you’re enquiring about the first and the last—in a way, making this installation piece, Traversals (With Ladder), for the Espai d’Art Contemporani de Castelló, Castelló, Spain, can well be seen as the event, which led Charles and I to subsume our collaborative work in the paginated realm of publishing under our imprint K.
A.N.: Where are you right now and what are you thinking and writing about?
A.S.: This fall I have been based in the US thanks to being invited to the Rutgers University German Department as their Craig-Kade Scholar/Writer in Residence. Currently I am in New York City, writing from the cafe section of the Soho-bookshop McNally Jackson.
Besides working on the exhibition mentioned above I devoted most of my time here to a new book-as-exhibition series entitled intercalations: a paginated exhibition series. K. is co-publishing the series in partnership with the HKW and I am delighted to announce that the first two volumes—Fantasies of the Library and Land & Animal & Nonanimal—will be available later this January! “Intercalations” itself is both a term from geology as well as from literary theory and roughly it means that one element, such as a layer of rock or a narrative strand, is inserted and pushed in-between another element. As the old composition is changed, new meanings arise. Regarding the destabilizing effect of the Anthropocene thesis on inherited concepts, narratives, and assumptions, “intercalations” thus provides a neat template for the task of developing new or at least different epistemological processes and experimental methodologies. The series invites artists, activists, architects, curators, philosophers, photographers, scientists, other scholars, and a young designer, Katharina Tauer, to collaborate in creating dense layers, intersecting strata, and various relays around concepts regarding histories of nature–culture. I like to think of the series of six volumes as gradually building a miniature library, which also explains the role of the inaugural volume, which opens up a vast imaginary around the book-space as curatorial, visual, and intertextual. It includes a long essay of mine, “Melancholies of the Paginated Mind,” on the library as a curatorial space. I argue that while it is a traditional space of order and classification, the library is also pregnant with idiosyncrasies of connection, display, use, and constellation. As these first two volumes have been completed now, the four that follow are already in the pipeline—with many collaborators and contributors.
Since you are in Switzerland, I am also currently finishing a chapter on Harald Szeemann’s replica of Kafka’s execution machine from the Penal Colony against the background of Szeemann’s long-standing relationship to the department store Warenhaus Gebrüder Loeb in Berne for an academic book coming out with Ashgate Publishing later in 2015.
Anna-Sophie Springer (b. West-Berlin, 1980) is a writer, editor, curator, and co-director of K. Verlag, an independent Berlin-based press exploring the book as a site for exhibition making. Her practice merges curatorial, editorial, and artistic interests by stimulating fluid relations among images, artifacts, and texts in order to produce new geographical, physical, and cognitive proximities, often in relation to historical archives. She is Associate Editor of publications for the 8th Berlin Biennale. Before launching K. in 2011, she worked as Editor for the pioneering German theory publisher Merve Verlag.
Anna-Sophie is also a member of the HKW’s SYNAPSE International Curators’ Network where she co-edits the intercalations: paginated exhibition book series co-published by K. in the framework of the HKW’s The Anthropocene Project. As a curator, her previous exhibitions—often in collaboration with colleagues—include the touring group show Ha Ha Road (UK, 2011–12), on the subversive power of humour; The Subjective Object (GRASSI Ethnographic Museum Leipzig, 2012), on display practices and the archive; the series EX LIBRIS (Galerie Wien Lukatsch and others, 2013), exploring various libraries as curatorial spaces; as well as For a Minor Ornithology on birds in the history of science (15th Jakarta Biennale, 2013). Her writing and interviews have been published in C Magazine, Fillip, Rheinsprung11, and Scapegoat. Her forthcoming exhibition project 125,660 Specimens of Natural History will open at Komunitas Salihara, in Jakarta, Indonesia, in August 2015. Her collection of interviews, TRAVERSALS: Conversations on Art and Writing, was released in September 2014, and she is currently finalizing the production of her exhibition-book Fantasies of the Library as the inaugural publication in the intercalations series (January 2015). She received her M.A. in Contemporary Art Theory from Goldsmiths College, University of London, and her M.A. in Curatorial Studies from the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst, Leipzig. In 2014 she was the Craig-Kade Scholar/Writer in Residence at Rutgers University, New Jersey.