This is an interesting moment to be thinking about this topic. Exhibit B, at the Barbican has just been shut down.
When I was seven or eight, there was a giant house somewhere in London, where my grandmother used to organise events around black history.
One night, there was a display of all the implements used on slaves who didn’t do as they were told.
Most of these implements looked like they’d been at the bottom of the sea for hundreds of years.
I didn’t know this room existed until the end of the night. I walked past and was freaked out by the chains, which I’d heard of, but had never seen.
A man I didn’t know saw my reaction, put his hand on my shoulder, and said I should come in. He took me around each exhibit, explaining what the device in the case was used for.
The room was small, and painted white, with windows that looked out onto a dark garden.
There were things to press down your tongue, things that jutted out from your neck and shackles for babies.
When the tour was finished he said it was important that I’d seen it, then locked up the room and everyone left.
As a kid you sense things about adults but can’t always understand them. I got the feeling that this man didn’t want me to not know something. Now, as an adult, I think he was communicating a memory in the best way he knew how.
One of the questions I’ve always asked myself is when does memory begin or end. You can ask that of any form. But when we’re talking about the material world as we know it, when does a memory start and when does it end?
The clear answer is when it is remembered and when it is forgotten. But that’s too simple.
If your beginning is a bill of sale, is that a true remembrance?
Don’t you start to empathise and speculate and imagine the world behind that piece of paper? Don’t you start to look for clues? And if there are none, don’t you start to say well, it must have been like this –
It must have is what makes Exhibit B painful for a lot of people. Not only is there is the issue of having to speculate, there is also the issue of what you are imagining, the certainty of that imagining. And there is the fact that racism – which was invented – continues. So what the creator of Exhibit B sees as a retrospective, is just the present in another form.
I listened to the recording of the discussion held by Nitro last night. The poet Zena Edwards made an interesting point about withdrawal of the exhibit being a greater statement than doggedly carrying on.
Many of the comments from the floor highlighted the tiredness of the imagery, and the fact that 150 black actors have never been near the Barbican at once, except to depict slaves.
There’s memory and then there’s something else. Or rather, memory is often something else.
Here’s a screenshot of what the poem looks like at the moment. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was trying to imagine a time before ours, before racism existed. This is also the premise of a chapbook I’m working on, that I proposed for the Cafe Writers pamphlet competition.
The words in white change the text when clicked. You must scroll laterally to read the entire line.
I want to do this precisely because I am tired of the existing modes of remembrance, which do little to shake up the present.
One of my favourite examples of human folly is that we are able to imagine the apocalypse, but cannot imagine a world without rent.
We are able to remember racial violence, aggression, slavery and repression, but cannot remember a time when it didn’t exist or was resisted with incredible spirit.
Suddenly memory starts to resemble imagination.
Warping object of the present. Little prisms with many little sides. I think Exhibit B was an example of the small-mindedness that governs our relationship with the past; repeating the same old shit to make it seem ubiquitous, natural and inevitable.
I won’t bother with disclaimers about how I support every person’s right to blah blah blah and disagree with the misuse of a labour tactic for yada yada yada. Of course I do.
And in some ways I find it deeply comic that someone’s art has not been shut down, but onwards rampant capitalism.
The main thing is that the mode of memory Exhibit B was using, was one continuous with the notion that anything can be bought and sold, with no reflection on the buyer or seller. A financial transaction is a neutral transaction.
I can’t say that I am sad that it has closed. But I am always fucked up when I think about the reality it attempted to broach.
And in a predictable twist, the very predictable media predictably labelled the demo a violent protest. Memory and exasperation. There’s a meaty blog post.
Profit profit profit. Art Art Art.
It adds another stanza to this poem.
And makes me rethink this adventure.
Jay Bernard is the Poetry School’s 4th Digital Poet in Residence. You can follow ‘An Untitled Text Adventure’ here.
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