|The Black Atlantic project is rooted in the half-remembered history of the modern African diaspora into the western hemisphere. It asks what significance that great dispersal and traumatic relocation might now have for the Americas, for Europe and for the world. It explores how the continuing cultural impact of that great shift might be used to re-think the experience and predicament of Europes racialised minorities as well as to explore the changing character of a western civilisation which has not always been able to recognise them as human beings. In particular, we want to show how the traumas and injustices of racial division have challenged art and culture to find forms that are capable of capturing the uncomfortable truths of this history of suffering, of healing its wounds, mourning its losses, protesting against its wrongs and affirming the dissident identities created by the historic obligation to re-make a world that has been broken and compromised by the rational irrationality of white supremacy.
Moving beyond these specific concerns with the racialisation of the modern world, the project also addresses more general aspects of contemporary art and culture which have recently become central to cultural debates. On the one hand, processes of trans-nationality and trans-culturality provide major themes. On the other, the project is open to a critique of modernity that has been articulated from a post-colonial perspective through various artistic genres, as well as political, aesthetic and philosophical frameworks.
The project conceives the Black Atlantic not as a period or region but as a trans- and inter-cultural space. It is a novel variety of space, a space defined by flows rather than places in which the ocean becomes a negative continent that requires us to redraw social, historical and cultural lines of communication between the Americas, Africa and western Europe. Culture crosses the Black Atlantic and histories of crossing as both mixture and movement mean that culture itself will have to be reconceptualised. Its links with land and territory are placed in question and culture is no longer to be understood as an exclusively sedentary phenomenon.
Our programme encompasses the various patterns and vectors of the Black Atlantics itinerant cultures. It shows that they exhibit distinctive communicative tactics and commodities. Though they are central, texts are not the only or the dominant vehicle for this restless culture. There are journeys to consider, sounds and music to interrogate. We must also reflect upon the technologies that helped this culture to move and, more recently, to supply a vibrant soundtrack for globalisation. Braided into the Black Atlantics histories of sound and sounding are traditions of visual culture that play with the limit of what can be seen and literary expressions that know the limitations of what can be turned into words. Taken together, these arts of darkness have shaped a powerful counterculture of western modernity.
The project aims to question the overly innocent European conceptions of modernity that try to confine its unfolding to the tidy urban environments of western Europe. The Black Atlantic directs attention to the modernity of institutions like the slave castle and the monocrop plantation. Postmodernist critiques of modernity have routinely been confined to and largely shaped by the industrial killing and genocidal atrocities of the 20th century. The Black Atlantic project follows a different historical path into the contested moral imagination of western culture. It suggests that all the ambiguities and conflicts that characterise modernity can profitably be traced right back to the start of Europes colonial expansion. This counter-history is oriented, but not exhausted, by the central event of the slave trade.
The middle passage represents a beginning as well as an end. Its traumas initiated a new and distinctively modern diaspora with a special cultural ecology. Literacy was forbidden on the point of death and music moved into a dominant position that influenced the shape and quality of the other artistic creations made by slaves and their descendants. By making music into the central art-form for our season, we remember and celebrate this historic development.
Mass migration into Europe from its formerly colonial territories has become a defining characteristic of our time. It has helped to transform familiar places into unknown landscapes where old Europe is exposed to new strangers and new patterns of trans-culturalisation develop. Multiple identities have become a commonplace that brings abstract globalization alive in everyday life. Rather than see this process of contact and mutual influence as a loss, or a process in which the purity of civilisation has been contaminated by unwanted alien influences, the trans-national structures of the Black Atlantic invite us to consider the possibility that trans-culturalisation might provide a host of cultural opportunities and could potentially supply significant resources for the building and enhancing Europes multi-cultural democracy.
The Black Atlantic project will take place in Autumn, 2004, in Berlin. German colonial history will play an important role in its unfolding. There are for example, many questions arising from the presence of a largely unrecorded and bitterly contested history of the black presence in this city and this nation. That presence has done more than shape contemporary Berlin. The city was the location of one the major conferences to shape the geo-political ordering of colonial territory. The project will explore a number of pivotal problems that have a bearing upon how the nation might begin to re-imagine itself and to accommodate its forgotten colonial past. These include the impact of the Haitian revolution on German political and philosophical thought, the circulation and dissemination of new world black cultures including the local manifestations of jazz culture and their relationship to an expanded and revised account of modernism.
The Black Atlantic favours low frequencies. Its cultures of sound and histories of sounding have been celebrated by diverse artists and thinkers. They have provided our project with its central themes. Taking sound and sonic technologies as a point of departure, we have set out to map a variety of reverberations that includes the power of dispersed and fragmented counter-memories, the recovery of lost histories of resistance and the difficulties involved in the process of re-inscription through which we learn that we are no longer what we were and cannot return to a fixed and knowable point of origin. The project will place the meaning and functionality of music within a series of curated soundscapes shaped by the obligation to improvise and the desire to be heard. These ciphers of the black Atlantics hidden public sphere, become places that capture the distinctiveness of its responses to both modernity and modernism.