Curatorial Statement

The Missed Seminar is an archive-based exhibition that resonates in dialogue with the audiovisual installation End Credits by the artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen. As a disquiet portal to rewind potential knowledge that refuses global racial capitalism, the conversation departs from the lives of the Black feminist anthropologist, anticolonial writer, world traveler and African American photographer Eslanda Goode Robeson and with a particular focus on their friendships in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and beyond. Conceived as a situated reading of transcontinental world-making practices that reveal and upset the Cold War’s extreme binarism, The Missed Seminar is not a historical reconstruction of Robesons’ legacies, but a transtemporal metabolization of archival matter—images, scripts, files and films that narrates the fearlessness, love and struggles of living an “antiphonal life” (Shana L. Redmond) that vibrates in the present. More a study than a documentation, it aims to unfold methods that connect, Eslanda Robeson’s practices of antifascism, anticolonialism, Black feminism and communism using photography, cinema, and techno-politics under the state-pressures of global wartime politics. It imagines a seminar which might neither have been documented nor realized, or simply missed, but which students wishing to rehearse an intersectional practice of critique, resistance and vision for fighting fascism, colonialism and antisemitism would have attended. Proposed as unfinished conversations, The Missed Seminar reimagines a repressed intersectional communism, invoking and shifting the geopolitics of memory in a present that remains under pressure from the legacies of various imperial divisions of the world—including those of the Cold War.

Installation view of Open Plan: Steve McQueen (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, April 29–May 14, 2016). , Photograph by Ron Amstutz

End Credits by Steve McQueen exposes thousands of digitized FBI files as they scroll up slowly on the large-scale screen over 12 hours and 54 minutes: file numbers, dates, registration codes, some heavily redacted or blacked out, as well as 67 hours 4 minutes and 43 seconds of asynchronous voice recordings that render the FBI informants’ reports audible. The work is installed in the Auditorium of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, the former Congress Hall built in 1957 - a Cold War architecture par excellence. The work is a haunting monument to the state surveillance and smear campaigns organized by the US government against Eslanda Robeson as well as the renowned singer, actor, lawyer and social activist Paul Robeson. Banned from travel and work outside the United States between 1950 and 1958, both were supported and celebrated in communist and nonaligned countries around the world. The durational exorbitance of End Credits exposes the pathology of the US anticommunist hatred that violated Paul and Eslanda Robeson’s basic human rights while, at the same time, it demonstrates their lifelong fight for freedom, humanity and justice in conversation with friends of Pan-African, worker’s, women’s and communist movements.

Doreen Mende, The Missed Seminar, Decolonizing Socialism: Entangled Internationalism. Research diagram: Franz Loeser and Eslanda Robeson at the trial in absentia of Hans-Maria Globke at the Supreme Court of the GDR. inter∞note 2021.

In this premiere of the installation in its complete form at HKW, the largescale projection becomes a monumental confrontation at the heart of the former Congress Hall, a space that was gifted by the same anticommunist US government to the city of West Berlin after the Second World War. In opposition to the people of East Berlin, quite literally at their border, the Congress Hall was designed to promote anticommunism as conditioning for de-Nazification and “freedom.” Thus, the installation is an exhibit that denounces, both in curatorial and juridical terms, the promises of liberal democracy as a tool of war. In dialogue with the hi-res exposure of US anticommunism in End Credits, The Missed Seminar is both an exhibition and a study that re-searches (for) the friendship between Eslanda Robeson and the German-Jewish Marxist philosopher Franz Loeser, situated in East Berlin around the year 1963. More a diagram than a representation, it honors Eslanda Robeson, with particular care paid to the relevance of her encounters with students’ and women’s movements, her “large and unconventional life” (Barbara Ransby) that is too often overshadowed by her husband’s. Beside her “writing as a political act” (Katharina Warda) and photographs of a “Pan-African gaze” (Leigh Raiford), The Missed Seminar’s critical vector is a photograph of Eslanda Robeson and Franz Loeser meeting in East Berlin: on July 8, 1963, they attend the Supreme Court of the GDR together to witness the prosecution of Hans Globke in absentia, a symbolic and internationally covered trial against fascism and its proponents who continued to hold power in the systems of postwar West Germany.

The Missed Seminar wishes to celebrate the futurity of the Robeson’s lived friendships, encounters and narratives, inscribed into the unconscious of former communist geographies in Europe, which are too often erased from communism’s potential histories. It aims to be an exercise that reflects on the ambivalence of the GDR’s claim for antifascism as state-crafting that operated also, however, a state power and thus isolated the Robesons as “so comfortably un-German […] without necessarily having to wrestle with East German anti- Black racism” (Kira Thurman). In exploring “a past the present hasn’t caught up with yet” (Avery F. Gordon) or a “history future” (Matana Roberts), could such an approach constitute a practice of decolonizing socialism from Cold War global politics? Could such a study invoke anticolonial Black feminist internationalism and transcontinental world-making for the purpose of activating an intersectional geopolitics of memory in the present?

Collage: Klimaite Klimaite; Images: Akademie der Künste, Berlin, Paul-Robeson-Archiv (AdK, PRA), in part also Bundesarchiv, Berlin (BA) with kind permission; cutouts: n.a./Sturm, AdK, PRA No. 612.11 © BA (Zentralbild, 1959); n.a., AdK, PRA No. 621 © BA (Zentralbild, 1956); n.a./Stöhr, AdK, PRA No. 612.12 © BA (Zentralbild, 1959); n.a., AdK, PRA No. 460 © BA (Zentralbild, 1958); Brüggemann/Stöhr, © BA (Image 183-B0708-0014-004)

The Missed Seminar. After the Eslanda Robeson. In Conversation with Steve McQueen’s “End Credits” is an exercise for metabolizing the different archival material in relation to the chronopolitics of the curatorial inquiry, situated in the architecture of the HKW. The spatial display of the exhibition attempts to animate the transhistoric promise of the archival document as well as the epistemic futurity of the absent document. A visual layout on the research display suggests an editing of gestures of transmission from archival photographs — gestures of writing, speaking, greeting as well as recording and broadcasting — into a situation that opens up the exhibition into a hybrid of display and study. In this context, the curatorial inquiry aims to rehearse the transgenerationality of archival matter through a visual research on video by the artist Aarti Sunder, focusing on frictional encounters between the analog and the digital as a mode of uncertainty as well as potentiality. The project will be continued in the form of a print publication of a conversation between Steve McQueen and Doreen Mende about End Credits (2012–22), a dossier on the digital platform VOICESand a vitrine-intervention in the permanent collection of modern art in the Albertinum of the Dresden State Art Collections (SKD).

Doreen Mende