some notes on:

Wie noch nie / Wie nie wieder

(As Never Before / As Never Again)

Britt Hatzius & Ant Hampton

Installation at the Ethnographic Museum

in Dahlem, Berlin.

On our initial visit to the Ethnological Museum Dahlem, we were immediately drawn to some of the smaller figures in the Mesoamerica Room and, particularly, how the room’s display allows a visitor to view them from behind. On reviewing the photos we took from this angle we noticed how the figures seemed lonely, cracked, folorn, often propped up by their arms or even with support structures literally holding them together. We started to think about the capacity for photography to, on the one hand, give distance and assist critical thought, and on the other, to enhance this kind of emotional identification, even concerning inanimate objects. We thought about other forms of 'mimetic representations', especially concerning sculptural objects, and visited the Berlin's Gipsformerei, which has the world’s largest and most actively used collection of original plaster-moulds. Thomas Schelper, our guide there, introduced us to Joachim Weinhold from the 3D Labor at the Technische Universität, who he had started to collaborate with. This encounter threw us into considerations of the future and this rapidly developing new technlogy whose wide-ranging implications have barely begun to be imagined and explored. Among the many discoveries made during this part of our research, we learnt about the process of 'powder printing', whereby forms (based on 3D scanning - video here are created by a 'printer head' passing through a chamber of thick powder, bonding it as it goes. Britt captured on 16mm film one of the figures being 'excavated' from this chamber by a lab technician using a vacuum pipe and brush (the film will soon be viewable here ) Following the original's first emergence from the earth and kiln, as well as their second (when discovered and excavated in the late 19th century) it's hard not to see this moment as a third - a futuristic, white on white, dream-like re-enactment, a re-emergence.

In parallel with this research we were surprised to learn from the museum that the figures we had fallen in love with will not be shown at the Humboldt Forum (still being built and otherwise known as the controversial replica Berliner Schloss, built on the site of the former ‘Palast der Republik’ - more info here). The reasoning for this is that the space allocated to the Mesoamerica collection will be less than it is currently, and therefore tough choices had to be made about what will be displayed. Interestingly, the fact that so little is known about these figures played a part in these decisions: the more concrete an item's history, of course, the greater its value. Mystery, holes and cracks (whether in knowledge or material) don’t play to the figures’ advantage. *

We were also informed that the archive depot (where any undisplayed items inevitably end up) is also moving, not to somewhere next to the museum as it is today but to somewhere quite far away, on the edge of Berlin, meaning the costs involved in moving these fragile items between the spaces will be far higher. It made us question: when will these figures be seen again, following the move? 15 years minimum? What will the world be like in 15 years time - and how will 3d printing have developed? Will there still be ethnographic collections in Europe, in 30 years time? (Did the collectors of the late 19th century ever imagine that their practices would be challenged some 80 years later?) For the first time, we heard the term ‘digital repatriation’ being used by some ethnographic museums in Australia and USA who had sent 3-d scans of items (and computers to view them with) to the communities from whence they came. Should we expect them to start sending 3d copies instead? Or, in fact, to keep the copies and send them the originals? How long until the technology is advanced enough to consider this seriously? How much do we actually need the 'original' object to remember or explore a cultural past? What in fact is the 'original' state of an object? Could the Humboldt Forum make 3-d scans of its whole collection, and only exhibit replicas? Wouldn't the new Schloss, itself a replica, be the ideal venue for a museum of copies? Taking things further like this we can see a situation which despite seeming preposterous is nevertheless a possibility - and thus in the line of decent science fiction. If the move of the ethnographic museum to the centre of town is above all a commercial venture, then might the Humboldt Forum want to identify the contemporary visitor's mode of engagement with things behind glass as, principly, a fantasy of ownership or attainment, and fully embrace that? Should we anticipate a print-on-demand museum, completely blurring the distinction between the collection and its gift shop?

The questions and implications of this new mimetic form of reproduction can of course continue further, into areas of mind and body, spirituality and materiality. If the original was once (believed to be) imbued with a kind of spirit, or power, was that to be found in the materiality of the figure, or in the form which embodied it? Or neither, but rather triggered by the performance involved in using or handling them? The fact that we're already printing human body parts (bones, kidneys) means that, at a certain level, the distinction between original and copy is starting to be ignored - even if we're involved ourselves in the most physical sense. How long until molecular structures are being replicated and printed, such that it's not just the form of an object which is copied but the materiality itself?

So, many questions – so many questions – some of which we explore with this installation in the Mesoamerica room. Replacing the visitor's usual (frontal) viewing position with a 3D replica becomes a staging of what looks like a strenuous effort by the figures and their copies to comprehend each other and the situation they find themselves in: a tense moment of mutual bewilderment between ancient and ultramodern. As spectators, we find ourselves outside this dialogue, and yet at the centre of the conundrum: for us, the unknown goes both ways, into both an unknown past and a blind future. 

Ant Hampton & Britt Hatzius – September 2014

* Nb – there is an accompanying spoken text to the installation listing what we don’t know about the figures – an intervention into (and inversion of) the museum’s existing audio guide, available at the ticket counter for free.

Ethnologisches Museum Dahlem, Berlin

Gipsformerei (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)

3D scanning at Ethnologisches Museum Dahlem, Berlin >

Filming the 'un-earthing' of a 3D powder printed figure at TU 3D Labor Berlin

16mm (b+w / 11min) filmed at TU 3D Labor Berlin

Installation shot at Dahlem Ethnographic Museum Berlin