Issue 4/2021

Bearing Witness


The power of the factual? Despite a long-standing belief in an intersubjective understanding concerning incontrovertible, generally accepted facts, the recent past has taught us better or – in most cases – revealed a clearly more negative scenario. Numbers, data, facts: indispensable as these are, constituting the cornerstones of any scientific world view against the backdrop of the global pandemic, this conversely also brings the recalcitrant perpetual hubbub of alternative facts and truths into play. However much staring at the figures day in and day out has become an almost fetishistic act in the midst of the “infodemic” that is likewise raging, we should not underestimate the erosive impact of constant quibbling about fundamental key data. “Normative power”, the phrase formerly used with reference to the factual, has lost virtually all its impact in this more than disquieting situation. My facts are your sometimes fiercely contended phantoms and vice-versa – with best wishes from the cabinet of horrors of pseudo-democratic social (opinion-shaping) media.
Unequivocal testimony is one thing that could help in this post-truth scenario that is so difficult to rein in. In other words: reports, statements, testimonies from people involved in the facts, who per se never see the whole truth, yet, by virtue of their experiences, testify to undeniable here-and-now moments. Such “first-person accounts”, always subjectively tinted, could contribute to a more generalized mode of learning that would view any particular state of affairs as always partial and determined by the vantage point from which it is viewed. That mode of learning would accord greater validity to the inescapably patchwork nature of truth, with its heterogeneous and polyphonic composition. And it would avert any need to preach alternative facts or to forcibly deploy them as a lock-stock- and-barrel substitute for proven facts.
The arts have, of course, long cultivated this type of subjectivist and multi-perspectival concept of truth that is nonetheless not automatically sectarian. Art does not necessarily have to adopt a “representational” stance, yet is not therefore any less “true” than scientific approaches. But can art reproduce true events at all? Irrespective of all the aesthetic formatting that art, like it or not, undertakes in its manifold approaches, can it take an untainted look at historical (or other factual) occurrences – as a veristic medium, as it were? And can bearing witness, originally a legal concept, also be interpreted artistically, perhaps even expanded and supplemented in a way that is not even envisaged in the register spanned by conventional categorizations of disciplines?
The “Bearing Witness” edition brings together highlights and perspectives related to this nexus of questions. Without seeking to draw an ultimate, definitive conclusion (or being in a position to do so), the focus is first and foremost on shedding light polyphonically on the concept of witnessing per se. This issue encompasses the voices of people who have something to testify to, to substantiate, even to bear witness to, in the light of their artistic practice, their career paths to date, or their aesthetic repertoires and political concerns. This also applies to longer-standing historical scenarios defined by fundamental dissensus, involving individual protagonists fighting against amnesia and codes of silence, while in the process often bringing to light underexposed, sometimes even unwelcome, truths.
Uzbek artist Vyacheslav Akhunov, for example, does not mince his words when reviewing his life and art-making in the Soviet context and subsequently in the fledgling Republic of Uzbekistan. Akhunov’s biographical testimony – along with its intricate relationship to his conceptual production – is complemented by the content-based, politicized testimony that Uriel Orlow views as part of his approach to art. For Orlow, the concept likewise encompasses fields such as botany or colonialism and/or the history of racism – a stance that allows him to work methodically with this “spectral” construct, as he puts it, in many different media.
Reliability or credibility, ever an issue when engaging with witnesses, forms the starting point for Suzana Milevska’s essay. In her broader reading of all that a witness can be, she turns her attention to the concept of truthmaker, with reference to truth-telling that does not relate to an immutable truth that is determined a priori. She applies this to a very wide variety of artistic practices, just as philosopher Sibylle Schmidt does in her conversation with Milena Dimitrova. Schmidt’s approach, asserting that there are always something akin to framings – broader and sometimes even contradictory contexts – surrounding testimony rather than merely isolated, ad hoc statements of truth, can be understood as a general precept for art-based testimony.
Adding the finishing touch to this issue, in projects by artists such as Hiwa K or Mykola Ridnyi and Clemens von Wedemeyer, the concept of bearing witness is considered through the aesthetic prism of non-scientific mediation of knowledge and history. Similar issues are also addressed in a dialogue with Katarina Matiasek, whose history-critical project on ethnographic photography depicting “typical figures” sheds a revealing light on historical constructions of facts. Here, too, underexamined, sometimes unwelcome, individual testimonies that can only be resolved in terms of their contexts constitute the basic framework of a tableau of truth that is riddled with conflict but for that very reason cannot simply be manipulated at will. Becoming aware of the function of such recalcitrance and resistance should be our guiding light, particularly in the face of relativistic stances.