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Catch Me, If You Can!

Tessa Mars, Rèv libète, rèv lanmo (Dream of freedom, dream of death), 2016. Courtesy the artist
It has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within. And yet, the terror within is far truer and far more powerful than any of our labels: the labels change, the terror is constant. And this terror has something to do with that irreducible gap between the self one invents – the self one takes oneself as being, which is, however and by definition, a provisional self – and the undiscoverable self which always has the power to blow the provisional self to bits.

It has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within. And yet, the terror within is far truer and far more powerful than any of our labels: the labels change, the terror is constant. And this terror has something to do with that irreducible gap between the self one invents – the self one takes oneself as being, which is, however and by definition, a provisional self – and the undiscoverable self which always has the power to blow the provisional self to bits.01

That contemporary universities and art schools are criticised for the reproduction of a Western (art) canon is nothing new, and that those higher (art) education institutions consist of a predominantly privileged white student body is not a novelty either. It is therefore not my aim to reproduce these debates and claims; rather they should be considered a given throughout this short essay.02 For the past two decades, educational institutions have tried to change this condition, but have not really known how to do so other than by initiating diversity policies aimed at ‘inclusion’ and ‘equal opportunities’ – policies that problematise (prospective) students of colour while forgetting the multiplicity of other intersecting identity categories. In order to complicate the question of ‘how’, my primary aim is to point out the role of time as a political tool in reproducing a hegemonic education system. My connected argument is that there is no such thing as ‘catching up’ – an observation that calls the possibilities for decolonisation of state institutions and their education systems into question.

My argument derives from the observation that we are facing a form of strategic temporal disjuncture, which can be seen as the aftermath of centuries-long white and hetero-sexist hegemony. The notion of ‘strategic temporal disjuncture’ derives from the historian Michael Hanchard who describes the way in which time has been used as a political tool in order to deprive Black people of knowledge, goods and subjecthood.0304 During segregation, apartheid and colonialism for instance, white schools would receive the latest versions of school books which only years later would be handed over to black schools, thus creating unfair conditions for Black individuals. He also points out that time management was imposed on enslaved human beings by the people who owned them. Hence temporal deferrals, time management and even the determination of our biographies into (hetero-)normative narratives are all connected to the ways in which politics – or in other words policing, discipline and control – has been used in order to create the uneven power structures of access and exclusion with which most institutions are confronted. This is a common theme in the discussion around decolonisation.

I want to point out that, due to static, outdated forms of knowledge production, today’s strategic temporal disjuncture systematically hinders societies’ abilities to change and thus ideologically reproduces long-established power hierarchies. In other words the disjuncture, producing historical and cultural amnesia, drives an exclusive narrative of progress. ‘Equal opportunities’ schemes and similar plans of action cannot work effectively against this amnesia, because the dominant content remains unchanged, and sustains and reproduces itself. However on the level of content, teachers in Visual Culture and Critical Race, Gender, Queer and Post-colonial Theories are constantly challenged to fill these knowledge-gaps that the dominant Western and Eurocentric canon has (re)produced in the classroom for more than a century. Privileging exclusive, self-congratulatory learning environments rather than expansive and holistic learning, the education system continually produces long-term problems. The state of our museums cannot therefore be much of a surprise, underwritten as these are by the very same system. Curating exhibitions in the European context with a radical Black approach is thus a difficult act, because of the absence of such discourses in mainstream cultures. One consequence is that museums fall into the trap of anthropological framing; another is that they fail to translate the discourse at all.

Where to begin? This is a question that I often face when talking about the discourses that scholars and artists of colour currently discuss, such as Black Ontologies, The Physics of Blackness, Afropessimism vs Afrooptimism or the post-Black art debate. I have little ground upon which to start, because students have never been exposed to the basis of these discourses nor can such discourses, which contain the most advanced philosophical debates we have at our common disposal, be understood as easily accessible theory. Another argument for exclusion I have encountered is as follows: ‘But these are very specific subjects, they do not affect us’. In particular when it comes to scholars and artists from the Black Diaspora, it is also argued that ‘their problems do not matter to us’, or even that ‘identity does not matter’.

When we consider Europe and the United States, if not the entire world, as the site of postcoloniality, how can such an arguments be possible? When thousands of refugees land on the shores of Europe trying to escape the aftermath of those uneven economic power relations that colonialism and exploitation have produced?05 How can an understanding of oneself begin through the exclusion of any understanding of the historical and contemporary circumstances that have let us come into being, with all our sense of situatedness, in the first place? So what is at stake when thinkers and artists of colour are included in theoretical curricula and art programmes? What is at stake when traditions, perspectives and value systems change and individuals are allowed to start to reflect on the complexity of the entirety of our societies and their subjects? Exclusion can only serve to maintain and recreate white supremacist power structures, even as these disguise themselves behind an unmotivated desire for diversity and revisions to the curricula limited to institutional speech acts and policies that largely go unattended to.06

Despite the fact that fields such as Gender and Sexuality Studies, Black and African American Studies are institutionalised at universities, I would argue that the departmentalisation of these fields helps to maintain the status quo,07 enabling arguments from students and teachers that ‘these matters do not concern us’. While it is, then, possible to engage with these subjects, they are mostly restricted to specialised Master’s Courses and summer schools, or self-organised reading groups. Furthermore, while many institutions desire ‘diversity’, they frequently confuse the term with race, seeing it as a reformative opportunity for closing of the knowledge time-gap.08

It is not only students, who pose the least problem when it comes to an eagerness to learn, who are required to make time-warp jumps; a greater problem is the body of teachers and directors who don’t have the expertise to teach the required content due their lack of exposure during their own educations. Any groundbreaking decolonising of our education system requires this expertise as well as a student body that can understand that they are part of the problem and thus the solution.09 Sylvia Wynter already argued for such a transformative mode when she wrote a letter to her colleagues in which she highlighted the intrinsic role and responsibility of educators in the reproduction of ideological, epistemological, symbolic and physical violence.10 If you re-read Black, Feminist and Queer Activists over the past century, they all stake claims the similar forms of inclusion and acknowledgement which, while seeming to be a human rights, never quite come into being.

The problem is of course more complex, because although curricula seem to be set in stone in most universities, and in particular in conservative disciplines such as art history, philosophy or economics, the education system itself has also changed, turning itself into a neoliberal labour machine. Art schools and universities have to constantly reinvent themselves. Today we are witnessing entrepreneurial university that, according to Angela McRobbie ‘entails relentless and hubristic forms of self-promotion’.11 In the European context – with the emergence of EU research grants such as Horizon 2020, which is all about developing neoliberal futures, entrepreneurial and business-oriented research – it is questionable how and for whom the future is designed and whether this future is in fact just a reproduction of the status quo. It is seen as more important, in today’s contemporary art schools, to give the students lessons in entrepreneurship than in non Western and diasporic art.

Research that does attempt to dismantle institutional power-structures is systematically prolonged or circumvented by minimal funding and non supportive infrastructures, not to mention the emotional blisters and exhaustion experienced by individuals in this field of experience. Unless the critique one poses is formed through negligence of decoloniality, one jeopardises one’s livelihood. But is this really a case of David against Goliath? The continual fight for inclusion and representation can in fact be seen as a desire to remove oneself, one’s knowledge and one’s intellectual production from the institutional space, which in turn becomes a radical form of escape into what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney call the ‘Undercommons’ of the university. They write: ‘To enter this space is to inhabit the ruptural and enraptured disclosure of the commons that fugitive enlightenment enacts, the criminal, matricidal, queer, in the cistern, on the stroll of the stolen life, the life stolen by enlightenment and stolen back, where the commons give refuge, where the refuge gives commons’.12 The temporal dimension of the ‘Undercommons’ is one of synchronicity. Hartney and Moten compare the Undercommons to Maroon culture, which exists in parallel to the dominant system; this is not about critique but, in my interpretation, about survival. The Undercommons is a place of refusal to participate – a place that does not interact in dialogue with the system. It is place where one can ask ‘what do I want myself?13 It is a heterotopic place that allows us to rethink a system’s possibilities, as either a system sustains itself or it is completely destroyed and replaced by something unthinkably different. By starting with this question, we come to very different results than those born of policies, business-oriented research or inclusive action plans. By starting with this question we negotiate and interrogate, on a day-to-day basis, our own practices within the closed economy of thought.

This question to me is only a possible starting point for a holistic, transgressive temporal performative approach, which goes beyond the institutions in which we currently work.


  • R. Avedon and J. Baldwin, Nothing Personal. New York: Atheneum, 1964.
  • By taking these points as givens, I consider this text already disobedient to academic rules of citation. As a Black academic I am required to ‘back up’ every experience-based argument that I try to present, because these experiences would challenge the normative system that is imposed on me. Thus the arguments and observations presented here a derive from my having been in the university system as a student as well as a professional for over ten years.
  • M. Hanchard, ‘Afro-Modernity: Temporality, Politics, and the African Diaspora’, Public Culture, vol.11, no.1, 1999, p.252
  • There are of course many other scholars who have looked at chronopolitics. With regards to colonialism and modernity see J. Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object, New York: Columbia University Press, 1983; H. K. Bhabha, ‘Race, Time and the Revision of Modernity’ in B. Ashcroft, G. Griffiths and H. Tiffin (ed.), The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, London/New York: Routledge, 2006, pp.219–23. With regards to labour see E. Bloch, ‘Die Erbschaft dieser Zeit’ in Gesamtausgabe, vol.4. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1961. With regards to sexuality and gender see Judith Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives, Sexual Cultures, New York: New York University Press, 2005; Carolyn Dinshaw et al., ‘Theorizing Queer Temporalities: A Roundtable Discussion’, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol.13, no.2, 2007, pp.177–95; R. Lorenz, ‘II. Transtemporal Drag’ in Queer Art: A Freak Theory, Bielefeld: Transcript, 2012, pp.93–118.
  • E. J. White, Modernity, Freedom, and the African Diaspora: Dublin, New Orleans, Paris, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012.
  • S. Ahmed, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, Durham: Duke University Press, 2012, p.54.
  • I don’t want to undermine the historical and contemporary importance of these Institutes and Departments — quite the opposite. My intention is rather to point out that the scholarship and knowledge derived from these fields should be better acknowledged and implemented.
  • P. Saner and C. Seefranz, Making Differences: Swiss Art Schools, Exploratory Study, Zurich: Institute for Art Education/Zurich University of Arts, 2012.
  • S. Harney and F. Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, London: Minor Compositions, 2013, p.29
  • S. Wynter, ‘No Humans Involved: A Letter to my Colleagues’, Forum N.H.I.: Knowledge for the 21st Century, vol.1, no.1 (outono), 1994, pp. 42–73.
  • A. McRobbie, ‘Stuart Hall: Art and the Politics of Black Cultural Production’, South Atlantic Quarterly, vol.115, no. 4, 2015, pp.665–83.
  • S. Harney and F. Moten, 2013, op. cit., p.38.