Travelogue / Positions
“I’ll take the landscape with me, too”
In dealing with Jacobsen’s travelogue, the Berlin-based puppet theater Das Helmi has made a film that visually reproduces the racist prejudices of the time in all their extremes – and, in so doing, provoked a justifiable controversy.
A Berlin museum director commissions a Norwegian adventurer to journey to North America to “procure” a few artifacts along the Pacific Coast from the “Indians” and “Eskimos.” On the journey, the adventurer battles with giant squid and killer whales, and later struggles to prove himself among the indigenous population and cope with the drugs proffered at their celebrations. From his perspective, the indigenous people look like elk, turkeys or creatures from another planet. Which is why, as well as the art he has acquired, he also brings a few of them back to Germany for Hagenbeck’s so-called Völkerschauen (“people shows” or human zoos).
This is a short summary of the content of a production commissioned by the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin and subsequently made by the puppet theatre Das Helmi. Inspired by the work of Egyptian artist Wael Shawky, who depicted the Crusades from an Arab point of view in the video of a puppet show in “Cabaret Crusades,” the museum wanted to explore aspects of its North America collection. In this way, the travelogue of the self-proclaimed captain and explorer Johan Adrian Jacobsen formed the basis of a 30-minute puppet film, “Man from Another Star.” With satirical hyperbole, Das Helmi – known above all in Berlin for its anarchic and irreverent handling of sensitive topics – tries to mirror Jacobsen’s naïve observations from 1881 and the prejudices towards Native Americans that were typical of the time. The rapacity of both European museums and art collectors is also revealed.
However, the project crosses problematic boundaries. Jacobsen and the director of the Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde at the time, Adolf Bastian, are certainly well-pilloried. Above all Jacobsen, who is furnished with a brash tone by the puppet master, fulfills every imaginable cliché of the European art hunter. For example, when he blusters through the film with phrases like, “I’ll take the landscape, too.” In comparison to this, however, the indigenous inhabitants don’t even look human. Members of the Haida, for example, are portrayed as a gaggle of startled turkeys. Very few indigenous people have human characteristics in the film. Seen from a charitable standpoint, this could be interpreted as a reference to Jacobsen’s interpretation of legends and myths that were alien to him. Nevertheless, the film, which is intended to express a critical standpoint toward colonial thought patterns, could be interpreted as simply a further unnecessary reproduction of racist stereotypes.
Above all, one scene in the film makes its critics baulk: the reenactment of a potlatch ceremony, a tradition common amongst many peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. In the reenacted film version, painted naked bodies shake about, arms and legs flail wildly and breasts jiggle around enticingly. It is the only scene in the film in which the puppets step into the background, behind the actors, thereby emphasizing a consciously exhibited exoticism. But a potlatch is actually a ritual exchange of gifts, carried out within complex social hierarchies. And Jacobsen tries to utilize this to his advantage, in order to be taken seriously by his trading partners in order to enable him to trick them later. In the film this is translated into a “red Indian cliché of the lowest order,” some ethnologists have criticized.
Yet that is exactly how Jacobsen wrote about it in his travelogue. And this is what the director of the Ethnologisches Museum, Viola König, and the curator Monika Zessnik, wanted to present unexpurgated to the public. With a view to the current debate and the freedom of satire, art, and opinion, in combination with cultural sensibilities, they are certainly aware that such satire does not sit well with humanitarian injustice. Which is why they themselves heighten problematic parts of the film: the almost continuous portrayal of indigenous people as animals, for example, or a drug-trip scene in 1968 hippie aesthetic that dominates the potlatch celebration in the video, but which is not even mentioned in Jacobsen’s travelogue.
The film will not be presented in the Humboldt-Forum for several reasons. “Nevertheless, we think controversial experiments are fundamentally appropriate, because a film like this could be used as part of a multiperspective approach within an exhibition model in the Humboldt-Forum,” says König. After all, they are still looking for new representational formats. “We are also pretty sure, that the whole thing wouldn't have created such a stir if it had been a normal theatre production and not a work commissioned by the Ethnologisches Museum,” says Zessnik. And should they also not be allowed to explore their own history – in this case the Wilhelminian era – from their own perspective?
In the new exhibition format, the European and the indigenous perspectives are to stand side by side. On the one hand, contemporary Yupik (artists) will deal with the objects in the collection. They will explore questions of the significance and the loss of their cultural property in Alaska as well as assess the conservation of their material culture in the museums. Parallel to this, a project is planned to represent the European perspective of the collection’s nascence. The end result should obviously not be offensive to the indigenous communities. “They shouldn't have to keep their children from seeing it,” says König.
But that may well happen, if the racist prejudices from Jacobsen’s problematic travelogue are depicted in a genuinely “realistic” way. Discrimination based on such stereotypes is especially virulent in the USA and Canada to this day. A truly adequate way of dealing with the original written document would no doubt only be possible in direct exchange with the representatives of the relevant cultures; and by asking the question, whether the faithful and detailed reproduction of the material is really the only way to approach the European perspective. The internationally rather underrepresented First Nation communities of North America are, after all, still in the process of regaining their identities. With this in mind, a renewed appropriation of their traditions through the narratives of western curators or artists should be closely scrutinized again. Every artist is naturally entitled to determine the form and content of their own work – that is exactly why Das Helmi was commissioned. But when, in connection with the Humboldt-Forum, the power relations between the cultures remain hidden, one cannot really talk of a genuine exchange.
But it is exactly that which König and Zessnik are seeking, as they emphasize. This is why they are now quite grateful for the critical voices; the deliberation of one’s own history can now move on to the next phase.
Elisabeth Wellershaus is a freelance journalist who lives and works in Berlin.
Immersive Worlds of Experience
The computer game “Totem’s Sound,” by gold extra, spirits players away on the North America journey that the explorer Jacobsen undertook at the beginning of the 19th century – casting them as co-authors of the story, the trading and the collection of artifacts.
Stories, especially those of adventurers, can be told in many different ways. Museum artifacts usually tell stories through a broad documentary representation. However, when, in the interests of living museum culture, the purely historical plane is expanded upon with an additional narrative layer of a seemingly fictional nature, a reception situation is created, which requires the visitor to enter into an almost intimate exchange with the work. The Humboldt Lab project “Totem’s Sound” is, in the best sense, an unusual form of the mediation of objects and their history, demanding of its audience a high level of interactive involvement. By using a computer game, a mode of communication was chosen that addresses a pop-cultural phenomenon with its corresponding high level of innovation.
“Totem’s Sound” takes the players on a journey with the Norwegian adventurer Johan Adrian Jacobsen. The player assumes the role of the explorer, who, at the end of the 19th century, travelled to the American Northwest Coast and to Alaska, where he procured numerous artifacts for the museum collection on the behest of what was then the Berliner Museum für Völkerkunde (Museum of Ethnology Berlin). One station of these travels, which Jacobsen described in detail in his travelogue, led him to a village of the Haida people in Canada.
Interactive storytelling that uses computer games as a tool is nothing new, but it is nevertheless not yet an established narrative medium. Since the 1970s, computer games have been a medium with which to approach stories in a direct exchange. Players take on the role of co-authors, and a common narrative relationship is forged. Similar to film, an interactive game depicts an alleged current situation, which draws the players into the action, as though it were taking place today – right now. In this way, events long past can be made freshly accessible.
The aesthetic of “Totem’s Sound” is a homage to the legendary Japanese role playing series “Zelda,” whose optics and game mechanics it references – in the style of old 16-bit action role-playing games. As is common for computer games of this genre, we experience the environment from an isometric perspective that allows the player an overview of part of the playing field. The story starts in a village in which the protagonist “Jacobsen” has just arrived, and from where starts his travels. His first task is to find someone in the forest, who, after a strange biting ritual, presents him with a blanket. He trades this in the village for an artifact, which he wants to take back to Berlin. On his journey through the forest, he battles with mosquitoes, wolves and bears. The moment he hands over the first artifact, the classic genre rules are broken and the game jumps straight into the 20th century. Suddenly the players find themselves in a TV aesthetic reminiscent of the 1970s, complete with a sequence of sound dissonances and postmodern references.
The tools of a computer game differ substantially from those of books, films or documentations, in terms of tackling and processing historical events. But the choice of which path to take in the story is not always completely free in a computer game either. The decisions the players make more or less follow the paths laid out by the creators of the game – the authors, game designers, artists and programmers. When quests are not fulfilled, the story in “Totem’s Sound” comes to a standstill. Just as in real life, inaction is what so often leads to our remaining stuck – sometimes until others come along and make the decision for us. In this sense, the player is not a completely free agent within the narrative.
With the instructions to procure further artifacts, new communication options unfold for “Jacobsen” with the local inhabitants, but also new options for action, like a canoe trip or collecting shells among the seals. In this way, the player follows the written words of the explorer and procures and collects the artifacts in the game. Information about the origins of the Ethnologisches Museum’s collection can be expanded upon through an immersive journey into the world of Johan Adrian Jacobsen and his travels. The interactive processing encourages reflections on alien and strange encounters, which is the purpose of the topic and the medium. “Totem’s Sound” thus slots in to the overall concept of a multi-platform exhibition, “Travelogue.” The players can also look at the artifacts they have just “procured” directly in the museum, where, with the aid of tablets and augmented reality technology, they can view historical objects in the display cases, where the virtual world and reality overlap. The transmedia quality of the exhibition, which connects the virtual world with that of the museum space, lends a new dimension, one worthy of repetition, to the principle of storytelling, a classical medium in itself.
Dr. Linda Breitlauch is professor of game design at the Hochschule Trier.