Evidence of Circumstance: Virgin Island Scenarios

By Thomas J. Lax
Curatorial Assistant, The Studio Museum in Harlem, 2009

In legal proceedings, circumstantial evidence is a collection of facts that, when considered together, can be used to infer a conclusion about something unknown. Inverting this juridical model, Danish artist Nanna Debois Buhl creates an “evidence of circumstance,” not only a construction of truth from a myriad of sources, but a trail of the circumstances that produced these sources. Mining the histories of power and dispossession, the artist’s project begins in the US Virgin Islands, an area where African, Caribbean, Danish and US histories intersect. Debois Buhl reconnects the realities that made distinct worlds intimate and that continue to bind the lives of the enslaved to our understanding of slavery’s afterlife. Descending into the mechanisms by which history and collective memory are constructed, the artist asks us how we might use remnants – the evidence of evidence so to speak – for clues about structures that not only produced violence and death, but continue to haunt the organization of contemporary society.

In tow with recent postcolonial scholars Saidiya Hartman(1), David Scott(2) and Gayatri Spivak, among others, Debois Buhl has focused her attention on the silences that abound in the making of knowledge and history. In response to her provocative question, “Can the subaltern speak?,”(3) Spivak famously refocused our efforts away from the perennial search for the subaltern’s testimony, and instead emphasized the impasses for retrieving the voices of the nameless in an already constrained archive. If knowledge and discourse both build and are built upon power relations – as postmodern theorist Michel Foucault(4) has most notably argued – the discursive structures that avail history to our reading are themselves irretrievably tethered to power’s destabilizing force. Yet rather than heeding this intervention as a mark of fatalistic impossibility, the artist takes it as a point of narrative departure.

Working in short format 16 mm film, Debois Buhl takes up Hartman’s attentive queries, asking “How can narrative embody life in words and at the same time respect what we cannot know? How does one listen for the groans and cries, the undecipherable songs, the crackle of fire in the cane fields, the laments for the dead, and the shouts of victory, and then assign words to all of it?”(5) The artist looks to the mundane remainders of power – abandoned houses, roving donkeys, and architectural holdovers from a colonial era – to trace the narrativization of the past and to render the stakes of the past’s representation visible in and for the present. Fragmented narratives, enigmatic story-tellers and elusive historic figures leave us to confront the arbitrariness of hierarchy as well as the complicities that remain inevitable for those who attempt to represent fraught realities. Yet the break, the sign of possibility, emerges through this displacement. In this way, Debois Buhl encourages us to hear abundant silences and to look for absent figures as openings in the remaking of our stories.

1. See Saidiya Hartman, “Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
2. See David Scott, “Introduction: On the Archaeologies of Black Memory,” Small Axe 26 (June 2008): v-xvi.
3. See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Marxism and The Interpretation of Culture. Ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg
(London: Macmillan, 1988), 271-313.
4. See Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended” (New York: Picador, 2003).
5. See Saidya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 26 (June 2008): 1-14.