Race, history and technology unite for ‘Xenogenesis’ at ICA

The Institute for Contemporary Art hosted their opening reception for "The Otolith Group: Xenogenesis" on Friday. Photo by Aaron Royce

Aaron Royce, Contributing Writer

Electronic music poured through overhead speakers in the Institute for Contemporary Art on Friday as Richmond art fans and students filled the lobby for the opening of “The Otolith Group: Xenogenesis.”

The Otolith Group’s first large-scale North American exhibit, coined after Octavia Butler’s novel series of the same name, includes vintage African postage stamps, pixelated video clips, ghost-like statue animations and music.

It presents films and installations from 2011 to 2018 that are focused on global topics of colonial inheritance, identity and technology. The group says the exhibit intends to ignite conversation and show viewers new perspectives.

“We want our art to confront you with terms which you recognize, but which at the same time are unfamiliar,” Otolith co-founder Kodwo Eshun said. “Estrangement, alienation, intimacy, monstrosity, familiarity, peculiarity … all of these things are somehow brought together in these terms.”

The Otolith Group was formed in London in 2002 by Anjalika Sagar and Eshun. Their work explores film, audio, curations and installations that address themes of the complexities of human life, as well as non-human, inhuman and environmental subjects.

“I would say the department of ‘Xenogenesis’ is about thinking with existing networks of knowledge. This sense that a practice created by minorities, be it black writing or black filmmaking, black practice is kept alive by other black people.” — Anjalika Sagar

“Xenogenesis” is along the same lines as previous ICA exhibits that explored similar themes of history and identity, such as Paul Rucker’s “Storm in the Time of Shelter” from 2018, “Great Force” and the ongoing “Provocations” from Guadalupe Maravilla. 

“An exhibition like this, the Otolith Group, expands that same conversation into a lot of new directions,” said ICA Director Dominic Willsdon. “It is about history, but it’s about world history — it’s also about the future and geology and education and film.”

The Otolith Group chose to show “Xenogenesis” in a cross-section format, merging their different projects in the same galleries and between floors. This was decided prior to the exhibit’s debut in the Netherlands to contrast traditional shows.

“Since we’re so concerned and thinking all the time about intergenerational forms of relation, we really resisted this urge, by these terms and what they mean, to categorize us in some sort of definitive sphere,” Sagar said. “We were thinking it’s more of a look at ‘cross-section’ as a term.”

The largest portion of the exhibit is “Statecraft,” featuring backlit groupings of vintage postage stamps from Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and other African countries, depicting the progression of African independence. 

Its accompanying film, “In the Year of the Quiet Sun,” juxtaposes newsreel footage and blown-up images of featured stamps to show the political unification of Ghana.

Shown directly across from “Statecraft” is the abstract film “Anathema.” Eshun said “Anathema” explores the abstraction of human relationships with technology. Instead of denouncing technology, the group decided to inhabit it to show the connection between different networks in the world. 

“We wanted to make this film of the dream life of a mobile phone as an acid trip, so the idea of the network and the possibility of the network is colonized as such,” Sagar said. “The possibility of what it means to be networks in the world, as opposed to what it means to be gated and enclosed.”

“Xenogenesis” highlights the importance of heritage, as well as a personal and racial identity.

“I would say the department of ‘Xenogenesis’ is about thinking with existing networks of knowledge,” Sagar said. “This sense that a practice created by minorities, be it black writing or black filmmaking, black practice is kept alive by other black people.”

“The Otolith Group: Xenogenesis” will be on display at the ICA until May 10.

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