Beyond Trauma? A Transregional Perspective on Trauma and Aesthetics

By Stéphanie Benzaquen-Gautier and Afonso Dias Ramos.

A report of the symposium, “Beyond Trauma? A Transregional Perspective on Trauma and Aesthetics”, held on 13–15 June 2019 in Berlin, and organised by Stéphanie Benzaquen-Gautier and Afonso Dias Ramos (both Art Histories Fellows 2018/19). It was an event of the Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices program of Forum Transregionale Studien, in cooperation with ICI Berlin, and funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research.

Trauma has been one of the most ubiquitous and fruitful concepts in contemporary cultural and academic discourse. But it finds itself at a critical impasse today, under fire as a Western-centric narrative and representational form that universalizes and decontextualizes violence, one that perpetuates and often conflates the subject positions of victims, perpetrators, and spectators. Have critical discourses on trauma run out of steam? Did they generate new forms of inquiry? Which alternative models have emerged instead? And what would a ‘beyond trauma’ look like? These questions were at the core of Beyond Trauma? A Transregional Perspective on Trauma and Aesthetics, a symposium proposing to reassess the concept of trauma across a range of academic disciplines and cultural contexts. Addressing new forms of witnessing, representing and coping with acute, historical, and structural violence in the last decade, it gathered artists, curators and scholars from the fields of anthropology, history, psychiatry, literature, and philosophy. The event was organized by the Art Histories program of Forum Transregionale Studien in collaboration with the ICI Institute for Cultural Inquiry.

The symposium began on 13 June 2019 at the ICI with the keynote lecture ‘Trauma Psychology: From Memory to Cultural Values and Beliefs’ by Andreas Maercker (Professor of Psychopathology and Clinical Intervention at the University of Zurich). Drawing on disciplines such as anthropology and sociology, Maercker has produced new methodologies and frameworks that can be adjusted to traumatized individuals and groups in Africa, Asia and Latin America as well as migrant and refugee communities in Europe.

Andreas Maercker during his keynote lecture ‘Trauma Psychology: From Memory to Cultural Values and Beliefs’ at ICI Berlin. (photo: ICI Berlin)

Following Maercker’s keynote lecture, the first panel, ‘Archives of Trauma and the Aesthetics of Witnessing’, reflected on the impact of visual production around current conflicts (such as Syria) on the responses by affected communities, activists, lawyers, journalists, scholars and policymakers to large-scale events of political violence. It included two presentations. In the first one, ‘Traces of Traces: Space, Objects and the Forensic Turn in Photography’, Paul Lowe (London College of Communication, UK) examined the potential of images of ‘traces’ as an alternative to graphic representations of extreme violence. His argument was that such works help transfer a sense of experience by using unnoticed elements (clothes, shoes, domestic spaces) as carriers of emotion and psychological meaning, which thus enhance the viewer’s engagement. In his talk ‘Computer Vision for Human Rights Researchers: Challenges and Opportunities’, artist and researcher Adam Harvey (Germany) presented the project VFRAME (Visual Forensics and Metadata Extraction), an open source computer vision toolkit currently being developed for the Syrian Archive project in Berlin. Based on customized algorithms used to locate illegal munitions and objects of interests, VFRAME is able to organize large collections of millions of videos and make their metadata accessible in simple formats for manual analysis (towards the aim of prosecution in international courts). This panel assessed the implications of this visual material for current struggles around testimony, justice, historiography, remembrance and cultural heritage.

The first day culminated in a keynote lecture by the cultural anthropologist Allen Feldman (Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at NYU Steinhardt, USA), entitled ‘Traumatropes of the Cacographic Body’. Through his concept of ‘traumatropology’ – drawn from biology, meaning a reactive curvature of a plant in reaction to an inflicted wound – Feldman investigates trauma as a politically generative and constitutive dynamic, whereby communities and societies reorganize their identities, histories and projects around a specific episode of violence.

Allen Feldman during his keynote lecture ‘Traumatropes of the Cacographic Body’ at ICI Berlin. (photo: ICI Berlin)

The second day of the symposium took place at the Forum Transregionale Studien. After the welcome by Art Histories program director, Hannah Baader, the second panel consisted of a discussion with Allen Feldman about his concept of ‘trauma aesthetic’ (“Memory Theatres, Virtual Witnessing and the Trauma-Aesthetic,” 2004) and the way it developed into the notions of ‘traumatropology’ and ‘photo-politics’ (Archives of the Insensible: Of War, Photo-Politics and Dead Memory, 2015). The objective was to elucidate some of the critical terminology issues around trauma and aesthetics, and to frame some of the key issues of the interaction between them in a transregional perspective. Feldman’s perspective on transition in Northern Ireland and South Africa led to a discussion on the influence of ‘NGO culture’, the standardization and protocolization of ‘healing’, and the various discourses attached to this process, including that of ‘reconciliation’, ‘survival’ and ‘resilience’.

Inspired by art historian Jill Bennett’s question of whether there is a “role for an aesthetic that is neither ethnographic nor documentary but essentially productive and creative” (Practical Aesthetics: Events, Affects and Art after 9/11, 2012), the third panel, ‘Visual Constructions of Psychoanalysis and Vice-Versa’, asked: What can aesthetics do for trauma (or ‘against trauma’, in Derrida’s sense of ‘contre/tout contre’)? And conversely, what can trauma do for aesthetics? The discussion revolved around the clinical possibilities that visual images offer to practitioners, activists, policymakers and other relevant stakeholders. The panel included three presentations. In ‘The Brazilian Case: Psychiatric Works as “Inside Art” in the Development of Modernism’, Marlon Miguel (ICI Fellow, Germany) discussed the imbrication of modernity, psychiatry and artistic practices in Brazil as a radically different model than that developed in the West, which favors perceptions of images as creative ways of being together and making connections. In her talk ‘Beyond Trauma/Resilience: Surviving and Becoming in Today’s World’, Lamia Moghnieh (EUME fellow, Germany) pointed out the tension generated by the concept of healing and tried to move beyond the binary of trauma/resilience. Referring to a Lebanese context, Moghnieh highlighted issues of everyday life as sites of resistance and Archival sites. Rabiaâ Benlahbib, from Creative Court in The Hague, talked about ‘Visualizing Trauma: an Ethical Perspective’. She elaborated on the project ‘Rwanda 20 Years: Portraits of Reconciliation’ (2014), for which Creative Court commissioned a series of pictures by South African photographer Pieter Hugo and Croatian-Dutch photographer Lana Mesić. In collaboration with a local NGO, the two photographers brought together victims and perpetrators and asked them ‘to enact’ and ‘re-stage’ forgiveness. This was followed by a debate on the capacity of aesthetics to provide a window into different structures of thinking, living, and feeling, and reconfigure social relations in transitional societies. 

Panel Discussion at Forum Transregionale Studien. (photo: Jule Ulbricht)

The fourth panel, entitled ‘Trauma and Displacement’, discussed the many ways in which the ever-increasing experiences of displacement, migration and exile have been mediated around the world. It examined how images interact with questions of affect, language and translation in forming new politics of representation and landscapes of trauma. In his talk ‘Reflections on Trauma, Elimination and Empowerment in Mahmud Darwish’s Poetry and Beyond’, Stephan Milich (Universität zu Köln, Germany) discussed questions of transposition, appropriation and memory. In her talk ‘Aesthetics of Denial’,Alice von Bieberstein (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany) engaged with the politics of language in the context of Turkey’s non-recognition of the Armenian Genocide. In contrast to Milich’s literary approach, Bieberstein used ethnographic material from fieldwork, thereby emphasizing the materialities of the region and the economic dimension of memory politics in the highly complex Turkish-Kurdish-Armenian case. Yet, both presentations pointed to the possibility of shared affective registers and the forms of identification they offer for generational transmission and historical remembrance. Tom Snow’s talk (Sotheby’s Institute of Art / UCL, UK) titled ‘Migrancy and Immobility: Visual Politics and the “Refugee” Crisis’ reflected on the stakes of the increasing digital-era production and circulation of icons in the current global political economy. Snow addressed the impact of this visual economy on media communication and the use of outrage, shock and empathy for public mobilization through the example of the photo of three-year old Alan Kurdi. His presentation raised new questions to the function of the image as a possible critical space and its potential symbolic violence when applied across a range of distinct contexts and audiences.  

Chaired by Georges Khalil, the fifth panel focused on the role of artists and art organizations. If aesthetics has practical value, how can the latter then be developed without placing artistic practices to the service of institutional and political agendas? Khaled Barakeh discussed his trajectory as both artist and cultural organizer. He presented several of his projects, among them his 2018 work Relentless Images, based on the ‘Cesar’ photographic material (military photographer ‘Cesar’ took pictures of prisoners of the Bashar el-Assad regime, killed by  torture, and smuggled some 55,000 images to the West). Barakeh also talked about his activities at co.culture, for example, the development of the Syria Cultural Index, a creative database for the global community of Syrian artists.

Panel Discussion at Forum Transregionale Studien. (photo: Jule Ulbricht)

The second public evening event, the artists’ talk ‘Futures beyond Trauma’, took place at the ICI. Abdessamad el Montassir (Morocco) showed his documentary video work Achayef (2018), in which he addressed the question of transmission with regard to the ‘Sahara conflict’ (ongoing since the 1970s). The artist explores the silent, fictional and visceral constructions of memory by different generations, as well as the collapse of temporalities around the conflict, in which past violence is combined with a sense of impeding war (which does not happen due to the ceasefire in 1991). El Montassir also includes non-human forms of witnessing through the example of trees and the Daghmous, a local plant that mutates its structure to adapt to the hardening conditions. Damir Arsenijević (University of Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina) presented the collective activities of the working group ‘Jokes, War and Genocide’ which he initiated in 2012. He discussed the joke as a form of commemoration and as a modality of confrontation not only with the past but also with memory politics. Through it, he examines the ways in which genocide keeps influencing and reshaping the unconscious, speech and language years after the events, as well as the critical issues of pleasure and subjectivity in representing extreme violence. Kasia Fudakowski (Germany) presented excerpts of her ongoing experimental film project Word Count, a dystopian vision of the near future, in which a new law is passed after scientists demonstrate the correlation between rising sea levels and the amount of words spoken every day. In a playful and absurdist manner, Fudakowski addresses our imagination of the consequences of ecological disaster and a visualization of ‘pre-trauma’ in the realms of politics, economics and the psyche. Omer Fast (Germany) presented excerpts of two of his works, Spielberg’s List (2003) and 5,000 Feet is Best (2011), which were the basis for a discussion about different aspects of the relation between trauma, image and narrative, with regards to the landscape, perpetrators and technology.

Considering the social anxieties surrounding global terrorism, nuclear warfare, economic crisis, resource depletion and climate change, the role of images in shaping present and future imaginaries becomes pressing. With this starting point, the sixth panel, ‘Future Materialities of Trauma’, discussed how images contribute to a visual politics of catastrophe, one that fosters individual and collective forms of ‘pre-trauma’ (E. Ann Kaplan), or otherwise enables forms of resistance. It also examined how visual practices facilitate and preclude a more capacious understanding of ways of ‘non-human’ trauma (animals, inanimate objects, living plants, organic beings, and nature at large). The panel included two presentations. In her talk ‘Thinking with Lungs: Notes on Genocide, Ecology and Resistance’, Umut Yildirim (ICI Fellow, Germany) discussed ecology as a Kurdish political praxis, opening up the debate to indigenous strategies of resistance and resource control in the context of neo-liberal violence and extractivism, pointing to issues of multi-species agency and sentient paths of action. Similarly, Zusanna Dziuban (Freie Universität Berlin, Germany) used the ghost as a conceptual tool for theorizing aftermath situations and lingering effects of extreme violence. Her talk ‘New Materialities and Spectralities of Trauma’ discussed the power of spectrality in refashioning hegemonic distributions of roles. By introducing notions of constellation, assemblage, remains and visceral energy, both presenters opened up the debate on endurance, survival and ‘survivance’, and underlined the porousness between these different categories.

Trying to imagine what lies ‘beyond’ trauma (beyond ‘human’, beyond boundaries and beyond disciplines), the seventh panel discussed new methodological and epistemological approaches, such as new materialism, post-humanism, and the sensory turn. Several key ideas emerged out of the conversation. First, there is a need to rethink the temporalities of trauma, and shift away from definitions of ‘trauma’ as event toward a more complex conception that involves notions such as continuum, process, structural and ‘becoming’ (pace Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus, 1980). In this way, it is urgent to assess political and historical violence in a more totalizing perspective, which does not separate genocide from ‘ecocide’. Lastly, the resulting integration of the ‘spectral’, non-human agency and everyday life into the picture gestures towards a radically new economy and ecology of the trauma paradigm. Against this backdrop, the wrap-up discussion considered the development of this project, the expansion of the network (through the inclusion of more practitioners, for example) and publics to be addressed in future meetings. 


Stéphanie Benzaquen-Gautier is an art historian and associate researcher at the Centre for Historical Culture, Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is a 2018/19 Fellow of Art Histories and Aesthetics Practices, a research program of Forum Transregionale Studien.

Afonso Dias Ramos received his Ph.D. in the History of Art from University College London with a thesis focusing on the relationship between political violence and photography in contemporary art. He is a 2018/19 Fellow of Art Histories and Aesthetics Practices, a research program of Forum Transregionale Studien.


Citation: Stéphanie Benzaquen-Gautier and Afonso Dias Ramos, “Beyond Trauma? A Transregional Perspective on Trauma and Aesthetics”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 07.08.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/19342


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