Hornsleth: identity cards, ethics, and ‘art’

I read about this on the BBC this week and felt so uncomfortable I thought it was worth a post here:
The Danish artist Kristian von Hornsleth has drawn criticism from the Ugandan government from intervening in the state project to get everyone to have identity cards. He has offered pigs and goats to the inhabitants of one particular village in exchange for them taking his name in this process.
Storm over pig-for-name artist
At first I thought this was a provocative and interesting intervention into the issue of forcing citizens to conform to state regulated identity practices and materialities. Carrying federally recognized id cards is taken for granted in the USA but remains a contentious issues in the UK.
Then I went to the artist’s website (www.hornsleth.com/). The open invitation of an exhibition of photographs of the Ugandan villagers is below:

I’m not sure if this really is a critique of materializing identity for state purposes or some bizarre megalomaniacal attempt to self-replicate throughout the African continent.
There are two really interesting articles in American Ethnologist of May 2006, both of which deal with the material tensions of state identity documents. Gaston Gordillo, in his paper The Crucible of Citizenship, starts from the observation of how many people he worked with in Argentina voluntarily showed him their identity documents over and over again. Holding and showing documents is an important part of claiming state legitimacy for indigenous peoples. Barbara Yngvesson and Susan Bibler Coutin, in their paper, Backed by Papers, have a more ambivalent relationship to the materialisation of identity in paper cards and its effects. Taken together both articles give depth to the shock-factor of Hornsleth’s art project. Their abstracts and link to the journal may be found below:
The crucible of citizenship: ID paper fetishism in the Argentinean Chaco
Gastón Gordillo
In this article, I examine how indigenous people of the Argentinean Chaco have internalized their past alienation from citizenship rights through the fetishization of those objects long denied to them: identity (ID) papers. In the early 20th century, shortly after the Argentinean state’s military conquest of the region, government agents excluded these groups from hegemonic notions of nationality and citizenship because of their alleged savagery but simultaneously expected them to show written proofs of their reliability. In the following decades, this contradictory experience made many indigenous people view ID documents and other written records as objects with a force of their own, with the capacity to deflect state violence and shape major aspects of a group’s collective history. Drawing on the concept of “state fetishism,” I analyze the peculiarities of ID-paper fetishism in the Chaco by focusing on the historical and current experiences of the western Toba and the Wichí. In particular, I explore how Toba and Wichí views of ID papers include ideological forms of reification of social practice but also critical interpretations that capture the power dynamics involved in state documentation. [citizenship, fetishism, the state, identity papers, indigenous people, Toba, Wichí, Gran Chaco, Argentina]
Backed by papers: Undoing persons, histories, and return
Barbara Yngvesson and Susan Bibler Coutin
Deportations of long-term U.S. residents to El Salvador and roots trips that Swedish transnational adoptees make to their countries of birth attempt to reconnect individuals to their origins. As they (re)connect, however, such journeys dismantle, reconfiguring the original departure—emigration or adoption—in ways that can destabilize current, future, and past selves and the national and familial belongings in which these selves are embedded. By examining the paths and disjunctures that journeys “back” entail, we consider the significance of “return” for the production of legal knowledge. [adoption, deportation, law, return, El Salvador, Sweden, United States]
www.music.columbia.edu/%7Ececenter/AES/ae332.html
Haidy Geismar, NYU (with thanks to Josh Bell for discussion about the AE articles)

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One Response to Hornsleth: identity cards, ethics, and ‘art’

  1. Anna Cristina Pertierra, University College London November 24, 2006 at 5:31 am #

    Thanks for pointing out the story, very interesting and slightly disturbing. The artist seems to be making a critique of the cycle of dependency that international aid and development projects engender in poor countries – many anthropologists would probably agree with this argument. But doesn’t the artist’s project simply replicate the exact same damage? Is biting irony or parody a worthwhile goal when actual people’s livelihoods are being used? Interesting questions, but apart from anything else it just kind of strikes me as being in poor taste.

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